Monday, January 28, 2013

Solidarity (part one).

Activists at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit

A myth exists. It is the myth that we are first and foremost individuals with nothing fundamental in common with each other. It is sometimes expressed by the idea that we all enter and leave this world alone.

Firstly it should be obvious that the mechanics of birth are such that we enter this world sharing our blood, our oxygen and our waste with a woman, our mother. Aloneness at this point is a concept we cannot even fathom. Only when we are much older will we even feel any separation between ourselves and anything else in the world. We are born attached not alone.

There is an even deeper flaw in using the statement that we all enter this world and leave it alone to argue for individualism. Note that the statement claims we ALL do it. Whatever we are saying here about life and death we are saying it is universal. Kings, peasant girls, mad poets, pragmatic thieves, surgeons and carpet layers, across all cultures and all times share these experiences. Pick anyone, and like you they were born and will die. How is that a measure of aloneness?

We can see our birth and death as shared experiences which provide a basis for solidarity with every other person. Solidarity is the very opposite of individualism. Solidarity is what you get when you invest in being in the “same boat” as other people. There is no definition that makes more sense of this word to me than this metaphor. Four people in the same boat as each other bail out the water to keep it afloat. Four people in four different boats can sensibly watch the others sink and save themselves.

The practice of making solidarity is the practice of making one boat of our separate crafts. Conceptually we must understand each of our separate boats as belonging to the same archetype – each of our individual lives is “a life” like that of others. Practically we tie our boats to each other; we make our survival and success dependant on bringing others along.

Our shared experiences of birth and death don’t argue for a universal human solidarity conclusively. The sole boat for all humanity is not the only possible recognition of our “real interests”. There are also justifications for the separate boats that we could occupy such as our race, our class, and our gender. They too have strong shared experiences to justify them. We also have unique experiences which can justify our individuality. There are as many possible boats as we could imagine.

Ultimately universal human solidarity only makes sense as the deliberate investment in common interests by choice, not nature. A universal human solidarity therefore buys into the one boat theory of humanity even though other theories are also sound. Such solidarity chooses the one boat solution over other more individual and also viable solutions.

Or is that true? Are there in fact events like global warming that can blow any counter-arguments against our universal solidarity out of the water. Is universal human solidarity, at least situationally, the only sensible boat to believe in? I don't think so. I think it remains a choice to invest in a truly universal solidarity. Pragmatics only get us so far. I feel I can't deny that individual solutions exist. I might change my mind when the temperature rises further though.

For myself the choice to believe in a universal human solidarity has been strongly motivated for as long as I can remember. I have always wanted to live accordingly. The point for me of smaller solidarities (amongst my friends and family, or amongst those standing with me in the dole queue or my co-workers) is that they are sites to begin from. I might nod to the demands of the 99% in the occupy movement but I ultimately want to be a part of the 100%. Anything less seems to forgo a part of my own humanity. To give up on another person is to give up on that part of me.

I’m not saying my attitude is rational or that I’ve ever lived up to a standard of human solidarity or even known how to. I’m just saying that when I break solidarity with other people I feel it as a loss. That’s true if the break is due to structures and systems beyond my effect, if it’s due to me being selfish for no great reason or if it’s due to the other person abandoning solidarity first. Even when the break feels right its still a loss. It still feels wrong too.

I think my desire to possess a universal human solidarity is a great filter to view my political and spiritual questing through. I’m surprised I haven’t put it up front in that way before. I’m surprised I haven’t made that goal of my searching explicit. In my next post I want to do a bit of a tour of the theologies and philosophies I’ve looked at to do that, with limited success.

I also want to flesh out how I see a universal human solidarity bearing practically on diverse ethical questions. It’s struck me recently that when I argue about decisions grounded in all sorts of values, the value of solidarity rarely gets named. I’d like to pay it some direct attention.

(Image from

Friday, January 18, 2013

How to be friends with Jesus.

Christians want to know their God. More than any faith perhaps, the longing for intimacy with their God drives their spiritual practice. There is the slogan; “Christianity is a relationship not a religion”, and there is letting Jesus into your life, even your heart. The Gospels record Jesus asking his disciples to pray to God as their father. However even more than the father it is the close big-brotherly connection with Jesus that most Christians either crave or enjoy. The means of that connection are one way to distinguish different Christianities from each other.

Pentecostals seek Jesus in spiritual ecstasy. The path is sensual and direct. It is therefore reminiscent of the medieval mystics who used mortification to distance themselves from the flesh that kept them from God.

Pentecostals don’t hold to the medieval dualism between spirit and body however so fasting and scourging are not for them. Instead they hold to a dualism between faith and reason. Reason is human pride. Faith is trust in God. Hence the Pentecostal path is as deliberately anti-intellectual as the self-flagellants were anti-physical. Speaking in an unintelligible language of worship they call tongues is a gift from God. The Bible’s plainest reading is sufficient. Let it "hit" you with the truth. It is the immediate wordless experience of God’s most ineffable form, the Holy Spirit, which best fulfils the Pentecostal desire for a relationship with Jesus.

Catholics and Orthodox Christians seek Jesus primarily in the communal completion of the sacraments. The sacraments are rituals, some of which are traced back to Jesus. They are considered timeless in the same way that Christians generally believe that Jesus died and rose for all humanity; those who died long before 1AD and those who live today. Sacraments bring those who practice them into an eternal time when Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is now.  

Catholics and Orthodox Christians don’t dream of the type of individual and unpredictable relationship with Jesus that is emphasized in pentecostal churches but its wrong to say they are not seeking anything personal. Being a person is just not achievable in these traditions on one’s own or even alone with God. A person is distinguished from an individual. It is in common practice with those of the present and past that one attains the personhood to relate to God personally at all.

Reformed Christians for the most part dispute the sacramental knowledge Catholics and Orthodox Christians claim. Lutherans are the exception here. For other reformed Christians the sacraments are purely symbolic – they point back to the text they are drawn from but do little else. This text, the Christian Bible, is the primary way that reformed Christians relate to Jesus, and to individually do so is possible. Even when Lutherans combine Biblical understanding with some sacramental knowledge they still privilege the individual coming to Jesus.  Reformed churches are built around doctrines drawn from the Bible, but unlike for Roman Catholics, if the community of church were to fall away the doctrines can still stand on their own.

Even doctrines can fall though they seldom do. What mustn’t fall for the Reformed Christian is the Bible itself. Most Reformed Christians believe in some form of “cessationism” – the explosive direct experience of God as Holy Spirit is deemed to have ended with the apostolic era of the church. So only by reading about such experiences of God can reformed Christians share in them. To the reformed the loss of the bible would mean there would be no experience of Jesus for this age, no Christianity at all.

This does not mean that for the reformed their God is silent now. The Bible is not seen as merely a human record of events or even as a letter that God has left behind. It is itself a timeless speech act of God. Reading scripture is akin to the Catholic sacraments. There is even a sacramental idea of preaching from the bible. To speak of and from the bible’s message is to be a mouthpiece of a living God, speaking in the now.

It is particularly the “Gospel” that enables reformed Christians to have a relationship with Jesus. The Gospel is the chief ideas of their bible according to reformed Christians. This focus on ideas makes them the most intellectual of all Christians. They are the scientists of theology. Like material scientists they can seem detached and clinical to others. All scientists however are driven by a passion for their subject and feel they possess an intimacy though understanding that they see lacking in others. Reformed Christians with their detailed investigations into the exact words of the earliest bibles are no different.

Christianity is a historical religion. It is based on events in time – the life and death of Jesus. By one reckoning these events are long passed. For a religion that longs for a relationship with Jesus, that could be fatal. Christians overcome this in different ways. Pentecostals connect to the history of the early church through the continual working of the Holy Spirit to this day. For the Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed Christians it is as though time is folded so that the ‘then’ of Jesus time is now for the believer. The means to make this fold are either sacraments, or God’s speech of scripture, or both.

I’ve written all this to put in context the “magic book” treatment of the bible by reformed Christians. This is something I think is intellectually inconsistent, against the spirit of Jesus’ teaching and one cause of sin. However I need to realize it is not easily dispensable for Reformed Christians. For some it is the exclusive way of having a relationship with Jesus in a religion which has made that relationship the definition of worship and belonging. Under those conditions the loss of biblical absolutism would be the end of some people’s faith.

Perhaps one path forward lies with a growing type of Christianity called Emerging. All types of Christianity no matter how newly rediscovered claim to be the oldest and original, and despite its name the Emerging church is no different. Its emphasis is on the emulation of Jesus’ life as the path to relationship. There is a belief that the gospels can only give us general principles which we have to actively apply now using the attitude of Jesus. It is by living out the attitude of Jesus that we can participate in a kingdom and a salvation that is always being incarnated, crucified and rising again.

This is a sacramental idea of the “work” of Jesus. A Catholic or Orthodox person might receive a blessed eucharist as something transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. An emergent Christian cooks up rice and veggie curry and brings it to a communal meal, seeking the underlying principle of communion rather than the precise replication of any ritual as a way to connect with Jesus. God is experienced in the work of forgiving, tending the sick, proclaiming an ethic of justice and by self-sacrifice for that ethic.

Emergent Christians do not tend to see the bible as an ongoing speech by God. They don’t need to because there is something continual in the work of Christianity that hasn’t ended. By participating in that work the history of God continues. Emerging Christians might say that the bible is a story that their life attaches to at the end. The Bible is the preface that makes sense of their life rather than an overlay over it. The Kingdom of God is still emerging, hence the name and exactly how it will look is not exactly known.

This piece uses labels and generalises about them. Labels don't have static and universal meanings. If you use differently a label I've mentioned (ie Emergent or Reformed) feel free to comment on that difference. Unless people are heavily invested in the arguments amongst labels they usually aren't exclusively one thing or another either. The labels and paths to God I have covered may overlap in the life of a single Christian. Others might not find any that fit. I have tried to be atleast broadly accurate in my use of them. My purpose is to illustrate the function of biblical infallibility and what could replace it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Critiquing Utopian Capitalism.

Utopian capitalism is the image of capitalism as a self-correcting deliverer of endlessly rising standards of living. Utopian capitalism is the religion around the economic theory of capitalism. Not all "capitalisms" are utopian. The capitalism of organised crime usually admits it is exploitative and as unfair as it can be. Without going to that extreme you can also advocate capitalism as an imperfect system.

Capitalism is a workable way to make stuff and get stuff for many people. It’s also handily impersonal. The middle class and above generally enjoy the private sense of power that just handing over money for things gives them. It’s convenient and convenience is empowering in a way.

Capitalism's benefits however diminish over time. Wandering up and down supermarket aisles for the obscure milk location and figuring out how to self-scan it at the check out, it’s easy to see that even convenience doesn’t survive market concentration. Meanwhile more and more people able to work have no role to play even in providing that missing convenience. Eventually capitalism becomes stupider and stupider.

Capitalism requires a good revolution every so often to redistribute the wealth and means of production. This is because capitalist competition only exists when wealth is roughly equal at the starting blocks. However capitalism's whole reward structure is such that success in one competition is being able to bias the start of the next race in your favour. Consequently if capitalism has worked then after a few races any competition under capitalism is a sham. The only way to make it function again is to reset the scoreboard so to speak. In economic terms that is to cancel debts and break up stashes of wealth.

To avoid a revolution capitalism has tried to improve itself with a welfare system and public health and schools. These improvements give the game a longer life but can’t maintain it indefinitely. The whole point of capitalism is to concentrate wealth. It’s not a secondary effect. Concentrated wealth ultimately infects the political system (as it has ours) and then treats the public commonwealth as obstacles to wear down. Once our political system is under the control of the super wealthy, then business as usual has to be radically disrupted and the values of wealth and power reset, hence “revolution”. Nothing less can restore the basis of a functional capitalism.

The problem with revolutionary movements is that they often fall for an expectation to be utopian themselves. That is to say, revolutionary movements are expected to have “solutions” and “answers” which mean that after their “success” no further revolutions will ever be required. That’s utopian thinking. It’s alternative is a revolution which merely sees itself as a necessary reset of economic and political power – one which may be needed again and again in the future despite the solutions and answers each revolution proposes.

The Occupy movements have been criticized for not meeting the utopian obligation of political discourse. They fail to come up with answers and solutions that will last for ever. A similar non-utopian spirit seems to be a part of the Idle No More movement sweeping North America. I’m glad to see it. In Tolstoy feeds me Humble Pie I wrote about how an obligation to be utopian replaces our responsibility to love. Instead it justifies tyrants and mobs.

We need to specifically critique utopian thinking as it relates to capitalism. This is because utopian capitalism (the religion) puts pressure on its critics to have utopian alternatives. If we can show that utopian capitalism is nonsense we can alleviate the need for revolutionary movements under that capitalism to have perfect answers themselves. We can embrace those movements as merely necessary reset buttons of any system, capitalist or otherwise that we adopt.

Utopian worlds are perfect images which stand apart from reality. Firstly utopian worlds are apart from reality because they make unprecedented claims on society, human wisdom, technology, or raw materials. Although utopian worlds struggle to be realized, they still make strong claims to “work” based on some unquestioned ingredient that covers all shortages in the above resources. For example religious cults usually try and create small utopian societies based on the authority of their leaders. The leader’s unique intelligence or access to God is supposed to provide the absolute knowledge all other societies have lacked. Resolving that lack is what makes the utopian cult work unlike any past society.

Utopian capitalism's unquestioned ingredient is a magic belief that the rate of economic activity creates economic resources. The first concern of economics is the problem of scarcity. Scarcity is how economists refer to the limitations of resources in contrast to the greater wants for those resources. Trying to feed yourself and four housemates’ dinner with two sausages and rice is the essence of economics. You have more wants than resources and must decide how to manage that. That’s what being economical actually means. Utopian capitalism pretends that by moving resources around quickly they will somehow magically expand so that they will meet all wants. The fact that resources have to ultimately get expended to meet wants is ignored.

The ludicrosity (my word) of just increased economic activity overcoming scarce resources is apparent once you look straight at it. That’s why we seldom do. Instead there are vague references to technology and efficiency as the sources of limitless growth when rarely, a source is enquired after. However in practice it is the rate in which money is spent that utopian capitalism celebrates as the objective of any effort to improve the economy.

Consider what Gross Domestic Product is. It is the amount of economic activity over a period of time. The easiest way to increase GDP is just to increase the speed of economic activity related to the same basic stuff – that is to buy and sell more, between more people, more often in relation to meeting the same want. That would be like the housemates employing two to be chef, two to do marketing and one as food critic, each paying the other in a special housemate currency. GDP will shoot through the roof but the dinner of rice and two snags is exactly the same. Utopian capitalism would believe that things have improved.

Utopian worlds also stand apart from reality by foregoing a creation story. A utopian world just is. This a-historical aspect reflects that utopian visions have traditionally been the visions of ombudsmen and aldermen. They are top down descriptions of society that recognize designs, not the descriptions of labourers and artisans which recognize processes of creation. Even when any losses involved in building a utopia are recognized, such loss has to be deducted from the absolute perfection of eternity once utopia is built. Infinity minus anything less is still infinity, which is why there is often a lot of death involved in implementing utopian visions. Such death just doesn’t matter in the future utopia.

This willingness to accept a bloody creation is a part of utopian capitalism. We know that life is not good for people in poor countries whose economies are orientated to luxury goods for export. We know that even in wealthy countries untreated preventable illnesses abound, people enter lifelong debts for their education and housing (if they are lucky) and businesses routinely relocate to where labour is the cheapest and unsafest. These are treated as forgiveable hiccups on the path to utopia. However what makes this truly horrific is that utopian capitalism is always never quite here. It is always in the process of creation, and always generating costs that get discounted against its glorious future.

This endless creation phase is a consequence of utopian capitalism’s acceptance of meeting unlimited wants as a goal. In economics its been historically reasonable to assume people actually have unlimited wants because people have longed to have big families. We might accept that our hypothetical housemates only want a certain amount and certain quality of food for their own dinner and any more is unwanted however once we accept that they all want as many kids as possible then there is a very distant limit to how many resources they will need to meet all their (future) wants. It's effectively unlimited. Social changes in the west, particularly creditable to feminism, environmentalism and improved health, challenge whether our wants really are unlimited. Certainly in my own social circles there is a rhetoric that supports less consumption along with smaller families as preferable. We say we feel like we're drowning in consumables although its hard to tell if this is really reducing our consumption. This years tech products remain the standard.

Whether or not we will always want more than we have on some level however, it is not necessary to make attaining unlimited wants the goal of our society. If the definition of happiness is the meeting of unlimited wants it seems sane to suggest we need to accept some unhappiness. If the process of meeting those wants is the increased rate of economic activity then it is certainly sane to ask when that process might cause more unhappiness than it alleviates (if it alleviates anything). That kind of sanity can all be avoided with utopian thinking. Utopian capitalism promises we will (paradoxically) reach the impossible goal of meeting unlimited wants. Exactly what that will look like no-one can say but supposedly it will make the suffering all worthwhile “when” we get there.

Utopian capitalism has a method that is silly - more economic activity - to reach a goal that can’t be reached - attaining unlimited wants. My child could come up with a utopian vision that makes more sense. That is an indication that utopian capitalism is not something that we accidentally came up with. Its design is so poor that it can’t be the product of human error. It’s more likely this is a system designed by some people playing it for personal gain and then sold to us cynically as inevitable. In Australia our major political parties and mainstream media companies are all on board for the sale. It’s definitely time to reset the game.

Once we realize that utopian capitalism is the silliest of all religions we can oppose it without needing to have absolute answers ourselves. The Occupy movements and Idle No More may not be able to clearly articulate a perfect world view that will never need further correction. However no such world view is really offered by capitalism either.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two jars.

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog post about prayer. A part of that post was about the legitimacy of praying to God for a sign of their presence. I also discussed how the Tanakh (what Christians call the Old Testament) which is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, positively treated this kind of prayer.

In my own response to my post I decided to fill a jar with stones. I placed it next to another empty jar. I then addressed my prayer specifically to Yahweh, God of the Tanakh. I figured that covered the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam while still being specific enough. I asked “Yahweh, if you are there and real please grant me this sign. Please empty the jar I have filled with stones and fill the empty jar next to it.”

I acknowledged that in a small way this blog is an influence on others. I asked Yahweh to end my ignorance that might lead others astray through me.

I told nobody about this test not even my partner and I went to bed. The next morning I walked slowly down to the jars and was astonished. The jar I had filled was empty and the jar next to it was full. I studied it for a while but the jars had not shifted at all.

I went back to the house. The chance was tiny but I had to know for sure, so I asked my partner if she had noticed some jars in the back yard. She said no, she hadn’t. I didn’t say anything else, even when she asked me what was up. I guess I was white as a sheet.

That night I put the stones back in the original jar and prayed, “Yahweh, forgive my doubt, Could you once more move the stones from this jar to the next so that I could know that you are there and real”. This time I placed the empty jar across the yard and I placed under each jar a small scrap of paper which given the wind that was blowing should blow away if anyone moved the jars.

Then I went to bed. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I refused to go outside to look at the jars though so eventually I nodded off. This morning I rushed outside and the jar I had placed the stones in was empty. I lifted it up and the scrap of paper was lifted into the air by a solitary gust of wind.


This isn’t a true story. It would be cool if it was. The stones remained in the jar I filled on the first night. They are still there. The two jars now form a small shrine in my backyard to the putting to rest of a certain idea of God.

This was a real test though. I prayed the first nights prayer sincerely and approached this experiment with trepidation and sorrow. Whatever had happened something of possibility would have been lost. Then there was an unexpected joy when I visited the jars in the morning. It was like I had asked if this world was actually the matrix. The answer was that this is real; the earth, sky, my family and me are all very real. That feeling of reality in the morning amongst the gum trees of our backyard was beautiful. It was even holy.

I apologise if I fooled you and made you feel foolish for that. That wasn’t my intent. I wrote the story the first way I did so that the seriousness of the test could be received. Just imagine if it had of gone the way I’d first written it! I would’ve published what happened if the stones had moved. I’d have been read as mad in some people’s eyes; too loopy even for many theists. What a wild life that might have been!

In all the discussions and debates I’ve ever read or seen about Gods existence I’ve always thought this is really the sum of meaningful argument on the topic. That is, if the God you’re discussing is a type of God for whom a test like this can work then you ought to just test it and see. If someone is telling you that God is capable of anything, understands you in your humanity and wants to have a relationship with you then get out the jars and rocks. I've never fully appreciated why those professional atheist and theist debaters don’t just say “Hello God, are you there?” and let silence, or any answer from the heavens, resolve the issue.

Of interest to me are two points in particular. Some people won’t have believed my story even before I revealed its untruth despite professing to believe in the type of God who in the Tanakh, completed such tests. How do they reconcile that? How can they claim the truth of books like Kings and Judges while predicting from the get go that I would not find the stones moved? I’d be interested in hearing about that in the comments.

Its worth noting that Muslims believe the Tanakh is corrupted in its truth and therefore may not believe that God accepts these kinds of tests. People can also believe that God changes how they relate to us rendering these tests no longer viable. Of course not every Christian and Jew would hold their scriptures to be literal truth as well.

The second and greater point of interest to me is that this experiment of mine is of no great use to anyone else. We might think it ought to be but in practice it isn't. Suppose I had of sworn the stones moved from one jar to another. Then in order to not share in my belief in God would you have had to either explain the phenomenon in some other way or say that I was lying? What did non-theists do in their head when they read the story I first told? Probably not very much.

I'm not insulting non-theists there. After all what do believers in the God of the Tanakh do with what actually happened? Again probably not very much.

I think we permit ourselves to just shrug our shoulders and put into unexplained baskets religious experiences that contradict our beliefs. I think we only accept a responsibility to address our own religious experiences.

This is because, perhaps wrongly, religion has become a matter of private reality. That is why although my experiment puts to rest my belief in a particular type of God I don’t expect that to have any kind of global effect. I don’t expect people to start abandoning fundamentalist Christianity in droves now.

But if one persons’ proof is not another persons’ then how does that make religious statements (of any kind) into anything other than personal insanities? How can we meaningfully compose a shared spiritual reality in the way we work to agree on physical reality? Is there an experimental method for religion?

I think there should be some shared way of gaining knowledge for religious statements that claim to be like statements of physical reality. I think if you are going to claim that “Magic happens” for example then you ought to be able to show it happening. Likewise if you want to say that yours is a God who can be relied on to answer prayer then evidencing that reliability is not a cynical exercise. It should be an expectation.

On the other hand if your god is something that operates by inspiration rather than as a physical force then they can’t be disproven by tests like this one. If your god is something like love or justice then maybe even when they fail we ought to dust them off, prop them up again and figure out how to put our faith back in them. Maybe gods such as that are always only parts of a private reality that we have to bring into the world.

Now that’s the type of God that’s left for me.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Pray em if ya got em.

Non-believers in the Christian god are sometimes invited to pray what is called the sinners prayer.    The basis of which is Romans 10: 9-10:
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

The prayer has no set wording but usually involves the following elements – a declaration of personal sinfulness and need for redemption, a confession that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection provides the means of redemption and a personal acceptance of that gift of salvation.

There are a great many Christians who are critical of this prayer. Some protest that it is not a god-given sacrament of salvation like baptism. Some argue that it creates a type of instant Christian identity that lacks any depth. The sinners’ prayer is most commonly promoted in the fastest growing Pentecostal style churches.  If you are stopped in the street by someone wanting to offer you salvation through Jesus this prayer is likely to be a part of the encounter.

The problem with this prayer from an outsider’s point of view is that expresses a commitment to certain convictions. A non-believer in Christianity by definition doesn’t hold those convictions. So if a non-believer is encouraged to pray the sinners’ prayer anyway it is a promotion of forced “double-think” or deliberate self-programming. It’s not a great recommendation of what a Christian’s faith might be sustained by, to that non-believer. It’s only really suited for people who are already Christians.

So what can a non-believer, specifically in the Christian doctrines, pray? Well firstly we can pray whatever we want. Prayer is a means of expressing oneself to the infinite however that is understood. I for one wouldn’t stand between someone else and their perception of the infinite and demand a perfectly rational conversation occur; feel free to scream nonsense, express anguish, crack a joke, beg for a break, whatever works for you. Pray as much as you like even to something you don’t think is real.

Personally I really value the sentiment that prayer is a road where there is none. When you are stuck with no visible healthy options prayer is an action you can take that is better than flipping out. Any parent ought to consider praying to some benevolent manifestation of the universe as part of their tool kit for those bad days. I’m talking about when your well of good humour is dry and your three year old punches you full force in the kidneys.

However if you feel like those prayers are not generally legitimate for you as a non-believer then you are in a similar position to me. I feel much the same way. Certainly my version of the sinner’s prayer contains more clauses of qualification than a Microsoft warranty. Most of it is treated very metaphorically or discarded. What I call a testing prayer is my more integritous option to the sinner’s prayer and its equivalents. A testing prayer in its simplest form is “God, if you are there, give us a sign.”

Some Christians however argue that the validity of a testing prayer is specifically condemned in their bible. They commonly site Matthew 4:5-7:
“Then the devil took Him (Jesus) to the holy city and had Him stand on the highest point of the temple.  ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down.’  For it is written: ‘He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’  Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

In fact the testing prayer is very biblical. In the Old Testament such tests are common. In Judges 6:17 -22 Gideon asks for a sign that they are really talking to God. Yahweh (the Jewish God and Christian God the Father) complies by having an angel set fire to an offering. Gideon then asks Yahweh to complete two more miraculous tests involving a fleece over two nights. There is no automatic acceptance here.

Then there is 1 Kings 18 :21-24, in which Elijah insists that people test the god Yahweh against the god Baal. Elijah’s proposal is to make an altar to each and see whose God will light their altar. Elijah also soaks his altar in water so that when it burns it is an absolute proof of Yahweh’s power.

In Isaiah 7:10-12 Yahweh actually demands that the King Ahaz ask for a sign “whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights”. The king refuses by saying he doesn’t want to test God. That refusal is considered to be trying Yahweh’s patience.

It’s worth noting Matthew 4:5-7 mentioned above is a condemnation of testing God by effectively putting one’s head on the train tracks and asking them to stop the train.  Jesus elsewhere is quoted as saying “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.” (John 10:37) He’s talking about performing miracles. There certainly seems to be plenty of biblical basis for seeking clear evidence for Gods presence. Just don’t be a dick about it is the message of Matthew 4.

If a God fails to answer a testing prayer we are within our intellectual rights to not believe in them. Again we have the bible for support. In Kings 18:27 when Baal fails to set the altar of their worshippers alight Elijah is scathing;
“At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

I can’t help thinking of the most extreme mocking atheist when I hear Elijah here. His basis for dispelling the people’s belief in Baal is not too different to an argument against Yahweh that a fan of Richard Dawkins might try today.

Logically the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That is to say there are many possible reasons why Baal might not have lit his alter. He might not like being tested. However Elijah’s people are not supposed to keep an open mind about Baal after Baal has failed their test. Elijah would have no time for a Baal worshiper who argued that Baal could have lit the altar but just chose not to.

Likewise if a particular God doesn’t answer our testing prayer then it doesn’t prove absolutely that particular God isn’t there. However it puts us within our rights to believe that such a God isn’t there. We shouldn’t have to investigate a pack of excuses for a regular no-show.

This post up to this point treats testing prayers as if they provide clear answers. Life is messier than that though. What are we to do when a testing prayer sometimes produces a positive result and sometimes a negative one? This is what most God followers that I know experience. They have experiences that give them reason to have their faith in God but they also have experienced the absence of God or the hiddenness of God that is the defining experience for non-believers.

I don’t think it’s easy for those people to know what is an integritous position to take. In fact “those people” is a nice compartmentalization of what’s really a general experience of the divine or transcendant. Very few people ever get that unequivocal miraculous evidence to prove God is listening. Likewise very few people have never perceived anything even potentially and nebulously god-like in the universe. Far more common are those experiences which we have to actively interpret one way or the other.

We ought to admit we are mostly just muddling through our tunnel like existence without as clear proof as Elijah's people. If you believe in a God maybe you are honouring a rare glimpse you caught of something god-like once. That’s got my respect. If your disbelief is born of a too-long prolonged silence from the divine I get that too.

In the past people used to say “smoke em if ya got em” when they called a break. Maybe we should extend that attitude to prayer. I’ve always like this image from the book of Jonah for its pray em, if ya got em attitude;
Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship”.  (Jonah 1: 4-5)

For myself I don’t pray except rarely and the sinners’ prayer never at all. I don't think it accurately points us to where God is. That’s a conclusion based partly on the results of testing prayers I have made. I have received no good evidence to suggest there is a God like that prayer claims there is. 

Interestingly that is actually a reasonably biblically endorsed process of investigating God. It has just led me to a non-biblical faith outcome. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Catching my drift.

The banner at the top of this site declares, "This is a theology and philosophy blog written by an non-theist". I’m not sure that non-theist is the best descriptor for me anymore. I think I’m drifting…

With blog posts like “God : what are we talking about”, and  "Beyond Logical Theology"  I have been investigating the middle ground between theist and non-theist. 

Sometimes that means showing how we all “worship” something and sometimes its about showing that we all have to operate without that something in hand. The classic one is truth. Whenever we argue for truth we are worshipping it in a way, but we don’t possess it. Hence we all function as both theists and atheists, living with and without “god”, all the time. To agree with that you will probably have to smudge and stretch your old concepts of god. I know I did.

That’s how I encountered a type of goddish concept I believe in. It’s taking me a long time to articulate though. In fact I would say this is a process of discovery that really kicked off with "Worshipping a Small God" well over a year ago. I was told my concept of god was too small. I found that a profoundly challenging concept. Hence I wrote a post that asks “What does it mean to separate God from their hugeness? What does it mean to worship a powerless source of good or a small god?”

I had previously put God into one of two categories. First there is the God who commands the unraveling of all history for their own glory and threatens us in a first person voice through their holy books. They still strike me as a spooky side-show attraction, at best. At worst they are a demonic evil that we ought to oppose no matter what.

The other category for God is an impersonal one. They are something non-material, non-rational and just as irrelevant. Plato called them the unmoved mover. Physicists and philosophers have used this God throughout history as a tool to make their sums work. They’re like “dark matter” on legs. I’ve never denied the existence of this kind of God. I just tend to think that we should call them something else like the Tao or Quantum energy. The word God evokes too personal a figure for many people including me, to use here.

What I’m beginning to contemplate is something which borrows from the impersonal god concept their field like characteristics. Fields are like a force in natural science however rather than being created at a particular point, spending their energy and then extinguishing, fields continue. They are continuing qualities of space and time. Gravity is a field rather than a force. It has no beginning or end.

What I am taking from the personal god concept is that this field has an interest in life. This field values certain ways of engaging with life over other ways. As I put this into words I feel uncomfortable with it. I’m ready to take it back. Am I really saying that I believe in a cosmic field that cares? You can see why the non-theist label is slipping. (You can also see some of these thoughts developing in " A moral world".

So how have I got to this point? A significant first step is in recognizing that morality underpins everything. You can’t have science without a concept of good and bad science. You can’t be a scientist without having outrage at flagrant superstition. Science is at its heart a moral enterprise before it is even begun.

This is true of all thought. Morality has to precede thought, or surround it, or sustain it (choose your metaphor) because otherwise you can’t have good thought and bad thought. Before you can think, you have to care about thinking.

Now you could say that this caring is just some evolved characteristic of our brains. You could certainly make the case for its usefulness to encourage learning. When we care we pay attention. However, even if you recognize it as merely evolutionarily expedient to give a damn about the world, you can’t shake it off. If you try to you’ll crash all your other functions of thought as a consequence.

Even if it didn’t do that it, rejecting morality would “be” wrong. That’s something I explored in "It's OK to Kill" The wrongness of throwing away your morality precedes anything else and persists even after you have thrown away your morality. I believe that’s because the wrongness is not a product of our individual morality but an observation of the moral field from which our morality is drawn.

Woah…hold on. Morality as a pre-existing field in which all other thought (and intentional activity) is sustained; that’s pantheism not non-theism. The key distinction is that in pantheism everything is connected by something akin to a single perspective. The theos is that connective aspect. Perhaps perspective is too strong a word. Perhaps moral orientation is a better term. As I said in The Problem of Evil if you believe in an underlying moral nature to the world you are at least pseudo-theistic.

Historically one of my key reasons for being a non-theist is that disconnection makes the most sense of the world. I still feel like there’s something to emphasise there. Viruses and floods and monkeys have separate causes and purposes. They intersect to create the web of life but they aren’t in any way part of a gaian hive mind. They aren’t intentionally working in concert but are just made to work in some kind of concert by sharing an environment. That is part of the splendor of the world to me.

However now I’m talking about something that is a single will – the will for good – that permeates at least intelligent life. By intelligent I mean whenever life is making conscious choices. Choices require some level of thought and thought exists in a moral field.

A reasonable objection to all of this is that it isn’t real. I am only describing feelings and to be honest those feelings have contradictory feelings as well. My response to this objection is that asking if God is real is a different question for different concepts of God. If God is a bloke with a staff on a chair then they ought to have the sort of reality you can poke a stick at. If god is a moral field in which everything makes sense then the stick test doesn’t work. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you’re hung up on whether god is real you’re missing my point entirely. Is love real?

None of this means that I have any more time for the idea that we are born under Adam and Eves original sin for example. I also still don’t believe in reincarnation or any  enduring self after death I’m certainly not saying a) there is a moral field so b) when Paul the apostle tells women their voice in church is a disgrace they ought to believe him. That’s a lot of leaps, in the wrong direction too.

What I am able to do is enter into religious stories in a different way. I’m understanding the resurrection for example in a way that I wouldn't have before. People sometimes talk about the resurrection as an event that can’t be taken non-literally without losing all meaning. I wonder how the transformed body of Jesus can be considered literally at all. What does literally walked through walls mean? Think about it; it’s not walking as we know it that’s for sure.

Instead of worrying about the atomic weight of a risen Jesus, I am considering how whenever we act with moral intent we are acting in a way that is out of the normal flow of time and space. There is something eternal about compassion and embracing a life of compassion attaches us to that eternity. (Just think about when you do something good for a stranger.) Hence the promise of an eternal life for those who embrace love of others is true – it was never going to be sitting on a cloud but it’s still true.

This is a journey I’m on. Writing this blog puts that journey out into a public space. I don’t mind how that puts me at risk of public contradiction. I see it as growth.

You can expect that I will grow from this point too. I may recant everything I’ve written here and in the posts I've linked to. That would be surprising. For the moment I wonder if I need to change this blogs description at the top. Pretty please comment with your suggestions for a new tag line.

UPDATE: Currently cycling through some options. For reference the original description of the blog was;

This is a theology and philosophy blog written by an non-theist who has a deep respect for sincere theism.
Expect arguments that intelligent and integritous people exist on both sides of this supposed divide between atheism and religion.
I also aim to do theology and philosophy which is both humble and yet trying to be wonderful in the existential tradition.

(Original artwork from )