Monthly Archives: April 2010

In Which An Anglican Ex-Bishop Makes an Ass of Himself

In the UK we had a important day in law this week. A senior judge (called Laws, no less!) ruled that a dismissed marriage guidance counselor could not appeal against the upholding of his dismissal by a previous hearing.

The counselor (I’m sure you can guess what’s coming) refused to offer part of his contracted services to gay couples, on the grounds that it interfered with his Christian faith. He agreed to meet gay couples in undirected counseling (sitting and listening), but not to provide directed counseling (giving advice). He was rightly sacked because providing that service was part of his job.

Now this caused a kick-off in the Anglican church. If you’re joining us from elsewhere in the world, you may be amazed to know that the Anglican church gets 26, or just under 5% of the seats in the upper house of our parliament, free, unelected, by virtue of being ‘Lords Spiritual’. This same democratically obscene institution chose to cry foul at the judgment because, they claimed, it showed that Christianity is under attack in the UK, and the legal system is biased against Christian principles and values. If their arrogant self-entitlement weren’t so horrific it would be funny.

And so it was I happened to tune into a radio broadcast in which former bishop, and born Pakistani, Nazir Ali, was trying to defend this view. Fresh from his arrest in Germany on a typographical misdemeanor (where a polizist read his name on a poster as “Nazi Rali”). He made the point that the UK, and the whole of the west, based its 21st century ethics on Judeo-Christian moral principles. And that, therefore, Christians have some kind of higher moral authority in the country, and should be allowed to follow their ‘conscience’ in fostering discrimination.

At no point did anyone ask him, exactly how it was that the best humanistic morality of our state is based on Christianity. Why it was that every humanistic ethical innovation of the last 500 years has been opposed by the institutional church. Or who gets to decide which bits of Christian morality are cherry picked to be the ones we should all follow and which ones are best kept under the rug. Lord Justice Laws was apposite in remarking that the problem with religious morality is that it is highly subjective, devoid of basis in evidence, and irrational (in the sense of not being rationally based, not in the pejorative sense, I assume). I started reading through the universal declaration of human rights, and it is significant that many of the articles are countered by historically normative Christian exegesis and practice. Of those that aren’t I couldn’t find any that I could clearly trace back to a Judeo-Christian origin.

Neither did anyone ask Nazir-Ali if he supported the rights of racist doctors to deny treatment to patients who their conscience tells them are not true UK citizens. Or if atheist adoption workers should allow their conscience to prevent them from placing children with Christian parents, given the indoctrination they will receive in that environment.

No. It is quite clear to me that Nazir-Ali and his fellows don’t want a legal system based on conscience. They want their personal favorite discrimination to be institutionally protected. Given that he must have faced a significant amount of racism in his career, this is just appalling.

In the words of our prime minister this week, it is time to call out this segment of the Anglican church for what they are: bigots.

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Why is British Unitarianism in Freefall?

British Unitarianism LogoI have a lot of sympathy for the Unitarian movement. Specifically the modern Unitarian movement that seeks to provide a community and religious experience free from the burden of creeds. It is a humanistic faith concerned with social justice. I value and appreciate that. In the secular British culture, I know of a lot of folks who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ – who feel there is something there, but want to avoid being told what it is. I know of lots of folks who are humanist, and concerned with community and society.

When I’m working in the US I try to go visit a church. My¬† experience of the UU church has been good. UU doesn’t exist in the UK, but its equivalent, the Unitarian denomination, is in decline.

I’ve been looking through their central website this week, and the annual reports are not edifying reading.

And I don’t know why. Is it just that British Unitarians are terrible about communicating? It seems like the country is ripe for their message. It seems like lots of folks I talk to would be happy in that environment. But there are relatively few congregations around, most are small, aged, and meeting increasingly rarely (though some, I’m sure, are bucking that trend). I’ve never been to a British Unitarian meeting. My nearest is over an hour away and at a difficult time for the family.

The social reasons why all church attendance is shrinking in the UK are pretty well rehearsed. But I don’t understand why British Unitarianism isn’t more successful.

And I feel a sadness, that a denomination that has a genuine potential to be a religious force for good, will eventually die out, unlike the malevolent imported mega-church lunacy that’s growing like a cancer over here.

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What is Theology?

There are as many definitions as there are theologians. Mine is:

Theology is investigating the implications of a particular model of God.

or

Thealogy is investigating the implications of a particular model of Godess.

Observations

  1. You start from some model of what or who God is, then you follow the out-workings of that model. You could do theology starting from a model of God-as-omnimax, for example, or God-as-orthodox-trinity or God-as-deistic-God.
  2. Inevitably there are lots and lots of implications. So you have to choose which you’re interested in. In western Christian theology there have been a set of particular topics that theologians address. Things like ontology, eschatology, soteriology, hamartiology, ecclesiology, missiology.
  3. It is also possible to do theology on a specific topic, considering a set of distinct model of God. Some feminist or liberation theologies do this (though most stick to a single model of God).
  4. A good theology is one that finds new implications, or that uses a new model to get further.
  5. You don’t need to be a believer to do theology. While Anselm wrote that theology was “faith seeking understanding”, my experience is that many if not most theologians don’t exactly share the model of God they use as the basis of their work.

Atheistic Theology

In this framing of theology, it is possible to do atheistic theology. One starts with a particular model of God (as an epiphenomenon of belief in God, for example), and one can hunt down the implications.

It is important to me that any such theology be relevant to the historical and cultural context of western theological discussion. To do that, one would have to address the conventional topics of the discipline. I struggled to get very far there with a bald atheistic model of God (i.e. having no referent when talking about ‘God’).

But now I’ve found that my meta-cognitive God allows interesting theological investigation in areas such as ontology, hamartiology, ecclesiology and missiology. It is less, but still somewhat relevant to areas such as pneumatology and Christology. It is even less useful in soteriology and eschatology, but I can still chase some new implications there.

I think the idea of an atheistic theology is very exciting. I think there are probably vast numbers of models to investigate, and vast numbers of topics to use them in. I’m starting with one.

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God Does Exist After All — Part 3

Part 3. The Will of the Sofa

This follows on from part 1, whereas part 2 was a bit of background. In part 1 I described what it means to say that something like Marxism, or pacificm, exist. As we saw it is a strange type of existence: we can look at it as one amorphous thing, or many more specific things. Neither view is correct, Marxism itself is both one and many, both amorphous and specific.

I’m going to turn towards God now.

It will come as no surprise for me to say that I think God exists in the same way as Marxism and pacifism. God exists as a property of many human thoughts. At one level God is universal and ineffable. At another, God is personal and specific.

By abandoning the need to think about a God as an external, objective thing, this model allows us to take believers seriously, and understand what they think about the God they worship. Because, at least at some levels, what they think about God does define God. And at another level, all those thoughts flow into the amorphous world-spanning notion of God that humanity has given birth to.

I think it is a powerful model. And this and the next and last part will explore two features of it.

God the Agent

You don’t have to talk to believers for long, before you realise that they mostly agree that God has desires. I’ve met very few believers who were truly deist. Most want to claim, at least at some level, that God wants to influence the way we behave. God favours good actions over bad actions (for a suitable definition of Good and Bad).

Now this is a fascinating thing – because we’re now out of the territory of Marxism and pacifism, into new features of the God concept. One could certainly talk what it means to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Marxist, and by implication that being a Marxism means you should prefer one action over another.

But you would not say (unless by metaphor) that Marxism itself wants you to behave one way or another.

We could dismiss this by saying that God is just a personified concept. But that would miss the point. The point is that believers believe that their God wants them to do stuff. And, crucially, they will therefore go out and do it.

So we have this strange phenomenon of a concept with not only desires, but agency: a concept that can get its desires fulfilled. God has no hands or legs, but God can mobilise human beings with hands and legs to act in the world.

In the comments to my first part it was suggested that this model applies to anything. At that stage it did. But now, not at all. A sofa can’t do work in the real world. God can. God can have constitutional rights rescinded in California, or organize a terrorist attack in New York.

Obviously it is human beings doing these things. That is true. But then, when you write a comment on a blog, it is fingers actually doing the typing.

My central thesis is that, by combining a large number of independent thinkers, each imagining and listening for God, and each in communication and tight feedback with each other, people inadvertently form the fabric of exactly such a thing – a God with desires and will. As long as we bear in mind the amorphous-specific distinction from part 1, we are justified in talking about the will of God.

Still just a concept, God can function as an actor and agent in the physical world.

This, I contend, is quite unlike most other concepts, such as Marxism, or Sofa-ness.

This mini-series is exploring the theological model I am using for some work I am doing at the moment. I am experimenting with different ways to express the core ideas, because I’m not sure what makes the most sense. I’d really appreciate feedback, suggestions and links to other similar work.

Oh, and I’m still an atheist :)

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What's in a Name?

A bit of a random side-show while I’m working on the next post in my series about God.

Today I needed to write an explanation of how different people would interact. I started, as I often do, by naming them. So Suzie would say to Bob, such and such, and Bob would contact Esther to have her do such and such. I suspect we all do that a fair bit.

During a coffee break, it occurred to me that I spend too much time

  • Thinking up names.
  • Making sure I don’t have an obvious gender bias.
  • Making sure they’re distinctive enough to not confuse things.

So I enrolled my wife with a challenge. Help me standardize the names I use for random people. Adding to the above criteria I have another.

  • For the sake of fingers, names should be short.

Because (for reasons I won’t got into) I don’t write in a word-processor, but in a text editor, it would also be convenient if the names are the same length, so they take up the same space.

So, after a cup of coffee, a few Jaffa Cakes, and some searching through baby names websites, we have the definitive list of generic people names:

Anne
Bill
Carl
Dana
Ella
Flyn
Gale
Hope
Ivan
Jose
Katy
Luke
Mary
Neil
Omar
Paul
Quin
Ruth
Sara
Troy
Uday
Vern
Wynn
Xena
Yuki
Zach

This list has 13 male and 13 female names (some names can be used for both genders – the predominant gender is used). And, if you use them in order, they will almost always give you as near to a 1:1 ratio as you could get. Some of the spellings aren’t the most common spelling for a name, but they are all common in their own right. The names are (obviously) all 4 letters long, and no two have just one letter difference. I’ve taken some care to remove obvious homophones (such as Bill and Gill) which could confuse things in a phone call.

What I didn’t do is to weight the occurrence on the list by ethnicity. I thought of this, but it turns out to be very complicated to do, since there just aren’t enough names to add this additional criteria. I have (perhaps halfheartedly) tried to use non-European names. But then again there’s a bit of a problem. Since I’m mostly communicating with Western, English-speaking readers, names they have to read twice or struggle over would be counter-productive. So the list is, unfortunately, biased towards my ear.

Fifteen fun minutes in the middle of an otherwise grindy day.

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God Does Exist After All — Part 2.

Part 2. Are You a TRUE Patriot?

In the last part of this series, I described concepts such as libertarianism, pacifism and Marxism; and what it means to say these things ‘exist’. I said that we can group people together based on their ideas of what Marxism (for example) is. If we are generous about this grouping, we might get one nebulous global idea of Marxism, everyone in one group. If we divide further, we might have many Marxisms.

What I didn’t talk about what whether any of those individuals think they are Marxist, or whether they just have opinions about Marxism. In other words I want to bring in sectarianism into the discussion.

I’m bored of talking about Marxism though, so let’s change our concept. Patriotism works just like Marxism. Most of us have some idea what ‘Patriotism’ means. At one level we’re all right, and Patriotism is some nebulous concept that includes all our views. At another level we might split into specific (possibly political) understandings of what is Patriotic, and at the extreme everybody’s view is different in some way to everyone else’s. [That much is a summary of last time].

So we can group people that way. For any arbitrary threshold in our heatmap, we can imagine the groupings of people that arise – groups of people who have the ‘same’ view of Patriotism.

But we can also group people according to their sectarian understanding of the concept. A certain group of people will recognize themselves as patriotic, and will characterize other people as un-patriotic. This is the first time I’ve mentioned un-something. And it is important when considering sectarianism.

So what does this do for my thesis?

Well. Glad you asked.

Two Different Criteria for Making Groups

Sectarian understandings of Patriotism are fascinating. They fill books. They start wars. They assassinate journalists. But they aren’t what I want to talk about in this series.

You see, in the first way of looking at concepts, we might put two people in the same group. For some level of detail, they have the same understanding of Patriotism. But they may think they have different understandings. They may loathe each other. They may think each other the worst kind of traitor possible.

In other words, beliefs about sectarianism are not the same as natural groupings around concepts.

Now, I think the two things often go hand in hand. We might naturally have a different opinion of what is Patriotic, if we’re on opposite sides of some civil war, for example. But the correlation should not be confused with identity. And, when I’ve been trying to think through these issues, one of the things I find, over and over, is that I’ve accidentally slipped into thinking about the wrong kind of group, and that is clouding the issue.

Why Bother Talking Sectarianism?

So, this was a waste of a post then, talking about what isn’t important.

Well. I think it feeds into the next post, because there is one feature of sectarianism I want to point out.

When sectarianism is in place, people listen more to those in the ‘in’ group than the ‘out’ group. So if somebody’s concept of Patriotism is changing, it is likely changing because of influences from the ‘in’ group, and reactions to the ‘out’ group.

Over time, these groups tend to wander over the heatmap I drew in the last post. And they do so by coalescing around people they sympathize with, and fleeing from those they hate.

These kinds of dynamics are the main topic of part 4 (which may be the final part, I don’t know). But first part 3, where we get into the really juicy stuff.

This mini-series is exploring the theological model I am using for some work I am doing at the moment. I am experimenting with different ways to express the core ideas, because I’m not sure what makes the most sense. I’d really appreciate feedback, suggestions and links to other similar work.

Oh, and I’m still an atheist :)

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God Does Exist After All — Part 1.

Part 1. Another Type of Existence

What is ‘libertarianism’? Or ‘pacifism’? Or ‘Marxism’? Do these things exist?

I think these three things can be said to exist, but they do so in a very particular way.

They are things that exist based on what human beings think they are. They have no existence outside human thought. And their existence is the combination of lots of different human thoughts, some contradictory, some personal and some universal.

We all will have a slightly different view of Marxism, for example. What is Marxism? Well it is a combination of those views.

Marxism doesn’t have definite boundaries. It is fuzzy. There are some things that lots of people associate with Marxism, and other things that are peculiar to a few. People cluster. Liberation theologians might share many of the same associations with each other, but be relatively distant from Leninists, who again share the same associations with each other.

Heat-Mapping

To visualise this, let’s imagine we can write down on a big piece of paper all the different features or associations people have with Marxism. We try (as much as possible) to put associations that tend to appear together, near to one another. We then color in our piece of paper, with a lighter color for associations that more people have, and a darker color for rarer features (we could also weight this process by how strongly each person holds that association). This is called a heat-map. We might end up with something that looks like figure 1.

Fictitious heapmap of associations for Marxism

1. A fictitious heatmap of associations for Marxism - no cutoff applied.

We can see a reasonable cluster down the bottom left and a smaller cluster around some ideas in the bottom right. But any possible association is shared by some people. As I said, there is no definite boundary.

One thing that heat-maps allow you to do, however, is to fix certain boundaries. We can say that only associations that are particularly strong should be considered part of Marxism. So an association with Karl Marx, the man, might be high, and association with Joe’s grandfather might be rare. The first we might say is part of Marxism, the second is not.

We can visualise this on our heat map by adding a cut-off. Any idea that isn’t associated strongly enough, by enough people, isn’t part of Marxism. Any idea that meets this criteria is part of the concept (figure 2).

The Marxism heatmap, with a cutoff

2. The Marxism heatmap, with a cutoff, showing the boundaries of what constitutes a single, global concept of Marxism.

But, of course choosing this cut-off is problematic. What threshold do we use? If we choose a low threshold, then the concept is pretty meaningless (i.e. just about everything is part of Marxism). If we choose it too high, then it may fragment. With a suitably high threshold in the example I’ve given so far, we get four different Marxisms (figure 3).

A Heatmap with a threshold, showing four different Marxisms.

3. For a suitably high cutoff threshold, four different Marxisms arise.

A New Type of Existence

So what is Marxism? Is there one of it, or four of it?

Marxism is what people think it is. Some things are thought by more people, and more strongly. Some things are rarer. There is both one Marxism, and four (and, if you keep going, a different Marxism for every person who has a concept of it).

Marxism, pacifism, and libertarianism have a different kind of existence to a chair, or a corporation, or a car crash. It behaves in different ways to other kinds of existence, and we need to take care to understand it on its own terms. It is a crucial type of existence to understand when we look at the concept of God.

This mini-series is exploring the theological model I am using for some work I am doing at the moment. I am experimenting with different ways to express the core ideas, because I’m not sure what makes the most sense. I’d really appreciate feedback, suggestions and links to other similar work.

Oh, and I’m still an atheist :)

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A Cracker by Augustine

H/T clayboy

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

– Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim

Wow, that’s a quote and a half. No idea how I missed that one when I used to argue with creationists.

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Jesus as a Boy? — John 2:1-11

I’ve been doing a little bit of study on infancy gospels recently. They are early Christian writings about the life of Jesus before his public ministry. Works such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both (we think) second century texts. These got me thinking again about the NT, however, and an interesting thesis that I think has some merit. I’d like to share it.

First, some background on Christology. The various writers of the NT texts had different ideas about what it meant to be the Christ (which is just the greek word for Messiah), and the way in which Jesus fulfilled that label. One variation that is often cited is time. A very simplified version goes like this:

Paul – (the author of the earliest NT texts, around 60AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ through his death and resurrection.

Mark – (the earliest gospel, around 70AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ at his baptism.

Luke and Matthew – (the next tranche of gospel writing, around 80AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from conception.

John – (the last gospel, from after 90AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from before creation.

So during the first century, Christology got pushed back through the life of Jesus and out the other side.

The first and most significant push-back gives motivation for the gospels. Paul isn’t interested in Jesus’s life. The man Jesus isn’t as important as the Christ he becomes. It takes a theological shift, putting the Christ-event at the baptism, to give Mark the reason to write his life of Jesus. Now Jesus the man is important because he is the Christ on earth. Then another key change is that between Mark and Luke. At this point the Christ-event gets pushed back beyond the unknown.

[Can I stress again that this is over-simplified, the gospels and Paul are more nuanced and there is Christological variation on other axes than time!]

So the unknown is intriguing, and potentially juicy. If the boy Jesus was the Christ, he must have had his divine powers then, surely? If so how did he use them? Was he born with the mind of an adult? Or was he a petulant youth with the power of the creator of the cosmos at his fingertips? This is the speculation that gives rise to the rather comical tales in some of the infancy gospels (including Jesus cursing another boy he’d fallen out with: the boy dies and his parents are struck blind). By the second century this speculation had got really far fetched. But it was pretty modest in the first century when the gospels were being written.

I think (and this isn’t a majority position, as far as I can tell) that there are two such stories surviving in the NT. They are evidence of the emerging tradition that started out of that theological innovation: to push back the Christ-event to before Jesus’s baptism.

The first story is pretty clearly in this category (though some scholars don’t share my view that it predated the gospel that contains it). It is the story at the end of Luke 2 where a 12 year old Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus’s parents have set off for home after the passover and they find Jesus is missing, they return to Jerusalem and find him teaching in the temple – amazing the priests and scribes with his knowledge. The text even comments that his parents share their amazement.

The second is more controversial. It is the story of the family wedding in Cana (start of John 2), where Jesus turns water into wine. This story could be read as having taken place during Jesus’s public ministry (John places it after the baptism and calling of the first disciples), but the details don’t quite work in that context. It makes more sense to read it earlier.

Both these stories work on their own. They have no significant context or relationship to surrounding material. Luke 2, coming at the end of the birth narratives seems to contain yet another revelation to his astonished parents that Jesus is the Christ, even though Luke has already given us two (possibly independent) accounts before. The wedding story doesn’t make theological sense in terms of Jesus’s ministry – turning water into wine is domestic, hedonistic, it is out of kilter with the more obvious theological points of John’s other miracle stories. John’s setting is odd – it takes place out of the area that John (and the synoptics) want to portray Jesus’s ministry. Both stories use an ‘three days’ mnemonic (Jesus is lost for three days in Luke, and the wedding happens ‘on the third day’ in John), which is characteristic of Christological concerns, and suggests the stories are self-consciously written to that end. Both have linguistic characteristics that could suggest they are independent from the surrounding text.

I support the idea that both are pre-existing stories (not necessarily written sources) that Luke and John use and wind into their narrative. None of these bits of evidence is a slam-dunk, all can be contested. But there are answers to these objections (we can go over them in the comments if anyone wants to), and I am drawn by the balance of evidence.

I think many such stories circulated in the early church. Their number and impressiveness increased as the early church developed its theology and ‘realized’ that Jesus was the Christ from the beginning. These tales spread and these two early tales were successful enough to gain literary attention from the gospel writers, who found use for them and worked them into their texts. This same process continued over the next 300 years, and gradually taller and taller tales were spun, turning the pre-baptismal Jesus from an unremarkable tekton (skilled laborer), into a magician of the ages.

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Explanations have Consequences

You have told or been told a white lie at some point. Often it goes unnoticed. But on occasion it grows. It happens because explanations have consequences. You tell the lie: “I couldn’t get milk because the store was closed.” The listener finds a consequence that doesn’t match your explanation: “But I just spoke to Becky who said she’d just got back from the store.” So you figure out an explanation that matches all the data: “I went to the other store, because it was near the gas station, and I was low.” But no deal: “Low? I filled the car on Monday.” Another explanation for even more data: “I had to drive back out of state on Tuesday when I did that delivery, because there was a part missing.” And so on.

Eventually this exchange ends in one of three ways: either the explainer can’t think of further explanations (and they usually go personal: “I can’t believe you don’t trust me!”) or the listener can’t think of further consequences to check and believes the story, or the listener gets bored with the game and moves to discount the explanation (“Okay, fine, whatever you say.”).

The same three things happen with any bad explanation, including explanations in scholarship. The first two are the best ways to end, of course. Either in the acceptance of a new explanation, or its rejection: agreed on by both parties. But often you get the third: eventually the reasons get stretched thinner and thinner until the scholar (or the academy generally) will say the equivalent of “Whatever”. This is the source of the myth among creationists, for example, that biologists have no refutation of their argument. It is true, they don’t. There’s always a further even more far-fetched explanation around the corner for any new bit of data. Eventually all scholars give up on these debates. All explainers think they’ve won. And they are all disappointed (or turn to conspiracy theories) when they find they are just being ignored.

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