Sunday, December 30, 2012

The wisest man brought myrrh

Latest Courier article.

I was all set to write a jolly article suitable for Christmas festivities when the news came through about the tragedy in Connecticut. So much doesn't seem appropriate any more, even though, in a cynical sense, there is nothing new about what has happened. One of the things that I have most come to believe over the last several years is that God is never in “the drama”. That is, whenever there is a conscious desire to attract attention – to 'glamourise' in other words – there is also a turning away from God, a turning away from that same source of life and vitality. Consider a previous act of slaughter, the attacks of 9/11 in the United States. These were the very definition of a spectacle, and yet – despite what was claimed – I cannot believe that God was behind the spectacle, in the sense of desiring it, or having his purposes accomplished through it.

There is something of a truism here – that evil is banal and repetitive, whereas it is only goodness that is creative and capable of bringing something new into existence. When a soul is turned away from the living source of life and vitality it often seeks to artificially induce that vitality through a quest for stimulation, like Frankenstein charging his monster from the storm. So we have the epic spectacles of terrorism and slaughter where the monsters inside people are unleashed upon the world.

There is a passage in one of my favourite works of Christian spirituality – Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet' – which says this: “Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts, it drinks even of dead waters.” Souls turn to the darkness when the light which they crave is denied to them; and sometimes, which I take as the definition of evil, that darkness is embraced, justified and celebrated. The sorrow of our society is that we have become a place which has lost an awareness of the distinction between the light and the dark.

How are we to try and understand this, to regain an appreciation of the light, in order that we may, as a community, move back towards the light? One aspect is, I believe, to recognise that there is such a thing as evil and to accept that we will never be able to achieve a society which has banished sin and suffering, no matter how many well-intentioned programmes are undertaken. We need to have a greater sense of realism about the world that we live in, not to become cynical, but to recognise the cost of pursuing goodness, and the inevitable element of tragedy in human existence.

Which is, after all, the hidden side of the Christmas story. After all, we see and hear the story through the prism of two thousand years of telling; consequently, many of the most substantial elements can be missed. The point about a new king being born amongst the animals, resting in the trough, where there is no room in the inn – this is the very 'anti-drama' that is the sign of God's presence. I sometimes have the sense in reading these classic stories that the original writers could not be content with God's choice to be born as a nobody from a nothing town, and so all the elements of angelic messengers and visits from kings had to be imported to try and dignify God's activity with human hyperbole. It is too staggering for our imaginations to believe that God might just simply be present as a naked and mewling infant.

An infant, of course, who would one day be slaughtered by the state for being inconvenient to the projects of power. This is an aspect to the story that is present from the start – the cost of standing for life and truth when the established powers are bent on a course in opposition to such life and truth. A few days after Christmas, a few days after Jesus was born, the order was sent out to slaughter the innocents – those who had done nothing wrong other than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Holy Innocents and all who loved them bore the pain at that time, yet Jesus himself was destined for pain, humiliation and death himself. It was the wisest man who brought the myrrh – the ointment used for preparing bodies for burial, the sign of Jesus' own fate. Right at the beginning, amidst the cherubs, nestled in the arms of his mother, the undertone of pain and suffering was present.

There is so much to be thankful for, and to rejoice in, through the Christmas season, most especially for those who have much – much family, much friendship, much good cheer and wealth to celebrate. Yet there is this hidden side of Christmas, where the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not comprehend it. The story of Christmas is that the Lord came to be with those who have nothing – those who can find no place of shelter, those who hunger, those who are lonely and bereaved – those who bear the cost of tragedy in human life. For those of us who suffer – and, if truth be told, I believe that we all suffer in our different ways, we each have our own cross to bear – the message of Christmas is that God is with us. Despite all the ways in which our world distresses us, despite all the ways in which we fall short of our own hopes and desires and each other's expectations, despite all the ways in which we are most conscious of not becoming the people that God intends us to be – the message is that God has not abandoned us, and that, mysterious though it is, the way through our vale of suffering can be found by hearing the story of a baby boy, born out of wedlock and shunted into the stables two thousand years ago. May the light and peace of the Christ-child be with you and all whom you love this Christmas time.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

TBLA(extra): gay marriage as a spandrel

bls commented: "people who don't want children CAN marry, and the grammar is "marriage." There is, literally, no difference whatever between the marriages of elderly couples and those who are planning families; they are exactly the same in law and in fact". I want to engage with this a bit more formally, at the risk of completely compromising the order in which I wanted to address things (!)

I have long believed that the situation that we are in now is a result of changes in our society triggered by the advent of easily available and reliable contraception. The consequences of the development are complex and many-faceted, but one is the recognition and affirmation that there are at least two key facets to sexuality - one "for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity", and one for the procreation of children (I'm ignoring, for now, the 'remedy against fornication' aspect which seems to me to be more puritan than Christian).

The legacy that we have, however, comes from a time when those two elements were understood to be united, and, moreover, combined with questions of inheritance and honour. So a marriage was often not simply about the union of two individuals (for whatever motive) as about the union or explicit political alliance of two families. The raising of children was (legally) kept within the bounds of marriage, with significant consequences for both the mothers and children of those born 'out of wedlock'. In many cultures that remains the case of course.

Given this, the only way in which an affectionate union could be legally sanctioned was through marriage; and when such a union was so sanctioned, the approval carried a vast array of social weight. It seems to me that THIS is what the proponents of 'equal marriage' are seeking; in other words, it is all the weight of social approval embodied in the word 'marriage', as accumulated through history. It would represent, perhaps, a culmination of the 'coming out' process. In so far as this is what it means then I am wholly in favour of it.

However, this is where we get snagged upon semantics. For it seems to me that this aspect of marriage functions rather in the way that Stephen Jay Gould talked about 'spandrels'. That is, the primary purpose of the social institution of marriage - and, I would argue, the reason why it has been regulated so closely - is the raising of children within a particular framework. That is the 'core' element of marriage, as understood. However, as the institution has developed, other elements have gone alongside it - elements that 'came with the package' where the union was reproductive, but which developed independent status as social goods in their own right. These 'exaptations' now need to be given their own autonomous social place.

So much of the opposition to gay marriage is rooted in an opposition to homosexuality as such. I am not part of that; in so far as the gay marriage agenda is about giving wholehearted social approval to gay relationships, that is (obviously) a good thing. Yet it seems to me that by insisting that non-reproductive unions ARE 'marriage' (which, as bls rightly points out, non-reproductive heterosexual unions have been so treated thus far) the difference between the two key facets - and, most especially, the fact that society has a significant greater interest in the raising of children than in the mutual society of a couple - is being eclipsed. That is the essence of my unease with what is happening. I think that a significant good - all the social apparatus around the raising of children - is at risk of being dismantled in favour of another good - the social approbation of gay relationships.

Where I disagree with bls is that I think that there is a major difference (in fact if not in law) between a couple that are procreative and a couple that are not. Indeed, to insist otherwise is to obliterate the pain of childless couples - for if there is no difference, why do they mourn? And I believe that the wider society (and God) takes a different view of the two forms of relationship. We have not yet worked out how to navigate this difference (doing so is the purpose of my TBLA sequence) and it may well be that, simply as a result of our biology, it makes no sense to separate the two. Or, it may be that we need to develop two new institutions to replace the old one of marriage - call the first 'covenant relationship' and the second 'coparent relationship' perhaps? I think that there is a difference between these two forms of relationship. Can both be adequately described as 'marriage'? Possibly, but I just don't think the case has properly been made yet.

Oh yes, and, for what it's worth, I think that the CofE being prohibited from carrying out gay weddings is the worst of all possible worlds. Cameron is such a plonker.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Well, it's been a while.

TBLA(extra): it's not just about "choice"

This is an 'excursus' to the TBLA sequence; it most naturally belongs at the end, but it's on my mind. I wanted to say a bit more about the gay marriage debate going on at the moment. My views are still evolving, and I want to make explicit what my concern is about the particular nature of the present conversation. As it is a 'work-in-progress' it's still quite clunky, especially in the reliance on barbarous acronyms - sorry.

Our society is deeply confused about sexuality, and this leads into so many other problems. I want to indicate a broad framework for how I see what is happening, and introduce two barbarous acronyms: 'PEG', standing for 'personal enjoyment and growth', and 'PROC', standing for 'procreation and raising of children'. Much of the confusion about sexuality in our culture stems, I believe, from a lack of discrimination between those two types of relationship, and to try and apply the rules, regulations and expectations with regard to the one straight on to the other, without regard to the differences inherent between them.

Partly this is a fact of history. The raising of children is something in which we as human beings biologically, and any community seeking to sustain itself socially, have a very great and serious interest. It is because of this that sexuality has always been tightly regulated. If children are raised poorly then they do not flourish, they cause havoc, and society suffers. Similarly, on questions of sexual behaviour, something like adultery can cause extreme violence between the adults, causing the breach of the peace and everything up to and including a community breakdown or war – think of Helen of Troy. So the dominant form and understanding of sexuality has been the PROC form. This is what lies behind all the 'traditional' marriage values, which regulate the expression of sexuality, which are strict about legitimacy, and which emphasise that rightly-ordered sexuality is principally about procreation. This is the official Roman Catholic teaching for example – so any form of sexuality which is not open to procreation is inherently sinful.

Yet this is a reductive and, I would argue, non-Scriptural view of human sexuality. Human beings do not engage with each other sexually purely for the purposes of procreation, but also for the purposes of human bonding and deepening of relationships – see the Song of Songs for the clearest Biblical expression of this. This, I believe, has always been the case. For example, ponder the fact that, unlike other primates, the human female does not overtly signal when she is fertile, and she engages in sexual behaviour even when she is not fertile. Human sexuality is expressed in all sorts of contexts and for all sorts of reasons, and this, I believe, underlies the PEG form of sexuality. Our relationships enable us to grow as human beings, and, sometimes, this involves engaging with another person as profoundly as a sexual relationship makes possible.

The spiritual truth is, I believe, that the PROC relationships are called to include the PEG elements as well. This is how the Church of England understands marriage, and that is why the preamble for weddings is written in the way that it is. The trouble with our present society is that, in responding to things like the development of (generally!) reliable contraceptive technology, and embracing all the ideas around personal growth and so on – 'the sixties' as popularly understood – we have allowed such PEG relationships to eclipse our understanding of PROC relationships. This has had terrible consequences. Society has had a stake in PROC relationships for a very good reason; how children are raised is tremendously important, and a stable and loving home environment is an overwhelmingly strong indicator of psychological health in children, and their flourishing in later life. Sadly, because we have elevated PEG relationships into an idol, we have a culture that practices serial monogamy and easy divorce – perfectly understandable and acceptable from a PEG point of view, but anathema to the PROC.

This is why I'm not convinced that there can be such a thing as gay marriage – it is inherently non-procreative, and therefore will always be fundamentally a PEG, not a PROC – and it is PROC-including-PEG that is holy matrimony, as I understand it. (I'm ignoring, for now, the difficult questions around adoption etc, as 'hard cases make bad law'.) Both PEG and PROC can, I believe, be vehicles of holiness, but in different ways. A PEG can work 'under its own steam', because the momentum of personal growth and discovery is so strong. With a PROC it is different – even if the PROC would normally start out as a PEG. I believe that a promise of commitment, such as the vows, open up a space wherein we can learn to become more truly human, one with another. When this is simply between two people, that can be wonderful and life-enhancing purely in its own terms (that is how I understand civil partnership). Where this happens in a procreative context, then God is doing something even more remarkable through it, and it is more essential that the couple preserve the union (and it is more God's will).

The trouble is that much of this discussion is about semantics - what is meant by a particular word. We're in an environment where previously-held assumptions have broken down, and we're still working out what to do with our present situation. What most troubles me about Cameron's agenda is that he is elevating 'choice' to be the key criterion in working out whether gay marriage is the right way forward or not. To my mind that misses some of the most important elements of what has made marriage be what it is in our society - that is, it is an institution which subordinates individual choice to a wider social and human good. That's what I fear is being recklessly cast aside in his haste to appear acceptable to progressive opinion. We must not make 'choice' into an idol - if we do then we are simply joining in with our culture's worship of Mammon and treating everything in our human and social life as if it is a product in our supermarket for our discriminating delectation. Marriage is more important than this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why I joined UKIP this summer

Latest Courier article

We learn to be ashamed before we walk

On the principle that I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, I'd like to use this article to explain why I joined UKIP this last summer. One of the key elements of the English religious settlement after the Civil War was that religion was given a particular place – one that forbade any political involvement. This is why there remains something of a taboo about religious figures getting involved in political affairs in this country, although that taboo is, thankfully, beginning to break down, alongside all the other elements of our national life that are breaking down.

Religion and politics have always gone together. If we consider some key figures from history – look at Desmond Tutu, or Martin Luther King, or Gandhi – then the idea that religion and politics can be easily separated is seen as a nonsense; or, if not a nonsense, then as a particularly local English eccentricity, and whilst I am very much in favour of particularly local English eccentricities, this is not one that I can respect any more. When priests are ordained we are charged to 'let the good shepherd be the pattern of our calling' – in other words, we are to try to walk the walk that Jesus walked. As he was someone who was executed by the state for being politically inconvenient, I have some idea of how he would react to being put into a corner and told not to startle the establishment.

So why UKIP? Well, it won't come as a surprise to many that I have always seen myself as being conservative – with a small 'c'. In other words, I look to things like the development of character and virtue as the key way to move towards a better life, for an individual and for a community, and I see such things as being best cultivated by the 'small platoons' of local institutions, church and family life. The other side of that positive vision is that I share a profound distrust of the over-mighty state (actually, of any over-mighty institution or corporation, there's not much difference between a mindless bureaucracy and a mindless supermarket chain for example). In the context of the economic devastation that has been working its havoc on our lives for several years now – with no prospect of improvement for at least a decade, if ever – what will enable us to get through the hard times is the quality of our social interactions, the strengthening of our community fabric, our capacity for good neighbourliness and looking after each other. I see the rise of the state through the twentieth century as a systematic dismantling of that social fabric, an intrusion of bureaucracy into areas that are best left to personal or local resolution, and consequently we are suffering much more from the economic consequences of political incompetence than we need to have been.

There were two key issues that made me change my mind about actually joining in with a political party – something that I haven't done since my student days, when I used to campaign for the Green party. The first is becoming aware that the existing Conservative party would never hold an honourable referendum on leaving the European Union – they would do to the anti-EU cause exactly what they did to the Liberal Democrats on the referendum for electoral reform. The established leadership will mouth sufficient platitudes to keep enough euro-sceptics on board to preserve their access to power, but they will not entertain the radical step of withdrawing from the EU with any honesty. Clearly, that is only an issue in so much as withdrawal from the EU is an issue – and a large part of my changing mind on this is because I have come to see that particular issue as having such significance. Perhaps I can spell out why in another article; for now, let me say simply that the centralisation of power and authority in an unaccountable bureaucracy remote from the people that it claims to serve is the apotheosis of all the things which I instinctively distrust – and I am more and more convinced that it is the political equivalent of the dinosaurs after the asteroid had struck the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago. The world is changing very rapidly, and the future belongs to the local and the flexible – all the things which the EU most definitely is not.

There is a second issue that triggered my change of thinking, however, and this is more directly related to religious questions – the debate about gay marriage. This is not so much an issue about the ultimate substance – it is at least possible that I could be persuaded that there might be such a thing as 'gay marriage'; I do, after all, have no problem with the idea of a religious blessing for gay civil partnerships. No, the key issue for me is the way in which this very significant change is being pushed through in such a fool-hardy fashion. For those of a conservative disposition issues around family and social formation are absolutely central, and any changes to the existing framework have to be considered extremely carefully. It is quite obvious that the existing political leadership have not thought through their understanding on this question, and that they are being driven by a particularly metropolitan form of political correctness. All the right people are in favour, therefore it must be a good thing. As a result, a huge change in our society is being pushed through at a fast pace and, quite simply, this is not a conservative way of doing things. It is not surprising that so many conservatives are deserting the Conservative party over this question – what is the point of something which doesn't do what it says on the tin?

At the heart of my understanding, however, is a sense that I am fed up with a political culture that has an instinctive repudiation of all that is most noble and elevated in our own political heritage and national story. In the words of one of my favourite songs “we learn to be ashamed before we walk, of the way we look and the way we talk; without our stories and our songs, how will we know where we've come from? I've lost St George in the Union Jack, it's my flag too and I want it back...” I am proud of my country – not blindly, not without an awareness of all that is terrible in our history from Amritsar to Dresden – but fully consciously, accepting that no country will ever be perfect and without sin, but still proud of the contribution that our society has made to things like the abolition of slavery and the establishment of human rights. The remarkable thing from my point of view is that so many of the things that are valued by the politically correct - a culture of humane tolerance for difference, of care for minorities, the weak and vulnerable – these all depend upon the prior existence of a healthy society which positively inculcates such virtues, and actively teaches the young not just that these are good things (we're still paying lip service in that direction) but that the achievement of such good things is hard work and requires motivation and discipline, character and virtue. That is where we've gone wrong. We have forgotten the practical implications of living in a sinful world.

Ultimately, I want to ask – who are we as a nation? Are we really so weak and pitiful that we are dependent upon outside help and assistance in order to be the best that we can be? Do we need to depend on outside authorities to do good, and what is the cost of accepting such outside help – costs borne by our fishermen and farmers, our market traders and so on? Of course, I don't agree with everything that UKIP stands for (seeking a party that perfectly conforms to our own ideas is one of the more self-indulgent of vanities) but it's a question of priorities. I see the EU as having an entirely baleful influence upon our national life and economy, and I don't think that we are going to be able to see any serious progress in addressing the mire of our political culture until there is a complete break with the EU. Hence – I am now a member of UKIP, out and proud!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Of Wheat and Tares and CAGW Sceptics

(An article for the latest Green Christian magazine)

If we are to be truly Green Christians I think we need to have a full emphasis upon both parts of that description – that is, we need to ensure that our Greenery is critiqued by our Christianity just as much as our Christianity is critiqued by our Greenery. It's the former that I want to do in this article, because I am troubled by the extent to which a collapse in Christian values seems to be destroying the discussion in one area of Greenery, and how it is becoming destructive to our wider mission. I want to talk about the wheat and the tares and the CAGW sceptics.

This has been on my mind for quite some time for the simple reason that I have, rather against all my initial instincts – and, indeed, much of what I have previously taught and written – become a little bit of a CAGW sceptic myself. CAGW – I pronounce it 'ka-goo' as if it was a Welsh word – stands for Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming, and my scepticism is primarily about the first letter of the acronym. That is, I accept that the globe is indeed warming, and I accept that our emissions of carbon from burning fossil fuels are playing a significant part in that warming. My doubts, as they have grown, have centred on two elements – the first is the extent to which the pattern of warming is caused by those emissions; that is, how much is driven by our activity, how much by natural variability, how do those two elements interact and so on. More significantly, I am profoundly sceptical of the Catastrophic side – for mainly theological reasons, which I shall return to at the end of this article.

Now, I'm not wanting to get into the detailed science here – although I follow the detailed debates with great interest on-line – what I want to talk about is the tone that the discussion so often collapses into. Most especially I want to describe what I have come to call 'the climate screech', and I think the best way to describe that is with an analogy. Have you ever had a discussion with a convinced fundamentalist about who is going to go to Hell? Such discussions can often begin extremely pleasantly; some common ground is established, say, an acceptance of Jesus as Lord, an acceptance that there is something real that can be properly called 'Hell' and so on. Yet there comes a point in the conversation when you realise that this other person is, indeed, a convinced fundamentalist, and if you dare to suggest, for example, that it is possible that a Buddhist might be acceptable to Jesus, that a Buddhist might qualify as one of the 'for many' for whom Jesus also came – suddenly, the temperature of the discussion drops by several degrees and you realise that by this opinion you have been judged guilty of thought-crime and are now about to be denounced as a heretic. What I have discovered is that the same thing has begun to happen in discussions of climate change, and if any doubts are offered up against the 'consensus' then the pattern of behaviour exhibited is remarkably reminiscent of a fundamentalist – and it is this denunciation for heresy that I call 'the climate screech'. Instead of taking the form of quoting specific chapters and verses from the Bible (and therefore begging the question as to the nature of the Bible, and what is most properly considered the Living Word) it takes the form of quoting particular scientific 'facts', appealing to the 'consensus' of 'peer-reviewed science', and adopting a tone of righteous hectoring, as if a genuine intellectual doubt is a serious spiritual and moral failing. Instead of begging the question about the Bible, the climate screech begs the question of the nature of science and our relationship to it.

The trouble is that as soon as you have stepped into this sort of discussion, it is no longer a matter of a shared intellectual pursuit of the truth, and it moves on to something called 'the medicalisation of dissent'. That is, those who do not accept the consensus are no longer considered as fully rational human beings, but, rather, there is something wrong with them, poor dears, so let's just isolate them in their padded cells, so that society can proceed safely on its way with the dissentient voices silenced. Hence we have things like the recent Lewandowsky “research” that associates being sceptical of CAGW with doubting the moon landings – we don't have to take these questions seriously because the only people asking them are manifestly bonkers. It has become a matter of power, the one asking questions has shown themselves to be part of the 'enemy', and so such dissent and dangerous questions are to be shut down. This is how the language of heresy works; this is the dynamic of scapegoating all those who threaten the cohesion of the group; this is why innocent people end up getting crucified outside the city walls. You probably think I'm being a bit melodramatic about this – but this is how it has always begun.

This is why I want to critique this way of thinking from a Christian point of view. The holy simply do not 'screech'. They are so at home in the truth that they do not have to defend it; they simply point it out and let the truth itself do all the heavy lifting of persuasion. Put differently, the holy are never so certain of anything that they would use it as a means of power and exclusion. They certainly wouldn't allow their own ethics to be compromised in trying to 'defend' the truth – that would be a manifest self-contradiction and unthinkable. Which is one of the major reasons why I have started to look again at the CAGW consensus. There seems to be so much unethical behaviour involved – from the failure to follow an open procedure with regard to published research, to the debacle of the IPCC review process, all the way through to things like Peter Gleick's fraudulent deceptions and 'climategate' itself – that I can't help thinking that there is something really quite spiritually rotten here. That doesn't mean that climate change isn't real and isn't happening, what it does mean is that we – and by 'we' I include myself amongst all those who are persuaded that our present way of life is radically unsustainable and simply must change – that we have lost touch with the right way to proceed on this question.

Furthermore, I believe that because the wider movement has lost a sense of Godly perspective on this, and allowed it to become too important for us, we are actually losing the broader and more important argument about adapting our society to the Transition. How successful are the fire and brimstone preachers? They have become a caricature, and they are simply tuned out. In the same way, the excessive emphasis upon CAGW has eclipsed all the wider and more joyfully positive aspects of the Green way of life to which I believe that we are all called. Our wider society has heard the climate screech, has heard of all the dubious ethical practices of the practitioners, sees that the predictions of doom have not come to pass – and so these messengers are also tuned out.

The response to this is not to 'double-down' on the doom, and retreat into the illusionary comfort of moral and spiritual certainty and self-regard. As always, I would want to come back to Jesus, and see what he might have to say about such a situation. In the early church there was a persistent tendency to try and separate out the “good” Christians from the “bad” Christians, and this tendency was only finally named for the heresy that it is at the time of Augustine and his controversy with the Donatists. Yet Jesus talked about it from the very beginning, in his parable of the wheat and the tares. Jesus said that we must not try and separate them, because if we do, we will inevitably uproot some of the good along with the bad. It is for Jesus to sort them out at the end of the age. In the same way, we need to establish common cause politically with as many people as possible, and not get snagged on the temptations of doctrinal purity. We need spiritual humility, not dogmatic certainty.

Which brings me to that last point that I want to make, which is about the 'Catastrophic' part of CAGW. I have my grounds for doubt about the 'science' of this, most especially with regard to the IPCC forecasts which take no account of either the implications of the peaking of fossil fuel production, or the secondary effects upon the economy which such peaking will provoke – and which therefore, to my mind, render the IPCC forecasts literally meaningless. Yet my doubt about the catastrophism isn't primarily based upon the science but upon what I understand the nature of God to be. So I want to make an argument that would be meaningless to those whose understandings are determinedly secular, but which might make sense to those who place equal weight upon both the Green and the Christian.

If God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die upon the cross and to save us from our sins – does it really make sense for him now to be a Deus Absconditus? To ask that question is to reference a particular theological tradition which sees the divine wrath as the inevitable corollary of our bad behaviour – and if we are not Green enough, then we shall experience the particularly Green doom of ecological catastrophe. There is a clear link between the catastrophism of CAGW and the eschatological prophecies of the hell-fire preacher, and it is not an accident that a society which sees itself as so determinedly secular and free of the fear of hell finds itself indulging in periodic paroxysms of fear about a secular equivalent. I reject both patterns of thought as unworthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and I reject them for the same reasons in each case. So often there is an underlying theology hovering behind the supposedly secular – what we need to do is to disinter these inherited assumptions, and help us to ask the right questions about how we are to live today.

If we are to rest in the truth that sets us free then I believe that we need to properly integrate our Christian understandings with our Green attitudes, and allow each to correct the other. What this means is recognising that the Fallen nature of our existence applies as much to science and scientists as any other human realm, and always being willing to ask the impertinent and dissentient questions. It means making friends with CAGW sceptics wherever there is a possibility of common ground. More importantly, it means that our hopes, fears and expectations of the future cannot rest upon any scientific claim alone, but must also be informed by the faith and the hope which is in us. I retain hope for our human future, even when at the very same time, I also believe that our existing culture is collapsing around us and that we are facing our own generation's equivalent of forty years in the wilderness. The difference is that I believe that we will come back to God in the wilderness, and that he will not leave us as orphans: “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29.11)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The crisis of political correctness

Courier article - written before the UKIP fostering fiasco in Rotherham, which is a remarkably timely demonstration of what I'm talking about.

In his seminal work on the philosophy of science, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn describes what happens when one way of viewing the world gives way to another. Essentially, any way of viewing the world – what Kuhn calls a 'paradigm' – is always going to be incomplete. Slowly, over time, that incompleteness gives rise to 'anomalies', that is, there are things which are seen which cannot be explained in terms of the existing paradigm. So, for example, the Ptolemaic paradigm for understanding the movement of the planets (which had the earth at the centre) slowly gave way to the Copernican paradigm (which had the sun at the centre) because the former had to start making exception after exception in order to account for what was actually being observed. In other words, the old ways of thinking, the old paradigms, break down when they can no longer account for the piling up of new evidence – there are too many anomalies, things which don't fit. What is most interesting about Kuhn's account is the way in which he describes the resistance that takes place to the transition to a new paradigm. According to Kuhn the consensus of opinion changes, not because the majority are convinced by reasoning and evidence (which is the mythology of scientific progress) but rather that those coming into the field for the first time, without preconceptions, find a new paradigm to be more intellectually interesting, and those committed to the old paradigm simply and literally die out.

I find this understanding of intellectual change quite persuasive, and I believe that it applies to other fields just as naturally as science. A paradigm, a way of looking at the world, gets taken up and used for a long period of time because it seems to work. However, when the anomalies – those things that can't be explained within the paradigm – accumulate too far, then there is a revolution of understanding. The old guard is never persuaded, they are simply left behind as new thinkers develop more fruitful lines of enquiry. I believe that just such a process is now taking place with regard to 'political correctness', or, put differently, the established left-wing pieties are now being pitilessly exposed as inadequate to address the major problems that we face. As a result political correctness is in crisis.

To explore this further, I want to look at the BBC and some recent stories that they have been involved in. I want to look particularly at the BBC, not because I don't support it – I very much do – but because I see it, along with the Guardian newspaper (which I read daily) as the repository of this particular pattern of thought. So what are the recent stories?

The first is the Jimmy Saville scandal. One particularly telling detail about this was the way that the organiser of the Children in Need event had barred Saville from having any involvement with it. Why did this not set off any alarm bells? It would appear – and obviously a proper understanding needs to await the results of the relevant inquiries – but it would appear that there was a culture of 'protect the celebrity' in place at the BBC. Where there is no understanding of virtue, celebrity is the plastic substitute for character, and this blindness to the importance of classical values leads directly to such horrors.

In contrast to the protecting of celebrities there remains, on the other hand, a culture of 'hate the Tories' in place. There are plentiful examples of this stretching back over a long period of time, but the attitude has been brought into particular salience through the catastrophic Newsnight programme which led to the calumnies against Lord McAlpine. The default assumption amongst the politically correct is that to be right-wing is to be uncaring. Anyone remember the vilification of Margaret Thatcher after she made the comment 'there is no such thing as society?' Studying her remarks now, it is clear that she was making an important point – yet the coverage at that time simply assumed that as a Tory she was by definition heartless, and that this was the point that she was making. So alongside the blindness to classical virtues runs a self-righteous smugness and sense of moral superiority.

What do we actually need from the BBC? Something like a fair and balanced coverage of the issues that confront our society, and, perhaps, some indication of how to treat with them in order to make progress – to reform the bad and affirm the good. Some of you may have heard about the appalling situation in Rochdale where young girls were groomed and sexually attacked by groups of Muslim men – but of course, to use the word 'Muslim' in this context is to breach a taboo. For some reason the racial epithet 'Asian' is preferred, despite being so broad as to be meaningless (and also profoundly racist). Now, of course, it is not the case that being Muslim of itself means that a man is more likely to perpetrate such barbaric acts, but it is the case that there is a toxic fragment of 'Muslim' culture that fosters an attitude of treating white women as disposable trash. We are not going to be able to deal with such a situation unless we are able to speak honestly and openly about it. (I should add, for clarity, that the vast majority of similar grooming and sexual attacks is carried out by nominally Christian white males – that doesn't alter the point that I am making here). Alongside the blindness to classical virtues, and the self-righteous smugness, there is such a fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia that mealy-mouthed equivocations and circumlocutions have to be employed to dance around the shocking truth.

Finally I want to touch on the coverage that the BBC is providing with regard to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – a conflict which is likely to become larger in due course. That the BBC is anti-Israel is something of a truism, yet it is in such coverage that the contradictions of political correctness seem to me to come into very visible focus. The organisation Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel – it is a part of their founding charter – and if they succeed in their aims then the one place in the entire Middle East where a gay man, or a woman, or a Christian or Hindu can live in peace will be destroyed. Somehow, the need to support the apparent underdog against Israel trumps all the other elements of political correctness.

There is, I believe, an escalating disconnect between the claims being made by the adherents of political correctness, who pay lip service to issues of justice and equality, and the actual working out of their behaviour in practice. If we are truly committed to, for example, the rights of girls to be educated, to marry a partner of their own choosing, to work out their own path in life – then that also means at the very same time that the construction of sharia law in the United Kingdom is something that needs to be struggled against. It is not possible to be in favour of both – to support the rights of women, or gays, or religious minorities and at the same time to offer equal respect to an ideology that opposes such things.

I believe that the adherents of left-wing orthodoxy, political correctness, are being put to the test. What is it that they actually believe in? Put differently, I believe that what we are seeing is the working out of a contradiction that has always been at the heart of the secular enlightenment. The best of the enlightenment is, both as a matter of historical fact and philosophical necessity, bound up with the religious faith in which it originally formed. That is, a properly tolerant, rational and humane society can only exist on the basis of the religious and specifically Christian commitments which offer such things as their fruit. Where those religious commitments are discarded, the branches bearing fruit are cut off from the trunk and the roots – and so they die. There is a contradiction – an anomaly – between an enlightenment which accepts and rejoices in a full humanity open to all and an enlightenment which simply genuflects before the conventional left-wing pieties and is only concerned to be in with the crowd of 'right on' celebrities. If we believe in the former then we must, of necessity, reject the latter. It is not possible to straddle this fence – and that is the crisis for political correctness.

TBLA(6): Pecca Fortiter

One of the key theological insights that I hang on to, which came to me from Bonhoeffer (articulating the Lutheran tradition) is 'Pecca Fortiter' - 'sin boldly'. There is, I think, a right way to understand this, and a wrong.

The wrong is the one that Bonhoeffer chastises in 'Cost of Discipleship', which is 'cheap grace'. This way of understanding the phrase effectively means - do what you like because you're covered by grace anyway. It becomes an antinomianism only half a breath removed from a complete licentiousness. One of my favourite quotations of Wittgenstein: 'If what we do now makes no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with.' What we do matters in the long run and this way of understanding the action of grace seems to me to do away with all sense of better and worse, all that speaks to us of quality, or excellence, or holiness.

In contrast to this I would argue for a way of understanding 'pecca fortiter' which is centred upon relieving us of our burden of guilt and sense of failure. It is true that we cannot earn our way to heaven; it is also true that everything that we do is going to be tainted by our sin and failures. What this phrase means in this context is that we should not let the fear of failure prevent us from seeking to grow in faith. Of course, what we do might be a fearsome failure, a spectacular example of what not to do - but there is no place where we can go that will take us away from the love of God revealed in Christ. So long as we are constantly seeking him, constantly seeking to grow closer to him, then we can trust that he will hold on to us and no matter what sort of mess we find ourselves in, he will be able to pull us out of it. So I take 'pecca fortiter' to be a realistic maxim of encouragement. We have the authority to judge the angels, yet we will not be able to exercise such judgement unless we have grown in maturity ourselves. It is through being set free from the fear of failure that we will learn and develop that capacity for judgement. We are rather like toddlers learning to walk - we have to try and fail many, many times before we can start making strides.

In other words, if a group of Christians, after a great deal of prayer and reflection, come to the conclusion that a radical change in behaviour is led by the Spirit - then a fear of the consequences (or a reference to keeping the rules) is not enough to say that it is wrong. That group of Christians themselves have the authority and the right to test that particular spirit and to see if the changes tend towards holiness and righteousness or otherwise. This, after all, is what happened in the first-century debates about circumcision and kosher food laws. I think the same applies to our struggles over sexuality today. Put simply, we need to trust the baptism of our brothers and sisters.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Veni Sancte Spiritus - but please don’t tell us anything we’d rather not hear

This is a guest post by Rev Edward Dowler

First of all, let me state my own position, somewhat fence-sitting thought it is. Although I long for closer communion with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I realise that there is an anomaly about a church in which a certain category of priests cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate. However, some aspects of the reaction to the recent vote on women bishops have deeply disturbed me.

The first of these was majoritarianism. One bishop pronounced with perhaps some sleight of hand that ‘the clear majority of the Church of England demands it, the people of this country expect it, and I believe that the Holy Spirit yearns for it’. Since forty two out of forty four dioceses (or, more accurately, diocesan synods) have expressed support for women bishops, it has been widely concluded that the legislation should certainly have been passed, despite not receiving the required majority in the General Synod. But majoritarianism is not democracy: as the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently pointed out, democracy is not just about enacting the will of the majority, but also, just as importantly, it is about protecting the rights of the minority: exactly the point about which the House of Laity was concerned.

Secondly, in the aftermath of the vote, there has been a nasty strain of clericalism in evidence. Members of the House of Laity were, it seemed, simply too thick and reactionary to get it; no surprises there if you believe in any case that they are ‘life-denying fun sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex’. But it was noticeable that the key swing voters whose votes ensured that the legislation was defeated were in fact people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate. However, they felt unable to ignore an uncomfortable feeling that charity was not served by what seemed to them to be a ‘winner takes it all’ piece of legislation. At what has already turned out to be very considerable cost to themselves, they were not prepared to endorse this, despite their own desire to see women bishops.

Thirdly, there has been erastianism of the worst kind. As John Milbank has pointed out, the purpose of having an established Church is so that ‘the political nation is answerable to the Church: to God, to Christ and to Scripture’. But the Church of England seems largely to have accepted that it now goes the other way. The Prime Minister, in one of the milder comments from the House of Commons, has told the Church of England that it needs to ‘get with the programme (of secular equalities legislation)’. Despite all of the lessons that the twentieth century might teach us, even the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to believe that the Church should essentially keep in step with modern ‘trends and priorities’, as if it were in these that true wisdom is to be found. Other bishops meanwhile contend that the answer to this disagreement within the Church is to put it all in the hands of the secular courts (cf. 1 Cor 6.1-8).

Fourthly, we have seen what one might describe as a pneumatological deficiency. Are the prayers for guidance, the talk about seeking God’s will, the Synod Eucharists and all the rest of it just so many platitudes and pieces of empty flummery? For, rather than asking what it is that the Holy Spirit might be saying to the Church of England in and through this vote, the immediate response to the decision is hotly to protest that a way must be found of overturning it as soon as possible. In the words of the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Stephen Maxfield (scroll to the last letter), ‘The Church of England is very odd. It invokes the Holy Spirit before meetings of its General Synod, but then it flatly refuses to believe that He has anything to do with the results of its deliberations’.

As several commentators have pointed out, one problem is a chronic lack of theology. Since we do not have an agreed theology of the episcopacy, we do not know whether bishops exist to provide leadership in the manner of secular gurus of that discipline, or bureaucratic managers, or fathers within a family. And because we do not know this, the conversation all too easily defaults to regarding episcopacy as just another ‘senior position’.

Similarly, since we do not have theology of gender, or indeed of the human person more generally, we default to secularised discourses of rights and equal opportunities. In the words of one priest in my own diocese, ‘young professional women aren’t used to being told they can’t do things’. So, putting it bluntly, we have been trying to decide whether to have women bishops without really having a clue what either a bishop or a woman (or a man) actually is.

Perhaps the egregious Chris Bryant MP is right – although not for the reasons that he thinks he is – that we should simply appoint no more bishops of either gender for the time being. Perhaps (and I owe this point to the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross) we need to put aside our anxious, self-preoccupied strivings, our worldly perceptions that things can be fixed if only this or that group of people can be outflanked and defeated. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has indicated to us in and through this vote that the old way of doing things has now reached a dead end and that, instead, we must now just wait in stillness and silence before the Lord who waits to be gracious to us. If we did that, people really might take some notice.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill, Enfield in the Diocese of London. He was formerly Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford. He has recently written the SCM Core Text in Christian Ethics (SCM: 2011) and The Church and the Big Society (Grove Books: forthcoming).

Friday, November 23, 2012

Any day now

One day, one of the worst evils in our world will be repudiated. I wonder if this is a straw in the wind? We can hope... (via Flickphilosopher)

Sarah Coakley agrees with me! (perhaps they will listen to her)

Please forgive the egotistical title for this blog-entry, but my inner cheer is too buoyant to repress. I've been banging on about the lack of theological seriousness in the Church, the creeping managerialism, and the effect it has on clergy morale for a long time - and focussed all those concerns on the women bishops question here. In the aftermath of the Synod debacle, Professor Sarah Coakley, who is an all round star, weighs in here. Go read.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

TBLA(5): radical non-judgement

One of the most salient teachings of Jesus - and one of the very hardest to follow - is 'Judge not, lest ye be judged'. I see this as the expression of a core spiritual truth; that if we live as ones who are forgiven, not from merit but from grace, that we are enabled to share that mercy and forgiveness and grace with others. It is about the divine love overflowing through us. To judge - and I take that in the sense of 'to condemn' - is to separate ourselves out from that overflowing grace and thereby to invoke a solemn judgement upon ourselves. "The measure that you give will be the measure that you receive"; "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" - these are expressions of the same core spiritual law. I do sometimes wonder whether this is the only thing that needs to be known and lived in order to be a Christian.

However, for my purposes in this sequence, the conclusion that I draw is that if a Christian brother or sister has prayed through a situation and come to a particular discernment then it is not for any other Christian to stand in judgement and condemnation over them. To start denouncing a fellow Christian as a sinner is a) to state the obvious, but b) more importantly, to demonstrate a failure to understand the gospel, and thus, to exclude oneself from the Kingdom.

This is not to say that all discrimination is abandoned, that 'anything goes' - it is simply to affirm the profound spiritual respect which we are called to offer one another as fellow baptised Christians. We are all sinners, and we do not get to heaven through our own merit. Possibly a divergence of view will lead to a failure of shared communion - 'let them be to you as a gentile and a tax collector' and so on - but that can be done in a Christian spirit or in a judgemental spirit. Only one of those is Holy.

So this is absolutely key to the discussion about marriage. That is, if we are to truly and mutually discern what is God's will for our community today, we need to be able to listen with holy ears to things that might otherwise shock us. I do not believe we need to be afraid of this.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Please can we now do women bishops the right way?

Three step process:

1. Formally decide that the period of reception is at an end, and that the Church of England definitively accepts women priests.
2. Construct a generous, loving - dare I say 'Christian' - settlement with all those who on reasons of conscience cannot accept #1, involving transfer of property and so on - at least one new denomination, but let's be fraternal about it.
3. Synod passes a remarkably simple single-clause measure bringing in women bishops by unanimous consent.

Is it really so hard to do things the right way, rather than descending into so much appalling political bickering?

A good election to lose

Courier article

I write this article on the morning after the US elections, as Barack Obama celebrates his re-election as president of the United States. I can't escape the feeling that, rather like the Conservatives in 1992, this might have been a good election to lose. In 1992, a little surprisingly, John Major led the Conservatives to a small victory, and the following September the pound was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Whilst this was clearly a good thing for the British economy, it was just as clearly a very bad thing politically for the Conservative party, whose reputation for economic competence took such a hit that it has arguably not yet recovered, some twenty years later. I think that a similar sort of 'black swan' type event – in fact, several – lie in wait for the President of the United States, and I want to briefly indicate the sorts of things that might be lurking.

Firstly, the economic issues, which I have touched on in this column several times before. The Western economic system is bankrupt, and at the moment is persisting purely via a sequence of confidence tricks – that is, lots of measures, principally printing money, designed to keep confidence in the financial system going. If at any point that confidence is damaged, then people will start to seek a safer place to park their financial assets. In other words, debts will start to be called in, and instead of the value of any debt being an abstract item on a putative balance sheet, that debt will become a very real obligation. As there is not enough wealth in the world to balance out the existing debts, there will be defaults – that will make people more nervous, causing them to call in more debts, which will make more people go bankrupt, making people more nervous... Rinse and repeat until enough of the bad debt has been properly accounted for and a solvent economy – at a much smaller size than the present economy – emerges from the wreckage. Human nature being what it is, this is likely to take the form of some very visible event, like a stock market crash or a spectacular bank failure – and the person in power, whether innocent or not, will have to take responsibility.

Another aspect of the economic situation is the US government's own financial position. As a result of the huge level of deficits built up over many years – but massively accelerated over the last four – the US government is practically bankrupt. It has been able to fend off the implications of this situation for the simple reason that the US dollar remains, for now, the 'reserve currency' for the world financial system. In other words, for a great deal of international trade, especially oil, the transactions take place in dollars. The US government can therefore keep printing dollars because people need them, and there is a lot of 'wealth' in other government accounts that people do not wish to see collapse in value. However, that is not a situation that can or will last forever. Indeed, this aspect may come to a head very soon, as unless the US government agrees a new budget in the next few months, it will drive off a 'fiscal cliff' – there are some $600 billion worth of tax increases about to take effect, and if that is allowed to happen then it will have a severe impact on the US economy. There will be lots of coverage on this topic over the next few weeks.

Thirdly, an under-reported but major factor in our ongoing economic problems is the developing impact of Peak Oil. Ignoring the 'blip' in 2008 (when oil hit $150 per barrel) the price of oil has been significantly increasing year on year for nearly ten years now. The reason for this is simple – there is less oil available than there is demand for it, and that is because there has been no significant increase in the oil supply since 2005. Indeed, if you break the numbers down, the amount of oil available for export (in other words, the amount of oil not being used by the nations that produce the oil) has been declining by about 0.7% a year since 2005. This problem is not going to go away, it is only going to get worse, and for an indication for how it might affect the United States, just look at the coverage of 'superstorm' Sandy, and what happened there when the fuel supply was interrupted.

Of course, economic issues aren't the only ones that can cause problems to a President, although I suspect that they will be the major ones. The field of foreign affairs is also looking scarier as time goes on. Principally that relates to the Middle East. I tried to explain to a friend the other day why the situation is so bad, and simply tried to list the different actors and their motivations. I stopped when I had reached eight! The situation is obviously very complex, but it seems equally obvious that things like the accession to power in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their shift from a pro-US stance to one that is, at the very least, independent and welcoming to Iran, will have significant long-term consequences. More broadly, the increasing level of hostility between China and its neighbours in the Far East is worrisome, and if the Chinese leadership elects a more 'hawkish' new President, that would be a dark omen.

As MacMillan once put it, 'events, dear boy, events!' are what govern political careers. It is quite possible that there will be one particular event that triggers a cascade of consequences bringing all of these issues to a head. Imagine, for example, that Israel launches an attack on Iran, triggering a wider war involving Saudi Arabia; that the oil supply through the Straits of Hormuz is interrupted, even if only briefly; that the resulting spike in the oil price causes many of our fragile financial institutions to pass over into bankruptcy; and that the US dollar – as a result of political hostility to the United States – loses its role as a reserve currency. I don't want to say that these problems will be impossible to solve only that, as I said at the beginning, if you're going to lose an election, this isn't a bad one to lose. Barack Obama's in-tray is unlikely to have much good news in it for many years to come.

I'll finish by sticking my neck out and making a bold prediction (containing just a smidgen of wish-fulfilment) – either at the head of a purged Republican party, or at the head of an independent 'Tea Party' ticket, the US will elect Sarah Palin as president in 2016. You read it here first...

Monday, November 19, 2012

TBLA(4): The question of truth

One of the corollaries of my last post is: given that the church has the authority to decide what is right and what is not right (the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven) - how are we to do make such a determination?

This is simply 'the question of truth' - that is, the truth shall set us free, nothing that is true is foreign to Jesus, so the pursuit of truth is something that necessarily leads us into the light. This does not mean that 'truth' as a construct can be placed in an antagonistic relationship to the gospel, in order that one must be defeated. It is more a question of humility and willingness to be challenged.

One of the most ignored instructions from the infamous Lambeth Conference of 1998 was surely the injunction to listen to the homosexual Christian community about their understandings and experience. It is not possible to listen in the relevant sense if there is an irrevocable commitment to "you are a sinner". However, if listening is genuinely entered into, then so does the Holy Spirit - and together, the truth of a situation becomes discernible.

One of the best books that I have read on this subject is Gareth Moore's "A Question of Truth". He makes the argument there that it is not good enough to appeal to authority. If we believe - as Christians have always maintained that they do believe - in a God of order and reason, then that reason and order is open to an appreciation by the community. This is what drives the theological question. In his book, Moore slowly takes apart the standard Roman Catholic dogma and simply points out that 'this is not true'.

So for my purposes, this is another foundational plank in the overall argument. If we are to come to a proper understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, appeals to authority are insufficient, however important the authority may be (and it is not an accident that I began this sequence with Jesus' own teaching). We must be able to demonstrate the truth of our position.

To that end, I will in due course be drawing on contemporary scientific research about sexuality. If anyone wants a hint as to what sort of thing I'll be using, have a look at this book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

At the end of half-term week I went with my wife to the West End to catch The Master on the day of release (and in 70mm). Why go to such length? For the simple reason that Paul Thomas Anderson directed my favourite movie, and I really rate him as a director. So how does the new film rate?

Well, having avoided reviews and analysis before watching the film, I've been catching up on them in full over the last two weeks. Many are good, and pick out the most obvious elements, most importantly the phenomenal acting performances of the leads and the way in which the film is remarkably 'static'. There is very little in the way of a conventional story arc - although there definitely IS one - and the film is best understood as being akin to a portrait of a relationship, rather than the story of a relationship.

However, there is one key element that I took away from the film which I have not yet seen in any other review, and I'm starting to wonder if I'm the only one who has seen it - and that is to do with the Rorschach test. Anderson himself designed the publicity posters - example above - and I believe that this is a significant key for understanding the nature of the film. That is, I believe that the film itself is designed as a form of Rorschach test.

Mild spoilers follow.

It struck me towards the end of the film that it is structured symmetrically - that is, there are events in the second half of the film which mimic or reproduce events in the first half. Key ones are the shot of the foam trail behind a boat; the scenes on the beach with the 'sand woman'; but also more particularly a correspondence between the scene of Freddie running across a field and the scene of Freddie riding the motorbike. There are others, but those were the ones that most struck me. So if my hypothesis is correct - in other words that Anderson has constructed a Rorschach test which invites us to bring our own meanings to the film, through which we discover things about ourselves - where does the 'fold' come? I haven't analysed the timings in detail, so this could be wrong, but as soon as I asked the question I thought "it's the jig scene", which itself falls naturally into two halves, and which is ripe for an interpretation which links in with Freddie's own response to a Rorschach test (first half) and also what happens at a bar towards the end of the film (a corresponding second half). Anderson is asking us 'what do you see?' - and suggesting, I believe, that we bring our own meanings.

Which does, of course, link strongly with the whole theme of 'The Master' and the establishment of a new religious cult, and whether the Master is a charlatan or a genuine guru - but those aspects have been well discussed elsewhere, so I won't explore them further here.

In sum: a very, very fine film, 5/5 - still not an improvement on Magnolia, but I'm not sure anything ever will be, for me.

Monday, November 12, 2012

TBLA(3): the third foundational teaching of Jesus

This one is from Matthew 16:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ 14 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[b] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[c] will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.’
I take verse 19 to be a delegation of authority from Jesus to Peter (and hence to the church as a whole, the consensus fidelium) on all ethical and moral matters. In other words, the church has the capacity to decide for itself what sort of "social apparatus" to adopt, in the sense that I described earlier.

I see this as underlying decisions like that of the Jerusalem council about whether circumcision was necessary, or keeping the kosher food laws. Those are questions of "social apparatus", and are not matters of salvation. Similarly I believe that the church has the authority to declare gay marriage legitimate, if it so chooses. Underlying this is, of course, an understanding of the authority of Scripture - for a more detailed explanation of my views, see this post.

A teaching of St Paul's is relevant here: "‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial." In other words, the authority of the church to determine questions of morality is distinct from licentiousness - it still matters what we do, and some things destroy life, other give it. What needs to be attended to are the fruits of the Spirit; or, as is described in Acts, whatever 'seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us'. In order to determine this, there is a right process to be followed, in two parts: the question of truth, and the question of non-judgement, which are the subject of my next two posts.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

TBLA(2): the second foundational teaching of Jesus

This one I'm going to take from Mark 10, for reasons I shall explain:
"Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them. 2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 ‘What did Moses command you?’ he replied. 4 They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’ 5 ‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,’ Jesus replied. 6 ‘But at the beginning of creation God “made them male and female”.[a] 7 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,[b] 8 and the two will become one flesh.”[c] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.’"
The reason for quoting the Markan passage rather than the Matthean parallel is because I believe the significant change in the Matthew passage - ie the exception for adultery - to be an addition to what Jesus himself taught. That is, I believe that a major thrust of Jesus' teaching on marriage to be a prohibition on divorce in all circumstances. To put that differently, I do not believe that Jesus allowed adultery to be a reason for divorce; I think that this is a Matthean addition brought in because Jesus' teaching was too hard for the community to accept - in other words, that the 'hardness of heart' Jesus refers to was still present in the early Christian community.

More significant, however, is the context for that teaching about divorce, which is the 'one flesh' reference back to Genesis. I want to spend a lot of time thinking through this passage - much more than I plan to incorporate in a single post - but for now I simply want to register that this passage, in the Markan form, is the second foundational text for my explorations.

TBLA(1b): a bit more on Matthew 22

The best thing about writing on a blog is the chance for instant feedback and analysis, which means that misconceptions have a chance (a chance, not a certainty) of being cleared up before going further. So this is primarily a response to John's comment.

Matthew 22 is undoubtedly a teaching about the resurrection; Jesus is refuting the Sadducees as John articulates. Yet I don't think that this exhausts the meaning or importance of the passage itself. Firstly, the assumption being made by the Sadducees is to do with the Mosaic law about inheritance, about keeping a name alive in the land. That is the context which generates the perceived absurdity - the absurdity being that a woman cannot belong (be given) to more than one man. Jesus rebukes this by rejecting the idea that there is any 'belonging' in the resurrection, in the sense assumed by the Sadducees. He is therefore, I am arguing, rejecting the "social apparatus" of marriage as it existed in his time, ie the whole panoply of property law and inheritance obligations. The point that I was stumbling towards is that there is a distinction between this "social apparatus" - which is transient - and those elements of a relationship which do partake of the eternal, especially in so far as they embody agape.

The interesting bit - interesting for me, that is - is going to be working out precisely how this difference works out for us in this life, and how far things like the raising of children, or the 'mutual love and affection' of a gay partnership, are affected by this distinction. My sense is that the raising of children requires exactly a "social apparatus"; whereas something like a gay relationship doesn't so much. Which is why I expect to argue that marriage - which is very much a "social apparatus" - is different from something like a civil partnership, even when that civil partnership is equally (if not more) capable of being a vehicle for the incarnation of agape love.

Friday, November 09, 2012

TBLA (1): the first foundational teaching of Jesus

From Matthew 22:
23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” 29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’[b]? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
What does it mean to say that "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven"?

I take it to mean that marriage is part and parcel of this world, the fallen world, that it is not an essential part of the life to come. In other words, the implication of this teaching of Jesus is that marriage is not of eternal importance, and this teaching therefore acts as a bulwark against all attempts to make marriage into a totem or idol. It does not mean that marriage is of no importance at all - hardly that - it simply places a marker down against raising it up to be more than it is.

And what is it? Well, one of the key assumptions in this passage (as set out by Countryman) is that marriage is an economic arrangement. In other words, the question being asked by the Sadducees is a question of property law; it is not a question about the nature of the relationship, in a way that a modern ear might expect to hear.

So is it simply as an economic arrangement that marriage does not share in the eternal? I suspect that it is - but working out all the implications of that is what this series of posts is going to be about. After all, we are assured repeatedly that God is love, and that love is eternal - so in so far as marriage partakes of love, then surely it is also something that has implications beyond the resurrection. I suspect that, in so far as we learn to embody the divine love (agape) in our relationships, so too will we be sharing in something which lasts forever.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

To be like angels
Aspects of marriage, gay, straight and other

I want to start a sequence of posts - it might eventually become a book! - talking about some elements (not all) of the marriage debate. I believe that some very central things are being missed, and I want to challenge some of the assumptions that seem to underlie the argument, especially with respect to gay marriage. Part of my thinking was hinted at in this previous post but at that point my thinking had not properly coalesced. It has now - or, perhaps more accurately, it has now got to the point that some public thinking and writing on the topic would help me to firm up my views. The Hobo's comment here has made me realise that the time is ripe (I should also add that the Courier article linked was one that had been asked for by the editor.)

I expect to argue for the following:
- that marriage is an earthly arrangement, and not a heavenly one, and what this means
- that the church has the power to decide what constitutes marriage
- that the church has an obligation to explain and justify its understanding of marriage
- that an essential element of marriage is procreative, ie the presence of children (not the potential presence of children, so not the Roman Catholic view)
- that non-procreative unions (civil partnerships, whether gay or straight) can also be bearers of the holy, but differently to the procreative
- that the key hallmark of the 'biblical view of marriage' is not the Adam/Eve companionship element, but the 'one flesh' prohibition of divorce
- that our present arrangements are radically unjust, especially to children and to men
- that our cultural understandings, especially with regard to 'romantic love' and self-fulfilment, are idolatrous
- that if the justice issues are addressed, there is no necessary incompatibility between Christian faith and alternative marriage arrangements (eg gay relationships, polygamy and so on).

I expect this will take some time to explore, but the above is the direction and sequence that I plan to follow.


Index of posts:
1. The first foundational teaching of Jesus - resurrection, and supplemental post
2. The second foundational teaching of Jesus
3. The third foundational teaching of Jesus
4. The question of truth
5. Radical non-judgement
6. Pecca Fortiter
7. Choices in a broken world.

Additional posts:
It's not just about 'choice'
Gay marriage as a spandrel The separation of sex from the procreation of children (link to an Andrew Brown article)

One very important question hovering behind the sequence.

Monday, November 05, 2012

If I had a vote on women bishops I would vote against

I wrote about this fairly extensively here, and my views haven't changed; instead they have hardened. I see all the political manoeuvrings as confirmation of our spiritual bankruptcy. Shame on us.

(Again, for the record, I'm in favour of a full acceptance of women to every order of ministry. God doesn't care whether the wobbly bits are above or below the waist, he looks at the heart.)

Saturday, November 03, 2012

On wishing they might both lose

A few brief thoughts about the US election.

- I've never been a fan of Obama, all other things being equal I would be rooting for him to lose on Tuesday night. All other things are not equal, however; - one of the principal things that I don't like about Obama is that I see him as a machine politician without any particularly strong guiding principles of his own; I suspect that he is personally corrupt; and most especially I see his policies as being driven by established vested interests in the various spheres. Crucially, Goldman Sachs alumni seem to have been in charge of the economic policy, and I'm not in favour of anything that favours the vampire squid;
- but what is the alternative? Romney is hardly someone to shake up the system and take on the vested corruption is he? To again refer to a Matt Taibbi article - yes I'm a fan - Romney is absolutely a product of the capitalist system, and a member of the financial elite. If we're looking for a radical change of path, Romney is not the one to deliver it. If he wins the presidency, I don't see any change of course on the horizon;
- hence, my preference would be for both to lose! Which won't happen. The thing is, I suspect that - just as with the UK elections of 1992, the winner of the election will be inheriting a poisoned chalice, and that the 2012 election is a 'good one to lose'. The magnitude and extent of the bad news falling on to the US is only going to increase - a superstorm Sandy in several spheres. Which is why I'm kinda-sorta rooting for Obama to just edge it, ideally in a contested election, that he wins through the electoral college and not via the popular vote;
- who would I rather see leading the US? Someone with a track record of opposing corrupt entrenched interests, ethical and pragmatic, and a committed belief to the highest values that the US represents; ideally someone who was also prepared to accommodate a decline in the US empire and recognise the Limits to Growth. Nobody qualifies on all those scores - but there is someone who does come close.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The benefits of having three in a marriage

Latest Courier article

Do you remember Princess Diana saying, on Panorama in 1995, “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”. That was clearly a deeply unhappy situation – but I regularly tell couples who come to me seeking to get married in church that one of the major benefits of a church marriage is that it allows a third party to get involved. No, this isn't the Rector getting racy, I'm still very orthodox! What I mean is that getting married in church is inviting God to get involved with the relationship; that this is the most important thing that happens in a wedding in church; and that this has distinct practical benefits in terms of the health and longevity of the relationship. Let me explain.

First off, there is more going on with a church wedding than with a wedding that is conducted through a Civil Registrar, and by that I don't simply mean things like hymns and prayers. Consider the vows that are going to be spoken. With a Civil Ceremony, as you would expect, the emphasis is upon the legal and contractual nature of the wedding. This is a typical example of what needs to be said: “Declaratory Words: I declare that I know of no legal reason why I ………….. may not be joined in marriage to …………..; followed by Contracting Words: I ………….. take thee ………….. to be my wedded wife/husband.” Compare this to the vows that are spoken by each party in a church service: “I, N , take you, N , to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part; according to God's holy law. In the presence of God I make this vow.”

I usually remark to couples that the vows are the most important element of the wedding day – everything else, the dress, the cake, the reception and so on, all of that is just setting. Of course, making such vows is wonderful and marvellous and beautiful and a totally reckless thing to do. It is a radical act, a brave act, one that goes against the grain of our culture which doesn't seem to value long lasting promises quite so much as it used to, which has become so obsessed with passing feelings. The vows make the wedding what it is, and it is by holding fast to the vows, no matter what the provocation, that the marriage endures and the fruits of holy matrimony start to show. Essentially what the vows form are a safe space within which a person is set free to be themselves. This other person has stood up in front of all their friends and family and said these remarkable words, which resolve down to 'I promise to stay here' no matter what – and that gives a profound reassurance to their loved one. It is the definition of unconditional love – and it is that aspect which makes the matrimony holy.

All marriages have their bumpy patches, it is an inevitable consequence of being sinful human beings. One of the most practical benefits that inviting God into a marriage entails is that there is a third party to whom conflicts can be referred. Where there are only two people, and when those two people start to fight, it can quite rapidly descend into a simple conflict of willpower – he wants this, she wants that, who will win, who will lose? Very little creative can happen in such a situation. Yet if there is a shared invitation to God to be involved, suddenly there is a meaningful question that can be asked when the couple have become stuck: what does God think about this? Where does God want to take us? How can we best become the people that God is calling us to be – full of abundant life and love? How can we be healed from all of the things that have wounded us until now?

I actually believe that, rather like the grains of sand that end up making the pearl, marriage needs frictions. It is only when we face such frictions in our closest relationships that we are brought up against the reality of the other person, and we have to pause, take stock, and face this wondrous, marvellous, beautiful human being whom God has created and with whom we are walking for a while on this earth. This is where the real work of love begins – this is where a marriage becomes truly holy matrimony – because it is when we see the full, real, unvarnished truth of who another person is – and when at that point we remain committed to our vows and are still prepared to say ‘I love you’ that we begin to know what it means to share in the love of God.

It is in sharing in this sense of unconditional love that a marriage starts to become sacred, for this is how we start to understand what it means to say speak this language that 'God is love'. Does this mean that God is slushy and sentimental and fond of pink flowers and Celine Dion? I think not. For love is not a feeling. Love is not something that can be captured if you buy the right card from Clinton's. Love as Christians understand it is rooted in a decision, a settled choice to act in a certain way irrespective of how we feel. Our feelings will change over time, they will go up and down and all over the place – but love is a decision, a decision to keep faith with the commitments that we make to each other, in the marriage vows most of all.

In the story of creation in Genesis there is a consistent repetition of 'God created... and saw that it was good'. The first mention in the Bible of something not being good comes when God says to Adam that it is not good for him to be alone. We are meant to be in this business of life together, rubbing up against each other, snapping off our sharp edges, breaking our hearts of stone and turning them into hearts of flesh. That's why God gave us the great gift of marriage, a gift that not only keeps on giving, but like a fine wine gets better and better with age.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Self-denial, desire and the cross

This is by way of a follow-on to my last post.

Self-denial, in the modern psychological sense of that term, I do see as a potential good. I see it as a corollary of the 'self-control' which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5). I understand it to be the suppression or elimination of one facet of our nature in order to facilitate the development or growth of another facet which is even more important. So, to take a trivial example, refraining from extra chocolate pudding in order to preserve bodily health is a form of self-denial in this sense - bodily health being more important than the pleasure to be gained from the pudding.

In other words, the self-denial is not an ultimate good but an intermediate good - it is something which transitions to something else. Where my suspicions are aroused with the language of 'self-denial', and the equating of this with 'taking up our cross' is that I see a punitive and sacrificial theology behind it, by which self-flagellation is seen as a form of spiritual purification. I do not see it as an accident that those who are most concerned with this question are also most associated with the doctrine of penal substitution. That is the nature of the God that they worship, whereas I believe in a God who desires mercy and not such sacrifice.

So in the specific context of discussing gay relationships - and hetero ones come to that - I think that what I would most want to emphasise is that nobody on the outside can actually judge what is going on on the inside, save by some expression of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned earlier. It may well be that for some people, a denial or suppression of their sexuality is indeed of God, for such suppression enables them to become more the person that God originally created them to be. Yet for another, it seems equally plausible to me that to not deny themselves but instead to enter into an emotionally intimate and loving relationship is itself what will enable them to become the person that God is calling them to be. I don't think anyone can rule from the outside which is the best path for a particular person to take (a wise spiritual director might help a soul to make that decision for themselves perhaps). Of course, this ties in with one of the least-listened to but most dominant aspects of Jesus' entire ministry - Judge not.

My principal point, then, is not to say that 'self-denial', in the modern psychological sense of repressing desires, has no place in the life of the disciple. I do not believe that, and, indeed, I see that form of self-denial - if integrated with a wider theological understanding of the nature of God and what it means to be a creature - as a holy endeavour. Yet I would still maintain that there is a difference between this and 'taking up our cross' despite what would appear to be a superficial similarity of language. I see the taking up of our cross as essentially about enduring the hostility or criticism of a wider society when we choose to follow God. It is not about this psychological repression - unless, of course, that psychological repression is itself driven by social disapproval, as has no doubt happened in myriad situations, especially sexual ones.

So, to sum up: self-denial has a place in the life of discipleship, especially when theologically informed, but it is not the same as the taking up of a cross. Taking up our cross necessarily means accepting and enduring the rebuke of society, in all its various forms. The cross is imposed upon us by a sinful and adulterous generation, it is not something that we choose in order to get closer to God.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Is "self-denial" the right way to understand "take up your cross"?

This is from the interview with Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St. Ebbes Church, Oxford, by Julian Hardyman, found via Andrew Brown's article.
Julian: That’s encouraging. But what about the pain, surely that’s very real? What do you do with that?
Vaughan: Yes, the pain is real — I can’t deny that. The world, the flesh and the devil all conspire to make sin appear very attractive, so it will be hard for believers to remain godly in this area for the sake of the kingdom of God. To do that you need a clear understanding of the call to self denial in the kingdom — and the dynamic of resurrection life proceeding out of sacrificial death. Christ does call us all to a life of costly suffering as we take up our crosses for him, but, just as it was in his experience, that way of the cross is the path to life: ‘Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it’ (Mark 8.35).

And here is another article, found via Peter Ould:
The reality is that I acknowledge my same-sex desires. I talk openly with family and friends about homosexuality, especially as it relates to my commitment to Christ. More importantly, I’m honest with God about my struggles with same-sex attraction. I don’t pretend the feelings aren’t there; on the contrary, I consider them very real temptations. The only denial happening here is self-denial, the daily charge to take up my cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23). That’s the calling of every Christian, not just those who fight against homosexual desires.

For me there is something significant being missed in this sort of language and the understanding of "taking up our cross" that is being assumed. I am not persuaded that what these two articles are describing counts as the denial of self that Jesus is talking about.

What, after all, is the key point to understand about the crucifixion? Is it about Jesus denying himself, or is it about Jesus being rejected by society? I am sure that there is some mileage in talking about Jesus denying himself on the path to Golgotha, but if we want to say that when Jesus was crucified he was denying what was most central to himself then I think we have misunderstood what was happening. I would, in contrast, want to say that on the cross Jesus was most truly himself, he was most authentically keeping faith with his core vocation and destiny. To me, the crucifixion - why it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified - centres upon the contrast between what is acceptable by society and what is called by God.

This came up in the lectionary reading set yesterday (Mark 9.42-48) when Jesus is saying that it is better to be maimed and enter the Kingdom, than to be whole and not enter it. I understand this to be about drawing a contrast between being a fully accepted member of the community (which at the time necessitated being bodily whole) and being a member of God's community, where being the person God has called us to be is more important than any particular physical attribute. The contrast repeatedly drawn in the gospels, so far as I can see, is between what it means to follow God, and simply falling in with what society sees as acceptable.

I believe that when we interpret 'deny yourself and take up your cross' as being about the repression of a part of ourselves, we are misunderstanding what Jesus is describing. I understand Jesus to be saying that if we are to follow him then we have to let go of any desire for social approval and acceptability. This is why in the context of the Mark 8 passage that Vaughan Robert references, Jesus rebukes Peter and says 'Get behind me Satan' (ie prince of this world, society) 'you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of men'. That is the contrast we are to have in mind when understanding this teaching.

To take up our cross is to embrace the necessity of social rejection. Each of us has a tailor-made cross - it is what happens when we follow the law of love, accept Christ's invitation into the Kingdom, and are rejected by society as a result. The cross as I understand it is about what the wider society will do to us; it is not about what we do to ourselves. In other words, taking up the cross looks more like Matthew Shepard than these other commenters.