Lent but not borrowed…

It’s Lent, and (for the fourth time) I’m currently following Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course. The term was coined by the philosopher and theologian Merold Westphal, who proposed giving up God for Lent, rather than giving up something mundane.

I strongly recommend this. There’s a cost, but it’s fairly modest, and you get a lot of material – and a lot to think about. I support Pete on Patreon, so I get most of his output without paying anything more. I’ve always posted something in response to the AfL content, which changes year to year, so it’s worth going through again just for that, but there’s also a facebook group and the reactions there bring in new takes on it every year. This year I’ve not posted anything here yet – the world has gone slightly crazy, and other things (including another online course and a glut of editing work) have intervened to leave me little time for contemplative writing, but I’m now effectively locked in at home for the next twelve weeks and have at least partly adjusted to that, so…

For those who aren’t familiar with it, week one of AfL is an introduction, week two comprises standard atheistic critiques, week three considers the mystics, week four is the materialists, week five is “death of God” theology, week six covers some inventive theologies since that and week seven deals with Pete’s “Pyrotheology”. We’re in week five at the moment. Let’s backtrack a little, though.

My overall reaction to week two is always pretty much that of Archbishop Rowan Williams who, when asked how he got on with the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins when they were both faculty at the same Oxford college, said he had no problem. “What about his strident atheism?” was asked, and Williams responded “It’s not a problem – the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either”. This year, that came back to me hugely in week four, which started with Ludwig Feuerbach and went on to cover Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, Freud and Nietzsche. Pete has helpfully recorded a talk on Feuerbach, Marx and Hegel which is publically available, which means I can actually link to something he’s said on the subject.

Now, as I’ve written about before, I was an evangelical atheist by the time I was 9, and I’d probably have carried on being a scientific rationalist materialist and not concerning myself with God or religion at all had I not had an overwhelming mystical experience out of the blue when I was 14. It was a very good experience, sufficiently so that I both wanted to talk about it with others, so I needed a language of expression for it – scientific rationalism really doesn’t express mystical experience well! – and wanted to experience it again, so I was looking for practices, substances or concepts which would produce more of the same. In the search for this, I explored every avenue available to me over the next ten years or so, through my last few years at school and my time at university (studying theoretical Physics, at least as far as the university and my BSc were concerned), eventually arriving at practices which I concluded at least tended to improve the chances of me having peak mystical experiences (nothing I know of guarantees them) and which, by the time I was at university, gave me a low level mystical sensibility which was available merely by pausing for a moment and turning my mind in “the right direction”. OK, it was a bit like riding a bicycle – you learn how by doing it, and explaining how you do it is near impossible.

The trouble with Feuerbach, from my point of view, is that he starts by excluding (these days, a common term is “bracketing out”) mystical experience from his critique. Now, I accept his observation that the vast majority of religionists are not mystics (or, at least, in his day were not mystics, as some interesting recent studies have shown that nearly half the population in some Western countries say that they have had at least some kind of experience which could be labelled “mystical). Certainly, back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were relatively few people I talked with (and I talked with people obsessively about the subject) who were clearly mystics themselves. Feuerbach was writing a century earlier, and if the trend I see between the 70’s and today is projected back, there were probably very few mystics around.

The thing is, in my studying of various religious and religion-adjacent traditions, I had come to the conclusion which I first saw expressed in F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A study and anthology”, that at the heart of any religion was at least one mystic, often more. Eastern religions, it seems to me, have always been more accepting of their mystics than the Christian West, and it was very attractive to me to “go eastern” like Alan Watts (whose work I encountered while at university). I ended up with a mainly Christian concept-set and praxis for complicated reasons which I’ll maybe write about separately, but have frequently been frustrated by Christianity, once to the extent of writing “the whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the writings of mystics”, which was a drastic overstatement, but which I think has a strong kernel of truth in it.

In other words, I don’t think you get a religion unless you have a mystic or two in there, and in the case of Christianity, I identify Jesus, the writer of the Fourth Gospel and Paul as being foundational mystics (as Jesus wrote nothing himself, it is thinly possible that some of the other gospel writers were mystics but that Jesus wasn’t, but as I find massive mystical sensibility in both the gospels of Matthew and of Thomas, I tend to think that Jesus himself was the foundational mystic, and to me, his career makes perfect sense as that of someone strongly affected by mystical sensibility).

When Feuerbach brackets out mystics, therefore, I see him as bracketing out what is really the whole point of the religion. That struck me very forcibly this year, and I came close to stopping bothering with AfL for the remaining weeks. However, I persevered, and observed through Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman and Freud, at least, that what they were talking about was the way the followers of Christianity were acting as a result of their tradition’s developed ideas in economics, social organisation and psychology. Nietzsche I leave out – his wild vision might just possibly have something of the mystic about it.

It also struck me that they were taking a view rather similar to that of B.F. Skinner, who thought of psychology purely in terms of the actions it results in. This is regarded these days in virtually the entire psychological establishment as an excessively reductionist view. Yes, organised religion does produce results such as those criticised by Marx, Hill, Goldman and Freud, but in each of their cases, I could criticise them on the basis that, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and also on the basis that they neglect the fact that even if you remove all of the interpretational and philosophical superstructure of religion, you are still going to have people having mystical experiences, which are experiences of God. There is an experiential reality there which they are completely missing.

Week six has so far covered Bonhoefer’s “religionless Christianity”, Tillich’s idea of absolutes and Altizer’s “Death of God” concept. All of those are, to a great extent, philosophers (philosophical theologians) trying to modify the philosophical content of Christianity in the light of the failure of traditional ideas of God; Tillich does in his work express an appreciation of mysticism, but in essence he is using terms in philosophical theology to attempt to arrive at something rigorous. I can’t claim to have completely got my head round Altizer’s work yet, and I’ve been living with it since, in my late teens, the then vicar of Selby Abbey caused a major stir by preaching an Easter sermon based on Altizer; I had several conversations with him following that. The other two, however, seem to me to be trying to do something with philosophy which philosophy is not equipped to do, to produce something coherent out of mystical experience.

One of the major features of a large amount of mystical writing is the “coincidenta oppositorum”, the coincidence of opposites. The mystics’ experience of God is best conveyed poetically, I think (and poetry does not lend itself to philosophical analysis any more than it does to scientific rationalist analysis, which may be the same thing) but a frequent feature is the statement of two totally opposing things which are true simultaneously, an example being the common feature of mystical experience that the sense of self is at the same time expanded to fill the universe and contacted to nothingness, something I have felt many times. There are other totally contradictory statements which can be made similarly… Logic does not know what to do with that coincidence; in logic, and so in both science and philosophy, a proposition and its negation (or two mutually exclusive ideas) cannot both be true. But to the mystic, occasionally they just are.

[I may be assisted in the coincidence of mutually exclusive ideas by having been a Physicist – a basic requirement of undergraduate Physics is to accept wave-particle duality, for instance.]

We will, at the end of the course, arrive at Pete’s Hegel-inspired idea of there being a fundamental opposition, which he also describes as a deadlock, in the structure of reality. Now, I have some difficulty with overriding statements about the underlying nature of reality; if I’ve understood anything of Kant (which, I admit, is a dubious proposition), I’ve taken on board the concept that we really cannot say anything conclusive about ontology. Personally, I incine towards the idea that there are a number of competing ontologies and one may be useful in one circumstance whereas another is more useful in a second, but that maybe, just maybe, someone will eventually come up with an ontology which encompasses both and resolves the apparent conflict. But that is really just a pious hope; maybe Pete is right, and reality really is divided against itself. I keep following him in the hope that I may sometime actually be able to borrow his concept for myself; at the moment his thought and mine coincides sometimes but disagrees on other occasions.

There is certainly a very ample amount of absurdity evident in the world at the moment!

How are you doing with the pandemic, Chris?

That’s been a fairly common question from friends either on facebook or “in real life” recently. So, yes, I am in the group which the government has “strongly recommended” after this coming weekend to self-isolate completely for at least 12 weeks (I strongly suspect that it’ll be a lot longer). Although I’m a few years light of 70, they recommend the same regime to anyone who customarily gets a free ‘flu vaccination, and I qualify for a free ‘flu jab on four grounds. The really significant ones are that I have COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and three blocked coronary arteries, currently managed with medication. And, despite it being idiocy of the first water, I still smoke.

Yes, getting something like COVID 19 would be a very serious prospect for me. For the last few years, getting a bad cold or the common ‘flu has been a serious prospect for me, as either of those has tended to turn into pneumonia, and I’ve as standard been prescribed steroids and antibiotics, the latter as a preventative to avoid bacterial pneumonia developing – and probably as a result I’ve not had pneumonia for the last three years. This virus, though, produces viral pneumonia, and that might be treatable with steroids, but it isn’t preventable with antibiotics.

Some friends have wondered why I’ve not completely self-isolated before now, as at Sunday 22nd March. This is not entirely due to my substantial lack of fear of death, which is in part informed by mystical experience and in part by the observation that I’ve had a pretty decent life and am now notionally retired – an “old age pensioner” and thus not as productive or “useful” as I might once have been. Also, in part, because I really ought to have been dead in 2006 (I certainly intended to be), and as a friend has said, since then I’ve been “playing with house money”.

No, in substantial part it stems from the observation that if I had the virus now, the local NHS is not overloaded (there are very few identified cases, though this could be partly down to lack of testing), and I could expect to get really good treatment; if I get it later, the likelihood is that the system will be overloaded, and in conscience, were I triaging cases, I would select a 40 or 50 year old before me without hesitation. I’ve no particular wish to get the thing, so I’ve already been being extremely careful, and (aside from generally leading a pretty isolated life at the best of times) have cancelled all of my meetings and social events, but if I have to get it, this would probably be a better time than later this year… indeed, looking at the curve in Italy compared with that here, a better time than in around two weeks. Having said that, I am not confident that the evidence shows that the virus reliably produces immunity to reinfection, and the evidence does show that it has mutated at least once, so immunity to one strain is not necessarily immunity to another.Thus getting it now isn’t necessarily a guarantee of not getting it later.

And, in conscience, I expect this virus to go from pandemic to endemic, i.e. something which, like the common cold, just moves around the population and can be caught by anyone, any time, so I expect that sometime I’ll catch it, unless I isolate forever. This article proposes an interesting “hammer and dance” strategy, but at the moment, it appears the government is falling short of implementing it as forcibly as the model demands. That, in essence, is why I expect it to become endemic.

Sometime, therefore, I expect to catch the virus. I’d just prefer that to be when the hospitals aren’t overloaded.

So, to date, I’ve been doing shopping pretty much as normal. Actually, rather more frequently than normal, because the panic buying has made it that bit more difficult to find the things I need to keep us stocked at normal levels. It’s probably been pretty safe, as there are very few identified cases in my area, despite being 14 miles from where a couple of the earliest cases in the country were identified (with the same caveat as to testing as earlier). I’m going to stop doing that as of now (luchtime on Sunday 22nd) and isolate more fully, and the likelihood is that as and when there get to be substantial numbers of cases locally, I’ll be avoiding all human contact – oh, apart from my wife (well, probably apart from her…) – and encouraging her not to go out as well. She is not in any of the high risk groups, but is disabled on physical and mental health grounds and as a result I’ve been doing almost all the shopping and other errands for some years; she could probably manage to shop for a while, with considerable additional strain on her, and much increased risk of her becoming really ill in non-coronavirus ways, but once the risk of her getting infected goes up, I’ll almost certainly ask her for that to stop too. By that time, she’ll probably heave a sigh of relief!

And we are fairly well provisioned. We’re almost always fairly well provisioned, to be honest, bar milk, bread and fresh produce which we get every couple of days; there hasn’t been any need to go and try to get multiple months’ provisions, so I haven’t been contributing significantly to the empty supermarket shelves, though I have had moments of guilt at taking the one item I needed (the last or nearly the last remaining on the shelf) knowing that the local food bank needs that kind of produce and that I could at a pinch do without…

We also have offers of going out and shopping for us, though we took up on that yesterday and found that a number of items just weren’t available, including (unfortunately) milk, which we get through a lot of. I’ve managed to repair that this morning, though it took a trip to two shops. Tesco had a queue to get in – they were restricting numbers in the store as well as items you could buy, and it was a little bizarre queuing for 15 minutes to buy two bottles of milk.

I’m not remotely afraid of not having things to do, either. Frankly, I have too much to do, even pruned of meetings and trips to the shops. My editing work is piled up, and I have a couple of practical projects which have been getting nowhere for rather a long time and which could use some attention. In addition, I’m currently involved in a couple of online courses, have another book which needs me to make a start on writing, and the forced inaction elsewhere has spurred a lot of people into a frenzy of productive activity on the web which I frankly can’t keep up with.

However, I am not feeling at my best psychologically (and neither is my wife). I seem to be permanently anxious, and anticipate that the bits of my brain which I have no conscious access to are scared stiff of the virus, and of dying as a result (I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder anyhow). Consciously, I’m also aware of feeling trapped and powerless, and neither of those are feelings I find it easy to deal with. Rationally, that’s rather silly, given that I don’t leave the house very much anyhow (two or three meetings, a church service and maybe three or four trips to the shops in a week is about the limit of my “getting out”, and the shopping trips involve virtually no social interaction). It isn’t very much at all to lose – but, it appears, psychologically the gap between “very little” and “nothing at all” is bigger than that between “very little” and “loads”.

And I suspect that that inaccessible area of my brain is also doing catastrophic thinking; I know I’m prone to that anyhow (chronic depression), but have in general successfully banished such thinking from my consciousness. Have I just suppressed it, for it to raise it’s ugly head more forcibly later? I don’t know. I do know, however, how to monitor my mood, and how to ask for help.

And I know how to contemplate and meditate, and I’ll be doing a lot of that in the weeks to come.

Give me liberty or give me death?

I recently read an article in one of the US papers about how Coronavirus was going to be a test of socialised medicine. I don’t link to it, because it’s really incredibly parochial, taking the view that non-socialised medicine is the norm – which, of course, it isn’t in all Western economies other than the States. OK, it may serve as a stress-test of various models of socialised medicine, of which there are many, but it’s more likely, among those, to serve as a stress-test of government funding for socialised medicine.

The virus will, however, serve as a stress-test of economies, as this article talks of, and of governmental systems, which it doesn’t.

It is interesting to note that Boris Johnson’s recent emergency legislation gives him the power to run a command economy and an authoritarian state, and there’s every indication that that is what we’re headed for, as the “free market” proves totally incapable of responding adequately to the shock. Other European governments have taken similar powers, and several have used powers well in excess of what Johnson is currently talking of – but reading the legislation tells us that he’s probably going to use them, and probably use them soon.

It’s notable that the Chinese, after a really bad start due to their refusal to admit a problem even to themselves, have utilised their own slightly disguised command economy and extremely authoritarian state in a very successful (so far) limitation of damage – after an initial exponential phase, no new internally generated cases in 24 hours is a remarkable achievement. Other excellent responses have included Singapore (authoritarian government and social cohesion) Hong Kong (authoritarian government and social cohesion) and South Korea (national mobilisation and social cohesion). In contrast, thoroughly capitalist and democratic Northern Italy has crumbled. France and Spain are not looking particularly good. The UK is slightly behind France and Spain, who are themselves behind Italy, so it remains to be seen how we manage to perform; the worst is definitely yet to come.

It remains to be seen how the US actually reacts – it looks as if this is varying massively from state to state, so the probability is that the result will be very patchy. However, I cringe at the thought of Trump in charge of a government with truly authoritarian powers and exercising them freely…

Interestingly, the markets, bless them, seem to think that the Chinese approach is a good one – after a disastrous period for a few months, the Chinese stock market now seems to be doing exceptionally well. OK, they also still seem to prefer Trump’s America to Johnson’s UK, looking at the state of the pound at present; they also prefer the greater use of authoritarian powers in continental Europe to Johnson’s UK. One might almost think that the “free market” was telling us that the less freedom there was around, the better.

Certainly, the greater the use of authoritarian power, it seems, the lower the death toll from COVID 19. Perhaps the markets have spoken, and it isn’t a case of “give me liberty or give me death”, it’s a case of “give me liberty and death will follow”…

In the country of the blind

The old adage goes “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. However, in the short story “Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells, the people determine that the one-eyed man is disabled by his ability to see, and propose to put out his eye.

I am feeling a little like the one-eyed man – truth be told, I’ve been feeling that way since 2016, when the Brexit referendum result became apparent, and this was hugely redoubled last year when the country gave Boris Johnson’s Tories an 80 seat majority in parliament, largely on the basis of a set of perhaps 50 seats in which the best interests of the voters were obviously served by a government as left-wing as people could bring themselves to vote for, seats which had been neglected and ravaged by the austerity policies practiced by 10 years of Tory governments past. I’ve consistently been pointing out that Brexit is an appallingly bad idea, and that voting for the Tories is like turkeys voting for Christmas – and, by and large, only those who, like me, are identifiably part of the “liberal elite” have agreed with me. (I’ve a degree, a postgraduate qualification and worked most of my adult life in a profession, so I obviously qualify there…)

I’ve seen this put down to “false consciousness” by Elaine Glaser. I have a lot of sympathy with her position (the article substantially predates the referendum, but is probably significantly informed by the 2010 general election result). Alternatively, there’s a discussion of acting against one’s best interests (for which there’s a technical term “akrasia” in psychology) here.

The thing is, over the last three years plus, I’ve discussed Brexit with a lot of people, in person and online. Many of those did actually vote for Brexit, and I’ve observed before that almost none of the reasons they gave for voting that way were justifiable, an argument I made many, many times. Since the result came through, it’s been much the same, but now with a more or less universal “suck it up, we won!” edge, and that has been getting more prominent as we get closer to the actual cliff-edge of having no trade deals at the end of this year, as opposed to people trying to argue that the obvious damage being done to our trade, our industry and employment in the country is somehow “worth it”.

I could draw parallels with the US situation, in which Trump supporters seem to be doing much the same thing; from an outside perspective, virtually nothing he has done seems to be in the best interests of the USA, far less the majority of his voting basis, but the constant refrain is still one of electoral triumphalism.

“We won, get over it”.

I really have to draw the conclusion that what is most important to both groups, Brexit and Trump supporters, is that they won, and they won over all the reasonable arguments put forward by “liberal elites”. The important thing has been sticking it to the liberals (“libtards” for Trump supporters, “remoaners” for Remain voters) quite irrespective of any damage done to them. One caller to James O’Brien’s LBC show last year said “I know he’s lying, but I love it, because it upsets people like you”… There’s one difference from the “Country of the Blind” story – they seem not to want to put out our eyes out of concern for us, but because they’re fed up of people being reasonable, particularly if they seem to be right a lot of the time. “We’ve had enough of experts”, said Michael Gove, encapsulating this position.

OK, there is also a strong undercurrent of generalised hatred for anything labelled “European”, which Boris is pandering to by taking us out of any organisation with the name “European” on it – even if that is going to cost us ten times as much, in the case of Air Safety, or if we actually proposed it in the first place and mostly wrote the rules, in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are, apparently “winning” if we remove ourselves from anything which, although it benefits us, has the taint of being “European”. To me, this seems rather like walking away from a football game mid match – the other players will have a slightly less good game, but we’ll have no game at all. But “that’ll show ’em”… “Winning” is apparently worth any sacrifice, including the integrity of the country (see my “one party state” post).

The appeal, clearly, is to emotion, not rationality, and rationality only gets in the way. Some Brexiteers, indeed, have called me a traitor for wanting to rejoin the EU, though my massively primary motive is to benefit my own country by cooperating rather than competing. I’ve noticed some of my fellow Remainers (now “Rejoiners”) falling into the trap of “us -v- them” and calling Brexiteers “Gammons”, and generally disparaging their intellect, which is only playing their game. But then, playing “our” game of reasonable argument is equally pointless from their point of view, because reasonable argument isn’t the game they’re playing.

What we can do, however, is refuse to play their game. No name-calling, no “us -v- them” mentality, no disparagement, merely calm reason. Yes, it will probably continue to be infuriating. But all the indications are that they aren’t in a majority any more, and eventually we can hope that the undecideds will be listening to reason, not emotion. All we need to do is, in a calm and rational way, put together a centre-to-left alliance which will defeat Boris’ Tories at the first opportunity – and hope that that is earlier rather than later…