The uses and abuses of scientific authority

I believe that science is in need of a Reformation. By that I mean that science as presently practiced has travelled a very long way from its origins as a holy endeavour, characterised by humility in the face of the truth. The way that science is presently practiced involves a very great deal of intellectual dishonesty and manipulation, and these egregious faults pass generally unnoticed simply because of the immense social capital that “science” has generated as a result of technological success.

Scientists as such have a certain authority in our culture as they are seen as those who possess a form of knowledge which is beyond normal understanding, and the results of that knowledge are often awesome and inspiring – the moon landings being one particularly visible success. Yet there are clear limits to what science can tell us, and the distance between what an authentic scientist might say (authentic meaning one who has humility before the truth) and what a contemporary scientist might say (contemporary meaning one who simply makes bold claims without being able to back them up) is very stark.

Let us return once again to Richard Dawkins, the erstwhile Professor for the public understanding of science. When Dawkins writes about science, especially about evolutionary biology, he is excellent – a compelling writer, lucid, vivid, and able to explain complex phenomena in a way that the intelligent lay reader can understand. Dawkins has authority in this subject area because it is an area in which he has been trained thoroughly and in which he has decades of experience as a teacher. If you want to understand evolutionary biology then I can unhesitatingly recommend his writings.

However, what Dawkins is presently best known for is his writings on religion. This is not his area of academic expertise. He has not received any training in this area at all, and he has no academic experience. What Dawkins has done is use the authority that he has accrued as a writer in the sphere of evolutionary biology to try and strengthen his case in a different area. This is intellectually illegitimate; it is a form of fraud. As most people have little expertise in this area, and as most people give authority to ‘scientists’, Dawkins is given a hearing. Yet for those who actually have expertise in this area Dawkins’ arguments barely reach the level of being wrong. As the Marxist atheist Terry Eagleton memorably put it, “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” I say this with authority because this is an area in which I have been fully trained and in which I have years of experience teaching – so yes, in this arena my qualifications are indeed much greater than those of Dawkins!

Dawkins is simply the most obvious example of a scientist who is cashing in on the general respect given to science by our culture in order to advance a different agenda. The subject of my last article, the medical-pharmaceutical-industrial complex is another. Modern medicine is indeed a marvellous thing. The ways in which we understand the mechanisms of the body and can often repair it when they go wrong, from broken bones to treating heart disease, this is wonderful and worthy of as many prayers of thanksgiving that we can muster. Yet the pharmaceutical industry has taken advantage of the trust that we give to doctors, a trust which is very much a subset of the trust that we give to scientists in general, and has manipulated that relationship in order to make money. Scientific research – that on which our whole system of modern medicine relies – has been systematically abused and distorted in order to serve the financial interests of huge industrial conglomerates, and any idea of intellectual humility before the truth was abandoned long ago.

A further example comes when we look at the issue of ‘climate change’, what used to be called – and what used to be more honestly called – ‘global warming’. The allegation was that as a result of modern industrial development we were pumping dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as a result of which the global temperature was going to continuously increase. The IPCC produced regular bulletins giving predictions about what was going to happen (they still do this, even though there hasn’t been any increase in global temperatures for around 17 years now, and counting). Yet we often hear reference to the figure of 97%, as in ’97% of scientists believe in global warming’. Once again, we have an argument which is only given a hearing because of the general authority that is given to scientists. As soon as that figure is subjected to any sort of rigorous scrutiny – Where did it come from? How was it arrived at? – then the figure falls apart, as it is based on incredibly shoddy and manipulated research (those who are interested in the detail I would refer to the blog Climate Etc written by Professor Judith Curry, one of the world’s leading climatologists). Whenever you hear someone mention this figure, our Prime Minister perhaps, be certain that it indicates a profound ignorance about the subject being discussed.

The religious reformation began with an awareness that the institutions of the church had lost touch with their own highest purposes, and had succumbed, as human institutions so often do succumb, to the very human frailties of greed, vanity and pride. I believe that, taken as a social institution, science has succumbed to the very same vices. Just as the church was reformed by a protest movement, so too must science be reformed. Just as the church was renewed by a return to first principles – the slogan used was ‘ad fontes’ – so too must science return to its own best practice, restricting itself to saying only what can be known, and not prostituting its authority in search of worldly success, whether that be celebrity or cold, hard cash. Put simply, science will only be able to properly be itself when it recognises that it cannot function without those human virtues that I have mentioned, of humility, integrity, honesty, self-discipline and the like – and most of all, when it recognises that those foundations on which it depends can only be established on spiritual terms. In other words, science will only be able to function properly as science when it both remembers and honours the original queen of the sciences: theology.

Queen of the Sciences

Do you have faith in your pills?

bad_pharmaIn recent years many of the insititutional pillars of society have fallen into disrespect. Politicians, obviously, but also journalism, the priesthood, the police, many others. Groups that were trusted who have now fallen from grace. Are doctors going to be next?

This is a question raised by Ben Goldacre in his extremely stimulating book ‘Bad Pharma’, which I read on holiday. Goldacre is a qualified medical doctor and psychiatrist, and presently a lecturer at Oxford. In his book, published in 2012, Goldacre sets out to show, in his words, that “Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects.”

Goldacre supports these contentions throughout his book building up a detailed critique of the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which it systematically distorts the medical process at every stage. The motivations for the pharmaceutical industry to do this are quite straightforward, given that it is a multi-billion pound industry and a successful new drug can mean the difference between a company flourishing and failing. However, in pursuit of that economic end, Goldacre documents the ways in which the industry undermines the scientific process in order to make more profit. The material that Goldacre presents is utterly shocking, and if I had any residual faith in the science lying behind much modern medical and psychiatric treatment, it has certainly vanished now.

Goldacre describes one example from when he was working in General Practice, which relates to the drug Reboxetine (Edronax), which is used as an anti-depressant. He had a patient who was not improving on other drugs, and was considering using Reboxetine to see if it had a beneficial effect. He looked at the available literature which seemed positive, and agreed with his patient that it was worth trying, and duly wrote out a prescription. However, shortly after this, a review of all the research on Reboxetine was published, which for the first time included data from medical trials that had not been published (one of the main ways in which the pharmaceutical industry manipulates things is by only publishing information about trials that show their drug in a favourable light, whilst suppressing information that is critical). Goldacre writes, “I did everything a doctor is supposed to do. I read all the papers, I critically appraised them, I understood them, I discussed them with the patient and we made a decision together, based on the evidence. In the published data, reboxetine was a safe and effective drug. In reality, it was no better than a sugar pill and, worse, it does more harm than good. As a doctor, I did something that, on the balance of all the evidence, harmed my patient, simply because unflattering data was left unpublished.”

The problems that Goldacre are describing are recognised as serious problems by some influential voices. The British Medical Journal, for example, recently published an editorial written by Goldacre entitled “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it” so there are some grounds for hope. However, very little of substance is changing, and the pharmaceutical industry continues to operate with a great deal of freedom in how it manipulates the scientific process.

What really needs to happen is that the light of public attention needs to shine on this area in a sustained and intensive way. We need to become as worked up about what is happening in pharmaceuticals as we are about all the other scandals of our time. All institutions run the risk of becoming cocooned in their own ways of thinking and patterns of life, and sometimes it takes an outsider to come along and say ‘this is simply not right’. MPs doubtless thought that claiming expenses for the draining of their moats was simply how things were done; journalists doubtless cynically accepted that phone-tapping was the way in which the truth was discovered; church hierarchies were doubtless concerned that priests accused of child abuse had to be given a chance for redemption. In the same way I believe, following Goldacre, that the medical profession needs to be told that the present practice of relying on the pharmaceutical industry as the principal guide for the benefits or otherwise that come from any particular medicine is not acceptable.

I suspect that this will be a very difficult process because there is something different about the medical profession at the moment that doesn’t apply to the other examples. In our current society, as I have said many times, “science” operates in the role that theology used to, in that it is the overarching and dominant form of knowledge, which incorporates all others. Those who are learned in this form of knowledge are the priests of our contemporary age and, in particular, those who provide forms of healing on the basis of that form of knowledge function in the modern world in a very similar fashion to ancient shamans. Sometimes the healing can be entirely ritualistic, as is most apparent when considering the difference in effectiveness between anti-depressants and placebos (sugar pills) – both have the same healing effect, which rather suggests that such healing as takes place is a product of the ritual visit to the tribal medicine man. In other words, what we are dealing with here is not a simple, practical, technical problem that can be solved by the application of sufficient determination and good will. No, here we are seeking to topple the gods of our society, and Goldacre is a blasphemer and heretic.

There are, obviously, many ways in which the pharmaceutical industry has helped the common good, and Goldacre gives credit where it is due. However, it is equally clear that the present system is broken. I would thoroughly recommend Goldacre’s book to anyone who is interested in this subject. I shall be following the ongoing conversations with great interest.

Comments

It would appear that I am still having problems with the comment system on this blog – they should be being sent through to me immediately (so that I can reply to them promptly) but this is not happening, and I don’t yet know why. Apologies – especially to Tess and dover1952. I shall investigate and try and solve the issue.

So that was 2014

Well that has been quite an interesting year – mostly dominated by continuing domestic fall out, including a long drawn out court process, but that has now been resolved satisfactorily. Things seem to be stable (famous last words…) Home education was abandoned at Easter, for several reasons – not sure it’s better for the children but it’s certainly better for me! I continued to be involved in local amateur dramatics, including singing ‘I’m too sexy’ solo in the panto, along with one other role. Really it has been a year of getting a lot of stuff sorted out behind the scenes – personally and professionally. There are some major changes coming just down the line – and I am full of enthusiasm for what is coming – but I need to have some holiday first as I’m rather stretched! I am, nonetheless, moving away from Ground Zero, and the future is very appealing. I am optimistic that my productivity – including my writing on this blog! – will start to increase again. There is still so much that I need to say!

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

In Christ there is neither sexually legitimate nor illegitimate

So: House Group today, exploring the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4) and all the ways in which Jesus is taboo-busting by simply talking to her (actually, I would say: flirting with her). The Samaritan woman – the first evangelist, from the same gospel that also brought you the first apostle, also a woman – is disqualified from acceptability on several grounds. Firstly, she is a woman. Second, she is a foreigner. Third, her sexual identity is problematic.

So in the discussion around this passage I thought of Paul’s famous ‘In Christ there is no…’ and thought that the Samaritan woman is embodying what Paul is describing. So I think it would be orthodox and reflective of Christ’s actions to say: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Samaritan, there is neither male nor female, there is neither sexually legitimate nor illegitimate.

It’s *all* secondary. It’s not about whether you worship on a mountain or in the temple, it’s whether you worship in spirit and in truth. It’s not about how you apply your dangly bits, it’s about whether you love in spirit and in truth…

/rant over

“Love’s the only engine of survival” – reflections on the Christianity of Interstellar

interstellar
I recently went to watch the latest Christopher Nolan movie called ‘Interstellar’ – and this is a reflection on the film that includes discussion of the ending, so if you like to watch your science fiction stories completely unspoiled about how they turn out, best stop reading now.

Interstellar is one of my favourite sorts of movies, by one of my favourite modern directors (he was also responsible for Inception and the recent Batman trilogy). It is what is known as ‘hard’ science fiction, whereby the story is intentionally grounded in what is considered to be ‘proper’ science. In this case, there is even a book by the physicist Kip Thorne, who was a technical adviser on the movie, which discusses the astro-physics of black holes, which is the means by which humans travel from one star system to another – hence the ‘interstellar’ of the title.

Nolan is, I believe, an atheist. At the very least, he is a humanist, and this takes a particular form in the film. The premise of the story is that, some time in the near future, the earth is dying, for reasons unexplained but probably as a result of human pollution. There is a ‘blight’ which is killing off most of the food crops in the world and consequently all the economic resources on earth are going towards agriculture rather than space exploration: “We need farmers, not engineers” as one character says. In order to support this shift of emphasis, the history of space exploration has been suppressed. Text books now describe the moon landings as a propaganda coup against the Soviets, a televisual sleight-of-hand used to intimidate political opponents.

In this context, to seek to explore the stars is a defiant act of hope. The film as a whole can be taken as an attempt to re-inspire the watcher with a desire to voyage into the final frontier, “Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here”. The story of the hero, which has a significant amount of emotional heft (in ways that I shall not spoil here) is very affecting, especially for fathers of daughters. At the conclusion of the film, the hero is forced to make a leap into the unknown, and this is where the humanism of the director is shown most clearly. Where there might seem to be a deus ex machina – a God intervening in the system in order to set things right – in Nolan’s story, the deus turns out to be humanus – human beings from the future that have learned to manipulate time. One might say ‘God is one of us’.

However, although that is the surface truth of the story, there are two ways in which the film actually draws deeply from the Christian mythos, in ways that make me consider the film to be quite orthodox in its message. By ‘orthodox’ I mean ‘informed by the resurrection’, that is, seeing the world with a Christian point of view. The Christian perspective seems to subvert even the most consciously humanistic of intentions!

The first way in which the story draws from the Christian mythos is simply in terms of the narrative arc. The salvation of humankind is at stake, one man has to move forward, leaving behind all his ties to his family and ends up journeying alone into a black hole where he expects to die, and yet – miracle of miracles! – something happens to transform the situation and the hero is enabled to return, to be reunited with his loved ones one last time, before he ascends once again into the heavens. I trust that this description is enough to show the parallels with the Christian story.

However, that first parallel with the Christian story is itself quite a slim point. It is the story of the redeemer, which, although it undoubtedly has a definitive form in our history in the Christian gospel, can be found in other cultures in very similar forms. Where I found the film to be most deeply compatible with the Christian story is in the fundamental message about love, articulated by one of the co-stars, and the one whom the hero voyages to pursue at the end of the tale. The co-star gives a moving speech at a crucial moment in the plot about the way in which love guides human activity, and that love is not bound by time. It is, in a sense, the faculty in human beings which (in the language of the film) allows us to access the ‘higher dimension’ of time and guide us, and which the hero directly uses later on in order to guide his decisions and achieve the salvation of humanity. This is an understanding of love which sits directly within the mainstream Christian tradition. To adap St Paul’s language: love bears all things, love hopes all things, love never ends – death has been swallowed up in victory.

Nolan’s Interstellar is a great film – some wonderful action sequences, a solid plot with emotional weight, and an inspiring message delivered with awesome imagery. That message, it seems to me, is quite profoundly Christian – despite a superficial coating of humanism. Our society is still haunted by the Christian imagination, and whenever a creative artist in our society seeks to express something transcendent they cannot, despite themselves, avoid drawing from baptismal waters. In our own time we have entered, if not the end of the earth as a whole, certainly a time of great tribulation and trauma. We would do well to be guided by the message of Interstellar: love will guide us through the abyss.

“You’re so rude!”

Courier article

I would like to return to the theme of political correctness this week, and expand on one element from my last article. One of the aspects of Jesus’ ministry which is regularly missed (although those who know me will recognise that I am on something of a campaign to raise awareness) is that he was exceptionally rude. This was always for a particular purpose, and mostly that purpose was to expose the wickedness of those in positions of power – both secular and religious – and defend those without power, the ‘widows and orphans’ of his time. Yet the most exemplary example of Jesus’ rudeness comes not when he is criticising the powerful but when he calls a foreign woman a dog, which was just as much of an insult in his time as it is in ours. Why does he do this?

His disciples had just become very nervous about Jesus being rude to the religious authorities – “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard [you]?” – and so Jesus takes them away from the city and they meet the foreign woman, who has a grievously ill daughter. The foreign woman begs Jesus to help but he does nothing – first he ignores her completely, “Jesus did not answer a word” – and then, when the disciples get fed up with her begging and ask Jesus to do something, he basically says ‘get lost’, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, in other words, not to foreigners like you. Then, when the woman persists in her begging, comes the insult, that it is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs, ie the foreign woman.

Notice that whilst all this is happening, the disciples make no complaints about Jesus’ rudeness to the woman. In contrast to the Pharisees, whom the disciples deemed worthy of protection and respect, this foreign woman doesn’t count – and so all the examples of Jesus’ rudeness to her don’t register with them. They see what Jesus is doing as completely conventional and unremarkable, it is exactly what they would do in his situation. Which is why it is so shocking when Jesus grants her request and says to her “Woman you have great faith!” In other words, in contrast to the Pharisees, here is someone who is modelling what God is looking for – and I’m quite certain that this Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he took his disciples out of the city.

Now, in retelling this story, I am not wanting to simply defend rudeness. I am, after all, very much a supporter of kindness and gentleness. Yet what Jesus could see clearly was the way in which the political system can enforce certain cultural standards which work to keep power with some people and prevent others from gaining access to it. In other words, if we pay attention to language, and notice what is generally acceptable and what is not, then we can gain an insight into where the power lies within a particular community. What Jesus was doing was bringing his disciples face to face with the political reality of their time – and ramming home the contrast with what God was looking for. The foreigner had absolutely no status with the disciples, yet she demonstrated great faith. The Pharisees were the opposite, on both sides of the equation.

I conceived my last article as essentially about a defence of the poorer and often older working class man. The sharpest opposition to what I said has come to me from richer and younger women. I believe that this is an indication of where the power lies in our society and I also believe that this is one of the clearest symptoms of how disconnected our society has become from reality.

After all, it is amongst the traditional manual labourers that there is the clearest and most obvious link with the production of economic value; in addition, if those men get removed, society will cease to function extremely swiftly. I say “men” because it is men who do these jobs, and there is very little pressure from wider society for gender-based and egalitarian quotas. This is for the simple reason that women don’t want to do such jobs, and so the political apparatus does not seek to impose such quotas. I am thinking of jobs like working on an oil rig, or fishing at sea, or collecting our rubbish bins early in the morning. Jobs where there is very little glamour but where there is also a distinct lack of cushioning from reality, where a mistake doesn’t cause embarrassment it causes significant injury or death.

I came across an extremely interesting statistic the other day, that the average man is stronger than 90% of women. This, too, is a reason why the jobs that I have in mind tend to be overwhelmingly male, for they are physically demanding and there simply aren’t that many women who can cope with the level of physical exertion required. In other words, here is a difference that isn’t due to some political campaign of oppression but is simply part of the fabric of reality. This is the world that we live in.

So am I now arguing for women to get back into the kitchen, preferably without shoes? Not at all. The issue is about how we look after all the members of a community, and that includes working class men. They, too, must be included. I believe that those men on whom we depend so absolutely for the essentials of modern civilisation have become excluded from the circle of concern in our culture. Where a healthy society would treat such men with a very great deal of respect, acknowledging the vulnerability of a community without what they provided, we have instead cultivated a society of scorn, which looks down on manual labour with a sneer, oblivious to the truth that without them, all will collapse. There are still Pharisees today.

Our polite discourse has settled around a practice of discounting the contributions of working class men. I think that this is wrong, it is an injustice and it is immensely self-destructive. When people seek to express the concerns of this group of people, it is not enough to respond with a squeal of self-righteousness, as if the voice of authority in our culture were a Graham Norton figure saying ‘You’re so rude!’ and pouting. It is because the concerns of some of us are not regarded as legitimate by the rest of us that our political system is going through such upheaval. This will not come to an end until all are included in our circle of concern.

The last permissible prejudice

Courier article

Regular readers of this column will know that I’m not a fan of political correctness, by which I mean the way in which traditional language has been replaced by supposedly less-offensive euphemisms. So – ‘handicapped’ has become ‘disabled’ which in turn has become ‘differently abled’ (I use this example because I am a handicapped man; I have a stake in that particular debate). I have two principal reasons for my distaste, one is a classic ‘enlightenment’ argument, the other is specifically Christian.

The classic objection to political correctness is that it is a constraint upon freedom of speech. Words matter, they are tremendously powerful, and when particular forms of speech are ruled impermissible it means that the natural distribution of power within a society is constrained. Those who have power, especially those who can enforce that power, can gather yet more power to themselves. To make freedom of speech into a basic value within a society – and that includes things like freedom of assembly, freedom to disseminate and publish ideas and so on – is to leave room for the small children to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. It is to ensure that there are elements of power that remain outside the control of central authorities. This is the case no matter how worthy the cause that is being advanced to justify the restrictions upon speech.

The more Christian objection to political correctness is simply to point out that it is a sin to be offended – and it is the taking of offence which is the principal fuel that drives the desire for politically correct speech, principally by cultivating a fear in those who would like to speak that they might unwittingly cause offence. To be offended is to assert a position of privilege, to occupy a position of pride, to say ‘my status demands more respect than you are offering to me’. Whereas Christians are taught to take the lowliest position, and those who are first shall be last. There is a wonderful passage in St Paul’s letters where he describes all the ways in which he might claim a justifiable pride as a son of Abraham and a zealous Pharisee but that he now considers them all as dross. To allow oneself to be offended is to step away from the healthy spiritual heart of Christian life.

What we have with political correctness is a campaign to police cultural boundaries, to mark out what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. This is a campaign with particular ideological heft, rooted in the idea that inequality has to be abolished: not, it must be emphasised, inequality of opportunity so much as inequality of outcome. All must have prizes! The sense that there are innate differences between people – that these differences may be immune to our political blandishments and that, even more important, those differences may be creative and forces for profound good in the world – this is the ultimate heresy for the politically correct. All must be smoothly functioning cogs within the imperial bureaucratic and industrial machines. Difference is inefficiency!

This is an example of magical thinking. I do not wish to denigrate magical thinking, which is the practice of changing consciousness in accordance with will, and tremendously powerful (it’s what the advertising industry does, for example). What I object to is that political correctness is an extremely bad example of magical thinking, in that it takes no account of physical realities. To pretend that there are no differences is not to engage with reality; it is, in fact, a flight from that reality into a utopian vision of perfect conformity. All of my instincts are to take one look at the smoothly whirling wheels and want to shove a stick into it. Difference is human.

Which brings me to the fundamental point that I wish to make this week, which is that whenever there is a dominant political consciousness, that rules some forms of speech legitimate, and others illegitimate, it is very instructive to look for the blind spot and to ask, as Rowan Williams was prone to on a frequent basis, “Who pays the price?” In other words, which group of people do not enjoy protection from a politically correct environment? There are always prejudices, so where do the prejudices lie today?

I would argue that the last permissible prejudice in contemporary polite society is a prejudice against the working class British man. Those who fall into that category are denied any form of cultural acceptance. They are scorned as ignorant, racist, bigoted, redundant (in both senses), patriarchal, chauvinist, fat, lazy – generally as a waste of space that it would be best not to pay much attention to. Their cultural expressions are ridiculed, their political views vilified. There are two areas in particular that show this prejudice most clearly to me.

The first is in family law. Historically the typical man was able to perform the classic roles of protector and provider for their family, and in return they had certain legal assurances about the safety and integrity of that family – that it could not, for example, be destroyed upon a whim, that the legal contract of matrimony would be protected and enforced by the court system. That has entirely broken down and so one of the greatest social goods that a typical man was able to nurture and enjoy is now removed. This has been made possible for the simple reason that the state has taken over the roles of protector and provider; a real man of flesh and blood is no longer necessary.

The second is that the typical working class British man is at the very sharp end of the immigration debate. It is not those who are well established in their professions who are most at risk from the surge in immigration, rather it is those whose most marketable asset is their low wage cost who find their livelihoods being taken away by those who can provide labour at an even lower price. This is a development that is perfectly fine and justifiable for those who own industries, or those who wish to take advantage of much cheaper labour in the domestic sphere, but it has completely hammered the average man.

So is this a moan? No – that would simply be to ‘take offence’ in turn. It has been said that ‘to those who have will more be given, from those who have little, even that little shall be taken away’. Life is hard, ‘life is suffering’ as the Buddhists teach. What I would say is simply this: political correctness is a luxury, a product of an absurdly affluent society that has lost sight of the fundamental economic and practical truths of human life, the nature of genuine human differences that can be celebrated profitably rather than denied to everyone’s detriment. There are truths which will not go away, and which promise a much more fruitful future for the working class British man than our present delusional patterns of life can offer. We are rapidly entering into a time when the classic old-fashioned virtues of the working class man will once more be seen as valuable and honourable. Political correctness is simply a bubble on the crest of a wave that is now crashing against a very rocky shore. The meek shall inherit the earth.

Coming and Going in the Wilderness (Queer Theology Synchroblog)

Sam says: this is a guest post, part of the ‘Queer Theology Synchroblog’ – this year’s theme is “Coming/Going”. To find out more, go here.

The Rev. Elizabeth M. Edman writes: there are a lot of biblical stories about people entering the wilderness alone, or in big groups, where they have to figure out who they are. This is one of the most pivotal stories in Christianity, and it involves two people who go into the wilderness separately, meet up there unexpectedly, and come out with a different and stronger sense of themselves than they had before they entered.

This is a sermon that I preached a couple of years ago, when I was struggling in my own deep and painful wilderness. Unbeknownst to me, I was at the time having an encounter with the people to whom I was preaching that was very like the experience in this story. I don’t know whether I was Philip, or the Eunuch. All I know is that I entered this place scared, and left it more fully aware of myself than I ever had been. That is what my faith tradition can do for people, at its best. And I also know that my queerness provided the lens for me both to understand what is going on in both of these encounters – Philip’s and the Eunuch’s, and mine and this church.

Acts 8.26-40

This story from Acts, about an encounter in a chariot on a wilderness road, is one of my favorites. It tells the story of the first Gentile – that is, the first non-Jew – who consciously chooses to follow the risen Christ. This is a pivotal moment in the life of the church, because it is the moment when the apostles realize that the new life offered by Jesus is offered not just to Jews, but to the whole world. This marks the beginning of something new and hugely important, not just in Christianity, but in human experience: the moment when religious identity becomes self-determining, not tied to bloodlines, to ethnicity, to national allegiance. It is the moment when Christianity becomes consciously, deliberately transgressive: violating conventional boundaries of human society in the search for meaning, for connection, for God.

It’s an extraordinary story, and it focuses with laser-like intensity on an interaction that takes place between two men: Philip, one of Jesus’ apostles; and an African man, a top advisor to the Queen of Ethiopia. We never learn this man’s name. In the bible this always a sign that we should pay very close attention to what we do know about him. What we know is a lot: He is one of the Queen’s most trusted advisors: he is in charge of her entire treasury. He is living in the lap of luxury. He’s sitting in a chariot that’s like a limo, with room for two or more. We know that he can read. We know that he is heading home from Jerusalem, where he has been worshipping. He is religiously observant. He is also spiritually inquisitive. Probably while he was in Jerusalem he picked up a scroll with the writings of Isaiah, and he is reading it aloud, trying to make sense of it. He is open-minded; he is looking for something new.

The text tells us something else about him: he is a eunuch. His sexual status is how he is identified throughout the narrative. “The eunuch did this; then the eunuch said that…” I told a good friend that I was preaching on this story, and her comment was: “kind of sucks to go down in history as ‘the eunuch.’ ‘People, I’m Fred. FRED. Is that so hard to write down?! Do you have to keep referring to me as the guy that got castrated?’”

We don’t know a lot about what being a eunuch in the court of Ethiopia might have signified. It may have meant that he was castrated at an early age to be cultivated as a particular kind of servant to the Queen. The fact that the text uses the term “eunuch” in lieu of his name suggests that ancient audiences would have known exactly what it meant. But take note: the author of Acts thinks that for the purposes this story his status as eunuch is more important than anything else about him, including his access to wealth, his political power, his nationality, his ethnic heritage, or his religious affiliation.

In this pivotal, transgressive moment, when Christianity is shattering barriers of tribe and language and people and nation, the focus is on a man who embodies both strength and vulnerability. He would have been recognized by the people of his day as someone who had been intentionally, sexually, set apart from the mainstream and lifted up into a position of privilege. He is someone, in other words, whose very life is the essence of liminality. He exists on the borders of human experience. That makes him kind of like a priest, actually. And in this story, the Holy Spirit plunges toward that border to accomplish something that has never been done before.

The story begins with an angel of the Lord telling Philip to “’Get up and go towards the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” The text tells us that this is a wilderness road. The wilderness is a place of chaos, and vulnerability, and discernment. It is the place where God sends the wandering children of Israel after the Exodus, and where God sends Jesus right after his baptism, both for the same reason: the wilderness is where people come to understand who they are, and what they are supposed to be. God sends Philip there for the same reason: to learn what this brand new spiritual movement is, to learn about its identity and the mission that God intends for it.

Philip gladly, voluntarily enters this place of radical unknowing, trusting that the Holy Spirit will stay with him and guide him. As we arrive with Philip on this wilderness road, our gaze is immediately directed to this man, this eunuch, in all his pomp and power, sitting and reading in his chariot. The Spirit tells Philip to join him. Philip runs up to the chariot. At this point, the story emphasizes the disparity in their circumstances. The eunuch is riding in comfort and splendor, probably dressed in regal finery. Philip is on foot, running, perhaps vaguely aware of the worn out strap on his sandal that he can’t afford to replace, hoping it won’t pick this moment to snap. The eunuch is reading Isaiah, and Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch is frustrated. He doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t know who to ask.

This is a rich moment of opportunity. The Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, and we know that Luke was writing to a Gentile audience that wasn’t familiar with Hebrew scripture. The people Luke is trying to reach are just like the eunuch, eager to understand the Jewish traditions that have given birth to this new Christian movement. Luke encourages his Gentile listeners to identify with the eunuch, and to do just what the eunuch does: invite Philip in to explain what all this means.

And the eunuch does invite him in. It is a mutual invitation. The eunuch, a man of privilege and power, invites this peasant to sit beside him in his royal chariot. And Philip, a Jew, a member of God’s chosen people, set on fire by the Holy Spirit, invites this religious alien, this Ethiopian, this sexual deviant to become part of the world-altering mission he is on.

Together, they read from Isaiah. Words that Philip has heard his entire life suddenly are filled with new meaning for him. Using Isaiah as a starting point, he explains all that he has lived, learned, experienced in his encounter with Jesus. He really must be on fire with the Holy Spirit, because his words slam into the eunuch and take root. Right there, in the middle of the wilderness, the eunuch knows that what Philip has just told him is going to change his life forever. Miraculously, there in the desert, the road leads them to water. Maybe the eunuch has been particularly mesmerized by the stories of baptism. He says, “’Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” “Prevent,” koluo in Greek, is a word that appears in the Bible when walls are coming down. Once upon a time Jesus said, “Don’t stop – don’t koluo – the little children from coming to me.” The chariot stops. Philip and the eunuch get out, and together they are immersed in the water of a new life, of a new reality. They are in this together, and the mutual respect they show each other is stunning. Philip accepts this man, whose status as a member of a sexual minority is plain for all the world to see. Philip doesn’t shame him. He doesn’t tell the eunuch to “go and sin no more.” He doesn’t tell him to go find some ex-eunuch ministry before he can be baptized. And in turn, the eunuch doesn’t ask Philip to tone down his proclamation of the radical gospel he is preaching. They know that they are part of something that is so much bigger than either of them, and yet so utterly dependent on both of them.

And they know something more: they know that this new life they are entering will be an identity marker for them. Whatever this movement is – this “Christian” thing, this call to tear down barriers between us and build up a better world – this is now a part of who they are. It is right up there with being a eunuch, or a Jew, or an Ethiopian, or a Palestinian. It is something they are both caught up in. It is in a way, something beyond their control. And yet it is something that they will choose for themselves – not just a system of belief, not just a lovely faith community to be part of, and much more than a vocation: this is now part of their identities. It is part of who they are.

This is the moment when the notion of Christian identity is formed. The eunuch and Philip have been invited to perceive this together, to understand it for themselves. You and I are invited to get up in that chariot with them. In that liminal space, we are invited to engage the transgressive power of authentic Christian faith. We are invited to understand it, to choose it, and to claim it as an identity marker — something that we know as deeply as we know any other part of ourselves. Amen.


Originally preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Hoboken, NJ, May 6, 2012