Breaking with perfection

Some while ago, Tripp Fuller hosted a clash between Jack Caputo and Peter Rollins; I’ve just read a response to that from Mark Karris. Briefly, the issue is that Rollins makes much of there being an “original lack” in the human psyche (which he says is a pervading sense of lack without actually ever having lost anything), working from the ideas of Jacques Lacan.

Caputo, on the other hand, favours a theology of possibility, and considers talk of a “lack” to be crypto-Calvinism and BS. I think that’s the first time I’ve heard a philosophical theologian use language like that!

I too tend to balk at Rollins’ language of lack, and also “brokenness”, which is common to Rollins and a lot of other Christian voices. I had not encountered the concept of OSEP (the Ontology of Spatial and Energetic Potentiality) before reading Karris’ article, which I find much more satisfactory. Granted, I’m not entirely confident I want to construct a theology around it, but that was obviously not his intent; Karris is a therapist and speaks mainly from that position.

I do wonder whether Rollins has fallen into the trap of assuming that his own pathologies are universal; a comparable example is found in Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on Religion, where he identifies Luther as obsessive-compulsive, which makes Reformed theology (to which I do not subscribe) make sense – as a theology for Luther, if not for me. I don’t identify any sense of ontological lack in myself, though that might be the product of a peak unitive experience in my teens (I don’t really remember prior to that well enough to comment further). That unitive experience gave me an absolute belief in my essential oneness with a panentheistic God, a God who is radically omnipresent, permeating everything which is at every level and “in whom we live and move and have our being” with an accent on “in”. Strenuous practice of what I settled on after much experimentation as a way in which to encourage repeated mystical experience gave me a near-continuous consciousness of that oneness, so that it was not merely a belief but an ever-present reality, but over time and with the mundane world placing increasing requirements on me, that practice declined and eventually fell by the wayside. Having once experienced that oneness, I cannot thereafter assent to there being a lack which is constitutive of who I am – merely of a reduction in my ability to sense that. My eyesight isn’t as good as it once was either, but that doesn’t mean that reality beyond about three metres becomes fuzzy and then is absent!

These days, although by some standards I might count as “broken”, due to PTSD and associated depression and anxiety now dating back some 20 years, I merely regard myself as working within a new set of restrictions; I’ve always had restrictions on what I could do, due to nature and nurture, but that’s just part of the human condition and readily correctable (in the short term) by a spot of meditation. (I grant that that remedy was not so until about three years ago; it turns out that something in the pathology of depression -or at least my own depression – makes mystical experience impossible. That, however.  could merely be a side effect of the fact that I couldn’t feel any positive emotions during that period, and there is a definite and very positive emotional effect of unitive experience. Indeed, I found it almost impossible to recall occasions which had been emotionally positive during that time.)

Three years ago I woke up to the fact that another 17 years of time and a not particularly healthy lifestyle had resulted in physical illnesses which are not curable and which make some activities I would previously have found easy impossible; likewise the residue of the PTSD leaves restrictions on what I can do mentally and emotionally. But I don’t consider myself broken; I have just had to adjust to a new realism about what it is practicable for me to do. “Broken” implies that I should be resenting the position, kicking against the pricks, but I don’t. “Lack” has the same connotation. I’ve always lacked the ability to levitate myself, for instance, but I never really considered it a lack (though I would hugely like to be able to do that!), it’s just something which humans can’t do, except in fiction. Well, this human, at any rate. I have a sneaking vision of meeting a real superhero sometime!

I feel a real sense of identity with, for instance, the deaf who regard sign language as an entirely adequate language to use, and do not think of themselves as “lacking” because of their use of that instead of a sonic language, or those who have been partially paralysed and resent suggestions that they are somehow less than wholly human. I hate the term “differently able” which often replaces the old “disabled”, but it is probably a far better concept.

What I don’t accept is that this inevitably means that by, as the Serenity Prayer says “accepting the things I cannot change” I am therefore automatically lacking the “courage to change the things I can”. The fact that with my current restrictions, I can say that life is good, and in one way of thinking is “exactly as God intends it to be”, does not mean that I am going to stop pushing the boundaries of what I can do. Indeed, in a sense, life is perfect as it is; tomorrow I may be able to do more or less than I can today, depending on whether practice or age wins, but it will still be perfect. Aquinas would have us believe that the perfect is an absolute, and that it has to be unchanging, immutable, impassible; I reject that. The perfect is what is, and what is is God in the unitive consciousness. What is inevitably moves and changes; that which is static, immutable, incapable of feeling or responding to others, is not perfect. The impassible, immutable, “perfect” God of the philosophers is a pale reflection of the living, feeling, changing (and perfect) God of mystical experience.

It is the God of the Philosophers who is lacking and broken, not me.


Doubt, dissent and powerlessness

Peter Enns has written a new book, “The Sin of Certainty”. I can’t wait to read it, particularly bearing in mind that a while ago I wrote a blogpost called “The Heresy of all Doctrine”. I can’t help thinking there may be some similarities! There’s a nice review of it at Baptist News, and an interview here.

But I don’t want to talk about the book itself before I’ve read it, what I want to pick up on is the reviewer’s heartfelt sorrow that post-evangelicals (a term which the reviewer thinks applies both to him and to Professor Enns) have little or no basis on which to evangelise, and thus little or no basis on which to increase their numbers other than from those evangelicals who find the confines of evangelicalism too stifling.

Now, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an “evangelical”. I grant you, I have been a member of a few evangelical congregations in the past, but always as something between “the token liberal”, who says interesting but sometimes scandalous things to provoke discussion, and “the dangerous liberal who we need to show the door to and prevent from talking anywhere where our weaker brethren may hear him”. No, that is not an exaggeration. Theologically I started out super-liberal and have drifted gently to a position of fairly liberal with a radical edge.

So, why, you might ask, am I trying to fit in with congregations which are far from agreeing with me theologically? Well, firstly, I gain more from talking with people who do not agree with me than I do from discussing things with people who do. Secondly, I find far more verve and energy in evangelical congregations, and I am not very good at generating this myself. Thirdly, perhaps as a side effect of the last, evangelical congregations (at least near me) seem to have more and better social gospel programmes.

But lastly, and probably most importantly, evangelical churches – well – evangelise. The more theologically liberal ones don’t (such as they are, as in general there are no churches near me with a theologically liberal stance overall, merely some with theologically liberal clergy leading rather less liberal congregations). I may be a liberal, but I take on board the “Great Commission”, to go out and make disciples. The snag is, liberal theology doesn’t sell church to non-believers. Oh, it can readily attract non-believers, I’ve found, but not in such a way that they want to “do church” thereafter (and particularly when they find that most churches are less than wholly welcoming to liberal theologies). Any change of thinking it produces doesn’t result in a change in living, a change of heart (rather than of intellectual conception) which I can measure, because by and large I’m not going to be seeing them or hearing from them regularly in a community.

It seems that this afflicts not only the liberal, but also the post-evangelical (many of whom now style themselves “progressive”). I read a lot of progressives, and find more in common with them than with perhaps any other group, even though I lack their roots in evangelicalism, but here we see from two directions the same complaint I have myself. It also afflicts radical theologians, as Father John Skinner of the European School of New Monasticism mentioned in a recent conversation, reminding me that John Caputo had described radical theology as parasitic on the mainline churches. Caputo sees radical theology not as something which can stand on its own, but as a gadfly, something to knock the complacency out of the mainline and perhaps, just perhaps, get it a little fired up again from time to time. Heaven knows, the mainline could do with being fired up! However, the mainline churches themselves are declining, and radical theologians will eventually have nothing to be gadflies to.

So what’s the problem here? Liberal/Progressive/Radical theologies are, to very many people, far more attractive and believable than is the standard evangelical message, which boils down to “We are sinners and deserve death, we need saving, Jesus died to save us, we are saved from death by making a commitment to follow Jesus”. Sadly, to me and very many people, this looks more like the message from Dorothy Sayers outlines in this post. I went into a lot more detail about why I find that message impossible to accept in my previous post.

On the whole, however, L/P/R theologies don’t have the emotional impact which the standard evangelical story has. They engage the intellect rather than the emotions, and a commitment to follow has to be an emotional commitment, quite aside the fact that the main components of faith are love and trust, both of which are more emotional than rational matters. By and large, you create emotional impact through a story, not through rational argument, and L/P/R doesn’t deliver an emotionally compelling story.

OK, these theologies may deliver a number of emotionally compelling stories (for a start, the Bible contains a lot of narratives other than “personal salvation”, some of which are major features in Judaism), but the multiplicity is confusing (particularly as some of them are mutually inconsistent), and a common feature of L/P/R theologies is that the real truth of things, the quiddity, the isness, is not knowable or only expressible as paradox. Some radical theologians identify that there is a fundamental lack in us, a yearning for something more, and where Evangelical Christianity says “It’s Jesus!” (and I’m inclined to say “It’s God”), they say that the lack is structural and cannot be filled, so we should just get used to it.

This is just not an emotionally satisfying narrative, quite apart from the fact that it argues against the validity of mystical experience, which when it has an unitive character, completely and very satisfactorily negates any sense of lack. Sadly, I cannot point to a “quick fix” route to becoming a mystic (would that I could); my initial experience of that kind was extremely powerful and came entirely out of the blue, and without a powerful base experience it is both more difficult to attain one (as I suspect) and definitely more unlikely that anyone would try.

Well, here’s a progressive evangelical suggesting that we should be less co-dependent and that  the simple message is “be transformed by Christ”. There’s mileage in that. For those who have an identifiable twelve-steppable problem, twelve step is the answer to living life despite the problem, and it requires a spiritual element; the best fit for that spiritual element is Christianity (let’s face it, although twelve step is religiously colour blind, its principles grew out of an evangelical Christian organisation). An alcoholic, for instance, might in step one admit that they were “powerless over alcohol and that their lives had become unmanageable”; for a gambler, the powerlessness would be over gambling.

Let me gently suggest that a really major problem for a very large majority of the population is powerlessness over other people. Some of us pursue a solution to this directly, entering politics or management, some indirectly via trying to make enough money that they are not dependent on anyone else, others work through manipulative personal relationships. Are our lives therefore “unmanageable”? Well, in the sense that we ultimately cannot control other people, yes.

This is co-dependency, and there is a twelve step programme for this (CODA), whose relevant step is  “We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable”. A slightly wider version admits powerlessness over persons, places and things, which should nail most of us, if not all.

Now, I’m not recruiting for CODA (I’m not a member, though I probably would qualify); there can be an answer in a local church, where you can be transformed – by Christ, by God or by the expression of Christ or God in a group of people. Perhaps this is what Liberals, Progressives and Radicals could agree is the simple message? Perhaps it’s compelling enough?


Renouncing Satan

Following my last post, I came across an interview with Richard Beck on “Newsworthy with Norsworthy” which is well worth a listen, as it touches on the focus of that post. Or, alternatively, just because it has Richard talking discursively about a lot of interesting stuff…

It also links with a comment I had by email to that last post (and let me take this opportunity to say that I really like getting feedback or pushback on my posts; replies are unmoderated, but you do need a WordPress account – but you can get one of those, free, very easily).

That question was about the baptismal formula, which I’ve replied to twice in just over a week, first at the Easter Vigil and yesterday at a baptism. “Do you renounce Satan?” is the question. As Richard remarks, this can be a rather difficult form of words for those who have difficulty with the idea of a real supernatural devil, such as most liberals, and I count myself among those.

Walter Wink’s conception of the powers and principalities, however, gives a very definite focus to the renouncing. I certainly renounce free market capitalism, for instance, and consumerism, and valuing people by the size of their bank balance, their income or what they possess, and the uncritical patriotism of “my country, right or wrong”, and xenophobia and Islamophobia. Those are fairly easy for me, after quite a few years of practice.

I also, of course, renounce any form of adjustment of my mind by substances such as alcohol and drugs; it has taken a while to be reasonably confident that I can actually manage that, but today I am, one day at a time. I wish I knew who had first said it, but “Do not adjust your mind; there is a fault in reality” is an useful catch phrase here – and part of the fault in reality is the pernicious effect of these principalities and powers, these ideologies which can be so deep seated in us.

I also renounce the concept of redemptive violence, of all forms of revenge and thinking that problems can properly be solved by the use of force, and that one is more difficult. There is, I find, a deep seated reaction when I hear of (for instance) the recent Brussels or Lahore bombings which wants to support a violent reaction to those who planned those attacks. The actual perpetrators are beyond any mundane penalty, which of course denies the victims (and me)  any form of direct retribution and in a way this makes things worse; the obvious next step for the atavistic urge to violence is to seek out people like the perpetrators, of course, and thus xenophobia and Islamophobia creep back in… and maybe at the back of this is fear, which can drive us to all sorts of evil.

This is particularly topical as we have just celebrated the Resurrection. Jesus commanded non-violence, that we should love our enemies and forgive those who hate us, and he died “giving his life as a ransom for many”; the Resurrection is his vindication, as is the fact that his followers are now everywhere, and there are few followers of the pagan gods of the first century who did represent redemptive violence.

He did not say “now revenge me”, but “now follow me”. He renounced Satan in the wilderness, renouncing not only the power to bring about supernatural effects in all three temptations, but also the driving force of hunger (and by implication other bodily needs), fear (in this case of falling, but perhaps also of failure) and temporal power.

Do you renounce Satan? I renounce Satan.

I need to keep doing this, as the Powers are still deep seated…

And, finally, I note that before Jesus confronted the powers of imperialism and religious orthodoxy, he first confronted his own demons. Those who have ears, let them hear!

Shattering the chandelier

One of my guilty pleasures is the blind auditions of “The Voice”. I’m less struck on the rest of the show, but the unseen singer and the chairs turning (or not) is a magic formula.

Saturday night saw the first blind audition of this year which I’ve thought truly exceptional (OK, most of the other acts this year I’d have turned my chair for, none of the judges liked…). The singer was Kevin Simm, once of Liberty X (which seems to have escaped my notice). I was sufficiently struck by his performance to want to listen to it again, and then to do a little digging about the song, which also had escaped my notice, apparently in 2014, written and recorded by the Australian singer Sia.

It more or less immediately occurred to me that the subject of the song lent itself to the more emotional (and painful) rendering which Kevin gave it than the electropop of the original; that wasn’t, I found, original to Kevin, as Jordan Smith had also got a four-chair turn with the song on The Voice America. However, reflection and some research indicated that perhaps Sia had seen it as ironic, which was borne out by the fact that one critic is recorded as saying that the song made him want to “swing from the chandelier”. The rest of the critics mostly seem to have recognised it for the rather dark piece it is.

” Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything, when will I learn / I push it down, push it down / I’m the one “for a good time call” / Phone’s blowin’ up, ringin’ my doorbell / I feel the love, feel the love”, then the refrain

” 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / Throw ’em back, till I lose count /
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier / I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist…”

then “But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes / Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight”. Feeling dreadful and shameful in the morning, and then “1,2,3,1,2,3…” Rinse and repeat.

Aside from the fact that by the time I got myself into a cycle like that, there was no swinging from the chandelier, just an ability to function somewhat normally for a while (and the period kept decreasing), I recognise this all too well. It’s about a slide into alcoholism, with a strong note of desperation. There’s the wanting to stop negative feelings there, the having to put on a front for the world, the suppressed misery and above all the feeling of helplessness and inevitablility all distilled into what are really very few lyrics – it’s extremely well crafted. And in the song, it’s decorated by soaring voice on the word “chandelier”, particularly beautifully sung by Mr. Simm (who deserves to do very well in the rest of the series).

That was some years ago now, and although I keep the memory alive through 12 step meetings, it’s usually very muted – “we shall not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”. This song, which has stuck in my brain as what we refer to as an “ear-worm” removes the muting, and makes the experience of 10-12 years ago vivid again. Though, unlike the critic, it doesn’t make me want to swing from the chandelier, more to run and hide from anything remotely like that. For the twelve-steppers, more like “1,2,3, don’t drink”.

The memory is still painful, it seems. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But please can the song stop running through the back of my mind for a while?

America and guns: go to rehab.

Dear America,

I find I am again horrified at an episode of mass violence using firearms in the USA, and my prayers go out to those who have been injured or who are mourning family or friends.

The trouble is that word “again”. It seems to be happening every week or so. Surely, by now, the mood must be “enough is enough; we have to do something about this”? Look, we are not all that different from people in the States over here, and I can recall three instances of mass shootings, in 1987 (Hungerford), 1996 (Dunblane) and 2010 (Cumbria). Two of those also involved schools, which I think gives the lie to the idea that the phenomenon in the States targets schools because they tend to be gun free zones. The Hungerford and Dunblane shooters could have chosen almost anywhere with confidence that it would be gun-free, but chose schools anyhow.

Yes, I know we have a significantly smaller population, about a sixth of that in the States. This might mean that we might have expected instead of three shootings in 28 years, about 18 if we had had an equal population.

Not one a week, as it seems is the case with you at present.

“But”, I hear, “We’re a very different country”. I’m not all that convinced by this argument. Certainly there’s a far larger population of people not of British origin which you’ve accumulated over the last 250 years, but we share a language and, frankly, a large amount of our culture (as US domination of English speaking media is huge), and, of course, the bases of our legal systems.

Now, there’s the rub, potentially. We don’t have a written constitution, at least not one which can supersede legislation and see it struck down (we do have a constitution of sorts, but it’s partly in legislation no more protected than any other legislation and partly in longstanding custom – and most of that longstanding custom we exported along with the early settlers).

This article highlights the problem, the Second Amendment. For anyone reading this who does not have it burned into their consciousness already, it reads “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The article I link to quite reasonably asks what contribution is being made to the establishment or maintenance of a “well regulated militia” by the current state of US law, which allows more or less any individual to own a gun, and often to carry it around in public, sometimes even concealed. As far as I can see, there are no militias (except a few self-described groups on the extreme lunatic fringe, many of whom also deny being citizens), let alone well regulated ones.

I could readily have seen, on the basis of the strict wording of the amendment, the limitation of possession of all firearms to people who were members in good standing of a formally constituted militia, with (inter alia) rules as to the abilities of those allowed to bear arms, their character and stability, and their conduct while in that position. This would be a situation rather analagous to that in Switzerland, in which all men (at least for the moment, just men) are called up, do national service and are then members of the reserve – and they hold weapons, which can be denied them for good cause (see the previous sentence). The authors of that article don’t go quite that far. Unfortunately, they probably also underestimate the power of the Supreme Court decision in DC -v- Heller.

Now, I know that a future Supreme Court could in theory overturn this. However, Supreme Courts have been historically reluctant to go entirely against stated previous decisions of the same court, usually looking to distinguish the situation in front of them so that the previous decision can at least arguably still be regarded as correct. That decision includes the words “The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.” This could well be fatal to any future argument that only the possession of arms in furtherance of membership of a militia (and a well-regulated one at that) should be protected.

The court decision also includes the words “The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.”  This, of course, completely negates any suggestion that the class of people (as long as they are male and physically capable) cannot be restricted – even, it would seem, by the requirement that the militia be “well regulated”, something which the court seems to have conveniently forgotten. They also stated  “But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home. ” This was to justify their decision that in particular handguns, possession of which had previously been prohibited in certain circumstances, were legitimate weapons of self defence, giving it a plausible link back to the first (militia) clause of the amendment.

There were a few positive elements – the court was at pains to state that the decision did not permit machine guns, and I think that can colourably be made to include all automatic and semi-automatic weapons (being new weapons not available at the time the amendment was drafted). As did the UK government after Hungerford, I think an immediate blanket ban on the private possession of these is probably not within the Heller decision.

However, it is also interesting to note the Court’s interpretation of “militia” as being all able bodied men. Actually, this was not the way a militia was constituted in the 18th century, either in the fledgling USA (except very briefly immediately prior to the introduction of the amendment) or in the British law previously in force. Militias were volunteer organisations raised by and led by prominent local men; they were entirely capable of (and did) exclude men they did not think of as of good character, and they were organised and had rules – which is what I am confident those drafting the amendment had in mind by using the words “well regulated”. While yes, they did welcome people bringing their own weapons where they had weapons which would be of use in a military action, these were in general not handguns, which were not particularly useful in the kind of military engagement of the day.

The preservation of (as the court saw it) a right of self defence. Much consideration seems to have been given to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was seen as restoring the right of Protestants to bear arms inter alia for their own defence which had been taken away by James II, crucially while allowing Catholics to remain armed. Throughout the history of interpretation of this in England, it has stressed  the wording in the Bill of Rights “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” Note the words “as allowed by law”, which were consistently considered to allow government to restrict the possession and use of arms by individuals and groups which it considered inimical to good order, and also the words “suitable to their conditions”, which was code for “It’s fine for the aristocracy and landed gentry, but you’re in trouble if you’re a peasant”.

Of course, in the UK, Parliament is never bound by any previous Act of Parliament, and the “right” to bear arms has been reduced by stages, particularly following Hungerford and Dunblane, to a very restricted one; non-automatic rifles and shotguns for sporting use only, kept under secure lock and key and owned only by those who get a licence, which is not all that readily come by for anyone not owning significant land; handguns only in licensed gun clubs. That is where a right to bear arms “as allowed by law” has ended up in the UK…

So, while a new Supreme Court might not want to overturn the previous court’s statement of law, it seems to me that they might determine that the court in DC -v- Heller misdirected itself on the facts. Militias were not what they thought they were, and neither was the pre-existing right to bear arms independent of restriction by law. The lack of any mention of “well regulated” is also something which could lead to a finding of self-misdirection, it seems to me.

I do not really see good reason why the USA should not aim at moving towards a similar level of restriction to ours, but a first step would, I think, be an immediate ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Australia has, after all, managed a similar transition, and they too are a recovering frontier nation… This might be possible with a more liberal minded Supreme Court, it might require another amendment to the Constitution – but amendments have been passed before this with rather less concrete evidence of continuing harm to the population. Amendments have been passed removing earlier bad amendments. Don’t tell me this could never happen with the Second Amendment; it hasn’t been tried yet.

An immediate response to this tends to be “this would remove the guns from all the law abiding citizens and leave the criminals free to use them at will”. This is, of course, true, but it is the situation in England (and many other countries), and by and large English criminals do not use guns. The reason is that the penalties for possession and use of a gun are far greater than those for crimes committed without these, and on the whole, our criminals are not completely stupid. That may, of course, not work in the States, given that the penalties for relatively trivial offences (particularly connected with drugs) are draconian – but a revision of US sentencing policy would be no bad thing for a number of other reasons, not least to provide a perceptible difference in tariff. I can also see the thinking running “I’m going to get locked up for life for possession of this kilo of drugs anyhow, so I may as well be armed and shoot a few people to try to avoid capture, because it won’t make any difference”.

I also see very little evidence that an armed citizenry provides any sensible deterrent to criminals. Indeed this article outlines some recent research which demonstrates that more guns means more crime, not less, among other things. This one undermines the unscientific survey which is commonly used as an argument that guns prevent large amounts of crime. It also focuses a little on the number of accidents which occur, often fatally, due to guns in homes.

Just in passing, please don’t way “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Weapons of mass destruction don’t kill people, people using weapons of mass destruction kill people, but we can still get very upset at the concept of mere possession of such weapons. Unless it’s by us, of course. The thing is, the term “mass destruction” highlights the problem – they let you kill a whole load of people more easily.

So do guns.

They also let you kill people at a distance, removing some of the visceral revulsion which most of us feel about killing hand to hand.

So do guns.

Similarly, don’t tell me this is just a mental health problem, unless you’re going to explain to me why people in the States are so much crazier than those anywhere else. Yes, substantial good can be done by a mental health system which identifies threats and acts to manage at risk people, but as that article comments, the mentally ill aren’t a significantly greater threat than the notionally normal (and around one in four will at some point suffer some form of mental illness from depression upward); as it also highlights, if you have someone with this kind of mindset, guns let them do a lot more damage.

Well, there may be an answer or two. Firstly, the version of US culture peddled by TV and movies is a very violent one, in which by and large problems are solved by violence. You can watch whole series of an UK police procedural and never see anyone getting shot; the same cannot be said for the US equivalent, one of which (Chicago PD) is advertised here with the phrase “They have the right to remain violent”. There would seem to be an addiction to what Rene Girard called “the myth of redemptive violence”. This is an “eye for an eye” world at the very least (often glorifying more than just equivalent violence). Girard suggested that a prominent understanding of the crucifixion should be the rejection by God of all such concepts; Jesus is “the last scapegoat”, and no more should be contemplated. Addictions can be treated; I might suggest a communal twelve step programme starting “we are powerless over violence and our lives have become unmanageable”.

Secondly, and connected to that, the States is the one place I know of where the term “gun nut” is of widespread application. Let’s face it, that’s where the term comes from. An Australian comedian has recently commented, rightly I think, that the true reason why gun control is resisted boils down to “F*** off, I like guns”. Why is this? It seems somehow bound up in ideas of masculinity and power; almost all the mass shootings seem to be by men who feel disempowered, and it would seem that guns make them feel powerful again.

I am no more sympathetic to people who want to wave their penis substitutes around in public than I am to those who want to do the same with the real thing.

Both categories should, in my view, be locked up and given intensive therapy until cured. Let’s face it, that’s the attitude we take to someone who says “F*** off, I like crystal meth”.

Consider the path to gun control as the path to rehabilitation, preferably starting with an extended detox. Until that happens, yes, you’re communally addicts, and that is indeed a form of mental illness.

God’s culture of dependence

If you’ve watched or listened to any episodes of Global Christian Perspectives, you’ll have probably grasped the fact that my co-host Elgin Hushbeck and myself don’t see eye to eye on very much, whether it be Christianity or politics. One of the points on which we differ most is the question of social welfare; Elgin has gone so far as to write a book “What is wrong with Social Justice”.

One aspect of Social Justice, to my mind, is providing for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged. I see this as an absolute Christian duty. Elgin, on the other hand, thinks that social security can “encourage a culture of dependency” and as such is a bad thing. This, to me, has the ring of pronouncements by Ian Duncan Smith and others in our current Conservative government; Mr. Smith has the weird notion that it is actually helping people to strip them of their social safety net, as they need the spur of absolute destitution to persuade them to get a job.

In the world IDS lives in, it seems that there are abundant jobs which are well within the capabilities of all the people who are receiving benefits, including those who are partially (and sometimes extensively) disabled, and all they need is to be bullied in order for them to go out and get a job. I am not sure where this world is, but it isn’t the Britain of 2015, and it equally wouldn’t be the USA of 2015.

I have three really major problems with this approach. The first is that no sane person who is able to go out and do a job which will return a reasonable wage sufficient to live on adequately is going to sit back and try to subsist on the level of benefits which either government currently provides. While I keep hearing people on the right talking of hearing someone say “You’re a fool to work when you can live on benefits”, I have yet to hear anyone actually say that, and no-one I know who is living on social security or disablement benefits would not give their eye teeth to be able to get a job which would provide them with a reasonable standard of living.

Of course, in actuality the lowest paid jobs, which are generally all that is available to the less able, do not actually pay enough to keep someone clothed, housed and fed adequately, at least not unless you work two or three of them; in addition, there just are not enough jobs. IDS is saying “Just go and pick an apple from that tree”, and you look, and there is no apple on the tree. This is just wanton cruelty. That, however, leads me on to my second problem.

I spend some of my time as, in effect, a kind of technologist; I do some part time work with a company which develops and optimises chemical processes. This helps me appreciate the thrust of technology, as does a long-term interest in history. Technology enables us to save labour, to produce more using less labour. In the process, it removes less skilled jobs, but in fairness it tends to create more skilled jobs. Unfortunately, a sizeable proportion of humanity are not able to acquire the kind of skills which are increasingly required in order to earn enough to live on. This is particularly pointed as technology is now replacing even the actions which used to require a fairly high level of intelligence and many years of training. I could joke and say that not everyone is ever going to be able to be a brain surgeon, however much tuition and practice they have, but actually there’s some danger that even brain surgeons may be replaced by robots in the future…

Of course, there are always going to be jobs in personal service, but care assistants and burger flippers are never paid enough to live on.

I know that this directly contradicts what seems to be a portion of the myth of America, that if you only work hard enough, you have the opportunity to become rich ( a myth which seems at the moment to have corrupted the minds of our Conservative party). The trouble is, it is a myth not in the sense of an inspiring story by which you can live, but in the sense of a falsehood.  You can work 120 hour weeks in most of our low paid jobs and still never have a hope of managing a really decent standard of living, let alone becoming rich.

If we are to have a future in which most people have a decent standard of living, it seems to me that we are going to need to start valuing people for being human, rather than for what they can do – because we increasingly are not going to need humans to do anything.

I should perhaps remind Christians that we regularly pray “Give us this day our daily bread”, relying on God to provide this. God’s hands for achieving this are, in my way of seeing things, those of other people. Jesus lauds the lilies of the field, who toil not neither do they spin (in the KJV, which I tend to remember). Clearly, he does not think that working is an essential in order for God to provide.

My third problem with this outlook is this. It assumes that being dependent is a thoroughly bad thing. Another plank of the American way is individualism, the cult of the man who is not dependent on anyone but makes his own way, proudly refusing all assistance.

However, as a species we are born the most dependent on earth; we do not become truly able to cope for ourselves for years, whereas even other live-birth mammals manage the feat within at most about a year. Unless we are eking out an existence as subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherers in some third world country, we continue to be dependent in ways which individualism would like to deny; we are dependent on the culture we live in, and the contributions of all the other people (and, these days, machines) in it; we are specialised in what we can actually do (assuming we are lucky enough to be born with the capacity to learn an useful trade and the health to pursue it) and depend on other people who are specialised in their own ways.

I blogged about some aspects of this issue from a different perspective recently, where I suggested that the least we should expect from our community is that it provide for Maslow’s levels one and two; we also have a need for Maslow’s level three, love and belonging. It is, to me, fundamentally wrong that we regard ourselves as primarily individuals without responsibilities to each other; “No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main” as John Donne memorably wrote.

Indeed, the Bible from very early times talks about the tribe, the people, the children, the group, the disciples, the Church. Not much about the individual, and even there, I think that should be read against the background of an assumption that the listeners and readers understood that they were a people of God, not individuals of God.

This has been a lesson which I have learned only with huge difficulty; I’m an introvert and have always suffered from some social anxiety (and now have a fully fledged anxiety disorder), so groups of people are not my favorite location; I’m a solitary contemplative in terms of my deepest spiritual practice (I seem to have had that foisted on me, not that it was in any way contrary to my nature); I’ve always thought that I should make my own way in the world, reliant on no-one else (such as my parents and their willingness to pay for an extended education); I was born with a decent mind and natural abilities which have made it easy for me to acquire skills in several areas and change direction when one became difficult or impossible to pursue. I should be a natural candidate for thinking that I, as an individual, am the captain of my ship, the master of my fate. However, illness and minor disability has taught me that I am absolutely dependent on others; I would not be here absent a twelve step community which recovers as a group where no individual could recover by themselves, or absent a wife and family. Or absent God.

I suggest that we should confess our dependence, accept it and strive to give effect to the economy of God, in which no person should go unprovided with food, shelter or clothing. Or love.

Emergence, twelve-step and ecology

There is a perennial problem for some people on entering a twelve-step programme, of which they get a glimpse at step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) and which becomes all too apparent at step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”). That problem is when they don’t have a concept of God, usually because they’re an atheist. In fact, it’s so common in UK twelve step that I was plagued in my early days with well-meaning people sharing how they had come to think of, say, the AA group, or “Good Orderly Direction” or just “Good” as being their higher power for the purposes of the steps, assuming that I’d be an atheist too. I got a little tired of having to explain that I had a very well-formed concept of God already, thank you, and that my problem was more that I had lost confidence in ever experiencing God again, not to mention being helped by God (severe depression, it seems, can do that to even a practiced mystic, and I’ve written previously about “dark nights of the soul”).

This was a problem which faced Nancy Abrams on entering a twelve step programme aimed at over-eating. She found an interesting way round, much aided by her long acquaintance with her husband Joel Primack, a prominent astrophysicist and cosmologist, and has written a fascinating book about it: “A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet”. This caught my eye last week, and on an intuition I bought it.

Amazon thinks it’s directed at “agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious and scientifically minded” readers; I’d bet she’d want to include outright atheists. Actually, I think it’s worth reading by a whole gamut of people, with the proviso that anyone with conservative or even mainstream views is going to find it’s suggestions alarming, if not downright unacceptable. Liberal, progressive or radical believers shouldn’t have too much difficulty, though.

I’m particularly pleased to have bought it, as Nancy takes the phenomenon of emergence and posits that God may be an emergent property of human minds as a group, which is a thought I’ve entertained myself – I grant that it doesn’t represent the way it seems to me that God is, but I am willing to consider hypotheses which would require that my own experience has delivered a less-than-wholly-accurate picture. Indeed, I assume there’s a high probability that despite the hugely self-confirming nature of the mystical experience, there’s at least a degree of distortion as well as the notoriously fuzzy nature of the experience. She, however, picks up the idea and runs with it, describing various levels of emergence and dwelling for a while on the ant colony, which displays organisation and reasoning beyond the capacity of any individual ant.

She goes on to discuss emergent phenomena among humans, citing the example of “the market” (here meaning that amorphous entity which seems to rule us rather more than do our elected representatives) and “the media”, which seems to have a character beyond just a conglomeration of writers. Then she takes the next step… and I think it’s by no means an unreasonable one.

Then, however, she introduces parameters some of which sit uneasily with my current God-concept, notably the limitation on communication of the speed of light, rendering an emergent entity bigger than (perhaps) planetary scale one which could not “think” within a timescale which would render it capable of communication with humanity. Another is the fact that until the emergence of human consciousness, the matrix for the emergence of such a higher level entity would be missing – and it would certainly be missing in the earlier part of the history of our universe (which the writer’s husband is able to model using computers to an impressive degree of accuracy). That, of course, would mean both that a God-of-the-universe would be improbable-to-impossible and that any concept of a creator-God was completely out of the window, and both of those are at the moment features of my God-concept, and considerably protected by the self-verifying feature of mystical experience. Not necessarily ruled out, however…

She does give what I think is a good account of the implications of accepting such a God-concept, including an account of the efficacy of prayer. That last I will need to re-read, as I am a little uncertain that I agree her mechanisms, but it is at least on the face of it plausible.

I think, therefore, that this book could be very helpful to many sceptical people embarking on twelve-step programmes, or even a few who have been around them for years – at the very least, it provides an option which is rather more concrete than “good orderly direction” and rather less prone to human error than the twelve-step group.

But I have a serious misgiving, and that lies exactly with the examples of higher-order emergence among humans which she puts forward. Neither the media nor the market (still less the “global economy”) seem to me good examples of higher powers for twelve-step or, indeed, more or less anything else (pace those of my acquaintance who look very much as if they worship the market…). The market and the global economy, indeed, seem to me forces which are potentially, even if not actually, extremely inimical to the flourishing of humanity when considered as thinking, feeling, connected, social people rather than as units of economic production and consumption, and I’d certainly characterise them both as less-than-human, if only on grounds of ethics. Crowds, too, inasmuch as through deindividuation they operate as entities in their own right, are definitely subhuman. If there were another entity of the kind Ms. Abrams describes, I would worry that unless it were in fact the God whom I experience (and thus am confident is benevolent and loving), it would be yet another faceless and impersonal power which had the capacity to damage or even exterminate humanity.

To be fair, I also have friends whose conception of Gaia looks a lot like that. Of course, both they and Ms. Abrams consider that we should do much to reverse the extremely negative effect which humanity is currently having on our planet and particularly its biosphere, and I agree completely with them on that front. The thought that the planet as a whole might decide (have decided?) to eliminate humanity as a kind of cancerous growth, however, is still not a pleasant one to contemplate. Even if it is possibly overdue… which may be the best indication that actually it doesn’t exist as such a system.

The problem, to me, with my Gaian friends is that while they see the wholeness and unity of the earth, there is a tendency to see us as alientated from it, as not a part of the whole. This is something I emphatically don’t share, and neither does Ms. Abrams, who ends her book with an impassioned plea to treat the planet as if we, as a species, actually intend to stay here for a while. To this end, she has a number of promises, some very reminiscent of those I am familiar with. Here are a few:-

We will intuitively understand how the future of our descendants depends on the future of their descendants.

We will experience how being human fits smoothly and perfectly into the evolution of a meaningful yet scientifically supported universe.

And, last but not least:-

We will suddenly realise that the emerging God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Trickling down.

It has become abundantly obvious in recent years that “trickle down” economics doesn’t work. Here’s the redoubtable Elizabeth Warren voicing it in respect of the States; the Thatcherite revolution here has produced exactly the same phenomenon. In both countries, the concept that if you give the rich tax breaks, these “wealthy creators” will distribute the money and it will naturally flow down to the lowest levels and thus benefit everyone has been demonstrated not to work, not just not to work well, but not to work at all. We have had a thirty year experiment, and this is a failed theory.

What has happened is that the rich have become substantially richer and everyone else has become relatively poorer. Both the States and here have managed to produce the fabled “rising tide” which is supposed to lift all boats, i.e. the economy has improved. The only boats which have lifted have been those of the rich, strongly indicating that there’s something deeply wrong with the metaphor; I’ve seen it suggested that it wrongly assumes that we all actually have boats – in which case I’d comment that the working class have no boats and are drowning, the middle class have boats with a huge hole in them and are bailing like mad just to avoid drowning.

Unfortunately, there will be some people who read this blog who will still agree with, in the States the Republicans and in the UK the Conservatives, and say that we just need to get more money into the hands of the rich (or the bankers) and suddenly the theory will work. I have also heard it said that the definition of insanity is keeping doing the thing which hasn’t worked time and time again and expecting the result to be different this time (this is a twelve-step concept, so addiction may be a factor here…). I have no idea how to persuade these people otherwise; they seem to think the theory is so neat that it has to be true, no matter what the evidence shows.

In passing, I have my own theory, which is that “trickle up” economics is what actually works; if you give the poor tax breaks, or a living minimum wage, or better benefits, given a little time all the surplus money will be back in the hands of the rich anyhow. This is not, of course, to say that taking this to extremes (for instance raising minimum wage to some ridiculously high rate or taxing the rich 110%) would work; it almost certainly wouldn’t, though Sweden did manage to operate with marginal tax rates that high for quite a while.

For completeness, I mention that Karl Marx predicted many years ago that trickle down economics would not work, and it seems that in that, he was right. However, his competing economic theory has also been tried, and there’s absolutely no evidence that that works either.

However, it strikes me that there is something which does obey the “trickle down” principle, and that is unmerited good fortune. Every so often a story goes around about someone on the streets who is given something and who promptly gives some or all of it away to others. The picture of the winning gambler who expansively treats everyone around him is a cliche, so often does it happen.

This fortune doesn’t have to be in the form of money or things, either. I know that (for instance) when I’m driving and someone lets me into a stream of traffic, it’s far more likely that I’ll then let others into it in my turn. Small acts of kindness have a tendency to replicate themselves.

In the Lords Prayer, we thank God for our daily bread, and one implication is that this is given to us by God rather than something we earn. A well-known hymn says “All good things around us are sent from heaven above, so thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love”. I contrast this with the ideas of libertarian economics, which revolve round the “wealth creator” keeping everything they create, anything else being an infringement of their liberties by “the state”. In the Christian view, we are the lucky recipients of the grace of, among other things, our daily bread; in the libertarian view we have created the wealth to buy it, and woe betide anyone asking us to be grateful for the ability to have done that or to spread our good fortune around.

As another aside, there is a strong positive correlation between feeling grateful and feeling happy, which comes close to making me feel sorry for the Libertarian!

Now, as it happens, I do not eat courtesy of handouts (though I have in the past for a while), and I could take the Libertarian view and say that I’ve worked hard and “created the wealth” on which I’m now living in semi-retirement (although to be fair, I have inherited a fair amount of it…). Yes, I have worked hard, but I had a number of entirely unmerited advantages. I was born with a reasonable intellect and without serious physical or mental impairment. I have always had family money on which I could if necessary call. I have been lucky in being in the right place at the right time on occasion, and in having contacts which have opened opportunities and friends who have supported me in difficulty. None of that has been “worked for”. There are countless people who have worked just as hard as I have or much harder and who have far, far less than I have. People who have not received unmerited good fortune. People who are not intellectually agile, or relatively healthy, or from a well-off family, or blessed with some amazing friends, or who have just been unlucky. Oh, I’ve had some bad luck as well, and I didn’t work for that either, and as a result I’ve been in some difficult times and I’m not in quite as wonderful a situation as I might have been in, but broadly I’m OK, and I’m lucky to be that way.

So I’m happy to have some of this good fortune trickle down from me, and if the government (which is representative of the society in which I live) wants to make some of that trickling compulsory, how can I remotely complain, when I don’t deserve it in the first place?

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice and mercy tend to go together, and mercy is akin to graceso I will pray “let mercy and grace roll down like waters”, rather than just trickle down.

“Jesus is Lord” – but of what?

In the course of some editing work recently, I came across an author who always talks of the “Empire of God” (or of heaven) and seems to think this is the accepted terminology. It isn’t what I’m used to, however – what I’m used to (in the various bibles I’m most familiar with) is “Kingdom of God”. Of course, seeing something which I didn’t quite expect put me on alert, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it seems to me that the biggest single unique idea in Jesus’ words as told to us by the gospels is “the Kingdom of God”. Or, indeed, “the Empire of God”, because the term in the original is “Basilea Theou”, and “basilea” is possibly better translated as “empire” than as “kingdom” – it is, after all, the term used in Greek for the Roman Empire, and the counterpoint in the gospels is between Jesus as Lord in the Kingdom of God and Caesar as Lord in the Roman Empire. However, “king” is translated by the same word, so my set of translations originating in the King James bible, in all of which the term is “kingdom” are not wrong.

I’ve also seen it translated as “Imperial Rule” – and that’s a perfectly good translation as well, as “basilea” does duty for that as well, much like the word “reign” in English. There are, however, very few self-styled empires around these days (though see below), and those aren’t really empires (including Japan); it maybe isn’t therefore as useful a term as “kingdom”, of which there are quite a few more.

However, I’ve recently read a few American commentators who want to translate it as “the Commonwealth of God”, and there I start having problems. Saying that, I recognise that English translations all go back to the KJV and before them to Wycliffe and Tyndall, and were composed in a kingdom; it was the model of government with which the authors were familiar. A fair proportion of English speaking Christians these days do not live in a kingdom; even less of them live in something which is called an empire, though the USA is about as close as we get in the 21st century to Imperial Rome.

I will grant very readily that the earliest Christians were very egalitarian – holding property in common, giving freely and coming as close as I think Christianity has ever got to the ideals of Mark 10:21, Matt. 18:21 and Luke 18:22 (and that makes me recall “anything I say three times is true”…), and possibly even those of Mark 10:35-43. However, “commonwealth” has the baggage of a democratic system of some kind, and “basilea” definitely does not; it is a reign, and a fairly absolute reign at that. “Commonwealth”, to me, therefore detracts from the supremacy of God, the implicit requirement to ask for and follow his instructions (“praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out” from step 11, and “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” from step 3 for those of you who are 12 steppers).

The Commonwealth of God would be the Kingdom of God from which God was absent.

Shifting from the language of the Gospels to that of Paul, you cannot proclaim (as was the standard declaration for early Christians) “Jesus is Lord” and think of a commonwealth. Commonwealths do not have Lords.

I think this is important, in particular because the statement “Jesus is Lord” was coined at a time when a very major part of that declaration was the implicit claim “Caesar is not Lord”, the rejection of the Empire of Rome – and today, the rejection of the idea that any of us are first British (or American, or Canadian, or Australian, or…) and secondly Christian (we can, however, reasonably do things the other way round, and walk the extra mile with the soldier of the occupying army carrying his stuff…). The call to follow Jesus (Matt. 10:37-39), to turn to God (Ez. 18) is absolute, and while there are two Great Commandments (Matt. 22:36-40) the first is to love God, the second (and lesser) is to love your neighbour.

The commonwealth deals only with the second. It’s good, but not, to my mind, what is meant by “basilea theou”. For that, I’ll stick with “Kingdom of God”.

And Jesus is Lord.

Purgatory, Nietzsche and Groundhog Day

Inasmuch as my various mystical experiences have given me any really clear picture, perhaps the clearest has been one of judgment. I saw judgment as, in reunion with God, becoming conscious (in a timeless moment) of all I had done in my life to that point from both sides, that is to say from my own part and from that of those with whom I had interacted. Needless to say, this was not a comfortable experience. It might have been an intolerable one had it not been for the simultaneous assurance of love and forgiveness, which might be called “salvation”, I suppose. The implication might be that this is an eternal consciousness, as it is God’s consciousness of me.

It links in well, I think, with Richard Beck’s concepts of purgatory. Prof Beck is an universalist, working from the point of view of theories about God and a close reading of scripture. I go along with all he says, but have also had this vision of that universal reconciliation; the only small caveat I have had is that I think for some few people the pain of the kind of vision I sketched out above, extended to a timeless eternity, might be too hard to contemplate, to bear, to accept. For them, perhaps eternal separation or annihilation may be the only answer. The Theologia Germanica says “Nothing burns in Hell save self-will; therefore it has been said ‘put of your self-will and there will be no Hell’ “. For some, there may not be anything but self-will left. This, incidentally, works well with twelve-step, in which “self will is at the root of all our defects of character”.

I’ve been listening over the last few days to a set of lectures by the late Rick Roderick, to which I was pointed by an article from 2009 on Homebrewed Christianity. One of these dealt with the “Eternal Recurrence”, which Nietzsche saw, I think, as an encouragement to reinvent yourself really well. The idea is that you are fated to relive your life, endlessly repeating it, exactly the same as you live this one.

If I needed a nastier concept than an eternal consciousness of my failings, this is it. Perhaps Nietzsche was describing a consciousness similar to mine, perhaps he had a glimpse further than I have had. I hope not, that we are not in fact fated to an eternal Groundhog Day, but without the slim possibility of breaking out of the cycle which the film offers.

I don’t think so; the ecstasy of union is probably enough to outweigh anything, and I think this picture requires a greater sense of self, of self-will than is possible. Self-will does, after all, burn…

In passing, is it just me, or could Rick Roderick be Slavoj Zizek’s long lost twin, brought up in West Texas?