Posts Tagged ‘Spirituality’

Christianity is not realistic

June 7th, 2016

A few days ago, I saw a post from Benjamin Corey and duly “liked” it on Facebook. It was advocating that we see Jesus as essentially nonviolent, and that we follow his example.

Now, I find that there is pushback. To quote that article, “It’s easy for a privileged person to to think that Jesus was a pacifist. It’s even easier, I would presume, to say that “it’s a central commitment to nonviolent enemy love as a non-negotiable qualification of the Christian identity…””

The author, Andy Gill, goes on to say “Ben’s perspective could be stemming from what’s called a “Eurocentric Hermeneutic.” He’s, seemingly, picking and choosing which scriptures stand out the most while simultaneously using an understanding and interpretation of the text (i.e. scripture) that best suits his opinion (to be fair, we all do this to a large extent).”, and then quotes Revelation and various Old Testament passages to indicate that violence is indeed scripturally sanctioned and approved in some cases.

I think I can dispose of the Old Testament quotations rather easily by pointing out that Jesus redefined what we should be doing in Matthew 5:21-48 (and particularly vv. 21-24, 38-41 and 43-46). I really don’t think that leaves us any wriggle room in which to take violent action, or indeed to harbour violent thoughts. Prior to the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps there was room for violent action, but Jesus removed it there.

In respect of Revelation, the imagery is indeed violent (but then, Paul makes use of military imagery in Ephesians when he is talking about spiritual warfare, and this definitely does not involve real swords and armour), but I note “Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations.” If there is violence there, it is of language, not physical; just like Paul, the author is using a figure of physical combat to indicate spiritual struggle.

Gill also says “I want to make it clear and known that although I’m not against the idea of pacifism we must embrace a Christian realism as opposed to a progressive idealism.”.

I really don’t think that “Christian” and “realism” can be linked this way. Yes, I accept that complete nonviolence is somewhere between slightly daft and batshit crazy, and probably the more so for the nation as opposed to the individual. Jesus’ economic prescription, to sell all you have and give it to the poor, is no less loopy as a concept. These are not realistic instructions, they are idealistic. Paul also says that the gospel is “a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks”. And, indeed, it seems from the tenor of his article that Gill finds nonviolence both scandalous and foolish.

But it is the gospel.

Now look, I am definitely a realist; I’m also a pragmatist, but I don’t try to suggest that Christianity should be pragmatic. I also haven’t given away all my possessions, nor do I think that it is practical for not merely myself but my whole society to be nonviolent – but in taking that attitude, I am being a not-very-good Christian, I am not being a “realist Christian” or a “Pragmatic Christian”. I hope that someday I might be able to get my realist, pragmatist side (SR Chris, or the Scientific Rationalist side of me) to take the leap and actually follow Jesus wholeheartedly, but there is a distinct element of Augustine’s “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet” about that.

It does, at least, give me something to confess every Sunday.

No, Christianity is not realistic. But as Maya Angelou said “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I go, ‘Already?'””. We are, in trying to be Christian, aiming at a target which is unattainable, to be “perfect, as our father in Heaven is perfect”. We should not dilute that by thinking that half measures can ever be sufficient.

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Breaking with perfection

May 7th, 2016

Some while ago, Tripp Fuller hosted a clash between Jack Caputo and Peter Rollins; I’ve just read a response to that from Mark Karris. Briefly, the issue is that Rollins makes much of there being an “original lack” in the human psyche (which he says is a pervading sense of lack without actually ever having lost anything), working from the ideas of Jacques Lacan.

Caputo, on the other hand, favours a theology of possibility, and considers talk of a “lack” to be crypto-Calvinism and BS. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard a philosophical theologian use language like that!

I too tend to balk at Rollins’ language of lack, and also “brokenness”, which is common to Rollins and a lot of other Christian voices. I had not encountered the concept of OSEP (the Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality) before reading Karris’ article, which I find much more satisfactory. Granted, I’m not entirely confident I want to construct a theology around it, but that was obviously not his intent; Karris is a therapist and speaks mainly from that position.

I do wonder whether Rollins has fallen into the trap of assuming that his own pathologies are universal; a comparable example is found in Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on Religion, where he identifies Luther as obsessive-compulsive, which makes Reformed theology (to which I do not subscribe) make sense – as a theology for Luther, if not for me. I don’t identify any sense of ontological lack in myself, though that might be the product of a peak unitive experience in my teens (I don’t really remember prior to that well enough to comment further). That unitive experience gave me an absolute belief in my essential oneness with a panentheistic God, a God who is radically omnipresent, permeating everything which is at every level and “in whom we live and move and have our being” with an accent on “in”. Strenuous practice of what I settled on after much experimentation as a way in which to encourage repeated mystical experience gave me a near-continuous consciousness of that oneness, so that it was not merely a belief but an ever-present reality, but over time and with the mundane world placing increasing requirements on me, that practice declined and eventually fell by the wayside. Having once experienced that oneness, I cannot thereafter assent to there being a lack which is constitutive of who I am – merely of a reduction in my ability to sense that. My eyesight isn’t as good as it once was either, but that doesn’t mean that reality beyond about three metres becomes fuzzy and then is absent!

These days, although by some standards I might count as “broken”, due to PTSD and associated depression and anxiety now dating back some 20 years, I merely regard myself as working within a new set of restrictions; I’ve always had restrictions on what I could do, due to nature and nurture, but that’s just part of the human condition and readily correctable (in the short term) by a spot of meditation. (I grant that that remedy was not so until about three years ago; it turns out that something in the pathology of depression -or at least my own depression – makes mystical experience impossible. That, however.  could merely be a side effect of the fact that I couldn’t feel any positive emotions during that period, and there is a definite and very positive emotional effect of unitive experience. Indeed, I found it almost impossible to recall occasions which had been emotionally positive during that time.)

Three years ago I woke up to the fact that another 17 years of time and a not particularly healthy lifestyle had resulted in physical illnesses which are not curable and which make some activities I would previously have found easy impossible; likewise the residue of the PTSD leaves restrictions on what I can do mentally and emotionally. But I don’t consider myself broken; I have just had to adjust to a new realism about what it is practicable for me to do. “Broken” implies that I should be resenting the position, kicking against the pricks, but I don’t. “Lack” has the same connotation. I’ve always lacked the ability to levitate myself, for instance, but I never really considered it a lack (though I would hugely like to be able to do that!), it’s just something which humans can’t do, except in fiction. Well, this human, at any rate. I have a sneaking vision of meeting a real superhero sometime!

I feel a real sense of identity with, for instance, the deaf who regard sign language as an entirely adequate language to use, and do not think of themselves as “lacking” because of their use of that instead of a sonic language, or those who have been partially paralysed and resent suggestions that they are somehow less than wholly human. I hate the term “differently able” which often replaces the old “disabled”, but it is probably a far better concept.

What I don’t accept is that this inevitably means that by, as the Serenity Prayer says “accepting the things I cannot change” I am therefore automatically lacking the “courage to change the things I can”. The fact that with my current restrictions, I can say that life is good, and in one way of thinking is “exactly as God intends it to be”, does not mean that I am going to stop pushing the boundaries of what I can do. Indeed, in a sense, life is perfect as it is; tomorrow I may be able to do more or less than I can today, depending on whether practice or age wins, but it will still be perfect. Aquinas would have us believe that the perfect is an absolute, and that it has to be unchanging, immutable, impassible; I reject that. The perfect is what is, and what is is God in the unitive consciousness. What is inevitably moves and changes; that which is static, immutable, incapable of feeling or responding to others, is not perfect. The impassible, immutable, “perfect” God of the philosophers is a pale reflection of the living, feeling, changing (and perfect) God of mystical experience.

It is the God of the Philosophers who is lacking and broken, not me.

 

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Try not to try

April 30th, 2016

Being, at the most fundamental level, a mystic who bases everything else spiritual on peak unitive experience is a very frustrating position for a compulsive over-analyser (and that would fairly describe me). It is, in the first place, horrendously difficult to describe the experience to someone who hasn’t had it, and even my best efforts look like very bad descriptions to me. A poet would no doubt find it at least somewhat easier, but I’m not a poet; to someone with my basic mindset and upbringing, it’s a bit like trying to convey the experience of seeing (say) Turner’s “Rain, steam and speed” by enumerating the objects portrayed and describing the brush strokes. It doesn’t do the job at all well…

(For what it’s worth, Turner wonderfully captured a sense of an occasion using not words but paint there – it isn’t only poets who have a better way of conveying experience).

It’s also frustrating not being able to point to a set course of action which will reliably result in someone else having a similar experience – and I would dearly like to be able to. It frustrates people who listen to me or read me as well – “OK, Chris, you say this experience is better than sex, drugs and rock & roll – how do I experience that?”. Well over 40 years later, I still can’t point to anything which can be guaranteed. Yes, I can say that meditation and prayer and some forms of visualisatory practice can probably help (and once you’ve actually had a peak experience, these definitely seem to encourage more frequent and more easily reached unitive experiences), but nothing is guaranteed.

I think it might be well summed up by Ken Wilber in this clip, quoting (I think) Roshi; “enlightenment is an accident; meditation makes you accident prone”. He’s also, I think, on the money when he says meditating is not going to mean that God will grant you satori, instead “it’s going to wear your ass out so that God can slip in”. I am not, on the whole, a fan of Wilber, who does the kind of Westernised syncretism of multiple Eastern paths which I gave up as a bad idea within  a handful of years after starting to pursue any avenue possible which might perhaps result in a repeat of the initial experience (yes, it was that good), but here, he is eminently quotable.

For this compulsive over-analyser, the one thing which can completely end a nascent unitive experience, nipping it in the bud before it has had a chance to flower, is trying to analyse it while it’s still happening. It’s much like a problem I had when I was small, learning to catch; eventually my mother worked out that I was trying to calculate the trajectory of the ball using my conscious mind, and it was never fast enough. Only when I stopped thinking did I actually start catching things.

This prompted me to write, in a circle, “Try not to try” for someone who was asking very much this question. Well, he seemed to think it was also “on the money”, so I share it again…

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Doubt, dissent and powerlessness

April 28th, 2016

Peter Enns has written a new book, “The Sin of Certainty”. I can’t wait to read it, particularly bearing in mind that a while ago I wrote a blogpost called “The Heresy of all Doctrine”. I can’t help thinking there may be some similarities! There’s a nice review of it at Baptist News, and an interview here.

But I don’t want to talk about the book itself before I’ve read it, what I want to pick up on is the reviewer’s heartfelt sorrow that post-evangelicals (a term which the reviewer thinks applies both to him and to Professor Enns) have little or no basis on which to evangelise, and thus little or no basis on which to increase their numbers other than from those evangelicals who find the confines of evangelicalism too stifling.

Now, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an “evangelical”. I grant you, I have been a member of a few evangelical congregations in the past, but always as something between “the token liberal”, who says interesting but sometimes scandalous things to provoke discussion, and “the dangerous liberal who we need to show the door to and prevent from talking anywhere where our weaker brethren may hear him”. No, that is not an exaggeration. Theologically I started out super-liberal and have drifted gently to a position of fairly liberal with a radical edge.

So, why, you might ask, am I trying to fit in with congregations which are far from agreeing with me theologically? Well, firstly, I gain more from talking with people who do not agree with me than I do from discussing things with people who do. Secondly, I find far more verve and energy in evangelical congregations, and I am not very good at generating this myself. Thirdly, perhaps as a side effect of the last, evangelical congregations (at least near me) seem to have more and better social gospel programmes.

But lastly, and probably most importantly, evangelical churches – well – evangelise. The more theologically liberal ones don’t (such as they are, as in general there are no churches near me with a theologically liberal stance overall, merely some with theologically liberal clergy leading rather less liberal congregations). I may be a liberal, but I take on board the “Great Commission”, to go out and make disciples. The snag is, liberal theology doesn’t sell church to non-believers. Oh, it can readily attract non-believers, I’ve found, but not in such a way that they want to “do church” thereafter (and particularly when they find that most churches are less than wholly welcoming to liberal theologies). Any change of thinking it produces doesn’t result in a change in living, a change of heart (rather than of intellectual conception) which I can measure, because by and large I’m not going to be seeing them or hearing from them regularly in a community.

It seems that this afflicts not only the liberal, but also the post-evangelical (many of whom now style themselves “progressive”). I read a lot of progressives, and find more in common with them than with perhaps any other group, even though I lack their roots in evangelicalism, but here we see from two directions the same complaint I have myself. It also afflicts radical theologians, as Father John Skinner of the European School of New Monasticism mentioned in a recent conversation, reminding me that John Caputo had described radical theology as parasitic on the mainline churches. Caputo sees radical theology not as something which can stand on its own, but as a gadfly, something to knock the complacency out of the mainline and perhaps, just perhaps, get it a little fired up again from time to time. Heaven knows, the mainline could do with being fired up! However, the mainline churches themselves are declining, and radical theologians will eventually have nothing to be gadflies to.

So what’s the problem here? Liberal/Progressive/Radical theologies are, to very many people, far more attractive and believable than is the standard evangelical message, which boils down to “We are sinners and deserve death, we need saving, Jesus died to save us, we are saved from death by making a commitment to follow Jesus”. Sadly, to me and very many people, this looks more like the message from Dorothy Sayers outlines in this post. I went into a lot more detail about why I find that message impossible to accept in my previous post.

On the whole, however, L/P/R theologies don’t have the emotional impact which the standard evangelical story has. They engage the intellect rather than the emotions, and a commitment to follow has to be an emotional commitment, quite aside the fact that the main components of faith are love and trust, both of which are more emotional than rational matters. By and large, you create emotional impact through a story, not through rational argument, and L/P/R doesn’t deliver an emotionally compelling story.

OK, these theologies may deliver a number of emotionally compelling stories (for a start, the Bible contains a lot of narratives other than “personal salvation”, some of which are major features in Judaism), but the multiplicity is confusing (particularly as some of them are mutually inconsistent), and a common feature of L/P/R theologies is that the real truth of things, the quiddity, the isness, is not knowable or only expressible as paradox. Some radical theologians identify that there is a fundamental lack in us, a yearning for something more, and where Evangelical Christianity says “It’s Jesus!” (and I’m inclined to say “It’s God”), they say that the lack is structural and cannot be filled, so we should just get used to it.

This is just not an emotionally satisfying narrative, quite apart from the fact that it argues against the validity of mystical experience, which when it has an unitive character, completely and very satisfactorily negates any sense of lack. Sadly, I cannot point to a “quick fix” route to becoming a mystic (would that I could); my initial experience of that kind was extremely powerful and came entirely out of the blue, and without a powerful base experience it is both more difficult to attain one (as I suspect) and definitely more unlikely that anyone would try.

Well, here’s a progressive evangelical suggesting that we should be less co-dependent and that  the simple message is “be transformed by Christ”. There’s mileage in that. For those who have an identifiable twelve-steppable problem, twelve step is the answer to living life despite the problem, and it requires a spiritual element; the best fit for that spiritual element is Christianity (let’s face it, although twelve step is religiously colour blind, its principles grew out of an evangelical Christian organisation). An alcoholic, for instance, might in step one admit that they were “powerless over alcohol and that their lives had become unmanageable”; for a gambler, the powerlessness would be over gambling.

Let me gently suggest that a really major problem for a very large majority of the population is powerlessness over other people. Some of us pursue a solution to this directly, entering politics or management, some indirectly via trying to make enough money that they are not dependent on anyone else, others work through manipulative personal relationships. Are our lives therefore “unmanageable”? Well, in the sense that we ultimately cannot control other people, yes.

This is co-dependency, and there is a twelve step programme for this (CODA), whose relevant step is  “We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable”. A slightly wider version admits powerlessness over persons, places and things, which should nail most of us, if not all.

Now, I’m not recruiting for CODA (I’m not a member, though I probably would qualify); there can be an answer in a local church, where you can be transformed – by Christ, by God or by the expression of Christ or God in a group of people. Perhaps this is what Liberals, Progressives and Radicals could agree is the simple message? Perhaps it’s compelling enough?

 

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Renouncing Satan

April 4th, 2016

Following my last post, I came across an interview with Richard Beck on “Newsworthy with Norsworthy” which is well worth a listen, as it touches on the focus of that post. Or, alternatively, just because it has Richard talking discursively about a lot of interesting stuff…

It also links with a comment I had by email to that last post (and let me take this opportunity to say that I really like getting feedback or pushback on my posts; replies are unmoderated, but you do need a WordPress account – but you can get one of those, free, very easily).

That question was about the baptismal formula, which I’ve replied to twice in just over a week, first at the Easter Vigil and yesterday at a baptism. “Do you renounce Satan?” is the question. As Richard remarks, this can be a rather difficult form of words for those who have difficulty with the idea of a real supernatural devil, such as most liberals, and I count myself among those.

Walter Wink’s conception of the powers and principalities, however, gives a very definite focus to the renouncing. I certainly renounce free market capitalism, for instance, and consumerism, and valuing people by the size of their bank balance, their income or what they possess, and the uncritical patriotism of “my country, right or wrong”, and xenophobia and Islamophobia. Those are fairly easy for me, after quite a few years of practice.

I also, of course, renounce any form of adjustment of my mind by substances such as alcohol and drugs; it has taken a while to be reasonably confident that I can actually manage that, but today I am, one day at a time. I wish I knew who had first said it, but “Do not adjust your mind; there is a fault in reality” is an useful catch phrase here – and part of the fault in reality is the pernicious effect of these principalities and powers, these ideologies which can be so deep seated in us.

I also renounce the concept of redemptive violence, of all forms of revenge and thinking that problems can properly be solved by the use of force, and that one is more difficult. There is, I find, a deep seated reaction when I hear of (for instance) the recent Brussels or Lahore bombings which wants to support a violent reaction to those who planned those attacks. The actual perpetrators are beyond any mundane penalty, which of course denies the victims (and me)  any form of direct retribution and in a way this makes things worse; the obvious next step for the atavistic urge to violence is to seek out people like the perpetrators, of course, and thus xenophobia and Islamophobia creep back in… and maybe at the back of this is fear, which can drive us to all sorts of evil.

This is particularly topical as we have just celebrated the Resurrection. Jesus commanded non-violence, that we should love our enemies and forgive those who hate us, and he died “giving his life as a ransom for many”; the Resurrection is his vindication, as is the fact that his followers are now everywhere, and there are few followers of the pagan gods of the first century who did represent redemptive violence.

He did not say “now revenge me”, but “now follow me”. He renounced Satan in the wilderness, renouncing not only the power to bring about supernatural effects in all three temptations, but also the driving force of hunger (and by implication other bodily needs), fear (in this case of falling, but perhaps also of failure) and temporal power.

Do you renounce Satan? I renounce Satan.

I need to keep doing this, as the Powers are still deep seated…

And, finally, I note that before Jesus confronted the powers of imperialism and religious orthodoxy, he first confronted his own demons. Those who have ears, let them hear!

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Talking with the demons

March 31st, 2016

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.

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On forgetting you’ve already read the last chapter…

March 26th, 2016

I have a complaint about much that is posted on Good Fridays. Almost every comment I see is anticipating Sunday, and indeed the whole later history of Christianity, warts (by which I might well mean PSA) and all.

But if you’re reading a story and really entering into it, you need to suspend disbelief – and if you’ve read it before, you need to try to forget that you know what’s coming next. Only that way can you really feel this part of the story. I was therefore happy to see Pete Enns blog about this point. Good Friday is a time when we should, if we are doing it right, be feeling apparently irretrievable loss, and empathising with the irretrievable losses of others.

And, of course, today is the day when, if at no other time, we can think “God is dead” and explore the ramifications of an interesting theology, if not the concept that maybe, just maybe, Elie Wiesel was right when he wrote “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now? And I heard a voice within me answer him:  … Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows”.

Today, if we are truly with Jesus on his journey, we are in Hell

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Naturalism and it’s discontents

February 27th, 2016

A man was caught in floods, and climbed up onto his roof to avoid the rising waters. He prayed to God to save him from the flood. Along came a man in a monster truck, which had a high enough wheelbase to be clear of the water, and offered him transport out of there. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Along came a man in a boat, and offered him a place in the boat. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Then a helicopter flew over, and a man called from it “Here, I’ll drop you a ladder – climb up and I’ll take you to safety”. “No”, said the man, “God will save me”. The waters rose higher. Eventually, standing on the ridge of the roof, with the water lapping at his feet, the man prayed again “God, why have you not saved me?” A voice came from the clouds “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter – what more do you want me to do?”.

I’ve recently had a couple of exchanges on Global Christian perspectives revolving round the fact that I’m a methodological naturalist. That means that, when confronted with a situation, I look for natural rather than supernatural causes, i.e. I look for a scientific explanation.

What happens if I can’t work out a scientific explanation? In conscience, I assume that there actually is a scientific explanation, just not one which I can yet understand – maybe based on scientific principles which haven’t yet been discovered. What I don’t do is go the extra step and say that it is not possible that there is a non-scientific, supernatural explanation (which would be ontological naturalism, i.e. naturalism going to the root of what things are in themselves) – but for all practical purposes, that isn’t saying much. It caused a bit of a stir at my small group a while ago when I said that I couldn’t believe in any supernatural cause – how is it, one person asked, that you can be a Christian and not believe in the supernatural?

It’s actually entirely possible. There are even atheist Christians, who positively disbelieve in the existence of God, but much more widespread are a large number of what are commonly labelled “liberal” theologians, of whom a 20th century German theologian called Rudolph Bultmann stands out. His great project was to “demythologise” scripture, which meant to look for the meaning of scripture stripped of all the mythological elements, which included miracles, but also a large amount of the story told in scripture, in his case particularly any account of the historical Jesus.

Much of the academy (i.e. those who study theology and scripture professionally in universities) are in line with this kind of thinking. However, this relatively seldom translates into local churches, at least in my experience; theologically trained clergy put aside their philosophical positions when delivering their sermons, or they find some philosophical “work round” such as neo-orthodoxy or post-liberalism. I have never heard a sermon attempting to explain either!

In conscience, though, I also find that whatever the people in the pews state as their beliefs (which are usually far more historically conventional than followers of Bultmann), in practice they are also methodological naturalists. Most of them will respond very positively to the story I started with, variants of which I’ve heard in several sermons. Most of them will not rely just on prayer for healing, they will also see a doctor and take medicine. They are largely relying on naturalistic solutions, though they may well pray as well.

A few, a very few, actually go through life depending on God (or as an atheist would see it, chance) to provide for them. They appear actually to believe that “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20). And, mirabile dictu, it quite often seems to work for them. Mind you, it also seems that non-religious people who are fired with unshakeable convictions can sometimes achieve things which the average somewhat doubtful person could not. To this congenitally sceptical observer, it also seems that sometimes both groups set themselves up for colossal failure by doing this, and that the positive impression I have painted may be largely the result of confirmation bias, but from where I sit, if you can live like that, do it. I can’t, however hard I may try.

I am not, of course, suggesting that people are being hypocritical or lying about their beliefs, or at least not any more than every human being does. Most people, I find, don’t actually examine their beliefs in very much detail, and those that do may well feel that a kind of desperate hope that, in fact, things might be the way they believe is sufficient. I can manage that desperate hope myself (and do, particularly when there’s no other option than desperate hope) – I just can’t any more elevate it to the category of something I really believe in

That, of course, extends to “faith that” statements which I am regularly asked to confirm I believe, and where those include a supernatural element (such as, for instance, the virgin birth) I have to say that I cannot actually bring myself to believe these; the nearest I can get is to suspend disbelief and (with Bultmann) look for what else such a statement is able to carry as a message.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no antipathy toward the supernatural – in fact, I would love there to be supernatural explanations for things. When younger, I was fascinated with claims of supernatural events and effects and spent a lot of time exploring groups and traditions which claimed to have special knowledge and/or special abilities in that direction. I am still keen on reading fantasy books for relaxation, and have a weak spot for superhero narratives. The trouble is, almost universally I came to the conclusion that in the world which we inhabit, supernatural forces are not at work. The most I can say is that we do not yet fully understand all of the natural forces which exist. That, tempered with the occasional desperate hope…

Mind you, in studying “the supernatural”, I very much took the view that it needed to have theories of how it worked, and experimental techniques, and confirmatory experiments – and all this would actually have reduced the supernatural to another set of natural forces, just ones which didn’t operate by the set of rules we currently have in science. The personal God would, in addition, have a character, and that could be analysed.

In other words, in doing theology, we are attempting to establish sets of rules by which supernatural events and effects operate, with a view to controlling their effects on ourselves. If we view God as having, in any sense, agency (i.e. being able to act in the world other than as an impersonal force), theologians are attempting to psychoanalyse God, to establish what God will do given a particular set of circumstances – and as time has gone by, they are less willing to accept a view of God as arbitrary and unpredictable (faithful, steadfast and just are frequently used terms, while philosophical theologians have arrived at terms such as unchanging and immutable). The gods of (for instance) Greece, Rome or the Teutons or Norse were hugely unpredictable, and historically they lost ground very rapidly to a God conceived of as being rather more reliable.

If we view God as being more akin to an impersonal force (which is broadly speaking the deist position), it is still possible to analyse how it is that this force operates in the world. Finally, if we end up in the position of God as “ground of all being” or “the condition for the possibility of existence”, analysis will still take place, although among philosophical theologians rather than what we might call “practical theologians”. The unpredictable is anathema these days (it wasn’t in the days of, say, the Greek and Roman pantheons of gods, who could be incredibly arbitrary and unpredictable), and most of us instinctively agree with Einstein when he said “God doesn’t play dice” – though, at a subatomic level, it now seems that this is exactly what everything we see depends on.

In this connection, I think it’s worth mentioning two approaches to conceiving of God. One is that of the philosophers, starting in the West (as far as our records show) with Plato. There is a splendid set of lectures by Professor Keith Ward outlining this general approach. The trouble is, the God outlined by the philosophers is usually a long way from both the interventionist picture of God and from the personal picture of God enshrined in Christian scripture. But then, I think that reasoning towards God from first principles is a fundamentally flawed idea; to me God is first and foremost an experiential reality, and any picture of God must be built up from that experience, and not from philosophical argument. In any event, these arguments end up with a God who is far more impersonal force than personal, relational entity, and I harbour the strong suspicion that any suggestion that this is what God most fundamentally is is eventually going to come up against a new discovery of science which actually describes how that force operates.

Another (and it is to some extent part of the philosophers’ armoury) is the appeal to a first cause, something which set everything we know of in motion, called it into existence; the creator God. Of course, science has taken over most of the history of the universe, and from the point of view of physics, it is fairly settled what has happened since the extremes of the first second or so after the Big Bang (and there really is no place for a creator in that account). However, a source of constant wonder for scientists (myself included) is the fact that so many physical quantities are so precisely fixed as to create circumstances in which all of the immensity and complexity of the known universe could exist. There is a good lecture by Professor Ard Louis on this subject, which I think illustrates well how finely tuned physics actually is to produce what we see.

There are a few problems with Prof. Louis’ account. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult and deceptive to calculate probabilities for something happening which has in fact happened – after all, the probability of something happening which has actually occurred is 100% (or 1). In any event, it can readily be suggested that the anthropic principle is fundamentally flawed in that, in order for us to be observing this amazing coincidence of masses of constants, those constants in any case had to be exactly as they are; had they not been, there would have been no observer.

Some physicists extend this thinking and posit that on every occasion on which more than one thing might happen, actually all possible things happen and the universe splits into multiple almost identical “multiverses”. It’s worth mentioning that this idea, which would have horrified William of Occam, who inveighed against the multiplication of metaphysical entities, is also attractive to some theologians, who find in is a solution to the freewill -v- determinism issue – with multiverses, everything can be simultaneously totally determined and totally freely chosen. I rather recoil against it myself. After all, one of the fundamental drives of both scientists and theologians is to simplify things so that they can be understood, rather than complicate them to an extent approaching infinity!

However, there is as more substantive problem, and that is that physics does not have any idea of a mechanism by which such physical quantities might be fixed. This feeds back into my first point – if you don’t know anything about a mechanism, assessing the probability of one thing happening rather than another is perhaps foolish. Also, however, it leaves the age old hostage to fortune in being a “God of the gaps” answer. Science has filled a very large number of those gaps in the past, and this one might get filled in the future. Also, I am inclined to go along with the argument of Douglas Adams, in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” regarding the Babel Fish, an universal translator:- “Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mindbogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.” “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.” “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic. “Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white, and gets killed on the next zebra crossing. Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys. “

Finally, of course, it doesn’t paint a picture which the authors of either the New Testament or the Old would have recognised as being God.

Of course, this is all at base because science answers the question “how does this happen?”, generally with the subtext of “how can I make it happen, or prevent it from happening, again?” or “what new and interesting things could I see once I understand how this happens?”. It does not answer the questions “what is the purpose of this?” or “what does this mean?” Those questions, at least arguably, only have validity in the space of thought.

And, of course, whatever science may explain away, it is undeniable that God exists in the space of human thought and, as our experience is always in that space, in human experience.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

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