The MoQ is real!

Or at least, there are real people involved in it. Just come back from my first human conversation (as opposed to electronic) about the MoQ, with Ian Glendinning, who dropped by. Constructive conversation about some ways to take things forward with practical steps, possibly including a joint paper.

One thing that occurs to me (which may explain my interest to any Christians reading): the MoQ describes the world, using philosophical terms that correspond roughly to the world, the flesh and the soul – and it offers a way of integrating that language with the world of science. Something worth exploring, IMHO.

For my friends

Hello my friend.

You and I have had many conversations in this last decade, for we share significant interests – not least an enjoyment of ‘popular science’. Yet I have so far been unable to explain how and why it is that I see no conflict between science and my Christian faith; or, to make that point more strongly, why it is that I consider my Christian faith to include and perfect science – to be a more sophisticated and complete understanding than science could ever offer.

For you, things are different. You find it impossible to believe the sorts of things that (you think) Christians are required to believe, even though you are not hostile to religions in general. You enjoy debating religious questions, many of your best friends are Christians, and yet you cannot see a way to accept Christianity without at the same time surrendering your intellectual integrity. For surely Christianity is historically discredited – a threadbare stitching together of superstition and supernatural nonsense, compromised by papal arrogance and protestant bigotry, implicated in wholesale slaughter and the denial of our deepest human values. Centrally, Christianity and so many Christians seem transparently unreasonable, both in belief and behaviour. You do not consider it an accident that Galileo was condemned, and deep down, I suspect you think that those Christians whom you respect are worthy of respect in so far as they are less whole-hearted in their faith; they are ‘liberal’ and accommodating to the modern world.

I do not deny that, as a Christian reflecting on Christian history, there is much cause for shame and repentance. Yet I would like to explain why I do not abandon my faith – to retell the story of Christian history in such a way that the causes of such evil are laid bare, leaving, in consequence, a clearer understanding of what Christianity actually is – and, moreover, a clearer understanding of science, that pattern of thinking with which Christianity has been struggling like Cain with Abel.

I can summarise our differences quite easily: you consider Christianity to be, at root, built around certain supernatural beliefs. I deny this – strongly – for I consider Christianity to be, at root, built around certain mystical practices, which bear fruit in a holy life. My hope that I can explain Christianity to you is founded on the belief that we would both recognise such a holy life when we saw it.

To justify these comments is the endeavour of the book that you hold in your hand. I have come to realise that I need this large canvas on which to paint my portrait of Christian faith. As a portrait it reflects my own understandings and emphases; it is a sketch, not an exhaustive analysis. I have deliberately tried to use broad and bold brushstrokes and not to become distracted by academic detail, for both practical and principled reasons. As will become clear, I do not believe that the academic method is appropriate in all forms of inquiry, indeed, it can be radically counter-productive. Nor is this book meant to be a ‘final answer’ to our questions – on the contrary, it is an invitation to conversation, a conversation at a deeper level than many of our favourite ‘popular science’ writers have shown themselves able to achieve. Perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to develop a more rigorous ‘summa’, but that is not in my hands – if it is God’s will, then he will ‘make it so’. In the meantime, I offer this brief essay to you, with my love and prayers.

The first two chapters of my book can be downloaded here

I’m going to write it on-line, in small chunks. Feeback welcome :o)

The loss that touches everything

Titus one nine pointed me to this paper from Walter Brueggemann (the great bible teacher, if you didn’t know him already). Great stuff:

“The loss, now among us, that touches everything public and personal for everyone, conservative and liberal alike, includes:

• the failure of the old social fabric, now deeply in jeopardy;
• the failure of the old consensus of intellectual certitudes;
• the failure of old patterns of privilege and domination that we count on;
• the failure of economic viability–except for the privileged few–so that
“down-sizing” of claims and possibilities goes on everywhere.

So now we–together–must engage in what ancient Jews did in Babylon, and what ancient Christians did in Jerusalem and in Galilee: embrace the loss that is more than can be imagined. We are the people who know loss best because it is definitional in both our traditions. We are the people who know best what it is like to give up what is over. We are the ones who are entrusted with resources to help our communities and our society move beyond the loss.

Now, as then, there are some who engage in denial and nostalgia, imagining that not much is happening, that the loss is not deep, not permanent. . . except that

Jerusalem really was gone;
Jesus really was dead;
old patterns really are over: no denial; no nostalgia.

Now, as then, there are some who engage in fantasy and in irresponsible private actions, out of touch with social reality. But then–get this!–some, in the loss of Jerusalem, and some, in the death of Jesus, engaged in massively buoyant acts of recommitment to the future. It is that massive, buoyant act of commitment to the future that is our proper agenda and our proper topic. And here I reflect with you on that agenda.”

The religion of metaphysics

As you may be aware, I spend too much time arguing philosophy at a place called MD, stemming from my falling in love with the book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ in my late teens. I’ve posted a few times about it (they’re the really long ones that don’t get read. This’ll be another).

There was an academic conference at Liverpool University recently, filmed by a crew from the BBC, attended by Robert Pirsig (author of ZMM) and convened by Anthony McWatt, who had just been awarded his PhD for work on Pirsig’s ‘Metaphysics of Quality’. However, it turns out that one of the papers for the conference was a hoax. See here.

This makes me wonder whether all the time and effort that I have put into the MoQ over the last few years is worthwhile (not the first time I’ve wondered that). Grounds for doubt are:
– the MoQ discussion group often functions like an evangelical cult;
– if you accept Wittgenstein (as I do) then what are you doing with ‘metaphysics’ anyway?
– haven’t I got more important things to do?
– aren’t there some severe flaws in Pirsig’s presentation, which make the whole thing useless?

Well, sort of. Maybe I do need to scale back my involvement (or refocus it on a more academically significant outlet). But what this episode has crystallised for me is the way in which metaphysics functions as a religion (and this is where I reconcile the MoQ with Wittgenstein).

Consider the role of agriculture in a human economy. At the subsistence level agriculture simply is the economy, there is no distinction between the two. As an economy develops and become more affluent then part of the economy becomes non-agricultural and the economy can support other things. In our modern economy agriculture is a very small percentage of the whole economy, most economic activity is non agricultural and that is where most development takes place. Importantly, there is influence from the non-agricultural sector to the agricultural, for example scientific advances can help to increase crop yields. However, even though agriculture is a very small part of the economy, the economy cannot exist without agriculture, and remains dominated by it. Unless people are fed they will die, and the sophisticated economy supported by agriculture would collapse (which is something that elements of our culture appear to have forgotten). In this analogy, the whole economy represents our lived experience; the agricultural economy represents our bodily or instinctual nature; the non-agricultural sector represents our understanding, our theorising – our linguistic forms of life in all their variety (in MoQ language, the agricultural is the biological level, the non-agricultural is the social and intellectual).

As I understand Wittgenstein he is trying to argue that the mistake made by philosophers is to assume that the non-agricultural economy is all that there is, in other words he wants to resist the attempt to give a global explanation of our life. This is because these explanations are by their very nature linguistic products, products of our understanding, and are therefore irretrievably part of the ‘non-agricultural sector’. When Wittgenstein talks about a practice having ‘depth’ he is referring to the fact that some practices involve more of us than our conceptual understanding, they resonate with our bodily and instinctual nature. With his remarks on Frazer he is not arguing that all ritual is reducible to this instinct; he is trying to remind us of an inescapable part of ritual experience. Most importantly I don’t think for a moment that Wittgenstein would wish to deny the importance of conceptual reflection upon a ritual, or the way in which ritual can develop into liturgy through the benefit of prayerful consideration. Just as there is interaction between the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors of an economy, so too can there be interaction between our intellectual and instinctual natures.

One implication of this is that for Wittgenstein we will never be able to gain a complete understanding of our experience. This seems to me to be the basis of his ‘religious point of view’, for his position seems ultimately to be apophatic. The roots of our religious and moral life lie outside the realm of the conceptually understandable, and can never be fully integrated within a conceptual understanding. In other words, it is impossible to say anything final about God: ‘If such a book were written it would immediately explode the whole world’.

Wittgenstein is concerned to provoke a remembrance of the importance of agriculture within the economy; that is, of our bodily nature in our humanity. He is not concerned to say that all economic activity is agricultural, or that all our humanity is bodily. This bodiliness is far reaching in its scope: ‘the way in which animals are similar to and different from one another and in relation to man, the phenomena of death, birth and sexual life, in short, everything we observe around us, year in and year out’ . For Wittgenstein we cannot understand our language until we understand our embodiment, and it is in understanding our embodiment that we gain a proper understanding of our language. There are (of course) languages that are remote from our bodiliness – eg maths and logic – but for our purposes, in religion especially, we need to be reminded of what actually happens when religious language is used.

Wittgenstein saw the search for an overarching explanation as ultimately pathological. I understand him to be saying that metaphysics is the attempt to understand conceptually that which will always be beyond our understanding: an attempt by the non-agricultural sector to describe the agricultural sector in non-agricultural terms, to return to my analogy. What Wittgenstein is trying to do is to encourage us to recognise the primacy of our non-conceptually mediated bodily life in order that our language does not try and extend beyond itself. Metaphysics understood as a proclamation ‘this is how things are’ is inevitably totalising. Metaphysics understood as poetic ‘this is where I stand (and this is how it looks from here)’ is ultimately religious, a form of theology, and it allows for a proper recognition and validation of our human nature which does not prioritise ratiocination. It allows for the discovery of the new – it allows room for the Holy Spirit. It is in this sense that ‘all that philosophy can do is destroy idols’ for an idol is that which is put into the place of God, whether a golden calf or a metaphysical system.

By limiting, from within, what philosophy can actually do Wittgenstein allows room for our conceptions to be altered. It is the closed conceptual scheme which is idolatrous – and it is the closed conceptual scheme that the MoQ was slowly becoming. As Struan Hellier put it, some language was used pejoratively for those who hadn’t ‘found salvation’ in the MoQ. But it is a perennial human tendency to seek salvation, to seek an understanding that gives peace to our hearts and minds. Trouble is, in a culture which has a terrible blind spot where it’s own religion (Christianity) is concerned, that religious thirst will be slaked in stagnant water.

What can be salvaged? Or, what do I actually think the MoQ is worth? I would pick out two things that have stood the test of time for me. The first is the way that it integrates scientific understandings with wider artistic understandings. There are commonalities across the different fields, and I think the language of ‘Quality’ is an excellent unifying term. Secondly, the levels – how higher levels are built up out of the lower levels, that still makes profound sense to me. But other stuff, especially grounding it all on “experience” (pretending to be ’empirical’) and using the phrase “Dynamic Quality” in a parallel way to how religious people use ‘God’ – all that is garbage, from my point of view.

Interesting (for me at least). I wonder where it’ll go from here.

A strange dream

Last night I dreamt that I was attending a Russian Orthodox service, and ++Rowan was censing the altar.

I’ve been thinking a lot about church identity recently, and read an interesting blog here by a priest who converted to orthodoxy. So the issues are circulating in my mind – what is it that I hold fast to as an Anglican? From where does my certainty or trust in the continuity of Anglican identity derive? Could I move to Rome or to the Orthodox?

The most important thing for me is the community. Over a thousand years of continuous worship in the place I serve. Whatever happens in the stratosphere, the sheep need a shepherd to feed them (for better or for worse). And Christ was always with the sheep, not the shepherds.

I also came across this recently: “If the Church of England were to fail, it would be found in my parish” (John Keble)

Now there is a man to emulate.

The Mongolian Job (Self Preservation #1)

Ten years ago, five ex-Oxford students were sharing houses in London, and the prospect of middle age – mortgages, marriages, families – was a remote gleam on the horizon. But one of their number could see it coming, and suggested that a fund should be set up, as a sort of lifeboat once the seas of middle age got too stormy, which would pay for a holiday for the five, as a way of returning to those halcyon days.

And bizarrely, we all agreed. Due to a profound reverence for the work of Michael Caine, we called ourselves the Self-Preservation Society. And each month we paid in a small amount to our fund. And after nine years we managed to agree that Mongolia was the place to go. (Largely because a sixth ex-Oxford student had travelled the world a few times, and we simply HAD to go somewhere that he hadn’t been).

The famous five:
Al: “Hang on lads, I’ve got a great idea” – because it was his idea.

Al works for L’Arche in Germany
Stu: “Known as Big Stu, for obvious reasons”

Stu is a founding partner of Gecko
Paul: “Don’t put him down because he’s a man of learning. He’s very important to the job”

Paul does something .complicated in the City.
Ian: “Will it take the weight?”

Ian is a patent attorney and
Sam: “I think we’d better arrange a funeral”

Sam is your friendly blogger with a collar.

Now, it was going to be straightforward. We were all going to fly to Beijing. But Stu was bringing his theatre company back from Moscow on the day we travelled, and being the responsible type, he wanted to make sure they all got back safely. So he flew Moscow – London – Beijing, and joined us after a day.

Whereas the other four all met up at Heathrow, in various states of unbelief, and feeling very concerned that Al was going to do something silly – concerns which seemed fully justified when he got into vigorous debate (that’s a euphemism) with the lady at the check-in desk. But it was cool. We got onto our flight OK.

And then we were off, preserving ourselves.

Dust and bones

A post from the MD discussions that I take part in:

Sam is totally identified with his religion. It’s his tightly held persona. He’s a Christian priest and it suits his needs. Strip Sam of his persona and you have dust and bones. But Sam has Value, I’m sure like Bono he performs good deeds.

I know you like Sam. I do too.


I’ve definitely pushed the boat out in the MD discussions recently. I’ve always previously kept my most deeply held beliefs under a tight(ish) rein – because it’s a secular forum, so I have never felt it that appropriate to come right out and say ‘hey, I’m a Christian, I really do believe this stuff’. But after one comment from a newbie, which – I thought – portrayed me as a hypocrite, I felt the need to lay my cards down on the table. This is what I said:

I would place my understanding of God within the Christian tradition, specifically, in the context of classical Christian mysticism. So to explain some of the core sense of that, I’ll need to use two words ‘cataphatic’ and ‘apophatic’. (I’ve written about this to DMB before, but probably nobody else noticed).

Can God be spoken about or not? The cataphatic answers the question positively, saying that there are things which can truly be said about God – so the language used in the Bible to talk about God is meaningful language. And it is also possible to say true things about what God is not. So God is NOT X, Y or Z. In contrast, the apophatic tradition answers this question negatively, so apophatic mysticism is the ‘negative’ tradition, which says ‘not this, not that’ etc. Specifically, it says that all language about God is meaningless so we should shut up and not ‘yelp about God’.

The important thing to know is that these two answers to the question are siamese twins, rather like yin and yang, and they cannot exist without the other. The mainstream mystics in the western tradition (Denys, Eckhart, Julian of Norwich etc) have their different emphases and ‘flavours’ but in each case the language of their writings is predicated on the truth of both answers. So first there is the cataphatic response to the question, and there is an overflowing abundance of language referring to God, eg saying ‘God is light’ and then, in dialectical movement, there is the negation of this, eg saying God is darkness (this is STILL the cataphatic, NB), and then – *and this is the key ‘apophatic’ moment* – this distinction of positive and negative is itself negated by saying ‘God is dazzling darkness’.

So, just to ensure this is understood, the cataphatic is *both* statements (God is light, God is darkness) and the apophatic is the paradox *beyond* the statements, that state of understanding or enlightenment when the soul has absorbed or developed the truth about God. In other words, the mystical writers in the Western tradition are using the natural language of theology, for “Good theology… leads to that silence which is only found on the other side of a general linguistic embarrassment” (Denys Turner). It is the difference between knowing nothing (the state of innocence) and knowing that you know nothing (the state of wisdom) – and the mystical tradition is a way of enabling the journey from the one to the other, _through_ the dialectic of cataphatic and apophatic.

(This mystical tradition, just to head off a possible criticism, isn’t exclusively Christian. It has two parents – Moses going up the Mountain, and Plato’s allegory of the cave – and it’s the latter which brings out its relevance to Pirsig, for he is a neo-Platonist.)

So when I say ‘God does not exist’ I’m using the _first_ bit of cataphatic language (ie I’m denying ‘God exists’). And Paul is quite right to say that I’m committed to saying ‘God does not not-exist’. That is the apophatic response, and this is the paradox and failure of language to capture the reality of God.

Much more interesting than that technical stuff, however, is the spiritual journey within which that language makes sense. That is, the soul aspires to union with God, but is prevented from enjoying that union as a result of sin. Putting that in MoQ terms, our fourth level patterns seek to be fully open to Quality, yet are restricted by the social patterns which are harmfully static. The process of mysticism (as I understand it) is the discipline of renouncing all the static patterns so as to enable mystical union.

“In the Pauline and Johannine writings of the New Testament, life in Christ consists in a dynamic union with God. Depending on the emphasis, this union is presented as being with Christ as with God’s divine self-expression, or with God (the Father) in and through Christ. God’s spirit seals the union and initiates an ever-growing participation in the intimacy of the divine life. The presence of the Holy Spirit endows the Christian with a ‘sense’ of the divine that if properly developed enables the believer to ‘taste’ (_sapere_) God and all that relates to him.” (Louis Dupre, ‘Unio Mystica’)

In other words, what motivates the quest for God is love; as Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. I understand the mystical tradition to be a process of breaking the back of the intellectual ego, so as to allow the soul to grow in wisdom, and grow into God.

Kevin (the newbie) said:

> I ask
> myself, what meaningful purpose would the leader of a
> Christian community have
> for engaging…no that’s not quite right…for
> championing a stumbling block.

(the stumbling block being my – orthodox – assertion that God ‘does not exist’)

Which as you might imagine is quite a challenge.

Firstly, for the record, might I state (if anyone had any doubt) that I believe in God, I pray to God, I worship God, etc etc. It’s the defining feature of my life. My relationship with God runs deeper in me than any thoughts or perceptions or considerations that might otherwise emerge. I am absolutely certain of the reality of God. Indeed, if that certainty were to fail, I would check myself in to a psychiatric unit, as I would have no other conclusion to reach than that my mind had failed. The reality of God is more firmly rooted in me than any sense of self, so if there is a conflict, its the sense of self which is suspect.

So why might I be saying ‘God does not exist’? Part of the answer I’ve already provided; part is, as you rightly point out, that I am being provocative. But is it a needless provocation, or is there something more substantial? I think the latter.

A bit of personal history might help explain things. I was raised in a fairly standard Anglican home. Religion was there in the background, but it was never dominant. I became an atheist when I was 12, following a conversation with a conservative evangelical, when I was told that Gandhi was going to Hell because he didn’t confess Jesus Christ as his personal lord and saviour. That seemed unjust to me; God cannot be unjust; therefore if he claims that then he doesn’t exist. I remained an atheist throughout my teenage years, lapping up people like Richard Dawkins and all the other secular opposition to Christianity. I tucked into lots of ‘alternative’ understandings, both the occult and more mainstream mythological stuff like Campbell. Christianity was simply a busted flush. Nobody with any intellectual self-respect could possibly take it seriously.

I then went to university to study Philosophy and Theology (and read ZMM). My conscious purpose was to get lots of good arguments to bash Christians around the head with (I was very influenced by ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ – source for ‘The Da Vinci Code’). However, once I was dealing with the subjects at a serious academic level I discovered that most of what I understood about Christianity was wrong. What I had been rejecting wasn’t Christianity- it was a degraded, watered down hybrid of Modern Philosophy and Protestant Fundamentalism. Once I realised how mistaken I had been, the scene was set for me to enjoy a moment of enlightenment, which is what has given me, ever since, the certainty that I refer to above.

But a fundamental driver in my personality now (which sometimes leads me astray) is to uproot and destroy the misconceptions that prevented someone like me from understanding, and therefore taking seriously, the claims which are made by the Christian faith. And those misconceptions abound, especially on this forum. Take the claim that a person believes that God exists. That might be considered (eg from a fundamentalist viewpoint) as sufficient for faith. To my mind, that is profoundly mistaken. Belief that God exists is next to useless in the context of Christian faith. (Even the demons believe – and they tremble). For the key thing about Christian faith is to be transformed by the love of God into a creature capable of sharing that love of God in the world. This is less about a belief that God exists than about developing the relationship with God, so that one gets caught up within the love of the Trinity, what the medieval mystics called the _unio_mystica_.

So when I challenge people by saying ‘God does not exist’ I am wanting to unsettle the belief – held by both believers and atheists – that they know what ‘God’ is, as explained to Paul. I think people have far too much confidence about the nature of ‘God’ (I wouldn’t exclude myself either). So often belief or disbelief in God seems to be about the existence or non-existence of a particular entity with definable attributes. As if the difference between a believer and a non-believer were that in the universe of the believer, everything was just the same as for the non-believer, except for the addition of an extra item, the causal source of it all, called ‘God’. I think such debates are totally unconnected with the living reality of what Christian faith is about. To believe in God is to see the world – ALL of the world – completely differently. To see the world in a certain way – and live out the consequences – that is what it means to believe in God, whether God is named as such or not. Yet one can claim a belief that ‘God exists’ and still completely miss what that means. And in precisely the same way, one can claim that ‘God does not exist’ – and therefore reject Christian faith – and yet have completely misunderstood what is being claimed and rejected. What I am trying to do (probably failing, but I’ll always try) is to _remove_ a stumbling block. I am saddened that I appear to have created a different one.

By being (i) explicitly Christian, and (ii) saying that ‘God does not exist’, I am not being a woolly liberal post-modern trendy vicar. I am consciously trying to unsettle the certainty with which people say they don’t believe in God. I think a lot of people (not all) are in the position I was in when I was a teenager – they reject a deformed part of Christianity, and believe that they are rejecting the whole. As I said to Ian recently, if he explained the nature of the God he didn’t believe in, he would probably find that I don’t believe in him either. Hence my regular quotation from Denys Turner: “in the sense in which atheists. say God ‘does not exist’, the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology”.

But I DO believe in the orthodox Christian God, so help me God.

“I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless, that you have to change your life (or the direction of your life)…the point is that a sound doctrine need not take hold of you, you can follow it as you would a doctor’s prescription. But here you need something to move you and turn you in a new direction.”

Br Roger murdered in Taize

I was deeply saddened to learn of the murder of Br Roger at Taize. Details here.

Taize has been hugely important to me in my growth in faith. I am truly shocked.

Just yesterday I quoted one of his prayers to a parishioner: “We cling to our troubles like a hand clutching a thorn bush. Let go into Christ”

nada te turbe, nada te espante, quien a dios tiene, nada le falta, nada te turbe, nada te espante, solo dios basta