Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Merry kitschmas

Not sure what the true meaning of Christmas is? Try this.
Photo credit: Fer Jimenez on Flickr.

Friday, 11 December 2009

God is a drunkard

When we praise God, according to Dionysius, we start with names taken from the highest, most divine things: oneness, threeness, goodness, beauty. But there aren't very many of them, and the more you think about them, the more you realise that, well, when it comes to trying to say everything there is to say about God, they just don't quite do it. So you move down to the next level of existence, where there are more names, and try those: God is a father, God is a King, God is Lord, God is a shepherd, God is a servant. You could go on like this for a fair old while, but eventually you realise that it's still not quite enough. So you go on speaking, praising God with ever more words, widening the net of your praise until it takes in the whole of creation, and you realise that to name God, to fully describe him, you'd have to use every word there is; you'd have to find him in every single created thing: God is a duck-billed platypus; God is a pencil; God is a supernova; God is a whale. But you can't just use the things that are obviously cool, or beautiful, or nice: everything in the whole of creation reflects God in some way, and if you want to do the job of naming God thoroughly, you have to go to less respectable places. Dionysius says that God gets enraged, God swears; God grieves; God sleeps and wakes; God dresses himself up in fancy clothes; God is a drunkard; God is hungover.

Uncomfortable, isn't it? But here's the thing: if you can't see something of God even in drunkenness, you're not looking hard enough. If you're satisfied to go to church and sing the same five songs every week, about how God is Father, King, Shepherd, and all those other cliches, you're not worshipping hard enough. If you really want to know who God is, says Dionysius, you have to find him everywhere. Everywhere.

This, it strikes me, is one of the best arguments for conservationism, and for preserving minority cultures and languages. The last Dodo dies, and you lose an irreplaceable opportunity for understanding who God is. The last Gaelic speaker dies; and you will never be able to see God through the eyes of a native speaker of Gaelic. But it's also an encouragement to welcome change and encourage innovation: a new breed of dog means a new name for God; the ipod is born, and with it another insight into the Creator of all things. God is everywhere: high culture, low culture, endangered animals, invasive species. If you can't see him, you're probably not looking hard enough. God is a drunkard.

Photo credit: sarasco on Flickr.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Meet the Zealots

The Zealots, also known as 'Galileans' or 'patriots' were an extreme Jewish political group at the time of Jesus. They were, basically, terrorists of: living in a land to which they believed they had ancestral rights, they saw the Romans as oppressors. They hated the Jews who collaborated with the Romans (especially the Sadducees) and thought that the only way to win back freedom was through violence. One group, the Sicarrii or assassins, carried daggers around under their cloaks, and used them to murder collaborators, especially during religious festivals when crowds of people made it easy to murder individuals unnoticed. Sound familiar?

The Zealots originated about AD 6, when the Romans started ruling Judea and demanded that everyone register to pay taxes. A group of radical Pharisees refused to register, and, led by Judas the Galilean, began a series of revolts and acts of violence, culminating in the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 AD, which was the trigger for the Romans' destruction of the temple. Because of the threat from the Zealots, the Romans ruled Judea all the more harshly and were particularly vigilant at festivals: it's possible that they were expecting a Zealot revolt on the passover festival during which Jesus was crucified.

The Zealots were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, and thought that the Last Days, where God would come and kick the Romans' asses and re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation, were near. They weren't afraid to die, and many of them were killed by the Romans, often by crucifixion. Jesus' disciple, Simon, was a Zealot, and throughout the Gospels you can see Jesus engaging with the Zealot's ideas. Sometimes he challenges them: love your enemies he says; if a soldier forces you to carry something one mile; carry it two. My kingdom is not of this world. But there's a definite Zealot tinge in other places: Jesus comes not to bring peace but a sword, and his birth, not the Emperor's, is gospel good news; he is Lord, not Caesar.
Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold on Flickr

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

History and historiography

There's no such thing as 'what the text says'; or if there is, we'll never get to it (sorry if you're a biblical literalist, but them's the apples). Every time we read a text, what we get is 'what the text says when filtered through my unique way of seeing the world.' We can never pretend to be any old person reading a text because we will always be ourselves. This afternoon I started reading some Etienne Gilson, and my reading was affected by a combination of sleepiness+too much coffee, some conversations I've had about Gilson, knowing that he's a Catholic, the fact that the book was in a font I associate with other books (makes a surprising difference, I think), and all the other things that have happened to me, that I'm feeling, who I am, etc. etc. etc. Complex, no?

Anyway, to the point. Morwenna Ludlow has written a book about books that people have written about the works of Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Church Fathers (e.g. old dead guy, theologically influential) who was involved with formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, and in it she looks at the question of what affects the way we read particular texts. She concludes that one of the key things that affects the way someone reads the Fathers is their understanding of the overall shape of Christian history, and she identifies three main models:

1) The 'static' model of Christian history thinks that theology and the Church are basically unchanging, and insofar as Christian doctrine has developed, it's just the working out of the logical implications of the original message: so you won't find the doctrine of the Trinity as such in the New Testament, but if you read it right it's obviously implied, it just took people a while to figure it out. People who have this view tend to think that one particular Christian tradition (e.g. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy) is more right than all the others, and that the role of theology is just to keep people sticking to the party line, the original gospel. They tend not to like the idea that anyone might introduce 'new' ideas into the Church.

2) The 'reformatory' model agrees with the static model that Jesus' original message was wicked cool and complete, but thinks that somewhere along the way, the Church screwed it up and the message got lost, so now we need to 'recover' the original gospel message. Protestantism is the classic example of this (Jesus was great, Paul was greater, James was maybe a bit iffy and it mostly went downhill from there until Luther rose up to challenge the naughty Catholics and restore to the Church all the goodness that had been lost). But you find it elsewhere too: some feminist theologians argue that Jesus was pro-women, but the Church has slowly and systematically misogynised his original message, and so we need to recover the original, feminist, gospel.

3) The 'adaptive' model thinks that Christianity, the church and theology have changed over time, but, well, it's complicated. Some changes were good, some were bad, and some were indifferent. Some people think that, overall, there's a general good development (some changes weren't great, but overall the Church is getting better all the time), either because the Holy Spirit was guiding the Church or because they have a sort of 'evolutionary' idea of history, where progress rules and history is moving inexorably towards its final perfection. Some people think that we win some, we lose some, and overall there's no movement, just more or successful attempts to be the Church God intended us to be.

Ludlow says that these three models make important differences to the way we read theological texts because they shape the way we think about doctrinal authority. If you have a genuinely static view of Christian history, you won't bother reading old theology because it'll be basically the same as new theology, right? If you hold the reformatory view, you might think that old theology is useful because it's closer to the original source of the gospels, or because you want to paint yourself as part of a long tradition in the Church of people who resisted the Bad Developments. If you think that doctrine develops over time, and does so for the better, old theology is only really useful for showing how we got where we are now.

Ludlow suggests that the most productive model for reading old theology is the adaptive model which doesn't think there's been an overall improvement or degeneration in theology through history, because this model means that, at any point in the history of the Church, people might have had great ideas which might be useful for us, now. On this view also, old theologians aren't authoritative because they represent a particular tradition or because they belong to some theological 'golden age' but only insofar as their ideas are good.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Heresies: Modalism

The doctrine of the Trinity is a tricky one - God is three and one, wait, what? How does that work? As a result, it's one of the doctrines with the greatest potential for heresy. One of the heretical ways of speaking about the Trinity is modalism, which is basically the idea that God is one God but has three different ways of being God. Meredith Brooks' song 'Bitch' is a good example of modalism:

"I'm a little bit of everything all rolled into one

I'm a bitch, I'm a lover I'm a child, I'm a mother
I'm a sinner, I'm a saint I do not feel ashamed
I'm your health, I'm your dream I'm nothing in between
You know you wouldn't want it any other way"

This is, I think, a modalistic account of selfhood: I can be lots of different things, apparently all at the same time. One minute I'm nice, the next I'm nasty, and all of those different ways of being are equally part of who I am.' She's talking about herself, so it's not exactly heretical, but this is actually precisely the problem with the doctrine of the Trinity: the only resources we have for understanding it come from our own experience, and there isn't anything in our own experience which quite fits with the idea of a being who is entirely one and entirely three.

Some modalists have related the trinity to the process of human history: in the Old Testament, God related to us as Father; in the New Testament, he related to us as Jesus; in the era of the Church, he relates to us as Holy Spirit. It's the Clark Kent model of theology: God takes off his glasses and puts his underpants over his trousers and ta-da! He's no longer the Father but the Son!

Not only do most forms of modalism violate the principle of opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt, but it leaves you with a God who's basically one being with different moods. Too much oneness, not enough threeness = trinitarianism fail.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

What man, who's the man, when's a man a man, why's it so hard to be a man?

Tina Beattie is a Catholic feminist and has, accordingly, written a book called New Catholic Feminism. Can you guess what it's about?

A lot of 20th century Catholic theology defines femininity in terms of 'active reception', and takes Mary as its model for this femininity: she was impregnated with Christ, but chose to allow God to work in her, to give birth to God in her. Thanks to Catholic theologians like Henri de Lubac and Hans urs von Balthasar, Mary become increasingly understood as the model for the church: to be a Christian is to actively receive God, to give birth to God in ourselves, both as a community and as individuals.

You'd think that this might make it easier to argue for the ordination of women: if Mary is the archetypal Christian, the model for the Church and, as some argue, even the model for the priesthood itself, it surely shouldn't be so difficult to imagine women as priests, right? Wrong. The argument generally goes something along the lines of C S Lewis's: we are all female in relation to God. De Lubac argues that the priest represents God to the Church and the Church to God, but that his role is primarily defined by his representation of God to the Church, and so just as God is male to the Church's female, so the priesthood is male to the laity's female.

Tina Beattie points out that the problem here is not that Catholic theology is unable to conceive of femininity and to understand its role in salvation and creation; the problem is the inability to really conceive of masculinity in the created world. Masculinity is associated with transcendence, reason and God; femininity with immanence, humanity and the body, but the result is that the only 'man' in creation is the priest, who represents the masculine divinity of Christ, and all other men are feminised: the bride but never the bridegroom.
Photo credit: Lincolnian on Flickr

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Meet Abélard and Héloïse

The story of Peter Abélard and Héloïse was considered one of the great love stories by medieval writers, which is funny considering it involves castration, theology, and the monastic life (although I guess you could argue that castration's the best guarantee of unrequitable love).

Peter Abélard was born in 1079 in France, and by the age of 22 he had set up his own very successful school of philosophy. In 1115 he began teaching at Notre Dame, where he met a young woman called Héloïse, the niece of one of the canons at the cathedral. She was about 17, and was unusually well-educated for a woman, and the two immediately hit it off. Abélard fancied her so much that he managed to persuade her uncle to let him move in and take on the role of Héloïse's tutor (on the pretext that he was struggling for money and would get a rent discount in return for his tutoring).

It wasn't long until Abélard's crush had turned into a full-blown affair, which he describes thusly: "Our speech was more of love than of the book which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other's bosoms; love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness. What followed? No degree in love's progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched."

Hot stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when he eventually discovered what was going on, Héloïse's uncle was pretty miffed. Not long after, Héloïse discovered she was pregnant, and gave birth to a son called Astrolabe. To pacify her uncle, Abélard agreed to marry Héloïse, but secretly because being married would have damaged his career. Héloïse was reluctant, being unconvinced that a secret marriage would satisfy her uncle and also having a rather low view of marriage: she says in a later later to Abélard that "though I knew that the name of wife was honourable in the world and holy in religion; yet the name of your mistress had greater charms because it was more free. The bonds of matrimony, however honourable, still bear with them a necessary engagement, and I was very unwilling to be necessitated to love always a man who would perhaps not always love me." She felt, amongst other things, that a philosopher shouldn't be bothered by the petty distractions of domesticity.

When her uncle made their marriage public, Abélard encouraged her to go to a convent for a while (though he was unable to stay away from her, and describes their later suffering as just punishment for their not-very-nunlike activities in a quiet corner of the convent). Taking this as a sign that Abélard was trying to get rid of his niece, Héloïse's uncle took the obvious next step to protect her, and persuaded some relatives to sneak into Abélard's house at night and, er, steal his family jewels.

Apparently eunuchs found it difficult to make a successful career out of academia at the time, so Abélard was forced into a monastery, where he had a rough time of it - quite apart from the doctrinal disagreements which led to his being accused of heresy, the monks he ended up in charge of tried to murder him by poisoning his drinks. Héloïse was consequently forced to become a nun. She was not happy, and wrote some fairly explicit letters to Abélard, detailing her sexual frustration and her dissatisfaction at being forced into a life for which she had no sense of calling. Abélard wrote back, and gradually persuaded her that they should write to each other about matters theological, and their passionate (at least on her side) correspondence eventually subsided into a more sober discussion of the monastic life, and how best to run a convent.

Their letters, and Abélard's biographical History of my Misfortunes form the basis of subsequent retellings of their 'romantic' tale, although Abélard also wrote several more substantial theological tomes, including the controversial Sic et Non ('Yes and No') which was a compilation of contradictory quotations from early Church Fathers, attempting to disprove the popular assumption that 'the Fathers' spoke with one voice and agreed on everything.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Jokes with Slavoj

There's an old Jewish joke, loved by Derrida, about a group of Jews in a synagogue, publicly admitting their nullity in the eyes of God. First, a rabbi stands up and says: "O God, I know I am worthless, I am nothing!" After he has finished, a rich businessman stands up and says, beating himself on the chest: "O God, I am also worthless, obsessed with material wealth, I am nothing!" After this spectacle, a poor ordinary Jew also stands up and also proclaims: "O God, I am nothing..." The rich businessman kicks the rabbi and whispers in his ear with scorn: "What insolence! Who is that guy who dares to claim that he is nothing too!"

Slavoj Zizek in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox and Dialectic

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Reading the Bible Ecologically

Elaine Wainwright is a Professor of Theology at the University of Auckland. She argues that, if Christians are to engage seriously with the many ecological issues of our day, that needs to be reflected in our readings of the Bible, and that it's only by transforming the way we read the Bible that we'll be able to face up to contemporary ecological crises.

People who read the Bible looking for ideas about how we should treat the environment tend to focus on the bits which talk about the earth or creation (you can see a good example of that here!). The same has been the case with discussions about women and the church, but feminists have increasingly started to argue that the bits which aren't explicitly about women can be just as important as the bits which are. Why are women not discussed in particular sections? What are the assumptions about women underlying particular passages, or can we catch glimpses of the lives of women who are mentioned but not focused on? Wainwright argues that we need to begin a similar practice of reading ecologically.

Wainwright says that ecology isn't just about saving endangered species, or not emitting carbon; it's about the complex interrelationships of human beings, their physical environment, and the spiritual. To highlight this, she uses the concept of 'habitat', which is a less-anthropocentric (human-focused) version of 'context'. Contextual readings try to locate the biblical texts in their social, political and economic contexts, but Wainwright wants to broaden this out to include the physical and natural contexts as well. She defines habitat as:

"The social, political and psychological elements as these figure alongside
physical and environmental contributions to the nature of a habitat and its
inhabitants at any historical moment. "
So, great, woohoo, lovely, earth'n'things'n'plants, yeah! But what would it actually look like to do a reading of the Bible that paid attention to habitat? Well, in the seminar I went to, Wainwright promised an ecological reading of Matthew 2, the one with the story about the magi. Not the most obvious place to start, right? I'm not yet aware of any ecological activists taking their inspiration from the three kings, but I guess that makes it a good place to start if you're trying to argue that habitat is everywhere in the Bible. So, Matthew 2:1-2 goes thusly:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,
Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been
born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship
Saying that Jesus was born links this passage back to 1:18, which talks about the birth of Jesus, and 1:1 which describes Matthew as 'the book of the birth/genealogy of Jesus.' From here, it links back to Genesis 2:4 (which gives 'the account of the heavens and the earth when they were createdthe account of the heavens and the earth when they were created') and Genesis 5 which gives the account of the descendants of Adam. That one reference links this particular story about Jesus to the story of the whole human race and, even wider, of the whole of God's creation.

Bethlehem was probably a small farming town and, as a result, would have run very much according to the pattern of the seasons, the rhythm of planting, growing, harvesting. People there wouldn't have been wealthy; they would have depended absolutely on their relationship with the land which gave them food. Jesus spent his life in particular places, and places tend to point us in three directions: towards the environmental materiality of the place (what the soil was like, what the buildings were made of, how big the settlement was); towards social perception or construction (what significance Bethelehem had in the history of Israel, how the place saw itself in relation to the Roman Empire and the nation of Israel, where Bethlehem fitted in the scale of house-village-city and poor-middling-rich), and towards individual affect/bond (Joseph's family lived in Bethlehem, but it wasn't where his house was; for Mary it was the place her in-laws lived).

And it's not just the place, it's also the time: where this happens in the history of Israel. 'During the time of King Herod' was an ambivalent time for Israel. They had a king of their own, but he was a collaborator, and a petty tyrant to boot; he had rebuilt the Temple but it was contaminated by his meanness. He was transforming the physical landscape of Israel with a huge building program.

This is the sort of reading that Wainwright thinks we need to start if we really want to transform our understanding of ecology: one that pays attention to the things we so easily skip over, because we're only interested in people/proving a point/getting through the boring bits. All this already, and we haven't even gotten to the magi! What we find in the Bible depends a lot on what we go looking for.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The paradox of marriage

I'm up to my eyeballs in more John Milbank at the moment, which combined with a nasty bout of man-flu has left me rather brain-addled, and thus exactly in the mood for the sort of bracing things that Robert Farrar Capon writes. Did I mention that you should go away and READ HIM? Don't bother with Bed and Board: plain talk about marriage, though - it's far from his best, and he goes all weird and wives-submit-y. I should know because I read the whole thing looking for a reading to have at my wedding. This is the bit I picked, and it's the highlight of the book:

Marriage is a paradox second only to life itself. That at the age of twenty or so, with little knowledge of each other and a dangerous overdose of self-confidence, two human beings should undertake to commit themselves for life – and that church and state should receive their vows with a straight face – all this is absurd indeed. And it is tolerable only if it is reveled in as such. A pox on all the neat little explanations as to why it is reasonable that two teenagers should be bound to each other until death. It is not reasonable. It happens to be true to life, but it remains absurd. Up with the absurdity of marriage then. And up with the marriage service. It is full of death and cast iron. And it is one of the great remaining sanity markers. The world is going mad because it has too many reasonable options, and not enough interest or nerve to choose anything for good. In such a world, the marriage service is not reasonable, but it is sane; which is quite another matter. The lunatic lives in a world of reason, and he goes mad without making sense; it is precisely paradox that keeps the rest of us sane. To be born, to love a woman, to cry at music, to catch a cold, to die – these are not excursions on the narrow road of logic; they are blind launchings on a trackless sea. They are not bargains, they are commitments, and for ordinary people, marriage is the very keel of their commitment, the largest piece of ballast in their small and storm-tossed boat.
Ah, that's better. Back to the murky world of Milbank...
Photo credit: the talented Mr Andrew Parker, taken at our wedding.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why Theology Matters (even if you don't understand it)

I was in a seminar recently, sat next to a guy who worked for a missionary organisation that did work out in Africa. The seminar was pretty academic, and there was plenty of jargon in there about 'discourse' and 'hermeneutics of suspicion.' At the end, we were asked (slightly weirdly, I thought), to talk in small groups about what we'd thought, and the missionary man said something like this: 'Oh, it was all over my head. I'm too simple for all that. But I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.'

James K A Smith recently published a collection of essays called The Devil Reads Derrida. The title article, which I think is the same as this one, addresses the question of why Christians should engage with secular philosophy. He uses an example from the film The Devil Wears Prada:
In a key scene, Miranda (played so devilishly by Meryl Streep) is presiding over her entourage, trying to select just the right belt to accessorize the cover ensemble for next month's magazine. They are passionately deliberating between two belts, which, to the untrained eye, look almost identical. Her fashion-averse assistant Andy (played by Anne Hathaway) stumbles into the gathering. Growing impatient, and with a flippant disdain for fashion, she refers to the rack of designs merely as "stuff." Miranda, in that calm, satanic stare that Streep nailed so well, pauses and quietly says:

"'Stuff'? Oh, OK. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select, I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue. It's not turquoise. It's actually cerulean. You're also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room ... from a pile of 'stuff.'"

Smith uses this example to talk about the way that culture is shaped by the thinking that goes on in the sort of academic contexts that most of us look at and say "Wuh?" Derrida, Foucault, Zizek, Lacan, Kristeva: you may not even have heard of these people, and if you can understand everything they say, you're a smarter cookie than I, but these are (some of) the thinkers who shape what we think now and what we will think in the future. Pretty much everything we do, think, want and feel is affected by the discussions that experts have in language that 99% of us find totally impenetrable. I'm typing this in a blog application, on a computer, using the internet and I have no idea how it works. And you know what? That's ok. I don't need to know binary, or even html, to get the benefits of computers. You don't need to understand couture to get dressed in the morning. You don't need to understand John Milbank to have your life transformed by Jesus. But just don't say this: 'I just can't see what all this has to do with the lives of ordinary people.' This has everything to do with the lives of ordinary people.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Totem and Taboo Three

We've established, then, that Freud thinks that 'primitive' societies can tell us something about the evolution of all human societies, and found out about the totem system which regulates who you are and aren't allowed to sleep with, and has a whole complicated set of rules for how to relate to your totem animal: when you can and can't kill it, how to appease it if you make it angry, all that stuff.

This is where the psychoanalysis kicks in. Freud thinks that children and 'savages' relate to the world and particularly to animals in very similar ways: both see animals as equals, rather than as lower beings. The things we learn from the psychoanalysis of children can be read back into the psychology of 'primitive' societies. Freud has found that children sometimes develop phobias of animals, which have some similarities to the ways that totem societies relate to animals, trying to avoid seeing or touching the animals. Because kids are kids, it's not always possible to work out where the phobia came from, but that doesn't stop Freud deducing this: childrens' fear of animals is always a displacement of an underlying fear of the child's father. It's the Oedipus complex, stupid: Freud thinks that all small boys fancy their mums, and as a result want to kill their fathers. But because daddy is big and strong, the boys are afraid that they will lose out in the battle for their mothers' love, and that their father will castrate them. Eventually, they resolve this fear by identifying with their father and giving up their desire for their mother which eventually resurfaces as the desire for other women: that's why men marry women like their mothers.

Still with me? This is Freud's argument: that the totem animal on which tribal systems are based is a substitute for the figure of the father. His theory about the origins of human society goes a little something like this:

Once upon a time, most humans lived in small hordes, each dominated by a powerful man, who was the absolute ruler of the horde, with unrestricted power and exclusive access to the women. Any sons who were born into the horde had a rough time: if they did anything to make their father jealous, they were killed, castrated, or driven out, in which case they had to make their own way, robbing wives for themselves from other hordes until they could be the ruler of their own horde. Eventually, the expelled brothers banded together to kill their father and, as was the done thing at the time, ate him, raw (nom nom). Primitive men's attitude to their father was the same as the attitude of children in our society: on the one hand they hated and feared him, but on the other, they honoured him as a model and wanted to take his place, and cannibalism was a way of identifying with him.

Once they'd killed the father, the brothers realised that they needed to cooperate or have to keep killing each other until there was only one of them left, so they agreed to form the first societies, creating laws which forbade them from sleeping with each others' wives and forced them to share. This is the origin of all morality, justice and society, all of which arise from the primal guilt resulting from the murder of the father, and the desire to atone for this original sin. The brothers chose an animal to represent their father, and displaced their ambivalent attitude to the father onto the totem animal, which on the one hand was seen as the clan's blood ancestor and protective spirit, and on the other was regularly and ritually killed in the clan's festivals, and, like the father, eaten.

As religion evolved, the totem gradually evolved into a god with a human form, and this allowed the animal sacrifice to return, eventually, to human sacrifice, which we see in Christianity, the most highly evolved of all the religions. Christ sacrificed his life to atone for the guilt arising from the murder of the Father, but even here we see some of the ambivalence to the father: in the same act which pays for the murder of the father, Christ achieves what primal man wanted to achieve, and replaces the father, becoming a god himself: the religion of the son replaces the religion of the father, and instead of eating the body of the father, it is Christ's body and blood which are consumed in religious ritual.

Communion, anyone?
Photo credit: Oedipus and Antigone, litmuse on Flickr

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Theology and ecology

I'm afraid you'll have to wait a little longer for Freud Part III: I was all set to write it up but then I gave blood, and now I'm too woozy and nauseous to think about anything, least of all incest and cannibalism. But! It turns out that today is Blog Action Day, which means that bloggers the world over are writing about climate change. Handily, I've already co-written something, whilst working for the Jubilee Centre ages ago, so I thought it would be an appropriate occasion to share it with y'all. It was published in an Orange Paper by WorldVision in 2007, and goes along with a book I helped research and edit (I'm in the footnotes and acknowledgements!) Enjoy the article, and I'll be back next week, just as soon as I've replaced enough blood to take on Freud.

Why Christians should care for the environment
Marika Rose and Jason Fletcher

Genesis tells us that when God created the world he didn't make it instantly, with the snap of a finger or a single word; but he crafted it bit by bit, declaring it ‘good' at every stage of its development. This good creation was abundant and diverse, with plants, trees, birds, fish, and animals ‘of every kind'.

God cares for his creation
But this initial careful work of God was not the end of his intimate involvement. Throughout the Bible, he is depicted as sustaining his creation at every moment. He knows about every sparrow that falls to the ground; [1] everything holds together in him. [2] Psalm 65 says of God, ‘You care for the land and water it, you enrich it abundantly… You drench its furrows , and level its ridges; you soften it with showers, and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.' The picture is of God lavishing his goodness on his creation; and the response from the earth is one of praise: ‘The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with corn; they shout for joy and sing.'

The Bible paints creation not as a passive, lifeless collection of rocks and earth, but as an entity that is full of life, praise and God's glory, revealing his character and inspiring us to worship him. As Psalm 19 says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech, and night after night they display knowledge.
'God's attitude to creation indicates that it is precious and wonderful independent of any utility it possesses for us. To love God and to be like him is to care for the things that he cares for. This alone ought to be enough to motivate us to take responsibility for the world around us.

Our interconnection with the earth
In Genesis 2, there is no one to till the ground, so God forms man (adam) from the ground (adamah) and asks him to till and to keep it. This Hebrew wordplay (adam/adamah) expresses our solidarity with the earth; we are connected to it and utterly dependent upon it for life. For this reason Psalm 139:13–15 can parallel the ‘depths of the earth' with ‘a mother's womb'. Humans are both physical and spiritual and the two ought not to be separated. To care for creation, then, is to care for a system that we are part of: in caring for the earth, we care for ourselves.

The original harmony between humans and the earth was ruptured by the fall. But even here, the interconnection between ‘adam' and ‘adamah' is reiterated. The earth becomes difficult to farm, cursed because of human disobedience. We suffer when creation suffers, and it is our sin that causes creation's suffering. [3] Most dramatically, God announces that humanity will revert to the earth upon death, a tragic reversal of the original act of creation: ‘For dust you are, and to dust you will return.' [4]

This interconnection can be seen throughout history – over and again societies have undermined their own welfare by abusing the land that they depend on for life – and can be seen today, but with a difference. Habits of consumption and energy production in the West threaten to destroy not so much our own homes and livelihoods (at least not in the short term), but those of the world's poorest people.

Servant Kingship
However, when God breathes life into Adam this sets him apart from the earth. The contrast between God making plants and animals ‘according to their kinds' with the creation of humans ‘in our image, in our likeness' implies a unique, intimate relationship between God and this part of his creation. Genesis 1:28 says that God blessed humankind and said: ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule… over every living thing'. Genesis 2 says that God created humans ‘to work it [the earth] and take care of it'. But what does this mean in practice?
The language of ‘rule' over the earth is sometimes (mis)taken as licence to treat the earth however we want, but a careful reading of the Bible rules this out. First, this language of ‘dominion' is balanced by the language of Genesis 2:15, where humans are put on the earth to work it (‘to till, serve') and care for (‘to guard, protect') it.

Second, while the language of ‘dominion' does imply some degree of power or authority, it begs the question of how that power and authority should be exercised. Our rule, as his image bearers, is to be modelled after God's rule. Not only does he delight in his creation, but he takes care of the meek and does justice for the orphan and the oppressed. He is the shepherd King who promises, ‘I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.' [5] Moreover, we ought also to remember Paul's exhortation: ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but make himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant'. [6] To rule over the earth in a way that reflects God's character, then, demands of us service and humility, not exploitation and selfishness.

God's promises for the future
Our attitude to the earth is affected not only by the way we view God's original intentions in creation, but also by our view of God's promises for the future and for the ultimate redemption of our sin-ridden world.

One popular view of Christianity is that this means escape from the world into a purely spiritual heaven, but this is far from the biblical picture of ‘the end'. As in the creation narratives we saw that care for creation is also care for ourselves as inescapably physical creatures, so in the promise of redemption we see that some form of ongoing bodily existence is integral to what we will be.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses at length the importance of physical resurrection, and we see a picture of the similarity and difference that will mark our resurrection bodies.

Similarly, the promises of the Bible point to a ‘new heaven and new earth' [7] – a renewal and transformation of this creation. Romans 8 says that creation waits ‘with eager expectation' for the time when it will be ‘liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God'. At that time the desert and the wilderness will blossom and praise God; [8] rivers and streams will flow in the desert; [9]all creation will rejoice. [10]
In Jesus' ministry we see God's promised future breaking into the present as Jesus heals and feeds people as well as forgiving their sins. The good news that Jesus proclaims is for all creation, and his promise is of the redemption of all things.

Right relationships
Jesus summarises God's will like this: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind' and ‘love your neighbour as yourself'. [11] In other words, the sum of the will of God for us is that we would have perfect relationships with God and with others. A concern for getting our relationships right is the essence of Christianity.

As in the parable of the Good Samaritan, having right relationships with our ‘neighbours' means we must take care of their bodies as well as their souls, and in order to do this we must take care of the earth. Environmental destruction has consequences for people around the world and down the generations; the call to love our neighbour extends to our children and grandchildren, and beyond.

This focus on the concerns of others is also captured in the biblical concept of justice (Hebrew: mishpat). Far from being some abstract concept of fairness, mishpat is all about the way we conduct each and every relationship. It highlights our duties and responsibilities towards others, and is particularly invoked in the Bible in the context of oppression of the poor and vulnerable. Are we meeting our obligations to the poor? Or do we need to re-examine our habits of consumption?

Failure to care for creation is a failure to conduct our relationships in the way God wants us to; it is a failure of justice and of love.

Implications for climate change
Many of the things we do as a society which damage the earth have their roots in broken relationships or a failure to prioritise relationships over things.

We travel further to work than ever before, and increasingly do so alone in our own cars. This affects not only the climate, but also our relationships with those around us. American sociologist Robert Putnam estimates that for every ten minutes of additional commuting time, there is a corresponding ten per cent decrease in our social interactions. A concern for relationships challenges the hypermobility of our society.

Carbon emissions from home energy use have risen most significantly because of the increase in single-occupancy homes. For a wide variety of reasons, for which we all as a society are responsible, people increasingly live alone. What does this tell us about the quality of our relationships as a society? What could be done to strengthen relationships in families and communities?

The most significant proportion of our household carbon emissions in the West comes from consumption, which in many areas (e.g. communication, recreation, clothing and footwear) has tripled over the past few decades. Jesus says that ‘the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil', and we see this too in our society. Our lives become more about owning ‘stuff', as we buy into the belief that more things will make us happier, that we can forge our identity by the things we buy; and our desire to acquire not only distracts us from the most important thing – investing in our relationships – it also all too often overrides our desire for justice for the poor, or any consideration of the effect of our lifestyles on the environment.

All of these relational and environmental problems are challenged by the holistic message of the gospel. For example, the biblical images of the Sabbath and Jubilee proclaim the equal value of all people, the importance of limitations upon the accumulation of wealth and spirals of debt, the importance of rootedness in place, the importance of family and community relationships, as well as the importance of rest for all people and for the earth. The gospel paints a vision of a society that is relationally and environmentally sustainable.

If we are to take the gospel seriously, we must recognise its demands over every area of life and over every relationship. It requires of us an integrated understanding of mission that neither neglects evangelism and the need for repentance and faith in Christ, nor the need for radical action to address the problem of climate change, nor the need for social reform to address the underlying structural factors that make it more difficult for us to live the life God intends for us.
But the message of the gospel is, above all, good news. Contemporary accounts of climate change often offer serious cause for concern and little hope. Christian hope for the future is not an excuse for apathy, but ought instead to provide us with the motivation to engage positively with our communities, in the expectation that God will be faithful to his promise to one day ‘reconcile to himself all things' [12] and that, in the meantime, he delights to use his people as the agents of his redemptive activity.

[1] Matt. 10:29
[2] Col. 1:16–17
[3] Rom. 8:19–20
[4] Gen. 3:19
[5] Ezek. 34:16
[6] Phil. 2:5–7
[7] Rev. 21:1
[8] Isa. 35:1–7
[9] Isa. 41:17–20
[10] Isa. 55:12
[11] Matthew 22:37-39
[12] Col. 1:120

Monday, 12 October 2009

Totem and Taboo Two

We've established, then, that Freud thinks that by looking at 'primitive' tribes we can gain important insights about the origins of human culture. In particular, he's interested in societies which are structured by systems of totem because he thinks that these societies are the most primitive and exemplify a stage of culture which all other societies have gone through at some point. Within totemic societies, the rule tends to be that you can't marry anyone within your own tribe. This is particularly interesting to Freud, because the 'prohibition on incest' (The rule that says you can't sleep with your mum/sister/brother/dad/cousin' etc.) is one of the most universal human laws: different societies have different ideas about who you can and can't sleep with, but they all have some sort of prohibition on incest.

It's easy to assume that societies ban incest because it's fundamentally wrong and icky, but Freud points out the problem with this line of reasoning: if it's so essentially repugnant to people, why have laws against it, and punishments for it? Societies make laws against the things that people want to do: killing people, taking their stuff; not so much about doing things that no one would want to do in the first place: find me the society that severely sanctions those people who eat their own poo or refuse to go to sleep, and I shall be surprised, to say the least.

Anyway, totems. In totemic societies, people belong to tribes which each have a 'totem', their tribal symbol. It's usually an animal, but sometimes a plant or a force of nature, like the wind. Here are twelve characteristics of totemic societies:
  1. The totem animal is usually not allowed to be killed or eaten, but tribal members will rear and look after animals of the totem species.

  2. Totem animals that die accidentally are mourned and buried as though they were a member of the tribe.

  3. The prohibition on eating sometimes refers only to a certain part of the animal.

  4. If it’s necessary to kill one of the totem animals, there's usually a ritual in which excuses are made to the animal (we're sorry, we were really hungry, we just really like bacon), and attempts are made to try and avoid the punishment which is the inevitable consequence of violating the taboo (look, you're not really dead; I didn't kill you - he did; hey, look, a unicorn!)

  5. If the animal is ritually sacrificed, it is solemnly mourned.

  6. At specified social occasions, people wear the skins of totem animals.

  7. Tribes and individuals assume the names of totem animals.

  8. Many tribes use pictures of animals as coats of arms, or have tattooes of them.

  9. If the totem is a dangerous animal, it’s assumed that it will spare the members of the tribe named after it. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't always quite work out like this, but if someone's killed by a totem animal, it's just assumed that they had done something naughty and Deserved It.

  10. The totem animal protects and warns tribal members (Lassie, anyone?)

  11. The totem animal foretells the future to those faithful to it and serves as their leader.

  12. The members of a totem tribe often believe they’re connected with the totem animal by the bond of common origin: that is to say, the totem animal is the father of the tribe whose totem it is.
Coming soon: what this all means for the origin of human society, religion, and the concept of God.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Totem and Taboo

Sigmund Freud isn’t a theologian, but he profoundly shaped the way that twentieth-and-twenty-first-century Westerners think about the world, and although scientists tend not to take him very seriously (how would you set up an experiment to test whether all men fancy their mothers?), he’s been incredibly influential on continental philosophy, which in turn is incredibly influential on a lot of modern theology.

Totem and Taboo isn't, as you might expect, just about psychoanalysis. Instead, it's an attempt to use the findings of psychoanalysis to gain insight into the origins of human society as it is about psychoanalysis. Freud is writing at a time when there was an explosion of interest in the tribal societies which European colonialists were encountering and trying to civilise all over the world. J G Frazer had written his book The Golden Bough, intended to be a universal theory of human mythology, which described the myths, magic, religion and social practices of some of these newly discovered cultures. The disciplines of anthropology and sociology were just beginning, and anthropologists in particular were studying tribes in the Australias, the Americas, and all sorts of other places which looked, to them, to be pretty primitive. They thought that by studying these tribes they could find out things about the origins of human society. These are the sorts of discussions that Totem and Taboo engages with. It’s pretty racist, with lots of comments about 'backward and wretched' savage and primitive races, and has plenty of questionable assumptions, but I think that's basically what you get when you read Freud, or indeed almost anyone else from that era.

These are his basic ideas:
  • All societies evolved in basically the same way: the only real difference between European culture and, say Australian aborigines, is that European culture is more evolved.
  • By looking at ‘primitive’ tribes, we can work out what sort of societies we evolved from. These tribes are basically the equivalent of archaeological finds: just as the pots and burial mounds we dig up tell us about the past, by looking at these primitive tribes we can find out how our ancestors lived.
  • We’re not so different from the ‘savage’ races as we think. Crucially, by using the insights of the psychoanalytical study of mentally ill people and children, we can draw conclusions about the way that primitive societies developed some of their key ideas and social structures.
Coming soon: Freud’s theory of the origin of human culture. And yes, it does involve sex.
Photo credit: Carla216 on Flickr

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

How Brother Juniper cut off the foot of a pig to give it to a sick brother

One day, Brother Juniper was visiting a sick monk. He asked the ill brother if there was anything he could do for him, to which the ailing monk replied that there was nothing he'd like more than a pig's foot to eat (these were the days before McDonald's). So Brother Juniper borrowed a knife from the monastery kitchen and set out to see what he could do. In the forest he found a herd of pigs. He caught one, cut off one of its feet, left the rest of the pig to hop around the forest, and ran back to the monastery where he cleaned, cooked, and served up the tasty pig foot. The sick monk was happy, and Brother Juniper was overjoyed at the success of his kind gesture. The swineherd who saw Brother Juniper sawing off the pig's foot: not so happy. He went to his lord, who stormed round to the monastery, pretty angry, shouting that the monks were robbers and thieves. 'Why', said he, 'have you cut off the foot of my swine?'

St. Francis and the monks had no idea what the lord was talking about, but apologised profusely, and offered to repay the lord. He refused, however, and stomped off home, still fuming. It occurred to St. Francis, a wise man, that perhaps Brother Juniper had something to do with the situation, so he called him in for a chat. Brother Juniper confessed quite happily to stealing the pig's foot, clearly unable to see that he'd done anything wrong, relating the story of how he'd gone out of his way to make the sick monk happy, entirely oblivious to the idea that not everybody would be quite happy about what he'd done.

St. Francis sighed. 'Oh, Brother Juniper. I'm afraid you're going to have to go and apologise to the pig's owner, or he'll go round slandering us to everyone.' Brother Juniper was amazed that there should be such a fuss over his act of kindness. He ran off after the lord, and when he caught up with him, related the whole story of how and why he had cut off the pig's foot, fully expecting the lord to share his joy over the happiness of the sick monk. The lord was still struggling to see things from Brother Juniper's perspective, and shouted and cursed him even more. Brother Juniper could not understand the man's lack of joy, so assumed he simply hadn't understood, and proceeded to explain to him again the love and charity which had motivated him, encouraging him to donate not just the remaining feet but in fact the whole pig. He made his case with such humility that the lord fell to the ground in repentance and weeping, and made haste to take the three-footed pig round to the monastery to donate it to the friars to make up for his bad temper and all the shouting.

Considering the simplicity and patience of Brother Juniper, St Francis turned to the monks and said, 'Would to God, my brothers, that I had a whole forest of such junipers!'

Photo credit: johnmuk on Flickr

Thursday, 24 September 2009

De arte conscribendae historiae

Some definitions to get us started:

Historicity is about historical actuality - that's the stuff that really happened. This morning I ate Weetabix for breakfast. The battle of Hastings took place in 1066.

Historiography is about the different ideas that people have about what counts as good history. Does anyone care what I had for breakfast? Does it matter how I ate my Weetabix? What would be a Marxist/feminist/poststructuralist reading of my breakfast habits?

History is never simply a presentation of every single thing that happened. If you wanted to write a book about a battle that included every single thing that happened to every single person - all the blisters acquired by each soldier, everyone who tripped over at an embarrassing moment, everyone who wanted to go home to mum, every piece of underwear irreparably damaged in combat - you'd never finish writing. Similarly, if you wanted to write about something you weren't around for, but only if you could be 100% certain that everything happened exactly as you said, you probably wouldn't write much. History is all about selecting certain things to include or to leave out, about drawing conclusions and making hypotheses. And different people at different points in history have had different ideas about what counts as good history.

This is one of the things that makes it tricky to read the gospels: we're not sure exactly what process of editing and assuming went on as they were being written. But one thing that's helpful is that, at the time the gospels were being written, lots of people were writing books about how to write history, so we can get some useful pointers from there. Two key people are Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose Epistula ad Pompeium ('Letter to Pompeii') was written in about 30-37 BC, and Lucian of Samosata, whose De arte conscribendae historiae ('How to write history') was written around 166-168 AD. Here are some of the things that these guys and others writing at the same time thought were important for writing 'good' history:

i) Criteria of usefulness. Dionysius said that history should be about 'a good subject with a lofty character.' Lucian said that history should be about topics 'important, essential, close to home or of practical utility.'

ii) Criteria of structure. Dionysius said that history should be structured well, with a clear beginning and end. Lucian said it should have an obvious sequence. This one's interesting, because although we'd probably agree, I don't think we'd necessarily think to mention it, because we think of literary quality as a separate thing to 'good history'.

iii) Criteria of eyewitness evidence

iv) Criteria of objectivity
. At least some ancient historians go in for this one. Tacitus says that 'no one should be mentioned out of favour or out of hate.'

v) Criteria of concision.
Unnecessary information should be omitted. Again, I think we'd tend to see this as a literary quality rather than a measure of good history.

Criteria of vividness. History, thought ancient historians, ought to engage the readers' emotions. Be as accurate as you like, but don't be boring.

vii) Speeches should fit both the speaker and the occasion.
Here's an interesting one. It's pretty obvious that not many important historical speeches were written down verbatim at the time, but that didn't stop historians including them. It was ok to write your own, basically, as long as it was appropriate. An interesting one for biblical studies, no?

Photo credit: notashamed on Flickr

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Interesting Fact of the Day

There are no exorcisms in John's gospel. I wonder why?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Who stands fast?

Writing in the middle of Second World War Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer argues that all too many people have been led astray by evil masquerading as goodness. In the middle of a culture full of moral compromise, Bonhoeffer asks, what ethics will enable us to stand up to evil? Here are some that won’t:

Reasonable people fail, because they think they can sort the world out so that everything makes sense. They think that if they just explain things properly, the world can be put to rights, and when things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that, they're all out of alternatives.

Moral fanatics fail, because they think that they can take on evil single handed: they can take on evil and win. But they’re all brawn and no brain, like a bull charging at the red rag instead of the person holding it: they get stuck in non-essentials and are tricked by people smarter than they are.

People of conscience fail: they have nothing to rely on for support but their own conscience, and when evil approaches them again and again with persuasive arguments and seductive disguises, they lose confidence in their own ability to tell right from wrong, and end up compromising, salving their conscience rather than keeping it clear, lying to themselves so that they don’t despair. They don't realise that a bad conscience might be better than a deluded conscience.

Duty also fails as a moral guide: people who act on duty alone can never act on their own, and what happens if the people in charge are the people who need to be stopped? ‘The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil too.’ (Take that, Kant!)

People who assert their freedom in matters of morality will be brought down by their own freedom. They will agree to what is bad for the sake of avoiding the worse, and so never have the opportunity of realising that the worst might actually be the better option.

People who run away from public morality and hide in private virtuosness have to close their eyes to the injustices all around them. They can only stay pure by deceiving themselves, and sooner or later will lose their peace.

Who stands fast? Only those whose standard for moral action is neither reason, nor principles, nor conscience, nor freedom, nor virtue, but the command of God; those who will lay down their lives at the command of God. Only those who try to live their whole lives as an answer to the question and call of God stand fast.

Photo credit: still from the video for Unkle's Rabbit In Your Headlights. Rock.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Why are the gospels called the gospels?

This morning in church, we were asked if we knew what the word 'gospel' meant. One boy's hand shot up: he knew the answer, and he confidently proclaimed it: Ghosts.

I'm sure you're all aware that actually, it means 'good news', and has been used to mean any or all of the following: 1) The message Jesus proclaimed; 2) The message about Jesus; and 3) The records of Jesus' life, death, and a little bit after: 'The gospel according to...' But funnily enough, even biblical scholars go in for a bit of argy-bargy about the term 'gospel' (although none, to my knowledge, think that ghosts have anything to do with it). The big question is this: does the term come from the Jews or the Greeks? Answer, as always: probably a bit of both.

Isaiah talks a lot about God's message of salvation and promises to defeat Israel's enemies and put the world to rights. Both 'Gospel' and the title 'son of Man' occur in texts written by various Jewish sects of the time, often used to talk about some sort of messianic figure. When Jesus first appears, quoting Isaiah, it's clearly these ideas that he's invoking.

But the Greco-Roman world also had a lot of gospelly ideas knocking around, especially when talking about the Emperor and the imperial cult. The Greek word that the New Testament uses for gospel is 'euangelion', which means good news, but the Greeks and Romans tended to use 'euangelia' - the plural form (good newses?). In particular, it was good news when a new Emperor-to-be was born, and the Emperors tended to be portrayed as divine redeeming figures bringing peace to the whole world. Josephus, the David Starkey of his day, tells us that even the Jews saw Emperor Vespasian's ascension to the throne as gospelly good news. If you were a pagan in Jesus' day, then 'gospel' would have made you think of things to do with the Emperor. By referring to the message of Jesus as 'the good news', the gospel writers were being dangerously politically subversive - imagine talking about President Jesus, or Chairman Jesus, or Ayatollah Jesus, or Prime Minister Jesus (maybe not so much the last one. Poor Gordon). In the Empire, the Emperor is both King and God. His face is on all the coins, he's worshipped in the temples, he is The Man, and then this ragga bunch of gospel writers come along, saying, 'Good news! We have a new king, a new Emperor, and he will put the world to rights.' Controversial biscuits.

Photo credit: maistora on Flickr.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bodies that matter

As my head is currently full of my dissertation (due in two weeks), I thought I'd treat you to some short thoughts from someone who's better than I am at making theology accessible and exciting. Robert Farrar Capon is, I think, the best theologian I have ever read, and he isn't an academic theologian: his best work is, in fact, part theology, part recipe book. For those of you who wanted a positive theology of the body in response to Mary Midgely's critique, Farrar Capon is a man who knows why bodies matter. I can't emphasise enough just how much you ought to read him. This is from the preface to a reissue of his theological recipe book, The Supper of the Lamb - read it slowly, and savour it:
If this book has any claim to make, therefore, it is that food is precisely an epiphany of the greatness of our nature -- or, to use the most accurate theological word of all, it is a sacrament, a real presence of the gorgeous mystery of our being. People have responded to The Supper of the Lamb, I think, because after all the modern reductionism about food ('Food is only a necessity,' 'Food is nothing but nourishment'), it gave them solid reasons for glorying in the truth that they had suspected all along; namely, that food was life, and that life was good.

Admittedly, this is a hard insight to keep track of. Food these days is often identified as the enemy. Butter, salt, eggs are all out to get you. And yet at our best we know better. Butter is ... well, butter: it glorifies almost everything it touches. Salt is the sovereign perfecter of all flavors. Eggs are, pure and simple, one of the wonders of the world. And if you put them all together, you get not sudden death, but Hollandaise -- which in its own way is not one bit less a marvel than the Gothic arch, the computer chip, or a Bach fugue. Food, like all the other triumphs of human nature, is evidence of civilization -- of that priestly gift by which we lift the whole world into the exchanges of the Ultimate City which even God himself longs to see it

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.