Posts Tagged ‘Tolerance’

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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More statesmen, less crucifixion.

November 15th, 2015

The attacks in Paris last night are horrifying in their death toll, the number of those injured and that fact that there was no conceivable offence which the victims had committed, apart, that is, from living in France. My prayers go with the families of those killed and injured, and with the people of Paris and of France who are coming to terms with the shock.

There are already a lot of idiot statements going around the web, and no doubt there will be many more in the future, but before I get to those, I find I am shocked not to have heard anything from the media about the bombings in Beirut and Baghdad before yesterday, and I suspect I might never have heard about them had it not been for the Paris attacks. Our media has failed us in this; lives do not matter less because they are in the Middle East than in Europe, or because they are those of people with a different religion or a different skin colour. Nor do they matter less because Beirut and Baghdad are far less shocked than is Paris, as they are more used to such atrocities – indeed, we should perhaps consider that Beirut and (in particular) Baghdad deserve special sympathy because there, the violence is more frequent and therefore more damaging to morale.

Some of those idiot statements have come from the French President, François Hollande, in various statements. He talks about severe measures, and about a war on terror, and did that even before anyone had claimed responsibility for the attacks. I can understand that a politician will feel the need to capture the mood of his country, and that that mood is one of wishing to have vengeance for the damage. A statesman, however (and I would have hoped that the president of a major European nation might have managed to achieve that status) would seek to guide the people rather than ride the wave of their anger, and precipitate action is one of the things which terrorists most hope to cause. He would acknowledge the anger, state that he shares it and talk about prevention of a future atrocity and taking measured steps against those ultimately responsible.

Let me start with “war on terror”. This is a ridiculous concept, almost as much so as a war on drugs (do I go out and shoot a few aspirin?). Wars are between sovereign nations, and the vast majority of terrorist groups are not acting on behalf of a sovereign state (though the military of many nations may be guilty of terror attacks themselves). Curiously, these attacks are possibly an exception, in that credit has been claimed by IS, who are de-facto a sovereign state, holding a large swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria. I think he would have been justified in principle in declaring war on Islamic State – I am even inclined to think that this meets the criteria necessary for starting a just war under Augustine’s and Aquinas’ principles (jus ad bellum). Of course, no-one wants to recognise IS as a state…

This topic, in fact, came up in last night’s Global Christian Perspectives webcast, in which Allan Bevere went into some detail about just war, and rightly pointed out that it is not just the issue of whether you go to war which is subject to moral principles (originally specifically Christian, but now in theory accepted as good argument in international law), but also whether the war is waged justly (jus in bello). If you cannot wage war justly, even if it is just to start a war, you have no moral alternative but to sue for peace or surrender, according to Augustine and Aquinas. Major principles are that there must be a reasonable prospect of success, and that you must not kill innocents.

There, I think we have huge difficulties, firstly in safeguarding innocents. Certainly, efforts to date in the “war on terror” have resulted in very large numbers of innocent casualties – many more innocents than terrorists, in fact. Unless we change our way of dealing with this (and there is really no alternative to “boots on the ground” given the lamentable accuracy of targeting from the air – this piece of idiocy from Allen West is actually right on point; I might think that he was a liberal speaking satirically if I didn’t know better), we will not possess “jus in bello” and cannot reasonably wage war even against IS.

Secondly, what remote possibility is there of ever declaring success? In particular, what possibility is there of success when we are not prepared to occupy (for an indefinite but no doubt very long period) even the states which we have held accountable for past terrorism? It is, of course, very widely appreciated that where you kill innocents in significant numbers, you actually create new terrorists in greater numbers than the reduction you tend to achieve, and certainly create more sympathy for the terrorists’ cause; certainly the terrorists understand this, and the overreaction is one of the outcomes they most desire. What possibility is there of success when prosecuting the “war” actually makes more new terrorists than it kills, and where significant numbers of them are living in states which have no responsibility for their actions, sometimes our own nations?

I recently linked again from facebook to my 2013 meditation on Remembrance Day, and the sentiments there are still entirely valid. If anything, though, the more I read the gospels, the less I think that Jesus would have approved any of the Just War concepts which Augustine came up with; he would not approve war at all. I am not quite at the point of being able to say that I would never support my country going to war in any circumstances (though I thoroughly approve Jeremy Corbyn’s undertaking that if he became Prime Minister, he would never order the use of nuclear weapons, and hope that the right wing and the media are wrong that this makes him unlelectable), but at the least, can we try to adhere to Just War principles?

I now realise that I missed something in my 2013 account. Although I rightly, I think, determined that no war my country had fought in the last 100 years or more had been just with the exception of World War II, I missed the fact that the way Britain fought the war emphatically did not meet just war standards, as we deliberately targeted civilian populations (first with the excuse that the Germans had first bombed London, which it proves was in error when a raid overshot industrial targets). I think I can therefore now say that we have not fought a completely just war at any time in history which I can think of.

I realise that in saying that, I am going completely against a lot of public mood, particularly at present in France. I will also probably make myself unpopular in many circles if I point out that the fact that my country, France and Spain have been targeted by Islamic terrorists follows our own actions in bombing and invading Islamic countries, and killing large numbers of innocent Muslims. It is, no doubt, difficult for someone whose home is bombed and whose family members are killed or maimed to appreciate that we were not waging war on them and that the correct action is not to come and bomb us.

I do not think that I would be inclined to accept the excuse of someone who killed my wife that she was “collateral damage”, for instance, though I would hope that my Christian principles would win out over my natural urge to do them at least as much damage in return, and if not them personally, then their families, their friends or those associated with them, or in paroxysms of grief, those who looked a bit like them or shared their politics or religion – it is scary what the frustration of powerlessness in the face of loss can do to human morality, what depths otherwise civilised people are prepared to sink to. I could here point out Rene Girard’s work on the futility of redemptive violence and his identification of the Crucifixion as the “last scapegoat”, after which we need not look to violence to redeem anything.

War is hell. It crucifies people and nations. We should do everything in our power to avoid it. And, if we are a Christian nation, or a nation whose sense of morality was forged in Christianity even if we have moved on from that belief, we should consider very seriously the injunction to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

France, however, is not feeling much like that at the moment (and who can blame them?). Feelings, however, do not have to become actions, and a statesman might point that out. On the back of that, there are some other stupid statements. “It’s because of all the refugees” is one obvious one. Well, despite the fact that I now hear that a Syrian man who is known to have come via Lesbos may be implicated (and I’m afraid I find that all too convenient to those arguing against the refugees), in general the refugees are trying to get away from the people who do these things. Christianity inherited from Judaism an obligation of hospitality towards the stranger, which Europe is not doing a very good job of upholding so far, and it would be a tragedy if the borders now closed completely, which is certainly what not a few people are suggesting. You might argue that Europe is post-Christian, but it has emerged out of Christianity and in theory still holds to largely Christian principles. It could be that the basic European principle of free movement of people within Europe (to which my country does not wholly subscribe) may be ending here, and that would be a tragedy for Europe and a victory for the terrorists. If you’re in the States, contemplate what the imposition of full border controls between the individual states would do to, for instance, the commute from New Jersey to New York…

Equally damaging is the suggestion that the attacks must be because of security failures, and therefore we should massively increase security measures. One of the things which makes Europe a great place to live, work and holiday in is that it is relatively free, we are not a set of police states, a set of nations obsessed with looking over our shoulders. If we lose that as a reaction to these attacks, again the terrorists have won. We also value free speech, and that would vanish under such a regime – in point of fact that has already been horribly eroded due to previous attacks (such as those on Charlie Hebdo, in central London and on trains in Madrid).

A statesman would say that there is a value in being European, a value created from our common beliefs in justice and mercy, tolerance, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of belief. He would suggest that if we react in such a way as to reduce those values, the terrorists have destroyed us. 8 men with guns and some explosives will have caused the destruction of the dream of a multi-national union of some 750 million people, and we will largely have done it to ourselves.

A Christian statesman might remind us that Jesus said “what you do to the least of these, you do to me”.

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A plague on both your tribes

November 1st, 2015

Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen a lot of very favourable words written by left-leaning sources firstly about Pope Francis and then about Bernie Sanders, followed by some push-back from people who don’t think they measure up to the ideal of a leftist which the commentators would like. I grant that in neither case is that criticism anything like notable compared with the howls of conservative anger, but it is definitely there

Francis, for instance, is criticised for not pushing the church in the direction of equality for women, abortion or homosexuality.  I have no idea whether he would want to, and frankly that doesn’t matter to me; the fact is that he is saying some things about poverty, climate change and global capitalism which I think are thoroughly in accordance with the teachings of both Jesus and his sainted namesake. Even if he wanted to move towards a more liberal position on sexual equality or abortion, he has stirred up quite enough controversy in the traditionally very conservative halls of the Vatican already, and to stir up more would be distinctly a bridge too far.

Bernie Sanders has similarly received criticism for not being left wing enough. (Yes, for my US readers, Sanders is in fact not very left wing at all by international standards). He’s not, apparently, sufficiently loudly in favour of black Americans, nor is he a wholly believable anti-Zionist. (Actually, I think he’s adequately to the left on those issues, just not rabidly so). Apparently, in order for “liberals” to support him, he needs to tick every possible liberal-progressive-radical box, just as does Francis. (Incidentally, I’m using “liberals” in the US sense there – “liberals” in the UK are centrists, often with a somewhat anti-big-government tinge to them).

I really have no time for this “bounded set” thinking, where unless you tick every box, you’re not “one of us”. I far prefer the idea of a centred set, where there are one or several markers, and anyone who is moving toward any of them is a member, even if they may be slightly further from the absolute centre on other points. The left should thank it’s lucky stars that they have in Francis and Sanders two people who are moving closer to their ideal location than has been seen in either of their institutions in generations. If the left regards itself as a tribe with rigidly defined boundaries as to who is out and who is in, they will never succeed; if they regard themselves as following general directions, they will find a lot of people walking in the same direction.

I say that as someone who by US standards is definitely well to the left myself – though in UK terms, I’ve been a centrist since my teenage years, although the centre of gravity of UK politics has moved a long way right over that time and I haven’t.

My irritation here is not by any means confined to the left, however. The right, and particularly the religious right, also do it and have been doing it for a long time. I spare some thoughts of sympathy for the Reverend Rob Schenck, whose credentials as a conservative evangelical are stellar, and with whom I disagree on almost every subject. Rev. Schenck has recently taken the entirely logical step of deciding that if he is against abortion in any form due to a high view of the sanctity of life, he must therefore also be in favour of gun control. Many of the conservative evangelical tribe are busily disowning him. Apparently in order to be a conservative Christian in the States, you also need to be in favour of unrestricted ownership of deadly weapons, and he is not any more.

There is absolutely no danger that the progressive left tribe are going to take him to their bosoms and welcome him into the fold of true believers, as this is only one of the many markers he would need to adopt, so he is left in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle.

Uncomfortable, that is, only if you feel the need to belong to one of the two tribes (both of which would prefer to see everyone as one or the other). Actually, just like Francis and Sanders, Schenck is in the position of most of us, not agreeing with everything which either extreme puts forward.

Welcome to post-tribal humanity, where you can (and should) look critically at all the sacred cows of both left and right!


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Messiahs and their aftermaths

October 16th, 2015

I’ve just read an interesting article on what you might call “other Jewish Messiahs”. I wouldn’t argue with the conclusion that Bar Kochba probably did the most damage to Judaism of all of the 50 or so candidates.

However, I think the article misses the point of why modern Judaism considers Jesus to have been the most damaging. That’s because the result was a major rift in Judaism which produced a new religion which was considered non-Jewish, or at least it was following a rather painful process of separation which is dealt with in a very compelling way by Daniel Boyarin in “Border Lines” and in “A Radical Jew”. There are strong hints of the early stages of that process in Paul’s letters and in the book of Acts, but the process probably didn’t become complete until well after that, probably around the middle of the second century, much aided by Justin Martyr seeking to clarify an identity for Christianity as against Judaism.

How many ethnic Jews actually ended up following the new religion of Christianity is a hotly disputed subject; the standard Orthodox Jewish response would be that vanishingly small numbers of Jews, if any, would have accepted the Pauline disintegration of ethnic distinctives, those things which actually made Jews a people. There is probably now no way of establishing what the truth of the situation actually is; the New Testament witness would argue that significant numbers joined the new movement (I don’t say “converted”, because at the time I don’t think most would think there was a need to “convert”, seeing Christianity as a natural development within Judaism), but is clearly susceptible to allegations of bias. Rome too, it seems, had difficulty distinguishing the two, considering the very early reports of the Jews agitating at the instance of someone called “Chrestus” (Suetonius, writing probably around 100CE).

However, if one can assume that there were indeed significant numbers who joined the new movement (and, of course, all the very early members were Jewish), the fact that a new religion (and one with massive staying power) was thereby started would, I think, rank Jesus as the greatest threat. One has to recall that, for many Orthodox Jews, conversion to any religion other than Christianity is a failing, but becoming a Christian makes someone dead to Judaism (and funeral rites are not infrequently performed in absentia); conversion is thus seen as a form of genocide. Boyarin thinks, and I agree, that this attitude is a part of the increasingly acrimonious split which on the Christian side became antisemitism; I cannot now think that had it been Judaism which had achieved ascendancy there would not have been a major possibility of similar treatment of Christians, given the recent history of a resurgent nationalist Israel.

This thinking, however, leads me to posit a different ranking, based on which messiah figures came closest to instituting a new religion. Sabbatai Zvi has third place after Jesus there; there were at one point a very large number of followers and commentators at the time were concerned about the possibility of that becoming a majority in Judaism. However, the Sabbatarians proved not to have staying power, particularly after the forced conversion of their leader to Islam.

Second place, however, has to go to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is perhaps politically skated over by the article (though, to be fair, he cannot be blamed for many, if any deaths). He was the last Lubavitch Rebbe (and earlier Lubavitch Rebbes had also been hailed as messiah to a lesser extent). His followers are extant as Chabad Lubavitch, who have a very prominent presence in conservative Judaism to this day (running many Jewish educational establishments inter alia), and having a substantial proportion of people who still hold that the late Rebbe was Moschiach, and that any prophecies not actually fulfilled by him in his lifetime will be fulfilled in a second coming (some followers say “right idea, wrong guy” to Christians). Of course, they are not officially a separate religion – but not a few Rabbis think that they should be, as they follow someone who, from the strict point of view, is another failed messiah, as he did not fulfill ALL of the prophecies deemed messianic by Judaism. (A note for my Christian readers – these are not necessarily the same prophecies as Christians consider fulfilled or to be fulfilled by Jesus).

To my mind, Chabad escaped being declared a separate religion by the skin of their teeth in the late 20th century. If you were to ask me “Why?”, I might guess that by the time the problem was realised, Chabad actually had too large an influence in Judaism (Christianity might have had were it not for the elimination of most of the Jerusalem Church in 65-70 CE) and also by the fact that there was no-one in Chabad with the interests of Justin Martyr in distancing them from the rest of Judaism.

If nothing else, I think a study of Menachem Schneerson and Chabad casts an interesting light on how Christianity might have developed.

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Loyalty to a different Kingdom

October 1st, 2015

Bo Sanders has provocatively titled a post “There is no Kingdom of God”. A man after my own heart – I like provocative titles. Watch the video – it’s only 8 minutes, and he makes a lot of really good points, not all of which I repeat here.

The problem he sees is that the term doesn’t translate “basilea tou Theou” well for a modern audience (and I might suggest particularly one in the States, which is a Republic).

The thing is, the use of the term, which literally means something more like “Empire of God” or “Imperial rule of God” was a direct subversion of the term “basilea tou Romes”, i.e. the Empire of Rome. The basilea tou Theou was completely unlike the Roman Empire, of course, and the identical formulation there was designed to accentuate the difference.

At the time of the earliest English translations, “Kingdom of God” was, I think, actually a fairly good translation, because at the time England was a Kingdom with a King who had some imperial pretensions and was very nearly an absolute monarch, as the Roman Emperors were; the counterpoint still worked and had some subversive power. It doesn’t work in England nearly as well these days, as the monarchy has become a nearly powerless constitutional monarchy and the fount of power is Parliament, and it works even less well in the United States, where citizens don’t even live under a nominal monarchy or empire.

Granted, it could well be argued that the USA is a functional Empire, with places ruled but without a say in government and a number of “client states” which are nominally independent but in effect operate as instructed by America.The trouble is, most of the population probably don’t believe that to be the case.

I have seen and heard people using other terms, and “commonwealth” is not uncommon – the trouble is, most of these fail to give the subversive element as they themselves have unhelpful baggage (in the case of “commonwealth” it is specifically the historic use of the term for democracies, and a democracy, I would argue, is significantly closer to a system of organising ourselves which Jesus might not want to subvert). Of those which Bo mentions, “Government” is possibly my favorite, particularly as “Government” already has a fair amount of negative baggage associated, as “basilea” did in the first century.

What about the hyphenated terms? Sadly, I don’t like “kin-dom” as it sounds rather twee, although it is clever; “un-kingdom” and “anti-empire” seem to me too direct, lacking the subversive element which was present in the original use of the common term for the Roman oppression, the sense of direct opposition “An Empire but totally unlike the existing Empire”. However, any of these might do – certainly if an unfamiliar term is used, it will alert us to the fact that “Kingdom” needs a bit more understanding.

I might, for instance, suggest once in a while slipping in “the Anarchy of God” for the shock effect – it lacks the sense of subversion, but certainly wakes one up to the fact that Jesus’ basilea is not a top down autocracy. I think he might have quite liked Peter Kropotkin’s ideas about how (not to) organise a state!

On the whole, though, I rather favour trying out “Nation of God”. There’s an awful lot to subvert in our concepts of nation these days;for the nation to which we belong to include axiomatically all people (“no Jew nor Greek…”, the hated Samaritan and the traditional enemy Syrophonecian) is, I think, jarring enough to gain some really good traction, at least until we become over-used to it. It certainly puts a new light on our reluctance to welcome refugees… It also echoes the situation of the Israelites as the People of God, so bursting out of all previously traditional markers for who is in and who is out, as was necessary to include the Gentiles, is doubly accentuated.

Also, and I think particularly in the States, it’s the principal thing to which loyalty is regularly claimed over and above loyalty to God. We regularly discuss whether we can trust a politician whose principal loyalty is to his or her concept of God, possibly to the exclusion of loyalty to our hugely restricted view of nation. Early Christians regularly suffered martyrdom for exactly this reason – they refused to worship Caesar, which was seen as being traitorous.

What price do we pay for our oaths of allegiance, our oaths on taking office?

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OCD, TLE and Schizo theologians…

September 12th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Caring for refugees

September 8th, 2015

My facebook feed is full of Syrian refugees. Ian Everett’s piece of beat poetry runs along the same lines as an article by Giles Fraser. Very different approaches, but the same message – welcome them all.

It wasn’t full of this prior to a picture of a drowned toddler. I’m wondering what it is about this particular picture sparked peoples’ compassion, given that there have been plenty of previous photographs of drowned migrants, some of them assuredly from Syria. I wonder why similar levels of compassion haven’t been sparked by other photos of dead children – Palestinian, for instance, Nigerian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqui… the list could go on for a while.

Thousands of refugees have travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and been wholly unwelcome in each of them – well, apart from Turkey, which is currently host to nearly 2 million Syrians anyhow; recently some thousands have been let through Austria to Germany, and Germany has welcomed them with open arms.

Germany? That should produce a bit of cognitive dissonance in a lot of Britons, whose stereotype of Germans emphatically doesn’t include welcoming strangers, particularly if they’re of a slightly darker hue than the Aryan ideal. They don’t have to look back 70 years to find justification for that stereotype, either – Germany has not been a bed of roses for its substantial population of Turkish migrant workers for many years much more recently than that, and it still has a fairly strong xenophobic streak in some of the population.

I do not criticise Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia or Hungary for lack of  compassion – none of them are rich countries, and Greece, Macedonia and Serbia rank as poor. Listening to interviews with the migrants, they don’t want to stay in those countries anyhow; they don’t see opportunity there, and they’re probably right. Almost universally, they have set their sights on Germany as their promised land.

Austria, however, is not poor. It’s just unwelcoming.

And, frankly, so has been the UK so far. Cameron has just announced that we will take a significant number of refugees, though we’ll take them from the UN camps just outside the Syrian borders, and we’ll take families, rather than single men. I think he has the right attitude apart from the number – 20,000 (and that over 5 years!) isn’t remotely as many as I think we could or should take, particularly compared with Germany’s position – Angela Merkel expects to welcome 800,000 refugees this year. This is probably a first for me, approving of any aspect of any policy which Cameron expresses – and yes, I do ask myself how he will equate a willingness to take even a few thousand Syrian refugees when his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions doesn’t think our current unemployed need to be fed, clothed or housed adequately. Of course, my answer is that we should look after both.

Cameron suggests that we are a Christian nation as reason to do this. Admittedly, we have an established church, and “Church of England” is the default religious designation, but on that I think he’s wrong. A Christian nation wouldn’t have elected him in the first place, given his attitude to the poor, disabled and needy. Under 5% of us attend church on an average Sunday; that doesn’t look like a “Christian nation” to me. However, there is, particularly among the 60% or so who voted for someone else, a residual undercurrent of Christian values, so perhaps he isn’t completely wrong.

Now, I like Giles Fraser’s writing, but I have to take issue with this article. Yes, it is true that ancient Israel were enjoined to treat the sojourner in their land as they would a native, and that they were also enjoined to leave a margin to provide food for the poor (not especially the sojourner), but none of that refers to whether you invite foreigners into your land to sojourn in the first place. On that point, the Old Testament is at best silent – and at worst, it has a very dim view of citizens of neighbouring countries such as Amelekites, Canaanites, Phonecians, Moabites, Ammonites – and again, this list could go on substantially. Appropriate action in their cases ranged from extermination of every last member of the nation to merely approving taking them as slaves…

I think that in order to make his case, he needed to go New Testament. Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22:39) is the start point; the parable of the Good Samaritan goes on to define as your neighbour someone of another nation (and at that one considered an enemy, and a set of dangerous heretics at that), and we may extend that by considering Jesus’ treatment of the Centurion (an officer of an occupying enemy force) or the Syrophonecian woman (a member of a nation which Israel had had a mandate to wipe out) – that last was a lectionary reading for at least some people at the weekend. Our neighbour is anyone, and probably someone different from us – maybe an enemy, maybe someone we are brought up to despise, maybe just one of those people we don’t notice, like (in Biblical times) women or children.

So yes, the Syrian refugees are our neighbours, and perhaps especially the drowned toddler.

The snag is, it’s not that simple. The homeless in our own country are also our neighbours, and if we haven’t helped them, why are we thinking of helping someone whose own nearer neighbours haven’t? Isn’t our neighbour supremely the person in need who is actually next to us now?

They’re also not that simple because of something I keep noticing in the pictures of multitudes of migrants, at Calais, at a Budapest station, at the Macedonian border, in boats crossing the Mediterranean. By and large, what I’m seeing isn’t women or children, it’s young men between, maybe, 18 and 35. Where are the women and children, the old? Why are they leaving the more vulnerable members of their families behind? I listen to interviews with them, and too many times, slipped in among the dangers and uncertainties of living in a war-torn society, is the statement that they don’t want to be conscripted to fight themselves (though many of them seem happy to be threatening to border guards or transport drivers). Are we looking at a collection of draft dodgers, and does that mean they aren’t legitimate? (I have a certain amount of sympathy with draft dodgers, as I believe the witness of the Gospels is hugely in favour of non-violence, though for me that might not hold up in the face of armed struggle in my own country – at the least, I’d want to stay and assist as a noncombatant).

I add to that the concern of a former Army intelligence officer with whom I was chatting recently about this; he pointed out that were he an organiser for Al Quaeda or Isis, he’d be slipping some committed fighters in among the refugees, as there would be no easier way to get them into the country to stir up trouble later. I don’t think there’s any chance that this isn’t something which has occurred to those organisers, so it’s almost certainly happening.

That’s where I think that on this occasion, Cameron is perhaps being really far sighted – if we take first orphans and families, we are probably not taking the draft dodger or the undercover terrorist.

But we should be doing far more. We should particularly be doing more in the light of the fact that even were the armed struggle to be resolved tomorrow (in whichever direction and however that were achieved), there seems strong evidence that the origins of the struggle in Syria lie in the fact that the country started being affected by drought around 2006, and by 2011 there were over 1.5 million internally displaced people who could no longer exist farming. It seems likely both that this is the result of climate change and that it is not going to improve in the forseeable future, and therefore Syria has a significant surplus population problem in any event. Neighbouring countries are similarly somewhat affected by the drought, so moving there is not a long term solution.

We should not merely welcome refugees for the duration of the struggle, therefore, we should welcome them as prospective citizens.


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God’s culture of dependence

August 27th, 2015

If you’ve watched or listened to any episodes of Global Christian Perspectives, you’ll have probably grasped the fact that my co-host Elgin Hushbeck and myself don’t see eye to eye on very much, whether it be Christianity or politics. One of the points on which we differ most is the question of social welfare; Elgin has gone so far as to write a book “What is wrong with Social Justice”.

One aspect of Social Justice, to my mind, is providing for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. I see this as an absolute Christian duty. Elgin, on the other hand, thinks that social security can “encourage a culture of dependency” and as such is a bad thing. This, to me, has the ring of pronouncements by Ian Duncan Smith and others in our current Conservative government; Mr. Smith has the weird notion that it is actually helping people to strip them of their social safety net, as they need the spur of absolute destitution to persuade them to get a job.

In the world IDS lives in, it seems that there are abundant jobs which are well within the capabilities of all the people who are receiving benefits, including those who are partially (and sometimes extensively) disabled, and all they need is to be bullied in order for them to go out and get a job. I am not sure where this world is, but it isn’t the Britain of 2015, and it equally wouldn’t be the USA of 2015.

I have three really major problems with this approach. The first is that no sane person who is able to go out and do a job which will return a reasonable wage sufficient to live on adequately is going to sit back and try to subsist on the level of benefits which either government currently provides. While I keep hearing people on the right talking of hearing someone say “You’re a fool to work when you can live on benefits”, I have yet to hear anyone actually say that, and no-one I know who is living on social security or disablement benefits would not give their eye teeth to be able to get a job which would provide them with a reasonable standard of living.

Of course, in actuality the lowest paid jobs, which are generally all that is available to the less able, do not actually pay enough to keep someone clothed, housed and fed adequately, at least not unless you work two or three of them; in addition, there just are not enough jobs. IDS is saying “Just go and pick an apple from that tree”, and you look, and there is no apple on the tree. This is just wanton cruelty. That, however, leads me on to my second problem.

I spend some of my time as, in effect, a kind of technologist; I do some part time work with a company which develops and optimises chemical processes. This helps me appreciate the thrust of technology, as does a long-term interest in history. Technology enables us to save labour, to produce more using less labour. In the process, it removes less skilled jobs, but in fairness it tends to create more skilled jobs. Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of humanity are not able to acquire the kind of skills which are increasingly required in order to earn enough to live on. This is particularly pointed as technology is now replacing even the actions which used to require a fairly high level of intelligence and many years of training. I could joke and say that not everyone is ever going to be able to be a brain surgeon, however much tuition and practice they have, but actually there’s some danger that even brain surgeons may be replaced by robots in the future…

Of course, there are always going to be jobs in personal service, but care assistants and burger flippers are never paid enough to live on.

I know that this directly contradicts what seems to be a portion of the myth of America, that if you only work hard enough, you have the opportunity to become rich ( a myth which seems at the moment to have corrupted the minds of our Conservative party). The trouble is, it is a myth not in the sense of an inspiring story by which you can live, but in the sense of a falsehood.  You can work 120 hour weeks in most of our low paid jobs and still never have a hope of managing a really decent standard of living, let alone becoming rich.

If we are to have a future in which most people have a decent standard of living, it seems to me that we are going to need to start valuing people for being human, rather than for what they can do – because we increasingly are not going to need humans to do anything.

I should perhaps remind Christians that we regularly pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, relying on God to provide this. God’s hands for achieving this are, in my way of seeing things, those of other people. Jesus lauds the lilies of the field, who toil not neither do they spin (in the KHV, which I tend to remember). Clearly, he does not think that working is an essential in order for God to provide.

My third problem with this outlook is this. It assumes that being dependent is a thoroughly bad thing. Another plank of the American way is individualism, the cult of the man who is not dependent on anyone but makes his own way, proudly refusing all assistance.

However, as a species we are born the most dependent on earth; we do not become truly able to cope for ourselves for years, whereas even other live-birth mammals manage the feat within at most about a year. Unless we are eking out an existence as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers in some third world country, we continue to be dependent in ways which individualism would like to deny; we are dependent on the culture we live in, and the contributions of all the other people (and, these days, machines) in it; we are specialised in what we can actually do (assuming we are lucky enough to be born with the capacity to learn an useful trade and the health to pursue it) and depend on other people who are specialised in their own ways.

I blogged about some aspects of this issue from a different perspective recently, where I suggested that the least we should expect from our community is that it provide for Maslow’s levels one and two; we also have a need for Maslow’s level three, love and belonging. It is, to me, fundamentally wrong that we regard ourselves as primarily individuals without responsibilities to each other; “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main” as John Donne memorably wrote.

Indeed, the Bible from very early times talks about the tribe, the people, the children, the group, the disciples, the Church. Not much about the individual, and even there, I think that should be read against the background of an assumption that the listeners and readers understood that they were a people of God, not individuals of God.

This has been a lesson which I have learned only with huge difficulty; I’m an introvert and have always suffered from some social anxiety (and now have a fully fledged anxiety disorder), so groups of people are not my favorite location; I’m a solitary contemplative in terms of my deepest spiritual practice (I seem to have had that foisted on me, not that it was in any way contrary to my nature); I’ve always thought that I should make my own way in the world, reliant on no-one else (such as my parents and their willingness to pay for an extended education); I was born with a decent mind and natural abilities which have made it easy for me to acquire skills in several areas and change direction when one became difficult or impossible to pursue. I should be a natural candidate for thinking that I, as an individual, am the captain of my ship, the master of my fate. However, illness and minor disability has taught me that I am absolutely dependent on others; I would not be here absent a twelve step community which recovers as a group where no individual could recover by themselves, or absent a wife and family. Or absent God.

I suggest that we should confess our dependence, accept it and strive to give effect to the economy of God, in which no person should go unprovided with food, shelter or clothing. Or love.


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The value of a life in “The Bridge”

August 23rd, 2015

Following my previous post, which dealt with boundaries we draw when considering moral issues, and attempted to problematise where we draw some of those boundaries, I watched an episode of “The Bridge” which brought up some linked thoughts.

I hasten to say that I don’t usually enjoy having to read films and TV programmes (the series is in Swedish and Danish with subtitles), particularly when the language is close enough to my own to keep making me think that if I listened just a bit harder I would understand it (I live in a part of England with a lot of dialect and accent influence from Scandinavia), but I got sucked in by a somewhat bizarre start point (which got more bizarre before the end of the first episode) and by the interplay of two detectives with hugely different characters, one of whom is “a bit diferent”.

In that episode, the background is that an apparently socially conscious serial killer has kidnapped a bus full of schoolchildren and has promised to let them go, but on the condition that buildings belonging to five companies all of whom profit from child labour (in effect, slavery) are burned (slightly complicated by the fact that the perpetrator has identified them only by what they sell…). This becoming public, various people duly go and commit arson, and there’s a nailbiting finish as there’s a fire at a chocolate factory moments before the deadline runs out, and the box saying “chocolate” winks out; in the newspaper offices where this is being watched, a cheer goes up – and the viewer is inclined to cheer with them.

The thing is, even in that episode, you have to think that the background is that everyone dealing with those companies has been contributing to child slavery; why is it that five schoolchildren of the same nationality have to be in danger of dying in order to focus people’s minds on the destruction of the lives of many more children in other countries? Why do we think that very significant acts of arson against private property should be celebrated, and do we think that those five children’s lives are worth enough to justify this criminal behaviour? Why especially as, in order to save a little money ourselves, we have been buying from the slave-labour companies?

Earlier episodes, in fact, highlighted the lack of concern of many people to the death of several homeless people, an immigrant and the ambivalence of the slow, public death of a very violent robber and bully by the draining of his blood.

One cannot avoid thinking that there’s huge concern about five children, but very little about those homeless people, an immigrant and the violent guy. We may, perhaps, say that all life is sacred, but we act as if children are more valuable than adults as long as those adults are people we don’t identify with or who aren’t of specific economic benefit to us (there’s an issue in a later episode about how a rich guy who has killed someone by drunk driving has got away with it, for instance). We act as if the mere fact of the life of a child is valuable, but the quality of the lives of a greater number of children is not.

In fact, we seem to think that children, including the unborn, have infinite value (as long as they’re fairly much like us), but adults have a specific financial value, and those who are socially marginal have little or none. At least, we do outside the realm of the UK courts, where the value of a human life is routinely assessed based largely on earning potential; this tends to result in fairly low figures for infants, whose earning potential cannot be assessed. Things are somewhat different in the US courts, where damages are assessed by juries; I’ve occasionally suggested that as the value of a life is incalculable, the States puts a mind-blowingly high value on it, while the UK basically says it has no value in and of itself, just what it can be predicted to provide for others in the future.

In fact, things are different in a lot of other places and cultures, from the far lower amounts which some systems allocate to any lives to those which are still operating (if not notionally, then on a cultural level)  according to the kind of rules which operated in Biblical times, when children were basically of no value at all until they’d reached the age of a month and were a possession of their father thereafter until some arbitrary age when they were decreed adult (if male) or married off (if female) – or even those of still earlier times when unwanted children were just discarded, exposed to the elements and the local wildlife which was in those days generally entirely capable of eating a baby or three.

We also seem to have an elevated view of the character of children – “innocents” is the watchword there. I don’t think this is due to Jesus’ statements in Matt. 19:14 or Matt. 18:3, either; both were largely ignored in the notionally Christian western Europe until at the earliest the early 19th century. However, psychological studies seem to demonstrate that the very young are fundamentally sociopathic narcissists, who think only of self (once they form the idea that “self” is not continuous with the rest of the world) and are born manipulative; my own observation of children doesn’t disagree. Only later do a sizeable proportion become socialised and fit to be regarded, in my eyes, as fully human. Some, of course, avoid this socialisation and become criminals or company executives.

We then proceed to have a confused idea of when to promote people to having full adult responsibility. Not infrequently, we allow teenagers to fight for us, but not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco; ages of consent for sex vary vastly depending on what country you are in, as do ages of legal liability for criminal offences and ages when the punishment of offenders is upgraded to “adult”. In this week’s Global Christian perspectives, Elgin Hushbeck bemoaned the fact that we allow teenagers freedom without responsibility, but we also impute some of them with responsibility without freedom. It is hardly surprising that many of them seem confused as to what they actually are!

It seems to me that we are operating by taboo when we so protect the very young, a taboo which I think was born of Victorian sentimentality (which, on the good side, also ended child labour). We are not operating logically, nor are we operating out of the Christian value of valuing life irrespective of its utility to society or conformity with social norms. What motivates us is taboo, prejudice and, sometimes, xenophobia. This really will not do.

Personally, I think this is an area in which we have to make hard moral choices, as indeed some of the cast of “The Bridge” are presented with. We could say that the mere existence of human life is a good so great that anything else should be sacrificed in comparison. In that case, we would also, in order to be rational, have to forswear capital punishment, war and lethal force in self-defence or even law enforcement. I suggest that rationality would also demand that we then also collectively provide for every human life within our society to at least a basic level, say level 2 (so that both physiological and safety needs are provided for everyone); maybe even level 3, providing also for love and belonging. The mere presence of life, it seems to me, is not sufficient when that life is going to be, as Thomas Hobbes put it “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Alternatively, we can attempt the extremely difficult task faced by the courts in cases of civil actions for wrongful death, and value every life as dispassionately as we can. And if we do this, as the experience of the courts shows, the very young and the very old have very little value.

What price the busload of children under that paradigm?


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Dentists, lions, symbols and Satans

August 10th, 2015

Some readers who connect via facebook will already have seen a link, but I can announce that every Friday at 7.00 UK time, 1 pm central time, I am co-hosting Global Christian Perspectives with Elgin Hushbeck at Energion, so those who are interested can see me and hear me as well as reading me. Elgin is from the States, and tends to the conservative by US standards, whereas I’m from the right hand side of the pond and the left hand side of almost everything else, which means we fairly rarely agree about anything. Each week we tend to have one or two guests to add a little more interest to what might otherwise just be left and right locking horns and struggling mightily to no great effect!

So far, at least, the format is that for the first half hour we talk about a number of topical news stories, with a Christian spin, and for the second half hour we look at something in a little greater depth. On Friday last week (31st July) the topics were the Planned Parenthood videos, the banning of the GMO Golden Rice, Cecil the lion and, for the last half hour, whether government or the market is the best solution to problems.

Obviously, ten minutes each with three speakers isn’t much to explore topics which can have many levels of significance, so I thought I’d delve a little further here.

My position on Planned Parenthood is that yes, the videos make me feel squeamish – but then, so do most surgical procedures, and feeling squeamish isn’t a reason to ban something; it is by no means clear to me that the Biblical witness is univocally against abortion, particularly bearing in mind the injunction to stone disobedient children to death in Leviticus – clearly, the Biblical view of the value of the lives of the young, even after birth, is not the one we tend to have today.

Once you have a situation where there is living tissue from a dead human being (or proto-human being), the issue as to whether you can “sell” it is an entirely different one from whether the death should have occurred (and I’m reasonably satisfied that “sell” is not an accurate term; reimbursement of expenses would be more reasonable). I can see no good reason in Christian thinking not to allow the use of such tissue to save or ameliorate the lives of the living. Yes, some of those videoed were talking in a rather crass and insensitive manner, but we’re talking about medics here, and just thinking back to MASH indicates that this kind of talk isn’t exactly unusual, though in MASH it was enlivened by being funny. If there’s an issue to my mind, it’s that in the States parts for transplant are a commodity, and one worth considerable amounts of money – and that isn’t the fault of Planned Parenthood, but of a system which puts a price on everything.

On Cecil the Lion, my main comment was that there are at most around 30,000 African lions, while there are over 155,000 American dentists. I highlighted that we should be good stewards of creation, in accordance with Genesis 2:15 – I could equally reference Psalm 50:10-11 and point to animals as God’s personal property; the fact that lions are an endangered species promotes their importance. Yes, I note arguments that the public reaction was greater to the killing of Cecil than to (for instance) reports of the killings of individual humans, which was broadly Elgin’s point. There are, of course, over 7 billion human beings – and the numbers do not mean that we should therefore treat human lives as worth very little, whether in comparison to a lion or in comparison to (say) their ability to earn large amounts of money.

Both of these items raised issues of where we draw lines. In the case of abortion, it is clearly possible to take the position Catholicism was taking some years ago, and suggesting that contraception was evil as it prevented the possibility of conception (“every sperm is sacred” as the Pythons put it, a view which few non-Catholics here regard as anything other than ludicrous). There’s Biblical backing, perhaps, in that Onan was condemned for refusing to impregnate his deceased brother’s wife, in accordance with the good Biblical principle of levirate marriage. Once conception has taken place, most places which allow abortion take some point during the pregnancy, often an estimate of when a child might be born viable (which presents problems as science allows earlier births to survive), as being a cutoff time. Historically, the moment of actual birth has been chosen as an easily established one.

Once born, until relatively recently in history, children were not regarded as full human beings until some point when they were considered mature, and as late as the early years of the 20th century this was reflected in UK law in that the killing of an infant by its parents had to have a separate offence of “infanticide”, as no jury would in those days convict a parent of murder; the stoning of the disobedient child is part of a spectrum in which lines have been drawn at various points historically.

All this goes to show that, to my mind, there is no absolute way in which we can determine where the line should be drawn which is not subject to objections.

How about the line between human and animal? Might Cecil in fact be worth more than an American dentist?

This might seem far more obviously not the case. Some commentators have described Cecil as a “feral cat”, which is accurate, if misleading by omission, but strongly argues thinking from an absolute divide between human and animal. However, having referenced Genesis 2:15 earlier, let’s turn to some following verses, Gen. 2:19-23. We might consider whether these show animals as in principle of less worth than women; it is Adam’s choice, not God’s, which makes the distinction here.

The master Biblical passage for both of these is, of course, “thou shalt not kill”, which is more accurately “don’t murder anyone”. The trajectory of interpretation has meant that just as children have become increasingly protected, so have we moved in the direction of taking this more as “kill” than as “murder”, and I note that as “murder” is a legal term, “child-murderer” for someone performing an abortion in a state which permits abortion is inaccurate, as it isn’t murder, but a lawful killing. I do consider it ironic here that most of those who consider abortion to be child-murder have no problems with the death sentence or with killing in war, both of which offend “do not kill”, even if not “do not murder”.

The thing is, by many standards, an embryo is a lesser being than, say, a dog or cat. It’s thinking capacity is smaller, it’s physical abilities vastly inferior and its ability to survive unaided is zero. Yes, it has the potential to become an independent human being which animals are never going to achieve, but potential is not actuality (otherwise “every sperm is sacred” becomes entirely serious).

We do very commonly value some species over others – those who bemoan Cecil’s death would no doubt be markedly less concerned about other species; among mammals, for instance, it is difficult to elicit much human sympathy for rodents; snakes are not well regarded, and when it comes to insects and arachnids, we are inclined to swat them without a second thought. As for bacteria or viruses – no-one would weep were we to eliminate Ebola from the face of the planet. Or, at least, almost no-one, as no doubt there exist a very few microbiologists who would feel that the elimination of even that species was a loss.

I actually think that this trajectory of interpretation is a good one, as my mystical experiences, breaking down all divisions between myself and the other, vividly makes clear to me that in a fundamental way I am one with all other organisms within that-which-is-God; that God is immanently present in all these other forms of life, and that killing them is in a sense a crucifixion. Yes, even Ebola.

To kill anything is a wrong. In that sense, I’m pro-life – but I’m more pro life-with-quality than I’m in favour of creating lives with no hope and no prospects. I don’t think that lives should be a matter of “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap”.

However, I am wholly sensitive to the fact that there is no way I can exist on earth without killing things; meat or even vegetables are formerly living, and even were I to turn fruitarian, I cannot continue to live without the deaths of countless bacteria and viruses which, even if I take no antibiotics (and I would have died many years ago had I not), are daily killed by my immune system. I am equally sensitive to the fact that there is a spectrum of living organisms and that choices must be made on where lines should be drawn between what I would not kill, what I might kill in certain circumstances and what I would in general kill without too much guilt. That leads me, on abortion, painfully to decide that we probably set the dividing lines in about the right places in the UK at present.

The standard retort at about this point is that I’m a moral relativist, which seems to be in the eyes of some an argument-clincher. It’s probably accurate. I am, however, confident that everyone is a moral relativist to some extent. Those who draw an absolute line as far as abortion is concerned at conception, I find, often tend to temper their “do not kill” with “except in self-defence”, or “except in a just war” or “as a punishment for heinous crimes” – and that’s equally relativism. A line drawn in law ends up having exceptions – there’s an old legal maxim that “hard cases make bad law” and I have rarely found a law to which some bright individual couldn’t find a circumstance in which, morally, the law should be broken – and those where I think I have found one are probably awaiting a slightly brighter person to propose a counter-example.

It has to be a greater crime (or sin) to wipe out a whole species than one member of an abundant one, and the closer you get to that last member (or, more accurately, to the point at which the breeding population drops below viability) the greater the crime becomes. Thus, I am not surprised to find people making more fuss about Cecil than about poor Zimbabweans – there are a lot of poor Zimbabweans, and the supply of more is not in peril.

That brings me  neatly to a second point, the suggestion that the real fault is with the Zimbabwean authorities who did not prevent the hunting of an endangered lion, or (to stick with the poor Zimbabweans for a moment) who did not provide for Zimbabweans well enough to ensure that hunting an endangered lion would not be an attractive prospect, given enough money. The dentist paid a LOT of money to hunt Cecil, and in Zimbabwean terms, that was a fortune which was going to circumvent any legal restrictions.

Now, Cecil is also a symbol for other endangered species which we have already allowed to become extinct, commonly by hunting them to that point. The Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon are well-known examples, but there are very many others – and all those who haven’t been hunted, but whose natural habitats mankind has removed or rendered unlivable. I think we need to take into account that symbolic position when understanding the distress over Cyril.

However, the dentist is a symbol as well; a symbol of the ability of very rich people (and he would qualify as very rich by Zimbabwean standards) to overcome governmental principles, to buy their own “justice”. We adverted to this somewhat in the section regarding markets -v- democracy, and Elgin’s book “Preserving Democracy” laments the ability of money to subvert at least the US democracy while suggesting that the market is a better way of promoting human wellbeing than are governments, as he did in the show on the 31st.

Cyril stands as an object lesson that markets are not a good way of promoting the conservation of endangered species – it was clearly very economically sensible for the hunters to lure Cyril out of the protected reserve so he could be shot, given the amount of money available. Markets also, of course, decree that a human is commonly worth more as a set of carefully preserved body parts than as a whole human being; this is the case in the States, evidenced in the Planned Parenthood vidoes; it isn’t so much in the UK, as the UK decided some while ago that body parts were not a commodity to be bought and sold at profit.

Markets certainly have no regard for human beings just in themselves – if there is any value, it is in what they can produce, and that means that those who for reasons of personal capacities social acceptablility, education or sickness are unable to produce much are not valued at all. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are among the categories whom Jesus commanded that we put first.

Markets can be regarded as a kind of impersonal force, not subject to the same temptations as are given representatives in a democracy, and, indeed, that is how they generally function. We all contribute our little piece of supply or demand, but there is no individual human oversight – and, of course, no point at which compassion or human feeling can creep in; the market is predicated on the greed of sellers to get, if possible, a high price for very little good and on the greed of buyers to get, if possible, a great deal of goods for a very small price.

It plainly does not work to produce anything remotely like fairness, or even a balance between seller and buyer. Unrestrained capitalism rewards money with more money and punishes lack of money with forced purchases of the necessities of life at whatever price the seller wants; it tends in the direction of monopolies and cartels, where the sellers can dictate the price (and the wages they pay employees) irrespective of any principle of reason. It concentrates money in fewer and fewer hands, and thus concentrates power in the same way. In particular, it concentrates money in multi-national companies which have profit as their only motivation (not making a bigger profit tends to get you fired when employed by one of them…)

The love of money, says Jesus, is the root of all evil; power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Voltaire said. Voltaire was notoriously anti-religious, but Jesus before him shockingly said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”. Market capitalism says “blessed are you who have much money, for you will be given more”.

Is there any room for surprise that, in an earlier GCP show, I called market capitalism a Satanic system? It is one which we all do our little bit to create as long as we participate in society, and is contrary to human flourishing without allowing us clear moral choices. Clearly it must be restrained, and the only thing we have which can restrain it practically is government. Where that government is democratic, it has the merit of being one in which we all have a say. (The alternative, of a widespread movement to not cooperate with the system, seems to me doomed to failure, but I mention it in passing).

For those outside the States, it is probably also true that the USA is currently seen as the preeminent representative of the corrupting influences of money and power, and so our dentist manages also to be a symbol of that. Up to sometime in the early 20th century, my own country had managed that distinction for rather over 100 years, gaining in the process names like “perfidious Albion” and song lines such as “we were bought and sold by English gold; such a parcel of rogues in a nation”. This is, I suspect, at the root of various ayatollahs describing the States as “The Great Satan”. They confuse the symbol with the system, to my mind.

One might almost think that having the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” on your Great Seal was an acknowledgement of the intention…



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