Category Archives: philosophy

Belief and the unbelievable

Brace yourself with the grace of ease, I know this world ain’t what it seems… You’re unbelievable. (EMF)

It’s interesting to consider what is now unbelievable, and what used to be. It would at one time been perfectly reasonable for instance, to believe that the world is flat – now we no longer think that is reasonable.

Similarly it was once very common to believe in a literal six day creation story, these days that is only thought to be reasonable if one belongs to a particular strand of a religious subculture.

Without making any sort of value judgement on the relative strengths or weaknesses of either of these beliefs, what I want to suggest is that there is a power dynamic at play in what is, and what is not, believable.

In both of the examples above, the power dynamic stems from the rule of the church over society. As modernity progressed the norms of belief which had solidified the authority of the teaching of the church as sovereign were gradually eroded – leaving us in a position where now the church is (relative to its previous position) marginalised. Please note that in talking about this I’ve genuinely no interest in trying to perpetuate the idea of the persecution of the church in the West or any of that stuff, I’m simply talking about the way that belief has developed.

What I am keen to do is reflect the way that what is believable and unbelievable changes according to who has particular interests to protect, and what they want to perpetuate. With the church as sovereign then certain Biblicist notions meant that particular things were unbelievable. With the modern ‘secularlist’ upsurge many of these ideas have become unbelievable.

For instance the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, or that women by nature cannot hold positions of power, or that the poor are feckless – beliefs aimed squarely at marginalising sectors of society to solidify the power of another sector.

What this means is that by reflecting on the way the power dynamics affect ‘believability’ we can turn an eye inward and ask what things are unbelievable today.

A good example is the very apparent battle over belief concerning who is to blame for the economic problems we currently face – various groups are lobbying hard to make it impossible to believe that they are responsible.

Another example of that could be the overturn or radical overhaul of the Western capitalist system – to ponder such an eventuality is ridiculous… isn’t it? It’s unbelievable that things could change to such an extent, right?

We need to ask, who currently has particular reason to ensure that certain things are unbelievable?

And what would happen then, if we all began to believe the unbelievable?

Read post one in this series – Belief and the believed.

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Belief and the believed

“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

In JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ the fairy Tinkerbell was saved from death by belief, specifically, belief in fairies. Barrie uses the motif of mythology, specifically mythical creatures, to suggest that in some cases, belief actually CAUSES existence.

But is that true of things other than fairies? I want to suggest that it is.

Where this starts is with ideas – because it is ideas that rule our imagination. But an idea has no power until it is believed.

And like Tinkerbell, who needed lots of belief to make her well again, the more belief there is, the more power an idea has.

Let’s take money as an example. Money is only really an idea, we are long past the time when money actually meant something, if it ever really did. What gives money its power is not what it is actually worth, but what we believe it is worth. If we all stopped believing that money had worth, it would actually be worthless.

We could talk similarly about government, government has power because we believe it has power, and crucially some of us who believe that have decided to learn how to shoot people who don’t believe it.

Belief you see, must be protected, because the consequences of loss of belief are dire indeed.

This has implications for an awful lot of things – in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’ we see a clear explanation of this issue, the god who is the main character of the book has suffered a great loss of belief, and as a result has shrunk away to almost total powerlessness.

Pratchett is actually very good on this stuff, he goes over much of the same kind of material in ‘Hogfather’ too, which also makes a good Christmas movie if you are interested.

So when it comes to it, we need to recognise that while it would appear that the power lies with the believed, actually it lies with the believer, and if unbelief could be manifested on a large enough scale, the power of the believed could be broken altogether.

This is based of course on the relativistic idea that ideas don’t exist objectively. That is something which I am not going to go into now, as it is an idea that I personally half believe (I think some things are objectively real, and others aren’t).

But of course on a deeper level you could question the entirety of existence in this way, do we actually exist in an objective sense, or is this all just an idea that we believe strongly enough to make it real?

Personally I’m not so concerned about that, but I am deeply interested in the idea that ideas which hold power over us can lose their power once they lose their belief, as it demonstrates our collective ability to make genuine and complex changes in the world around us, by making simple changes in what we believe.

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Contemplation or activism?

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik has taught us quite a lot, including that meditation can be used for bad purposes.

Breivik testified that he used a combination of prayer and Bushido (Zen/Samurai) meditation to numb his mind to the fear of death, and presumably also the horror of taking life too.

His is a peculiar case, but by no means unique.

Breivik’s mistakes were manifold and terrible, but one of them was to convince himself that what was needed was action, and then to carry it out. Obviously his decision had terrible consequences.

On a smaller scale, activism always has problems. Activists are convinced that action must be taken, and then busily take it. This translates into all spheres of life, work, family, spirituality etc etc. And sometimes of course its right, the action is vital. The man who calmly watches his toddler stumble off a cliff can hardly be commended for his contemplative attitude.

But at the same time, we modern westerners have become somewhat over reliant on activism as a way of life – it is what gives us status and meaning in our culture.

We need to remember what the writer Henri Nouwen described as ‘the only necessary thing’ an attitude of spiritual contemplation. Nouwen takes his inspiration from the almost too good to be totally true story of Mary and Martha, the one sister, Mary, sits at the feet of her teacher, while the other, Martha, bustles around preparing food and washing the dishes. When Martha complains that her sister is not helping her, the guru explains that Mary has chosen to do the ‘one thing [that] is needed.’

Similarly the betrayal of Jesus is precipitated by a man whose name suggests that he might once have been a member of a knife wielding bunch of Jewish rebels, determined to drive the Romans from their land. When he felt Jesus wasn’t getting the job done, Judas Iscariot decided to tip his hand, with devastating results.

And there are many other examples of those who have chosen an activist path, over a contemplative one, to their detriment. They, we, fail to recall that the ‘only necessary thing’ is not to try and tip the hand of the divine, but to be in his presence.

As Julian of Norwich noted, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’

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The Muddy Road

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

‘Come on, girl,’ said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. ‘We monks don’t go near females,’ he told Tanzan, ‘especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?’

‘I left the girl there,’ said Tanzan. ‘Are you still carrying her?’

Writings from the Zen Masters. Penguin, 2009, p 81.


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Hazelnuts, ego, and death

Millionaire mystic and sometime pseudo-science salesman Deepak Chopra recently described enlightenment as: ‘getting rid of the person that never was’.

There’s something in what he says I think. If one were to become what Chopra calls enlightened, it would surely be through a process of self-unrealisation, whereby one realises that the self you know – is not what you think it is.

Freud classified the psyche as having three ‘theoretical constructs’ – id, ego, and super ego. While the id, or the instinctual part of the psyche hasn’t gone on to become famous, and the super ego is not exactly a rockstar either, the ‘ego’ has become a very popular term. It has the X factor.

Ego has been transplanted into a million-billion conversations, which are basically about ‘big headedness’ or perhaps an overinflated sense of self-importance.

But ego is more than that, in psychoanalytical terms it actually relates to the sense of self, which intervenes between the instinct and the environment – it is, you might say, what classifies each of us as separate entities.

What Chopra is actually saying, I think, is that enlightenment is the realisation that we are in fact ‘all one’. We aren’t confined by the ‘boundaries’ of the ego, or the understanding of self. 

Julian of Norwich, standard-bearer for medieval contemplatives everywhere, had a famous vision.

“And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness, it would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”

The confines of ego-bound self-understanding have to be stripped away if we are ever to become aware that we are given being, only, as Julian puts it ‘through the love of God’. We have, in words familiar to Bible readers, to put the self to death.

By putting the self to death, Christians believe we can ‘become one’ with God, this makes sense if you think about it in the sense of what Julian talks about – everything has being through the love of God, but we separate, quite literally, ourselves by constructing a self. And it must die.

I’ve really got to find a way
Of taking care of him for good
I know he’d kill me if he could
So I’ll nail him to the wood

Killing my old man
You may not understand
He’s a terrible man
Got to make a stand
And kill the old man

(Bob Hartman)

On the other hand – is this ‘mystical one-ness’ a load of mumbo-jumbo, please have your say…

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Projecting immortality – holograms, facebook, and pyramids

What with plans for the late Michael Jackson to tour again by means of a holographic projection, you’d think he’d never been gone.

In fact to the majority of the world, Jacko was always hyper real, more projection of a persona mediated by a television screen, than actual person. So perhaps a hologram of him is just as likely to float the average punter’s boat as a real live performance.

Although he’s the first performer to come back from the dead in this way, this technology has been used to good affect for a while, Prince Charles was using it in 2008.

But what I find particularly interesting is that what such holograms appear to offer, is a genuine shot at humanistic immortality. The development of artificial intelligence over the years hasn’t quite reached Blade Runner standard yet, but programmers are now able to produce bots which can very effectively mimic human reactions, if not emotions, in conversations.

If you add this ability with the popularity of uploading hopes and dreams, memories, likes, dislikes, crushes and pet hates to cyber space via Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and other social sites, and then mix in the holographic technology, it’s no great leap to imagine that one day in the not too distant future, you’ll be able to have a deceased loved one sitting in the same room as you, talking about the old days.

In fact this kind of project has been under development for a number of years, I first researched the subject at the end of the 1990s, when BT of all strange companies were leading lights in the area. They were, and perhaps still are, looking for ways of developing the digital equivalent of a person’s consciousness, by uploading memories and opinions to a cyberspace database/mind.

That technology has become massively democratised in the last few years, as social networking has gripped the collective consciousness. Now if I want to know what people think about a subject, I can visit their page and often quickly glean enough details to form an opinion. If that same idea was subject to a systematic process, and the results fed into a sophisticated AI machine, which was then linked to a holographic projector… kerpow, I am immortal.

Immortality experiments aren’t particularly new of course, all powerful empires had them, and they were generally aligned with the sophisticated technology of the time, hence the reason we now find pyramids, mummies, and monuments of one sort or another around the world.What this appears to be is the scientific rationalist equivalent of the pyramid.

It seems like humanity is generally questing for immortality, and willing to go to great lengths to achieve it – in the Hebrew scriptures, the writer of the book ‘Ecclesiastes’ says, in the gendered language of his time: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” True dat.

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radicals and conservatives

there has been an interesting theological/philosophical discussion going on over at Kester Brewin’s blog. It began as a query as to whether the at times avant garde theology propounded by Pete Rollins, Kester and others was running into opposition, but it has become more about the nature of radical and conservative thinking. If you want to read it all from the beginning then it began with Kester’s first post here, which should be read right through down the string of comments.

Richard Passmore then chipped in to talk about Transitology, Kester blogged again and now Pete Rollins has had a little say too, explaining that both radicals and conservatives are fundamentally backward looking.

It’s an interesting exercise to reflect upon what the word radical really means, and how that reflects upon theology and ecclesiology.

I would contend that new monasticism is a radical movement in that it seeks to go back to the root of discipleship, however you might say that in adopting practises which have been modelled by other movements it is also a conservative movement. Pete suggests that to hark back to the early church is to adopt a conservative approach, I suppose it depends what the root is one is seeking to return to. If you’re looking more at practise than theology, then your root may be the early church or certainly Jesus, if your root is theology over praxis, then perhaps it goes even deeper.

Perhaps the radical and conservative split is where I think the difference is to be found between the emerging church and the fresh expressions movement – I think of the emerging church as being inherently radical, wheras the fresh expressions scene has always seemed a bit conservative to me.

Anyway, I’m just muttering, its an interesting converation with clever things expounded by people much brainier than me, apparently it all comes from discussions had at Greenbelt and Wild Goose Fest earlier this summer – neither of which I was at. I reccomend you go read.

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life in contrast

By way of change I have been doing some painting today, not oils and acrylics – emulsion. Yeah, I’ve been a decorator for the day, which has made an interesting change. Anyway, as I rollered a wall with Magnolia I was struck by something which is simple but somehow profound.

When the magnolia went over one colour, it looked very dark, but then when it went over another (darker) colour, it suddenly seemed very light.

The paint was the same, but the effect was very different, and the reason for that is contrast. When the paint is contrasted with a light colour it seems quite different to when its contrasted with a dark one, how true of issues in my life and the world generally.

An issue which can seems extremely important/significant/heavy in one context, seems much less so in another – its all to do with what we’re contrasting things with.

I know its obvious, but that paint was impossible to see as anything but dark when painted over a light colour, just as certain things are impossible to see as anything but extremely important until the context changes.

Which means that we must all learn to have more grace with those who are looking at a different coloured wall to us, and seeing the same paint in a different way.

And yes, I am talking to myself more than anyone else.

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Saint of the day – John of the Cross

Catholic Online do a really good ‘saint of the day’ thing, which is a good source of inspiration at times. Today we’re on St John of the Cross, who was a fascinating character.

Here’s an excerpt of what they say about him:

After John joined the Carmelite order, Saint Teresa of Avila asked him to help her reform movement. John supported her belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. But many Carmelites felt threatened by this reform, and some members of John’s own order kidnapped him. He was locked in a cell six feet by ten feet and beaten three times a week by the monks. There was only one tiny window high up near the ceiling. Yet in that unbearable dark, cold, and desolation, his love and faith were like fire and light. He had nothing left but God — and God brought John his greatest joys in that tiny cell.

After nine months, John escaped by unscrewing the lock on his door and creeping past the guard. Taking only the mystical poetry he had written in his cell, he climbed out a window using a rope made of stirps of blankets. With no idea where he was, he followed a dog to civilization. He hid from pursuers in a convent infirmary where he read his poetry to the nuns. From then on his life was devoted to sharing and explaining his experience of God’s love.

His life of poverty and persecution could have produced a bitter cynic. Instead it gave birth to a compassionate mystic, who lived by the beliefs that “Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” and “Where there is no love, put love — and you will find love.”

I believe his life and teachings are an inspiration to all regardless of faith or lack of.

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My thoughts on Piracy

Kester Brewin has been writing a series of articles about Piracy, and how it can/should be re-understood in the context of the church. It was a long and interesting series, following on from some stuff which I didnt hear at Greenbelt.

Richard Sudworth has made a response to Kester’s series of posts, taking  a stand against some of what Kester has to say, and also bringing in the kind of work that Peter Rollins has been involved in.

Indeed the two are from a similar mould, they both write stimulating and challenging prose which I find intriguing and troubling at the same time, in general I’m a fan. But what about their arguments?

In the first place I should say that I think its important there are people like Kester and Pete out there doing their thing. My personal view is that we need to have people like them asserting points of view which are unpalletable and challenging, whether we eventually agree with them or not. I have written before that we need to ‘re-wild’ the church, and that we need to be a lot less comfortable with our faith/religion.

But having said that, and albeit that I am no theologian, I do have a number of issues with some of the stuff they say, lets take the piracy thing.

First there is the concept of piracy itself – what is it really? Is it the great heresy, full of creativity and innovation? I would argue that it isnt. I would say in fact that piracy is simply free market capitalism taken to its logical conclusion.

Piracy is basically a way of making money and obtaining goods or services by finding a way of getting it from other people at the lowest possible cost to yourself. Capitalism encourages the people at the bottom of the ladder to strive to get up it, and it encourages the idea of taking a short cut if possible. That is called ‘efficiency’. Thus we are all trying to stay ahead of others, and in our own way, through systemic exploitation,  all contributing to the death and destruction, rape and torture of others, but for most of us its a few steps removed from our hands. For the archetypal pirate, its right there in front of them.

Piracy also serves another purpose, that of safeguarding the orthodoxy. While there are pirates in the seas, we must have gunships, soldiers, private military contractors. The threat of piracy is what legitimises the defence of the orthodoxy, the pirates are out to get us, so we must have something to protect us. Piracy therefore is a necessary part of our system, rather than being the innovation, its the bogey man which is used to keep children in their beds. (I dont use bogey men stories to keep my kids in their beds… much.)

Oh and my opinion of why kids like pirates? The idea of piracy is one of having what the world offers, without the need for adherence to an ethical code, its basically getting stuff, without responsibility to others save your loyal buccaneer pals. The dream is to buckle a swash, steal some treasure, and sail off into the sun with not a care in the world, looking for an island full of willing maidens, or even unwilling ones if necessary. Kids like pirates because we socialise them into liking the idea that you could have everything you want, without needing to be the poor sucker at the bottom of the pile who has to clean up the mess. The pirate is top dog, answerable to no man but himself and those he chooses (the pirate ship as democracy scenario), he (yes usually it is a he) spurns the idea of obeying the external rules, and chooses to take what he can instead with a piratical wink and an unaccountable forgiving nature for young people (Long John Silver, Capt Adam Penfeather etc).

So I dont hold with the utopian concept of piracy, I do understand the horrendous situation faced by some of the pirates in Somalia, fish stolen, toxic waste dumped, etc etc, and I can understand why they do what they do. Does that make it right? Not at all. Nor does their action make it right that the US navy patrols the area with gunships and missiles. None of it is right, and it is all caused by the disaster that Somalia has become, a disaster which has been exploited by the richer nations to legitimise their own ways of thinking/behaving, and to be hauled out as another example of what happens when ‘Africa goes bad’.

On another form of piracy, that of ripping off music and films, and the ubiquitous complaint that the anti piracy adverts at the beginning of DVDs are annoying. This aggravates me on two fronts, firstly, the whole DVD piracy thing is actually right. Organised gangs do make lots of money from counterfeit goods, they might not wear jaunty hats, and they may live in houses not boats, but these pirates are responsible not just for one form of crime, but for many forms. Any criminologist can tell you that people involved in this form of organised crime are more likely to be involved in other forms, whether that be drugs, prostitution or whatever. This is just another way of making money.

Does that translate to those illegally uploading and downloading music and films on the internet? No, but there is a difference between music and films, in particular the scale.  Iwould suggest that there is a huge moral question over whether we should watch hollywood films at all. The vast sums of money spent on the industry are obscene, and the disparity between the elite and the oppressed are only aggravated by the development of the film stars. Not to mention the fact that the development of the film industry has spawned brainless TV entertainment which is slowly killing our minds, and also taken us away to a large extent from the interaction of live entertainment, which at one time we might each have been a part of. That’s a discussion for another day.

I think there is a genuine argument that the music industry needs to change its structure and methodology, I find Steve Lawson’s arguments very persuasive on this, and while I personally do not conduct illegal file sharing, nor do I suggest anyone else should, I can understand the suggestion that music is much better given away for free like this. There is a social and economic reasoning behind it which makes sense.

Is that the same for films? No, because films dont have the same dynamics, they cant come live in your living room like a band or musician can, and the cinema and the concert hall are two quite different places. There does need to be new thought on all this, but to moan about anti piracy ads on the front of your dvd makes no sense at all to me. Is it subversive to try and rip off films and music? Or is it just an attempt to obtain goods and services at the lowest possible cost to oneself? The latter being the orthodox view of this society by the way, and one which as I said before inevitably results in piracy of one sort or another.

Do I think that we need heretics (a la Brewin and Rollins) in the church, I do actually yes, I think this links to an earlier post I wrote about re-wilding the church. I think there is a calling on some to be provocative, to be wild and out there, in all directions. They help the rest of us by making us re-examine our comfortable philosophies. Richard Sudworth also correctly points out that any group can be on the margins depending upon its context, no one form of Christian faith community has the monopoly on being marginalised. I am more and more of the opinion that we need to be fully accepting of all kinds of church and Christian practise, and a bit more demanding of ourselves in terms of discipleship.

Richard Sudworth questions the morality of what Kester and Pete are espousing, suggesting that it undermines any notion of an objective truth based morality, and of course it does. Both these guys are very much of the postmodern school (imho) and seem to come close to denying the very pillars of our beliefs. While I can understand the point they are making, I feel that in this case postmodernity misses the point. What we need is rather than a postmodern frame of reference, a pre-modern frame of reference, which requires not disbelief, but an active suspension of disbelief on our part. I’ll write more on this another time hopefully.

So on balance, while I am interested, intrigued and stimulated in my thinking by these questions of piracy and the orthodoxy of heresy, I am less than convinced by all the arguments, well done to Richard Sudworth for taking it all apart much more insightfully and eloquently than I ever could, and lets all keep listening to one another.

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