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.

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.

So that was 2020

Well now. Quite a year, in which the consequences of the last year or three started to work themselves out.
On the surface the worst one since 2012 (and very similar) but on the underneath… really very different. That was a year half way down a slide into an abyss. This feels more like I’m half way through my clambering out of the abyss. What I said at the conclusion last year is even more abundantly true: I am at peace with myself in a way that I haven’t known before, possibly ever as an adult. Also abundantly true: the Lord has provided.

Sad things: my marriage failed, in part because of Brexit, but that was as much a stressor (revealer) of existing problems as a cause of new ones.
Got made redundant (1/3rd of job).
Had significant health problem, doubtless brought on by stress, which I’m slowly getting on top of.

Good things: got properly published.
Started the WSET course on wine (exam on level 3 in March 2021).
Learned to appreciate just how good family and friends are to me and for me, and my loved ones seem to be doing OK. Zoom has been good!
Also: I have been blessed to be in this Diocese. No institution is perfect, but I find myself continually surprised by kindness, and I am grateful.

I’m still standing. I don’t know quite what God wants from me as my next step but I am at peace that I am, on the whole, going in the direction that He wants me to go in – subject, of course, to the way my own sins and delusions lead me astray. Feeling that you are responding to God’s call is no guarantee that you actually are – it needs to be confirmed by others, especially the wider church community.

All praise and thanks to God.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.

What is God doing with the Church of England?

(Something shared with my Deanery colleagues, as part of our conversation about finding a way forward)

This middle section of Thomas Hardy’s De Profundis really speaks to me:

Considerabam ad dexteram, et videbam; et non erat qui cognosceret me (Ps142.4)

When the clouds’ swoln bosoms echo back the shouts of the many and strong
That things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long,
And my eyes have not the vision in them to discern what to these is so clear,
The blot seems straightway in me alone; one better he were not here.

The stout upstanders say, All’s well with us: ruers have nought to rue!
And what the potent say so oft, can it fail to be somewhat true?
Breezily go they, breezily come; their dust smokes around their career,
Till I think I am one horn out of due time, who has no calling here.

Their dawns bring lusty joys, it seems; their eves exultance sweet;
Our times are blessed times, they cry: Life shapes it as is most meet,
And nothing is much the matter; there are many smiles to a tear;
Then what is the matter is I, I say. Why should such an one be here?

Let him to whose ears the low-voiced Best seems stilled by the clash of the First,
Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst,
Who feels that delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom, and fear,
Get him up and be gone as one shaped awry; he disturbs the order here.

Like many others I have long been frustrated with the pervasive sense of unreality that seems to govern decisions made within our church. So many initiatives, so much cheerleading, so much refusal to face what is happening (for an example, see this General Synod paper on ‘resourcing the future’ from 2015, which begins “This is a moment of great opportunity for the Church of England.”)

“… things are all as they best may be, save a few to be right ere long…”

I want to begin our conversation in a different place. I want to ask “What is God doing with the Church of England at the moment?” For what I see is long-term structural collapse, that has been rolling forward for at least fifty years, with roots that extend backwards much further than that. I want to ask ‘what is God doing?’ because if we have no awareness of what God is doing we will not have the capacity to co-operate with what God is doing, and then all our doings are as nothing worth.

Most especially I want to insist of what is happening with the Church of England, the collapse that we are living through, that this is not an accident. I see the hand of God in this. If we thank God for the good why do we evade that with the bad? It’s as if we are comfortable saying thank you to God for good things and blessings that we received, but have somehow lost the capacity to experience God’s hand in the bad things that we experience. The bad things are assigned to rational or secular causes, or considered meaningless – which is an atheist framework. I want to say: the structural collapse of the Church of England is the working out of God’s Wrath, and unless we recover an understanding of what is meant by this language we will not be able to navigate forward.

So I ask: what is the most prominent cause for God’s Wrath when described in Scripture? Surely it is a lack of faith, a failure to worship the living God alone, a falling away from the first commandment which then has consequences for social justice, and, in time, political fallout too (most notably the Exile). We live in a society when it is comparatively easy and acceptable to live out the second commandment. I think we have settled into that comparative ease, and let the first commandment slide.

Before anything else, therefore, I think we need to honestly lament, and cry ‘God have mercy on us’ for our corporate lack of faith, with perhaps a day of fasting and prayer. We need to be able to grieve for what we have lost, and spend time recognising that we have played a part in this collapse due to our lack of faith.

What does our lack of faith look like?

I wonder how many of you saw Justin Welby’s ‘personal statement’ released following the publication of the IICSA report (text available here) I find it remarkable that the response of the institution to criticism is such a perfect example of legal boilerplate, without any reference to Jesus, let alone the theological drama of repentance and forgiveness, redemption and salvation. If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot offer an authentic Christian witness at a moment like this (and I do not doubt his personal capacity to offer such a witness, this is a critique of the institution, not of him) what hope have the rest of us?

In my view the collapse of the Church has its roots in a lack of faith (that’s what I take from Scriptural precedent) and in our particular case it is a fundamentally doctrinal collapse, specifically, that as an institution we have unconsciously absorbed the secular framework of our surrounding culture. We have, in Scriptural language, gone whoring after foreign gods. The result of this is that we can no longer use spiritual language with confidence, and so we spend our time parading our secular virtues in order to be acceptable to the society in which we live. We are happy to demonstrate our sociologically convenient bona fides – such as giving support to measures designed to combat climate change, or genuflecting in church in solidarity with Black Lives Matter – and yet we have forgotten the rich spiritual language within which the second commandment can only make sense. That is, unless we have a true relationship with the living God we simply will not know what true love of neighbour looks like.

Most damagingly of all, with this collapse of doctrine the framework within which to understand the role of a priest has vanished. Instead of a ministry of Word and Sacrament we have had an evacuation of priesthood in favour of incumbency. I read this in a Sheldon Hub forum last week: “I have only been ordained for 18 years. I wasn’t trained (on a 2 years full time residential course) to be the CEO of a small-to-medium sized enterprise, and one which is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, in part because of its attitude towards matters of human sexuality, & its attitude towards equality. I wasn’t trained in charity management. I wasn’t trained in people management, or H&S, or food safety, or in being a “venue manager”. And simply saying that all of those things are someone else’s responsibility within the church doesn’t take away the fact that as the incumbent, the buck stops on my desk if they are not taken heed of and someone is hurt as a result of ignoring them.”

How then shall we turn again to the Lord, who has torn us and will heal us?

I believe that we have to be utterly ruthless and relentless in narrowing down our focus upon our core task – which is the Great Commandment, to proclaim the gospel and teach people to obey all that Jesus has commanded. As an institution we spend a vast amount on training clergy to be ministers of Word and Sacrament – to teach the faith and administer the spiritual medicine of the gospel – and then we ask them to do so many things other than that.

I am using the language of ‘we’, and clearly talking about ordained ministers. I believe passionately in the ministry of all the faithful, I am, after all, a Vocations officer for the Diocese as well as Assistant DDO, but I see something in the current emphasis on lay ministry as a manifestation of the doctrinal collapse I pointed to earlier. We (corporately, as an institution) don’t have an understanding of spiritual matters any more, and so we think that those set aside for the especial purpose of handling those spiritual matters are replaceable. I want to insist that the truth is precisely the opposite – we need to let priests be priests (not incumbents) – and set them free to manifest their full calling. We need to take spiritual matters seriously again. If we do that, it will in turn liberate the laity to manifest all their gifts, to be the church in the world.

There are other things I want to say here – about learning how to proclaim gospel in today’s society (both content and medium), which I am feeling a particular calling towards, and the need for us to concentrate on the intense discipling of small numbers of people, teaching them how to share transformed life and faith in turn, but this has already gone on for long enough.

I could be excited about these possibilities. I remain utterly convinced of the truth of the gospel as the Church of England has received it, and I also remain a loyal Anglican. I just feel so often like one “horn out of due time, who has no calling here”, whose role is simply to disturb the order as I watch the wheels continue to turn and crush the life out of clergy.

We need to concentrate on feeding the sheep, for if the sheep aren’t fed, they leave or they die – and that, to my mind, describes the history of the last fifty or so years of our Church. My lament is that, because we have corporately and unconsciously imbibed so much atheist thinking, we have forgotten what the food we can offer looks and tastes like, and so we scratch around trying to find more or less acceptable secular substitutes, chasing the latest fads out of fear and desperation, and the more this goes on, the more we fade away.

“…if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst…”

With love and respect to all of you, and looking forward to the continuing conversation,

Sam

PS totally gratuitous plug: I have a chapter in this book, being released on Thursday, which expands on some of the themes here

TFT20200909 The old and the new

Once upon a time, I lived near a beach, and had a dog, and therefore walked twice a day. I liked taking photos and for a long time I regularly uploaded the results here – as The Beach This Morning (TBTM) and, occasionally, The Beach This Evening (TBTE).

I no longer have a dog, nor do I live near a beach, but I do live in the middle of a marvellous Forest, in which, even though I don’t have canine accompaniment, I still love to walk most days.

So every so often, there will now be a TFT – The Forest Today.

I am not a white Christian

Yesterday our Archbishop of Canterbury sent out this tweetabc white christian:

The single most important lesson I learned about racism I learned from an African-American named Steve. Before I went to university I had a gap year, three months of which were spent wandering around North America with a friend. We began with a week in New York, staying in the flat of a radical couple in which I was introduced to many intellectually exciting things – amongst them Noam Chomsky and Abbie Hoffmann – but what I most clearly remember was Steve’s insistence that racism was the belief that there are separate human races. I remember him talking about the census form, asking for information on racial category – and him saying ‘I write in “human” when they ask me about my race’.

The point I took from Steve was that as soon as you start thinking in racial terms, racism as an evil ideology is the inevitable consequence. The more that there is an insistence upon one racial category, the more that thinking in racial categories becomes endemic.

(This is not to deny that there is something real being described (objected to) with #Blacklivesmatter – there is clearly a deep-rooted structural racism within US society generally, and their police forces in particular, which needs to be addressed. At the end of our three months we returned to New York, and before meeting up with Steve again, we spent some time sat on the floor of the Greyhound station. I vividly remember policemen walking by us, ignoring us, and then hassling the African-Americans further along. That was when I realised just how deeply the racism was embedded in US society.)

The challenge for us all is to identify what is wrong without succumbing to thinking in racial categories. We have to use the right language to describe the problem, otherwise we simply repeat and amplify the original sin, we surrender that which is most distinctively Christian: that our identity in Christ surpasses all of our other identities, without obliterating them. In other words the most fundamental truth about anyone is that they are made in the image of God, and the most fundamental truth about me is that I am a Christian. As was once so wisely said, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

When we succumb to using racial categories and then – much more dangerously – use those categories in the form of accusations then we have left behind the Holy Spirit and are giving service to another. It would seem that a tormenting spirit is upon our Archbishop, and he has hurled a spear of accusation, which is the tool of the enemy. I shall step to one side and allow the spear to embed itself in the wall beside me.

In Christ there is neither black nor white. There are no black Christians or white Christians or Christians ‘of colour’. To add an adjective before the word Christian is to risk, blasphemously, the full meaning of the word Christian. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. Healing can only be built upon our recognition of our common humanity, not on cornerstones of blame and accusation.

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see him there
Who made an end of all my sin.

I am not a white Christian. I am Sam, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.

Fifteen years of blogging

I thought I’d mark an anniversary.

Fifteen years ago today I wrote my first blog-post. To be truthful, in my initial zeal I wrote two, one a technical/ admin one, and one on loving my job – I must have had a particularly busy day looking at that list of things now! They are best seen on my old blog here.

I sustained a very high pace of posting to begin with – that is, for the first few years – but as real life became ever more complicated, and as I started to get negative feedback from *certain parishioners* that my, eg, regular film-reviews merely made them ask ‘what does he do with his time’ I started to share much less. That process continued until I was mainly using the blog solely for my newspaper articles, and in the last year or so, I haven’t even had those!

Which is a way of saying two things.

The first is that I miss my blog. It is my pensieve, and writing is very good for my mental health. I do not serve either God or the world with integrity if I do not speak my truth. The second is that, in line with an overall healing that is going on with me (on the inside) and a sense that the unexamined life is not worth living, I feel the need to start blogging seriously and relentlessly regularly again. There is much to be said for a distribution channel that is not subject to the whims of a commercial entity, nor the painful antagonisms that have, for me, made Facebook a very unsafe space. On my blog, in contrast, I feel safe – and nobody needs to spend any time here if they do not want to (Spider Jerusalem is my hero). My agenda will continue to be: “Exploring priesthood, prophecy and faith in the context of a culture in crisis.” It’s still the best way of summing up what I do.

So.

This is Planet Sam.

I hope you enjoy the ride.