Showing posts with label Giles Fraser. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Giles Fraser. Show all posts

Saturday, April 04, 2015

How to Make the Bible Mean Whatever You Want It To Mean - A Very Boring Note

It has been suggested to me that I should have quoted the eucharistic passages from the Gospels more fully. 

It may be that the "revolutionary Christ" theory involves rejecting the "bread and wine" section wholesale (since it seems to come from Paul) and retain the other material as more "authentic".  You could certainly make out a case that Luke's version is a composite of two different versions (note that the wine is passed round twice.) 

This would leave us with something like this. 


When evening came Jesus was reclining at the table with the twelve...While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: "Take and eat, this is my body. Then he too the cup, gave thank and offered it to them, saying "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it answer with you in my father's kingdom. When they had sun a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.


When evening came Jesus arrived with the twelve...While they were eating, Jesus took the bread, gave thank and broke it, and gave it to his disciples say, "Take it: this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thank and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many" he said to them. "I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God"


When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them. "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you the truth, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. After taking the cup he gave thanks and said "Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." And he took bread, gave thank, and broke it, and gave it to them saying: "This is my body given for you: do this in remembrance of me." In the same way after the supper he took the cup, saying "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you."

Leaving us with: 


When evening came, Jesus reclined at table with his twelve disciples. And he said to them. "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you the truth, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my father's kingdom. Do this in remembrance of me." When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

If still don't get why he rejects 1 Corinthians as a Paulist invention by holds on to "do this in remembrance of me" as coming from the original left-wing Jesus.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

How To Make The Bible Mean Whatever You Want It To Mean (2)

I promise this will be my last post about Giles Fraser. He writes substantially the same column every week, so I could continue writing substantially the same rebuttal indefinitely. And writing about this kind of thing forces me to adopt an attitude of piety which must be hysterically funny to anyone who knows me personally. I sure you would all rather be ignoring another Star Wars piece. 

But I did think his last one was a good example of the total intellectual bankruptcy of the liberal position, so I am going to have one last go at showing what my problem is with the guy.

There are a number of different ways of reading the New Testament. But I think it would be quite a good idea for anyone setting themselves up as an Expositor to pick one, say what it is, and more or less stick to it. At one time, I attended a Charismatic "house" church. They had a pretty clear approach. The Gospels, they believed, were accurate written accounts of stuff that really happened. They were also the inspired and infallible word of God, but what God had mainly inspired the writers to do infallibly was to accurately record what had really happened. Any honest writer would have written much the same. Thus: “Many learned people have used human wisdom to invent some reason why St John tells us that the miraculous drought consisted of 153 fishes. But in fact, God’s word tells us this because it is the number they actually caught.”

At almost the other extreme, I expect that by now we have all read Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. He thinks that the Gospels are stories — stories which Christians have instead of answers to hard questions about God and suffering. He says that he thinks that the story is true; but doesn't think that's really the point.

And obviously, people in olden times thought it was all allegorical. Five levels of allegory, only one of which was suitable for the Common People. And scholars have applied various criteria to try to construct (they admit that it's a construct) a figure called "the Historical Jesus". 

So: what is Giles Fraser's approach?

His latest piece is about Easter and Passover and Holy Communion. He thinks it is nice that Jews can be flexible about how they celebrate Passover, and that it's a shame that Christians are bound by strict liturgical rules when they celebrate the Eucharist. I get that. But when he starts talking about God and Jesus and the Bible and stuff, my head starts to spin, slightly. 

This year, in an unusual quirk of the calendar, Passover and Easter overlap, with the Jewish celebrations beginning on the day Christians call Good Friday. Though this is rare, it is unsurprising....

This is an odd way of putting it. For centuries Christians celebrated Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover, which ever day of the week it fell on. The decision that Easter Sunday should always fall on a Sunday, and that Good Friday should always fall on a Friday was made at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Fraser believes that for the last sixteen hundred and ninety years, the thing calling itself "the church" has not being following Jesus but a "death cult" largely invented by Constantine and promulgated at Nicea. So it's mighty interesting that he is so keen on Easter being at Passover and a bit suspicious of the Nicean “first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox” formula. 

– not least because the last supper that Jesus ate with his friends the night before he died was a Passover seder. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he told them.

Allow me to improve the above: 

"...not least because three of the Gospels say that the Last Supper was a Passover seder. The other one very definitely says that it wasn't.  'Do this in remembrance of me' he told them, according to one of the four."

It's not Giles' fault that the four evangelists don't agree. Most academics and many clergy would counsel against harmonization. But if you are going to merge four different stories into one composite version, sheer honesty requires that you signal to your audience that this is what you are doing. "We have four stories about the Last Supper. They don't agree on every point. But what seems to have happened is something like this..."

“Remember: Jesus wasn’t a Christian. But for the Christians that followed, he was re-described as the lamb sacrificed at Passover. “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us,” says St Paul, taking his own Jewish theology of temple sacrifice and boldly, even offensively, applying it to a man who was strung up by the Romans as an enemy of the state."

This says a bundle. 

If Fraser is right here, John the Baptist never said "Behold the lamb of God..."; Jesus never said "the Son of man came to lay down his life as a ransom for many". If Fraser is right Jesus saw no connection between his own death and the Passover sacrifice. That was a wholly original idea, thought up by Paul. If Fraser is right, all the bits of the Gospels that talk about the Priests conspiring with Pilate to have Jesus killed — Judas and the arrest in the garden and the trial, pretty much our whole Easter narrative is fiction. This is not a matter of interpretation: Fraser is rejecting the story in the Gospels and offering us an alternative one. 

What does it mean to say that Jesus death was "re-imagined" as a sacrifice? If it means "Christians realized that the true, objective significance of Jesus' death could best be understood in terms of Jewish temple sacrifice (even though Jesus may never had said so in quite those words)" then Fraser and us Evil Constantianian Death Worshipers are pretty much in agreement. But if he means "Christians thought up the idea out of their heads, and its a pretty idea, even though obviously it isn't true, whatever 'true' means" then I think Fraser is... Well.... Not Christian. Something else. A heretic, and quite a boring one at that. Unless I am and he isn't. Or we both are. 

But let's not worry about orthodoxy. The point is that Fraser's arguments do not work on their own terms. The liberal case never does. 

Pay attention, please. This next bit is quite boring. 

There are four Gospels. One of them doesn't really have a "last supper" and if it does, it definitely isn't a Passover. So we can put that one on one side. Let's compare the three which are left. The bits which envisage Jesus death as a sacrifice and were therefore made up by St Paul I have deleted: 

Mathew: And as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it, and break it, and gave it to the disciples, and said Take, eat, this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remissions of sins."

Mark: And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them saying: eat, this is my body. And he took the cup and when he had given thank he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them: This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.

Luke: And he took bread, and gave thank and brake it, and gave unto them saying this my body which is give for you, this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup, after supper, saying "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."

The highlighted section "this do in remembrance of me", which Fraser thinks is the real deal, only appears in one version of the story: Luke's Gospel. If Fraser is correct that this is the important bit, then Matthew and Mark totally missed the point of what was going on. And, in fairness, Luke says, more or less in so many words, that he doesn't like the other Gospels and is offering his as an improvement on them. 

So: stripped of the Pauline additions you are left with something like: 

And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them saying: This do in remembrance of me. And he took the cup and when he had given thanks he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. 

That's what "really happened".


The oldest account of the Last Supper doesn't come from the Gospels. It comes from Paul. (Luke was a mate of Paul's — at any rate he wants us to think he was.) And what does Paul say that Jesus said?  

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread: And when he had given thanks he break it, and said, Take: eat, this is my body, which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when had supped, saying This cup is the new testament in my blood, this do ye, as oft as ye drink it in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup ye do shew the Lords death til he comes

How does Paul know about the Last Supper? He wasn't there. He did meet some of the disciples who were there, but he doesn't say that they mentioned it. He says he knows about the Supper because God told him. It's very hard for us to get our heads round the fact that for Paul the fact that he didn't hear about Jesus from eye-witnesses but from the resurrected Jesus makes things more reliable, not less. But he does. God told Paul that Jesus said that his death was a sacrifice and the wine and bread were in some way his blood and body. And God also told Paul that Jesus said "do this in remembrance of me". Presumably, Paul told his mate Luke and Luke put it in his Gospel. Very possibly the other writers knew Paul's version of the story as well. On what basis should we treat one part of Paul's version as simply what happened; and another part as something which Paul made up?

Fraser talks as if you can strip away layers of Christian theology about Mass and Sacrifice and symbolically eating Jesus’ body; and get to the Original Last Supper, which was just Jesus sharing Passover with his friends. But you can’t. If you scratch the surface of Matthew, Mark and Luke what you get to is Paul. If Paul was wrong about Jesus being the Saviour then everyone is wrong about everything and always has been. 

And then, further down, Fraser lays the cards which he has been palming very firmly on the table: 

For it remains the central task of the church to channel a story of massive emotional power, a story in which the freedom meal of Passover inspires an extraordinary act of non-violent resistance against the brutality of Roman occupation.

I think that the reason that Matthew, Mark and Luke place the Last Supper specifically at Passover is to underline the theological point that Jesus was the Lamb of God. Fraser thinks that it was historically factually a Passover meal. It may have been that as well. I'm more inclined to think that John is the one who sticks to the original historical sequence of events. He, Fraser, then invents off the top of his head something which isn't remotely hinted at in the Gospels or Paul or any Christian source: the idea that this meal “inspired an act of resistance against the Roman empire”? 

What happens in the story is that Jesus is arrested; tried for blasphemy by the religious authorities; and his death warrant is reluctantly rubber stamped by the secular governor. Yes, the story says that the religious authorities say “oh, didn’t we mention, he’s calling himself a King, sounds pretty anti-Roman to me” and that Pilate snarlingly hangs a sign saying “Jewish King” on the gallows, but the story says that Pilate didn’t know who Jesus was, didn’t think that he’d done anything wrong and wanted to let him off.

In what way can Jesus be said to have engaged in "non-violent resistance"? What revolution is the Last Supper meant to have inspired? How did it mitigate Roman brutality? Please don't tell me that Fraser believes in that old conspiracy theory about Jesus arranging his own crucifixion with the idea that the sight of a crucified messiah would cause all the Jews to rise up in rebellion against the Romans, but that the whole thing backfired horribly and the survivors had to come up with a story to make a macabre cock-up look like a great victory. Bigger men than him have made asses of themselves over that one.

Into this story is folded a dramatic re-imagining of God not as some alien force hovering above us, but as a human being fully alive, yet prepared to give of his life in the battle against inhumanity and darkness.

The Creed says For us men and our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man. I agree we could lose the “men” part; and apparently biologists still get confused by the “down” part; but I think most of us understand what this is saying whether we believe it or not. Is "God is re-imagined as a human being" a Guardian-friendly way of saying the same thing, or does it mean something different? 

Fraser’s words could be understood to mean that he does not believe in the incarnation as a thing which happened (God became a man) but thinks of it in terms of a change in the way people decided to think about God. But if what happened was that humans said “Let’s stop using the word God to refer to the unseen force that made the universe and use it instead to refer to exceptionally good human beings, such as, you know, that chap who tried to start a revolution and got crucified, what was his name?” then I struggle to see why we are even bothering to talk about Jesus. 

Again. It is possible that "prepared to give his life in the battle against inhumanity and darkness" is just a less vivid and less dramatic way of saying that there was none other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. But I very much fear that the "inhumanity and darkness" that Jesus gave his life for are merely the “inhumanity and darkness” of the nasty Roman empire — and by extension, whatever nasty political entity Fraser is worried about this week --  the City of London, fracking, the Internet etc etc etc. 

That would be my guess. I would guess that he believes that Jesus was a radical political thinker; that the Last Supper was in some sense a revolutionary call to arms; that the Crucifixion was in some obscure way an act of defiance against the political evil of the Roman empire; and that when Christians call Jesus "God" they are not saying that he is "God" — that would be ridiculous. They are merely saying something like "a radical lefty being tortured by a fascist state is in some sense the most admirable and praise-worthy thing it is possible to imagine."

Many years ago I attended a lecture by Don Cupitt at the University of York. Cupitt said nothing very interesting. When he had finished saying it, a friend of mine named Matt, who would have been leader of the Student Anarchist Society if the Student Anarchist Society believed in having leaders, raised his hand and said the following words. 

"I agree with nearly everything you have said this evening, but I do not understand why you put in terms of all this reactionary Christian bullshit."

I agree that you should respect and revere prisoners of conscience and people being killed for their beliefs. Many people think that in Mandela or MLK we find the best of the human race. Looking back at a story about how your community escaped from tyrants in the past is a very good way of inspiring them to escape from tyrants in the future. And I suppose it is just possible that letting a tyrant kill you in the most horrible way possible is a powerful way of winning the moral argument. (Me, I'm with Salman Rushdie on this one. I don't think letting the authorities torture you is the best form of revolution. I do think that that may be just what the authorities would like revolutionaries to believe.)

But all of that could be said in plain English. In a very real sense, what  do people like Fraser think is gained by putting it in terms of all that reactionary Christian bullshit?

Friday, February 06, 2015

How To Make The Bible Mean Whatever You Want It to Mean

In his Christmas column, the Guardian's tame religious pundit, Giles Fraser, asserts that Christianity is a radical, anti-establishment religion. Those in authority do not like it, because it involves the belief that there is a higher authority than the king. 

I think that this is probably the kind of thing you would expect a Church of England vicar writing in the Guardian to say. It's not completely true and it's not completely false. Historically, religion has been a tool in the hands of those in charge just about as often as it has been a thorn in their flesh. Fraser may think that conservative, establishment clerics are not true Christians. But they could say the same about him, and do, very frequently.

In support of his thesis, Rev. Fraser asks us to look at Jesus. As soon Jesus was born King Herod was trying to have him killed, because he could see that a divine king would be a threat to his earthly kingdom. And in the end, the Romans had the grown up baby-Jesus crucified because they saw his radical kingship as a threat to empire and emperor.

But wait a moment. How do we know that Herod tried to kill baby-Jesus? From the prologue to Matthew's Gospel. Wise Men from the East know that a king has been born because there's a new star in the sky; they head for the palace because that's a good place to look for a king; when there is no king there; they check out Bethlehem because that's where Jewish kings are usually born. Herod gets scared and orders a cull of all the babies in Bethlehem but baby-Jesus is whisked away to Egypt in the nick of time. The story isn't in Luke; it isn't anywhere else in the New Testament and it certainly isn't mentioned by any secular historian, even ones who hate Herod and would quite like to attribute a massacre to him. And it feels a bit too much like Harry Potter for comfort. The consensus is that it is not historically true. It's folklore, mythology: a story. (*)

Only the most tedious kind of pedant hears the question "How many sheep did Noah take onto the ark?"(**) and thinks that "None! Because there was no Ark and no Noah and no sheep! It's a made up story!" is a clever answer. It very probably is a story; but it's one of the stories which it is the job of Christian priests to tell and retell and explain. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that when Giles Fraser says "Herod tried to murder the child born in Royal David's city" we are supposed to hear an unstated "in the story..." at the beginning of the sentence. In the story Herod murdered the children because baby Jesus was a rival King. In the story Mary and Joseph ran away to Egypt. In the story the Romans killed Jesus because he was a subversive. 

Except that they didn't. Not in any of the four stories in the Bible. "In the story" it's the religious authorities who turn against Jesus: because he appears to be preaching sacrilege; because he appears to be threatening the Temple; because he was claiming to be Messiah without doing any of the things Messiahs are meant to do. "In the story" the the chief Priests, the teachers of the law, and the pharisees collude with Judas Iscariot to arrest Jesus. "In the story" they have to persuade the forces of occupation to have him killed. "In the story"—in one of the four stories, at any rate—the Roman Governor repeatedly says that he doesn't think Jesus has done anything wrong. 

So where does Rev. Fraser's notion that Jesus was killed by Romans for political reasons come from?

Some people are not content to just say "in the story". Some people want to read between the lines and infer what "must have" "really" happened. Some of those people think that the story in which the religious authorities had Jesus killed is an after-the-fact anti-Semitic slur. The story of Jesus being killed as an anti-Roman rebel is a bit of a hard sell if you are proselytizing in Rome. So someone (Constantine, probably: Giles Fraser blames everything on Constantine) came up with a different story, one in which the Jews are the baddies and the Romans are exonerated. Some people think it's a nasty story. It has certainly provided the pretext for a lot of anti-Semitism.

Let's reserve judgment about whether this theory is correct. Let's also hold back from wondering how you conduct an Easter service if you think the Passion story in the New Testament is a work of fiction, and nasty fiction, at that. The point which interests me right now is the ease with which a religious writer can move from talking about a story which is in the Bible, but which practically everyone thinks is folklore, to talking about a story which is not in the Bible but which some scholars think may be closer to what really happened, without giving the slightest indication that he's moved from one kind of story to another.

Perhaps Fraser himself regards the evidence for the "historical Jesus" as so overwhelming that he has long since discarded the Jesus of the Gospels in favour of the historical reconstruction. Perhaps, indeed, he has forgotten that there ever was any evidence: perhaps he has moved for so long in academic circles that to him "Jesus" means "the Jesus of historical reconstructions" and he has forgotten that it ever meant anything else. Maybe, when he looks at a passage which says "the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him" (Mark 14:1) he sees "the Romans realized Jesus was a threat to Imperial power." Maybe he's trying to throw some relatively benign dust in our eyes. Maybe he thinks that the story of how the Priests conspired with Judas to kill Jesus is so horrid that it can't be true. Perhaps he hopes that if he repeats the story about how the Roman's killed the revolutionary Jesus often enough, it will become the story which "everybody knows", in the same way that everybody knows that Three Kings followed the star to Bethlehem.  

Or perhaps his illustrations from the life of Jesus are really nothing more than blustering woo. Jesus is neither the character in the stories we have; nor the hypothetical figure historians think they can infer. He's just a place holder for "whatever Giles Fraser believes this week". Anti authoritarianism is good; Jesus is good; therefore Jesus is an anti authoritarian. No-one asks "what would Jesus do" unless they already know the answer.

It is this kind of thing which has caused so many of choir to which Fraser should be preaching to lose patience with the institutional church; even to the extent of muttering words like "post-evangelical" and "modernist". We have all, over the years, been told things by clergymen which couldn't possibly survive any even moderately engaged reading of the Good Book. This has made us suspect that some of them either haven't read the Bible (unlikely) or that they have read it but are relying on the fact that we haven't, and never will. This leaves us with an unpalatable choice between the crazies who have read the story and insist it all really happened, stars and whales and arks and all; and the professionals who were never very interested in the story to start with.  

(*) The Pope points out that in the first century, Bethlehem really was a Little Town. If it only had a population of a few hundred, then "all the babies" might only amount to five or six, not the thousands and thousands of later myths.
(**) Seven. Or possibly fourteen.

BUY MY BOOK or the Pope will spank you. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Theology Redux

The Ju-Ju gave us these magic biscuits. If you eat them, you will live for ever.

That’s not quite right. If you do the magic dance the Ju-Ju taught us, you will live for ever. Eating biscuits is an important part of the ceremony, of course, but it is the whole dance that’s magic: there’s nothing special about the actual biscuits themselves.

That’s not quite right. The magic isn’t in the biscuit or the dance; the magic comes from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju and submitting to him inwardly. The dance is just a way of helping you focus.

That’s not quite right. Since the magic comes from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju and submitting to him inwardly, there’s no real need for anything else. Some people say that we’ve gone away from the Ju-Ju by giving up eating magic biscuits and dancing magic dances, but that’s not really true. It's just that we’ve spotted that our whole life is part of the dance, and all the biscuits we eat are magical.

That’s not quite right. The magic doesn’t come from fixing your mind on the Ju-Ju or submitting to him; it comes from living as he did, and working to put his political principles into practice in today’s world. That’s what he meant by “dancing”. And “magic” biscuits are biscuits which you share with people who don’t have any biscuits of their own; and that applies to all other kinds of food as well. And "for ever" means “in a world where no one starves or begs for bread; where everyone gives what they can and takes what they need; where health care is free at the point of need; and where countries settle their problems without wars.”

That’s not quite right. The Ju-Ju came to show people that their belief in magic biscuits, magic dances and living forever was completely wrong, and, in fact wicked: that the whole idea of a magic biscuits which makes you lived for ever is, in fact evil. He was only interested in sharing food, socialized medicine, and countries solving their problems without wars. Some bad people came along and added magic biscuits and magic dances to his supposed teachings for their own ends.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Somewhat wishing I hadn't started this.
SK was clearly being mischievous (a thing which has almost never happened before) when he pretended that everyone would immediately see that Arians weren't Christians. This left an obvious opening for Sam to pretend that couldn't see any difference between the two positions. The Dawk, after all, uses Arius vs Athanasius as his main example of meaningless theological debate.

Sam, of course, plays the standard counter-gambit – since the Aristotelian terms "same substance" / "similar substance" sound obscure and strange to us, they can't signify any real disagreement; the two schools must have been arguing about nothing whatsoever; Christians are silly etc etc. If charity were really the order of the day, he might have asked whether it made any difference if you believed that Jesus was the Creator, or merely a sub-ordinate creature. But that would require us to ask "what do we mean by difference"? That chap who did the History of Christianity on the Beeb a couple of years back pointed out that Arian art depicted a realistic, human Jesus who appears to age during his ministry, where Byzantine art of the same period depicts a more distanced, obviously divine figure. But that's a bit of a rarefied distinction. I am quite sure that Sam would be able to quite easily spot an Arian by its behaviour. It would be the one wearing a headscarf, knocking on his front door, and asking him to buy a copy of the Watchtower. Is that the kind of difference we are looking for?

We are of course, not permitted to say that "Well, the positions are different because the people who believe in the two positions believe that they are different" because Sam could then play his "Popular Front of Judea vs Judean Popular Front" card. 

In all seriousness. Christians seem able to disagree with each other about quite big theological questions, and still regard each other as "fellow-Christians", albeit "fellow-Christians who should jolly well stop denying the miracle of the mass / worshipping a biscuit and come back to the true church". But Christians have found that the question of the Trinity is one about which they are unable to agree to differ. It's not a question of poor hard done by Arians saying "But we are Christians, the same as you: please let us back into your church." Trinitarians think that Arians aren't Christians; Arians think that they are the only Christians. They knock on my door early on Saturday mornings and try to convert me, which the Bishop of Rome, to give him his due, has never done.

I don't think that the question about whether the Holy Spirit proceeeds from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone is a question about nothing; I think I could have a stab at saying what the difference is and why it seemed to be important. But the Pope in Rome regards the Patriarch in ... wherever he lives, do you know, I honestly don't know... not merely as a fellow Christian, but as a fellow Christian who is so near to being a Catholic as practically makes no difference. Even though he's quite sure that he's wrong about filoque.

So why do questions like Arianism not admit of the same kind of compromise?

I understand that from a position outside of any Church, this might look odd; could Sam accept that from a position inside the Church, it seems obvious. (Obvious that Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon's aren't Christians, but that Anglicans are simply fellow Christians who've got it badly wrong about infant baptism.) Could he perhaps accept on trust that the person of Christ is what Christianity is about; in fact what Christianity is (in the way that the Koran is what Islam is) and that while there can be very great differences of opinion about baptism, Eucharist and even ethics, you can't mess around with our understanding of who Christ is without changing – or in fact obliterating – our faith.

To press the analogy in a possibly ignorant direction; I don't think that there has ever been a textually liberal form of Islam – the Koran is either the actual word of God, or it is nothing, and without the Koran there is no Muslim religion. Would orthodox Jews say the same thing about the Torah – that you can't be "a Jew who doesn't follow the Law" because following the Law is what being a Jew means? But I may be wrong about that.

There are certainly clergy who take the view that Jesus was a teacher of ethics; that he preached a radical, revolutionary message; that his death was a political martyrdom; and that the resurrection is to be understood simply in terms of "his followers kept following his political message even after he died." Does Sam genuinely not see that this is different from the mainstream position that god came down from heaven, died on the cross to enable human beings to go to heaven, came back to life after he had been killed, and then went back to heaven? Does he genuinely not see why I, coming from the second perspective, would not be prepared to call the first one "Christian"?

Is the point "I don't think Giles Fraser really takes the liberal – modernist position that your ascribe to him."? (I am perfectly happy to concede that I may have misjudged him.)

Is the point "It doesn't matter if Giles Fraser takes the liberal - modernist position, because the liberal – modernist position is in fact indistinguishable form the traditional – conservative position." (In which case Fraser is equally to blame, since he appears to deny that Catholics and Evangelicals are Christians in any meaningful sense.) 

Or is the point "It couldn't possibly make any difference whether Fraser is a liberal – modernist or a traditional – conservative because all religious positions are equally meaningless? "

I think that Sam, being what C.S Lewis called a naturalist, may find it genuinely difficult to believe that Christians are what C.S Lewis called supernaturalists. I think that he finds the idea that there is Something Else apart from the scientifically observable universe so strange that he thinks that whenever Christians seem to be talking about something supernatural, they must really be talking about something natural. "I know you say that you say that you think that Jesus died so you could get in touch with God, but you can't really mean that: you must really mean 'so that you can form a more just society' or 'so you can overcome your psychological hangups' ".

I don't think that any good Christian has ever quite believed in the parody of the Atonement which Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser abominate. This is sometimes called "Penal Substitution": I prefer to call it the Tom Sawyer theory. (God wants to whip Becky Thatcher; but Tom Sawyer, who is innocent, volunteers to get whipped instead, so Becky Thatcher gets off scot free.) As committed a death-cultist as John Stott points out that it doesn't work because it's not fully Trinitarian: God is in fact both the one doing the punishing and the one getting punished. Mr C.S Lewis starts out his chapter on the Atonement by saying that before he was a Christian, he thought that the whipping boy theory  was the one he had to believe, and that it made no sense to him. He said that once he became a Christian, even the theory of one person getting punished on someone else's behalf seemed less immoral than it had; and if you changed it to "paying a debt" or "standing the racket" then it made more sense; because it's a matter of common experience that one one person has got himself in trouble, it's the innocent person who isn't in trouble who has to get him out of it. He then propounds a rather complicated theory, based on Anselm, about human beings needing to "go back" to God, but not being able to, and Jesus doing the "going back" on our behalf.

Again: I don't quite know whether Sam really doesn't see the difference between an objective Atonement ("The death of God actually changed the relationship that the material universe has to the supernatural realm") and a subjective Atonement ("Jesus' death was a good example of not striking back against evil, however horrible it is") or whether he's pretending not to for tactical reasons. Or if I'm failing to explain it very well, which is most likely. 

If the Tom Sawyer analogy is a poor one, why do people carry on using it? Because it is a very vivid and dramatic way of picturing the idea that Jesus' death made a difference. God was cross with us; Jesus was punished; now God isn't cross with us any more. Darnay was going to be beheaded; Carton  switched places with him; Darnay lived happily ever after. There are other versions: the human race owed God a debt; Jesus paid the debt; now the human race doesn't owe God a debt any more. Many nasty imperialist evangelical tracts ask us to imagine a judge, or more probably a Judge, who imposes a fine on a certain prisoner and then pays it himself. We were too dirty and filthy to go to heaven; we washed ourselves in the blood of Jesus; now we are clean. Jesus went down into hell, fought with the devil and smashed down the gates, so no-one has to stay in hell unless they want to. For the first thousand years of Christian history, the most popular theory involved God playing a trick on the devil to make him exceed his authority, and idea that would be incredibly alien to almost all Christians, but important if you are are going to make sense out of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

The Bible talks about the death of Jesus in terms of "sacrifice". It is absolutely true that the idea of sacrifice is strange to us. But the idea was clearly not strange to the people who wrote the Bible. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; he is handed over to be executed preparation day ("when the passover must be killed"); he initiates a sort of holy role-play in which passover wine becomes "my blood of the New Covenant". Church of England churches still have a table at the front which they call an "alter"; Giles Fraser has to perform a rite involving phrases like "in memory of thy perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the Cross" and "Hallelujah! Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." It is very reasonable indeed for a clergyman to say "We need to find ways of explicating this strange language; we need to be pretty sure we understand what "sacrifice" meant to a good Jew, and, come to that, to a pagan convert at the time of Jesus." But I don't think you can say that the whole idea of sacrifice is abhorrent, and actually anti-Christian. You can only say that if you think that the people who we depend on for our knowledge of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) had utterly and completely missed the whole point of every word he had ever said. Possibly you may think that Jesus was all right but the disciples were thick and ordinary, that their twisting it has ruined it for you. Once you've said that, there isn't really anything left called "Christianity" to talk about. 
In Fraser's version, Christianity went off the rails pretty darn early. St Mark pretty definitely has a story about Jesus miraculously stopping a storm. Fraser thinks that miracles of the storm-stopping kind are completely contrary to the whole idea of Christianity. That's sort of a bit of a problem. 

It may be that I misread Fraser. It may be that (like me and St Mark) he thinks that the point of the story of Jesus calming a storm is the final line, where the disciples say "Hang on...only Yahweh is meant to be able to tell the weather off. But that means....."; that he's saying "The point of the story is that Jesus really was Yahweh; the point of the story is not that we don't need to listen to the shipping forecast before going on boat trips from now on." It would have been nicer if he could have framed in as an affirmation of what he does believe, and not as a rant about how horrible we evangelicals are. 
I'm not talking here about whether we think miracle are even possible, or whether we ought to interpret miracle stories literally or metaphorically. I am quite happy to debate with the fellow who thinks that Mark 4: 35-41 is not a news report, but (say) a commentary on the book of Jonah. But when someone says "Mark completely missed the point of what Jesus was on about; but fortunately, I get the point perfectly well" then I smile patronisingly and walk away.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God.
Giles Fraser, 22 March, 2008 

 The idea of an omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat our enemies turns out to be a part of that great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. 
Giles Fraser 8 Jan 2005  

Jesus set out to destroy the imprisoning obligations of debt, speaking instead of forgiveness and the redistribution of wealth. 
Giles Fraser 24 Dec 2005 

 Nicene Christianity is the religion of Christmas and Easter, the celebration of a Jesus who is either too young or too much in agony to shock us with his revolutionary rhetoric....And from Constantine onwards, the radical Christ worshipped by the early church would be pushed to the margins of Christian history to be replaced with the infinitely more accommodating religion of the baby and the cross. 
Giles Fraser, 24 Dec 2005 

 Evangelical Christianity, with all its emphasis on Jesus as friend, risks domesticating the divine, pulling God too much within the dimensions of the human perspective. With this sort of Jesus at hand, God becomes just too easy. 
Giles Fraser 11 Dec 2011 

 For too long, Christians have put up with a theory of salvation that has at its core the idea that God requires the sacrifice of his own son so that human sin can be cancelled. "There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin," we will all sing. The fact this is a disgusting idea, and morally degenerate, is obvious to all but those indoctrinated into a very narrow reading of the cross. 
Giles Fraser 11 Dec 2009 

 (On evangelicals who support corporal punishment): Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise. For, as evangelicals, the Pearls believe that salvation only comes through punishment and pain. God punishes his Son with crucifixion so that humanity might not have to face the Father's anger. This image of God the father, for whom violence is an expression of tough love, is lodged deep in the evangelical imagination. And it twists a religion of forgiveness and compassion into something dark and cruel. 
Giles Fraser 8 June 2006

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Apple Trees and Honey Bees and Snow White Turtle Doves

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 never a villain dwelling in all Denmark, but he's an arrant knave
--There needs no ghost, my Lord, come from the grave to tell us this.

The Church of England has announced the True Meaning of Christianity.


Our old friends the Vicar of Putney and his boss the Archbishop of Canterbury both contributed essays to the Guardian over Easter. Or rather, they both contributed the same essay. It seems that, over the Easter Vacation, they have been studying the works of a French lepracologist named Girard. Girard believes that societies have a tendency to invent enemies, particularly at times of crisis, in order to create a sense of unity. This can be very uncomfortable if you are one of those who gets labeled as an 'enemy'.

Well, golly-gosh. I'm astonished no-one has spotted that before. Giles Fraser gets very excited about this new insight:

At times of tension or division, there is nothing quite as uniting as the 'discovery' of someone to blame - often someone perfectly innocent. For generations of Europeans, the Jews were cast in the role; in the same way women have been accused of being witches, homosexuals derided as unnatural, and Muslims dismissed as terrorists.

Rowan Williams puts it like this:

In recent years a number of Christian writers – inspired by the French critic and philosopher, Rene Girard - have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.

Williams and Fraser take it for granted that this 'scapegoating' is a Very Bad Thing. They think that the Easter story offers some kind of solution.

Fraser says:

The the story of a God who deliberately takes the place of the despised and rejected so as to expose the moral degeneracy of a society that purchases its own togetherness at the cost of innocent suffering.....The new society he called forth - something he dubbed the kingdom of God - was to be a society without scapegoating, without the blood of the victim. The task of all Christians is to further this kingdom, 'on earth as it is in heaven' .

Well. That certainly sounds religious. 'God-identifies-with-the-outcasts' is definitely the kind of thing we'd expect a Vicar to say. And the 'despised and rejected' bit – that comes out of Handel's Messiah, doesn't it? So if we aren't careful, we won't spot that Fraser isn't actually talking about religion at all. For him, Easter isn't about God or Heaven or Jesus risen from the dead or anything like that. Oh dear me no. Jesus died in order to make the point that selecting social or racial enemies is a really, really bad idea and that it would be much better if we didn't.

Clergy are always drawing social messages out of religious stories. There is nothing wrong with saying 'Jesus was an innocent person executed by the state – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if our state stopped executing innocent people?' or 'Babyjesus ran away to a foreign country because Herod wanted to kill him – and by the way, wouldn't it be nice if we welcomed foreign people who came to our country instead of, say deporting them to places where they'll probably be hung'. But Fraser appears to be saying that this is the whole point of Easter, not a secondary message that you might want to draw out of it. Why did God 'take the place of the despised and rejected? In order to expose the moral degeneracy of society. The Crucifixion illustrates the point that picking on the fat kid in the playground is a bad idea. The Kingdom of God means 'the kind of playground where the fat kid doesn't get picked on.' For this I got out of bed on Sunday morning?

The Archdruid is marginally more coherent. He's been watching the BBC film version of the Passion and thought it was quite good. He says that, at the time of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans both hated and feared each other. That hatred and fear had become part of their group-identity. Their leaders tacitly kept it going. But:

Jesus offered a perfect excuse for them to join in a liberating act of bloodletting which eliminated a single common enemy. The spiral of fear was halted briefly.

The Jews and the Romans both thought that beating up someone would make them feel good for a bit and picked on Jesus as a likely candidate. For a short while, killing Jesus did indeed make them feel good (Pilate and Herod became friends, didn't they?) But this sort of thing doesn't work for very long.

It's a dubious reading of the Bible (and, indeed, of the BBC film). Far from thinking that a bit of blood-letting would be therapeutic, Pilate bends over backwards to get Jesus off the hook. Far from hating Jesus, Caiphas is a cold-blooded machiavell. He can only maintain his religious authority by appearing to accept the Empire's secular authority. If there is a big religious revival under Jesus, the Romans might see it as a threat and close down the Temple. By presenting Jesus to Pilate as a secular rebel (which he knows to be false) Caiphas can end Jesus' ministry and deprive the Romans of a possible pretext for a crackdown. True, he says that it's sometimes necessary for one man to die for the people; but so far as he knows, he's only talking about political expediency. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

But let's grant the Archdruid's fanciful idea that the Jews and the Romans decided to work out their frustration on Jesus as a kind of primal scream therapy. What follows from this? Williams' explanation lapses into that particular dialect of gobbledegook only spoken by clergymen:

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself. But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror....Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem. And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

Following C.S Lewis's advise, I propose translating this into English.

Frequently in this mechanism the victim has little or nothing to do the initial conflict itself.

'When we are very scared of another group of people, we sometimes feel like hurting someone. Sometimes, this seems to help. But a lot of the time, the person we pick to beat up isn't even one of the people who we were originally scared of.'

But in the case of Jesus, the victim is not only wholly innocent; he is the embodiment of a grace or mercy that could in principle change the whole frame of reference that traps people in rivalry and mutual terror.

'As a matter of fact, Jesus didn't do any of the things he was punished for. God gives us good things regardless of whether we deserve them or not (= 'grace' ) ; and he doesn't do bad things to us even when we do deserve them. (= 'mercy'). Jesus was the best possible example of a person who gave good things to people who don't deserve them, and didn't do bad things to people who did. If we were all like this, then we wouldn't ever be scared of other people or hate them. So we'd never want to hurt or kill them. This would be a good thing.'

Thus the scapegoat mechanism is exposed for what it is – an arbitrary release of tension that makes no difference to the underlying problem.

'Picking on innocent people and hurting them doesn't really help, although it may seem to for a while. That's because the real problem is that we hate people and are scared of them in the first place. Picking on an innocent person doesn't change this.'

And if you want to address the underlying problem, perhaps you should start listening to the victim.

'If you want change the fact that there are people who we hate and are scared of, then you should pay attention to what Jesus said -- that we should give nice things even to people who don't deserve to have nice things, and not do nasty things even to people who deserve to have nasty things done to them.'
Even in translation, I don't think this makes a great deal of sense. I don't see how you get from 'Jesus was killed for things he didn't do' to 'We'd all be happier if we stopped hating each other'. I don't see why it has become easier or more practical to stop hating because someone a long time ago was killed for things he didn't do.

He goes on:

The claim of Christianity....

Not 'a claim': the claim.

.... is both that this mechanism is universal, ingrained in how we learn to behave as human beings, and that it is capable of changing. It changes when we recognise our complicity and when we listen to what the unique divine scapegoat says: that you do not have to see the rival as a threat to everything, that it is possible to believe that certain values will survive whatever happens in this earth's history because they reflect the reality of an eternal God; that letting go of the obsessions of memory and resentment is release, not betrayal.

Which is to say, being interpreted:

'We all have people who we fear and hate; we all think that beating up an innocent person will make us feel better. But we can stop feeling that way if we want to. First, we have to admit that we ourselves have bad feelings. Jesus says: 'It would be a good thing if we admitted that we have no good reason to hate our enemies. Even if lots of bad things happen in the world, it's okay to carry on believing that good things are good and bad things are bad. If we stop hating our enemies, we will feel much happier.' We should pay attention to this because Jesus was a good man who was killed for things he didn't do.'

Or, more simply: 'the solution to hatred is to stop hating people'.

Verily, verily I say unto thee: duh!

There is nothing wrong with the occasional moral platitude. We all need to be reminded of the bleedin' obvious from time to time. But why does the Archbdruid think that bringing Jesus into it helps? How is his argument – essentially 'Hate is bad and love is better' -- made clearer by adding 'Because a good person who was killed by bad people said so'?

Again, in the original gobbledegook:

People may or may not grasp what is meant by the resolution that the Christian message offers. But at least it is possible that they will see the entire scheme as a structure within which they – we - can understand some of what most lethally imprisons us in our relationships, individual and collective. We may acquire a crucial tool for exposing the evasions on which our lives and our political systems are so often built.

By 'the scheme' he means: 'A long time ago, two sides in a conflict both picked a third person, who had no part in the conflict itself, said he was their enemy, and killed him in a horrible way. They thought this would bring their two tribes together. But it didn't do any good.' How is this supposed to help us understand 'what most lethally imprisons us' (presumably 'the need to pick common enemies'?) In what sense is this a 'tool' ?

And, finally:

The point of the Church's presence in our culture....

Not 'one of the points': the point:

Is not to be a decorative annex to the heritage industry, but to help us see certain things we'd rather not about common responsibility - and the costly way to a common hope.

Does he really believe this? Does he really think that the reason we have cathedrals, confirmation classes, creeds, jumble sales, synods, the monarchy, sacraments, archbishops, coffee mornings, Sunday schools, the Old Testament, hymns, Easter eggs, septuagesima and nativity plays is in order to remind everyone that 'Picking on people doesn't really do any good; much better to kiss and make up?'

In modern, informal English 'scapegoat' generally means 'someone wrongly blamed for something they didn't do' or 'someone held completely responsible when they were really only partially responsible.' When the police picked out, more or less at random, some Irish petty criminals and framed them for a series of terrorist attacks in the 1970s, it was said that they had been made 'scapegoats' because the cops couldn't catch the real villains. When the Hutton enquiry showed up all sorts of bad practices at the BBC, only Greg Dyke, the director, lost his job: people said he'd been made a 'scapegoat' for many people's failures.
But this wasn't the original meaning of the term 'scapegoat'. The Archdruid and the Vicar somehow neglect to mention that the idea of the 'goat-that-escapes' originates in, er, the Bible.

According to the book of Leviticus, on the Day of Atonement, the following ceremony is to be performed:

But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness...Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and and all their transgressions and all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities into a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness

Now: Aaron didn't hoodwink the Israelites into thinking that it was really the goat who'd been responsible for the recent outbreak of ox-coveting. And I imagine that relatively few of the BBC staff thought that their sins had been supernaturally transferred onto Greg Dyke. The Biblical 'scapegoat' is a component in a magic spell which is believed to actually make a difference. By performing the ceremony, the consequences of all the bad things which the Israelites had done in the previous year were taken away. This was important to them, because they thought that only pure people were allowed to talk to God. Doing bad things – and also touching yucky things – made you impure. Everybody sometimes does bad things; so without this special ritual, no-one could ever talk to God.

Some of my more astute readers may possibly be able to spot where I am going with this.

The prophecy of Isaiah talks about a human being who takes on the role of scapegoat -- not in the modern sense of 'dude who gets blamed unfairly' (although he's that as well) but in the original sense of 'supernatural cleaner-upper.'

He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief....He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of all.

Christians have always said that Isaiah's human scapegoat is Jesus. (The point is made explicitly several times in the New Testament.) The Vicar of Putney, by quoting the 'despised and rejected' bit, indicates that he agrees with them. But he is only interested in Jesus as 'the person who unfairly got the blame', and not at all in the idea of a 'supernatural cleaner-upper.' Quoth Giles Fraser:

Easter is not all about going to heaven. Still less some nasty evangelical death cult where a blood sacrifice must be paid to appease an angry God. The crucifixion reveals human death-dealing at its worst. In contrast, the resurrection offers a new start, the foundation of a very different sort of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating.

Christians have always taught that Jesus is like the Old Testament scapegoat -- and also the sacrificial lamb, especially the one killed at Passover. There's really no getting away from this. John introduces him as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' and the Bible ends with the whole universe worshipping him under the title of 'the Lamb that was slain'. The anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews (or, if Richard Dawkins is still reading this 'St. Paul') goes so far as to say that all the scapegoats and sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament were shadows or reflections: the Crucifixion is the Real Thing, the Original.

Granted, there have been lots of theories about how and why this works: some of them quite outlandish. Few modern Christians would find the idea that the incarnation was a clever ruse to fool Satan into exceeding his authority very helpful. I happen to agree with Fraser that evangelicals should be careful of using language which seems to present Jesus as a cosmic Tom Sawyer, volunteering for a beating in order to save Becky Thatcher from getting one. Push that too far, and God becomes a nasty old school teacher who isn't particularly interested in distinguishing the innocent from the guilty provided someone cops it. But all the theories agreed that the point of Easter was that it re-connected human beings with God. Even the weird fringes of Christianity which thought God was evil, Satan was the creator and Jesus was a hologram believed that. It's only this new Anglican version that has discovered that Christianity was never really interested in putting human beings in touch with God. It was only ever about demonstrating some principles about how human beings should interact with other human beings.

Of course, I agree with those principles. I agree that it is silly to pick groups of people as your enemies. I agree that cathartic blood-letting, even if you happen to have arrested the right man, never helps. I agree that it is shameful that some of our allies continue to practice torture and that our own leaders condone this. I think that love is better than hate. I am against wickedness and in favour of happiness. I just don't understand why it helps to use obscure theological language to state and restate the terribly, terribly obvious.

It must be hard to find yourself in charge of a religion that you never actually believed in. It must be horrible to get ordained because you sincerely want to spread the message that love is better than hatred and discover that you've actually committed yourself to a cult about apple-stealing and blood-drinking and persons with two essences but only one substance, or possibly vice versa. It must be awful to have to twist your very clever head so that 'Hallejulah, Christ our Passover is Sacrificed For Us!' really means 'Why can't people just be nice?' I can see how this might drive you to speak gobbledegook. I can see how, in the end, it might actually drive you insane.

But it's no excuse. I try to picture the Giles Frasers and Rowan Williams of this world running their little parishes. I try to imagine a church full of people with black ties and the remains of, say, a ten-year old kid in a box at the front. I try to imagine them getting to the bit where they have to say 'I am the Resurrection and the Life, says the Lord'. What do they do? Cross their fingers behind their backs and say, 'Well, of course, 'resurrection' is gobbledegook for 'the foundation of a different kind of community that refuses the logic of scapegoating'. But next Easter, I shall change my mind and say that's it's gobbledegook for something else entirely.' 

How do they sleep at night?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Next Issue: More Theology

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.

The Guardian has taken to printing articles by the Vicar of Putney.

Don’t worry: it gets more interesting. Well, slightly more interesting.

Last month he, like every other pundit in the country, wrote a piece about the tsunami disaster. It turns out that a lot of people have spotted that this was a very terrible event, and concluded that therefore God doesn’t exist.

So far as I can tell, it is only the people who already thought that God doesn’t exist who reached this conclusion. If some journalist had managed to track down a Bishop who was also a Christian, and who had looked at the big wave and said “Well, what do you know? Materialism was right all along!” that would have been interesting. It would also have been interesting if you could have found a Dawkinsite who had looked at all the people being compassionate and said “Good God! Human life does have some purpose after all.” But no-one has managed to produce a single such person on either side. Just a lot of morgue-chasing essays by people saying “Hey! You see this big earthquake thing in all the papers. Well, guess what. It proves that I was right all along.” Major international event confirms people's philosophical prejudices, shock.

It is always thus. If a child is murdered, or a terrorist bomb goes off, or an old lady of sixty six has a baby, it is always excuse for people to say “I told you so.” Never for them to say “Gosh. I shall have to revise my whole theory of crime and punishment, or medical ethics”

(Come to think of it, there were a few pundits who said “We support the war on Iraq because of the Weapons of Mass Destruction” who subsequently said “Since there weren’t any weapons of mass destruction, we were wrong to support the war. Sorry.” I wonder if any of the pacifist types would have changed their mind and said “mea culpa” if the bombs had been found?)

The Rev Giles Fraser, Vicar of Putney and professor of something or other, approached the tsunami, reasonably enough, as an instance of the general question of divine goodnesses and human suffering. He starts with a painful story about the first time he, as a young clergyman, had to conduct the funeral of a baby and how this almost made him lose his vocation. However, even in the face of this awful event, he somehow carried on believing in God. The article then jump cuts to the “endless under-graduate tutorials” he has attended on the “so-called problem of evil.”

He says

“The essays that are the hardest to stomach are those that seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubics cube....Of course, none of them work, and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern in the face of great tragedy is to buy God some dubious alibi”.
He waffles for a bit longer, and then asks us to think about the infant Christ.
“What is terrifying about the Christmas story is that it offers us nothing but the protection of a vulnerable baby, of a God so pathetic that we need to protect Him. The idea of a omnipotent God who can calm the sea and defeat out enemies turns out to be a part of the great fantasy of power that has corrupted the Christian imagination for centuries. Instead, Christians are called to recognize that the essence of the divine being is not power but compassion and love...”
There is quite a lot that can be said about this drivel.

First, Fraser has decided that he is free to be as selective as he wishes about which Biblical stories and Christian doctrines he will believe in. He approves of “the Christmas story”, which is told in different forms, by St Matthew and St Luke; but disapproves of the story about Christ calming the seas, which is told (in very similar forms) by Matthew, Mark and Luke. The four Gospels are full of stories in which Jesus is a figure of power (“what manner of man is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”) If, when Matthew and Luke report stories of Jesus working miracles, they had been "seduced by a fantasy of power" which is not merely irrelevant to Christianity, but actually antithetical to it, why trust them when they talk about the Bethlehem baby? Why trust anything they say about Jesus? Why read the New Testement at all?

(On Christmas Eve, Fraser got very angry, albeit about seventeen hundred years too late, about the emperor Constantine because the Creed of Nicea mentions that Jesus was born of a Virgin, and that he Died, but misses out everything that happens in between. The in-between bit is, apparently, the important bit, because the true message of Christianity is that the adult Jesus preached that we should all be pacifists. Or something. But now he wants us to concentrate on the baby-in-a-manger bit, and ignore all the adult-jesus-does-miracles stuff. )

Second, it is very hard to find anything in his religion which is recognisable as “Christiantiy”. He tells us that Christains “cannot go on speaking about prayer as if it were an alternative way of getting things done” (even though Jesus is reported as having told his disciples that they would get anything they prayed for.). He rejects the idea of devils as risible (even though the gospels report Jesus as functioning as, among other things, an exorcist). And as noted, he rejects the idea of Jesus as a miracle-worker.

One slightly wonders what they do in churches in Putney. If you can't use passages from the Bible which refer to miracles, Satan, or an omnipotent God, and if you don't believe in prayer, then what do you find to do for an hour and a half on Sunday morning?

(Question: Why is the idea of devils so often assumed to be medieval or supersititous, when the idea of God is treated with at least a modicum of respect? Is there anything inherently less sensible about believing in bad supernatural beings than believing in good ones?)

I am reminded of a lecture given by Don Cupitt while I was at York University. A guy I knew from the anarchist club stuck up his hand and said “I agree with nearly everything you are saying, but I don’t understand why you put it in terms of this reactionary Christian bullshit.” I’ve always thought he had a very good point. Fraser gives very cogent reasons for rejecting the religion which has always been referred to as Christianity; having done so, I can’t see why he wants to carry on referring to himself as a Christian.

Third, his doctrine of the incarnation is distinctly wobbly. He says that God “is” a pathetic baby, and that the divine essence “is” compassion and love. I actually don’t know what “is” means, here. Christians say that the God who made the universe was in some way was transformed into a baby. (Subject to a thousand years of hair splitting about what you mean by “God”, “baby” and “transformed”, obviously.) They see this as a paradox. (“Our god contracted to a span/incomprehensibly made man”...another hymn they presumably can’t sing in Putney.) Fraser appears to be saying that “helplessness” and “babyness” is in some way what God has always been like. Those silly, silly Jews made another mistake which the Christian story corrects.

He has a nice line in sending barbed nasties at people he doesn’t quite agree with. “Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe/of holynesse, to semen hooly and trewe” as the fellow said. It isn’t sufficient for Fraser to say that the standard theological answers to the problem of evil are inadequate. The people who put them forward have to be bad people. (“and one has to question the moral health of those whose only concern...”) Is it really likely that those who he has heard propose solutions to the problem of evil are doing so because they have no other concerns? Isn’t it more likely that they are undergraduates attempting to answer a question that has been set them? And are they really trying to “find God an alibi” or “let him off the hook”? Isn’t it more likely that they are asking whether it is intellectually or morally possible to believe that there is any such being as God in the first place? Fraser doesn’t seem to mind us asking these question: but if you try to answer them, you aren’t merely foolish -- you are morally sick.

I also like the bit about the “ ‘so-called’ problem of evil”. Reminds me of Dorothy L Sayers reference to a war-time leading article which referred to Hitler and his dupes as “these so-called Germans.”

Fraser appears to be saying that knowing the answer to the Problem of Evil would be of no help in councelling a bereaved mother. He’s probably right. He concludes that it is silly, or futile, or pointless or actually bad to ask the question, which seems to me to be a non sequitur. The “problem of evil” is a logical problem. So it is not very surprising that people try to come up with logical answers to it. And it is not very surprising that answering a logical problem doesn’t help you solve a pastoral one.

The"problem" of evil itself is actually very simple. It’s a bit like the old business proverb: “You can have it cheap. You can have it quick. You can have it good. Pick any two.”

Similarly, you are welcome to pick any 4 statments off the following list:

1: God exists
2 God is good
3: God knows everything.
4: God can do anything.
5: Bad things happen.

But you can’t logically believe in all 5.

If God doesn’t exist, then there is no problem. Bad things happen: they just do. (It’s probably even a fallacy to call them bad. One baby dying, or a lot of people dying in a natural disaster, is not “bad” in any cosmological sense. We just happen not to like it very much. It would be better to just say “stuff happens” and leave it at that.) But if you were prepared to say “God doesn’t exist”, then you wouldn’t be a vicar, even a Church of England vicar. If you want God to carry on existing, you have to chose one of the remaining four lines to delete.

So: cross out line 2, and there is no problem. God exists, and knows about all the bad things which are happening, and could stop them if he wanted to, only he doesn’t want to, because he isn’t good, not in the sense that we usually mean. Maybe we are so Totally Depraved that we couldn’t possibly know the difference between Goodness and Badness, and all our arguments are therefore invalidated. Maybe God is like Galactus or the Force, totally above “good” and “evil”. Maybe the God who is running this universe is actually a Baddy. There have been wacky forms of Christianity which say that an evil demiurge created the universe against God’s will; or that for the time being, God has delegated the running of this world to Satan.

Not happy with an evil or amoral God? Then cross out line 3. The reason that so many bad things happen in the world is because God doesn't know about them. Either he created the universe and then left it running like a clockwork thing, with a view to coming back and checking up on it in a few billion years, or else he just happens to be looking the other way at the moment. Maybe it's our job to draw his attention to the problems down here, and the reason bad things happen is that we aren't all praying hard enough. This was the line taken by the Diests and some Country and Western singers.

You’d rather God was omniscient? All right then, dispense with line 5, and say that in actual fact, bad things don’t happen in the world, so there is nothing surprising about the fact that God doesn’t stop them. If you go down this path, you’ve got lots and lots of options. You can either say that, in actual fact, things like earthquakes and AIDS don’t happen at all: that they only figments of our imagination. Or you can say that they certainly happen, but they aren’t actually bad. Maybe they are a divine punishment, and therefore a good thing. Or maybe they are less bad than the alternatives, because we live in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe living in a place where bad things happen is a necessary part of the process whereby we grow into sons of god. Or maybe dying isn’t actually an evil, because you go to heaven (or hell, if you deserve it, which is still good in the long run). Maybe dying in a disaster is actually an advantage, because it concentrates your mind wonderfully so you have got more chance of making a good end, getting saved, and going to heaven.

Does this sound callous to you? Then reject point 4. Bad things are bad, and God knows they are bad, and God wants to help...but he can’t. Because he isn’t omnipotent. This one is harder work, but you could say that God is one of two or more forces in the universe, and right now, the Devil has the upper hand. Or you could say that it just so happens that God is powerful enough to bring the universe into being, but not powerful enough to control everything in it on a day to day basis. Or that God’s omnipotence doesn’t stretch to doing things which are literally impossible (like making four sided triangles, or two hills without a valley between them) and “a world in which nothing bad ever happens” is one of those literally impossible things. Or that when he created the universe he said “I am going to waive my omnipotence: there will be lots of things in this creation that I can’t influence.” ("Human free will" is often invoked in this context, although I have never been quite sure how it helps.) Or maybe, in some complicated way, God just happens not to be omnipotent. Maybe he is more like a vulnerable baby in a manger. Maybe the essence of the divine is not power but love. Maybe...

You will, of course, have spotted, that this is precisely the line taken by the Vicar of Putney. Granted, he wraps it up in a lot of thought-for-the-day-Latin which, frankly, has no meaning that I can discern. (“Far from being a reason for people to to take their leave of God, many find that the language of God is the only language sufficient to express their pain and grief” ... what?), but what he actually does is deny, at length and repeatedly, God’s omnipotence. Which is, as long as we are talking about the problem of pain, is perfectly good answer. His theory of a God who never answers prayers or does miracles or so so far as I can tell, does anything at all just as much a logical solution to the logical problem of pain as any other. “How can an omnipotent God let bad things happen.” “Because he is not omnipotent.” (And, I suspect, just as un-helpful in an actual pastoral situation. "Why did God let my baby die?" "Because he's a helpless baby in a manger and can't do anything about it.")

It seems that Giles Fraser is just as much of a moral sicko as the rest of us.