Doctrines and set theory

Following on from my previous post (about labels), I’ve just been listening to Henry Neufeld’s video explaining the mission of Energion Publications (with which I am proud to be associated).

Although it isn’t Henry’s central point, he talks there (and in the post which it’s embedded in and to which I linked) about statements of faith, sets of doctrines. Those who have read my blog from the beginning will know that I take a somewhat dim view of doctrines. I’ve perhaps moved a little since I wrote that post – now, for instance, I can see the viewpoint of the post-liberals, who see doctrinal statements as the rules of grammar for a language of description, but even then I have the problem that languages develop and adapt in practice, and what Fowler’s Modern English Usage was saying 50 years ago about rules of grammar is not necessarily what it says now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bases of human perception recently (and there may be a post specifically about that soon), but it seems to me that the most basic features of cognition are firstly the distinction of one thing from another, and secondly the comparison of one thing with another – the two faculties go together, though I’m inclined to think that distinction is marginally the first-born twin. It is therefore hugely natural to try to work out how, exactly, two groups are different from each other (and to a lesser extent how they are like each other). Thus the impulse to create doctrinal statements.

One really major snag with these is that as James McGrath recently linked to, one result is that protestantism has fractured itself into more than 30,000 denominations, each with slightly different doctrinal views. The article he links to perhaps slightly jokingly blames the insistence in protestantism for each believer interpreting scripture for him or herself, but I think the greater blame has to be with our impulse to create categories of distinction. Emo Philips’ celebrated joke lampoons this wonderfully.

Perhaps it is time that we looked at a different way of constructing our categories? What doctrinal statements seek to do is to create a bounded set; adherence to the doctrines creates the boundary, and you’re either in or out. There is, however, a different way of constructing a set; this is a centered set. Rather than setting a boundary, you create a centred set by looking at everyone who looks to some centering principle.

I used something like this principle in setting down the guidelines for “who is a Christian?” some years ago on the Religion Forum. There were a really wide variety of people there, including many flavours of Christianity – and the Baptists weren’t sure that the Catholics were Christians, the Catholics were pretty sure that they were the only Christians, the Anabaptists thought every one else got it wrong, and so on. Were, for instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses Christians? Or Seventh Day Adventists? Or Mormons? This mattered, as I was running the Christianity section there, in which “Christians” had wider latitude and better protection under the forum rules. I settled on the basic test of “Do they look to Christ as their leader?” No further clarification was allowed, and particularly not any concept of who or what Christ actually was. “Jesus is Lord” would do nicely, without the need to say “and saviour”. This had the particular merit of being, in essence, one of the very earliest touchstone phrases expressing Christian identity.

I find to my interest that the Vineyard Churches have this kind of thinking. At least they have it to an extent, as the article to which I link depends on the issue of direction (are you going towards Jesus or in some other direction?) and the loosest kind of centered set does not require direction, merely focus. Perhaps the distinction is too subtle, though; it’s certainly not one I’d have encouraged when setting down the guidelines! This, of course, could be summed up by the baptismal declaration “I turn to Christ”.

Vineyard are, however, a denomination among others. They have some other denominational indicators which actually make them another bounded set. I suggest that if we are ever to see a “Church Universal”, a “one church” (and I submit that that is a thoroughly biblical concept), a centered set centered on Christ is as much doctrinal requirement as it can support.

No liberals here…

I came across a suggestion yesterday in a manuscript which was broadly an introduction to progressive Christian thinking which gave me pause. In essence, the author sought to distance himself, as a “progressive” from the term “liberal”. It would seem from what he wrote that “liberal” Christians have more or less thrown away scripture and don’t treat it at all seriously.

I tend to read a lot of blogs which are labelled “progressive”, largely courtesy of Patheos’ Progressive Christian channel. As a result, this suggestion was not new to me; I’ve seen it from quite a few writers who self-identify as “progressive”.
Now, I do tend to accept the label of “liberal” (though see my post “labels and libels”). I remember introducing myself to the curate at my current main resting place, and him saying “Oh yes, you’re the very liberal chap”. I didn’t jump down his throat, although I did wonder from where he thought that “liberal” needed expanding with “very” – at that point I hadn’t put forward any of my more adventurous thinking, of the kind I tend to indulge in when discussing with scientific rationalists, anywhere which would have been likely to get back to him, although I rather expected him to have heard that I regarded scripture as a human product rather than as divine dictation. That said, I doubt anyone in conversation with me or reading what I write would get the impression that I fail to take scripture seriously, or that I throw it away. As Marcus Borg says, I treat scripture seriously but not literally.

He was, perhaps, not far off the mark. I’m probably a little more conservative in some ways than, say, John Shelby Spong. (I owe Spong a debt of gratitude – it was seeing myself as to the traditional side of someone who was actually a bishop in the Anglican communion which encouraged me to think I might find a home there myself). However, I know a lot of people who are comfortable accepting the label “liberal” who are more traditional than I am, so within the limits of labelling, “very liberal” is probably adequate.

I also don’t see churches in which it’s clear that scripture has stopped being treated seriously or in which it is not central, with the exception of Unitarian Universalist churches I’ve visited. I will grant that some of the mainstream churches have some clergy who, in private and with an audience they expect to be sympathetic, will put forward views as liberal as mine, or even as liberal as Spong’s. It isn’t a substantial proportion, though, and is definitely not characteristic of any denomination other than UU who I’ve encountered.

The thing is, I don’t see clear water between the people labeling themselves “progressive” and those labeling themselves “liberal” as far as treatment of scripture, core beliefs or even praxis is concerned – there’s a spectrum, and one “liberal” may be more conservative in what they write than another “progressive”. As far as I can see, there are two major dividing factors, neither of them having anything to do with scriptural interpretation. Firstly, a “progressive” is likely to have previously styled themselves as “evangelical”, “charismatic” or both. Secondly, they’re likely to be American.

Taking the second first, it would seem that things are different in the States. I’m told that there, there actually are congregations which are mainstream Christian and in which scripture is far from central, and far from being taken seriously, and quite a number of clergy. Here, I couldn’t direct you to a congregation which had that character.

However, ex-evangelicals may, I think, feel a particular need to distance themselves from the label “liberal”, particularly if they’re American, where “liberal” seems to have become a term of political abuse. I rather fancy that in evangelical circles, “liberal” is also a term of theological abuse, and it may even be that our esteemed curate meant it that way, as he is an evangelical (as indeed is that church generally). For them to accept the label “liberal” may well mean that they’ve “gone over to the dark side” from the point of view of their former affiliations.

That’s sad. There’s a significant community of self-admitted liberals with whom the progressives have a huge amount in common. It is also a little irritating to me; I see a “progressive” putting forward ideas which are indistinguishable from those which I see from most “liberal” sources, but taking time to take a side-swipe at “liberal Christians” for an attitude which, by and large, they don’t have.

I do, however, also wonder whether Bishop Spong is taken as being representative of the whole of “liberal Christianity”. When reading Spong, I feel that he’s somewhat lost his connection with scripture, though he does talk about it a lot. I don’t actually think that is a true picture of what he believes and feels, it’s just that it’s the impression his books tend to produce. I do, however, position him at the extreme of liberals who are actually still within the Church, and it is a mistake to take extreme examples as representative.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that here, where I find liberal-minded clergy, they’re usually in the mainstream denominations. They do suffer in general from the fact that once they’ve dealt with maintaining an ancient and decrepit building (and frequently congregation) they have little energy left for evangelism or other outreach. Where I see a “progressive” label, I expect outreach and some commitment to evangelism (generally of the “not in your face” variety), and quite probably experiments with new styles of “doing church”. I approve of those – they’re a prominent reason why I’m inhabiting and evangelical church at the moment!


Night in/errant

Following on from my previous post, I notice James McGrath has linked to a post from Fred Clark today. Fred is talking about Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist seminary, who it seems is frightened about the need for some final authority. Fred quotes Al as saying “Without the Bible as the supreme and final authority in the church, we are left in what can only be described as the debilitating epistemological crisis. Put bluntly, if the Bible is not the very Word of God, bearing his full authority and trustworthiness, we do not know what Christianity is, nor do we know how to live as followers of Christ.”

Perhaps what he really hankers for is a Pope? No, I suppose not, as he’s a protestant, and protestantism went in a different direction in the 15th century. Apparently, though, just putting forward the Bible as authoritative is not enough; Fred chronicles how Al has had to add a number of additional statements as to how you should read it.

I wonder if Al has forgotten John 14:6 (NIV) “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever”? Advocate is sometimes “comforter”, sometimes “helper”. It does rather follow from the direction of my argument in the previous post that it would be desirable to read scripture with the aid of your own inspiration via the Holy Spirit, does it not?

Mind you, this is what broadly happened following the break from the pope in the reformation, and the result is thousands of protestant denominations all of whom read bits of scripture in different ways, so perhaps this wouldn’t give President Mohler quite the confidence he is looking for. Perhaps a vote of all those who have interpreted scripture themselves? Maybe not – something tells me he is not a fan of the Jesus Seminar!

Personally, I’m inclined to say “welcome to the twenty-first century”. Nobody’s epistemology rests on absolutely firm ground any more since a succession of German, French and American philosophers and theologians have cut away the support for anything which might be called “foundational”, just as a succession of physicists have cut away the support for anything really definite, anything really solid in science.  A ” dark night of the certainty embracer” perhaps?

You never know, perhaps he will come to the wisdom of Jack Caputo, saying that God does not exist, he insists; he is a weak call to which we can do no more than say “perhaps”, and “yes, yes”.

And follow the call, with a certain amount of intellectual humility.

Inspiration, transmission and expectation

In my last post, I expressed some frustration with concepts of inspiration in scripture from the point of view of whether human language and concept structures could actually do justice to the content of the inspiration, and I want to develop that a little further.

Language is essentially a communication. There is a speaker or author and there is a listener or reader. What the recipient receives is not necessarily what the utterer has in mind (assuming, for a moment, that the utterer has anything remotely clear in mind, which is dubious taking the tack of my last post). In spoken English, trivial examples might be the joke exchange between two old ladies on a train:- “Is this Wembley?” No, it’s Thursday.” “So am I, let’s have a cup of tea”, or the apocryphal communication from the Western Front “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” becoming after many stages of passing via multiple mouths, brains and ears, “Send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”.

Monty Python satirises this in terms of the recording of the spoken word in the gospels in the “blessed are the cheesemakers” heard at the back of the crowd. This can be used to demonstrate one feature of hearing (or reading), that you tend to hear or read what you expect. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is not something you’d expect a Jewish resistance leader to say, so it becomes something else, if you think of Jesus as a Jewish resistance leader. In any case where you hear or read something very similar to something you already know, it tends to become what you already know (something I need to watch extremely carefully when proofreading) – take the widespread “Paris in the the spring” written in a triangle so the two “the”s are on different lines.

On the other hand, something which does actually strike home and is remembered particularly forcefully is when you do hear and register something which is novel and out of character. That, I think, is why we have the Sermon on the Mount rather than “blessed are the cheesemakers”.

I had to contend with this phenomenon a lot as a lawyer, dealing with eyewitness evidence. Eyewitness evidence of any reasonably complex situation was never straightforward; one person was adamant they had seen one thing, another had seen something completely different – and years of experience unpicking the stories led me to conclude that in general no-one was lying, they were faithfully recounting their memories. There was no getting behind the fact that that was how they had experienced what quite often was clearly not the case (from hard evidence such as CCTV or tire tracks). I made something of a speciality of weaving together the set of disparate stories and coming up with a plausible reason why each person had experienced what their testimony related, despite the fact being as I proposed, not as they proposed.

There is a clear application of these principles in the “quest for the historical Jesus”, although far more along the lines of the current “social memory” theorists than the formal rules of the Jesus Seminar.

Of course, in the case of people steeped in scripture (certainly in the cases of the gospel writers and, I think, Paul, the Septuagint Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures), there is a set of templates of expectation into which you can fit experience. Matthew, for instance, sees the story of Jesus overwhelmingly through the eyes of previous scripture, but all of the NT writers do to some extent – and they use different scriptures and different interpretations, making the task of a systematic theologian extremely difficult. Just as one example, I have been in the process of working through a set of scriptural supports for various atonement theories; I find that Paul’s use of the word “atonement” uses the template of the Maccabean martyrs in 4 Macc. 17:12-22. The writer of Hebrews, on the other hand, wishes to see Jesus’ death both as a replacement for the Levitical sin offering sacrifices and as the scapegoat of Leviticus 8; 1 Peter 2:24 picks up the second meaning. Those two concepts are somewhat inconsistent, as the sin offerings are slaughtered and burned (in part eaten), the scapegoat is driven out. They are fine as ways of looking at something, less fine if you try to extract from them a single deep meaning – at least, a single deep meaning which preserves more than a bare outline of what the originals actually are.

This fitting of experience into templates of expectation seems to me particularly strong when I look to compare my own mystical experience with the spiritual experience of, for instance, friends in the church whose trajectory has been via the template of evangelical conversion. I think that this is cognate experience, at least, if not necessarily identical – but it is very difficult to be sure. They know in advance the terms which are applicable, such as “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “slain in the Spirit”, and it has proved nearly impossible to get them to describe what their experience has been without that terminology, in non-religiously charged and non-specialist language. I can sympathise; it was extremely difficult for me to develop a description which actually conveyed something of the experience without using words and concepts previously laid down for me by others, and if I do describe it that way, it seems at the same time pedestrian and self-contradictory (how, for instance, can the sense of self at the same time expand towards the universal and be reduced to near-nonexistence?).

What we experience, in other words, tends to be what we expect to experience, or at least what we have language and concept structures for. I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying that our language and concept structures create our experiences, but they definitely modify them and constrain them. Where we have an experience which really doesn’t fit with our existing concept structures and language, we will tend to torture those concept structures and language until they are a better fit (as, I would argue, the New Testament writers were doing, and it may be that this fuels the torturing of language which I find typical of modern philosophers – that is to say most philosophers later than the 18th century).

Even then, I think it isn’t necessarily a good “fit”.

However, what would I expect if a God as reasonably commonly conceived looked to communicate directly with a human being, which is the basis of the concept of inspiration – at least, the scriptural form of it? I fancy I would expect two snippets from scripture to have “got is right”: Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD” and 1 Cor. 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

I would expect some recipients to go mad, or babble incoherently (speaking in tongues?). I would expect some to keep to themselves what, in any attempt to express it, seemed totally inadequate. I would expect some to try to coin new language to express what they had experienced (which we see to an extent in, for instance, Paul coming up with neologisms). I would expect some to launch into a paradoxical and extremely allegorical rehashing of motifs in existing scripture (which I think we see in Revelation). I would expect some to twist meanings in existing scripture to produce new forms (which I think we see all over the Bible, not restricted to the NT, and in a lot of Rabbinic midrash, and which finds meanings in existing wordings which the original authors would not have dreamed existed). I would expect those with poetic gifts to speak or write metaphor, allegory and myth. Finally, I would expect some to write or speak in a way wholly incomprehensible to those around them (which might not be the same thing as babbling incoherently).

I would not expect anyone to come up with insights which were far removed from anything for which they had existing language or concept structures; their minds would just not contain the building blocks to construct these – though the poets would be likely to do best at this, talking around the insight rather than attempting to tackle it directly. Moreover, if anyone actually did overcome their internal constraints in a radical and sustained way, I would not expect their words to be remembered, or if written copied and circulated; you need readers and listeners who understand at least something of the contents as well as writers and speakers in order for communication to happen.

Some years ago, an internet acquaintance suggested to me that I took too pessimistic a view of God’s ability to communicate exactly what he wanted to communicate; I did not think God was sufficiently powerful to do this. This is not the case – what I think is that he took far too optimistic a view of man’s ability to understand what God communicates.

It may well be that God has been communicating everything we may ever need to know about life, the universe and everything, and that we have not yet got to the stage of being able to understand it. We may never get there, but we can, I think, build steadily on the shoulders of those who have had a stab at it previously.

In fact, central to peak mystical experiences (including mine) is the feeling that, for a moment, you do understand everything – and as soon as the moment passes, you don’t. Maybe that’s a correct feeling?

Inspiration and language

I am regularly frustrated by people saying that scripture is inspired (which I have no real problem in accepting, with some modest reservations) and then going on to say that it must therefore be literally true, or “inerrant” or something of that kind, or that we can consider the written results to be something approaching divine dictation.

I have a certain amount of experience of inspiration, both of the variety experienced by mystics and in some other fields. I have, for instance, felt musical inspiration (rarely), artistic inspiration (more often, but little of late), and once or twice comedic or performance inspiration. All of these seem to me to have a certain amount of similarity, but the greatest, to me at least, is the mystical.

It can, indeed, at times feel as if an intelligence entirely distinct from you is just using you to channel things which you could not remotely have said or done by yourself. In the case of the mystical experience, it very definitely feels as though an intelligence distinct from yourself is to a great extent in control of the situation. I do, however, question whether that feeling is actually correct. For instance, I am well used to engaging my subconscious, often by leaving some question for my subconscious to deal with without actually consciously thinking about it for a few minutes, an hour or two, overnight or, sometimes, for a few days, and then to have a well-developed answer pop into my consciousness without the slightest indication that anything has been happening in relation to that question in the meantime. I’m pretty confident that my subconscious is a lot cleverer than my conscious!

I cannot, therefore, guarantee to myself that any of these occurrences have been more than just engaging the subconscious entirely in parallel with the conscious for a change, with the two working together towards the same end (a fairly unusual occurrence, and one which just did not happen at all for most of the period 1996-2013 for me, probably closely connected with my clinical depression over that period).

The one which is problematic here, though, is the mystical experience, the experience which feels as if it were direct unmeditated contact with God (and that’s my best answer as to what it actually is!). In this, it is somewhere between horribly difficult and totally impossible to give anything remotely like a coherent, logical, detailed account of what has happened, or of the information which has been conveyed (and there is definitely an information content). This applies whether or not the trick of calling for the subconscious to work it’s magic behind closed doors in the backroom of my mind, too. Oh, it is perfectly coherent and understandable at the time – but less so afterwards, when I stop and try to piece together an account. I’ve sat down and written about these experiences lots of times, and every time I’m left thinking “well, that’s partly right, but it doesn’t remotely do justice to it, and actually gives something of the wrong impression”. I’ve read a lot of writings by various mystics (and some poets, philosophers, theologians or scientists) which have a lot of the right feeling about them, which seem to be saying the right thing – but in part only, and then giving an at least somewhat misleading impression. At best, some writing may catch exactly one aspect of the experience, while missing other aspects completely.

Here, I think, is my difficulty with those who put forward scripture as being not only inspired, but also as being readily understood. My experience of actual communication from God, assuming this is what the mystical experience is, is that it is just not susceptible to being written of in a way which is both readily understood and entirely correct. I rather suspect that the human brain is incapable of grasping the fullness of the experience except while it is going on (and is therefore augmented, as it seems to me), and (which may well be the major reason for that first suspicion) that human language and concept structures are inadequate to express it in more than a “through a glass, darkly” manner.

But then, why would I expect the human brain to be able to grasp this, or that human language and concepts would be adequate to contain it?

Perhaps the most successful attempt to do this use paradox; Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Sufism and the Eastern Orthodox tradition of mystical theology are notable for this, for example. At least these traditions tend to avoid the simple making of a direct statement which is at least in part wrong, as they immediately offer an opposite or radically different parallel statement as also being correct.

I fancy I am seeing something of the same attempt made in the chain of philosophers from Kant (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger e al) who tend to invent new language and concepts in order to attempt to do justice to that which is; I am on the whole unconvinced that they are successful. This continues in (for instance) Derrida and Caputo, who play with language and twist it into new ways of expressing things. Perhaps they are successful, if only I could see well enough through the word-games, but I fancy they are battling against something which will forever escape any full and accurate expression.

If that something is God, it seems to me entirely appropriate that it should forever escape full and accurate expression. How, after all, can the partial encompass the whole?

Purgatory, Nietzsche and Groundhog Day

Inasmuch as my various mystical experiences have given me any really clear picture, perhaps the clearest has been one of judgment. I saw judgment as, in reunion with God, becoming conscious (in a timeless moment) of all I had done in my life to that point from both sides, that is to say from my own part and from that of those with whom I had interacted. Needless to say, this was not a comfortable experience. It might have been an intolerable one had it not been for the simultaneous assurance of love and forgiveness, which might be called “salvation”, I suppose. The implication might be that this is an eternal consciousness, as it is God’s consciousness of me.

It links in well, I think, with Richard Beck’s concepts of purgatory. Prof Beck is an universalist, working from the point of view of theories about God and a close reading of scripture. I go along with all he says, but have also had this vision of that universal reconciliation; the only small caveat I have had is that I think for some few people the pain of the kind of vision I sketched out above, extended to a timeless eternity, might be too hard to contemplate, to bear, to accept. For them, perhaps eternal separation or annihilation may be the only answer. The Theologia Germanica says “Nothing burns in Hell save self-will; therefore it has been said ‘put of your self-will and there will be no Hell’ “. For some, there may not be anything but self-will left. This, incidentally, works well with twelve-step, in which “self will is at the root of all our defects of character”.

I’ve been listening over the last few days to a set of lectures by the late Rick Roderick, to which I was pointed by an article from 2009 on Homebrewed Christianity. One of these dealt with the “Eternal Recurrence”, which Nietzsche saw, I think, as an encouragement to reinvent yourself really well. The idea is that you are fated to relive your life, endlessly repeating it, exactly the same as you live this one.

If I needed a nastier concept than an eternal consciousness of my failings, this is it. Perhaps Nietzsche was describing a consciousness similar to mine, perhaps he had a glimpse further than I have had. I hope not, that we are not in fact fated to an eternal Groundhog Day, but without the slim possibility of breaking out of the cycle which the film offers.

I don’t think so; the ecstasy of union is probably enough to outweigh anything, and I think this picture requires a greater sense of self, of self-will than is possible. Self-will does, after all, burn…

In passing, is it just me, or could Rick Roderick be Slavoj Zizek’s long lost twin, brought up in West Texas?

Dawkins and Downs

I saw the first facebook mention of Richard Dawkins’ recent comment about it being (potentially) immoral not to abort a Downs Syndrome foetus and winced. For a very bright guy, occasionally Dawkins shows all the mental acumen of the average flea.

Firstly, a Twitter message is clearly entirely inadequate to do justice to the moral implications of the situation. I’m not sure the several additional messages and articles which have appeared following that tweet are adequate either, but a tweet is just blatantly a stupid way of doing this.

Secondly, within his own rationale (of reducing suffering), he was unable to arrive at the conclusion he did on the basis of the information available. He didn’t know enough about the circumstances.

Thirdly, he seems to have ignored the testimony of very many parents of Downs Syndrome children and of those who know Downs Syndrome people, which should have led him to question his blanket assumption that they were likely to suffer. In fact, on the evidence I have (which is also inadequate), it seems to me that a majority of Downs Syndrome children lead very happy, if tragically short, lives.

However, a principal reason why I winced was that I anticipated the storm of comment likely to emerge from conservative Christian voices. I needed only to wait for Sunday, and a sermon in which this was mentioned. This thing was, the preacher added that in a way he respected Dawkins for following his atheism to it’s rational conclusion, whereas so many atheists didn’t. His assumption, of course (shared by the vast majority of his congregation) was that any Christian would know that this was just wrong. Not necessarily wrong because of any consideration of the life quality of a Downs Syndrome person, but because abortion is just wrong in every case. Wrong because it is forbidden to kill another human being, and because a foetus is another human being.

It is not clear to me that the general course of Christianity historically has held this, far less the previous course of Judaism. It is correct to say that from a very early stage, Christianity generally has frowned on all forms of preventing new life arising from sexual relations, but the rationale for this has not historically been avoidance of killing, but the transmission of human life as a primary purpose of the sacrament of marriage. The focus was, therefore, on banning contraception until the mid 20th century. This is not, I think, now the majority position within Christianity, although it is still the declared position of the Catholic Church. Abortion, of course, was a somewhat aggravated case of contraception from the point of view of the Church.

I do not think, given the current overpopulation of the planet, that Christianity should be advocating for unlimited increase of humanity any more.

As the tenor of thinking in society generally shifted in favour of planned parenthood, abortion became the touchstone, but in conservative protestant churches on the alternative ground that it was the killing of another human being. This required a shift of thinking, as prior to then, a foetus had only generally been regarded (as were sperm) as a potential human being. Indeed, if you go back to (say) the Middle Ages, it is uncertain whether the church generally regarded under age children as being fully human beings; various states had “lesser crimes” of infanticide for small children, for instance, and children still lack many of the same rights or privileges attaching to adults more or less everywhere. An abortion, in other words, was wrong, but a far lesser wrong than was murder.

It has thus become an entirely tenable position within modern Liberal Christianity that, in certain circumstances, abortion is permissible; indeed, a major factor in decision making should be the alleviation of suffering (just as Dawkins proposed) both of the anticipated child, if born, and of the mother.

As it happens, as a result of my panentheism, I do think that abortion is always a wrong, as it results in the death of a living organism. I do, however, see a spectrum rather than a somewhat arbitrary fixed line, so it is also a wrong to kill a sperm (but a far lesser wrong), and it becomes progressively more wrong as a foetus progresses towards birth. But then, I also see it as a wrong to kill any living thing (a wrong which I commit on occasion, including euthanising pets who are in extreme pain and swatting insects, and which is extremely frequently committed on my behalf, bearing in mind that I eat meat – though vegetables are also alive…). I am not convinced that we draw the line between permissible and absolutely wrong in the right place. Indeed, I am not completely sure that a line should be drawn on one side of which is an absolute.

Of course, in point of fact, most laws in ostensibly Christian countries allow (and have allowed since the earliest Christian country) the killing of even adult human beings in some cases; self defence or the prevention of serious harm to others, for instance, war (which I massively disapprove of, though I’m not necessarily a pacifist – yet) or, in some places, as a punishment for offenders (which I might countenance only on the basis that it’s a better option than life in some prisons, and then as an option offered to the prisoner). There are even a few prominent Christian voices supporting voluntary euthanasia in some extreme cases, to reduce suffering (using, so far as I can see, the same “social hedonism” utilitarian argument which Dawkins was using). In Christianity, therefore, the killing of even another human being is at most a wrong which can be outweighed by a greater wrong.

Why not in the case of abortion? It clearly cannot be because killing is always an absolute wrong, because that is not what Christianity has historically held or what conservative Christianity holds now. Is it, perhaps, because it involves the killing of “an innocent”? How can it be, given that conventional Christianity has the concept of “original sin”, and there are therefore arguably no innocents anyhow?

The answer, I think, does not lie in logical argument. In fact, it lies in an emotional revulsion to using logical argument in the case of the taking of human life. I feel this myself (for any readers who wish to take exception to my argument, rest assured that I can echo Peter Rollins and say that I may offend them, but hey, I offend myself as well). I don’t think this is something for which we can find an answer in logic (although we may well find it in evolutionary biology). I have never killed another human being myself, but having at times spent significant amounts of time with soldiers (courtesy of being a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor) I know both that they more or less unanimously attest that there is something viscerally different about killing another human, something with a deep emotional impact which surprised some of them, and that meeting people for the first time, one of the questions everyone wants to ask (although some are hesitant to do so) is “have you ever killed someone?”.

Dawkins, in other words, was going to places which we are typically both fascinated by and repulsed by, and seemed unmoved by that. That isn’t the hallmark of an atheist, it’s the hallmark of someone who is intellectually brave. There have been plenty of intellectually brave Christian thinkers, and sometimes their logical excursions produce stomach-churning results too (and I’m thinking of Calvin’s predestination here).

Or maybe the intellectually foolish. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between brave and foolish.