But does it work in theory?

In a recent course offered by Homebrewed Christianity (which is “pay what you want”, so doesn’t cost anything significant to get access to), Tripp Fuller asks John Cobb to start laying out foundations for Process Theology in the first talk/interview. I started writing this when the course was current, but stalled for a while… Now, bear with me here, as I attempt some philosophy – I don’t regard myself as particularly competent with philosophy, as we’ll probably see…

Sadly, Cobb starts with attempting to put in place a foundation via reinstating the concept of telos, i.e. “final cause”. Now, this causes me an immediate difficulty, because I am for most purposes a scientific materialist. I say “for most purposes” because I do not remotely think that this means that everything can be reduced to material things – for example, the concepts behind this post are not in any trivial way material things, nor are the words I’m selecting to write it (despite the fact that what you’re seeing when you read it is material inasmuch as it is composed of the activation of minute particles of material on a computer screen – that is merely the symbols, not the significance).

In particular, I don’t see any of the Aristotelean “causes” other than possibly efficient cause as being truly causes (though Aristotle’s terminology could probably better be rendered as “explanation”). “Material cause” (i.e. what something is made of) doesn’t cause something to be what it is – after all, the example Wikipedia gives of a table could be made of wood, but it could also be made of metal, stone or plastic. Yes, you need a material suitable to the end result – you cannot, for instance, make a table out of water (unless you freeze it). “Formal cause” (i.e. the shape or arrangement of something) also doesn’t cause something to be what it is. You can readily envisage, say, a table made out of water, but you are not going to get a table except in peculiar circumstances, such as an “Ice Hotel”.

“Efficient cause” is defined in the linked article as “consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement”. This is broadly what I would call “cause”, though I would question whether the removal of things inherent to the thing being changed or moved is valid – often, a thing will only be changed or moved if its inherent properties permit that. You cannot make a table out of a liquid, a gas or a plasma, for instance. Note here the implicit inclusion of an “agent”, the examples being human, biological entities which are capable of forming intention. Aristotle is, I think, right in saying that things do not change unless more than one “cause” is operative, but not right if this implies that there is always a conscious agent producing that change.

“Final cause” is what is often called “telos” by philosophers. It can commonly be rendered as “purpose” or as “design”.

So, what is Cobb’s argument? Broadly, it seems to me that it is this:-
1. Scientific materialists (possibly all scientists) consider that the only causes are efficient causes.
2. It is patently obvious that there are objects for which there are final causes (telos).
3. Scientific materialism’s account of causation is therefore wrong.
4. (Implicitly) Everything has a telos.
5.(Implicitly) There must be a conscious agent producing that telos.
6. (Implicitly) That agent can, absent a human (or perhaps animal) purpose, only be God.

#1 is, in my experience, plainly wrong for most scientists. The more hardline logical positivists did suggest that things not reducible to statements verifiable by scientific method were cognitively meaningless, but virtually everyone has abandoned that extreme stance, even if they once toyed with it. All the scientists I’m acquainted with would admit that there is meaningful dialogue which does not consist of scientifically verifiable statements.

It is also the case that most scientists I know do not attempt to make philosophical statements. If pushed hard, the most they are likely to say is something along the lines of “we do not yet have a theory to explain any regularity which we observe in this situation”. Even for physicists, this includes a staggering percentage of what they conclude must, in some sense, materially exist (for some sense of “materially” and “exist”). Ordinary, visible matter makes up around 0.5% of the universe as currently understood, with dark energy making up just less than 70% and dark matter just over 30%. 99.5% of what physicists think must, in some sense, exist, we can’t see or interact with. More simply, the scientists are saying “this is something we cannot currently predict for you”.  Physicists, by definition, do not do metaphysics!

#2, on that basis, would be accepted by almost every scientist I know, accepting that specifically biological entities of sufficient complexity can formulate teloi (OK, there are a very few who think that even humans don’t actually formulate teloi, as we’re predictable machines). Many think that it is not impossible that nonbiological entities might possibly formulate teloi, such as machine intelligences. This does not remotely mean that everything which exists has a telos (see #4).

#3, Given that #1 is incorrect, this is not a valid conclusion.

#4 is ostensibly not part of the argument, but is strongly implied by 1-3. Clearly, it’s equivalent to saying “All swans are white. But some swans are black. Therefore all swans are black”.

#5 is even more implicit, but might be postulated as at least a possibility you could derive. It is not wholly clear to me how a non-conscious agent could formulate something we would describe as a purpose, but non-conscious agents do frequently combine to produce results which look like a telos. The game of life and the Mandelbrot set are two examples. Both look organic, as if they have an inbuilt telos, but actually merely have some very simple rules. Of course, you could claim that both had a telos, set by the individual who programmed the system, but in both those cases, the algorithms involved are so simple that it’s fairly easy to contemplate that they could occur spontaneously and, indeed, the game of life is designed to mimic the kind of behaviours we see in living organisms which are too simple to ascribe a telos to.

#6 does not follow, particularly not in positing that such an agent is singular or, indeed, has any other god-like qualities aside from being not obviously apparent.

Cobb throws in two incidental suggestions which are often used to bolster arguments for God. The first of these is the allegation that scientists have to accept the “many worlds” hypothesis in order to explain what we observe, given any sensible degree of freedom.  This really isn’t the case. Really, only Physicists are prone to this view, which tends to accompany denying the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and most of them will sensibly say “shut up and do the math”, avoiding speculating about metaphysics, which is, of course, not their field. Chemists, Biologists and the softer sciences generally aren’t concerned with this area. In addition, it isn’t just an attractive speculation to non-Copenhagen-interpretation physicists, it’s tempting to anyone who wrestles with free will –v- determinism as a dichotomy, which can include theologians.

The second is to invoke the “fine tuning” argument. If, this argument goes, many physical constants were even slightly different from those we observe, life would never have evolved (and, indeed, neither might any of the universe as we observe it), and thus there must be some kind of design, and thus designer, and so on. Again, this is an argument which most scientists tend to relegate to the category of “we don’t know enough to speculate”. My personal favourite speculation there is to note that yes, we do not know how, at a finer level of detail, physical constants came to be what they are, but that does not mean there is no mechanism which links them, i.e. constrains what they might be. We just don’t know what it might be.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt of the existence of God (for some value of “exist” and some value of “God”). I just don’t like weak arguments for God’s existence as a foundation on which to build pretty much anything, and I strongly suspect that Douglas Adams’ well known lines “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own argument you don’t. QED.” “Oh, dear”, says God, “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.’ (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have more than just comedic impact. More to the point, in my “best guess” conception of God, which is panentheism, everything is in God (just as God is in everything), and I hold to the principle that a set cannot reasonably contain itself with a remainder, so if my conception is correct, we cannot have (within God) a full conception of what God is, far less prove that God exists from within God. I’m a mystic, so can say (and have) “I don’t need to believe in God, I experience God”. In other words, any “proof of God” is going to prove to be a weak argument.

In addition, in striving to convince, it seems a suboptimal strategy to start by telling a significant portion of the audience that they believe something they probably don’t.  So why do this?

It seems to me that here lies a vital difference between the philosopher and philosophical theologian (Cobb/Fuller) on the one hand and the scientist, at least the experimental scientist, on the other. The tendency of the philosopher or theologian seems to be to start at the bottom (or drill down further to try to find a bottom) and then build up (the number of theologians I’ve come across wanting to start with a “doctrine of God” is considerable, and philosophers seem to revert to talking metaphysics at the drop of a hat). It’s really common for philosophers to start by saying “first define your terms”.

In contrast, experimental scientists notice a set of phenomena and try to find regularities in them sufficient to advance a hypothesis – then test the hypothesis by creating more and novel  phenomena (experiments). You could say that they start at the top and work down.

This was something I noted at this year’s Wake during sessions involving Richard Boothby and Peter Rollins, both of whom are primarily philosophers. Indeed, I tried to underline this difference by picking up on comments by Richard about art and suggesting that philosophers maybe go for photo-realism, and think it “better than” impressionism – sadly, there wasn’t time to develop that with further questions. (I respect photorealism, but generally much prefer impressionism, in which to a significant extent “less is more”).

The thing is, I think that what we do in thinking about our perceptions starts by looking at them impressionistically, or possibly even in cartoon form. There’s too much detail to form any general description (and the word “general” there is already a clue to the fact that we’re drawing a cartoon), and we make sense of it (notice regularities, form hypotheses) by radically simplifying what we perceive. Sure, we can then add detail (complicate our model), but what scientists are doing in formulating hypotheses is radically simplifying first, and then adding detail. In much the same way, many artists produce a sketch (which generally looks fairly impressionistic) and then add detail if they want to be more representational.

Of course, we prefer our hypotheses about reality to be coherent and consistent, and that tends to be the province of the theoretical scientist and the philosopher. However, at the end of the day I have no patience for the reputed response of an economist when told that something works in practice – “Ah, but does it work in theory?” If it doesn’t work in theory, the theory is wrong, not the practice. This is what underlies most experimental physicists’ reaction to wave-particle duality (which is a favourite of philosophers and theologians attempting to suggest that science lacks adequate foundation) – the wave hypothesis works in some circumstances, the particle hypothesis works in others, and it really doesn’t matter whether one or the other (or neither) is “correct”.

Experimental science doesn’t work from foundations upwards, it works from phenomena downwards. Going back to art, it’s like the process of abstraction. The experimentalists abstract, the theoreticians and philosophers play with those abstractions and try to make them fit together. It seems to me, though, that in the process they are inclined to forget that they are talking about abstractions, about impressionistic pictures. The arch-perpetrator of this was, of course, Plato, who considered that those abstractions (“forms”) were the real things and that every actual thing being represented was an inadequate approximation to that reality, rather than that forms were an inadequate approximation of reality and should be treated as such. To me, this is so much the opposite of the actual situation as to cast doubt on everything Plato was involved with…

The further you go down, it seems to me, the more abstract/impressionistic you become, and the less able to be precise about anything. Of course, this means that philosophical efforts to dig deeper into the foundations of our concept-structures are bound to find contradiction (Hegel),  endless recursion of language (Derrida), nothing but differences (Deleuze) and/or nefarious motivations (Foucault). Unfortunately, the overall effect of these endeavours has been to cast doubt on the whole concept of truth, because, for the philosopher, truth has to be absolute and precise. Thus, rather than accept that our concept structures are impressionistic or cartoonish, we see the demolition of any idea that something could be more or less true – if it isn’t absolutely true, it’s false, undependable. There lies the basis for “my truth”, which is frequently devoid of much connection with reality.

Personally, I blame the illusion of certainty. We think that we need our concepts to be precise, exact, certain – but if, as I suggest, they can’t be that, we discard them completely as in error. Any scientist knows that in experiments it is important to realise that there are going to be errors, and quotes results with a plus-or-minus amount. An impressionistic painting may not be precise or exact, but it certainly conveys meaning – and often does this more successfully than does photorealism.

But you don’t necessarily end up with just one image, as Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral show…

Some thoughts about Dobbs

I’ve been involved in editing a volume on the US Constitution recently – this will have as a companion a book on the UK Parliamentary system which I wrote. The author, Elgin Hushbeck, is a conservative, and I’m not, which led to some spirited exchanges. As a result, and particularly because I’m a retired English lawyer, I’ve been particularly interested in the Dobbs decision in the States.

This podcast well illustrates some of the problems arising from the US system of constitutional amendments.

The UK is pretty much the opposite of the US so far as constitution is concerned. We have no written constitution, though a number of Acts of Parliament which have something of the character of constitutional provisions. However, a government with a decent majority in the House of Commons (our equivalent of Congress – our upper house is largely toothless, as it lacks theoretical legitimacy, being largely appointed but partly hereditary) can amend any UK law as they wish – and the current government has been doing exactly that, including limiting the power of our courts to challenge the government for any breaches of law.

This is obviously the polar opposite of the US, where the Supreme Court effectively has the power to change the constitution. It’s a very dangerous situation to be in, and I pine for a constitution which governments can’t override at a whim.

The US has the opposite problem. The process of constitutional amendment is so difficult to achieve, particularly in the current particularly polarised political situation, that it has been left to the Supreme Court to update, which was obviously done in the case of Roe -v- Wade and a set of other cases dependent on the right to privacy which Roe first elaborated. But the current Supreme Court has struck that down. It may come as a surpise to my friends that I can’t criticise the Dobbs decision too harshly – the decision in Roe -v- Wade is, shall we say, legally inventive, and UK lawyers (and especially judges) tend not to like too much inventiveness in legal argument. I wouldn’t myself have interpreted the law at the point of Roe -v- Wade anything like the Supreme Court did at that point – but as a counterpoint, there is absolutely no way I would have interpreted the Second Amendment in order to permit unrestricted ownership and carrying of guns in US society either.

[In passing, I might have managed a decision similar to that in Roe -v- Wade on different grounds; I thoroughly agree with the general principle that abortion should not be restricted in any absolute way, though it might be regulated so as not to produce later term abortions without compelling reasons – see my set of posts culminating in this post. My argument would be more along the lines of the 14th Amendment, coupled with a possible new principle that just as the federal government should not restrict the right of the States to enact legislation except where specified, neither should the States restrict the liberties of the individual except in specific circumstances. That would depend on a wider interpretation of life and liberty than seems current.]

The States, it seems to me, has an over-powerful judiciary, while the UK has an over-powerful lower chamber. Both countries, it seems to me, need constitutional conventions. One must just hope that in both cases, the selection procedure for those on those conventions will be entirely fair, because at the point of writing, it seems to me dubious that that would be the case.

Not ignoring Paul’s S4?

Continuing the theme, Colcannon’s “Profaning Paul” has a chapter in the middle of the book, “Redeeming Paul”, in which he criticises Jacques Ellul, Alan Badiou (largely the same book from which Pete takes his inspiration) and Ward Blanton for (perhaps) attempting to preserve Paul against criticism because they, as sociologist, philosopher and theologian, want to preserve him as a foundation for anarchism, revolutionary socialism or some other kind of evental understanding – and in both cases, I can see the difficulty in saying “we’d like to preserve this bit, but not that”. Those three postmoderns (and a significant slice of modern Paul scholarship, such as the “new perspective” to a significant extent) do that very much by discounting a lot of the text as not being authentically Paul, so the “true Paul” is still a “jolly good egg”. (It is, for what it’s worth, pretty much what Daniel Kirk does in his book, which is a narrative re-reading – he seeks to portray Paul as faithful to the message of Jesus, which is a hard sell for me, as my view is more that Paul almost completely subverted the message of Jesus by turning the religion OF Jesus into a religion ABOUT Jesus). Discounting the material is almost certainly justified in the case of all but seven of the “Pauline” epistles, and probably in at least parts of others. But there’s shit in some of the authentic ones as well. Ten chapters after 1 Cor. 13 Paul gets on his authoritarian, patriarchal high horse in  11 Cor. The first is thrilling, the second, to me, negates the love he talks of in the first. Three chapters later, 1 Cor. 4 is deeply problematic as well.

Colcannon goes on to discuss Pasolini’s unfilmed “St. Paul”, which he says goes slightly further in presenting a Paul with two faces, the saint and the cleric, and then discusses Brian Blount’s condemnatory approach to Paul, in which he argues that Paul’s attitude to slavery (inter alia) is so repugnant as to render him beyond the pale. But what Colcannon wants is not to sanitise Paul, to make him the victim of DID or to demonise him. He suggests, using Giorgio Agamben’s definition, profaning Paul (i.e. taking something set aside as sacred and returning it to general use by the population). Clearly, he doesn’t think Ellul, Badiou, Blanton, Pasolini or even Blount have succeded in “profaning” Paul.

He then turns to the grandmother of Howard Thurman, Nancy Ambrose, who was born into slavery in the American south. She almost never read from or quoted Paul, except on rare occasions 1. Cor. 13, because she was too well aware of the multiple passages in Paul instructing slaves to be good and dutiful slaves and not with to change that, which she had had preached to her on many occasions by white preachers. Here, I think, lies the problem with Paul. He is just too important a figure to discount if you mention him at all – he gets to some extent sacralised immediately you mention him.

After all, without Paul there would probably be no Christianity. There would be some Jesus-followers, but they would probably either be a smallish Jewish sect (although I note that Chabad Lubavitch are strong in modern Judaism) or a fairly insignificant independent religion like the Mandaeans (who arguably are the residual followers of John the Baptist). Indeed, without Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel (who I suspect was not called John), most of Christian theology as it has typically been over 2000 years would be radically different (and much more like Jewish theology, which, to me, would not be a terrible thing!). And, looming over all of this, Paul’s letters are canon. They’re part of the scriptures which I need to take seriously in order to be part of Christianity at all, though I might be attracted by foreswearing Christianity in favour of being “Iesousian”… If you read or comment on him at all, you have to contend with the reverence he’s commonly treated with, even by Ellul and Badiou.

Although Colcannon does not directly suggest that the only real way to profane Paul is to more or less ignore him, or at the least to treat him as no more important than any non-Christian writer other than the Evangelists of the first century (you can’t include other Christian writers of the period, as they were all hugely influenced by Paul), he does imply this later in the book. This seems to me posssibly the only way to proceed, if, indeed, the objective is to profane him. After all, Colcannon thinks that Paul’s reputation subverted the atheistic Ellul and Badiou. In conscience, I spent very many years not reading Paul on exactly this basis. “My Jesus trumps your Paul” was something I frequently stated. That might be the subject of the chapter “Refusing Paul”, were it not for the fact that this deals with treating Paul AS refuse – after all, that’s what he calls himself in 1 Cor. 4:13; Colcannon fully exposes both the identity of this passage (taken with 1 Phil. 2-3) as a “humble brag”, that he is anticipating a sort of revenge fantasy in a perfected and powerful new body, and the fact that Paul goes on to exclude many members of his communities as not fit, apparently, even to be garbage.

Could Paul’s shit be composted and used, as for instance in Joseph Marchal’s book on Phillippians, in a queer rendering? Well, maybe. I confess to still having misgivings about the whole project: let’s face it, I’m at least as offended by shit as the next 21st century Western European liberal. My tendency is not, like Pasolini, to think there’s a good Paul and a bad Paul, nor is it to seek a kind of consistency in the man. I tend to think that we expect Paul to be someone with a well-developed overall position and a developed theology, whereas I see him as startlingly inconsistent. He is, after all, far more a rhetorician than a theologian (and sometimes a “sophistical rhetorician, inebrted by the exuberance of his own verbosity” as Disraeli said of Gladstone). We must not expect consistency, far less a developed theology such as Karl Barth managed to extract from Romans. Instead, we should notice that Paul said of himself “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” (1 Cor. 9:0). We were warned…

I would unhesitatingly recommend reading Colcannon to anyone who still grapples with Paul and has not consigned him to the refuse-pile or the privy. I have nothing like done justice to his content here, just gleaning the odd shiny bits from the heap of garbage he has assembled from Paul (which is no reflection on Colcannon!). Mostly, he is very readable. Sometimes (as when discussing Badiou or Blanton, who are notoriously difficult to read) he is more difficult, but still illuminates things which I didn’t glean from their works when I read them directly, for which I thank him.


More of the same S4…

Still thinking about my “Paul, the shit sandwich” post, I happened on a podcast episode of The Bible for Normal People featuring Pete Enns and Jared Byass talking about “Respecting the Bible for what it is (and isn’t)” (ep. 207). (No, I didn’t use “S4” to avoid scandalising people, I used it because in the event someone might want to link to it, they may be operating somewhere with a “nanny filter”. I well remember when the Religion Forum acquired a nanny filter, and the howls of outrage from the Judaism section when they got nannied for using the Hebrew word for the first book of the Bible – Bereshit…).

That got me thinking some more about Paul.

Now, I’ve posted before about my attitude to regarding Paul in particular as “the Word of God“. Paul was the main, if not the only, target of that post. However, Pete and Jared spent a little while criticising the attitude of “Progressive Christians” to the authority of scripture, accusing them (and thus, I suppose, me*) of wanting to argue a level of authority for it which their hermaneutic wouldn’t support. After all, Progressive Christians think that the Bible is a human product, very much of its time and place (and, indeed, so do I, as witness my Word of someone post). And so do they, despite mild criticism towards the group into which they clearly fall, at least on some grounds.

At around the 15 minute mark of the podcast, Jared talks about being possibly harder on his progressive (read “liberal”, perhaps) friends than on fundamentalist ones, on the basis that progressives should not, due to their view of scripture, try to ground all their moral decisions in the Bible. But it sounds like not grounding any of their moral views in scripture – and, of course, there’s a huge excluded middle between all and none. The issue there is “is it authoritative?” (OK, totally, somewhat or not at all seem subdivisions there…).

But they are appearing to discount inspiration altogether in what they are saying there. Admittedly, I don’t really mention it in my earlier blog post, but that is from 10 years ago, so maybe my ideas have developed a bit since then, most likely in the face of the repeated quoting at me of 2 Tim. 3:16-17 in a church I attended fror a while (actually, in two at different times). The NIV, rather conventionally, has that passage read “all scripture is God-breathed…” Which might go a little way to their contention that I should treat scripture as, effectively, dictated by God verbatim, were it not for the fact that at the time it was written (probably not by Paul, but that’s an argument I don’t have the equipment to defend thoroughly), only the Hebrew Scriptures were “scripture” in the sense in which we’d understand the term today. Or, at least, for more accuracy, the Septuagint, because that does contain the “apocrypha” i.e. those books of the Septuagint which were composed in Greek and therefore at a later date rejected by Judaism and thus by Protestantism. It’s stretching credulity to believe that it was being self-referential, or that it was meant to include books which weren’t written at the time conservative scholars think 2 Tim was written, i.e. before Paul died, and thus before even the gospel of Mark, and really hard to believe that even Paul was quite so arrogant as to believe his earlier letters were “scripture” – in that sense, at least.

It is, however, a perfectly valid translation of the original Greek to read this as “all God-breathed scripture” or as “all writings…” (as, at the time, “scripture” just meant something written). Conservative friends might concede the first, while suggesting that the communal choice of those works now part of the canon by the early church (not by the Council of Nicaea as is often stated – they merely accepted much of what was already majority view in their bit of the church…) was in itself something “inspired”.

Now, I spent something like 25 years of my life giving audio dictation to typists and secretaries. No-one, I think, who has done this will have any confidence in the idea of a divine dictation of the whole of scripture, and I was particularly concerned that the words typed were the exact words I spoke, being a lawyer (exact choice of words is important in law). Nor does the copying process for copy typists fill me with any more confidence – all such products needed to be checked very carefully for errors, and in any case the evidence is that in the extant early manuscripts there are more textual variations than there are words, so clearly the copying procedure wasn’t checked with the source of inspiration, human or divine.

[This issue of considering something as “authoritative” links, I think, to the veneration of kings and other authority figures and to the hero worship which I mention in my last post, and may go some way to explaining why we put so much work into rehabilitating authors by “chucking out their shit”, disclaiming that it is actually, say, “the true” Paul. Colcannon also cites the example of Valentinius, who deduced that as Jesus was a god-man, he clearly did not shit. Mark 7:15 might indicate otherwise, of course… though I note that Matthew “cleans up” Mark by restricting it to what goes into and comes out of the mouth. (Matt. 15:11)]

Me, I can’t go so far as to say that just because what we now see can’t be regarded as universally inspired, then none of it could remotely possibly be inspired (and that is perforce going to have to include moral inspiration – let’s face it, the Pauline passages I referred to in my earlier “shit” post were largely morally inspiring, irrespective of when (or by whom) they were written. Part of my attitude, I confess, stems from the thinking behind a t-shirt I own, which reads something like “In the beginning God said
, ,
and there was light”
. That, of course, is Maxwell’s equations (or, at least, some of them) governing electromagnetic radiation. And had God indeed said that to the writer of Genesis, sometime around 2000 BCE, they wouldn’t have had any idea what it meant, and even if it had been written down, there’s no way it would have been preserved and edited into the first book of the Bible. Much easier to replace the equations with “let there be light”. You can imagine God speaking, saying “At the beginning of time, I instantiated a set of field relationships in which div B is equal to zero…” and the bronze age individual addressed says “So how can there be a beginning of time, and what do “instantiate”, “field”, “div” and B mean?” And God gives up in disgust on actually explaining how things hang together and goes for something far less accurate but much easier to grasp.

The may be an inspiration there (perhaps), but if there is, it had to be translated, somehow, into language which the inspiree could understand and, in order for it to be transmitted, his listeners or readers could understand. After all, it took until the 1860s for James Clerk Maxwell to come up with those, building on the work of very many generations of brilliant men (and one conjectures women, although their contributions tended not to be recognised or published) before him. How could it possibly have been understood in 1860 BCE?

Things are, from my point of view, not nearly as bleak as they may sound for some inspiration from the distant past, say, for instance, written or dictated by Paul, to still be at least somewhat accurate and useful today (and possibly very insightful and accurate). I work from two facts. Firstly, most of us acknowledge that inspiration does occur to people – artists, musicians, poets, authors, humourists, even scientists (even if we don’t ascribe it to the divine). Many, many people in those fields report that something “just came to them” and felt as if it was from outside them. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s from the subconscious, or even a collective unconscious, if there is such a thing.

Secondly, although it is emphatically true that retellers of oral tales and copyists of written ones make frequent errors, some phrases and choices of language or concept make such an impression that they “stick”. For a very mundane example, again from my learning days as a lawyer, I took some instructions for a divorce from a lady. Knowing that the registrar at the local County Court was very straight laced, some of the wording read “He introduced into our sexual practices foreign objects, to wit, candles, candle sticks, beer bottles, milk bottles, screwdriver handles and saw handles…”. I noted two things. Firstly, there were absolutely no mistakes in that petition, and secondly, it more or less stopped the typing pool in its tracks for a good half hour as the typists talked about it. I suspect the words may stick in my readers’ minds as well as those of the typists.

Of course, they can stick for the wrong reason as well as the right one. An element of surprise is often a good thing (“Did he really use the word ‘shit’ in a theological post?”), but there can be the surprise of finding your favoured author has said something frankly horrible as well.

To me, those who say either that all scripture is uniformly inspired and those who insist we treat it all as not inspired are just chickening out of doing the real work of discernment. As Paul says (probably) himself “test everything, hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). My more conservative friends will accuse me of just taking a “cafeteria” apporoach, keeping what I like and dumping what I don’t, in a dreadful capitulation to the time and place I live in (“the world”, which possibly-Paul enjoins us to shun (Col. 3:2, though there are plenty of more reliably Pauline statements which align – he really isn’t keen on “sarx” i.e. flesh). Not so – some of the passages I remember best and take most to heart are those which I find most difficult – Matt. 5:48, for instance, or Matt. 19:16-22. (I’m no ruler, but by world standards, I have to count as at least fairly rich). I’ve written before about both of those. Or the refrain throughout Jesus’ teachings in favour of non-violence.

There is more. Impressed by complaints about the length of my posts, I’ve cut this one into two sections



* I’m not too comfortable with “Progressive”, because I think it’s an attempt to capture a term which doesn’t always fit in response to the capture, in the USA, of the term “Liberal” by conservatives who have redefined (“captured”) it as, basically, socialism – which they earlier redefined as indistinguishable from communism. Which is, of course, deeply scary. I’m from the UK, and have voted and stood (sometimes successfully) as a candidate first for the Liberal Party and then for the Liberal Democrats following the merger with the Social Democrats. Who were a socialist party. So I’m not scared of either “Liberal” or “Socialist”. Conservatives are often very progressive, even if they regard what they’re doing as an attempt to get back to some (fictional) earlier state, and they’ve coined “Libertarian” to express an attitude which has long been a part of Liberalism writ large. And it’s progressive. (Progress isn’t always in a direction I approve of…)


Individual and collective conversion disorders

Last Wednesday, I took in Jamieson Webster’s seminar at GCAS rather than the afternoon session of Wake. I did the same on Thursday, and then took in Barry Taylor’s session on Friday morning, as Wake had finished on Thursday evening.

(It finished with a pub crawl for which I managed an “Irish goodbye”, i.e. never got to the first pub, but without announcing that to more than one or two – and I apologise to anyone who would have liked me to buttonhole them and say “goodbye” properly, but pubs are absolutely not my thing, particularly when they’re full to the gills with a sudden influx of 40-odd extra people – I’d been pushing the envelope of my anxiety disorder all week, but only for things I really wanted to go to – and that didn’t include watching other people drink while not being able to hear myself think).

Jamieson Webster is a practising psychoanalyst and teacher of psychoanalysis with a string of books to her credit, including “Conversion Disorder” about which I wrote a couple of years ago. She talks about Freud and Lacan in a way which actually manages to make me think I might want to read a bit of those two thinkers, which is an achievement. I’m a novice to psychoanalysis, which is virtually the only psychological therapy I’ve no experience of at all, but have been getting the idea over the last few years that I should get to know more – after all, both Freud and Lacan feature large in the works of Slavoj Zizek, Todd McGowan and Peter Rollins, all of whom I have a lot of respect for (even if, in the case of Pete, I disagree with him a huge proportion of the time these days – not least because of his use of Lacan). Zizek talks very engagingly, but his writing I find mostly impenetrable, Mc Gowan also talks well, and his books are slightly more accessible but I still find very many points of disagreement, and Pete talks wonderfully well, his books are pretty accessible, but that merely enables me to disagree with him more easily without fearing too much that I’ve totally misunderstood him. Yes, I tried reading a little Freud way back when, and found his ideas difficult-to-impossible to agree with. Lacan, I don’t dare trying to read without a “native guide”!

So, some of the Wednesday session involved her talking of conversion, not merely conversion disorder. I noticed that she had in mind something very like the modern idea of conversion, which is very much an individual matter (it is also that in the very fine book “Paul, the Convert” by Alan E. Segal). But that got me thinking. Early Christianity, at the very least, often aimed to convert by dint of approaching the king or other leader and converting them on an individual basis, but then counting the whole nation as being converted. This seems to have been the general case, at least until Christianity hit the jackpot and managed to convert Constantine (and the Empire broadly followed, largely due to more and more preferential treatment of Christians and less and less kindness towards other religions). Indeed, there were places where Christian missionaries came into direct conflict with Jews seeking to spread Judaism in a similar way. Judaism managed to convert Helena of Adiabene inaround 30 CE (before there were Christians to mount an opposing bid) and Judaism is generally thought to have gained the Khazars sometime between 740 and 920 CE, very possibly in competition with Christian missionaries. The conversion of the Germanic and northern European peoples was fairly typical.

Now, to my 21st century Western European, enlightenment-oriented, religiously pluralist eyes, the idea that you might adopt the religion of your leader, just because it’s their religion, seems very strange. (In passing, I’m not 100% confident that the same goes for Americans generally. It probably does for the “liberal elites”, who are broadly Western European in oiutlook, even though they’re substantially more politically conservative than I’d expect an otherwise similar European individual to be, but I do note that the US is yet to elect as president anyone who is not avowedly Christian…) We tend to think that if there’s a mass conversion, it must be under duress. However, I thought, that isn’t the way Iron Age people (i.e. those of the first centuries CE) or mediaevals tended to see things, even up to the dawn of the enlightenment. Their idea of leadership meant that the king was the incarnation, in a way, of the people as a whole. You got rid of the king/leader and the whole nation or tribe tended to crumble (as happened with the Mongols when the great khan Ogadei died,  anld with the Huns on the death of Attila). They were far more communitarian, in a hierarchical way – in a sense which was, I think, very real to them, you were represented by the king, and the king was a part of you, a part of your identity. Biblically, of course, the Hebrews had a strong tendency in that direction until the fall of the monarchy – we can recall the pleas of the Israelites to be granted a king, against the wishes of their prophets for the most part (and one has to suspect that those prophets did not want to be supplanted as a kind of theocratic king-equivalent). Daniel 10:13 talks of the “Prince of Persia” opposing what we tend to characterise as an angel serving the God of Israel, but which might just be closer to actually being that God than we like to think, and it is clear that the Prince of Persia is thought of as a spiritual entity which, on the supernatural plane, can frustrate the intentions of YHVH. Thus, kings were thought of as spiritual, as encapsulating the spirit of the nation.

In a very similar way, tribal or family leaders represented and incarnated the people who followed them. Abraham, for instance, was to be blessed with countless descendants, even if he didn’t live to see them spread over the earth himself. Many of us these days are not so focused on propagating our genome as to find having masses of descendants something particularly comforting or rewarding. And, of course, this meant that the leader, whether of family, tribe or nation, should have unquestioning obedience (in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, one can see that all of the “binding cluster” of loyalty, authority and sanctity are at work there; it was therefore a fundamentally conservative outlook, and again I wonder whether those on the political right, particularly in the USA, can better understand this mechanic than we liberals, who tend to focus more on the “induvidualising cluster” of care and fairness ). This positioning of the King as the “spirit of the nation” may go a long way towards understanding the divinisation of Alexander the Great and then of multiple Roman emperors; the cult of the emperor was the cult of the nation, hence the persecution of Jews and then Christians, because as monotheists they had to deny the cult of the emperor, and so were traitors. (The same mechanic applied to the much later persecution of Catholics and, briefly, Protestants in England in the 16th and 17th centuries particularly).

In Northern Europe, the conversion of the Saxons was by force after Charlemagne conquered them, but that of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts in the British Isles was more along modern individual lines, although there may have been some “follow the leader” going on, as they were very much “top down”, gradual conversions. The Franks largely followed their king, as did the Vandals and some of the Goths. The rather weaker penetration of Christianity in Mesapotamia and points east may be because missionaries failed to convert ruling houses (which frequently had identities tied up with local religions). In Georgia, Armenia and Ethiopia, the kings forced their subjects, but otherwise alternative mechanics seem to have been in play . The Roman empire, of course, was a case of individual conversion for some years, then a massive increase under the “follow the king” principle (or Emperor in that case) and afterwards increasingly by force, even if for some time that was more economic force than physical. This may equally go some way to explaining the rapid spread of Islam through the lands formerly part of the Eastern Roman Empire (and some of the Western) – they fell out of the rule of the Emperor, and thus the Emperor’s cult, which was now Christianity, became far less attractive. It would seem that contrary to widespread popular opinion, there was not much forced conversion in the earlier days of Islam, ᵈ  and the force later used was chiefly economic (you were taxed more as a non-Muslim in most Islamic countries).

This third mechanism of conversion I put forward tentatively, as it is my own idea and not one I’ve seen in any literature. Mass conversion without obvious force was, however, definitely a phenomenon, whatever the explanation. Even if we tend now not to invest a substantial amount of our identity in our leaders (although I will say that I am well able to be embarrassed by our current leader in the UK, and aware that non-UK citizens tend to think he’s emblematic of all the citizens), the phenomenon of hero-worship is alive and well and explains a lot of the aping of famous people and the level of disillusion when they turn out to have feet of clay. Johnny Depp springs to mind as the currently controversial example of this (I note replaced as Grindlewald in the most recent Harry Potter film by Mads Mikkelsen, raising the issue of “is he a less good actor because his private life is a mess?”).

All of the above is about conversion, not conversion disorder (and, indeed, Jamieson talked more about conversion than conversion disorder at that point). From the link, conversion disorder arises from a stressful situation, and involves “blindness, paralysis, or other nervous system (neurologic) symptoms that cannot be explained by medical evaluation”. We can obviously think of Paul’s blindness here, and of the physical ills reported by very many mystics (including, I suspect, stigmata). Can we, however, talk of conversion disorder in relation to a group, tribe or nation: doesn’t that argue that one could talk of the mind of a nation, and perhaps subject that to psychoanalysis or other psychological therapies?

Well, something looking a lot like conversion disorder does seem to play a part in many instances (perhaps all) of mass hysteria. That thought, during the talk, reminded me of the theme I see in Zizek, in Todd McGowan and in Peter Rollins, which seems to argue that psychoanalysis (particularly of the Lacanian variety) can be used on a group, tibe, civilisation, even a society of many nations (such as the current Western paradigm of financialised free market-ish capitalism). Now, I’m very keen on the idea of finding solutions to the problem of financialised free market capitalism, which I’ve elsewhere described as the System of Satan. Which post was, I suppose, my small contribution to trying to see the system as it is, from a Christian perspective. I saw no solutions there, however, aside trying to convince a decent slice of Christianity that this system is fundamentally a bad one. Other avenues are warmly appreciated…

But can you psychoanalyse the whole society? Psychoanalysis, after all, depends on the construction (generally through the development) of human mental patterns in an individual, not in a group of people. Yes, there is talk of mob psychology, but is that really a psychology, or some parapsychological phenomenon which may involve individual minds but, as with most emergent phenomena, can’t be explained at the level of the individual? Freud (from the link) thought that crowd behaviour stemmed from the unocking of the unconscious mind of the crowd, and the replacement of the individual superego by a charismatic crowd leader. I’m not wholly sure I buy that theory, given that leadership of a crowd only rests with the charismatic one as long as the leader goes in something like the direction the crowd wants, and if they don’t, they are apt to be trampled by it as it seems to take on a character unmediated by any superego-substitute.   It may be, however, that this effect is equivalent to a weakening of any superego effect similar to that postulated in delinquency, and certainly out-of-control crowds tend to be very delinquent. I postulate that the same mechanism might well be at work in law-enforcement personnel who are tasked with controlling the situation: certainly there seems a strong tendency for otherwise fairly responsible people on both sides of these conflicts to behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise contemplate, and there is probably a massive contribution from how terrified they are – I suffer from an anxiety disorder, and I can note how, if I am sufficiently anxious or scared, I lose several levels of consciousness, become much more stupid than I normally am and am prone to “4 F’s” behaviour which stems from a pre-conscious level of functioning. 

Many years ago, I nursed for a while an idea that societies of people went through stages of maturation similar to those in individuals. At the time, I was focused mainly on late childhood and early adolescence. I thought, for instance, that 16th and 17th century England displayed characteristics similar to those of adolescents, while the USA was only displaying similar characteristics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mediaeval England, on the other hand, bore some resemblance to the “might makes right” dynamics of a school playground between (say) the age of 9 and the onset of adolescence. I didn’t take that thinking any further. However, I’m now wondering if the “follow the leader” dynamic I talk of above in relation to conversion might link with the infantile stages where the individual is not yet truly separate from the parent, the “parent” in these cases being the leader, who could have a psychology which was broadly speaking at any developmental level, likely closer to a parental than an infantile one (although, looking at some recent leaders, I’m not so certain about that).

If that were the case, if might conceivably be that the founding of much of psychoanalysis in childhood experiences just might be replicated in societies, and that would lead to some very interesting possibilities. One avenue of research I can immediately think of would be a minute analysis of multiple bodycam footages from such an event, provided it were one which got somewhat out of control. But this is emphatically not within my areas of expertise, having no academic background in psychology, psychoanalysis or sociology… I’d love to see someone work on it, and their results, though!


Haidt is somewhat conservatively oriented, and considers that liberals neglect the binding cluster in favour of the individualising cluster, while (for him) conservatives treat them all equally. Personally I identify as thoroughly liberal, but I find those in my area of the political spectrum do recognise and have regard to the binding cluster, although we tend not to want to sacrifice the individualising cluster, while I see many conservatives as neglecting the individualising cluster in favour of the binding cluster, so that individual values always take second place to binding ones.
ᵇ There is a good overview of Christian conversions on Wikipedia
Wikipedia also talks of this process.
ᵉ It is not, I think, the case that all mystics have such symptoms, as some people seem to want to suggest, but it is very common in the accounts of Christian mystics of the middle ages and later.
ᶠ This might correspond to the “Emergent Norm theory” in the article on crowd psychology. I rather discount the convergence and social identity theories as grounding this behaviour, as they would tend to operate contrary to the descent into a “lower form” of thinking. There might, of course, be some aid in Jung’s “collective unconscious” thinking, if only there were some believable mechanism for that to come about. Mere meme and/or imitation would not seem to me to do the job, given (in particular) that both are nearer the conscious than I think such a mechanism would need to be.
ᵍ  I remarked in a previous post on the aftermath of the George Floyd shooting how people who were scared enough do stupid things, in paarticular reference to policemen.

Don’t dogpile, even if the pronoun is wrong

A friend was talking to me recently about how he had inadvertently used “he” when the person involved wanted to be referred to as “them/they”, speaking in an academic seminar setting on zoom, and had promptly got dogpiled in the chat section by people saying that he had “committed an act of violence” towards the individual in question. Of course, he apologised promptly, but apparently that wasn’t enough. He was, to me entirely understandably, very upset by this, partly because it ruined his learning experience and effectively silenced him for the rest of the session – and he’s now paranoid about it, and feels that he almost can’t speak at all, for fear of getting it wrong again.

Takeaway #1 – don’t cripple someone’s learning experience.

But look, I can also understand that for people whose gender identity is not simply allocatable to “he/him” or “she/her”, it is galling to be forced back into answering to pronouns which not only don’t fit, but are a reminder of a stereotype which they’ve had to struggle very hard to overcome. And yes, they also may have had their learning experience ruined, at least temporarily. They might even feel silenced by the wish not to have the error repeated. Yes, I was brought up with the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words cannot hurt me” being dinned into me – and I decided at an early age that that was garbage, because I was easily hurt myself by other people’s words, and could see that others felt much as I did. “Man up” was not a helpful thing to say to me at that point (the person who said it is now dead, so that issue is sort of over…)

My friend is of similar age to myself, maybe a year or two younger. In my own case, I only woke up to the fact that people were really concerned about other people’s use of pronouns for them about 9 years ago (OK, in my defence, the previous ten plus years I’d been so focused on my own psychology and recovery that I wasn’t participating in any venues where it was an issue). Perhaps I should have woken up to this move in language earlier, at least had I been connecting with the rest of humanity. That means that I, at least, spent something like 60 years being acculturated into the use of he/him and she/her, and it is VERY difficult to change habits which have taken that long to be instilled. For what it’s worth, my father (born 1920) left some writings which I’m only now getting round to going through, 21 years after his death, and 8 after my mother died and left me the sole custodian. Some of the language he uses of other races leaves, shall we say, a lot to be desired, and although he was in general a very broad minded individual and made friends with a number of people not of white anglo-saxon stock (including nearly marrying an Indian lady) his language never became wholly politically correct. My mother for many years fought a losing rearguard action against the use of “gay” for those of same-sex orientation. She grew up with “gay” meaning happy and carefree, and resented having that meaning taken away from her – even though it was obsolete language by the time I was in my teens, and she died when I was 61.

I have got people’s pronouns wrong on occasion, been told about it, apologised and moved on, to try harder where that person is involved in a conversation. In all cases, my apology has been accepted, the person involved said they understood that it was difficult, and I tried harder. But I haven’t been dogpiled, particularly by people being offended on behalf of someone else (which, to me, seems wrong). If I were, I fancy I might have my defence mechanisms kick in without any conscious move on my part and say something REALLY unforgivable. Or I might just never talk to those people ever again, as I have a huge avoidant streak. In any event, it would ruin my engagement with them thereafter.

I fancy my friend is in much the same position, and commend him on not being strident in opposition to the dogpiling.

I got used to using the pronouns appropriate to a person’s outward appearance rather than enquiring more about gender fairly early on, and acted as lawyer for, on my calculation, all of the transsexuals in my (rather small and provincial) town at one time. They liked our (myself and staff’s) open mindedness and lack of judgment – and, of course, the fact that we were using the “right” pronouns for them. I’ve always had more problem with those whose appearance is ambiguous. Certainly I take offence at people who want to call nonbinary people “it” – that is obviously offensive (and, sadly, removes one of the possibilities for my referring to God, even though “he” is a deeply problematic usage and “she” just looks like an attempt to over-correct – I know plenty of people who are happy to say that, for instance, gravity is an “it”, but not God, even if they don’t really think of God as personal). The trouble is, “they” and “them” have a collossal association with being plural in my subconscious, and are very difficult for me to slip into using naturally, if I’m actually thinking about the content of what I’m trying to convey rather than about being politically correct (and I find it more and more difficult with age to do both at the same time). The recent fabrications like ze/zir/zirs are horribly difficult for me, not least because I can’t remember them or pronounce them with confidence, although the fact that I don’t actually interact with anyone who uses those in order to get practice may be the most important. What I generally try to do is just use the given name as much as my brain is capable of.

So, to anyone I may inadvertently offend this way in the future (and I probably will), I apologise. I do try, but it is very difficult for us old people to manage. Let’s face it, many of my generation haven’t got to grips with metric units yet, and they came in in the 1970s and the process was pretty much complete by 1980.

Takeaway #2 – older people have more difficulty with this than younger ones. Try for a bit of forgiveness – you know, love your neighbour as yourself, even if they get things wrong.

And I do really question whether people other than those who have actually been called something they don’t like are actually as offended as they claim, or whether they are actually making a power play to silence older people (i.e., in this case, my friend). After all, I used to knock around with a group of gay friends in my 20s, and had to get used to the fact that they referred to everyone female or male as “she/her”, including me (which was jarring for, say, half an hour…). OK, despite having now been happily married to one woman for some 40 years, I did have a period of some gender confusion in my early teens, am very impatient with male gender stereotypes (which I often don’t fit well) and I could for some time after puberty have best been described as “bisexual”, looking at sexual partners – so perhaps I was less wedded to a “he/him” identity than many. Add to that the fact that side effects of the medications which are keeping me alive and somewhat sane have rendered me effectively asexual, with neither capability nor libido (so I’ve gone from one of the “A”s in LGBTQIAA+ to another), and I’m honestly not worried what gendered or non-gendered pronouns you use for me, as long as I recognise they’re meant to refer to me. Which I probably won’t if it’s “ze/zir/zirs or the like.

I also see it as just plain bullying when more than one person does this. If someone is down, don’t keep kicking them.

I also think I detect a strong element of “virtue signalling”, and of demonstrating that “these are my people”. I understand that, but if you make it more and more difficult for people to be fully on board with your views, you are going to end up an increasingly tiny group. Politics 101 says you need to make alliances with those who are similar but not the same as you. So for goodness sake, cut people some slack…

Takeway #3 – if it isn’t your pronoun, it’s probably not your business.

(Yes, I’m fully aware that I’m taking up arms to support someone who I perceived as hurt by someone’s action, even though it isn’t me who is hurt. I felt sympathy for him, but also a level of indignation at the bullying aspect which might, on reflection, be over-the-top. But I’m not doing it in an environment which is calculated to silence anyone. Nor am I virtue signalling – indeed, perhaps the opposite, as this post will probably annoy some people who otherwise think very similarly to me.)

Takeaway #4 – don’t be a bully.

But don’t call people “it”… And yes, I’d be offended if someone in my presence called any human being “it”. But if it wasn’t me, I’d probably not call them out on it. I maybe wouldn’t even if it were me.

Paul the S4 sandwich?

One of the keynote speakers at Wake this year was Richard Boothby, whose book “Blown Away” talks of his reactions to his son’s suicide some years ago. He’s a philosopher, with a strong interest in psychoanalysis, so fitted in well with Pete Rollins and with the psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster. She was mostly speaking at the GCAS seminars next door, but as the two shared some content, Jamieson was there for a three-way conversation with Richard and Pete.

I may well come back to Boothby, but one thing which slipped out was that he isn’t a great fan of St. Paul, something I most definitely share. As he said, Paul was capable of some amazingly evocative language (largely on the subject of love – 1 Cor. 1:13 is perhaps the crowning glory of those passages), but he also had some very unpalateable things to say about, for instance, slaves and women – and had some horribly authoritarian views. Pete, on the other hand, thinks that Paul is wonderful, perhaps taking his cue largely from Alan Badiou’s book “Saint Paul, the Foundation of Universalism”. Incidentally, unlike the other books I mention in this post, I have and have read this, and gone through a book group discussing it together with Zizek’s “The Puppet and the Dwarf”, which also focuses on Paul. Badiou definitely suggests that Paul created Christianity by either creating or noticing an “event”, i.e. an unrepeatable phenomenon which changes something about your view irrevocably. Badiou sees this as the “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” from 1 Cor. 1:23, something which calls into question the philosophical foundations of both Judaism and Greek philosophy. Zizek similarly sees an event, but one sweeping aside the then-existing distinctions between Jew and Greek, man and woman and slave and master (Gal. 3:28); Rollins sees a fundamental Hegelian/Lacanian contradiction in the concept of the death of God, which he regards as Paul’s overwhelming contribution (personally I think Jesus’ resurrection is a more key moment than his death, and his lifetime ministry is more key than either, so the gospels were an urgent corrective to the Pauline letters which were written first, but there you go…).

Personally, I don’t think picking out one or two passages from a larger body of work and using them as the touchstone for the entire remainder is a valid move, which all of Badiou, Zizek and Rollins seem to me to do to a great extent – add to that that I have the hugest doubts that Paul would agree with or perhaps even understand what any of them have written or talked about in him. However, “Death of the Author” and all that – you consign the words to the page, and the rest of the work is in the head of the reader, and as author you don’t really get to tell people not to read you that way. Being dead, that is… I can’t see, for instance, that Hegel and Zizek would get along well, were Hegel not dead.

I’m therefore aiming to buy a couple of other books. One of those is “Jesus I have loved, but Paul” by J. Daniel Kirk (whose “A Man Attested by God” I much enjoyed. The other I only stumbled across today, called “Profaning Paul”. It sounds strongly as if it might fit very well with the current state of my thinking on the man!

I particularly liked that in the review, mention was made of Colcannon not dealing with the issue of which Pauline letters are actually Paul, which may be a bit Paul, and which are basically forgeries. Let’s face it, I’m not competent in koine Greek, nor am I a textual scholar, and while I can do a bit of theme analysis and come to some conclusions which pretty much match the general run of non-conservative Biblical scholarship, my opinion isn’t worth much, and delving into the rationales is a bit beyond me. Add to that that, whoever actually wrote them, they’ve been part of our canon for at least 1650 years, probably longer. I can do without the argument that I can’t go criticising the authorship from my more conservative friends, given that they’ll criticise me anyhow for not taking scripture as something perfect given to us by divine dictation for all time, or bending with the times. To both of those, I’ll plead guilty and defend my position, which is rather akin to why I don’t think we should still be operating in the UK according to Norman-French laws of the 11th century.

Looking at the description, it seems the author, Cavan Concannon, is not scared of a little scatological language (and neither was Paul), so I’ll sum it up as thinking that Paul is like a shit sandwich – you may get some sustenance, but you have to contend with a very nasty taste in your mouth.

And I’ll still, on occasion, say “My Jesus trumps your Paul”. Even if Paul managed to go to print before the four evangelists…

(there’s a follow-on…)

Being a liminal Christian

Brian McLaren has a new book “Do I stay Christian“, and the link gives access to an interview with Tripp Fuller as well as to a group and a forthcoming reading group around the book.

Having just got back from Peter Rollins “Wake” festival (which revolves around his Pyrotheology concept, combining Radical Theology, Philosophy and the Arts, generally the more subversive arts), I was reminded of a parable Pete told again this year (here’s a link to a previous telling).

Now, being a Christian is something which I was told I was by a couple of people some time after I started moderating the Christianity section of the then Compuserve Religion Forum (effectively defunct since AoL took over, but there’s still a group of that name). I, of course, denied it at least three times before rather reluctantly accepting that yes, at least by their standards, maybe I was. But if I am, I’m not a very good one. Maya Angelou said “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I go, ‘Already?'”, and I can pretty much identify with that. I’m very impressed by Jesus (not so much by the Christ of Pauline and subsequent theology), but I don’t remotely measure up to Jesus’ very high standards. At least, I’ve got this idea in my head that they’re very high standards, despite Jesus also allowing as followers some strikingly imperfect people – but then, I have this immensely irritating perfectionist streak, which I seem to apply only to myself. Perhaps I need to love myself as I love others? Incidentally, Dave Tomlinson has written a book about being a bad Christian (and being a better human being) which I recommend.

I’m definitely not a Christian by the standards of a lot of Christian groupings, including the Catholics and most Evangelicals. Indeed, there’s one of the authors I’ve edited a couple of times who likes to call me his “unsaved friend”. That brings me to the idea on which Brian and Tripp agree, early in their discussion, that Christianity is (per Brian) a “team sport”. Now, as they discuss, there are a lot of reasons not to stay a Christian (all of which have influenced me in the past), and as they say, anyone might find it impossible to stay within a tradition which (for instance) has been a set of complete shits towards those of their mother religion, Judaism. I actually find that individual congregations can be similarly really good reasons not to be a member of them, particularly if they would take major exception to what I said if I were to outline what I actually do think is (at least probably) the case – and in the past, some have done just that, and I’ve followed the Biblical injunction to shake the dust off my sandals as I left. But, in conscience, I’ve never found a congregation in which I feel totally free to talk about my theological ideas, which is one reason why I so much value the Wake festival. Harking back to another discussion which went on this year (in one of the GCAS seminars which accompanied the event this time), I’ve tended to be liminal in any congregation I worship with, just as two of the GCAS doctoral students were as they pursued PhDs in Radical Theology while serving confessional congregations as clergy.

But, not being clergy, nor having any sensible chance of becoming clergy (though one of the two people I mentioned earlier also suggested that I regarded my moderating of the Christianity section as a “pastoral mission”, and again after a LOT of argument, I reluctantly conceded that he was right), I don’t have the same need to stick with a congregation.

Is it reallyt a “team sport”, though? Again, in a conversation at Wake, someone quoted “when two or three are gathered together”, implying that community is foundational. I held my tongue, as I could have quoted back the Gospel of Thomas Oxyrhyncus version as translated by Oresse “Jesus says: “Where there are [two (?) they are] not without God, and where there is one, I say <to you>, I am with him. Raise the stone, and there thou wilt find me; split the wood: I am even there!” “ As long as you’re broad minded about what constitutes scripture, that’s the counterpoint – and, indeed, one translation (Attridge) renders that “Where there are [three], they are without God, and where there is but [a single one], I say that I am with [him].” So no, I don’t think it has to be a team sport. But I’d massively prefer that it was, thus the pilgrimage to Belfast, postponed by Covid from 2020.

And I’m really sad to hear that there won’t be one next year. Being with “your” group only for a few days every two years – well, it just isn’t enough. Thank goodness for Zoom! Although even then, I’m not sure how much it’s community, for me, and how much it’s just getting sparked with new ideas. There will probably be quite a few posts coming based on this year’s Wake!

The end is nigh…

If you’ve been reading through the sequence of “apocalyptic” posts I’ve put up recently, you’ll have read war, pestilence and famine. I actually started writing following an extremely timely piece which George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian some while ago, given that at the time the COP26 talks in Glasgow were just starting. I agree with virtually everything he says, but think the chances of the world generally taking sufficient action to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures are very slim indeed. The end result of COP26 doesn’t improve my outlook, unfortunately. I also agree with the UN’s take on the situation. A meter of rise in sea level would be fairly disastrous, but probably supportable, but at present we’re headed for something between 2.5 degrees and 6 degrees. That would be wholly unsupportable, given predictions of somewhat over two meters of rise for each degree in temperature. Many of the world’s biggest cities would be underwater, the crop-growing temperate zone would be in Siberia and Canada, leaving all the current agricultural powerhouses desert or semi-desert, there would be an even greater destruction of wildlife including, perhaps most importantly, insects. My own house, 40 miles inland but only about 4 meters above sea level, would probably be flooded (I live in mid-Yorkshire, just south of York, and am in the middle of the red splotch in Yorkshire on this very cautious projection), along with the large area of productive farmland around it.

The targets set at Paris (which would have produced a rise toward the bottom end of that bracket) have not been met, and this is COP26. There have been 25 previous meetings, and very little has been achieved, particularly in the biggest current contributors to climate change, China, India and the United States. It is now over three years since Greta Thunberg walked out of school and sparked a global movement, but her message has so far fallen on deaf ears (though she does, I think, represent another feature of apocalytic scenarios, that they throw up someone who is a shining example to the rest of us, even if doomed to failure). A dishonorable mention here to Brazil and Indonesia, both of which are busily removing old rain forests which fix large amounts of carbon. Hansi Freinacht wrote (in 2013) “If we are to globally make the cli­mate goal of keeping the temperature below a 2°C increase (which is still possi­bly catastrophic, as we’ll have more carbon in the atmosphere than for millions of years), we need to re­duce our carbon emissions by something to the tune of 25 billion tons per year before 2060 (as compared to the “bus­iness as usual” scenario). Now imagine this. Re­ducing with one (!) bil­lion tons would require either doub­ling the world’s nuclear power output, or expanding our wind power output by 50 times (some two million new mills), or expanding solar pow­er by a factor of 700, or using a sixth of all globally available arable land to grow biofuels to replace fossil fuels… And if we do all four (linearly increa­sing the output over the period 2013-2060), we are still only done with a small fraction of the overall necessary carbon red­uction; four out of the nec­ess­ary 25 billion tons reduced. And as things stand today, carbon emiss­ions are still grow­ing according to the “business as usual” scenario.” It seems extremely far-fetched to think that we can now, 8 years later and with no significant progress, reach that goal.

Since I starting writing, we have the recent IPCC report – which gives us three years to start seriously reducing emissions (not just stopping the increase), if we are to have a chance of 1.5 degrees of warming. I see little chance that this will happen, despite the pious mutterings of world leaders, 195 of whom have signed off on those proposals. (This post has been hanging around for quite some time, most recently delayed by personal sampling of Covid, which I do not recommend – but have survived).

Is this an apocalyptic scenario? Well, in the sense of apocalyptic used in Biblical studies, meaning an unveiling of a hidden truth, what has been the case since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been progressively revealed over the last 30 or 40 years. It has been a hard sell for many of those of my generation, who grew up with the opposite fear, that a nuclear exchange could bring about a “nuclear winter”. What it has most definitely revealed is that governments everywhere (though somewhat less in Europe than elsewhere) are afraid to take the steps necessary to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperature, presumably because they don’t think they can sell the concept to their electorates. It has also revealed that there are many among us (particularly, it seems, in the USA) who are prepared to use any excuse, including blatant falsehoods, to avoid limiting their profligate use of natural resources – so the governments are, perhaps, right. There is clearly a massive failure of public education going on, given the number of people who kick and scream against what the science is telling us (and telling us more and more forcibly as time goes by); at least in a substantial number of European countries, there seems to be some generalised appreciation that things cannot continue along the trajectory they are doing, but this is by no means shared worldwide.

Companies are hamstrung both by the tragedy of the commons and the neoliberal dictum that shareholder value is the only consideration, which leads to incredibly short-term thinking. We cannot expect companies in the grip of this belief system to act in a communally responsible way, they need government action to compel them. Arguably, just government action is insufficient, we need global government action, and there is no functioning global government (and little prospect that there will be).

Is it apocalyptic in the more popular sense of the end of civilisation, Mad Max style? The best known Biblical apocalypse, Revelation, obviously has a large amount of doom and gloom scenarios in it as well as “revealing hidden truths”, so the popular understanding is hardly without precedent.We might, however, want to recall that Revelation includes the lines  (Rev. 21) Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Even in the Bible’s most “doom and gloom” book, there is a promise of something better…

Well, with a lot of careful planning, the vast populations which would be flooded out or find themselves living in deserts might be moved to newly agriculturally productive areas and those might be sufficient to provide for the surviving population – but that’s the sort of careful planning which could remove the need for such massive relocations and which is clearly not being done. Add to that the generally joyous reception given to large scale migration in the world (sarcasm alert), and I see a recipe for a lot of wars and rumours of wars. Not quite, however, Mad Max territory, perhaps, unless you add in the possibility of killing off pollinating insects or one of the vast grain monocultures such as wheat or rice. Without those, we could possibly get away by killing off only, say, 95% of the world’s population. With them, we’d probably be looking at something more like 99.9%. Even that would, of course, still leave several millions of humans potentially alive. It wouldn’t however, leave our economic systems intact.

And, indeed, Monbiot is almost certainly correct in suggesting that in order to achieve climate change goals at all, we need a radical restructuring of our economic systems, which would probably also demand a radical restructuring of our political systems. Conservation, protection of the planet, is just incompatible with economic systems which demand constant growth in order to continue functioning. The report “The Limits to Growth” is now nearly 50 years old. The Guardian commented on it at around the 40 year mark, and was not optimistic. There seems little reason to be any more optimistic now. The only way I can see that the world might move towards the kind of systems Monbiot envisages is a worldwide popular uprising, sweeping away most of the economic and political structures we have in place at the moment. Gradual change is something we are probably already too late to rely on – and that kind of popular uprising might be nearly as catastrophic as the anarchy which I envisage when climate change renders much of the globe uninhabitable. Tad DeLay, on the other hand, is pessimistic about the likelihood we will do this.

There are, of course, those who have a touching faith in the ability of science to find a solution where none currently exists. To me, it resembles the faith of Biblical apocalypticists that God would intervene and create a new world order, which I might point out has not happened in the nearly 2000 years since the last of those canonised was written. The days of the “Deus ex machina” appear to be over. Yes, maybe science will find some solution (though wholesale alteration of our climate in the short term seems to be an incredibly risky prospect), but that is wholely in the area of “hope over experience” at present.

This post is the fourth of the series, corresponding to the Fourth Horseman:- “When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, a pale horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.”— Revelation 6:7–8 (New American Standard Bible)

It is very tempting to see that passage as a prediction of the effects of climate change, which will bring war, famine and probably pestilence with it, and most certainly chaos. Not, however, so much of the wild beasts of the earth, as we are in the middle of a great extinction and many species are disappearing before humanity. But I don’t, except inasmuch as all total failures of a society look somewhat similar. The probable target of that vision of the future was of a collapse of the Roman Empire, which the writer no doubt saw coming in or around the second century (whereas it didn’t happen until the fifth century for the Western Empire and, arguably, the fifteenth for the Eastern). For the writer, the Roman Empire was essentially the whole world. Climate change, however, IS  a whole world problem.

I hope above hope that I might be being unduly pessimistic here, but in conscience, I just think I’m being realistic. My generation and that before it, in particular, have failed our descendants. I apologise on their behalves. We will not be around to see the full effects and apologies then…





Speaking as an UK national and resident, we are lost. We’re in an unpleasant place (with 9% inflation, stagnant growth, a major cost of living crisis affecting disproportionately the poorest among us, difficulties recruiting labour for all sorts of occupations, not least the NHS… and I could go on virtually ad nauseam).

Most of us, including those who voted Brexit and still seem wedded to the concept, are prepared to acknowledge that we’re lost. Gone are the days when Leave voters would say “we haven’t given it a chance yet”, aside from a few die-hards.

The thing is, when you’re lost and asking for directions, the first question you’re going to be asked is “where are you?”. And we’re apparently not allowed to mention Brexit. Economists are broadly agreed that a significant amount of the inflation and the stagnant growth are due to Brexit, but the government will not allow talk of Brexit, and the BBC and much other broadcast media seem to have been cowed into avoiding any mention of Brexit as well (not to mention that the majority of the press is still trying to find positives in Brexit). The BBC’s “Countryfile” programme recently had a short piece on difficulties caused by Brexit in farming, and there was a deluge of protest from Leave-voting viewers that they had dared to suggest there was anything negative about Brexit.

It is not always useful to rehearse how you got there when describing where you are. That, I think, is the main thing which produced those howls of protest – the thought is that they voted Leave, it’s clearly a disaster, and they are therefore to blame. No-one really likes admitting that they’re to blame, and some (including our PM) avoid doing it like the plague. We can’t, in any event, retrace our steps on Brexit completely. Many things have changed irreversibly, such as the movement of companies and European institutions out of the country. We could never expect to get back the discount we had on membership contributions. I’ve no wish to berate people for their vote back in 2016 – what is done is done, and we need to move on.

But we can’t move on successfully if, returning to my analogy of being lost and asking for directions, we won’t consider one or more of the possible routes out. Clearly, in this case, we could massively improve our trading position by regulatory alignment (which would remove the need for a large number of checks at borders, “non-tariff barriers”), rejoining the customs union (removing more) or rejoining the single market (removing all of them plus allowing us to get migrant workers from Europe again and restoring the position of our Financial Services industry). None of those would require rejoining the EU, so the sanctity of the Brexit decision would be preserved. The trouble is, our hypothetical friend on the phone is suggesting that we take the road marked “regulatory alignment” (for instance), and we’re being told that isn’t a route. We can’t do that, despite the fact that the original set of Brexit options included all three of those possibilities.

No, instead, the government rejects three of the four directions available and doesn’t even stop at the crossroads we’re at, it keeps suggesting that we motor on down the same disastrous road by tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol. Which will give us a trade war with Europe on top of our existing woes, and (as it will be a breach of the Withdrawal Agreement and probably prejudice the Good Friday Agreement as well) will break international law and demolish what’s left of our international reputation. No-one will want to make agreements with us after that.

The route we’re on runs over a cliff. Please can we pause, accept where we are, and decide that we don’t have to plummet to an even worse national disaster.