Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Our bodies, ourselves

In her essay 'The soul's successors: philosophy and the “body”', Mary Midgley argues that there’s a funny paradox in the way that the secular world thinks about human identity: on the one hand, it’s sniffy about the idea of a soul, or of the idea that there’s anything in human nature that can’t be explained by the science of physical processes. But at the same time, contemporary culture is very individualistic, and this individualism depends on the idea that we all have independent, rational minds, and tends to see the mind’s independence from the body as what makes it special. We see ourselves essentially as intellect and will, our bodies mere tools for doing what we want to do. We do like a good dualism, we human beans: ask any theorist what it means to be human, and they’ll pick two opposing elements. The mind and the body have for years been portrayed as opponents in the drama of human nature: we think that asserting our own will rather than doing what comes naturally is at the heart of being human.

All of this discussion is essentially about it means to be an ‘I’, a self, and individual. Enlightenment rationalism thought that the ‘I’ was an isolated will, directed by intellect, and randomly and arbitrarily tangled up with unhelpful feelings and physicality. Seeing the individual like this made it possible to argue that we should disentangle ourselves from the constraints which come with embodiment, including social constraints like our allegiance to kings, churches, and custom. The Enlightenment model of the ‘man of reason,’ the ideal human being, was precisely that: a model of a man. Men were seen as rational, intellectual, willing people, and women were identified with emotions and the body. But the problem with this model was that even the men who most embodied this ideal, who were most able to spend their time thinking clever thoughts instead of worrying about what to eat for dinner, were utterly reliant on other people, who would cook for them, clean for them, and get them out of bed on time. The Enlightenment ideal doesn’t work, because ultimately we need each other to live.

Midgley blames Nietzsche, in part: he was skeptical about the possibility that groups of people might arrive at the same rational and moral conclusions, and was pretty grossed out by the idea of community. Nietzsche was neither a socialite nor an extrovert: his philosophical ideal was all about solitary strength, seasoned with a good pinch of misogyny. He couldn’t see that solitude might be just as much a hiding place for weakness as an expression of strength.

The Enlightenment ideal was fine, just as long as women weren’t considered fully human, and were left to all the hierarchical, emotional and biological bits of being human while the men ate their tasty suppers, slept on their clean sheets, and swanned around being free, autonomous, intellectual and creative. The problem now is that some women have noticed that this arrangement isn’t entirely fair on them, and have started pointing it out (cheeky bints). As a result, there are now two political choices: either we start seeing everyone equally as a solitary individual, or we radically rethink the notion of individuality. Midgley thinks that the latter options is better, and that feminism is starting to move in that diraction, but she says that it’s not always clear where it will take us.

In the Enlightenment model, the will was very important: 'reason' consisted of both intellect and will. Today, there’s less emphasis on the will, and more on the scientific intellect: transhumanism, for example, imagines that humanity will continue to exist as disembodied computer-minds.
The problem isn’t just that rational choice is seen as better and more important than the emotions: it’s also that it’s been seen as completely separate from them. This is a pretty crappy account of what it means to be human. Contemporary philosophy is moving towards rejecting this dualism, but it still tends to prefer some sort of ‘materialist’ account which explains human nature as a bunch of physical processes, and usually ignores the body below the neck (where all the fun bits are). Contemporary discussions are all about the relationship between the mind and the brain, or the mind and the physical world as a whole. Human flesh and bones and squidgy bits, not to mention those crucial naughty bits which distinguish men from women and suggest that 'Man' is a poor homonym for 'humankind', are still largely ignored.

Photo credit: kevin183 on Flickr

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Milbank and the problem of evil

John Milbank’s Being Reconciled is all about forgiveness, and the restoration of God’s generous relationship with the world. In it, he discusses the problem of evil. Traditionally, Christian theology has refused to see evil as a power or a thing in itself, arguing instead that it's a distortion, a parasite on the goodness of God’s creation, a falling away from life and from existence.

For Augustine, that means that free will isn’t about being able to choose between good and evil; it’s about being free to pursue God and to become uniquely ourselves whilst living a life of love. Sin isn’t about people using their free will to choose evil, because evil isn’t a ‘thing’ you can choose: it’s about people missing the mark, and rejecting God’s freely given grace. Evil doesn’t make any sense, and so Adam’s sin - the first sin that delivered us all into slavery, and means that we’re all born in a world where our ability to see God and to freely love him is broken – is a paradox. It’s hardly even worth trying to answer the question ‘Why did Adam sin?’ because the first sin simply makes no sense.

A similar view is that of Hannah Arendt, who talks about ‘the banality of evil’, by which she means that most people who do terrible things don’t set out to do those terrible things: they slide into it by making a whole series of bad but often pretty small decisions.

Some modern philosophers have blamed these views of evil for the terrible tragedies of the 20th century, particularly the Holocaust. They have argued it’s because Christian theology and the philosophy of people like Arendt made it impossible to see evil as a positive force, and to imagine that people would actively choose and pursue evil that Hitler wasn’t stopped. They advocate a view of ‘radical evil’: the idea that it’s possible to deliberately choose evil, to set out deliberately to commit genocide, and they say that without this sort of understanding of evil, the same terrible things will happen again because we won’t be able to stop them.

Milbank argues that they’re wrong: that it’s actually the idea of radical evil which made the Holocaust possible. He argues that what makes the horrors of the 20th century – the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, the terrible things done as a result of US foreign policy and ‘liberal democracy’ - so terrible is that the law itself has been on the side of the mass murderers, and the resources of the State have been used to commit atrocities on a legal, organised, and bureaucratic basis. For this, he blames Kant.

For Kant, the goal of any particular moral action is irrelevant: all that matters is that it’s done out of duty, and that the principle it’s based on could be turned into a universal law. Lying to protect the Jews you’re hiding in your house is wrong, because if everyone lied all the time, where would we be? In this case, the right thing to do is to tell the truth, even if you know that the people you hand over will be killed in the gas chambers.

Kant won’t acknowledge that our will is broken: if something is the right thing to do, he thinks, it is possible. ‘Ought’ implies ‘can.’ He thinks that we go wrong when we give credence to the desires which arrive from our physical nature: when we act because we want to survive, because we love someone, because we are hungry, which is in contrast to the traditional Christian view, which says that, although our desires are all mixed up, there is something of God’s goodness and truth in them. Kant says that nothing in our experience of the world can teach us what is right, but then struggles to say how we can tell the difference between right and wrong. Worse, he thinks that evil is an inherent possibility of freedom. To be able to do the right thing is to be able to do the wrong thing, and so human autonomy necessarily implies the possibility of evil. Freedom comes first, before good and evil, and so good and evil are set up as equal and opposite positive choices. Freedom comes first, and so the ultimate value isn’t good or evil, but power. This view of freedom is problematic, to say the least: if freedom implies evil, how can it be possible to say that God, the source of freedom, is good?

Kant also argues that moral evil arises out of human community. Left on our own, to exercise our freedom, we are fine: in the context of relationships with other people, we get dragged into bad choices and our judgment is clouded. Ethics is all about doing your duty; none of this messy stuff about emotions. And because of his categorical imperative, it becomes impossible to resist something like the Nazi government. Would assassinating your leader work as a universal ethical principle? Hell, no? How about obedience regardless of your untrustworthy emotions? Hell, yeah. And that’s pretty much where Kant takes you, according to Milbank: the hell of the gas chambers.

All this, says Milbank, is the logical consequence of valuing human freedom above all else, and of making free choice, rather than goodness and love, the ultimate value. It takes you to the gas chambers; it takes you to the gulags; it takes you to to global devastation wreaked by unfettered capitalism and the ‘free’ market. Freedom to choose between good and evil is not freedom. Freedom is being able to love God, being able to do the good that we want to do but, in our slavery to sin, cannot; freedom is being free to enjoy the riches of God’s grace.

Photo credit: airpark on Flickr

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Radical Unintelligibility

John Milbank is one of the leading lights of 'Radical Orthodoxy' which is a trendy movement among British theologians. Radical Orthodoxy is basically a postmodern response to liberal theology, which means that Radical Orthodox theologians both want to hold onto some traditional assertions of the Christian faith which liberal theology has sometimes denied (such as that Jesus really was fully God and fully man), but also to engage with postmodern thought. It's a big project: they want to reclaim theology and transform the Church; they want to argue that philosophy needs theology, and that, in fact, every aspect of human knowledge ought to root itself in theology. They want to change the world: John Milbank's first book was called Theology and Social Theory, and one of his PhD students, Phillip Blond, has recently got a lot of media attention in the UK for his 'Red Toryism' which David Cameron is, reportedly, very into.

But here's the problem: It's difficult to change the world if no one can understand what you are talking about. Radical Orthodoxy is notorious for its obtuseness, and John Milbank is definitely up there with the worst offenders. Here are some specific gripes within a more general gripe about the way that Milbank makes my head hurt:

Unnecessary Latin. Unusually for a comprehensive school student, I even studied Latin for two years at school, and can do my Caecilius est pater with the best of them. But geez, patria potestas? Oceanum mysteriousum Dei, ut sic loquar labarynthum? Philologia crucis? A translation would be nice, at least.

Words that aren't even in the freaking dictionary. I counted two, and they're just the ones I looked up. 'Henological' and 'auratic' are now, you will be happy to know, on the OED's new words list, and the lovely woman who answered my email even suggested that we hand Milbank over to the Plain English Campaign 'for re-education.' Hear, hear.

Bad Patriarchal Language. Milbank says, for example, this: ‘The Christian man is not a moral man, not a man of good conscience, who acts with what he does not know but has faith in.’ Now, I'm not saying that using 'man' instead of 'human' is the worst bad thing anyone can ever do. But here's my gripe: Milbank knows better. He sometimes makes vague gestures towards gender neutral language. But that makes it worse. He knows; and yet he does it anyway.

Milbank's sexist language exemplifies the central issue here. As a women, when Milbank speaks about 'the Christian man', it makes me feel as though what he writes is not for me, and that the discussions he is having are not discussions I can participate in. And it feels very similar when you want to engage with Milbank, to discuss his ideas, to ask questions, to think things through, but you can't because, well, it's pretty difficult to ever feel like you properly understand what he's saying. The worst thing is that he's really good (just not at writing). He has interesting, original ideas. He has important things to say that we should listen to, and that need to be discussed. But you can't discuss someone's ideas if you feel like you're too stupid to understand them, which is how I've felt this week, trying to write about John Milbank.

It's not like Milbank is alone. Academia as a whole is bad at communicating; bad at keeping one foot in the real world; bad at recognising that it has a responsibility to the non-academic world. But I feel, somehow that it's worse when theologians write badly, because they, of all people, should know that the kingdom of God is for everyone; that the mighty shall be laid low and the poor exalted; that we are one body. You cannot love your brothers and sisters whilst beating them round the head with the evidence of how much cleverer you are, of how many more books you have read. Wait, that reminds me of something about ... what was it? Speaking in the tongues of men and angels but if you don't have love then ... something something... 'I am nothing.' Who said that again?

Photo credit: cambiodefractal on Flickr.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Gospel according to Steve Jobs

As the Western world has become less Christian, and involvement with organised religion has declined, sociologists have become interested in the question of what other forms spirituality is taking, and have started studying the ‘inarticulate’, ‘unconscious,’ ‘mystical’ and ‘symbolic’ aspects of religious experience. They’ve come up with the concept of ‘implicit religion’, which is basically the idea that the sorts of language, behaviour, and beliefs traditionally associated with religion can be found in non-religious contexts: among environmentalist groups, for example. There’s also been a lot of discussion of the religious aspects of the human relationship to technology, and it’s within this discussion that Pui Yan-Lam wrote his 2001 article ‘May the Force of the Operating System be with you: Macintosh devotion as Implicit Religion.’

Yan-Lam argues that ever since the birth of industrial capitalism, people have used religious language about technological innovations. Inventions like the steam engine and the telephone have been seen as offering the hope of salvation, and the possibility of ‘transcendence’, offering to set us free from the constraints of time, space and scarcity. Technology has been seen as a way of building heaven on earth, and the people who created these new technologies viewed as secular priests (a good contemporary example of this would be transhumanism, which basically argues that we can use technology to overcome human failure and even death). We tend to talk about new technology as though it contains some mystical power to transform or destroy the world.

Several sociologists have argued that our relationship with computers is different to our relationship with other forms of technology. We see computers as created in the image of our own minds, and as a result, think of computers as mirrors of our own humanity. People respond emotionally to computers, and use them to shape their identities and sense of self. We’ve all been there: your computer is slow, and you shout at it; you get an iphone because you think it will make you cooler as a person; you buy a Mac and you really love it, and look! It even does that thing where it looks like it’s breathing while it’s asleep.

Ah, Macs. Yan-Lam argues that Macintosh users are more prone than other users of technology to exhibit signs of implicit religion. Bear in mind that he is writing before the iPlayer, the iPhone and the Macbook, back in the days when Mac users were a beleagured minority, and Macintosh as a company looked like it was in danger of going under. He identifies four areas of implicit religion in users’ devotion to their Macintosh computers:

The Search for Meaning: Apple have always seen themselves as unique pioneers. Steve Jobs is often described as a prophetic figure, proclaiming a counter-cultural message in the face of Apple’s rivals: first IBM and then Microsoft. Apple have always painted themselves as the good guys, the ones who play fair, the good side of the force; Microsoft are the bad guys who break the rules and steal other people’s ideas; the Dark Side.

Sacred bonds: Back in 2001, it was normal for commentators to refer to Mac users as fanatics, cultists and zealots, and to compare Mac devotion to religion. Plenty of Mac users embraced this, tending to use language inspired by Eastern religions of individual spirituality, emphasising the sacred bond between humans and computers. Macintosh devotion works on two levels: the bond between computers and humans and the bond between Mac users. Mac users tended to see their bond with their Mac as something special and unique, comparing their Macs to friends. They tended to envisage a future in which this special bond between humans and computers would create a utopian situation in which humans and computers worked together in harmony. Mac users also tended to belong to websites and user groups, which functioned a bit like churches: building community, encouraging Mac ‘evangelism’ and testimonials about how Macs had changed their lives. Mac users see Mac evangelism as being about more than just persuading other people to buy computers: it’s about a philosophy, a way of life; and they tended to think that people’s lives would be transformed if they could be converted.

The Hidden Message: Sociologists have traced a change in our relationship to computers: where early on, computer culture was about mastering complicated programming, a ‘musical’ culture slowly emerged in which computers became seen as the tools of creativity, enabling human innovation. Much of this change was due to Apple. Mac users thought of themselves as different from other people. Just like in the PC/Mac adverts, they thought of themselves as nonconformists, slightly better than everybody else. They talked about the reality of this profane world in which Mac users are a persecuted minority and bad people like Bill Gates are rewarded, and their hopes for a future in which Mac users will be justified.

The Quest: Mac users tended to see themselves fighting a holy war against the Dark Side of the Microsoft world. They found a spirituality in this quest, which others might look for in religion.

Yan-Lam concludes by arguing that Mac addicts have adopted what can best be described as a ‘technotheology.’ He argues that our ideas about computers have, for some people, taken the role of creation myths, helping us understand what it means to be human and formulate our hopes for the future. He identifies three major themes in this new technotheology: the transformation of humanity into divinity, the quest for eternity, and the vision of the ‘blessed community.’ Makes you think twice about that iphone, huh?

Friday, 7 August 2009

On swallowing a spider to catch a fly

I’m feeling all hermeneutical this week, and so today is all about historical criticism. You may not have heard of it, but you’ve probably come across it in some form, and might even have done it yourself without realising it. Historical criticism: it's a bit like those spiders which supposedly crawl into your mouth while you’re sleeping and get accidentally swallowed. Gross.

Historical criticism (also known as 'higher criticism) originates from the mid-18th century. One of the things
that happened around that time was that everyone started to equate science with truth, and to want to do everything scientifically – including the arts. Because theology wasn’t very scientific, people started to question central ideas of Christianity, including the historical reliability of the Bible, which had never been much of an issue before. People started to realise that the texts had gone through editing processes; that they’d been written in particular historical contexts; and that if Deuteronomy describes the death of Moses, maybe there’s space to suggest that Moses didn’t actually write it after all. People started to reading the bible ‘scientifically’, trying to analyse it and work out the original sources of all the stories written down in the biblical texts.. Thus was born historical criticism, a spider first swallowed deliberately to catch the fly of Enlightenment scepticism.

Historical criticism assumes that the books of the Bible have been gathered together from a whole range of times and places, each book having no certain author and maybe even several authors; that the books we have are the result of editing other texts and oral sources into a form which suits the priorities of the authors and editors. Historical criticism has several key features:

  • The Bible isn’t seen as a unitary whole. Because the books were written separately, historical criticism doesn’t think you can use one part of the Bible to interpret another, and so it stops being possible to, say, use the gospels to interpret the Old Testament prophets.
  • Historical criticism is secular: it refuses to interpret the Bible with the assumption that God was in charge of putting it together, that the Holy Spirit inspired the authors, and guided the Church as they decided which books should and shouldn’t be allowed into the canon.
  • Historical criticism prioritises the historical circumstances of each text, seeing the historical context as the primary concern of biblical interpretation. The Sitz-im-Leben – the ‘situation-in-life of the text is all important, and what the text means now must be related to what the text meant then, and so it’s not ok to read the Bible in ways that ignore the original context, author, or readers.
  • Historical criticism sees traditional forms of biblical exegesis like midrash or typological and allegorical interpretations as inappropriate and unhelpful.
  • Historical criticism thinks that we can know the original intentions of the author, and that these original intentions are the text’s ‘real’ meaning. This means that the text’s meaning belongs to the author, not to the text itself, which, if you’re familiar with literary criticism and ‘the author is dead’, has its problems.
Historical criticism has all sorts of problems, not least its tendency to say things like 'Jesus didn't actually rise from the dead: that's just a metaphor.' It's increasingly viewed with suspicion. People who accept the truths of historical criticism unquestioningly often end up with exactly the sort of weird ideas you'd expect from people with hermeneutical spiders wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside them. More importantly, though, I think it makes biblical criticism boring. Not because in itself it is dull, but because it tends to set itself up as the only way to read the Bible, and so to do biblical studies nowadays basically means doing historical criticism things...and not much else. BORING. One of the most liberating things anyone ever said to me was this: ‘You don’t have to do historical criticism to take the Bible seriously.’ There are other ways of reading, for which I am grateful. I shall get my protein elsewhere.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The author might be dead, but the reader ain't

Christians talk so much about what ‘the Bible says’ that it’s easy to forget that the Bible doesn’t ‘just say’ anything. As soon as we pick up the Bible to read it, we are already interpreting it. We make decisions about which bits to read, which bits to skip or to skim. We choose study guides to read alongside it; we read bits and are reminded of things that have happened to us, stories we’ve heard, sermons we’ve listened to. But most of all, we read: we read because we have ideas about what the Bible is and what it is important. Because we think it will be interesting or because we expect it to be a load of rubbish. Because we think it is the Word of God (whatever that means). Because we think God will speak to us, or because if we don’t read, God will be angry with us. We bring to the text all sorts of assumptions, ideas, and beliefs, and those things shape our reading, whether we’re aware of them or not.

We cannot help interpreting, but we often forget that that’s what we’re doing and we think that we’re just reading. The first step to reading better is to realise that how we read matters. To help you think about what you do when you read, here is a list of (some of) the different forms that biblical interpretation might take:

  • Editions of the Bible. We have lots of old copies of the biblical texts but they, er, don’t always agree. Sometimes, I’m afraid to say, they contradict each other. So, even before we start translating, we have to decide what text we will translate. Editions of the Bible such as the Nestlé-Aland edition of the New Testament or the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia version of the Old Testament gather together all the available manuscripts and make decisions about which ones are most likely to be the originals. That is, they interpret.
  • Translations. When you translate, you make decisions about what you think the text really means. Did Ruth cover Boaz’ feet or his ‘feet’? You have to interpret the text in order to translate it.
  • Paraphrases. When people produce paraphrases of the Bible – the Message, the Geordie Bible, children’s Bibles etc. - they again have to make interpretive decisions. Which elements of the story are really important? Which bits can be left out? Do we have to include the story about Noah’s daughters getting him drunk and sleeping with him in My First Bible Stories?
  • Commentaries. Pretty obvious, no?
  • Exegesis. Exegesis is detailed line-by-line commentary on a biblical text. You can get whole books of exegesis, but little bits often pop up in sermons, commentaries, works of theology, and all sorts of other places.
  • Homilies and sermons. Sermons, you may be surprised to hear, aren’t always pure biblical interpretation, though how much biblical interpretation you’re in for probably depends what sort of church you go to.
  • Critical and theological studies.
  • Transpositions into other texts. Lots of ‘versions’ of biblical texts exist, both verbal and non-verbal: poetry, prose, plays , films, sculpture, paintings, dance. All of these interpret the text on which they’re based. Tennyson’s Journey of the Magi tells the story of the three kings from the perspective of a king; Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent retells the rape of Dinah in the style of Mills and Boon; Jesus of Montréal imagines Jesus in 20th century Canada; Handel’s Messiah, Michelangelo’s David: enough now?
  • The canons of Scripture themselves. Perhaps the most fundamental decision of biblical interpretation is ‘What counts as the Bible?’ Which texts are authoritative enough to get in there in the first place? These fundamental decisions were made by people, by the church, and they were interpretive decisions. The order of books is also important – texts look different depending on which texts you read them alongside, and different orderings give priority to different texts.
Acknowledgements: this post is based on notes I made at a class with Anna Williams, so the good stuff is all hers.