Saturday 31 December 2011

What if One of Us

The service on Sunday is congregational, so I hope to be able to introduce this music to the 'divine worship'... [This happened - it formed a mini-sermon and music before the collection]

I've chosen a piece of music that I rather like as music and also theologically. One of Us is a song written by Eric Bazilian and released by Joan Osborne in March 1995 on her album Relish. The song was written in one night, to impress a woman and it worked in the sense that Eric Bazilian married her.

The song asks about how one relates to God; and whilst it ties in with both the Islamic chant that God is Great it also relates most closely to what can be called secular urban theology. Relating to the central Christian theme that God became one of us, the song makes the notion even more ordinary - as in God being just a stranger on a bus trying to make its way home.

Harvey Cox wrote a celebrated book in the 1960s called The Secular City, which is a theology particularly derived from German modernist evangelicals Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The idea is that instead of asking questions of our place in the language of religion, we are just busy, and trying to live ethically under an invisible God and, Harvey Cox says, a Christian revelation. The book is a complete theological acceptance of secularisation as the norm of thinking and living and therefore the freedom of humankind to organise itself in whatever way it cares within the city. This approach is highly critical of denominations, and sees a special role for Christians in universities rather than in inheriting mediaeval forms of religious understanding. Theology and social science, indeed theology and politics, overlap. This approach to theology was very much in opposition to the Paul Tillich approach of existential theology, that is the theology of asking lots of questions about existence for which there are systemic theological answers. People are too busy, too urban, to bother to speculate, but they meet the transcendent in both the big political changes and in the little - especially social - activities of life and yet the people who do so believe in such encounters share the same discomposure [269] as those who are non-theists and say no such transcendence exists.

If you think such secular theology contains the seeds of its own destruction, via a contradiction between the secular and the theological, then such a cultural rejection of religion has been tackled by making this modernist theology postmodern: in other words modernist secular theology of invisible realism became a theology of human doing and human performance based purely on text.

Although this landmark understanding of modernist secular action theology gained quite some popularity, and was fully agreeable with a sort of linear progress to secularisation, a human insistence on asking questions has persisted; and we can hardly be church without asking questions. And not everyone is quite so busy. There is nothing wrong in asking questions: it is the answers that have been the problem. Indeed this secular theology assumes too much about the givenness of the hidden revelation, and even the postmodern theology that followed later is too conserving about the core revelation. Harvey Cox went on to change his mind: secular modernity was too optimistic, and so he looked east and indeed embraced the religious questions of many faiths, faiths that are capable of inner transformation. He now says that the first three hundred years of Christianity were the Age of Faith, then came the Age of Belief that lasted until very recently, and now we have an Age of the Spirit with a deliberate move away from dogma in our religiousness: there is not a textual turn globally but a personal experiential turn. The song indeed asks questions, and one of the strongest questions for many is about the invisibility of transcendence - where has God gone? - and what it is to have any kind of belief today; but the song does say something like - and this is interesting - that if you were to meet God, such might be just "a slob like one of us". Some people celebrate Christmas with all its tinsel and jolly myth, but one central idea behind incarnation, especially in the secular city, is that it is utterly ordinary and unremarkable.

Joan Osborne does vocals, percussion and acoustic guitar; Eric Bazilian is on the guitar, mandolin, chant, saxophone, harmonica and electric piano; Mark Egan gives the bass; Rob Hyman plays piano, organ, synthesizer, Mellotron, drums and gives backing vocals; and Andy Kravitz plays the drums and offers percussion.

One of Us by Eric Bazilian sung by Joan Osborne.

Cox, H. (1966), The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective, London: Penguin Books; Cox, H. (2010), The Future of Faith, New York: HarperCollins.

Thursday 29 December 2011

Down the Pub

So my friends say in the pub, that sociology is 95% "shit" on the basis particularly that it is full of cliches and jargon. "No, shortcuts," I said. and I'm sat there as one then says greed and property is just human nature and the other said no, because the Red Indians didn't have property. "Ah," I said, "so you are saying property is derived from sociobiology, that economic and social organisation derives from our biology, and looking at animal behaviour..." And the other is saying property is purely a human construct and thus he is a sociologist - an amateur sociologist.

So the sociologist then said it is urban living and property that make people less individual. I said I think it makes them more individual. He said less connected. Ah, yes, well: in rural society people had more connecting bonds between the same people, "whereas you might only know Jim down at the gym." And online you can wholly construct your self. You're less yourself, he said, less with others. Well, not only a sociologist then, with urbanisation as a cause, but a Durkheimian [Yes I know this is via urbanisation, but his focus was on the essence of being human; I did mention the social geography of towns in passing]. The other - for whom Marx was also "a load of crap" - said it's about alienation. No, I replied. Alienation is when you are not attached to the labour value of your work, whereas Durkheim used anomie, a consequent of loss of collective conscience - or, to use the jargon, conscience collective. Hee hee.

Somehow this conversation drifted to theology, where the sociologist of the two said believers cannot do academic theology because they already have the answer. I said that is a criticism but you have theologians who are believers. They do theology from the inside; a critical approach. I said theology is not religious studies. Religious studies looks at it all from the outside. It's the phenomenology of religion - relates to RE in schools too. I said of my online friend who expresses Kantian like personal experience and also examines the texts as texts, positions that don't relate well to each other. That's theology. I said I do theology but it is more open ended.

Meanwhile we noted the higher number of women in the pub than usual, and the sociobiologist said that if he was more sober he'd have given me a better argument. I was on soft drinks because I was driving. Our other compatriots were visiting Wales.

Clever people know that had I been teaching or properly academic, I'd not have jumped to Durkheim but gone first to Tonnies and all that about the Gemeinschafft and Geselleschaft, or community and association, that derives from rural and urban connections of interaction. But the 'sociologist' started from the Red Indians and was interested in the self, and so the social-individual conscience and anomie was the jump point.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Have a Postmodern Christmas: I'm Sure Yule Will

So here we are, where we all share in a holiday like we all use the common era dating system. It has its necessities, its various origins, and now we all join in one way or another.

The transient Muslim attender at the Unitarian church I attend, now back in Iran, sent an online Christmas card of Santa and sledge. So we can all join in. I have to say that putting carols to CDs to sing to has just about had me wasted. It was too much. I faciliatated a short informal singalong at the Friday coffee morning.

Sometime next year there will be more consideration of adding an extension to the Hull church at the front. It is practical, for better space inside and access, but there is the architectural side. I'm afraid that I am unimpressed: to me a concrete white front of two unequal curves has provided what an architect thinks a church might look like. I think it is minimalist modernism. And I had my own postmodern doodle, which is not to be taken too seriously.

Proposed by me
The idea is a postmodern frontage. Why is it postmodern? Because it has different styles in the one building, with a plastic top to light up that represents a flaming chalice, but a plastic window design below that represents the window of the old steepled church knocked down on this site in 1976. It's a bit playful.

So I was asked what is postmodernism in architecture, and it is in bringing several past styles together that didn't mix, and use them to point to the future. So postmodern art? Well, that is playful and a joining of styles that were once distinct. And postmodern theology? I said that represents the literary turn, so that there isn't any objectivity in the world as such, and you can't do history, so what you have is the text, and for conservative postmoderns you have the text as encounter and you identify and perform according to that text. For liberal postmoderns there are no boundaries, so different texts eclectically mix and match. Trouble is, some evangelicals that call themselves postmodern still go on about personal experience, which is not what it should be about. Liberal postmodernists should show a tension between the self and the collective - the intersubjectivity of conversations about constructing the meanings of things. There is the market place and the person in the market place.

So you can have a postmodern Christmas. That's the wrapping paper of the carols, and you discover such text is all you have! The wrapping paper is the message. But liberals will want to draw in other meanings, and the Pagan is the most obvious, but then also the ideas of the universal baby, new life, new beginnings, then that the Buddha was given a miracle birth, or some nativity ideas could well have come down the Silk Road as did ideas of resurrection at the other end of living. Buddha did actually beat Christ to recognition by about 500 years.

But as with all postmodernisms, some of this is just intensive modernity. Ideas of Christmas as the universal baby or new beginnings were subjective ideas anyway. It's just that the postmodern reaches out for ever more connections to the point of loss of overall meaning too. The conversation becomes almost chaotic, overflowing with different ideas on the meaning of Christmas. Like in architecture, all sorts of things jumble together. It becomes postmodern when the modernist intensity is such that there is a collapse of the sense of space and time.

Have whatever sort of Christmas you understand. I will. Yule will I'm sure.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Bye to...

This entry has been removed. It's long gone now as an issue of interest.

Monday 19 December 2011

If You Don't Believe It Why Do It?

Oh dear. Now some want to sing carols on Friday, as there is no service on Sunday. We've had two services of these already. This along with mince pies on Friday. So I am not done yet with collecting and providing music. All I know is that New Years Day has a service completely clear of Christmas music, which is different from more standard Christian churches many of which won't touch a carol until Christmas Eve. In those days I went to the night time service, and then avoided carols from then on. So I sort of joined in with the myth, to some extent, given that it plugged in with the rest of the myth all year round and I was participating in it as a year-round calendar.

The point is that whilst I can see at least a point about Easter: the tragedy of life, cruelty and always the possibility of coming out on the other side, I've never really got on with Christmas at all. I know it can be about the universal baby, innocence, joy of new (human) life and all that, and a sort of second birthday for all, rather like the Queen has two birthdays, but it has never had meaningful significance once available to choice.

As for the Jesus stuff, well that has never been important. I've taken the view, from the beginning, that he was born in Galilee and unnoticed, probably (or as likely in) in Capernaum. Actually there is a not unexpected parallel with his death: around the passover period Paul as Saul would have been in Jerusalem and a crucifying of a certain Jesus drew no interest from him whatsoever. That's what the occupying Romans did: swept up the noise makers and kept up an example of oppression. It's the existence of the small community and last days thinking that brought Paul to the idea of the Law as limited and a Messiah for the last days as a breakthrough and contradiction to aspects of the Law. But let's leave that for now, as it is thirty years on. Incidentally the ministry of Jesus can have been extremely quick, perhaps no more than a year.

But to go back. The whole thing about either starting in Galilee and going to Bethlehem, or starting in Bethlehem and going for a long trip, is pure myth. 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth ?' asks John's Gospel, and Jesus himself never made anything of coming from Bethlehem (which he surely would have, had he had such an origin, in terms of adding to his authority). There was no empire census requiring also women and children to travel, and indeed no taxation basis for Joseph alone to so travel. Herod died 4 BC so how could have he been alive when Quirinius was in office? Luke's account is pure fiction. Matthew's journey would have been 450 miles and Matthew even adds to prophecies to meet (to be called a Nazarene). There was no massacre of innocents. The universe didn't alter itself to provide some star, presumably a story because magi looked upwards and such predictive astrologers were wanted. Magi followed a star that fell from the sky when Mithras was born and Mithraic legend also provides shepherds. Isaiah 1:3 helps the birthplace, as does Hermes, and 7:14 is the origin via the mistranslation into Greek of virgnity at birth. All human beings need two parents.

The fact that these things can be written is evident of what passes for 'truth' in the Bible once the myth grabs its place and gets developed, this in particular by a later community to backtrack and announce the birth of a great prophet (whose titles were undergoing escalation). The source of these stories is the Jewish scriptures and the need for consistency. Some evangelicals today ask why writers would put in deliberate and known non-truths, and thus demand that all of it must be true (like some historian working with first hand documents). Er, no; unfortunately for them, it isn't like that. It is why the New Testament is full of mythical interpretation and is only ever biography-like.

I've over purchased food like the rest, and the sweeties I normally shun (looking at my budget and body size) have been let through. I suppose I regard the present as a kind of festival of lights, when it is coldest and darkest and yet we, as humans, make light and also keep eating for when things grow again. But I'm as little into the Pagan thing either about the round of the year: OK, it is but so what. I'm much more interested in the puzzles and explanations of science, where the mysteries are far more fascinating and that is because they do provide workable explanation. There is so much that is incredible and I'd rather busy my brain with this material, to the extent that I can understand it and then to push to understand it a little more. For me, theology ought to be humanist (in the most general sense) or it is about the "woo woo" that Brian Cox mentioned most recently. Theology needs to be about parameters of the possible and impossible.

Ernst Troeltsch said the Christian myth was powerful simply because it had shaped Western society, almost like a truism. It's internal truth or falsehood was irrelevant culturally. But, even not as a literalist, this is no excuse to centre one's own story on something far more insignificant than its historical impact. It annoys me even that I 'sacrifice' my myth making from a larger minority into a small group that particularly denies a narrow incarnation through the year, and one that also looks at other insights, I find that it capitulates at Christmas time and repeats the Christian season's worst and most gooey features.

Friday 16 December 2011

Rev Now and Future

Undoubtedly there is a third series possible in Rev, but if it ended after two (and there's a Christmas edition coming next week) it would be a good finish with programmes that packed in known themes in the Anglican world in particular among the unmentioned denominations. It's as well written as say Fawlty Towers, which did stop, but it will always be hampered by the number of 'in' jokes and the absence of wider knowledge among the general public, whereas Fawlty Towers didn't require knowledge of the hotel sector in the tourist industry.

Anyone who saw the completely amoral archdeacon referee the football match in a previous edition realised that there was a secret there, and in the final one of the series the Rev and his Reader sidekick stumble across the Archdeacon and his boyfriend at a bed shop. The Reader is actually worse than the Archdeacon, and learns the tips about being ever so 'umble when going towards either getting ordained or becoming a bishop. Colin meanwhile gets a secular job, and immediately displays his inability to hold one down - he eats the Rev's pizza when he should have been delivering to others.

In all this the genuineness of the Rev is underlined. No, he really is without career ambition as all he ever wanted was to be was a priest in a place like this. His frustrated wife walks off to walk with others to assess her marriage and as a result the Rev is jumped on by his eager cook and cleaner. Many male Revs know such doting congregants. In a third series the development would have to be with the headteacher. He fantasises about her, and she knows it and can manipulate him. I was interested though in how the Rev could talk to her on the level about the Archdeacon and his appalling personality preventing him from being a bishop, and there are such people in congregations where the Rev can have such on the level chats with equals. They are usually semi-detached and reliable, and they don't gossip. Well, there's a Christmas edition coming (party behaviour?) but I'd have liked to have seen his eye stray when his wife wandered off. Instead he does something productive and goes and has a sperm count, and as with the Archdeacon and boyfriend the collar is not worn for that particular outing. He is now allowed to look at a soft porn mag to get himself excited.

The point about the Archdeacon also was that behind his appalling bureaucratic personality was a human being, seen there in his relationship. The Reader's "Cherry" may be indeed a girlfriend or a pet or imagined as neccessary. When faced with rejection by the interviewing Archdeacon, the Reader wields the big threat of potentially outing the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon, who'd said no, immediately folds and passes the Reader on to a clergy selection conference. But the suspicion was that the Archdeacon could see the Reader copying him and all the techniques and actually stopped him (until his interest was threatened). However, when the Archdeacon faced the now inevitable question when he was himself interviewed (he might have got through years ago), he had no choice but to admit his relationship. He could have gone either way, but to deny his relationship was a step too far. Of course he shouldn't really be a priest at all in an active relationship, and also if celibate he can be a bishop but these days no one would go through even on that basis. With the killer question asked, that's it and the game is up. Such is the Church of England today - corrupted by inequality and sex.

As a series it leaves everyone where they were. When Only Fools and Horses hit its peak it was because the characters had changed situations and the comedy was a matured 50 minutes a time. What went wrong then was that they became millionaires and the writer couldn't give up, so they lost the money again and the whole comedy was harmed as a result. So either it stops with the Christmas one coming or change has to take place.

For example, there are now divorced priests and remarried, and some simply don't tell the truth that allows them to move on. The only angle forward, given that the Reader is blocked and the Archdeacon cannot be bishop (and has lost a lot of his leverage), is for development with the Rev himself and for him not to be the self-doubting tortoise that beats all these careerist hares. We've had a high flying female curate but perhaps he needs another curate, and would certainly need one to counter what would always now be a frustrated Reader stuck in his ministry.

I have two criticisms that I think do stick out. One is that the wife did not appear to be a solicitor at all, but a trapped vicarage-bound clergy wife. Secondly, after the headteacher lost her boyfriend she might have rebounded on the Rev in a far more dangerous way than this week's cook and cleaner filling the home vacuum.

Nevertheless the comedy has shown insight and hasn't had to contrive events too much; it would be a quick way to learn about the insides of the Church of England and the DVDs will have that potential. Church bureaucracies and discrimination create dishonesty where there should be expressions of honesty and love. This was a series that said the little guy can win through while all the mess goes on around, but perhaps the ethos of winning through needs challenging. Anyway, the writers clearly did manage to create an up to date Barchester Towers.
Note: all the images are from the BBC online broadcast and are here as illustrative.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Ten Reasons for the Covenant Refuted

Let's counter these arguments from Andrew Goddard at Fulcrum straight away.

1. It has been consistently supported by the Church of England...

Obviously not, when given to dioceses to discuss. At best it is divided down the middle, and you do not innovate when divided.

2. It is a development in line with the Communion’s evolving life and is faithful to Anglicanism’s theological and ecclesiological tradition and identity.

But it goes over the line, forcing autonomous Churches - and particularly the Church of England as supplier of the Archbishop of Canterbury - to freeze developments that are culturally relevant.

3. It gives form to a vision of ‘communion with autonomy and accountability’ that has been central to the Communion’s self-understanding and is a genuine Anglican via media avoiding the dangers of both a centralised, controlling Curia and a fragmenting, fractious federation.

Anglicanism is not a federation (a central bureaucracy with sovereignty at the centre) but is a confederation at best: Churches are the centres of authority and provide higher simply for discussion. The Communion is not a Church. But the Covenant produces a real danger of curia by procedure at the level of the Standing Committee and it handing out 'relational consequences' in a new two tier Anglican Communion.

4. It enables Anglicans across the world and Christians in other denominations to understand who we are as Anglicans and how we seek to live together and share in God’s mission together as part of the body of Christ.

But perhaps they ought to understand that Anglicanism is not a unified world wide group but a Communion of Churches - in the plural.

5. It provides a clear agreed framework for debate, diversity and development through shared discernment within agreed affirmations and commitments.

It is an extra forum for decision making. There is no basis for decision making that then has 'relational consequences'. This is an innovation of centralising what has never been.

6. It facilitates changes in continuity and dialogue with both our Anglican tradition and our fellow Anglicans around the world and thus serves our unity in Christ.

Such unity, presumably, extends to other denominations too like the Lutherans and Roman Catholics to name but two. But they make their own decisions. Surely Anglicanism is about such unity when making your own decisions, not uniformity. Lutherans manage with such diversity. If you want centralisation, join the Roman Catholics. Even the eastern Churches (those rejecting original sin - what a difference!) have autonomy one from the other.

7. It preserves provincial autonomy but allows the clear articulation of the catholic consensus within the Communion and an ordered – rather than the recent chaotic – response within Anglicanism when provinces believe they need to act contrary to this.

It is not a consensus, but the leadership of unrepresentative elites. Look at IASCUFO and how it assumes its right to support a Covenant, and the Covenant does not yet exist. But the Church of England by dioceses does not have a consensus. Nor do several Anglican Churches destined for the second tier should this ever be passed.

8. It offers the best, perhaps the only, means of preventing further bitter fragmentation by enabling the highest degree of communion among Anglicans.

Anglicans will organised roughly into African, southern and Western groups quite autonomously. This makes cultural sense.

9. It does not explicitly address specific controversial issues but cultivates practices and provides processes for addressing whatever innovations – for example, lay presidency – might arise when some Anglicans may feel called to act in a way that others do not recognise as faithful developments.

If it is not about the gay issue what else is it about? Or perhaps it would have frozen women's ordination had this proposed centralisation process existed in the early days.

10. The Archbishop of Canterbury has asked the Church of England to support him and the other Instruments in working for the widest possible acceptance of the covenant within the Communion.

He is the least of reasons to support the process, given his track record so far in producing a bishops-as-communion bureaucracy, and then there is his likely retirement very soon: so let a new Archbishop have his space to take a more back seat and looser view of Anglicanism.

Yes, the Covenant itself is divided by the blocs of Anglicanism: those who reject it because their Churches remain highly supernatural and even magical in outlook and raise the Bible in such fashion with authoritarian leadership - so want doctrinal control. Then there are the southern Churches who reflect more in the way of modernity, and then the Western Churches that have handled great change and must manage within secularised societies and adapt to these. The Covenant is itself divisive.

The fact remains too that some evangelicals are dedicated to an international Anglicanism into the sphere of Western Anglican Churches. They are as much breaking any moratoria as others, and started doing it before episcopal ordinations of relationship gay people. Perhaps this is the future diversity of Anglicanism: something to live with. The Covenant won't stop them, as they shall ignore it. They organise in entryist fashion with plans and fellowships and ought to be flushed out to build their own Churches when in other parts of the world. As for the global south leadership (the rest of them, rather) who says they are representative.

The Church of England has responsibility to itself and its autonomy. By not adopting the Covenant, it protects that autonomy and, more so, present constitutional relationships with the State and its own ability to alter these without interference from without. There could be a situation in the future where a Covenant from without restricts what the Church of England can do, and this raises concerns in Parliament for as long as establishment continues and causes in effect an internal Church crisis. It is better then that the Covenant never sees the light of day, and made up groups like IASCUFO can stop imagining that it does exist.


Bishop Bob: "I ask you, eff oh."
Bishop John: "You ask me what?"
Bishop Bob: "No, I ask you, eff oh."
Bishop John: "Are you asking me, or telling me to, you know, eff off?"
Bishop Bob: "I'm talking about the Covenant and I ask you, eff oh."
Bishop John: "I see. It's come down to this. Because I have stated a few moderate criticisms but support the Archbishop about the Covenant you are asking me to eff off."
Bishop Bob: "No I'm not, I'm asking you about I ask you eff oh. It met in Korea."
Bishop John: "Met in Korea?"
Bishop Bob: "Yes I ask you, eff oh."
Bishop John: "But I don't know who met in Korea. You've only just mentioned it."
Bishop Bob: "Let me quote: 'Aware of our mandate to promote the deepening of communion between the churches of the Anglican Communion, we emphasised the importance of being a fully representative group, and we greatly regret that some of our members were not present. We re-affirmed the significance of the Anglican Communion Covenant for strengthening our common life.' I ask you, eff oh."
Bishop John: "If you are asking. It is not a fully representative group, in fact doesn't represent anything; it is made up from the top, like the whole Windsor thing, with deliberate exclusions based on apparent moratoria ignored. It supports something that doesn't yet exist as if it does exist. In representing no one they reaffirmed something they should never affirm and so what if they do? But why do you keep telling me to eff oh?"
Bishop Bob: "Don't worry, you've answered me. You're obviously not being collegiate or loyal, and don't think we are going to invite you to diocesan meetings to pass the Covenant. So eff oh."
Bishop John: "I ask you."

IASCUFO is the InterAnglican Standing Committee on Unity, Faith and Order.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

The Postmodern and Religion - What are they Like?

Modernity springs from the consequence of Kant's subject centred reason that produces a means to truth and a being of the self. This shift to the individual is a major change from trying to locate truth in the idealised heavens or in the realities of earth, the old Plato and Aristotle division. It is the trancendental subject. Christianity is inescapably Platonic, but Aquinas did a good job in grounding it in the greater earthly means of reasoning, following on from the same that had happened in Islam with Ibn Sina. If you go from Kant you need strategies to secure reasoning, as the transcendent individual is a hard act to sustain, but Habermas is the most contemporary modernist to argue that conversation between disinterested subjects is the means to truth. The alternative of Hegel was a synthesising of contrasting positions, an initerated binary to unity principle of eventual pure spirit upwards, and the binary contrast itself has been a vital means to structure truth (that what is is defined by what it is not). But if one extends these concerns to social institutions, then the objective becomes those collective, somewhat demanding even compulsive institutions that make us who we are. So my subjectivity as a reasoning person comes up against the objectivity of today's sociology of knowledge. Objectivity is well secured, but as one of those concrete realities that limits the subject, and does so because of the extent of institutional arrangements all around us. For many argue that these institutions are of all pervading capitalism, shaping economic arrangements into social identity including the functions of the modern Western family.

The postmodern is the multiplicity of the self as fragmented identity, the transience of the self and therefore the question of being itself. The Hindus were pretty clever at relating the self and its being to Being as pure, and both of these in postmodernity break down; the Buddhists understand this, in that no-self attaches to no-being. But here care is needed. Postmodernism is not a form of Buddhism because Buddhism has a (in a Western sense) realist method, that of right practice that reveals right truth, that being is transient. Postmodernism does not allow for right practice, but a variation so many in identities that there is no right anything. But are we in postmodernity or rather a position where the secular has so undermined inherited platonic and earthly reasoning that some other modernity is active. After all, science still discovers even if it can't quite get its overall Einstein and Quantum paradigm secured.

A number of more practical claims to postmodernity follow economics, culture and religion. In economics the ex-mercantilist system released into the ways of the invisible hand produced, in the end, mass production, labour organisation, classes, mass consumption and an ordered ideology of capitalism that all would improve for all via inequality. Capitalists produce their own moderating tendencies: the rule of law to protect property, but also equal voting leads to systems of education, health and reproduction which its ideology can swamp and shape, even when those institutions are free at the point of use or made easier to pay. The bureaucracy was the rational ordering principle: the trained individual rising through the corporation apparently on merit to fill each office. Charismatic power is essentially revolutionary power, and can be religious or political, Jesus or Gandhi or Marx or Lenin. Sacred power is always premodern and about tradition - reason is its own. Culture, then, is consistent, but may be divided by class, and there are several lesser identities of gender, ethnicity and youth, that again are seen shaped by capitalism from a history of exploitation.

Religion, being sacred, was feudal, and was so at the Reformation (still attached to States) but the rise of the denomination created a Middle Class religion of capitalist values. At first the mercantilists argued for their inclusion in the political class, and later the capitalists or liberal ideologues. Progressives and socialists also agitated, some religious and fewer secularist, but the Keynesian and welfare dream of inclusion allowed capitalism to develop further and went well beyond religion if consistent with some theologians' calls for economic justice.

First of all there is the need to identify claims that high modernity has become postmodernity. In terms of the economy, it means a whole direction towards consumption and by style. Care is needed as there is still mass manufacturing, even if much has gone east. Nevertheless, manufacturing has become more selective, and just in time, as have services. Have mass brands vanished, as guarantors of quality?

An economic sector of increasing impact is the information society. Whereas the mass media produced edited versions of reality for large scale consumption, now anyone and everyone can produce media (from text to video) for instant consumption. In this sense the global can be local, and the local global - giving voice to every regional extremist. Regions of censorship struggle to keep out individualist and small group speech that contradicts overall policy. There is no doubt here that space has shrunk and time has become concentrated.

But in addition style wins over substance, and the appearance of things becomes as important as content. Content is transient, so longevity hardly matters. What is the point in having an electronic instrument that can last years, when it will be superseded. Better that it looks good, and the next item looks good. But this then becomes the all pervading principle for everything, even that which could last.

It is then the intensity of time shifting that changes the perception of time. The sense that we want it and want it now affects groceries that come from across the world, and so nothing is ever 'in season' any more.

The subjectivity of opinion breaks down distinctions between high art and popular culture, so that popular culture can become art objects. Trash is pretty too. It is realised that there is no way one can assert the quality of art, only (perhaps) the quality of work - but then machines can produce quality and the machine is value free. Many an artist has a concept and allows a little factory to make the object: other people's skills.

Architecture mixes past, present and future. It is produced quickly and much looks plastic, but its styles borrow pleasant shapes from an ordered past. The move to modernist functionality and minimalism is too boring and soulless, so there is a re-enchantment by visual appearances.

Economy, society and culture become detached. The economy no longer provides competing metanarratives. Communism (that upheld socialism, however much socialists wanted a democratic alternative) fell, and capitalism was victorious, though arguably capitalism itself is failing and falling. Media saturation carries its own multiple ideologies. The decline of a western working class is a decline of mass keynesian consumption, and an underclass lacks purchasing power. The middle class is choice making, but aimless in its cultural choices.

More specifically, rational bureaucracies of economic power defer to technical experts within the organisation and many of these disagree and compete on interests, and team working deliberate decentralises and empowers, though much of this is illusory.

The linguistic turn has impacted upon many disciplines, so that there are critics of close correlations of research: constantly a question of and a breakdown in meaning. The limitations and criticisms of science and history lead to a focus upon texts and language, and academia can become sterile in this focus. The story becomes important as a means of coherence, but there are lots and lots of stories, and they can be history-like and biography-like when they cannot be history and biography. Indeed science can tell its story, even as its paradigm seems to be coming apart weighed down by dark matter and dark energy and neutrinos that go faster than light.

BUT... Surely people can still tell the difference between saturated images and their reality, even understand that 'reality television' isn't real and is a construction. Criticism here has a positive and still worthwhile function. Science may have lost much of its linear optimism, but it can still be done, as can mathematics, as can social science research - and the latter has not been reduced to the same as the novel. As capitalism fails, tensions over scarcity resume, and a compassionate society can be a critical society that needs to take power back. This needs collective organising, and more than just dissipated movements of interests divorced from the big political push (say Green, animal rights). The capitalist organising by experts is still ideologically secure - promote the profit principle for capital - and the fact that team working is an illusory empowerment suggests a false consciousness may be quite active. There is still mass unemployment and the underclass is not always in and out of inadequate levels of work: supply side labour market measures cannot make up for a lack of paid work. Bad housing is always bad housing: style doesn't come into it and basic needs do. If postmodernity is simply a more intense subjectivity, and set against the unaffordable, and there is still discrimination between style and substance, then really there is more that is continuous than discontinuous with modernity. There always were many narratives, choices, and consumption, and to some extent we always had a fragmented self.

The real test, perhaps, is to the extent that space and time are confused, and the extent to which transience is underlined. Derrida showed that binary systems are not as secure as they think they are: that each opposite contains a bit of what they deny, as revealed when reading between the lines. Metanarratives are filled with doubt but, as for metanarratives, I would suggest that the secular metanarrative as a sociology of knowledge is very powerful, of a belief in science underlined by technology that achieves solutions, and giving explanations that are naturalistic. There is no equality of explanation between the secular, the supernatural and the magical, no space for Radical Orthodoxy to muscle in and start proclaiming that sociology is some form of secular theology. The supernatural and magical are in serious decline as explainers of anything at all, whether in the Bible, Qur'an, Bhagavad Gita or Church traditions. Research, either for regularity or validity, remains vitally important.

It is the power of the secular that leads all religion into choices. The once big Christian world explains as little as other religious choices. What are the mechanisms, for example, of understanding atonement as all around one man: how do these work? The inability to explain these in any meaningful sense undermines such doctrinal religion. There is no comparative historical base for investigating a supremacy of one person as a God-man: it can only be a doctrinal assertion from the beginning. Magic or supernatural intervention does not overcome brain death and the instant work of maggots.

Religion then is going to be both modernist and postmodern, to the extent that it is both experiential and subjective, and of varied and different texts and stories. What they are going to do is focus upon one's own, or one's group's, direction in constructing a life and an ethic. When someone says, I am convinced I am right because of my experience, then they will hear an account just as valid to itself and its own experience. Indeed the other person will have a belief and experience that might simply change in themselves. The issue for postmodernism or high modernism is whether it will work as a society, and perhaps the task of religion is to show that it can. So religion is to serve the world, and to show the world that it can work together in its diversity. Rather than being performers of doctrines, religion should perhaps be open and creative. Paul Lakeland wants still a distinctive Christian religion in postmodernity but sees it as serving in providential care with both Christ and the silent and distant God in the background (1995, Postmodernity: A Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 110, 109). Christ is the other of God and a historically particular person in which I can see myself reflected (110). Christ as such is les the focus and becomes more the revealer of God (as once was) (111). Well, maybe, but under postmodernity Being itself is compromised and any Christ as any self is going to be multiple in reflections.

Open and liberal, this postmodern faith checks itself, but even if more conservative it can be said that if Christ is the only way to the Father, then Buddha is the only way to that Enlightenment, and Islam is the only submission to the pure transcendence that wills what it wants, and Hinduism unites being with Being. When conservative, packages are themselves and their own languages; when more open constructions of religion can take a bit of this experience and that, often from several people in conversation, and find ways that jigsaws parts together. In a plural setting you make your own packages, but the existence of others is a means to doubt and hold back on your own or group's tendency to imperialism.

Hitching a Postmodern Ride

I'm grateful again to Rachel for giving a wider audience to some speakers like Steve Hollinghurst, a Researcher in Evangelism to Post-Christian Culture, who spoke on 23rd November to her and clergy colleagues at Swanwick.

He spoke on postmodernity and stated that modernity lasted several hundred years and postmodernity will not become clear until it can be assessed from a future vantage point. It could take generations.

I am interested how it is that people almost embrace postmodernity yet tell us they have something eternal as a Truth that we ought to acquire.

If they have something called Truth, then perhaps they ought to be more clear in their opposition to postmodernity. Otherwise they can be accused of being manipulators.

He stated, according to Rachel, that postmodernity is happening. Print and the printing press led to one revolution and the Internet is now of this kind. There is gender equality and the rise of feminism; there was invention of the motor car. The CD is a blip. The banking crisis a mini-wave, micro-productivity and upgrading hardware and software part of life.

It seems to me this is quite a bizarre set of examples. Surely the car is modernity - a large producer economy piece made affordable as part of mass production. Feminism again is about a group identity along with class, and is part of modernity. The CD isn't a blip if it is part of the long reach of reliable music continuing with the MP3. The CD can be seen, again, as modernist: large scale, reliable, producer products. The MP3 undermines production companies by individual downloads and choices among a vast storage capacity with the players. The CD as a playing and recording device continues.

He seems to be haphazard because he was not presenting any theory. So he mentioned the fall of communism as a global impact where globalism becomes glocalism and affects every day matters like moving house. I don't know how the fall of communism affects moving house. He might have a theory somewhere there but he seemed to go in for contrasts instead.

So modernity is as with a book culture and authoritative whereas the internet creates a democracy where everybody's voice can be heard but it makes everything temporary. All become privileged with the personal story - that authority rests within themselves.

When we get to authority resting with individuals, again this is a feature of modernity. People carve out different identities for themselves dependent upon their contexts. But in modernity the whole liberal, individualist enterprise was about experience.

Kant proposed the autonomy and authority of the individual. This has two main impacts: one on the supreme subjectivity of truth to the universal and the other on the individual as being. There is nothing postmodern about this; indeed Habermas as a critic of its sufficiency takes a stage further to intersubjectivity of truth via interest-free conversation: that a group of people unhindered by economic interests will coalesce to the truth. Hegel had long since regarded Kant as unable to bind people together, but he moved to the notion of absolute spirit.

All the time there is the maintenance of the individual and the impact of the collective; for a sociologist, there are 'higher' objective and organising forces. It is the point that society and culture forms the individual.

The difference is, I suggest, between modernity and postmodernity is the collapse of the created objective and the subjective and even the self is deemed to be transient. The surface appearance of something becomes its all, as fleeting signs point to themselves and nothing more concrete - if they do.

The second way of understanding modernity (and therefore postmodernity) is to contrast it with premodernity. The principle of modernity is rational organisation, such as the pyramidal bureaucracy occupied according to merit. The previous organising principle was the sacred, as in many religious organisations (such as in the laying on of hands or spiritual benefit within caste). Modernity became more flexible in organisation according to experts as well as bureaucrats and in team working; each of these spills into postmodernity when the experts disagree or the teams become completely localised.

Of course Steve Hollinghurst's interest is religion and he saw postmodernity in terms of people wanting to choose to believe and not wanting to be told what to believe. People do not want to be guided for rites of passage; they have it all worked out. Also postmodernity leads to reaction: Kepel 's 'The Revenge of God' witnessed a rise in fundamentalism from which people 'stand against' to safeguard and protect.

Again, the 'Homeless Mind' is a feature of modernity and plurality. He referred to consumerism and no doubt this is significant, but again consumerism is not new. Certainly the spirit of the New Age, of purchasing religion, is affecting churches so that they become religious service providers. People pay to receive a package and couples for weddings come with their list of requirements. Well they do for all rites of passage, as in many a crematorium funeral.

I don't know why postmodernity leads to the unchuched rather than dechurched. In postmodernity people are potentially in all sorts of groups (and out again) as they acquire identities according to wish. What he is referring to is caused from a mass movement of modernity called secularisation. That indeed did dechurch and by generation (collapse of Sunday Schools) meant unchurched. In Europe the working class were only marginally churched, and then the urban middle class followed on in underlining secularisation.

He stated that the unchurched means there is nothing deeply buried to reawaken; there are no Christian truths there in the first place. The unchurched, unlike the dechurched, are less likely to pinpoint a moment of conversion and instead slowly come to relationship. There is more belief in a higher power and of spirituality.

I cannot see why this should not be so. Surely people join groups, get a moment of conversion, then get critical, and finally leave and move on. That's a postmodern pathway, of serial, parallel and multiple identities (a more intense form of modernity).

He contrasted that in Japan people attend without believing as they see religion as providing for certain basic needs. In Britain people believe but they do not attend. Surely this is contradictory to the principle of being unchurched if there is nothing buried to reawaken. What are they believing?

In predicting a new reformation he asked how they effectively communicate timeless truths and talks of an eternal gospel that has spoken through pagan, classical, medieval and modern worlds. Each time we saw different expressions of the deep truths of God.

God's new life is spilling out - and asks how can those people doing spirituality can be lodged back into the apparent timeless story.

Another given is the "must" that mission is framed in terms of the social dimension of the Trinity. Why?

He stated that Christendom (and imperialist church planting) was at least confident with a vision. Big stories were told that organised people and took over the reign of chaos. Really? There was chaos was there? The truth is more that superstition continued long after sacred churches organised themselves, and it has only been modernity that has killed off some frankly harmful beliefs about demons.

Churches were inculturated. It suggests (to Rachel and others?) the homogeneous unit principle (HUP) of demographically similar people becoming Christians when crossing few or no racial, linguistic, or class barriers. In the midst of all this diversity, their aim is to recover a peculiarly British Christianity.

Christians will have to use analogies, avoid theory and tell stories from out of which people can make their own connections. He stated that the Reformation once captured and expressed that new individualism in reaction to the corporate, feudal world that had preceded it.

Er, no it didn't. The Reformation was an appeal to the princes of the feudal world who wanted autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire, such as it was, and Catholic connected State power in general. Protestantism gave states more autonomy, but it wasn't the autonomy of modernism. That was to come later. Religion remained associated with the State.

Apparently Steve Hollinghurst is in the evangelical debate about saving all or not: it may not be universalism, but a particular kind of patience, a holy waiting with God for this to happen. This waiting is also faith post September 11 2001, which ought to be sacrificial and hesitant and not triumphalistic. There's the lack of spirituality inside our churches and the need to recover sacred spaces and perhaps the ways of the early church fathers and Christian mystics. The idea of being reconciled in Christ is the emphasis is on diversity in unity. Loving God and loving my neighbour also demands a far reaching ecumenism and the God outside as well as inside the Church.

It strikes me as a form of arrogance, that postmodernity is a phase through which this certainty needs to navigate. If these folks are so certain about truth, then they should campaign against the postmodern full stop.

Much of the postmodern is in fact high modern. It is continuous with the capitalist individualism that has taken place so far. A producer capitalism of mass production, mass consumption and mass culture has been replaced by just in time, style consumption and chosen transient group identities. But there is still the corporation and multinational, and the banks that failed were not supposed to be transient entities.

Where postmodernism does count is in the dislocation of space and time. Thus out of modernity comes a town centre that looks like every other town centre, and a dislocation of space. Every Lidl and Aldi is the same, except for being clockwise or anticlockwise. Macdonaldisation is a modernism that becomes postmodern as it repeats spaces. Culture is no longer high and low, but everything seems to be a form of advertising. Architecture shows time past, present and future often in one building. Utility and indifference in economics becomes lost. There is an inability to do history, so some revert to texts only with readers separated from the writers, and science is criticised (beyond losing optimism: it becomes trapped). In postmodernism the wrapping paper is the gift, or at least is a seamless part of the gift, and indeed one cannot tell the difference between a gift and an exchange (rather an important distinction in religion and ritual).

The modernity of individual autonomy and experience does lead on to consumer religion and the transience of choices, but much postmodern religion is a rejection of liberal autonomy in favour of the text and collective performance. It cannot see value in culture, only cultural performance. It's a dead, frozen approach to religion, presumably held to because of the attraction of orthodoxy for its own sake. Either that or it is believed.

I suggest that there is a lot faddish about postmodernism and the religious. Basically, many an evangelical is still driven by experience, particularly by the charismatic individual experience they interpret along received grounds. They are experience reinforced. They then take that into a criticism of other people's experiences and a pushing of their own. If you take away their theory and their intellectualism, even their religious standing, they will claim their experience and its interpretive power. They are not really postmoderns at all: they just don't want to miss out.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Nick Clegg's Political Blunder

The European issue has not as much damaged the Conservative Party, given its march in the sceptical direction, as damaged the coalition. Nevertheless, I think the person to emerge from this the worst is Nick Clegg. Perhaps I would say this, in that I cannot see myself voting Liberal Democrat without Nick Clegg standing down.

David Cameron faced with a treaty intent to bind together countries fiscally for the longer term benefit of the euro used his veto. He wanted to protect essential British interests, including the very City of London that had played such a part in landing us in the economic mess in the first place. But actually, go back decades and you find British policy towards the pound always coming first and manufacturing and business coming second. The Treasury has competed with, overshadowed and finished off other economic departments over and over again: more often with Labour governments that tried to build a different economic base. The last Labour government (both Blair and Brown) was more like Conservative governments in its liberal economics and light touch regulation towards the City, and thus weak regulation was unable to detect the mess (see recent news items regarding the Royal Bank of Scotland).

In playing his veto, Cameron has stopped nothing, though he is right on the limited point that a set of treaties between EU countries cannot override existing core treaties of the 27. If the 26 make rules that contradict the core treaties of the 27 then the British government can use other institutions, like the European Court, for a defence of its interests. But these would be based on an issue by issue basis, and presumably there won't be any other actual treaties set up for fiscal unity that contradict the core ones. In simple terms, the veto on economic matters like national budgets cannot be overturned (into say QMV) without a treaty change affecting the 27.

The question is did Cameron act alone. According to government accounts, Nick Clegg was consulted and he gave Cameron consent regarding the need to veto. Clegg then says it was a bad decision, and today stayed away from the House of Commons. Some think that in between Clegg saying yes to Cameron and making his criticism on Sunday, he received nothing but negative reaction from his MPs and Lords' grandees. So as much as Cameron tilting to his backbenchers, Clegg bent towards his own political party.

Did Clegg say yes? The cabinet approved the strategy in general ahead of the Council of Ministers (Prime Ministers) meeting but with warnings, as from Vince Cable, as regarding the effect of isolation on the British economy. Of course, here again, Vince Cable has responsibility for trying to recover the real economy, whereas George Osborne's focus stretches to the fate of the pound and banking. Then Cameron consulted Clegg during the meeting...

Comparison is made with Chris Huhne representing EU interests in the Climate Change conference who has been seen (even by John Prescott) as constructive and positive, showing how Britain can be at the centre of the EU.

There is no doubt that Nick Clegg has made several blunders during his time in government. There's also no doubt that he loves being in government and next to his soul mate Cameron (in terms of upbringing and social status). Cameron and him probably still get on far better than Blair (who would have got on with both of them) and Brown did in the previous government. The point is that Clegg lacks political skills.

If Chris Huhne can run free of questions that might otherwise dog him, he'd be a far better leader of the Liberal Democrats. As I understand it, Nick Clegg is going to lead the Liberal Democrats into the next election in 2015. This will be a disaster, as it was he who created all that litter in the notorious election advert about politicians not being truthful, only to operate a bare faced turnaround in government regarding student fees. Furthermore, the policy was always going to be sacrificed for a coalition, so the electorate was told a bare faced lie. This was yes under a collective party decision, but Clegg fronted it, and the one way a political party can signal its remorse and change of direction is for the leader to go. Paddy Ashdown went too quickly (his own decision) whereas others afterwards were forced out. Clegg needs to indicate he will go, or the party, to avoid disaster, needs to force him out.

Monday 12 December 2011

Rev from a Non-Rev

I can no longer watch the BBC's Rev in the manner of The American Soldier. Eh? I hear you read. The American Soldier is a sociological study about people who adapt and change their behaviour in expectation of a future role. All I want to say further on that is that I applied to train to be a Rev. with emphasis on the need for pastoral training, and that the academic had largely been done, so the rejection on the grounds of my intellect at services leaving people puzzled and character not relating to people in pastoral situations means I am untrainable. I sometimes wonder how I gave that chap a lift home today, who once occupied my house, or chatted to some very ordinary people over sandwiches after the afternoon advent-Christmas-Yuletide service.

The premise in inner city Rev (the focus of programme 5) is that he is in contact with a number of down and outs within his city ministry. There is a battle between the administration and the hierarchy and the pastoral needs on the ground. The banking chap played by Richard E. Grant is another kind of pastoral reality, preferring the group at Notting Hill near a model agency so that there is "pussy all round" - now he's sober. The Archdeacon represents the hierarchy and administration (after all, he was promoted) and increasingly so does the Reader: and the Reader is told by the Rev once out of danger with the accounts that they would review the week (that is, get the priorities right). The Reader is himself as in The American Soldier, an aspirant of the cloth and he is dangerously entertained by the amoral Archdeacon. He will come with recommendations.

Offering a bedroom to the crack addict who was going clean a little while after prison is, of course, over the fine line. In the end, he is back to where he was: his begging for his drug habit with a petrol can as if a taxi driver. Indeed, so was the banker, in reverse. The banker was better when he was rubbish, rather than managed on a sober life. He was as much a dodgy dealer as Mick, indeed a drug financier. The Rev. though stole from him, but it didn't matter - just another opportunity for a repayment schedule, suggesting that all banking is theft.

Colin, also of lowlife, is the sort of chap who just gets by, from one fantasy life in his life to the next, but he sort of manages to get by. He had no time for Mick, so there is discrimination among the dispossessed. Colin is within the church community, and can be contained, whereas Mick even with his weird reading of basic Bible stories, cannot be contained. The more general truth is that the Colins don't go to churches. Well, there are one or two that come within orbit, and he is the only one in the drama.

And meanwhile, unless Roman Catholic: there is the pastoral situation at home, which in the Rev.'s case is trying to get his wife pregnant (give her a role in life beyond the secondary attachment to his role) [I'm reminded that she is a solicitor, but the fiction suggests she finds the home life attached to his job limiting and she is in the driving seat for the baby - allowing for his willing duties in this regard].

I sometimes reflect on my own church community as a contrast. You would think Unitarians were intellectual and lower middle class. Once upon a time ministers were academy educated and preached on the Greek myths. Not any more. Ours is (I think it's fair to say) much more ordinary among the ordinary, and is across the north. Here is a small number of mainly retired and economically inactive folk who somehow hold their heads above the water line. They are all moderate plain speakers, many of whom would cheer on David Cameron on nationalistic terms (not me, not at all). The days of the middle class families who once supplied the trustees and core congregation down the generations have gone (the families still exist, however), and these folks left are the gathered. So we do not, as such, and probably never did, pick up the urban lost even in the days of education and welfare and leisure outreach. Not the Micks, and not quite the Colins either. But there is, including in the 'not much money' folk, a merging into a lower middle class and graduate (or similar through experience) grouping, and these tend to discuss, further, denominational matters. The denomination will have to recruit its ministers from this tiny handful as repeated in other congregations. Today's service, with its theme of 'colours' at this time of year, drew in residents of homes provided by the Leonard Chamberlain Trust - thus I had two invites to attend. A few of the usual core people stayed away: they don't believe in Christmas and don't like carols and all that (and neither do I, to be honest). These invited are our 'needy', so to speak, or at least those who have been enabled by the charity to live independently, including me. They come to this service, and also to the Sutton Feast Day service the Unitarians provide, and which, this last year, I took, and I didn't lose anyone intellectually at all. In fact some said it was the best one they had ever attended. Perhaps I should take up accountancy.

Note: all the images are from the BBC online broadcast and are here as illustrative.

Friday 9 December 2011

Death to Life and Religious Myth

Some programmes are the finest we can watch, and one must be After Life: The Strange Science of Decay. For anyone interested in themes of simplicity into complexity and in themes of resurrecting, this is a must. It's up there with Armand Marie Leroi's What Darwin Didn't Know, the programme that looked at how two lakes independently produced the same number of interacting fish species and how by genetics that we now know that the eye evolved, stage by stage, just once.

The programme on decay was an experiment (with some themes off) of a best sealed room in Edinburgh Zoo where the temperature is high and animal and vegetable food is left. Some is in packs and some in the open. There is the contents of a typical family barbeque. A few flies are let in. There is also a big of composting going on. People can go around and look in, and Dr George McGavin makes his visits with other experts and asks the public to sniff things and even retrieve a £5 note from lots of maggots.

The main agents of decay are mould, bacteria and maggots during the room's 80 days. The three agents compete, and the flies produce maggots and then there's an explosion in fly numbers, must of which get drunk on wine and rotted vegetables.

Two aspects I found particularly interesting, and one was simplicity. Fungus broke down living matter, but then trees developed and for 50 million years stayed ahead of fungus and locked in carbon to make an oxygen rich earth that made for larger insects than we see now. Indeed the earth developed life. Eventually fungus evolved to get at the wood, and now turns dead trees white as it does its decaying job.

But a slime mould is a single cell body and can be huge. It is now shown to demonstrate pattern behaviour (like lots of birds forming efficient patterns in the sky: they just do). The mould spreads, finds food, cuts back leaving channels, and does so with back ups. The single cell must get its food, not cost too much and tackles damage. Create a map of 'centres of population' and a slime mould will produce the most efficient transport system. The efficiently planned one around Tokyo is superseded by the slime mould. In the same way, slime mould can do motorway planning in Britain, which can only be an improvement.

Like the maths of fractals, we have simplicities that appear to contain intelligence because simple rules create patterns. That's how the fractal works - an iterated virtual number equation from which beauty comes.

These are what I call signals of transcendence.

Then we have the business of decay. The atoms of nitrogen get moved from the decayed matter into growing matter. The forces of decay break things down, and clear away the mess, but also create the constituents that form new life.

The religions of the far east reflect this in their rebirth myths and that of circular time. For the more linear time approaches, the Iranian belief in resurrection imported into some Judaism and into Christianity is about death becoming life restored (and made full). So religions are reflections upon wider natural processes and also ethical behaviours for us more self-conscious ones. Yes, there are particular myths and old stories that relate to wider universal themes.

But an interesting point to add here (as regards the previous blog entry). If there was some tomb for a body that some claim was uniquely so far restored and transformed into a spiritual body, then when death occured not only would the brain have died and died pretty much immediately but the maggots would have got to work at an instance. More likely, as a historical point, the bodies of the executed were dumped by the Romans into lime pits so to precisely speed the rotting and gas bloating that would take place more openly and obviously - and the lime pit also goes for the bones.

The reason for making these connections is to try to plug religion back into the natural world and to give religion some life again itself. It's not that the stories of religion no longer work, but that in secularisation they are being shortcutted - we may as well go direct to the science and these narratives. Yet there is a lot still in Shiva as a God of destruction and recreation, for example, as there is in moving from death to life. My objection is simply in the particularity, where much of religion (and Christianity I know best) doesn't work on its own terms, by its own claims. I'm not a person to start praising Jesus or the work of the Holy Spirit when these are myths for what are ordinary processes that fascinate and are themselves incredible: particularly the maths and science of patterns and the way systems interact in the processes of change and renewal.

Note: all the images are from the BBC online broadcast and are here as illustrative.

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.