Eternal conscious bull****

There is a nice piece at Unfundamentalist Christians about hell as “eternal conscious torment”. I agree with it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

The idea of Hell (assuming that Hell is not a mere rhetorical device, or even, perhaps, a metaphor for what an eternity separated from God might feel like – which is something which I might, perhaps, contemplate to be a viable possibility if, firstly, our consciousness, once created, cannot under any circumstances ever be destroyed and, secondly, if God has renounced any coercion to force a change of mind on us, and allows us freely to elect not to turn to Him and, thirdly, if there is any possibility that, given eternity, any consciousness would not so turn) is one which has been orthodox in Christianity for most of its history.

Incidentally, I do not think that the first and third of the provisoes above are correct, although I am reasonably confident that the second is at least largely correct. I say “reasonably confident” and “largely correct” on the basis that my personal history indicates that God will occasionally give the consciousness of even the most recalcitrant (i.e. the 14 years old evangelical atheist Chris) a good kicking to persuade it differently, but does not appear to have got round to doing the same to (for example) Richard Dawkins.

Let’s leave reformed theology on one side for a moment – given its insistence that God determines absolutely who is going to be saved and who damned without any reference to character, circumstances or effort, and therefore just creates humans destined for Hell – and concentrate on the rest of Christianity.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned. This, at least, is frequently quoted; I cannot as yet find an accurate reference to it in the Summa, however. Thomas was, no doubt, thinking of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which, taken literally and aside the real point of the parable (which is that some cannot be convinced by whatever evidence you  can conceive of), indicates that the saved in Heaven can see the damned in Hell. 

And that would make Heaven into eternal conscious torment for anyone who had lived their life trying to follow Jesus’ second Great Commandment, that you love your neighbour as yourself. He even went on to point out in the version recorded by Luke, using the parable of the Good Samaritan, that “neighbour” meant anyone, even your traditional enemy. Maybe not physical torment, but certainly mental.

I wonder how St. Thomas could have managed to ignore this absolutely basic tenet of his faith. Could he, I ask, have been basically a sociopath, setting out the rules by which things worked and pointing out that by following these, you would end up in a good place, irrespective of any human feeling (which sociopaths do not experience)? In the system described by him, indeed, success would go to the rational sociopaths – and that makes it look like a system of corporatist free market capitalism to me rather than the radically inclusionary kingdom of God preached by Jesus – and I have been known to describe corporatist free market capitalism as a Satanic system.

Could it have been that Thomas’ famed rationality had taken over to the point at which mere human feeling was far from him? If so, this is not the spirituality of Christianity, it is the spirituality of the Eastern traditions in which freedom from attachment is the highest aspiration, and freedom from attachment does, of course, mean an end to compassion. I will grant that the mystical ways of the East do have a tendency to produce this withdrawal from humanity in service of uninterrupted ecstatic contemplation of union with God. That has, in a way, been dangled before me as a possibility; I do not consider it one to be aspired to unless the rest of humanity can join me there, and that is a long way off, but perhaps Thomas was a mystic and was seduced by that promise himself. I don’t know. I prefer not to think of one of the greatest theologians of all time as a potential sociopath, or even someone prepared in the final instance to abandon his fellow men to agony, but that seems to be where the evidence leads.

Also, of course, the God whose fulness dwelt in Jesus, of whom Jesus was the most perfect expression, could not, would not, set up a system in which those favoured by him could be those who would look upon even the most evil of their fellows and relish their torment endlessly, without any hope of either annihilation or and eventual purgation and return to Him. If that is indeed the system which has been set up, the one responsible for it must be Satan rather than God, and I want nothing to do with him or his works.

God: WTF?

Whatnot. Whatsit. Whatjemacallit. Whosit. Whassat. Thingy, thingummy or just plain thing. Doodah, doofah or doofus. Yerknow. Oojemaflip. A click of the tongue, an indrawn breath and rubbing the fingers together…

Readers can probably add several others – gizmo springs to mind, although it tends only to mean something technical and is maybe too well specified (besides which, it’s the name of a friend’s cat…). “It’s on the tip of my tongue” is matched with “spit it out”, and we even felt the need to borrow the French “je ne sais quoi”, as if we hadn’t already enough ways of saying “something not very specific”.

I thought of this need we seem to have to have a plethora of completely nonspecific words in our vocabulary, which I’d argue is an evolutionarily driven adaptation to the way we tend to think when reading a comment to a post from Chris Mullen (Religion, Essentialism and Violence) at The Partially Examined Life facebook page, this being by Trent Erikson, which I quote in part:-

“When it comes to “liberal religionists” like Karen Armstrong or John Shelby Spong, it is often hard to see any distinction between the concept ‘God’ and concepts like ‘the universe’, ‘being’, or ‘love’. The virtue of the liberal religionists is that it is easy to interpret their worldviews as atheistic. I find it frustrating when people point to liberal religionists as exemplifying a redeeming version of religion, since the redemption of this version of “religion” comes largely from the fact that it is not religion, but atheism. I’m all in favour of “post-religions” that reject belief in existence of God, the soul, the afterlife, and other supernatural beliefs yet that retain the symbolism. ritual, mythology, and community of religions. But I also get frustrated when people mince words and fudge the distinction between atheism and theism. I realize keeping things vague and obscure probably has social utility in facilitating a transition from religion to “post-religion”, but I’m a person who strongly values clarity and transparency of thought, so personally I recoil at that sort of thing.”

The snag is that while it might well be “easy” to interpret the viewpoints of liberal believers as atheistic (and, as a panentheist, I am firmly in the camp of the vast majority of liberal believers who reject the supernatural theist interventionary God-concept, and so who can be labelled “atheist” taking “theist” to mean only that God-concept), it is not how most liberal believers see themselves.

Mostly, in fact, we don’t “reject belief in the existence of God”, we firmly believe in the existence of God – for some value of “God” which may not be specified, and indeed may not be capable of specification. In this, we are following in the footsteps of large numbers of mystics, all of those mainly in the Eastern Orthodox community who practice “apophatic theology”, and even the Thomistic tradition of theology in the Catholic Church, which holds that “God exists” is not a statement which can validly be made, because it reduces God to a “thing” within creation, whereas God is seen as the fount of creation but not as part of it.

We may, perhaps, be in the mould of John Caputo, riffing off the work of Jacques Derrida, when he describes God as a weak but insistent call in his two books “The Weakness of God” and “The Insistence of God”; not, indeed, a “thing”, but nonetheless entirely real (for some value of real).

The thing is, to a great extent my sympathy is with Mr. Erikson. The significant “SR” part of my consciousness is a scientific rationalist materialist one, and would very much like to find that everything was reducible to simple mechanisms. Even that, however, has had to come to terms with emergent behaviours, complexity and chaos, and is these days persuaded that things are just never that simple, often can’t be reduced that way and are at a very fundamental level not predictable. In some ways, the task of the theologian (“faith seeking understanding” as Anselm put it) is exactly in line with his thinking – work out how exactly this “God-thing” functions, and there you are. The trouble is, both what this “God-thing” is and how it functions both remain fairly obscure apart from the blind alleys of speculation, such as that of the Christian schoolmen (and most philosophy of religion) who seem to have thought that by tacking on a few “omni-s” and the odd “meta-“, “para-” and “hyper-” they somehow reduced the phenomenon of that-which-is-God to comprehensibility. In fact, it either becomes incomprehensible due to paradox or flatly impossible in the face of reality as examined by science, or it gets even less comprehensible due to foundering under the sheer weight of verbiage (as often seems the case where postmodernists tackle theology).

It’s all very frustrating, particularly for someone who values clarity and transparency. I can well see the temptation of saying that God only exists in fuzzy thinking, and is therefore again a kind of “God of the gaps”, a concept which still exists among those who want to cling to some semblance of the interventionary God. That kind of God, however, generally ends up being little more than the God rejected by Einstein when he said “God does not throw dice”. Admittedly, most pagan pantheons have had a God who is (or does) exactly that, from Pan and Loki through to Lady Luck; Hinduism has several, Japan has seven (which may explain why, for the Chinese, 8 is a lucky number – or then again, not). These, however, are never fundamental, more remainders, that bit of the numinous which forever defies prediction or description.

Of course, for some radical theologians, a remainder is exactly what one is looking for – the eternal conviction of a loss which is of something one never had and which ultimately is nonexistent, for instance, in Peter Rollins (who perhaps actually deserves to be called “atheistic”, which (for instance) Karen Armstrong does not). Meanwhile, proponents of “theopoetics” think, it seems, that that-which-is-God is best found in figurative, impressionistic wording rather than in clarity and precision. That would tend to evoke emotion rather than reason, of course. Certainly, in my experience, God is at least as much a phenomenon of emotion as one of rationality – which is where my rationalist side and, I suspect, Mr. Erikson give up and retire in disgust.

There is, however, a lot to be said for not tying down definitions, for keeping language somewhat unspecific. This is, in fact, the only way in which I can have productive conversations with the theologically conservative – we can exchange ideas productively only so long as we do not get down to defining things (including God, but also the soul, afterlife and, of course, the miraculous) but leave this undetermined. It is perhaps this avoidance of the definite which fuels this post by Artur Rosman –  certainly I could identify as “anatheistic” for some value of the term, even if not quite that proposed in the post. Not not theist, in a sense.

It is also, I found, about 25 years ago on Compuserve’s European Forum, the only way I can have a constructive exchange about theology and the spiritual with atheists. There developed there a very long-running thread, lasting rather over a year, titled “Dieu?”, in which I took the step of positing a box, represented by [   ]. We investigated how this [   ] could be used to facilitate, for example, talk about experiences of the numinous, which several self-identified French atheists were happy to admit to having in some measure. The snag came when I suggested that we put a label on this box (potentially empty, potentially filled with various things, potentially, mainly for Buddhists, containing merely a mirror), and that the three letters “G”, “O” and “D” would do (actually, in that context it was the four letters “D”, “I”, “E” and “U”), pointing out that historically people had used this label to explain similar experiences. At that, the atheists universally balked. It seems that, for them, G-O-D inevitably means the supernatural theist, interventionary God, and can mean nothing else. For me, of course, it is merely a label for this [   ] which I do not expect ever to be able to define, but which forms a necessary part of my experience.

Indeed, on the first occasion when [   ] burst into my consciousness, the three letter acronym which would have fitted best would have been “WTF”. Whatever it is that God actually is, the last thing I can do is say “God does not exist”. Except in the sense of Catholic orthodoxy…

Sorry, Mr. Erikson.

9/11 and some cliches from Westerns

This is an expanded and altered version of a response to a post by Henry Neufeld on the Energion Discussion Network.

We have just had another anniversary of 9/11, and been reminded of the tragedy of the many people killed in the hijacked airliners and in the World Trade Centre. But we have also been reminded of another, ongoing tragedy.

I look back on what followed 9/11 with huge sadness. Although what I say here might appear to reflect mostly on the USA, it should be remembered that the UK has assisted in most of these actions and, when it hasn’t, cheered from the sidelines.

Firstly, much of the response to 9/11 has been military, and the more I read the gospels, the less I can see Jesus sanctioning any form of aggressive violence, still less the extremes of violence which occur in war; some of the very many people killed or maimed since 9/11 in the name of the “War on Terror” may have been enemies (many were not), but Jesus told us to love our enemies, and love is not conveyed by bombs or bullets.

I write this as someone who used to be very keen on military history, and who was an enthusiastic (and fairly successful) player of wargames. Although I’ve never served in the military, I’ve had friends who were, and have worked together with military men during my days as a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor. Sun Tsu and Clausewitz are on my bookshelf. I’ve a pretty good idea of how to fight wars and win. And, under the influence of Jesus, I can see my trajectory ending up with the pacifist stance of the Quakers or the Mennonites – I’m not there yet, as I still cling to the concept that some degree of self-defence might occasionally be justified, but I can see the writing on the wall for my impulse to meet violence with violence, instead of with love.

Secondly, it is abundantly clear from the current refugee crisis that the actions taken have caused an humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Most of the refugees come from those places targeted in the course of the War on Terror – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and a number of lesser targets. Societies have been destroyed, millions of innocent people have been made homeless and destitute.

Putting aside pacifist and even humanitarian considerations for a moment, and reverting to my old self, thinking of the military practicalities, if something was to be done, it seems to me that it should have been a SMART task, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. I think almost every action taken since then as part of the “war on terror” fails at least one of them, and in particular Iraq failed them all. There was no clear aim, there was no way in which success could be measured, the objective of creating a stable democratic society was not achievable in any event and has manifestly failed catastrophically, it attacked a country which was actually an enemy of Al Quaeda and was therefore irrelevant, and there was no end point in sight – and there still isn’t. Afghanistan might, perhaps, have been relevant, as Al Quaeda was based there, but the objectives were unspecific, impossible to achieve or measure and although troops have substantially been withdrawn now, it is clear that the only way to secure any of the objectives which were articulated after the event would have been to stay there in force indefinitely. Arguably, the target ought to have been Saudi Arabia

It may be that revenge (or merely a desire to lash out at random) was not actually a dominant motive, but what has happened since looks strangely like the actions of a rather uncoordinated giant in a bar fight who, when punched by surprise, attacks the nearest people he doesn’t like the look of and flails about doing huge violence, often to those who are unconnected with the injury and merely happen to be available targets. Often he hurts himself as much as he hurts those around him. We’ve all seen that cliche in Westerns, I suspect…

As I touched on in the recent GCP episode, the anniversary has this time come as we are remembering the events of World War II; in particular, I’ve been watching a set of programmes on the Blitz, during which Nazi Germany destroyed much of many of our cities, mostly during 1941/2.

This has forcibly recalled to me the problems with tit-for-tat actions – the Blitz started in 1940 when German bombers attacking on one account the London industrial and dock zones and on another RAF airfields overshot and bombed residential areas in the East End of London; in return, Churchill ordered the bombing of Berlin, and Hitler reciprocated by promising to level London. This tit-for-tat bombing of civilian populations continued throughout the war (although from the German side it lessened considerably between 1941 and 1943, and “The Blitz” properly refers to the bombing of London in 1940/41), including the almost complete flattening of the city of Coventry here, and of course Hamburg, Dresden and Leipzig in Germany. We ended up killing about 10 times as many civilians as the Germans managed to.

It also recalled the fact that in order to stand against Hitler, the country had to become far more authoritarian and, for a while, an effective police state – which were two of the things we were fighting for freedom from. We became a lot more like our enemy.

The bombing of the East End, which was a mistake, was also an opportunity for Churchill to cast the Germans in a bad light for the purposes of propaganda – they were particularly despicable as they had bombed civilians. Of course, the British response was to become even more despicable as we joined in with gusto and escalated the scale – and the German propaganda machine, of course, picked up on that…

For propaganda purposes, it was also important to Churchill to show that we were not intimidated by the “terror attack” (and how else can one characterise the bombing of civilians), and by and large we rose to the occasion and believed the propaganda. The terror was therefore ineffective to break the will of the people, and that has been the story with most terror attacks since then. By the time the propagandists have finished with their spin, the main effect is to make the victims hate the aggressors, or hate them more.

Since 9/11, both our countries have become markedly more xenophobic (and, dare I say it, trigger happy), we have become more surveilled and far less free in many ways than we were beforehand. The pattern seems to me clear, that in trying to preserve freedom, democracy and tolerance, we lose freedom, democracy and tolerance. If we allow this to continue happening, the terrorists have won; they have destroyed our societies by our own efforts.

“But we had to do something” is the cry which springs to mind. But did we?It seems to me that although the devastation of 9/11 and the wanton slaughter of civilians of 7/7 were appalling, and the natural reaction is to want to hit back, actually in comparison with the size and strength and population of the USA and the UK, those were pinpricks. We could have “turned the other cheek”, and (as one version of that sentiment continues) by so doing heaped coals of fire upon their heads.

Frustration is an amazing producer of anger and badly conceived actions, though, and we should not have allowed ourselves to succumb to that.

This is not “showing weakness”; the weak man strikes out blindly and reactively when provoked, the strong man can absorb the blow and consider what course is the best – and that may be to do nothing.

We could, perhaps, also have wondered what we had done to make ourselves the target for such an action; a reading of Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God” would reveal quite a lot of interest, although we would probably not want to cease from trying to export our cultures as well as our other products to the Islamic world as a result.

There is, however, one simple lesson we can take from another cliche of Westerns. Don’t sell guns to the Indians. By “Indians” here, I mean any of the countries of the region, and in that I include Israel, which may in theory be a western-style democracy in a region of theocracies and dictatorships, but which in practice acts like a tribal theocracy itself much of the time, much as the Boers of South Africa eventually came to act like another African tribe, maintaining hegemony by force and exclusion. From the point of view of Islam, it is a Western intrusion into a historically Islamic area which is maintained there by force, and which oppresses its Palestinian subjects horribly.

I look at hugely negative reactions in both the UK and the USA to significant Muslim migration into our countries, and see an echo of how the Muslim world must see Israel.

However, I don’t just target Israel here. We sell to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Quatar and the other Gulf States, which are not democracies, and which are equally regarded by some Muslims (notably Al Quaeda) as regimes to be combated. We have also sold variously to the Taliban in Afghanistan, to Al Quaeda offshoots and even at one point to ISIS.

Don’t sell guns to the Indians. You’ll regret it.

OCD, TLE and Schizo theologians…

The inimitable Robert Sapolsky, in his younger days, gave a lecture on the biological underpinnings of religiosity. It’s fascinating for many reasons, but watch it at your peril, as it may seem to explain away your own spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology. Thus I feel impelled to comment immediately that just because neurobiology finds that certain psychological conditions which are commonly understood as abnormal tend to produce experiences which have typically been understood as spiritual does not necessarily invalidate them. This kind of argument is, indeed, one of those which Richard Beck seeks to correct in his book “The Authenticity of Faith”, which I strongly recommend to anyone who has a problem with this, or indeed with the outlooks of any of the “Masters of Suspicion”, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. All three of them had explanations of religion, which reduced it to something which could be regarded as an aberration; Beck shows, I think, that although all three might have some measure of truth in their views, they do not offer an adequate explanation of faith. Sapolsky brings the Freudian critique up to date…

One of the fascinating aspects is Sapolsky’s presentation of the case study of a young monk called Luder, who exhibits all of the symptoms of a fairly crippling degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He then remarks that this monk is more commonly known as Martin Luther. He does not, however, go on to comment much about Luther’s contributions to theology; however, it becomes immediately clear to any student of post-Luther theology that his concepts of personal inability to avoid sinning and of the natural state of man as being “incurvatus in se” (obsessively self-analysing) are exactly symptoms of OCD. Inability to avoid sinning links directly to the typical OCD conviction that one can never manage to wash enough to be thoroughly clean; I saw this at close quarters in my late mother-in-law, whose OCD was not particularly severe, but who would feel obliged to wash her hands ten or fifteen times where most of us would wash once, and in the process actually scrubbed off skin from time to time.

Now, I do not suffer from OCD. I have also not tended to find any real difficulty in following sets of rules, particularly given the fact that I don’t suffer from an obsessive tendency to reinspect what I’ve been doing and find it not good enough; OK, yes, I have some measure of that, but trained myself many years ago not to obsess about it, as that way leads to never getting anything done (I’ve blogged before about the perils of taking “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” literally…). I also haven’t since childhood suffered from a compulsion to test the boundaries of rules and regard something forbidden as therefore irresistibly attractive; I acquired a really rather strong impulse control by the time I was in my early teens, as did probably the majority of my acquaintances.

So when Luther, and Calvin on the back of his thinking, suggest that we cannot ever by our own efforts live in a way acceptable to God, I fail to understand them. Sapolsky has here opened my eyes to the fact that this line of thinking may well be just the result of a personal psychological quirk of Luther’s, which these days would be labelled as a personality disorder. I might suspect, although I have no clear evidence of it, that Calvin was afflicted to some extent by the same problem.

However, what about Paul? Luther based his thinking on Paul’s tortured reflections that he could not do good, even where he wished to; he would still find himself doing something bad. Now, there’s no real evidence that Paul suffered from OCD either, although I have always wondered what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been. There, Sapolsky’s lecture offers a couple of other possibilities – Paul’s account of his conversion experience could well have been an episode of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, or could have been a vision associated with a Schizotypal Personality Disorder. We can’t know for certain, but the mere fact that most adults I know don’t have significant problems in obeying sets of rules makes me think that Paul’s thinking was not what we’d now describe as normal (and no Orthodox Jews I know have problems following all of the 613 commandments which Judaism finds in the Torah, in contradistinction from Paul – indeed, they applaud the efforts of the Rabbis to make these even more restrictive).

I think it’s well worth bringing in another theological giant here, in the form of St. Augustine. Reading his “Confessions”, I could very readily find someone suffering from sex addiction (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), in addition to a distinct tendency to the Obsessive Compulsive. I ask myself if the whole history of the Church’s doctrine of original sin and it’s attitude to women has been based on one or more personality disorders suffered by it’s greatest theologian between Paul and Luther.

“Hold on a moment”, I might hear the reader ask, “haven’t you started with a caveat that just because an abnormal condition may have produced an experience doesn’t invalidate that experience, so why are you now saying that there’s a problem where abnormal conditions seem to have produced particular theologies?”. An understandable comment, so I need to distinguish between two different types of result we are seeing here. In the case of the “nobody can do good” and “everyone is obsessed with sex to the exclusion of any spiritual life” positions, these theologians are creating an anthropology out of their own experience; they are assuming that everyone is like they are, and that just isn’t the case.

In the case of visions which may be the product of TLE or Schizotypalism, there is no assumption that everyone else has the same visions, it is the content of the vision which the seer puts forward as containing a truth. That, incidentally, is seer as “the person who sees”, without any connotation of the content of the vision being validated, though typically visions in both cases have a strong component of self-validation to them.

As, indeed, do mystical experiences, and I would not be self-identifying as a panentheistic mystic Christian and writing this blog if I hadn’t had a set of self-validating mystical experiences. This leads to the obvious question “Were these the product of TLE or Schizotypalism?”. That is a question I asked myself shortly after the first such experience I had, which was an extremely rude shock for someone who was at the time a scientific-materialist evangelical atheist very much in the Dawkins mould (although this occurred before Dawkins had written anything much more than, perhaps, an undergraduate paper or two).

It was not TLE, as confirmed by my then doctor, to whom I expressed some worries (that visit also eliminated any environmental factors including drugs, exhaustion, pain and hypoxia as possible contributors – it was fairly thorough!). I was also not then suffering from any diagnosable Schizotypalism, nor have I since been diagnosed as such.

That said, I have scored fairly highly on Schizotypal in a self-test of “What personality disorder do you suffer from?” a little over 15 years ago, though in fairness it has proved in hindsight that I was at the time suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Depression and Chronic Anxiety, and possibly as a result of those (which the test didn’t disclose) I also tested fairly highly on every other personality disorder the test dealt with, with the exception of narcissism (on which I tested very low indeed). I do sort of fit Sapolsky’s criteria of loose associations (I love wordplay and odd associations) and social withdrawal (this may just be being an introvert) but I really don’t do metamagical thinking. I don’t tend to believe in strange things (in fact, some would argue that I don’t tend to believe in anything much at all, and I’d have some sympathy with that); out of Sapolsky’s selection of metamagical traits, OK, I like SF and fantasy, though I don’t take it immensely seriously, I don’t have much time for any New Age stuff and I don’t believe in UFOs, though I hold onto a gentle wish that telepathy worked (It would make some other theories I toy with much easier to deal with!) but finally, and most stridently, I really do not tend to concrete interpretations (i.e. fundamentalism) at all. So OK, I may be just a little bit of a shaman, but not really very much of one by Sapolsky’s set of signs.

Not, at least, if you look at the integral Chris. If I split myself down into the SR (scientific rationalist) and EC (emotional Chris) bits (see my “About” page), EC would be a lot more along the lines Sapolsky paints as schizotypal. EC does tend to black and white thinking, for instance, and has a lot more time for “strange things” than SR – my generally agnostic position on these represents a compromise between SR and EC. There is the distinct possibility that I have shoehorned into my brain a borderline schizotypal and a more or less passionless rationalist, who have worked out a modus vivendi. In passing, had I not had several years of extreme depression and anxiety, I would probably never have self-examined (or perhaps been able to self-examine) sufficiently to realise this – another instance of finding, in retrospect, some reason why those years were not entirely “ruined time”.

The question I eventually asked myself, both in the beginning and after that realisation, was “does it really matter?”. Karen Armstrong has written at some length about her own experiences in “Through the Narrow Gate” and “The Spiral Staircase”; she suffered from TLE, which gave her some extremely strong unitive mystical experiences similar in many ways to my own, but which she has continued to base her faith on. I do likewise. I can still entertain the possibility that my peak spiritual experiences may be the product of abnormal psychology (they certainly seem to be the products of unusual psychology, because relatively few people seem to have such powerful experiences of this kind), but they nonetheless  carried with them this colossal self-verification, somewhere within which is faith.

I entertain the possibility that the following analogy might hold good; I have a friend who, when he was younger and his eyesight better, could see the convergence of the Balmer series of the Hydrogen spectrum. This lies just outside the normal visible range, in the ultraviolet (those with normal vision can see the lines becoming progressively closer, but not the point where they merge and stop). His eyes were, clearly, abnormal – but this meant that he could see something real which was denied to the rest of us. On the other hand, a reader could well dismiss anything I report about spiritual experiences in the kind of terms an old atheist friend (a psychology professor) did after interrogating me to find what the trigger for the experience was, and finding nothing; he said it was a “brain fart”. Bless him!

Going back to the anthropological assumptions of Paul, Augustine and Luther, it is unfortunate that these have given us between them (with some assistance from a couple of mediaeval theologians) the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which is very dominant in Protestant thinking and has significant traction in Catholic; a significant number of Christians I know would say that this IS the story of salvation, and that that IS the gospel. I reject both suggestions on a number of grounds, but the one I present here is that the whole theory assumes an incorrect picture of human anthropology. By and large, we are quite capable of following a set of rules; this is, I think, a considerable consolation to many conservative Christians, who seem to have reduced following Jesus back to following a set of rules.

What we are not capable of, of course, is loving our neighbour as ourselves (which, in the spirit of affirmative action, really means loving our neighbours rather more than ourselves); we are not capable of doing that after our conversion experiences any more than we were before them, though we may well come a lot closer – and some of us manage to come very close indeed, as witness the “Little Way” of Therese of Lisieux. Incidentally, a brief look at her biography strongly suggests that she also suffered from OCD in some measure.

Some of us, I reluctantly conceded, may also not be capable of having, say, an intense peak unitive mystical experience; it may be that that is reserved for those with TLE or Schizotypalism in some measure. Some may not be capable of the kind of conversion experience which seems, in evangelical circles, to be thought of as the one and only way to become a Christian. I have certainly known quite a few people who would have loved to have such a conversion experience, and who put themselves in a position to have one as nearly as they could time after time, only to be disappointed, and I rather suspect that those who have first had a peak unitive experience are among them. Does it invalidate their experiences if some of us cannot share those?

I would hope that we do not think so; I would hope that instead, we can listen to the testimony of those who have had experiences we cannot share ourselves, and can take from that as much as we are able to. That’ of course, includes those eminent theologians who have been suffering from OCD or some other psychological “disorder”.

I have, however, pointed out one thing in previous criticisms of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and that is that there are some people, commonly people who have had particularly awful life experience, for whom no other concept of salvation seems to have any traction. I cannot find any comfort, any salvation, any link to God in this theology – but there are those for whom it is the only theology which can bring those things.

For them, I say, this is a valid way for you. Do not ask that it be a valid way for me. For me, mystical unitive experience is the valid way; I do not demand that it be the only way for you.


Caring for refugees

My facebook feed is full of Syrian refugees. Ian Everett’s piece of beat poetry runs along the same lines as an article by Giles Fraser. Very different approaches, but the same message – welcome them all.

It wasn’t full of this prior to a picture of a drowned toddler. I’m wondering what it is about this particular picture sparked peoples’ compassion, given that there have been plenty of previous photographs of drowned migrants, some of them assuredly from Syria. I wonder why similar levels of compassion haven’t been sparked by other photos of dead children – Palestinian, for instance, Nigerian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqui… the list could go on for a while.

Thousands of refugees have travelled through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and been wholly unwelcome in each of them – well, apart from Turkey, which is currently host to nearly 2 million Syrians anyhow; recently some thousands have been let through Austria to Germany, and Germany has welcomed them with open arms.

Germany? That should produce a bit of cognitive dissonance in a lot of Britons, whose stereotype of Germans emphatically doesn’t include welcoming strangers, particularly if they’re of a slightly darker hue than the Aryan ideal. They don’t have to look back 70 years to find justification for that stereotype, either – Germany has not been a bed of roses for its substantial population of Turkish migrant workers for many years much more recently than that, and it still has a fairly strong xenophobic streak in some of the population.

I do not criticise Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia or Hungary for lack of  compassion – none of them are rich countries, and Greece, Macedonia and Serbia rank as poor. Listening to interviews with the migrants, they don’t want to stay in those countries anyhow; they don’t see opportunity there, and they’re probably right. Almost universally, they have set their sights on Germany as their promised land.

Austria, however, is not poor. It’s just unwelcoming.

And, frankly, so has been the UK so far. Cameron has just announced that we will take a significant number of refugees, though we’ll take them from the UN camps just outside the Syrian borders, and we’ll take families, rather than single men. I think he has the right attitude apart from the number – 20,000 (and that over 5 years!) isn’t remotely as many as I think we could or should take, particularly compared with Germany’s position – Angela Merkel expects to welcome 800,000 refugees this year. This is probably a first for me, approving of any aspect of any policy which Cameron expresses – and yes, I do ask myself how he will equate a willingness to take even a few thousand Syrian refugees when his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions doesn’t think our current unemployed need to be fed, clothed or housed adequately. Of course, my answer is that we should look after both.

Cameron suggests that we are a Christian nation as reason to do this. Admittedly, we have an established church, and “Church of England” is the default religious designation, but on that I think he’s wrong. A Christian nation wouldn’t have elected him in the first place, given his attitude to the poor, disabled and needy. Under 5% of us attend church on an average Sunday; that doesn’t look like a “Christian nation” to me. However, there is, particularly among the 60% or so who voted for someone else, a residual undercurrent of Christian values, so perhaps he isn’t completely wrong.

Now, I like Giles Fraser’s writing, but I have to take issue with this article. Yes, it is true that ancient Israel were enjoined to treat the sojourner in their land as they would a native, and that they were also enjoined to leave a margin to provide food for the poor (not especially the sojourner), but none of that refers to whether you invite foreigners into your land to sojourn in the first place. On that point, the Old Testament is at best silent – and at worst, it has a very dim view of citizens of neighbouring countries such as Amelekites, Canaanites, Phonecians, Moabites, Ammonites – and again, this list could go on substantially. Appropriate action in their cases ranged from extermination of every last member of the nation to merely approving taking them as slaves…

I think that in order to make his case, he needed to go New Testament. Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22:39) is the start point; the parable of the Good Samaritan goes on to define as your neighbour someone of another nation (and at that one considered an enemy, and a set of dangerous heretics at that), and we may extend that by considering Jesus’ treatment of the Centurion (an officer of an occupying enemy force) or the Syrophonecian woman (a member of a nation which Israel had had a mandate to wipe out) – that last was a lectionary reading for at least some people at the weekend. Our neighbour is anyone, and probably someone different from us – maybe an enemy, maybe someone we are brought up to despise, maybe just one of those people we don’t notice, like (in Biblical times) women or children.

So yes, the Syrian refugees are our neighbours, and perhaps especially the drowned toddler.

The snag is, it’s not that simple. The homeless in our own country are also our neighbours, and if we haven’t helped them, why are we thinking of helping someone whose own nearer neighbours haven’t? Isn’t our neighbour supremely the person in need who is actually next to us now?

They’re also not that simple because of something I keep noticing in the pictures of multitudes of migrants, at Calais, at a Budapest station, at the Macedonian border, in boats crossing the Mediterranean. By and large, what I’m seeing isn’t women or children, it’s young men between, maybe, 18 and 35. Where are the women and children, the old? Why are they leaving the more vulnerable members of their families behind? I listen to interviews with them, and too many times, slipped in among the dangers and uncertainties of living in a war-torn society, is the statement that they don’t want to be conscripted to fight themselves (though many of them seem happy to be threatening to border guards or transport drivers). Are we looking at a collection of draft dodgers, and does that mean they aren’t legitimate? (I have a certain amount of sympathy with draft dodgers, as I believe the witness of the Gospels is hugely in favour of non-violence, though for me that might not hold up in the face of armed struggle in my own country – at the least, I’d want to stay and assist as a noncombatant).

I add to that the concern of a former Army intelligence officer with whom I was chatting recently about this; he pointed out that were he an organiser for Al Quaeda or Isis, he’d be slipping some committed fighters in among the refugees, as there would be no easier way to get them into the country to stir up trouble later. I don’t think there’s any chance that this isn’t something which has occurred to those organisers, so it’s almost certainly happening.

That’s where I think that on this occasion, Cameron is perhaps being really far sighted – if we take first orphans and families, we are probably not taking the draft dodger or the undercover terrorist.

But we should be doing far more. We should particularly be doing more in the light of the fact that even were the armed struggle to be resolved tomorrow (in whichever direction and however that were achieved), there seems strong evidence that the origins of the struggle in Syria lie in the fact that the country started being affected by drought around 2006, and by 2011 there were over 1.5 million internally displaced people who could no longer exist farming. It seems likely both that this is the result of climate change and that it is not going to improve in the forseeable future, and therefore Syria has a significant surplus population problem in any event. Neighbouring countries are similarly somewhat affected by the drought, so moving there is not a long term solution.

We should not merely welcome refugees for the duration of the struggle, therefore, we should welcome them as prospective citizens.