The sadness and the struggle

So…. the sadness and the struggle.

Wittgenstein once wrote, ‘It has been impossible for me to write one word in my books about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’ That’s something that has always resonated with me. It’s difficult for a non-musician to talk about music, other than to say something like ‘this….’

I’ve always liked doing playlists. Called them tapes back in the day. Here is one, curated for a friend, that I have been encouraged to share a bit more widely. I’ll do a few more as time goes on (that is, I’ll put them on to Youtube – they’re already done!)

This one is about the struggle with God, and the sequence of songs goes through a particular spiritual motion, tension and resolution. It always makes me laugh when I hear believers being criticised for having beliefs that give them comfort. Of course there can be comfort – but there is also sheer terror and relentless pressure when you are accountable to the God of heaven and earth.

Which is why I love Leonard Cohen so much – he really gets it.

Anyhow, enough chunter, here ’tis, if you have a spare hour for listening to God-wrestling.

The great green herring of the IPCC

So those who know me know that I’m a dissident, old-fashioned and curmudgeonly sort, “afflicted with the malady of thought” – and that applies especially to Green things, where I find myself repeatedly annoyed by what I think of as ‘the great green herring’ of climate change.

I see the IPCC process as simply yet another form of the technological imperialism, the death-complex, that drives out our common humanity in favour of unacknowledged puritanical theologies and self-hatreds (I don’t doubt warming, nor human contributions to that, but all the coverage is about the most unlikely outcome). Fear is the mind-killer.

I like Schumacher’s idea of appropriate level technology, and the importance of the human scale, emphasising our biological and social nature and the importance of what we have in common. That is where we need to concentrate our attention – not with pandering to the fear-factories of modern media because we think that being seen is sufficient.

To put that in concrete terms – our future is not going to be electric cars, nor will it be people riding around on horseback, it will be everyone using a bicycle, and our communities will be geared around that, not the interests of the motorists.

The truth is that no matter what measures are taken to respond to climate change we are not going to be able to carry on in the way that we have been. We are still tracking the ‘world model’ outlined in the Limits to Growth, which means that in ten to fifteen years – AT BEST – we are going to go through a breakdown and collapse.

Personally I think it has already started – and it will solve the climate change problem fully no matter what we do. I first started studying climate change in 1989 – I still have my Greenpeace report on Global Warming on my bookshelf! – but what made me start questioning the orthodoxy was discovering LTG. You can’t be worried about both LTG and climate change – the one cancels the other.

Human life will carry on. Human civilisations will carry on. I think that the UK is well placed (in many senses) for a good future. The only question is how much damage the death-complex will make as it struggles with its own demise. When something is unsustainable that means that it will not be sustained, it will come to an end. Our machine civilisation, this asophic industrial fascism, will come to an end.

I am interested in what comes afterwards. What comes afterwards will be determined by the stories that we tell each other (which is why the Dark Mountain group is so important). I think a healthy story has to be rooted in the greatest story ever told – the only story that leads to long-term, healthy and sustainable communities. It’s also why we need a much better national narrative – more on that another time.

For a sense – a much more effectively-written sense – of what I am on about, have a read of this by Wendell Berry. Our human future begins with a hug.

Click to access Berry-Health-is-Membership.pdf

Resist with love and laughter

My beloved Church of England is having another spasm of ambition and vision, with an aim, not just for 10,000 new church plants but 20,000 new plants! Saul has his thousands but David has his tens of thousands….

I think this is the latest manifestation of a severely deficient theology and ecclesiology, on which I have written many times before. I have come to the point of thinking that our leadership has now jumped the shark. The level of disconnect between the people on the bridge pulling levers, and the people sweating in the boiler room trying to respond, has simply become too large.

So we need to resist, which for most of us will look like trying to ignore so far as practicable yet another central directive. We need more though – for all the activity poured into fruitless endeavours is energy wasted, and if we are creative it may be that we can open up more fruitful areas for our leadership to work in. I do believe, sincerely, that the problem is not that we have bad people in our positions of authority; no, I think the problem is not with individuals but with the institutional identity within which they serve, most especially, it is in the institutional narrative (‘panic!!’) that seems to shape all the decisions. We need to attend most of all to questions such as these: how did we get here? is this God’s will? how has our activity supported God’s will for the Church and how far has it frustrated that will? We need to get spiritually serious again.

I will write more about this as time goes on.

For now, what is most on my mind and heart is that we need to resist with love and laughter. With love for our leadership, and an absolute resolve not to scapegoat or cast blame upwards – we all share in our responsibility for the predicament we now face. We also need to resist with laughter. The emperor has no clothes, but all the courtiers have been stitched up into a false narrative, and the clothing may not be on the emperor but it is covering their eyes. Sometimes we need to laugh – it might just be that laughter brings people back to themselves, and the truth can then be realised, and the masks can be taken off and then, together, seeking the truth in love, we can work out where to go.

It is in that spirit of love and laughter that I have put together this little video. The song is Babel, words by Trevor Carter, sung by Pete Coe:

Jesus is not Superman, or: how to understand the resurrection properly

I have been thinking about the resurrection. Specifically, I have been pondering the way in which it is so commonly misunderstood and that this misunderstanding is a real barrier to our mission. It prevents us from sharing what is genuinely exciting about the resurrection.

Consider: Zack Snyder’s Justice League. It is not much of a spoiler to reveal that in the course of this film – well, in the course of this four hour televisual marathon – Superman, who dies at the end of Batman v Superman, returns to life and joins his comrades in order to defeat the bad guy at the end.

Now this ‘hero dies and comes back to life’ trope is very, very common in our stories, and in the stories of most human cultures. After all, if you have a settled agrarian civilisation then the phenomenon of crops dying in Winter and regrowing in Spring is both remarkable and something to be thankful for. If this is the horizon of your moral imaginary then it makes sense to have stories about dying and coming back to life. Let’s call these stories ‘Phoenix’ stories.

The story of the resurrection of Jesus is not a story like this. It is not the story of a hero dying and coming back to life. It is not a Phoenix story. This requires some explanation.

In the Phoenix story there is usually no sense that the hero is in fact immortal – no suggestion, for example, that Superman is in fact immortal. To be immortal in the relevant sense would rather remove any sense of jeopardy in the drama.

More than this, even if Superman was immortal, there is no sense that Superman’s existence was anything other than in the flow of time. Superman is still an actor within time, simply (if immortal) an actor over an incredibly long stretch of time.

When Superman comes back to life, what we have is a resumption of what was previously possible. The life of Superman is interrupted by the awkward fact of death, but once death is overcome then the previously normal is re-established.

Superman is a Phoenix. The Phoenix dies and then comes back to life. The much larger pattern within which the Phoenix lives and dies and rises continues on.

[Aside #1 – I’m extremely interested for GRRM to finish Winds of Winter, so I can see what happens with a certain character, keeping in mind GRRM’s musings about Tolkien and Gandalf.]

[Aside #2 – the restoration of normality after the intrusion of the monstrous is a classic horror movie trope, and profoundly conservative.]

So if the resurrection of Jesus is not like that of Superman – or any other Phoenix character – then what is being claimed?

This is what I claim: Jesus actually died on the cross. The death of Jesus is not something that is ‘undone’ by the resurrection. There is no return to the status quo ante. Jesus does not resume his previous life. The previous normal is not re-established. This is not a conservative event. This means that the interactions of Jesus with people after the resurrection are not, strictly speaking, actions within time so much as the interruption of time by the eternal. Now, just to be cautious – I want to say that people who acted in time had temporal experiences (talking, eating etc), but that Jesus was not acting within time in the way that any other mortal person acts within time. Those who experienced Jesus after the resurrection experienced his eternal nature, his risen nature, not a reanimation of his mortal nature.

The core truth of the resurrection is the revealing of Jesus’ true nature – his eternal life as Son of the Father.

I think of it a little like this: a mortal life might be represented by a V to represent birth, dashes to represent life, and an A to represent death, viz:

V——–A

or a longer life

V————-A

A Phoenix life might be shown with an interruption, like this:

V———^ʅ——-A

Or if there are several Phoenix moments, then like this:

V———^ʅ——^ʅ——-^ʅ——A

and so on.

My point is that the life and resurrection of Jesus looks like my first example, not like my last.

Instead of the Phoenix life, the resurrection is the V—–A rendered eternal. Or, to put that a little differently, it is the demonstration that the A is not the end.

This is why it is true to say that ‘death has no dominion’ over Jesus. Jesus has already died, and he cannot die again. He cannot die again for he no longer exists within the time-bound mortal frame; he is eternal. He lives. Not life after death, for however often a Phoenix might rise, but… eternal life, sub specie aeternitatis, at the right hand of the Father.

And where He goes, so may we now follow.

Jesus lives! thy terrors now, can no more, O death, appal us;
Jesus lives! By this we know, thou, O Grave, canst not enthral us.
Alleluia

IDWTSLACP Gambolling in the bailiwick

I think this is going to be the last post in this sequence, and it may be the reason, thanks be to God, that I started writing again.

Building on the idea of my last post – that I have a motte-and-bailey mind – I’ve been thinking further about how I have been interacting with people, both in real life and especially on-line. I have a highly trained speculative intellect, and I am accustomed to playing with ideas that I am not emotionally attached to – I am a ‘high-decoupler’ to use some modish language. I enjoy the innocence of a lamb gambolling in the green fields seeing a new thing and responding ‘ooh, shiny’.

I think this is a good thing on the whole (well I would…); most especially I think that it is a gift, and the cultivation of emotional detachment is an essential part of the spiritual journey. In classical Christian terms it is about developing the virtue of apatheia, and I write about how it is the spiritual foundation of the scientific method in my book, where I talk about the apathistic stance as the epistemological prerequisite for seeking any truth.

However, there is a time and a place for such speculation. Not everyone is able to ‘decouple’ in the way described; not everyone is able to play with ideas, to enjoy the ‘stress-testing’ of them in public, to not be disturbed by the truth or falsity of what may be conjured up (and I use such language deliberately). If nothing else, the events in Washington on 6th January show what can happen when bad speculation takes root in unhealthy soil. What I have been considering is whether my ponderings about electoral fraud are less an innocent gambolling and more a negligent and culpable gambling. We have entered into a fraught time, when we need to be more careful with our language – and I think I need on many levels to become more cautious with my own language. I am at heart a prudent, conservative and cautious person, and that is not what comes across from my gambolling in the bailiwick. I do not want to sound like a crazy person.

To adopt a metaphor that I first came across in Pirsig I have come to see my mind as like a river that has burst its banks, and the water has flooded into all sorts of strange areas. I need to work on deepening my intellectual channels, spending less time exploring – gambolling – and more time developing the elements of my understanding that I am seriously committed to. I need to spend more time in the motte and less in the bailey – and the time I spend in the bailey needs to become more private, so that my public facing writings are more secure and firmly rooted.

In short, it’s time for me to do my PhD.

Watch this space.

IDWTSLACP My motte-and-bailey mind

There is a bad form of argument known as the ‘motte-and-bailey’ fallacy. This is derived from the medieval castle system, where there is a motte (mound/castle) that can be defended easily, and a separate area (the bailey) which can’t be defended. In peaceful times the bailey can be used for lots of human activity; in times of conflict the people can retreat to the motte. So in an argument, a position can be advanced which is outlandish (can’t be defended) and the fallacy comes when the person advancing the argument shifts their position to say that they were only advancing a reasonable position (the motte). So it is an example of bad faith, what might be called ‘trolling’ these days.

So what do I mean when I say that I have a ‘motte-and-bailey’ mind? I mean that I will often consider things, and talk about things, without being committed to defending them – they are in the bailey. Whereas some things that I argue for I really AM committed to. I appreciate that this causes problems for other people; it has certainly caused me problems in my own life, when people have thought I was committed to a perspective (my motte) when in fact I was only exploring it (in my bailey).

In considering matters of faith, I have sometimes used the language of a doctrine being ‘weight-bearing’. That is, the Christian faith has many elements within it, and I have grown in my understanding of the faith over time. For many years I took the doctrine of the resurrection on trust – it resided in my bailey, I was still working through it. Eventually it became a part of my core understandings, it ‘took the weight’ in terms of how I live my life, and so it became a part of my motte, my most fundamental commitments. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, by contrast, is still in the bailey, although it has moved closer to the motte over time.

This sequence of ‘I don’t want to sound like a crazy person’ is me making public those things which I am pondering which are in the bailey. I find them alarming. I don’t want them to be true. I am therefore opening them up to public scrutiny in order to bring them in to the light, to be exposed to criticism, to be tested and examined. I am grateful when people engage with what is in my bailey and say ‘Sam, that’s crap, because X, Y, Z’. I am saddened when people look at what is in the bailey and say variations of ‘you’re a moron’. It may well be true that I’m a moron, but calling me a moron doesn’t help me – and it doesn’t help those who are also considering the same questions.

I think I need to find a way of signalling the level of commitment that I hold to any viewpoints that I choose to discuss. The Less Wrong community have a useful marker – ‘epistemic status’ – which I quite like, but it’s a bit philosophically exact for this blog. Perhaps I can simply continue to use this language, putting ‘this is in my bailey’ or ‘this is part of my motte’ when putting forward an argument. Hopefully that will help to clarify things.

So, for the record – this entire sequence of IDWTSLACP is operating with my bailey. Everything I outline in it could be wrong, and my fundamental convictions would not be affected.

Whereas, when I start talking about the resurrection, and what it means for spiritual warfare and our present political crisis – that will involve a lot of ‘motte-stuff’!

IDWTSLACP – why the crazy conversation is important (OR: why the UK has a more hopeful prospect than the US in the coming years)

One of the dire consequences of our present cultural breakdown is the collapse of a shared space of discourse – a common frame of reference, a mutual framework of values – against which, within which, we can hammer out our differences without threatening the stability, and therefore the safety, of the community as a whole.

One of those shared values is democracy, which has as a necessary component the notion of ‘loser’s consent’. In other words, democracy is the means by which we have agreed to resolve our differences. We make our arguments and then there is an election (or a referendum!) which produces a decision for one path or another, and then there is a gathering around that decision with a common resolve to make the decision work, or apply.

The two shocks in the English-speaking world, of 2016, did not receive that expected loser’s consent. However, the working out of that refusal of consent took a different path in the UK and in the US.

In the UK there was a concerted effort on the part of the governing class to overthrow the verdict of the referendum. However, in contrast to what happened in other EU member states, the governing class was not able to succeed. Through a sequence of further democratic votes, most notably the impact of the Brexit party in the EU elections of 2019, and culminating in the General Election of December 2019, the democratic decision was re-affirmed, Mr Johnson received a mandate for Brexit and – slightly to my surprise – he has actually implemented it.

Please note that this is not an argument saying that Brexit was the ‘right’ decision. This is simply saying that in the UK a democratic verdict was implemented – there was a time of strife but in the end the institutions of the state, the limbs of the body politic, did actually reflect the choice that was made.

(A personal aside: whilst I am – obviously – a committed Brexiteer, it was actually a sense that this needed to happen, that there was a risk of something profoundly wrong and damaging about to take place, that moved me to stick my head up above the parapet with the Brexit Party. That was a terrifying experience on all sorts of levels; but it was the right decision, and, I believe, it was of God. A small but healing (for me) act of prophetic drama.)

This outcome – that the UK voted for Brexit, and the UK has now got Brexit, for better or for worse – gives me a degree of confidence in the future of our society. Our institutions eventually worked, and that means that our institutions continue to enjoy the consent of the population. When things go wrong – as they seem to be doing with our COVID response, whatever your view on the underlying science – then people will turn to the existing systems to remedy what has gone wrong. In other words, if Johnson is eventually considered to be an incompetent and bumbling fool then he will be thrown out of office, either by the Conservative MPs as they face the prospect of losing an election, or by the voters in a General election themselves.

The reason why I think that this is so essential is because I think if it hadn’t happened – if Brexit had been somehow denied by overt and covert means – we would find ourselves in the situation that the United States finds itself in today.

When Trump was elected, against the odds, there was a parallel reaction of the establishment to try and overturn that democratic shift. It took various forms, Russiagate was the most blatant, but there were others. Again, this is not a point in favour of Trump, it is a point about the democratic process. When one side of a democratic context refuses to accept the basic legitimacy of a decision that they did not support, then it is the framework itself that breaks down – and when the framework breaks down then there is no longer a possibility of a consensual future.

In my view, what we are seeing in the United States today is the product of both long-term and short-term factors. The long-term factors need not detain us now (see MacIntyre amongst others) but the short-term factors are quite straightforward. The deplorables have been demonised, and they have demonised in turn. Trump was denied legitimacy, and now Biden is denied legitimacy. Consent in the democratic process is being withdrawn, and that withdrawal is escalating. Place this into a context of cultural polarisation and add free access to automatic weapons, then stir.

I am very worried about the short-term (up to five years) future of the United States. I do not see how to get through the crisis that now obtains without things getting significantly worse, up to and including a degree of civil conflict, and possibly the secession or breakdown of the United States itself.

If there is to be a shared future – and this applies to the UK also, even though I hope and pray that we have now avoided the worst outcomes – then I believe there are two linked things that simply must be put in place. The first relates to political leadership, the second relates to how ordinary people conduct themselves with each other.

Political leaders must demonstrate honesty. The normal jostling for advantage, the reliance upon ‘spin’ to present events in a light that is most flattering to the speaker, these belong to a more luxurious and decadent age. We need plain speaking, frank admissions of what has gone wrong, what the true situation is. Leaders need to trust people again – and that cannot happen if the full truth of a situation is not disclosed.

Similarly, if there is to be a renewal of our shared cultural space there needs to be an acceptance of the legitimacy of difference. To denounce different perspectives as malicious – which is what happened in the Brexit debates – and fail to engage in the substance is part of the cultural breakdown that leads to greater conflict.

One might say: if there is to be reconciliation between the warring factions, that reconciliation can only be built upon a shared truth.

Which is why the ‘crazy’ questions simply must be addressed. They must be engaged with, patiently, and the truth must be excavated and brought out into the light. It will not do to repeat talking points shared on the one side or the other. There must be a recognition of the sincerely held beliefs held by those who oppose. There has to be an affirmation of the shared humanity of the other side. Without this there is only perpetual conflict and dissolution.

I am hopeful that the UK has been enabled by grace to find that more creative path. On this day of Epiphany, the light that enlightens the nations, I pray for the US – an amazing nation, a beautiful people – currently in the grip of a devilish crisis. Lord have mercy.

IDWTSLACP – OK, Covid in the UK has (probably) got much further to go

One of the principles of the ‘less wrong’ community, which I find very attractive, is a commitment to open thinking, in other words, to be clear about what evidence is being relied on to make what judgement. In addition – and possibly the most important of all – is a commitment to be clear when a view is changing as a result of finding new evidence.

So I’m glad to have written what I did earlier, as it provoked some good conversations and lines of investigation that have changed how I am seeing this. This represents progress, and is my new drug of choice (actually, that’s a bit flippant, but I’ll make a more serious point on that topic tomorrow). So this post is to explain a shift over the last 24 hours.

The issue that had engaged me was a perceived discrepancy between rocketing infection rates and an unchanging bed occupancy rate. This was the source for the point about bed occupancy:


I didn’t just go from the tweet; I did go to the NHS site to see if the raw figures back up what was shown in the graph, which they did.

However, in the light of the explosion of infections – why was the bed occupancy rate not changing? Perhaps it was because the argument offered by people like Mike Yeadon was true, ie that the testing regime is compromised by, amongst other things, a very high false-positive rate.

Some tweets from John Bye made me reconsider that possible answer:

In other words, if the false positive rate was madly high then it would show up in other places. That seemed plausible to me (although there were a couple of tweets in that thread that made me go ‘hmmmm’).

So there needed to be an alternative explanation for the discrepancy between the bed occupancy rate and the infection rate (ie why did one not reflect the other; same issue with the death rate, of course, but I thought that had alternative explanations along the lines indicated in my earlier post). I have now had a good conversation with a nurse on the front-line, who unpacked the seeming contradiction, and made a further essential point.

The reason why the bed occupancy rate isn’t changing is because it cannot change – there are only so many bed spaces available. What is happening is that the people who would otherwise be occupying those beds (in a ‘normal’ winter) are now not in hospital at all, displaced in favour of Covid+ patients. In other words, simply looking at bed occupancy rate is not a sufficient guide for measuring the impact of the virus.

The further essential point, though, is that the NHS has still not recovered from the earlier peak in April, most especially in terms of the availability of trained personnel, and that this has a huge impact on what is being demanded of nurses and doctors and support staff now. My friendly nurse was extremely concerned at the capacity of the hospitals to cope with the surge coming down the line due to the Christmas break. The NHS is really up against it.

Lockdown it is then.

IDWTSLACP – the COVID pandemic in the UK has (probably) run its course

My views updated here; this post left otherwise unchanged for reasons of historical accuracy…. and humility 😉

So a little while back, my son sent me a link to a James Delingpole interview with Mike Yeadon. I don’t listen to podcasts much, for the same reason that I don’t watch Youtube videos much – I find them an inefficient use of my intellectual bandwidth, as I can absorb information much more effectively by reading. However, I have something of a resolution to do more physical exercise (especially yoga) and it turns out that listening to a podcast matches up quite nicely with stretching my tired limbs during the day (much study leads to a weariness of the flesh and all that).

So, Yeadon argues – and he’s got a fair bit of authority from which to argue – that COVID is a real and horrible virus, and that it became endemic in the UK in April. However, as a virus, there is no such thing as a ‘second wave’ – they don’t exist. Viruses spread through a population following a Gompertz curve – all of them, without exception. Any rise in infection after that first wave peaking in April comes from where there are pockets of population that were not exposed earlier.

In addition, Yeadon argues that the testing regime that we have put in place isn’t just useless, it is actively counter-productive. He argues that we don’t have an epidemic of the virus, we have an epidemic of testing. We don’t know what the false-positive rate is for the tests, nor do we have assurance that those ministering the tests are competent to do so. Essentially, if the virus is really as widespread as believed – and has the effects that are believed by those advocating a continued lockdown – then there would need to be other evidence in addition to the testing. Which, allegedly, there isn’t. Certainly not much in terms of overall death rate or hospital admissions (see work by Joel Smalley).

I would have thought that if Yeadon is wrong then it would be fairly straightforward to show that he is wrong. His claims about the nature of virus epidemiology, for example, which he states as ‘axioms’ and learned in the first year of a degree – and which undermine most of the press coverage of COVID – are either true or not. So I’m looking out for a refutation of his arguments.

In the meantime I will happily follow the recommended advice; I will wear a mask when out in public; we will not sing in church services; and so on and so forth. Yet all the while I shall also become more and more persuaded that we have, more by cock-up than conspiracy, ended up in the absurd position of sacrificing lives when we thought we were saving them, and I wonder more and more – what will follow ‘following the science’ once it is shown that ‘following the science’ has caused such needless havoc and pain?