Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (II)

This is the second in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group which is a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, which is studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The second essay is by Rupert Sheldrake. Dr. Sheldrake is a biochemist and cell biologist by original formation, having held fellowships at Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently listed in Wikipedia as a researcher in parapsychology, which is, I suspect, regarded as a “put down” by many readers. I’m assisted in writing this by the recent interview with him on Homebrewed Christianity.

As I’m both a mystic and, by original academic formation, a scientist (I have a BSc in Physics (Theoretical Option) and currently do a little work as a research assistant with a company doing R&D in Industrial Chemistry), I felt an immediate kinship with Dr. Sheldrake, who found his own peak mystical experience and thus panentheism initially through psychedelic experiences in India. I have no worries about the means used to achieve an initial mystical experience, myself. Personally I’ve found psychedelics unsatisfactory, as they don’t deliver quite the same experience as I initially had without chemical assistance, and while I note what he says in the Homebrewed podcast about baptism possibly having induced near-death experiences (perhaps with the aid of extensive fasting), I really don’t recommend methods which are physically dangerous, though I can confirm that several of them are quite effective.

I particularly liked his initial statement “I believe that God is in me and that I am in God. I think that God is in all nature and that all nature is in God”. I can definitely live with that as an overall start point. I also very much like his unwillingness to be bound by scientific orthodoxy, and in general terms agree with his criticisms of a hard-line reductive materialism. Like him, however, I expect that everything will have a naturalistic explanation, even if we currently have no idea what that explanation might be (and I’d add from my own perspective that that explanation may be one which human intellect is inadequate to grasp – certainly, peak mystical experiences seem to convey understandings which are entirely impossible to reduce into my own thought processes to date, so it may be that no-one is going to be able to do so).

At that point, however, Dr. Sheldrake and myself start drifting apart. He rather likes Whitehead’s process philosophy, at second hand, at least, as he says Whitehead himself is too difficult to understand (something which I fervently agree with); I rather like the conclusions of process theologians, although I’m not sure I follow the basis on which they operate (I can reach the same conclusions from straightfoward panentheism). I cannot get my head round the Whiteheadian set of concepts as a basis for reality, myself, even for the level of quantum physics which Whitehead was influenced by.

But he goes on to espouse actual panpsychism, and I can’t get my head round that as a basis for reality either. Not at the level of physics, at any rate, and that is a couple of layers of emergence/epiphenomenalism below Sheldrake’s biology. At the level of physics, we already have wave-particle duality to contend with (for which my best answer is that probably whatever the material of the unviverse actually is at that level isn’t either waves or particles, but something which behaves in ways we can best interpret in one circumstance as a particle, another as a wave). I’m entirely happy with his conclusion that reductive materialism doesn’t actually describe what is there, in other words.

But reductive materialism does describe pretty well how what is there behaves, at least in concepts which humanity can get their heads around (or, at least, an elite who have some comprehension of quantum physics…) I don’t really know of any circumstance in which Whitehead’s “units of experience” or panpsychism’s “units of consciousness” would provide a decent explanation of how what is there behaves, with the possible exception of the “hard problem” of consciousness. And, at the moment, I am not sure there is a “hard problem of consciousness”. There is, to be sure, no full explanation of how matter produces consciousness, but I don’t see that that means the problem is particularly hard – and to posit panpsychism to plug that gap looks to me a lot like a “God of the gaps” explanation. I actually think that some of the speculations of Douglas Hofstadter in “Gödel, Escher, Bach” and “I am a Strange Loop” have some distinct promise in answering that problem, and in the meantime, a wholesale revision of what underlies reality (and further complication of the wave-particle issue) seems to say the least premature. Though, just perhaps, adding consciousness into the mix might offer some option which could underlie wave-particle duality…

He also produced the hypothesis of morphic resonance. Now, I have some sympathy with him in respect of the reception of that by the scientific academy (which was, bluntly put, that it was scientific heresy or just an attempt to reintroduce magic). The suggestion that something is heresy generally makes me want to examine it more closely. Unfortunately, it seems the hypothesis is probably untestable in practice, and what little evidence I’ve seen put forward for it actually existing argues for an extremely weak effect, if any. It might well link with Jung’s concept of the “collective unconcscious”, particularly if some form of telepathy (which the idea would seem to need in practice) were in play.

I used to particularly like the idea of the collective unconscious, which seemed to me to gel really well with mystical experience. The trouble is, I can find no actual evidence for it being a solid concept, and despite the peculiarities of dogs knowing when their owner is going to come home (which I’ve experienced with several of our dogs in the past, and absolutely cannot explain by any known and verified mechanism), it really doesn’t seem to work with humans.

I’m also very uneasy about any suggestion that there’s a telos, a final cause, something towards which things are being drawn. Again, I’d really like to think that there were such a thing, and mystical experience might just possibly offer a way in which we might know what that is before it manifested (in which case we’d be arguing from a conclusion…). That way, to my mind, lies a controlling intellect – there can be no purpose without a purposer. But I don’t see nearly enough evidence that there is. It would be very nice to think, with MLK, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Actually, though, I think that it should bend towards justice, but it’s up to us to make it do so. I’m reluctantly with Teresa of Ávila in thinking “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

All that said, I wish Dr. Sheldrake well, and hope that one day he surprises me.

Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere.

I’ve been reading “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, and am a member of the Cosmic Campfire book group which is a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, which is studying the book over the next few weeks.

I strongly recommend the book, which is an examination via accounts which include a lot of personal experience from a set of first rank theologians who have a liking for panentheism. For those who don’t know the term, panentheism holds that the material universe exists within God, and God pervades every aspect of it – but God is not equivalent to the material universe (i.e. coterminous with it) – that would be pantheism, with which panentheism is often confused. Pantheism would hold that God is wholly invested in the material universe with no remainder, while panentheism holds that there is a remainder; often the statement is made that the investment in the material universe maintains immanence while the remainder maintains transcendence.

I introduced myself in the reading group in these terms:-

Hello, my name is Chris, and I’m a mystic and a panentheist…

OK, couldn’t resist that. It feels right, in a way, considering some of the other introductory posts I’ve read. I’ve been part of the Homebrewed community for years, and recently added the Liturgists, so I come from both strands.

I also feel the need (particularly after reading around two thirds of the text) to add that I am not now nor have I ever been an Evangelical (though I’ve spent a while trying to be part of Evangelical churches). Maybe with a small “e”…

And, particularly as Mike Morrell [note – he is one of the group facilitators and asked if any members were previously atheists] asked the question, I used to be an atheist. In fact, after pushing 5 years of Sunday School (preacher’s kid) the 9 year old me decided that he was an atheist, and that everyone else should be too (so I suppose that’s an “evangelical atheist” – Dawkins and his like weren’t around in those days, otherwise I’d probably have been a fan). Which didn’t go down well with Sunday School and (as I failed miserably to realise at the time) was a collossal embarrassment to my father – and to my mother, a frequent soloist with the choir).

Then, at 14, I had a peak mystical experience out of the blue. I’d done absolutely nothing to encourage something like that, and had no conception that something of the sort was possible – so I went to see my doctor, saying that my brain seemed to be broken (I was also suddenly experiencing an overdose of empathy and compassion, neither of which had much troubled me before that). Apparently the brain wasn’t broken, so, given that the experience was better than sex, drugs and rock & roll (none of which I’d experienced at the time – hindsight speaking there), I went out looking for (a) language in which to talk about it and (b) a means to get more of the same.

Christianity was not my first port of call. Indeed, almost anything else looked like a better bet to me, though I did happen on F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism, a Study and Anthology” shortly afterwards, which at least persuaded me that it was possible to be a Christian (of sorts, at least) and a mystic. Courtesy of sampling a lot of traditions, I finally found a praxis which at least seemed to make repeats more likely (although the absolute pinnacle experiences still seem to me to be given not worked for).

However, Christianity was what I was born into, was ingrained in the history of the society I lived in and was accessible even in the small town where I lived. It was an easier language than learning a whole alternative civilisation. In addition, I becaue convinced that Jesus was a mystic, and was (for me) the clearest expositor of how to live as a mystic, and I fell in love with Jesus – or, at least, my best construct of who Jesus was. But I was hugely put off by the Church in all the forms I’d experienced, not least because accepting being part of that meant that I’d have to accept its history and current activities.

Then, when I was moderating the Christianity section of a religious discussion forum back in the 90’s, a couple of Anglican lay readers told me (without conferring) in no uncertain terms both that I was a Christian and that I regarded my input stopping WWIII erupting between fundamentalists and liberals, atheists, Jews and Muslims as a “pastoral mission” (I denied both of those at least three times, FWIW, before grudgingly accepting…)

So I’m definitely a mystic. I’m open to the possibility that “panentheist” isn’t the best label, but haven’t come across a better one. And I suppose I’m a Christian – I attend an Anglican church, and that’s where most of my praxis originates these days. But around 90% of Christianity would have reservations about that, in which case fine – I’m a follower of Jesus. Not a very good one, but a follower nonetheless.

In the week to come, we’ll be looking at the first essay in the book, which is by Philip Clayton. I am slightly in awe of him; he was doctoral advisor to Tripp Fuller, who is the originator and mainstay of Homebrewed Christianity, and has appeared many times on the Homebrewed podcast. He’s notable for being able to take Tripp’s positions apart thought by thought and challenge them theologically and philosophically, and sometimes to render Tripp speechless. If you’ve listened to many Homebrewed episodes (and I recommend that you do), you’ll appreciate quite how amazing a feat that is.

The essay is titled “That of God in Every One”, and Prof. Clayton’s personal statement would be “there is that of God in every one”, which I think catches fairly reasonably the insistence on omnipresence and immanence which is a feature of panentheism. To me, however, this does not go nearly far enough to capture my own experience. I think my own personal statement would be “there is nothing which is not God”, which is a more radical statement of omnipresence and of immanence. Perhaps, though, he is doing a form of what he does so convincingly in another of his books “In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being” where he repeatedly makes use of the phrase “not less than…”, and I would certainly affirm that God is not less than present in everyone.

He goes on to think in terms of what I might call “original kenosis”, a term used by some process and relational theologians (notably, in my recent reading, Tom Oord), which suggests that God withdraws the fullness of that-which-is-God in order to “make space for” creation. He suggests that this “opens the door to a pervasive immanence”. Again, I cannot really square that with my own experience, which is of radical immanence at every level of existence down to the subatomic and below even that (God all the way down, rather than turtles?). That has led me to suggest previously a concept of “original incarnation”, in which God creates out of Godself, giving over parts of God’s power to creation; not a “creation ex nihilo” but a “creation ex Deo”. Of that, Jesus is, of course, the primary examplar, the person most fully knowing himself as one with God whose words or thoughts (and the working out of those in practical living) have impinged on me.

Yes, there is a kenosis in every instance of incarnation, in that God withdraws the fullness of himself (or the individual withdraws himself, which may be the same thing); at the height of a peak mystical experience, I have been at a point several times where I could, perhaps, have let go the last shreds of individuality and merged completely with the All, or the All could have moved a little further and encompassed me absolutely – but there would then be no individuality left. I fancy that the wording in Philippians 2 refers to such an act of withdrawing back to individuality, though I could be wrong. Peter Rollins has captured, perhaps, a little of this in suggesting that it is the loss of oceanic oneness which creates the individual consciousness, and this should be regarded as no loss, as there was previously no individual to lose anything; I demur slightly from this, as that oceanic oneness is available via (at least) mystical experiences and can be returned from – and yes, there is then a sense of loss, and it is a real loss…

Prof. Clayton also states “Only the freedom to challenge orthodoxies can bring transcendence down to earth”. I think that is overwhelmingly true, and that when transcendence does come down to earth in mystical experience, it is inevitably going to mean that even a half-decent expression of that state is going to challenge orthodoxies. However, orthodox concepts can be re-examined, as both he and I have done with kenosis and I have done with incarnation.

Indeed, orthodoxy has to be challenged in respect of transcendence. The conventional picture of God of much of Western theology since Augustine has been of a God so transcendent as to be unapproachable, beyond any possibility of experience, and if beyond any possibility of experience, also too far removed to be a factor in most modern lives. Being a mystic, of course, I don’t just want to open the door to pervasive immanence, I want to throw the door open wide and live and move and be “in Him”.

A dog’s life

On Monday, we lost the older of our two dogs. More accurately, after consultation with the vet, we decided to have him put to sleep. He was suffering from congestive heart failure, and had had a number of progressively worse days over the last week, culminating in Sunday, when he had four episodes of not being able to breathe adequately lasting for several hours of the day and night, and being plainly in considerable distress, and the prognosis was that this was only going to get worse (it had been getting worse very quickly).

Bumble was a Springer Spaniel, and was originally my mother’s dog, then progressively shared until she died in 2014, and then ours – but most of all my daughter’s. He had a long life for a Spaniel, at around 14 years, and was an irrepressibly happy little dog (which made the contrast with some of his last week all the more difficult), always wagging and bumbling about (hence the name, given him by my mum).

His last day was, however, quite a good one. He only had one extended episode of stuggling to breathe, and got fed a lot of sausages – he loved sausages. Actually, he loved almost any food, particularly if it was human food – he would even mug me for a piece of banana… He had a bit of a run round in the garden, and woofed at people from next door, so it was all good. I think we managed to give him a really good time that day, and happily my daughter had a day off work and was able to be with him much of the day, so he had his human with him, so life was just excellent. He died eating another sausage…

We’ve kept dogs for over 35 years, and so Bumble joins Havoc, Loki, Saxon, Boss, Bridie, Purdy and Raven (all German Shepherd Dogs), five of whom we similarly put to sleep to save them further pain when their quality of life had deteriorated enough. Our outlook has always been that if you keep dogs, you have to be prepared to kill them eventually, as an expression of love and kindness, in order to save them from pain.

There is a Bumble-shaped hole in our lives at the moment. I’m typing this without a spaniel under my desk, which has been a pretty constant feature of my life for years; I went upstairs for a nap yesterday, and was not faced with a small white and brown person demanding cuddles, whichever side of the bed I tried to get into, before settling down with me. As Peter Rollins says, it is a nothing which is something.

There is also a Neil-shaped hole which appears from time to time. I attended Neil’s funeral at the begnning of September after his death in mid-August – the first Kabbalist funeral service I’ve attended (and probably the only one). Neil was my longest-term friend; we met before either of us was at primary school. He was best man at my wedding, and one of the little group of enthusiastic searchers through things arcane who were around me at university and for some time thereafter. In recent years, he moved back to our home village, and ran a website called “Mirach – the home of the Practical Kabbalist”. And in December last year, he complained of severe headaches and was rapidly diagnosed with a brain tumour, which was operated on quickly. The surgeons didn’t get the whole tumour – it was a choice between leaving some of the cancerous tissue and reducing his function to a vegetative state.

For some months, he was really very functional – two weeks out of four, he’d be his old bright and cheerful self, just evidencing a little word aphasia and some frustration at losing his mobility (his Driving Licence was withdrawn immediately). The other two weeks were the chemo week and the week after, during which he felt wiped out. The thing was, he wasn’t feeling any pain (no nerves in the brain), and I made a point to spend some time with him during the “good” weeks, and we talked of many things, including (of course) religion and spirituality. He was still maintaining a daily meditative practice then, and, like me, was not concerned about death as such, merely about the means of getting there, so he was very laid back about having a prediction of months of life rather than years.

However, in April he had a seizure, went into hospital and promptly caught one of those hospital-borne respiratory diseases. He did rally after that, sufficiently to be back able to hold something of a conversation on two of the occasions I visited him, but was fed by tube from that point and after a few weeks transferred to a nursing home inconveniently situated over an hours drive from home (his poor wife, who visited him six days a week, was worn to a frazzle). There, in July, I had my last sensible conversation with him. His quality of life was clearly dire – he couldn’t really move much apart from his head, his cognitive ability  and language ability had taken a huge nosedive, and he was slipping in and out of consciousness during my rather short visits, but he did seem glad I was there. The one thing which he was definitely able to communicate was that he had had enough of this, and wanted it to be over…

Eventually, in August, after he had been unresponsive for four weeks, his wife agreed with the doctors that they would stop feeding him. He lasted eight days after that, as against the two to three the doctors predicted, mercifully unconscious the whole time.

I can’t help contrasting the two, and thinking that certainly May to August were not a period which I would wish on anyone, and I was able to save Bumble from something similar. But no-one was able to save Neil until things had been dragging on far too long.

There are times when I rather wish I were a dog…

Power, monarchy, jokes and loyalty

I’ve listened recently to a patrons only podcast from the Liturgists, recorded at their gathering in London a couple of weeks ago. I was rather stopped in my tracks by the following comments from Mike McHargue, better known as “Science Mike”, who, in the course of talking about the British in a fairly joking manner, said “They have a monarch…”, and then, to my ears at least, got fairly serious. He went on to say “At some point a relative of living people with extensive property… at some point one of their ancestors said ‘I’m in charge… of everything’ “, and then “I assume that, with the threat of violence attached, someone said ‘I’m the king now’ ” and “I’m not a monarchist”.

And I bristled. Not so much that this was a criticism of our monarchy (which is a very difficult thing to defend rationally, though I may try occasionally, while always pointing out that it actually works rather well for us, despite its theoretical flaws – rather like democracy), but because it painted a very inaccurate picture of our current monarch (and, indeed, her predecessors for quite some time). I did think that it might just be a continuation of humour at the host country’s expense (which Mike’s earlier comment about tea might support), but felt it went a bit beyond that – and ridiculing your host’s institutions is never a safe course of action. But then I listened again, and my conclusion is at the end of this piece. What follows immediately is the result of bristling…

I was reminded of a discussion some years ago with an American who said “We’re citizens, you’re subjects”, clearly having the idea that there was some functional difference between those concepts these days (there isn’t much, aside the fact that American presidents have massive power over their “citizens”, and British monarchs have virtually no power over their “subjects”, in which they resemble the other 8 European constitutional monarchs). Indeed, when the Earl of Rochester wrote on Charles II’s door “Here lies our sovereign lord the king, whose word no man relies on, who never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one”, Charles famously (and fairly accurately) responded “My sayings are my own, my actions are my ministers”. The same American was very keen on blaming George III for the War of Independence, conceiving of him as having absolute power and ruling by decree (something which those framing the Declaration of Independence rather encouraged in their wording).

In point of fact, none of the things complained of by the 19th century colonists were decisions made by George III or his predecessor monarchs, they were decisions made by the British parliament (which were sort of democratic decisions, but by representatives for whom the colonists couldn’t vote – but then, neither could rather a high proportion of the home population… and I think about voter suppression, gerrymandering and peculiar electoral rules, and wonder what’s changed). That, I hasten to point out, does not mean that the complaints of the colonists were not largely justified, just that the wrong person was being blamed. It seems to me that “bad King George” is part of the American founding myth, though, so it’s understandable that almost everyone from the US I meet seems to have this idea,

So, a short history lesson. We have not had a monarch with really absolute power at least since King John signed Magna Carta in 1215, which gave citizens rights. Granted, quite a few subsequent monarchs trampled over bits of Magna Carta on occasion (and often got rebelled against as a result), and in practice most of those rights were more for the upper classes than for the peasants,  Even then, though, the mere fact that the Barons were able to force John to sign the document is testimony to the fact that the power of previous monarchs wasn’t really absolute either. In point of fact, most kings and queens of England ruled with the advice and consent of a parliament of sorts. I say “of sorts” because in the earlier times, it was purely a council of important noblemen.

There have been occasions when someone has just said “I’m the king now” (or in the case of Matilda, “I’m the queen now”), without actually being the current king or (with the exception of Matilda) the natural successor, which has often resulted in a civil war, because there already was a king. The winner was, in general terms, the person who could put together the largest coalition of people willing to fight for them, which was not all that dissimilar from the elections we hold these days – just rather more bloody. But wasn’t the origin of any of those who had a claim to the throne someone who had declared themselves king just because they were more physically powerful than those around them, if you go far enough back in history?

Well, not really. The origins of the line of British monarchs are in the Saxons (the Saxon kings were those who the council of Earls thought best suited to the role, rather than just the most militarily powerful), the Stuarts, and the Normans. Granted, William I (previously Duke of Normandy) did declare himself king and invade, but he was only able to do so as a result of a wide coalition of Northern French noblemen and the support of the French king. His ancestors had, indeed, taken Normandy by force and compelled the French kings to recognise them, being prior to that the leaders of a large group of Scandinavian warriors. And their leaders were those who could attract the support of a large number of fighting men and command them successfully. Yes, some of them, in those days, were guys with bigger biceps and bigger swords, but they also needed leadership skills and charisma.

I note, though, that Science Mike has Scots/Irish ancestry. The Scots like to portray themselves as a subjected people (“Braveheart”?) and indeed England did invade them a few times – but then, Scotland invaded England a few times as well (and generally allied with the French, threatening a pincer movement…). We then acquired James VI of Scotland, who was a Stuart (who became kings, as far as I can see, because they were good at organising things, as you’d expect the hereditary stewards of the previous kings to be) as James I of England (as he was viewed as the best candidate of several after Elizabeth I died childless), which might actually be regarded as a Scots takeover of England. And the Queen is descended from James I…

Ireland is a different story. Ireland was conquered by the Normans (in the first place) as a kind of overflow from their conquest of England, but then settled into having a kind of Anglo-Irish aristocracy, which “went native”. What you then got was a ruling class most of whom had a foot in both countries, and whether the English king (or queen) was ruler of Ireland as well was not a clear-cut issue until Elizabeth I. What the Irish were (and remain) most incensed about, however, was the fact that under Elizabeth I and her successors, English and Scots settlers were deliberately introduced into Ireland, displacing the native Irish. A bit like English and Scots settlers being deliberately introduced into America, displacing the native people there – the chief difference being that the settlers in Ireland didn’t largely wipe out the native populations (though they did tend to treat them appallingly, and killed quite a few). What they did do, in Northern Ireland in particular, was remain Protestant where the mass of the population were Catholic, and that gave them a different identity. But that’s another story entirely…

So, do we see there someone waving around a bigger broadsword and declaring themselves king? It was, initially, a woman, after all…

All the above, however, is really not the point. In 1642, Charles I declared war on Parliament, wanting to rule in an absolute way (and not as I noted above with the restrictions which earlier monarchs had largely acceded to), and the end result (after a civil war) was his execution at the order of Parliament in 1649. From 1649 to 1659, the country was a republic. On 8th May 1660, Parliament met and declared that Charles II (his son) had in fact been king since his father died, and that the republic (called “Commonwealth”) had never existed – and so restored the monarchy, but on Parliament’s terms.

Americans may like to note that we had a republic here, but we decided it had been a bad idea after 10 years. Just saying…

Every subsequent monarch has ruled (if you can call the rapidly diminishing power allowed them from that point “ruling”) by the will of Parliament. We had another little revolution, though without a war, in 1688 when James II started looking too authoritarian, and also espoused Catholicism, resulting in Parliament declaring that James had by his actions abdicated… Then, in 1701, faced by the awful prospect of a return to one of the Catholic branches of the Stuart family, Parliament settled the crown on the most junior branch of the Stewarts in the form of Sophia, who was married to the Elector of Hanover, on the proviso that no Catholic could occupy the throne*. That has been tinkered with a few times by Parliament, most recently by settling the crown on the eldest child irrespective of sex and by removing the prohibition on the monarch being a Catholic. It’s entirely possible that Parliament may decide, when the current Queen dies, that Prince Charles should not be the next King, but (perhaps) his eldest son (based on age and a certain amount of public sentiment surrounding his divorce from Diana and relationship with Camilla Bowles).

So, contra the implicit statement made by Science Mike, we have a monarchy, and we have this monarch, because that’s what our elected house of representatives has wanted, rather than (at least proximately) the fact that some distant relative took the throne by force of arms.

Indeed, who was on the throne has been for a very long time determined by who could command the support of a sufficient number of the population – the last time that was not the case was when William I invaded in 1066, and he did it by commanding the support of a boatload – or rather several boatloads – of French nobility and their followers.

However, this train of thought has led me to wider considerations. Firstly, if any of us, in either the USA or Britain (or anywhere else), owns property, it is ultimately because someone has taken or defended it with force. The fact that we can say we own it even now is because the law says so, and the law is always going to be backed up by the ultimate threat of force – if, for instance, I wake one morning to find a stranger camped in my garden (or, translated into US English, yard), I will be strongly suggesting that they move, and if they don’t I will go to court, get a court order against them and get bailiffs to evict them (OK, unless I suffer from an excess of Christian charity and let them stay there… though that would get me in hot water with my mortgage company, so probably wouldn’t happen). And the bailiffs will use force to do that. They may well call for the support of the police, for instance.

Secondly, however, most of the time we obey laws and customs, we are not doing so thinking that ultimately deadly force backs it, we are thinking that “this is the way things are done”. Indeed, if you had to use deadly force to back up laws as a matter of course, there would be no law very shortly, just anarchy – and I actually expected that this was where Mike was going when  he started down that route. (It may well have been – I’ve done live podcasting myself, and found that my train of thought got derailed and I went in a different direction from the one I’d planned…) In the case of the monarchy, we follow or support it “because that’s the thing to do”, or “because we’ve always done it that way” not “because one of their ancestors threatened someone else with a broadsword”, and for the most part that’s why we followed their predecessors once we got beyond choosing them for their ability to lead and lead well – and just tended to stick with the children of the last person who led (a phenomenon which is not unknown in the States, as witness Bush pére et fils)**. Until parliament took over and determined who ruled, in theory at least. We liberals should also not underestimate the strength of the “loyalty” component felt much more strongly by conservatives than by liberals, according to Jonathan Haidt’s research, either. None of us should underestimate the fact that people have power over us if we think they have power over us…

And, I suppose, Americans should not underestimate the relative ease of giving loyalty to a person rather than a brightly-coloured piece of fabric. They commonly think that loyalty to the Queen is vaguely ridiculous, while I think loyalty to a piece of fabric is vaguely ridiculous. Both of them, of course, are symbols of something much larger, and loyalty to Britian or to the United States is not ridiculous. It may be misdirected; Christians in the past have thought their loyalty to God eclipses their loyalty to the country (which, incidentally, is why Catholics were barred from the throne for so long and why the Pilgrim Fathers felt persecuted), and I can sympathise with that while disapproving of both the widespread executions under Mary and Elizabeth for being of the wrong religion, of the plot to blow up Parliament (and James I) and of the widespread desecration of churches by the Puritans during the civil war. My own highest loyalty is to the Kingdom of God (as exemplified by Jesus), not to Britain (as exemplified by the Queen).

And the Kingdom of God will have power if we think it has power…



* This is another source of contention with the Scots, many of whom wanted to return to a more senior (and Catholic) branch of the Stuarts, resulting in rebellions in 1715 and 1745, both of which were defeated, in the second case with wantonly excessive slaughter.
** Unless, that is (as multiple occasions in English history record) they were doing a really bad job of it, in which case we had a revolt, a civil war or a strategic assassination and replaced them or extracted concessions. This happened to William II, John, Matilda and Stephen, Edward II, Richard II (twice), Henry VI, Richard III, Charles I and James II just counting those in England since the conquest. Otherwise, the person who ruled, ruled on the whole more or less by consent. Where the two sides were more or less evenly balanced were when it became a civil war (Stephen and Matilda, Henry VI to Richard III and Charles I).


Divide and conquer

This article makes better than I can a point which has been worrying me for quite some time, namely that “the left” seems to be preoccupied with relieving the oppression of small groups at the expense of relieving the oppression of the vast bulk of humanity by countering the neoliberal agenda of concentrating wealth (and therefore power) in the hands of a smaller and smaller proportion of the human race, and at the expense of finding world-wide consensus for steps to arrest (and possibly reverse) climate change.

Both of those are, to my eyes, existential threats to the whole of human society. If wealth continues concentrating, eventually the have-nots will revolt, and violent revolutions are not things we want to live through, nor are totalitarian governments (which are two non-exclusive probabilities), even if the economic system does not collapse, as concentration purely on supply-side economics will inevitably cause. If we do not urgently address climate change, the sites of most of the world’s largest cities will become uninhabitable (mostly because they’ll be underwater) and, while it is just about possible that farming will be able to relocate largely to Northern Canada and Siberia and still sustain a sufficient population, the population movements resulting are ones which will be devastating.

The thing is, I have, according to much of the “progressive” or “left” camp, no position from which to make this comment. I’m a cisgendered straight white male* from a developed Western country, I’m middle class and I’m a baby boomer. OK, I do have a number of other identity markers which leave me about halfway between the very privileged and the very underprivileged if you play the game of “step forward if” and “step backwards if”. But I’m condemned by that initial set of markers.

I can readily accept that virtually all power in the world since very early times until (and, sadly, including) now has been held by cisgendered straight white males, and that using the principle of affirmative action, I should be ready to take a step back in favour of all those people who do not fall into one of those categories. Indeed, I would be quite happy to do so, if only those who are not quite so encumbered by privilege as am I were willing and able to take the power and run with it. This is particularly so as I’m now a “senior citizen” and am, frankly, tired of political activism (of which I’ve done a lot). However, let’s be real about this; if all other factors were equal, I’d prefer a non-white candidate to a white one, a woman to a man, trans over cis and gay over straight, just on the principle of affirmative action – but not if that candidate’s platform was based on whichever bits of their identity was minority, because I wouldn’t trust them to concentrate on the existential threats.

I’m not particularly convinced by the suggestion that identity politics is based on a conspiracy of neoliberals. But the effect of a concentration on identity politics is that “divide and conquer” is working very well for the neocons. While identity politics argues about which group should have a bigger slice of the pie, neoliberalism is steadily shrinking the pie, and ignoring two factors which might well mean the pie vanishes completely.

To borrow a phrase from 12 step, we should look for similarities, not differences. That way, we might just possibly manage to build a coalition which can deal with income inequality and climate change. Without that, we’re stuffed…


* I don’t fall absolutely neatly into all those categories, but had a choice growing up, which many don’t.