Fear no evil?

I spent the early part of last week doing a Mental Health First Aid course. This was a stretching exercise, largely because we had to delve into areas which I find uncomfortable (such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, all of which I’ve been diagnosed as suffering from) – and to some extent because some of the class exercises demanded that one of our group tell a sad or distressing story, which led to me twice dredging up incidents from my past which were painful at the time, and, it seems, are still distressing now. One of the class members couldn’t cope with the second day and vanished, hotly pursued by one of the instructors, who made sure that she was safe enough to be allowed to make her way home. However, it was also rewarding and informative, and bolstered my confidence in being able to give appropriate support to people suffering from various mental health crises. I probably need to except psychotic breaks from that – I still really feel those are well above my pay grade and need a professional!

I can strongly recommend going on such a course to anyone who has a lot of contact with people. My first draft of this said “people with mental health problems”, but frankly such a high proportion of the population suffers at some point in their lives from a disagnosable mental health condition (at least 25%) that I’m confident that anyone dealing with people regularly will find occasions where mental health first aid training would be useful.

We had a diverse and interesting group, including a bunch of police officers (one or whom specialises in talking people down from bridges or out of hostage situations and who had a wonderful line in rather black humour, which I suspect goes with the territory), some service users, some carers and a few people actually in the mental health establishment, and that contributed a lot to the benefit of the course – we had people who had actually experienced most of the conditions “from the inside” as well as having between us experience of trying to care for people with all of them.

It was therefore slightly surprising to find that it needed to be me who contributed one piece of advice, this being for anyone dealing with someone experiencing a panic attack. That advice is “don’t get between them and the door”. The rationale is this – when suffering a panic attack, it is overwhelmingly likely that the conscious mind will be overwhelmed by the subconscious “3F” reaction, which many psychologists call the “reptile brain”. The three “f’s” are fight, flight and freeze.

Freeze is distinctly the easiest to deal with from a first aid point of view – the person panicking is probably going nowhere, and you can talk to them in a calm and measured way if they aren’t in danger, or guide them gently out of danger if (for instance) they’ve frozen in the middle of crossing a road. If someone is running away, you can follow them. However, the subconscious flips between these rather easily, and particularly if there’s a strong impulse to flee, clearly getting in the way of that can very easily trip the subconscious into the “fight” reaction instead. That may also be the case if the person panicking appears frozen to you – they may be on the edge of flight, and closing off the available exit can be enough to flip them into fight.

The thing is, this is not a “press the f*-it button” reaction much of the time. Sometimes that is the case – the tide of “must do this” is resistable, at least for a time. But other times, the tide overwhelms the conscious mind, and willpower (or, more accurately, won’t-power) is just not a factor any more.

When this happens, the panicking person is, to my mind, not responsible for their actions – and those can potentially be very violent. As Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune”, “fear is the mind-killer”. In the case of someone panicking, I’d be inclined to think that the person who got in the way was primarily responsible for getting injured, at least if they had any understanding of panic.

But how about a whole society which panics? I’m inclined to argue that this does happen; it happened in most of the West, but particularly America, when communism was seen as an existential threat (and there was a particular fear-factor in the nearness of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war, not entirely unreasonably, given that 99 red balloons could conceivably have started war – a flight of seagulls came close on at least one occasion). Western governments did things to combat that perceived threat which were, frankly, unconscionable, such as propping up right wing dictators and formenting rebellion against left wing governments.

Much of the Western world (and again, in particular the States) now lives in constant fear of serious crime, such as home invasions – which, statistically, seem about as likely as lightening strikes. However, the reaction is, both sides of the Atlantic, to hand down swingeing sentences for violent crime, and in the States to cling to guns as if they would solve the problem (there is very little evidence that gun owners successfully foil violent crime, and every evidence that gun owners and their families are in more danger from their guns than they ever would be from criminals). This is not a sane response. Fear is the mind-killer.

We also have on both sides of the Atlantic populations which are increasingly insecure in relation to employment. Gone are the days when most people could be assured a “job for life” – several changes of actual job, and multiple changes of employer are now standard, and although technically employment has increased significantly in the last 30 years, most of the jobs “created” are not good jobs, i.e. jobs which can keep a family in reasonable comfort. The threat of unemployment leading, potentially, to homelessness and destitution, is far far higher now than it was when I first looked for a job in the 1970s. People generally are scared, and perhaps rightly so, as statistics show that most of us are at most three pay checks away from destitution.

And, of course, scared people do stupid things (fear is the mind-killer). They fix on immigrants as the cause of their job-insecurity, for instance, despite evidence that immigration actually contributes to the economy (after all, the immigrants are going to spend significant amounts of their money in our economy, not the one they’ve left). They decide that government regulations are holding us all back, rather than protecting us (mostly, the second is the case); those two factor were big in both our Brexit decision and America’s Trump decision. Those in government are not immune – instead of protecting people against destitution, they fix on austerity as being the solution to all our problems, and thus deepen insecurity for everyone who is not in the top 10% – and they so capably sell the same message to the rest of us that we actually vote them back into office.

We are a scared and anxious people, and the news media seem calculated to keep us that way – or, perhaps, it’s just our own fascination with death and disaster, as good news doesn’t seem to sell papers…

With this background, I am less than ecstatic to find Trump posturing against North Korea – or, at least, I hope it’s just posturing. The trouble is, making excessive threats is the action of a scared person. The USA has at least 7,000 nuclear weapons, and the idea that an unfriendly power might acquire one or two should really not be all that worrying, unless they are totally insane. Or, of course, very scared; fear is the mind-killer, and either Trump or Kim Jong Un might, conceivably, be very scared, and therefore very stupid. If either were to use nukes against the other, there would assuredly be retalliation, and there is really no way of knowing what other players would then do…

In the lowest days of my depression and anxiety, I sometimes found myself repeating over and over again the 23rd Psalm, and in particular the words Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Readers who are keener on SF and fantasy than on religion might just go with Frank Herbert; “I shall not fear, fear is the mind-killer”.

Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 4

I’ve now talked about secondary and marginal Jewish and Christian scriptures, about the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretations (also regarded as scripture by Judaism) and about the interpretative tradition in Christianity. There is one area left within “sacred texts” which I haven’t covered – religions other than Judaism and Christianity.

Many people I know would be very uneasy about a suggestion that Christians might read the sacred texts of other religions. We are, after all, Christians – and so we consider that Christianity is the way to understand and show devotion to God – don’t we? We have all heard John 14:6 being quoted time after time, after all…

Firstly, I’ll look at what came before, just as did the Hebrew Scriptures. I’d suggest that, if we are to understand the creation narrative of Genesis 1-3, we should look at what the creation narratives of nations which preceded Israel and from whose area the Israelites are said to have come say about creation, and which bordered the area where the Israelites eventually settled. There are two major narratives from Mesapotamia (Babylon), the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elis which treat of creation, and the parallels (and differences) between those and the Biblical text are fascinating. Biblical scholars have made much of this in understanding how Genesis came to be in the form it is.

The big question, however, is whether we should look to scripture which are entirely outside the traditions of the Bible (such as the Vedas and Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras and the Dao de Ching), or those which follow on after Judaism and Christianity, such as the Koran, the writings of the Sufis, Bah’ai writings and, I suppose, the Book of Mormon (I apologise for any offence given to LDS readers, if there are any; I personally find the Book of Mormon very difficult to regard as anything but a pastiche of King James language, and I have yet to find in it anything I might wish to take to heart which is not already in the Bible).

Dealing with the second category first, I think it necessary to point out that by many standards (and certainly in the eyes of most non-Christians) the Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists are Christians, but the first definitely have additional scriptures in the form of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, the second arguably treat the writings of Ellen White as scripture. The Koran acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, but considers Mohammed to have given a better and less corrupted revelation; the Bah’ai  faith accepts the Bible and the Koran but considers the writings of its founders to correct (or at least update) both. Needless to say, in the chain of successor religions, each tends to regard the next one in the chain with particular disfavour (Judaism to Christianity, Christianity to Islam, LDS and to a lesser extent SDA, and Islam to Bah’ai and, from time to time, the Sufis). The same mechanism probably explains the particular venom of the early church towards the Gnostics, which I mentioned in part 1.

Are these scriptures worth studying? I know people who would claim that they are without exception Satanic attempts to mislead the faithful, and that we should therefore avoid them like the plague. I think this woefully underestimates both the Bible and God, assuming that (as those of that persuasion would argue) that the Bible is “The Word of God”. Beyond that, I would argue that there is huge value in knowing how others think, and part of that is (for believers) going to rest on their scriptures. If, perchance, we mistrust or fear the actions of those of a particular religious persuasion, there is no more convincing argument than to quote their own scripture to them.

Also (and this is going to apply to the unconnected scriptures as well) there is no more positive exercise for deepening one’s own faith than to allow it to be critiqued by others – and that is particularly the case when those others are from “successor religions”. Those in The Way Station (for whom this post is initially written) will maybe have encountered this idea in Peter Rollins writings and practices – it is “The Evangelism Project”, in which you talk with those of other faiths (or none) and allow them to evangelise you, rather than arguing with them.

Those scriptures which do not share any philosophical or theological presuppositions with Christianity are perhaps even more challenging in one sense, that they require a complete change in thinking, though less challenging in the sense that they are less likely to have an insidious evangelising effect. One could argue that they challenge also in that they may not be wholly accessible to us without a knowledge of the languages and cultures from which they developed, though the number of Christians comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin is fairly limited!

Do they give us something which we cannot get from the Bible? Well, J. Robert Oppenheimer would have been hard pressed to find anything as apposite as the Baghavad Gita’s “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” to comment on the development of the Atomic Bomb. While I value the writings of Christian mystics highly, none of them has quite equalled Baba Kuhi of Shiraz writing “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw”, and that link is to a site mostly devoted to Rumi, whose writings I know have inspired countless Christians. Is there, I ask myself, anything Biblical which conveys the message of “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”, or of a host of Zen koans?

When  we come to praxis (or practice), very many Christians do yoga or other meditative practices with their origins in Eastern religion – where would they be without Patanjali’s yoga sutras, or the nikayas? They find there nothing contrary to their Christian belief.

So yes, I think we definitely should dare to look beyond the Bible. There is a massive amount there which could inform or enhance our Christian faith. And, in conscience, if as a result we end up not being Christian any more, perhaps we can recall “in my Father’s house are many mansions”.

As a postscript, I will say that the two scriptures which scare me the most (and probably should scare anyone else who is part of the Western developed world) are “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” and “Sell all you have and give it to the poor”. And they are both not only part of the New Testament, but ascribed to Jesus himself.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 3

In parts 1 & 2 I talked firstly about scripture which was in one way or another secondary, either because it was not fully accepted by some churches, or because it wasn’t accepted by any of them any more, and about the Hebrew Scriptures (which scare many Christians) and their interpretations in Judaism.

In Christianity, we do not share the Jewish concept of interpretation as being added to scripture and as part of it, as I talked of in part 2. There is interpretation in the New Testament – most of the content of the Epistles is actually theological interpretation, and Paul can reasonably be regarded as the first Christian theologian. Once the first generation of Christian interpreters were no longer with us, it became much more unlikely that writers of interpretation would be accepted as scripture (though I argue in Part 1 that it is still worth finding out what they were saying!) and after the mid-second century, the canon of scripture was effectively closed. However, we actually are very reliant on the work of various interpreters for what we include in such documents as the Creeds and as Statements of Faith.

Let me take one example, that of the concept of atonement. Much of Protestant Christianity at the moment considers that the basic Christian message is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement; mankind fell into sin with Adam, the penalty for that is death (and perhaps damnation), and God advanced Jesus (his son) as a perfect, sinless sacrifice to bear the penalty for that sin on behalf of all (or at least potentially all). Indeed, one helper at an Alpha course said to me, when I said I had problems with PSA, “But that IS the gospel”. Well, no.

We would not have had the concept of original sin on which that rests without Augustine’s “City of God” in the Fourth Century. Judaism had (and still has) no concept of original sin in the way it is understood in Christianity. Augustine was a Western theologian, and original sin is not thought of quite the same way in the Eastern churches.

And, indeed, neither is atonement. Augustine laid some of the groundwork for the concept of a “ransom”  – a death paid to ransom us from sin, or Satan, or both – which was dominant for a millennium in the Western Church; the Eastern churches tended to hold that and something like the concept of “Christus Victor” in tension.

In the eleventh century, however, Anselm of Canterbury wrote his “Cur Deus Homo” and introduced the concept of “satisfaction” – in his eyes, taking the concept of honour from the feudal society then dominant, sin was an offence to God’s honour, and all offences to the supremely high honour of God could only be expiated by death (at least!) – which, again, Jesus took upon himself.

Some 400 years later, Martin Luther and John Calvin changed the concept to a judicial one; God’s law demanded death, and that penalty (from which the word “penal”) was taken on himself by Christ; God’s justice (it is argued) demanded a sacrifice, that sacrifice had to be of blood, and only a life of supreme value (because it was both human and divine) would suffice.

Can you get there from a simple reading of scripture? Well, there are passages which talk of debt, there are passages which talk about ransom, there are passages which talk about victory… there is even a passage which comments on the Levitical regime of sacrifice that almost no atonement was possible without blood (not, may I point out, no atonement at all without blood, as is so often misquoted…)

However, as I mentioned in part 1, there is also the simple example of the Maccabean Martyrs, whose deaths were described as an atoning sacrifice for all of Israel – and they weren’t of the blameless or of an individual in whom God and man were uniquely joined.

It took a set of four of the most influential theologians to have lived in the West and over 1400 years of discussion to arrive at PSA. Most of those who espouse this idea (which, I may point out, is not in any of the creeds) have no idea how it developed.

Similarly, unless you read the early Eastern church fathers, you are likely not to understand the concept of the Trinity (which is reflected in the Creeds), and how concepts from Greek philosophy interacted with what we see in scripture to produce the formulas which many of us obediently mouth on a regular basis. Though, in conscience, even if we do read (say) Gregory of Nazianzus, Trinity might still turn out to be “a holy mystery beyond the grasp of human intellect”…

My suggestion for this part is that, despite the fact that they are often difficult to read (scary!), and always extremely dated in their viewpoints, we really ought to read the more prominent theologians if we want to understand our current beliefs better. And, of course, my hope is that if we understand how we got to PSA better, we will abandon it as a concept of atonement…

It might be thought that in three parts and over three thousand words, I might have exhausted the subject. Not so; on to part 4…

Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 2

In part 1, I looked at some examples of what one might call “secondary scripture”, including the apocrypha (or deuterocanonical, which is a translation of “secondary scripture”) and a set of completely extra-canonical works which probably were “scripture” for some churches at some time, but now are not.

However, the biggest source of being “afraid of sacred texts” I come across on a day to day basis is the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”). I lose track of the numbers of people I encounter in church, notably in small groups, who have actually read a little beyond the carefully selected texts which tend to be preached on, and are troubled by (for instance) the end of Psalm 137 “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.”  This tends to be avoided like the plague by preachers who are, however, content to use the beginning of the same psalm “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion”, conjuring up memories of Boney M. They didn’t get to the end either…

The early triumphalist history of Israel is littered with examples of apparently divinely approved violence, from injunctions to kill every last Amalekite (including livestock). Saul’s very minor reinterpretation of this is grounds for divine displeasure (and it is uncertain whether the fault is just in leaving Agag alive, but captured, or in keeping the livestock alive…). It was not just the Amalekites who needed to worry – Israelites themselves could be a target, and the Israelites were not exactly good neighbours to Canaan, Philistia, Moab or Edom. In fact, I could probably have stopped at “not exactly good neighbours”…

It is hardly surprising that my small group fellows agonise about whether the God presented in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually the same God as evidenced in the words of Jesus, and prefer to avoid most of the historical parts. Similarly, stoning children for cheeking their parents is one of a set of commandments which we now have extreme difficulty in accepting as “divine commandments”, perhaps even more so than avoiding bacon or lobster…

They are not, of course, by any means the first Christians to have this concern. In the second century, Marcion of Sinope had similar worries, and decided that the Hebrew Scriptures were “not needed on voyage” – and also reduced the New Testament to an abbreviated version of Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance. He was, of course, condemned as a heretic, one of the first clearly named heretics, but his ideas by no means died with the suppression of Marcionite tendencies, and Marcion’s identification of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Demiurge, a kind of “imposter God”, was to be a mainstay of those Gnostic interpretations of Christianity of which the Gnostic Gospels were accused (see part 1).

By far the most important reason I would advance for studying the Hebrew Scriptures is, however, not because to avoid them might be slightly heretical, but the fact that they formed much of the matrix of thought in which Jesus operated and in which the New Testament writers formulated their accounts. You cannot really understand the New Testament without understanding the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament is either appropriating texts from there to approve or giving a counter-testimony against them (“You have heard it said… but I say…”).

And, in conscience, that is the key to the Hebrew Scriptures; they do not just give a single viewpoint, there is a constant ebb and flow of testimony and counter-testimony, which at the simplest can be thought of as a main narrative with prophets giving a counter-narrative on a regular basis, and some of the writings (notably Ecclesiastes and Job) subverting both.

This is brought out excellently in two recent books, firstly John Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”, secondly Peter Enns “The Bible Tells Me So”. (They are by no means alone; divine violence is a hot topic in the Christian publishing world at the moment).

The church fathers’ wisdom in keeping four gospels against Marcion’s wish for there to be only one and avoid ambiguity was foreshadowed by the wisdom of the Jewish forerunners of the Rabbis in keeping completely contradictory accounts and regarding both at the same time as inspired scripture. Equally, there is testimony and countertestimony between the seven definitely Pauline letters and the probably not Pauline letters, and between the Pauline viewpoint and that of the Epistle of James.

Christians could, I think, learn much from Judaism in their approach to scripture. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that when venturing beyond the safety of the texts we’re used to hearing, we could do worse than to look at Jewish interpretations of their own scripture. Judaism does, after all, have a significant head start over Christianity in trying to interpret these scriptures!

The earlier of those were collected into the Talmud, which ranks as scripture (at least of a kind) for Judaism; it’s thought of as containing the “Oral Torah” (in balance with the five earliest books of the Bible, which are the Torah) and as being possibly as authoritative – and, if you’re a conservative or Orthodox Jew, as having originally been communicated to Moses on Sinai but not written down… Indeed, in the eyes of Jewish conservatives, if a young rabbinic scholar comes up with a new and interesting interpretation of Torah tomorrow, it will still have been communicated to Moses on Sinai… (This is the mindset which, as I mentioned in part 1 of this essay, decided that the rock followed Moses. It is maybe not easy for a Christian to understand, but it has a logic of its own).

Maybe reading the Talmud is a step too far, but something like the Jewish Annotated New Testament can be very valuable in Bible study in giving at least some of the Jewish tradition, as can a Jewish Study Bible for the Hebrew Scriptures.

At this point, I’ve gone beyond what is even regarded as “scripture” in either Judaism or Christianity with the study Bibles. In part 3, I intend to go even further…