Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tolstoy feeds me humble pie.

As if to chastise me for my chutzpah in writing a cocky little manifesto for the 99% movement (last post) I read the following;
(Note: Just so that the lefties don’t stop reading at the first paragraph what Tolstoy means by “collective effort” is more like submission to a group program for change not just any form of co-operation.)
“This is why freedom from the servitude in which we find ourselves at present is impossible for those who seek it in collective effort. It can only be obtained by the substitution of the law of love for the law of violence, that fundamental principle of Christianity*.
“This doctrine says to each isolated individual: You cannot know the end of social life; you can only envisage it as a form of progressive approach towards universal happiness, towards the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, you are aware of the aim of personal life: it is the development in each of the greatest amount of love, in order that the kingdom of God may be established. This aim is certain and is easy to approach.
“You can be ignorant of the best methods for attaining this external goal; you can meet obstacles in the way of its realization; but nothing can stop you drawing nearer to inner perfection: the increase of love in yourself and towards others.
“So it is enough to institute in the place of this illusory social goal, this individual aim of life, the only sure and accessible one; and the chains you thought were fastening you forever will drop immediately and you will feel yourself absolutely free...
“The Christian can ignore the laws established by the State because he has no need for them for himself, or for others; he considers that human life is better assured by the law of love he professes than by the law of violence imposed on him...
Can it be put any better? The writer is Tolstoy in The Law of Love and Law of Violence (p70-71). He is quoting his own earlier work. The abridgements in the above are his.
Tolstoy is saying that real change – the only meaningful change at all- doesn’t come with a clearly mapped world order (communism or capitalism). Instead the only meaningful and achievable change comes from personal commitment to the rule of universal love as professed by Jesus.
Amazingly there would be some people who might consider this a conservative position. The program of Jesus and the idea of love has become so diluted in our world that we are able to conceive issuing it from a gun or via carpet bombing. We profess to follow universal love in the police force and the army despite making oaths to follow orders first. We confess to follow universal love while not sharing our wealth - living like gluttons while others starve. We confess to follow it while buying the products of modern slavery, while profiting from that slavery with what we save at the counter or even what we make on the sharemarket. We confess to following it while protecting our luxurious standard of living over the environment. We confess it and nothing changes.
Or as Tolstoy points out ; soon as it (the Law of Love) ceases to be an immovable law, its beneficence disappears and the doctrine of love is reduced to fruitless teaching, not modifying in any way the mode of life that is founded on violence. By contrast, the true Christian doctrine, making of the law of love a rule permitting no exceptions, in this way rules out the possibility of any violence, and cannot in consequence help but condemn all regimes which are founded on it.
It is exactly this significance of Christianity that was hidden from men by false Christianity, because the latter acknowledges love not as a supreme law, but, in the manner of all previous religions, only as one of the rules of conduct, to be usefully observed only when circumstances do not prevent it.
Tolstoy is amazing because he somehow reads Love like a child. I don’t know by what grace he manages it. If it truly is a Christian grace it is so sadly lacking in the historical practice of Christianity that it makes it all the more remarkable.
The entire book is downloadable for free from  Honestly I could just quote the whole thing. And at only a hundred pages there’s no reason to be intimidated by Tolstoy’s name. Please, please give it a go. I’ll be reviewing it more thoroughly when I’ve gotten over how great it is.
My particular reason for posting this immediately is Tolstoys essential message to the 99% movement and the Occupy Melbourne protestors and me;
Men, whether they submit or refuse to submit to governmental authority, never know and can never know what form this future state will take.
Don’t worry about not having a mapped out set of solutions. Love one another. Love even your enemies. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Now that’s a manifesto.

*I realise some people who know me may be astonished by how "Goddy" this piece is. I don't believe in the metaphysical claims of Christianity. However I will learn as much as I can from any Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Jew, Hindu etc who is out-loving me. Absolutely. Using their language is a sign of respect to ones teacher. In Tolstoys case that respect is well earned.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 99% Manifesto.

There’s something that shits me as a legacy of my lapsed political activism. It’s when the constituents of a representative movement, (the unemployed, gay men, whatever the movement) talk about what the movement needs to do before they will join it.

The latest example of this is the 99% movement. There are a chorus of voices, it seems, demanding that “they” articulate some demands and produce a model for change before “I” will listen to them. News flash; political change is not like television. You don’t flick through channels for what you want and whinge when there’s nothing to watch. You actually create it.

So I thought to myself maybe I should have a go at drafting this much demanded manifesto. I’m somewhere in the 99%. I can string a sentence together.

On the other hand, I am singularly unqualified as I have no t.v. and hardly ever listen to news radio. I mostly read books published at least fifty years ago, unless they are contemporary books about events older than that. Current affairs ain’t my thing. Blogging and even more recently Facebook is bringing me into contact with shorter news cycles but it’s a slow pick up. Bah, that’s negative talk. Let’s do it anyway.

The 99% manifesto.

1% of the world, it is increasingly apparent to us (the remainder) that we give you more than you give us. The size of the violin played for your sad day dwarfs the violin played for all the refugees of the world. Your birthday cakes are larger than the ones even bakers have. Meanwhile we plumb your toilets, nanny your kids and put food on your table. We make your profits.

1% of the world, we can see that you have no fear, not even the slightest concern that, failing a light aeroplane crash, your children will not also be a part of the 1%. They can be coke addicts and go on to buy the Presidency of the United States. Meanwhile the rest of us have no fear that our children will make it into the 1%. Instead we live in fear that unless we do everything right (or even then) our children will be a lot worse off than us. In fact for the vast majority of us that would mean imprisoned or dead.

1% of the world, these differences are so exaggerated that quite frankly we can no longer relate to you. We feel reasonably confident that you are not trying to relate to us either. Neither of us are people to each other. It’s worth pausing to mourn that fact. As a species we have lost 1% of our humanity. That would be you.

1% of the world, we do not intend to follow you into inhumanity. We have our own divisions. A percentage of us live in abject poverty. A percentage of us own more than one house. A percentage of us go to elite schools. A percentage of us can’t read. Those of us closer to you in privilege and opportunity pledge NOT to try in vain to join your class. We pledge to stop our aspirational nonsense that only feeds your importance. Instead we will be relating to the rest of the 99% as fellow people.

1% of the world, if you have what we need to relate to each other as fellow people, we will be taking it. Don’t panic. We can do without your mansion on a hill, your backyard swimming pools and tennis courts, even your personal automobile. Just let’s cut the crap. You don’t get to “own” all the farmland. You don’t get to “own” public transport or a monopoly on roads or a patent on our genes. Those things were never going to fly. (And you don’t get to own Federation Square.)

1% of the world, the first thing we will be taking back is our attention. Next will be our labour, our time, the focus of our education, the purpose of our industry, and our lives in your conflicts, but first it is our attention. We can’t do anything until we do that. We have a lot to talk to each other about and following your antics is only a distraction. This is therefore our last communication.

99% of the world, let’s talk.


Okay, the above manifesto reveals a couple of things. One is that I am uneasy about a movement that ignores my privelage in relation to others. I am not a member of the 1% by a long shot, however I am pretty comfortable in my estimation. Hence I want to shift the emphasis onto how we treat each other rather than how the 1% treat us. I don’t think this shift is really what the 99% movement sounds like in name, so yes I am hijacking it.

Secondly I truly believe that the way we are relating to each other – when we put our luxuries above others needs – is not “natural”. I think it’s actually inhuman. In order to justify it we have to dehumanise those in need but I think we only succeed in dehumanising ourselves. There’s no doubt that the 1% do this from the simplest to the most extreme ways. More importantly we allow our governments to do it for them, enforcing the eviction of those who can’t pay their rent while entitling the ultra-rich to possess entire inner city towers. However in smaller ways I do the same. In the process I am making myself into a social alien to the rest of the human species.

Thirdly the irreverent tone of this manifesto should reveal that I am NOT saying that the 99% movement or Occupy (Insert City) really have to have a coherent justification for non-violent actions. Quite frankly I would rather a week of protesting without any point over another week of shopping without any point. The Occupy Melbourne Protest was peaceful, welcoming, democratic, shared its food and created a space where people could meet across economic classes. On the downside it disrupted a small cluster of upmarket eateries. The Spring Racing Carnival by comparison is drunken, violent, unsharing and uncaring and no-one demands it have a clear manifesto. The Spring Racing Carnival is justified because it’s fun (or addiction) for those who participate even though that fun disrupts others; the streets of Melbourne run with spew during it. Occupy Melbourne, although I missed it, looked like my kind of fun instead. Minus the police of course.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Point of Philosophy. Part 1.

This is a multi-part topic. Part two is mostly written however I expect there 'll be atleast four parts in total. Not writing them all out first is dangerous as I may end up wishing I wrote this first post differently. However this way I can respond to peoples comments and hey, maybe even change my ideas!

Further the answers as we progress will get more and more uncertain so helpful comments are very appreciated. 

The works of some philosophers
would make excellent table legs.

Whenever you do something regularly it starts to feel unnatural to partition off that activity from just living. At least that’s how it looks when I watch those superbly fit people doing stretches at the park. It’s certainly how it looks when I rock up unannounced to a friend’s house and they’re making some complicated dish that for me would be a major event. I feel like that with philosophy and theology. Sometimes it takes more effort for me to do anything else. However this post is about making the activity of philosophy and theology explicit and asking “What’s the point?”

It’s a pertinent question because I’ve recently been struggling with writing in a vacuum. While I was bemoaning that feeling, my partner identified that I don’t have a community. I’m a non-theist asking questions about God, I’m a non-student who tries to be a scholar. I’m not surrounded by fellow academics or a faith based community. So why do what I do?

Firstly some definition is necessary. Philosophy is the attempt to articulate our thinking and that of others usually with a value placed on going “deeper” to our primary assumptions. Don’t allow “thinking” to lead you to only consider certain kinds of algebraic-looking “thinking” as Philosophy. That’s logic. Philosophy includes a very broad idea of “thinking” including inspiration, intuition and even plain old dumb guessing as well as logic. Basically if you’re thinking “Do I think?, the answer is yes. 
One answer to why we do philosophy is that we can’t help it. If everyone agreed with everyone else then possibly philosophy would never come up. As soon as disagreement occurs some of us at least are going to ask why and whether we or those who think differently are wrong. Those questions are going to cause us to (rudimentally perhaps) articulate our thinking.
I don’t think that’s much of an answer because we can help doing philosophy. Certainly I can do less philosophy than I currently do. This is blog post sixteen after all of a mostly philosophy blog. We can all try and avoid disagreement. When we can’t we can label our opponents mad or evil or liars. We can punch people who ask us why we think we’re right. It’s reasonable to expect we’ll do less philosophy this way than if we celebrate the practice of articulating thinking.
Here's my rebuttal, Sirrah.
So we’re back to asking why DO philosophy after all. You could say philosophy is just a more powerful form of punching people (with our thoughts) who ask us why we think we’re right. With this rationale we are for a particular orthodoxy -no questions asked- and the whole value of philosophy is figuring out where those who disagree with us have departed from that orthodoxy so that their heresy can be cut off exactly at the base of the branch. Our weapons are wit and insult and argument. We can also use this sort of doing philosophy to police ourselves as well – to ensure that we are not deviating from orthodoxy. This is what Philosophy looks like in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition (now called the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith). It’s also what it looks like when Scientology does it. Can you imagine a world where philosophers for hire exist purely as thought cops for this purpose – pruning a communities thought processes to fit their employers design? In fact we’re there already – they are called management change consultants or corporate culture experts.

The classic alternative to this policing function of philosophy is that we care about TRUTH. For some this is the only alternative. In this approach our thinking “needs” to correspond with reality –this “need” can be considered a primal need like hunger, a divinely gifted longing or a self imposed goal (a need by choice basically). This approach encourages us to view the philosophy of those we disagree with not as weeds to be plucked out of a community but as potential sources of learning. The activity of doing philosophy in this approach is not merely to police but to develop and even overturn our own thinking if necessary. This is generally what Philosophy looks like in the hands of the “spiritual seeker” – that is one who is trying to align their self with reality even if they would depart from one spiritual tradition and enter another to do so. That’s not to say that a spiritual seeker can’t also stay in one spiritual tradition too. It is that they are not a loyalist to that tradition before or above the search for truth.
Two problems face the spiritual seeker however. One is that philosophy under the direction of a commitment to Truth can compete with our other needs such as for companionship and community or if not actually competitive Philosophy doesn’t inherently value these concerns. The image of the Truth seeking philosopher might be someone like a young Ludwig Wittgenstein. He constantly fought against his need for other people so as to maintain an isolation that served his work.  If you don’t know Wittgenstein you probably know the image; the unfriendly, tactless, driven scholar who considers their desire for company a weakness. If this is philosophy its fruits appear to be only self-referentially relevant. It is hostile to our social selves and the joys of life. Ultimately we will ask why we are cultivating that kind of thinking. It may be orientated towards truth but it isn’t always healthy. I think those in relationships with people who do a lot of philosophy may understand this point best.

Secondly what are we to do if we discover that Truth can’t be known? The spiritual seeker recoils from this statement as a matter of LOYALTY to their mission not as a matter of TRUTH. Paradoxically this means a betrayal of their mission. Even if they believe that Truth can be known the spiritual seeker knows their commitment to Truth in philosophy is not absolute. In the matter of Truth’s knowability they are a loyalist at heart.
It’s this realisation that has almost led me to give up philosophy more than once. It’s not so much that I despair that truth can’t be known but that I don’t know how to proceed with honesty and integrity without just assuming that truth can be known (which is itself a little dishonest and dis-integritous). Proceeding past this impasse was something I had to do before I started this blog.
And when I did proceed further a whole new territory opened up. This territory is defined by a new motivation. And I’m filled by a new joy. The image of the young Wittgenstein doesn’t have to be my ideal. We can celebrate life with others. That’s quite a relief to an extrovert like me. Ironically it was probably the older Wittgenstein who gave me the final inspiration to be in this territory.
You see in the end Wittgenstein was something other than a classic spiritual seeker. He was uncomfortable with his feelings for others and often a fish out of water (as a gay man in between the world wars from a foreign country and class) but he was also a lover of his friends, a sentimentalist (he carried a well read copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Tale) and enjoyed working with others who shared his way of seeing problems. In fact he was actually always pragmatic. Wittgenstein felt that philosophy’s purpose was to liberate us from the burdens of philosophy. You could even say that Wittgenstein saw the need for Truth as one of those burdens.
In my next post I’m going to explore a bit of this exciting new territory. Feel free to comment if I’ve already stopped making sense because after this it gets weirder.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Science vs God (and The Coffee Table).

I was involved in a recent exchange of ideas which seemed to me to have at its heart a gross misconception about Science. The issue was whether Science could prove that God doesn’t exist. At the same time my partner is reading a book which describes Catholic opposition to birth control as superstition (implying that support for birth control would be scientific by contrast). I thought its time to set the record straight about what “science” does and how it does it. Unfortunately there’s no “straight” record of science to go by.
Science is itself a subject of sociological study. If you take Levi Strauss perspective then Science extends back into the proverbial mists of time. “Primitive” [1] science is just trial and error with some memory of results. “Modern” science is not so different – the note taking systems are usually more regulated and the questions are less concrete  at times – but the principle is the same.
In fact Science and religion are not distinct in any way for much of human history. Religion (at least in ancient times) was also about trial and error. You made a sacrifice to one God instead of another or in one way instead of another in the same way that you cooked a joint of meat over coals instead of flame or attacked your enemy from a hill top or a valley and then suffered the results. If you were a prophet or sage (a proto-scientist) and your advice ruined dinner or lost a battle then your model of reality was brought into question. With some swift talking you might be able to account for the discrepancy but your claims about God, magic, divination and destiny just like your claims about cooking and tactics were likely to fall out of favour in relation to other peoples. Similarly success brought credibility.
Now in addition to this role of science/religion – the role of producing direct results – religion/science had another role. This can be understood as social cohesion. Basically you could make a very good case that the Gods wanted the smartest woman in the village to be ruler. This could even be tried with success. If your explanation led to social unrest or if the smartest woman had usurped the angriest man then there was a possibility that your theory could be “disproven” by a violent vote.
That’s an unflattering example of the politicisation of science/religion. A more positive example is that two peoples may have competing claims over a fishing cove. The model of reality worth having would have enabled the peoples to share the cove without abandoning the warrior attitudes necessary to protect their other borders. Other models of reality may have been leading to wasted resources and possibly no-body being able to use the cove safely.
Nowadays we would call this kind of science/religion, political science. To modern eyes this fishing cove example appears completely different to problems about how fire operates on meat - but why? In both cases models of reality are being tested on the basis of their benifits. In primitive cultures science/religion are both remembered through story telling. We would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the stories which explain the hygiene rules of primitive cultures and the stories which explain who is the king and why there is one. This is not to say that cultures can’t “believe” their stories (holding them to be absolutely correct without a metaphoric quality). This too is no different to modern western cultures. However we now seem to have two different ways of storytelling, Science and religion which are supposedly hostile to each other.
The source of the split between science and religion is hard to uncover. Bertolt Brecht in The Life of Galileo suggests the split is a consequence of religious persecution of claims of new knowledge based on direct observation; in reaction these claimants have to become purely interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake and abandon any goal of serving humanity to religion. This is what we call Science. Brecht is writing a commentary on his own atomic age however under the guise of history so this is not a reliable source. The play is compelling though and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
The split between science and religion may simply be a consequence of accelerated change and what Levi Strauss calls the shift from a cold to a hot culture. A hot culture celebrates winning whereas a “cold culture” tries to avoid anyone losing; celebrating in game terms “the draw”. Cold cultures are capable of mainintaining consistency for a lot longer than hot cultures which are far more adaptable. We can see this operating in regard to the conflict between generations. Cold cultures utilise traditions of elder respect and formalised rites of initiation to adulthood so that there are smooth transitions in leadership. Hot cultures are wilfully blind to generational tensions. Knowledge claims are meant to be evaluated regardless of their authors’ prestige and oppositional debate is highly valued. Knowledge production in a hot culture is akin to boxing with the expectation that one day some “young turk” will K.O. the previous champion, only to be K.O.d themselves one day.
It would be neat to say that Science has become a term to capture hot culture values while religion is the refuge of cold-culture values. Certainly there are associations which back up this claim; hypothesis vs. hypothesis to the death is the scientific approach while interpreting findings to fit in with previous revelation is religions game. However we enter a circular problem of definition. Basically we would have to conclude that religion in its hot states is being “sciencey” and science in its cold culture forms is becoming a “religion”. This is generally what occurs by advocates of science over religion. Their definition proves itself and is really just a championing of hot culture values. I think it is fairer to try and identify another distinction and then allow hot and cold culture values to explain how science in (mostly hot) forms and religion in its (less commonly hot) forms thrive or struggle.
Remembering that primitive science/religion is also sciences’ history, any distinction between science and religion to be found is not going to be a creed that begins and ends what is science. Instead we can see progressive (and contentious) clarifications of science that gradually distinguish it from religion until we have our current split. Three distinctions I can identify are the philosophies of Empiricism, Methodological Naturalism and Logical Positivism. Rather than viewing these as boundaries on science I see them as waypoints which indicate a direction. Scientists are never just those who completely adhere to these ideologies but the cluster of people who are close to them. To put it another way these philosophies are the flagships of the scientific enterprise of their times (and cultures).
 Here are my immensely crude summations of Empiricism, Methodological Naturalism and Logical Positivism. Firstly Empiricism states that the vehicle of knowledge is sense data alone. This does more than rule out other less fragmented pictures of what is known (ie. intuition). Empiricism resets the direction of knowledge creation as coming from the observer rather than from the observed object. It is observing that creates what we know of things not “being” by the thing itself. This means the natural awe generated by empiricism is really awe of one’s observational powers rather than of an external object; a big difference to a sense of being spoken to by nature.
An even bigger consequence of empiricism is a move away from the goal of knowing true reality. As all we can ever obtain is sense data generated by observation, then an underpinning reality represented by the sense data is only a possibility – it’s not a knowable thing. The strict empiricist would say this doesn’t matter. There may not really be a coffee table in the middle of the room, however the sense data of a coffee table like foreground image over the carpet, allows us to reasonably predict that running across the room will lead to some nasty sense data in our shins. Sense data is all we have and all we need. An underpinning reality is only a predictive model of future sense-data. This reduces the primacy of knowledge derived from core-to-core or soul-to-soul meetings between knower and subject. Such experiences (including religious ones) are rebadged as feelings/sensations. What was once a privelaged knowledge is, under empiricism, less than seeing.

That's some nasty sense data there.

This leads directly to methodological naturalism, the explicit practical assumption that the only types of explanations science should look for are ones which are predictable and which can be controlled for; essentially “natural” explanations. What this means is that the sense data of the coffee table image and the hurt shins should avoid explanations which wont obey laws that help us to avoid banging our shins or predict other sense data. This has proven to be a useful limitation for society as essentially rogue explanations which we can’t predict are unable to be applied by us to solve their own and other problems. If we assume that the coffee table is a physical object we can step around it and we can put a coffee cup on it for example. Methodological naturalism however makes a big assumption that all knowledge is supposed to be practically applicable and this assumption can portray not only God but free will as “useless” explanations.
Logical Positivism is the most controversial of our three philosophical waypoints for Science. In its strongest form this philosophy holds that a statement is meaningless unless its validity can be conclusively established by a finite process. Although this seems reasonable this principle soon came into difficulty. Can the validity of the statement “there is a coffee table in the room” be established? Most would say yes. Look there it is. But what about the statement, “there is no coffee table in the room”? We can imagine all sorts of tests that would prove this reasonably but conclusively? (What if the coffee table was magicked invisible?)
As the totalising philosophy its authors imagined it to be Logical Positivism hasn’t been a success. There are however legacies of Logical positivism that have defined Science. Statements for which no process for establishing any validity can be imagined have been recategorised as nonsense for the purposes of doing science. This extends to ethical judgements and much of metaphysics (including God). Related to this is the importance of falsibility. Falsibility, the ability to be proven false, is now a pre-requisite of any meaningful serious scientific hypothesis. Of course to the extent that the narrative of science is generally accepted as the means of producing knowledge then this nonsense description of metaphysics and the importance of falsibility is taken up by broader culture. If anything this seems to me to be provoking a backlash particularly in the areas of ethics where society wants to have more than personal preference as a guide.
So can Science prove there is a God or not? I hope that I have shown that Science just isn’t a discrete entity so saying what Science can or can’t do is only ever based on the Science of a particular culture and time. It’s possible that future philosophical pushes will create a Science that is deeply interested in supernatural explanations and metaphysics. If so that would be very different to what we have now. As it is now Science is disinterested in the supernatural and metaphysics precisely because they cannot be put to use by us. In the same way that primitive science/religion evaluated its own culture we are all in the process of evaluating whether that disinterest is a beneficial approach to reality.
Science as it stands now is also only interested in those hypotheses which can be disproven. Is God such a hypothesis? Can anyone (not just Scientists) prove God doesn’t exist? Or for that matter can anyone other than Scientists prove that God exists? If not wouldn’t that mean that believing in Gods existence is just a personal affair like aesthetics? Or even nonsensical? Before reaching that conclusion however we should ask whether believing something and being able to prove something are the same thing. I certainly don’t live my life as if they entirely are.
Lastly and most importantly science is not about the existence of things anyway. Science is about developing predictive models of reality. A scientist doesn’t think of their belief in the coffee table as the goal and conclusion of their research. The conclusion of their research is more likely to be a reduced incidence of shin injury and a place to put their coffee cup. If the coffee table is actually God or a chaotic ball of electrons or mostly emptiness but for all intents and purposes the label coffee table captures the sense data we obtain from observing it and are going to obtain from interacting with it... well who cares?
The real point at which Science encounters God is in the investigation of applications of a belief in God such as prayer and whether they are reliably supportive of Gods existence. This is how science investigates such phenomenon as  Tarot cards, Ouija Boards, Water Divining, Vitamin loading to prevent cancer, Drinking Milk to prevent Osteoporosis, nailing wood to hold it together and so on. “Does She work?” is the scientific question of God.
The original theological experiment; Elijah calls down fire from heaven.
So far any scientific study I have seen has failed to show outcomes from “using” God that support Gods reliability. When people (generally not scientists) suggest that science has proven God is nonexistent this failure to perform is the only reasonable thing they might be referring to. However aside from some faith healers, most modern theists don’t expect God to be “useable” in this way. As C.S. Lewis put it God is not a “tame lion” who answers our commands.
It’s something to note that if worshipping a God does not provide tangible benefits then modern religion has moved further from primitive science/religion than modern science has. It would be unrecognizable to ancient people (including the Hebrews for much of the Old Testament) that a God is not supposed to be evaluated on their efficacy. It may even be that acts of worship that don’t have any anticipated “pay-off” in terms of tribal and individual success are ultimately not sustainable. Time will tell.
Time will also tell if the real issue is not whether God exists at all. If we recall the other primitive purpose for models of reality is to produce social cohesion and minimise unnecessary conflicts. It may be that we will not miss God as a cure or cause of disease or as a bringer of military success or failure or as anything particular useful in themself. It may be that we will miss our belief in God and the social effects that has. That’s a political science question.     

[1] This post is already too long to consider making it more comprehensive or self-critical. Please treat it as a rough introduction and accept the somewhat circular definition of primitive as pertaining to cultures without a marked division between science and religion.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Worshipping a small god.

It was recently put to me that my picture of God is too small. On the one hand I can deny that charge quite easily. My God as a non-theist is nothing. The only people who have a God as large as mine are the pantheists who worship everything. After all every Buddhist knows that the only thing as large as everything is nothing –the two being complimentary sides of the same concept. I’m not being facetious here. Both Buddhists (and Daoists even more so) make a lot of the smallness of particular Gods in comparison to emptiness or the dao.
The accusation however was not about the non-God (no-thing) I profess to actually believe in. What was being referred to by the smallness of my God was the smallness of my imagined Divine being. I actually consider it a very valid (though incorrect) criticism. It’s a fair question as to whether it’s true that my picture of God is too small even though I don’t believe in them. I agree that any answer as to whether or not you think God exists is less important than who would you worship as God if you believed they existed. Whether you believe God exists is after all a matter of your experience (hopefully). What you consider God is a matter of your values and to me much more interesting.
I’m also more than happy to respond to the question as I particularly find the idea of worshipping a small god fascinating. I’ve been wondering a lot about it lately. What if your God couldn’t kick all the other Gods arses? What if they didn’t control the universe and everything that went down? What if they couldn’t make people believe in them, or decide who didn’t? But they were still your God.
Is that even possible? Can we imagine size (which I equate, perhaps foolishly, with power and majesty) ever not being a defining characteristic of God? I sometimes feel that I labour under a version of God largely determined by the Christian Reformation. This God can’t be assessed morally by mere humanity. This God is good but they aren’t known by that Goodness because humanity in its depravity can’t recognize Goodness reliably enough to find God by it. Instead this God is known by their might and by might I’m talking off-the-charts might; omnipotence, complete control over everything, absolute sovereignty. In brief this is a God known by their power whose goodness is a matter of faith. They are God only because of their size.
What if we reversed that? What if we had a God who was known by their goodness but whose power was a matter of faith. This is our small god. They are what we might consider God if we were content with small. What would such a God look like?
Firstly let’s consider the following prayer,
Dear God,
I know you cannot prevent my enemies from harming me.
I accept that bad things will still happen despite you.
God, I hope I can bear when bad things happens to those I love as well
And you cannot save them
I shall remain faithful to you
I shall not turn to other Gods who can protect me.
I shall not even turn to other Gods who can protect those I love.
Although you cannot make me I will worship you, my God,

This prayer gives a picture of what the worship of a small god might look like. For me the comparison with a commitment to non-violence is obvious though every attempt I have made to write out the connection has been clunky and insuccinct. The connection for me is obvious because I instinctively imagine “turning to a god” to mean putting one’s faith in a method or approach. I think of worshipping a God as a gangster worships his gun or an investor his business acumen or a politician his charm.
When we turn to a God of “size” the method we trust in is violence because violence is essentially about making things happen, about control and about the virtue of power. If we worshipped a small god (deliberate small-g) then we would instead be putting our faith in powerlessness. We would be turning to non-violence.
Now it is possible to be non-violent precisely because you believe in a large God who makes things happen. It is quite possible to repeat “Vengeance is Mine” sayeth the Lord. Here we hand our violent duties up. We refuse violence because to engage in it is to (attempt to) usurp God’s role and we wait patiently for God to kick ass instead.
Similarly we can be non-violent because violence isn’t tactically effective in a particular situation. Consider a discussion about tactics before an anti-logging action. One person may argue against using aggressive tactics because the break-up of peaceful protests on the news will look so bad that public support will swing to their cause and force the logging to stop (whereas aggression would do the opposite). That is an argument which both anti-violence and pro-violence protestors can appreciate.
Both of these essentially strategic rejections of personal violence are not worshipping a small God. I consider them important to mention so that we can put them to one side. There is a deeper commitment to non-violence. This is an active and complete rejection of violence in principle. Sometimes this is thought of in terms of non-action. The Daoists who reject violence take this path. Others have replaced violence with love. This would include Buddhists and of course Christianity.
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5: 9)
“You have heard that it was said: An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, don’t resist him that is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
If any man would go to law with you and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
Give to him who asks you and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.
 You have heard that it was said: You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy; But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
(Mathew 5:38-45)

Then Jesus said to him, “Put up your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword will die by the sword” (Mathew 26:52)

A common soundbite is how deeply confusing Jesus as God was to the 1st century. Here was a weak God who couldn’t stop his own arrest, couldn’t overthrow the Roman oppressors, or protect his temple, got hungry, tired and hurt. Heck, they got dead. What kind of God was that? 
The soundbite continues that the Jews failed to recognise their messiah because they were looking for a militaristic God who would change the world forcefully. The idea that a God wouldn’t or couldn’t kick arse was insane – size effectively equalling Godhood.
Strangely evangelical Christianity seems to be back in the same place it places 1st century Judaism. The evangelical Christian looks forward to the strong image of the returning God presented by Revelation rather than backwards to a Gospel God who didn’t make Empire. This Revelation Jesus is the fantastic God who kicks arse. They are the same hopefully militaristic, world changing messiah that the soundbite above attributes to the hopes of first century Jews. Basically if we understand The Revelation of John even semi-literally we have a very different attitude to violence, to power and to making things happen than the Gospels give us.
Jack Caputo is a theologian who illustrates this point brilliantly. He describes the Christian Gospel with Revelation as “violence deferred”; The cross is not God rejecting violence but God suspending its use until the end times. In fact the only way to avoid the violence of our eventual punishment is to enter into the symbolic rescue of the cross. This in effect makes the cross violent. We are being invited to be grateful to Jesus for saving us but at the same time the invitation is written on a baseball bat (or a horse’s head in our bed). And we can rest assured that Jesus is only sparing Roman rule (indeed any alternative rule) for a little while.
It would be cute for me to conclude that the evangelicals have got it wrong and that Christianity is indeed the worship of a small or weak god. It would make a neat rejoinder to the accusation that began this piece (which came from a Christian). When discussing this idea with non-christians they have often jumped to this conclusion without my mentioning Christianity at all.  Tolstoy, whose The Law of Love and the Law of Violence I am currently reading would agree with them. He makes a great case that Christianity is love in the place of violence without exception.
I’m not sure I agree though. I think God’s powerful return is deeply imbedded in Christianity. I think you can make a case that Christianity should evolve into something non-apocalyptic (it’s been two thousand years after all) and that it must go beyond understanding the atonement inside first century concepts of justice. I just don’t know if it’s fair to say that’s what Christianity is just because that’s what I might think it should be. I think that kind of claim is a type of linguistic violence.
So what about me though. Do I worship a small god? My own attitude to violence is an ambivalent one. I have received violence from the state and it was both the uncivilised boot to the head and the civilised false charges and a court date. I know that violence can occur explosively particularly if your skin is darker and your accent thicker or you mess with people’s ideas about gender but also even when those things don’t apply. I know it can make no sense.
I also know we live in a world where violence lurks at the end of many conversations. Certainly I have been a resource gate-keeper and a key-twirler in my employment in social services. Sometimes it’s been my call that’s led to someone being evicted from a housing or detox program. Ultimately I’ve called the cops to do my violence for me if conversation doesn’t work. Only by kidding myself that I am only what my own hands and feet do can I pretend this is non-violent. The possibility of that phone call and my relative power in making it permeate my interactions with “clients” or “residents” at all times. Honestly the threat of violence is distant but still present in every conversation about cleaning up your own mess or attending a group meeting that I’ve had.
Lastly I’m aware that I am fairly articulate and that this articulation can be experienced as violence to people without it. There are definitely rhetorical “tricks” that are deceptive. Equally definitely there are rhetorical “sledgehammers” which are a kind of violence. Sure they don’t threaten life and limb but they try and make things happen conceptually that are inescapable. I narrowly avoided one when I refused to say Christianity is what I think it should be.
I certainly didn’t enjoy receiving violence and I feel uncomfortable wielding it (directly, via the state or even in language). However I am not prepared to completely reject it. I am scared for my family almost every day. I get angry at bullies and would rather get between them and their next victim with all the force I need to stop them. On the conversational level I am tired of tolerating homophobic and sexist drivel that hides behind claims of “separate but equal”. I want to slap it down. Really, really honestly I want and feel I need violence. I care about results too much in some regards to throw away the certainty of outcome that violence offers.
Quite frankly I am too frightened to really say the prayer in this blog. I can see myself turning from a God who can’t help me to methods which can. I admire those who are braver – people like Ghandi and Tolstoy and Oscar Romero who remained with non-violence no matter what. Maybe I will get there one day but I’m not there yet. I am just not brave enough to worship a small god.