Wednesday, 22 December 2010

On going public

Oh yes. I've written a review of The Monstrosity of Christ, which is a theological rap battle between Slavoj Žižek, the twitchy Slovenian philosopher, and John Milbank, theologian of the 'Big Society'. It's my first ever piece of academic work to be published. Check it out here in the latest (theological) issue of the International Journal of Žižek studies, and let me know what you think. It's hopefully not totally obtuse, and, I flatter myself, a lot easier to read than Monstrosity itself.

Next on the to do list: grow a beard for extra gravitas, and acquire a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Hume on Miracles

David Hume was one of the big names in early modern philosophy (that's the 17th - 18th centuries). He's basically an empiricist, which means he thinks we should only believe stuff we can prove. In his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he discusses what would happen if you tried to apply empiricist ideas to accounts of miracles.

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

Descartes' Meditations: Sixth Meditations

This is the last of the six Meditations: phew! Hopefully you'll be feeling philosophically exercised, epistemologically enlightened, and ready to solve all the big questions of the universe. Or not. Now would be the time to think about whether or not you find Descartes satisfying, and if not, why not? Answers below...

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
at the back)? I can think about things without being able to imagine them: I can imagine that there is a shape with a thousand sides (that's a chiliagon, kids) just as easily as I can imagine that there is a triangle with three sides. I can imagine that I have a body which I can control and which can shape the outside world, but that doesn't mean that it necessarily exists except in my mind. I get the ideas I have of external things through my senses, through my experience of colours, sounds, smells, pain. So if we're going to figure out whether the external world really exists, it makes sense (geddit?) to start with my senses. My senses tell me that I have a head, hands, feet etc.: a body, which seems to be part of myself. And my body seems to be in the middle of lots of other bodies which affect it in different ways, and it seems to experience hunger, thirst, sadness, happiness, anger etc., and to come into contact with things which are hard, soft, hot, cold, stinky, noisy, ugly or pretty, amongst other things. Because so many of my ideas come to me through the things I experience through my senses, it's easy to persuade myself that all of my ideas come through my senses. It also seems like this body is my body and that I can't be separated from it. But my experience also suggests that these ideas which I get from my senses might be wrong: we've all done that thing where you see towers in the distance and they look round but then when you get up close you realise that they're actually square. And we know that even internal senses can screw up: amputees get itchy toes even when they don't have toes any more. And there's no way of being sure whether at any particular point I'm asleep or awake.

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.

Photo credit: markvall

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Fifth Meditations

Fifth Meditation Of the essence of material things and, again, of God, that He exists

Now, before I work out whether anything
really exists outside of myself, I need to work out which ideas are clear in my mind and which are confused. I definitely have a clear idea of length, breadth, depth and time; and lots of mathematical concepts are obviously true: even if there weren't any real triangles in the world, the idea of a triangle is so clear in my mind that I can work out all sorts of things about how a triangle-that-may-or-may-not-exist would work, how its angles would add up, how a2+b2 would always equal c2, and all of this is so obvious that I can't just have made it up. And it can't just be an idea that I've got from seeing triangles in the real world: I can't picture a shape with a thousands sides in my mind, but I can still work out its mathematical properties. And if I can do all that, doesn't that mean that triangles must really exist? And if triangles really exist because I have such a clear idea of them in my head, then God must exist because I have an idea of God in my head that's at least as clear as my idea of a triangle. Look, I totally just proved the existence of God again. I am on FIRE.

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

Descartes' Meditations: Fourth Meditation

We are now past the half way mark. Are you feeling enlightened yet?

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:

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Third Meditation

More Descartes! Seriously guys, this is the longest I've ever sustained a blog series. Are you having fun? Appreciating the chance to actually spend some time with one thinker, or are you bored and wanting me to move on already? Feedback welcome. F'real. Anyhoo, here's the third meditation neatly summarised for your philosophical pleasure:

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

An attempt to enter more fully into the spirit of the blogosphere

My husband is fond of saying that you should try everything once, bar incest and morris dancing; in that spirit, I thought I'd have my first ever go at one of those blog posts where you point people to other blog posts. So, here are some theology-related posts I've been enjoying recently:

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.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Second Meditation

Are you feeling ready for Meditation number 2? Remember, Descartes recognises that you may be too stupid or vulgar to keep up with him, so if it's all blowing your mind a bit much you can just admit that you're not good enough, and drop out. No? Fair enough. Here goes.

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

Descartes' Meditations: First Meditation

First Meditation Of the things which may be brought within the sphere of the doubtful

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.

Now, everything I've believed up till this point I've learned through my senses, through things I've seen or heard or felt. But can I trust my senses? Surely I can: I know for a fact that this is me, sitting by the fire in my dressing gown. Or do I? Some mad people think that their heads are made of earthenware, or that they're pumpkins, or that they're made of glass. Am I mad? Well, I do dream, and let me tell you now that my dreams are ker-azy. But how can I be sure that I'm not dreaming all of the time? But wait, even if I can't tell the difference between awake and asleep, there are still some things I can be sure of: whether I'm asleep or awake, 2+3=5, right? But what if the world wasn't created by a good God but by an evil demon who went to a lot of effort to fool me into believing in a world that's completely made up [yes kids, just like in the Matrix]? It seems pretty implausible, but there's no way to prove that that's not what's going on. I shall have to think about this some more.

Photo credit: G Travels

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Descartes' Meditations: Introductions

Regular readers of my blog may have noticed that I sometimes struggle to complete blog post serieses. Honestly, I just get bored or run out of steam or get distracted by something shiny, or...

BUT! I have a magical new solution to my series dilemma. This time, I have finished it before I started. That's right. I have pre-blogged a whole series, so we'll spend the next few weeks going through Descartes' magnum opus, the Meditations or, to give them their full name, the Meditations on the First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. And that's just the title. We already met Descartes (link below in case you missed that post), so hopefully you feel you know him a little already. But helpfully, he also wrote a couple of letters of introduction to the Meditations, so we'll start there and then crack on with the first of the six Meditations next time.

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.

There are several good reasons to talk about God and the soul from a philosophical rather than a theological perspective. First, we need to persuade the heathens to convert to Christianity, and you can hardly appeal to the authority of the Bible when you're talking to them, can you? Second, most people would do bad things if they thought they could get away with it: the only reason they don't is because they're scared of going to hell, so we need to persuade them that Christianity is true so everything doesn't go to crap. Also, you (oh, and the Bible) say that the truth about God is so obvious that atheists only have themselves to blame for their ignorance of God and so I thought it was worth trying to prove that, y'know, you and the Bible are right. Oh, and Pope Leo X has been encouraging Christian philosophers to prove that the soul really does exist, so I'm only doing what he suggested. And finally, most people who don't believe in God or don't believe that the body and soul are distinct say that no one's ever proved it, and although they're obviously wrong, I thought someone should prove it so convincingly that no one would ever not believe in God or the soul again. Oh, one last thing: people keep asking me to write all this stuff down because they've heard of all my snazzy new methods for finding stuff 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

Dear 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?

Coming up next time: The First Meditation
In case you missed it: Meet Descartes

Photo credit: wallyg

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A relic-related puzzle

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will probably have seen already, but there was a nice interview in Wednesday's Guardian with Zygmunt Bauman, who I blogged about last week. He's still alive, kicking, and apparently being very influential on Ed Miliband.

But on to more important things. I've been reading a lot of Aquinas recently, and remembering why I love him so much. A case in point is a question in part three of the Summa Theologica, where he discusses the nature of Christ's post-resurrection body and his ascension to heaven. He raises a perplexing issue: if Christ's whole body ascended into heaven, what about all the bits of his blood kept as relics by churches? Does that mean the body of Christ which ascended was incomplete, and that he left little bits of himself scattered all over Christendom? No no, says Aquinas, that won't do: Christ took his whole body with him into heaven, and all the blood that had spilled out of him while he was on the cross went with him. The relics are really Christ's blood, though, only their bits of blood didn't flow from his side while he was on the cross but came flowing out of images of Christ when people hit them. So that's alright, then.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Sociology after the Holocaust

Zygmunt Bauman's paper 'Sociology after the Holocaust' isn't theology perzackly, but it's a powerful articulation of some of the enormous questions that the incomprehensible horrors of the Holocaust raise for pretty much every sort of knowledge. It was written in 1988, and Bauman's basic claim is that sociology relies on an account of human history which says that we all started out as rude, violent, barbarians, but are slowly being made better and nicer by the process of civilisation, so bad things that happen (like the Holocaust) are an aberration, a relapse to an earlier, nastier stage of the development of human culture. But Bauman thinks that the Holocaust shows up how inadequate this model is: the Holocaust wasn't an aberration but was, in all too many ways, a logical outcome of modern civilisation and the bureaucratic, rational state.

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

Meet René Descartes

Durham University have, in their wisdom, deemed me fit to teach some undergraduate seminars this year, which I'm looking forward to partly as an opportunity to feel cleverer than other theologians (a rare occurrence when you're a PhD student) and also as a chance to refresh my memory of or just, y'know, finally get around to reading some of the big names in the world of philosophy and theology.

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

How to make friends and influence people

Impressively, two people correctly guessed that the philosopher so harshly denounced by his translator was none other than Immanuel Kant, German thinker extraordinaire and possessor of a freakishly large head, if this painting is to be believed (maybe it was just an awkward angle). The translator was one J.M.D. Mieklejohn, not a man to mince his words. He was prepared to concede that there were some good reasons for Kant's failure to express himself clearly; after all:

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

Oh dear

Things you don't want to read in translator's preface:
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.
Can you guess who he's talking about?

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Luther vs Aquinas II

Ding ding! Round 2. Except, I must apologise, but I can't for the life of me work out how to format this post in such a way that points 51-97 come out numbered correctly (Blogger kindly reformats them so they start from 1, whatever I do), so instead I shall give you the whole 97 points. If you feel you grasped Luther's basic argument first time round, feel free to start from point 51; otherwise, here's points 1-97 all in one place.

  1. Don't criticise Augustine!
  2. If you do, it's letting Pelagians and heretics win.
  3. And sticking your tongue out at all the doctors of theology.
  4. Man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil.
  5. Man isn't free to choose between good and evil; our wills are captive.
  6. We can't choose to do what's right.
  7. Without the grace of God, we can only will evil [are you getting the gist yet?]
  8. But that doesn't mean our wills are essentially evil [hang on a minute...]
  9. But our wills are innately and inevitably evil [what?]
  10. The will is not free to will the good.
  11. It can't will what it ought to will.
  12. But it can will whatever it chooses to will.
  13. Sinful man can't love God.
  14. The will can will what's bad but not what's good.
  15. Only the will can will what's bad but not what's good [that's a tongue twister right there]
  16. Sinful man can love what God has created, but can't love God.
  17. Human nature is unable to want God to be God: we want to be God instead.
  18. We can't love God more than anything else.
  19. I said, we can't love God more than anything else.
  20. If we do kind things it's by grace and not by our own free will.
  21. Everything we do in accordance with our nature is an act against God.
  22. Acts against God are bad.
  23. We can't put right our badness by being hopeful.
  24. Hope isn't contrary to love [what's your point, Lutherface?]
  25. Hope doesn't grow out of good things but out of suffering which destroys good things.
  26. The best way to do good isn't to perform acts of friendship;
  27. It's to perform the act of conversion, following grace.
  28. We can't choose to seek God.
  29. The best way of getting hold of God's grace is to be eternally elected and predestined by God [that's alright, then].
  30. We can't do anything to earn God's grace.
  31. Blah
  32. Blah blah
  33. Did I mention we can't earn grace?
  34. In terms of our human nature, we can't do what's right. Did I say that already?
  35. Ignorance is no excuse.
  36. I SAID ignorance is no excuse.
  37. Our natures take pride in anything we do which looks good.
  38. There's no moral virtue without pride or sorrow, i.e. without sin [Great, now sorrow is a sin].
  39. We are not masters of our actions but servants.
  40. We don't become righteous by doing righteous things. When we've been made righteous, we do righteous things. The philosophers were wrong.
  41. Aristotle's Ethics is the worst enemy of the good.
  42. Aristotle was wrong.
  43. It's wrong to say that no one can become a theologian without Aristotle [take that, Aquinas!]
  44. In fact, you can only become a theologian without Aristotle.
  45. Theologians don't need to be logicians [take that, Dawkins!]
  46. There's no such thing as a logic of faith.
  47. You can't use logic to talk about theology.
  48. But that doesn't mean that theology is illogical.
  49. If you could prove theology with logic, you wouldn't need faith [that would be BAD, btw]
  50. I hate Aristotle.
  51. Aquinas didn't even understand Aristotle anyway.
  52. I hate Porphyry too, but you probably haven't heard of him.
  53. Stop talking about Aristotle! I already told you I hate him!
  54. An act is only good if it has grace; and if it has grace, it doesn't need anything else to be good.
  55. 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?
  56. God won't accept us unless he's already justified us by grace.
  57. It's dangerous to say that the law commands that an act of obeying the commandment be done in the grace of God.
  58. That would imply that 'to have the grace of God' is a new demand going beyond the law.
  59. And that you can fulfil the law without grace.
  60. Which you can't.
  61. So it doesn't follow that the law should be complied with and fulfilled in the grace of God.
  62. People outside of the grace of God sin ALL THE TIME, even if they're not doing anything obviously bad.
  63. They sin because they don't spiritually fulfil the law.
  64. Er.
  65. 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.
  66. Hypocrites are bad.
  67. We can't be good without grace.
  68. We can't be good without grace.
  69. Without the grace of God, nature DESTROYS the law [Oh noes]
  70. Good laws are bad for the natural (evil) will.
  71. Without grace, the law and the will are enemies.
  72. The will never wants what the law wants.
  73. Blah blah
  74. The law makes sin abound because it annoys the will.
  75. But the grace of God makes justice abound because it makes the will love the law.
  76. You can do things that look good without grace, but they're not really good.
  77. Did I mention that the law and the will don't get on?
  78. If the will keeps the law without grace, it's only doing it to get something for itself.
  79. Those who do the works of the law are condemned.
  80. Those who do the works of grace are blessed.
  81. You can do good works outside of grace. Not!
  82. Religious ceremony is rubbish.
  83. And so are the ten commandments.
  84. The only law that's good is the love of God put in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
  85. If our wills could choose, they'd choose to be free of the law.
  86. Will and law: definitely no sitting in a tree K.I.S.S.I.N.G for them.
  87. The law is good, and because the will doesn't like the law, the will must be bad.
  88. The will is bad.
  89. [Deleted due to unnecessary repetition]
  90. The grace of God is meant to direct the will.
  91. Not so that we can do good more often, but so we can do any good at all.
  92. If we could do good things on our own, we wouldn't need love.
  93. I don't like scholastic theologians. I'm talking about YOU, William of Ockham.
  94. We can't love God and creatures.
  95. To love God is to hate oneself and know nothing but God.
  96. We must make our wills conform to God's will.
  97. 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

Luther vs Aquinas

In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, written just before his famous Ninety Five Theses, Luther sets out ninety seven reasons why he disagrees with scholastic theologians. Think of it as a kind of warm up for the Ninety Five Theses, where again Luther explains why he's right and everyone else is wrong. Scholastic theology, by the way, was the major strand of academic theology from the 12th-16th century, originating around the same time as the first universities were set up and Aristotle's work was rediscovered (it had been lost to the West for centuries but had been preserved in Islamic culture). It included hugely important thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, so Luther's taking on the big guns here. It's a shame he comes out sounding like such a prat. Here's a summary (actually not that much shorter than the original) of points 1-50; you'll get the second half later this weekend, you lucky things.
  1. Don't criticise Augustine!

  2. If you do, it's letting Pelagians and heretics win.

  3. And sticking your tongue out at all the doctors of theology.

  4. Man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil.

  5. Man isn't free to choose between good and evil; our wills are captive.

  6. We can't choose to do what's right.

  7. Without the grace of God, we can only will evil [are you getting the gist yet?]

  8. But that doesn't mean our wills are essentially evil [hang on a minute...]

  9. But our wills are innately and inevitable evil [what?]

  10. The will is not free to will the good.

  11. It can't will what it ought to will.

  12. But it can will whatever it chooses to will.

  13. Sinful man can't love God.

  14. The will can will what's bad but not what's good.

  15. Only the will can will what's bad but not what's good [that's a tongue twister right there]

  16. Sinful man can love what God has created, but can't love God.

  17. Human nature is unable to want God to be God: we want to be God instead.

  18. We can't love God more than anything else.

  19. I said, we can't love God more than anything else.

  20. If we do kind things it's by grace and not by our own free will.

  21. Everything we do in accordance with our nature is an act against God.

  22. Acts against God are bad.

  23. We can't put right our badness by being hopeful.

  24. Hope isn't contrary to love [what's your point, Lutherface?]

  25. Hope doesn't grow out of good things but out of suffering which destroys good things.

  26. The best way to do good isn't to perform acts of friendship;

  27. It's to perform the act of conversion, following grace.

  28. We can't choose to seek God.

  29. The best way of getting hold of God's grace is to be eternally elected and predestined by God [that's alright, then].

  30. We can't do anything to earn God's grace.

  31. Blah

  32. Blah blah

  33. Did I mention we can't earn grace?

  34. In terms of our human nature, we can't do what's right. Did I say that already?

  35. Ignorance is no excuse.

  36. I SAID ignorance is no excuse.

  37. Our natures take pride in anything we do which looks good.

  38. There's no moral virtue without pride or sorrow, i.e. without sin [Great, now sorrow is a sin].

  39. We are not masters of our actions but servants.

  40. We don't become righteous by doing righteous things. When we've been made righteous, we do righteous things. The philosophers were wrong.

  41. Aristotle's Ethics is the worst enemy of the good.

  42. Aristotle was wrong.

  43. It's wrong to say that no one can become a theologian without Aristotle [take that, Aquinas!]

  44. In fact, you can only become a theologian without Aristotle.

  45. Theologians don't need to be logicians [take that, Dawkins!]

  46. There's no such thing as a logic of faith.

  47. You can't use logic to talk about theology.

  48. But that doesn't mean that theology is illogical.

  49. If you could prove theology with logic, you wouldn't need faith [that would be BAD, btw]

  50. I hate Aristotle.

That's all for Part I, folks. You'll never guess what Luther talks about it Part II.

Photo: Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach der Ältere

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Being a bit fairer to Meister Eckhart

Now, I blogged a little while ago about Meister Eckhart, the 13th/14th century Dutch mystical theologian (see below for link), and suggested that maybe he was a bit horrendously dualistic. Having read some more and thought a bit more about what he's saying, I realise that I was was probably a bit harsh, and have repented accordingly. It's always less fun to argue that someone's thought is complex and nuanced than that they're totally right or completely idiotic, but in the name of fairness, I thought I ought to have another go at some Eckhart-exposition.

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

Beyond the Pleasure Principle

People sometimes think that, for Freud, everything was about sex. Disappointing though it is, it turns out that’s not quite true. Starting out, Freud thought that people had two basic motivations: the pleasure principle, which makes us want to avoid pain and seek out pleasure (and is quite a lot about sex) and the ego instinct, which makes us want to not die (less sexy). But then he changed his mind, because he realised that the more energy you spend looking after yourself in narcissism the less interested you are in sex (think about that next time you look in the mirror, folks). Our instincts for pleasure and for self-preservation are both functions of the libido, which can be directed outwardly or inwardly. So at this point, it really is mostly about sex. But then, in 1920, Freud wrote Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which argued that as well as the libido, we’re motivated by another fundamental principle: the death drive. So, it’s not all about sex, but it is all about either sex or death.

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

Dandy Discipleship

...and I'm back. Did you miss me? I would have missed you, except I've been far too busy moving house (nightmarey), sunning myself in Menorca (sunburny), writing a paper (stressy) and partaking of family festivities (overeaty). But now I'm settled into my new house, with approximately 80% of boxes unpacked, and settling into a work routine, so I reckon it's time to start blogging again.

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 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

Just a quick note... let you know that I'm moving house, so the next couple of weeks will be quietish around here. Think of it as an apophatic phase, and take the time to contemplate all the things that can't be said about God.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

More on the theology of dementia

I happened upon this article today. Plenty of interesting thoughts such as this:

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

Where is God in dementia?

In the most recent edition of the New Blackfriars journal, there's an article by Peter Kevern called ‘Sharing the mind of Christ: preliminary thoughts on dementia and the Cross’. He says that as we live longer, dementia affects more and more of us: about 25% of the UK population will suffer a significant degree of dementia at some point. And this raises all sorts of tricky theological questions, because it dementia looks, from the outside, like the slow disintegration of a person’s self, as though we are losing them before their bodies cease functioning. If someone with dementia can’t recognise their family, or remember anything about their life, or even know who or where they are, are they the same person they were before? Can God be there, still, in the midst of a life which seems to be falling apart? Kevern argues that part of the problem is that we tend to think that what makes us human, what makes us ourselves is self-consciousness; partly in response to dementia, he suggests that we need a different, better account of what it means to be human.

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

The ha ha bonk Bible

We're not very good at finding the Bible funny, probably because we tend to feel that if we're supposed to take it seriously, it must be a serious book. 'This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God' would seem like a funny way to end a comedy reading, no? But in the book On Humour and the Comic in the Hebrew Bible, Yehuda Radday and Athalya Brenner suggest that maybe the Bible's funnier than we think, and one of the things they argue is that the whole book of Jonah is a satirical take on prophetic literature.

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.'

It's classic psalmic imagery, except that if David said it, he'd be using poetic metaphor, whereas Jonah is literally getting tangled up in seaweed. It's as though Britney Spears wrote Toxic after a nasty encounter with her pet viper. So Job does his best Shakespeare act, and eventually God thinks he'd better listen to Jonah; so 'Yahweh spoke to the fish, which then vomited Jonah up on the shore’. It's hardly a poetic rescue.

Now that Jonah's made it to Ninevah, it's time for him to prophesy. If you're a prophet, this is your big moment: your chance to show off just how articulate you are; how bone-shaking your description of the coming judgement can be, how much emotional force you can pack in. What will Jonah say? What great feat of oratory will he perform? Well, it goes a little something like this:

'Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.'
This, as the writers point out, is 'jejune to the point of banality'. It's the prophetic equivalent of a cross child being forced, against their will to apologise. 'mmyou shd repent.' This would, in most prophetic books, be the point at which the prophetic audience refused to listen, and possibly imposed some sort of punishment on the unappreciated prophet. But, astoundingly, and in the face of possibly the least convincing prophetic warning of all time, Nineveh immediately repents. And they're not half-hearted about it, neither: not only the people, but all the farm animals promptly don sackcloth and cry out for repentance. Weirder still, God listens and calls off the imminent destruction, making Jonah perhaps the only successful prophet in the whole of the Old Testament.

Now, because most prophets are ignored and abused, the next step in the classic prophetic story is for the prophet to go off somewhere and have a good moan to Yahweh about how tough their life is. You'd think that Jonah might skip this bit having, y'know, succeeded; but no, he starts to complain about how merciful God is: 'O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.' And Jonah storms off into the desert to sulk.

And then God makes a plant grow because Jonah's gone to sit out in the sunshine and God wants to give him some shade, but then the plant dies and Jonah, infuriated, screams 'I wish I was dead!' Gently, and probably trying quite hard not to laugh, God speaks to him. 'You care so much about that plant, even though you didn't do anything to make it grow. Shouldn't I also care about the thousands of people in this city? Not to mention all those cows who are wandering round in sackcloth as we speak...'

Photo credit: Tomasz1950.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Happily ever after

Still on our journey through Genette's elements of narrative, we'll finish up by a quick look at frequency and voice, and think a bit about why we should care how narratives are constructed.

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

The End

Photo credit: cobalt123 on Flickr.