Musings and Moments of Transition

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 30th, 2008

Been busy and strangely not in the mood provide much commentary on recent events. Worrying I have been thinking “All is alike, nothing is worth while, the world is without meaning, knowledge strangleth.” (Nietzsche’s spoof of Schopenhauer) – but then again I suspect there are happy isles…

Reading Kierkergaard – thinkings are looking interesting already. Half way through “Attack upon Christendom”.


I’m Slacking from Doing Blog Updates

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 15th, 2008

Been busy! I finished reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. I am thinking about doing an audio recording of The Gay Science which will take a long time. Need to read more. To do: go to library.


Review: The Real God (part 4)

Posted by on November 5th, 2008

Having already dealt in earlier parts of this review with the classic arguments for the existence of God and a postmodern interpretation of religion, I now want to examine some more metaphysical concepts. As earlier noted Richard Harries wrote this book as a realist apologetic for Christian belief. In other words he is attempting to convey through realist language and concepts a summary of what contemporary orthodox Christian belief entails. This therefore requires him to deal with metaphysics as a good deal of Christian belief involves supernatural or transcendent categories of being and reality.

In this part of the review then I will look fairly briefly at three issues he raises. First what is the soul? Secondly how should I live my life? And finally Miracles and the laws of nature.

Soul Language

Don Cupitt the radical postmodernist theologian whose influence colours Anthony Freemans theology (to which Harries book is a response) in one of his books went to great lengths to make sense of the concept of soul and spirit. Looking at their varying etymologies he pointed out that spirit came from the same word for air and the concepts must be related – spirit is supposed to be invisible yet in the traditional theistic cosmology it is also a fundamental part of our environment in which we have our being. Similarly the soul has as its latin originate “animus” from where we get the concept of animation or more literally being alive. This is fairly evident from the traditional Christian view that at death the soul and body are seperated – one may even suggest that this is the theological definition of death. What is interesting is that in Hebrew theology (still evidenced today in Judaism) is that the blood is that which carries our life – thus blood is synonymous with the soul. From that titbit of information hopefully the importance of Jewish kosher traditions should be evident. But also of dramatic interest the geophysical concept of hell as being the “underworld” probably originates from the synonymous association of the soul with blood. As likewise the notion of hell being a painful place. These ideas coagulate (!) around the simple premise that a violent death is one wherein the blood is spilt (draining into the earth and thus into the underworld).

The difficulty with soul language is that today many people of belief and unbelief are not exactly sure what the soul is meant to be. Is it a thing? A Physical entity? Is it perhaps with our greater understanding of the human body more synonymous now with our consciousness (as opposed our blood)?

Harries attempts very simply to answer these questions – and if one were to accept his explanation one may be concerned to wonder why such clarity is lacking elsewhere (pulpit, classroom, social convention).

… it is not necessary to believe that we have a soul that is a kind of a box within a box. Modern science, like the Hebrews of old, stresses that we are psychosomatic unities, body, mind and spirit all bound up together. It may be that ‘soul’ language is important in drawing attention to our spiritual nature and destiny. But we do not have to believe that soul is an isolatable thing. Nor do we have to believe that our bodies will be raised from the grave like characters in a painting by Stanley Spencer. So far as we know, our bodies decompose, to become part of the earth which in due course is recycled in other ways.

I have a strong sense of approval for the psychosomatic unity of the person as described by Harries here, and I think that at a simple brushstroke hopefully it dissolves some of the more incredulous speculations made about the ‘soul’ by those who either believe or disbelieve in it as being an organic ‘thing’ in the same way in which my lungs are essential to my body. It is not and Christian belief makes no such demands.

Before I move onto questions of how we should live this life of ours I want briefly to consider eschatology (the end things). Harries mentions the Christian notion of the resurrection of the body but suggests that again this is not a literal raising of our corpses from the grave but is perhaps a more symbolic concept concerning the after-life. He makes no attempt to describe what such a life may be like – whether we are conscious of it – whether it is eternal bliss or whatever. He does reiterate the traditional Christian theology that we will be re-created in the ‘stuff of glory’ but humbly concedes he has no idea what this may mean. I have my own thoughts informed by Wittgenstein and Meister Eckhart not to mention zen and a scientific theory of the block universe – but I shall keep these to myself for now. I shall however quote a rather nice musical analogy that Harries proffers –

In the same way that music written for one instrument, say a violin, can sometimes be played on other instruments, the music which we are, played on the instruments of flesh and blood in this life, can be played on another instrument in the next.

How should I/we live our life?

Harries having discussed the notion of the soul and briefly addressed eschatology then discusses in an interesting and unique way a concept of heaven and divine justice. He actually agrees albeit in a limited fashion with the Christian existentialism of Freeman. Without explicit references to Kierkegaard or perhaps even to Eckhart and his exhortation to lose and then find oneself within the eternal now it is obvious that these are influences.

Freeman believes that this desire for true justice can be met by concentrating on the quality of life rather than its extent. He suggests that if we live intensely, in the here and now, in the light of our highest values, then we will achieve a quality of life which is more important than anything else. The quality of a play or poem does not depend on its length, nor does the quality of our lives.

As Martin Luther King once said “longevity has its place” but it isn’t the be -all and end-all. Our lives when scrutinized in the here and now (the eternal constant of the present) is more fruitfully lived in a quest of self-authenticity than it is in placing upon ourselves the incredible burden of the expectation of eternity and the existential paralysis that this may entail.

Although Harries offers some support for this – calling this carpe diem philosophy an important pastoral truth he does not dwell on it nor give it his total endorsement. Rather he insists on the necessity of eternal life and divine justice as an explanatory footnote for why a supposedly loving God could impose or allow some incredibly unbearable lives for so many people.

I felt a little dissappointed at this shifting of the focus onto the grander philosophical speculations about the problem of evil – when as ‘mere’ mortals a Christian Existentialism that endorses self-authenticity and intense experience of life here and now can be a legitimate response to the everyday problems of social evil that blight the world.

Miracles and the Laws of Nature

However despite my dissappointments Harries proceeds with an internal logic that continues to enchant me (as an eventual summary of my review I could simply say he makes a very convincing case). He returns to the problem of evil – not all suffering in the world is caused by human beings, there is disease and natural disasters.

Harries then offers a reason for not blaming God for natural disasters – by shifting the focus away from our sense of suffering. In our finite time and limited perspective of the entire history of the universe as it was, is and is to be it is rather short-sighted to get angry about natural disasters. To use an analogy of my own it is rather like reading sleeping beauty but getting so despondent about the chances of her ever waking up that I simply discard the book adopt a jaded view of the story and never come to realise the eucatastrophe (the happy ending) that would have awaited me had I been patient.

Of course one might argue that if we continue to insist on the positive identification of God as love as an eternal and objective truth (albeit by definition a truth that has to be accepted conditionally on faith) surely our patience is being sorely tested? As Homer Simpson once pitifully prayed “Dear God, give the bald guy a break”.

Harries though offers a slighlty more palatable explanation – whilst reaffirming his philosophical colours as a theistic evolutionist. God does not simply make the world, he makes the world make itself.

God has given the basic elements of matter a life of their own and has woven the universe from the bottom upwards through the free interplay of millions of forces.

Thus for example earthquakes are no bad of themselves – as though they were some kind of moral affrontary – it is simply a natural process and the behaviour of the earth doing what the earth is supposed to do.

This seems to be a very disinterested deistic God who sets the whole chain of events in motion and who is either disinterested in the suffering caused along the way, or who is perhaps positively insistent on the presence or perception of such suffering (which does not sit well with a loving God).

Harries offers a second justification for this view. In order to be the type of thinking and choosing beings that we are we need a relatively stable environment. In other words the environment in which we live with all its pitfalls and dangers and disasters. If, Harries argues, we lived in an Alice in Wonderland style world where the laws of nature could be abrogated by a God whose constantly saying “oops” everytime a natural disaster occurs and who plucks people into his figurative hand and takes them up to safety we would never learn to think at all.

Harries seems to be describing a distant and uninvolved God and perhaps also therefore seems to be rejecting determinism (which is not necessarily a scientifically sound view). At some times he appears to suggest that it simply wouldnt be fair for God to do one miracle and then not ot perform others… why not? If God is all-powerful then he can do anything right? Include being morally inconsistent and distinctly unfair in his treatment of people. I don’t wish to let this childish diatribe undermine Harries exposition of Christian theology or to suggest that disbelief is therefore a de facto better position to hold. I do think it perhaps illustrates though the philosophical difficulties of a via positiva – a positive list of definitions concerning God.

A few paragraphs later and Harries does suggest that possibly at some point in history a suspension of the laws of nature has taken place and a miracle has occured. He makes no effort to describe when this may have been or why it may have occured – but one could assume on account of his orthodox Christian beliefs that he may have had the bodily resurrection of Jesus as an example.

Concluding Notes

This section of the book dissappointed me the most as it seems at times he is finding himself going in circles. It is as I have already described an example of how the via positiva can make theology untenable as a series of acceptable propositions. In fairness though Harries does maintain a certain consistency with everything he has discussed previously. He by no means makes objective statements of truth but statements of objective belief liberally interspersed with a genuinely cognitive agnosticism that says ‘I don’t know all the answers but I’m doing the best that I can’.

I had hoped that the block universe and eternalism may have been discussed but perhaps he felt such concepts too difficult to describe and elaborate upon for his intended audience.

What has been evident is what one may call a primitive form of Christian universalism (though he may reject that label). And a tendency towards an Irenaen theodicy (with which I have some sympathy). Irenaeus (2nd cent.) proposed that we are made in the image of God but that it is through living our lives we grow into the likeness of Him. Similarly Harries response to the problem of evil – particularly natural evil – seems to be (and this is a fairly common theme in Christian theology) that suffering can be redemptive.

My one nod of approval in the direction of this idea – that it is through suffering and evil that we come to know the Good – is that the concept and notion of suffering – of being in a state of suffering – of identifying oneself as being a victim of some misfortune is a self-centred or solopsistic viewpoint – and that redemption may lie in resignation to the fact that we are mortal, finite beings within a specific time and space – but that if we adopt a quantum view (similar to the notion of the flapping of a butterflies wings in the amazon causes wind across the globe) and transcend our solopsism to adopt a the-optic (God’s eye) view of the universe in its entirety encompassing all space and time (the block universe) as a single place in an instantaneous present – then the problem is dissolved.

The final part of this review concerns Rationalism and Christian belief.

Links update

Posted by on November 5th, 2008

Here is a link to all 10 parts of the excellent review of Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” over on the Only a Game blog.

I think my last link went to part 7. Subsequent parts 8, 9 and 10 are very good and worth taking the time out to read.

“Think of the Children”

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 5th, 2008

“No amount of entertainment is worth the life of a child!” This is perfect political rhetoric, guaranteed to get the Question Time studio audience clapping their support. But it also explains why that same audience is beset by so much “nanny state gone mad” regulation. What’s more, it is wrong. Anyone who thinks that no amount entertainment is worth the life of a child either overvalues children or undervalues entertainment. Jamie Whyte, The Times

Something that made me laugh: Charlie Brooker on Aspirational TV. The last quote reminds me of this blog: “Far better is to sit here and sneer at the lot of it. Isn’t it? That’s what we like to do, isn’t it? Aye? Have a good sneer, aye? Aye, that cheers us up! Aye?”