Monday, December 31, 2012

Sermons I would like to hear: On the priesthood of women.

I’ve written a series of posts under the heading “Sermons I would like to hear”. I use this format to give me license to riff with the language sets of religious faith more freely. Under this heading I allow myself to be both a little more poetic and a little more merciless than I might be in a balanced critical essay. This is the most fire and brimstone of the bunch but like the others its definitely a sermon I would love to be surprised by in church.

I always advice reading these pieces in a Desmond Tutu accent.

Anna, the Prophetess, Luke 2:36-38
Some organisations only permit men to hold leadership positions. Sometimes these organisations claim a mystical religious basis for their discrimination. Churches in particular claim that their organisation represents the truth about the infinite relationship of God to the world. Then some of them claim that this truth insists such representation can only be under mens’ leadership.

I want to preach against this, particularly in regard to Christianity, because there’s a Christian blasphemy occurring here. It’s a declaration that the image of God in woman’s image is not fully there and fully active. That’s the very definition of blasphemy; the disregard and denial of something of God.

In addition there is an idolatry being committed. There is a declaration that men, as clergy and elders, are especially necessary to interpret the truth about God. When we and particularly women are in the shadow of the valleys of our ignorance, we are supposed to accept that men and only men can provide the mirror to bring the light of the infinite to us.

That’s not a pedestal Jesus put men on. It’s something men keep replacing for themselves but it’s a pedestal Jesus kicked over in his teachings:
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, "Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” – Luke 20:45-47

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”
- Mathew 23: 8-15

In case there was any uncertainty;
  • (Luke 1:39-55) Mary and her sister Elizabeth are the first two human voices to herald Jesus and the new covenant with Israel. They lead our response to the incarnation.
  • (Matt 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30) A woman is the only person who beats Jesus in an argument. He listens to her and she changes his mind with her words. No man ever obtains this result despite several attempts by scholarly men to debate Jesus.
  • (Matt 26: 6-13)  It is a woman who first acknowledges when Jesus is due to die and accepts this. Although the male disciples criticized her, remembering her public worship is to be a mark of the gospel for all time.
  • (Math 28: 5-7) Jesus’ resurrection is first revealed to two women. They lead our response to the promise of new life.
It is clear that, for Christianity at least, male only leadership is not the mirror that shines the light of God into dark places. Male only leadership is the mirror we have inserted between God and ourselves to see what we wish to see.

People opposed to women’s leadership in the church are sinning. Some are allowing the seductions of tradition, privilege, a desire for self-importance or fear of their own importance to affect their discernment of God’s gifts, and thus also their discernment of God. More of them are just fitting in to their churches and not rocking the boat. They are participating in blasphemy and idolatry so as not to cause a fuss. That’s normal human behaviour but hey, sin is still sin. It is normal to sin, even in church, maybe especially in church.

There is a feeling that we can’t be sinning when we are making religious rules for all to follow. There is a feeling that sin has to be loutish and born of laxity, rather than of strictness and self-discipline. This feeling says that imposing strictures and erring on the side of “no” to possibility, is only ever a defence against sin. If we make laws that are more than necessary then sin is merely better prevented than it needed to be, says this feeling.

This feeling is deeply incorrect. Some people’s demons are booze and porn but others people’s demons are the book of Deuteronomy and a pulpit. The false belief that severity and austerity equal greater moral safety is the deceit of those demons. It is perfectly possible to sin whilst paying close attention in church with scriptures and highlighter in hand. Jesus saw this when he appealed to the Pharisees to change their ways. You can hold tight to the words of scripture and find ways to sin grievously via those words.

Let us look closely at the parts of the bible that those opposed to women’s ordination cling tightly to. There are no words from Jesus. There are only two direct proof texts from the letters of Paul.
 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
- 1 Timothy 2:11-15 New International Version (NIV)

Paul of Tarsus, how dare you teach that women hold a special responsibility for the fallen nature of the world and carry any greater burden for their redemption than men? How dare you on this matter contradict what you have elsewhere preached, that the grace and grace alone of Christ (Romans 3 :21-31), not childbearing, not gender roles, not acting with propriety is what women will be saved through?

I don’t know what purpose these lies achieved for you. We can’t know. We only know that today these lies serve both idolatry and blasphemy in the church. We thank God that we are required to treat you as human, not a god, in your authority as a preacher. This is bad theology on many levels and it’s childish. Men must stop blaming Eve.

Let’s remember it was a male disciple who betrayed Christ, a male disciple who denied him, and men in authority who crucified him. Do we really want to tally up historical wrongs against God by gender here?

Then there is this passage:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.  
-1 Corinthians 14:34-35 New International Version (NIV)

Paul, what could you have meant here by “disgraceful”? I can only feel sad for you that at this time it seems, you couldn’t hear a women publicly ask about God and delight in her desire to know. I wonder, what did women challenge for you? Did women take God too far for you?

You have forgotten or perhaps you never knew what Jesus had to say to Mary and Martha. ("Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38- 42) But how have you forgotten something so central to your own gospel; It is better to be disgraced for God than concerned about the law? (Galatians 2:15) I hope God forgives you, Paul, and anyone else who makes your sin their own.

Let us pray for the forgiveness of those who argue for male only leadership in the church. Let us pray that God takes from them their appetite for sin, that we humbly recognize takes different forms in us all.

Dear God, help all to see the image of God in our daughters and nothing more than the image of God in our sons.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Messiah still-born.

If God became one of us in Jesus, does this mean that Jesus faced the risk of death in the womb? Could God in man have been still born?

1. That never would have happened because God (ie. The Father) would have especially protected Jesus.

In this picture of the world most everything unfolds according to basic laws of nature. Still births happen because of chromosomal disorders or insufficient oxygen to the baby. However God is not bound by these laws and can make exceptions to them in “special cases”. Jesus is one such “special case”.

The problem with this picture is that it causes us to doubt the extent of the incarnation of God. If our humanity is subject to laws, even chance, but somehow Gods participation in humanity is in some unique way guarded and preserved then maybe Jesus was never one of us “fully”.

Jesus may still have experienced humanity in terms of a lack of foreknowledge, pain and loss, even friendship and betrayal… but if Jesus alone was being preserved for their destiny, guaranteed of both death and resurrection, can they really know the uncertainty of our humanity as we do? If they were never at risk of death in the womb was their incarnation total?

2. The still birth of Jesus never would have happened because everything, even still births, occurs according to the will of God.

In this picture of the world there is nothing inhuman about Jesus having his destiny determined (and still birth prevented) because that is the rule of all our lives. Jesus experienced full humanity in having his life determined by the will of God – there is no contradiction between the two.

The problem with this picture, where miracles are not exceptional and everything unfolds according to Gods plan is that it makes a mockery of our search for the whys and hows of still birth. Why do we bother to investigate the illusion of causality in a world in which everything is pre-destined?

Nobody lives like that. Nobody I know would ride a donkey late in their pregnancy confident their child will survive if God wills it and only die if God wills that too. We humans would worry. Did Mary worry?

3. It was possible for Jesus to have been still born.

Reflect on that for a moment.

My first thought (which occurred while writing the nativity play you can read here) is of Mary’s reality should that have happened. Imagine the messiah she promised to bear, dead in her arms. How could she have “processed”, to use our horrible inadequate modern term, that reality?

Like the crucifixion, blame could be laid at the Romans feet. That census, that donkey journey, across a desert with bitterly cold nights, was hardly safe for the child. But would Jesus death still have redeemed the people of Israel by dying for their sins if it had happened in utero? Perhaps; the messiah has still shared in the oppression of God’s people. He has taken on their (and our) plight.

If this was the central point of Jesus life does this need to have happened when he was thirty three? Could it have happened before he breathes air?

A separate question is whether anyone would have joined this new religion without the miracles and teachings of Jesus and without the male disciples? If Mary had been its sole voice, a grief stricken woman in a patriarchal world, would she have just been declared mad? Would even the patient Joseph had stayed with her if Mary’s life had become preaching that her dead child was the Messiah?

If the incarnation of God shares with humanity in a reality that is not predestined then I also wonder something else. Could the Jesus that died at age 33 be one of many possibilities? Can we imagine a Christ that was killed by Herod after being refused entry into Egypt or even a Christ with schizophrenia? Can we imagine a Christ with a congenital defect, a ticking time bomb in his chest or skull?

None of this is meant to argue anything. I’m not trying to “prove” something about Christianity or destiny. I just think that a part of my human reality is to feel lucky to be alive, and very lucky my child is alive and healthy (knock on all the wood in the world). The parents I know are starkly aware that our pregnancies are fraught with risk, as we have our children later in life than our parents. That too has been especially on my mind of late.

As I entered into the nativity story I felt a part of it that I’d never pondered before was the tale of a pregnancy that it tells. I had to wonder was it a pregnancy like our own child’s? I wonder if Mary felt what I felt when our child was born; sweet relief.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Nativity Play

This year for our Christmas party I put on a nativity play. I’ve published the script below. I aim to film a performance at my family’s Christmas lunch too. If that works out I’ll figure out how to link to it here. (It did.) Initially I had grandiose dreams of my friends as actors in elaborate costumes. It ended up being very simple puppets performed by myself and my partner. 

The process of writing a nativity play is a challenge because the birth of Jesus is mentioned in two of the four gospels and is completely different story in each of those two. That’s not to say they directly contradict each other. It’s more to say that if they didn’t use names like Jesus and Mary then you might think they were about completely different people. What we commonly think of as the nativity story is a mish mash of those two gospel stories into one single narrative. Certain elements get dropped while others are considered essential.

In writing this nativity play I had to think about what I considered relevant to my understanding of the story. Some content, like the words of Rabbi Hillel, isn’t from the Christian gospels. I felt I needed to show a context for the theological change that is Christianity. I think I can justify all my decisions. For one thing I think this type of writing- selective story telling to make a point - is essentially what the Christian gospels themselves are. That was first century history. Fortunately the play was well received and I wasn’t required to defend anything.

I have kept in mind that the story of the nativity is basically the story of the incarnation beginning; God is born, lives and dies as a human. That’s a story of the organizing principle of the universe, the cosmic pin that the whole shebang of past and future hangs off, becoming a particular person in a particular family in a particular moment of time.

What motivated me to write a nativity was not that this is a story seldom told. This aspect of Christmas is not overlooked or forgotten so much as some commentators want us to believe. It’s everywhere. However this is a story we can easily hear without impact. Regardless of what we believe about its factuality it could be something we recognize as an amazing tale. Instead it’s sort of kitsch. It could have revolutionary implications. Instead it does nothing to overturn anything about the super capitalism that surrounds it.

I think that’s because this is a story that gets heard in one of two ways; Firstly we can hear the incarnation as saying that our lives, no matter their poverty and brevity, mean something and that the oppressed and their pain are of deep interest to eternity. Alternatively we can hear the nativity as saying that God is someone quite small, owned by Middle Eastern politics, buried in one time, and understood only by one religion’s theology. It’s a question of whether our understanding of God shrinks to fit the incarnation or whether our understanding of humanity expands to fit God.

If the nativity reveals merely that a parochial and historical god is the best our small, tribal minds could imagine, then it’s a quaint tale but it’s not worth thinking much of. I tried to communicate the other nativity – the nativity that speaks of what really matters in the entire universe even now lying helpless in a manger.

Archeologist from the modern era
Martha and Sarah, two middle eastern women from the 1st century
Roman Soldiers
Joseph’s Sister
Baby Jesus

Scene 1: Archaeologist alone.

Archaeologist : The first century was a very exciting time in history for the region we now call the Middle East. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were right alongside each other. Trade routes stretched from South East Asia, to China, through India, Africa, up to Germany and across to Britain.
The common language was that of integrated philosophy; ethics spoke to physics, politics spoke to theology.  People bothered to learn the teachers of traditions other than their own. It was an expectation of even the middle classes. That brought change, particularly upon the culture of those who called themselves Israel – Gods chosen people.

Scene 2: Two Middle Eastern Women sit on stone wall – they are dressed as they might be in the First century.

Martha : Do you remember when Shabetteh and Zedek met?

(Two Stars are raised above the play and placed next to each other – they stay that way all play)

Sarah : I remember it was the time when Jupiter, God most loved by Romans, combined with Saturn, their God of Royalty to signal Rome’s right to rule us.

(The woman pause and then laugh to each other).

M : Oh anything else is treason, is it not? But what I have been told…

S : Martha, hush.

M : No, no, Sarah this you must hear. Shabbetteh is the sign of Royalty, no doubt, but Zedek is the star of Israel. When these two stars kissed in the night sky, this was the time for a new king of Israel.

S : Martha, I know that story. For that story Rachel’s son amongst others was killed in infancy lest he become that King and unseat Herod. There are many people from around Bethlehem here. Be careful who you tell that story to. Old wounds…

M : But there is more to the tale…. (Martha and Sarah vanish)

Scene 3: Roman Soldiers stand in front of a prone and injured Mary.

Roman Soldiers : (wicked laughter) She’ll live.

(Roman soldiers move aside to reveal prone Mary and leave scene)

Mary: (Groans)

(Angel appears)

Angel: Greetings most favoured one! The Lord is with you.

Mary : Who are you?

Angel : Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you, you shall conceive and bear a son. And you shall give him the name Jesus. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever; his reign shall never end.

Mary : How can this be?

Angel : The Holy Spirit shall come upon you and overshadow you. For that reason the holy child to be born will be called “Son of God”.

Mary : Tell out, my soul, the Greatness of the Lord, rejoice, rejoice, my spirit in God the saviour
So tenderly has he looked upon his servant, humble as she is
For from this day forth,
All generations will count me blessed,
So wonderfully has he dealt with me,
The Lord, the Mighty One,

His name is Holy;
His mercy sure from generation to generation
Toward those who fear him;

He has ranged himself at the side of Israel his servant;
Firm in his promise to our forefathers,
He has not forgotten to show mercy to Abraham
And his childrens, children forever

Scene 4: Joseph is pulling a reluctant Donkey over to Mary who is pregnant. Meanwhile elder Jewish men listen to Rabbi Hilel.

Jewish Man : Rabbi Hillel, How is it that Rome conquers us and humiliates us, Gods chosen people?

Hillel: Because you drowned others they drowned you; and those that drowned you will eventually be drowned. But judge not until you stand in the other’s place.

Hillel : You there (addressing an audience member), Are you paid for your work?"

Audience member :… Yes I am.

Hillel : For what do you want the money?"

Audience member: For various reasons, To pay for the necessities of life.

Hillel : Would you not rather come and make the Torah -by which we mean the Law of God - your possession, that you may possess both this and the future world?"

Audience member: Can you summarise the Torah for me?

Hillel : That which you yourself do not want, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole law and the rest is merely commentary. 

 (Joseph reaches Mary finally)

Joseph : Mary, I cannot believe we are doing this.

Mary : Joseph, It is a census, we have no choice. We must return to Bethlehem because you are of the house of David.

Joseph : If the Donkey wills it…

Mary : If God wills it.

Scene freezes and Archaeologist appears next to Rabbi Hillel.

Archaeologist : The Rabbi Hillel teachings overlap with the life of Jesus. Born in poverty, Rabbi Hillel became the forerunner of modern Judaism. Hillels’ followers shared with the early Christians the belief that love of others was integral to understanding how to apply Jewish law.

(Archaeologist moves over to Joseph)

Archaeologist : The Census of Quirinius is recorded by Josephus, a first century historian. It was the first ever enrollment of the people of Judea, people like Mary and Joseph, for Roman taxation purposes. It was bitterly resented by the Jewish people. The Census of Quirinius is clearly dated after Herod’s death, while Lukes’ Gospel places it within Herod’s reign. Perhaps Luke sought a reason for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, so that he could fulfill the prophecy of Micah from around 700 BC:

(All vanish except the archaeologist and then the angel appears)

Angel : "But you, Bethlehem, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth the One to be a Shepherd Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting."

Scene 5: Joseph and Mary, Josephs sister and Donkey are in a stable. The bright light of the twin stars above shine in. Joseph speaks to his sister in the doorway.

Sister : Joseph, I’m so sorry that this is all that we can offer you.

Joseph :Sister, we will be fine.

Sister : It’s just your father – he doesn’t approve of the union… another mans…

Joseph : I will call you when it is time.

Mary : It is time…

Joseph : What?

Sister : Go, get out of here, tell my eldest to bring a cloth for the baby and hot water, and pray for your wife…

(Sister hurries over to Mary and Joseph exits)

Scene 6: Two old Jewish women from previous scene.

Martha : To have a child is a blessing. To bear a child…

Sarah : Esther lost two and then died in childbirth

M: Norah died with hers along with the child.

S : I lost one and I was so sick with fever after another I almost died

M : Elizabeth lost three so her husband divorced her.

S: Ruth lost one.

M: Dinah lost two.

S: The other Elizabeth died but the child survived.

M: I lost two.

(Mary screams.)

Scene 7: Two shepherds are moving sheep around.

Shepherd  : We are the workers of the world, not the wise men….

Archeologist (appears): The first century was a time of amazing cultural exchange amongst a scholarly elite… (then disappears)

Shepherd : …Shadup. We can’t even afford the ceremonies required of our own religion. We are too poor to reconcile to God. We keep our head down amongst foreign cultures. We barely look up in our own.

If there is any God behind it all, any single authority, law or will that controls our destinies, it has absented itself from our affairs. Honestly it is preferable to me that only dumb laws determine our fates. Otherwise my suffering means nothing to our creator.

Angel  :Be quiet. I have a message for you. The wise will have to find their own way but you are being summoned. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born; he is Christ the Lord who you have cried out to. Go and you will find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Scene 8:  Mary in last scene (holding baby Jesus).

Mary: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

This is my child who has come to set fire to the earth. For those who are now last will be first and those who are first will be last.
Glory to God in the highest, and peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sometimes we are dumb.

Mayan culture is alive and well. Over a million people speak Mayan languages, follow its religion and attend to traditional ceremonies. It is not only an ancient culture or an extinct culture. That’s a misconception which goes unchallenged by my last blog. It should have been challenged front and centre.

When, in my last blog, I say “there is no reality picture underlying the Mayan prophecy of the end times” I am not wrong. There really is no model of reality (theology or physics) beneath references to a Mayan end time. Mayans don’t (as far as I can tell) belief in an end time at all. That is a complete fabrication by non-Mayans. It’s a joke; either a joke that betrays western ignorance of other cultures (and obsession with the end times) or it’s a joke about western ignorance of other cultures. Unfortunately I think it’s the former more than the latter.

I should have pointed out that there is a Mayan reality picture. It has been spectacularly disregarded in discussions about a “Mayan end of the world prophecy” sometimes just called the “Mayan prophecy”. That’s something I’m making a new years resolution to correct in the new year. I’m going to write a post on Mayan beliefs after giving them a decent research and consideration.

I ask other bloggers, who wrote about the Mayan end times without referencing what Mayans actually believe, to make the same commitment.

Why does this matter? Why is this the right thing to do? The answer is in how atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and so on feel when people blithely misinterpret their own beliefs for a laugh. That’s especially both dumb and boring when the laugh has that smug tone of superiority.

I've had the great pleasure of seeing a small Australian production called Outland. It was a tv series about a gay and lesbian science fiction fan club. In the first episode there were repeated jokes by a non-member of the group that “the Daleks are defeated by stairs.”

Eventually the group snapped and explained in perfect nerdy fashion that the Daleks (from Dr. Who) had answers to stairs all throughout the shows history. This obscure example is just to show that even outside religion we can know how condescension works and how it rarely bothers to know much about what its’ condescending to. Geeks and freaks of all kinds - cosplayers to metalheads, gamers to Goths - know what I’m talking about. Others scoff at what they're into without bothering to learn much of it. It’s exactly that superficial dismissal of philosophies other than our own that I have always wanted this blog to be different from.

(I find Wikipedia to be an excellent starting point to my own research. They have a great entry on Mayan civilization. Once you’ve read it why not make a small donation to Wikipedia too. It’s a non-profit public resource, that beats relying on parochial blogs like mine or you tube for our information.)

I’m suffering from “end-times” fatigue. I am grateful that it seems to have driven inane conversation in a different direction to the usual “war on Christmas” tripe in the week before that day. At least I thought so until I read this article. My prophecy is that after today when the Mayan Calendar ends we can expect a rush of discussion on the “War on Christmas” as our media-soaked brains flit like butterflies onto the next colourful and shallow understanding of the world around us.

Do I sound a little despondent? I am.

An increasingly popular driver of theological and faith based discussion is a site called . The way that site divides people into “channels” promotes a defensiveness and hostility between perspectives (Progressive, Evangelical, Atheist, etc.). It's just boring. It promotes a way of thinking that turns any discussion into the gathering and throwing of ammunition at “the other side”. That’s another approach to discussion this blog is intended to oppose.

Fortunately when I turn off the internet things don’t look so grimly oppositional at all. An atheist friend of mine recently invited her friends to an ageing churches carols in the hope of spreading and reveling in some Christmas cheer. Christian friends of mine having heard that I had encountered some homophobia from Christians personally expressed their hope it wasn’t from their church which I’d attended (which it wasn’t and I had a great time there). This holiday season people of all faiths and none are going to try and have a good time at least and in our best will be helping others less fortunate. There is a common front emerging against the commercialism of the season from a broad spectrum of people.

I’ve also just discovered an amazing artist whose politics is astounding. He is known as Immortal Technique.  Check him out if you want to see how a man can point his anger intelligently at the right targets and use his anger peacefully.

Maybe our cultures anticipation of the world ending for one reason after another is really an expression of our despair at the level of crap we see around us. That crap seems to be coating our internet (with the exception of Wikipedia). Off the web the world looks a lot healthier. It has horrible problems, but it has people involved in solutions as well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The end of the world.

The end of the world is nigh! This is not just a claim made by the ancient Mayans for the coming 21/12/2012 (or rather by modern hacks interpreting the ancient Mayans). It’s a claim made by people using the language of a host of religions. It’s also a claim made in scientific language, such as predictions of cataclysmic climate change effects, or an evolution of computer sentience or apes. In the social sciences, dystopian ends of history are proposed as the consequence of the trivialising effect of social media, the death of the book, the rise of individualism or its demise and so on.

Some of these ‘end of the world’ scenarios I dismiss without consideration. Others I consider possible. Others I believe are inevitable on our given path. However, do I have any basis for believing in one over the other? How can we believe or not believe in such predictions, or for that matter, any predictions?

This is not a small question because we make predictions all the time. On the simplest level we might notice that this follows that over and over again. The next time ‘this’ happens then we expect ‘that’ to follow. The often-labeled father of modern science, David Hume, recognized that this process of prediction from observation, called induction, underpins a way of learning that he called empiricism – essentially the study of our sense-data (sights, sounds etc).

Empiricism has produced a much more rigorous science than what preceded it. The scientific experimental method relies on it. However as an epistemology (a theory of how we can know things) it raises many problems. The problem with induction, which Hume recognized, is that while observation can reveal a pattern in how events occur, only assumption can lead to a belief in that pattern’s continuation. Put simply, we can observe a hundred times that day follows night, but we still haven’t observed that the sun will rise again the next morning (until it does).

In order to make predictions we need to do something beyond strict empiricism. We need to make statements about more than our observations. We need to describe the underlying reality that produces those observations.

This corresponds to a deep emotional need to really know ourselves and the world around us, especially other people. Remaining at the place of simply recording our sense data without assuming what produces it is unsettling and alienating. We have a human need to go beyond just describing what we observe to try to connect those observations into a story of reality.

This emotional appeal of describing reality may come from its practical purpose. Our descriptions of reality have a timeless aspect, not bound to any few examples. It is one thing to merely know that night has been about seven hours long for as long as you can remember with seasonal differences. It is another thing entirely to know this is because the earth spins around the sun. Such reality models can be subject to new and experimental conditions in just our mind – thought-experiments of a “what if” nature. That enables us to be predictive of new situations. We can intelligently guess what a day on another planet might be like.

This is the kind of modeling that underpins climate science. Modern humanity has never directly observed a rapidly heating earth before but the reality model we have developed of our planet’s climate systems allows us to try to predict what will happen.

We can also borrow and trade information between models of reality. What we know about how the earth moves around the sun can be employed to orbit a space station around the earth. We can even use this information to find planets in the night sky. None of this is achievable if we simply look at our observations of the length of night as just observations of the length of night and nothing else. It can only occur if we believe in a singular reality producing our observations.

Underlying pictures of reality also enable us to imagine end of the world scenarios that we haven’t directly observed. The most obvious one of these is our own death. This is a personal end-of-the-world scenario which we all can predict based on what we believe to be the underlying reality of our body, a reality that is shared with all the people who have died before us.

To the extent that I find an end of the world scenario plausible then is the extent to which it comes from a picture of reality that seems to work. What we understand about greenhouse gases role in retaining heat is evident in small versions of atmospheres. There seems to be a very robust story of reality underpinning the global warming predictions. Less certain are such impacts of global warming as where rain might fall or how tropical diseases might spread on a warmer planet, but even there we have some current images of the singular reality that will underpin these changes.

There are some end of the world scenarios that we remain blind to. These are the ones which are such a fundamental break with what we perceive as reality that we can’t predict their possibility. This includes ends like the accidental creation of a time paradox in the Large Hadron Collider for example. In such situations these are entirely new causes of our demise which would have gone on to affect our picture of reality if we hadn’t all ceased to exist because of them.

The same is true for miraculous and unique events like the awakening or return of an angry God that we can’t currently perceive. If Jesus returns and wallops us all then I will be flabbergasted to say the least, but no more so than an evangelical Christian would feel if Zeus did so.  If the race of aliens that created us returns to cleanse the planet and start again only a few Marvel comic book fans will be unsurprised.

When it comes to the Mayan calendar ending, and those who claim this means the world will end as well, there isn’t any kind of reality picture underlying it at all. There isn’t even a theology or metaphysics which I disagree with that explains why or how this would happen. Those who enjoy spreading the story do so generally out of fun. I can’t imagine how it could be taken seriously and I don’t think even saying I dismiss it captures my own lack of consideration of it. 

I’ve even planned a Christmas party for the 22nd.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Nothing Matters

My four year child recently took to saying “Nothing matters” in response to pretty much whatever she didn’t want to hear. If you refused her a sweet, or more screen time for example, you would hear “Nothing matters” in a child’s imitation of a long suffering soul.

We have no idea where she picked it up from. It’s possible that she originally meant to say “Doesn’t matter” but remembered it wrong. Regardless of the genesis, the kid noticed that neither I nor her mum liked the phrase. That guaranteed its common use.

Before I react negatively to a phrase like “nothing matters” I like to investigate what it means. Sometimes I find that someone has just said something I do agree with but in a way I wouldn’t put it. Certainly our kid was no help in explaining her exact point.

At first glance it seems like “nothing matters” is meaningless. It’s the “nothing” that suggests that. To understand what I mean by that consider the opposite phrase; “everything matters”. That’s clearly meaningless; if everything matters then what does mattering mean? Without any standard of not-mattering to compare mattering to, then mattering means nothing distinguishing. It’s like saying “everything is”. There’s nothing to agree or disagree with there at all.

“Nothing matters” is similar. If nothing at all matters then there just isn’t any use to not-mattering as a distinguishing term. After all it applies to everything. However “nothing matters” doesn’t quite fall into the same vacuum of comparison that “everything matters” does. This is because even when nothing (that exists) matters there can be a non-existent ideal that defines mattering for us. This ideal of importance (mattering), although non-existent, can be the basis for comparing everything to. Then if everything doesn’t measure up to this ideal, “nothing matters” in a way that makes sense.

E.g. We could say that for something to matter it must endure – that is have permanence. From this definition we could argue that because nothing lasts for ever then nothing matters.  All our loves and hates, efforts and achievements don’t matter because in a million years they are ground into dust.

The problem with having an ideal description of mattering (like permanence) is that it begs the question of why. Why do only those things which have permanence matter? This is especially true if we are inclined to conclude that nothing has permanence and therefore nothing matters.  If we are going to set the bar for mattering in such a way that everything falls short we are beholden to have an especially good reason to do so. That is because we are claiming either a flaw in language (for having a concept like matters) or in the universe (for lacking anything that fits the concept). If our definition is merely arbitrary then we might as well pick one that doesn’t make such large claims necessary.

Ultimately though any objective definition of  what matters can’t justify itself. That’s true if it exists or is a non-existent ideal. For example we could say that what matters is what affects other people, which begs the question “Why is it only what affects other people that matters?” There's no way for what matters to just abruptly begin, except by suppressing a perfectly legitimate question "Why?".

This throws us back to our own subjectivity. If “matters” has any meaning then perhaps it is in only in terms of what matters to us. By this definition “nothing matters” is really an expression of personal indifference rather than a description of reality. That’s why it comes out as either nonsense or arbitrary when we think of it as a description of reality.

When a person genuinely does feels nothing matters (unlike when a four year old says it in disgust at parental limits) they may also be in a great place of producing art without the voice of critics in their head. They may be appreciating pleasantly what Romantic philosophy called the sublime – the sense that the world is infinitely larger than our own crap.  However more often they are not in a safe or happy place. They are making a cry of ennui – of boredom with and apathy towards the world. This places them at risk of suicide or even risk taking behaviour. It’s the sort of place I might imagine someone who lived for their kids ending up if they lost their child.

If we wanted to understand a person biochemically when they are in a bad place of “nothing matters” we would say they have low dopamine levels. Dopamine is the reward chemical in the brain that plays a key role in reinforcing behaviour. It’s clearly seen in addictions where the reinforcement overwhelms us. One interesting fact is that we are hardwired to avoid low dopamine levels with far greater intensity than we are to pursue high levels. That’s where the risk taking behaviour comes in – as desperate attempts to push our dopamine up.

Philosophically what is tricky is that there is no logical way forward from this position. “Nothing matters” is subjectively true for someone with low dopamine. If subjective truth is the only truth around no-one else can challenge their position as valid as any other. Even more seriously they themselves can’t challenge their own apathy when their initial reality is one in which nothing matters. The image this conjures up for me is one of a person floating in space. With no external reality to push against they have no way to move forward. That’s how I imagine myself isolated in my subjectivity, particularly one in which nothing matters. 

That is my explanation for why we have highly developed religions and philosophies which describe mattering as much more than a subjective concern. It is essentially a cognitive trick to give our floating astronaut something beyond themselves to push against. It remains deeply useful, if logically difficult, to do so. However externalized sources of meaning are more preventative than curative. Investing in anything like that from the position of nothing matters is very difficult. We don’t care to.

There are two realizations that can move us beyond a position of nothing matters. Firstly, as I tried to explain in a previous post (Questions of Intrinsic Worth), our subjectivity is not free of reality. No matter what some self-help gurus promise subjectivity does not allow us to freely rearrange the world. We cannot, as young romantics, say that looking at sunsets matters but that eating healthily doesn’t. Eat too much sugar and you’ll lose your eyesight to diabetes and won’t be able to look at sunsets. Similarly I can’t say that my child matters but that my own life doesn’t. My life matters to my child. Subjectivity is therefore not isolation. It is instead engagement with the world from our unique position within it. Think otherwise and “bam”, reality will correct you.

For someone feeling trapped in a sense of “nothing matters” this realization should encourage them to engage with the world, their own body and other people’s in order to properly awaken their subjectivity's wisdom. “Mattering” can be understood as a phenomenon that arises out of a subjectivity which relies on engagement to be sensible. It follows therefore that we shouldn’t expect “mattering” to precede engagement, as strange as that might sound. Fake it if you have to but get out into the world is good advice for any depressed person. It's a legitimate way forward, once we properly understand subjectivity.

The second realization is of the inherent contradiction involved with caring that “nothing matters”. Why does the idea that “nothing matters” matter? Once we realize that “nothing matters” doesn’t mean that the world actually is uninteresting in some metaphysical way but is only so according to a personal perspective this can liberate us to create some interest ourselves. This is particularly true for people who are devastated because they newly feel that nothing in life has the special quality they believed imbued things with “mattering”.

E.g. Someone might have believed that what made the world matter was its relationship with God, until they lost their faith. This could produce a feeling of devastation – that “nothing matters” now. However that feeling of devastation is unnecessary. In fact that feeling of devastation makes no sense as it depends on a whole theology the person no longer holds.

This idea that we can act with purpose in an essentially purposeless universe (not only God-less but without a linear human history) was expressed by philosophers like Albert Camus (and Bill Murray below). Camus' particular brand of existentialism, sometimes called absurdism, did not hold that life had no meaning. Instead it holds that we should look for our meaning in the personal and immediate rather than in the absolute and infinite. The moment we step out our doorway we are surrounded by a world which we impact. Just those impacts give us reason to care themselves, even in if they are not attached to some grand human story, perhaps even especially so. 

I haven’t shared all of this post with my four year old (seriously). However we did sit down and have a lengthy discussion about what nothing matters might mean. With my prompts she made up a list of what matters and what doesn’t matter. It made me realize that the “Doesn’t Matters” column is important to her. Her socialization has involved figuring out what ought to go there almost as much as what is supposed to matter. It made her realize that she doesn’t mean that nothing matters at all. She hasn’t said it since.

I’m really glad I listened to my kid on this topic. I haven’t really sat down and asked her what she think matters before in such a specific way. I recommend it to any parent. Here’s hoping you and those around you aren’t in a bad place of nothing matters. In Australia Lifeline is one number you can call if you are.(13 11 14)

What matters
1.      Don’t hurt anyone
2.      Listen to your school teacher at school
3.      At Uni you always have your listening ears on
4.      You have to put your seat belt on in the car
5.      You have to always have fun when you’re playing with other kids
6.      If you’re talking at school talk in whisper voice
7.      Love is very, very, very, very, very, very, very important
8.      Always have dinner.
9.      Always listen to your parents.
10.  Your dogs’ name
11.  Picking too many fruits off trees
12.  Leaving people alone if they’re sick
13.   Make sure that people aren’t talking so loud and making your ears and head have an earache.

What doesn’t matter.
1.      What I wear
2.      Your kids name
3.      What is actually for dinner
4.      How high you can jump

Friday, November 23, 2012

Should the Catholic Church be singled out over child sexual abuse?

Archbishop Pell, Australia’s Cardinal, objects to an “exaggeration” of the Catholic Church’s responsibility for the abuse of children. Pell’s comments suggest that he wants the abuse of children to be seen as a wider cultural problem which the Catholic Church was caught up with, just like other institutions. In Pell’s repeated opinion the Catholic Church has been unfairly smeared by the media due to an anti-catholic bias, as having a far greater problem with the abuse of children than the rest of society.

However Patrick Parkinson, who reviewed the Australian Catholic churches own processes for dealing with child sexual abuse and who is considered by Pell himself to be an expert in this field in Australia, disagrees. He stated to Radio National  that there are “roughly six times the number of clergy or religious offenders (in the Catholic church) as in the rest of the churches combined” and in his view “the Catholic church has a huge problem with child sexual abuse, a problem that is disproportionately higher by many fold than any other institutional organization working with children.”

Other sources confirm the Catholic Church’s disproportionate responsibility for child sexual abuse. “Victoria police numbers suggest it is 10 times the level of abuse among the Anglicans and Salvation Army” according to Adam West of the Sydney Morning Herald.

It might be possible that this is an extraordinary and unfortunate matter of chance. Child abusers congregate. They form networks. Therefore one should expect incidences of child sexual assault to cluster – in one service more than another, in one town more than another, and in one institution more than another. It may be that the Catholic Church was unlucky enough to be chosen by those seeking to abuse children almost randomly amongst places where they could access kids. Then they recruited others like them and the abuse became epidemic in some quarters.

It is also possible that the Catholic Church was chosen specifically. Maybe the esteem given to clergy, maybe the celibacy requirement, maybe the male-only leadership, gave people with a desire to sexually abuse children a better cultural cover. Maybe there is even something in the Catholic Church’s concept of its own authority and its disdain of questioning (even by its own members) that sponsors, or worse produces, child abusers. Maybe it is something as simple as the greater involvement of Catholic clergy in education and direct contact with children producing greater opportunity. If we are serious about preventing child abuse then we have to ask these kinds of questions.

Obviously if there is a problem with the Catholic Church that promotes or covers sexual abuse it is not exclusive to them. Abuse has and does occur in non-Catholic institutions. It’s like how there are a few women who abuse children so we can’t say this is a problem exclusive to men. However the problem is so overwhelmingly male that to not talk about the gender dimension is grossly foolish, if we are honestly trying to understand it. You understand problems partly by looking at the patterns of their incidence.

The same attitude should apply to looking at the Catholic Church specifically in this matter. If there is, as it appears, disproportionate abuses of the kids in Catholic care, that requires us to focus attention there.

That focused attention should be done critically though. We don’t have really hard statistics on how many people in the general population sexually abuse children. We are relying on anecdotal and police reports coupled with a few limited studies. Although there are (under-reported) figures of how many victims there are, the number of general abusers per capita is much harder to find. Therefore when Professor Cahill of RMIT says that one in twenty Catholic priests will commit sexual offenses against children  we don’t really know if this is higher or lower than the general male population.

What we can reasonably guess is that familial sexual abuse is likely to be even more under-reported and even tragically disbelieved due to:
a) conflicting loyalties amongst family members (particularly a factor in sibling abuse);
b) lesser media interest because the risk of abuse it represents is less “public”;
c) lesser media and police interest because each abuser involves a fewer number of victims (though just as many occasions of abuse).

Taking this into account encourages caution before concluding that something like celibacy in the Catholic Church leads to or even just correlates with higher rates of abuse.  Even if men without families have exactly the same rates of committing sexual abuse as men with families, a tragic likelihood is that the latter group will evade detection easier. That could be a better explanation of higher reported rates of child abuse by Catholic unmarried clergy than anything else.

I want to understand the sexual abuse of children. I want to know what developmental, social, political and even biological factors might contribute to a person committing this crime. I’m serious about that because that knowledge just might help prevent some of these crimes. That is the goal to prioritise.

I also don’t like the Catholic Church hierarchy, its undemocratic structure and its patriarchal and conservative influence. Archbishop Pell on the other hand wants to defend those aspects of his Church and to preserve its influence on society. Both of us should forget those agendas when considering the problem of sexual abuse. We need to banish from our minds any interest in the Catholic Church’s reputation at all – whether to tarnish or redeem it.

If we are solely interested in understanding sexual abuse against children we should focus on the Catholic Church if the data points us there and not if it doesn’t. For the moment there seems to be reason to do so, but with strong reservations that we may be overlooking the wider problem of familial sexual abuse.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Let justice be done though the world perish.

There are many different ways to resolve ethical questions. Two ways in particular appear similar. We can identify them by their golden rule; 
  • “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or;
  • “Act only in accordance with what you would want to be a universal law.”
The similarities are there because the first is credited to Jesus and the second to Immanuel Kant, a Christian philosopher, whose main goal was to show a rational foundation to all things including Christianity. Although he was almost eighteen centuries after Jesus, Kant did not see his rule as borrowed from Christianity. Instead he saw Jesus’ golden rule as derived from his categorical imperative (as Kant called his rule). Before we scoff at this hubris, Kant was only saying that he was articulating a more fundamental principle in the background of all human rationality – not that Jesus copied him!  Kant also felt his categorical imperative gave clearer direction to more ethical problems than Jesus' golden rule.

It can be difficult to apply “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to problems like environmental damage. In most cases dropping a piece of rubbish on the ground or pumping out smog from car use has a very diffuse effect. We can ignore that it is somehow affecting any “others” because it only has a tiny effect on any specific other person. The concept of “others” is also confused because the effect on others is usually shared with the polluter themselves.

Kant’s rule does seem to be a better way of expressing the spirit of what Jesus was talking about for problems like environmental damage. Early Kantian’s concerns weren’t the same as the green movements of today. However Kantian ethics is likewise concerned with promoting social behaviour that can govern large groups of people living together without external authority. Kant wrote in the infancy of the modern nation state. His ethics describes the internal policeman that we expect national citizens to carry with them. This inner cop reminds us not to drop litter, or speed, or steal by asking us to imagine what our town/country/world would be like if everyone did the same.

Many professing Christians would agree with Kant that his rule is merely a clearer expression of Jesus’ former one. There is no culture war with Kantians on one side and Jesusians on the other. To have ethics grounded in Kant’s rule is so common now that it can be difficult for some people to imagine that it is not the only possible way to discuss ethics even if they are Christian.  However Kant has not merely clarified Jesus’ rule with his own. He marks a significant departure.

Firstly, the two rules are addressed to different audiences. Imagine a person who is about to be hung for theft and is trying to escape. Jesus’ rule makes more sense if we say it to the hangmen. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to apply it to the person trying to avoid punishment. If we ask the thief to do unto others as they would have done to them they could well reply “ok” and keep escaping. They thief could be happy not to have to hang anyone in the hangmans place.

On the other hand “do unto others…” has great implications for the hangman. They are being asked to sympathise with the thief and to put themselves in their place. That’s going to spell the end of the hanging, I would guess.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is power leveling. If a King and their subject required this of themselves they would end up like equals because if the King was mistaken for a commoner they would still want respect. If the wealthy and the poor required this of each other they would end up more like equals too. The implications of this commandment were far more costly for the men of Jesus’ time than the women. It asks more of judges than prisoners and conquering armies than the vanquished. This is Jesus primarily directing his moral discipline to those in power or rather to each of us in our positions of power whatever they may be, parent over child for example.

Kant’s categorical imperative works differently. Kant’s message is deliberately indifferent to the power or other circumstances of the audience. “Act only in accordance with that maxim which you would want to become a universal law” makes sense when spoken to our condemned thief and the hangman both. It is indifferent to their relative positions. Kant asks all equally, hangmen, thief and cook whether we think all thieves everywhere should escape. If the answer is no then the thief should stop escaping.

At first we might think that it also equalizes people. After all if a person should hang someone then this, universalized, would lead to hanging everyone, which no-one would want. The hangman, specifically, by not wanting the good of hanging people to be a universal law is thus restrained from hanging anyone. So the same result can be achieved by Kant’s rule as by Jesus’.  However it’s easy to have the maxim say all convicted thieves, not all people, should hang.  This rule allows the hangman to practice hanging with moral consistency under Kant’s law while they would have difficulty doing so under Jesus’ rule.

Although it is indifferent to power, Kant’s rule is often more costly to those without power. Refugees for example suffer when we apply Kant’s principle of universalism. We cannot cut one family a break because there are millions behind them who we would then have to give the same break to. In Australian migration debates we are regularly asked to imagine “what if every single person who wanted to come into Australia was let in?” That is a very Kantian question.

Refugees fare much better under Jesus’ rule where we are asked to do unto them as we would have them do unto us. I believe I would have them make room for me if our situations were changed and they were (as I am now) sitting on a quarter-acre block. Jesus rule doesn’t speak to me and the refugee equally. It speaks to us in our positions of power which I clearly hold over the refugee.

Kant’s rule seems to operate in a conservative fashion. It preserves the status quo more effectively than it delivers justice through change. It is more power maintaining than power leveling. Amongst modern and unwitting Kantians this is actually the defense of universalism that they put forward. Kant’s rule is seen as pragmatic, reasonable, workable and so on in comparison to what Jesus’ rule requires of us. Jesus is a radical while Kant makes common sense. Again that can be heard in refugee policy debates in Australia; not the specific mention of Immanuel Kant but the ideas.

However Kant was no conservative or pragmatic person. He saw himself as an opponent of pragmatism and once wrote “let justice be done though the world perish.” His ethics have very radical implications which we are seeing in their application today.

One of the most commonly cited examples of the logical and radical implications of Kant’s rule is the dilemma of the hangman and the thief on an island. Kant held that if it is right to hang the thief (in his example it was a murderer) in a city of millions then it is also right to hang them when there is no-one else around. If the hangman doesn’t hang their only companion on the island then they are also saying that all hangings of all thieves are wrong everywhere else too. Kant is radically indifferent to circumstances. That is in fact the pride of his ethics.

This thinking, (enforced by a global military alliance for profit), is what is creating many millions of economic refugees the world over by trapping countries inside spiraling debt. The argument is that people must repay debts because if we were to universalize defaulting on a debt then we would have no basis for borrowing in the first place. Hence under Kant’s rule no country can default regardless of the insanity of their economic situation. Even if a country’s debt was created by a previous dictator who used it to torture their people those very people must service that debt. Even if a country’s debt is only able to be serviced by unsustainable strip mining that must be what is done. Otherwise, under Kant’s rule, all debts, even all contracts of any kind would be meaningless. The circumstances of individual cases cannot be taken into account.

This is leading to an untenable world order. Whole nations of people are in debt prisons and if they attempt to flee then they are placed in life-long limbo in refugee camps. This is generating massive profits for a few. Kant however wouldn’t care. He never proposed that his rule would produce a better society. In fact his main opponents were utilitarians whose ethical philosophy evaluated actions by their benefits and harms. Kant appears to be reasonable and even pragmatic with an emphasis on conservativism but his ethics is in fact profoundly uninterested in any of that. His ethical system is a system of absolutes. And it’s killing many of us.

It probably seems odd to suggest that any solution to the world’s refugee crisis needs to challenge Immanuel Kant. That’s only the sort of irrelevant suggestion a philosopher could make. However I believe everything we do is ethical and that our ethical philosophy ultimately decides how this world works. (That’s another blog post I’m working on at the moment).  

Ask yourself, how differently would just your next day be under Kant’s golden rule or Jesus’? Ask yourself soon what difference each rule would make when applied to our world economy and our treatment of refugees? As melodramatic as it sounds it is true that many millions of people are extremely and endlessly suffering under Kant. What would we have them do unto us if we were in their position?