Posts Tagged ‘Tolerance’

Beyond tribalism?

February 5th, 2017

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and liberalism (both as defined in that article), and another about whether the concept of the nation state may be outdated.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 of 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.

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What tribe are you from?

January 18th, 2017

It’s curious how linked things seem to come together – one might almost think someone is trying to tell me something when I’ve been thinking about “privilege” for a week or two, someone posts in a private group about coping with the guilt of being white and male, and I also find a criticism of “colourblindness” on my main feed and an article about balancing religious conviction against ethnic identity.

I don’t really feel significant guilt about being white or male, both being things which I have not chosen. I do not accept concepts of inherited guilt, such as original sin; I am inclined to rely on Ezekiel 18, particularly vv. 1-9. OK, I am aware that it is possible to be transgender, thus perhaps stopping being male, but this is only feasible if you have a mismatch between your physical body and your internal mental image; I pass quickly over those who claim to self-identify as being of a race which they don’t appear to belong to; they tend to look foolish in the eyes of others of both races, though I will come back to that. I have enough guilt arising from my self-identification as Christian, given the long history of persecution of other religions and of slightly nonstandard theologies which Christianity as a body should rightly be ashamed of and guilty about, and from my participation in a neo-liberal financialised capitalist state, given that I consider that to be little short of supporting Satan… Those are things which I could, in theory, change, though in the first case I would have immense difficulty in not identifying as a follower (albeit a bad one) of Jesus, and in the second it would be substantially difficult to extricate myself from the system in which I live – I have spent a lot of time working politically against the slide towards neoliberalism, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse completely.

I could, I suppose, still change the fact that I was born British (subset English, though about half Scots, subset Yorkshireman). That comes with another potential load of manure stemming from the country’s colonial past and a lot of wars. Indeed, I’ve contemplated that – I feel very much at home in France, where I can cope fine in the language, and have also considered a number of other European countries where I’m less linguistically able. I’ve particularly contemplated it given the results of the last two elections, which have cemented the political slide into neoliberalism and given the Brexit vote, which I consider toxic – but it isn’t really a live option now given mine and my wife’s age and mental and physical disabilities. That said, I’m inclined to think that the negative effects of past colonialism have been balanced against a significant number of good things; I don’t know where the balance lies, but it isn’t actually unmitigated evil.

But, past colonialism has had an impact in meaning that I am privileged in at least one way; I live in a first world nation, and though not particularly rich by the standards of the society I live in, I’m very rich compared with the vast majority of humanity. That privilege isn’t built entirely on colonial exploitation, of course, it’s also built on the inventiveness of past Britons and on our exploitation of each other – one side of my family clawed their way up, over about 200 years, from being distinctly among the exploited in the mines of Yorkshire to being, arguably, among the exploiters. My grandfather was the first generation to be an employer, and my father and myself have also been employers, and while we have all had a distinct tendency towards regarding employees more as family than as opponents or material to be exploited, nonetheless we have benefited from the “surplus value” of other peoples’ labour.

Actually, having done one of those “check your privilege” questionnaires a while ago, I find that overall I’m not particularly privileged – I have enough negative privilege points to counterbalance the huge “privileges” of being born white, male, first world and middle class. The questionnaire didn’t advert to the fact that I was also endowed by genetics and upbringing with a fairly high intelligence and a very good memory, nor to the fact that I happened to be born, worked and retired during a period in which it has been possible to provide decently for my retirement, which is probably a privileged position compared with that of my children. I have, therefore, significant “privilege” in my own eyes.

But should I feel guilty about that? I tend to think not, as long as I haven’t got there by means which are unfair to others, and I’ve tried very hard to be fair to others since my mid teens. What I do feel, and I think it is right to feel, is an increased obligation to help those less privileged than me. I have, due to the privilege, some ability to do that, and I answer that call. Probably not to the extent which would be ideal, but I answer it nonetheless.

My felt obligation to be fair to others, however, does mean that I feel it right to be at least somewhat colour blind. Referring to the article I linked to earlier, it didn’t actually occur to me when watching “Thor” that Idries Elba is black and therefore could be regarded as a rather strange Norse God. To my mind, he makes a perfectly convincing Norse God; he is a very fine actor. The article, however, suggests that by not noticing his skin colour, I am denying him his heritage.

The thing is, for that role, Elba’s skin colour is not (and to my mind should not be) a factor. He is an actor, and he is portraying someone (granted a mythical someone) from a different milieu – which is what actors do all the time. In most of my interactions with other people, their ethnicity is just not a factor – unless it impacts on what the interaction is about. It was, for instance, irrelevant in considering who I might employ or with whom I did business. My own ethnicity was equally irrelevant. In point of fact, so was my gender and that of employees and employers. At least for the most part – there were times when I had to consider (for instance) if a client would be more comfortable with a black, or asian, or female advocate – but that was acknowledging that the client was not colour-blind. I will grant that I was occasionally considering whether the tribunal would react better to an advocate of a particular sex, which does concern me as it was potentially playing to the sexism of the court, but cannot recall having ever considered that a jury would think of a black advocate (for instance) as anything other than just a barrister. While there were times when I needed to consider the ethnicity (or, sometimes, just religion) of an advocate due to the fact that the case revolved in some part round that ethnicity or religion, that impacted on what the interaction was about, and so falls into my earlier exclusion.

Should someone, just based on their skin colour, be forced to adopt an ethnicity which the rest of us consider consistent with that ethnicity? As I mentioned earlier, adopting an ethnicity apparently at odds with the way you appear can invite ridicule from both camps – but that generally only applies where the individual in question is by appearance from a majority ethnicity but wishes to adopt a minority ethnicity. Personally, I’m entirely happy to accept any ethnicity someone wishes to adopt, irrespective of whether their skin colour or facial features seem to me to be a “good fit” for that ethnicity. There are other ways of displaying most ethnicities via appearance which can be changed – dress, for instance, or hairstyle, or patterns of speech (though that latter is problematic, as, for instance, those who have a different native language often cannot adopt a new one without perceptible accent). When playing a Norse God, Elba is not wanting us to consider his African heritage, he is wanting us to consider his assumed Norse ethnicity, which is amply displayed by the way he is costumed and the way he talks.

I will grant that I wouldn’t contemplate saying something like “I don’t see your colour, I just see you”. Of course I see someone’s colour, just as I notice if they have ginger hair or are seven feet tall (I did for a while have a client who would say that he was six feet fourteen tall; his height wasn’t something you could remotely ignore on first acquaintance, but where it didn’t impact on the work I was doing for him, the only result was that I tended to warn him about doorways where I wouldn’t have for a less vertically endowed individual). Is it relevant to my interaction with someone? Usually not. My seven foot two client  mostly didn’t want to talk about his height, and if he did, he could introduce the topic. However, when he injured himself walking into a road sign which would have cleared the head of anyone in a more normal range of height, and wished to sue the council, clearly it was a factor.

In the same way, if someone is clearly suffering because of some physical aspect they have, I have to consider that. Mostly, that’s been because someone else has made a comment or acted in a way which is prejudicial. Of course I’m going to notice that. The article does, however, make me worry slightly that because I don’t immediately assume that the most important thing about someone is their physical appearance, I might miss some systematic bias against them. That’s true, but the alternative would be to force on people an identity which they might not want to accept.

And that is because there’s what I regard as a flaw in the beginning of the article. It conflates “race” with “skin colour”, and then talks about the two interchangeably. A lot of the time, when it refers to “race”, it’s actually referring to ethnicity. I don’t think ethnicity should depend on skin colour, or that for a lot of people (in my country, at least), it does.

Ethnicity is another matter. It’s the overlapping set of ethnicity, culture, nation and (if you really dig deep) tribe which is significant; “race” is a corrupted term which tends to allocate ethnicity on the basis of colour, and it shouldn’t – as witness this clip from “Crocodile Dundee”.

What tribe are YOU from? I’ll be coming back to this…


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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

September 13th, 2016

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines” some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.


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Growing churches and flying buttresses

September 5th, 2016

It would seem that the church in England has stopped declining, from this article. Others question whether this is a pause before Church of England attendance (at the least) falls off a cliff – there are a lot of regular attenders in most congregations who are over 70, often over 80, and they will not be there in 20 years, whereas most Anglican congregations have far fewer people under 30.

However, the growth talked about in the article is generally in the sub-30 year old group, and is most commonly the result of congregations either planted by Holy Trinity Church Brompton or which fit pretty well into the HTB mould. The primary vehicle of evangelism for them is the Alpha course, about which I’ve written quite a few posts (it isn’t used solely by Anglicans, several other denominations use it as well).

What we are seeing, in other words, is the replacement of the Anglican Church as it has been with a set of clones of HTB, and the main evangelical technology being the Alpha course (although most HTB style churches also do street evangelism and the non-talking type of evangelism which I favour, caring for the poor, sick, homeless and marginalised).

A little under five years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go along to a set of talks and discussions about aspects of faith and various features of the modern world (such as science) being held at St. Michael le Belfrey, York. This was an early foray into trying to connect with people again after several years of being “incurvatus in se” as a result of chronic, serious depression and chronic anxiety. I asked some pointed questions, and the organiser took me on one side after the last of that series of talks and asked if I’d like to attend an Alpha course.

Somewhat taken aback, I said I didn’t know – I had already attended one and a half Alpha courses some years earlier (I was invited to stop going to the second, ostensibly because I might become an “Alpha addict”, but more probably because I displayed no sign of stopping asking awkward questions, which was actually a mistake on their part because I was there as company for someone else who hadn’t done the course and who promptly stopped going…) and I said I would perhaps be a disruptive influence. The organiser said that was fine, Alpha welcomed discussion and my presence would allay his fears that no-one would ask any of the difficult questions. So I accepted – and then found that I was listed as a “helper”.

A week before the Alpha “Spirit weekend”, my depression lifted overnight – was this Godly intervention? My friends from the course certainly thought so. Was it because I’d been a member of a recovery community for six years? My friends there certainly thought so. Was it because my antidepressants had just changed? Possible, I suppose, but the effects shouldn’t have been seen for at least a week or two, and the effect was instant, at least within 8 hours. This enabled me to do what I’d been thinking about for some weeks, and actually attend a service at the church – and I carried on doing that until earlier this year, when a combination of circumstances made me wish for something closer to home.

St. Mikes fitted a lot of my wishes for a church. It was welcoming of everyone (even people like me with seriously nonstandard theologies), it did quite a bit of social gospel work and it had a cell group structure into which I slotted myself. I do massively better in groups of 5 to 10 than I do in larger gatherings, and I really like studying scripture and sharing interpretations of it and reactions to it.

Over the next three years I helped with another 7 Alpha courses, assuming that by “helped” you include not only the grunt work but casting some doubt in discussion on most of the apologetics used. However, the people running the Alphas changed, and with them went a positive wish to engage alternative perspectives. The previous Alpha coordinators went off to seminary (which may be a good sign for the future of the clergy!) and my home group disintegrated, with several members going off to other churches. It seemed that the season when it was right for me to be there had passed…

What I learn from the article I link to is that increasingly, Anglican churches are going to fit the mould of St. Mikes and its like. This is something about which I am a little ambivalent.

The plus side is that they are very welcoming to the “seeker” and the new member, at least initially, and in at least some cases are prepared to accept people with divergent theologies as long term members of their communities. They stand some chance, through Alpha, of markedly increasing the number of self-identifying Christians, and could at least conceivably provide congregations with the size and diversity to cope with a variety of styles of worship and, just possibly, even a variety of styles of theology – it would not need much tweaking of their structures to achieve the last of these, but might need a lot of tweaking of their attitude to theology. They also have enough young people to make social gospel endeavours practical (which by and large they are not for ageing congregations in expensive-to-maintain structures), and they definitely have the will to do that.

However, they have not at least so far, so far as I can see, implemented the changes which would be needed to accommodate variant theologies, and they are producing significant numbers of people who think that “The Gospel” is basically just Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I can recall the confusion caused in one young and enthusiastic  church worker when I said I didn’t much like PSA, and he said “but that’s the Gospel…”, so I outlined another six or seven atonement theories to him and pointed out that none of them was actually part of any of the Anglican statements of faith.

The sponsorship by churches in the HTB mould of new seminaries such as St. Melitus (mentioned in the article) and St. Barnabas (my more local version) seems to me likely to produce generations of “ones size fits all” theologies in clergy, and it has definitely seemed to me that St. Mikes was moving in that direction.

And I have difficulty feeling at ease in such a congregation, as do a lot of people who would now describe themselves as “post evangelical”, “liberal” or “radical”. Unless they are open to the idea that people may have very differing theologies from the standard evangelical rubric, they will continue to make uneasy, alienate or exclude all of these strands of Christian thought, and by and large, however apparently welcoming of variant viewpoints they may be in Alpha discussions, at root they are not open to this; the way is extremely narrow which leads to salvation for them (Matt. 7:14) rather than the father’s house having many mansions (John 14:2) or Jesus having other flocks (John 10:16).

Looking to the future, then, what is going to become of those whose thoughts either start to move beyond the evangelical model or which cannot bring themselves anywhere close to it in the first place? Are there going to be no churches, or even no communities, where they can find a home, at least not within Anglicanism – and the same may well apply to Christianity more generally?

I suppose that to some extent, this post is a lament. For many years I used to say that in respect of the church, I was like a flying buttress – I supported it, but from outside. For a while with St. Mikes, I felt more inside than outside – and now I feel outside again.

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Revisionist or balanced personal history?

August 17th, 2016

Malcolm Gladwell podcasts at “Revisionist History”, and episode 9 is titled “Generous Orthodoxy”. Much of the episode revolves around Chester Wenger, a Mennonite clergyman, and his dealing with his son’s coming out as gay. He displays there what Gladwell calls “Generous Orthodoxy”, and I might add that it also displays costly discipleship.

His proposed alternative action for protestors at Princeton is also an example of costly discipleship (and one I approve of; if you desire that something take place and argue for that, you must take into account the thought processes of the people you’re trying to persuade, otherwise you’re just venting and will not get what you want), but what I want to focus on here is what Princeton should do. The root of the protest was the naming (many years ago) of a building after Woodrow Wilson, who was a major benefactor of the university (along with a lot of other “rich white guys”) and also, of course, a notable president of the United States.

What I hadn’t known before listening to this was that he was also a segregationist who set back the cause of black equality significantly. I plead in my defence that I’m not American, and the history of the States in the 20th century tends only to interest me where it bears on the history of my home country or where it displays some major historical trend, though I’m tempted to quote “1066 and all that” and say “the Americans became top nation and history ended”.

The issue was that black students at Princeton felt uncomfortable and excluded by having to study in a building named after a prominent oppressor of black people. Now it’s difficult for me to put myself in their position – I’m white, male, English, British and European, and all of those are “privileged” categories. I’m also comfortably off by the standards of my relatively rich country, which also probably doesn’t help. OK, I do also have a number of features which move my “privilege” score down to something more median, but still, I must consider myself as being in a privileged position. Could you make me feel uncomfortable and excluded by the naming of a building I had to use? I’m not sure. Maybe the “Adolf Hitler Cultural Centre”, or the “Joseph Stalin Centre for Political Studies” might give me pause, but probably no more than a very mild discomfort. That’s a thing I’ll come back to later.

I have two main problems with removing Wilson’s name from the building. The first is that he did make a huge contribution to Princeton and to the fact that there is a building there at all. Gladwell’s suggestion of various other Wilson’s to name it after ignores that rather fundamental fact; those others didn’t make that contribution. In removing the name, you are erasing the building’s history (but then, the podcast IS called “Revisionist History”); with that, you are erasing both the good and the bad aspects of Woodrow Wilson. I have no problem with looking at history anew and finding new ways of interpreting it, but I have a huge problem with throwing away chunks of it in the process – generally when new historical ideas are proposed, they have some truth to them, but they are also a reaction against the previous dominant historical ideas, and have a tendency to overreact – very often, a better analysis is found in a synthesis of the two. Rewriting history is, of course, always the project of the winners of any conflict, but as Orwell described in “1984”, it makes a mockery of any search for truth.

Secondly, though, I challenge whether it’s Christian to do this. One essence of Christianity is the willingness to admit fault and ask for forgiveness (which, I concede, Wilson never did) but another is to offer that forgiveness to everyone. All that is left of Wilson is his memory, and erasing a chunk of that memory is a kind of death penalty (and as he has passed beyond earthly sanction, we can perhaps consider that he has already been adequately judged and, as appropriate, sanctioned and forgiven; “Judgment is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay“, with the subtext that we don’t need to and perhaps should not). Yes, that memory is at the moment only (at Princeton, at least) of the good he did, following the principle “de mortuis nil nisi bonum“. Clearly that memory is inadequate, and needs adding to – but not in the half-hearted and apologetic vein suggested by the Princeton graduate whose comment is on the podcast. Equally, though, I think it inappropriate that we should follow Shakepeare’s somewhat sarcastic “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar”.

The thing is, we extol the virtues of famous people but fail to mention their bad qualities. Often this leads to meteoric rises and falls – the public (often through the press) latches on to someone and puts them on a pedestal, and then finds flaws and brings them down again. It also leads to the idiocy of thinking that (say) a pop star is worth hearing about politics or economic theory.

What we should, I think, do is always hold in mind the fact that everyone is “simul justus et peccator“, Luther’s phrase to indicate that everyone remains a sinner while being justified or righteous. Or, indeed, forgiven. What we need is a balanced view of everyone; they will have their virtues and good deeds, they will also have their vices and evil deeds. Perhaps the best exposition of how I think we should view people is described in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead“; his invention of the “Speaker for the Dead” attempts to give just such a balanced view of those who have passed away, presenting them as a human being and inviting understanding rather than adulation or condemnation, and there are now some people who, following Card, will act as Speakers for the Dead at funerals.

So what should Princeton do? At present, they have an unbalanced testimony to Wilson’s good actions. I suggest a plaque is sufficient, not just giving a nod to his bad side but giving it equal weight with the good and recording that the bad is not approved while yet the good is celebrated.

And, as one should always “follow the money”, that might allow Princeton to assuage student’s anxieties while still not putting off future donors who are afraid their own contribution will end up on the scrap heap of history due to a reassessment of their character in the future…

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Roman Catholic (and other) terrorists?

August 13th, 2016

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.

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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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Give to him who asks of you

April 7th, 2016

Ian Hislop, who is occasionally more a journalist than a satirist, presented a programme on BBC this evening entitled “Workers or Shirkers”, looking at how the Victorians dealt with the poor, and the question of whether and how they should be provided for, and in particular whether we should discriminate between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. It was a fairly balanced presentation, with some shocking moments, such as finding out that Ian Duncan Smith, lately in charge in the UK of cutting and denying benefits to the poor while claiming to be “helping them” (by which he meant providing them with the incentive of starvation to go and find employment),  actually has some feelings for the poor.

OK, I maybe jest very slightly there, but not a lot. There was quite a bit on the system of workhouses instituted in the 19th century (and still in some cases active in my lifetime) which were deliberately designed to be worse than anything on the outside which didn’t actually kill you immediately. I regularly pass along a street called “Union Lane”, which now has several branches of the social welfare establishment spread along one side, which was named because before most of it was knocked down as being both supremely ugly and unfit for human habitation even by social workers, it was the site of the Union Workhouse. “Union” because it was operated by a union of several parishes rather than merely one. It still had a rather sinister reputation in my childhood, and people of my grandparent’s generation often had a terror of “going on the parish”, as people tended to call becoming dependent on the workhouses. Actually, by that time, few people alive had actually experienced the workhouses in their full horror, as they had by and large become far more civilised as the 20th century progressed, and innovations like National Insurance and Old Age Pensions had seriously reduced the need for them. A small plaque on the rather decorative former gatehouse (one of the few attractive features, and rightly preserved) commemorates its origin. I’m perhaps unusual in that the mere name of the street makes me remember the system every time I pass along it…

The workhouse system was definitely more shocking than IDS, though many of his and his successor’s pronouncements make me wonder quite how close to a new workhouse system our current government would like to get.

The programme perhaps doesn’t go back quite far enough. The various Poor Laws which were administered initially through the parishes had become necessary because charitable giving utterly failed to meet the need (and that in a country which was in those days at least avowedly something over 95% Christian). It did, however, follow through the initial institution of the Welfare State here, and adverted to the fact that even a Labour government faced with the Great Depression decided that it needed to cut back on welfare (what was not mentioned is that there was also a national debt dwarfing the one we now see in percentage of GDP due to having fought the First World War…) An obvious parallel with current conditions was not  explicitly drawn but implied, leaving it more difficult to point to all the areas in which finances then were massively worse than they are now.

The conclusion? We are, it seems, hopelessly confused between a desire only to benefit the deserving and an impulse to correct suffering without reference to merit.

But then, we are not any more a 95% Christian country, more like a 7% Christian one. If we were, I could point to a very clear injunction contained in Matthew 5:42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you”. Jesus says nothing about asking why someone is in need, nor about asking whether they deserve help, or even whether we should check what they will spend it on. We are just to give whenever asked (and there are a large set of other quotations available to back this up).

However, I do notice that in at least one church in York are cards encouraging people not to give money to people begging on the street (of whom there are regrettably quite a few), but instead to give to charities helping them. Yes, I thoroughly approve of giving to those charities (and I do, regularly), and that church does do excellent work helping feed the homeless, but those cards seem to me basically contrary to Jesus’ command. If I have money, I will give something to them direct, whatever the church says. And it should not be saying that.

Of course, looking back at the history of helping the poor, as Hislop does, makes it pretty clear that the Church has never been very good at following this particular command of Jesus. Suspending judgment, it seems, is even more difficult than parting with your money.

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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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