A rose by any other name…

A couple of incidents recently got me thinking in roughly the same direction. OK, that probably means that I should wait for a third, but I’ve a few minutes to write now, so…

The first stems from my editing. I’ve been working on a book about the collaboration between a Tibetan Buddhist priest and a Christian minister, in which the Buddhist taught a Buddhist spiritual practice to the Christian, she worked with it for a period and journalled about the results and they then collaborated to do the same with an inter-religious test group. It’s been fascinating. I’d tell you to look out for the title, but that’s still something being argued about.

The thing is, the Buddhist practice verbally references Buddha, Dharma and Sanghya (awakened teacher, living tradition and community of saints, to approximate the meanings). After a while, the Christian substituted the terms Jesus, the Holy Spirit and El Roi (“the God who sees me” in Hebrew) as being the nearest equivalents she could think of from her tradition. Otherwise the practice stayed exactly the same, including breathing and visualisation as well as the words (and presumably the sentiment of) “I take refuge in…” preceding the words used. I suggested a subtitle along the lines of “A Buddhist practice used by a Christian”, and my Buddhist author objected, saying that it was now a Christian practice because of the words used.

This was not an issue on which I wanted to argue with my authors, but it did get me thinking about whether just a chance of word could change something from being in one tradition to being in another.

The second was when I played to a friend (who is non-religious and somewhere in the hard agnostic-to-atheist spectrum) the beginning of The Hooters’ “All You Zombies”, which I fancied he’d quoted from earlier (he hadn’t – he’d never heard the song). It opens ‘Holy Moses met the Pharoah/ Yeah, he tried to set him straight/ Looked him in the eye/ “Let my people go”‘. And my friend immediately said “I don’t like Christian music” and was generally derogatory about it.

Now, I didn’t really pick him up on this, apart from to mention that The Hooters weren’t usually regarded as “Christian” – he was obviously thoroughly set against considering it any further. So I didn’t, for instance, mention that though it does mention Moses and Noah, these are figures taken from the Hebrew scriptures, not the New Testament. I will grant that, if you listen to the whole song, the message is very much “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”, which is thoroughly in tune with Jesus – but also with a wide swathe of Jewish thinking. And, for that matter, Socialist or Marxist thinking. OK, in conscience, the writer (Eriz Bazilian) also wrote “What if God was one of us?”; whether that can be considered “Christian” is an interesting question, given that it scandalises some of my Christian friends. It does mention God, it does imply incarnation and it does reference the Pope, but “just a slob like one of us” is calculated to get up the backs of anyone who hasn’t really considered what incarnation has to mean. I can’t trace anything else he’s written with as much religious reference…

I did mention to my friend that if this was Christian music, so were a significant number of Leonard Cohen songs, but the ears were closed, as far as I can tell as soon as he heard the words “Holy Moses”.

Now, this concern about a name is not new to me. I’ve written before about a very long running thread on a French language forum in which I addressed a number of French and Belgian atheists, eventually finding that all of them had had some kind of experience of what I’ll call “the numinous” (though I’d personally label them as lower-level mystical experiences). During this exchange I used [    ] to represent a box with contents unknown which was the root cause of those experiences (or was that which was being experienced). Eventually, after around a year of those exchanges, I suggested that we put a label on the box (which conveniently takes the four letter of “Dieu”), and further suggested that, taking the accounts of a lot of mystics from various traditions as a cue, we use the label “Dieu” (God in French) for the box which we’d managed to agree existed in some sense.

All of them promptly backtracked like crazy. It seemed that the mere use of a label with which they had a set of negative associations was enough to negate the whole course of agreement they’d expressed as we inched towards that moment. To me, of course, this was not a problem – I knew of massively multiple accounts of what “God” means even just within Christianity, and there are more in other faiths; I do not think that a single definition can catch all of those possible meanings, thinking of them as more a cluster of loosely associated “family resemblance” concepts (à la Wittgenstein).

I’ve also been involved in discussions with Conservative Christians who have made statements along the lines of “We worship God, Muslims worship Allah, who is a false God”. Now, of course, “Allah” is merely the word in Arabic (and some connected languages) which translates as “God”, and Arabic-speaking Christians will pray to Allah. As far as those Conservatives were concerned, however, Allah could not possibly be God, whatever the dictionaries said. Pointing out that in Christianity and Judaism we actually have a name for God (YHVH) and that the word “god” is not in any of the original texts (the Hebrew will use “El” or “Elohim” as more generic terms, the Greek of the New Testament will use “Theos”) and thus “god” was already a translation was to no avail.

I wonder at this point whether there’s still operating in peoples’ subconsciouses the idea that words have power irrespective of what they signify. This is a concept which has been prominent in magic through the ages, but it wouldn’t be espoused, I think, by any of those I’ve indicated as having problems with the use of or change of the label used. It’s possible that, for instance, the French atheists were largely influenced by the fact that, to them, the word “Dieu” had considerable baggage, and they couldn’t use it without the baggage welling up from the backs of their minds. I fancy that might also explain my friend cavilling at “Holy Moses”, though I’m sure that having grown up in a culture steeped in Christianity for over a thousand years, the meme of freeing the enslaved which, for me, goes with the name “Moses” resonates with him. It just doesn’t resonate quite as much as a load of other baggage, it seems.

Returning to my authors, though, I don’t think that the use of either “Buddha, dharma, sanghya” or “Jesus, spirit, El Roi” would have time when chanted to produce significant conceptual baggage; they are more of a mantra in the actual practice, it seems to me, something akin to the generally gabbled “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths”, which I don’t think often excites the cognitive, deliberative part of the brain of those using the rosary. I fancy the same is commonly true of those chanting repetitively “Nam myoho renge kyo” in the Buddhist tradition (which I’m told doesn’t literally mean quite the same thing as the chant is intended to express). In addition, the second set of words were carefully chosen to, as much as possible, represent the same underlying meanings as attached to the first, and perhaps slightly adjust the word-signification in the process.

Why, therefore, I asked myself, was what was clearly a Buddhist practice suddenly transformed into a Christian one? OK, in a spirit of confession, I’ve frequently ended up substituting Christian-origin words in what is otherwise mantra yoga so far as I’m concerned, because the words I use maybe have some added connections in my mind (though note what I say above about the Hail Mary and Nam myoho renge kyo). I don’t, however, think I’m thus using a Christian practice – it’s a modified Hindu practice or perhaps an interfaith practice.

Perhaps, though, one cannot actually say that the practice itself belongs to any faith? If you were to use, for instance, nonsense words…? For me, however, it was a Buddhist practice, because it came from a Buddhist tradition.

I don’t know the answer to how a Buddhist practice becomes a Christian one. What I do know is that I can’t accuse my authors, my friend or the group of French atheists of being wrong about their understanding of the use of the relevant words. OK, I probably should say the same about the Conservative Christians as well, though suggesting that when (say) a Canadian or an Australian use the term “Prime Minister”, that has to refer to Boris Johnson rather than to Pierre Trudeau or Jacinta Ardern strikes me as an analogy – you can be just plain wrong about your interpretation of a use of words. Words are however going to mean what they are going to mean in the mind of the person hearing them, not necessarily what they were intended to mean by the person who spoke them, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the hearer is wrong or that the speaker meant something other than what was intended. This is, more or less, the “Death of the Author” principle, which has annoyed so many authors, including myself.

Why the title I chose? Obviously I reference Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but also Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”, in the postscript to which he wrote  of his title “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”. Did I also think of Seal’s “Kiss from a rose”? Clearly I did, because I mention it, and I do so because listeners are divided on what Seal actually means by “rose” in the song. He isn’t willing to help us on that, either.


Lies and damned lies

The recent announcement that the government are postponing doing any checks on imports from the EU to July 2022 (from January 2022, from October 2021, from January 2021) has got me thinking about the various promises made by Boris Johnson and his cabinet of horrors.

Let’s start with “Let’s Get Brexit Done”, the slogan which I’m confident won him his 80 seat majority in 2019. (If you haven’t read it, can I reference my “This will never end” post from some years ago now). Obviously this is further postponing anything looking remotely like “getting Brexit done”. I will concede that in one sense it’s a very sensible move – were we to introduce physical border checks next month, I think the probability of food shortages which would eclipse those we’re already seeing would rise to nearly 100%. After all, the labour shortages caused by removing upwards of 200,000 EU workers from the economy have already made us more dependent on imports of food than we were before Brexit. But it is absolutely NOT “getting Brexit done”.

Let’s move on to the Leave campaign’s “taking control of our borders”. Now, the EU managed very efficiently to take control of their borders with effect from January 1st of this year, instituting customs checks which have resulted in days of delay at ports and many millions of pounds of rejected and spoiled goods. But we were not ready, despite having had from 2016 to 2020 to put systems in place, and we still apparently aren’t. We are not controlling our borders with the EU at all so far as goods is concerned (except for the one EU border they were unable to take control of, because it is within the UK, in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales). All our attempts with the NI border so far to comply with our treaty obligations and actually do the necessary checks properly have partly failed, partly just resulted in economic and political turmoil. Add to that that while we seem keen to make life difficult for EU citizens with a perfect right to come to the UK, we are so unable to stem the flow of refugees across the Channel that we’ve asked the French for help.

How about Boris’ “Oven ready deal”, which was another slogan which contributed to his 2019 win. That phrasing related mostly to the Northern Ireland protocol, which kept NI in the common market and customs union so as not to have a land border in Ireland and tear up the Good Friday agreement. Now, David Frost, the man who actually negotiated the oven ready deal, is saying it’s a bad deal and has to be renegotiated. And he got made a Lord for his work on that – and a member of the Cabinet. Which makes him an “unelected bureucrat” running the country. Do I not remember “get rid of unelected bureucrats running the country” as another clarion call of the Brexiteers as something we’d get rid of?

Lastly, at least for the moment, is the “stop foreigners stealing our jobs” which was not an official campaign slogan in 2016, but which was muttered by a huge proportion of Brexiteer voters. Well, we’ve persuaded or forced over 200,000 EU nationals to leave – and we’re flying in fruit pickers from as far away as Nepal to fill the jobs which, apparently, no-one in this country wants to do.  We’re short of lorry drivers, warehouse workers, food production workers, nurses, doctors, hospitality industry staff… and the list goes on.

(Edited to add) Boris assured us, back in 2016, that once Brexit went through we would see cheaper energy. We now face a hike in wholesale gas prices of around 300%. OK, the wholesale prices in Europe have gone up too – but only by around 50%… we, on the other hand, also left the EU energy market And, speaking personally, our energy supplier has gone bust; we’re not sure what the repercussions of that are going to be, apart from everything costing more.

What we’re not short of, it seems, is lying Conservative politicians. Though other MPs aren’t allowed to point out that they’ve lied – it’s the person pointing it out, not the liar, who is excluded from the House of Commons. And, of course, no-one who can be “got at” by the government (which, sadly, includes the BBC) is allowed to blame Brexit for anything at all…

Yorkshire bylines thinks we’re in danger of seeing the England of Orwell’s nightmare vision in “1984” realised. I just trust that we’ll have an election earlier rather than later, hope above hope that Labour and the LibDems can get some electoral pact going and form a non-Tory government together – and undo as much as possible of the nonsense which is Brexit. Because if we don’t, I can see no option other than a revolution to shift them, and I really don’t want a revolution.

Just in passing, we seem to have most of what was decried as a ridiculous “worst case scenario”:-
May be an image of text


9/11 and afterwards

We are about to have another anniversary of 9/11, this being the 20th, and it is also marked by a rather messy withdrawal from Afghanistan by US and UK troops at the end of last month. No doubt we will hear a lot more about the events of that day; as I finish writing this, there’s someone on the radio talking about it. I wrote at some length about my reaction to our military incursions in the Middle East which stemmed from 9/11 some years ago; while I might criticise the manner of the withdrawal, withdrawing is definitely something I regard as overdue.

Tripp Fuller, of Homebrewed Christianity, has joined with Brian McLaren and Diana Butler-Bass to do a set of meditations on Christianity in the years since 9/11 which is in its third week now. I wasn’t going to subscribe to that, for two main reasons. The first is that the shock of 9/11 was primarily an American one. Yes, I can remember where I was when I heard of it – I was in a coffee break from a Law Society continuing education course (on money laundering) at a Leeds hotel and was telephoned while in the car park by a friend who was in international banking, and he told me about the first plane strike and suggested that I find a television. A friend on the course said I looked as if I’d had a severe shock – which I had; my banker friend and myself had a couple of mutual acquaintances who should have been in the Twin Towers (as it happened, we found out later that they weren’t there at the time). Going back into the hotel, we found many staff members in the hotel office, and watched over their shoulders as the second plane impacted the towers.

It was intrinsically shocking. But it wasn’t as shocking as it was to my American friends. It wasn’t my country’s iconic skyscrapers which were falling down, after all, and whereas the States had prior to that been free of major terrorist attacks (OK, with the exception of some home-grown ones), I’d lived through the “troubles” in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1998, and quite apart from being a weekly event in Northern Ireland those not infrequently spilled over into bomb attacks in England. We were used to terrorist attacks, and we were not used to feeling completely safe from them – even those of us who were not, like me, from the now disbanded Civil Defence establishment and were therefore used to thinking of potential dangers to society beyond the nuclear attacks which the system was primarily intended to deal with. Tripp suggested in one of the sessions that the whole Western World was shocked, but in conscience I think that is elevating the USA to the leadership status it would like to think it had, but which the rest of the West have been less willing to acknowledge. I didn’t, for instance, feel any great sense of shock that this huge military power could be “proved weak” in this way, if indeed that represented weakness.

I also fancied that the sessions would be far more about the effects in American Christianity than in that in the UK. OK, I’ll admit here that I succumbed after getting a taster of the first session, and will probably follow until the end, but I think I’m right in thinking that they will continue to have far more applicability to Americans than to the British (or, indeed, Europeans more generally), and that is not a criticism, just an observation.

The second reason, though, is a purely personal one. Barry Taylor recently mused in a patron-only reflection on the fact that we can be moved by far off catastrophes but things are completely different when someone close to you is involved. In my case, the personal is the fact that on 9/12/2001, my father died suddenly and unexpectedly, and a fixed light of my life until then vanished. He felt unwell in the mid-afternoon, and was dead by 9 p.m.

And, of course, every time 9/11 comes round and is remembered, it is my own loss the next day which looms largest in my mind, even as people quite reasonably mourn the deaths on 9/11 (after all, I’m very keen on John Donne’s “No man is an island”, so
“Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee”),
and I have to confess to feeling irritated by that reminder. I feel guilty about this, even though it’s a completely natural reaction, because one death after a very full life hardly equates to nearly three thousand, many of them with many years cut short. But they weren’t people I knew, and in particular they weren’t the man I most looked up to for 48 years.

But then, maybe it is actually good that I be reminded every year. I’ve lost many other relatives and friends, and with one exception I don’t remember their dates of death and pause then to think of them – I do that when something else reminds me of them, and in some cases that’s fairly seldom. I wouldn’t want to let my dad’s memory fade, and it isn’t likely to.

The exception? Well, that’s my mother, who died on New Years’ Eve 2014, halfway through eating her pudding at dinner time, missing seeing in 2015 by about 6 hours.

More colourful theology?

Following my posts emanating from the murder of George Floyd, last year I followed a course run by Tripp Fuller and Adam Clark centering on the work of James Cone, but in general terms being “Black Theology”. I thought that there really could be no better time to be learning more about this species of theology, which I’ve encountered from time to time but never really dived into.

I usually blog along with courses I’m doing, both to amuse readers and to clarify my thinking about them; at the point of starting writing this we were several sessions down and I hadn’t written anything, and as I finish writing, the course finished some months ago. This is not just because I’ve had quite a bit of other stuff to do (though that has contributed), it’s also partly because I don’t really have a position to stand on, aside being an interested (and sympathetic) onlooker, and I’ve been revising and revising in an attempt not to lack in sensitivity while having no real connection with the issue. However, as it’s part of my process for understanding things, I really need to write. I’m not black, and I don’t live in a place where I come into contact with many black people. I liked the provocation of “can white people be saved?”, but where I live, that’s pretty much equivalent to “can anyone be saved?”.

16 years ago, when I gave up my legal practice in order to have a psychological meltdown for some years, I could identify three black people living in town, two of whom I was acquainted with (I knew rather more people of subcontinental or Chinese origin), but I haven’t actually seen any of those three since then (I was somewhat reclusive for a long time – arguably, I still am). When I was commenting earlier in the year on someone else’s facebook post on the Floyd killing, they did helpfully suggest that I make a point of going out and making some black friends – but without leaving town (which I almost never do these days) that’s an impossibility, except online. Yes, I have a few black online friends (or at least acquaintances – the word “friend” seems to me devalued in online settings…) And I wouldn’t usually dream of bringing up the question of how they consider their skin colour affects their lives unless they mentioned it first – that would, firstly, seem rude to me as a general proposition (I am English, after all), and secondly would put me in the position of effectively demanding of them the task of educating me, inviting the danger of a breakdown of any relationship which was there. After all, in friendships I strive to look for commonalities, not differences, most of the time.

What has however struck me forcibly is that the theologies being talked about are supremely American – and I’m also not an American. I’m very well aware of the lamentable history of my own country (The UK) in fostering the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the enrichment of at least some of my countrymen by the sugar and cotton trades, which were built on slave labour. Whether that could be said to have benefited me or my family significantly is rather dubious, given that I don’t believe that trickle down economics works, and my family was largely, during those periods and the 19th century, digging coal for the wool mills of Yorkshire rather than the cotton mills of Lancashire, or on my mother’s side, working in shipyards in Scotland and potteries in the Midlands; the same could probably be said for the majority of people in the country, although few if any of the “upper crust” can be regarded as familialy “without sin”.

But we didn’t really have slaves in England (or the rest of Britain) – OK, before Somersett’s Case, there were a few. In conscience, there still are some slaves; human traficking does continue, despite being illegal and punishable by long prison sentences; it isn’t usually or predominantly black people these days, though. The black people I’ve got to know on anything more than a nodding basis here have not been the descendants of slaves either, they’ve been from families immigrating directly from Africa in the 20th century. Yes, a majority of the black population in this country are Afro-Carribeans, and come from people originally slaves in the sugar plantations in the Carribean, but not those I’ve met anywhere around here.

So I’d rather been hoping that “Black Theology” might include the perspective of sub-saharan Africans, who almost universally have a history of European colonisation rather than of slavery as such (and, in conscience, there are a lot more sub-saharan Africans than there are African-Americans). Even the perspective of Afro-Carribeans is different – enfranchisement came earlier for them. The transition from the slave economy to a wage labourer economy was not without lingering effects there, but the Carribean islands, which were majority black, were self-governing by the mid 20th century and were electing their own governments significantly earlier than that. That isn’t the same context as that of African-Americans. Neither, for completeness, is it exactly the context of what used to be the largest slave population in the Americas in Brazil or the other continental slave populations in South and Central America.

Are we talking, perhaps, of an attempt to impose upon the inhabitants of the actual continent of Africa the particular perspective of African-Americans? Maybe, inadvertently. In an early session, Adam Clark was including in “Africans” the inhabitants of North Africa, who have never been particularly similar to Sub-Saharan Africans (and haven’t often been enslaved since classical times). Yes, many North Africans (notably Egyptians, but also people from points west of there) were notable figures in the early church and contributed a vast amount to the theological baggage which the church, and particularly the Catholic and Protestant churches, carry. Augustine is a notable example, but there are very many others. But they weren’t Sub-Saharan Africans; they were also, as a generality, Romans in the wide sense of those assimilated into Greco-Roman culture. Dr. Clark made the salient point that Jesus was not white (something which it seems to me many North Americans and – thankfully – a declining number of Europeans seem unable to grasp), but sought, perhaps ironically, to elide the Middle East into the generic “African” designation, via the fact that the border between the Middle East and Egypt (thus Africa) has, historically, been very porous, at least until the advent of the modern Israeli state. Jesus was indeed almost certainly not anything remotely like white, but he was equally almost certainly not anything remotely like black, unless you are including in “black” the entire range from Berbers in the West through Arabs and Iranians to the various peoples of the Indian subcontinent. To be fair to him, I suspect that, to a white North American, Middle Easterners possibly are “black” – they certainly would have been 200 years ago. The “one drop of black blood” principle seems potentially operative there.

That, to me, was definitely a step too far. It smacked of erasure of Jews and Judaism, or at the least subsuming them into an identity most (but not all) Jews would think foreign to them, and they have their own long history of oppression (chiefly, since the First Century, by Europeans, but also by Arabs). This includes, in their own narrative, a period of slavery (under the Egyptians, a North African people, so one might want to be cautious about including them as “Africans” when recontextualising theology). Jesus was absolutely Jewish, and partook of Jewish particularities, and Christianity is thus in origin a child of Judaism – and Jewish particularities are historically very distinct from Sub-Saharan Black particularities, let alone African-American particularities. Indeed, they’re different from Egyptian perspectives, or Mesapotamian (Iraq, Iran) ones, or Anatolian ones.

Yes, I am aware of the invidious position of a white, non-Jewish English European arguing for the recognition of the particular situations of Jews and of Sub-Saharan Africans, but I didn’t see others in the course arguing that way. What was being presented as “Black Theology” was overwhelmingly a North American Black Theology, just as when “European” was mentioned during the sessions it was largely a North American European position. The temptation to identify this as another example of American cultural imperialism is beckoning me…

I have, however, been encouraged by some of Tripp’s later comments, which have striven to expand the critique to more general oppressions, including those of the neoliberal financialised free market capitalism which is, to my mind, massively more ubiquitous and poisonous than is “whiteness” (it certainly is where I live, where “whiteness” is hardly a factor). After all, it oppresses 99% of white Europeans and North Americans as well as those of other skin colours. [As an aside, I actually tend to blame capitalism for the slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries – the burgeoning capitalist economies of England, Spain, Portugal and to some extent Holland found sources of cheap labour in Africa already available, and were typically morality and ethics-free in exploiting and massively increasing those.]

If I am to make use of the perspectives in this course, I need to find those loci of oppression which parallel as closely as possible those of African-Americans and which are also notable in my own society, and attend to them – travelling to another town just in order to find some black people to befriend seems foolish, although if there are ever any BLM protests reasonably near me, I might well join in.

Who, I ask myself, are the people of Han near me (to use Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s helpful use in one of the sessions of a Korean concept of the state of being or having been oppressed, in the Korean case principally by Japanese imperialists)? I can most definitely identify the Jews historically as a “people of Han”, though there are even fewer Jews locally to me than there are black people. Having said that, I might equally identify the Koreans under Japanese rule and the North American black population as being “crucified people” (referencing, perhaps, Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”).

The group which I do some work with and attempt to support as much as possible, as I am one of them, albeit in some form of recovery, is those suffering from mental illness. This is a group which is, in my country, possibly just as vulnerable to police brutality as are black people; I see some evidence that the situation is similar in the USA.  The mentally ill and mentally handicapped are massively disproportionately represented among the homeless, are discriminated against in the jobs market and, on one estimate, constitute as much as a third of our prison population since we stopped incarcerating the mentally ill in asylums (a switch which, to my mind, has merely shifted those locked up from environments which were at least nominally therapeutic to environments which are just punitive and restrictive). They also (in common with other disabled people) induce in those who do not identify as part of the group a kind of fragility which appears at least similar to “white fragility”. I think “Han” is appropriate for the mentally ill (and other disabled groups) as well, and possibly more so than would be the expression “crucified people”. The issue of intersectionality does, of course, apply – it is correspondingly worse to be a person of colour and mentally ill here than just to have one source of “othering”.

I must not in the process forget those people-groups which have been oppressed here for far longer than have immigrant populations, and who unlike many of those immigrants are not people of colour. In the process, it is useful to contemplate the history of the treatment of people who, to the Greeks, were “barbaroi”, barbarians, something less than wholly human and, of course, prime candidates for being enslaved. We often forget that classical Athens was a slave state (and does this invalidate the whole of Greek philosophy and art?) The Romans continued that tradition with massive slavery, and so, for very many years, did the North Africans. Until the European nations took over to a huge extent in the 16th and 17th centuries, North Africans were probably the preeminent slavers in the world, and took considerable numbers of “white” people, as did the Ottoman Turks, whose Janissary troops were drawn from slaves. From the 7th century, North Africa was Muslim, and most slavers were Muslim (there was equally a flourishing slave trade from East Africa controlled by Muslims). As an aside, it seems to me odd that Malcolm X would take Islam as being less besmirched with the legacy of slavery than Christianity, based on that history, although perhaps not when viewed from a specifically North American perspective.

To the English, the earliest “savages” were the Welsh (and possibly the Scots), then the Irish. As I noted in the post I linked to at the beginning of this piece, to be Irish in the England I grew up in was still to be “not one of us” (“no blacks, dogs or Irish” signs in boarding house windows). The Irish were actually the second English colonial empire (Wales was first, but became so assimilated by, say, the 16th century that the vestiges of colonialism there are not particularly easy to find, aside from the suppression of the language, which was still continuing when I was born), and Southern Ireland remained an effective colony despite being notionally part of “The United Kingdom” until their own wars of independence in 1916 and 1919-1921. Northern Ireland is arguably still a colony, and certainly remained so in effective reality significantly after 1921. There was a lot of labour movement from Ireland to England from the 17th century onwards, and there are still very many people of Irish extraction and a degree of Irish identity living near me, their “otherness” being exacerbated by mostly being Catholics, who were regarded as potential agents of a foreign power (the Pope) as recently as the 19th century (in England – they still are by many NI protestants), and who were still felt by many during my childhood as not being quite “us” due in substantial part to their religion.

What I find particularly interesting about the Irish is that they also arguably formed the bulk of the earliest slavery we exported to North America. (We still have the distinct possibility of strife there, as at the point of writing our Prime Minister has been talking of tearing up aspects of the “Good Friday Agreement” peace settlement for Northern Ireland, and we now have an effective international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK courtesy of Brexit). To equate the Irish with black slavery is not a totally robust argument, given that they were initially exported as criminals (the justice system being used to criminalise large numbers of the subjugated population) or as “indentured servants”, and in either case would in due course be free, which was something not contemplated with black slaves.

Nevertheless, the effects of Irish subjugation remain a live issue in the politics of the United Kingdom, and while I don’t find myself identifying anyone as a particular threat based on the colour of their skin, there is a part of my subconscious which still identifies people with an Irish accent as potential threats. After all, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, which produced many attacks in England, were a major feature from my teenage years up to 1998. We lived in fear that someone with an Irish accent might be planning to blow us up (and I note that those who were in that category were a vanishingly small proportion of Irish people in England, so the fear was and is definitely exaggerated).

Antisemitism, which was used as a bludgeon to demolish Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as leader of our Labour Party, is also a live political issue in my country. I have to come back to the European treatment of Jews, given that it dates back to at least the first century AD with the persecutions of Nero, and possibly to those of Antiochus Epiphanes two centuries earlier, and the fact that it has continued to this day, not just licensed by the Church, as slavery has been, but generally supported by the Church until relatively recently. In Hitler’s Germany, although I think on balance that his singling out of Jews was largely a matter of political expediency, there was already a widespread and very longstanding church-fostered antisemitism on which he could capitalise, and there are well-recognised problems imbedded in Scripture such as the “blood libel” in Matthew and the persistent singling out of “the Jews” in John. Anyone who claims Christianity for themselves needs to be particularly sensitive to the position of any Jewish people around them (and, perhaps, avoid claiming Jews as being historically “black”?). Outside cyberspace, however, that doesn’t really affect me closely, as there is no Jewish population in my district so far as I’m aware.

I note in passing that Hitler’s other prime targets were the mentally ill, communists, homosexuals and gypsies, and gypsies are another group in my country who are still persecuted (and targets of police mistreatment). Again, I can identify in myself a stereotyping of Romanies as being low level criminals; that one is difficult to shake off, as I’ve represented and known quite well some Romanies, and their attitude to private property has very often been, to say the least, flexible. There are maybe 100 or so Romanies in my district, and since I retired from practice, I haven’t had any real contact with any of them, as they tend to keep a fairly low profile, a characteristic of oppressed groups. It may well be that, in this area, Romanies are the major group which is at “the bottom of society”, as Adam Clark mentions in the third “deep dive” session. Forty years ago, based on numbers plus status, I’d maybe have put “Irish” there. There are many more people of Irish ancestry here, but I don’t see the same level of instinctive distrust as was present 50 years ago.

There is also still a level of prejudice against homosexuals, despite many measures to improve their position during my lifetime (when I started in legal practice, some homosexual actions were still illegal, and the police not only failed to arrest people who beat up gays, they were often the ones who did it…)

That said, black people, in areas of the country where there is a significant population, are most definitely still discriminated against. It’s an issue which I feel strongly about – it’s just not one I have immediate access to.

So, I hope none of this reads as trying to minimise my concern for people identified as “black” or my consciousness that, compared with them, I have privilege. My reading of Jesus is very much that he supported all marginalised groups, and in following him “the last shall be first” and deserve my support – and my ear, which is why I signed up to the course.

Back to the provocative question which occurred early in the course, “Can white people be saved?”. I think my provisional answer to that is “white people don’t need saving”, which may come as a shock considering what I’ve said above about Romanies, Irish and the disabled and which also applies to a large swathe of other white people who are near, but maybe not quite at, the bottom of society. Hear me right on this – they don’t need saving as white people – but they may need saving as Romany, as Irish, as homosexual, as disabled. Or just as victims of neoliberal financialised free market capitalism.


Good men doing nothing

There’s a recent post by Benjamin Corey which has attracted my attention. I have a significant amount of sympathy with this; Corey writes from a position very much like my own in terms of social gospel considerations.

But he’s from the anabaptist tradition, and is a non-voter, and advocates avoiding political power. There, I think he falls into a common trap which seems to me to pervade a lot of American political commentary, and an increasing amount of that in the UK as well – he sees governments as something set aside and different from the people. However, both he and I live in democracies, and the theory of democracies is that the people as a whole constitute the government via their elected representatives (unless you can run a direct democracy in which everyone votes on every issue of substance, which is only pratical in very small units). Thus I see his position as being one which refuses to involve itself in the organisation of the people. The way you do that, in a democracy, is called politics.

It seems to me that this is symptomatic of a desire in Christianity to set ourselves apart, to have nothing to do with society as a whole – and that is absolutely NOT “loving our neighbours as ourselves”, it’s more passing by on the other side of the road. It also falls into the trap of the “I’m not responsible for that, because I didn’t vote for it”, whereas unless someone voted against it, they are responsible. “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“ is the famous maxim of Edmund Burke.

Yes, in both countries the political system as it now exists is not actually very democratic. A party or leader who is opposed by a majority of voters can get into power (rather more easily in the UK than in the States; we have not had a government with the support of more than 50% of the population since the early 20th century here), and votes can be obtained by lying and by spending vast sums in advertising (on which there is no limit in the US). Both countries run first past the post voting systems, which tend to produce two party systems, and where there are only two parties, the internal machinations of the parties (which are not necessarily so democratic and which don’t involve the whole population) are perhaps more important than the actual electoral system. And the temptations of corruption are extreme when there is little jeapordy affecting elected representatives, as is the case with at least two thirds of MPs in the UK and possibly more in the US. Democracy is, as Winston Churchill said, a lousy system; it’s just better than all the others which have been tried.

There are ways of reducing the evils of the last paragraph. Voting by Proportional Representation, for instance, Term limits. Restrictions on political spending. Banning representatives from having outside interests both during and after their terms of office. You will not, however, reduce any of those evils by not voting or by remaining separate from politics. You need to organise (and Corey does acknowledge the value of organising) – but as soon as you have a group of people trying to work towards a common end, you are going to have politics. Some of the nastiest political infighting I have ever seen is, ironically, within churches…

This all smacks, to me, of the “Benedict Option”, a concept recently advocated by Rod Dreher. It’s a revamped monasticism. Now, monasticism is a really attractive idea for me, as an arrant introvert drawn to solitary contemplation rather than communal expressions of spirituality – but one which I feel I have to reject, for exactly the reason I gave above. In loving my neighbour as myself, I have to be involved with my neighbour, not to set myself apart from them in pursuit of some form of personal purity. The mendicant orders, the Friars, had it more right than did the monastics, to my mind. We need a “Francis Option”, not a “Benedict Option”.

As it happens, my Jesuit-trained Religious Instruction teacher, after I left school, gave me a piece of advice I commend to everyone else. I complained to him that I had no-one to vote for at the upcoming election. He replied that there were always Conservative and Labour candidates (in the US, think Republican and Democrat), and I said I didn’t like either of them. “So”, he said “Stand yourself”. And I did, and after a couple of tries, got elected, and then spent rather over 20 years as an elected representative at a local level and rather over 30 campaigning for what was then our third party, the Liberals (which became the Liberal Democrats shortly after I was elected).

He was, in fact, a Labour Councillor, and swore me to secrecy about his involvement (which included recommending which seat I should contest for the best chance of winning, advice I followed). However, he has now retired, so I don’t think letting the cat out of the bag will damage him. And, on the principle of “pay it forward”, I’ve since helped two people get elected as councillors for the Labour Party, so I don’t think his friends should criticise the decision.

As a parting shot, just because you’re an anabaptist doesn’t mean you need to be uninvolved in politics. I’ve recently been writing about the development of the UK parliament, and the hinge-point of that development has to be the English Civil War, where there was an armed conflict between King and Parliament. It was, however, as much a war of religion as it was of political structure, and Alec Ryrie of Gresham College has an excellent video “The Republic of King Jesus” on the topic.

Though I rather doubt that Mr. Corey is quite as extreme as our 17th century anabaptists!

Tinkering under the bonnet

My wife went to a school which was also attended by the daughter of the comedian Norman Wisdom. On very special occasions, he would bring his Rolls Royce and offer trips round the school grounds to the students, but most of his visits, he arrived in an old beat-up Mini, and was constantly having to tinker under the bonnet to keep it running.

I often think of that picture when the idea of the supernatural, interventionist God is raised by someone. Typically, they also think that God created everything “ex nihilo” – and Genesis 1 has multiple repetitions of “and God saw that it was good” to bolster their idea that what God has created could not be less than perfect. This all sounds very much like a constant process of tinkering by someone who really does not have control of the mechanics.

I’ve written about my own take on “the fall” previously, and this is not going to be a rehash of that, but the same thoughts spring to mind, coupled with “How can it have been perfect if one act of disobedience could mess it up for thousands of years (taking the fundamentalist idea of the length of history) or millions (taking a more scientific view)?” And it only takes until Genesis 6 for God, as portrayed in this scripture, to decide that everything is completely crocked and needs a “redo from start” so far as living things are concerned.

That, to me, looks extremely like Norman Wisdom tinkering under the bonnet, but with the additional feature of his having designed and built the car as well.

Now actually, if I entertain for a moment the idea that the world/universe is a case of “intelligent design”, I can somewhat understand this. What we see is a system which is based on uncertainty at the lowest level (thank you, Heisenberg) and at higher levels is often chaotic, where very small changes in one or other parameter can have massive effects in global outcomes. Weather systems are the best example of that, and most people have heard of the idea that a butterfly can flap its wings in the Amazon rain forest, and there will be tornadoes in Kansas. When it comes to living things, they are self-ordering systems (noting that there are also some non-living self-organising systems) and evolution is a process which takes the random and selects for suitability to environment over time (usually fairly long periods, but where catastrophic events occur, potentially very quickly). It could, just conceivably, be that the whole system was designed with chance and chaos included and then left to run itself.

But this would be the “blind watchmaker” concept, which is totally unacceptable to those with conservative views – indeed, to most people with a supernatural theist concept of God. It is, for what it’s worth, the furthest I might be prepared to go towards the idea of a creator God in the normally accepted sense (as opposed to the feedback loop between humanity and human God-concepts; the God-concepts mould what humanity is , i.e. how they think, irrespective of whether there’s a “real” God involved, so our God-concepts do actually “create” us…) There are days when I find the fine tuning argument at least somewhat persuasive…

Here, however, I intend to pick up where the “original sin” concept leaves us in the minds of conservative Christians – those who can say, as someone did to me recently “do you know where you’ll be when you die?” expecting that the choice is between those who have “accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour” and those who haven’t, and are therefore headed down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire, as Shakespeare put it.

This viewpoint, it seems to me, thinks that the only thing which enables God not to condemn us all is Jesus’ death on the cross, which is thought of as God recognising a problem and offering a solution. Not that a solution was needed, according to Ezekiel 18 (among other texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which conservative Christians still tell me is “the word of God”, apparently divinely dictated to various infallible secretaries).

The thing is, if we accept the premises so far, we also have a template of living for the People of God (or, at least, the Israelite contingent of those) for faithful living and, one might presume, forgiveness (certainly for atonement and some sins), in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It’s the Law of Moses. Some considerable time ago, the Rabbis (the primary interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures, at least until Paul came along – and one might regard him as an aberration, as Judaism definitely does) determined that non-Jews could get by very nicely on the basis of the “Noahide laws”. We didn’t need to follow all 613 of those in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, and we would still be OK, we could be “righteous gentiles” – we wouldn’t have the land covenant giving Israel to the descendants of Jacob, but would otherwise be included in the group entitled to God’s favour.

However, my conservative interlocutors use an interpretation of Paul’s writings to say that the Law of Moses was entirely useless to provide salvation (and it’s difficult to argue with, for instance, Romans 9:30-32 in their way of thinking, though some have done so, and I personally regard this as purely an argument against the transactional view that if you do “all the right things”, you are as of right going to be among the elect, something which I consider contributes to an attitude of smug satisfaction with a huge side order of hypocrisy, lampooned by Jesus in Matt. 23:23 inter alia).

In conscience, the advent of the Law, around 2000 years into the saga for Young Earth Creationists and some millions of years into it since the creation or evolution of humanity for anyone else itself smacks of a kind of tinkering under the bonnet, or at least a very late provision of some operating instructions by the manufacturer. However, providing a “fix” for the problem of how humans are not to be summarily condemned by God for being pretty much as he putatively designed them at least 4000 years in (or millions) beggars belief even as “tinkering under the bonnet”.

What of the millions of humans who lived before getting any instructions (613 or, just perhaps, a few less – Jesus, agreeing with Rabbi Hillel, thought two was probably sufficient)? What of those who followed the Law of Moses assidulously on the basis that that was what God wanted them to do? For 2000 years or thereabouts (or well over 500 taking modern dating of some of the Tanakh/Pentateuch seriously) that’s what observant Jews did. And conservatives (and possibly Paul) say that that was useless, pointless? They still maintain, though, that the Hebrew Scriptures were God’s word. So are they effectively saying that “God’s word to Moses” was in error? A lie?

I am not remotely “out on a limb” in considering this particular interpretation of Jesus’ death, this particular piece of “tinkering under the bonnet” as repugnant – here’s James McGrath’s take, and here’s James Allison’s. I’m just not where conservative Christians are, and I recall talking to a church worker at an Alpha course, saying that I didn’t like PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement), and hearing the response “But that’s the Gospel!”.

I’ve recently finished a Homebrewed Christianity course on the Apostles’ creed, from a Process/Open and Relational point of view, led by Tripp Fuller and Tom Oord. Curiously, the position that the future is not settled, cannot be known to God makes the idea of tinkering under the bonnet a viable one again. Of course, conservatives will not accept that omniscience, including full knowledge of the future, is an impossibility in the world as we see it (and presumably the one of which God said “very good”). If the future is not forseseeable, maybe it does require some tweaks along the way, to encourage it to perform as God would wish?

The thing is, from almost any standpoint I can envisage, the world as we now see it could do to have not just a few tweaks but a complete garage overhaul and rebuild.

Process and Open and Relational, of course, ditch not just omniscience in terms of knowledge of the future but also omnipotence. Tom Oord has written extremely well of this in his books “The Uncontrolling Love of God” and the pithily titled “God Can’t” – the inability being to intervene in the “tinkering under the bonnet” manner, or even the full refit one. He rests this on the idea that God will not under any circumstances derogate from the grant of freewill, and any intervention would do that. My own thinking is not a million miles from his “radical kenosis” in effect, but is not quite the same – I think in terms of radical incarnation, of God pouring Godsself into creation, delegating his power into the created order such that there is no significant residual power to act. In poker terms, one might say that God is “all in” in creation.

Teresa de Avila wrote a poem expressing this wonderfully, although she thought that Jesus was the original incarnation:-

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are His body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

On this Easter Saturday, when uniquely in the Christian year, more conventional Christians can join the Radical Theologians in saying “God is dead”, we can notice that yes, there’s a need for tinkering under the bonnet – the engine is spluttering and may die completely soon. And we’re the ones who need to do the tinkering.

Atheism for Lent: A mystic’s view

Doing Pete Rollins “Atheism for Lent” again, at least cursorily (it is, after all, the fifth time…) we got, again, to Anselm’s “proof” of God, which is in a week otherwise largely populated by mystics. Like most “proofs of God” it sticks in my craw, and particularly so as it’s presented as the argument of a mystic – and as far as I can see, Anselm wasn’t a mystic, he was a philosopher. It is supremely a philosopher’s argument. The course quotes from Anselm’s “Proslogion”:-
Therefore, Lord, who grant understanding to faith, grant me that, in so far as you know it beneficial, I understand that you are as we believe and you are that which we believe. Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be imagined.Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not? But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying – something than which nothing greater can be imagined – understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding and another to understand that a thing is.For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.Therefore even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because when he hears this he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.

Leaving aside the plethora of well known objections to ontological arguments (assuming this to be an ontological argument, which Pete contests, though some of them do seem to me to bite on this argument whatever it actually is), mystics do not, it seems to me, start from general characteristics ascribed to God and then apply logic, they attempt to describe their experience of God (and fail to do so in any rigorous way; poetic expressions are perhaps most successful). OK, some allow many preconceptions to slip into their descriptions, but inasmuch as they tend to the apophatic (and it’s a very strong tendency) that just indicates that whatever they write about the experience, it fails to catch the fullness of that experience.

It’s from that standpoint that I start by asking why Anselm starts by defining God as “something than which nothing greater can be imagined”. I wouldn’t be writing about theology and spirituality were it not for mystical experience, and in particular a peak experience when I was 14. Before that, I was an evangelical atheist.

So, that isn’t an assumption about God which I make. The only warranted assumption, it seems to me, is that this undefined something which many other mystics refer to as “God” is the cause and/or subject of mystical experience. Other statements about God must relate to some aspect of that experience, insofar as that aspect is common to all mystics, surely?

Yes, experience indicates (via a powerful feeling) that God is very great indeed, but my mind is, I find, incapable of grasping anything really large – for instance, I can only hold an image of a very few things in my mind at the same time (frankly, I have problems with more than about ten unless they’re just points), and my ability to hold an idea of distance in my mind is constrained by how far I can see. Anything larger than that has to be the result of applying this “more than” concept. And I can do that ad infinitum, as in Euclid’s proof that there is no largest prime number. Indeed, it is really only by a combination of this principle and the fact that we have coined a word to express a thousand million that I can understand the wealth of a billionaire at all. I can’t hold even a hundred things in my mind at the same time, far less a thousand, million or billion.

This means, from my point of view, that I can think in a way referring to a possible billion without actually conceiving of a billion, and it seems to me that Anselm’s argument fails on that basis – I can conceive the possibility of something greater than I can conceive, but I have not thereby actually conceived something greater than I can conceive, just as I can conceive the possibility of a billion without actually conceiving a billion in any real sense.

The course also quotes Emil Cioran, a Rumanian philosopher and student of at least Western mystics. Part of that quote (from The Temptation to Exist reads “Refractory by vocation, rampant in their prayers, the mystics play with heaven, trembling the while. The Church has degraded them to the rank of supernatural mendicants so that, wretchedly civilized, they might serve as “models.” Yet we know that both in their lives and in their writings they were phenomena of nature and that no worse disaster could happen to them than to fall into the hands of the priests. Our duty is to wrest them away: only at this price could Christianity still admit even a hint of duration. When I call them “phenomena of nature,” I am not claiming that their “health” was foolproof. We know that they were sick. But disease acted upon them like a goad, like a factor of excess. By sickness, they aimed at another genre of vitality than ours. Peter of Alcantara managed to sleep no more than one hour a night: was this not a sign of strength? And they were all strong, for they destroyed their bodies only in order to derive a further power from them. We think of them as gentle; no beings were tougher. What is it they propose? The virtues of disequilibrium. Avid for every kind of wound, hypnotized by the unwonted, they have undertaken the conquest of the only fiction worth the trouble; God owes them everything: his glory, his mystery, his eternity. They lend existence to the inconceivable, violate Nothing in order to animate it : how could gentleness accomplish such an exploit?

I definitely do not see myself reflected there. I don’t think mysticism is remotely a sickness, for instance, though many of the pre-20th century Western Christian mystics were extreme in pursuing ways of repeating the mystical experience. It is a fact that, for instance, sleep deprivation and fasting are somewhat conducive to mystical experience; some find that other physical privation is also useful. They aren’t necessary. These do not characterise the whole experience any more than we would say that the findings of a scientist who neglects sleep and eating in pursuit of a discovery are characterised by sleep deprivation and fasting.

There’s also a quote from Ludwig Feuerbach, (from “The Essence of Christianity) part of which reads “God is the explanation for the unexplainable which explains nothing because it explains everything without distinction — he is the night of theory, nonetheless making everything clear to the mind by removing any measure of darkness and extinguishing the light of discriminating comprehension — the not-knowing which solves all doubts by repudiating them, which knows everything because it knows nothing in particular and because all things which impress reason are nothing to religion, lose their identity and are nil in God’s eye. The night is the mother of religion.”

This is also, to the mystic, wholly missing the mark. For the mystic, God is the explanation for a particular species of human experience, and while such experience might well be (and, it seems to me, usually is) radically transformative, it is not an “explanation for everything”, not does it remotely make everything clear to the mind except in the moment of mystical experience; that clarity does not survive returning to mundane existence and trying to communicate the peak to others. If anything, mystical experience disturbs you, unsettles you, makes you see things differently – though not, I think, to the extent that Cioran writes of.

A friend recently posted a quote from Pope Francis “Mystics have been fundamental to the Church. A religion without mystics is a philosophy”, and it brought into focus feelings I’d had about Anselm, Cioran and then Feuerbach.

I’m a mystic. I didn’t choose to be, I had a peak mystical experience thrust upon me in my teens which wrecked my then atheism, so I start any thinking about God with what I feel to be and thus think of as direct, unmediated experience of God. That is, after all, how mystics tend to report it. I don’t see Anselm as a mystic, I see him as a philosopher. Cioran is also a philosopher, although one studying mystics (I fancy almost exclusively mystics in Western Christendom, as mystics have not been historically marginalised to the same extent elsewhere). He seems to me to see mystics as putting forward a philosophical argument – and that, it seems to me, is what Pete does in “mystics week” as well. For the purposes of “Atheism for Lent”, the mystics are negating the concept of the naive supernatural concept of God which I regard as typical of Sunday School – and much of conservative Christianity.

The thing is, mystics aren’t, as far as I can see, engaged in negating concepts of the agent God, they’re exploring ways in which they can communicate about God when the basic experience is impossible to communicate to someone who hasn’t had cognate experience themselves – and nothing I see in Cioran or Anselm induces me to think they had mystical experience themselves.

Feuerbach is also a philosopher, though he might be functioning more as an anthropologist in the excerpts we have. He effectively dismisses mystics as not representing the bulk of religion, and doesn’t actually engage them at all (which is not unreasonable historically for an anthropologist, but isn’t remotely a negation of mystics’ viewpoints – and a fairly recent survey indicated that as many as 40% of those responding reported some mystical-type experience, which is many times the proportion which applied in my youth). I couldn’t help thinking that Feuerbach’s critique was remarkably similar to Voltaire’s comment “In the beginning God created man, and ever since then, man, being a gentleman, has returned the favour”, and also recalling a rather acerbic comment I made some years ago that “the whole history of (Christian) theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting mystics”.

The thing is, I agree with Feuerbach to a considerable extent – anything we say about God is inevitably a human construction, and I might comment that in Voltaire’s formulation, there’s an implicit feedback loop – and in any feedback loop, working out where it started is rarely useful. Could start with “God”, could start with humans. Whichever is the case, humanity has been moulded by concept-structures involving some conception of God, whether or not a God which is more than just a construction has been doing any moulding as well either at the outset or on a continuing basis (and my out-of-the-blue peak mystical experience definitely *felt* as if I was being moulded by something other than myself).

Epistemic humility compels me to accept that my experience is inevitably not actually quite direct (which, as mentioned above, is what it feels like to mystics) as it has to be processed by some part of my brain, and is therefore subject to possible cognitive distortions – or even (as some atheist friends suggest) might be nothing more than a cognitive distortion. I can entertain that as a possibility, but I can’t really think that it can be the case, because it’s to me such a poor “explanation” of what mystical experience feels like.

The course continues with other writers. Marx seems again to me to be missing the point of what religion actually is with his “opium of the people”. To me, and it seems to Pope Francis, it is an expression (albeit a possibly somewhat misunderstood expression) of what is at base mystical experience. Marx looks merely at what it has done in one field, the sociological and economic (and largely in one geographical area), and again approaches religion as a philosopher. So do Hill and Goldman, from whom there are later quotes; they are attacking things which have been done in the name of religion.

All of these approaches, to me, smack of the principle that “to the man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (to the man who has only philosophical thinking, everything looks like a philosophy, i.e. in Francis’ and my thinking a denatured version of religion) and also of the idea that I have a very large textbook, “Gravitation” on my shelves; I could use it as a doorstop, I could use it to prop up another book. Other things might fulfil either of those functions better than “Gravitation” does. Indeed, dropping it on your toe might be an illustration of it’s subject matter in a trivial way. None of these, however, capture what the book is about or what it’s really for. Or, at least, what it was for in the 1970s; theoretical Physics has moved on since then, and it’s possible that these days it actually is more useful as a doorstop or book rest…

So, why am I following this course yet again? Well, for one thing, it keeps forcing me to think deeply about God and religion in a way which is unlikely in a church setting and which is largely absent from my editing work, and that is a good thing in and of itself. Yes, I think the vast bulk of the critiques and counter-critiques which we look at in the seven weeks of this exercise completely miss the mark for the mystic, but they do bite, and bite hard, at the majority of religious expressions which are around absent the heights of a current mystical experience. And there’s something about radical theology which I continue to feel might have something to say to me, something which might give me a better expression of where I am situated.

Even if it’s as simple as John Caputo’s “It spooks”. My strong tendency when dealing with all the critiques of ideas of God is to answer in the manner of Galileo “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves, in Galileo’s case referring to the earth). “Eppur si spaventa”, perhaps.


I know there are quite a few people who have gone to the trouble of subscribing to this blog (for which many thanks), and I’ve become increasingly aware as January passed and now February, that I’ve posted nothing. I’m sorry to those who expect something more.

I’m not going to blame pressure of work, although I have quite a few manuscripts to edit backed up at the moment, have a contract for another book which is largely not getting written and have bitten off rather more than I can chew in terms of online courses recently (the various lockdowns have meant that quite a few people who I want to hear from and engage with are doing more online stuff than they normally would). Yes, I have a number of things I’ve half-written, or in one case maybe 99% written, but none of those has quite got to the point of posting.

No, the underlying reason is that I fear I’m sliding gently back into the depression which basically claimed my life between 2003 and 2013. Yes, it’s situational, which the previous one wasn’t entirely or even mostly. Most, if not all days, I find myself having a little weep over some news item, which is more overt than I’m used to with emotion. Of course, the government’s incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic up to the new Year is a major factor – measures were taken too little and too late from June onward, leading to daily reports of over 1000 deaths for a month and a half (happily now somewhat reduced, but still appalling).

I can somewhat understand the mindset of those responsible, having had ten or more years involved in emergency planning locally, which included considering biological threats; there was there a consistent story in exercises of the scientific advisors advising draconian measures and the politicians feeling unable to ask the public for that much sacrifice. I can understand it, but whereas last year it was an unknown threat and there was no roadmap to combatting it, by now our leaders have the example of New Zealand and even Vietnam to work from – and another 60,000 of us have now died as a result. That is also a sacrifice, but a wholly unnecessary one.

That, however, is not the main factor. The main factor is Brexit. Throughout the last four years, I have felt in the position of someone strapped into a bus seat with a mad driver careering towards a cliff edge, with the diminishing and ultimately vain hope that eventually someone must see sense and stop the vehicle. There were a lot of Brexit solutions which were distinctly short of the “no deal” option which came, insidiously, to be the one which Brexiteers favoured; no one who voted leave wanted a “hard Brexit”, and most talked of something like a “Norway” deal. We could, for instance, have stayed in either or both of the customs union or the single market without being a member state, and I hoped and prayed that we would eventually settle into one of those. This graphic shows the possible options:-

May be a cartoon of text that says "The Consequences of The UK's Brexit Strategy UK's status in European economic, trade and travel agreements Schengen area EFTA Gibraltar EEA Switzerland 米 UK Norway Iceland Liechtenstein EU customs union EU Eurozone Slovakia Slovenia Estonia Lithuania Latvia Malta Bulgaria Belgium Germany Netherlands Austria Italy Greece Ireland France Luxembourg Spain Romania Portugal Cyprus Finland Poland Czech Republic Hungary Denmark Sweden Croatia Monaco Northern Ireland San Marino Source: Statista research Andorra Turkey statista"

Obviously, there were several possibilities there… and I hoped fervently that the government would eventually settle on one of them as the extent of damage Brexit was going to cause became clearer. Every few days there was some report that yes, maybe they would bend away from “no deal”, only to be squashed a day or two later. And, as they say “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”.

However, by the end of 2020 “no deal” looked like the likely result. I felt unreasonably relieved when Boris came back with an agreement short of the “hard Brexit” I had feared, though I did write that it was only very slightly less bad than the complete demolition of our trade (and thus our economy) which “no deal” Brexit would have meant.

The trouble is, as the weeks have progressed, it has become apparent that the difference from a hard Brexit is minute – I predicted it would be bad, but had underestimated quite how bad. . Yes, we do not have tariffs between us and Europe (hooray!) but we do have other restrictions – certificates of origin for components, phytosanitary checks which need a vet to certify any consignment of food items (or, of course, live animals) – or, indeed, anything which has touched UK soil, notably plants – and an absolute mass of other customs forms which the government have not put in place the necessary support to complete (nor, of course, do they pay for their completion) – and all of this makes trade with the EU for any but the largest organisations unviable, because it all costs. Even transport is costing 2 to 5 times more (if you can find a haulier prepared to do it) because of the huge delays in clearing customs, which is time the hauliers need to have paid for.

May be an image of furniture and text that says "07:13 Tweet t7 Dr Mike Galsworthy retweeted James Milbourne @JamesMilbourne This is the paperwork required to send one order to the EU now. Previously zero. £100k/ year of Veterinary inspection fees now, previously £0. Very annoying/ costly for an established business like us, crippling for a small company! Emailed @GregHands, no response... CANAGAN : Nick Ferrari and 9 others Tweet your reply"

Some whole industries have been ruined – shellfish, for instance, on which there is an overall ban except for those purified at this end, as our water quality isn’t high enough (and this is something which is not new; our MEPs voted for it some years ago), and we do not have the purification facilities. Fishing is generally pretty much dead, due to the fact that most of what our fishermen catch, we don’t want to eat – but there was a market in Europe. However, fishermen can’t jump through all the regulatory hoops fast enough (fish has a very short “shelf life”) and/or sell at an attractive enough price when they’ve done that (cost of paperwork again) to keep those markets. This is supremely ironic, because all the noise made by our negotiators last year and, indeed, following the “deal” was that we were improving our fishing prospects…

There was no mention of financial services, either in the run-up to the agreement or in the agreement. The result is the loss by the City of London of tens of billions of pouds worth of trading. Now, fishing is (or at least was) around 0.45% of our economic activity. The City is something more like 20%, and responsible for at least 10% of government tax revenues.

And now there are reports that high-ups in the EU might be proposing some middle ways. There’s hope again, and I confidently expect it will be deferred or dashed.

Against this background, the government tries to tell us that everything is wonderful, and if not, that it’s the big bad EU punishing us for leaving (by following the rules which apply to any nation outside the EU and for which we voted when a member). As the linke suggests, we’re being gaslighted. Most of the media completely ignore this catalogue of disasters; the tabloids spout the government line (only more forcibly), the BBC just ignores Brexit.

And, if I can manage to tell myself not to think about Covid or Brexit for a few minutes, there’s also the impending disaster of climate change and the now overwhelmingly likely collapse of everyone’s economies as a result (and in all probability a death toll which will make Covid look like a minor blip in the statistics). Yes, there’s much more being done than previously, and there are many success stories of countries managing greater and greater removal of CO2-producing energy, but all the indications I see is that this should have been done 10 or 20 years ago to have any reasonable chance of averting disaster.

I try very hard to tell myself, firstly, that very little of this affects me or will affect me personally. I don’t expect to live long enough to see the effects of climate change, I’m a pensioner, so not dependent on a job in the rapidly shrinking economy, no-one I know personally has died of Covid (very few have reported catching it), and I’ve been immunised, so have a decent chance now of not catching it myself.

Secondly, there is frankly naff-all I can do about it. I’ve consistently voted and argued for policies radically different from those which are contributing to the various disasters, and am prevented by lockdown from any direct action (for which I’m too old and infirm to be much use in any event). And what needs doing needs doing NOW, not when the (entirely sensible) restrictions to fight Covid have finished. Indeed, it’s mostly too late. So my sensible head says “accept the things you cannot change”…

And it doesn’t work, because I am not really much concerned for myself, but for my neighbours, my children and theirs, those who will inherit this apocalyptic mess. People like this girl. I can’t turn off my compassion, and I’m suffering a permanent overload of that. I can’t turn off my anger, and every day I’m goaded into a bit more of it by seeing government gaslighting, ridiculous tabloid headlines, Covid-deniers and climate change deniers – and there’s no way to sublimate that anger into action.

Depression has been described as “anger turned inwards”. I have a massive excess of it. I just hope this isn’t the start of another lost 10 years of my life, as 2003-13 were, with a crippling level of depression.

So, I’ll try to put up a few more posts, and maybe not worry so much about them being nicely polished accounts…

Have we “got Brexit done”?

When what seemed the last possible deadline for agreement of a new trading relationship with the EU had expired, I wrote a somewhat despairing post. Hindsight now reveals that, as I indicated to start that, I might be writing too soon. There is a deal (agreed on Christmas Eve and voted on by the House of Commons yesterday), and it has avoided some of the more awful consequences of “no deal”. Lord Adonis calls it the “Trade Reduction Deal”, and that seems fair to me.

Has it “got Brexit done”, as Boris Johnson pledged to do (and by doing so got himself an unassailable majority in parliament for the next four years)? Not by a huge margin. As Chris Grey comments in his excellent review of the current situation, this is not the end of negotiations – he calls it “never-ending Brexit”, and not for the reasons I gave in a 2019 post “This will never end”. Those reasons still, I think, hold good, but we need to add to them the fact that this is only a partial agreement – most significantly it doesn’t include services, and services constitute an unreasonable amount of our foreign earnings (and the only area in which we run a balance of trade surplus). In particular, it is a temporary deal – it is scheduled for complete review in 5 years, which among other things means that Keir Starmer may say that Brexit will not be an issue in the next Labour Party manifesto, but it has to be, because the agreement will essentially run out shortly after the next election. There is no chance that Labour will issue a manifesto which ignores such a major issue. Granted, he may think that he can forget the “Brexit” label and just have a policy on trade relations with Europe, but I fancy that the label will still haunt him…

Add to that the fact that it’s a partial deal – it doesn’t cover quite a lot of things, of which services is only the most prominent, and it anticipates other agreements and modifications on a continuing basis throughout that five years. We don’t even have (say) four years during which we can stop thinking about it – it will be prominent on the political scene within months, if not weeks, and we can never forget that it contains provisions which could scrap some or all of it if either side is radically unhappy about the way it’s progressing (as Ian Dunt expands on) . Dunt, to be fair, sees this as an opportunity to move closer together in small increments – and that really should be the case.

But it won’t be. There are just too many MPs at the moment who will rebel at any move towards a “softer” Brexit. The only thing I can see which would not attract such opposition would be “passporting” UK financial services into Europe, which I earnestly hope will be on the agenda immediately – not only does it constitute a large segment of our overseas earnings, but it also provides a significant slice of our tax base. While I agree with Chris Grey that we could do to rebalance our economy away from services (I said as much in the first post I link to above), doing it abruptly will be a “double whammy” and put us in a bigger trade deficit and a hole in our tax revenue at the same time.

And the only thing I can see coming from that from our current government is a new period of “austerity”, in other words removing by stages all the good things government provides, at the expense of those in our society least able to bear that.

I am only slightly less despairing, therefore.

The shock of incarnation

On Christmas Eve, I listened to a fair proportion of “Carols from Kings” (a rather Spartan version compared with the norm). Somehow, it isn’t really Christmas without this precursor, usually listened to while finishing off various cooking tasks in the kitchen, but this year without anything major left to do. It seems that Nel and myself make a very efficient team in the kitchen, swapping chef and sous-chef roles smoothly – and it wasn’t that we were cooking far less food, as our Christmas lunch had all the usual elements.

That gave me the opportunity to really listen to some of the words. Kings always starts with “Once in Royal David’s City” and ends with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, but somewhere in there will be at least one new piece, and some different arrangements. By the time we got to the Herald Angels, I was wondering how it was that I didn’t usually take full notice of what the carols were actually saying – most of the content is so familiar that it sort of slides over the rational faculties and engages the emotional resonance direct, at least when there’s something else to do.

And my mind went to the notorious artwork “Piss Christ”.

In 1987, Andres Serrano made this photograph, of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a countainer of urine. This caused absolute outrage in many conservative Christian circles, combining as it does a venerated religious image with a particularly “unclean” medium. Richard Beck makes much of this image in his splendid book “Unclean”, which explores ideas of the sacred and of the taboo.

Why this?

The carol writers rather generally try to expose the disconnect between (taking “Hark the Herald Angels” as a template) the “triumph of the skies”, a particularly imperial concept of Jesus, with “offspring of a virgin’s womb”, the paradox of “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity”. But it’s all too familiar. The messy business of birth, with various bodily fluids and secretions and, for the mother, a total collapse of any sense of dignity, is lost. “Piss Christ” brings back that idea forcibly. I have no difficulty with the image at all – I’m a panentheist, if called on to give an ontological account of the relationship of God and man (even though I think that is beyond my or anyone’s capacities to define), and God, for me, is radically present in all things. And that, of course, includes the piss as well as the Christ. I regard Christmas as the feast of radical immanence – “God with us”, but also in us, around us, under us, over us, before us, behind us… It isn’t remotely a stretch for me to think of a mewling infant, which in the world of 1st century Judaea was someone who might, possibly, become human in 14 years or so if very lucky, as God, the highest being (or hyper-being, or something beyond that) imaginable.* So high and mighty, indeed, that Judaism prohibited any attempt at representing him (or her). That, in it’s time, was a shocking, an inconceivable idea – but the shock value has vanished for us.

But, as I contemplated this, I recalled the start of the carols. “Love and watch the lowly maiden” from “Once in Royal David’s City”, and I thought “‘lowly maiden’? – this is the Theotokos (“God-bearer”), the Queen of Heaven, according to Orthodox and Catholic theology”.#

“There is is”, I thought, “There’s the paradox, the inconsistency, the contradiction, the rupture, the cognitive dissonance which I was missing”.

It’ll do for this year. For next year, I may need someone to write a carol involving piss, blood and amniotic fluid… and get it performed by Kings.

* Or beyond our ability to imagine, and only guessable at by extension…

# I’ve been spending some time reading a group including a lot of conservative Catholic and Orthodox people, on the basis that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to a like-minded bubble. They would not like “Piss Christ”…