Friday, September 28, 2012

The sin of being offended

(Slightly revised version of blogpost written in 2006, after the Muhammad cartoons)
Should a Christian be offended by blasphemy, in the way that various Islamic groups have – according to the official story - been offended by an obscure film on YouTube? I believe not, and I’d like to explain why.

There is no shortage of material that could be cited as offensive to Christians but I’d like to focus on the graphic novel ‘Preacher’, written by Garth Ennis, partly because it is a cartoon/ comic, and partly because it is a work that I am familiar with.

To understand ‘Preacher’ you must imagine a tale composed of a blend of three other stories, but then put through the blender of a particular film. The three stories that ‘feed’ it are: Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood western; Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (although it predates the Da Vinci Code – it’s actually drawing on the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail); and Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’; and all of this is then fed through the stylistic blender of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. It is certainly blasphemous, also obscene, disturbing and very funny. I believe it also makes some interesting theological points – not as profound or interesting as I had once hoped, when I was first reading it, but interesting nonetheless.

The basic plot is this: an angel and a demon come together and conceive a child; when the child is born it is immediately expelled from Heaven, and God vanishes from His throne. Genesis (the child) plummets to earth and is ‘united’ with Jesse Custer, a preacher (probably Episcopalian) who was raised by some rabid and violent fundamentalists in the Deep South of the United States. You could say he has some problems with his faith… However, once Genesis is united with him, he gains the Word – the power to command people to do whatever he tells them. Through various adventures involving the Priory of Sion and his best friend, an Irish vampire, he ends up producing a confrontation between God and the Angel of Death. God, of course, isn’t the God that a ‘normal’ Christian would recognise – God is schizophrenic, in the popular sense, in that there is sometimes a raging Old Testament father figure full of righteous anger, and sometimes there is a radiant New Testament figure seemingly all sweetness and light. The end of the tale is the death of God – and the continuance of the world without Him, seemingly all the better for it.

Ennis grew up in Northern Ireland, and there is clearly a kinship between the God in ‘Preacher’ and the attitudes of someone like Ian Paisley. I had hoped that there would be something theologically creative at the end – that was what kept me reading – along the lines of Genesis becoming a renewed God, essentially a retelling of the Christian story but in a modern idiom. Instead, Preacher is profoundly atheistic, and is in fact much more of a story about the importance of friendship than anything about theology. It remains deeply memorable, and the set-up I think is wonderful, but in the end there is little engagement with ‘mainstream’ Christianity – Christians within it are portrayed as either fundamentalist fascists or as idiots, and the ethics that are vindicated are those of the western, ie righteous violence.

Now, in the face of such a sustained and offensive criticism – how should a Christian react? Should a Christian shun any contact with such writing, with a view to avoiding ‘contamination’ from its blasphemy? My reading of Christianity, influenced from what I know of the work of RenĂ© Girard, is rather the opposite, and that the degree of our ‘offence taking’ is the degree to which we remain to be converted to the gospel.

A key word in Girard’s analysis is skandalon. It means the taking of offence, seeing something as shocking or blasphemous. As part of his anthropology, Girard argues that scandal is contagious and reproduces itself across a society, forming a major way in which a society polices its own customs. The practices of societies are founded in sacred violence and scapegoating – in other words, societies reinforce their identity by choosing a person or group as the ‘cause’ of all their problems (think Jews in 1930’s Germany) and the society achieves a sense of unity by combining against that person or group, expelling them violently from their midst, and then telling a religious mythology justifying their actions. This practice persists over time, for the society is never able to completely eradicate tensions within itself, due to the maintenance of rivalrous desire, when one person wants what another person has.

Girard describes this contagion of scandal as the way of the world, and sees the Satan, the ‘lord of this world’ as that force which seeks to reproduce scandal, the taking of offence – for it is in the shared nature of the offence taking that the social solidarity is affirmed and reinforced. A society has a vested interest in ensuring the maintenance of scandal, for that is how the society itself is maintained. What such a society cannot accept is the continued existence of the source of scandal.

I believe this can be seen rather clearly in the case of the video posted to YouTube. When it was first uploaded, nobody took offence – hardly anyone even noticed! Yet certain authorities have a vested interest in shoring up the unity of Islamic societies over against the West, and so the West is then scapegoated as the source of the problems (internal tensions) experienced in Muslim countries. Thus it is Islamic sources which seek to generate a sense of scandal about the film – to great success – and at the cost of, amongst others, the life of the American Ambassador.

Christianity, however, begins with the scandal of the cross. That is, in the story of Jesus we have the unmasking of this process – a scapegoat who isn’t simply a victim, but one who is understands what is happening and who forgives those who take part in it. In other words, a victim who does not take offence. This “non-taking of offence” is central to Jesus’ entire ministry – indeed, he is regularly criticised for eating with sinners and tax collectors, and memorably criticises the religious authorities saying that the prostitutes will get to heaven before them! Through not taking offence, through not seeing religious pieties as things to be defended, Jesus changes the social dynamics and enables a non-violent reconciliation with the excluded to take place. That is the essence of the Kingdom – an unmasking of this process of scandal, scapegoating and violence, in order that a new common life, not built upon these elements, can come into being.

Thus, for a Christian, it is wrong to take offence, it is a sin. To take offence is to play the devil’s games, to enter into antagonism between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’, the ‘sinner’ and the ‘saved’. In letting go of any sense of offence, one is released from the mythological pressures embedded in all stories of ‘them and us’, and is set free to become the sort of person that God originally intended – living in peace and loving the neighbour. This is what lies behind the striking language in Matthew’s gospel (5:29), where Jesus commands us to pluck out our eyes if it “causes us to sin” – language taken up by a great many moralists seeking violent self-harm, as it is, of course, to scapegoat a part of oneself. The original language used in Greek, however, is related to this word skandalon and the passage means ‘if your eye is scandalized, pluck it out’ – in other words, if you are offended by something that you see you should blind yourself, for the fault lies in you, not in what is outside you.

This I find profoundly helpful, in terms of guiding my engagement and interest in the world. We are not to seek to preserve some sort of moral purity – that runs counter to Jesus’ own well documented practice. Nor are we to protest at being offended. If God does not take offence at the murder of his Son, how can we take offence at anything milder? It is precisely because of this bias against ‘offence’ embedded in Christianity from the beginning that Western society has grown up with this remarkable notion of free speech and free enquiry, which is what is now at stake in the confrontation with the Islamists. It is the unmasking of the sociological processes of scapegoating and sacred violence by Jesus on the cross that fundamentally enables the fruits of Western society that we presently enjoy – including, most especially, modern science. Girard puts it well: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.”

Western civilisation is under threat and it is worth defending, but not by being offended by those who hate it, whether the Islamists, or even artists like Andres Serrano.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Those odd and pesky little facts

So: this is the global temperature trend of the last fifteen years. It is downwards. (Found here)

Now, in and of itself, that doesn't mean very much - it could all be part of the natural fluctuation within an overall increasing trend, etc etc blah blah blah. (Although, obviously, the longer it continues, the more difficult the 'mainstream consensus' will find it to brush things away).

However, what I want to compare and contrast this graph with, is this one, showing use of fuels through the twentieth century (from Gail Tverberg).

Notice how the use of fossil fuels (=oil) really kicked off after the Second World War and that we are now using some four times as much per year as then. Now it occurs to me that if the relationship between the use of fossil fuels and the temperature of the earth was in any way a direct one, then we would be observing a similar acceleration in the year on year increase of temperature as can be seen in the use of fossil fuels. What we observe instead is a contra-indication. Not only is there no acceleration of the increase, there isn't even an increase!

Clearly, carbon dioxide is only one factor in a chaotic system, and there simply isn't a direct and linear relationship between the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperature change. That's just a pesky little fact.

The interesting question, to my mind, is about how far the increase in temperature in the second half of the twentieth century is anomalous when compared to other periods of history - eg, when compared to the trend since 1700, or the trend since about 1800, or the trend since about 3000 BC. This, however, leads us into Hockey Stick territory - and it explains why that remains such a totem. If the Hockey Stick is correct, then the acceleration can be (just about) found. Yet if the Hockey Stick is fraudulent - which I believe it to be - then this is some strong empirical evidence running against the CAGW hypothesis. I shall maintain my watching brief.

A biblical view of the cosmos (1)

One of the things which the recent death of Neil Armstrong brought to mind is the way in which the 20th century profoundly altered our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The beginning of the film 'Contact' provoked awe when I first watched it, on a trip to Boston in 1997. It is the ultimate in 'pull-back shots' (you can find it on YouTube, search for 'Contact opening scene'), beginning from the surface of the earth and just going back, and back, and back... and back. Out of the solar system, past the heliosphere, through the Milky Way, beyond the point where our galaxy is just a small dot in a haze of other galaxies. I had thought that I had a good sense for the scale of the universe, but when I lost my sense of depth about three-quarters of the way through the sequence, I realised that I had been deluding myself. The sense of scale that we need to try to comprehend when we consider our position in the universe is quite possibly unattainable to the human mind. Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, has some 400 billion stars. There may be 125 billion such galaxies in the universe. There are probably more stars than there are grains of sand on earth. I find these numbers meaninglessly large – but I'm not sure that the existential issue is any different from when the Psalmist wrote "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?"

The Christian understanding of the world was born in an environment radically different to the one that we inhabit today. As well as the difference in size of the universe that we are living in, there is a difference in the scale of time of comparable scale. Whereas when the church was getting established, it was considered that the world was created, in roughly the form it has now, some few thousand years ago - and it's end would be a similar number of years in the future - we now consider that in fact the earth was created some 4.6 billion years ago, the universe perhaps some 15 billion years ago, and we do not have any conception of when it will end, if indeed that question has meaning. I often ponder what some of the implications are for Christian faith. For in traditional terms, Christians look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. This says something very important about our bodily future - that our existence as embodied beings now will somehow be recognised on that last day. Also in traditional terms, that last day will come after the apocalypse, when the last trump shall sound, the anti-christ shall be overthrown and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

This hope or expectation of a last judgement is something which has been of great comfort to many believers over the years, and I believe it says something profoundly true, not least about social justice. What I would say, however, is that it is not something which wholly grips me. My point is to do with the 'background drama' against which we might understand the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The early church placed that story in the setting of their culture, and we must do the same. Our culture has radically changed its conception of time and space, and our understanding of the significance of Jesus must change too. It is rather as if we were watching a Punch and Judy show, and we were caught up in the drama, and that small stage bounded our world – and then suddenly we were pulled back to see that this stage was placed in the centre circle at Wembley Stadium. At this point the story just doesn't have the same imaginative impact any more. Then we are pulled back to a satellite orbiting above London, and really the question of what is going on in the Punch and Judy show on some grass in North West London has to do something really rather remarkable if it is going to attract our attention. Then we pull back… and pull back.

It is sometimes said that we cannot be Christians any longer, for the story of Christianity is a story that is inevitably tied in with an understanding of the world that has been rejected - an understanding which is based in a very small world, this earth, in a cosmos which is unimaginably huge. This is called the geocentric objection, for it is based on the rejection of the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe. How can anything which happens in our world have cosmic significance? (I remember once reading about someone who had calculated what proportion of the known cosmos could conceivably have been affected by the resurrection, ie, if the 'information' of the resurrection travelled out in every direction from Easter morning at the speed of light, what proportion of the cosmos has now been reached? The answer is a remarkably small proportion.)

For me, this criticism begins in the wrong place. It first of all buys into a 'supernatural' conception of how God works, that is, that God intervenes in an already existing process, rather than the orthodox conception which is that God is eternally sustaining that process, so the idea of 'intervention' makes no sense. (Think about the diffference between winding up a clockwork mechanism and letting in run, and playing a piece of music – God's creation is like the latter, not the former). More significantly, it doesn't take seriously the religious claim about Jesus' humanity; in other words, as a criticism of Christianity, it only makes sense as a criticism of pseudo-Christianity, one which sees Jesus' humanity as a mere appearance, so Jesus was not human in the way that we are human.

The Christian claim starts from an opposite place. Jesus was a human being, but a human being of a particular sort. Just as Adam and Eve were made in the image of God, so too are all human beings. Yet through sin, we have obscured this image in us. In Jesus there is no sin, so in Jesus we see a human being in whom the image of God is revealed without distortion - and thus, in Jesus, we can see the nature of God revealed. So Jesus shows us both what it means to be human - and what is the nature of God. This is what is meant by the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, that God is revealed in human form.

The reason why I believe this to be an answer to the geocentric objection is because it roots our understanding of God in our understanding of ourselves, or, put differently, it states that for as long as there are human beings, Jesus will show us the nature of God. The particular clothing in which the story of Jesus is dressed - such as the language of the ascension, Jesus rising bodily into heaven – may not be essential to the story. The essential story is of a human being who was given over completely to love; to the love of God and to the love of neighbour; who as a result came into conflict with the governing authorities and was executed by them; but who was raised and justified by God on the third day, thereby demonstrating his divinity and establishing the Church, to follow the path that he had forged – to be a Christian is to take that story, that dream, and build a life around it. Doing this will remain possible for as long as we remain human, no matter how far we travel, and no matter what dimensions our imaginations are engaged in.