Taxation is a gift to those being taxed…

A recent Evonomics article makes clear that income inequality is bad for society generally, which is borne out by studies indicating that health outcomes are worse even for the rich in countries with greater wealth inequality.

There are also studies indicating that being rich makes you less altruistic and more self-centered.

Jesus, of course, told the rich young man that he should sell all he had and give the money to the poor: Mark 10 has the story.

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[a] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

So, my libertarian friend, you tell me that for the state to tax you is theft? I suggest that it is doing you a favour – it will bring you at least slightly closer to heaven, according to Jesus (and I have no doubt that, like the rich young man, you wouldn’t feel able to do this for yourself), it will make you a nicer person and improve your health.

Improvising on a theme of atemporality

Tom Oord has put up a blog post “Providence as improv, jazz or family” which I really like from a theological standpoint. I’m pretty sold on the “Uncontrolling Love” concept which he introduces in the book of the same name and explores further in “God Can’t”, his recent, less heavy expansion of his ideas. I’ve written extensively about Tom’s ideas previously, including being part of a book group which he ran with Tripp Fuller (my first such post is here). One of the extremely attractive features of Tom’s thinking is that it would seem to solve the problem of evil (God can’t be all of omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, given the amount of actual evil in the world).

My only concern is this – I’m a mystic, and take my basis from mystical experience (if I didn’t, I’d be in the agnostic or atheist camp), and one of the prevalent characteristics of the mystical experience is a feeling (and it comes with the subjective force of being absolutely true) that there is an atemporal aspect to this experience of God. You see it described as “timeless moment” or “eternal now” for instance.

While I can just about consider that this part of the mystical experience might be mistaken, despite the hugely self-verifying nature of it (I’m there entertaining it as an intellectual exercise, but have no belief that it’s actually the case) I’d far prefer to have a solution in which God was at least in some respect atemporal – and I say “in some respect” with the thought that we might be talking of a transcendent aspect to go with the immanent, time-involved aspect.

Happily, I utterly reject the theological stance that God has to be “simple” – I tend more to the view that God is the most complex entity in existence – so a combination of time-dependence and atemporality isn’t ruled out on the basis of any philosophical theology for me. I will grant that another of the overwhelming insights of the mystical experience is that God is one – the Jewish Shema ( Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad ; hear, O Israel, the Lord, the Lord is one).

That does tend towards the “simple” pole; obviously immanence and transcendence are completely different things, as are atemporality and temporality. I hold to immanence and transcendence (as a panentheist rather than a pantheist – a pantheist would probably deny the transcendent dimension), though, so I already have a kind of dichotomy there, and it definitely seems to me that temporality goes with immanence, and atemporality perhaps goes similarly with transcendence. We could, perhaps, just be considering two dimensions of the One God there?

I’m not sure how that would cash out in terms of Tom’s Uncontrolling Love concept, though. Tom holds to a concept of “original kenosis”, which preserves divine power while conceiving of it as being withdrawn from acting in the world, in order to allow for free will; I hold to a concept of “original incarnation”, in which divine power is not poured out of the universe in order to leave room for us, but poured into the universe in order to create us (and thus transferred irrevocably to us – and the rest of the universe). Atemporality of any kind would seem to guarantee that God would know the whole of time, including future time (and the mystical experience, so far as it goes, would tend to support that view).

The trouble then is that everything which happens would have had to have been foreknown by God at the point of the original kenosis or original incarnation, and that lands the blame for everything squarely on God again, despite both Tom and myself considering that God is necessarily post-creation unable to act in the world in any unilateral way (and certainly not as the miracle-working breaker of natural laws which conventional Judaism and Christianity have tended to see).

I need to find some way of squaring the mystical revelation of atemporality with an inability to see the future (perhaps because the future does not yet exist to be seen), and at the point of writing, I don’t have that. But it seems to me that there has to be some way of doing it…

Big Government, Welfare States and freedom

An “Evonomics” article asks if Big Government actually reduces personal freedom, as is often argued by conservatives – and comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t, and not only doesn’t do that, but doesn’t reduce freedom for ordinary individuals (though it clearly does for the 1%), doesn’t undermine ther family or societal organisations, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to have children, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to work, and generally has no discernible effect on any of these things valued by conservatives.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I find all these conclusions pretty obvious. From my point of view, my freedom is actually massively enhanced if someone else is doing a large number of things I don’t want to be bothered doing myself. I don’t, for instance, want to go back to the mediaeval manorial system in which the peasants (and I’d probably be a peasant in that system, which had no middle class to speak of) had to do some regular work for the lord of the manor maintaining the roads and bridges on the manor. A road or bridge which I had a hand in mending would probably not be one you wanted to drive on – road mending is not among my areas of competence (and the shared drive to my house bears witness not only to the fact that none of the five housholds which use it have any particular skill in road repair but also that getting as few as five people to agree to do the job is significantly difficult).

There are parts of Central America where government basically funds no roads at all, and motorists are used to people along the roadside asking them for money to mend potholes – and the roads are utterly appalling. Possibly, by reports I hear, even worse than our driveway…

Of course, those who cavil at paying taxes to support initiatives which benefit the community as a whole probably share my view that a lot of these things are not ones which the actual individuals using them can usefully work at providing. They don’t, after all, do all those things themselves – they pay other people to do it for them. Those with a really high income also pay people to engage and pay the people who actually do the work, and to make many of the decisions about what is actually done – an acquaintance of mine, for instance, employs a butler, a chef and an estate manager (no, I don’t usually move in those kinds of circles – we just happened to be involved with the same charity a few years ago).

Roads are, perhaps, an extreme case; not even my most conservative, libertarian friends seem to think that road building and maintenance should not be performed communally (although some of them think they should be contracted out to the lowest bidder like much of local government’s responsibilities have been forced to, an arrangement which seems to involve all the costs of democratic control and in addition all those of the requirement to make a profit, without any improvement in actual performance – actually, with a sneaking reduction in that, no doubt from “cost savings”). Consider, however, my acquaintance who employs a chef – and how many of us are too tired after work to cook properly, and use a labour-saving device ( a microwave) to heat up a meal cooked for us by professionals using all the advantages of the mass production system (OK, and with all its drawbacks, too), or send for a take-out. We are, in principle, employing chefs ourselves…

Are we really “free” if all the money we can earn (and the earning of which makes us too tired to cook, so all our productive time as well) goes on the necessities of life, with precious little left over? OK, a lucky few of us actually enjoy our jobs, and would do them even if we were paid nothing for them, (which is the position I now find myself in), but for most, what occupies almost all our usable time is something which we suffer having to do in order to live (and, for younger generations than mine, service the considerable debts accrued in trying to get enough education to land a job in the first place). In very many cases, the jobs have no capacity to be satisfying in any event – statistics indicate that a surprising number of us consider some or all of what we do at work to be pointless, i.e. that we have “bullshit jobs”.

Freedom, it seems to me, rests in being able to do what you actually want to do, rather than what you must, or what you’re not really very good at and which could be done far better and quicker by someone who is actually skilled at doing it (or, of course, increasingly by a labour-saving device – which may very soon even involve driving ones-self around from place to place…). Most of us, however, don’t individually have the money to pay people to do all these things for us.

However, as a society, we do have the money to pay for a lot of things to be done communally. Roads, yes, but also rail, bus and possibly also freight transport (and some local councils have managed to provide free bus transport for residents in the past); in my country, obviously medicine (the National Health Service) which, despite the fact that it is permanently short of money and staff, is something which the vast majority of Britons would prefer not to be taken away. Education was for a while mainly a state responsibility here – I am of a generation which expected to be educated (if capable enough) to first degree level at state expense, and I deeply regret the fact that governments from the 80s onwards have removed this form of communal investment in our country’s future.

It doesn’t escape me that Libertarians and Existentialists are likely to accuse me of not stepping up to the responsibility of making choices, and decry the idea that anyone else should make those choices for me. Sartre had the concept of “bad faith” for those who accept the decisions of others, particularly if those are internalised. Does not putting the responsibility for some of these decisions onto the community (which may be the State) represent this kind of “bad faith”? More seriously, does it not actually restrict my ability to choose, as the Libertarian would claim?

The Libertarian does have a point, though a rather weak one. Were I shuffling off that responsibility to a king or feudal lord, I might well agree. But I live in a representative democracy, where I have the ability to vote for someone to make those decisions for me. Indeed, for many years, I not only voted but stood as a candidate and got elected (at a local level), being willing to make such decisions on behalf of those I represented. Now, some 40 years after I first took up elected office, I don’t want to continue making those decisions. I’m tired, for one thing, and also now have an anxiety disorder, which means that I really want to keep decision making down to those things I really consider important. Sartre did suggest that anxiety was the inevitable result of having the widest possible freedom to choose, and my response to any allegation of bad faith would be to ask why he considers we are obliged to self-harm when it is unnecessary.

As I’ve indicated above, though, you don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to want to have someone else make decisions which you don’t want to bother making yourself. None of the rich people I know make all those decisions themselves, after all…

Another aspect of shifting some functions onto the community rather than the individual is the issue of fear. For this, let me use an example in which my own country, the UK, contrasts hugely with the USA. That is healthcare. I am fortunate enough to live in a country with broadly socialised healthcare in the form of the NHS (and I might add, the NHS is supported by a massive majority of the population). The USA doesn’t really have socialised healthcare, and every week I read of someone whose financial security has been devastated by a sudden, unexpected healthcare bill. The late Rachel Held Evans’ family were hit not only by her untimely death, but also with a stratospheric hospital bill; Mike McHargue, of the Liturgists podcast, had his own heart scare recently, and his family finances were also demolished. In both cases, an internet-based campaign quickly raised the money to fix these problems – but they were massively well-known and well-loved public figures, and the less well-known go bankrupt on an appalling scale. The popular TV series “Breaking Bad” was based on a similar situation, in which the main character turned to making crystal meth in order to meet medical expenses…

In the UK, none of us need fear that kind of disaster – and it can strike almost anyone. Even some in the States who thought of themselves as well-insured have found that deductibles and quibbling insurance companies have wiped them out.

Another Evonomics article notes “the possibility that the welfare state is an efficiency-enhancing institution that helps maintain popular support for relatively free markets by ensuring they more or less benefit everyone.” I’d actually suggest that the welfare state enhances efficiency by reducing the level of fear (as with the NHS), by freeing up mental capacity to make decisions which people are actually good at making, because they are interested in them, and by, to some extent, forcing businesses to negotiate wages on a slightly more level playing field. The fear issue comes in again there – if the alternative to taking a bullshit job at minimum wage is to starve and/or to be put on the street, while an employer has a ready supply of other terrified people to take the bullshit job, there isn’t anything remotely like a free market.

As might be apparent from my last paragraph, I am not against free markets as such. I don’t like command economies as a general rule, as they tend to be inefficient, though I note that anywhere where a monopoly or cartel exists and the market is dominated by very large companies, there might as well be a command economy – many large companies have budgets larger than (for instance) the near-command economy of Cuba and put more money into preserving their monopoly or cartel status, or their handouts from governments, than they do to improving their efficiency. The NHS is to some extent a command economy in respect of healthcare in the UK, but healthcare costs are massively lower in the UK than the US without a corresponding reduction in quality of care (indeed, by many standards the NHS provides better healthcare than does the USA). Granted, there is also private medicine in the UK, but it doesn’t compete in many fields – it is superior (if you can afford it) for regular medical checkups and for elective procedures, but not, in general, for much of the rest of medicine.

I think the balance in the UK has tipped too far away from the Welfare State, and that should be redressed. In the States – well, I look at some of the statements of Democratic contenders for president, and wonder whether we may see a shift towards a social-democratic mixed economy there. I hope so, for the sake of – well – about 99% of Americans.

Omnipotence, superheroes and Stormzy

Stephen Morris writes, in a message on the “Exploring the Universal Christ” facebook group “I see now why so many American evangelicals almost exclusively worship a God of immense might and power, a God who resembles Zeus, hurling lightning bolts and dispensing judgment against infidels. A God who is always in control of everything and everybody. We become like the God we worship, so an omnipotent Being is the very thing our egos aspire to be like. We want to be omnipotent, we want to be judge, jury and executioner, we want to be in control of everything and everybody.”

Indeed, perhaps this also explains the popularity of superhero narratives (which aren’t restricted to the products of Marvel and D.C. Comics – almost any action movie you watch involves a hero who is superhuman in at least a modest sense). I’ve written about “God as superhero” before – the linked post lost me a few acquaintances (which facebook calls “friends”) because – well – anything you call “God” has to be “more than” everything, doesn’t it? Anselm’s “ontological argument” rests entirely on that premise, after all.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Amusingly, this phrase is commonly attributed to another superhero, Spiderman (in the comic and film, it was actually said to Spiderman rather than by him), though its first recorded use seems to be in a document of the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety in 1793. I think this has to be a truism, though if so, it is a little surprising that there isn’t a much earlier use quoted. There is a lot of play with this concept in recent superhero literature and films.

If that be the case, with all-powerfulness comes all-responsibility. Perhaps our egos do aspire to be omnipotent, as Stephen writes, but they rarely aspire to be responsible for everything. If God is omnipotent, we are logically incapable of doing anything by ourselves, and need saving – and that is both where the other potential ego-identification in superhero movies comes from and the basis for the common Christian thinking (emanating, I think, from the Reformed and particularly the Calvinist stream of thought) that we are entirely worthless and only God can save us. Or, of course, your superhero of choice. We are maybe slightly better represented by Fay Wray than by Christopher Reeve, and we need saving (rather than to save) more often than Stephen’s American evangelical would like – at least, any time he or she was not in church. In church, humanity is entirely powerless and helpless.

This seems to me to lie behind Stormzy’s song “Blinded by your Grace”, which he performed recently at Glastonbury to rapturous applause. It’s a decent song, and perhaps goes some way to filling the void of Christian rap (“Christian music” has colonised folk music fairly extensively, some pop music and a bit of rock; I await the dawn of “Christian techno” and “Christian Death Metal” with a feeling of dread…). The same tendency similarly lies behind what I’ve heard referred to as the “prayers of abject self-abasement” in the Anglican communion service, which my vicar tends to prune down to one from the more normal three (two before, one after communion) – as he says, once is really enough…

The trouble here is that the line of Christian reasoning apparent in Luther and Calvin (and, of course, in most of Evangelicalism) is hopelessly schizoid. On the one hand, God has to be omnipotent (and omniscient, and omnipresent, and omni-everything else) – because, as I’ve heard from many conservative Christians, “otherwise He isn’t worthy of worship”, and as such only God can save us; we do need another hero.

But on the other hand, in this conception, God is not omniresponsible. It’s we mortals who are responsible for all the bad in the world (original sin), and we are incapable of doing anything good in and of ourselves, but somehow capable of (and doing) all the bad things. “Total Depravity” in the Calvinist schema.

I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t work. If God has all the power, God also has all the responsibility. We (and by that I mean the Reformed tradition in Christianity together with much of the rest of Western expressions of the faith) seem to want to combine divine power not with divine responsibility but with divine irresponsibility – and my mind turns to Hancock again. The corollary is that we want to combine human powerlessness with human total responsibility.

It’s just black and white, all or nothing thinking – and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that there’s always a middle (which, in this thinking, is an excluded middle) – and that not infrequently, the middle is the only area which describes reality, as both extreme poles are just fictions. I think the God of the omnis is just such a fiction, just as I think the totally depraved human being is a fiction. Yes, this means that I don’t believe that God is omnipotent (or, indeed, omniscient), and it also means that I consider that we do have some power to do good or evil. This makes me, I suppose at least somewhat Pelagian (and so heretical), and also closer to Judaism (which recognises both a yetzer-ha-tov and a yetzer-ha-ra, capacities for or inclinations toward both good and evil).

My conservative friend would no doubt repeat their comment – “so how is God worthy of worship, if he isn’t omni-anything?” (actually, I think God is omnipresent, but that’s the only “omni” I accept). One answer is to point out that our “object of ultimate concern”, as Paul Tillich described God, doesn’t remotely have to be all of everything – a very large amount of something laudable (such as love, or compassion) will do quite nicely. I might also be tempted to comment that there is no way I could love the Calvinists’ God-concept, and that I wouldn’t feel that worthy of worship – because I don’t respect tyrrany or irresponsibility, and power without acceptance of responsibility is both of those. This God-concept is a monster – I could fear it, and that’s about that.