Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Thursday, 16 December 2010
He starts out slightly smugly,saying that he flatters himself that he's found a foolproof argument against the possibility of miracles. It goes like this: everything we know is based on our experience. Sometimes experience leads us to expect better weather in June than in December, but this is not always the case (you can tell he's Scottish). So we see things are more or less likely depending on how good the evidence is: it's pretty much certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the BBC weather forecast will be wrong, and that any film starring Jennifer Aniston will have a happy ending; it's possible but unlikely that a Hollywood marriage really will last till death do them part, that the winner of The X Factor will go on to have a long and successful career, or that Fox News will come out in favour of anything the Democrats say or do.
One of the main sources of the evidence we use for making these sorts of decisions is human testimony. We've found, over time, that people tell the truth more often than not, and that what we're told happened is usually more or less what really did happen (you can tell this was written in the days before Wikileaks and the Iraq war). Most people tell the truth, most of the time, because most people would be ashamed if they were caught in a lie. So when someone tells us that something happened, we weigh their account up against all of our previous experience, as well as any other eye-witness accounts, the reliability of the person who's telling the story, whether they look like they're mendacious or mental, etc. Some one you trust tells you your partner is cheating on you, you get suspicious; someone you trust tells you your partner is cheating on you with a time-travelling mermaid, you maybe want to ask a few more questions before you believe their story.
So what happens when someone tells you that they witnessed a miracle? For an event to be miraculous, it must (and watch out, because this is probably the bit where Hume's argument gets questionable) violate a law of nature. A law of nature is a rule we deduce where our experience tells us that something always happens, every single time, without exception. Stones always fall to the ground. The sun always rises. Dead people always stay dead. People can't walk through walls. People don't get instantly healed of leprosy. And Hume says that when someone tells us that a miracle happened, the only way we can believe that a law of nature was broken is if it would be more miraculous that the testimony we heard was false than if the miracle they report had actually happened.
Hume concludes that on this basis, we can never believe any eyewitness account of a miracle. There are loads of reasons why eyewitness accounts might be false: most of the stories we have of miracles are reported by people who were too uneducated, too barbarous, too sneaky and, let's face it, insufficiently white, male, British and rich to be trusted. Besides, it's a near-universal characteristic of human beings that we love a tall tale even if it's totally made up. We're so keen to believe ridiculous stories that we're quite prepared to overlook glaring inconsistencies and improbabilities in tales of giant squid, aliens, government conspiracies. Sometimes religious people don't really believe a story, but talk themselves into believing it, or just tell it even though they know it's a lie because they think it's the story of story people should believe. And everybody loves a good bit of gossip: there is no story that spreads more quickly than the idea that two people fancy each other: all they need to do is be seen together once, and within the hour the whole neighbourhood has already married them off in their heads. Besides, the more civilised we get, the less prone we are to believing fantastical tales: no educated person would believe these days that climate change isn't real, or that we didn't really land on the moon, or that homeopathy actually works. Oh. Wait.
So, in conclusion, the proof for a miracle could never be so sound, reliable and indisputable that it would be good enough to stake your life on. Miracles can never be the foundation for religious belief. We must conclude, Hume concludes, that not only was Christianity not founded in the midst of miracles, but that today it cannot be believed in without one.
Photo credit: Rankeelaw
Thursday, 2 December 2010
Sixth Meditation Of the existence of material things, and of the real distinction between the soul and body of man
So we've established that I exist, that God exists, and that triangles and other basic concepts of pure mathematics exist. But what about material things like trees and benches and great tits (stop sniggering
Having spent a lot of time thinking about this I reckon that I shouldn't believe everything my senses tell me; but then on the other hand, I shouldn't always assume that they're wrong, either. The only thing I'm certain of is that I'm a thing that thinks, so I must be a soul that is distinct from my body and can exist without it. But then if God made me with senses, they must be right at least some of the time, even if I can never trust them completely. I must really have a body, though one that's distinct from my soul, and that needs to eat and drink and sleep and there must really be things in the world that are separate to me like food and drink and beds and things that I bump into when I get up to go to the loo in the middle of the night. But plenty of things which seem obvious are really just the result of lazy thinking: the air I breathe isn't just the empty space in between things; things that are far away aren't just really small. But it's ok: having a body means that I'll get mixed up sometimes, but I can think hard and learn stuff and eventually arrive at ideas that are closer to the way the world really is.
Well, isn't that a relief? When I started out, I wasn't sure of anything: now I'm sure of plenty. I know that I exist, and that I'm a thinking thing, and I know that God exists and is good and isn't just messing with me, and I know that my body is separate from my soul, and can't always be trusted but usually gets things more or less right, and I even feel pretty confident that I'm not dreaming, because I know that when I'm awake I can remember stuff that happened last week or five years ago but when I'm asleep I can't even remember what happened in my last dream and, get this, I am absolutely convinced that I am entirely made out of glass.
Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Now, before I work out whether anything
Not only is the idea of God the most certain thought in my mind, but everything else I could think about depends on the idea I have of God, so if I can't know God I can't know anything else. Let me explain why. As long as I understand something clearly and distinctly I am sure it is true: in the moment where I really understand Pythagoras' theorem, I am absolutely certain that triangles exist. But then I go off and have my lunch, and then I see a cow in the street, and then before you know it I've totally lost my sense of the absolute certainty of Pythagoras'. If I can only be sure that things exist when I clearly and distinctly understand them, I'd be changing my mind all the time because there are only so many things I can think of at any one time, and as soon as I got distracted by a second thing, I'd totally stop believing that the first thing was true. But once I've grasped that God exists, I know that God isn't a deceiver, and so I can trust my past judgements even if I've lost my grasp on that moment where I really understood why the area of a circle is πr2. God acts as an anchor for everything else that I know and believe to be true. So, being sure of God means I can be sure of all sorts of things as long as I can think about them using pure maths. Now we're cooking with gas.
Photo credit: dullhunk
Thursday, 25 November 2010
Fourth Meditation Of the true and the false
Over the past few days, I've gotten pretty good at detaching my mind from my senses, and I've observed that there are very few things that I can be sure of. But I've become sure of this: that I exist as a doubting, incomplete, imperfect being, who has a clear idea of a complete and perfect being who must be God and who must exist. Now if God is good, that makes it possible to know other things in the universe: a good God wouldn't trick me, because fraud involves imperfection and the desire to deceive involves malice or feebleness. And my ability to make judgements must also be basically good: why would God create me with faulty thinking equipment? But I know for a fact that I do make errors of judgement: how can that be? Because, basically, I'm not God, and insofar as I'm not God I'm not perfect and so capable of making mistakes. My ability to distinguish truth and falsehood isn't infinite: I can't know everything. But I also feel like there are some things that I should know that I don't; and why couldn't have God made me so that I couldn't screw up?
There are two answers to this: first, given how complicated the world is and how small I am, it's not surprising that some things are too complicated for me to get my head round. Second, we shouldn't ask whether individual things in creation are perfect but whether creation as a whole is perfect: some things that look rubbish are obviously perfect when we think about them in the context of creation as a whole.
There are two reasons why I make mistakes: the capacity of my mind, and my ability to choose. It's not an error to find some things too difficult to understand: I'm finite, and I can deal with that. But my free will is the most perfect quality I possess: I can't imagine a will more perfectly free, and so my free will must resemble God's will pretty closely. God can apply his will to more things because he's more powerful than me, but there's nothing that fundamentally limits my ability to choose. Now, freedom doesn't mean that I don't care what choices I make: the more I prefer one thing over another, the more freely I choose it. So if I could always tell what the best choice was I'd still be perfectly free to choose. So where do my errors come from?
When I screw up it's because my ability to choose is bigger than my ability to understand. When I try to make choices about things I don't understand, I'm not able to work out what the best choice is, so sometimes I choose evil thinking that it's good: maybe I decide to go to war in Iraq because I think that they have weapons of mass destruction but because I'm wrong about that the Iraq war turns out to be a BAD IDEA. When I don't understand things, I should just not make decisions about them, but sometimes I make a decision anyway and as a result I screw up. Now we're making progress: I've worked out why I make mistakes or believe things that aren't true, and I know how to avoid mistakes: stop messing with things I don't understand.
Photo credit: futureatlas.com
Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Third Meditation Of God, that He exists.
So I've doubted everything except the fact that I exist. Now I'm going to try and lay aside everything except that one thing I'm certain of. I'll close my eyes, block my ears, and try to forget everything I've seen or heard or felt, and get to know this I that I'm so sure of. I am a thing that thinks. Can I be sure of anything else? There are lots of things that seem obvious and certain, but at the end of the day, I can never prove that they're real; I can never prove that I'm not just being messed with by an evil demon or a bad God.
So lets think about this idea of a bad God. I don't have any reason to believe that there's a God yet, let along a bad God. But I'll try to figure it out. I'll start by categorising the different sorts of thoughts that I think. Some of my thoughts are ideas, images of things: I have the idea of a goat, a cake, a tree, a library. But other thoughts are actions of my mind which add something to those ideas: I want a goat, I'm afraid of the cake, I approve of the tree and I deny the library. These thoughts are volitions, affections and judgements. Ideas in themselves can't be true or false: when I think about a goat or a dragon-goat I really am thinking about them. It's only judgements that are the problem, when I think that the ideas I have bear some sort of relation to real things outside of my mind.
Now, the different ideas I have come from different places. Some I was born with, some came from experiences I've had, some I totally invented (like the goat-dragon: crazy, no?). Now, what is it that makes me think that some of my ideas correspond to things in the real world? First, some things just seem obviously true. But how can I be sure? Other things that I experience I obviously can't control myself, and that makes me think that they're real: fire burns me when I put my hand in it whether I want a burnt hand or not. But I can't be sure that that's not just the evil demon up to his tricks again. And even if the things I experience are real that doesn't mean my ideas correspond to what things are like: science shows that even though the sun doesn't look all that big, it's actually gi-freaking-normous.
But what about the idea I have of a good God who is eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, the creator of all things? Well, the cause of something must be at least as real as the thing it causes, right? So not only is it impossible for nothing to come from something, but it's not possible for something more perfect to come from something less perfect. That's true of ideas as well as things, and so the idea I have of God must have been caused by something at least as perfect as the idea and the idea is of something completely perfect in every way, so where could it have come from if not from a being that really is completely perfect in every way? Therefore, God exists, as demonstrated by the fact that the idea of God is the clearest, most distinct, most objectively real idea I have.
Besides, if God didn't exist, where did I come from? From myself? But then if I'd made myself, surely I'd have been smart enough to make myself so that I was sure of myself, was perfect, and had everything I wanted. From my parents or some other being less-perfect than God? But that just shifts the problem back a step: where did my parents come from? No, I must have been made by a perfect God, who placed the idea of God in me like the trademark a master craftsman stamps on his work. My nature could not be what it is; I could not have the idea of a perfect God which I do, if God did not exist. And if God is perfect, that implies that God is also good, and not some evil demon who has set out to convince me that the world is different to what it actually is. That's a relief.
Friday, 19 November 2010
Experimental Theology has a nice post on why 1 Peter 3 is maybe not the best text to use if you want to argue that women should submit to your husbands, as well as a discussion of James Alison's On Being Liked, which suggests that liking the world is a harder and higher call than loving it.
Religion Bulletin has a meditation on the theology of Google autosuggest and a competition to find the worst religious book cover.
And lastly, Stalin's Moustache has a fun post on the perils of taking the Old Testament literally.
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Second Meditation Of the nature of the human mind; and that it is more easily known than the body.
How trippy was yesterday's meditation? Everything I was sure of is falling apart. But there must be something that's certain. Here it is: whatever the evil demon does to trick me, this one thing is certain: I exist, there is an I, a person who may or may not be being deceived by an evil demon. I think, therefore I must exist, right?
But what am I? A thing that thinks, which doubts, understands, conceives, wills, imagines, feels. But can that really be more certain than the physical things I see and feel in front of me? Take this piece of wax, right in front of me. I can still smell honey on it; it's in a particular shape and is a particular colour. But if I put it near the fire, everything changes: its taste, smell, colour, shape are all different. It goes from solid to liquid, it changes size, it gets to hold to touch. Is it still the same thing? Everyone would say yes: but what makes it the same? Only an idea in my mind, and we've already talked about how easily I believe things that aren't be true. Isn't it obvious, now, that the fact that I think is more certain than anything I see or experience in the world? I can't be sure it's the same piece of wax; but I can be sure that it is me who sees it.
Thursday, 11 November 2010
Years ago, when I was about 22, I started to realise how many things that I'd believed all of my life just weren't true. I decided then that I should work hard to get rid of all my false assumptions and start again so that I didn't believe anything I wasn't absolutely certain to be true. But I thought I was too young to start then, so it's only now that I'm 32 that I'm really getting down to business [Note: if you are 20, 30 seems old. For those of us who are not 20 any more, it does not seem all that old any more]. I've arranged my life so I don't have to worry about anything, and I can just sit by the fire all day thinking really hard. I don't need to take apart each of my beliefs one by one: if I destroy the foundations, everything I've built on them will collapse too.
Tuesday, 9 November 2010
To the most wise and illustrious the Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris
When you understand what my little book is about, you'll be so convinced that it's brilliant that I'm sure you'll, y'know, tell all your friends about how great it is and make them all read it and agree that I'm a genius. Let me explain what it's all about.
So, part of my book is some arguments for the existence of God. They're not new, but I don't think it'd be boastful to say that no one has ever explained them as well as me, like, ever. They're still a bit complicated, but then even people who are too stupid to understand geometrical proofs still believe in geometry, so hey, worth a shot, right?
So, that's what my books about. And I thought that, you know, seeing as how everyone really respects you, I thought that if I sent it to you, you could make any changes you thought would make it clearer and then tell everyone to read it?
Thanks a bunch!
Preface to the Reader
Gee, thanks for reading my book. A couple of quick points: I decided to write it in Latin rather than French, because I thought that Latin would put off all the stupid people who wouldn't be able to understand it anyway. Also, some people have criticised my work, but they're all wrong and I'm right. But I didn't expect vulgar people to appreciate my work anyway. By the way, this book's not for the lighthearted: you have to be prepared to really meditate with me and let go of all your prejudices. Are you sure you're committed enough?
Thursday, 4 November 2010
Wednesday, 27 October 2010
The Holocaust would have been impossible without the advancements of modern society. The systematic slaughtering of Jews and other outcasts was modelled on the factory system, producing death instead of goods. Without modern industrialisation and technological know-how it would have been impossible to kill so many people so efficiently. The sociologist Max Weber talked about modernity in terms of 'modern bureaucracy, rational spirit, principle of efficiency, scientific mentality, relegation of values to the realm of subjectivity': all of these characteristics were present in the Holocaust. Bauman argues that the Holocaust is a significant and reliable test of the hidden possibilities of modern society. Not only is it a powerful reminder of how ethically blind the bureaucratic pursuit of efficiency is, but the Final Solution itself was an outcome of the bureaucratic culture.
No one set out to make the Holocaust happen: it arose from a series of rational decisions about the most effective way to meet the basic objective of getting rid of the Jews. Originally, the plan was just to force German Jews to leave Germany, but as Germany conquered more and more of Europe, there were more and more Jews to get rid of, and this became impractical. Next, the plan was to designate 'Jewish principality', a giant ghetto in Poland, but the bureaucracy in charge of this area didn't want to take responsibility … Eventually, physical extermination was chosen as the most effective means to the original end. Plenty of genocides have taken place without the aid of bureaucracy, but only in a bureaucratic culture could the Holocaust come to seem the most 'reasonable' solution.
The Holocaust wasn't carried out by crazy or unusually violent people. The SS deliberately tried to ensure that those responsible for the actual killings were not especially eager, emotional or ideologically zealous. They wanted the task to be as business-like and impersonal as possible (this was the motivation for abandoning shooting in favour of the more clinical gas chambers as the primary means of killing).
Herbert C. Kelman has identified three conditions which encourage the erosion of moral inhibitions against violent atrocities: the authorisation of violence, the routinisation of actions, and the dehumanisation of victims. Bauman points out that the first two are classic characteristics of modern institutions. Max Weber, writing before the Holocaust, says that 'The honour of a civil servant is vested in his ability to execute conscientiously the order of superior authorities, exactly as if the order agreed with his own conviction. This holds even if the order seems wrong to him.' People stop worrying about what the 'right' thing to do is because the right thing is always to do what you're told: discipline is substituted for moral responsibility. In addition, the Final Solution was so effectively implemented because it was broken up into so many routine tasks: this person drove the trains; this person operated the signals; this person herded the Jews into the chambers; this person pressed the button to release the gas. Not only thousands of Germans but most of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust co-operated with the bureaucratic processes of the SS.
But the third condition, dehumanisation, is the most sinister of all. Most of those who enabled the Holocaust never even realised that their actions had moral implications: all they did was gather statistics, coordinate logistics, and liaise with community leaders and generals. It didn't seem like there was much of a causal connection between what they did and the reality of mass murder. John Lachs argues that the mediation of action is one of the most salient features of modern society: the person doing the act thinks that the responsibility lies with the person who told them to do it; the person who told them to do it has no tangible idea of what it is that they've ordered. The increase in distance between the act and its consequences makes it very difficult for us to give it moral significance, just as for us buying a pair of trainers seems to have very little relation to the reality of sweatshops on the other side of the world.
What the Holocaust tells us, says Bauman, is that it isn't enough to explain violence as a remnant of our distant past when we were uncivilised and barbaric. The Holocaust was not abnormal as we would like to think; it is not so far away from us as we would hope; it is all to possible that such a thing might happen again. The civilising process doesn't simply make us better, kinder people: it also involves the separation of violence from questions of morality, and screens off ethics from questions about the most rational solution. The Holocaust was a legitimate outcome of the civilising tendency; Holocaust-like events are a constant potential of the sort of society we live in. Sociology (and theology, and every other subject) needs to deal with this issue, needs to recognise that the Holocaust makes its normal criteria for good practice problematic. It was sociologists and anthropologists who conducted research into the genetic differences between Aryans and Jews, and they weren't, by the standards sociology sets itself, bad sociologists. They were part of the same system that we were part of, and they had all too many of the same values as us.
Phot credit: professor megan
Friday, 15 October 2010
One of the people I'll be teaching is René Descartes, one of the most important philosophers in the world, ever. Enrique Chavez-Arvizo, whose biography of Descartes is in the Wordsworth Classics Edition of Descartes' Key Philosophical Writing (the source of most of the information in this post) says that Descartes' acheivements 'rank second only to Plato's' and 'are the single most important source of our modern intellectual character'. Unlike poor Kant, Enrique thinks that Descartes' works 'display a lucid and rich literary style equalled by few', and over the course of his 53 years of life, he wrote important texts on geometry, algebra, physics, mechanics, cosmology, meteorology, optics, physiology, anatomy and medicine 'to name the principal ones' (!).
Descartes was born in 1596, in a town which was called La Haye at the time, but has since been renamed Descartes ('I think, therefore I've found myself a nice little cottage round the corner from the post office'?). His family were vaguely aristocratic, and rich enough for him to spend most of his life living off his inheritance. His mum died when he was three, so his grandmother raised him till he was ten, when he was packed off to study at a Jesuit-run school. He was a sickly kid, so he was given the privilege of being allowed a lie-in every morning, and he used these mornings in bed to, er, 'meditate'. He kept up the habit for most of the rest of his life.
After leaving school, he went and got a law degree in Poitiers, and wrote a Treatise on Fencing before setting off to travel round Europe because he wanted to study at the school of life instead of just reading books. Whilst in the Netherlands, he joined the army, and though he never actually got to see any action, he did have a mystical experience in a sauna on the Danube: three dreams which he interpreted as a message telling him to come up with a theory of everything. Afterwards, he went back to France and sold his family estate so he could set up as a full time philosopher, then off for some more travelling round Italy, before he settled in Paris for a couple of years. While there, he gave a speech which so impressed one of the cardinals listening to him talk that afterwards they cornered him and made him promise to dedicate his whole life to philosophy 'for the benefit of humanity'.
Next, Descartes moved to Holland, where he moved around a lot, trying to get away from people and be alone, though he kept getting embroiled in philosophical controversies with other people. In the early 1630s, he moved to a slaughterhouse district so he could learn about physiology. In 1629, a friend asked him to write something about the scientific phenomenon of parhelia (rings around the sun), so he wrote a scientific treatise, only to chicken out of publishing it when he found out how much trouble Galileo had recently gotten himself into for suggesting that the earth wasn't the centre of the universe. Around the same time, he knocked up a girl called Hélène, a servant in a house he'd stayed in, and she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Francine, who died aged five.
After writing various other treatises, Descartes published his most famous work, the Meditations on First Philosophy, which was basically an attempt to work out whether there is anything we can be sure that we really know. It proved to be a bit controversial. A theologian called Gisbertus Voetius (Gisbertus! What a name.) published an anonymous treatise attacking Descartes (I'd be keen on anonymity if I was called Gisbertus), and Descartes cheekily responded with an open letter entitled 'Letter of René Descartes to that Most Distinguished Man, Mr Gisbertus Voetius'.
Descartes' next bit work was The Principles of Philosophy, which was meant to be used as a university textbook. He dedicated it to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, who'd been his penpal ever since he wrote the Meditations. At her request, he wrote his last major work, The Passions of the Soul, which was all about the passions (or emotions if you want to be all 21st century about it). But he kept getting himself into arguments with other philosophers and theologians, and eventually, getting a bit fed up with it all, he accepted an invitation from Queen Christina of Sweden to join her court. Christina, evidently either a swot or an insomniac, made Descartes give her regular philosophy lessons at 5am. He eventually died of pneumonia when he was only 53, which just goes to show that early mornings are bad for you.
So, that's Descartes, philosopher extraordinaire. His example has much to teach us: primarily that the route to philosophical genius lies through plentiful lies ins, multiple gap years, and being able to live off your parents' money. So there's hope for as all: all we have to do is to be upper to upper-middle class. Oh. Crap.
Thursday, 7 October 2010
He took twelve years to excogitate his work and only five months to write it. He was a German professor, a student of solitary habits, and had never, except on one occasion, been out of Konigsberg. He had, besides, to propound a new system of philosophy, and to enounce ideas that were entirely to revolutionise European thought.And y'know, his writing's not all bad:
His expression is often as precise and forcible as his thought; and, in some of his notes especially, he sums up in two or three apt and powerful words, thoughts which, at other times, he employs pages to develop. His terminology, which has been so violently denounced, is really of great use in clearly determining his system, and in rendering its peculiarities more easy of comprehension.Very charitable of Mr. Mieklejohn. He's less kind about Kant's previous translators:
A previous translation of the Kritik exists, which, had it been satisfactory, would have dispensed with the present. But the translator had, evidently, no very extensive acquaintance with the German language, and still less with his subject. A translator ought to be an interpreting intellect between the author and the reader; but, in the present case, the only interpreting medium has been the dictionary.Ouch. It's not just the translators Mieklejohn lays into: he also points out that all the other English books about Kant
were written by men who either took no pains to understand Kant or were incapable of understanding him.Mieklejohn also says that the reason he undertook his own translation was because he was asked to proof read another translation by 'a scholar of some repute', but
after having laboured through about eighty pages, I found, from the numerous errors and inaccuracies pervading it, that hardly one-fifth of the original MS remained. I, therefore, laid it entirely aside, and commenced de novo.It must be nice to be so thoroughly superior to almost everyone else, though you wonder whether, at the end of it, Mieklejohn had any friends left. Still, definitely my favourite translator's introduction ever. I hope one day to attain such dizzying heights of cattiness, contempt and confidence in my own abilities. It's good to have goals, right?
Monday, 4 October 2010
He had never studied the art of expression. He wearies by frequent repetition, and employs a great number of words to express, in the clumsiest way, what could have been enounced more clearly and distinctly in a few.
Thursday, 30 September 2010
- Don't criticise Augustine!
- If you do, it's letting Pelagians and heretics win.
- And sticking your tongue out at all the doctors of theology.
- Man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil.
- Man isn't free to choose between good and evil; our wills are captive.
- We can't choose to do what's right.
- Without the grace of God, we can only will evil [are you getting the gist yet?]
- But that doesn't mean our wills are essentially evil [hang on a minute...]
- But our wills are innately and inevitably evil [what?]
- The will is not free to will the good.
- It can't will what it ought to will.
- But it can will whatever it chooses to will.
- Sinful man can't love God.
- The will can will what's bad but not what's good.
- Only the will can will what's bad but not what's good [that's a tongue twister right there]
- Sinful man can love what God has created, but can't love God.
- Human nature is unable to want God to be God: we want to be God instead.
- We can't love God more than anything else.
- I said, we can't love God more than anything else.
- If we do kind things it's by grace and not by our own free will.
- Everything we do in accordance with our nature is an act against God.
- Acts against God are bad.
- We can't put right our badness by being hopeful.
- Hope isn't contrary to love [what's your point, Lutherface?]
- Hope doesn't grow out of good things but out of suffering which destroys good things.
- The best way to do good isn't to perform acts of friendship;
- It's to perform the act of conversion, following grace.
- We can't choose to seek God.
- The best way of getting hold of God's grace is to be eternally elected and predestined by God [that's alright, then].
- We can't do anything to earn God's grace.
- Blah blah
- Did I mention we can't earn grace?
- In terms of our human nature, we can't do what's right. Did I say that already?
- Ignorance is no excuse.
- I SAID ignorance is no excuse.
- Our natures take pride in anything we do which looks good.
- There's no moral virtue without pride or sorrow, i.e. without sin [Great, now sorrow is a sin].
- We are not masters of our actions but servants.
- We don't become righteous by doing righteous things. When we've been made righteous, we do righteous things. The philosophers were wrong.
- Aristotle's Ethics is the worst enemy of the good.
- Aristotle was wrong.
- It's wrong to say that no one can become a theologian without Aristotle [take that, Aquinas!]
- In fact, you can only become a theologian without Aristotle.
- Theologians don't need to be logicians [take that, Dawkins!]
- There's no such thing as a logic of faith.
- You can't use logic to talk about theology.
- But that doesn't mean that theology is illogical.
- If you could prove theology with logic, you wouldn't need faith [that would be BAD, btw]
- I hate Aristotle.
- Aquinas didn't even understand Aristotle anyway.
- I hate Porphyry too, but you probably haven't heard of him.
- Stop talking about Aristotle! I already told you I hate him!
- An act is only good if it has grace; and if it has grace, it doesn't need anything else to be good.
- The grace of God is never inactive: it's always living and active. And did I mention that we can't do anything good without grace?
- God won't accept us unless he's already justified us by grace.
- It's dangerous to say that the law commands that an act of obeying the commandment be done in the grace of God.
- That would imply that 'to have the grace of God' is a new demand going beyond the law.
- And that you can fulfil the law without grace.
- Which you can't.
- So it doesn't follow that the law should be complied with and fulfilled in the grace of God.
- People outside of the grace of God sin ALL THE TIME, even if they're not doing anything obviously bad.
- They sin because they don't spiritually fulfil the law.
- Outside of grace it's impossible not to be angry and lustful, and even in grace it's not possible to fulfil the law perfectly.
- Hypocrites are bad.
- We can't be good without grace.
- We can't be good without grace.
- Without the grace of God, nature DESTROYS the law [Oh noes]
- Good laws are bad for the natural (evil) will.
- Without grace, the law and the will are enemies.
- The will never wants what the law wants.
- Blah blah
- The law makes sin abound because it annoys the will.
- But the grace of God makes justice abound because it makes the will love the law.
- You can do things that look good without grace, but they're not really good.
- Did I mention that the law and the will don't get on?
- If the will keeps the law without grace, it's only doing it to get something for itself.
- Those who do the works of the law are condemned.
- Those who do the works of grace are blessed.
- You can do good works outside of grace. Not!
- Religious ceremony is rubbish.
- And so are the ten commandments.
- The only law that's good is the love of God put in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
- If our wills could choose, they'd choose to be free of the law.
- Will and law: definitely no sitting in a tree K.I.S.S.I.N.G for them.
- The law is good, and because the will doesn't like the law, the will must be bad.
- The will is bad.
- [Deleted due to unnecessary repetition]
- The grace of God is meant to direct the will.
- Not so that we can do good more often, but so we can do any good at all.
- If we could do good things on our own, we wouldn't need love.
- I don't like scholastic theologians. I'm talking about YOU, William of Ockham.
- We can't love God and creatures.
- To love God is to hate oneself and know nothing but God.
- We must make our wills conform to God's will.
- They should be totally the same.
And even though I've just totally disagreed with, like, every important Catholic theologian, I'm still well Catholic, and everything I've said is totally in line with what the teachers of the church say. So there.
Ah, Luther. How could you not love him?
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Don't criticise Augustine!
If you do, it's letting Pelagians and heretics win.
And sticking your tongue out at all the doctors of theology.
Man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil.
Man isn't free to choose between good and evil; our wills are captive.
We can't choose to do what's right.
Without the grace of God, we can only will evil [are you getting the gist yet?]
But that doesn't mean our wills are essentially evil [hang on a minute...]
But our wills are innately and inevitable evil [what?]
The will is not free to will the good.
It can't will what it ought to will.
But it can will whatever it chooses to will.
Sinful man can't love God.
The will can will what's bad but not what's good.
Only the will can will what's bad but not what's good [that's a tongue twister right there]
Sinful man can love what God has created, but can't love God.
Human nature is unable to want God to be God: we want to be God instead.
We can't love God more than anything else.
I said, we can't love God more than anything else.
If we do kind things it's by grace and not by our own free will.
Everything we do in accordance with our nature is an act against God.
Acts against God are bad.
We can't put right our badness by being hopeful.
Hope isn't contrary to love [what's your point, Lutherface?]
Hope doesn't grow out of good things but out of suffering which destroys good things.
The best way to do good isn't to perform acts of friendship;
It's to perform the act of conversion, following grace.
We can't choose to seek God.
The best way of getting hold of God's grace is to be eternally elected and predestined by God [that's alright, then].
We can't do anything to earn God's grace.
Did I mention we can't earn grace?
In terms of our human nature, we can't do what's right. Did I say that already?
Ignorance is no excuse.
I SAID ignorance is no excuse.
Our natures take pride in anything we do which looks good.
There's no moral virtue without pride or sorrow, i.e. without sin [Great, now sorrow is a sin].
We are not masters of our actions but servants.
We don't become righteous by doing righteous things. When we've been made righteous, we do righteous things. The philosophers were wrong.
Aristotle's Ethics is the worst enemy of the good.
Aristotle was wrong.
It's wrong to say that no one can become a theologian without Aristotle [take that, Aquinas!]
In fact, you can only become a theologian without Aristotle.
Theologians don't need to be logicians [take that, Dawkins!]
There's no such thing as a logic of faith.
You can't use logic to talk about theology.
But that doesn't mean that theology is illogical.
If you could prove theology with logic, you wouldn't need faith [that would be BAD, btw]
I hate Aristotle.
That's all for Part I, folks. You'll never guess what Luther talks about it Part II.
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
Eckhart starts with a fundamental distinction between the oneness of God and the multiplicity of the world (check out my blog on divine simplicity if that makes your head boggle – link below). The closer to God things are, the simpler they are; the further away, the more multiple. In line with lots of other people who espouse divine simplicity, Eckhart tends to see physical, external things as more multiple than spiritual and intellectual internal things, so he tends to privilege minds over bodies and what we want and choose over what we actually do. It's not that external actions don't matter; it's just that they're less important than what's going on inside us. In addition, we can control what goes on inside us more easily than we can what goes on externally: we can't stop our annoying friends coming round and being annoying, but we can make sure that our minds are fixed on God at all times so we're able to love them even when they're idiots. We can't feed all the hungry people in the world, but we can get ourselves to the point where if we could, we would: and Eckhart thinks that for God, that's as good as actually doing it. We can't ignore what goes on around us, and we have to get involved with it, if only because we need to eat and drink and wear clothes just to not die; but the more we care about God, the more we'll be preoccupied with what's going on inside us, because that's the part of us that's most like God, and the less we'll care about whether our food is tasty or has maggots in. But at the same time, Eckhart does realise that external things can reveal God to us - an amazing steak can speak to us of the goodness of God - so we need to both let go of external things and also grasp God in and through them.
It really comes down to this: that everything comes from God, and if we want God more than anything else then our relationship to all of those other things will fall into place naturally: we'll see everything in terms of its relationship to God. But if those things are more important to us than God is, our whole way of seeing the world gets snarled up, and the good things God made becomes dangerous temptations into sinfulness and idolatry.
Creation, for Eckhart, is about God giving of himself; and our response to his generosity should be to give ourselves in return. We are most ourselves when we're totally given over to God, when we're so united with God that God acts and wills through us, when we have chosen God so profoundly that God chooses God in us. We get so given over to God, in the end, that it becomes difficult to tell where we end and God begins (this is the bit that got Eckhart in trouble for sounding a bit heretical), and our relationship with God should, eventually, resemble the relationships of the Trinity, where God is one but also three. Getting to this place of perfect relationship with God isn't easy, at least at first. Eckhart says it's like learning how to write: when you start, it's really difficult; you have to concentrate really hard and it still looks like some drunken spiders vomited all over the page. But if we keep persevering, slowly training ourselves, then eventually be able to write beautifully without even thinking about it (That's perhaps a less comforting analogy for those who, like me, have always had dreadful handwriting). If we discipline ourselves to want God above all else, then choosing God will, eventually, become second nature, and we won't even need to think about how we relate to the physical things around us because with God at the centre of our lives, everything else will naturally assume its rightful place.
Slightly harsh post on Eckhart here.
Divine simplicity made simple here.
Thursday, 9 September 2010
Freud says that the idea of the death drive came from his observations of types of repetition of painful experiences. Firstly, people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder relive, in dreams or in flashbacks, the event which originally traumatised them. Secondly, people who’ve had terrible relationships in the past tend to seek out similarly dreadful relationships, either in their marriages, their friendships or in their relationship with their therapist. And finally, Freud talks about repetition in children’s games, giving the example of 1 ½ year old nephew who started playing a game which involved throwing things under the bed, which Freud eventually realised was his re-enactment of the traumatic moment of his mother leaving. All of this examples of compulsive repetition throw a big spanner in the works of Freud’s theory that we’re basically all driven to seek out pleasure. Why would people deliberately repeat and relive painful experiences?
Freud goes on to argue that all living things have an urge to return to an earlier state of being (this would be something like the tendency towards entropy). Living things basically want to remain in a state of stability and unchangingness; they only change and develop if they’re forced to do so by external circumstances. And of course, the ultimate state of original stability is death: all life, says Freud, aims at death, though sometimes it gets distracted along the way by the need to defend itself from things which would force it into dying in the wrong sort of way. Various things may prevent us regressing to an earlier state, forcing us into creativity and growth; but all the time, regardless, we are aiming not for progress but for death.
Cheery stuff, no? It’s not the happiest theory, but it is a powerful one that explains a lot, both in terms of particular psychological disturbances and in terms of the general human capability for violence and destructiveness. But if Freud’s right, if there is a death instinct, an intrinsic desire for death in us, that raises all sorts of theological questions about the goodness of creation, the nature of sin, human identity. Oo er.
Photo credit: tstadler
Friday, 3 September 2010
First up on the blog-to-do list is an article by Robert J. Myles. The article, called 'Dandy Discipleship: A Queering of Mark's Male Disciples' comes from the Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. Myles starts out by pointing out that we never come to the Bible blind: we always bring with us all the baggage of our expectations, beliefs, culture etc. Our reading of the Bible says as much about us as it does about the text. So if we want to find things in the Bible that challenge our expectations rather than just telling us what we already think we know, sometimes we need to deliberately go looking for them. If we want to challenge our ideas about sexuality and gender, we need to deliberately 'queer' the Biblical text, which means looking out for ways of reading it that don't just fit in with our ideas about men and women, gayness and straightness. So in his article, Myles offers a series of queer rereadings of sections of Mark's gospel that talk about Jesus' disciples.
Fishing for Men (Mark 1:16-20)
Myles rewrites the text thusly:
While cruising the seashores of Galilee, Jesus began his ministry by fetching a number of seemingly attached men to join his cohort of male admirers. He saw Simon and his brother Andrew fishing in their boat, and as soon as Jesus invited them to accompany him in his quest to fish for more men, they dropped their rods and joined him. Shortly after, Jesus discovered James and John in their father’s boat mending their fishnets. Upon enticing them, they immediately left their father and their livelihood, to elope with the alluring Jesus.
The disciples quit their jobs. Our jobs tend to reflect our roles within society and within our families, not to mention our roles as men and women. Following Jesus, it would seem, challenges the social roles and relationships we're tangled up in. As societies, we tend to restrict male friendships to particular spaces: it's ok for men to hang out in pubs, at sports events, on fishing boats; but we're a bit freaked out by the idea that men might just spend time hanging out with each other, talking about deep and meaningful things. Isn't that a bit...gay? But what if following Jesus means spending time with other people in ways that aren't socially acceptable? What if we were to accept that some of the sorts of relationships God calls us to with other people are precisely that: a bit gay?
Whose is the Greatest? Measuring Manhood (9:33-37)
When they came to Capernaum Jesus asked his admirers, “What were you squabbling about on the way?” There was an embarrassing silence, for they had been comparing with one another to find out whose was the greatest. Jesus sat down, called his disciples, and said to them, “Whoever admires me the most will have the least, for truly I tell you, size doesn’t matter; it’s what you do with it that counts.” Taking a little one in his hand, he said to them, “Whoever is open to one such as this is also open to me, and whoever is open to me is open to the one who sent me.”Greco-Roman culture tended to have a competitive view of masculinity: the more people you can beat, the more of a man you are. It looks like Jesus is challenging this, but at the same time he seems to just be rearranging the rules of the competition: that's not what leadership looks like, this - Jesus' leadership - is what leadership looks like. If masculinity's still about who wins the competition for most-like-a-leader, then isn't Jesus just trying to win the competition himself, even if he's doing it in an unusual way?
The Pash of Judas and a Streaker’s Nuddie Run (14:43-52)
Immediately, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd of men with shackles and whips eager to restrain Jesus. The betrayer had said, “The one who I will kiss is the maledom; restrain him and lead him away.” When Judas came, he approached Jesus, said “master,” and pressed his lips up against him. Then the crowd laid their hands on Jesus and tied him down. After an initial struggle his admirers deserted him and fled. Shortly after, a boy escort wearing nothing but a cover of cloth was admiring Jesus. As the crowd of men tried to grapple him, however, he dropped it and streaked off naked.
Why, says Myles, do we assume that Judas' kiss is purely platonic? If it was Mary Magdalene kissing Jesus, there'd be a lot more nudging and winking (and the Dan Brownians would be wolf whistling their hearts out). Not only that, but who's the naked boy? The fact that his nudity's mentioned suggests to Myles that he might be a male prostitute (why would Jesus only hang out with female prostitutes?).
If we think there aren't any sexual undertones in the Bible, maybe it's because we're not looking hard enough. Maybe reading the Bible with dirtier minds would open up whole new levels of meaning, and whole new challenges to our ideas about sexuality, gender, and masculinity. This is especially important with Mark's gospel, which is often used to get ideas about what it means to follow Jesus. Why should Mark Driscoll get to decide what biblical manhood is like? If Myles is right, we need a whole new generation of biblical students with an eye for innuendo. Anyone feel called?
If you like this, Robert J. Myles' blog is here, and the full article is here. For the dirtiest mind in biblical studies, you could check out Roland Boer's blog, which covers biblical erotica, bestiality, and his campaign to get rude articles into respectable academic journals.
Photo credit: Travis S.
Thursday, 22 July 2010
Wednesday, 14 July 2010
Offering one's presence to a person with dementia means letting go of our need for rational interchanges, direct social cues, logical conclusions. It often means letting go of words altogether and entering entirely into the realm of affect and intuition.
Friday, 9 July 2010
There have been different theological responses to dementia. Some people have suggested that, even as a person’s memories slip away from them, they are held by God: he remembers, even when we forget. But this still portrays dementia as a tragedy, and people who are suffering dementia as less than whole people. And it doesn’t explain why families feel that the person they love is disappearing. Another response is to say that a person isn’t just constituted by the things they know, but by their relationships with other people. We are our relationships with our family and friends, just as the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is constituted by the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But if this is the case, would a person on a desert island slowly become less human? More importantly, given how isolating dementia can be, does this mean that a person becomes less human as the disease progresses and they progressively lose friends and family?
Kevern says that the message of the cross is that there is no sort of human suffering in which God cannot be found. He suggests that we see Christ on the cross as ‘demented’, and so see God as present right in the midst of dementia. The history of the doctrine of the incarnation is the history of the church insisting, over and again, that Jesus was human in every way that it is possible to be human. Perhaps one of the most characteristic traits of all people, not just those with dementia, is that we aren’t perfectly self-aware or self-conscious all the time. If Jesus on the cross took with him every sort of human frailty, surely he must have taken on this as well? Hanging on the cross for hours on end, after being kept awake all night, beaten and condemned, he must surely have become delirious; by the time he died, surely he cannot have been fully conscious any more?
But if we’re going to argue that Jesus ‘demented’ on the cross, this raises the important question of whether he can have freely chosen his death; or isn’t our salvation thrown into jeopardy? If we’re going to say that delirium, mental deterioration and semi- or unconsciousness are part of the human condition, we need an alternative to the idea that it is self-consciousness that makes us human. Kevern suggests three things that make us human:
1. Boundedness. We are all born, grow and develop, decline and die. Our lives have a beginning and an end, and all sorts of processes of learning and forgetting in between. To be human is to have the potential to suffer dementia, and people with dementia make visible one of the possibilities of humanness. Because everything that makes us human comes from God, God is present in and through our forgetfulness. Dementia has the potential to be grace-filled, and to show us something of who God is and what it means to know him.
2. Connections to past and future. We don’t exist as isolated moments in time, but as the whole story of our lives, including what went before us and what remains after we are gone. The choices we make now affects what happens in the future. Jesus didn’t just choose to follow God in Gethsemane – the whole story of his life was a story of everything that he was being given over freely to God. People with dementia are still the same people they were before: dementia is only a part of the story of their identities.
3. Relationships with others. Our identity is not ours alone. We are not just who we choose to be, but who we are for other people. We do not make ourselves single-handedly: we collaborate with others to forge our identities, just as the identity of Jesus is not just what he did and said, but also how others responded to that, how the Church recorded, honoured, and lived out his story. People with dementia are what they say and do; but they are also how we remember them, how we treat them as their minds move towards death.
‘Those who are dementing’, says Kevern, ‘have many things to teach those of us for whom dementia may yet be to come.
Photo credit: *hiro008
Thursday, 1 July 2010
It's always difficult to try and explain why something's funny, but we'll give it a go. The book of Jonah starts with God calling Jonah to go and prophesy to the Ninevites. It's standard for prophets to um and er a bit, talk about how unworthy they are or say they've got a stutter, but Jonah takes this a step further: God calls him, and he legs it in the opposite direction, as fast as he can. It's as if Moses saw the burning bush and chucked a bucket of water on it, or sold his miraculous staff to the local Del Boy. So God keeps in character and produces a mighty storm, just like he did when Elijah ran away and hid in a cave. But where Elijah sat and listened to the storm, Jonah doesn't even notice it, because he's busy catching some shuteye in the bottom of the boat. When, eventually, he's shaken awake by the terrified sailors, he sighs and says, essentially, 'well, I suppose you'd better chuck me in the sea, then.'
Once in the murky depths, Jonah produces a nice little psalm:
'The engulfing waters threatened me,the deep surrounded me;seaweed was wrapped around my head.To the roots of the mountains I sank down;the earth beneath barred me in forever.'
'Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.'
Thursday, 24 June 2010
Frequency is about the relationship between the number of times something happened in the story and the number of times it happens in the narrative. A singulative narrative tells once what happened once: 'And God said, let there be light.' An anaphoric narrative tells n times what happened n times; so the creation story in Genesis says six times 'and there was evening, and there was morning - the nth day, because that's how many times there was evening and morning. A repeating narrative takes something that happened once and tells it multiple times: the Gospels do this with the life of Jesus, telling it four times over even though it only happened once. And an iterative narrative takes something that happened more than once and tells it once. I can't think of a Biblical example of this - can you?
Voice is about the point from which the story is told. Most narratives are subsequent to the story, but some are simultaneous (live blogging, for example), and narratives which predict what is going to happen are prior. The narrator might be inside or outside the story; and they may or may not be a character in the story. The narrator might point out connections between different elements of their story, or explain the significance of particular bits of it, and they might have a whole range of different reasons for telling their story.
Why should we care? If you remember, all of this comes from Gerard Loughlin's book Telling God's Story, which is all about what it means to treat the Bible as the story of God's work in the work. If it's a story, rather than just an instruction manual or a love letter or a rule book, then when we're reading it it's worth thinking about how the story is being told. Why are there four gospels? What does that do to the story of Jesus that's being presented? How does it affect the story if we decide to keep the Apocrypha (the set of books set in the bit of time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New) or chuck it out? Why do particular stories miss bits out, or tell bits more than once? If we are going to hear the story of the Bible and take it seriously, we need to be able to think about narrative
Photo credit: cobalt123 on Flickr.