Sunday, July 31, 2005

Post Secret

I forgot to reference this a while back when I first came across it. All human life is here, and your heart will break.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Greatly disturbed

In my wanderings around the internet recently I came across this: Prophet of Doom.

It's written by a fundamentalist Christian, so I take it with a pinch of salt - well, a cellarful actually - but he says something about Mohammed which took me completely by surprise and which I would like to discover the truth about. He quotes 'Tabari' (apparently one of the 'great' authorities on Islam) IX:131

“My mother came to me while I was being swung on a swing between two branches and got me down. My nurse took over and wiped my face with some water and started leading me. When I was at the door she stopped so I could catch my breath. I was brought in while Muhammad was sitting on a bed in our house. My mother made me sit on his lap. The other men and women got up and left. The Prophet consummated his marriage with me in my house when I was nine years old.”

I thought I was reasonably well informed about Mohammed - I've read, eg, Maxim Rodinson's biography, Karen Armstrong's History of Islam, and a few other books (and completed a term's course on Islam as part of my training). But I hadn't come across this.

Is it true?

I just can't get over the distance between this and Jesus. Mohammed seems closer to King David, to put it no more harshly. Better shut up before I say something more controversial.

Oh, and the bit beneath the site name

"I am just an egg" is a reference to Robert Heinlein's 'Stranger in a Strange Land'.

"Travelling outside of karma" is a reference to a song by U2.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Rage, and comic book heroes

I thought I'd say something about the words beneath my profile, ie "The truth will set you free" and "Spider Jerusalem is my hero". Well, the first should be an obvious reference for most readers, and it encapsulates how I understand my faith. But the second may need a little explanation...

Apparently comic book superheroes have replaced the different gods of previous mythologies. Where once the imagination of a child was filled with stories of Hercules, now they have Spiderman. Seems plausible to me.

I read comics a lot when I was a child. I read comics a lot now, but they're rather different. When I was about 9 my hero was the Hulk. Imagined like this:











Then when I stretched into the teenage years, Wolverine took over - he was a sharper character:










And then when I was in my twenties Frank Miller's Batman was the one I resonated with:





Two things. The first is that what strikes me now is how angry I was. Just look at the expressions on their faces. Rage. I think a lot of men (boys) have that rage, which is why comics are so popular in certain quarters. It might do the world some good to ponder the roots of that rage. But second, the most interesting 'comic book' hero that I identify with now is a man called Spider Jerusalem, from Warren Ellis' series called Transmetropolitan.



Now, a word of warning - this is not for the squeamish, and probably shouldn't be read by anyone who considers themselves a Christian - it's rude, lewd, frequently blasphemous and obscene, and frankly I'm worried about myself for enjoying it so much. But I enjoy it because it is laugh-out-loud funny and I think Spider represents something essential about humanity - he's awful, but he's dedicated to the truth. And I think that's important. He is redeemed by his acceptance of the truth. I suspect that applies to me too.

The thing is, he's a tremendously angry man. His column in the newspaper/blog is "I hate it here" and the one consistent thing that drives him is his rage against the world. But his rage has a productive outlet - blog articles which expose the powers that be.

I'm not there yet.

But I'd like to be.

That's what heroes are for aren't they? - they represent those bits of you that seek expression, and the worship of the hero is what enables those bits of yourself to articulate themselves and, hopefully, come out. (Which is why Christ is the ultimate hero who can't be replaced - but that's another post).

This is Spider's philosophy:

“Let me tell you how it is going to be.

I am free to write what I want, when I want. And you have to come to me to read me.

This is not the same deal as picking up a newspaper for the sports and the TV listings and getting a piece of me too.

You actually have to sit down and poke your feedsite reader and come to me.

And I will tell you things that will make you laugh and I will tell you things that make you uncomfortable and I will tell you things that will make you really fucking angry and I will tell you things that no one else is telling you.

What I won’t do is bullshit you.”

I think that's the only promise a blogger should make. And I shall try very hard to live up to it.

Monday, July 25, 2005

A plug

I love this blog: Waiter Rant

another bit of silliness

You scored as Sacrament model. Your model of the church is Sacrament. The church is the effective sign of the revelation that is the person of Jesus Christ. Christians are transformed by Christ and then become a beacon of Christ wherever they go. This model has a remarkable capacity for integrating other models of the church.

Sacrament model


95%

Mystical Communion Model


84%

Servant Model


84%

Herald Model


50%

Institutional Model


28%

What is your model of the church? [Dulles]
created with QuizFarm.com

Confirmed

We had our confirmation service last night. The Bishop came and presided; the church was full; the choir were in good voice and sang the Vicar of Dibley setting for Psalm 23; and five people, ranging in age from 16 to 63 stood up and pledged themselves to Christ.

It is one of the greatest privileges in the ministry to accompany people on the journey of faith, and to make, in some small way, a difference. To share the faith, and to watch someone come to understand what it means – and, as a result, for them to find a deeper and fuller life – this is what I am called to do. I gave each of them a copy of James Alison’s ‘Knowing Jesus’: sustenance now that the classes have stopped.

And with their confirmation I find that I too am confirmed in my vocation.

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.


Is this your faith? This is my faith.

The Economist

Shortly after my 16th birthday I started my sixth form, where one of my ‘A’ Levels was Economics. At the first lesson the tutor suggested that we read ‘The Economist’ regularly, and, having an interest in such things, I followed his advice. And it must have been good advice, as I won various economics prizes and did rather well in my final exams.

Now, nineteen years later, having read virtually every Economist published since then, I have decided to stop. This week my subscription ran out, and I am not going to renew it. Let it be known that the last words of the Economist that I read were in the obituary of Ted Heath – a suitably downbeat conclusion.

It’s not as if I have become disillusioned with the Economist’s political slant (libertarian and secular) or its quality of writing (always good, with pleasingly dry wit) and it’s not a question of money either. I’m simply trying to make room in my life for new things.

Having been, in particular, a political junkie for most of my life, I am wanting to move away from a concern for political details, and spend more time exploring literature.

A few years ago I started reading the TLS (Times Literary Supplement). So far it has played second fiddle to the Economist, but no longer. Which means that the stack of unread TLS’s by my bed, going back to April 1 of this year, will now get worked through.

And I have also just subscribed to Decanter. So there we have a change of taste – from political economy, to fine writing and wine. And perhaps… a little more writing of words by myself, and a little less reading.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Them and us

It’s all their fault. They’re evil. I don’t want anything to do with them. They’re a disgrace, a wicked bunch. That lot over there. Whatever else is true IT’S ALL THEIR FAULT.

Them and us language. Something we’re all prone to, and sometimes the temptation to use it is overwhelming. And the people who qualify as THEM can be tremendously diverse. At the moment it’s young muslim men with rucksacks on their back. At other times it was the Germans or the French, or homosexuals, or women, or Jews, or blacks. In the seventeenth century in this country, it was Papists and Puritans, nowadays the language in religious circles is that of ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘liberals’ - IT'S ALL THEIR FAULT.

Each time the identity of the majority was supported and expressed by identifying a ‘them’ against which the ‘us’ could be established. Because WE are not evil, WE are not a disgrace, WE are righteous, WE are the chosen people, God is on our side and WE shall triumph.

Christ came to put an end to all that. The masters of them and us language in Jesus’ time were the Pharisees, and that was precisely why Jesus fought against them all the time. It was the righteous WE who crucified Jesus, because Jesus consistently identified himself with THEM. He broke bread with THEM and welcomed THEM into His Kingdom. And WE were offended.

If we are to keep faith with our Lord, we must always be on our guard against this language of them and us, and whenever we see it being used, we must remember that the path of Christ is to walk with THEM, even unto the cross.

For God is not on our side. He’s not on their side either. He wants us to stop playing the game of them and us.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

I like what I see

The Father knocks on my door,
Seeking a home for his Son.

Rent is cheap, I say.

I don’t want to rent, I want to buy, says God.

I’m not sure I want to sell,
But you might come in to look around.

I think I will, says God.

I might let you have a room or two.

I like it, says God. I’ll take the two. You might decide to give me more some day. I can wait, says God.

I’d like to give you more, but it’s a bit difficult.
I need some space for me.

I know, says God, but I’ll wait; I like what I see.

Hmm. Maybe I can let you have another room.
I really don’t need that much.

Thanks, says God. I’ll take it. I like what I see.

I’d like to give you the whole house, but I’m not sure.

Think on it, says God; I would not put you out.
Your house would be mine and my son would live in it.
You’d have more space than you’ve ever had before.


I don’t understand at all.

I know, says God, but I can’t tell you about that.
You have to discover it for yourself.
That can only happen if you let me have the whole house.


A bit risky, I say.

Yes, says God, but try me.

I’m not sure. I’ll let you know.

I can wait, says God. I like what I see.

Christian-Muslim relations

A longish essay I wrote as part of my ordination training, in April 1999. Still pretty much what I think - and a bit more relevant than when I wrote it.

HAVE CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM RELATIONS IRRETRIEVABLY BROKEN DOWN IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD?

As I write this essay, the ‘Christian’ West, in the form of NATO, is engaged in the defence of a Muslim population in Yugoslavia. In this conflict there is very little at stake strategically for the West, and it would appear that the driving motivation for this activity is, in fact, the humanitarian one that is claimed. At the same time, the principal nations of the West, mainly the United States, are engaged in military activity and sanctions designed to destroy the industrial capacity of another Muslim nation, Iraq, which has the consequence of denying the basic amenities of life to the majority of the Iraqi population, causing widespread malnutrition and infant mortality. Clearly, in such a context, the state of Christian-Muslim relations is not a simple or straightforward matter. In truth, there are three ‘parties’ which need to be considered in this context: Christians and Muslims, obviously, but also what can be called ‘the secular West’. In practise, it is this third element, and the way in which the other two interact with it, which will play the most important part in determining whether Christian-Muslim relations do in fact break down.

Western attitudes to the Muslim world remain conditioned by Medieval stereotypes, although this is diminishing . In particular, there is a significant element of fear in the Western perspective. This has clear historical roots. In the unconscious of the West there is a memory of the rapid Islamic advance in the eighth century, which devoured much of the Byzantine empire, and which continued through to the siege of Vienna as late as the sixteenth century. This expansion of an alien civilisation was perceived as a threat to the existence of the Latin West, and this quality of ‘otherness’ has been the hook on which many projections of the Western psyche have been hung . This projection can only be countered by education, and the first step to ensuring that Christian-Muslim relations do not break down lies in a mutual process of exchanging information and dismantling prejudices.

For example, there needs to be a much greater awareness within the West of principal tenets of Islamic faith, primarily the five ‘pillars’, but also the high ethical standards demanded of devout Muslims. The practice of zakát, for example, is one that any Christian would find admirable, and which is not part of the common knowledge of the Christian community. In a similar fashion, the respect in which orthodox Islam holds the ‘peoples of the Book’, and the historical tolerance shown by the Islamic empires to non-Muslim faiths, needs to be emphasised and held up as a model for emulation. This sort of thing is relatively straightforward to ensure, and clear practical steps can be taken by those in authority within the Christian churches and, especially, by those in authority in the educational system. In an equivalent fashion, the misapprehensions on the part of the Islamic community with regard to Christian belief need to be addressed. Again, educational programs are a straightforward answer.

This process of education should begin to dissolve the accumulated silt of prejudice which clogs up the perception of the ‘other’ in our culture. It will be a long process, to be sure, but the [relative] success of campaigns to change perceptions with regard to race and gender issues provides a solid ground for confidence that this aspect of the religious issue can also be addressed successfully. This aspect of Christian-Muslim relations, therefore, can be viewed with some equanimity and confidence. The ‘moderate’ elements on both sides undoubtedly have an opportunity for cultivating productive contacts between the community, which can act as bulwarks in times of communal stress.

However, this optimistic assessment is restricted to quite a narrow focus, and is concerned primarily with those within each community who are open to ‘consciousness raising’. What is really of interest, both academically and as a question of real political concern, is the nature and extent of those elements within each community that would not be open to such an ‘enlightened’ approach. It is with these sections that this essay will be primarily concerned with.

It was mentioned above that an underlying element within the Western image of Islam is fear. This is something which colours the dominant culture’s perception of Islam in every situation. One aspect already mentioned is the historical background of conflict between the two cultures. In the present situation, though, there are significant causes of this fear which are presently not widely accepted within the dominant culture of the West, and which need to be addressed. This focusses on what can be called the religious blindness of Western culture.

This religious blindness has deep roots within Western European history. Most importantly, it stems from the experience of continental Europe in the thirty years war 1618-1648. As Theodore Rabb put it in a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘One reason that the Thirty Years War was seared into the European consciousness was its unarguable pre-eminence as the most bloody and anarchic set of events that the Continent had ever witnessed.’ The crucial aspect of this for our purposes is the role of religion in the conflict. Although few historians would now credit the description of this conflict as being truly ‘Wars of Religion’ in the sense that religion was the prime motivating factor behind the conflict, the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism was certainly a publicly prominent aspect of this conflict, and this had profound cultural consequences. Two aspects of this cultural shift are important for our purposes: the first relates to the cultural bias against religious belief and the necessity of religious tolerance, the second relates to the search for certainty in the scientific sphere.

John Locke was the principal author of the first of these cultural developments. Locke’s principal innovation was his argument that, in order to resolve religious disagreements we should resort to the light of Reason , and in doing this, he fleshed out a practical programme for how our beliefs should be guided. The following aspects are the most crucial:

1. we have a moral responsibility for what we believe,
2. we should apportion our beliefs according to the evidence available to us, and
3. in all things we should let reason be our guide.

Put positively, the beliefs that we can hold should be those which can be rationally demonstrated, either by appeal to self-evident first principles, or to empirical evidence. Beliefs must, in either case, be shown to have a rational foundation. Where a rational foundation is lacking then we are subject to unreason – to the excesses of enthusiasm that had led to the cultural crisis of the thirty years war. The impact of this program has been profound, and it lies behind much of the Western world’s fear of Islam. When the West sees, for example, the Iranian revolution and the development of a theocratic state, cultural sensitivities are triggered. For the dominant culture of the West a religious perspective is automatically one which carries a high risk of anti-social behaviour and bloodshed. A good spokesman for this prejudice is Richard Dawkins:

‘Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die – on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader’s sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast’; ‘[Faith] is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that [it] seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever it is so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification…Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings.’

This first aspect, therefore, is what might be called an institutionalised intolerance of religion. It is complicated by a crucial difference between Christianity and Islam. Islam originated in a tribal context, where there was no single central power, in contrast to Christianity which began under the rule of an Empire. This meant that Islam developed a centralised institution (focussing initially on Abu Bakr, the first Caliph) which took up the functions of a central state . There is therefore no correspondence in Islam to the division between Church and State in the West – the ultimate source of religious authority is also the source of political authority. When this form of theocracy is confronted by the Western intolerance of religion the scope for hostility and incomprehension is great.

This aspect links in closely with the second aspect of the West’s cultural heritage that needs to be considered. This is the search for certainty, and its fruits in scientific and technological progress. As Stephen Toulmin has made clear , Descartes’ innovative method of systematic doubt began as a search for rational certainty, which might be agreed to on objective grounds by those who were engaged in religious disputation. As such, it was part of the general cultural reaction against the Thirty Years war. This method of doubt was taken up by Isaac Newton and the Royal Society, and employed in the investigation of nature. The form of knowledge gained by the application of this method was seen to be demonstratively certain, and it therefore became the normative form of knowledge in Western culture. As this was coupled with the Lockean argument for rational belief (and the ethical imperative for proportionality in religious belief) the West began to develop in a secular direction. This is not the place to fully examine the nature of this development, now known as ‘Modernism’, and its flaws, as what is important for the argument here is that the dominant culture in Western society has been shaped by this philosophy.

One ironic consequence of this search for certainty is that the nature of religious belief has been distorted in the consciousness of the West. As well as (the first aspect) religious belief being seen as inherently socially destructive, the forms of religious belief have been reshaped in conflict with the developing scientific perspective. In particular, through debates such as that centring on Darwinian accounts of evolution, the defenders of religion have attempted to defend their faith as being rational (and therefore socially acceptable). However, the logic of this form of defense is inevitably a form of textual fundamentalism, as can be seen in (among many examples) the conservative evangelical groups of the United States, such as the Christian coalition. Crucially, this response has also been taken on by some Islamic groups, and these groups (eg Hamas) are taken by the Western media to be representative of Islamic belief. In doing so, the cultural preconceptions of modern western culture are confirmed: religion is seen as necessarily intolerant, irrational, and liable to cause bloodshed.

In this situation the conflict between the Western world and the Islamic world must of necessity become sharper. From the Western point of view religious belief must be subject to certain rational and ethical constraints, as described originally by John Locke. Where religious belief is not subject to these constraints then it will inevitably take an irrational (ie fundamentalist) character, and cause bloodshed. From the Islamic point of view, however, this attitude on the part of the dominant West cuts across essential aspects of their culture in two crucial ways. Firstly, due to the differing relationship between religion and politics, the political establishment of Islamic cultures is forced to be either modelled on Western norms (the best example is Turkey or Jordan), or propelled into extreme forms of theocracy (early 1980s Iran). Secondly, the religious aspects of life are suppressed. From the Islamic point of view, therefore, Western culture is seen as lawless and godless. Faced with this ideological threat to their culture, which appears to be enforced by massive economic and military power, the natural response of the Islamic world is resistance, in whatever ways possible. In the West, the continued hold on power of people such as Saddam Hussein is seen as purely a product of a totalitarian state. This significantly underestimates the popularity of someone who defies the West, even if on any rational understanding, that defiance is completely Pyrrhic.

In this more broad situation it seems that the prospects for Christian-Muslim relations depend upon the clarity with which the Christian church distinguishes itself from the secularity implicit in Western culture. Again, there are two aspects which need to be addressed here, one positive, and one negative.

The positive aspect relates to the possibility of making common cause between Christians and Muslims in opposition to the atheism inherent in modern Western culture. In the same way that Islamic cultures have perceived the West to be threatening to their continued existence, so too have Christian cultures in the West been forced to compromise and, in effect, descend into a ‘ghetto mentality’. The norms of Christian behaviour have in large part been jettisoned. More significantly, the very possibility of religiously distinctive moral norms has been undermined by the religious blindness discussed above. This in turn has corrosive effects on all the institutions of Western society, leading to (ultimately) a breakdown in civil order. This might seem a melodramatic thesis, but it is one for which there is much evidence, in terms of marital breakdown, juvenile crime and adult recidivism. In this context, there would seem to be scope for some form of common declaration between Christians and Muslims, denouncing such aspects as the consumer mentality and scientific nihilism of contemporary Western society, and articulating those aspects of religious belief that are held in common between both sides, such as monotheism and respect for Abraham as the prototypical patriarch, and the ethical norms of eg marital fidelity, honesty and prohibition of economic exploitation of the poor. Such a declaration might be made at any level of authority within each religious establishment, although clearly it would carry greater weight the higher up each hierarchy it went.

The negative aspect is more complex, and requires much more painful self-analysis on the part of each religious community, particularly the Christian one. There are certain values which have become widespread in Western culture since the Enlightenment, one of the most prominent of which is the dissolution of blind respect for authority. As part of the general shift towards the centrality of ‘reason’ in our culture, it is no longer considered acceptable to deny or affirm certain beliefs simply by appeal to a cultural authority. In Christian terms, this has meant that the Bible is no longer considered (in most circles) as an infallible text, and the leaders of the various churches are not followed without reservation. In Islamic terms this aspect of Western culture is much more problematic, because the way in which the Koran is used is significantly less amenable to an ‘Enlightened’ approach than the Bible. It was the product (probably) of a single mind and is considered to be the product of direct divine dictation. As such, the attempt to employ modern critical methods of study on the Koran is, in itself, an atheistic act, even before any conclusions are arrived at.

This issue came into sharp focus with the publication of the Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie’s work did constitute a form of insult to the faith of millions of Muslims . As such, (and, furthermore, as an apostate) the traditional sentence of death was pronounced in the fatwa of Khomeini. This cultural response is entirely understandable from within the Islamic perspective, and has centuries of precedent and authority behind it. Furthermore, it is not that far removed from medieval Christian practices, particularly under the Inquisition. What has changed for the Christian community is the impact of the Enlightenment, and the loss of respect for religious institutions. This is not simply to say that the Christian church simply does not have the power to enforce penalties for blasphemy. Even if that power was restored to the Christian chuch, I doubt that it would immediately resort to harsh penalties for blasphemy. That practise itself is seen as being immoral and wrong, and this is a consequence of the Enlightenment.

The religious sensibility of the West, that is, all those Christians who do not belong to fundamentalist groups, has changed as a consequence of the eighteenth century development known as the Enlightenment. The Christian church has not fully woken up to this fact, nor followed through any introspective analysis that might lead to fruitful maturing and developing of the Christian faith as a result. The attitude to particular holy objects – whether of particular scripture, church buildings, icons or anything else – has changed. In particular, no holy object is seen in its own right as being worthy of bloodshed. As we see in Kosovo, the only morally defensible claim for warfare is to alleviate human suffering. In this context the clash between the secular West, defending the ‘right’ to free speech, and the Islamic world, is also one which implicates the Christian churches of the West. It does not seem realistically possible (or, frankly, desirable) for the agreement on common interests, mentioned above, to include some form of words which would place the Christian church on the same side as the Islamic world with regard to Salman Rushdie’s novel. We have here a truly divisive issue, where there is no prospect of compromise.

At this point, the really sharp issue becomes clear. There are ways in which Muslim-Christian relations can be enhanced and fostered. The most basic steps are those relating to mutual education and the building up of trust. This could be enhanced by some declaration of common purpose with regard to the immanent atheism of the dominant Western culture. However, there is a clear point of division between the traditional Muslim sensibility and that of both the secular West and also (I would argue) of the mainstream Christian West. This can be seen most clearly in the case of Rushdie, but the import is much wider than the case of one individual. The culture of the West, formed by both an inheritance from Christianity and the rational developments of the Enlightenment, holds certain values to be beyond dispute. This has great political consequence, as can be seen by examining the political developments in Europe of the last two centuries. For all its faults, the West is a place in which people are not executed for holding certain beliefs or saying certain things. That is something which is valuable and needs to be defended, from a Christian as well as from a secular perspective. The consequence of this, however, is to accept that there is no place for the notion of ‘blasphemy’. In the West now, for example, a novel such as Nikos Kazantzakis’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ can be seen as a profound theological exploration of Christ’s human and divine nature. The question of blasphemy, although it arose in 1954, is no longer given much weight. Instead of there being some authoritative account (even if it be an ‘infallible’ one) of what is correct and what is not, instead there is a perennial flux of debate and argument, from which a more thoroughly grounded consensus may emerge. This applies to both the political as well as the religious sphere, although it has not yet been fully accepted in the ecclesiastical.

In this situation, therefore, there must ultimately be a breach between the Christian and the Muslim. To accept some form of ‘live and let live’ may seem acceptable to some on both sides, but, given the context, that will inevitably mean that the values of the West will continue to gain dominance throughout the world. Some elements in Muslim culture will welcome this, but just as inevitably some will not. In particular, this potential loss is perceived by those in religious authority in Islamic cultures, and it would be naïve to expect that they will accept this loss without a struggle. Consequently, although it may not come to pass, I cannot avoid a profound pessimism about the future of Christian-Muslim relations. They may not have irretrievably broken down as yet, but there will come a time when some Islamic cultures will face a choice between accepting the values of the Enlightenment and fighting a last and literal battle against the forces of the West, probably using the materiél for war supplied by the people they despise. I do not believe that this is a conflict which the West would lose, but the cost of such a conflict is likely to be exceedingly grave.

The MoQ

I thought I’d write something about the MoQ, as it takes up a large amount of floorspace in my brain. I will occasionally write about things using the language of the MoQ, but I’ll put a warning at the beginning, so those who find it of no interest can tune out easily. The subject has a tendency to become academic and arid, so it is quite likely not everyone’s cup of tea.

MoQ stands for ‘Metaphysics of Quality’, which is the intellectual system developed by Robert M Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila. There is a lively website www.moq.org and discussion group on which I have been active for a few years. There has also now been the first academic conference on the topic. I’m something of a MoQ heretic, in that the MoQ is a Buddhist philosophy, and as a Christian there are areas of the MoQ which I have difficulty digesting. On top of which, as a fan of Wittgenstein, the whole notion of a metaphysics is awkward…. But on with the explanation:

The Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) is an intellectual ordering of experience; it is a way of organising our knowledge; it is a filing system for the contents of our mind.

It postulates that the fundamental reality is Quality or value. All things come from Quality, and it is Quality that draws all things into being from Quality. All that exists is a form of Quality, and nothing exists without Quality. You could say that Quality is one of the names of God.

The first distinction that is made in understanding Quality is a distinction between Dynamic Quality (DQ) and Static Quality (SQ). DQ cannot be named and cannot be described. It is the cutting edge of experience. It is pre-intellectual awareness. DQ does not fit into any intellectual system; it is the ragged edge at the border of all such systems. DQ is the driving force of evolution, the lure (or: telos) which all of existence pursues.

Sometimes, a DQ driven evolution creates an evolutionary leap. Something new comes into existence. For this new thing of value to be maintained in existence it must 'static latch'; that is, it must be able to generate a particular pattern of value which persists over time, either on a continuous basis or a continuously regenerated basis.

These static latches form the known world. They are the stable forms of Quality.

Static Quality can be named. It can be classified and analysed. The principal classification of SQ is a division into four levels. These levels are discrete and do not overlap. Moreover, all that we presently know can be classified and described according to these four levels, except for DQ itself, which, to repeat, remains outside of all realms of classification.

The four levels are: inorganic, organic, social and intellectual. (For the sake of simplicity the inorganic can be taken to include the quantum level, although perhaps this level could constitute its own 'zeroth' level).

The inorganic level refers to atomic and molecular behaviour. Any object can be viewed as existing at the inorganic level. For example, a rock is a pattern of inorganic value - it's constituent parts value their current relationships more than any other alternative (eg disintegration). In the original flux, before there was either matter or time, Quality was found to lie in a certain structuring of quantum forces. [Here an astro-physicist can fill in the gaps].

The inorganic level is shaped by the laws of physics. These laws are a codification of the value choices made by atoms and molecules.

The organic (or biological) began to develop when a particular molecule made a DQ leap into a different pattern of behaviour. 'Biological evolution can be seen as a process by which weak Dynamic forces at a subatomic level discover stratagems for overcoming huge static inorganic forces at a superatomic level.' The highest quality static latch at the organic level was the molecule DNA. In practical terms this level can be considered as anything which can be described with reference to DNA.

The organic level is shaped by the law of natural selection. This law is a codification of the value choices made by organic patterns of value.

Uniquely (so far as we know), the human species is able to experience two further degrees of static quality.

The social level is the 'subjective customs of groups of people'. This sense of 'social' does not apply to anything non-human. The DQ innovation and static latch which enabled the social level to come into being was the development of language. It is possible that this static latch was supplemented by the further DQ innovation and static latch of ritual, but that is a moot point.

The social level encompasses an enormous variety of human behaviour. It can be understood through the values which govern it. The social level is shaped by laws, customs, mores and religious practices (eg against murder, adultery, theft) which are enforced by soldiers, policemen, parents and priests. These laws are what preserve the existence of social patterns of value from a degradation into the biological patterns of value on which the society depends. The social level is also ordered through the celebrity principle, which articulates the governing social values. Celebrities are those people who exemplify the values of the society, and who gain social rewards (principally wealth, power and fame) as a result.

The intellectual level is 'the level of symbolic social learning', the 'same as mind'. It is the 'collection and manipulation of symbols, created in the brain, that stand for patterns of experience'. The DQ innovation and static latch which enabled the intellectual level to come into being has not been satisfactorily determined.

The intellectual level is shaped by the notion of 'truth', which stands independently of social opinion. There is no link between celebrity and truth. The guardians of the intellectual level are, variously, the members of the Church of Reason. Intellectual 'laws' (eg logic) are a codification of the value choices made by intellectuals.

A culture is a combination of social and intellectual patterns of value. The twentieth century can be understood as a contest between social and intellectual patterns of value.

So: a quick recap on the key terms.
Quality - source of everything (I think of Quality as being one of the names of God, ie it conveys something about God, but is incomplete).
Dynamic and Static Quality – the first division in our understanding. Dynamic Quality (DQ) can’t be defined (the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao). Static Quality(SQ) is everything that we can talk about.
The four levels: inorganic, organic, social and intellectual, in order of ascending value.

My heresy is that I don’t think level four is ‘intellectual’ – and I think there are all sorts of profound problems with it. I would rechristen the fourth level as ‘eudaimonic’, and understand how it works differently – and I’ve written a longish essay on why which can be accessed via the moq.org website.

So, from now on, you will find some of this language creeping in to my posts. Doubtless it seems very strange, but I trust it’ll become clearer when it’s put to use.

Harry Potter 6

Well, got the delivery from Amazon yesterday morning, read it yesterday afternoon (much too knackered to do much else - still trying to cope with the jet lag, which is, like, lagging around).

It's alright. Shorter than the last one (good), a bit rambling (bad) but quite clearly JK Rowling is saving up a lot of the fireworks for the finale in the next book (the structure of which has now been set out quite clearly).

And there's still room for the Half-Blood Prince to not be what he was presented to be in this book.....

Friday, July 15, 2005

Back, and a few books to the better

Arrived home this morning, seriously jetlagged, but happy after my two weeks with friends in China and Mongolia, nursing a few extra pounds (too much Beijing Duck) and a sore ankle (from falling off a horse). Full of ideas and enthusiasm again. Read a handful of books on holiday, which will be fed in to a few posts as we go along:

Knowing Jesus, by James Alison - simply excellent, he's definitely my favourite theologian at the moment;
Dead Air, by Iain Banks - OK;
The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe - something I'd wanted to read for ages, and it didn't disappoint. I'll write a MoQ-related post on that;
The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis - very interesting, I'll post here on that, not least because it has sadly been sent right back up the agenda;
Long Way Round, Ewan McGregor and Boorman - fine, readable;
An Introduction to Radical Orthodoxy, James KA Smith - I'll post a full review of this when I've finished the book, it's a subject I know a little about (about two chapters left - couldn't face it on my flight home. Watching Bruce Willis in 'Hostage' was much more appealing...)

Remember: dedicate the fairy.