Book Review: Christianity and Depression (Tasia Scrutton)

Christianity and Depression, Tasia Scrutton
London : SCM Press, 2020

Tasia Scrutton’s ‘Christianity and Depression’ is an attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, specifically depression, from a broadly Christian point of view. She considers several different frameworks for understanding depression, such as depression being caused by individual sin, demonic possession, biological causation and so on. She also spends time on more metaphysical questions such as divine impassibility. The book is very good but somewhat uneven; in particular there is one significant omission in her treatment, which is very surprising given her explicit theological and political commitments.

In this review I will briefly outline her key points chapter by chapter before engaging in discussion.

Outline of chapters
In her introduction, Scrutton begins her work by articulating four caveats: that she is concerned with Christian understandings of depression; that concentrating on the interpretation and experience of depression is philosophically legitimate; that she will evaluate and assess the different Christian understandings giving a verdict on their worth; and finally that she will treat the various understandings as embodied in communal practices not just as individual belief-systems.

With respect to the definition of depression itself Scrutton chooses – very sensibly in my view – to consider as depression “anything that might reasonably be diagnosed as a depressive disorder by a doctor, whether or not the person has been to a doctor and been diagnosed”. She then clears further philosophical space by briefly addressing the hazards of a naïve dualism (mental vs physical) and the nature of what an illness is.

Scrutton’s first chapter is devoted to the idea that a person experiences depression as a result of sin in their life, that is, that the person has sinned and they experience depression as a consequence of their own sin. Scrutton rejects this understanding, on the grounds that it presupposes an incomplete understanding of human freedom; that it is in conflict with significant parts of the Christian tradition; and that it places unsustainable burdens upon those who are already vulnerable. In particular this approach deflects attention away from the social causes of depression in an individualistic manner.

The idea that depression is a result of demonic activity is the subject of Scrutton’s second chapter. Here she engages with the biblical record and integrates the exorcisms of Jesus into the wider inauguration of the Kingdom of God which was the principal characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. Again Scrutton largely rejects this framework for understanding depression, in particular on the grounds that “spiritual warfare should not be seen as an individual battle against the devil or some demons vying for our souls. These ideas have much more in common with element of contemporary US pop culture than they do with the gospel.”

For her third chapter Scrutton considers the idea that depression is an essentially biological problem like a broken leg or diabetes. In this chapter Scrutton argues straightforwardly for a ‘bio-psycho-social’ account of depression, which is a mainstream perspective within psychiatry that argues a) depression cannot be reduced to the biological but b) the biological is a necessary feature of clinical depression. Scrutton emphasises here that there is a rich Christian tradition that affirms our bodiliness, especially the fundamental doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

What is called ‘the dark night of the soul’ is the subject of Scrutton’s fourth chapter. Here the idea considered is that depression is something that is sent from God in order that the soul might grow closer to God through the experience of suffering, looking in particular at St John of the Cross. Scrutton argues that there is no direct correlation between depression and the dark night experience, and that it is important to keep the two concepts distinct.

Building from this, and starting to move away from interpretive frameworks, in chapter five Scrutton interrogates the idea that depression is something that can have a transformative effect upon the person experiencing it. Whilst the expectation of transformation can be oppressive, especially when that glides into the idea that the depression is not an evil as such, Scrutton supports the view that depression can be a redemptive process within which an evil can be transformed into a good, drawing in particular on the writings of Henri Nouwen to explain how.

I will take chapters six and seven together as they both deal with the issue of divine suffering (passibility). Chapter six is presented differently to the work as a whole, as an imagined dialogue between two guests on a radio show, one of whom believes in divine impassibility – the classical Christian position – and one of whom believes that ‘God suffers in Godself’, which is a view that has become more popular from the mid-twentieth century onwards. This chapter explores each view without taking a position. In the next chapter Scrutton considers whether the idea of a suffering God is actually helpful or consoling to those who suffer in this life, arguing that there is no advantage to the passibilist perspective in this respect and that, in particular, the way in which devotion to different saints happens in, eg, the Catholic tradition, enables an effective religious form of consolation for those who suffer.

Finally in her summary chapter Scrutton outlines her overall approach. Depression is not to be understood as the result of individual sin, nor as the consequence of spiritual attack by demons, nor as a gift from God given for spiritual growth but rather as a fruit of a disordered society: “If we wish to combat the root causes of depression, we need to think socially and politically about how our culture can enable people to live as communities and with sensitivity to the needs we have as human animals, rather than foster anxiety, loneliness and alienation”iv.

I found Scrutton’s work to be philosophically rigorous and properly humble, in that she is explicit about her philosophical presuppositions and deductions. In writing clearly it becomes straightforward for a critic to engage and highlight differences. My principal objection is that Scrutton essentially reduces the phenomenon of human depression to being a product of an unjust social environment, effectively a social construction of depression. In contrast to this I would argue that depression is a phenomenon whereby multiple causes lead to similar outcomes and that the cardinal mistake to avoid is to conflate all the different experiences into a single form with a single cause.

So, for example, in the first chapter Scrutton argues against the view of depression as a result of sin committed by an individual, and that this presupposes an extreme voluntarism or exaltation of human freedom that is effectively Pelagian. I agree with much of this but would wish to insist that there are occasions when sinful choices lead to the experience of depression. Feelings of guilt and regret do in fact give rise to feelings of sadness, and if unaddressed that sadness can become malignant and meet the definition of depression that Scrutton depends upon. This does not invalidate the criticisms that Scrutton makes more generally, it is simply to insist that both the blanket allocation of depression to individual choice and the contrary blanket allocation of depression to social forces are equally in error. Much, perhaps most of depression in the West can be attributed to social contexts, but not all, and it seems that a fully Christian account of depression has to leave room for a form of depression that is the result of human sinfulness and rebellion against God.

Similarly, when considering demonic attack as a cause of depression Scrutton rightly draws together Jesus’ casting out of demons through exorcism with his wider proclamation of the Kingdom. Yet there are some significant gaps in her treatment of this issue, especially with regard to New Testament criticism. To begin with, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom is bound up with a call to repentance, which can be both individual and corporate. Secondly, although Scrutton is correct to refer to the small number of exorcisms within Jesus’ ministry she does not address their programmatic nature and the way in which the evangelist treats them. So in Mark’s gospel the first action which Jesus takes is an exorcism and this is not an accident; rather this is the prototypical way in which Mark portrays Jesus as acting in power against the hostile spiritual forces of his time. This logic is taken to its conclusion with John’s gospel which does not contain an account of a personal exorcism but where the crucifixion itself is portrayed as having the character of an exorcism – “now is the Prince of this world cast out” (John 12.31). Thirdly, whilst correctly grounding this process of exorcism and spiritual warfare in the social context, Scrutton under-emphasises the importance of this to the wider New Testament writers such as Paul (see Walter Wink’s work). The language of principalities and powers, and the integration of the spiritual and the political that such language describes, is central to the Christian scheme of salvation. This is a surprising omission given how neatly it would fit with Scrutton’s overall approach.

Which leads to my most fundamental criticism of Scrutton’s work which is the absence of any critique of the practice of contemporary psychiatric care, specifically the way in which the pharmaceutical companies act unethically. There is plentiful evidence (see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma as a starting point) of the way in which, following the logic of industrial capitalism, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer support the expansion of diagnostic criteria to include more and more human behaviours as ‘illnesses’ – which the companies can then develop treatments for in the form of patented drug therapies, through which they can generate continued profits. In addition to this the companies will systematically distort the scientific process in order to protect and increase their market shares. The social context that Scrutton rightly criticises as a principal factor causing depression cannot be understood without properly assessing the power that these actors bring to bear. These are in fact precisely the ‘principalities and powers’ that Christians need to be engaging with – and I see the absence of engagement with this as a missed opportunity on the part of Scrutton. I would wish to insist upon a properly Christian hermeneutic of suspicion in this context.

There remains much work to be done to develop a fully prophetic understanding of depression within the Christian tradition, but Scrutton has definitely moved the conversation forward and I would happily recommend the book to Christians interested in a deeper understanding of mental illness.

Some theses about spirituality and ‘mental illness’

1. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with a) how these phenomena are understood and b) how those who have to endure them are treated, both by ‘professionals’ and by wider society.

2. There is no such thing as ‘mental illness’. There are physical illnesses that have mental symptoms (eg Alzheimers). To describe the phenomena of thesis #1 as ‘mental illness’ is to wrongly apply a form of language (‘illness’ and ‘disease’) from one area of life to a different area of life. It is a category error, a philosophical mistake. That it is a mistake with a vast apparatus of the state and capitalist industry supporting it does not make it true.

3. The language of modern professional psychiatric care – as best summarised in the risible DSM (see this, which I think is brilliant) – is a perfect example of a Kuhnian paradigm which is overdue for being overthrown. In just the same way that the Copernican paradigm eventually couldn’t cope with all the epicycles that had to be introduced as a result of telescopic observations, we are not far from the time when contemporary psychiatric understandings will collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy and contradictions.

4. Pharmaceutical drugs do not work in terms of curing the phenomena of thesis #1. They do have benefit in terms of the placebo effect (which I do not see as trivial) and in terms of stabilising a volatile situation, ie they can suppress symptoms. Put simply they are a tool of social management. They do not heal people; at worst the side effects simply increase the phenomena of #1.

5. We cannot understand the phenomena of thesis #1 by looking at individuals in isolation but only as human beings embedded within a particular community and context. The phenomena of thesis #1 are inescapably social.

6. It is in the interests of the state that those who exhibit disorderly or otherwise unwelcome behaviour are pacified and controlled. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned political naïvete.

7. It is in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry that there be new diagnoses of new forms of disorder, which thereby justify the creation of new drugs with new patents that form new income streams for those companies when old patents expire. Any full understanding of the phenomena of thesis #1 needs to have abandoned commercial naïvete.

8. The philosophical roots of contemporary psychiatric care lie in atheism and materialism – in other words, it proceeds on the assumption that there is no such thing as the soul.

to be with the freakshow

language of demons and angels

personal agency

human centred care

taking the soul seriously

it is possible that the greatest failure of Western churches in the twentieth century is that they have capitulated to the psycho-complex. If we are unable to cure souls, then what on earth is the point of us?

Clement quote about father nursing

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.

“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

santa science
I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

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.

Science and green strategy

One of the more useful soundbites about our financial predicament is ‘you can’t get out of a debt problem by increasing the amount of your debt’. As with any useful maxim, there are times when it might be wrong – I think there are occasions when it might make sense to increase debt in order to solve problems, eg as part of a general restructuring – but as a rule of thumb, it seems pretty good to me.

I want to argue that there is a similar maxim that applies to our present ecological predicament, one that is thrown up by our crashing in to the Limits to Growth. The maxim is this ‘you can’t get out of an idolisation of science problem by making more appeals to science’. I write about what the ‘idolisation of science problem’ is in my book, but put succinctly, I see the root problem in our culture as a blindness towards questions of value and a consequent neglect of the development of wisdom. That is, I see our culture as institutionally apathistic, and I see the principal presenting symptom of that lack of wisdom being the excess valuation given to whatever ‘science’ might say.

For those who understand the nature of the Limits to Growth – call them the ‘greens’ for now – there is an irreducible element of scientific understanding inherent in the perspective. Information about pollution and resource limits is largely a matter of science. What we are to do in the light of that information, however, is not. It is a matter of human discernment, for which science is trivially irrelevant. Worse than that, the subordination of wider human understandings to the narrow scientism that dominates our culture is itself one of the principal obstacles that need to be overcome

I have written before about the ‘climate screech’ which I see as one of the problems of contemporary green advocacy. The predicament that we are in, which the greens understand, is so much wider and deeper than the question of global warming, on which I continue to become increasingly sceptical. If we are to enable people to shift their understandings, their patterns of life, away from our present unwise paths, we will not be able to do so by continuing, to all intents and purposes, to insist in our advocacy on the primacy of “science”. Science says X, therefore we must do Y. This is a path that is doomed to failure, not least because science changes its mind on a regular basis, and greens who married the scientific consensus of the late 1980s are now finding themselves widows – and the necessary political arguments have been lost.

I believe that those who advocate green courses of action – a wiser and more responsible stewardship of this planet – need to do a great deal of soul-searching to understand why it is that the emphasis upon global warming has been such a political failure, and why the continued screeching is having such a counter-productive impact upon the wider green movement. To my mind it seems clear that we cannot get out of a crisis caused by too much science by simply increasing the amount of science on which we rely.

In the meantime I am looking forward to taking part in the Dark Mountain festival next month. This is a group that really ‘gets it’.

TBLA(8): Biology and theology

John Richardson left a comment on an earlier post which I’ve been meaning to respond to – and now Bishop Alan has written on a related topic. It’s unusual to disagree with John and +Alan on the same grounds, but there you go!

John writes: “I would have thought it was biology, rather than theology, that keep sex and procreation together, but this should affect our thinking about ‘sexual relationships’, especially where, in effect, they are not.” +Alan writes: “Concepts of “natural” and “un-natural” are very fundamental to where people position themselves about homosexuality. There seem to be two basic perceptions from which everything else flows. As clearly and charitably as I can put it Either Homosexuality is a phenomenon against nature, and defies Creation and/or evolution Or Homosexuality is a phenomenon within nature, and thus part of Creation and/or evolution”.

It seems to me that a properly Christian pattern of thinking needs to be careful about importing secular assumptions unnoticed when discussing certain scientific conclusions. That is, from a theological point of view, there is no neutral ‘biology’ from which we then draw theological conclusions; nor is there any mileage in the word ‘natural’. Put differently, a properly theological perspective has the capacity (not the necessity) of construing the biological or the natural in a way that runs against any particular scientific consensus about ‘facts’ and, sometimes, it is obliged to do so. (This is essentially Milbank’s point in Theology and Social Theory, although I think Wittgenstein got there first.)

I’ll talk about the ‘natural’ first. The major problem with use of the word ‘natural’ in any discussion like this is that it cannot be given any substantive content. That is, human beings are themselves part of any ‘natural’ order – and so anything which human beings do is therefore ‘natural’ and the word loses any distinctive purchase. Alternatively, the distinction is drawn between the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’, in which case nothing ‘human’ is ‘natural’, and again the word loses its distinctive purchase. What use of the word ‘natural’ tends to be employed for is some sense of ‘this pattern of activity aligns with this purpose’ – that is, the substantive content of the word ‘natural’ when used in an argument derives entirely from the underlying aim envisioned for the human being, and it is at that level that the debate needs to engage. So, in matters of sexuality, one position envisions human sexuality as being entirely about procreation – this is what gets privileged as ‘natural’ – and therefore anything which is not procreative is proscribed as ‘unnatural’. Alternatively, human sexuality is envisioned as being about pair-bonding and mutual affection etc, and therefore a much larger variety of sexual expression is ‘natural’.

One way of progressing the debate might therefore be to enquire as to what is the actual ‘biological’ truth – is it the case that human sexuality is entirely about procreation, or not? Is it the case that, as John infers, it is ‘biology’ that keeps sex and procreation together? Where this aspect starts to break down, for me, is that it ignores the cosmic dimension of the Fall. That is, in Christian thinking, there is a distinction between the world that God originally made, and the world that we now inhabit. The latter is a broken or impaired form of the former, one that is slowly being redeemed and healed as we head towards the Kingdom. To say that it is biology that keeps sex and procreation together – if it is to do anything more than simply point out that (so far) conception is a biological process – does not advance our understanding very far. To return to the question of gay relationships, it is perfectly possible to say that homosexual attraction is a part of the evolved order in which we find ourselves, but to describe that as being part of the cosmic Fall. In other words, it doesn’t actually advance the case in favour of gay relationships to point out all the ways in which there are gay relationships elsewhere in the existing order. It is perfectly possible for someone to say ‘yes, that’s true, but that’s just evidence of our brokenness – it is not part of God’s original intention and one day it will pass away’. (This relates to the ethical question about how to proceed if there was a ‘cure’ for homosexuality.)

There seems to be a distinction, therefore, between how something might be ‘as God intends’ and how things presently are – and from those to how we are to behave within our present context. I don’t believe that appeals to ‘biology’ or what is ‘natural’ actually progress the discussion in a more Christian direction. What would do so, I believe, is if Christians began by pondering the rest of +Alan’s post, most especially the shocking vitriol hurled at him for putting his head above the parapet on one side. If it is by their fruits that we will know them, then that is probably a much more certain place to start our considerations than any questions of biology or naturalness.

Those odd and pesky little facts

So: this is the global temperature trend of the last fifteen years. It is downwards. (Found here)

Now, in and of itself, that doesn’t mean very much – it could all be part of the natural fluctuation within an overall increasing trend, etc etc blah blah blah. (Although, obviously, the longer it continues, the more difficult the ‘mainstream consensus’ will find it to brush things away).

However, what I want to compare and contrast this graph with, is this one, showing use of fuels through the twentieth century (from Gail Tverberg).

Notice how the use of fossil fuels (=oil) really kicked off after the Second World War and that we are now using some four times as much per year as then. Now it occurs to me that if the relationship between the use of fossil fuels and the temperature of the earth was in any way a direct one, then we would be observing a similar acceleration in the year on year increase of temperature as can be seen in the use of fossil fuels. What we observe instead is a contra-indication. Not only is there no acceleration of the increase, there isn’t even an increase!

Clearly, carbon dioxide is only one factor in a chaotic system, and there simply isn’t a direct and linear relationship between the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and global temperature change. That’s just a pesky little fact.

The interesting question, to my mind, is about how far the increase in temperature in the second half of the twentieth century is anomalous when compared to other periods of history – eg, when compared to the trend since 1700, or the trend since about 1800, or the trend since about 3000 BC. This, however, leads us into Hockey Stick territory – and it explains why that remains such a totem. If the Hockey Stick is correct, then the acceleration can be (just about) found. Yet if the Hockey Stick is fraudulent – which I believe it to be – then this is some strong empirical evidence running against the CAGW hypothesis. I shall maintain my watching brief.

A biblical view of the cosmos (1)

One of the things which the recent death of Neil Armstrong brought to mind is the way in which the 20th century profoundly altered our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. The beginning of the film ‘Contact’ provoked awe when I first watched it, on a trip to Boston in 1997. It is the ultimate in ‘pull-back shots’ (you can find it on YouTube, search for ‘Contact opening scene’), beginning from the surface of the earth and just going back, and back, and back… and back. Out of the solar system, past the heliosphere, through the Milky Way, beyond the point where our galaxy is just a small dot in a haze of other galaxies. I had thought that I had a good sense for the scale of the universe, but when I lost my sense of depth about three-quarters of the way through the sequence, I realised that I had been deluding myself. The sense of scale that we need to try to comprehend when we consider our position in the universe is quite possibly unattainable to the human mind. Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, has some 400 billion stars. There may be 125 billion such galaxies in the universe. There are probably more stars than there are grains of sand on earth. I find these numbers meaninglessly large – but I’m not sure that the existential issue is any different from when the Psalmist wrote “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

The Christian understanding of the world was born in an environment radically different to the one that we inhabit today. As well as the difference in size of the universe that we are living in, there is a difference in the scale of time of comparable scale. Whereas when the church was getting established, it was considered that the world was created, in roughly the form it has now, some few thousand years ago – and it’s end would be a similar number of years in the future – we now consider that in fact the earth was created some 4.6 billion years ago, the universe perhaps some 15 billion years ago, and we do not have any conception of when it will end, if indeed that question has meaning. I often ponder what some of the implications are for Christian faith. For in traditional terms, Christians look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. This says something very important about our bodily future – that our existence as embodied beings now will somehow be recognised on that last day. Also in traditional terms, that last day will come after the apocalypse, when the last trump shall sound, the anti-christ shall be overthrown and Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

This hope or expectation of a last judgement is something which has been of great comfort to many believers over the years, and I believe it says something profoundly true, not least about social justice. What I would say, however, is that it is not something which wholly grips me. My point is to do with the ‘background drama’ against which we might understand the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The early church placed that story in the setting of their culture, and we must do the same. Our culture has radically changed its conception of time and space, and our understanding of the significance of Jesus must change too. It is rather as if we were watching a Punch and Judy show, and we were caught up in the drama, and that small stage bounded our world – and then suddenly we were pulled back to see that this stage was placed in the centre circle at Wembley Stadium. At this point the story just doesn’t have the same imaginative impact any more. Then we are pulled back to a satellite orbiting above London, and really the question of what is going on in the Punch and Judy show on some grass in North West London has to do something really rather remarkable if it is going to attract our attention. Then we pull back… and pull back.

It is sometimes said that we cannot be Christians any longer, for the story of Christianity is a story that is inevitably tied in with an understanding of the world that has been rejected – an understanding which is based in a very small world, this earth, in a cosmos which is unimaginably huge. This is called the geocentric objection, for it is based on the rejection of the idea that the earth is the centre of the universe. How can anything which happens in our world have cosmic significance? (I remember once reading about someone who had calculated what proportion of the known cosmos could conceivably have been affected by the resurrection, ie, if the ‘information’ of the resurrection travelled out in every direction from Easter morning at the speed of light, what proportion of the cosmos has now been reached? The answer is a remarkably small proportion.)

For me, this criticism begins in the wrong place. It first of all buys into a ‘supernatural’ conception of how God works, that is, that God intervenes in an already existing process, rather than the orthodox conception which is that God is eternally sustaining that process, so the idea of ‘intervention’ makes no sense. (Think about the diffference between winding up a clockwork mechanism and letting in run, and playing a piece of music – God’s creation is like the latter, not the former). More significantly, it doesn’t take seriously the religious claim about Jesus’ humanity; in other words, as a criticism of Christianity, it only makes sense as a criticism of pseudo-Christianity, one which sees Jesus’ humanity as a mere appearance, so Jesus was not human in the way that we are human.

The Christian claim starts from an opposite place. Jesus was a human being, but a human being of a particular sort. Just as Adam and Eve were made in the image of God, so too are all human beings. Yet through sin, we have obscured this image in us. In Jesus there is no sin, so in Jesus we see a human being in whom the image of God is revealed without distortion – and thus, in Jesus, we can see the nature of God revealed. So Jesus shows us both what it means to be human – and what is the nature of God. This is what is meant by the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, that God is revealed in human form.

The reason why I believe this to be an answer to the geocentric objection is because it roots our understanding of God in our understanding of ourselves, or, put differently, it states that for as long as there are human beings, Jesus will show us the nature of God. The particular clothing in which the story of Jesus is dressed – such as the language of the ascension, Jesus rising bodily into heaven – may not be essential to the story. The essential story is of a human being who was given over completely to love; to the love of God and to the love of neighbour; who as a result came into conflict with the governing authorities and was executed by them; but who was raised and justified by God on the third day, thereby demonstrating his divinity and establishing the Church, to follow the path that he had forged – to be a Christian is to take that story, that dream, and build a life around it. Doing this will remain possible for as long as we remain human, no matter how far we travel, and no matter what dimensions our imaginations are engaged in.