Sunday, February 17, 2013

"The Physical Impossibility of Debate In the Mind of Someone On the Internet" is now available in no-frills Epub and Mobi (kindle compatible, I do believe) versions. PDF is still available. Sales are already approaching double figures.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I wrote a thing about the thing that I wrote. And then I got someone who admires my writing very much to write some annotations. And then I stuck in some other bits and pieces I had lying around. and I put it together as a PDF. (I will take the arguments about formats for granted, and have a go at making an e-book tomorrow night.) If you are interested, please chuck a few coins in the tip jar and I'll e-mail it to you. Obviously, I don't do it for the money, I do it for the sheer love of people not knowing what the hell I am going on about, but about £1.20 per customer would be nice. It's about 20 page A5, including the original essay; comes in around 8,000 words, I guess. Possibly it will go some way to clearing up the confusion that the original piece generated.

Members of my direct family and people I've insulted in it will probably get one for free.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Physical Impossibility Of Debate In The Mind of Someone On The Internet

If you feel that this essay is worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" (PDF, epub, mobi) in return for a small donation.

Right so bitwixe a titlelees tiraunt
And an outlawe, or a theef erraunt,
The same I seye, ther is no difference.
To Alisaundre was toold this sentence:
That for the tiraunt is of gretter myght,
By force of meynee for to sleen dounright,
And brennen hous and hoom, and make al playn,
Lo, therfore is he cleped a capitayn;
And for the outlawe hath but smal meynee,
And may nat doon so greet an harm as he,
Ne brynge a contree to so greet mescheef,
Men clepen hym an outlawe or a theef.
Geoffery Chaucer

Woman is the nigger of the world.
John Lennon

Let us suppose, hypothetically, a country in which there was, and had always been, a link between complexion and seating on public transport.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that dark skinned people have to sit in the rear seats on busses, but light skinned people are allowed to sit in the front seats.

Let’s assume that this has been the case for so long that it’s practically invisible: most of the time, even the dark skinned people take it for granted that that’s the way things have to be.

Let’s also note that in this hypothetical and imaginary country, dark skinned people tend to come from the lower social classes, are less likely to own cars, and therefore have to use the bus service more frequently.

We could conceptualize this unfairness in two ways.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs would be for everyone to sit in the front seats, and that the dark colored people are disadvantaged by having to sit in the ones at the back.

We could say that the neutral state of affairs is for everyone to sit at the back, but the light skinned people have the advantage of being able to sit in the front if they want to.

Or we could say dark and light skinned people are equal (they can all sit down) but different (they have to sit in different areas.) But we probably wouldn’t. The phrase “equal but different” is used almost exclusively by light skinned people who are quite sure that dark skinned people are not their equal. So toxic is the phrase that even if a situation arises where it happened to be true — say, at a school where there were separate boys’ and girls’ soccer teams — you almost certainly wouldn’t use it.

So: either the dark coloured people are disadvantaged — suffering from unfair discrimination — or else the light coloured people have an unfair advantage or privilege. Both descriptions are equally true, or equally untrue: the glass really is both half empty and half full. But if you take the first model, you are apt to think in terms of stroppy black people demanding something extra; if you take the second, you are more likely to think in terms of mean white people refusing to share their treat with anyone else. Taking the second model also makes it harder to be indifferent: supporting the status quo means “supporting the privileged position of the white people.”

(Some parents tell children: “if you are very naughty, you will not get any ice cream.” Other parents tell them “if you are extra good, you will get some ice cream.” American parents, or at any rate, parents in American situation comedies, say “If you are bad, I will take away your ice cream privileges.” Using food as disciplinary tool is a really bad idea because and can result in all sorts of hang-ups and eating disorders.)

However you describe it, the situation is horribly unfair: so if the dark skinned people finally decide that they are going to sit in the front seats regardless of where law and tradition says they should sit, then everybody would support them on general principles.

There are, in fact, two sides two every question (apart from the one about who created the Silver Surfer.) It might, in fact, be that the fight about bus-seats isn’t worth having; or at any rate, that it isn’t worth having today. Better let the light skinned people keep their symbolic advantage than anger the more extreme elements on both sides and risk riots and reprisals. It is certainly the case that all the seats are much the same and the bus takes you where you are going regardless of where you are sitting. Changing a law, even an obviously unfair law, takes time, and the lawmakers may have more urgent matters they want to deal with first.(Politicians do have to think like that, at any rate so long as we remain a civil society with a constitution, laws and procedures, as opposed to one of those anarchists utopias where you tear up the rule book and everyone starts being spontaneously nice.) It might be that what is in everyone’s best interests is a harmonious society where even the most prejudiced light skinned people put up with even the most prejudiced dark skinned people, and that a gradualist approach to reform is more likely to bring this about than radical reform. Politicians sometimes have to think like that, too.

But I can’t imagine anybody actually arguing any of those points. The situation is so blatantly unfair that we would have a two-horse race: between the small minority of racists who don’t really want coloured folks on their busses in the first place, and an overwhelming majority who think that it is obvious (once the question has been raised) that everyone should be allowed to sit wherever they want to.

Similarly, there could in theory be a disagreement about what kinds of tactics the reformers should adopt. Should they simply disregard the law? (But doesn’t civil society depend on us all obeying laws, even laws we don’t like? If I am free to disregard the bus law, whence cometh my obligation to stick to the law about paying my fare, or the one about not punching the bus driver on the nose? Because it’s my duty is to obey a higher, god-given law of morality? But whose god? And who decides? The stronger side? But isn’t that how we got into this mess to begin with?) Do they have organized protests in which everyone ostentatiously and pointedly breaks the law on a particular day? Or do they start lying down in front of busses and picketing bus stations? Do they politely ask the transport staff to change the rules, or actively intimidate bus drivers until they are too scared to enforce them? What about the fellow who sets fire to himself on the back seat of the Number 9 to make his point? Or sets fire to someone else? Or blows up the whole bloody bus?

Most of us would say that it was our duty to support the dark skinned people regardless of whether or not we happened to like their tactics. Even discussing the tactics is tacitly supporting the injustice. The power imbalance is so obvious and blatant that it's incumbent on you to support the weaker side. You simply have no right to sit in the comfortable seats saying that, although you agree with the point that the people in the uncomfortable seats are making, you wish that they wouldn't make it quite so loudly. 

“But what if the dark skinned people adopt violent tactics: are you obliged to support them even then?” I think you are. Or rather, I think that once you have asked the question “do you agree with violent tactics?” you have put yourself on the wrong side. “Violence” means “use of force by the side we don’t agree with”. It’s a word that the powerful invented by strong people to describe tactics used by weak people. It’s just very odd to look at the entire machinery of a nation state bearing down on the little guy and say “I deplore the fact that the little guy threw a stone at a police officer.” 

“Terrorist” is what the big army calls the little army. It’s only “class war” when the poor fight back.

And this is true of every argument and every disagreement. Every quarrel is, in the end, a quarrel between a person with power, and a person without power. So you only ever have two alternatives: intervene on the side of the guy being beaten up; or intervening on the side of the guy doing the beating. If you do nothing, then you allowing big guy to carry on whacking the small guy, which amount to supporting the bully. If you say "But what if the fight really about? Maybe the little guy antagonized the big guy in some way?" then you are still doing nothing and allowing the victimisation to carry on. 

Of course, you may dress it up in fancy words. "I feel sorry for you" I may say "I genuinely do. I have nothing against dark coloured people. Some of my best friends have dark coloured skin. But philosophically, you will concede that it is part of the Cosmic Essence of buses that the dark coloured people must sit at the back  of them and light coloured people must sit at the front? You wouldn’t want to upset the Balance of the Force, would you? Or if you do not concede that, you must at least concede that that is part of my sincere and devout beliefs, and the since and devout beliefs of many other Jedi? So in order to preserve the Cosmic Balance, or out of respect for other people's faith, I must reluctantly sit in the comfortable seat. But do please understand that it isn’t about you. It’s about the bus.”

If I said this, I think that you might well take the view that I hadn't really said anything at all. All my talk about the Force and Cosmic Essences amount to "Well, I would give up my seat, but I don't feel like it." La la la I'm not listening!

Of course, most people are better at concealing their privilege under a poor mask of logic; but that's all it ever is -- a mask. Suppose I say: “Why does the law ban me from killing foxes for sport, but permit me to keep chickens in horribly inhumane conditions?” Aren't I just invoking concepts like "humane" and "even-handedness" — which are in the long run just as made-up an imaginary as the Cosmic Essence of Busses — to assert the hereditary right of rich people (like me) to own the countryside and do whatever they like it in? 

Or if I say "Is there any statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the number of murders in society?", aren't I just invoking mystical concepts like "statistics" and "evidence" to occlude my belief that I'm a rich white guy, want rich white guys to stay in charge, and think that culling a few hundred poor black guys every year to show the who's boss is a small price to pay for maintaining the status quo? My use of terms like "murder" and "capital punishment" show pretty clearly which side I'm on. When a weak person kills a strong person, we call it "murder"; when a strong person kills a weak person, we call it "capital punishment". (C.f The school teacher hitting a little boys backside with a big stick, while chanting "")

It isn't that my arguments are "bad". It's the whole idea of "argument" that's the problem. "Arguments", "logic", "evidence", "proof", "neutrality" are things you learned in school, and schools were set up by rich white guys to teach ideas thought up by rich white guys in order to keep rich white guys in charge. 

How did the light skinned people get to sit at the front of the bus in the first place? Not by winning an argument, that's for sure.

Everything's really all about power. (Unless everything's really all about sex, but that's an argument for another day.) You might think that you are talking about theology or music or sanitation but if you look under the bonnet, it's always really about who gets to sit at the front of the bus. The question is never "who is right?: it's always "which side are you on?"

All of which leaves me rather stuck.

So far as I can see, everything I've said above is true. But when I'm asked a question, my inclination is always to work out the answer from first principles. At any rate, to use some kind of argumentation and try to work out what the other fella is trying to say, and if he's wrong why he's wrong and if he might have a good point. Which keeps putting me on the wrong side of the question.

I have just deleted three separate paragraphs giving examples of questions I may be on the wrong side of. I know how toxic discussions about questions that people are on the wrong side of can become, and how quickly. 

I have also deleted a paragraph about why I think they become toxic. It has been explained to me that when I try to do that kind of thing, I come out, to use the technical jargon, "sounding like a cunt". (I suppose this is why it is called "vulgar Marxism".)

Despite early assurances, the internet does not contain a 3D virtual reality in which I can be taught Kung Fu by Lawrence Fishburne and drown Tom Baker. All the internet actually contains is words. Lots and lots of words. Oceans of words. Millions of writers telling us what they think. Good writers, bad writers, indifferent writers; informed writers; ignorant writers; boringly right, engagingly wrong. Writers telling you what they think about what other people wrote about stuff they read on the internet. Derrida was right. There isn't any stuff. There's only people talking about stuff. I've never experienced a murder, or an election, or a football match, or (god forbid) an instalment of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. I just kind of intersect with the ripples these things put out in cyberspace. Which isn't really a space, and isn't really very cyber. It's more like a lot of very bored people making wisecracks in their coffee break. 

But all this argument is taking place in a space in which we have already agreed that argument is not even possible. "Right" and "Wrong" aren't qualities that any argument has: they are just descriptions of which side you are on in a big fight that has been going on throughout history, and will carry on until, any day now, history comes to an end.

And you knew that already. 

So why are you even reading this?

I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: think it possible that you might be mistaken.
Oliver Cromwell

The infidel might have a good point, you know. 
Les Barker

If you thought that this piece was worthwhile, please consider purchasing the "extended edition" in return for a small donation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Next time someone asks you what the BBC is for, listen to Kirsty's reaction to Martin Carthy's story about Scarborough Fair, and then listen to Benjamin Zephaniah reading the House at Pooh Corner for the first time. You just don't get moments like this on the tellybox. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cross Purposes

Can a place of work or a school have a dress code?

Ought a place of work or school to have a dress code?
Dunno. Depends on how extreme the code is and how good a reason for it there is. Asking people to wear hard hats on building sites, fair enough. Asking people to wear clowns hats in the office, not so much. Okay to ask men to wear a tie. Not okay to ban them from wearing trousers. Unless company in question was Jock McHamish's Kilt Emporium. Or the Perfectly Normal Transvestite Shop. Or, come to that, the Raunchy Nude Butler company. It's complicated.

Are you saying that dress codes aren't unreasonable in themselves, but a particular dress code might be unreasonable for some people under some circumstance?
It's complicated.

Is this a human rights issue?
We have to come up with a vocabulary and framework for talking about these things, and human rights seems to be the one we've decided. If they'd asked me, we'd have reserved "human rights" for the big stuff like torture and war crimes, but they didn't. When t.c Tony Blair talked about access to the internet being a human right, I started to think that "human rights" had become one of those phrases that used to have a meaning but now just indicate mild approval from the speaker, like "stakeholder", "zero tolerance", and "British".

Might this ever be a human rights issue?
If a prison or school or branch of Tescos had a policy of enforced nudity, then that would be a breach of someone's human rights, as well as an interesting premise for a porno movie. We should be careful of making assumptions about how different people from different backgrounds feel about modesty. If your culture tells you to wear a turban, what does it feel like to be caught with no turban? Is it more like "How incredibly embarrassing! I've come to work without putting a tie on"? Or is it more like "OMG my knickers have fallen down in public and everyone can see my arse!"? It's only a couple of generations since a woman walking down the high street without a hat would have caused a genuine scandal, after all.

If a place of work or a school has a dress code, should there be exceptions to it for people with strong religious convictions?
It depends on the importance of the original dress code and the importance of the religious conviction. I don't think that I should be exempted from wearing protective clothing at work because I happen to have decided that I feel like wearing my "Smile, Jesus loves you" tee shirt today. If a company has made a rule about wearing badges, then I am not sure that it makes any difference if the badge in question is a skull and cross bones or an icthus. 

What are these strange "badges" of which you speak?
I believe that they are what foreigners would call "buttons". You may have become confused about the differences between "trousers" and "pants" several pages ago.

Is the law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith a breach of their human rights?
I don't know. But it seems pretty intolerant and mean spirited to me.

Is there, in fact, a law prohibiting Christians from displaying signs of their faith?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. Just walk down your street and count how many cars have Christian fishes on them, and, for that matter, how many cars have those nasty little Darwin fishes on them.

Do some companies have a dress code which forbids the wearing of jewellery at work?
Apparently so.

Are people who want to wear crosses, stars of david or rosaries at work automatically exempted from the "no jewellery" rule?
Apparently not.

Have you ever seen anyone wearing a rosary at work?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

Should there be an exception?
It depends on the importance of the rule and the importance of the jewellery. If you are working on a production line and jewellery is dangerous, then there should probably not be an exception. If you are putting books on shelves in a library and it's a very small and discrete cross, then there probably should be. If wearing a small cross is a compulsory element of your sect, then almost definitely. 

Wouldn't that mean that Motorhead fans and members of the Liberal Democrats would suddenly decide that wearing small badges was a compulsory part of their faith?
Almost certainly. If you say that "literary merit" is a defence against a charge of indecency or obscenity then every publisher in the country is going to claim that his top shelf magazine is a work of serious literature.

Are there, in fact, any Christian sects for whom wearing a cross at all times is compulsory?
No. Of course not. Don't be silly. 

So how did "the human rights court is deciding if companies should be legally obliged to waive their dress codes for Christians who want to wear jewellery to work" become "the human rights court is deciding if Christians should be banned from wearing crosses in public"? 
See under "Eric Pickles", above. 

Why does he think its such a big deal?
It isn't quite clear. He doesn't think that people should be allowed to wear crosses because everybody should have the same freedom as everybody else and subject to that as much freedom as possible; he thinks that people should wear crosses because Faith is a good thing and we want more of it. It doesn't matter too much in what. But he has a purely instrumental view of this Faith stuff.  He doesn't think Faith is a good in itself; he thinks it's a good because "it provides a clear moral compass and a call to action that benefits society as a whole", whatever that means.

So he really cares about "society as a whole" and sees Faith as a means to an end?
That's what I meant by "instrumental", yes. 

So, in fact, he worships "society" rather than God?
Yes Socrates; that is indeed the case.

Is that roughly what you would expect a member of discredited right wing government to do in a country where the dominant folk religion has always been a sort of Christian tinged secular pelegianism?
Oh, Socrates, you are so much cleverer than us!

Would the world be a happier place if I refrained from reading the Daily Telegraph even when someone has left a copy of it on my table?
Very probably.

What's the difference between analogy and allegory?
Analogy is when strawberries being you out in spots. Allegory invented the internet.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Loose Ends (5)

C.S Lewis's "trilemma" was never intended to be a proof of the existence of God. Again.

The radio broadcasts were never aimed at atheists. There weren't any atheists in England in 1940, and if there were they didn't listen  to religious talks on the wireless. They were specifically commissioned to appeal to those who "on whom church membership sits lightly."  Lewis's target audience are people who may think that "cardinal sins" are the kinds of sins committed by Roman Catholic cardinals and that the "begotten, not created" bit in the creed has something to do with the virgin birth. People who don't know but want to know, or who are prepared to listen. Translating big ideas for the benefit of the Common Man who is certainly not stupid but is almost completely uneducated. His attitude can certainly seem incredibly patronising, as indeed can everything else that the BBC did between 1922 and 1984; but they were wildly, wildly popular, turning Lewis into an instant celebrity and cult figure. 

I therefore become exasperated in a not at all mean spirited way when people just repeat the old saw that Lewis was a bad or dishonest polemicist because the "aut deus aut malus homo" argument is merely a "dodgy rhetorical flourish". He is directing the argument at people who think of themselves as Christians, but who honestly don't know what kinds of claims are put into Jesus' mouth in the New Testament; who honestly believe (because generations of dishonest clergymen and schoolteachers have told them so) that the Jesus of the Bible was a moral teacher and nothing more; that to be a Christian means "to be good"; that the expression "Son of God" means "person whose moral teaching we agree with". Lewis is showing why this doesn't work. It obviously doesn't work. 


The aforementioned Francis Spufford gives the trilemma very short shrift, as I mentioned in the review. He argues, very interestingly, I think, that the mystical transcendent sense of being in contact with God can be very emphatic even for very ordinary believers; so it would have to be utterly overwhelming for a remarkable and holy man such as we must suppose "Yeshua" to have been. Believing that you are God is a perfectly imaginable response to such an extreme experience. If human experience is such that perfectly sane people can come to believe that there is a God, it's possible to see how a perfectly sane person could come to believe that he is  God.

Of course, Dawkins has sufficiently poisoned the discourse that most people probably don't think that it is possible for a sane person to believe in God: me and Jesus and Rowan Williams and the Vicar of Dibley are mad and bad by definition, so the whole argument is rather moot.  

While Spufford is, in my opinion, a bit harsh on Lewis, he is very good about the whole scholarly debate about the New Testament documents and the "historical" Jesus. The Gospels are clearly stories, not news reports, and have to read as such, something which Lewis, curiously, never really came to grips with. On the other hand the, the populist notion that the stories depict a sweet Lennonist moral sage and nastybadjewish St Paul perverted them into a religion about a deified saviour is completely false. The earliest Christian writings we have are about a divine, resurrected saviour who is coming back Real Soon Now. The narratives are written decades later. 

Granted, those narratives must have had antecedents and sources - St Luke says explicitly that he's editing previous accounts - and all scholars agree that our best link to the really really original totally historical utterly authentic Jesus of history is a lost fifth Gospel that collected a lot of parables and teaching. [*]

Spufford cleverly makes the point that, even if this is correct, that still doesn't get us back to a sweetly human Jesus of simple morality as preached by Douglas Adams, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth II, Woody Guthrie, Geraldine Granger, Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school, John Lennon and David Icke. 

He (Spufford) writes:

"Moreover, even if you try to discard everything in the biographies which is explicitly devoted to storytelling Jesus's divinity, and just concentrate on the bits which must have come most uncontentiously from the lost sayings-collection, you still don't get back to a layer in which he's just a wise person dispensing wisdom....'If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt too' is not 'great moral teaching' in this sense. It is either foolishness, or something else."

Not great moral teaching. Either foolishness, or something else.

Now, what does that remind me of?  

[*] Except the ones who don't.

My previous seventeen essays on the Trilemma, can be found in "Do Balrogs Have Wings?"  along with that essay on Planet Narnia everyone wanted so badly. The unsigned copies are the valuable ones.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Loose Ends (4)

I may at some stage try and write a review of the Hobbit

But on the other hand, I may just sit in the corner and weep softly to myself. 

Man of Steel looks appalling, and after dubbing the last one The Abomination, I would be a bit of a humbug to go and see Into Darkness. 

I am greatly looking forward to The Miserables. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Even Looser Ends

(Responding to comments on previous thread. I will get back to writing about funnybooks soon, I promise.) 

Before writing anything about religion, I really ought to write, "I AM NOT NEARLY AS PIOUS AS I AM PROBABLY SOUNDING" in large letters at the top of the page.

The religious don't think of God as only, or even mostly, as Universe Createy Guy. (This is why most of them found that Hevolution required only relatively minor adjustments.) So I don't think that saying "God is like a father" can be mostly a way of conceptualizing the concept of Creation. In any case, Christians almost never talk in terms of God bringing the universe into being like a father bringing a child into being. If anything, it's more like a craftsman constructing something. (Hence "begotten, not created" in the Creed.) The reluctance to call God "Mother" is possibly connected to this: "God the Mother" is always in danger of giving birth to the universe, which changes the way you think the universe is related to God. Joseph Campbell goes on and on about this. 

Note that I didn't say "If Christians are right to conceptualizes God as sky-father..."; I said "If Christians are right to call God 'Father'" (or, as I then said "Daddy"). 

"What we call God" = "How we address God" = "What kind of relationship we think we have with God". 

Is there an imaginative difference between thinking that you can approach the divine as "Daddy" and thinking you can approach it as "Mummy"? 

I think there possibly is, maybe. 

At any rate, masculine imagery is used right through the Bible, and once you've said "God is neuter", "God is hermaphrodite" or "God is an energy field created by all living thing, he surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the galaxy together" you'd have to rethink all the other images and metaphors in the Bible. What would you do with the mystical wedding feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation; the allegorical level of the Song of Songs; the parable of the Prodigal Son; the story of the Seven Foolish Virgins waiting for the Bridegroom; etc etc etc?

This is the problem with ultra free translations of the Bible. All very cute for Miss Muir to tell us that the Missionaries sometimes taught Natives that Jesus said "I am the coconut of life", but how did they then deal with the passage about the Jews leaving Egypt in such a hurry that they had to eat unleavened coconuts, which is clearly relevant to the story of Jesus' giving coconuts and wine to his disciples.

An evangelical pastor once posted a "wayside pulpit" poster outside his church, reading:


Back in prehistory, when the Church of England first debated the whole question of Lady Vicars, I think the position of most of us liberal evangelicals was along the lines of "Well, we are far from sure that a vicar does act as the ikon of God, because we are far from sure that we believe in that clergy are "priests" in that sense. But we are quite sure that a female priest can be an ikon of God the father just as much as a male one can." 

I mean, that was what we thought when we weren't thinking "This is a rather obscure and technical point to be making quite such a lot of fuss about." 

The only time we became jumpy about the whole thing was when a minority of women's ordination exponents said "A female priest can be an ikon of God because the Bible and tradition is completely mistaken to think of God as father". "Oor, er" we said "It now sounds as if you are making a change to the whole grammar of faith rather than, as we thought, correcting an obvious and silly historical injustice." 

A woman's ordinands wrote to the Guardian and said "The only difference between me and Robert Runcie is that he has a penis and I don't." The great Auberon Waugh responded in his column "Even at the purely psyiological level, this argument is bollocks."  It is entirely possible that I have quoted that before. 

A 2007 post by me, entitled "A Completely Unfunny Posting" gets more hits, by a fact of about five to one, than anything else I have ever written. I initially thought that, since it contains a lot of bad religious jokes, it must be linked to from some religious or theophobic website that I can't find. It has been pointed out to me, however, that in the course of the piece I frivolously refer to Mr Dawkin's imaginary "memes" as "midichlorians", so the hits are probably coming from very disgruntled Star Wars fans, none of whom have bought my book.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Loose Ends (3)

I think that "Jacob" makes a very valid point

I think his very valid point is this: The whole idea that the relationship between two men might be lawful and blessed, but not sacramental; and the whole idea that it's perfectly fine for a female to to be Queen or head of MI5 but impossible for her to consecrate the Eucharistic clearly implies that differences (and therefore, in certain respects at least, inferiority and superiority) are built into the whole system. That makes the whole system rotten at a very deep level.

I am very sympathetic to this argument, and actually used it myself the first time I wrote about this subject, back in the Jurassic era. 

I would, however, ask "Jacob" to charitably consider my analogy with the pagans -- the ones who hypothetically believe that the male and the female principle are hard wired into the universe, and a man can't be an earth mother any more than you can make rabbit stew without a rabbit. It's not a rule that someone made up; it's a description of how things are. 

This would make things actually a lot more sticky because if 

a: Sexism and homophobia are actually implicit in the whole idea of calling God "Father" 


b: Calling God "Father" is a significant Christian belief 

then it follows that

c: telling Christians that they have to have female priests and marry same sex couples really does amount to saying that their whole concept of God is not permissible; which really does amount to saying that they can't practice their religion; which is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on how Christophobic you are. 

But I am now making a hypothetical argument on behalf of a hypothetical person whose hypothetical views I don't myself agree with and may not even have properly understood. Some people may question the usefulness of such an exercise.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Loose Ends (2)

Using analogies sometimes helps me to think straight. I think they may sometimes help other people think straight as well. 

Jesus once said "You don't know when you are going to be burgled, so you lock up every night. Similarly, you don't know when I'm coming back to earth, so be prepared for me all the time." I don't think it follows from this that Jesus is like a house breaker; or spirituality is like a mortice lock; or pastoral care is like being a a crime prevention officer; or that the second coming is going to result in damage to your DVD collection. I think that the burglar has one specific element in common with Jesus, i.e the element of surprise. (Jesus also said that human beings were to God as litigants were to magistrates; I don't think he intended us to think that the prayer involves filling out endless forms, knowing the correct forms of address, wearing funny wigs etc etc etc.)

I get very bored with people wilfully misunderstanding analogy. Only the other day, a friend of mine said to another friend "Oh, if your bike is a mighty stallion, my bike is only a little shetland pony." I naturally responded "That's outrageous and Shetlophobic! Have you ever seen a pony with wheels?"

When an organisation -- let's call it "The Church of England", for the sake of argument -- confuses two elements of its own anatomy, let's say for example its arse and its elbow - over some particular issue -- let's hypothetically say "the ordination of women Bishops" -- everyone naturally feels very cross / ashamed / defensive / bored. Christophobic writers are naturally inclined to jump up and down with joy and say "You see! That proves what I've been saying all this time".  Bloggers are inclined to reply "Well, I think it's actually more complicated than that" even though in this case it probably isn't. 

So I think it can sometimes be helpful to take a step back and say "Let us imagine a different organisation, called X, that has made a different arbitrary rule, prohibiting a particular group (Y) from holding a particular office (Z)" What would follow?  Does the breadth and significance of Z within the organisation, the position of Y in the power structure, or the influence of X in the community make a difference; or is prejudice against Y over Z just as serious as prejudice against A, B or C over D, E or F. Because I am a terribly funny and witty writer (terms and conditions may apply) I like to think of silly values for X, Y and Z in order to make the analogy more memorable, and the essay less boring. If I ask us to think about a custard factory which won't allow blue eyed people to sweep the floor, it doesn't, mean that I think that the historical oppression of women is no more serious than the historical oppression of blue eyed people, or that carrying out the Great Commission and administering the Eucharist is like manufacturing egg thickened confectionery cream. I'm just trying to sort out in my own head what exactly it is we are disagreeing about.

I realise that many of us would rather not sort out in our heads exactly what it is we are disagreeing about. I think that many of us would rather just form battle lines and shout at each other. Which is great fun and excellent aerobic exercise, I admit. 

I think that many of us really do think that the Church of England is really a social movement like the Campaign for Real Ale or the National Society for the Prevention of Children, that all the ceremonies and rituals are more or less dispensable decoration (like one of those Laurel and Hardy men's clubs with jokey initiation rituals). Whereas I think that some of the people getting their knickers in a twist about ordination probably think that the ceremonies and rituals are the main thing, possibly even the only thing, which the organisation is there for. I think that most people "get" that there are groups of people like wiccans and druids and Alan Moore who honestly believe in rituals and ceremonies and spells which have some kind of actual effect. (Most of us also think that they are as fruity a batcakes, but that's not the point right now.)So I think it is sometimes helpful to say "Pretend that we were not talking about Christians saying that a lady can do anything except perform Holy Communion; pretend that we were talking about a group of wizards saying that a blond haired man could do anything except cast a Fireball spell - what would you say in that case?"

Which isn't the same as saying that I think that the Church of England is similar to a covenant of fire wizards, or that transubstantiation does 1D6 damage per level, or that I am going to carry on labouring this particular point for the next twelve months, necessarily.

I believe it to be the case that in a modern wiccan ceremony, only a man can embody the horned god and only a woman can embody the earth mother, because the male and female principles are believed to be real part of the cosmos. Peter Owen-Jones certainly had to get into the nuddy. But I don't actually know anything about modern neo-paganism, which is why I prefer to make up hypothetical examples. 

To digress back to the last point but one: someone might say that a belief that there really are male and female cosmic principles is Sexist; some might say that such a belief is Sexist, but not in a bad way; and others might say that it is not Sexist, because it is true. And someone else might say that if it were true, it wouldn't be sexist, but since it isn't, it is. You can define the word how you like, but it is not much help to deliberately think up a definition which will apply to people you think are wrong and then say that they must be wrong because they conform to you definition. 

Someone will say that imagining wizards who, while not otherwise prejudiced against bald people, say that the best spells can only be cast by people with hair, doesn't change the argument at all, because discrimination is discrimination and discrimination is always wrong. Telling a white man that he can't play in your Very Authentic Traditional Blues Band, or a black man that you don't want him in your Very Authentic Traditional Morris Dancing Side is no different from saying that he can't stay in your hotel, sit in the best seat on the bus, or vote in election.[*] Once you have conceded one kind of prejudice, however minor, you have conceded that prejudice is okay really. There are no grey areas. Never compromise: even in the face of antidistestablishmentarianism, never compromise. 

As a matter of fact, I would probably agree with you, although I draw the line at mixed gender changing rooms. But I think that extended hypotheticals about the Red Headed League may have helped to clarify the point. No disrespect intended. No intention to trivialize important issues. I don't for one minute mean to imply that you really have been chucking feathers and lumps of lead around in a vacuum.

[*] It obviously makes a difference if you say that the only people who can stay in your hotel, sit in the best seats in the bus, or vote at elections are Morris Dancers, Bluesmen, or High Level Wizards.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Loose Ends (1)

I don't think that "having false beliefs about" and "hating" are necessarily the same thing.

Er. that's it, basically.

I mean, I could say some other things if I felt like it. I could arbitrarily decide that I was going to spend 2013 referring to Richard Dawkins as "Christophobic". I could speculate about whether the use of the same word to describe "having false beliefs about" and "hating" is inadvertent, or tactical or sometimes one or sometimes the other and sometimes both. I could play around a bit with with words like "antisemitic" and "islamophobic" and wonder if everyone who is bothered by (say) ladies wearing face masks is "islamophobic", and whether that means they are wrong, necessary  But I don't think I will. 

Having false beliefs and hatred are not necessarily the same thing. But sometimes they are. Really, that's it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

(warning: stayed up very late last night listening to folk music, got on coach very early this morning to travel oop north to visit friends, godchildren, dogs, etc and, incidentally, listen to folk music; consumed coffee and far too many Pro Points worth of sugary snack in cafe with wifi connection. may possibly be shooting from the hip slightly more than is traditional.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter


Well, it's obviously a mess, but.

There is a famous story about a Catholic and a Jew who wanted to get married. The local Priest didn't think Catholic boys should marry Jews, and the local Rabbi certainly didn't think that Jewish girls should marry anyone other than Jews. However, the local Vicar thought that it was his job to marry anyone in his parish who wanted to get married, regardless of their faith, so he married them. 

Anyone who ever read the Dandy knows that the longest word in the English language isn't "antidisestablishmentarianism", it's "smiles".

Some Anglican clergy have genuine, sincere, theological beliefs that marriage is something which can only occur between a man and a woman. I realize that territorial battle lines have been drawn, and you either have to see these people as martyrs or homophobes, when they are mostly neither. The point isn't whether they are right, the point is that it's really what they think.

It is very easy to write a law which says "so far as the state is concerned, marriage is now between any two people regardless of sex, but naturally, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Wesleyan Holiness people don't have to marry two men if they don't want to, any more than they have to marry two people who they don't think are sufficiently Wesleyan, sufficiently Holy or sufficiently Adventurous." The state has no interest in what ceremonies are performed by particular sects. 

But it is very difficult for the law to say "marriage is now between any two people, but individual clergy of the established church don't have to marry two ladies if they don't want" because the whole point of the established church is that it will marry anybody, christen anybody, and bury anybody who asks them do. (It prefers that the parents of the people it christens so some signs of understanding the Anglican teaching on baptism, and that the people it buries are dead.) 

So, as someone with some background in games design, the proposed law which says that any sect is free to conduct same sex weddings if they want to, no sect has to conduct same sex weddings if it doesn't want to, and the established church isn't allowed to even if it does want to is actually a brilliant manoeuvre  given that the rules of the game are where they are. If we didn't have establishment, then the situation wouldn't arise, but we do, and we're stuck with it, because Dave and Ed and Nick love basking in the reflected glory of the Queen, and any suggestion that we might change the Queen's job description would be denounced as treason by the people who really run the country (Murdoch and Dacre.)

It's still a mess, though. I still think we should go for the Hamlet option...

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Book Review

by Francis Spufford
I am old enough and uncool to have sung "I serve a risen Saviour" without any sense of irony. (Irony not being something which Methodist youth groups named Sunday Session are known for.) You remember the one: 

“He lives! 
He lives! 
Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me! 
He talks with me! 
Along life’s narrow way!
He lives! 
He lives! 
Salvation to impart! 
You ask me how I know he lives?
He lives…!
My heart…!”

I recall a (male) speaker at my college Christian Union taking issue with the song, pointing out that it invited the response “You ask me how I know he doesn't live? He doesn't live within my heart.” Had you asked St Paul how he knew Jesus lived, he suggested, he would have replied “He lives because a massive great stone was moved away from his tomb, and five hundred people actually saw him, go and ask them, they’re still alive.”  Which wouldn't have scanned.

Christian Unionists insisted on Christianity being historically based; objectively true; a God Who Acts in History; not a dead hero but a risen saviour, the Resurrection is the best attested event in history. Once you have memorized Who Moved The Stone? and can confidently show why it is impossible that Jesus Swooned On The Cross; The Disciples Moved The Body; or The Women Went to the Wrong Tomb then you've established the literal truth of Christianity with geometrical certainty. I wonder what they would make of this book?

In one sense, Francis Spufford is making an even weaker claim than "he lives within my heart". 

"I don’t know whether there is (a God). And neither do you and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there…"

Which does, I suppose, invite the Village Atheist to respond "I don't know whether there is a God either. But it doesn't feel as if there is one, and so it makes sense..." I doubt that he would have got even that far, actually: he knows in advance that nothing exists except "knowable items", and that "not being a knowable item" is the same as not existing. 

But that's what makes this book such a refreshing read. The New Atheists say that there is No Evidence and that you should just stop worrying and enjoy your life. The Evangelicals say that there jolly well is Evidence That Demands A Verdict and that you should take on the Atheists on their home turf.  (That rarely ends well.) Spufford sort of admits that there isn't, in that sense, any evidence, and that all he has got to go on is a feeling, and then has a pretty good stab at saying what that feeling is like and why it's the kind of feeling which makes the whole "evidence" thing seem pretty unimportant. 

Some parts of his description work better than others. He's rather more convincing about Jesus than he is about God, as you might expect, and he gets a bit stuck on the problem of evil. Even Old Atheists might lose patience with his lack of answers. How does he know there's a God? He doesn't. There may well not be. If there is a God, why is the world so obviously horrible? He doesn't know, but when you've come a certain distance in believing in God, it seems to stop mattering. Did the story of Jesus actually happen? "Well, I don't know. I think it did. Miracles, resurrection and all. But I don't know." What about all the terrible things the Church has done? Well, a lot of that's true: but on the plus side, there's Holy Communion. 

It's an exaggeration to say that nothing like Unapologetic has been attempted before: it's recognizably a spiritual autobiography, and in it's jaunty, witty, four-letter-word-including way it follows the trajectory of a lot of spiritual autobiographies: becoming conscious of sin; calling out to God; encountering Jesus; coming to the foot of the Cross. ("Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners" might have done nicely as a subtitle although "Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense" looks more snappy in Waterstones.) But spiritual autobiography normally forces psycho-spiritual experiences through the sieve of theological language (because that's what that language has been developed to talk about) or else turns them into allegories (because making up concrete symbols for things you can't otherwise describe is what allegory is for.) I can't off hand think of another book written from the point of view of the man in the pew trying to be as honest as possible about how (rather than what or why) he believes.  

It's very entertaining: a lot of the fun is in the digressions, where he wanders off the point to talk about John Lennon or the gnostic scriptures or the wealth of the Church of England. There are some terrific footnotes. He has a direct, engaging, funny style, full of pointed analogies, direct addresses to the reader and very long sentences. 

He gets in some good hits at deserving targets:

"In fact the're something truly devoted about the way that Dawkinsites manage to extract a stimulating hobby from the thought of other people's belief......some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England , which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like doing needlepoint, or playing Subbuteo, or fitting a whole model-railway layout into an attaché case."

This is good, crowd pleasing stuff (always depending on who is in the crowd) but when he gets into serious argument, Spufford can be very nuanced. Take this passage, talking about the popular myth which says that if only you can cast off the taboos and rules which are preventing you from being yourself, you'll become truly happy, stop worrying and enjoy your life:

"Like all potent myths it has a large amount of truth in it. Over the last fifty years we really have been escaping, as a culture, from a set of cruel and constricting rules, particularly about sexuality and gender roles which (yes) did have the sanction of religion behind them. (Not that religion caused those rules to exist, on the whole. There was a malignant cultural consensus in their favour, of which religion was a part."

I suspect that that kind of honest good sense — Christianity was involved with the Bad Thing, but it didn't cause the Bad Thing and it doesn't follow that if you just took Christianity away the Bad Things would go away as well — is likely to irritate both sides. You can just imagine the Village Atheist howling "So you are trying to MAKE excuses for the Church's HOMOPHOBIA, are you, you obviously AGREE with it" while the evangelical would want a more robust defence. His chapter on the Church ("the international league of the guilty") is one of the best things in the book: rejecting out of hand the Sixth form Religion-Causes-All-Wars canard, but painstakingly going through all the specifically bad things that the church has specifically caused (anti-Semitism, body-hating asceticism, fear of hell) and looking at how they came about.  (Twistings of the message in most cases, but it was always part of the nature of the message that it could be twisted in those particular ways.) Very few axes seem to be being ground. He doesn't seem to be translating pre-conceived theology into journalism-speak. He really seems to be saying what he actually feels, whether or not it is going to support his case.

At times, his style makes me uncomfortable -- embarrassed, even. Because he’s trying to talk about faith from the inside, he’s necessarily telling us about his most personal feelings. In his opening pages, talking about how Christianity is regarded, outside of the Dawkins bubble, as not so much wrong or evil as tragically uncool, he remarks that “we get down on our actual knees” and something in me said “Do we? I mean, of course we do. But I wish you hadn't mentioned it.” Maybe the shifts between the jokes and the piety sometimes happen too quickly; maybe a book which refers to original sin as "the human propensity to fuck things up" needs some hand signals before doing a right turn into churchgoers being engaged in “the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us…as if we were all precious beyond price…” It’s like that cringe when the biology teacher shifts without warning from the reproductive organs of frogs to masturbation. A clash of register. But that may well be just the reaction he’s aiming for. 

The thrust of his argument is thusly. The Human Propensity To Fuck Things Up is a given; we all have the experience of waking in the night realizing that we have messed up our lives, though our own choices and that’s not pathological but a fact about what it is to be human. (Sin is “what flying a plane into a skyscraper has in common with persecuting the fat kid with zits” - bravo!) This can bring you to a point where you “turn to the space in which there is quite possibly no-one” and cry out “Hello? A little help in here, please?” and usually get no answer. I almost wish he’d left it there, and said that faith is precisely that: calling out to the empty space and not getting an answer. Noble Christian existentialism: I think that was probably what Kierkergaad believed in. 

Greatly to his credit, he doesn't do this, but instead gives us a rather awkward chapter about sitting quietly in church and just feeling that there is something real and loving underlying the universe. ("Behind, beyond, beneath all solid things there seems to be solidity.") Again, to his credit, he doesn't attempt the the manoeuvre that some Quakers, Hindus and Archbishops would attempt — that the feelings you experience in the silence are what is real, and “God” is simply a name we give to those feelings. He thinks that his experience of "bog standard transcendence" is a feeling about something: it sometimes feels as if God is there because he is. 

He admits that it's this experience of God which creates the "problem" of evil, because without the sense of a loving thing behind the universe, there isn't a problem, there's just stuff. He gives the standard theological solutions to the problem pretty short shrift: I was particularly pleased with his idea of the Eden story as a "cut out or circuit breaker (between) God and a derelict creation", and he's surely right to say that the story tries to have it both ways "We're fallen because of our HPtFtU; we have the HPtFtU because we're, um, fallen". But I think I have enough faith in Tradition to think that a story which has scriptural backing can’t be quite so easily rejected out of hand.  (A hypothetical Martian reader could, I think, get to the end of this book without realizing that the Hebrew scriptures were part of the book which Christians call the Bible, although his imaginative description of first century Judaism in the Jesus chapter is excellent.) If I felt slightly uneasy with his conclusion — that there is no answer to the problem of evil, but that most Christians find that it doesn't matter, they can still hold on to the thing they experienced in the quiet in church regardless of the obvious horrible stuff in the world — then I imagine that it would make the Village Atheist chuck the book across the room in disgust. But again, it’s the honesty which makes it such uneasy reading. And the fact that I think he’s probably right.

The impossibility of solving the problem of evil is preliminary to his quite brilliant chapter about Jesus, who he de-familiarizes as "Yeshua". I can see this chapter being taken out of context and used as devotional Easter-time reading for many years to come. I don't know if it's specifically intended as a riposte to Phillip Pullman's feeble book about the two Jesuses, but it feels as it could be: a novelistic synthesis of the gospels, at times very traditional (he seems to conflate Mary Magdalene and the woman taken in adultery) and at other times wittily iconoclastic:

"So tell me, teacher, says a solid citizen, as the remains of the baked eggplant are cleared away what must I do to be saved? Yeshua's gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests' feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I'd get rid of this lot for a start, he says."

I think he even allows Yeshua to say "fuck" at one point, although he doesn't put it in quotation marks. 

"This is the story that we have instead of an argument" he says -- meaning an argument which solves the problem of evil -- "and it is important that it is a story, making a story-like sense". In "The Child That Books Built" he used the expression "story-like sense" to gloss the argument that Tolkien famously made to his atheist friend Jack Lewis that Christianity was "a myth that really happened". Spufford mentions that Lewis's mad/bad/god trilemma is one of the all-time classic bad arguments; but no-one who has read the earlier book will be surprised to learn that his Yeshua sounds an awful lot like Aslan.  

I assume that everyone will take him at his word that the feelings he's describing are feelings that he has really had, and that they really are the source of his beliefs. ("It’s the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feeling; I don’t have the feelings because I've assented to the ideas.”) You’d have to be a very uncharitable Dawkinsbot to read this kind of book and say “Oh, don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes: you really believe in an old chap with a beard who made the world in seven days and all this subjectivity stuff is just spin-doctoring." But he's specific enough about what he does feel and what he does believe that no-one is going to go the other extreme and say that he's replaced God with a vague, mushy, spiritual mood. 

He comes out as a fairly mainstream C of E believer. The Yeshua of his story is definitely God; the miracles and the resurrection are an important part of that story; Yeshua's death really was to save us from sin. He avoids the language of punishment and retribution, talking instead in terms of  Yeshua sort of sucking in all the guilt for the bad things we've actually done. At one point it sounds as if he thinks that nearly the whole point of the Church is Holy Communion, and he doesn't quite commit himself on which side of the miracle / symbol line he comes down. He may not be a fully-fledged Alpha Course evangelical, but he's a traditional enough Christian that Giles Fraser would probably denounce him as a death-cultist.

He says that he think the life of Yeshua was all about mending and forgiving broken people in the here and now and that he doesn't really think in terms of heaven. While I agree that the whole "watching and waiting, looking above" otherworldliness is unhelpful, and that Yeshua did have a lot of awkward things to say about this-worldly social justice, I think the whole story is seriously compromised if you don't think it leads, in the end, out of this world into a different one. I also think Spufford is a little optimistic to say that Hell has been abolished, except for a few extremists. Probably no-one sensible still thinks of Hell in terms of an eternal step on which God is going to make the naughty sit for ever and ever (that would, he rightly says "make God himself a torturer") but the idea that the HPtFtU is such that some people will not let Jesus mend then and are going to carry their fuck-ups into eternity is pretty widespread, and I think, pretty important. (It's hard to avoid the fact that the New Testament puts passages about God's judgement into the mouth of Jesus himself. I'm also, incidentally, not quite convinced that Jesus' relative silence on sexuality means that he didn't think that what we did in bed really mattered, or that his absolutism about divorce should be read as proto-feminism.) 

It isn't quite clear whether Spufford thinks that what are universal human feelings have, for him, flowed into the shape of Christian orthodoxy because he happens to live in a Christian culture; or whether he thinks that the twin facts of guilt and transcendence necessarily add up to the Christ-story, or something a lot like it. 

It's hard to know who the book is aimed at. Atheists almost certainly won't read it. (The first chapter was published in the Guardian, and the on-line comments from "New" Atheists ranged from bafflement to simple rage.) Christians, both of the old style evangelical mould and the new style Giles Fraser social gospel type, may feel that he's divorced Christianity from reality, immunized it from criticism and therefore made it pointless. (The real thing is not about how you feel: it's either about the objective fact that you were objectively going to an objective hell and now you are objectively going to live forever in an objectively real heaven; or else it's a social programme about not picking on the fat kid and erecting tents outside St Pauls Cathedral.) 

But I think its going to prove to have been a genuinely important book. Many of us read Dawkins and Hitchens and say "Well, what you say is sort of right, but it isn't really the point." Spufford has done a pretty good job of articulating what the point is. The idea of the book, the whole concept of "a defence of Christian emotions" is what's important. If you "get" what he's trying to do, then he's probably made his point, even if you don't in the end think he succeeds. Maybe some serious theologians and philosophers and (most importantly) saints will get to work on the book and say that faith has to have some objective elements as well as some purely subjective ones. But the book will have still been worth writing. What's important is that he's attempted the journey, even if you can't go with him right to the end of the road.