Tuesday, 2 September 2014

What is the point of the Old Testament (and why is there So Much of it?)

I would guess that this is a question that strikes most Christians at one point or another.

And in practice, most Christians don't really take much notice of the Old Testament. The old Church of England was an exception - because a regular church-goer would hear much of the OT read-through each year. However, probably all Christian denominations focus on the New Testament, and some almost exclusively so (for instance, some modern evangelicals).

Yet when we pick-up the Bible - most of it is Old Testament. Why so much?


The usual explanation is the the Old points-to the New... OK, but why is there so much pointing? Surely a bit of pointing would be enough - not hundreds of pages?


Well, there it is; and it is apparently up to us to discover what is the best use to make of the OT.

My suggestion is to regard it as the history of God's interactions with His people; told mostly from the perspective of those people - in other words from an (inspired) human's-eye-view and not, therefore, from a God's-eye-view.

(This is a possible to answer to why the OT is so long. So we can 'correct-for' the multiplicity of different perspectives.)

If regarded in this fashion, the Old Testament looks like a collection of examples of the constancy of God's personal loving concern for His people - this a constant factor lying behind what are depicted as great variations in His people's understanding, love and concern with God.

Since there are multiple examples over time, and multiple forms (annal, fable, poem, prophecy etc) there is redundancy in the OT; but since there is redundancy (as well as multiplicity of forms), we are not (I think) supposed to regard the OT as either wholly essential, or complete; nor as saying the same thing as the NT; nor that all parts of the OT are saying exactly the same thing (rather, they illustrate broadly the same general theme).


I think we can (and perhaps should) reasonably regard the OT as a resource or compendium to be probed and explored for particular and personal helps in our understanding of God's relation with His people (and therefore ourselves).

In practice, this is probably almost exactly what is done by most Christians - but I don't think we should feel so guilty about it - I mean about picking and choosing within the OT, and leaving-out a lot of it altogether!

In a sense, that is probably what the OT is actually for! Something for everybody, but everything for nobody.


Glastonbury versus Wells



Glastonbury and Wells are adjacent towns in Somerset, England - I visited both recently, and they make an interesting comparison.

Glastonbury is world famous as the centre of legendary Britain: the place where Jesus visited with Joseph of Arimathea ('And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green?'), and/or where Joseph of Arimathea visited after Jesus's Ascension to set-up the first Church in Europe; and the Island of Avalon where Kind Arthur went at the end of his earthly life, where Arthur's tomb was discovered.

More prosaically, in Medieval times Glastonbury had at times perhaps the greatest, most scholarly Abbey in England. And A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys is considered one of the greatest-non-canonical novels in English Literature.

And so on.


But more recently (since the mid 1970s), Glastonbury has become the undisputed centre of New Age spirituality in Britain - and the venue for the biggest and lamest pseudo-sixties annual pop festival.

It is, to be candid - a seedy place, inhabited by a distinctly mixed population. Quite a lot of shabby weirdos, burnt-out cases and doormats and (presumably living-off them) and quite a lot of hard-eyed exploiters.

The ruined abbey is prohibitively expensive to visit and completely obscured by high walls to ensure nobody can get a free look.

In sum, with the exception of the magnificent Tor (well worth a climb) and a few decent shops (like Gothic Image); modern Glastonbury is peculiarly characterless, yet also an oppressive and sinister place - and a clear and unambiguous demonstration of why New Age can never be a proper or good religion.


Wells, on the other hand - just a few miles down the road - is the smallest city in England (that is: the smallest place with a cathedral) - a tiny gem of medieval and other old architecture. It has a happy and somewhat magical feel about it - probably leaking out from the stones.

Although the Church of England is now spiritually almost moribund and increasingly openly anti-Christian - it still has perhaps a decade or two of inertial 'Barchester'-like beauty and elegance to run; and the Church has, over the centuries, kept the place beautifully - as has the Wells Cathedral School (derived from the choir school) whose boarding kids apparently inhabit all manner of delightful old buildings dotted around the place.

So - if you happen to be in that particular part of the Kingdom - I would advise making Wells your priority. Glastonbury is not all bad - but on the whole it is a lesson rather than an example.

The Nature of God - Joseph Smith versus Charles Williams

It seems (according to the King Follet discourse) that at the end of his short life Joseph Smith may have felt that the single most important element of his teaching - of the radical re-making of the what Christianity had become - was to restore the simple, concrete, literal, common sense and obvious understanding of God the Father - as He is revealed in the Bible.

Such things that God is a person, has a body (in whose image our own bodies are modelled), and more importantly has emotions - that God and Man are of the same basic kind or nature; and that despite that God and Man differ vastly (one might, using the word causally, say we differ 'infinitely') the difference between us is quantitative, and not a distinction of two utterly different orders of being.


It is like blinkers being removed!

Suddenly, the Bible's great promise that we are children of God, that He is our Father, that we are offered the chance - by the work of Jesus Christ - to become Christ's co-heirs (hence divine)... suddenly all this makes common-sense!

Suddenly we can speak the Lord's Prayer with comprehension and conviction; instead of...

Well, instead of beginning the very basics of Christian instruction or explanation by erecting a philosophical filter between us and the plain words - so that almost everything is re-interpreted to mean something other-than the obvious sense.


As an example, take the opening of Charles Williams's 1938 book He came down from Heaven in which he sets-about explicating the first phrase of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father which art in Heaven"

One might have supposed that the prayer which Jesus taught us would be reasonably lucid; but immediately the philosophical abstractions are inserted between the words and our understanding (or perhaps I should say our 'understanding' - because to insist that abstract philosophical terms are the real  truth is effectively to block understanding permanently and ineradicably).

Williams opens the commentary on the Lord's Prayer as follows; his words are in italics, my comments are in square brackets:

Its opening words undoubtedly imply a place in which "Our Father" exists, [instantly the basic address to God as our Father is problematized by surrounding the phrase with scare quotes] a spatial locality inhabited by God.  

Against this continual suggestion so easily insinuated into minds already too much disposed to it, ['continual suggestion' implies that people are being misled, and 'insinuated' implies that this misleading is deliberately covert, and 'minds already disposed' implies that such minds are either tainted with evil or stupid in drawing such a conclusion.]

the great theological definitions of God [by contrast, to the wickedness, foolishness and dishonesty of simple understanding, the theological definitions are called 'great']

which forbid men to attribute to him any nature inhabiting place are less frequently found and less effectively imagined. They have to be remembered. [Here Williams starkly asserts that men are 'forbidden' to believe that God has a material body occupying a locality - it is therefore said to be compulsory for us to regard God as immaterial and unlocalized - despite the candid acknowledgment that these beliefs in the abstract properties of God are both unusual and in practice unimaginable - yet this unsuual and imaginable thing is what we 'have to' do!]


I could go on but it would be tedious and repetitive. Suffice to say that Williams is stating here something that over the centuries has been usual for intellectuals engaged in presenting Christianity in summary: which is to state Christianity through the lens of negative theology (the theology of denials, the listings of what God is not: such that He lacks body, parts or passions in the words of the Westminster Confession) and in terms of abstract terms such as: omnipresence (God being everywhere and unlocalizeds - as asserted above); omnipotence (God being able to accomplish anything and everything which can be accomplished); existing unchanging outside the universe, outside time; and God being divided into three persons yet also being one person - and all the rest of this complex, incomprehensible, abstract, intellectual stuff.


It was Joseph Smith's early and astonishing achievement to get past this vast and obstructive apparatus and remake theology on the basis of something close to a plain and commonsensical understanding of scripture.

Of course, he did a lot more than this, and Mormonism contains a lot more than this; but this was the most profound - and profoundly welcome - insight he provided: that Christianity remade on the basis of a commonsense understanding of God 1. is coherent; and 2. is still Christianity.

Joseph Smith rediscovered God as a person, as our Father; as someone sufficiently comprehensible thus knowable; and, even more, as someone with whom each of us could imaginably aspire to become a divine 'friend', a son or daughter (albeit at the end of a vastly prolonged incremental and accumulative process of spiritual progression, theosis, sanctification, divinization).

Monday, 1 September 2014

Why is scripture so unclear? Wittgenstein suggests

Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein translated by Peter Winch (1997) - a note from 1937:

Why is ... Scripture so unclear? 

If we want to warn someone of a terrible danger, do we go about it by telling him a riddle whose solution will be the warning? 

- But who is to say that the Scripture really is unclear? Isn't it possible that it was essential in this case to 'tell a riddle'? And that, on the other hand, giving a more direct warning would necessarily have had the wrong effect? 

God has four people recount the life of his incarnate Son, in each case differently and with inconsistencies - but might we not say: It is important that this narrative should not be more than quite averagely historically plausible just so that this should not be taken as the essential, decisive thing?

So that the letter should not be believed more strongly than is proper and the spirit may receive its due. I.e. what you are supposed to see cannot be communicated even by the best and most accurate historian; and therefore a mediocre account suffices, is even to be preferred.

For that too can tell you what you are supposed to be told. (Roughly in the way a mediocre stage set can be better than a sophisticated one, painted trees better than real ones, - because these might distract attention from what matters.)


Comment. I think this is right. I read the passage nearly thirty years ago (when I was an atheist) and it has stuck in my mind since - although I did not re-read it until today.

My understanding of what Wittgenstein says is that the form of the Gospels (and of the Bible as a whole) tells us the nature of the doctrine which is being communicated

- Negatively that the doctrine is not about a mass of precise statements, and positively that what is important about it is being clearly communicated both despite and because of the unclarities of its communication.

In other words, if (as we believe) Scripture is true, then it is also clear - clear enough, clear in the necessary ways. 


This fits my oft-stated conviction that the proof-texting/ chapter-and-verse way of reading scripture segmentally - as if it was a law book or list of rules - obscures its truth and leads to confusion and conflict.

(And the same applies to abstracted summaries such as the Catholic catechisms and the Thirty Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession and Articles of Faith.)

Or, at least, such a method requires constant checking back against the primary truth of scripture; which is to be found in the simple overall truths rather than the parts.

(Just as the morality of good law is to be found in the spirit, and not in the letter - and indeed when the letter of the law is - rarely - good, this is usually for the wrong reason.)

The anti-Christian effects of superstition, propitiation, sacrifice

I feel in myself a deep, existential worry which is superstitious, and relates to the idea of propitiating - ultimately by sacrifice.

So, I resist expressing happiness, confidence, hope, optimism - I resist allowing myself to feel confidence in the future - I am to some extent constrained in being honestly positive about such matters, for fear that it will trigger resentment, revenge, reaction from others.

It feels like there is something which regards my feeling happiness, confidence, hope and optimism as being arrogant or 'cocky'; and needing to be taken-down-a-peg  and taught-a-lesson

I therefore feel negatively-compelled to think things, and to avoid thinking things, from a fear that someone or some-thing will be offended, prickly, insulted, jealous; it is a fundamentally superstitious attitude of living life among rules - mostly unknown - which prescribe and prohibit and are zealously enforced; and the main business of life as being rule-following and avoidance of rule-breaking - and the servile serving-out of punishments for our inevitable breaches.


This constraint motivated by fear of reprisal may be realistic in human society - given the endemic nature of spitefulness, and the 'dog in the manger' attitude of so many people who delight in the misery of others and whose main concern is that nobody else should have more or be more than themselves.

(This is, indeed, the case for such high-flown garb as 'equality', egalitarianism, sexual liberation, democracy and so on.) 


But there is more to it than this. The constraint is also (and perhaps primarily) inner - it is present even in the privacy of my mind, of my stream of conscious thought.

This is not surprising since belief in gods, spirits, ghosts, malicious ancestors at large - belief in 'the supernatural' in general - is spontaneous and natural to humans - we believe that our inner thoughts are to some extent accessible and shared and communicated, and that among those who share them are powerful and malicious entities (something like the Christian concept of demons).

This is a powerful constraint - and I suspect it is a very general factor in human affairs (although I can only observe it indirectly in other people - I and sure it is there). However, although general, spontaneous, natural - I suspect it is anti-Christian in a developed sense of Christianity - for the simple reason that it implies God (who knows our thoughts) is not fully loving, but is prone to the same kind of resentment and revenge as other people - indeed the worst kind of people - in this world.

Yet at the same time (because it is general, natural, spontaneous to humans) this tendency to assume that God really does have a resentful and vengeful attitude is a constant tendency to which individuals and organizations and society tend to recur (for motivations which may be 'good' - e.g. encouraging or enforcing good behaviour - as well as wicked).


This can be seen even among our own young children, who sometimes act towards us in a way that shows they are afraid that we do not really love them, that we need propitiating.

Sometimes the children are right - because parents are not perfect; but they are fundamentally wrong in that loving parents really are not motivated by resentment and really do not need to be propitiated - indeed a loving parent is appalled and deeply sorrowful to perceive this attitude in his children - an attitude based on fear. 


So, the situation seems to be that it is (at least to some significant extent) natural for humans to treat God as if he were a demon; and demons (I think) really do want to be treated with superstitious concern, propitiated and sacrificed-to.

Demons (presumably) want us never to be free of the constraining fear to express (or even to feel) an attitude that is positive care-free, hope-full. They want humans to cringe, to be eaten up with anxiety about deflecting bad luck, evil influences, they want us to be hog-ridden by superstitious observations, they want us to be always and repeatedly destroying good things as 'sacrifices' - and to regard this destruction of good things as necessary to deflect divine 'wrath'.


Unsurprisingly, because humans are error prone and yield to sin, this attitude of constraining fear has been (to varying extents, but sometimes very fully) incorporated into Christianity - the attitude that God watching out for us to trip up, get angry, punish us - unless this is deflected by propitiation and sacrifice - by a general human attitude of pessimism, expressions of misery... an attitude which is in fact and to some significant extent a dishonestly negative expression of our state of mind.

People come to fear - even inside their heads - a full and honest expression of positive and happy states of mind; asif this would trigger the jealous resentment of God! This I feel in myself, and I believe I perceive it in people all around me.

But I believe it is anti-Christian - a flaw, an error, a sin - a consequence of insufficient Christian faith and not a sign of Christian faith: this anxious, superstitious focus on propitiation and sacrifice is itself an insult to God rather than respect for God; deeply saddening to God, rather than what he wants from us.


Indeed, when we treat God as if He were a demon, it is analogous to someone who falsely accuses her loving parents of 'abusing' her. It is to treat our loving Father in Heaven as if He were an abuser.

That is a measure of how serious an error we are making; how serious a sin it is to feel constrained against expressing - even to ourselves - our happiness, hope, confidence.

Note: On this view, Christ as a propitiation and sacrifice is a matter of getting all that stuff out-of-the-way; of telling us not to worry about it any more because Christ has utterly and permanently taken care of it.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Why were we born in particular times and places, to particular parents?

How can this question be approached? The question of why I personally was born in a particular time and place and set of circumstances?

The question can only legitimately be asked after the religious and metaphysical questions have been answered in principle (what might be termed the 'metaphysical set-up') - I mean questions such as how 'I' am constituted (what combination of factors went into me); the nature of God, the purpose of reality, and so on.

In other words, to some extent this question answers itself - and the degree of specificity with which it answers itself is also a part of the metaphysical set-up.

So, my conclusion is a matter of establishing bounds, each of which constrains the answer to come extent.


1. The specificity of my situation is not random - it is inconceivable that the situation into which I was born could be a matter of indifference to the God in which I believe; therefore my circumstances do - in some way and to some extent - embody divine providence.

2. I chose, or consented to, the circumstances - in some way and to some extent. It is inconceivable that my situation would have been forced-upon-me by by loving Heavenly Father. At the most basic level I chose to be born - chose mortal incarnate life (this is part of Mormon doctrine) when I could have remained an unincarnated pre-mortal spirit.

3. Yet, I did not choose everything that happens to me in life; because my life is open-ended, it is not a mere unfolding of pre-determined, pre-destined events. For example, other-peoples' choices and how they affect me was not fore-known, and therefore the consequences of other people's choices could not be chosen by me. I could choose and consent to only some aspects of the basic situation of my life - not all the microscopic details of life.

4. Also, I could not choose the specific consequences of my own choices - especially since my own choices are often sinful. But even if they were not, choices are made on the basis of incomplete information and have many unanticipated consequences and interactions.

I also chose, therefore, to deal-with in-principle the unknowable unfolding consequences of my own choices - rather than choosing the specific details of what will, in fact, contingently happen to me.


In sum, there are bounds that indicate to each of us some idea of the extent to which 'my particular life' has been chosen and is meaningful.

We know that on the one hand Life is not random, and on the other hand that life is not determined.

Beyond that there is need for a guidance system to deal with the specifics and unanticipated aspects of life as it actually unfolds.

No matter how much we do know about the original and primary reason for our life and its purpose, this cannot be enough for the actual living of life.

This 'guidance system' to navigate through unknown and unknowable contingencies - is certainly one of the most important things in life: it is, indeed, pretty much indispensable.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

There are no skeptics, there are no moral relativists

That's it - really. Very obviously not - I'd have thought.

So why do we persist in taking these fools at their own valuation?


Friday, 29 August 2014

Holiday snap - Me walking the oldest path in Europe


More at: http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/my-recent-inklings-pilgrimage.html

Patriarchy, Feminism and Complementarianism defined - the ultimate nature of the relationship between men and women

1. Patriarchy: Men lead. In all situations in private and public life, it is right and necessary that men take leadership. The male sex is primary; therefore, in an ultimate sense, society and reality should be, and will be, organized around the needs of men.

2. Feminism: Women should be privileged. In all situations and circumstances in private and public life, it is right and necessary that women are privileged. The female sex is primary; therefore, in an ultimate sense, society and reality should be, and will be, organized around the needs of women.

3. Complementarianism: Men and women have distinct roles and responsibilities. In some situations it is right and proper that men lead and are privileged, in some situations that women lead and are privileged.


Due to its unfamiliarity, complementarianism requires further explanation:

The sexes are complementary, two different parts of a single whole. But not two 'halves' whatever that might mean - rather, two different but necessary elements.

Complementarianism entails that each sex alone (and therefore, each individual person) - while it can survive (for a while), is in some ultimate (metaphysical) spiritual sense incomplete; and the fullness of spiritual development therefore requires both sexes (and therefore at least two persons - one man and one woman) in a dyadic fashion.


Note that I utterly reject the meaningfulness and possibility of Equality of the sexes - because Equality just-does mean Sameness - and the sexes just-are Different (or else we would not be having this discussion).

(In fact, not just sexes but people are different. And people who are different deserve and require different treatment. 'Sameness' is never more than expedient, contextual and approximate.)

I know that sameness is not what Equality is 'supposed to' mean; but I am saying that this sameness is, in fact, what Equality does mean - or else sometimes Equality is just an alternative word for Feminism.


Other (more subtle, more nuanced) meanings of Equality cannot be held - the other-meanings will be too slippery, they will inevitably slide-into the meaning 'sameness'.

Equality is a falsehood, a fake abstraction, and to impose Equality is impossible - therefore Equality is evil in practice, because it is false, and to impose falsehood is impossible, and to try and impose an impossibility is necessarily to do evil.



Both Patriarchy and Feminism are ultimately accepting that one or other sex will dominate overall; and the disagreement is over which sex will dominate; and which will be (therefore) subordinate.

History tells us that (like it or not) Patriarchy is socially-sustainable, for many dozens of generations, for many thousands of years.

Feminism is, by contrast, very recent, with only a few generations track record. But objective social analysis over the past century or two shows us that Feminism is parasitic, uncreative, self-destroying as a general policy - hence it is unsustainable over the long term.


Therefore,  Patriarchy, Feminism and Complementarianism are, I think, the only actually possible relationships between the sexes - and, of these, only Patriarchy and Complementarianism are viable.

The question then is, of Patriarchy and Complementarianism , which is true and which is best?


If the relationship between the sexes is to be anything more than mere social expediency (something that can be wrangled-over and experimented-with indefinitely) then we need to look deeper into the justification for social arrangements - to ask 'why?' - and this leads back as far as the mind can reach. 

My argument here is that Complementarianism is true and right; and I can argue that this is backed up by historical evidence (but this depends on how it is interpreted) and also that it feels right (but others may feel differently). The only decisive kind of argument is one based on reality: are men and women really complementary, or not?


Until Mormonism, Complementarianism lacked an explicit metaphysics, theology and philosophy. Mormonism has thrived for eight generations and seems to be well set, but complementarianism does not have the long track record of sustainability which is seen for Patriarchy.

However, I suggest that Complementarianism does seem to be an unarticulated 'norm' towards which Patriarchy tends in actual practice.

I mean by this that the religion, the ideology, the law, may be Patriarchal - asserting male domination in every situation - but under stable conditions and with social development, tacitly but effectively women come to dominate some areas of life; and this can be seen as validating the reality of Complementarianism.


The most important question about Patriarchy and Complementarianism is: which is true? Is it that men are naturally leaders and naturally dominant in all situations; or are there domains in which women are naturally leaders and naturally dominant?

And - given that various social arrangements are possible - what is the Good, right, and proper form of social arrangement? Specifically, what is the best social arrangement from a Christian perspective?


Ultimately, this refers back to the ultimate purpose of human life, both to salvation and also to the possibility of what is variously termed spiritual progression, theosis, sanctification - which is the divinization of Humankind, to become Sons and Daughters of God.

For mainstream Christians, from this ultimate perspective, Men and Women are interchangeable; either a man or a woman considered in isolation can be saved, and either a man or woman can in isolation go through the fullest process of divinization.

More exactly, for (most) mainstream Christians, there is no pre-mortal life, so sexuality is only an attribute of mortal life - people are born either a man or a woman; but in eternal life sexuality is stripped away and people are neither men nor women.


So, for mainstream Christians, sexuality is a temporary expediency, not fundamental, not structural to our divine natures - indeed sexuality and sexual difference is a rather negative, earthly hence not-Heavenly thing. This ultimately accounts for the chronic negativity Christianity has displayed towards the body, sexuality, marriage and family - so powerfully documented for me in the works of Charles Williams - and the tendency to give highest status to the solitary celibate ascetic.

For mainstream Christians, social sexual arrangments are merely a matter of expediency - and considerations of expediency lead to Patriarchy.

It is NOT that the social structures of Patriarchy are actually based-upon and built-upon the ultimate structure of the mainstream understanding of the Christian religion - but rather it is that Patriarchy is socially expedient compared with Feminism, and mainstream Christianity does not conflict with this.


But for Mormons the situation is different. Men and women can be saved individually to eternal life and can undergo very considerable spiritual progression; but to attain the very highest level of divinization requires the dyad of a man and woman together in a celestial marriage.


Thus, for Mormonism, sex is is not so much biological as metaphysical: part of the very structure of reality. Sex goes back to pre-mortal life, to pre-existence. Indeed, it (probably) goes back to before we were made spiritual children of God. So the eternal seeds or potentialities which were 'pre-spirit-human' were either male or female.

The implication is that Mormonism does conflict with Patriarchy, and does imply by contrast a system which treats the sexes as complementary.

Mormonism fundamentally contradicts the kind of Patriarchy which has been seen in human history (and including sometimes in Christian history) and which is argued-for by some modern Christians where all men dominate all women, and all women are submissive to all men, in all circumstances.


The situation envisaged by Mormonism is complex and contextual - but the basic complementarity is between (male) Priesthood and (female) Motherhood.

In practice, on earth and during mortal life - not all men are priesthood holders, not all women are mothers; and it is conceivable that men might be called mothers or be made to function biologically as mothers, and women might be called priests and enact priestly roles; but in reality and in principle and ultimately and over eternity - these are the proper and sexually differentiated roles of men and women.

Social organization ought-to reflect the difference; and men ought-to dominate those aspects of life pertaining to priesthood functions, while women ought-to dominate those areas of life pertaining to motherhood.

The precise definitions and details of what this complementarity of Priesthood and Motherhood means in practice and how it may be implemented are not important, and indeed are not prescribed - what I want to clarify now is that this is an example - it is the primary example - of complementarity.

No doubt there are others.


Thursday, 28 August 2014

George Orwell intended and expected to be buried in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne

Today I found the grave of George Orwell's first wife Eileen - which is in St Andrew's cemetery in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne (the suburb where I live). It was a plain stone that merely stated her name, dates (1905-45) and that she was the wife of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell was a pseudonym).

What was interesting was that the inscription filled only the top half of the stone - the lower part being blank, and it seems clear that the bottom half had been left to receive George Orwell's name. Therefore, at the time he ordered the stone, it seems Orwell did not intend to re-marry - and that he did intend to be interred with Eileen in Jesmond.

However, apparently, he became so lonely after Eileen died that he proposed to several women until one accepted him - and he remarried in late 1949, virtually on his death bed. Orwell died of tuberculosis aged 46 less than four months later; and shortly before the disease became curable with triple antibiotic therapy.

Orwell was then buried in Oxfordshire in a place with which he had no connection - supposedly because none of the London graveyards had any space and also, I imagine, because his new wife did not wanted him buried with her predecessor, as originally planned...

How to live in Mouse Utopia: Terminal Phase - Hope-full-ness and Pessimism

How to live in a society already stagnant, nihilistic, purposively-dysfunctional, demotivated; and apparently doomed to mega-collapse?

This is a burning question!


Some advocate that modern life should be a case of "Do not go gentle into that good night; rage, rage against the dying of the light" - in other words, we are obliged to expound (presumably in the mass media - so that as many people as possible should get to hear about it) loud defiance of inexorable material, social and psychological collapse.

Despite that this activity is believed to be futile - but which we supposedly ought to do anyway, just in case our best calculations are off and our warnings may be heeded?

Or should it be a case of being as unworldly as possible - while yet doing one's loving duty to some others, whom life has put in our orbit (in full awareness that this strategy almost certainly cannot succeed in its own objectives except on a small scale and temporarily, in the face of inexorable overall societal material collapse)?

Should Life be a case of living for the here-and-now, doing whatever duty is placed in front of us (and damn the probabilistic consequences) - of short-termism. Or should it be the opposite: always do the right thing as if we had forever to do it? Absolute and uncompromising long-termism?

(Something could be said for each.)

Should we focus on the past (as a time when people were certainly smarter, more creative and also more virtuous). Or should we focus on recognizing and encouraging the best on offer around us? (Something could be said for each.)

Or maybe made-do-and-mend and simply hope for the best? But no: Man absolutely needs purpose or else he will despair.


The 'trick' is to be realistically pessimistic about what will happen; and hopeful at the same time: to be pessimistic about the probabilities, yet never to despair (because there is much we do not know or wrongly assume we know, and new things may come from unexpected places)?


That is the way we would like to become. But what do we actually do?

The answer is not easy - is not meant to be easy - and there is no one answer. So there is not much scope for criticizing the specific strategies of other people - so long as they are both realistically pessimistic about probabilities and at the same time hope-full.

From this large strategic field Our Lives must be sub-created - each life by each person using his own actual abilities and from the materials actually available; and in light of what each person discerns is the best course.

Also, we must - we simply must - have faith that the materials for this decision, and the wherewithal to judge our environment and discern our path - are indeed at-hand, available, find-able. That there is a path, the path is for us, and we can get onto that path.


A Christian knows that Our Loving Father and Creator would not leave us without sufficient guidance and sufficient strength to find a good-enough path - our path: if only we choose to turn and walk with hope in the right general direction.

This has always been the case; and the impending collapse of Mouse Utopia does not fundamentally affect it; any more than living-through the utter catastrophe of the Black Death - when half the population of England was killed by Plague over a few decades in the late 1300s - affected the fundamental paths and performances of those great, humane Christian poets Chaucer, Langland, and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 


Data on the Black Death:

Mouse Utopia is following on from:



Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Ordination of women to Christian priesthood

Official arguments on this topic - which in recent times has been and remains one of the litmus test issues of Christian churches (an issue which divides institutions, which defines ideologies, which encapsulates positions) - tend to be abstract and resolutely to avoid ad hominem, personalized, individualized evaluations.

Understandably so, since this is one of the hot button topics with potential to generate hatred, resentment and destruction.

But such abstract arguments rapidly become incomprehensible and unconvincing - and unsuitable for making important choices. Indeed, abstraction is a way of reducing the emotional temperature - but carries with it the cost of reducing the relevance and clarity of any conclusion reached. Abstracted debate may be calm and reasonable - but abstract discussions also tend to be interminable and ineffectual.


In practice, we must make judgments as best we can - we have to take sides (because 'not taking sides' on this issue is in fact to take the side of ordination of women to the priesthood).

And since we can perceive people but cannot perceive ideologies (cannot perceive complex webs of abstract principles) - then we do need to judge the individuals (as best we may; knowing that our personal judgment is not the same as divine judgment - yet that we necessarily live and die by our personal judgments).


On that basis, my judgment is that argument in favour of ordination of women to the priesthood is never made by 1. serious real Christians who 2. believe in the reality of the priesthood.

Although the first part covers most of the advocates, the second part is extremely important and neglected; because there are serious real Christians who do not believe in the reality of priesthood - and who are therefore not-against/ or in-favour-of women performing the duties of a pastor. 

Especially, some Protestants are of this type - they do not distinguish a priesthood, do not distinguish 'ordination', perhaps do not distinguish 'a church'. For them, Christianity is about individuals, not an organization (not even a divinely-sanctioned organization); and therefore the issue of 'ordination' is merely one of church order, of functionality, of the matter of the expediencies of organizing an implicitly secular institution - and therefore there is room for legitimate disagreement.


But among those serious real Christians who believe in the reality of the priesthood there is unanimity on this issue.

Note: Of course, some specific person may self-identify or strategically present-himself as being a serious real Christian, when judgment suggests that he is not; and that he is instead primarily operating on the basis of some other 'ideology'. Likewise, someone may say that he believes in the reality of the priesthood, but observation suggests that this is untrue. Such falsehoods and errors are not necessarily matters of legalistic or logical 'proof'; but are nonetheless very obvious to common sense and personal experience; and it would be extremely foolish to ignore them. Certainly, such obviously-fake pseudo-exceptions do not refute the above thesis.   

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The novels of Barbara Pym - an overview

I do not read many novels these day; but I do read and re-read the 'comic' novels of Barbara Pym (1913-1980).

She is a discovery of the past fifteen or so years, and an absolute delight to me. I would not say that the books are in any way 'essential reading' or an exceptional source of human wisdom - but they are worthwhile stuff; and people who like this sort of thing will find them the sort of thing they like.


In an obvious sense, Barbara Pym writes about the world she knows, and the people she knows, a world which is now gone - but is English, upper middle class, genteel and based-around the Church of England (although aware of the decline in that institution, so that it is inhabited mainly by spinsters and elderly women, and celibate clergy).

So it is a world of vicars and curates, Parish meetings and jumble sales and church festivals, discussions of High Church ritual (incense, robes and the like) - a world firmly based on church life but yet a world with very little real Christianity anywhere (I get no sense at all that Barbara Pym was a 'genuinely religious' person)^.

It is also a world of scholarly activity - on the fringes of academia: journals, editors and their assistants, typing, proof reading, index-making - and especially of anthropology (Barbara Pym was assistant editor of an anthropology journal).

Also a world where people have learned and quote poetry, English lyrical poetry, and use this to express their deepest emotions.


So far this sound terribly staid and conventional, and it is; but what is very unusual is Barbara Pym's built-in assumptions about men and women. She was unmarried, but apparently had several sexual 'affairs' as an undergraduate in Oxford and at other points in her life. She also moved on the fringes of a homosexual subculture which intersected with High Church Anglicanism.

In particular, Pym seems to assume that women are mostly attracted to men's looks (in the same way that men obviously are usually mostly attracted to women's looks). So her books always have a handsome but vacuous - often charmless and inept - man around whom various women are buzzing.

The heroines generally despise these handsome men, but seem helplessly attracted - and often marry them, or seem just about to marry them, as the book ends - providing the semi-romantic structure of the basic comedy plot.

Also, there are no children in her novels, and indeed a positive hostility towards the idea of children.

All this is very a-typical for women - and particularly of women of Pym's station and era.


Strangely, this oddness about men and children was a factor from the very early novels, written in her early twenties. Some Strange Gazelle has as the central character a (very nice) middle aged spinster who has spent her whole life helplessly in love with a handsome senior clergyman that she met while an undergraduate at Oxford University (he is now her neighbour, and married to someone else). This 'Archdeacon' has no attractive qualities, except his looks and good education; he is dull, selfish, unromatic - but she wants merely to serve him in little things.


Anyway, the best of Pym's novels are those she wrote before 1970; the later ones I find unreadable.

The early ones are fresh, lively, and somewhat broad in their comedy - with the characters being somewhat caricatured; but very well worth reading nonetheless. They are Some Tame Gazelle, and the posthumously published Crampton Hodnet and Civil to Strangers.

The very best are Excellent Women, Less than Angels, No Fond Return of Love and (posthumously published) An Unsuitable Attachment.

These all have really likable heroines (those of EW, NFRL and AUA being strikingly similar - rather 'plain' but pleasant-looking, dowdily dressed, socially anxious and over-sensitive to suffering; compulsively helpful and full of good works); with eccentric (but realistically so) casts of characters, great genial good humour, and close observations of the minutiae of life.

Jane and Prudence is a bit below this level, with rather annoying eponymous central female protagonists, and a rather intrusive and jarring 'anti-men' undercurrent. And the least good of these novels is A Glass of Blessings which is written in the first person by a vacuous and un-Pym-like 'glamorous' heroine.


I could not honestly recommend Barbara Pym to many people, she must surely be a minority taste - and I realize how unappealing these novels sound in summary! Nonetheless I personally find them a sheer pleasure to read; and as soon as I have finished going through them, I look forward to the next re-reading.

As a measure of how much I like them, I have read all the novels twice to my wife at bedtime (so clearly she loves them too) - in addition to several private (silent) readings and listening to a few as audio-books.

In fact, it was an audio-book of No Fond Return of Love, borrowed from the library, which began the whole thing...


^See also: http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/was-barbara-pym-christian-or-subversive.html

Bed and Breakfast - small is beautiful

I would advise any non-British who visit this country (if possible and convenient) to stay in 'Bed and Breakfast' accommodation, and not an hotel - because (and obviously I am generalizing from my personal experience) the people who run B&Bs are such decent and pleasant folk that it is an enhancement to any holiday.

Although they presumably make a living from it, the cost of staying in a B&B is so modest for what it entails, and the breakfasts are usually so delicious and lavish, that I think it is mostly a wish to meet a range of people and give them an enjoyable experience that motivates B&B owners. At any rate, they always seem to enjoy chatting and finding-out about their guests.

To stay in an hotel is usually an experience of alienation - bleak, impersonal, mechanical - whereas to stay in a B&B is often to have your belief in the goodness of individual people enhanced.

Perhaps this is one reason (in addition to its natural beauty) why Keswick is such a wonderful holiday place - because its accommodation provision is dominated by scores of individually owned B&Bs; each with a different character reflecting the owner's.


But I have been in B&Bs in several and wide-spread parts of Britain, and they share this homely and human quality.

Small is beautiful!

Note: On the whole the best B&Bs are those that do nothing else - B&Bs attached to pubs or bars are a lot less good, on the whole - and those attached to other businesses like farms may lack focus and attention to detail. 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Charles Williams and the mythologizing of everyday life


An insightful, heavily-referenced discussion of sex difference in intelligence


"Good at multi-tasking" = "Unable to concentrate"

The truth-inverting concept of 'multi-tasking' proves to be a major nuisance in modern life; in encouraging what is already a big problem of short attention span, distractability, not to focus, inability to attend, failing to be here-and-now and living in real-time.

Multi-tasking might have a reality in terms of someone who is simultaneously able to perform multiple skilled processes in parallel.

In this sense, Glenn Gould the great pianist was described as able to do more than one skilled task at the same time, each at a very high level; and this goes along with this unsurpassed ability to play the different voices in a fugue (or other polyphonic, contrapuntal form of music) as if each had independent existence.

Yet when Gould was aiming to attain the very highest level of skill - as when performing a piece for a concert or recording - he was totally wrapped-up in it; such that he seemed to be entranced and oblivious. No multitasking there!

For lesser mortals there is much greater need for unitary concentration, for focus, in performing a difficult task. And if this is lacking - then the task is being done sub-optimally.

In practice, when people claim they are multi-tasking they are simply allowing themselves to be distracted - and accepting the necessarily lower level of performance which results.

(Thus social networking while attending a lecture, or listening to loud music on headphones while studying for a test, or browsing the internet while watching TV - and so on.)

And when women claim (as they so often do!) to be better-at-multi-tasking; insofar as this claim has any meaning at all, it merely means that women are (by and large, and leaving aside pathology) worse-at-concentrating - for which there is a great deal of anecdotal as well as statistical evidence.

Highest performance entails greatest and most sustained focus: the ability to concentrate is an ability, not a deficit.

Further reflections @: http://addictedtodistraction.blogspot.co.uk

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Strategies for the (re-) enchantment of everyday life (The concept of Paradise)

Modern mainstream everyday life is experienced as dull, literalistic, prosaic, trivial, meaningless, dull, confrontational... an iron cage, as Weber described it

On the one hand is the psychologically-crushing conformism of work; on the other hand the pointless, momentary, emotionally-manipulating distractions of leisure.

We crave a life that is mythical, poetic, truthful, virtuous, engaged; a life of growth and yet bliss; a life stretching-ahead with development yet satisfying here-and-now ... we crave Paradise (leaving aside Heaven, for the moment)... yet I think it fair to say that most people have difficulty in conceptualizing Paradise in any coherent way.

Such Paradise as we can know is individual and idiosyncratic.

For someone who loves poetry it may be like living inside poetry (where words and phrases and chunks of experience mean so deeply and complexly, and everything harmonizes and unfolds organically).

Or living inside any form of active artistic creation - standing at a confluence of past and future; referencing back to predecessors, building structures and meanings; engaging and enriching; pointing forward to future possibilities...

Or a life inside science; in that world of sunlit cool perfection and insight, of understanding unfolding upon understanding - the heart-leap of discovery and the clinching satisfaction of proof - endless horizons...

Or myth. To live inside myth may be to perceive that all the minutiae of life are bound-up into a story that has special significance - an unarticulated and perhaps un-articulable sense of inevitability and rightness - felt below explicit consciousness - maybe dread-full or maybe exhilarating but always significant.

Or a mini-world of human relationships bound by love - to be inside such gatherings of love, and to participate in their change and growth - to join in the reciprocity and exchanges of love.

From such microcosms we may be able to - we ought to - extrapolate Paradise; which is our proximate hope for eternal life (and Heaven lying beyond).

A concept of Paradise enables Hope - and Hope (and only Hope) enables us to get past some (ideally all) of what life throws-at-us in the way of the iron cage - or maybe even by perceiving that there is organic life outside the iron cage, to escape and inhabit (for periods short or long) that better world.

Note added: I should not fail to mention that we can Hope for Paradise precisely because we have known Paradise. This is why Paradise is not experienced as wishful-thinking, nor as something just 'made-up' - but as a species of discovery. Before this mortal life, as spirits, we actually experienced Paradise. If things go well in this life we may know better than Paradise - or we may simply return to Paradise, but enlarged. Or, and this is the risk - we may choose to reject Paradise and become self-exiled as defiant despots of our own hellish domain. Or, and this is the ultimate Hope, we may eventually choose to go beyond Paradise - with all that that choice may entail. At present, I personally cannot see or aspire beyond Paradise; but I perceive that Paradise gets its meaning only from what lies beyond.  

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Charles Williams takes classical theology to the limit

Unfortunately, I cannot find an online copy of Charles Williams essay "What the cross means to me" - which is published as The Cross in the selected essays entitled The Image of the City edited by Anne Ridler, 1958. 

But I have seen several scholars represent it as Williams deepest, most heartfelt and most characteristic essay on theology - the fruit of a life-time of study and intense reflection on Christianity.

It is a rigorous and unsparing, indeed shocking, following-through of the implications of classical theology - and God's omnipotence. Here are some edited excerpts:


The original act of creation can be believed to be good and charitable; it is credible that the Almighty God should deign to create beings to share His Joy. It is credible that He should deign to increase their Joy by creating them with the power of free will so that their joy should be voluntary. It is certain that if they have the power of choosing Joy in Him they must have the power of choosing the opposite of Joy in Him. 

But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress... that the Creator should deliberately maintain and sustain His created universe in a state of infinite distress as a result of the choice.

This is the law which His will imposed upon His creation. It need not have been.

Our distress then is no doubt our gratuitous choice, but it is also His. He could have willed us not to be after the Fall. He did not.


Now the distress of the creation is so vehement and prolonged, so tortuous and torturing, that even naturally it is revolting to our sense of justice, much more supernaturally. We are instructed that He contemplates, from His infinite felicity, the agonies of His creation, and deliberately maintains them in it. The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together. 


Williams confronts head-on the implication that (in its classical theological interpretation) Christianity attributes all the evils of the world to God, and the vast and (it is said) infinitely-prolonged suffering of creation is to be attributed to God as well. 

(In the sense that the sufferings in Hell of those who have chosen wrongly are here assumed to be infinitely prolonged.) 


For Williams, it was not ultimately acceptable to attribute evil and suffering to Satan and demonic activity - since although the 'War in Heaven' was absolutely real to Charles Williams (indeed a matter of direct daily experience), this situation of spiritual conflict between good and evil had also been set-up and sustained by God, and was equally His responsibility. 

This is merely the stage-setting of Williams argument. The focus and conclusion of the essay is that despite all that can be said against the Christian concept of God; at least, alone of all gods, the Christian God subjected himself (i.e. Jesus Christ) to that same justice which He established. This self-infliction of divine law is (but only this, and only just, we sense) regarded as sufficient to justify Christian justice. 

But the sense of outrage at the nature of this divine justice is there, and is the most striking thing about the essay.

The sense that God, surely, 'ought to' have annihilated the souls of those who chose against Him; rather than maintaining them eternally in torment.

"He could have willed us not to be after the Fall. He did not."


This essay of William's made a strong impact on me, because he follows through the implications of divine omnipotence so thoroughly and unsparingly - for example, pointing out that (according to mainstream Christian theology) the tree from which Christ's cross was made, and the nails driven into him - the instruments of torture - were, from the beginning, brought into existence in full knowledge of the purpose to which they would certainly be used. 

Williams implications are, I think, a correct, honest and necessary following-through of the implications of that standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology which goes back to the early church Fathers - very early in the history of the Christian church; but not back to its very beginning and the time of the Apostles: there is little or nothing of this kind of theology clearly or explicitly recorded in the New Testament.  

I therefore now read Williams essay as a reductio ad absurdum of standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology. And since, although this type of theology has been usual for maybe 1800 years of the history of Christianity, and among many of its greatest exponents - and it not therefore to be written-off lightly - it is not a necessary part of Christianity; because we don't see it in the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles or the accounts in the Epistles. 


So, I interpret Williams great essay as an unflinching and insightful and true account of Christianity as it emerged in the form which - historically - became dominant. And Williams found that he could, albeit only just, endorse Christianity thus emerged and conceived.

But Williams did not - here - consider the possibility that these major difficulties were historically contingent, that they were additional-to, and not an intrinsic part-of, the mode of Christianity described in the Gospels and for the Apostolic era.


The Good News is that a rigorous and unflinching Christian does not have to accept the very-nearly-intolerable situation described by Williams. 

For what is to me, clinching evidence; just contrast the (joyous, hopeful) feeling you get from reading about and thinking about the life and message of Jesus Christ in the Gospels... with the bleak and transfixing horror from contemplating the implications of  standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology with its model of salvation-damnation and its description of Hell. 

Why Williams did not consider that the fault lay in later developments of theology rather than Christianity itself- or did not take it seriously - is a topic for another essay. But to reject standard, mainstream, classical philosophical Christian theology and to return to the plain and commonsense mode of thinking of most of the New Testament seems to me like a fair and proper and rigorous way-out from the impasse Williams described so memorably and chillingly. 


Charles Williams (not CS Lewis) may have presided over Inklings meetings 1939-45