Death, Hell, Universalism and Zaps.

This morning I listened again to the curate reading from John (3:16) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”.

I’m in the process, among other things, of catching up with Richard Beck’s outstanding “Experimental Theology” blog, which I discovered about three months ago. I’ve made it from the beginning up to mid 2011 so far, and one of the recurring themes is Universalism. Prof. Beck is an Universalist. He makes a very good case for Universalism, as you can see if you follow that link (and others with that tag – there are quite a few of them!). As a psychologist, he has also written about death anxiety being at the root of a great deal of Christian theology.

In conscience, I’m not really best targeted by the passage from John, as I have no fear of death at all. I have a very healthy fear of many of the means of getting from here to there, mind you! The reason lies partly in the content and nature of my original peak spiritual experience (which I’ll call the “zap”), but also in the thought that my consciousness goes offline every night (well, nearly every night now I’ve got reduced insomnia) and until I wake up, I could well die and never know about it. My late Uncle John passed away like that many years ago; fell asleep reading his morning newspaper and just never woke up. I’ve always thought that you couldn’t design a better way of leaving life, whether or not there is something beyond that.

There were, however, a few aspects of the zap which are pertinent. One was the dissolving of the boundary between “self” and “other”, a complete oneness with everything, animate and inanimate, near and far, human and divine. The sufi Baba Kuhi of Shiraz wrote about this kind of experience, saying “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw; in the valley and on the mountain, only God I saw”. Meister Eckhart said “Thou shalt know him without image, without semblance and without means. – ‘But for me to know God thus, with nothing between, I must be all but he, he all but me’. – I say, God must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this he and this I are one is, in this isness working one work eternally…” All things were God, in which I “lived and breathed and had my being” as someone else said, well before Teilhard de Chardin suggested the “Milieu Divin” ground of all being concept.

That boundary has never really returned in fullness (it was previously absolute); one effect of this was to become significantly empathic (the pre-zap Chris was NOT noted for empathy) which is a somewhat mixed blessing – yes, I can be far more responsive to the needs of others, but also I tend to soak up emotions from others and become too affected by them (which means that in order to function at all, I often have to wall off my emotions, which has a distinct downside). Another, though, is to see the Chris inhabiting this particular structure of bone and flesh as nothing like the whole extent of that-which-is-Chris; if this bit dies, the whole of that-which-is-Chris doesn’t (though I grant the continuity of consciousness is likely to be somewhat lacking!).

It is, incidentally, very difficult to have this kind of consciousness and not “love your neighbour as yourself”, or regard your neighbour as Jesus, aka God in disguise as is set out in Matthew 25:31-45 ending “Truly I say to you, as you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me”. For they ARE you. And, indeed, they are more than you.

I may go away (indeed, I expect to) but God endures, and therefore I endure. Another aspect of the zap is the strong desire to conform myself to God, to become a part of God which is more in tune with the rest, less of a discordant note. I see echoes of that in the concept of the Church as the body of Christ, in which I occasionally say that I am the ingrowing toenail. I have aspirations to be less irritating than that! My best template for that is Jesus, who I inescapably regard as having had this consciousness (only more so, probably more so than anyone else who has lived); I seek to cultivate Christ-in-me, and as I do so that-which-is-Chris will diminish. I doubt the process will be anything like complete during my life!

An important aspect of the zap was the feeling that, if I could just let myself go a little more, the ecstasy of union with God could be complete – but that my “self” would in the process be extinguished; there would be nothing but God. The image of a moth in a candle flame came to me, but as an image of intense joy. The first time, that scared me, and as a result I pulled back, but I have pulled back less on subsequent occasions and think that I may soon be able to let go completely, if another zap of that intensity is granted me (I practice the presence of God as best I can, but it seems to me that the more intense zaps are given, not worked for). Baba Kuhi ends by saying “But when I looked with God’s eyes – only God I saw. I passed away into nothingness, I vanished, and lo, I was the All-living – only God I saw”. Eckhart writes “But he manifests as different and the soul is destined to know things as they are and conceive things as they are when, seized thereof, she plunges into the bottomless well of the divine nature and becomes so one with God that she herself would say that she is God” but also, speaking of the soul, “Wherefore God has left her one little point from which to get back to herself and find herself as creature. For it is of the very essence of the soul that she is powerless to plumb the depths of her creator”. Perhaps he is right, and the process will always stop just short of complete extinguishment of the self. But perhaps not, and that is an ecstatic end.

On one occasion several years ago, I was in serious fear of death, as someone far more physically powerful than me was pounding me. Yes, it hurt – but thinking I might die, a strange peace came over me as I looked forward to the ecstatic reunion with God which death would provide. Maybe that might reduce my fear of physical pain? Probably not, as generally I’m not expecting to die from it. As it happened, the disconnect of me smiling seraphically while this guy hit me was sufficient to make him stop and ask why I was doing it – I said “it’s only pain” and he walked away, confused.

I expect, therefore, that at my death, that which is other-than-God will be destroyed, that which is God will remain, cannot but remain. The Theologia Germanica says “Nothing burns in Hell save self-will, therefore it has been said ‘put off thy self-will and there will be no Hell’ “. I intend that there should be as little that is not God as possible at that time, but expect that the remainder will burn, be burned away, indeed. This is very akin to Dr. Beck’s concept of Hell as a purification prior to universal salvation.

So, am I an Universalist? I’m attracted by Dr. Beck’s thinking, and certainly I expect everyone regardless of their beliefs and actions to arrive at the same point. However, I am not so confident that all will survive the refiner’s fire of Hell (be it ever so brief). I have met people in whom any spark of the divine seems exceptionally weak; I can envisage that rather than submit to the fire of cleansing, a few may be able to elect to resist, and that they may remain in that condition forever, or even that in a very few, the spark of the divine may have been extinguished completely during their lifetime, and there remains nothing but self. Some of those I have met, for instance, have been sociopaths. I am not particularly optimistic for them.

And so I think I have to accept the Arminian view of salvation, which acknowledges God’s wish that we all be saved and our freedom to choose, but effectively denies that in this salvation God is omnipotent.

There is one final aspect of the zap which has a bearing, and that is that it appears to give a glimpse into eternity. That eternity is not, as most seem to think, a very VERY unimaginably long time, it is atemporal. The zap is a “timeless moment”, in which all that is and has been is as one (possibly all that will be as well, although I cannot confirm). As such, all that you have been and done and are during your life is present, and this can be an extremely painful situation, alleviated only by the knowledge of God’s love and acceptance (of the essence of you, not of your actions). Perhaps it is possible not to repent in a powerful zap, I don’t know; I certainly couldn’t have withstood it’s force.

In this atemporality, my life just represents a set of boundaries; once I did not exist, as I had not been born, in the future I will not exist (in one sense, at least) as I will be dead. All that is between those remains, atemporal, eternal. In this, there can be no annihilation, no unmaking of what has been. I have to an extent had one foot in this atemporality much of the last 45 years, as my cultivation of conscious contact with God, the practising of the Presence of God, has developed. Beside that, temporal limits appear irrelevant.

Timor mortis non conturbat me.



Last year, allegations about Jimmy Saville sexually abusing children became big news; Saville had been a very significant figure in television aimed at the young, and was a fixture of the youth of many of us. They were assuredly true; he had been a prolific sexual offender behind the public face of entertainer and very significant philanthropist, and most of his victims had been under age. It would appear that he used his position and status to indulge his tastes. He was perhaps best known for hosting the TV programme “Jim’ll fix it” in which children were given experiences they had only been able to dream of, often seriously ill or disabled children. He gave them the “experience of a lifetime” – and I am now wondering if that expression is more barbed than I would once have credited in many cases.

Following that, police investigations continued, and many other well known figures have been similarly accused. I rather suspect that Operation Yewtree is to a considerable extent a reflex reaction to the fact that the ire of society cannot now be taken out on Saville; suddenly when it was announced there were a very large number of scared rock stars, DJs and other “personalities” of the 60s and 70s, certainly (when the absolute boundary of 16 as an age of consent was for a time not taken terribly seriously). This week, Rolf Harris has appeared in court, similarly charged (though with only a small fraction of the offences which could be laid at Saville’s door).

Very many people felt a huge sense of betrayal by Saville, who had been immensely popular up until his death in 2011. I was not actually one of them; I didn’t like his flagrant self-promotion, and his public manner grated on me. Quite a few people have told me since the allegations became known that they didn’t like him because they “found him creepy”; I didn’t tend to hear that much beforehand, and I’m not sure it isn’t reconstituted memory. I don’t know that I “found him creepy”, but I definitely didn’t like him, while having to acknowledge that he had done huge things for a number of charities. Of course, hindsight tells us that these were largely childrens’ charities, and part of the motive was probably to increase his ability to molest young people.

This is not the case with Rolf Harris, however. Him, I have always liked. He had a talent for writing somewhat humorous songs of the kind which (sometimes irritatingly) stick in your memory, he has an engaging personality and is an extremely talented artist; an excellent all round entertainer. I would so like the allegations to prove unfounded, but I fear they won’t (I’m particularly concerned about an apparent pornographic image from 2012; the impact of 40 year old matters with no further bad deeds can, perhaps, be somewhat discounted, but this is fresh). Seeing pictures of him going to court, I noted that I’d never seen him in public looking anything other than ebulliant. He did not look ebulliant, he looked hunted. Perhaps he deserves that, perhaps not – but something which I used to treasure has been damaged, perhaps broken.

Saville was a well known Catholic (and was honoured by a previous Pope), so the issue of weighing good deeds and bad is particularly apposite in his case. Of course, his position is between him and God now, but there has been a huge amount of public vilification and I’m confident that if you took a vote, the consensus would be that he is damned. I’m not sure the same would have been the case had it emerged, for instance, that he had been a prolific wife-beater or something of the sort. Sexual offences seem to loom larger in our weighing of good and evil than non-sexual offences, and sexual offences against children are, for many, the “unforgivable sin”.

This is very much the case within the prison system; sexual offenders generally are picked on, and frequently end up in “vulnerable prisoner” units or wings; convicted child molesters are virtually guaranteed physical violence with a considerable risk of fatal violence unless they are on a vulnerable prisoner unit from start, and even then paedophiles are not safe. Rapists regard them as untouchable too. There is nothing so reviled as a “nonce” in prison, where murderers and armed robbers are looked up to. I’m inclined to think that prison attitudes just write large those of society, but largely without the morality – except in the case of sexual offences.

The law more generally puts sexual offences in a different class. Aside those crimes carrying a life sentence and the sometime iniquitous IPP sentence, many of  those who serve their sentence and wait long enough are effectively absolved by the system under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. Sexual offenders, however, go on the Sexual Offences Register for life.

There is some logic behind this; sexual preferences are not readily (if ever) changed, and if these are directed to the young or are otherwise illegal, the law cannot, it seems, assume that sexual offenders are ever “safe”. I’m not convinced that larcenous preferences or violent tendencies are readily changed either, mind you; there is, however, an expectation that the impulses can be controlled.

Society, therefore, does not forgive sexual offences or consider that the guilt can be expiated by prison, time or good works. To listen to some Christians, neither does God. Some even consider that the mere fact of being homosexual is sufficient to damn you unconditionally (and as a sexual preference, that too cannot readily if ever be changed). Society more generally seems to think that crimes can be expiated, or that good deeds may outweigh crimes which have been “paid for” (there is one well known actor in the UK who has a past conviction for murder, which is now not much mentioned, for instance) – but not in the case of sexual offences. In Saville’s case, he did, I have to acknowledge, an immense amount of good raising charitable contributions, but it is now as nothing when he is remembered by most people.

And yet Christianity in general holds that any sin can be absolved, can be washed clean, can be saved from. There is nothing so horrendous (with the possible exception of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” whatever that may be), that it cannot end in redemption. Saville, as a practising Catholic, was presumably given absolution and is therefore presumably “saved”, though society would never have accepted him again had he still been alive. If Harris proves to be guilty, what about him? Indeed, if we take Matt. 5:28 seriously, what about most of the rest of us? I assume that the passage can be modernised into gender equality, and that a modern Jesus might have said “if you look on someone with lust in your heart, you are guilty of rape” rather than adultery (which has rather lost its sting these days).

Without wishing to deny justice to anyone wronged, I hope that Harris is found not guilty. But if he isn’t, I am going to need to wrestle with the balance of the combination in one person of a lot of good and a taboo failing, and to lament the fact that society will probably not feel able to see any balance there.

But is this not really the position of many, most or even all of us, our own faults perhaps not, quite, being taboo?

Lord, have mercy.

Problem bible texts

I looked at an essay wrestling with the story of Abraham ordered to sacrifice Isaac tonight, and coming to the conclusion that the right course of action was, respectfully, to point out that to sacrifice Isaac would make a nonsense of God’s pre-existing moral commandments. I thought it well captured the situation as it would have been looked at rather later – say when God comments on Rabbi Joshua’s rejection (on good scriptural grounds) of a divine voice supporting his opponent, Rabbi Eliezar in the story of the Oven of Akhnai, and God comments “My children have defeated me”. In fact, the author makes pretty much the same point as is attributed to the second or third century Rabbis.

That clearly holds good today. I’m not sure it held good when the story originally gained currency, though.

It isn’t by any means the first time I’ve read essays or heard sermons wrestling with the story of Abraham, and I doubt it will be the last. People have come down on both sides of the equation, either waiting for God’s countermand of the initial command but complying, or (as this author does) arguing with God and refusing. A very few have said they might actually have done as ordered.

However, I have never found essays or sermons centering on 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (or it’s many counterparts from Exodus 17 onwards) and debating whether God’s commands to wipe the Amalekite nation from existence including “man and woman, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” should be followed or demurred from. The basis might be that if killing (or murder) is bad, then genocide must be worse, and God has been fairly explicit about killing (at least where it’s murder) being a bad thing. In the case of the infants, I can’t see how it isn’t murder.

Perhaps the answer should, in fact, be the same. The text is there to test us, and we should argue with God about it and be firm in that conviction. I think the essay I linked to gives us the basis for making that argument from the pre-existing scriptures, and we can also remember that Jesus enjoined us to love our enemies (Luke 6:27). Loving them would not, I assume, include erasing all memory of them from history by killing man, woman, child and domestic animals too…

So, we should argue with God in the form of arguing with scripture. And we should try to win.

That, I can get behind as a concept.

Now, weren’t there a few verses of Leviticus which have been getting quoted a lot recently…?

Depression, humility and listening to shares

Yesterday morning, my Live Journal feed was adorned with “21 comics that capture the frustrations of depression”, which I strongly recommend (if you get here via facebook, you’ll already have seen me link to it). If you’re severely depressed at the moment, you’ll maybe get as far as “Well, that’s something like how it is” and shrug. Four months ago, I’d have shrugged. Today, however, I recognised what it was like wonderfully portrayed there and felt a huge sadness, and also joy at NOT FEELING LIKE THAT ANY MORE.

And my mind went back to sitting with a couple of counsellors from MIND back in 2008, telling them my life story (as they’d asked). One of them said, when I paused, “That’s so SAD”, and I noticed that tears were running down her cheeks. I couldn’t remotely understand how it was that she found it sad; I was just dispassionately telling them what they’d asked for. I can recall people saying after I shared much the same story at a twelve step meeting that I was “courageous” or “brave” to be so truthful and open. Not a bit of it. I just didn’t have an emotional dog in the fight any more; there was no point in not telling as nearly as I could exactly how it was.

I think we’re inclined to confuse depression with an emotional state – I certainly used to, and there’s a voice at the back of my head which still tells me that it is, with the corollary that “you can or at least should control your emotions”. As several of the cartoons point out, depression isn’t controllable like that. You can’t “think your way out of it”; it isn’t a matter of controlling the impulse to look on the black side of everything.

No, I think depression isn’t an emotion, it’s where emotions go to die.

Of course there wasn’t much about my emotions in my life story as told then, because by the time I was doing the telling, emotions were limited to shadows of despair, frustration and anger. Those were, I think, the last to go, and I suppose I sort of welcomed their demise, as those three were the ones which could well have meant that I actually did something to change the situation. Something terminal. That did come very close to happening a number of times, and a couple of those I shouldn’t have survived.

I can sit here today and feel incredibly grateful that, by some miracle, I did survive, as life is emphatically worth living – it isn’t a bed of roses, but it’s now either good or it’s stimulating, and sometimes both. However, that’s eclipsed by how grateful I feel that I’m NOT in the situation described by those cartoons any more. I have no idea why that happened. It could have been new medication (very unlikely after one dose of a slow buildup antidepressant), it could have been a placebo effect, it could have been six and a half years trying to stick to a twelve step programme, it could have been the answer to prayer. Or it could have been “just one of those things”. So I don’t know where the gratitude should be directed, but in order not to miss out, I thank God, my doctor, the pharmaceutical industry, Bill W and Dr. Bob and, of course, chance.

I suspect that my reaction to reading the comic strips this time was actually a normal one (as, probably, was the reaction of the two Mind counsellors hearing my story). So this is what “normal” feels like? Well, normal is pretty damn good. Normal I can work with. I did get two weeks of an unbelievable high following the depression going, and that was great, and I could probably live off the memory of it for quite a while (with Elbow singing “one day a year like this will see me right” in the back of my head) but I’m not sure my constitution is equipped for radical highs any more, if it ever was. It looks as if things have arrived at a sort of plateau, and taking the image of one of the cartoons, reasonably priced drinks and snacks do seem to be served (cue another cup of tea!). That, for the moment, is OK. Indeed, it’s more than OK, it is really just fine (and not in the sense of the acronym for f’d up, insecure, neurotic, emotional). Normal is a lot better than we give it credit for.

Last Thursday evening saw me at a study group, considering the topic of “Humility”. I wasn’t sure I could make much of a contribution there, once someone pointed out that humility was not to be confused with low self-esteem. My own self-esteem has been somewhere through the floor for so long that I’m likely still to be struggling to work out what actual humility rather than abject self-effacement looks like.

I’m not even sure what humility actually is. Phil. 2:3 says (NIV) “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves”. Clearly it isn’t the crippling lack of self esteem which says EVERYONE is better than you – at everything, though “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” might give some hope (assuming, for a moment, that depression allows hope!).

This passage doesn’t seem to be quite consistent with the second Great Commandment, either, “love your neighbour as yourself”; surely it is actually saying “love your neighbour better than yourself”. Perhaps “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend” would qualify.

It isn’t really practical to consider someone better than you at something in which you are skilled and they aren’t, and it’s also dishonest. On the other hand, it definitely isn’t “humble” to consider yourself always right even in an area in which you’re an expert.

So, perhaps what we see here is a form of “affirmative action”. The aiming point should, perhaps, be a balanced assessment of yourself and of others, never failing to recognise that everyone has some unique worth, everyone has abilities and above all everyone has experience which you don’t have; to value every human being for what they are, a wonderful, complex and interesting individual, but in order to get there the natural tendency to put self first has to be overcome.

It’s a lot easier seeing people this way if you’re in a twelve step programme, and are used to listening to other people’s “shares” of their own experience, strength and hope, and finding points which you can identify with. Frequently I’ve found that someone else’s life story can reveal to me something about my own, which I would probably never have known if they hadn’t held up to me a mirror of myself.

It’s also easier having reached a rock bottom of self esteem, which most long term twelve step members have done. If you have actually experienced “life at the bottom” and can keep its memory alive for yourself, it’s hard to feel superior.

I could actually pity those who haven’t got one of the many roots of twelve step programmes, and therefore don’t qualify to join one. I’m certainly grateful that I do qualify and do have such a programme!


Resurrection and the modern worldview

At Tamed Cynic, Jason Michaeli is talking about Reza Aslan, Karl Barth and the Search for Spock,   and in particular about the Resurrection. He has a flair for titles!

Jason inveighs against historical Jesus scholars who arrive at one-dimensional pictures of Jesus, and I’ve criticised this previously. He then goes on to argue against modernism as a mindset and to talk of resurrection.

I’m shortly to start with a new Alpha course, and there’s a strong chance that I’ll again be asked “Chris, do you believe in the resurrection?” This time, it would be nice to come up with a reasonably clear answer, even if it does turn out rather long.

I think the first thing to say is that I have to agree that something radical happened to at least some of Jesus’ followers, and happened very shortly after the crucifixion. The earliest document we have is Paul, writing in 1 Cor. 15. This dates from 20-25 years after the crucifixion, but refers to Paul’s vision and him receiving the tradition about Jesus’ death and resurrection earlier; scholar tend to place this hearing of the tradition between 4 and 7 years after the actual date. Evidence from Suetonius is that the cult of Christ had spread to Rome by about 49 (19 years after the crucifixion) and was causing disturbance in the Jewish population there.

So, this was a very early understanding indeed.

Jason is right to focus on the sheer unlikelihood that Jesus’ followers would, very shortly after his death, be saying that he had been resurrected and be worshipping him as God unless there was some very strong basis for this. Even taking a very sceptical view of the evidence of the Gospels, I think we have to accept the accounts of a set of scared disciples scattering, disspirited after the crucifixion (and to some extent earlier, after Jesus’ arrest) as being an “admission against interest”, quite apart from being what happened after the failures of other more or less contemporary Jewish popular leaders who were for a time hailed as “Messiah”. The transition from that attitude to going out and boldly proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection and other elements of his message demands a really major convicting event. But what was it?

It is incredibly difficult to advance a physical resurrection in a modern, largely scientific-rationalist society. Jason may criticise scholars for being wedded to a modernistic world view, but that is the understanding of the world in which we live; it is impossible to forget it, and it works to explain and predict better than does any previous world-view. So much so, for instance, that one commentator has suggested that despite the colossal unlikelihood of Jesus’ body being removed from the tomb by space aliens, that is still more likely than a physical resurrection.

In the interests of clarity, though I might spend some time agonising over the choice, given a decision between little green men and a physical resurrection, I think I might thinly come down against a “beam me up, Scotty” answer. But only by a hair. On a good day, with the wind behind me…

The fact that Jews and Gentiles of that period experienced reality as, in part, magical and as driven by supernatural forces does not mean that that was the reality. Are we to argue that the magical view of reality should be reinstated, despite abundant demonstrations that apparently supernatural events are explicable either by natural mechanisms or by trickery? In order to argue that the way people of the time saw reality did in fact dictate the nature of that reality, you would have to conclude that a belief in magic makes magic work, and there is copious evidence that in no case does this actually operate in the world of today. There is, of course, no good reason to believe that there has been a shift in the nature of reality between 30 CE and 2013 CE such that supernatural forces worked then but do not work now (and in fact it would not date to 30 CE but to later, if we consider the reports of Peter raising Tabitha and Paul raising Eutychus to be correct). The dispensationalists may say that, but the only rationale I can see for them doing so is to explain why miracles happened then, but don’t appear to happen now. Far simpler to decide there has been no change, and look for another explanation.

The biblical reports of supernatural miracles may, it must be said, have actually been miracles (a negative cannot be proved and a miracle is by definition exceptionally unlikely), but there are feasible explanations for how the perceptions which led to most of them may have arisen within a scientific-rationalist word-view, and so those are preferred; assuming that they were in fact rationally explainable by those mechanisms, the people of the time would still have interpreted them as supernatural events. There is therefore no good justification for concluding that the witnesses were correct in ascribing the category of “miracle” to them.

There is equally, of course, every justification for concluding that the witnesses’ understandings of the events affected the way they then thought and acted. Had they thought that this was an “existential experience”, would they have acted as they did? Well, not if that expression is to be interpreted as dismissively as Jason seems to think it should be, but I think he horribly underestimates the impact of peak spiritual experience. Having had a number of peak spiritual experiences myself, I can attest that they can carry huge conviction even if the person experiencing them is intellectually completely confident that nothing supernatural is in fact happening, and that it is (probably) an event restricted to the neurological processes of the individual; how much more convincing would it be if they did not have those rationalist concerns. We are told, for instance, that Paul (who definitely did not see a corporeal appearance according to him) was transformed by it, and there is no good reason to doubt that. Indeed, Paul goes to some trouble in 1 Cor. 15 to say that the resurrection body is not a corporeal body (shortly after the passage which many rely on that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain”).

Among biblical miracles, however, the resurrection of Jesus is the big one. Any of the others can be rationally explained without significant damage to the course of events which we can reconstruct using historical method apart from this one (even the parting of the Red Sea).

Something happened.

I would agree with Jason that the option of the disciples making up the stories is farfetched. Not only were they dispirited, but it is impossible to see how they could have lied sufficiently convincingly to persuade substantial numbers (even in a much more credulous age) and it strains credulity that they would have seized on resurrection as the claim.

However, I disagree with Jason in saying: “Not only did they not have a belief structure in place to posit something like one man’s (a failed Messiah no less) resurrection from the dead, that they would in their lifetimes start to worship this Jesus as God (with sophisticated, high theology) violates the most basic foundation of their faith: the first commandment.” Firstly, if there is any truth at all in the accounts of Lazarus, the Widow’s son and Jairus, the disciples already knew (or thought they knew) that resurrection was possible.

Secondly, there was no need to worship as God someone who was resurrected (there is no trace that this happened in the case of Lazarus, for instance), and there is strong evidence in the synoptic gospel accounts that in fact Jesus was not worshipped as God universally among the earliest followers. This did not, therefore, flow directly from the understood “fact” of resurrection, but from other causes.

Thirdly, this did not contravene the first commandment. It did, however, contravene the shema “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one”, which was by this time standard to Judaism. It is therefore necessary to explain how it was that a significant number of Jesus’ followers did indeed start worshipping Jesus as God, even though this does not flow necessarily from resurrection or non-resurrection. I think myself that this is adequately explained by considering the intertestamental literature in which the vision of two thrones in Daniel 7 was developed and which had given rise to a current of understanding that the messiah (son of man) would be enthroned beside God the Father. Once you identified Jesus as messiah, the possibility of at least quasi-divinity was established. [Note – since writing this, Daniel Kirk has published “A Man Attested by God”, which is a scholarly demonstration that the synoptic gospels’ view of Jesus was as an exalted human being.]

In attempting to assess what actually happened, I look at the accounts and, in fact, find them apparently contradictory as to what form this resurrection actually took. There is the empty tomb, a meeting during which the risen Jesus appeared to eat and, of course, the celebrated episode with Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds. All of these would seem to indicate a physical resuscitation. Then again, on a number of occasions people who knew him well failed to recognise him (Mary Magdalene in the garden in the Fourth Gospel) even after significant periods talking to him (for instance on the Emmaus road), he seems to have appeared to different people in widely separated places at more or less the same time, and (as in the Thomas episode) he seems to have been able to materialise and dematerialise at will. None of these are consistent with a physical resuscitation. The appearances to Mary and on the Emmaus road, indeed, seem to me to be instances of seeing Jesus in another person, which leads me to think of Paul’s description of the Church as the “body of Christ” and repeated use of “Christ in us” or “us in Christ”, not to mention what happens if you take a rather literal view of Matthew 25:31-46, which I have been known to, not least in musing on crucifixion (what if we are actually crucifying Christ again every time we do or allow some injury to another human being?).

So, if you are to attempt to harmonise the accounts through a resurrection, it has to be something beyond a resuscitation of a corpse or seeming corpse. The mortal remains would have had to be able to dematerialise and rematerialise or to teleport in order to appear suddenly in the upper room and to appear within a short period in Jerusalem and Galilee, as an attempted harmonisation would have us believe. Indeed, Paul is confident that the appearances he reports in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 are of the same nature, and in 1 Cor. 15:35-57 makes a strong statement that they are not corporeal. There is a reasonably in depth analysis of the appearances and argument in support of non-corporeal appearances as After Death Communications (ADCs) by Ken Vincent entitled “Resurrection Appearances of Jesus as After-Death Communication”, which I think demonstrates non-corporeality as the “best fit” for the evidence.

I can add to that my own anecdotal evidence. I have in fact on two occasions myself experienced a tangible apparition (without any drugs or other factors which might produce hallucination), one of them being of Jesus. (Incidentally, this is why I advise against Ignatian visualisatory prayer unless a spiritual director is available – the impact of such an occurrence is very strong). I have also been present when a group of people “saw” something which I knew not to be there (not Jesus!). I didn’t see it myself, not being particularly vulnerable to deindividuation, and would ascribe the event largely to deindividuation and contagious euphoria. I do not therefore have difficulty in crediting that all the reports of post-resurrection appearances could have been non-corporeal.

That still leaves me with a problem, however, and that is the empty tomb. It is correct to say that Paul does not mention an empty tomb, and he is the earliest witness; neither do the early kerygmas in Acts. I have no real trouble in considering that later accounts may have embellished in order to “concretise” the events (after all, there was a considerable slice of First Century Judaism which did not accept any body/spirit dualism and for whom the only resurrection would have had to be physical). John Dominic Crossan is firmly of the opinion that the body of a crucified man would not have been released to relatives or friends for burial, but would have been cast out with the rubbish, possibly in the valley of Ge Hinnom (i.e. Gehenna) which was the city rubbish dump and that that was what most probably happened; the stories of the tomb generally being a later decoration.

But what was it which sparked the first visions of the resurrected Christ? Could it have been anything other than the shock of a tomb being empty where it was expected to be occupied? Did Joseph of Arimathea and, perhaps, Nicodemus actually persuade the Romans to abandon normal practice and release the body to them? Without the known absence of a body, I would have expected any post-death appearances to be visions of Jesus enthroned beside the Father. Did they prepare a tomb and then fail to obtain permission and place the body in it? Was it removed by some other party?

We cannot, I think, do more than speculate. On balance, I think there has to have been an empty tomb, but that this does not explain the post-resurrection appearances, which were almost certainly not appearances of the reanimated, revivified corpse of Jesus (pace Thomas). However, I think this will have been sufficient to prompt experiences of the risen Christ, and those experiences could readily have had sufficient force to prompt the disciples to break free of their despondency, to have major transformative experiences and go on to spread the good news of Jesus throughout the then known world. We can, in any event, be confident that that is what happened to the disciples, and that is what they did.

Whatever the actual mechanics, that is enough miracle for me.

I am, in any event, not unduly worried about the form the resurrection actually took, as I have experienced Jesus (non-physically) myself as a living person.

Syria and nonviolence

In my last post, I advocated a nonviolent attitude to Syria. I have since received some feedback (typically in another place), which seems to take away some inaccurate perceptions from what I wrote.

The first is that I am, in essence, being a “good Christian” and advocating nonviolence in every situation. This is, I regret to say, not the case; I am not a good enough Christian for that. When formulating his ideas of nonviolent struggle, Gandhi was at pains to point out that unless you were prepared to use violence, non-violence as a route was not for you. First become ready to use violence to resolve the situation, and then become brave and wise enough to find a non-violent way to achieve the same ends. “Brave” entails that you be prepared to lose, possibly losing your life.

I certainly grew up prepared to use violence, and did so more often than I care to remember. Nature did not really equip me for successful violence, but on occasion I would fall into a berserk rage, which levelled the playing field a lot, and in time I became able to avoid going in that direction unless I wanted to, at least most of the time; it is useful being able to project a threat of berserk rage without actually having to step over into the inability to control what then happens or to predict the outcome. I haven’t been the target of actual violence for many years, and on several occasions that has been escaped only by getting to the edge of berserk. It seems that when I do that, people around me realise easily that I am quite prepared to follow up violently, and to date they have always backed off (at least, since I was 14).

My biggest trigger for this was always injustice; initially injustice towards me, but by adulthood usually injustice towards others.

So, I should point out that my blood boils on hearing of and seeing video of Assad’s treatment of his fellow countrymen.

In my teens and early 20’s I was an enthusiastic player of wargames; later in life I spent a while as a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor, which entailed among other things more realistic wargames in the company of serving military and the contemplation and detailled planning of extreme actions to match extreme possible situations. I am not tactically or strategically naive, therefore.

In this situation, my first impulse is to make use of the vast superiority in military resources of the West (OK, mostly of the USA) to correct the situation rapidly and efficiently. There is, however, a snag or ten associated with that. I perhaps skated through those a little rapidly in my previous post, and should therefore devote a little more time.

There is no clear “right” and “wrong” side here. Yes, Assad has very probably used Sarin, which is categorised as a Weapon of Mass Destruction these days. Assad is allied with Hezbollah and Iran, both of which are essentially enemies of the West. (Personally I fail to see a difference in kind between a gas attack which kills 1000 people and a conventional bombing attack or an attack of ground forces with shells and bullets which kills 1000 people, but there is seen to be a serious difference there). The evidence, however, seems to be that some, at least, of the rebels also have Sarin and have used it. Some rebel groups are also known to be allied with al Quaeda, or in other words they are part of the “enemy” in the “war on terror”. Some rebel groups have been systematically targeting religious minorities and killing or otherwise brutalising them en masse; in some cases the overt motive is to create a pure Sunni Muslim state via ethnic cleansing. These are not people who I think worthy of support, and an attack on Assad’s forces, if such an attack can actually be carried out sufficiently specifically to target just Assad’s forces, will have the effect of supporting these unsupportables.

It is against that background that I made the suggestion of threatening both sides equally and being willing to carry that threat out. If Assad’s forces can be surgically targeted, so can the al Quaeda forces, for instance. It is not actually quite so unthinkable a solution as may have appeared.

However, nothing I have seen in the last 20 years indicates to me that such surgical strikes are possible without serious collateral damage (i.e. civilians or allied forces), and the ill-will produced by mis-targeted strikes has contributed to a substantial upswelling in support for the likes of al Quaeda. The smart bombs and drones are just not smart enough, nor is the intelligence sufficiently accurate. I fail to see how a series of attacks which kills 1000 people in an attempt to prevent another gas attack killing 1000 people is justifiable, for instance, and it is worth considering that there is now known to be a serious risk that an attack will breach containment for further supplies of sarin, thus making collateral damage both assured and substantially greater.

It is possible that establishing a no-fly zone and crushing air superiority might lead to somewhat lesser risks (and it was moderately successful in Libya), but this would have a significant cost in casualties on our side, and I see little or no willingness for this, both in terms of casualties and in terms of cost.

I see even less willingness to put boots on the ground. Frankly, if boots are going to be on the ground, they may as well be a substantial UN peacekeeping force, with much the effect of the non-violent solution I proposed. This eventually worked in Bosnia. Of course, boots on the ground tends to fail on the basis that it is usually an open ended commitment, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan (neither of which I regard as particularly successful, bearing in mind current instability and tendency to murder Westerners) and in those cases, also fails to meet my next criterion.

Finally, if the objective is to remove Assad (rather than prevent him using genocidal techniques against his countrymen), what is to be put in his place? Not, clearly, al Quaeda or other extreme religionists who would also use genocidal techniques. There is, therefore, no clear and achievable objective.

Anything done should, I propose, be a SMART task, i.e. specific, measurable, relevant, achievable and time-limited. Nothing currently proposed, to my mind, meets more than one or maybe two of those criteria. I suggest that four should be a minimum.

Finally, it would stick in my craw to allow this to go on and do nothing, but if there is nothing which can be done which clearly assists, it is not sensible to do something which makes the situation worse. That smacks more of assuaging our consciences than of taking positive steps to help. I therefore propose that the Christian, non-violent course of action is also the most prospectively productive and the SMARTest. I grant that it’s also costly; we would risk a lot of lives and spend a lot of money, and it is not time-limited. Perhaps, therefore, we are just unwilling to foot the bill? We wish to be seen to do something, and are not really too concerned whether it is sensible or productive, as long as it doesn’t cost us much?

I can understand that. But it would be better to swallow our outrage and do nothing.

In the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate

I was maybe a little taken aback to see the congregation at St. Michael le Belfrey invited yesterday afternoon to form groups and do their own intercessionary prayers. Once we had our little huddle of four, I commented that we wouldn’t get beyond Syria and the Middle East – and we didn’t.

One thing we did not pray for, at least not vocalised, was for the various Muslim leaders involved. I think we should have. We did pray for the people of the area, for the Christian churches in Syria and Egypt and, finally, for western leaders to have wisdom (and I’ll come back to that). But we didn’t pray for the people whose decisions will have far more actual effect on how things proceed in the desperate situation in Syria and the very difficult one in Egypt; President Assad and his government and army leaders, ex-President Morsi and the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood there.

So, I’ll express openly what I didn’t have time to express openly yesterday; may all of them remember that they very regularly pray “in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate” and take it to heart; may mercy and compassion overflow in their hearts and those of the people generally.

I am having a difficult time with the news reporting of these situations. My wife, indeed, has mainly turned away from news, because she doesn’t want to know any more. We see pictures and hear reports of appalling things happening on a daily basis, and the need to do something, anything, in order to stop the beating our compassion is taking is very strong. Obama clearly feels it; Cameron and Clegg seem to have as well – but amazingly parliament has listened to the voice of the people and has decided for the UK not to take any military action.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Well, I would like to think the west could change something and would have the courage to do that. Is this a matter of courage? Is Obama being courageous, and the UK parliament being cowardly? Well, probably yes; to a great extent I think the parliamentary vote was because we don’t want to see much money spent and British lives lost in another foray into the Middle East. But that may also be the wise thing to do, and after all, we elect our politicians in a representative democracy to be wise on our behalf. I feel the pull of the Myth of Redemptive Violence here, very strongly; the situation is intolerable, something must be done, someone has used violence, let’s use more violence against them and “put things right”; I’m sure the parliamentarians who voted feel that too. Perhaps, therefore, the really courageous thing to do is to restrain ourselves?

What I do see is that, as in Iraq, the long term results of military intervention cannot be sensibly mapped out. Syria is not a situation in which there is a “right” and a “wrong” side; there are not two, but at least five distinct interest groups involved (probably significantly more), and the major force opposing Assad is linked with al Quaeda, which should at least give us pause in doing anything which may be seen to support them. Indeed, we should not do anything military unless we have a clear plan for the peace afterwards (as we did not have in Iraq). The only way I can see in which the multiple interests in Syria can coexist peacefully is in a fudged compromise (which is what the Assad regime really rested on until recently), and the only way to get that is for the parties to negotiate between them. There is certainly no clear path to a partition there; the various groups are far too closely intermingled.

I also see no clarity as to who is “at fault” and who is “innocent”. Both sides have been guilty of killing civilians fairly indiscriminately as well as on a narrow sectarian basis in the past; it is by no means clear to me that the recent sarin attack was by government forces (and there is every reason to believe that they would not want to cross that line, but that the rebels would want that line to be crossed as long as it was blamed on the Assad regime). Again, there is no “right” and no “wrong” side.

Neglecting for a moment moral considerations, including such things as public and world opinion, the solution might be to say to the two sides “You will come to the negotiating table NOW and make peace, otherwise we will attack both sides indiscriminately”; of course, if the threat is made, we must be prepared to carry it out, and there seems a huge danger that that might happen. But public and world opinion would never condone such an attitude, and probably neither would the consciences of our leaders.

No, if there is anything the West can do, with its massive supply of manpower and weapons, it would be the non-violent expedient; move in soldiers tasked to do no more than defend themselves and place them between the warring factions, then call for peace talks. In other words, an UN peacekeeping mission. That would require courage (not least from the PBI – “poor bl**dy infantry – on the ground), and it would not directly foster the myth of redemptive violence. I am not sure whether this should be done either; it might still not be successful in bringing the parties to negotiation, and could end up with the forces on the ground being the target of all sides. However, it is, I think, the only courageous and proactive thing which could usefully be tried, diplomacy having so far signally failed.

Do we need the courage to change this, as we can, or do we need the serenity to accept the situation and do nothing? I don’t know, I am praying for wisdom. But I am praying more for the leaders on the ground to find their mercy and their compassion, and a very large amount of courage to change.