Tuesday, 6 December 2011

So to Fundamentals

I like the fact that Rachel blogs on some core issues and beliefs, and in the light of recent events I want to respond to her recent blog entry on the resurrection and her listening to Christina Baxter and others.

Whilst I wish I didn't want to give the impression that the Unitarians for me were 'second choice', the fact remains that if I believed in 'the resurrection' as an event I would almost be forced to be an Anglican or mainstream Christian, which was where I started. I know that there are Unitarians who do believe in the resurrection as an event, just as there are Anglicans who see it as a myth - that is pointing to the experience of having to go through destruction in order to have growth on the other side (and do look at the BBC Four programme coming up on the meat and veg that rots and decays to go on to produce new life).

If you do not believe that the resurrection is an event, or that there is an incarnation that is specific, then a liberal claim to 'follow Jesus' is little other than of a cult of personality, simply because you should follow what he teaches and not him. I do not follow Jesus because I do not follow individuals: I rather ask if what they are saying is useful and interesting and if we can make something of it. Answering yes to such is simply answering yes to what is found to be useful.

New discoveries made through science are indeed very much a reason why I do not believe in the resurrection. By resurrection I mean, here: that a person actually died, that the body was transformed and came back to life in that new state, and of the same consciousness - Jesus himself - and the transformed body and its consciousness vanished into the heavens (however understood) so it has not been seen since. There is no body to find.

The first scientific point is that when we die, the brain dies in such a way that it cannot be retrieved. It is not only dormant, it is lost. Secondly, whatever might be the particle physics of being conscious (and being conscious about being conscious), once you die that memory recalling body dependent will die consciousness is finished. If consciousness has any continuance it is regarding any creature, time or space, and with new memories should they be in a memory understanding creature. Highly unlikely and rather Buddhist. The me-ness of me is always internal and singular and death means it is broken.

The analogy I would use for resurrection is that of energising, as in Star Trek. The person who goes into the energiser dies: destructs. That person comes to the end. The person who is reformed at the other place is a carbon copy, yes sharing the memories of what made this person that person, but is nevertheless a copy who only thinks he has been alive a long time. The person who energised had cut the rope.

So although my body might be remade every 7 years, it does so bit by bit that keeps me continuous. When I die I'm then done. Like the energised person, a resurrected person that dies is cut off, or he never died.

That a body might be transformed and then relives, carrying its injuries without becoming a cripple, then creates a further problem of how that body is to be vanished. Of course if the body is a spiritual body - that Pauline oxymoron - then it can vanish. But it was hardly then a body at all - bodies do not go through walls.

And then, when you look at the texts, they are all in story form and contradictory, and are really about legitimacy of leadership and about ritual correctness. The eucharistic meal is given legitimate place though them, as are the apostles who'd met the one apparently risen.

The surprise may be in reflection that there is a first of the resurrected, one to start, but there is no overturning of the general theory of resurrection and they are waiting for that first one to come back. We should not be surprised that in times of expectation stories and beliefs get adapted and changed. They do - check out more recent religious movements at times of formation (like the Bahais or the Mormons). Basically they believed it -resurrection - and our medical and scientific professions do not.

So what is this 'event' that Christina Baxter refers to? No more than a charismatic community holding beliefs we no longer share, making theological stories about a messianic leader expected to return and finalise events. People's storytelling is so fantastic, the escalation of Jesus's titles so rapid, that this is what it is about.

So it is about myth and story telling. The old historians realised that they might decide about some of the sayings and events of Jesus the man, but they couldn't and cannot do the same for resurrection. You can't do incarnation historically either. Today we get people who are text focussed only and become 'poststructural' and that's because there is no event to find either. History, like science, cannot do resurrection.

To say that 'I believe' does not make a belief into an event. It remains a belief.

The powers that killed Jesus are the powers now that kill other ethical and not so ethical beings. There is no change in this. Suffering continues, and in the twentieth century reached an industrial scale. We might just claim to have grown up since, until you look at this war and that war, and the dangers presented by the present economic strife. As the Jews say, no messiah came because no new reality came along.

If there is incarnation in any sense then it is a general sense of hope and belief in the material world. But the material world is a food chain, it is a world of agony in reaching whatever it might. I rather think it is just an evolving chaotic system into which we conscious humans might inject a bit of compassion. But it is transient; the sun will die and the universe will became exceedingly spacious and dead, probably; but humans will either self-destruct or evolve out before the sun dies.

So Jesus is no more or less than Gandhi in terms of ethical heights (and we can do history about Gandhi), and ontologically is exactly like the rest of us. Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi - they are teachers and live out their lives accordingly and take the consequences. Gandhi was shot by one of his own for being too generous to others. Jesus was killed by others for being too generous to his own.

So there are all sorts of qualities and heights we might look towards. There are clues to the good. We see them even in the arts. We can call them signals of transcendence. Perhaps there is, therefore, transcendence. But I rather doubt it. Culture is still, like all things, transient and ongoing. Lord Clark thought the Romans were the height of culture, whereas a revisionist will say they were brutal and also lacked innovation and those Barbarians were much more compassionate and flexible. So much of value is simply subjective or, perhaps, conversational.

Maybe Jurgen Habermas is right - that without interests we can find the conversational Truth. Or maybe we are never devoid of interests and there is always more than one truth. Truth is like the end of the rainbow, and we all see our own rainbows.

If this is transcendence, then it is plural. It draws from all around, and makes for all around.

So to be scientific, and historical, and literate, and religious, is to understand the huge change of outlook to our narratives. Not long back people believed in the faeries and they would kill children if they thought these had been swapped for faeries. They believed in spirits that grew the crops and sent the weather. The Church stood as supernatural with a powerful man-God and compromised with such magic. But we don't believe in those things now - we don't believe in faeries nor in resurrected beings.

Some people believe in ghosts and take equipment along. Others take equipment to identify water underground (and, er, just see if they really do). Yes there are all sorts of hangings on. But I notice how today's neo-Pagans are into earth based liturgies of personal reflection and change rather than any real belief in some supernatural God and Goddess that will change what is happening. Abracadabra, let's have fun.

Rituals, we discover, are told in terms of meeting or encounter, but are actually about gift-exchange of useless tokens for a material effort and the spiritual gift of binding people together. Why so? Because the social anthropologist has done the work and seen the impact, and none of it is dependent on whether the primary story is true or not. And even then that religio or binding is somewhat more sophisticated than a straight exchange.

No doubt that several Christian stories relate to the nature of life dying and returning, and of human suffering and rejection and yet a coming through on the other side. The stories are quite fantastic and sophisticated: the gospels and even New Testament are a good read. But it is clearly myth, and it is this way round. So much was set in motion by that cultural figure of two communities, the Greek (Roman) and Jewish; so much was lost in the destruction by Rome of the Jews in 70 CE including the home of the Jewish Christians. Some of it was preserved, but we know what dominated and what took on the Gnostics.

Believing this is so, that here is the operation of myth in communities, it is important to say so and clearly. The dominant narratives, about how we really think and assume, are quite different.

Yes, neutrinos go faster than light and physics professors need to do much rethinking. They know that with so much dark matter and dark energy. But the method of physics is the narrative method, not some unchanging inherited tradition that represents an entirely different mode of thought. We do not - we really do not - believe like they did. And I'll be dogmatic on this one: up against a Christina Baxter I think I'm right and she is wrong, and that I can draw evidence and historical movements and she can only draw on myth.

It is why I am not a Christian and cannot be Anglican, because I would not say - as some do - well I believe in this but in another way, and oh I also 'follow' Jesus (like I follow a good football team). I say I disagree. The Trinity is a human construction, and so is the rest, that the incarnation can at best be generalised, as can be transcendence, and that the resurrection did not happen in terms of happening to one particular conscious man.

Saying that means I won't say the promises, either with fingers crossed or with a lie. I don't say it in order to minister, or in order to have position or role. That's because the bureaucracy expects obedience to the faith as evolved to the 'saints' and I don't think it was so. I read the same as the rest, and it isn't so. And what I wouldn't say as a minister I don't say as a lay person.

14 comments:

Grandmère Mimi said...

Adrian, if you were not a literalist, you could be Anglican.

Anonymous said...

Well said Grandmere.

Adrian, Christianity doesn't ask people to follow Jesus of Nazareth, but Jesus the Christ.

I wonder sometimes if you're wholly a materialist with a penchant for exploring mysticism. Arguably Jesus of Nazareth was a mystic exploring the material.

As I see it... said...

G.W.H Lampe's Easter Sermon 1965 remains my favorite sermon written on the 'resurrection'. Personally, I prefer 'spiritual' awakening, a realization that life can be transformed (a Spring festival - renewal and rebirth) pointless arguing over the historicity, I prefer 'myth' precisely because I can make sense of this...

rick allen said...

"The first scientific point is that when we die, the brain dies in such a way that it cannot be retrieved. It is not only dormant, it is lost."

I was under the impression that modern physics held that nothing was irretrievable (just finished a popular book focused on whether information falling into a black hole is lost--consensus is that it's not).

That hardly proves the resurrection, or even makes it probable. But I think your "irretrievable loss" point is not exactly supported by current science.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The brain is damaged by death - those who think they can die and be frozen and then recovered are on a loser. The loss of information regarding black holes is rather more theoretical.

One can run it at a level of pure myth, but Christianity carries a central claim that Jesus the man was God on earth, and was resurrected. Of course I can say it is myth: can I therefore make a promise to a bishop on this point clearly and preach on it clearly?

My friend Rachel and Christina Baxter say is it real, and from its reality the 'myth' has its power. I say the myth has power as it relates to the natural world of dying and renewed life - but as far as Jesus was concerned nothing happened. Because of beliefs in resurrection and a returning messiah, this is attached to him and then gets the myth attached, but with the loss of belief in resurrection only a more general renewal makes any sense.

It's not literalism but honesty.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Adrian, you are who you are, and I did not think I'd change your mind by my comment.

It's not literalism but honesty.

Fine.

I hope it does not follow that you attribute dishonesty to those who find meaning in a story within a faith tradition, which, for them, points to a universal truth.

As I see it... said...

A dear friend of mine before his Anglican ordination service wrote a disclaimer on the 39 articles of faith saying basically that had he lived when they were written - yes he could sign up to them - but today (1960's) he must recontextualize. (he had a forward thinking or should that be radical Bishop - John Robinson)

Needless to say I know him because he's a member of SOF. There once was a way around these things - I wonder if this would happen now?

rick allen said...

"The brain is damaged by death."

Much more than the brain, and much more than damage--"ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

And I agree that freezing isn't the answer to much more than preserving leftover turkey.

My objection--a general one--is to these "Science says..." assertions. Obviously most of us don't experience the dead coming back. I don't blame you for not believing it. But scientific accounts of consciousness are so tenuous at this point I don't see that it's really justified to make those kinds of appeal, tempting as it is to have such an authority on one's side.

We were obviously constituted once. We know of no real technique for being re-constituted. But until we fully understand and can account for our originally being constituted, I don't see how "science" can rule out re-constitution.

Anonymous said...

Pluralist,

If one day we all find that your blog no longer appears, could it be that you have finally convinced yourself that you don't actually exist?

Iconoclast

Fr Ivor Biggin said...

Why do you assume that the brain and a human person are one and the same? If we are known by God and He 'remembers' us, how can you assert He will 'forget' because WE are brain-dead?

Rach said...

"We were obviously constituted once. We know of no real technique for being re-constituted. But until we fully understand and can account for our originally being constituted, I don't see how "science" can rule out re-constitution."

Great stuff - helps me express what I think - thanks.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I don't think we can rule out reconstitution. I was taking an example from Star Trek where they use energy to reconstitute matter. My point was that the destruction involved in turning into energy involved actual death and loss of continuance; the copies live under an illusion of continuation.

rick allen said...

It's funny, but I used to think that about Star Trek beaming as well. If they did just die in the transporter and transmit clones it would greatly diminish the attraction of star trekking.

(Same sort of idea, explicitly, in the film, "The Prestige,")

But continuity in time is a mystery wholly apart from Star Trek beaming or the resurrection on the Last Day. In a very real sense I am not the same person that I was when I was three years old, or thirty years old. And yet that old Rick didn't die--or I don't think he did. I think that that was me, however different he (I) was.

That's a favorite theme of Proust, a suggested denial of the continuity of personality. It's what some people find so attractive about him, and, I think, why I found his novel in many ways so cold and inhuman.

It's also, I think, a central intuition underlying the Buddhist denial of the reality of the soul. I can see why the thought would be liberating.

My own judgment is that there is, I am, a soul, that there is a continuity and identity there, however much I change, or however "granular" physics may demonstrate time to be (arguably the contemporary notion of space suggests that we "transport" all the time, at a level too small to directly detect.)

rick allen said...

It's funny, but I used to think that about Star Trek beaming as well. If they did just die in the transporter and transmit clones it would greatly diminish the attraction of star trekking.

(Same sort of idea, explicitly, in the film, "The Prestige,")

But continuity in time is a mystery wholly apart from Star Trek beaming or the resurrection on the Last Day. In a very real sense I am not the same person that I was when I was three years old, or thirty years old. And yet that old Rick didn't die--or I don't think he did. I think that that was me, however different he (I) was.

That's a favorite theme of Proust, a suggested denial of the continuity of personality. It's what some people find so attractive about him, and, I think, why I found his novel in many ways so cold and inhuman.

It's also, I think, a central intuition underlying the Buddhist denial of the reality of the soul. I can see why the thought would be liberating.

My own judgment is that there is, I am, a soul, that there is a continuity and identity there, however much I change, or however "granular" physics may demonstrate time to be (arguably the contemporary notion of space suggests that we "transport" all the time, at a level too small to directly detect.)