Sunday, April 07, 2013

Moving on

After eight years, and more than a quarter of a million visits, I have shifted the blog to here. I'd be most grateful if you could update all your settings and feeds etc. This site will stay up for practical and historical reasons, but comments have been closed.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sit Down


I'll sing myself to sleep 
A song from the darkest hour 
Secrets I can't keep 
Inside of the day 
Swing from high to deep 
Extremes of sweet and sour 
Hope that God exists 
I hope I pray 

Drawn by the undertow 
My life is out of control 
I believe this wave will bear my weight 
So let it flow 

Now I'm relieved to hear 
That you've been to some far out places 
It's hard to carry on when you feel all alone 
Now I've swung back down again 
It's worse than it was before 
If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor 

Those who feel the breath of sadness 
Sit down next to me 
Those who find they're touched by madness 
Sit down next to me 
Those who find themselves ridiculous 
Sit down next to me 
Love, in fear, in hate, in tears 

Oh sit down 
Sit down next to me 
Sit down, down, down, down, down 
In sympathy 
Down

Saturday, February 16, 2013

TBLA(8): Biology and theology

John Richardson left a comment on an earlier post which I've been meaning to respond to - and now Bishop Alan has written on a related topic. It's unusual to disagree with John and +Alan on the same grounds, but there you go!

John writes: "I would have thought it was biology, rather than theology, that keep sex and procreation together, but this should affect our thinking about 'sexual relationships', especially where, in effect, they are not." +Alan writes: "Concepts of “natural” and “un-natural” are very fundamental to where people position themselves about homosexuality. There seem to be two basic perceptions from which everything else flows. As clearly and charitably as I can put it Either Homosexuality is a phenomenon against nature, and defies Creation and/or evolution Or Homosexuality is a phenomenon within nature, and thus part of Creation and/or evolution".

It seems to me that a properly Christian pattern of thinking needs to be careful about importing secular assumptions unnoticed when discussing certain scientific conclusions. That is, from a theological point of view, there is no neutral 'biology' from which we then draw theological conclusions; nor is there any mileage in the word 'natural'. Put differently, a properly theological perspective has the capacity (not the necessity) of construing the biological or the natural in a way that runs against any particular scientific consensus about 'facts' and, sometimes, it is obliged to do so. (This is essentially Milbank's point in Theology and Social Theory, although I think Wittgenstein got there first.)

I'll talk about the 'natural' first. The major problem with use of the word 'natural' in any discussion like this is that it cannot be given any substantive content. That is, human beings are themselves part of any 'natural' order - and so anything which human beings do is therefore 'natural' and the word loses any distinctive purchase. Alternatively, the distinction is drawn between the 'natural' and the 'human', in which case nothing 'human' is 'natural', and again the word loses its distinctive purchase. What use of the word 'natural' tends to be employed for is some sense of 'this pattern of activity aligns with this purpose' - that is, the substantive content of the word 'natural' when used in an argument derives entirely from the underlying aim envisioned for the human being, and it is at that level that the debate needs to engage. So, in matters of sexuality, one position envisions human sexuality as being entirely about procreation - this is what gets privileged as 'natural' - and therefore anything which is not procreative is proscribed as 'unnatural'. Alternatively, human sexuality is envisioned as being about pair-bonding and mutual affection etc, and therefore a much larger variety of sexual expression is 'natural'.

One way of progressing the debate might therefore be to enquire as to what is the actual 'biological' truth - is it the case that human sexuality is entirely about procreation, or not? Is it the case that, as John infers, it is 'biology' that keeps sex and procreation together? Where this aspect starts to break down, for me, is that it ignores the cosmic dimension of the Fall. That is, in Christian thinking, there is a distinction between the world that God originally made, and the world that we now inhabit. The latter is a broken or impaired form of the former, one that is slowly being redeemed and healed as we head towards the Kingdom. To say that it is biology that keeps sex and procreation together - if it is to do anything more than simply point out that (so far) conception is a biological process - does not advance our understanding very far. To return to the question of gay relationships, it is perfectly possible to say that homosexual attraction is a part of the evolved order in which we find ourselves, but to describe that as being part of the cosmic Fall. In other words, it doesn't actually advance the case in favour of gay relationships to point out all the ways in which there are gay relationships elsewhere in the existing order. It is perfectly possible for someone to say 'yes, that's true, but that's just evidence of our brokenness - it is not part of God's original intention and one day it will pass away'. (This relates to the ethical question about how to proceed if there was a 'cure' for homosexuality.)

There seems to be a distinction, therefore, between how something might be 'as God intends' and how things presently are - and from those to how we are to behave within our present context. I don't believe that appeals to 'biology' or what is 'natural' actually progress the discussion in a more Christian direction. What would do so, I believe, is if Christians began by pondering the rest of +Alan's post, most especially the shocking vitriol hurled at him for putting his head above the parapet on one side. If it is by their fruits that we will know them, then that is probably a much more certain place to start our considerations than any questions of biology or naturalness.

Who do we think we are?

Courier article.

Once upon a time, there was a gifted writer who told a story entitled 'The Dream of a Thousand Cats'. In this story, we learn that in the deep history of time life on earth was remarkably different. Cats were the dominant species; humans were merely their playthings. The conceit of the story is that slowly, the humans began to talk and dream of a different world – a world where they would be free of the tyrannical oppression of the cats, where they would be in charge. One day, enough human beings dreamed the same dream – and when they woke, from the dream, they discovered that the world had been changed. It had become what we would recognise today – where humans are dominant and cats are merely pets. The story itself is told from the perspective of a cat who has learned the truth, and who has dedicated his life to telling all other cats the same tale. If only a thousand cats would dream the same dream, they could once more rule the planet! But of course, as soon as that criterion is mentioned, any cat-owner will see why humans are safe from feline revolution...

Our imaginations are vastly more powerful than the official narrative of our society leads us to accept. The imagination is good for children – all those fairy tales! And it's good for entertainment – all those wonderful movies! But when it comes to the serious business of life, imagination just gets in the way. Those with imagination are seen as lacking in common sense, as being woolly-thinkers lacking a concrete connection to reality. Yet – ponder for a moment; look around you, wherever you are, and ask yourself what things that you see were not first conceived in the imagination of another human being? One obvious exception would be living creatures; another exception would be the sky – but what else? Every building, every street, every object in a house – all were first dreamed up by the imagination of one person or another.

The imagination is yet more powerful, for the simple reason that all of our understandings of the world resolve down to a level of story. Even the “hardest” of scientific facts take their place within a particular narrative – whether that be a narrative of the Big Bang or the narrative of evolution or something else. We are a story-making species, and it is the imagination that gives birth to the stories that structure our lives. The imagination determines the colour of the glasses that we wear, and through which we see the world. So it is not simply the objects in our world that are born in our imaginations, but the meaning that all those objects have, and the meaning of all our experiences besides. Put simply, the story that we tell about something or someone determines how that something or someone is understood – and therefore, what sort of activities and changes and lives might be possible.

This is why, in the Bible, the first and foremost task of the prophets – those people driven by the Spirit of God to engage directly with the political authorities of their time and place, from Moses to Jesus – was to engage people's imaginations. This would often be done through something called 'prophetic drama', which was an acting out of a scene or a parable which engaged people's imaginations. Jesus casting out the money-changers in the Temple is the most famous example, but there are many others. What the prophet first had to do was enable the people to dream; principally to dream that 'it doesn't have to be that way'. Always and in every case, it was the response of the political authorities to scorn such imagination, to repress and ridicule it, and, often, simply to terrorise and silence the dreamers. Yet, in just the same way that a 'war on terror' can never be won – for how is it possible to make war upon an abstract noun? So too is it impossible to eradicate a dream, once it has got into the bloodstream of a society.

This is what I believe we as a nation and a society have to talk about in the context of a referendum about our EU membership. What sort of a people are we? What is our dream of who we are? A previously dominant dream was one of Empire, but what is to take its place? Who are we? I can't help but feel it was a reaction to loss of Empire – to the breaking of a dream – that led to a loss of national self-confidence, and which in turn led to our engagement in the structures of European Union. It was if the guiding story was – we are a fading nation, we are not strong enough to make our own way in the world any more, let us join in with our neighbours and seek safety and prosperity through their strength. That particular story – a story perhaps most closely associated with the anarchic 1970s – is not one that holds true for us any more. My own sense is that our 'national story' is much more effectively told through something like the wonderful 2012 olympic ceremony – we are not the Imperial people that we used to be but, actually, it's good to be British.

I believe that this sort of story-examination applies on an individual basis too – we literally become who we imagine ourselves to be (obviously, there is such a thing as delusion; that's not what I'm referring to). In other words, if we imagine ourselves as not worthy, we actually become less worthy – we defeat ourselves before we have ever stepped into the arena. This is the realm of faith – this is the realm of what Christians call 'spiritual warfare', which is the struggle between the voice that says we are weak and worthless and wicked, and the voice which much more quietly and more persistently says 'you are loved'. It is when we allow that latter voice to dominate the story that we tell ourselves about who we are that we are enabled to work creatively and imaginatively to heal and restore our broken world.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

TBLA(7): choices in a broken world

I take it as axiomatic for the Christian that we live within a Fallen world - in other words, a world that is broken, within which good things happen to bad people and the reverse, and in which we are often placed within a situation where there is no clearly right way forward. The expression 'choosing the lesser of two evils' is one that is, I believe, thoroughly appropriate for exploring our situation. There is, however, a clear distinction to be drawn between how a Christian responds to the choice of evils, and how a secular perspective might see things, and that is what I want to tease out.

In my house group the other day, we were considering a story of two soldiers in the Far East in World War 2 who were being pursued by Japanese forces. One of the soldiers was injured and impeding their retreat. He realised that unless his fellow soldier was able to go ahead without him, they would both be captured and tortured. Yet he didn't want to be captured and tortured himself, and so he asked his fellow soldier to shoot him dead.

Here is a classic instance of having to choose between evils. The evil of killing a friend, the evil of allowing the friend to be captured and tortured, the evil of both soldiers being captured and tortured. What is the right way forward?

I suspect that there is no necessarily 'right' answer - we do the best that we can, and we live with the consequences. We are all compromised, none of us have clean hands. Which is why the gospel makes such sense, and why it is liberating to be washed in the blood of the lamb - it means something.

What I want to insist on, however, is the difference between a Christian perspective upon a situation like this, and one that derives from utilitarianism (which is the ideology underlying most modern management and ethical thinking). The Christian perspective insists that there is a difference between the right choice from available options, and that choice being in some sense actually right. That is, it is perfectly possible - more than that, it is the normal human condition - for an act to be the right action in a situation and yet still be inherently sinful - and therefore, in an important sense, 'wrong'. To a utilitarian perspective - the right action is the action which maximises the available benefit (utility) - this is incoherent. It is not possible for an action to be the right action whilst also being in some sense wrong.

Viewing the world as broken, as a result of the fall, and yet also as being progressively redeemed, with the Kingdom breaking in, means that a Christian can actively sin even whilst pursuing the good to the best of their ability. This is spiritually hard work, but it is the nature of an honest discipleship. The difference comes in the vision held before us. Are we simply making short-term tactical decisions, or is there a direction in which we are travelling, and a destination that we are hoping to reach? With utilitarianism there isn't; with Christianity there is.

To bring this back to my TBLA theme, I want to talk about two social shifts that took place primarily through the late 1960s, and consider the consequences. The first is abortion. The justification of abortion is principally through what might be termed 'hard stories' - in which is is transparently obvious that the right conclusion to reach, which no morally sensitive person could avoid reaching, is that, in a particular case, an abortion should be procured. Such should therefore be allowable in law. Yet I do not believe for one moment that those who devised and enacted the change in the law ever anticipated that this shift would lead to the holocaust that has followed. As the change in the law effectively said to society that 'abortion is [a/the] right choice' it has become something seen as not morally significant - and this detachment from moral moorings has led us into a very dark place. A Christian perspective might well agree than an abortion in a particular case was morally defensible - but it would also insist that it remained an inherently sinful act - and it is that insistence which, I believe, stands as a bulwark against ongoing moral degradation.

In a similar fashion, there were hard stories that justified the change in the divorce law - cases where, clearly, a divorce would be the lesser of the available evils. Yet the same thing has happened. In the absence of a sense that a divorce is still inherently sinful - in the absence of a vision or ideal of what human marriage might be - the consequences of the change in the law, have, I believe, gone a very great distance beyond what was envisaged by those who changed the law, with consequent havoc and human misery following in its wake.

What I am wanting to describe is a situation in which something may be tolerated and accepted whilst still being seen as sinful and requiring of repentance. So, for example, in the Middle Ages, a knight returning from a Crusade, who had shed blood, would be required to sit in the porch of a church for a year before being readmitted to communion. There was a whole ritual space which recognised both the necessity of what the knight had to do and also the inherent sinfulness of it. Put differently, this was an understanding of the world which recognised the tragic nature of human existence, and put mechanisms in place to enable fragile human beings to navigate their way within it. It is this framework that has been lost, to our very great cost.

Two last points to round off this post. The first is that there is a picture of the world that lies behind the Roman Catholic view (and the pacifist view) which I view as consistent and honourable but which I cannot bring myself to share. This is the view that says some things are never justifiable. So, in the first example of the soldiers, the option of one soldier killing his fellow soldier is simply unjustifiable - it is murder - and so those soldiers should have evaded capture for as long as possible, and then simply been captured, tortured or shot. To act from a pacifist basis is to see nobody as beyond the reach of love, and the refusal to act on the basis that the enemy is unloving is actually the path of holiness. More specifically, it is the path of redemptive suffering, as demonstrated by Christ on the cross, and which all Christians are required to follow. A similar analysis is applied to issues about abortion or divorce, so, for example, a virtuous wife is enjoined to suffer the depredations of a vicious husband in order to, for example, convert him by her example. As I say, I see this as being honourable and coherent, but I don't agree with it. I simply note that here; it deserves a post - or a book! - all of its own in order to explain why.

Secondly, in so far as this sequence is going to be exploring issues around human sexuality, this distinction between what is ideal (or what is of the Kingdom) and what is a pragmatically right choice in the present is one that is central to what I expect to be arguing for. So, for example, I'm expecting to argue that polygamy is one possible permissible social arrangement for a Christian community, but I would see that as a pragmatic concession 'for your hardness of heart' rather than something which is reflective of God's original intentions.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Of weights and measures and a mess of pottage

Courier article - a couple of weeks old!

So the Prime Minister has introduced into the bloodstream of our body politic the virus of an 'In/Out' Referendum – and as with a virus, it will multiply and cause a fever. This is a very good thing, although, as with his strategy on changing marriage, I doubt that Mr Cameron will get where he expects to get with it. It is primarily a very good thing that we are going to be able to express our view as a nation on whether we wish to remain part of the 'ever-closer' EU. There are of course many things that have to fall into place before we get to being able to express our views, two of them major. Firstly, Mr Cameron will have to win the next election (and, clearly, he calculates that making this offer will enhance his prospects of doing so) – this is fairly unlikely. Second, the negotiations with our EU partners will have to proceed in such a way that Mr Cameron feels liberated enough to return to the UK waving his piece of paper from the runway saying that he has achieved the hackneyed 'good result for Britain' – this I regard as very unlikely. So Mr Cameron has, with a good speech, sought to increase the short-term prospects for the Conservative party at the next election, leaving the details and haggling for another day – and time will tell how wise his decision has been.

Our own local MP, Bernard Jenkin, released a very interesting paper recently, seeking to point out several elements of the 'mythology' associated with our EU membership, for example that '3 million jobs' depend on our being in the EU, or that the single market has reduced the cost of doing business in the EU. I recommend the paper for anyone interested in looking at the nuts and bolts of this question. It seems to me, though, that, as and when it comes to the referendum – which I do now see as inevitable – we need to do more than weigh up our economic interests. That is, the economic questions are indeed very important, but I do not believe that they are the most important – and it was viewing the question through this economic prism that misled us (or that enabled the political class to mislead us) in 1975.

To explain this, I want to take a detour around the question of weights and measures. This has received a fair amount of publicity through the years, not least when market traders are prosecuted for using Imperial measures (pounds and ounces) rather than the metric system (grams). What is at stake on a question like this? Clearly it is perfectly possible to live life using a metric system – to have a 500ml glass of beer rather than a pint. Rationally speaking, it makes little difference what label is attached to a particular quantity, so long as the system is easy to understand and everyone goes along with what is being used. More than this, there are some strong purely economic arguments in favour of our using the same systems of weights and measures as the rest of the EU. For those multi-national corporations that have driven the development of the single market (and have also driven the expansion of the Euro currency) it makes for better economies of scale if they can calibrate their factories purely to one set of measures rather than two. For those who are working on a continental scale it is a simple matter of efficiency that the continent is harmonised, and that local idiosyncracies are ironed out.

Which makes me want to ask the question: is making our country safe for Starbucks really what we have been reduced to? For so long as we are asking the question about whether to remain a member of the European Union in purely economic terms we are missing what I believe is the most fundamental element that needs to be discussed. We are also, of course, if we oppose the Starbucks of this world, placing ourselves in opposition to vested interests with extremely deep pockets. I think that they have enough of an institutional advantage without conceding the high ground to them as well.

What I mean is that there is far more of value to our national heritage and character than simply an ability to make money. I wouldn't for one moment wish to scorn the ability to make money, to earn a living, to generate employment for others through our own hard work – but the world has many opportunities in it (many of them likely to become much larger if we are not in the EU) and to reduce this question to economics is, I feel, to miss the central point. What is lost to our national conversation if – on the remote chance that our children will still be studying Shakespeare in the future – we have to explain to them that Shylock's 'pound of flesh' is referring to a measurement of weight and not to a matter of finance? Our weights and measures are knitted in to our history in all sorts of surprising ways, and by allowing alleged economic benefits to wipe away all these threads that connect us to our past, we are also becoming a people who have forgotten ourselves, who have forgotten the distinctive greatness that makes us who we are. We will be safe for Starbucks, simply another agglomeration of economic units, not a free people of unique and irreplaceable individuals, valuing the local, the eccentric, the uncoventional.

In the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, Esau is persuaded to relinquish his inheritance because he is unable to see past a temporary hunger – in the words of the King James Bible, Esau 'sold his birthright for a mess of pottage' (lentil soup). Our mess of pottage would seem to be a bundle of alleged economic benefits, which in our straitened economic times may well seem immensely attractive. Yet there is so much more to our national story than this! I hope to expand on this in future articles.

Friday, February 01, 2013

TBLA(extra): "the separation of sex from the procreation and nurture of children"

This is just a link to Andrew Brown's latest article, as he - as so often - 'gets it': "If they were prepared to argue in favour of properly recognised, blessed and celebrated civil partnerships, there would be a much stronger case for keeping traditional marriage separate. But that would require the social approval and even the sanctification of some sexual relations outside marriage. This, in turn, requires the separation of sex from the procreation and nurture of children. Catholics can't do that, at least for the next couple of centuries, because they have been committed to the position that God planned the plumbing. But Anglicans, or Protestants generally, can take a broader view of sex. They can see it is something which is a good in itself, within permanent, faithful, stable relationships. This is a conservative position, but it is not necessarily hostile to gay people."

(I do occasionally wonder if he reads my blog...)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

This is related to the TBLA thread, but I think it deserves to be kept apart from that series, at least for now.

Western society has embarked upon a radical restructuring of its cultural life in three inter-related issues, to do with homosexuality, marriage and divorce, and the economic role of women. The classical understanding of the church, that sexuality is only to be expressed within a heterosexual marriage, has been widely abandoned. The development of effective means of contraception, the abolition of traditional marriage, the massive economic empowerment of women – all of these together are utterly revolutionary. The church has been caught up in this cultural change and is now at risk of opprobrium and worse if it does not, in David Cameron's ill-chosen words, 'get with the programme'. It seems to me that there is a coherent position that is taken in opposition to this radical restructuring – the Roman Catholic stance is the most fully-worked out and potentially long-lasting form of opposition to the progressive path (I don't see the conservative evangelical opposition as similarly substantial, despite its merits). The question I want to ask is: where is the progressive path going?

The RC stance is one that is deeply rooted in both Scripture and Tradition, and one which has proven workable for thousands of years. That is, the civilisation that we have inherited is, in large part, a product of a culture which adopted certain norms about the place and role of women and homosexuals. Clearly, power and influence were concentrated on men, and there were consequent injustices and exploitations. However, no human society is without injustices this side of the kingdom, and our present arrangements are certainly not without injustices either. The RC stance is one that is dominant in world Christianity and very unlikely to go away; it is more likely that there will continue to develop a deeper split between the traditionalist (majority) Christian faith and the progressive (post-Protestant) forms of Christianity. Does the progressive, secular, post-Protestant form of Christianity have a destination? Is it simply a reactive product of the social changes in the wider society? Or can it legitimately claim that there is a movement of the Spirit behind it?

Supporters of the progressive path will point to better treatment of women and minorities as a result of these changes. Opponents will concede (some of) this, but have a coherent case to say that the costs involved are not worth it. For example, in response to talking about the improved economic and social autonomy given to women, opponents can reference the rise in frivolous divorce, the misery passed on to children, the diminution of options for working class men and so on. I don't want here to engage in a weighing up of this evidence, just to indicate that the progressive path is not without its (non-prejudiced) critics. More substantially, the critics of the progressive path are able to draw, not just on those economic arguments, but also on the fairly uniform voice of Scripture and Tradition. I am quite familiar with the arguments on this score – and, indeed, I have used the progressive arguments myself on repeated occasions. Yet one of the conservative evangelical criticisms of the progressive path does seem to be to be a true one – that it is not possible to maintain a commitment to the authority of Scripture, as understood in the evangelical tradition, if we accept the progressive developments (NB I don't accept the authority of Scripture in that way).

What I am pondering is that the present 'status quo' of the progressive path is not stable. To bring this out, I want to ask: 'what is wrong with polygamy?' Once the move away from accepting the authority of Scripture and Tradition has been made – and, thus, there develops a primacy for personal autonomy and choice – what is to stop those who wish to pursue a polygamous marriage from doing so? There are many churches in the world where polygamy is at least tacitly accepted, as it still fits in with the local cultural context. In addition, a reasonably good argument can be made that it is not anti-Scriptural (a much stronger argument, in my view, than the equivalent one for homosexual relationships – and I'm sold on that). Yet I'm not sure that those who pursue the progressive path are fully aware that this is one of the destinations that their path is leading to, or what the implications of this path are.

What I'm really asking is: what are the fundamental principles from which a stable, progressive understanding of human sexuality and gender relationships might be formed? One of the best aspects of the traditional position is that it is rooted in a 'theology of biology'; that is, there is an understanding of what it means to be male, and what it means to be female, which lies behind the more worked out and specific ethical teachings. The progressive understanding does not (yet) have that. One of the elements of the women bishops debate that has most strongly been borne in on me is an awareness that a) the conservative position is much more substantial and coherent than the progressives can countenance, and b) that the progressives do not know what it is that they are rejecting. In other words, they (we!) do not yet have anything that can take the place of the conservative understanding, and in consequence, we literally do not know what we are doing.

Having said all that, I remain quite open to the idea that the Spirit is genuinely behind all these developments – and, indeed, it may well be that proper work has been done on these matters that I'm not familiar with – and I certainly can't see our society reversing many of them. Yet, as I also see our society as heading down the tubes with great rapidity, I don't see that latter point as bearing much theological weight. I genuinely don't know the answer to this, but it is what I am thinking about.