Diagnosing the demonic (research plan)

I am hoping to start a PhD at the University of Bristol from January. This is the research plan that I have submitted.

Bristol PhD application (part-time/half-time)
Research plan

Diagnosing the demonic

A conceptual comparison of the metaphysical frameworks employed in the Ministry of Deliverance and in Psychiatric Diagnosis

The overall aim of the research is to understand and clarify the nature of the difference between the psychiatric diagnosis carried out by medical professionals and the spiritual discernment carried out by ordained clergy in the ministry of deliverance. There is an existing conversation within the field of psychiatry that is metaphysical in character and I would like to bring insights from the Christian tradition into that conversation: when there are strange, troubling or unexplained phenomena that affect individuals or groups what are the criteria that are presently used to distinguish the greater applicability of one field of expertise rather than another to a particular situation? Are they the correct criteria to use? I would like to more precisely delineate the boundary between the professional competences involved, with a view to enabling a greater facility between deliverance ministers and consultant psychiatrists in multi-disciplinary teams.

The research is essentially an exploration in metaphysics, ie what are the philosophical presuppositions within which the different experiences are interpreted and understood? What is actually going on when certain words are used in particular contexts? The principal philosopher with whom my research will engage is PMS Hacker, and this in two ways. Firstly, the methodological framework within which the work will be undertaken is conceptual analysis, as understood within the analytical tradition following Wittgenstein and elucidated by Hacker, most especially in his commentary on the Philosophical Investigations. I shall rely upon the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical practice as a tool for dissolving conceptual confusions. Secondly, the research will include a sustained engagement with Hacker’s recently concluded Study of Human Nature, especially volume 4 on the language of good and evil.

The research plan involves four phases of work. The first two phases are essentially a task of exploring and explaining the different frameworks used in a) deliverance ministry and b) psychiatric diagnosis. The research will therefore look at how particular words and phrases are used in each area before engaging in the more fundamental work of elucidation and the dissolution of conceptual confusions – within each of the two fields. The third phase of work will engage principally with Hacker’s Study of Human Nature, situating that work within the present debates in the philosophy of psychiatry, and drawing on Hacker’s critiques to comment upon both deliverance ministry and contemporary psychiatric practice. The final phase of work will then seek to synthesise the insights generated into a systematic account of the languages of psychiatric diagnosis and deliverance ministry, with a view to comparing these different frameworks and assessing their variable viability and potential for creative engagement with each other. I would hope, at the end of the research, to be able to articulate the areas within which one field of expertise is more suitable for dealing with unusual phenomena rather than another, and why.

Phase 1: The metaphysics of deliverance ministry
(what is meant by the demonic in the Christian tradition?)

In this first substantial part of the research I will set out the practice of deliverance ministry as presently undertaken within the Church of England, setting out the philosophical tradition within which this work takes place.

I will start by sketching out the metaphysics of contemporary practice in deliverance ministry, in the light of the review above (distinguishing poltergeists, ghosts, place memories, unquiet dead, possession experiences), using the work Deliverance edited by Michael Perry as the key text, supplemented by more recent work by Gabriel Amorth, Tom Clammer and Francis Young amongst others. These texts are the materials used for the training of deliverance ministers, and which therefore provide the best guides to the use of language in this ministry. I will highlight a) the variety of metaphysical presuppositions involved in the different areas of the work, and b) the interface with medical expertise in present practice;
I will then look at some contrasting areas from church history where language similar to that used in deliverance ministry is deployed, especially the language of the demonic. This will begin with a review of Jesus’ actions as recorded in the New Testament, which are taken as normative and paradigmatic for deliverance ministry: Jesus’ own ministry of exorcism, the use of exorcism by the disciples, and the language of ‘principalities and powers’ especially by St Paul. Here I would want to use in particular the work of Graham Twelftree and Walter Wink;
I will then seek to elucidate the understanding of demons in the early church looking especially at the desert fathers and the way in which this language was used in the development of the seven deadly sins (eg ‘the noonday demon’ as a way of talking about the sin of accidie). I would here engage specifically with the work of Christopher C H Cook and Olivier Clement;
I will then look at the way in which Augustine adapted the classical understanding of the cure of souls (using rhetoric as a form of therapy, to regulate the emotions) looking at the work of Paul Kolbet and Martha Nussbaum;
I will lastly look at the way Aquinas understood the language of deliverance ministry, looking most especially at his understanding of angels and demons in the Summa Theologica part 1a, and his overall understanding of the nature of good and evil. Aquinas has a status and authority within the Catholic tradition (including the Church of England) which makes his understandings definitive for the practice of deliverance ministry, although I will seek to engage with the critical literature also on these points, especially Herbert McCabe and Fergus Kerr.

Phase 2: The practice and metaphysics of psychiatric diagnosis
(how does psychiatry understand the demonic?)
For this area of work I would seek to understand contemporary psychiatric practice, taking the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) as representative of the mainstream of that practice, with a particular focus on those areas which have the strongest overlap with exemplary deliverance issues such as demonic possession (depression and schizophrenia, and possibly manic/bi-polar disorders).

As with deliverance ministry I would begin with a review of the present practice of psychiatric diagnosis, using the DSM as an authoritative text, with a view to elucidating the philosophical presuppositions within that tradition, in other words, how is the language of psychiatry used in the specific, relevant contexts? If permitted I would very much like to audit some of the lectures (medical training) offered within the University of Bristol in this area as this will enable my understanding to be informed by contemporary practitioners;
I would then seek to explore contemporary critiques and developments of the DSM framework from various perspectives, firstly by looking especially at the appropriateness of the use of the ‘medical model’ as a metaphysical framework within which to consider mental disorders, engaging with the work of Szasz and the secondary literature around his critique, and also drawing on M O’Connor Drury’s work ‘The Danger of Words’ as he was a student of Wittgenstein who became a professional psychiatrist;
I will then look specifically at the understanding of depression and schizophrenia within the DSM and engaging with criticisms of the DSM in this area, both by medical practitioners (Mary Boyle) and by philosophers (Louis Sass)
I will lastly consider the work of the Critical Psychiatry Network (especially the writings of Joanna Moncrieff, but also Lucy Johnstone, David Healy and others) and in particular the recent development of the Power-Threat-Meaning Framework which is conceptually very different to the DSM framework. The work of Bill Fulford in relation to Values-Based Medicine is likely to be relevant.

Phase 3: PMS Hacker’s Study of Human Nature
Once the groundwork of the first two phases has been set out, this will lead into a detailed engagement with the work of PMS Hacker. This will take the form of a detailed commentary on five volumes:
firstly his critique of cognitive neuroscience in his work with Maxwell Bennett, the Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. This will clarify the inter-relationship of mind and body and especially how this can be applied to the practice of the DSM, for example, what does it mean to say that a feeling of sadness (depression) is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain? Is such a comment meaningful?;
secondly I would take each of the four volumes of his recently concluded Study of Human Nature, beginning with the Categorial Framework which considers rationality and explanation with respect to human behaviour, which is relevant to considerations of human will – and therefore what it means for a human will to be ‘possessed’ or impaired;
Hacker’s Volume 2, The Intellectual Powers, looking especially at the nature of belief and the way in which imagination interacts with reason, and therefore the importance of the metaphysical (narrative) framework within which phenomena are intepreted;
in Volume 3, The Passions, Hacker engages with human emotions that are considered sins within the Christian tradition (eg envy) and I shall here compare his treatment with that outlined in my earlier research;
finally, and most importantly, in volume 4, The Moral Powers, Hacker considers the nature of good and evil, and human meaning in the face of death. Considering his arguments here will feed directly into the considerations of the language of the demonic considered in the first two phases of my research.

Phase 4: Synthesis
Once these three phases are complete I would then seek to do the more synthetic work and attempt a detailed conversation, looking at human behaviour from different aspects, exploring how the different metaphysical frameworks might interact and critique each other, and therefore how the language and practices within psychiatry and within deliverance ministry might better understand each other. I would hope to be able to clarify the nature of each discipline in such a way that collaborative working across the disciplines might be facilitated.

Timetable
I would expect each stage of the work set out above in phases one and two (each bullet point) to require some 4-6 weeks of work, resulting in around 5,000 words of suitable material. Assuming a January 2022 start I would expect phase one to last until the summer of 2022; phase two to take through to Easter 2023. Phase 3, the engagement with the work of Hacker, will take longer for each section, at least four months for each volume. This is therefore likely to take until the Christmas of 2024 – at least two and a half years after the start of the research.

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 – 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.

Gesticulating with ‘wrath’ – why we need to rehabilitate traditional language if we are to learn what God want to teach us

When it comes to language about wrath I have been accustomed for a long time to quote what Julian of Norwich says – that there is no wrath in God. When pushed, I have tended to nuance that comment by saying that wrath is a real thing that we need to take account of, but I have been comfortable not to identify an experience of wrath with the experience of God’s purpose for my life.

I have come to believe that I have been missing something essential to the life of faith, which traditional language of wrath preserves, and I’d like to briefly sketch my thinking. I would say at the outset that I’m going to argue for a rehabilitation of the language of wrath in principle – I’m not here going to say how that language needs to be used in practice, with respect to COVID. Hopefully we can engage with that work in our discussion.

My title draws from a passage that I have been mulling on, which is something that Wittgenstein once wrote (Culture and Value 85e). He says this:

Actually I should like to say that in this case too the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense”

My thinking is simply this: our language of wrath is a way of saying something about our lived experience before God, and if we outlaw this language then we are not making anything clearer. So what might our gesticulating with this word ‘wrath’ be about?

Now, two more elements of throat clearing, before I suggest a tentative answer. The first is to make a reference to Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, which so famously begins “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” I don’t believe that it is possible to do theodicy as a Christian. That is, as soon as we start to make some sort of moral evaluation or justification of the ways of God to humanity then we have embarked upon the path of idol worship. We are not the measure of God; God is the measure of humankind.

Yet we do want to insist that God is good; that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. Even with a properly reticent and analogical understanding of that language I do not believe that we can escape saying that God is good and that this is foundational for our faith and spirituality. So my second element of throat clearing is this: when Job loses his health his wife invites him to “curse God and die”, which invites the rebuke “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”

So to weave these three things together – Wittgenstein, Bonhoeffer and Job – and finally make my point, I want to say that when we use the language of wrath, when we gesticulate with it, we are not engaged in some sort of theodicy, as if we were making some sense of judgement over God; rather we are asserting, with Job, that the good that we receive in this life cannot be separated from the evil.

As a matter of theological grammar, I would now say, we cannot give thanks to God for the good things that we receive in this life from Him if we cannot at the same time cry in lament for the bad things that we receive in this life from Him. If we say that the bad things that we receive in this life are not from God, if we abandon this sense of God’s wrath, then the blood drains out of our thanksgivings to God too.

What, to refer back to Wittgenstein’s language again, is the difference that this language makes in our lives? Or, given how widespread the abandonment of this language has become, what difference did this language make in the devotional lives of those who have gone before us? What spiritual lessons might there be for us if we pay attention to their prayers?

I would say – if we look at the Book of Common Prayer for example, that +Christopher discussed, and the language wherein pestilence and horror is taken as a form of chastisement, and an invitation to repentance – that this is above all an insistence that the experience being undergone is meaningful. That we, who are in a state of dependence upon God, experience God more intimately when we are in extremis, when we are put to the test – and that God opens up a path of redemption for us that proceeds directly from the place of our suffering.

In other words, the spiritually essential heart of this language of divine wrath is not that we gain a heavenly imprimatur for our own prejudices, nor that we come to some rationally satisfactory accounting or justification of divine activity but that: without wrath we have no redemption. To use the language of wrath, to insist upon God’s agency and responsibility in our suffering is to make the claim that all of life is meaningful, and that there is a way forward from where we are. It is, in the end, the only thing that enables us to cling to the cry that God loves us even when he chastises us.

If we are to find the path that God is giving us to walk in out of this present pestilence, I do not believe that we will succeed unless we reclaim a healthy sense of God’s wrath. We must repent of our ways and return to the living God, for he has torn us, and he will heal us.

The Lord giveth; and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

(A talk given to the Severn Forum last night)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I would convert Richard Dawkins (part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about the story

story_telling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christianity is not a rational religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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