He is risen indeed

It’s that time of the year again. People are wrestling with the idea of the resurrection, and Jason Michaeli (among others) has weighed in with a post claiming you have to believe in a physical resurrection in order to be a Christian. A sample of his attitude is contained in his Easter Sunday sermon:-

“You don’t have to believe it. But you owe it to the first Christians to take their testimony or leave it. Do not turn it into something else entirely. They didn’t believe the resurrection message was a metaphor or a myth. They didn’t think Easter was really about timeless truths. They thought it was the truth. That it actually happened.

In history. At Jerusalem, under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, on the Sunday morning after the Passover when he died between noon and 3 in 33AD. Around tea time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian puts it. All the little details, they’re there to reinforce to you that it happened. In history.

And if it didn’t happen, all the butterflies and sentimentalities in the world can’t mask over the fact that not only are we wasting our time here every Sunday, we are worse than liars.”

And I don’t believe in it. I can’t, much as I might like to. I can just about manage to suspend disbelief enough to say that a physical resurrection is not quite an impossibility, but that is a long way from belief in the sense that Jason means it. I also have a really major problem with a view that God-the-creator would need to break the rules he (in this mindset) laid down for the operation of the universe, which were good in the first place (I blogged some time ago about this in several posts under the general title “And God saw that it was good”).

And it distresses me when someone whose writing (and podcasting) I like and respect effectively turns round and says “Chris, you can’t be a Christian”. Jason isn’t alone there, either – there are quite a few bloggers who are dusting off Paul’s “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain” from 1 Cor. 15, and saying effectively the same thing.

Unless you can bring yourself to give mental assent to something having happened which is supremely unlikely, you cannot be one of us, in other words. This smacks, to me, of the well known feature of cults, that they demand belief in something totally at odds with everything we know of reality.

Many of us can’t do that – indeed, most people I know, living in a fairly secular society in the UK of 2018, couldn’t do that. To insist upon this seems to me to evict quite a lot of Christians from the fold – I am by no means alone in my view, there are significant numbers of “Christian atheists”, and a lot of other people in the pews who, in conversation with me, will change the subject quickly if “physical resurrection” is mentioned and look uncomfortable; they manage to preserve themselves by not thinking about it, as (presumably) if they did, they would be with me.

It also has major implications for evangelism, and despite my liberal-to-radical theology, I actually take the “Great Commission” seriously. Asking that someone believe in the impossible (OK, the extremely improbable) as a start point is probably the 21st century equivalent of Paul’s opponents in the first century demanding that male converts slice of a chunk of their penis. Not a demand which is likely to get you many converts – which is very probably why Paul was so keen on avoiding this requirement of being Jewish…

I wrote at some length in response to a previous post of Jason’s back in 2013, which I’ve since updated substantially. Much of what I’d argue is there, including a detailled acocunt of why I don’t think (being a retired lawyer) that the evidence in scripture is actually in favour of physical resurrection. This time, however, the issue crops up during Holy Week, and on Sunday morning I will be getting up again at silly o’clock for the daybreak service, which is possibly THE highlight of the year for me in terms of church services. I will be responding to “Christ is risen” with “He is risen indeed” with the rest of the worshippers.

Why would I do that, if I don’t believe in a “physical resurrection”?

Because I do, absolutely, believe in a resurrection; every bit of evidence I know of tells me that Jesus was raised in the consciousnesses of his followers, starting shortly after his death and continuing to today. As Paul tells us, Christians are “the body of Christ“, Teresa de Avila says “Christ has no body but ours“, and history tells us that that body grew over the four or five centuries following the crucifixion to the point where it became the religion of the greatest empire the West had so far seen, and that it has continued to grow, with at least a presence in every nation in the world.

Beside that fact, what need to I have of a revivified corpse which, perhaps, talked with a few Judaeans during a month of so after the first Easter and then ascended into heaven? That would be a magic trick. I have no need of magic tricks, and neither does Jesus. The resurrection, from my point of view, is FAR MORE than just “physical resurrection”.

He is risen indeed.

Lessons from Cromwell

Sitting waiting for the service today, I was musing about Palm Sunday, and how it represents a tragic misidentification of Jesus as the “strong man” come to liberate Israel, and, as my mind tends to work that way, noticed a prominent tomb which has most of a recumbent statue of the occupant on top of it. I say “most of” because the hands and head have been destroyed.

They were probably destroyed by religious zealots during the period of the Civil War, which was the last time we placed a “strong man” in total control of this country, in the form of Oliver Cromwell, and those religious zealots were very significant in putting Cromwell there. They were Puritans, and considered that imagery in churches was idolatrous, whether it was supposed to represent God (or Jesus) or not. Most of the churches I know which predate the Civil War bear similar scars where religious artistry has been destroyed or defaced. I say “probably” because there was a spate of damage to churches earlier, during the short rule of Henry VIII’s son Edward, when the Puritan tendency had become powerful within the Anglican church and was supported for a while by Edward’s advisors. The damage under Cromwell was, however, far more widespread and severe, so I think it likely to have dated from then.

The same group were significantly instrumental in passing a number of laws during the period of the Protectorate – we did, at least, have a somewhat constitutional despotism (being English, we rarely do things entirely whole-heartedly) which included demanding the strict observance of Sunday, closing down theatres and banning drinking, gambling and public dancing. They also made their own pet brands of very conservative protestantism fully legal, though Quakers and some extreme groups were still beyond the pale! So were Catholics; the late king, executed by command of the same parliament, had at least flirted with Catholicism…

The English Civil War is usually presented in history lessons these days (and to an extent even when I was studying history at school) as a war about freedom versus absolutism, of constitutional, parliamentary rule versus government by a tyrant. Certainly, Charles I had tried to rule without parliamentary approval to an extent, and was an admirer of the European tradition, in France and Spain, of “the divine right of kings”, which was supported by the Catholic church – which may have been one of the attractions of Catholicism to him, had his marrying a French Catholic princess not been sufficient. In fact, the parliament which passed those laws was already pruned by Cromwell (it consisted of less than half the actual elected representatives), and only lasted four years before he dissolved it and ruled as “Lord Protector” – for life, no less, and which title passed very briefly to his son before the country decided it had had enough of what was, in the end, more of an absolute rule than the late Charles had ever managed.

I wonder whether any lessons can be learned by the study of a time when religious conservatives supported a strong man into office, on the basis that he would support their turning of the state into an exclusive homeland for their rather unpleasant religious beliefs, and were then disappointed when he became a greater tyrant than anything he replaced?

Cold dead hands

There’s another of a set of articles looking to provide an alternative “Invisible Hand” to the one we currently allegedly have on Evonomics. The idea behind it is sort of sound, given that it imposes a cost on externalities which companies generally ignore such as environmental degredation, though frankly this is something which a well-functioning government should be doing (and that might be a local government rather than a national one).

My trouble with this approach, tweaks to the system so that “Invisible Hand” actually works, is that I’m convinced the concept is very fundamentally broken.

It is correct, as far as I’ve seen in a lot of years dealing with modest commercial entities, that this system works in a competitive environment of medium-sized companies dealing in wholesale goods, which is really what Adam Smith had in mind when he wrote “The Wealth of Nations”. It is, after all, pretty much what he saw, looking at a very early industrial revolution Britain from a position somewhat divorced from the realities of life at the bottom. We hadn’t, for instance, yet had time for the free market approach to produce massive corporations with monopoly power (or effective cartels of companies, with the same effect) in a lot of the economy. However, that is what is generally agreed as the end-point of free market capitalism, and as Smith remarked “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Once you have that monopoly power, there is no constraint on prices via bargaining, because there can be no bargaining.

A further negative of this inevitable end-point is that while the “free market” is lauded as a better alternative to a command economy (centralised planning) – it is regularly pointed out by conservatives that we have seen a lot of command economies, chiefly in countries nominally communist, and they have failed miserably (the five and ten year plans beloved of Stalin and Mao are cases in point) – when you get multinational companies economically more powerful than many countries, they are practising their own form of command economics; they are all going to plan centrally. This, I would argue, gives you all the negatives of a command economy without the positives of at least nominally acting in the interest of the people or of having elections with a wide franchise which can change their leadership and policy, and, these days, an ethos focused entirely on “shareholder value” – which assumes that shareholders are only interested in the very short term (because that’s how stocks and shares are traded these days, with little or no transaction cost and no incentive to retain them long term). It isn’t even very sound self-interest, as that would argue that the company should look to its long term future, not just the next quarterly return.

There’s another really major fault in the “Invisible Hand” assumption when it comes to retail sales. Whereas if you’re buying millions (or even tens of thousands) of pounds worth of goods, you are going to bargain strongly if you can, it is just not worth the effort to bargain in the same way for a loaf of bread at the supermarket. I’ve certainly bargained that way on sales and purchases for myself – a house, a car, even (once) a pair of Moroccan carpets (in a bazaar in Tangier), but not when it comes to smaller things. There isn’t really the opportunity where I live, and although in Tangier people were bargaining hard over small items, if I were to go out for a basket of shopping it would take me all day to negotiate for the best price there, whereas it takes half an hour in my local Tesco. (From my point of view, you haven’t bargained hard enough unless you’ve walked out of the negotiation at least once – it took me well over an hour to bargain for the carpets, and should have taken longer had I wished for the best price, but I was constrained by needing to rejoin my guided tour… and yes, I did walk out once, but should have walked out twice of three times. Nonetheless, they cost me about a quarter of what they’d have cost in a carpet shop near my home, so I wasn’t too unhappy!).

It has to be a supermarket, because the smaller traders in town can’t compete on price (which a true invisible hand economy would allow them to) – they also suffer from the fact that the negotiation costs (in time) are the same if you’re buying £100 of goods or if you’re buying £100,000, and from the lack of weight which that huge purchasing power gives the supermarkets. Yes, there is some competition between the available supermarkets, but on the whole they tend to standardise their prices (not that I’m alleging a cartel, you understand), and the “discount supermarkets” tend to be unattractive for one or more of the reasons that they lack choice (economies of scale), are in locations which are difficult to access (lower land prices…) or have huge queues at the checkouts (economies of staffing) – plus, there is a cost in my time, petrol and patience in having to go round several places comparing prices (there’s still a cost even if all the information is online) and then round them again to make the actual purchases. Yes, there is some invisible hand effect – if one of them were overall significantly more expensive than the others, I would go elsewhere – but they can fairly freely overprice some items which will then slip into my basket because it would be too much effort (and expense, in time at the least) to go to somewhere else to buy just that item. I do know people who do split their shop between multiple places, but not all that many – and I strongly doubt that there are enough of them to have the overall effect which the “Invisible Hand” demands.

That, of course, is where I live. In a larger town, there might be more supermarkets closer together, and things might work rather better. In a smaller town, there might be only one supermarket, and the only constraint on its prices would be the threat of an independent retailler setting up in competition. I actually live just outside my town, and sometimes shop at the small Tesco which is in my village – and the prices there are fairly consistently higher than those in the big Tesco in town. Not by enough, in every case, to persuade me to go further, but significantly – and I tend to drive. For someone on foot, there would be even less competition.

And don’t get me started on the idea that the “Invisible Hand” has ever operated as economists describe in labour markets…

The trouble is, as this article tends to confirm, economics has to have an Invisible Hand as a matter of faith – it has to be a faith issue, as it’s never worked in practice outside the limited scope I described at the beginning of this post. So, if their God seems to be malfunctioning, they need to tweak him. Personally, I think that God is dead. But you won’t easily prise the concept out of the minds of economists – perhaps out of their cold, dead, Invisible Hands?