Powers, principalities and the usefulness of the concept

Here’s a copy of a forum post to an old debating partner who expressed some doubt about the “spiritual” power and principalities having a material referent.

From Richard Beck’s “Experimental Theology” blog, here’s a quote from John Howard Yoder:-

Yoder describing Paul’s theology of the Powers:

[The powers are] religious structures (especially the religious undergirdings of stable ancient and primitive societies), intellectual structures (‘ologies and ‘isms), moral structures (codes and customs), political structures (the tyrant, the market, the school, the courts, race and nation). The totality is overwhelmingly broad. Nonetheless, even here with careful analysis we observe that it can be said of a these “structures” what the Apostle was saying concerning the powers:

(a) All these structures can be conceived of in their general essence as parts of a good creation. There could not be society or history, there could not be Man without the existence above him of religious, intellectual, moral and social structures. We cannot live without them. These structures are not and never have been a mere sum total of the individuals composing them. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. And this “more” is an invisible Power, even though we many not be used to speaking of it in personal or angelic terms.

(b) But these structures fail to serve man as they should. They do not enable him to live a genuinely free, human, loving life. They have absolutized themselves and they demand from the individual and society an unconditional loyalty. They harm and enslave man. We cannot live with them. Looking at the human situation from within, it is not possible to conceive how man once unconditionally subjected to these Powers can ever again become free.

(c) Man is lost in the world, in it structures, and in the current of its development. But nonetheless it is in this world that man has been preserved, that he has been able to be himself and thereby to await the redeeming work of God. His lostness and his survival are inseparable, both dependent upon the Powers.

Beck goes on to state that salvation then involves the redemption not merely of mankind, but of the Powers, i.e. the restoration of our structures of religion, intellect, morals and politics to serve mankind rather than be machines which are served by people (which is very much my experience of them).

Earlier in this series of posts, he also quoted Walter Wink saying (paraphrased) that modern man has extreme difficulty relating to “spiritual” Powers, disembodied spirits of some kind; Yoder says much the same thing, as does Karl Barth. As a result, we discount passages talking of “spiritual powers” as having no referent in the modern world.

You probably don’t do this, but a very substantial slice of my psychology is scientific rationalist, and I am definitely one of those who has almost insuperable difficulty thinking of “purely spiritual” powers as having any reality. Without this kind of thinking, the nearest I can come is to acknowledge that the belief in spiritual powers has an effect in human psychology for those who believe in them.

At that point, however, I note that my own experience has been that those who do have such a psychological effect have universally had a very negative effect, often verging on or crossing the line into paranoia about evil spiritual forces constantly assailing them. I do not think this is healthy, and have, for instance, been known to say “If the Devil existed, it would still be necessary to disbelieve in him”. However, the thinking of Barth, Yoder and Wink seems to me to give me some purchase on what might, after all, not be a completely useless or even poisonous way of thinking.

On ruined time

I am, it appears, 60 today. I’m not particularly happy about this milestone – I am abruptly an official “senior citizen”, which I tend to interpret as “past my sell-by date”, and as with other “round number” anniversaries, I am looking back at the last ten years.

(Why is it that we think differently of “round number” anniversaries? Is it just because we have ten digits on our hands, and is that a sufficient reason to regard these as in some way “special”?).

In a very real sense, the last ten years could be regarded as “ruined time”. In 2003 I was already in the grip of fairly severe depression, accompanied by an anxiety disorder, both the product of Post Traumatic Stress disorder, the trigger for which was in 1996/7; it was also in that year that I realised that self-medicating these disorders with alcohol had left me addicted. I felt completely trapped in my then circumstances, doing a job which is stressful at the best of times, but which now provided a daily diet of anxiety triggers, and which I increasingly thought I was untfit to do. It was in 2003 that I had made a series of mistakes which hung over me for the next seven years and later resulted in the loss of many things I held dear, including the practice, my ability to pursue my profession, my reputation, for a while my liberty and all the capital and assets I had built up to that point. However, I had responsibilities, to wife and family, to staff, to clients, and despite a number of attempts to “share the load” or even sell the practice, there seemed to be no way out of the situation without reneging on those.

Most of the intervening time I would not wish on my worst enemy. This time seven years ago, I did not expect to see my 54th birthday, and was frankly dreading the possibility that I might. It was late that year when I had the last conscious contact with God until late in May of this year, a period of six and a half years; I think it was at that point that my depression managed to get to the point of not being able to feel any positive emotion and to prevent me having “emotional recall”, so I couldn’t even remember what it had been like to be happy (or, indeed, recall occasions when I had been, to a great extent – the happiness seems to have been so entwined with the remainder of the memory that the whole memory became inaccessible). Various further blows happened through 2007, in 2008 and 2009-10. Then three years of Groundhog Day.


I started a process of recovery in 2006; as of today, I have no problem with addiction, one day at a time. I’m part of a loving family again. The family finances are sound (admittedly mainly due to inheritance) and I have no need to be gainfully employed. I have a couple of part-time occupations which are interesting, challenging and fulfilling. The big change, however, is that one Saturday morning in May I woke up suddenly not depressed, not depressed AT ALL. And I had again the conscious contact with God which had been completely lacking since 30th November 2006. I don’t know why this happened; it might have been due to a change of meds, although that seems unlikely after one dose of a new tricyclic antidepressant; it might have been due to following a twelve-step programme for six and a half years, it may have been the product of prayer. I don’t know, I can only be grateful. I am rather looking forward to the next ten years, or however many I am granted. Life is pretty good, and I am grateful for that blessing, again on a daily basis.

But what of the last ten years? Is it really “ruined time”?

Folk wisdom says “anything which does not kill you makes you stronger”. I’m very unconvinced that that is true. I am not as strong physically or mentally as I was in 1996; repeated blows can, I think, act like dripping water which will wear away even stone given enough time.

What I do have, however, is a substantial amount of experience which I would not have had otherwise, and I have found that I can share aspects of this experience, particularly with people suffering from addiction, the threat of financial or social ruin or psychological disorders, to very good effect; I know from my own experience what it is like to be there now, and at the minimum can offer them someone to talk with who understands. On a good day I can offer them strategies to cope with the situation, and on occasion the very fact that I have emerged on the other side of this gives people hope which they previously lacked. What might have been “ruined time” is being turned to an useful purpose.

Deo gratias.

The problem with Deuteronomy 20:16-17 (and other texts)

Over at Jewish-Christian Intersections, Larry Behrendt has started a series on Problem Texts, and I’ve been spending some time exchanging comments with him. The second of these deals with Deuteronomy 20:16-17, which reads:-

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. (NIV from Bible Gateway).

It seems to me that this reveals a vitally important issue to deal with for both Judaism and Christianity (and also for Islam, which also shares a degree of allegiance to the Hebrew Scriptures). As I touch on below, this is just one of a host of injunctions to violence in the earlier books of the Bible, and not just violence but extreme, genocidal violence in total war. We have here what all the religions of the book regard as inspired scripture in which God is portrayed not merely as accepting, but as approving and instructing xenophobia, genocide and wars of annihilation. Historically in Christianity, the words “smite the Amalekites” have occurred far too many times in wars (and sometimes not even in wars) to justify extreme, exterminating violence; violence without compassion or remorse.

There are, I know, groups within all of the religions of the book nowadays who accept these passages literally and are prepared to act on them, just so long as they can identify another group as Amalekites or Hittites (or, as we see later, home grown idolaters).

I think Larry sensibly chooses Deuteronomy 20, as it is part of the Torah (for Christians, the Pentateuch), which is arguably in both cases the most foundational group of texts in scripture. Not only is this scripture, therefore, but it is the earliest and (at least in Judaism) most revered part of scripture. It is also not quite as extreme as the injunctions regarding the Amalekites (Deut. 25:17-19) which, as they provide three of the 613 Jewish commandments or mitzvot, are of another level of difficulty.

It is, I believe, supremely necessary to find ways of dealing with these texts, and unless we wish to regress several thousand years, not by following those groups which regard them as evidencing revelation for the nations of today, and not merely regarding them as obsolete (or, as Anthony LeDonne comments in a reply to Larry, lead us to a Marcionite rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures). They are scripture, they are capable of great damage, and they must be addressed fully.

Larry writes:- “If I adopt an historical perspective, I can easily dismiss this text – it’s not historically likely that the Israelites conquered Canaan in the way the Bible describes. But if this conquest never happened, why does the Old Testament remember God’s war instructions in this way? And worse, what kind of God would order the wholesale murder of conquered men, women and children? What happened to the God who was willing to spare Sodom if there were ten righteous people living there? Were there not ten righteous people among all of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites?”

My immediate response was “So, what we have in Deut. 20:16-17 is a situation where the Israelites have appreciated that they have a relationship with God and that God is good in respect of them; they haven’t yet grasped that God is the God of the Canaanites as well or that the good of the Canaanites is something to be taken into account. They have a partial revelation (otherwise, why bother with prophets/rabbinic schools/yeshivas or prophets/Jesus/Paul/theologians?).

The problem with this way of presenting it is that some will say that even at the earliest stage, the whole revelation is already there. This is possibly implicit in Torah-only thinking, it’s certainly implicit in some conservative Christian explanation. As a result of that, there’s a danger of being caught up by the Myth of Redemptive Violence (http://www2.goshen.edu/~joanna…).” I was there quoting an article by Walter Wink, author of the “Powers” trilogy, which I highly recommend.

I am, of course, advancing an idea of progressive revelation; I amplify that later by saying:-

“… Religious traditions undergo continuous development… If I follow Isa. 55:8 and 1 Cor. 13:12, I can argue from scripture both that it is entirely right that they do so and that there will always be more work to do (thus securing the theologians’ future employment). I don’t merely think of this in terms of “progressive revelation” in the sense that God grants revelation in bits and pieces as he considers humanity to be capable of receiving it (although I do think that that tends to be the effect); I also consider either that the revelation may be in effect constant but (1) mediated to such an extent by the recipient’s capacity to understand (whether by virtue of language, philosophy, societal imprinting or otherwise) that nothing more than what we now see was capable of being transmitted, (2) that there may have been much fuller expressions of revelation, but that the fact that the society of the time was incapable of understanding or appreciating them meant that they were ignored or deliberately adjusted by third parties, or (3) that the recipient received what he could, thought “I can’t possibly say all of this” and deliberately moderated it to what he judged the audience could receive.

I don’t know how you would tell which of those had been the case with a particular writing. I suspect that no.2b or no.3 might display some characteristics in writing fluency if the passages hadn’t been redacted afterwards, but I’m not equipped to judge that kind of thing.

Incidentally, no.2a represents a kind of “natural selection of inspired writing”, which I think could be a powerful concept, and nos. 2&3 illustrate ways in which you could explain (the passage from Ephesians 5 discussed previously); complete gender equality was an unattainable objective in the circumstances of the time.

However, following the above lines of thinking, I do note that Deut. 20:10-15 displays a technique which would probably have been regarded pre-5th century BCE as fairly morally advanced, namely always to offer surrender to a city and content ones self with forced labour thereafter; sadly this was not extended to the immediately neighbouring “usual suspects”, 16-17 being an exception to that rule. I could definitely see this as still a case of God moving the Israelites as far as it was possible to move them in the moral climate of the time”.

In one of those coincidences which part of me dismisses as such and another part suspects of being divine providence, a sermon I heard yesterday drew on 2 Chronicles 14:1-13 and 16:1-12 in order to illustrate the importance of and benefits of reliance on God as helper. However, if you read through the missing portion, you find a charming tale of ethnic cleansing and religious intolerance in pursuit of a Judah free from the presence, worship or worshippers of idols. Personally, I would never want to preach from texts with this kind of context without addressing the disconnect between the morality displayed there and that which is taken as advanced in the society in which I live.

(There is also a series on violence in scripture starting at Patheos today, and a recent book on the subject. A surfeit of coincidences?)

I do think that the Myth of Redemptive Violence is very active in the historical parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it also figures greatly in the various New Testament apocalyptic passages, notably Revelation but including the apocalypses in Mark 13, Matthew 24-25 and to an extent Luke 21:7-28. However, I think that in the passages from Deuteronomy and Chronicles there are also another two factors which are operative.

The first of these is that “bit players are expendable” – as Terry Pratchett comments, when the cry “Guards, guards” goes up, you know that a set of people are going to arrive and be killed or, at the least, neutralised. The story does not expect that we should have any identification with the guards. I have some difficulty reading the book of Job, for instance, which is a good example of this. I have no doubt that the writer did not remotely expect the reader to be agonised by the massive injustice wreaked upon Job’s children with the sole intent of teaching Job a lesson, but my focus goes to them immediately. They are, however, bit players, and to an extent the idol-worshippers of 2 Chronicles and the Hittites and others of Deuteronomy are bit players; we are not expected, I think, to consider their positions; it is the internal situation of Judah and Israel which matter.

The other factor is the sheer tribal egocentricity and xenophobia of the tale (which feeds into what I indicated above). The Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, and the worshippers of idols are “other”, to be feared and shunned and utterly destroyed. Orson Scott Card writes in “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead” (extended with lesser effect through “Xenocide” and “Children of the Mind” a splendid dissection of the moralities surrounding his invented categories in which the “other” can be placed. There is Utlanning (a member of the same species from another place), Framling (same species but from another planet), Raman (a different species with which communication is possible) and Varelse, a different species with which communication is impossible (there is also Djur, which lack the capacity for thought and self-awareness).

It is always the case in Card’s universe that the Ultanning or the Framling is definitely “one of us”; the Raman may be attacked, but their position needs to be considered and accommodation with them is possible, but the Varelse needs to be exterminated, as there is no possibility of accommodation. The first two books hinge on the initial categorisation of an insectoid species as Varelse, the realisation that they are in fact Raman, and the resulting moral situation and then the extension to something (a virus, in fact) which appears to be Djur, even more requiring extermination.

In Deuteronomy 20, earlier on rules are set down for warfare with other nations which are, arguably, morally advanced for the time; they are treated as Raman (much on a par with the Levitical instructions for relationships with domestic animals – another species which can be communicated with), and “one of us” clearly doesn’t extend quite as far as that yet. However, the specific exceptions are those given in vv. 16-17, which are treated as Varelse, requiring to be exterminated – and they are by and large the closest nations to the historic Israelites, countering what would be the normal assumption that the named nations would be Framling to the Raman previously considered, in other words to be treated better, as being more “one of us”. But they are not; they are to be largely exterminated.

The assumption I make here is that in the historical actuality (which as Larry links to was probably not that the Israelites entered Canaan with a divine mandate to take it over, but a situation where they coexisted uneasily with neighbours from a very early stage) relationships had become based on a series of revenge attacks, probably initially based in Mimetic Rivalry, the various nations competing for resources, land, population and status, and the resulting vendetta appearing impossible to resolve; there was too much “bad blood”. It’s also possible that a result of the mimetic rivalry was to “scapegoat” neighbouring nations.

We should not here forget the more extreme case case than the Hittites et al., namely that of the Amalekites as mentioned above (Deut. 25:17-19, Judges 6, 7, 10, 15, 20, 27, 30; 2 Samuel 1, 8; 1 Chronicles 4) where the failure of Saul to eliminate every last one of them was grounds for his losing his mandate as King, and there remain three commands among the 613 relating to them, one of which is still to eliminate every Amalekite descendant. This is a clear vendetta situation.

The opposition in a vendetta situation becomes, effectively, Varelse; they cannot be made peace with, accommodated or accepted not because they cannot be communicated with, but because their attitude prevents any understanding; they will not listen. I think that we have the textual relics here of a set of vendettas with immediately neighbouring nations.

Once the other is Varelse, of course, they are not regarded as human. Morality ceases to enter into the equation, as the non-human is not entitled to moral consideration; the wasp stings and you swat it, wasps sting you regularly and you destroy the nest.

When you get to 2 Chronicles 15, however, you are seeing something slightly different; the idol worshippers are definitely either “us” or at worst Utlanning. Where do we get the extermination reaction? I think the answer is seen in the fact that they follow a different religious meme, and one which is seen as contagious. They are therefore harbouring something analogous to a virus, which on Card’s scale is Djur. The only answer to a virus is elimination. In Card’s imaginary universe in “Speaker” and “Xenocide”, it is the unfortunate fact that the virus is housed in a planetary population; it still must be eliminated because of the degree of threat, and so the population will be “collateral damage”. In Chronicles, the idolatrous religious meme is housed in the idolaters, with the same result.

I have to ask myself here what level of divine inspiration would be necessary to overcome a societal identification of a nation or group as Varelse or Djur, and the answer I arrive at is “cataclysmic”. If the recipient could indeed make any sense of a divine instruction to treat Djur or Varelse as “one of us”, the instruction would either fall on completely deaf ears or would be modified by the recipient to something less incomprehensible – for instance, a shift in regard of former “Varelse”, incomprehensible foreigners who might have been exterminated, to the more beneficial status of Raman/Framling, having a status somewhere between a beast of burden or slave and a foreign resident in the society. This occurs in Deut. 20:10.

Of course, all religions can look to later scriptures to modify what they see here; the period of the Prophets in Judah and Israel led by stages to very considerable modifications of the earlier calls to violence to establish and make strong the “people of God”; the start of one such can be seen in 2 Chronicles 16:1-12, where potentially non-violent reliance on God’s aid is placed above paying another neighbouring state to act against the perceived enemy (in this case Israel); that trend continues. By the beginning of the first century CE, Jesus’ injunctions against violence (which are too numerous to address here) were not a massive stretch from the position of Judaism generally, although I would maintain that they were radical in their effect. However, we need to justify why we take the later scripture over the earlier (and Larry has mentioned that in Judaism this becomes particularly difficult).

Some schools of thought in Christianity would appeal to the concept of “dispensations”, ascribing these passages to the dispensation of Law, and stating that this is superseded by the dispensation of Christ, of Grace or of the Church. This will at some point in the future be superseded again by the Millenial, Kingdom or Zion dispensation. I have problems with this concept for a number of reasons. First, it does nothing to answer the issue as to why God’s commandments to us in one age are different from those in another age, if they were valid in the earlier one. Secondly, it involves supersession of Judaism; while this is a different argument, I find it impossible to extract from Jesus’ words as reported by the gospel writers the concept that this thoroughly Jewish preacher and teacher (and that is not intended to be an exhaustive description) intended to do away with the system of Law in which he operated rather than to reform and amplify it. Lastly, it is normally connected with an understanding of the last (or penultimate) dispensation of the Kingdom as involving an apocalyptic and extremely violent change affecting the entire earth (as one interpretation of Revelation would argue), which I see as being so tainted with the Myth of Redemptive Violence rejected by Jesus as to be worthy of wholesale rejection.

I thus return to the concept of progressive revelation in a less quantised manner, as proceeding steadily through multiple prophets (in which I would include Jesus, Paul and, reluctantly, the author of the Fourth Gospel) and continuing, albeit in a more subdued way, through multiple subsequent theologians or, on the Jewish side, Rabbis.

I do however need to address the issue as to whether this progressive revelation has in all cases resulted in moral advance, rather than moral retreat. In fact I do not think this is the case; the previous “problem passage” discussed was Ephesians 5:22-24 (which advocates subjection of women to their husbands). My considered opinion of that passage is that it constitutes a retreat from the more advanced sentiment of Galatians 3:28 “[In Christ] there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. In the same way while I regard Augustine as being inspired to make an advance in respect of some things (such as the requirement not to read scripture literally when that results in conflict with the evidence of creation), I consider that his doctrine of original sin was retrogressive, fixing Genesis 2-3 with an over-literal interpretation.

So, why do I feel such confidence that in this respect the advance must be in the direction of reducing human violence and renouncing revenge? In the first place this is what the Spirit tells me is the case. However, that is my own personal experience and cannot be more than minimally persuasive to others. Secondly, however, it is part of a broad arc of movement throughout the Hebrew scriptures which progressively reduces occasions when violence is to be permitted or endorsed, just as the arc of equality of humankind moves from the tentative steps of recognising some rights of slaves and foreigners in the Law through Gal. 3:28 to, I hope, the realisation that tribes, races and nations are all as naught against the requirement to love our neighbour as ourself.

And we do not do that by violence, still less war, still less total war and genocide. Scripture points away from these things in stages, but leaves us in these passages with a reminder of where we have come from. This, perhaps, is the wisdom of the redactors of the Hebrew Scriptures; that they retain the reminder.

If God was one of us…

Peter Enns recently posted a link to Joan Osborne singing “What if God was one of us”, commenting “Not a bad sermon, actually”.

Well, a little light on exposition, perhaps, but definitely up there with the points to ponder.

“If God had a name, what would it be, and would you call it to his face if you were faced with him and all his glory?”

The thing is, in Christianity, God was “one of us”, at least in the limited time frame of the first third of the millennium in Galilee and Judaea. In my panentheist vision, and taking Matt. 25:31-46 rather more literally than is normally the case, God still is “one of us” (and all of us), and you might call him Fred, or Jill, or Mary, or Bob. Or in the circumstances of the passage from Matthew, not call him anything to his face, not see his glory, as he would be a ragged-clothed beggar sitting in a shop doorway, a half-glimpsed hospital patient alone and groaning gently in a ward hurried past, a despairing face looking out from a barred window in a police van, a bloated-stomached African glimpsed on television, an addict shooting up in the park or your neighbour, normally surly and uncommunicative, who you haven’t noticed you haven’t seen for a few days as the unsolicited mail piles up behind his letter box.

But this isn’t going to be my normal guilt trip about not noticing the risen Lord in need of my help or company, or passing by swiftly with my head averted.

“And what would you ask him if you had just one question?” might at that point be “How can I live without pouring myself out to you in the form of all these people, and still making no significant difference to the ocean of need out there?”. But I can hear his reply already – “start with one or two”.

“What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?”.

Wait – what have I just heard? “Just a slob?” You were pushing it with the beggar, the criminal and the addict, Chris, but that’s just insulting to the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour of Mankind, the Name above all other Names, God incarnate. In all his glory… Isn’t that just a little (cough) blasphemous, Chris?

Well, it seems to me that the peasant craftsman from Galilee who wandered the countryside preaching the kingdom without food for today (unless it was given in charity or gleaned from the fields) let alone tomorrow, who sat down in fellowship with prostitutes, recovering mental patients, lepers and even the 1st century equivalent of bankers would not have thought that. He preached time and again against wealth, against domination structures of all kinds whether they be the occupying Roman Empire, the rich and corrupt Temple hierarchy, the sanctimonious religious purists or even (Luke 12:53, Matt. 19:29, Mark 10:29) the family.

The earliest followers understood this. They practiced radical community, sharing everything with each other and the poor (Acts 4:32-37) and healed and comforted among the lowest of society, the outcasts from society, just as had Jesus. But then came theology, and a string of titles, and Jesus the Christ became kinglike (except more so) where he had cast scorn on kings, became emperor-like (except more so) where he had cast scorn on empires and God-like where he had repudiated any thought of equality with God (Phil. 2:7); he was teacher where he taught his disciples not to call themselves teacher, Prophet, Messiah and King where he had renounced the offers of these statuses in his temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).

I think this is a case of title-inflation, of “my Jesus is bigger than your emperor (or high priest, or resistance leader, or…)”, and I think that it’s to some extent a mistake. God having bridged the gap, we open it up wider and wider with our thinking and our terminology until it’s too wide to cross or reach over, too wide for a relationship. We end up close to being docetists, docetism being a heresy which held that Jesus only seemed to be human, while being divine. And we replace an unreachable God with an unreachable Christ. Our Jesus is not greater than your emperor in the sense of being more emperor-like, he’s greater in the sense of being totally different from an emperor, a herald of the Kingdom of God on earth, a champion of those who are poor, afflicted, outcast. He triumphs through sacrifice of self, not through force, not by overawing but by showing the emptiness of mere power.

Let’s face it, if we are to think of Jesus as human, we have to think of someone who pissed, shat, had aches and pains and all the accompanying lowly features of human existence. I’ll go further here; in an attempt to justify Jesus as having been a perfect sacrificial offering after his death, the idea grew up that he was perfect, that he could not sin, that he must have been physically imposing and beautiful (though linking him to Isa. 53:1-3 should have been a clue there). I don’t think that can be correct; I think that we cannot think of him as human without also considering that he could be angry, lustful, proud, self-centered, arrogant, xenophobic and occasionally a male chauvinist (both of the last two of which seem in evidence in the tale of the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:25-30).

I do not think it is possible to be both human and perfect. If Jesus was perfect, taking into account his extended words about “thought-crimes” in Matt. 5:21-30, he could not even think of sinning, and if he could not think of it, not only could he not have been tempted (and resisted temptation), but he could not have understood those who are. He could not be “one of us”, and so God could not be “one of us”, and so relate to us; be such that we can have a relationship with him.

I know something like this from personal experience. I was very good at maths as a child; it was all obvious and easy to me through my teens. And I couldn’t teach it to anyone else, because I couldn’t understand how it was not obvious and easy to them; I couldn’t empathise with them, and any explanation I gave went straight over their heads. It didn’t stay that way, by the way; at second year university level maths stopped being easy and obvious ( almost catastrophically for my degree, which had to change slightly), and I suddenly found some comprehension of how it was possible to have difficulty. That made it possible to coach my mother when she took a course which required some maths a few years later.

How much more must the failure of comprehension be for someone who is perfect, who is not really “one of us”?

But, of course, God can be, and is, through Jesus then and in the panentheist conception now. And so in seeing his glory in the stranger on the bus and the beggar in the doorway and responding to the calls for help, one or two at a time, failing to fill the whole need, we can know that it is sufficient that we try to be a little more perfect than we are, rather than perfect all at once.

I’ll be paying more attention to a few of society’s untouchables again next week.

Towards the Great Commandments, but not there yet…

Some while ago, Richard Beck was discussing Dale Martin’s Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, mainly as it related to how we interpret scripture (i.e. hermaneutics).

After dismissing (rightly) appeals to “the Bible says” and (perhaps less rightly) pure historical-critical “this is what the author intended to say”, he arrives at this statement, as an overriding principle to be applied to scriptural interpretation:-

“Martin takes his cue from Augustine: “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understand the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all.” (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40)

Martin’s analysis of Augustine is clear (p. 49): “By this light, any interpretation of Scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable…[I]n the end, all appeals, whether to the Bible or anything else, must submit to the test of love. To people who say this is too simplistic, I say, far from it. There are no easy answers. ‘Love’ will not work as a foundation for ethics in a prescriptive or predictable fashion either–as can be seen by all the injustices, imperialisms, and violence committed in the name of love. But rather than expecting an answer to come from a particular method of reading the Bible, we at least push the discussion to where it ought to be: into the realm of debates about Christian love, rather than into either fundamentalism of modernist historicism. We ask the question that must be asked, ‘What is the loving thing to do?'” “

I find this immediately attractive; interpreting all scripture in terms of the two Great Commandments (Matt. 37-38, Lev. 19:18, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27) to love God and love your neighbour is, for me, correct insofar as application is concerned, as these are the most fundamental principles expounded by Jesus. However, I immediately need to think of the counterexample.

If I start trying to interpret, for instance, the book of Joshua assuming that love of neighbour is an absolute priority in interpretation, I am going to have to twist the text beyond breaking point; in common with much of the “historical” account in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is no way I can see Joshua as evidencing love of neighbour, and his acts are clearly stated to have been approved by God. This is an extreme example, but there are less difficult examples, for instance in New Testament scripture where injunctions to cast out fellow believers thought to be advocating a “non-approved” interpretation of scripture are, to me, impossible to understand in a context of love of neighbour. Casting out is not the loving thing to do. It is the practical thing to do.

I have to come to the conclusion that in writing these passages, the authors were not focusing on love of neighbour as an overriding priority, they had other priorities. At that point, according to Martin’s maxim above, I either have to reject the scripture or do such serious damage to its natural meaning as effectively to destroy it. I am not happy to do that. Love it or hate it, we have the canonical bible as our scripture, and we need to deal with that fact.

So, while in terms of application, I agree completely with this method of interpretation, it cannot really be a hermaneutic, an overriding technique of scriptural interpretation. For that, more subtlety is needed, and a lot more effort.

Historical-critical analysis will yield a reasonable assessment of the intention of the author (that is, where it doesn’t yield two or more reasonable assessments between which we will need to choose). From that point, in my opinion we will need an understanding of scripture as a developing understanding of man’s relationship with God. In other words, we need to treat these documents as evidence in a history of thought.

In the case of the Hebrew Scriptures, it is possible to chart a developing understanding in many dimensions; conception of God (from tribal deity to henotheistic chief deity to monotheistic deity, and if the Intertestamentals are taken into account, to chief deity of a lopsided dualism); conception of the basis of relationship from communal and tribal to individual and tribal to individual and universal, and in terms of morality from narrowly laid down rules to a more open overriding ethics, from right behaviour within the tribe to right behaviour as regards mankind more generally, and from patriarchal, hierarchical structure towards something more egalitarian. Although I would argue that most of these movements are not complete by the time of Jesus, the direction was already clear.

In the case of the New Testament, however, there seems to me a less attractive movement, that from idealistic egalitarianism and subversion of authority structures towards a pragmatic view of how to manage a developing movement and not to diverge too radically from prevailing norms of society. Thus the role of women and of slaves is reduced and constrained and a hierarchy is developed.

In both cases, I propose that we consider the scriptures in the light of their position in developing norms of society, consider that, in the light of those, the movement towards love of neighbour as an overriding theme can be seen, and extend the direction of movement as far as we can given the constraints of our current society, always hoping to push the boundary just that little bit further.

Original kenosis.

John Philip Newell quotes, writing of Celtic Christianity:

“We are created, writes George MacDonald, ‘not out of nothing . .. but out of God’s own endless glory’

To me, this is self-evident; as a panentheist, there is nothing that is not God (though the material universe is not equivalent to God); the act of creation was a creation out of God’s own substance; “in the image of God” then referring to the universe as “the image of God”, a part of that-which-is-God in the same way as is “the glory of God” or, indeed, “the logos of God”.

Genesis then goes on to talk of Adam and Eve, and that story I consider to be a metaphor of the origin in humanity of the ability to self-reflect (and they saw that they were naked, and were ashamed). Created out of the very stuff of God, his children become self-aware, and have self-will.

In the manner of all good parents, God then permits them to exercise that free will without wholesale interference (and the Biblical record indicates this as reducing in extent as history progresses); he is thus permitting part of himself to become “other” than himself.

This, I see as the original act of divine kenosis (self-emptying), which is paralleled in Paul’s inspiration in Philippians 2:7 “but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”.

This brings me to a comment I recently shared on facebook:-

“After the crucifixion of Jesus you just can’t kill anyone with confidence anymore. You have to deeply question your motives for violence; to consider the possibility that the person you have so righteously nailed to the cross just might be God Incarnate.” (Richard Beck paraphrasing Heim)

For me, it is not merely a possibility. It is an actuality. When Jesus speaks in Matt. 25:31ff of our actions towards others being actions towards him, I take this entirely literally; Jesus speaks for (and is) God, and we are doing these things to God.

Incidentally, I recommend Richard Beck’s whole series “The Voice of the Scapegoat” from which the Heim quotation comes. It presents an understanding of the crucifixion which I can most thoroughly endorse.

Free Will, Paradox and Step 3

At Experimental Theology a while ago Richard Beck discussed a then-recent book by Harry G. Frankfurt “Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting it Right”; his thesis mainly concerns free-will -v- determinism, and how to construct that theology taking into account the growing consensus in psychology and neuroscience that we are not actually making free decisions very much if at all. I’m there doing very little justice to a long series of excellent blog posts, which deal in detail with, for instance, the problem of imputing moral responsibility (including sin) to someone who is actually not making conscious decisions to do most of what they do, whether reprehensible or admirable.

One quote he extracted struck me:-

“[S]uppose that we are doing what we want to do, that our motivating first-order desire to perform the action is exactly the desire by which we want our action to be motivated and that there is no conflict in us between this motive and any desire at any higher order. In other words, suppose we are thoroughly wholehearted both in what we are doing and in what we want. Then there is no respect in which we are being violated or defeated or coerced. Neither our desires nor the conduct to which they lead are imposed upon us without our consent or against our will. We are acting just as we want, and our motives are just what we want them to be. Then so far as I can see, we have on that occasion all the freedom for which finite creatures can reasonably hope. Indeed, I believe that we have as much freedom as it is possible for us to even conceive.” (p. 16)

My transition from severe depression into the light of something-like-normality a couple of months ago was also the transition from feeling incredibly constrained and being able to do very little which I wanted to do (or thought I should do) to a situation where there is very very little which I do which is not the result of wanting to do it and wanting to want to do it (and as many further recursions as you like). This is, I suspect, an enviable position; certainly it is agreeing with me very well indeed!

However, I note that it is actually a rather seriously constrained position. Back to the serenity prayer; God is giving me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, such that I can practice to a great extent “radical acceptance” and not want to change these. Note, the number of things which I might have wished to change has not altered, it is purely my own volition and my own perception which has been adjusted. Again, I am experiencing no problem in finding the courage to change the things I can (or, at least, to move in the direction of changing these). I am still overreacting to anxiety triggers, but my system is generally returning a verdict of “exhilaration” and/or “energy” rather than the fight-flight-freeze reaction (mostly expressed as “freeze” in the recent past after a lot of work on converting the other two).

I’ve mostly given up on praying for the wisdom to know the difference; for most purposes I just pray for instruction as to which is the correct course of action, and by and large it comes; to the extent it doesn’t, I’m content to wait until an answer does come. If wisdom is required, it’s in discerning whether an answer has come, or whether some part of my subconscious is playing tricks on me again – and that is rarely the case now, although I’m vigilant against it.

I’m reminded of an Earl Hightower (Earl H.) talk entitled “How Free Do You Want To Be”, the nub of which is that surrendering your will and your life to the care of God, apparently paradoxically, makes you completely free. This is, of course, the Twelve Step step 3. It is one which I have been having particular difficulty with during the last seven years, primarily because however much I “surrendered”, a total lack of ability to feel what God wished me to do left me with no volition at all. This is, of course, the result of the only mode of experience of God of which I have reasonable knowledge and in which I’m practiced being at least in part an emotional experience; remove the ability to feel emotion, and you remove that category of experience. Between 30th November 2006 and 25th May 2013 I felt nothing of God (and it was not for the want of trying!); the only directions I could take during that period were scripture rationally interpreted, twelve step literature rationally interpreted and the guidance of my wife, friends and my twelve-step fellowship. Oh yes, that guidance was also rationally interpreted and sometimes rationally censored – I’ve never found a way to turn rationality off long term!

The remarkable thing is, it worked. I didn’t have either of the two main “engines”, the driving forces of twelve step. I couldn’t achieve anything through submitting to the will of God achieved through prayer and meditation (Step 11); there was no instruction, no implanted will. More fundamentally of course, I was unable to wish not to move inexorably towards institutionalisation, insanity and death. There was no emotional charge available; I could see the progression and how to avoid it, but had no basis on which to make a choice to do so.

The impression I’ve given above is that emotion just turned off in 2006 and returned in 2013. Actually, this was not quite the case. In “About” I write about my internal self-separation; while GF (“God-feeling Chris”) stopped functioning, EC (“Emotional Chris”) was still delivering motivations for quite some time – the trouble was, they were almost all negative, contrary to all the sources of guidance which I was prepared to accept. There was anger (largely against myself, and so self-destructive), shame, guilt, rage, anxiety, panic, terror, frustration and, of course, compulsion. The early part was therefore spent in fighting against all of these, and effectively SR (“Scientific Rationalist Chris”) fighting against EC, or in other words fighting myself. The fights became less intense and less frequent as time went by, and eventually SR won. The trouble is, having “won”, there was no EC to call upon; EC had taken her bat and ball home and was not playing any more, not even to let SR have some idea of what it had been like to have emotion (i.e. emotional recall) and what Chris might have done in a given situation when whole.

Alexander Pope wrote “Europe is balanced, neither side prevails; for nothing’s left in either of the scales”. He had in mind, I think, the exhaustion after the Nine Years’ War in Europe; the same could be said of my psychology five years ago. The devastation was perhaps not complete; there was still a thin thread of generalised compassion there, a tiny scrap of empathy which enabled me to feel slightly good (or bad) for others on occasion. None for myself, of course; if there was any emotion there, it was mutual hate between EC and SR.

I have found it extremely difficult to get anyone who has not been in that position to understand how all outcomes, however “good” or “bad” could become and could remain emotionally neutral, but that was the case. What is more, with the damage to emotional recall, the lack of basis for mutual comprehension was mutual; it became difficult, near impossible, to understand why others thought differently.

It seemed a hopeless situation (if “hope” could have been understood), but as it turned out, it was not. There were rules of action to follow, there were suggestions from others, there was a huge amount of “acting as if” (with SR working hard to work out what that might be) and there was time. It’s easy practising “radical acceptance” when there’s no emotion, when no course of action is more attractive than another. The depression gave me a lot of time to practice this; it may be that I couldn’t now look at life with quite the degree of equanimity (and lack of worry) which I now do without that period of practice.

I underline the importance of “act as if” as well. Heard in a sermon today (since I started writing this) “We cannot choose to love”; according to Beck’s blog series, this is correct. How then can I manage the Great Commandments (love God, love your neighbour as yourself) if I can’t choose to do so? Another paradox?

It would appear, in exactly the same way I proceeded when unable to feel anything of significance, that is to say via “act as if”. Eventually the emotions will catch up, it seems. So perhaps, in a roundabout way, there is here a form of “salvation by works”, because those works can produce love, and love is the wellspring of faith.

In the next-to-last post of Beck’s series he starts to address this:-

“1. Frankfurt’s model unites three things theologians are extraordinarily interested in: Freedom, love, and normativity. Frankfurt provides an way to unite these three things in a really interesting way. For example, think of the implications for soteriology. What does it mean to be saved? How are we saved? Frankfurt shows linkages among all three of these things:

Normativity: Being saved is about goodness/holiness.
Freedom/Volitional Unanimity: Being saved is about becoming free from sin.
Love: Being saved is about coming to love as God loves (God is love.)

Think about this list. Frankfurt shows how all three are linked in a coherent psychological model of the person.

2. In Frankfurt’s model, love is the bedrock. Clearly, this is a VERY hospitable place to start a theological project.

3. However, Frankfurt’s model is weak-volitional (see Part 1). As Frankfurt says, “Love is not a voluntary matter.” And this is the piece that will need to be accommodated by theological systems.”

I venture to suggest that although Paul may be correct in saying that “works without faith are dirty rags”, they do not necessarily continue to be without faith. We should not disparage them just because “salvation is by faith”, we should just ask for more than that. And we should be cautious about equating “act as if” with hypocrisy. It can become so much more than that…

Soul song


Is there then not-being?

No, being is all

No before, no after, no time

No here, no there, no place, no separation

No this and that, no other than


I am being

I am becoming being

I am becoming I am

And there is time, there is memory.

But there was a time when there was no time,

there is a memory of no memory.

What is this I?

I cannot see it, touch it, taste it, feel it, hear it

Just be being it, becoming it.

And yet I separate myself from this it, this being

In order to see what it is to be being

And we are two.

There is difference

There is distinction

There is setting against, there is greater than and lesser than

There is discord

There is domination

And we see this, and we are three.

Were we once one?

In the time of no time, the memory of no memory, we were one.

And we can love us as one

Can we so love one another?

But look!

While we were remembering,

Distinction was multiplying, reproducing

We are many, we are multiple, we are legion

Legion against legion, one against one

Which has forgotten that it is one with one

That it is being, knowing no other

Yet some know another, love another

Are one with that other, recapitulating the time

When there was no time, the memory was of no memory

Where we are longing to return.

Message to Brendan, Kevin, Clive and Ben

I am not planning to be in York this evening unless one of you contacts me; things were left unspecific last week, and I could more usefully be caring for my wife at home. For three of you, this is the only way of contacting you I know!

More loving than holy.

At “Respectful Conversation” I find an article titled “On Biblical Morality, Cognitive Psychology, and Narrative Ethics”. What’s not to like about such a title?

In the course of an interesting treatment, I find “At a more abstract level, we find Christians who emphasize holiness, purity, and separation, and Christians who prefer compassion, nurture, and inclusion. We have Christians who gravitate toward authority and hierarchy, and Christians who lean toward equality and democracy. Aren’t all these concepts in the Bible? What gives? So how—and why—and on what basis should we choose which moral impulses should lead us?”

I find that I am pretty thoroughly on the side of the second category in each of these binary oppositions (my initial response would have been “absolutely”. Now, I don’t much like binary oppositions; my initial reaction is to look for the false dichotomy, or at least the continuum which is being misrepresented. I am, after all, not a computer – I can think analog (pace those neuroscientists who would argue the toss – if at root it still actually is all zeros and ones, it has evolved to produce a fair modelling of analog). I naturally look for where I didn’t really fit in a system with binary oppositions of that sort. However, at first sight, I am very clearly in favour of compassion, nurture and inclusion at the expense of holiness, purity and separation; I am very clearly in favour of equality and democracy over authority and hierarchy. To me, both of these flow directly from being a panentheist mystic, both of them flow from being a follower of Jesus. Those are my two absolutes, other absolutes are, to me, illusions and often damaging illusions.

So where am I going wrong?

I do not, it seems, discount holiness and purity altogether. Granted, as I see God as radically immanent, it is difficult for me to see any one thing as more holy or more pure than another; all is in God, so all is holy. And yet, in myself, I do consider holiness and purity; I consider holiness and purity of intention, of purpose, of love (loving God, loving my neighbour as myself). Using the Twelve Step version of the Great Commandments (love God, clean house, help others), the second requires me to attend to my own inner state; this should be as pure, as holy as it is possible for me to make it (and I can then trust to God’s grace for amendment of the remainder). However, I do not consider myself required or empowered to consider the purity of holiness of others; the state of others is between them and God; it is something over which I am very largely powerless, and which I need to accept, and to accept radically.

Again, the third part “help others” (or in the original “Love my neighbour as myself”) requires me not to separate myself, not to preserve my purity and holiness against the potential corruption of contact with “the other”. If I separate myself, how can I include, how can I nurture? I doubt I can then even really be compassionate, as compassion demands action, otherwise it is a mere fleeting emotion. Here, acceptance of what cannot be changed is inapplicable; courage to change what can is an imperative. There can be no life in faith without works, as James points out; if there is some trickle of life remaining in faith, in compassion, in love, without expression it will die.

Here, though, there is a potential problem. Having compassion for and including those who are not fulfilling the quest for inner holiness and purity and whom we cannot change risks us effectively condoning, encouraging, enabling, supporting their ongoing self-destruction and, potentially, destruction of others. There has to be a balance, there has to be, in the end, an acknowledgement that yes, we cannot change them, and that our own purity of purpose, our own ongoing compassion and love, our own faith may be compromised by involving ourselves further or to a greater extent. Twelve Step refers to this as “separate with love”. We are enjoined to love others “as ourselves”, not (in the general case) instead of ourselves. There is no balance if we prefer ourselves, there is no balance if we prefer the other.

It is worth stressing that the stronger one is in one’s own self-regulation, self-knowledge and purity of purpose and commitment, the more one will be able to include and nurture. In turn, it is often the case that the more one includes and nurtures, the stronger one will be in ones self.

So to authority and hierarchy versus equality and democracy. The mystical experience leads, I think, inevitably to a radical non-preference of one over another and a valuing of each for himself, making no comparisons. It leads inevitably to egalitarian and democratic impulses. And yet human society inevitably arranges itself into hierarchies, into leaders and followers. The experience of revolutions down the ages has been that the structures are overturned, the ruling class brought low – and within a short period there is a new ruling class, and new structures of oppression. We are not ready in practice for radical egalitarianism, much as we may all be equal in the sight of God. Perhaps in the Kingdom, part-instituted for 2000 years and, I take on faith, growing steadily, humanity will be transformed and able to put this into practice.

As matters are now and have been for the history of mankind, radical egalitarianism if enforced would be individualistic anarchy, and it would have to be enforced, as it could never grow naturally. There, of course, is the problem – the structures of enforcement would be hierarchical and authoritarian themselves; they cannot be provided by human agencies. The nearest to a balance yet found is democracy; to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is a lousy system of government, but it’s the best lousy system which has so far been tried.

So we are stuck with authorities, with hierarchies. I cannot advocate outright anarchy, as I know it will not work, however much faith I may have (it would require very many people to have that faith, perhaps all). How do we ameliorate their inevitable damaging effects?

The first thing which springs to mind is that although we are going to have leaders, we should never follow them blindly; if they belong to a political party, we should never follow that party blindly. In other words, we should never give over to them all power, we should always be involved personally in political processes. We should agitate, we should criticise, we should use whatever power we possess to curb the inevitable tendency of those with power to become corrupted by it, no matter what the purity of their intentions may at some point have been. There are very few, if any, who can avoid the lure of power for power’s sake, of control for control’s sake (and, having been an elected politician for some twenty years earlier in my life, I am not one of them; I can only say that having realised this, I left politics).

Then again, should we involve ourselves in the political process to the point where we attain power, we should be extremely vigilant of our own motivations. This is itself an involvement, a call for compassion, nurture and inclusion which we are tasked with carrying out, and with it come the potential pitfalls I mention of risking our own purity and holiness, magnified by the political process itself. One particular stress which can be borne in mind is the radical reversal proposed by Jesus, among others, that the greatest among us should regard themselves as the servants of those below them. If you come to power, it is by the will of those you govern (yes, even if you are an autocrat – government is possible only with the consent of those governed) and it is incumbent upon you to acknowledge the contract between yourself and the governed, which is that in return for handing over some of their power, you must use it in their interests and not under any circumstances in your own, even your own psychological interests (to feel in control, to feel self-worth, i.e. importance, however good those may be, as well as to feel superior and to dominate).

Above all, we should remember that our leaders are our equals, to whom we have entrusted a mission, and if we are leaders, that we are the equal of our followers (though entrusted with a mission by them), no more and no less than that. None of us are perfect, our leaders will make mistakes, as leaders we will make mistakes. If we cannot learn from our own mistakes, we should cease doing the job; if our leaders cannot learn from their mistakes (and admitting them is the first step) we should seek to remove them.

What I am saying here about authorities and hierarchies does not just apply to government. It applies to any group of human beings (even if apparently disorganised, they will acquire leaders and hierarchies). It applies to companies, to political parties, to pressure groups, to clubs and societies, to churches and even to families just as well as to governments. Tread cautiously with all of these; you cannot and must not separate yourself from all of them in a bid for radical individualism, you equally must never submerge yourself in them, deindividuate and abrogate your responsibility towards yourself. And your responsibility to love God, clean house and help others.