Monday, October 08, 2007

Likely to be out of circulation for the next three weeks (nothing bad.)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

And so the long winter evenings continued to fly by.



Surely you aren't saying that unless I've studied leprachology to the same advanced level as you obviously have I'm not allowed to talk about what I saw at the bottom of my own garden? Thank you also for pointing out all my jokes for the benefit of anyone who might have missed them.

I have in front of me the volume 1 of the SPCK "Documents of the Christian Church."

Document 282 is by one "Alexander of Alexandria". Nice to know the tradition of theologians having silly names goes back as far as the fourth century: I think Herman the German is nicer.

Alexander says that various heretics, including Arius, assert that:

"God was not always a father, but there was when he was not a father; the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing, for that the ever-existing god has made him who did not previously exist, out of the non-existent. Wherefore "there was when he was not" inasmuch as according to their philosophy "the Son is a creature and a work; he is neither like the Father in essence, nor is by nature either the Father's true Word or his true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and his creatures, being by a misuse of language called Word and Wisdom since he came into being by God's own Word the Wisdom which is in God, wherefore God made all things an him also. Wherefore "He is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of chance, as all other rational things are: hence the Word is alien to, foreign to, and excluded from the essence of God: and the Father is invisible to the Son, for neither does the Son perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he perfectly behold him....Some one accordingly asked them whether the Word of God could be changed, as the devil has been, and the feared not to say "Yes: he certainly could, for being begotten and created, his nature his susceptible of change."

That was what I understood "Arianism" to mean. That is also roughly what I understand the Jehovah's Witnesses to believe. I think that they explicitly claim that there were two Words of God, one of whom, Lucifer, did in fact turn to the Dark Side. But on that point I may have them confused with the Worldwide Church of God, who are neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire. I must admit that I don't know anything about Christedelphians, although one did once accuse me of being the Antichrist.

Text 283 in the same book is a letter from Arius to Eusebius (a Bishop). Arius seems to claim that his only point of disagreement with the rest of the church is that he denies that that the Son has always existed: they say "God has always been and the Son has always been; Father and Son exist together."; where he says that

God (i.e God the Father) has existence without beginning prior to his Son...he was not, before he was begotten, or created, or purposed or established...We are persecuted because we say "The Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning...This is really the cause of our persecution; and, likewise, because we say that he is from nothing.

He seems to specifically deny that he thinks that this means that the Son is subject to change.

So: your point is that the name Arianism was incorrectly attached by Alexander to a theological position that Arius himself never held? That, contrary to what Alexander accused him of, he didn't mean to deny that Jesus was God, but merely to make a technical (though, on his view, significant) point about whether God has "always" been Father, Son and Holy Spirit or whether the Second and Third persons were brought into existence after the First? And that therefore the issue of consubstantiality is less substantial than I thought it was?

Would this mean that Arius was being blamed for other people's more extreme theological claims? Or simply that Alexander was presenting an unfair caricature of the group, and that in fact, no-one ever believed the kind of things which Alexander is talking about? Entertainingly, that would mean that the Jehovah's Witnesses had revived an ancient heresy that no-one believed in in the first place. Which is fair enough: people are reviving non-existent ancient orthodoxies all the time.

I can see that the distinction between "begotten in time" and "begotten from eternity" might be seen as quite a small theological point; and from the texts I have in front of me, I get the impression that Arius can't quite see what all the fuss is about. Eusebius (not the Bishop, but the historian -- damn these pesky leprechauns) and the poet Milton both believed that Christ was "begotten in time" – but they regarded themselves as Christian. And, so far as I can see, they regarded people who didn't believe that as Christians, and people who didn't believe that regarded them as Christians. Eusebius practically regarded Constantine as a second Christ, which is strange considering that we know from Dan Brown that it was Constantine who invented the idea of the Trinity to begin with. (That was one of those joke things I do from time to time.)

So: I may be incorrect in saying that the beliefs of Arius as opposed to those people, if any, who held the beliefs attributed to Arius by Alexander were of a radically different character to those of what became Christian orthodoxy. But I am still no closer to understanding what Dawkins had in mind when he said that Arius's claims about "consubstantiality" were a claims about "very little" and where he thought it fitted in to his overall argument.

A decent lepracologist might have written something like:

"The arguments about the nature of God became so complex that when Arius made a small, technical claim about whether or not God the Son had existed from the beginning of time; he was accused of denying his Divinity, and saying that he was subject to change and could theoretically have fallen, like Satan. Arius insisted that he had said no such thing, but this didn't stop him being kicked out of the church, although there is some evidence that he was readmitted towards the end of his life. This is the trouble with trying to tie down the nature of a hypothetical being whose existence you can't prove either way: you can't even agree about what you disagree about it, and an awful lot of time, energy and in some case, blood is wasted on all sides."

Is this the kind of argument that you think that Dawkins has in mind? Is he using "very little" to stand in for it, – just as, on my view, he uses "really" to stand in for a complicated argument about the meaning of the Ten Commandments and their relationship to the Talmud; and "abetted" to stand in for a complex example about the dating and composition of the Gospels? I think that's an unhelpful way of proceeding.

I am personally still inclined to think that Dawkins had no argument in mind. He was merely making the kind of "aren't Christians silly" noises that he thought would soften up an already sympathetic audience. There is nothing terribly wrong with this kind of rhetorical gesture. If I wanted to make out a case against feminism, or health and safety regulations, or Government health service reforms, I might very well read out some absurdly jargon laden document in a silly voice and encourage the audience to laugh at it. It would not be at all to the point for Germain Greer to come along afterwards and explain that, if only I'd read some Lacan, the passage in question was perfectly explicable and actually made some good points. I wasn't really saying "Feminist writing is obscure, therefore feminism is untrue". I was saying "Ha-ha, aren't we all good common sense bluff chaps here, and don't we all know what kind of thing happens when you let laidees try to do the thinking for themselves, bless their little hearts...."

If the entire speech consisted of nothing but knockabout of this kind, you I might think that the speaker didn't really have any substantive points to make.

There was a two page article in the Grauniad yesterday by someone who I assume I should have heard of. predicated on the premise that "It is shameful to listen to Bob Dylan records" and "It is absurd to think that Bob Dylan writes good songs." The article was quite funny; but there was not one single word to suggest what the writer though Dylan's weaknesses were: or, indeed, anything else.

I see the point about "contact with reality", but I don't know what kind of answer would satisfy you. The "reality" which is claimed to be behind religious doctrine is presumably, "mystical experience" and "divine revelation". Put another way "We think we know certain things about God because we think that certain people know how to get in touch with him." Or, on the third hand: "The doctrinal statements are agreed formulas which take into account what Jesus taught about himself; what his direct followers taught about him; and what holy people who have been in touch with him have taught subsequently."

Before anyone says so, this is clearly a circular process: doctrine was shaped by Scripture, but then what constituted Scripture, and who was regarded as "a holy person" was partly defined by doctrine. Would it help at all if I said "organic" and waved my hands around?

Presumably a doctrine might be rejected because it contradicts other doctrines: you might say "We are agreed that God came to the disciples at Pentecost; therefore, a doctrine which says that the Spirit is not God has to be rejected", but that, obviously, only creates a teaching which is more or less consistent: not necessarily true.

Could you accept that some doctrines make a difference at a "spiritual" level? I don't like using the word "spiritual" very much: I mean "at the level of the subjective and emotional life of the actual man in the actual pew?" I would certainly concede that some doctrines don't make any difference at that level: it doesn't really make any difference to anyone's inner life whether the Third Person of the Trinity proceeded from the First and Second Persons of the Trinity or from the First alone. Could you understand that the story of Jesus-crucified-and-risen-again has an emotional effect on me and that I believe that effect to be meaningful; and that the emotional effect of a story in which Jesus was not "god in human form" but just "some guy" (as the liberals say) or "just some supernatural guy, albeit a very important one" as the Arians, if not Arius, say would be quite different?

My understanding is that "ousia" means literally "being"; "homo-ousia" is therefore "same being"(cf "homo-sexual" same sex.) "Physis" means "nature". The Chalcedonian creed, which is I believe still officially church doctrine, says that the human Jesus didn't have the Son of God instead of a soul -- in which case he'd have been a sort of divine zombie. And he didn't have the Son of God as well as a soul -- a sort of schizophrenic Christ of the kind envisaged by my old friend the Rev. Steve Winter. It says that the Son of God was amalgamated with a human being (consisting of both a body and a soul) to such a degree that both "He is a man" and "He is a God" are true of him. The Nicene creed says that the Son of God is of one being with the Father; The Chalcedonian creed says that in the earthly Jesus two natures one human and one divine were combined. I don't know whether it would have made a difference to say that the Son of God had the same nature as God but that two beings were combined in Jesus. Nor, as a matter of fact, do I particularly care. But if you know a bit of background or take the time to pull some books down from the shelf, it isn't too hard to work out what was being talked about; and what was being talked about was not, I think, nothing. If you and I can do it I don't see why Dawkins shouldn't have to.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.


There's more being said here than I can keep up with. My actual intention in starting the new Dawkinsian series was to respond to some criticisms that had been made about my original articles, and especially, to correct some actual errors: my comments on the TLS and Independent pieces were really only meant as a warm up. So I shall try to comment on some of what has been said, and then write about something else.


Let's start with the Holy Trinity because that's relatively straightforward.

Gareth wrote:

I don't think the formula, analogy and "spiritual statement" you propose that the Man In The Pew might provide when asked about the Trinity are "clear and lucid" at all. Something isn't lucid merely because it's neatly expressed, or clear merely because it gives a feeling of having understood something. And if you say something that, on the face of it, is contradictory, then while of course you may in fact be saying something perfectly coherent and reasonable I don't think you can be held to have said something clear and lucid until you've done something to resolve the contradiction. The usual waffle about triangles, cubes, and suchlike doesn't really do very much to resolve it.

Now, actually, I suspect that the Man In The Pew typically has a reasonably coherent notion of the nature of God. He either thinks that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are parts of God, as the sides of a cube are parts of the cube, or that they are aspects or modes of operation of God, as ice and liquid water and water vapour are of H2O. The only trouble is that these reasonably coherent notions are heresies, because any time anyone's said anything comprehensible about the Trinity the Church has declared it a heresy.....

...Did Dawkins
actually say that the (alleged) fact that Christians argue about non-issues is a point against the existence of God? I don't think he did. He did suggest that ridicule might be an appropriate response when people make meaningless statements with great confidence and claim that they're vitally important, and it seems to me that that's not entirely wrong even though one can distinguish reasonably well between Arius and Athanasius. I think one can make that distinction largely because Arius, unlike Athanasius, did in fact say things that make some sense. But it happens that Athanasius won, and present-day Christians do in fact commonly affirm solemnly every week that they believe that Jesus was "of one substance with the Father", and even though they can distinguish that from "not of one substance with the Father", I doubt that one in a hundred can give a genuinely coherent account of what it means for a human being, capable of making mistakes and dying and so on, to be "of one substance with the Father". (I'm not entirely sure that even one can -- i.e., it's not clear that any genuinely coherent account exists -- but I don't wish to press that point. Also: it's probably also true that not one person in a hundred, or even one in ten thousand, could give a coherent account of what it means to say that gravity results from the curvature of spacetime; it's certainly possible for something to be very difficult to make sense of but still correct.)

When we say that someone "understands" a religious doctrine we might mean either "understands what the doctrine is" or "fully understands and conceptualises the reality which that doctrine (supposedly) represents." The ability to "say what the doctrine of the trinity is" ("It means that the Father and the Son are God, but the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father") isn't the same as fully understanding and conceptualizing what a triune God is like. You say that you doubt if even one believer really understands the Trinity in the second sense. I agree: no-one can fully understand and conceptualize God. Duh!

If I could be hairsplitty for a moment: the question of how a finite and limited human being can at the same time be the omnipotent God isn't strictly a question about the doctrine of the Trinity, but the doctrine of the Incarnation. The Trinity is about the relationship which "God the Son" has to "God the Father" (and always has had, and would always have had even if the universe had never been created.) Once that had been sorted out to everyone's satisfaction, the Church occupied itself with many useful discussions about what exactly it meant for "God the Son" to be "incarnated", eventually settling the issue in the middle of the fifth century.

You don't need to go as far as "the curvature of space": there are lots of things which we know or believe in but can't describe in words. "The smell of coffee" is the text-book example.

I agree that if you could look into the mind of The Man in the Pew while he was saying his prayers you would see some very crude mental pictures. I am sure that you would find a lot of people who imagined a man with a white beard saying "Shazam!" and turning into a Jewish carpenter: (a Jewish carpenter with Robert Powell's features and a tea-towel on his head, obviously.) This is the Sabellian heresy, or patripassianism if you prefer. I am sure that you would find a lot of mental pictures of a big shiny man with a smaller shiny man standing next to him: pure Arianism. (If you judged Mr Jack Chick by his amusing religious cartoon strips, then he's a pure Arian.) I think that the Sophisticated Believers use equally crude mental pictures, but that they add: "I know that this is only a crude picture; it needs to be corrected against other crude pictures, and the Complicated Doctrinal Statement." But then the holiest saints and the cleverest theologians would be the first to admit that their mental pictures of God are pretty crude diagrams: at any rate, not the real thing. Charles Wesley wrote: "Our God contracted to a span; incomprehensibly made man". If you had asked him if he thought it was theologically correct that the incarnation made God smaller, he might have replied "No: and I think that most babies are larger than "a span" as well." The map is not the territory, as the fellow said.

It's a good joke to say that any time anyone says anything sensible about the Trinity, it's declared a heresy. (You will Oscar; you will.) It would be truer, I think, to say that the Church thinks that if you bang one nail on the head, you'll dislodge all the others: that it's all very well to have a mental of a big shiny man and a small shiny man (with a big shiny bird flying above them) but that once you say "That's what God is really like" they'll say "No; it's only a picture; it needs to be corrected against other pictures".

We might spend a cheerful evening wondering whether the Crude Mental Image or the Complicated Doctrine is what people "really believe"; doubtless allowing ourselves some time to ask what is meant by "really" and "believe". We might also ponder whether the Complicated Doctrine is an attempt to systematize various Mental Pictures into a formula which everyone can more or less sign up to; or whether the Mental Pictures are various attempts to visualise the Complicated Doctrine. (The answer would come out as "A bit of both.)

I expect you are going to ask what my Crude Mental Image is. That is, if I may say so, a rather personal question. I largely think in terms of Dorothy L Sayers' analogy: that God (the Father) is like The Author of the Book, rather than any particular character or object within it. But you could imagine a writer turning up as a character in his own book: Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales ; Sim in Cerebus: Grant Morrison in Animal Man; Alisdair Gray in Lanark. (Sayers doesn't specifically refer to Animal Man, I must admit.) And you could also say that the author is present in a different way on every page of the book. This works rather well, up to a point. Suppose Arthur Dent bumps into Douglas Adams in a bar, and Douglas says "I'm the one writing this story, you know." We immediately see how Douglas (the character who Arthur Dent meets) "is" Douglas (the guy in the real world sitting at an Apple Mac typing); but we don't imagine that Douglas vanished from his desk while he was writing the book. And if we said "That bit with Marvin – that was a very Douglas joke, wasn't it" we don't say "How can it have been a Douglas joke, when he was sitting in the bar with Arthur Dent." The personality that runs through the book, the character in the bar, and the person sitting at the writing desk are all Douglas; but the person at the writing desk is not sitting in the bar and the person sitting in the bar isn't present in those bits of the book he doesn't appear in. The wrinkle, as you are about to point out, is that Christians assert that the distinction between Douglas 1, Douglas 2, and Douglas 3 would have existed even if the book had never been written.

(It is interesting that when Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman write about supernatural entities, they slip into a kind of Trinitarian thinking. In Sandman and the Discworld books, there is a character called Death: a cute goth girl on the one hand and a grim reaper with a pale horse on the other. In both cases, Death "really" exists in place outside of space and time; but Death is also locally present in the ordinary world every time anyone dies. But at one point, Death becomes an ordinary mortal being – a girl named Didi. People carry on dying, and indeed, when Didi dies, Death comes for her. Didi doesn't live in the Dreaming, and Didi isn't present when ever anyone dies, but all three versions of Death are Death. I am sure that Gaiman, if not Pratchett, was quite aware of the theological overtones of this story when he wrote it.)

However, I don't think The Douglas Analogy is what I believe. What I believe is that "The man on the Cross is God." The Douglas Analogy, the formula that the Son is eternally begotten of the father, God from God, light from light, of one substance with the father, begotten not created, and the old tract which said that it's kinda a like a Judge who, when he had to pass sentence on his wastrel brother, handed down the heaviest fine the law allowed, and then paid it himself. But both the Incredibly Difficult Theological Formula and the Tremendously Naive Evangelistic Tract are more or less useful ways of explaining what "God on the Cross" means. A religion which said "the man on the Cross is the Archangel Michael" would be a religion of a completely different character, which is why I show Jehovah's Witnesses the door. Well, one of many reasons, actually.

Your friend Prof. Dawkins thinks that the question of whether God the Son is "of one substance with father" or merely "of a similar substance to the father" ("same substance" vs "similar substance" "homoousios" vs "homoiousios") means "very little". Now, does he mean that, since the term "essence" or "substance" is very vague, it isn't clear what the debate is about? But "substance" had a fairly clear meaning in Aristotelian philosophy. Possibly, a problem with the Creed is that it tried to use philosophical language to describe something which really needs to be thought about in "magical" terms. But it's not too hard to find out what the two sides of the Arian controversy thought that the term "substance" meant.

A naive or ignorant person might say that there is "very little difference" between describing someone as a "nigger" and describing them as a "negro" – after all, the former word is simply a facetious pronunciation of the latter. If they heard that someone lost their job, or was even prosecuted under law, for using the first word, they might perhaps describe it as "big endism". In fact, of course, the two terms while meaningless in themselves, denote a particular set of attitudes and beliefs: to use the term "nigger" is as much as to say "I am a racist." It would have been too hard to discover that a person's preference for ""homoousios" over "homoiousios"in the fourth century denoted a position within a substantive religious debate: namely "God on the Cross" or "An Archangel on the Cross".

(Pause for long digression about the way in which offensive terms are sometimes appropriated by the target group. Resume.)

Or perhaps Dawkins' point that there is simply no such thing as a substantive religious question – that, since God does not exist, one statement about him is as good as any other? But surely, Dawkins wouldn't resort to arguing "If something doesn't exist, then it is silly to discuss what it is like. God does not exist, so it is silly to discuss what God is like. Christians discuss what God is like. Therefore Christians are silly. Therefore God does not exist." Or, more simply: "God does not exist. Therefore, God does not exist."

At the weekend, I found myself discussing with a group of friends whether Sauron's capacity to shift his shape -- into a wolf or a bat -- was an example of the wider powers of the maia to cloth themselves in whatever form they wished; or whether it was unique necromantic ability of his own; and whether the limitation placed on him after the fall of Numenor -- that he could never again assume fair form -- meant that he was trapped in a single body, or whether he could assume any foul form he wished. And if he did indeed have the power to shift his shape, whether his followers of the same order could also do so – and if so, whether that meant that balrogs might have wings at one moment and none the next. You might think that such a discussion is a waste of time. One of my fan-groups appears to believe that knowledge of the works of Tolkien (and silver age comic books, apparently) automatically disqualifies me from holding valid opinions about religion. But clearly, you can have meaningful discussions about non-existent entities.

Who succeeded Michael Henchard as Mayor? What a stupid question. There's no such PLACE as Casterbridge, so how can we possibly discuss who held political office there?

I thought that Dawkins' failure to understand that a serious religious disagreement lay behind the term "consubstantial" was one example of his ignorance of theology causing him to make weak points. You said that Dawkins' could be forgiven for not understanding that doctrine of the Trinity, because it is an obscure idea that most Christians don't understand. I said that, on the contrary, most Christians understood the doctrine of the Trinity perfectly well. You said that, in fact, the mere ability to quote a formula, use an analogy, or describe a supposed spiritual experience didn't amount to understanding, and that, in fact, the doctrine of the Trinity (or the incarnation) was so obscure that probably no-one really understood it. I think that you have inadvertently slipped between "understanding what the doctrine is" and "fully understanding and conceptualizing what it means."

I agree, of course, that neither Dawkins nor the Man in the Pew "understands" the Trinity in the deeper sense. But I don't think that, in order to understand why the church split over the Arian controversy – why, indeed the Church of England does not think that Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians, and the Jehovah's Witnesses do not think that Anglicans (or, indeed, anyone else) are Christians – you need to be able to fully conceptualize what a being who is both three and one; or a being who is both God and Man, would be like. I think you simply need to know what the doctrine is. And Dawkins could have found that out from any standard work.

In my next epistle, I may spend some time musing out loud about why Dawkins raised the issue of "consubstantiality" to begin with. Or something equally thrilling.