The government of our imagination (converting Richard Dawkins part 2)

Last time out I talked about poetry and the different ways in which language could be used. I want in this article to convey something about how language structures our existence. To do that, I need to talk about imagination and government.

Look around where you are right now – look up from the page in which you are reading these words and see all the different things there are that are close by. Is there anything that wasn’t first born in the imagination of some particular person? If you are in a room then that room was first designed by a human being; the paint on the walls and the features hanging there came from a person’s imagination; similarly, the furniture, the carpet, the cup of tea by your elbow – all these were first formed in someone’s imagination. If there are plants, it is highly unlikely that they are in a ‘natural’ state – no, these too have been formed by the human imagination. Possibly the best case for something around you that wasn’t first born in the imagination is if there is another human being nearby – but that’s worth a more thorough conversation at another time.

My point is simply that so much of the physical space that we inhabit is typically mediated by our imaginations – what we imagine is the parent of what has come to be. Our imaginations, therefore, are tremendously powerful and impactful upon our world. Which means that we need to play close attention to what we do with them.

Which brings me to the question of government. Is the government real? Most would say so. If someone didn’t believe that the government was real – as in, they truly were committed to that proposition – then they would cease to pay their taxes. There would then ensue certain consequences, up to and including the imprisonment of such a person. That wouldn’t necessarily convince that person themselves that the government existed, but it would persuade most onlookers to at least act as if the government were real.

Yet in what way can we call the government real? It is not a material ‘thing’. There is no object that we might touch and say ‘this is the government’, nor is there any person we might touch – not even our most gracious sovereign lady. We cannot walk up to 10 Downing Street and ask for the government, nor Whitehall – not even Town Hall in Colchester.

My point is simply that there are many things that we are normally quite happy to accept as real which do not qualify as material objects. In other words, there are realities in our lives that are not susceptible to scientific investigation, at least in the form that this has historically taken. We might suggest a spectrum of reality from things that are least involving of human beings – like the movements of planets – to those which are most involving – such as the operations of governments – and say that science is a more appropriate study of one end of that spectrum and less appropriate to the other. Adding, of course, that all parts of the spectrum are ‘real’.

The far end of the spectrum, the one that most involves human beings conducting human lives, is the realm which I am trying to point towards in this article. It is born in our imaginations and yet takes on a life of its own. There is no one person on whom our government depends. Should any person with a key role suddenly vanish out of existence, the government will carry on and simply replace that person with another who will take on the duties of the role. It is rather like an ant’s nest – if you remove any particular ant, the colony will carry on as if nothing has happened. If you stamp on the nest and then step back, the ants will simply reproduce the nest once more. The colony can be seen as having an existence separate from any of the constituent parts.

This doesn’t just apply to governments. It applies to all the various institutions and organisations that we human beings so like to form – churches, scientific bodies, golf clubs, theme parks, tribes, shopping centres – the whole glorious gamut of human endeavour. The Bible has a description for all of these things, calling them ‘principalities and powers’. The struggle with these things is the primary location for what Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’: in other words, the never ending attempt to become better people, more open to the will of God.

Now it might be argued, contrary to my ant colony example, that the government does not exist in any real sense. To use the language of my previous article, the materialist would argue that because there is no specific material correlate to the word ‘government’ then it has no ultimate reality. It is simply a construct of human thinking.

What provokes a wry smile in me when I ponder such an argument is simply that it is one that Richard Dawkins’ own work has done quite a lot to undermine. After all, it is Dawkins who coined the understanding of memes. Memes are mental constructs that exist independently of the human minds in which they operate. Dawkins argues that religions specifically are defective memes, viruses of the mind. There is a remarkable correspondence between what Dawkins has begun to describe as ‘memes’ and what the Christian tradition has considered to be the principalities and powers – they are both, using different languages, describing some of the fundamental building blocks of distinctively human life.

This, finally, is why religions pay very close attention to our use of language, and seek to regulate that language through things like prohibitions against blasphemy. When we speak differently we live differently. Words and names have immense power, for both good and ill – which is why Plato, the original fascist, sought to ban the poets. As language is born from our minds, so is the world in which we live structured by our imaginations. If we do not govern our imaginations well then we shall end up being governed in unimaginably bad ways.

How I would convert Richard Dawkins (part one)

It’s a bold claim to even suggest – that it would be possible to convert the most notorious atheist in the Western world. Yet I think that it would be possible, given enough time and good will. How would I do it?

To begin with, I would not engage directly with any of the arguments that Dawkins puts forward in his book ‘The God Delusion’. Instead, I would want to talk about the nature of language. After all, the arguments that are used by both sides of the debate, believer and atheist alike, are embedded in language. If we don’t have an awareness of what sort of thing language is – or, perhaps, of the many different things that language is – then we are likely to go astray.

Given the excellent nature of his writing, then, I would begin by discussing poetry with the good Professor. I would want to explore what makes for good poetry over against bad poetry. Why are some writers revered for their use of language, whilst others are reviled. What is it that gives certain words their power? Through the discussion of poetry what I would most want to achieve is a sense of how we can be creative with words, that words can be manipulated in certain ways in order to achieve certain effects.

Of course, the good Professor may not wish to accept my point here. I have had discussions with some atheists where it has become clear that they are ‘tone deaf’ when it comes to poetic language, and see it as an irrelevance to the question of atheism. At that point, if there is no meeting of minds then the discussion would be over. I’d have to accept failure in my attempt to change a mind.

However, if the point about poetry is accepted then we are away.

My next step would be to explore how we actually use language in every day life, drawing attention to the many different ways in which language does different things in different situations. Consider how the word ‘water’ is deployed in these different contexts: by someone responding to the question ‘what would you like to drink?’; by someone who has just been given a glass of water but who has been expecting a glass of champagne; by someone struggling through the desert for days and who has discovered an oasis.

In these situations we still have a fairly direct connection between ‘water’ and what is being discussed, there is simply a different emotional content being expressed in the use of the word.

Now consider the word ‘lovely’, and how that word might be used in different ways – to express both approval and disapproval, scorn or boredom.

Hopefully by this time the good Professor will be coming to see that language is a remarkably flexible instrument, and see that when we are considering questions of religious belief we need to pay attention to what is actually being done when certain language is being used.

Before talking directly about religious language, however, there is one last element of ground-clearing that would need to be done, and this is connected to the philosophy of science.

If a scientist spoke about ‘water’ it would be a reference to a substance with the chemical composition H2O – and, crucially, in our contemporary culture, this is privileged as the right way to understand the meaning of the word, with all the other ways of using the word (as discussed above) being considered as derivative.

In my discussion with the good Professor what I would most want him to understand is that this privileging of the scientific way of using a word has distinct and particular historical roots. It flows from a decision that what can be measured through instrumentation is more real than anything else, and possibly the only real thing that there is. Furthermore, this attitude is rooted in a philosophy known as materialism, and in the history of philosophy it has had a long struggle with an opposing philosophy known as idealism – the key feature of idealism being the assertion that reality is fundamentally mental and not material.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century heyday of scientific triumphalism, materialism seemed to be self-evidently true. Throughout the twentieth century, however, that confidence came to be understood as increasingly misplaced. The impact of quantum physics, which showed that the separation between the observer and the observed was not ultimately valid, was particularly dramatic. That shift in understandings, however, takes time to filter down from the scientific and academic realm into the area of popular conversations. These days, in philosophical circles, a simple embrace of materialism is regarded as a sign of ignorance – the sort of attitude that a first-year undergraduate might hold before beginning a proper study of the subject.

So to sum up part one, all of the discussions that I would have had so far with the good Professor – about poetry, about the use of language, about the philosophy of science – would have been with the intent to make him more aware of the presuppositions and assumptions that lie behind his other statements. My hope would be that, in becoming aware of those assumptions, he might start to recognise the intellectual integrity of alternative positions. He might not, of course – in which case I would have nothing futher to say – but in that case his arguments are not with religious believers but with the very many (frequently atheistic) philosophers of language and science who disagree with him, and I would happily leave the burden of persuasion to them!

One last point: by ‘Richard Dawkins’ I mean anyone who is aggressively committed to an atheist position, as set out in something like ‘The God Delusion’. My aim in these articles is simply to draw out significant tensions in their position, trusting that if this became clear that it would, at the least, lead to self-questioning and perhaps a less confident proclamation of atheism. The most that I might realistically hope for is an openness to further conversation. I rather doubt that any one person can ‘convert’ another – that is something that needs to be a work of the Holy Spirit if it is going to last and not simply be an exercise in power and manipulation.

It’s all about the story

story_telling

I am often asked to give reasons for believing in God. Whilst I very much honour the motivation behind the request, I feel that it is based upon a mistake and I would like to explain why.

In the 1930s the philosopher Bertrand Russell would often engage in polemical debate with representatives of the Christian churches. There was one particular debate with a Fr O’Hara that Wittgenstein listened to, after which he commented “Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm”.

For Wittgenstein, and for me, the problem with this sort of debate is that it turns religious belief into some sort of weak science. “The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words,” said Wittgenstein, “but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.” What he was very opposed to was any attempt to “elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion”.

In part, this was because Wittgenstein was very aware of the primitive roots that lie behind all our patterns of thought. In discussing James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, which was an immensely influential work at the time, he criticised Frazer for completely lacking an historical imagination, writing that “Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness”.

To imagine that religious belief is based upon some sort of intellectual exercise is a grave mistake. Moreover, it is a grave mistake not only in mischaracterising the sort of thing that religious belief is, but also in giving far more importance to a narrow sense of reason and logic than either deserve.

In an academic argument, the one who can make the most reasonable and logical points can make progress. Yet that reason and logic – all reason and logic – is based upon unstated premises. The fallacy of Modern (capital M) philosophy is that it believed that reason could provide the foundation for our knowledge. Post-Modern thought is characterised by the recognition that this was a fool’s errand from the start, for (as Wittgenstein wrote) we do not acquire our most fundamental beliefs by a process of ratiocination.

We human beings actually form our understandings, first from the patterns of life into which we are born (including the language that is our mother tongue), and then from the stories that we are told from an early age. Such stories do not have to be put into books; more often they are simply told and retold as we grow and as a community develops. Our supposedly secular society is not immune to the power of stories – we are told things about science and progress, for example, that are clearly very tall stories.

Which brings me to the point that I would like to make about what it means to believe as a Christian. Our most fundamental commitments are shaped through stories, and so, to be a Christian is to have our understandings shaped by the Christian story. The most important element of that is found in the stories around Holy Week and Easter, and perhaps I shall describe them in more depth at that time of year. For now I would like to talk about the Christmas story.

It is surely one of the most familiar tales in our culture – baby Jesus born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It is the subject of so many Christmas cards and it seems so very sweet. Yet there is much more to the story. Take, for example, the way in which Jesus is born far from home and is immediately taken to a different country as a refugee, where he has to stay for some years before his homeland is safe.

A Christian would see this as the working out of God’s providence; to put that differently, a Christian would see God as at work in, and found with, those who are refugees fleeing from political persecution. As a result of this, a Christian perspective on our present refugee crisis would suggest that God is also found there – that amongst the poor and vulnerable infants fleeing from a war zone may be found those who will be carrying out God’s will today.

When he grew up, Jesus himself said explicitly that it was not those who called him Lord who would enter the Kingdom but rather those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked – for in doing so, those who are generous will be looking after Jesus himself.

To be moved by the Christmas story in this way, to be affected by it and to then to live differently as a result, is to start to understand what it means to believe in God. Belief in God is not a matter of abstract propositions, as if God was simply the result of a magnificent equation. Belief in God is living differently according to different priorities, acting out our own stories in the light of a very much larger story, one that gives our own lives a particular weight and meaning.

Which is why, despite my own argumentative and belligerent tendencies, I don’t believe it actually helps anyone to grow in faith to come up with grand philosophical justifications for religious belief. There is certainly room for thinking about the faith, for loving God with our minds, for what has traditionally been called apologetics – yet to think that anyone can come to faith by the use of logic is, I believe, a tremendous mistake.

I would much rather talk about the King of the world being found in human form as a vulnerable baby, carried on a wing and a prayer out of the reach of evil tyrants and government apparatchiks who are ‘just doing their job’. I would rather say ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est – that where there is love in the world, where there is compassion and mercy, forgiveness and healing, that is where God is to be found. Such things can never be demonstrated with reason and logic. We can know, understand and believe in these things only by telling our stories.

I wish you all a peaceful, joyful and holy Christmas.

Christianity is not a rational religion

A correspondent in the last issue of the Courier asked that I might consider what the strongest arguments against Christianity might be. I’m not going to answer that in this column, but I do want to write about why I think there is a mistaken assumption in the question. For I do not believe that Christianity is ultimately a matter of good arguments against bad arguments, however good I consider the arguments in favour of Christianity to be. I do not believe that it is possible to be reasoned into a Christian belief, nor do I believe it is possible to be reasoned out of it. To think that this might be the case is to place reason into a position that it is incapable of occupying, and I’d like to explore why.

I believe that it is possible to make an intellectually coherent system from any set of initial assumptions. It is possible to be both an intellectually coherent Marxist and an intellectually coherent Nazi (not at the same time of course); it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Buddhist and an intellectually coherent Muslim; it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Christian and an intellectually coherent atheist. In other words, to be intellectually coherent is not the same as being in possession of the full truth, it is merely a question of pointing out a consistency, that the conclusions of what is believed match up with the starting points of what is believed. Not many people actually achieve this of course – those that do tend to be called fundamentalists of one stripe or another. As Wittgenstein once put it, “The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing.” That is a comment which applies to all forms of believing, not just religious ones.

The pursuit of perfect intellectual coherence is ultimately a delusion, for all our understandings are destined to be incomplete and partial. Mathematically this has been proven (by Gödel), that even the most beautifully fine tuned intellectual system must be incomplete. So, in so far as you believe that mathematics has the capacity to reflect reality then you are equally bound to accept the limits to that.

The key issue, of course, is about the initial assumptions. How do we decide the premises on which we base our thinking? If it is possible to be intellectually coherent across various diverse and contradictory belief systems, how can we choose amongst them? Well, I am rather dubious that we do so ‘choose’. In Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’ he wrote “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” In other words, our most basic beliefs are not the product of ratiocination, of some sort of armchair based abstract theorising. Rather, all of our thinking takes place within a world view that is already given to us.

Consider how important to our beliefs is the language in which they are expressed. It is a commonplace to say that some words cannot be translated – how then can we ‘choose’ what we believe if some things simply cannot be stated within the language that we have inherited? No, the language that we speak is something given to us independently of our choice; similarly, the patterns of life into which we are formed, the habits that we depend upon to go about our daily lives, all the moral and ethical expectations that society places on us from before our birth – all these things form our ‘inherited background’. (Which is why, by the way, the baptism of infants makes sense – it is promising to establish that background rather than leaving it to the world to fill the gap – but that is another argument).

Is it possible for such an inherited background to change? Yes, it is, but it is not something that can be done purely by reason, although reason can be an immensely useful and healing tool to assist in a process of change. Rather, to change such an inherited background is more like the process of falling in love in that it is something that involves the whole of us, all of our passions and deepest concerns, and not just simply our capacity to intellectually reflect.

Possibly the most influential atheist in our intellectual tradition was David Hume, who wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Our beliefs change when our passions change, and our passions only change when something significant happens within our life. For our most fundamental beliefs to change, something similarly fundamental needs to have happened to our lives – a bereavement perhaps, or a personal crisis of another sort. In essence, we need to experience something for which our ‘inherited background’ way of thinking is inadequate; to put it colloquially, we need to have our minds blown by a particular event.

Such events have to involve us as fully human beings, all our passions and desires, loves and hatreds, fears and joys. The closer we come to consideration of such things, the closer we come to being able to change our inherited backgrounds. Which is why it is so essential that the humanities remain central to a civilisation, and why a proper understanding of tragedy is the foundation of all sustainable political resistance. What is most often misunderstood about Christian faith is that it is seen as being in competition with physics or chemistry, that it is offering a scientific description of the way that the world works. That is not where the centre of gravity of faith lies. Rather, the religious point of view is about the ordering of our passions, interrogating our desires in order to find the ‘one thing needful’ that puts everything else into its proper place and enables us to live life abundantly.

Let me put it like this. If you really want to understand the Christian faith, you’re better off pondering the state sponsored execution of an innocent man, and all the issues about a meaningful life that are raised by that, rather than the logical consistency of omnipotence and omniscience. Christianity is not in competition with physics. It is in competition with Sophocles and Shakespeare, or, these days (given the utter impoverishment of our culture) it is in competition with EastEnders and The X Factor. In other words, it is telling a different story about what it means to live well within the world. The great tragedians tell one story; modern soaps and reality television tell another; Christianity tells a third. We need to decide which one we actually believe in, and then live life accordingly.
MelGibsonPassionMovie_NailHand

A category mistake that atheists make

Imagine that you have nine grey mice lined up in a row, and at the end of the row there is an elephant. The elephant is coloured in exactly the same shade of grey as the mice. Now if the question is then, ‘how many grey creatures are there?’ then the answer is ten. However, if the question is ‘how many mice are there?’ then the answer is nine. If someone answers the latter question with the answer ‘ten’ then they are including the elephant in the category ‘mice’ – and that is a mistake. It is a type of mistake that philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ for it rests upon placing an item into the wrong category.

I want to explain a category mistake that atheists often make when they are making polemical arguments against religious believers (mostly, but not always, Christian believers). The particular argument that I’m thinking of is the ‘one more god’ point, which can be summarised in the following way: all human beings doubt the existence of almost all the gods that have ever been believed in; atheists simply doubt the existence of one more god than the religious believers.

Normally resting behind this sort of argument is the assumption that the movement from believing in various gods to not believing in them represents a sort of progress. It is part of a more general story that claims that western culture is moving steadily away from the superstitious darkness of religious faith into the wonderfully enlightened realm of secular thought. This story took root in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was conventional wisdom by the middle of the twentieth. It has, however, largely become discredited and it is now extremely rare to find someone with academic expertise in this area who still has faith in that story. Obviously it takes time for the wider culture, especially the media, to catch up with academic developments, but it is happening.

This story of progress, however, does have roots in our own religious tradition. The very language of an ‘Old Testament’ and a ‘New Testament’ indicates as much. Even within the Old Testament, however, it is possible to trace the development of the Hebrew understanding of God (that is, Yahweh), and explaining this will help to understand the category mistake that I argue that atheists commonly make. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:

“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)

The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah’s society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).

Imagine that you are part of this society which sees Yahweh as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about Yahweh happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of Yahweh as a tribal deity: “our god is bigger than your god”, where Yahweh is simply one god amongst other gods, maybe the most powerful in the pantheon but certainly one amongst others. When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our god isn’t as strong as the other gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of Yahweh dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of Yahweh and say, “Yahweh is faithful; if this has happened to us, Yahweh must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore Yahweh is the only god, Yahweh is the creator of everything”.

In other words, what happens at the time of the exile in Babylon is that there is a shift from Yahweh as a tribal god of the Israelites, to Yahweh as the creator of all things. In other words a shift from thinking about Yahweh as a god (lower case g) to thinking about Yahweh as God (upper case G). This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.

In other words, to return to my original image, at the time of the exile the Ancient Hebrews stopped thinking of God as being one mouse alongside other mice, but realised that God was in fact an elephant – that he was radically unlike what they had previously believed. From this point onwards, in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is a mistake to think of the standard religious language about God as describing the equivalent of one god amongst other gods – to think of the elephant as a mouse. They are simply not the same sort of thing. To assume otherwise is a category mistake.

Of course, this does not end all the arguments. I would emphasise also that this is not an argument to establish that there actually is an elephant in the room. It remains possible to say that the religious believers are mistaken and that what they believe to be an elephant is in fact simply another mouse, and that the religious believers are deluded in thinking otherwise. Yet to pursue that line of argument necessitates engaging with what is actually claimed about God by the religious traditions, most especially what are seen as the attributes of God such as omniscience and omnipotence and so on. This is something that the most prominent atheists signally fail to do. After all, the finest human minds for thousands of years have pondered the details of this question. It would be something of a surprise if someone like Richard Dawkins, who has never received an education in this subject, was able to overthrow the tradition with his ‘one more god’ jibe.

Those like Dawkins will undoubtedly continue to insist that mice and elephants are the same, but there comes a point when all the powers of logic and reasoning fail and it is simply a matter of saying ‘look and see’ – but then, some blindness is wilful. Wittgenstein once wrote “… it is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.”

The argument from authority and CAGW

Here is a classic quotation from John Gummer, for whom I used to work (as a civil servant): “No reasonable person would ignore expert opinion and wager his children’s future on the contrarian views of people who are not peer reviewed.”

This is an appeal to authority – to ‘expert opinion’ which has been ‘peer reviewed’. Now, in straightforward philosophical terms, this argument is an error, it is the epitome of a text-book mistake. Appealing to authority is only as effective as the authority itself which is being cited and conveys no additional weight. In the absence of other consideration it can have some use, certainly it makes for a much more efficient life if the vast majority of our understandings can be developed by those who do things professionally. However, where those authorities themselves are in dispute, where their findings are contentious, then a proper response is not to retreat to ‘authority’ but to engage in the substantial issues.

So, with respect to Global Warming, the emphasis upon ‘consensus’, ‘expert opinion’, ‘peer review’ and all the rest of it makes sense in so far as those things themselves stand up to scrutiny. Where they do not – where, for example, the IPCC is shown to be systematically unscientific and corrupt, where the process of peer review is so problematic, where the predictions made are so at variance with observation – then the argument from authority is not simply mistaken, it is pernicious.

This is not the only field where appeal to authority causes problems, it is simply a very salient issue at the moment given our weather. Having authorities does not absolve us from the responsibility to think for ourselves. Most of all, having authorities does not absolve the church of the responsibility to think for itself on the major issues of the day. I am more and more persuaded that most of the problems with the Church relate to it having given up on the intellect – as if it feels it has lost the battle for intellectual credibility and now tries to justify itself to the world through its acceptance of social progressivism and works of peace and justice. See, we’re nice people, now you don’t need to be so horrible to us by pointing out our intellectual nakedness!

We need to be much more robust. We need to once more believe that theology is the queen of the sciences, and therefore all other knowledge is subordinate to the knowledge of the living God. Doubtless many will instantly cringe at such a cry – that is the depth to which we have fallen. If we concede this, we concede all.

TBLA: reading list on sexuality and related issues

I’m planning to get back to my TBLA sequence as time permits – hopefully once a week on Fridays, as that is now my day off again! This post will be regularly updated – and where I identify gaps, I’d be grateful for pointers from the better-informed in the comments. Some of these are in my ‘to be read’ pile. Please note that I am trying to be comprehensive in my reading and studying on this, and do not assume that I agree with all that is described or linked to. In the nature of things, some of these are distinctly non-Christian. You have been warned.

Questions relating to homosexuality specifically
A question of Truth, Gareth Moore
Strangers and Friends, Michael Vasey
All of James Alison’s writings

Feminist writings
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

Alternative sexuality
Spiritual Polyamory, Mystic Life

‘Manosphere’ writings
Married Man Sex Life, Athol Kay

An evangelical perspective
Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Wayne Grudem

Secular philosophical aspects
The Sex Code, Francis Bennion
The Puzzle of Sex, Peter Vardy

Traditional philosophical/theological
The Bible
Aquinas

Anthropological
Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha
Sex at Dusk, Lynn Saxon
The Myth of Monogamy, David Barash and Judith Lipton
Strange Bedfellows, Barash and Lipton
The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti

Historical
Marriage: a history, Stephanie Coontz
Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe

Church of England
Some Issues in Human Sexuality
The Way Forward, ed: Bradshaw
An Acceptable Sacrifice?, ed: Dormor and Morris

Other theology
Touching the Face of God, Donna Mahoney
Sex God, Rob Bell
The Education of Desire, Tim Gorringe

Selected novels, films and other culture
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
Diary of a London Call Girl, Belle de Jour
Shame, Steve McQueen

Interesting blogs
Dalrock
Sunshine Mary
The Free Northerner
Donal Graeme
Chateau Heartiste
Married Man Sex Life
The Rational Male
Women for Men

A new synthesis on gender

Latest Courier article – bit philosophical.

Our former Archbishop Rowan, for whom I retain a great deal of admiration and affection, was often criticised for being unclear. In part this may well simply have been the natural consequence of someone with a world-class intellect trying to explain something complicated, but I don’t see this as the whole reason. After all, when he needed to – as with some of his marvellous shorter books – Rowan could be incredibly compelling and lucid. I believe that part of his perceived ‘lack of clarity’ was actually rooted in a particular intellectual stance that he held and believed in strongly, and it is something that has its roots in the thinking of the German philosopher Hegel.

I would summarise one of Hegel’s key notions like this: there is a ‘thesis’ – a particular way of thinking or living, possibly expressible in some sort of philosophical maxim or aphorism, such as ‘men should be head of the household’. Over time, this thesis will collide with reality and human nature in such a way that it will develop tensions and contradictions, out of which will come an ‘antithesis’, which is again expressible – say ‘women deserve equal rights and responsibilities’. The thesis and the antithesis will inevitably conflict, and in human culture this will take time, and often have very visible form, such as when a suffragette chains herself to railings. Hegel labelled this conflict ‘dialectic’, taking over that term from its original use in Greek philosophy. Furthermore, as this dialectic continued, it would eventually settle in a new understanding and cultural form which took elements from both the original thesis, and the antagonistic antithesis, and combined them into a new synthesis. This synthesis would then itself become a ‘thesis’ of its own, and the cycle would continue. These repeated cycles of thesis – antithesis – synthesis formed, according to Hegel, the way in which a culture moved forward and progressed. Hegel’s thought was very influential, especially on Marx – Marxism can be seen as a type of ‘applied Hegelianism’ – and it underlies a very great deal of contemporary political thought, especially what is considered to be ‘progressive’ – that very term revealing the link.

Rowan is undoubtedly a Hegelian, and was always very conscious of the way in which any particular argument called forward an antagonistic response. Where many in the church wanted Rowan to give a strong, clear and principled lead – in other words, to nail his colours to the mast of one particular ‘thesis’ – Rowan wished, instead, to preserve the ongoing dialectic between thesis and antithesis, in pursuit of a new synthesis. Most crucially, in church terms, Rowan refused to place any of the various contenders for thesis or antithesis outside of the boundaries of the church. He insisted that every member of the group mattered, and he did not wish to see any group scapegoated (whether he succeeded in that desire is, in my view, something of an open question). In other words, the reason why Rowan was often criticised as being ‘unclear’ was because he went out of his way to include references to, and respect for, positions that contradicted each other. He did this not because he was himself intellectually confused but because he was himself seeking a new synthesis, and not wanting to be tied down to a thesis or antithesis which was politically convenient for whichever political group was pressuring him at the time. I do believe that history will be much kinder in its assessment of his leadership than his contemporaries have been.

Rowan’s time was marked – scarred! – by disagreements about sexuality and gender, specifically the questions around women’s ministry and homosexual clergy and marriage. This is a good example of the Hegelian process. The original theses, still most clearly expressed in official Roman Catholic teaching, had the following elements: sexuality is solely for the purpose of procreation; any form of sexuality which is not open to procreation is inherently sinful (and homosexuality falls into that category, along with other forms of sexuality, eg the use of contraception). In addition, human gender relations are ordered ‘by nature’ in such a way that men and women have distinct and different roles. This is best expressed and visualised in terms of a marriage which is open to procreation and the raising of children, within which a man will be the provider (which is about authority and direction as much as giving resources) and the woman will be the principal nurturer and carer.

At present in our society that thesis has been largely rejected and, as a dominant cultural form, effectively been abandoned. The antithesis, in so far as it can be articulated, would assert that: sexuality is not just (or even primarily) about procreation, but is most fundamentally about self-expression within the context of human relating, that is, it is one of the principal ways in which we as human beings bond with one another. Hence, any form of sexuality which accords with that aim is good. Marriage is the celebration of that bond and exhaustively defined by it. Where the bond of love breaks down, the marriage itself comes to an end (in other words, the marriage is no longer any form of contract). Children will fit in and cope with these arrangements as determined by the extended families.

At the moment we are in a position with regard to gender and sexuality of waiting for a new synthesis to be formed and adopted. I suspect this will only come when both sides, thesis and antithesis, are exhausted. Both sides to the argument have some merit, both have significant flaws and it was one of Rowan’s great strengths that he held on to that tension in the hope that a new resolution would eventually come forward, which would allow the best preservation of the good things whilst eliminating or reducing all the bad. From my point of view I believe that this synthesis has to begin with placing our created human nature first, rather than thinking in terms of ‘men’ and ‘women’. If we ask what will enable one particular human being to flourish, I believe that we will get further than if we start by wondering what will enable these particular ‘members of class X’ to flourish – whatever category X might be, of gender, race, orientation or otherwise.

Some of my favourite thinkers…

There are a good number of writers and thinkers who have had an identifiable impact upon the way that I think. Here are three:

Martha Nussbaum, specifically her ‘Fragility of Goodness’, and even more specifically her arguments about Aristotle and contemplation;

Mary Midgley, especially her ‘Science as Salvation;

Janet Radcliffe Richards, her book ‘The Sceptical Feminist’ which, amongst other things, cured me of any naive use of ‘natural’ as a justification for anything.

I think Susan Haack might yet be added to their number, but I haven’t got to grips with her ‘Passionate Moderate’ stuff yet.

Why am I writing all this? Because I read this article. Which is incredibly sad in all sorts of different ways.

TBLA(4): The question of truth

One of the corollaries of my last post is: given that the church has the authority to decide what is right and what is not right (the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven) – how are we to do make such a determination?

This is simply ‘the question of truth’ – that is, the truth shall set us free, nothing that is true is foreign to Jesus, so the pursuit of truth is something that necessarily leads us into the light. This does not mean that ‘truth’ as a construct can be placed in an antagonistic relationship to the gospel, in order that one must be defeated. It is more a question of humility and willingness to be challenged.

One of the most ignored instructions from the infamous Lambeth Conference of 1998 was surely the injunction to listen to the homosexual Christian community about their understandings and experience. It is not possible to listen in the relevant sense if there is an irrevocable commitment to “you are a sinner”. However, if listening is genuinely entered into, then so does the Holy Spirit – and together, the truth of a situation becomes discernible.

One of the best books that I have read on this subject is Gareth Moore’s “A Question of Truth”. He makes the argument there that it is not good enough to appeal to authority. If we believe – as Christians have always maintained that they do believe – in a God of order and reason, then that reason and order is open to an appreciation by the community. This is what drives the theological question. In his book, Moore slowly takes apart the standard Roman Catholic dogma and simply points out that ‘this is not true’.

So for my purposes, this is another foundational plank in the overall argument. If we are to come to a proper understanding of the nature of Christian marriage, appeals to authority are insufficient, however important the authority may be (and it is not an accident that I began this sequence with Jesus’ own teaching). We must be able to demonstrate the truth of our position.

To that end, I will in due course be drawing on contemporary scientific research about sexuality. If anyone wants a hint as to what sort of thing I’ll be using, have a look at this book.