Giving it away

Small groups at my church are looking at Acts 2:43-47 over the course of four weeks: 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This passage, it seems to me, holds out a picture of the early church in Jerusalem as the ideal of how we should live as Christians, and indeed the themes for these four weeks are along those lines.

However, it gives me a problem; I do not hold my property or income in common with others (well, apart from my wife and, before they left home, my children). I will grant that the way the passage is being presented, it is not arguing that we should actually be forming a communist group, but that is the way it reads if you take it reasonably literally, and I do not see any reason not to take it literally.

In particular, I note that shortly after this passage is the tale of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11), in which Ananias sells a plot of land, but gives only part of the proceeds, with his wife’s knowledge, to the community; both of them are struck dead when confronted by Peter. Now, the immediate response when I raised this argument with a group member who is considerably more conservative and literalistic than I am myself was that the fault of Ananias and Saphira was lying to the community and representing that they had paid in the whole of the proceeds (which is certainly what Peter reproaches them with, but is not apparent from the account of what they actually did), and that we should not take either passage as advocating communistic living, but only considerable generosity.

I could make the same argument myself, and I have, over many years, but it doesn’t seem to me to be more than an excuse for not living fully into the Christian life. Granted, I have a great sympathy with Maya Angelou’s celebrated comment “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian. “I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” This is a place where I fall down, and am likely to keep falling down.

It seems to me entirely in line with Jesus’ teaching as we know it: the story of the rich young man which appears in all the synoptic gospels ends in him going away saddened because he is not going to sell all he possesses and give the proceeds to the poor.

That said, I don’t think my church, or any other church I know of, is actually going to be doing this (and not just the person who downplayed my argument). Indeed, aside from a few notable individuals such as St. Francis, it doesn’t seem to have been the norm except in the very early church – and I strongly suspect the reason is that it isn’t actually viable. After all, we find in Romans 15:25-28 that Paul is taking a subscription to the Jerusalem church, and I can’t help thinking this might be because they ran out of money…

I’ve no taste for being the only person around doing this, quite apart from the fact that as things are, it would land me too on the list of those asking for charity (or, at least, State support as due to my health I couldn’t now expect to be able to support myself by my own labour), nor for being one of a small number who do it, landing them communally in the same position. I do wonder, however, how much that is real pragmatism and how much a frantic wiggling to avoid the consequences of really following Jesus.

Could a communitarian ethos work in a wider sense, I wonder? Just to push the pragmatic view a bit more, however, I can’t find an example of a completely communitarian society of substantial size anywhere. The countries where communism has been tried are object examples of failure (though, to be fair, none of them has actually achieved a truly communitarian society – the vast majority of them look like something between dictatorships and oligarchies). Note that when I say “failure” there, I am not talking of measures of success such as gross national product, national or individual wealth or income; the failures have been in not providing a free society and in not producing a system in which everyone is provided for “according to their needs” and is reasonably content.

I do know of a reasonably substantial number of small groups which have seemed to operate the communitarian principle with some success (not, of course, material or monetary success, but those are not only not relevant to the objective but arguably completely contrary to it), but those seem to rely partly on being small and partly on operating within a larger society which works on a market economy basis, often by accepting social payments, or by having a backer who does not operate by these rules and supports the community from excess income. I do note that the model for the slightly later church seems to have been groups supported by such rich backers, and it seems to have persisted where communitarian living has in general not.

The nearest to examples of success I can find are social democratic countries, in particular the Scandinavian ones, but there seem to me problems there: some have taken steps back from egalitarianism recently and reduced welfare spending on the basis that their welfare states were proving unsupportable (and I suspect globalisation to be the main culprit; it is difficult to maintain a welfare state when in direct competition with capitalist states operating wage slavery systems, and they worked much better before globalisation really took off), and also the populations do not actually seem to be as content as one would hope – the suicide rates, for instance, seem rather high, as do incidences of depression.

There is, however, an aspect I have not yet considered, and this is very much a feature of the story of the rich young man. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matt. 19:21-22). There is a great freedom in letting go of an attachment to worldly possessions and wealth, both of which can easily obsess the mind to the exclusion of any kind of spirituality, and even just enjoying life; I know this not because I’ve ever voluntarily given away all or even most of my possessions, but because circumstances took them away for a time, during which I had an estimated “net worth” which was substantially negative and no reasonable prospect of employment due to illness. Now that I again have a positive net worth, can actually work again to a limited extent and have a modest but adequate pension income, I am, I think, on the right side of a paradigm change with respect to money and possessions.

I grant that giving away everything you have is a draconian way of achieving that freedom, but it may, I think, be the only option for some of us, and I think the rich young man saw that, and knew himself unable to take that step.

Against all this pragmatism, however, is the bare fact that Jesus consistently spoke against money and possessions and in favour of leaving everything and following him. That at least makes it an objective to be aimed towards, even if it’s an unattainable ideal. There is within me an urge to just believe and do, and trust that the outcome will be good, but it remains balanced by a reluctance to take a step when every indication is that it would be a disaster.

With Maya Angelou, the best I can say is that I’m working at it.

The situation of Badiou

In my last post about Homebrewed’s Paul course, I complained a bit about feeling targeted by remarks about liberals and progressives. Another session, and I’m not feeling less targeted – and it’s going to get worse as we move onto Badiou’s snarky remarks about Pascal’s mysticism. Let’s face it, I’m a mystic as well. I do note that F.C. Happold identifies Paul as a mystic, with the assumption that mysticism founded Paul’s career, so sidelining that aspect may be a mistake.

Time for some pushback, I think. I started this book (Paul, the Foundation of Universalism) with some expectations – Badiou is, after all, a French public intellectual. What I therefore expected was an Atheist Marxist who tried hard to come up with some provocative remarks, dressed in a stack of obscure language  – and Badiou manages to be boringly conformist to this stereotype despite being somewhat dismissive of postmodern situatedness. His “provocative remark” is to centre his fantasy on a theme of Paul on the Resurrection, which is clearly an entirely unacceptable idea to an Atheist Marxist, particularly a French one (as Atheism is pretty close to being the state religion of France – they haven’t got over elevating reason to the status of goddess in 1792, a fairly short lived experiment but one which has coloured all French republics since then).

Sadly, Badiou goes to some lengths to stress that it’s an unacceptable idea, even a “lie”. Paul, however, almost certainly believed implicitly in the resurrection (I reference the first talk), and I do not hear from Badiou any clever argument like Pete Rollins’ in “The Divine Magician” (where it is crucial that the thing wished for does not in fact exist) nor “I know that it didn’t happen like this, but I know this story is true” to adjust the standard opening of some native storytellers.

I say “fantasy on a theme of Paul” as in truth it bears as much resemblance to an analysis of what Paul actually said as do the Christian theologians who Niezsche’s complained about in Taubes book, finding the cross in every mention of wood in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For one thing, Badiou concentrates on the resurrection. However, what is clearly for Paul a “scandal to the Jews and a foolishness to the Greeks” is actually the crucifixion, not the resurrection (see 1 Cor. 1:23). In fact, although to Badiou’s atheist eyes the resurrection is the stumbling block, to the eyes of Jews and Greeks (or Romans) a resurrection or revivification wasn’t an impossibility. Both traditions could accommodate such an event, and in theological developments over the next century or so, arguments were put forward which bent Jewish and Greek presuppositions minimally if at all.

What was an impossibility was a messiah who was crucified rather than leading the Jews to reestablishment of their nation in glory, or a son of God (like Caesar) who was put to death as an insurrectionary rather than elevated to rule the known world. It was absolutely scandalous that Jesus should die an ignominious death and not reign forever. Perhaps even more so that God would not intervene and save him, which has the potential still to be a scandal for about 90% of the Christians I know. God either does not care, does not wish to or cannot intervene? Not a popular sentiment in churches I’m acquainted with.

So, of course, his followers put that right by demoting the crucifixion to a temporary blip and (after some time) positing that he would return to do all the things which were expected of a Jewish Messiah or a Roman Caesar. If there hadn’t been a resurrection, it would have been necessary for his followers to invent one.

Oh, wait… the overwhelming probability is that they did – or, at least, that’s what I’d expect to hear from a psychoanalyst. Granted, the psychoanalyst might not go so far as Badiou and describe it as a “lie”, just as hallucinations brought on by cognitive dissonance reduction and wish fulfillment, perhaps with a side order of deindividuation. (I should maybe point out for my more conservative readers that just because we can identify psychological mechanisms which could well have produced resurrection experiences doesn’t actually mean there wasn’t more to them than that.)

Badiou does, of course, mention Pauls main other shockingly transgressive set of statements, but the French Marxist Atheist is not shocked by the dissolution of Jewish exceptionalism (by rendering circumcision and dietary laws irrelevant), abolition of patriarchal attitudes to gender or the denial of the master-slave relationship, which would have been truly shocking to Jew and Greek alike whereas resurrection, which Badiou is shocked by, would maybe have raised an eyebrow or two. It was, indeed, sufficiently transgressive that the pseudo-Pauline epistles and the Fourth Gospel (in particular) did their utmost to undo Paul’s good work, to deny the event.

Similarly, the French Marxist Atheist finds nothing particularly startling to mention  in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s preference for the poor, women, children, lawbreakers, the irreligious and other contemptible people, even so far as religious opponents (the Samaritans) and outright enemies (including Romans). This, however, still has the power to shock. (In the USA not by any means least when couched as “affirmative action”.) Autre pays, autre moeurs, as they say.

I wonder, would Paul, today, say “In Christ there is no theist and no atheist”? Would Jesus say “Blessed are those who do not believe in anything”?

Que M. Badiou soit beni.


Paul and the three r’s

I’ve now listened to the introductory talk to Homebrewed Christianity’s new High Gravity class “Paul, Rupture, Revelation, Revolution” (£20 well spent, to my mind!) a couple of times and watched the live stream of the session on Jacob Taubes “The Political Theology of Paul”.

And I’m feeling oppressed, as Tripp Fuller suggests Daniel Kirk (author of “Jesus I have loved, but Paul?”) might be doing in the introductory talk. Actually, I’m feeling oppressed by Tripp as well as by Daniel, courtesy of some remarks about liberals and progressives and a lampoon of Borg and Crossan (hey, I’m a liberal, I’m going to like them!), and by Taubes due to remarks he makes about liberals. Tripp is hugely engaging when he goes off on one of this enthusiastic excurses, but I can’t go all the way with him. Assuming, that is, that he is not just playing a part (as I know he is well able to do). He may just be being jocular or provocative, or indulging an ongoing contest with Pete, but the repetition makes it difficult for me to treat it as just jocular. Perhaps, however, he is establishing a thesis to set against the antithesis of Pete, Taubes, Badiou and Zizek?

The thing is, I’m targeted by the term “liberal”. I really have little option about being identified as a theological liberal, progressive in at least some senses, with a radical edge (happily, no-one said anything nasty about radicals). The thing is, this is because I interpret scripture in a way typically seen as “liberal” and, to be fair, that’s the best description of my political stance in the UK as well, although it wouldn’t do in the States, where I’d probably be regarded as alarmingly leftist.

I don’t, for instance, consider that a physical resurrection is a remotely likely occurrence, not only on the grounds that biology and physics militate against anything like that happening (I’m methodologically if not quite ontologically naturalistic) but also on the basis that, wearing my hat as a retired lawyer and treating the gospel accounts as eyewitness, the conclusion I arrive at is that what they report experiencing is overwhelmingly likely to have been a set of apparitions. It’s possible that some of those may have been tangible apparitions, but I’ve experienced a tangible apparition (of Jesus) myself in circumstances in which I’m pretty confident there was no material body present – apart from my own. Daniel and Tripp both talked as if belief in this is really important. The best I can deliver in response is to say that I can’t absolutely exclude the possibility that their view is correct, but I consider it very unlikely – hardly a basis for “faith”!

I don’t see this kind of belief as important. I ask myself what it would mean to me for some random person to resurrect in circumstances in which the reports were incontrovertible, and whether there would be any difference between that meaning to me and the one resulting from my acceptance that there were apparitions. The answer is, basically “no”. I understand by resurrection a concept which is wider than any reanimation and which can apply to things other than people – although to them as well. After all, I’ve been resurrected in a sense myself (I spent some years severely clinically depressed, and when that lifted, I definitely felt “returned from the dead”). Similarly it makes no difference to me whether other physical miracles actually happened or whether that is just how the people of the day experienced them subjectively and incorporated them into their thinking. As Pete says, these are “radically subjective experiences”.

That is, in fact, not the limit of my theological liberalism. While, as a result of personal experience (of the peak unitive mystical variety) I tend to think that that-which-is-God is real (and immanent, and something akin to panentheist even if this is not quite an adequate description), I can similarly entertain the idea that the only place in which God is actually ever present is in the concept-space of my mind and those of others. (Possibly, it is only in the concept-spaces of thinking entities that anything which can reasonably be regarded as non-material actually exists, granted that what is material is in terms of current science not nearly so material as it appears – materiality is just another illusion, albeit one which we would be foolish to act against.) I am not even confident that regarding God as a “person” represents the ultimate truth of the matter, but I find that God can be and is sometimes experienced as a person.

I do not need God to be in Godself anything more than that. Similarly, for my devotion to Jesus to be operative, I do not need him to have worked any miracles, risen from the dead or have done anything more than have prophesied against the power structures of his day and laid down some principles which I can aspire to as an ideal but never meet`. As I demonstrated in some years of arguing Christianity against a set of very vocal atheists, this means that I can often talk to atheists without the need to argue any claim which is impossible for them to accept.

Granted, I have a permanent problem talking with anyone with a confirmed supernatural theist viewpoint, which probably includes Daniel, may include Tripp and definitely includes Paul. The nearest I can come to accepting this is to avoid actual dogmatism that that-which-is-God is not as they conceive Godself to be. Even if the resultant expectation that miracles will happen on a daily basis if you just believe strongly enough that they will is, to me,  in fact false, I can acknowledge that there are some provable advantages in adopting that mindset – though I do find that difficult to adopt with any deep conviction. My hope there is a long way short of confidence in things unseen.

I am, however, entirely on board with both Tripp’s and Peter Rollins’ attitude that it is pointless just to play with concepts and come to some compromises with the structures of the day (and I mention that in my experience, conservative and evangelical churches are just as guilty of this as are “liberal” or “progressive” ones). To my mind, both Jesus and Paul (who I admit I have not yet loved, although he grows on me) laid down some very radical principles on which they expected followers of Jesus/Christ to operate, and which are entirely inconsistent with the current wisdom of the world and its power structures, just as they were at the time they were teaching. I am as a result someone whose aims and priorities are politically and economically wholly out of line with those of my times, and this is what might allow me to lay claim to the title “radical” – unlike the portrait of liberals painted by Tripp and Taubes, I accept that I am called on to follow, and to act as nearly as possible in accordance with those radical principles. I may not be very good at it, but am not deceived by the economic and political orthodoxies.

Intellectual acceptance, in my book, is nothing like what is meant in the scriptures by “faith”, and it is insufficient to found anything. What is needed is action – it is implausible to claim that you actually believe something unless your actions speak to that, unless the ideas inhabiting your conscious concept space and which you voice actually produce your actions, unless the transcendent collapses into the immanent, much as a probability density collapses into something observable in quantum physics. Daniel refers to this from 2 Corinthians, in which Paul talks of observing actions not words.

But where does that leave us with our three authors? Taubes was Jewish, and quoted with some approval Nietzsche’s flaming criticism of Jesus; Badiou and Zizek are both atheists, and indeed Badiou adverts in his introduction to the fact that he just does not believe in the major facts which Paul very clearly did believe and which allowed Paul to challenge the structures and thinking of the day, and later has an excursus arguing that Paul was antagonistic to arguing from actual evidence in a logical way. Pete mentions the fascination of the atheists with the fact that Paul clearly “really believed” – how on earth can they appropriate any of Paul’s thinking without some similar belief of their own? Much is made in the introductory talk and discussion of Paul’s insistence that faith in/of Christ is the key to all of his thinking, the key to any breaking of the assumptions of Jewish exceptionalism on the one hand and Roman Imperialism on the other. How do the atheists attempt some form of faith? Come to that, how do I attempt it, given that what I can state I believe beyond reasonable doubt is massively short of what Daniel, or (apparently) Tripp, or Paul, or Jesus believed?

Are we looking here at justification not by faith in Christ, but along with some of the new Perspective on Paul writers, justification by the faithfulness of Christ (which can then be appropriated by following Him without, perhaps, the need to possess that faith yourself)?

To be entirely honest, Taubes book and what I have to date read of Badiou’s both give me the appearance of playing with concepts, of appropriating some ideas and structures from Paul and subverting them to their own agendas, reading them in the light of a much different basic narrative, much as Taubes (quoting Nietzsche) complains Christian authors did reading the whole Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ, down to any mention of a wooden object (and some non-wooden ones) being taken as a reference to the cross. But then, from some standpoint what I have written about my own approaches above may seem to some to be a similar exercise – I am indeed accommodating how I think about these concepts to an overriding approach of naturalism, even if not to an acceptance of power structures and market economics.

That said, as Taubes points out, neither Jesus nor Paul was entirely innocent in reinterpreting the Hebrew scriptures against what anyone else in the time would have regarded as their meaning.

Perhaps Pete Rollins is on track, when he says that what he is interested in is not what Paul believed, but what he was doing in what he believed (to paraphrase). I can regard something as a narrative which it is open for me to live into irrespective of whether the narrative is factually based; “I do not know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.  Badiou, indeed, talks of truth revealed in a rupture, possibly acknowledging that he accepts a truth being revealed here, athough Badiou’s concept of “truth” is nonstandard, and I am not convinced I have yet grasped it. But then, Badiou flatly describes the resurrection as a lie.

Is it, perhaps, the case that whereas Tripp criticises people in churches who talk of faith in Christ but act as worshippers of Mammon (and I heartily agree), we are here looking at people who talk atheist but act like followers of Christ? After all, I know quite a few atheists who act Catholic!

The multinational in “Wolf Hall”

The excellent series “Wolf Hall” has recently finished on the BBC. Here’s a link (at least for a while!) to an interview with Mark Rylance, who plays the central character, Thomas Cromwell, and the director, Peter Kosminsky. I find a section from Kosminsky at about 22.30 (noting that at the time Wolf Hall is set, Christianity was about the same age Islam is now, and was beheading and burning people on a regular basis over small differences of religious interpretation) particularly interesting to reflect on, given all the news about ISIS, but this is just one among many ways in which I think we can find lessons in the history of the period.

The series majors on personal relationships in the Tudor court, and brings home wonderfully the ever present atmosphere of danger for those trying to operate in and exercise any influence in an atmosphere where failure tends to result in execution. As a result, the parts dealing with the really major political and religious development of the period are somewhat underplayed. Henry VIII is seen as instituting the takeover of the church in England by the state as largely a means to get his way in being able to divorce and marry as he wishes without being dependent on the Pope, and the economic and political implications are not stressed as much as they might be.

These were, however, of huge importance. At the commencement of Henry’s reign, the church was governed from Rome, and the Pope and his favoured monarch, then the Emperor (as the Hapsburgs were Holy Roman Emperors and also rulers of Spain at the time) could dictate a significant amount of policy. Henry’s declaration that he was head of the church in England was calculated to bring this influence to an end; the conflict with Thomas More which is dealt with in Wolf Hall stemmed from this, More considering that loyalty to Rome as a Christian took precedence to loyalty to Henry as his most important minister (Chancellor). The implications for today, when we are prone to consider Muslims suspect as potentially having an allegiance to an outside power which is potentially inimical to the interests of our nation are obvious, though we are inclined to forget that only a small minority of Muslims actually support the Islamic State, while at the time all Christians unless they had undercover sympathies with the followers of Luther were potentially suspect.

The church also, primarily through the monasteries, had control over vast tracts of land in the country – and by and large this was exempt from taxation – as churches in many countries still are. The extent of this control had concerned English monarchs for many years; Edward I had in the 13th century passed the Statutes of Mortmain (the term translates literally as “dead hand”) to try to limit the increase of these estates. The form of taxation on land (which in those pre-industrial days was by far the principal form of wealth) was on succession, and the monasteries didn’t die, come of age or become attained for treason, so no taxes. Of course, control of the land was also in the hands of bodies which were a kind of corporation, and the ultimate authority for them was abroad – often immediately, as many monasteries were part of a larger grouping the mother houses of which were abroad, but in any event with the ultimate authority being the pope.

In other words, the monasteries were the multi-national corporations and offshore residents of their day, largely immune from tax (and so from contributing to the common good of the state in which their wealth worked for them) and from the control of the state. They also, of course, provided no soldiers in times of war, the concept of the “fighting cleric” having happily fallen into disuse by then. While, of course, Henry VIII was an autocratic ruler and regarded the public purse as his own, nevertheless out of it he did provide many of the benefits which a more modern state offers its citizens, most notably defence and law and order. There was, to be fair, some primitive semblance of democracy in the form of the House of Commons (lower house of parliament), but at the time this had a largely advisory role.

My last post criticised trickle down economics. By and large, however, it was talking of individuals from whom wealth is supposed to “trickle down” and doesn’t. It “trickles down” even less from corporations, even if these are actually resident in the country where their wealth is produced.

There is thus a problem for governments very similar to those faced by Henry (and earlier kings). Henry’s solution was to dissolve the monasteries and confiscate their assets, which gave him the significant bonuses of a major one-off boost to the treasury and the ability to cement the loyalty of some of his supporters by grants of land often at knock-down prices. He and his son Edward who succeeded him also confiscated a sizeable amount of church valuables, also swelling the treasury and, incidentally, returning into the then money supply significant amounts of gold and silver which had been outside that system for some time (an analogy would be of corporations retaining large cash reserves which are not invested).

As an aside, he achieved this by votes of parliament; this proved to be a significant move in the direction of power being vested in parliament, albeit a relatively small one. That said, within 100 years, parliament was flexing its muscles and ordering the death of a successor king (Charles I).

I think there is also at least an argument that the freeing up of land (and thus effective capital) and production may have been the single most important factor in allowing the country to experience the world’s first Industrial Revolution, which was in its infancy shortly after the repercussions dealt with in the last paragraph started to subside, i.e. the early eighteenth century.

I have strong doubts that anything similar to Henry’s action could be attempted in the case of multi-national and corporations now without consequences even graver than those the country faced under him and his successors – years of instability as rule switched from pro-Rome to anti-Rome monarchs and back, eventually culminating in revolution and civil war 100 years later; political isolation from the largest powers in Europe and interruption in trade with them and with their colonial possessions; a paranoia about loyalty of those expressing religious views not in tune with the current norm, which took until at least the late 19th century to reduce. Offshore corporations as vehicles for tax avoidance, however, are a significantly easier target, as are expatriates who still make most of their money in this country. Should the attempt be made, however?

The answer “yes”, of course, assumes that we regard democratic nation states as a better repository for power and control of capital than we do corporations (or multi-national religions organised on an autocratic basis). Or, indeed, in the case of offshore tax-avoidance corporations, individual very rich people. Henry’s semi-autocratic England was perhaps a better repository for this power than was the monolithic Catholic Church of the day, but the nation became a far better one as it became closer to a democratic ideal over the next 350 years or so.

Not necessarily the easiest question to answer, and one which I think I’ll come back to…