New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

Archives: Christianity

Seven Types of Wishful Thinking

I’ve just finished that fine philosopher John Gray’s book, Seven Types of Atheism. As a counter to the modern orthodoxy of a woolly humanism, it is superb. The view that things can only get better as progress occurs by using a scientific approach ignores that humans are animals no better or worse than their provenance permits and that science is morally neutral. His argument is that humanism has taken over from Christianity, making the same mistake in thinking there can be immutable laws to life. The convolutions of a Rawlesian view of justice demonstrate how arbitrary and inadequate humanist laws are, as was the Jewish law. Having previously dismissed the existence of the Christian God as incompatible with the random and cruel world that exists, he then turns on the Christian notion of personhood as a soul with free will, arguing that brain science has effectively demonstrated a total absence of free will, indeed that there is no source of personhood. If we accept this, we could use our manifold instincts to live our natural lives in whatever circumstances we encounter, invoking animistic spirits if that’s how we feel. No meaning can be attached to events, to history, to our lives. The whole concept of salvation from our natures is not only flawed, but rendered unnecessary. Concepts of immortality are not grounded in any experience.
Much of what Gray says is how I feel. But I’m a cradle Anglican who, while making no exclusive claims for faith bringing salvation, finds that the imagery of the Christian message is deeply satisfying. Buddhism may be more cerebral, Christianity more visceral. I prefer Dylan to Leonard Cohen. Story can take you beyond logic and beyond history. The beauty of the King James Bible, the uplift in my spirit(s) from singing Victorian hymns, the joyful memories of the teenage Church Youth Club, will remain in that recurrent assembly of neuronal connections in the brain that I call me. That vastly more connections occur that I am not aware of as I live an instinctual life doesn’t negate this sense of personhood. That it will only exist until death or dementia take it away does create a feeling of sadness, a feeling more intensely suffered with the death of a loved one.
I don’t think that the notion of one God is incoherent. I’ve argued this on these pages before. As a Physicist who can’t accept infinite regress as an explanation, who understands enough of the Maths to be staggered at its ability to tell us so much about the physical world but nothing about how sensations feel, and which as Gödel has shown can never contain a full explanation, I can only keep my head together by taking the infinite and the spiritual out of the physical system, perhaps occasionally meeting on edges.
I’ve nothing against animism. My lovely old dog died last year and we put his ashes under an old oak tree on the Common, his favourite walk. A few weeks ago, there was a deer grazing under the tree who stood looking at me before eventually slowly disappearing into the bushes behind. It was comforting but proved nothing conclusive. I’ve had surprising occurrences which invoked memories from my deceased Mother and Father, a natural explanation of which would involve statistically impossibly large coincidences. They’ve led me to conclude that they or I projected the event or someone up there is taking the michael. I did have one moment when the world unaccountably stood still in my youth. I fancifully pretend it was a point where the edges met, and my resurrection body was taken ready for my spirit to play on at death. That would be a result, a youthful body and a mature soul.
One time, the dog ran off as I let him off the lead, down a busy road to some food he’d spotted a few minutes before. Worried, I chased after him, only to trip over a flagstone and crash over, cutting knees, arms and hands. He’d just reached the food. He heard me fall, looked round, looked again at the food and trotted straight back to see how I was. I’ll give full personhood to animals.
I’ll do my best and fail to live a life that follows natural instincts as informed by the occasional neuronal connection I’ll call conscience urging me to treat others as myself. That won’t earn me salvation. But what I want to be saved from is eternal death.
I know, I want never gets.

The Church of the Holy Allegory

Tracey Ullman’s “A Christian’s Job Interview” is a brilliant piece of writing. A likeable and impeccably qualified woman is about to get the job. The interview panel think she is wonderful. Right at the end, it emerges that she is a Christian. The mood shifts. The candidate gently points out that for the previous 1500 years the British have been Christian. She is ushered out quickly, and once the door is closed, she is now described as weird.
This appears to be the factory setting of nearly everyone under fifty, maybe even sixty. I find it deeply depressing, indeed as I tell my kids, almost treasonable! But I have to acknowledge that it’s happened. At University, my youngest is friendly, but no more than that, with some ‘Christians’ as he calls them, who are ‘nice people’. By Christian, he means members of the Christian Union. They are evangelical and believe in the literal truth of the Bible which they study earnestly, passage by passage. As such, they then believe that their narrow group is ‘saved’ by their faith in Jesus Christ, with the clear inference that all others are damned. That view clearly will cause resentment, as does their use as a rule book of the very rare temporally-conditioned comments in the Bible on matters sexual. To me, this does no justice at all to the gentlest and least triumphalist of faiths, one that believes in victory only through defeat and which has developed the sublime doctrine of the Trinity in an attempt to understand how creator and creation meet.
The most descriptive passage in the Bible on the nature of faith is Hebrews 11.The first verse is: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The rest of the chapter is a description of many Old Testament figures who “…died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off…”, words from verse 13. These people could believe in what a Christ, maybe the Christ in themselves, could do, without seeing him. That sounds like a biblical challenge to exclusivity claims. It to me also suggests that the Christian message can be reached allegorically.
Christianity is not in the Western zeitgeist. The Holy Dove, the still, small voice of calm, is having trouble being heard. Despite Christian imagery abounding in the arts, with those two giants Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s work suffused with it, today’s young give the last word to the scientists, usually life scientists. I’m a physicist by first degree, so naturally find amusing Ernest Rutherford’s comment that all science is either Physics or stamp collecting. It’s true that life science subject matter starts some five billion years after the Big Bang, but I do think they are entitled to see what happened before than as analogous to evolution. What differentiates physics from biology is in the use of Mathematics. And not only does the maths make uncertainty fundamental, but Gödel has shown that no mathematical system can contain its own solution unless it is infinite. Infinities are notoriously difficult to deal with in Maths and he thus suggested that the infinite is outside the system. I make a simple statement. If you could sit outside the system, would it not be rational to view the creation of the conscious human, and animal, world that exists today to be some kind of result? Of course it has resulted from evolution; creationists do the religious cause no favours. Whether consciousness produces any agency can perhaps never be tested. If so it is best to assume that it doesn’t, even if the odd incident suggests otherwise.
What can be said from any introspection is that the mental lives we live are who we really are, rather than the bodies necessary to have them. It’s the mental consequences of the physical world that religion tries to give a meaning to. Maybe there is no meaning. I would dispute that but would accept that it may be only a meaning we give to it ourselves. It is by faith that I believe in a God.
If that God is outside the system, then what use is it to postulate him? I think that’s where religion needs a mystery that sits uneasily both with the bible class mob who try to make salvation a logical matter explicable in words, and the determinist scientists who see everything as physical. The doctrine of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be culturally conditioned and flawed, but speaks to the way we see our mental lives. Not only do we need to be provided, pardoned and guided, but we can think outside the system, as if Gods.
I suspect that during the 1500 years of Christianity in Britain, there have been many whose faith has been mental. It’s highly likely that previous generations had a better ability to understand literary genres than today’s does. Truth comes to us in waves, physical and mental. They didn’t need to separate. The truth in Christianity is a marriage of history and rich theology, with a resulting transcendental imagery. If you can believe in the physical resurrection, which I can, then come worship at the Church of the Holy Cross. If not, come anyway to worship at the Church of the Holy Allegory. You may be the truest of believers.

Labour Englishness

I picked this title up from Isabel Hardman in Monday’s Times in an article seeking to explain how the Labour vote in Oldham had survived Jeremy Corbyn. Wednesday’s Times had another columnist Alice Thomson trying to define Britishness, albeit reluctantly. Although not always expressed as such, the question is being asked in two separate contexts: the secularisation of the indigenous British on the one hand and the wish to find a statement of national identity that can be applied to more recent immigrants on the other. Inevitably, this second context is today dominated by Islamic considerations. Forty years ago the issue would have been seen in black and white terms. But now, black and white cultures are understood not to be that different, both containing a love of blues music, football and cricket, a liberal attitude at least towards heterosexual sex and perhaps a residual affection for Christianity.
I’m seventy years old. I feel like I’m one of the last Victorians and am one of the first baby boomers. I remember well my Victorian grandparents and liked them. I used to sell deck chair tickets for brass band concerts in a Lancashire seaside town as a vacation job and there was nothing cold or austere about those folk born in the 1880s who came along to hear that hauntingly mournful sound. They would talk to me about space travel and ask about the concert taking place in the Hall behind the bandstand that evening, a Merseybeat band usually.
In 1964, aged just 19, I was delighted when Harold Wilson became prime minister, and in 1966 I even canvassed for Labour in an adjacent village. I always like Harold, his northernness being part of what I meant by Englishness. I’ve not voted for Labour much since 1979, when I was in no doubt about south-coast Sunny Jim in preference to Mrs T. After then, a party that preferred metropolitan entryists to Denis Healey wasn’t for me. I admit to a regional aspect to this but not being able to hack the single-issue politics of demonstrations, marches, spokespeople and lobby groups, is perhaps also related to being a mix of villager and townie in background, never urban. I have a conceit I cannot rid myself of, the English as yeomen, living their lives in private but available when the nation needs them.
Alice Thomson talked about Britishness. I am one sixteenth Welsh, fifteen sixteenths English as discovered by genealogy. Since 1600 and therefore probably from 600, my roots are either northern or from Worcestershire. My Y chromosome is fittingly from Yorkshire, just over the boundary line in Heptonstall, but this doesn’t prevent me from indulging in friendly rivalry with the ugly buggers from the dry side of the Pennines. There’s no Irish or Scottish in me, much as I enjoy lilting Celtic music with accompanying tales. The only time I side with Scots is on New Year’s Eve, and I have every year since the BBC started that wretched programme containing no vestige of culture from the ice rink at Somerset House with fireworks over the Thames. I’ll tell my east-ender wife how I’d prefer Andy Stewart singing, “Donald. Where’s your troosers?”’
I am mainly what’s called anglo-saxon, that mix of Germanic tribes settling with those who had come to virgin Britain earlier when there was still a land bridge with Europe. In my youth, that was what was meant by English, although after 1066 the ruling class were not English in this sense. My male ancestors probably didn’t get the vote until 1918, not a lot earlier than the women. I’m chippy to that extent.
I was christened as an Anglican in a church mentioned in the Domesday Book. Nearly all the big events of our family, the births, marriages and deaths have taken place in a church. I find hope and comfort in the Christian message of God being with us, that humans can become God, that victory is in defeat and that only at the end of time will God be all in all. I am happy to view the three aspects of God as less than Almighty before then. For me, a lesser God is a greater God.
In more recent times, I’ve read the less reductionist philosophers espouse the notion that personhood is the story we tell ourselves about our life. In my novel “Where’s Sailor Jack?” I toy with the notion that the story we become is somehow in us from the start, another quaint conceit I can’t shake off. Even having the idea though shows how deep is my sense of personhood as a Lancastrian, middle of the road Christian, fortunate beyond belief but not a member of the ruling class.
The first person I talked to in my life who didn’t have a white skin was a high-born Hindu from Calcutta when I went in 1964 to University at Oxford. This was at a time of white social mobility. From being born in a village in 1945 as the war ended, and brought up in a terraced house with an outside lavatory to going to the most prestigious and snobby University in the country if not the world 19 years later is testament both to what the Labour Party enabled and to the Christian conscience of paternal Toryism. Did I have in me then that a multi-cultural Britain would be established within another half century? I certainly can’t recall it. The nearest I got was singing “We Shall Overcome” along with Joan Baez.
There isn’t just one England. I imagine that both Isabel and Alice are from the home counties, while being thoughtful and well-meaning women. In the unlikely event they were to read this, they’d probably find it somewhat anachronistic.To the extent that they’re county set rather than metropolitan, there could be the odd view they’d recognise. But then we all are anachronisms by the time we’re seventy. Like my Victorian bandstand chums I would talk to the young people about the today’s equivalent of the space programme and rock music, if Simon Cowell hadn’t bought up the rights. I think that’s my Labour Englishness at work.
So I’d be in trouble both on secularisation and on immigration if my upbringing, religion or whatever didn’t tell me that you can’t force anyone into belief and you should treat your neighbour as yourself.