Monday, 13 July 2015

GO SET A WATCHMAN


The controversy over Go Set A Watchman - Harper Lee's long anticipated yet unexpected sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird -  is highly misdirected.  Many readers are shocked and incensed that the hero of Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, is seemingly redrawn in the sequel to be intolerant and racist like some of his opponents.  Many have threatened to boycott it or, even worse, to ignore it in relation to Mockinbird.

This smacks somewhat of an idealistic need to maintain a binary opposition between good and bad, and hero and villain.  This distinction does not allow that those with repellent or unacceptable views can do good things, or that those who seek truth or justice like Atticus Finch can be racist and believe in what we would consider to be shameful things.  This is highly unrealistic.  Firstly, Atticus Finch is a talented lawyer.  This means that his personal views would not necessarily influence his professional deeds.  Secondly, Finch, like many other people of his time, might well have been racist yet at the same time believed in justice.  It is perfectly possible that someone like Finch could believe that black people are inferior, however still advocate their right to fair treatment and a decent trial, and also their right not to be punished for something they have not done.

The writer Toni Morrisson critiqued Mockingbird as presenting a "white saviour narrative".  This may or may not be true, however other cultural texts can be found which seem to present the solution to the racial injustice as coming from the white community:  the film A Time to Kill is another example.  The problem with this narrative is that it allows us to think that the racist white majority was somehow misguided but had the goodness within it to overcome its prejudice anyway, without the courageous black struggle.  And this almost lets them off the hook in that it forgives or justifies the original racism and suggests it is atoned for.   What I presume Harper Lee is doing in Watchman, is to show that people who do good things can also believe in bad things and do bad things too.  She is showing that there is no idealistic opposition between good and bad people, and that racism cut so deep that even seemingly otherwise decent people were taken in by it.  We may think a little less of Atticus Finch, but he is a real person and probably more reflective of a real person of his type in his place and era.  People like him existed in that they defended the rights of black people whilst still believing they were inferior or subhuman.  This was indicative of part of the problem, showing that the dominant part of society of the time did not have the resources of ethics and justice to overturn this depth of inhumanity and prejudice, and Lee is using her character to highlight this rather than creating an unrealistic, simplistic saintly hero.  I look forward to reading Go Set A Watchman, and intend to take Atticus Finch as I find him, not as naive readers might wish.

 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

A rather disturbing joke

A coffee shop owner made the headlines after the UK General Election for putting up this sign (photograph from The Independent):


Several other venues also did similar, including a garden centre in Lewes amongst other places.

For some this might be the exercising of some kind of justice, the gaining of vengeance, or even some kind of joke. 

The process of suffrage is a precious right, and the voter has a right to vote privately for any legally registered, democratic party they choose.  To put up signs demanding that people declare who they voted for so they can have their right to privacy desecrated and then be humiliated and penalised for voting a certain way, is an utter disgrace.  It is also arrogance of the highest degree - for someone to assume their choice of voting is morally or ethically more righteous than that of someone who voted differently.  How dare they.  How idiotic of them too.  This action is not consistent with left wing liberal politics, the Labour movement, or the Green movement.  It is more akin to fascism or authoritarian dictatorships.

Another thing:  Despite its several disadvantages, one of the great benefits of the purest aspects of the capital market is that it does not discriminate on anything else other than money.  It does not see colour, race, religion, class, nationality, sexuality, gender or politics.  It only sees how well people can make money or increase productivity - whether they are able to sell or buy.  In some significant ways this is a problem, but in other ways it is a refreshing freedom that transcends prejudice.  The spirit of a liberal democracy is that when we engage in business we do not discriminate on who should be permitted to consume based on their identity, beliefs or opinions.  If these business owners want to do so then they should not run businesses at all - they should simply run their venues informally for family and friends and not open them to the public.  They have no right to the foot-stream of the general public or access to the vibrant market that is made possible partly by other successful businesses and the democracy that keeps this market, and the people who engage with it, safe and open.  In short, they should shut up or shut up shop.



Sunday, 21 December 2014

DOES THE EARTH GO AROUND THE SUN, OR THE SUN GO AROUND THE EARTH ?


One of the biggest errors some people make, is to assume that in order to be interested in theology, religion or the study of religious texts, traditions and rituals, one must be committed or subscribed to a particular religion.  Usually the assumption is that you are Christian.  This leads to, and contributes to,  a wider public misunderstanding of religion and theology.

The misunderstanding is constituted of many specific errors of varying complexities.  However, it is not merely the academic-laity who commit them - I heard an eminent scientist say on TV the other day that developments in astrophysics which suggest a state of being prior to the Big Bang disprove the argument for an Original Cause, and thus necessitates religious people to need to rethink their theology.  Apart from the apparent neglect of reams of ontological and existential philosophy, it assumes that all those concerned with theology are merely trying to prove that a god created the universe.  Now, I know that some theologians and scholars might only be concerned with such proving, but many theologians are not.  And furthermore, the attempt by scientists to disprove religion through science is as naive as an attempt by the fundamentalist religious to use religion to disprove science.

I do not want to talk about my personal religious beliefs and, as I told a group of sixth form students in a talk I delivered the other week, my beliefs are totally irrelevant.  Now, I would never try and claim they do not bias my work, but no more than Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking are biased by their atheism and ideological scientism (but I am arguably more self-aware of my bias than they are, and thus more able to address it).  As far as I am concerned, theology is a branch of philosophy that deals with how people understand the world around them in terms of where they come from and where they might end up.  Theology is not necessarily just a study of "gods" (though it does include it), even though the name might infer so through "theos", which is Greek for God.  Parallel to this, physics does not include, necessarily, a study of Greek "phusis" as "nature" in its entirety (physics does not necessarily include the biological study of flowers, or the geological study of rivers).  Indeed, Buddhist theology is not about the study of gods among Buddhists who do not believe in the concept of a "god".  However, one can still talk of Buddhism under the umbrella of religions and theology.  Ancestor worship in some tribal societies does not always accommodate gods either.

Theology is a tool for studying the world we live in, which goes beyond the physical and concrete world.  Science cannot claim supremacy as a discipline, as we also live in thought worlds, and are influenced by philosophies, ideologies and theologies in everything we do.  Even objective truth, and scientific fact are never fully pure because they must be described through language, which in its most apparently neutral form is already-always ideologically compromised.  Canguilhem, in La connaissance de la vie, explained how the biological concept "cell" is ideologically loaded because Hooke borrowed the term from monastic and prison cells when he viewed a plant cell under a microscope.  If we look at the concepts "atom" and "nucleus" we will also find similar presuppositions inherent in them.  We say the Earth goes around the Sun, and the Moon goes around the Earth, because we ideologically privilege motion and movement through a capitalist idealism.  But if we remove that privilege we could argue the Sun goes around the Earth and the Earth goes around the Moon.  If you think I'm going mad, get two tennis balls, hold one still and move the other around it in orbit.  Then, take your focus off the stationary ball (I'm assuming this is where your primary focus is) and place it on the moving ball, and the effect is much different - what is centred becomes displaced and marginal.  Any sense of certainty is disrupted.

 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

ON CHURCHES AND DENOMINATIONS

I have been thinking for a few days what to say about the concepts of "church" and "denomination" and my reasons for not wanting to be a permanent member of any example of either.

The concept of "church" derives from the Greek word ek-klesia, which was used in many classical Greco-Roman texts to mean "assembly", although its (allegedly) literal meaning could be broken down to something like "calling-out", or "out-calling" (Greek ek = "out"; klesia = prob. related to kale-ow which means "I call".    [See the Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary or Cambridge NT Greek Dictionary for further study].  Perhaps this is because, in the simplest of circumstances, town or village officials might call people out of their houses to discuss important matters pertaining to their locality either in the street or in the assembling place. 

The use of the word ekklesia in the NT is not consistent with our concept of "church", and certainly does not stretch to accommodate the concept of "denomination".  From a pastoral point of view in the Pauline epistles, it is mainly used as a term to identify groups of Christ-followers who probably gathered in the houses of those with the space and means to facilitate worship - possibly including wealthy single women [see Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii, Dunn, Beginning From Jerusalem Pt. II amongst many others for good archaeological, historical and sociological analysis of this issue].  Of course, NT texts outside of the Pauline epistles, such as Revelation, use the word and concept of ekklesia in ways that impact other remainders of meaning.

However, I cannot find any NT text that uses ekklesia in a way that indicates anything like what we today consider to be "church", and certainly does not go anywhere near encompassing the concept of denomination.

This aside, it appears to me that the potential structures of organised churches and denominations have effects that are two-fold: they unite, create synergy and co-operation, yet at the same time they can elide difference, individuality and independence.  Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, most organised structures end up erring more on the latter in order to bring about the former.  People within feel obliged to and dependent on others, so they sometimes avoid speaking in order to tow a family line, so to speak.  The Truth of the organisation thus becomes paramount and the truth of the individual secondary. Additionally, those in authority or indeed those with influence in a church group (or any group) can become oppressive, even without knowing or intending it.  What emerges is a status-quo and a set of taboos about what is reasonable and what is unreasonable.  This undermines what the church / organisation was set up for in the first place, and then the church is merely self-perpetuating rather than inclusive - merely replicating its own image like a stencil rather than growing new and fresh parts.  Some churches suffer from this problem at a much reduced level than others, but all churches or structures of faith, really, are subject to it.

As a person who is very independent minded and autonomous, I just cannot be a committed and permanent member of a church community because of this.  That does not mean I can't be a committed member of an individual assembly of people I feel I identify with - say, an individual church group- but not a church organisation or denomination, and certainly never a permanent member of anything.  I am also not suggesting that church is wrong - that is not the case and it certainly suits many people and many people enhance and inspire others within organised church systems.  That is great, and should continue.  However, it is just not for me. 

I cannot speak as part of a group, but only for me.  I cannot (deliberately) adhere to a group identity, only express my own.  Whilst I will be "called-out" when needed, I won't meet with people at a given time or place on a regular schedule.  I won't subordinate my own views and principles to those of an organisation.  I am not part of a body of anything, certainly not a church but also not a fixed part of any entity.  Instead I am an individual consciousness within the body of the Cosmos, yet free-willed and free-floating.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

THERE IS NO RIGHT TO BE RIGHT

The emancipation of people and their right to express their opinion is something that is of fundamental importance, and is one of the qualities which make Western liberal democracies not only more free, but also safer than the theocracies and socialist dictatorships in some parts of the world.

However, such freedom also comes with disadvantages.

One such disadvantage is the development, amongst many people, of the feeling that they not only have a right to an opinion, but a right to be listened to, or even to be right.

They don't.  No one does.

And furthermore, we all have a responsibility to present our ideas and opinions in a justifiable way, with evidence and sources to back them up.  Not just any evidence, but reputable evidence.  For instance, unsubstantiated statistics, quotes from celebrities or unqualified figureheads simply will not do.

Facebook and Twitter is a fertile ground of poorly formed opinions, bad sources and misinformation.

Ben Goldacre keeps a blog called Bad Science, in which he exposes quackery in science, from paranoia over vaccinations to the nonsense of detox.  Looking at social media, I suggest that we need websites called Bad Economics, Bad History and Bad Theology / Bad Philosophy.

Often, when some are challenged over their misinformation, statement of factually incorrect information or bad sources, they react as if they have been deprived of a right.  As if someone is denying them their right to speak.

They do have a right to speak.

But they don't have a right to be spared being told they are making fools of themselves.

Friday, 13 June 2014

JUST WHAT IS "EXTREMISM"?

In this week's episode of Question Time the ex-leader of Respect Salma Yaqoob talked far too much, butted in a lot and seemed to provide an apologetic for some of the very unwholesome activities that have been occurring in the schools caught up in the extremism scandal

But she did make one valid point: that Catholic and C of E schools paid for by tax-payers' money are able to exert their own religious ideology on their pupils and staff without any accusations of terrorism or extremism.

It is important to note that the activity going on in these schools was not religious extremism in the style of say, Hezbollah, with young boys brandishing fake machine-guns listening to Islamist chants whilst being trained up for martyrdom.  Instead, what was allegedly being practised was a fundamentalist Islamic education that was probably not a million-miles off what is taught to children in some fundamentalist Christian families and churches in the UK and USA.  That white women are being described as prostitutes is atrocious.  And segregation of children by gender, as well as the imposition of certain morals on staff, is unacceptable.  But Catholic schools have been selecting staff based on their marital status, moral-standing and reputation for years - and still do.  Not to mention providing some very unhelpful advice on sexual matters.

Whatever was happening in these schools in Birmingham was an unacceptable form of illiberal theocentric teaching... but was not extremism.

Now we have established the right terminology, I would suggest that no schools using tax-payers' money - including faith schools - should be able to impose their religious ideology on staff and pupils contrary to the spirit and ethos of the liberalism our country has developed.  Faith schools have a right to exist because they serve a need in the community and are often better academically and in terms of discipline, but they should also reflect the diversity of the community.  Any religious practice that conflicts with equality and diversity, or with liberty and human rights, or that intrudes into staff or pupils' private lives, should not be tolerated - full stop.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

OLIVE TREES, GRAFTING AND OTHERNESS IN ROMANS 11:16-24

I will be delivering a paper at an important conference for the second time in my academic career on 5th September at the 34th BNTS Conference in the Social World of the New Testament seminar group.  You can read my abstract here.  (I have been erroneously listed as being at Manchester Metropolitan University here - which is odd as it doesn't have a theology department!  I am at the University of Manchester).

In layman terms (and I use this phrase without any superior academic malice), my paper can be summarised as follows:

Paul uses an olive grafting allegory in Romans 11:16-24, in which a wild-olive scion (small piece of living branch) is grafted onto a branch of a cultivated olive tree which has had some of its natural branches broken off.  The wild olive scion is seen to be the Gentile (non-Jewish) believer, and the cultivated olive-tree is seen to be Israel, or the world of the Jewish faith.  One bunch of scholars believe that Paul is reversing the practice of  grafting described by a Greek scientist called Theophrastus of Eresus, which involves the grafting of cultivated olive-tree scions onto wild-trees, so that former can benefit from the strength of the latter.  Paul's reversal of this practice, these scholars hold, shows the Gentiles in a bad light.  Another bunch of scholars believe it shows the Gentiles as adding to or enhancing Israel.  Yet another bunch of scholars believe that Paul is influenced by Columella and Palladius, who advocated the grafting of wild-olive scions onto tired and unproductive cultivated trees, to rejuvenate them.  This, they say, would mean that Paul is showing that the Gentile believers enhance Israel.

Are you with me?

Good.  Now using the deconstruction theory of Derrida, I am going to show that this allegory works in a way that is not necessarily in Paul's control, and instead of  affirming or condemning any ethnic identity, it moves beyond the binary of Jew and Gentile.  What it shows is that the believer grafted in to the tree of Israel adds difference and individuality, and this is what allows the tree to not only grow, but exist.  But the believer is formed outside of the tree, on a wild-olive tree - the Gentile world.  This means that for Israel to exist, it must have input from the outside world.  The interior only exists because of the exterior.

The hermeneutics (meanings we can read from this for today's world) of this are possibly important.  It teaches us that difference, dissonance and even heresy are necessary.  For our own belief to exist or be feasible, we have to look outside - to other cultures, other religions, other traditions, other politics, other ideas. 

Discuss...