Thursday, 31 May 2007
The historian E. P. Sanders wrote a famous book ' famous book, "Paul and Palestinian Judaism"
In the index is an entry which says 'Truth, ultimate', with three page references, pages 30, 32 and 430; but when you turn to those pages you find that each one is blank! That is quite deliberate on the part of Sanders!
I'm trying to collect snippets from Max Warren; here is the first.
Max Warren on Honest to God:
Do you know somebody who thinks quite hard, finds life extremely difficult to understand, but who can make no sense whatever of the Christian religion?--the nice man next door who catches the same bus as you do each morning, the fellow at the office you sometimes have lunch with, that chap at the works, a pal you meet at the pub--and, of course, the feminine equivalent of all these?
With the best will in the world these folk just do not understand what the Christian means when he talks about God. Jesus is something of a mystery man, very wonderful, but he lived a long time ago. The Holy Spirit--that just does not register. The Bible--Sunday School stuff. Religion --all right for those that like it, but it doesn't seem to fit into Telstar, automation or even Emergency Ward 10, though perhaps...
We all know people like this. And most of us feel a bit hopeless about doing anything about them from a Christian point of view, except being good neighbours, though that is an indispensable first step.
But the Bishop of Woolwich's new book will perhaps help some of us to meet some of these people. First, let it be said, this is an honest book. Dr Robinson, as we have learnt to expect, looks fearlessly at the real problems which the thoughtful man has about all religion, and about the Christian religion in particular. He also looks quite fearlessly at our Christian vocabulary, and he asks whether that vocabulary is good enough. It may be all right as a sort of religious shorthand for use among those who accept the Christian Faith. But can it be used to commend Jesus Christ to those who don't know our shorthand? That is an honest question. It calls for an honest answer by the reader. Dr Robinson burkes none of the difficulties.
Then, let it be said, this is a gentle book. That may seem a curious adjective to use about one of the hardest hitting books the reader is likely to have met.
Yet Dr Robinson remains all the time very gentle, very sensitive not only to those whom he is trying to reach but also to those Christians who will find his approach very disconcerting and puzzling, and who will not be able to follow him. For all that it is very powerful writing this is not a dogmatic book. All through it the reader will recognize that Dr Robinson is asking himself questions. He is an explorer.
Finally, let this be added, the book is fairly tough going. If you take it to bed with you it will either send you off to sleep in five minutes or keep you awake all night! It is that kind of book. But honest to goodness, it is worth reading.
"When I began theology, I assumed that all writers not published by the . . Press, or perhaps the . . of . . Trust, were suspect. If I read the right books I would find the 'answers'. Fortunately, after two years of soaking myself in the Bible itself, I was so gripped with the excitement of exegesis, and the new horizons it opened up that I didn't worry so much about 'sound' answers. I continue to respect the Reformers, and men like Charles Simeon, of 200 years ago, John Stott, Jim Packer and Michael Green, at whose feet I was privileged to sit, and whose work in a variety of ways created space for me to do things differently. Where I disagree with them it is because I have done what they told me to: to read Scripture and emerge with a more biblical theology. The evangelical tradition at its best encourages critique from within. It sends us back to the Scripture which stands over against all traditions, our own included."
Wednesday, 30 May 2007
For three days, and three nights
Hoping to see the harbour lights
Clinging on nets, holding to life
Fleeing poverty, famine, strife
We live with this dream of hope
And praying that we may cope
As yesterday, we said farewell
Left our families in their hell
Lands of hunger, drought, war
Weeping, seeking other shore
That we might settle in peace
Work hard, and never cease
Sending home needed money
To beloved families in poverty
How many die along the way
In shipwreck? Who can say?
Is this justice, is this right?
To die here, so out of sight?
Pray that God may open eyes
To our weak and feeble cries
Caring people help our kin
Let there be room at the
I bought a copy of the Independent, 28.05.2007, and it had these stories in it, which prompted the poem:
"For three days and three nights, these African migrants clung desperately to life. Their means of survival is a tuna net, being towed across the Mediterranean by a Maltese tug that refused to take them on board after their frail boat sank.Malta and
Tuesday, 29 May 2007
....elsewhere in the book an Evangelical suffragan bishop is quoted: "Oak Hill has been taken over by hardliners. They have forced out those who disagree with them . We wouldn't recruit an Oak Hill graduate into our diocese now. They have no idea of parish ministry, no idea of Anglicanism and no idea about how to relate to people in the outside world."
Earlier sources just said "an evangelical bishop", and now we have a suffragan bishop. But who is it? If you know, I'd love to track down the source; I hate unsubstantiated and ill-referenced comments.
those of us who have only come across the rather narrow face of conservative
evangelicalism, this is brilliant! I've always thought the Grove books were
excellent and spread across quite a range (for an example, look at Praying
to God as Mother), and very positive, and Tom Wright's method of genuine
dialogue with Crossan or Borg seemed miles away from the "rubbish it" school
of books which were so ruthlessly dissected by James Barr (Fundamentalism),
so it is good to know there is a whole site out there saying "Behold, I make
all things new".
Some good Fulcrum articles:
Canal, River and Rapids: Contemporary Evangelicalism in the Church of
The Founding of Fulcrum
Future Directions in Systematic Theology
The Cross and the Caricatures
Discovering a Positive Model for Responding to Unorthodox Theology
Women Bishops:A Response to Cardinal Kasper
(and one might add, Simon Vibert!)
Women's Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis
This report actually has some substantial new facts, i.e the names of the staff resigning. It should be noted that the document it mentions, however, contains allegations about bullying which may or may not be true. Clearly, I would think that an independent review rather than an internal one would be best, as the latter always is open to the charge of "whitewash".
Five academic staff at Wycliffe Hall have resigned in protest at an atmosphere of 'bullying and intimidation', according to a document published this week.
It warns that the theological College faces dire consequences as the remaining tutors will be incapable of providing adequate teaching for students.
The document also claims that the College is becoming increasingly theologically conservative under the leadership of the College's Principal, Rev Dr Richard Turnbull.
The document, entitled 'The Scandal at Wycliffe Hall', has been circulating among staff at the College and describes the current situation as "chaotic". "The last twelve months has seen an attempt to take the College over by a highly conservative evangelical faction who are deliberately driving out longstanding and highly respected staff members," it states. "The College is now in chaos following a barrage of staff resignations, forcing a crisis meeting of the governing body to limit the damage to the College's reputation."
Responding to the concerns raised in the document, Wycliffe's Governing Council announced last Tuesday that it would be embarking on a major review of its governance and that significant changes were expected to be made. The Council also unanimously expressed their support for the Principal.
The document closes with a warning about the repercussions of the current situation. "From September 2007, Wycliffe Hall will have lost all its best loved and most respected staff members. Turnbull will replace them all with conservative evangelicals. More than half the teaching staff has resigned this year. Most will not be replaced in time for the opening of the academic year 2007-8. The College will not be capable of teaching its regular curriculum."
Since Turnbull's appointment in April 2005, Geoffrey Maughan has resigned as Director of Pastoral Studies, Philip Johnston as Director of Studies, Adrian Turnbull as tutor in liturgy, Krish Kandiah as tutor in evangelism and David Wenham as tutor in the New Testament.
Wenham is planning to leave Oxford this Autumn to work at a college in Bristol, ending a 25 year association with Wycliffe Hall. He refused to reveal his reasons for resigning. "Other than confirming that I resigned as Vice President, I cannot comment any further," he said.
Philip Johnston confirmed that he had resigned from the College management staff but that he was still a tutor in college.
In a letter to the Principal dated 26 March 2007, Johnston informed Turnbull that he would be resigning from his post due to his failure to respect his staff's views when making new appointments to the College, with specific reference to Turnbull's appointment of a new Vice-Principal. He accused him of failing to listen to the staff's overriding view that his candidate was highly unsuitable for the job.
Turnbull has rejected the pamphlet's accusations and questioned its accuracy. "The information I have seen, some for the first time, and the source of which I simply do not know, contains material inaccuracy. However, due to the 'due process' of disciplinary proceedings which are currently in process I am not able to comment any further on the matter," he said.
He added that the allegations that he was a member of several conservative evangelical pressure groups were completely unfounded. "I am not a member of any evangelical pressure group and never have been," he said.
Turnbull was one of nine reverends who drafted the controversial 'Covenant for the Church of England' last December, in an initiative launched by evangelical leaders, which threatened to stop association with more liberal churches and reject the authority of bishops they disagreed with.
The covenant states, "We can no longer associate with teaching that is contrary to the clear teaching of the Scriptures either doctrinally (for example, on the supremacy and uniqueness of Christ) or morally (for example, on issues of gender, sex and marriage), or church leadership which advocates such teaching.
"The covenant expresses a loss of confidence in the institutional centre of the Anglican Church and under the heading, 'Our Action', it warns that "We can no longer be constrained by an over-centralised and increasingly ineffective control that is stifling the natural development of ministry."
Speaking to the Church Times, President of the liberal Anglican organisation Inclusive Church, Revd Dr Giles Fraser, expressed his outrage at the covenant's content. "These rebel churches want to destroy the traditional breadth of the Church of England and turn it into a Puritan sect. They must not be allowed to succeed."
Students at Wycliffe Hall have refused to comment on the current situation. An anonymous undergraduate of the College said, "There are a lot of feelings about this in College. We've been asked not to comment and to let the Principal deal with this."
A spokeswoman for the University said, "These are matters for the Hall's Governing Council. The University, which licenses the seven permanent private halls (PPHs), would expect to be kept fully informed. These allegations are unrelated to the long-term review of the PPHs currently being conducted."
Thursday, 24 May 2007
I think his celebrity status (which he revels in) is making his head a bit big. I still love that anecdote that circulates (according to a reviewer in the Tablet) among Oxford dons which says that for bedtime reading, he gets Lalla Ward (his wife, ex-Doctor Who assistant), to read favourite extracts of his books to him! Untrue, I'm sure!
Aiming for knockout blow in god wars
THEY may be worlds apart, physically and philosophically, but Australian-born Margaret Somerville, one of the world's leading writers and thinkers about ethics, arrives in Sydney today determined to do battle with arch-atheist Richard Dawkins.
"He is a dangerous man who is causing me disturbed, sleepless nights," Professor Somerville said of the creator of the controversial shockumentary series The Root of All Evil?, showing on ABC Television and which concludes this Sunday.
"By attacking religion Dawkins thinks he is going to eliminate the world's evils, but he is so negative, so destructive in his approach, that he is escalating the conflict between warring cultures at a time when we should be seeking common ground," she said.
Professors Somerville and Dawkins have clashed before, at an exclusive conference in Oxfordshire. "We were seated at a large, oval table - me at one end, him at the other - when we got involved in this terrible battle.
"Other people there couldn't believe it. It reminded me of when I was a kid watching the Davis Cup on television. The heads going back and forth," explained Professor Somerville, who teaches at McGill University in Canada.
Her return to Sydney, where she studied for her first degree in law, coincides with an upsurge of Australian interest in life's big questions: morals, meaning and the role of religion.
Books by new atheists such as Professor Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason) and Christopher Hitchens (God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) are bestsellers.
The first episode of The Root of All Evil? was watched by 760,000 people in the capital cities, almost twice the usual number for the Sunday evening Compass slot. The ABC has been inundated with requests to repeat the program, or release it on DVD.
The Herald received several hundred email comments and almost 100 letters in response to an article on Professor Dawkins and the rise of atheism on Monday.
The Oxford don admitted to the Herald yesterday there was a danger that his aggressive attack on religion could exacerbate differences between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. "There's some merit in a gently-gently approach but it looks to me that the in-your-face approach associated with me, and to a greater extent Hitchens, is getting results," he said.
The documentary's original screening on Channel 4 in Britain had prompted an unprecedented response, three-to-one in his favour, he said. "People were strongly one way or another. This is an issue that polarises."
A recent tour of the US, including parts of the Bible Belt, confirmed his view that atheists are far more numerous than thought. "Repeatedly, people thanked me for giving voice to feelings they'd been afraid to express." Professor Dawkins describes his campaign to kill off God, to replace religious superstition with science, as "consciousness-raising".
Professor Somerville disagrees. "These atheists are so passionate, dogmatic, they have created their own secular religion." She will present "The Alternative to Richard Dawkins's God Delusional View" at the Sydney Writers Festival.
"[think]of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, mabye even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you? How else would you remember it? Be here is the bombshell: you weren't there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. . . Matter flows from place to place and momentarily becomes you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. "
I've heard that claim so many times, in various forms. But is it true?
Snopes looked at it, and one commentator came up with what I think is a very good counter-example:
Someone else managed to find a proper scientific reference, in Brendon S. Noble and Jonathan Reeve (2000) "Osteocyte function, osteocyte death and bone fracture resistance" :
"In adult humans and many other vertebrates, although not normally in the rat, cortical bone is remodelled throughout life by an internal process termed haversian remodelling. Cutting cones of osteoclasts traverse the cortex longitudinally and the spaces created are filled in by a wave of osteoblastic bone formation. The new bone formed, as well as the cells associated with it, are supplied with nutrients by a central capillary. The remodelling of cancellous (trabecular) bone is similar in principle, although it almost invariably occurs on the bone surface. Consequently, in adult humans, the youngest bone is found superficially and the older, interstitial bone is found sandwiched between two layers of younger material. The rate of bone remodelling in the adult cortex can be quite slow, as little as 2% annually in the distal radius ranging up to 50% annually in the rapidly remodelling trabecular bone of the ilium. "
At last some hard science. This is more like it; not only does it clearly have some kind of background facts against which it is stated, but also makes it clear that different kinds of bone, for example, can change at different rates, and how it is done. So it is not a complete myth mentioned, there is a nugget of truth there, but it is a very, very misleading statement, and is virtually an urban myth; it is certainly a complete falsehood as stated by Grand, and taken over lock, stock and barrell by Dawkins, who just cites this somewhat woolly statement as if was gospel truth. Not the kind of mistake the great source checker, Stephen Jay Gould, would have been likely to make!
But when we try to talk with the Muslim or the villager in particular, things get to look more complicated. The villager will undoubtedly say that performing rituals is as routine and necessary and uncontroversial a thing as milking cows; indeed, it may well be that the way you milk cows is dictated by rituals that seem to the outsider to have not very much to do with cows as we see them. Dylan Thomas memorably quotes in the preface to his Collected Poems the Welsh shepherd who was asked why he still performed rituals in fairy rings to protect his sheep; he replied (doubtless with scorn for the silliness of the question), 'I'd be a damn fool if I didn't'. There just isn't an ordinary world from which this villager takes time off to practice his 'traditional religion'. The same with the Muslim, in a more sophisticated way: the ordinary day you have to get through is marked in time intervals every bit as natural or obvious as the hours of the clock to us, the intervals between the five prayer times. There isn't a neutral time that needs interrupting to do religious things: the ordinary is the religious.
And just to take one more example of possible confusion: Buddhists have festivals and temples and statues, so they are obviously people who do this religious thing. But what are the invisible forces they deal with? For the strictest southern Buddhist at least, though in one sense for all Buddhists, the invisible forces are inside us; doing 'religious' things is not a matter of how to negotiate with an invisible world outside us at all, but of learning an all-inclusive set of mental habits that gradually changes the way you relate to this world and frees you from inner suffering and frustration.
So my imaginary African country can't after all be split up into four neat segments of religious belief, four varieties of one thing, that thing being a set of more or less chosen beliefs about invisible states of affairs alongside the ordinary world. What we have instead is rather a variety of styles of living, each of which has a very different account of the world as a whole, life as a whole. And although this may be rather obvious when you think about it, it does have some far-reaching consequences. Think for a moment about the old Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant one grasps its tail and says, 'It's a rope', one grasps its leg and says 'It's a tree', and so on. This is often used as a way of saying that we can never really tell the truth in religious matters, we all see things only from a limited perspective and so on. But we are missing the point; someone knows it's an elephant, and the force of the metaphor is not so much that no-one can know what the invisible sacred reality is actually like as that we are all painfully capable of reaching for the easiest language, the language that fits our own individual experience, when speaking of God, and fail to compare notes with each other or to submit what we say to an acknowledgement that the scale of what we're talking about should teach us some caution. The one thing the parable isn't really about is a distinction between what everyone can see and what some people unreasonably argue about.
Against that simplistic perspective, here is Rowan Williams wresting with how to believe that one's tradition is true, and engage with other faiths:
"I spoke of earlier, the errors that arise from supposing that other faiths have bad answers to the questions for which you have good answers. The issue is now how we exhibit in practice the claims we all in different ways make about our tradition's ability to tell a truth which will comprehend any human situation it may encounter. Precisely because this is a complex, humanly unpredictable business, in which none of us is going to be able to pronounce a final conclusion acceptable to all, precisely because this is not in any ordinary sense a competition with winners and losers, we need time and space for it. And such time and space are in principle given in societies that assume religious freedom as fundamental, that do not close down the variegated possibilities of the modern. If we start retreating to theocracy, we are by implication admitting that our religious tradition can't sustain itself in a complex environment; states (Christian, Muslim or Hindu) that enact anti-conversion laws or penalise minority faith groups may have an understandable wish to resist unfair pressure or manipulation in proselytising, but they confess a profound and very disturbing lack of confidence in their own religious resourcefulness. "
I am not a believer that "all faiths say the same thing", but I do think we should be very clear before we come out with such odd statements such as Richard Turnbull has made, which may have been fine 30 or 40 years ago, when Catholic nuns were frightening young children with scary tales of how they would burn in hell (and yes, that was the case back then, to our shame), but really is not good enough today. Has he heard of the pharisee, who stood up and exclaimed: "Praise God I am going to heaven, and not to hell like all those nasty unbelievers out there"?
I would suggest a reading of the "Last Battle", where Lewis provides at several places, a much more nuanced idea of judgement and hell, albeit simplified, as befits a children's book.
Theologian damns most Britons to hell
· Speech posted on liberal Anglican website
· College principal under fire from some staff
Stephen Bates, religious affairs correspondent
Thursday May 24, 2007
Richard Turnbull, appointed two years ago, made the claim in a speech to the annual conference of Reform, a conservative evangelical pressure group within the Church of England. If he truly believes it, the figure would encompass at least all non-evangelical Christians, including many members of the Church of England, and those of all other religions and none.
A recording of the speech, made in October last year and seen by the Guardian, was posted last night on the Thinking Anglicans liberal website.
In it, Dr Turnbull also warns against the danger of liberalism in the church, talks of "the strategic nature" of evangelical control of training colleges and calls on conservatives to syphon off 10% of their financial contributions to the Church of England to help pay the costs of like-minded colleges. The message excludes even evangelicals who are regarded as more liberal in their beliefs.
Dr Turnbull told them: "We are committed to bringing the gospel message of Jesus Christ to those who don't know [him] and in this land that's 95% of the people: 95% of people facing hell unless the message of the gospel is brought to them."
Traditionally Wycliffe, a permanent private hall of Oxford University founded in 1877, has trained evangelical Anglicans for the clergy, but its reputation has been as an open evangelical college, welcoming would-be ordinands from a wide range of theological and liturgical beliefs.
Critics within the college have accused the principal of taking it in a much more restrictive and exclusionary direction. At least a third of the academic staff have resigned and its best-known member, the Thought for the Day contributor Elaine Storkey, has been threatened with disciplinary action, allegedly for raising concerns at an internal staff meeting.
In his speech, the principal criticised the Church of England for "restrictive trade practices" in limiting funding for its students and added: "I view [my] post as strategic because it would allow influence to be brought to bear upon generations of the ministry...capture the theological colleges and you have captured the influence that is brought to bear." He warns that unless like-minded parishes fund colleges such as his own, they face closure within 10 years. At the same conference in Derbyshire, Reform members agreed to remain within the Church of England for the time being but to set up an advisory panel to support conservative clergy and encourage ordinands of their viewpoint. They were told by one senior member, the Rev David Holloway, vicar of Jesmond, that the church was a dysfunctional body with incompetent leadership.
In an article to be published in tomorrow's Church of England Newspaper - a more broadly-based evangelical publication - Dr Turnbull's message appears rather more tolerant. He writes: "For me and for Wycliffe, inclusive means exactly that, rather than the exclusion of particular views. So issues which divide ... have to be debated in the open, albeit with care and sensitivity ..."
Dr Turnbull was not available for comment last night.
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Look at what Paul actually says when he talks about how people become Christians. Look for instance at 1 Thessalonians where he says quite a lot about it without ever using the word justify or any of its cognates. He talks about the gospel coming to you in the power of the Spirit. You accepted that word not as the word of man but as what it really is, the word of God that is at work in you believers. It's quite clear what Paul is talking about, that he comes into town announcing that Jesus is Lord, as a royal herald. He is saying that the crucified Jesus is the Lord of the world. And this is not, "Here is a way of salvation. You might like to apply it to yourself." It's not, "Here is a new way of being religious and you might enjoy it." This is really an imperial summons: "On your knees!" Nobody ever went into a Romantown and said, " Caesar is lord and you might like to have this experience of acknowledging him as lord if that suits you." They said, "Caesar is Lord, get on your knees and we want the tax right now."
And when that message is announced, some men and women find to their astonishment that they believe it. I say to their astonishment because it's stupid. Paul says that it's stupid. He knows it. You can just imagine it. It's like someone telling a joke in a foreign language and not knowing why people laugh. Paul was going around the Roman world saying that this crucified Jesus is the lord of the world. He must have felt many times this is the craziest thing imaginable yet when I say it, lives are changed, the community emerges, people love each other. That is grace. And it is all of grace.
God isn't big enough for some people
By Umberto Eco
We are now approaching the critical time of the year for shops and supermarkets: the month before Christmas is the four weeks when stores of all kinds sell their products fastest. Father Christmas means one thing to children: presents. He has no connection with the original St Nicholas, who performed a miracle in providing dowries for three poor sisters, thereby enabling them to marry and escape a life of prostitution.
Human beings are religious animals. It is psychologically very hard to go through life without the justification, and the hope, provided by religion. You can see this in the positivist scientists of the 19th century.
They insisted that they were describing the universe in rigorously materialistic terms - yet at night they attended seances and tried to summon up the spirits of the dead. Even today, I frequently meet scientists who, outside their own narrow discipline, are superstitious - to such an extent that it sometimes seems to me that to be a rigorous unbeliever today, you have to be a philosopher. Or perhaps a priest.
And we need to justify our lives to ourselves and to other people. Money is an instrument. It is not a value - but we need values as well as instruments, ends as well as means. The great problem faced by human beings is finding a way to accept the fact that each of us will die.
Money can do a lot of things - but it cannot help reconcile you to your own death. It can sometimes help you postpone your own death: a man who can spend a million pounds on personal physicians will usually live longer than someone who cannot. But he can't make himself live much longer than the average life-span of affluent people in the developed world.
And if you believe in money alone, then sooner or later, you discover money's great limitation: it is unable to justify the fact that you are a mortal animal. Indeed, the more you try escape that fact, the more you are forced to realise that your possessions can't make sense of your death.
It is the role of religion to provide that justification. Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death. We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining.
The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.
G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.
The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.
It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.
The pianist Arthur Rubinstein was once asked if he believed in God. He said: "No. I don't believe in God. I believe in something greater." Our culture suffers from the same inflationary tendency. The existing religions just aren't big enough: we demand something more from God than the existing depictions in the Christian faith can provide. So we revert to the occult. The so-called occult sciences do not ever reveal any genuine secret: they only promise that there is something secret that explains and justifies everything. The great advantage of this is that it allows each person to fill up the empty secret "container" with his or her own fears and hopes.
As a child of the Enlightenment, and a believer in the Enlightenment values of truth, open inquiry, and freedom, I am depressed by that tendency. This is not just because of the association between the occult and fascism and Nazism - although that association was very strong. Himmler and many of Hitler's henchmen were devotees of the most infantile occult fantasies.
The same was true of some of the fascist gurus in Italy - Julius Evola is one example - who continue to fascinate the neo-fascists in my country. And today, if you browse the shelves of any bookshop specialising in the occult, you will find not only the usual tomes on the Templars, Rosicrucians, pseudo-Kabbalists, and of course The Da Vinci Code, but also anti-semitic tracts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it together - as my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditions - which, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.
I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.
Tuesday, 22 May 2007
Despite what the scholars say, God isn't dead yet
May 21, 2007
A scene from The Root of All Evil?, a two-part television series on religion by Richard Dawkins, shows Dawkins accusing the evangelical pastor the Reverend Ted Haggard of running worship sessions in the way the Nazis ran their rallies.
To the scientist Dawkins, a room full of people waving their hands and singing "Praise Jesus" is evil because it is irrational. By definition, believers obedient to a God which cannot be proved to exist, and whose dictums are based on mythical stories that have no basis in fact, are as dangerous as the Brownshirts.
Comparisons such as this one between a scientific inquiring mind and groups of believers who act collectively are popular at the moment. Especially since some of the collective actions have been taken by Islamic terrorists who have used their religion to justify lethal attacks on civilians.
The cool, rational commentators on the news and the reasoned academics who have penned their socioeconomic and psychological analyses of the global situation seem a world away from the suicide bombers who are convinced their acts of destruction will offer personal redemption while fulfilling the will of Allah.
There is no arguing with the fact that terrorism is the arch example of religious zealotry at its most lethal, but what Dawkins failed to acknowledge in his encounter with Haggard is that the Nazi program of eugenics and extermination was not dictated by an unseen god.
The shrieking little man with his arm outstretched in a Nazi salute was all too human. His plan was not the result of a literalist reading of ancient scriptures or the mad blueprint of a religious revelation, but a methodical scheme calculated to have maximum effect, implemented by a tiered network of bullies from the SS down to the terrorised populace.
But there is more in this that should put the scientist masquerading as a moral philosopher on guard. Nazism's propaganda was written with the help of a legion of scholars from the hard and soft sciences, from anthropologists, philologists, psychologists and economists to biologists, zoologists and doctors.
In short, academics of all description willingly devoted their rational, scientific and disciplined minds to support the Nazi cause of domination and extermination of undesirables, most notably Jews but also Gypsies and gays. It is one of the sorriest periods of scientific history, which many academics tried to forget until historians such as Michael Burleigh (Sacred Causes, 2006) provided detailed studies of their complicity.
The Nazi example is not unique but was repeated elsewhere, such as in Stalinist Eastern Europe and Mao's China. It is no doubt occurring in Iran, where dissidence is virtually impossible. The point is not the political ideology, but the readiness of "rational" scientific types to help mad regimes to deliver untold suffering to millions.
The trouble with the present flight from religion to the welcoming embrace of atheistic scientists and philosophers is that they offer precious little more than a new conviction that religion is the cause of evil in the world. In other words, these scientists deliver a message akin to that of the fire-and-brimstone preachers who bellowed about the dangers of sin, only they warn from their secular pulpits of the dangers of religion.
The latest proponent of this view is Michel Onfray, whose book The Atheist Manifesto reads like a comic-book guide to religion on the skids. Religion is a litany of horrors, from superstitious beliefs to organised oppression, while believers are compelled by infantilism, hallucination and a fear of death, Onfray says.
Apart from the Marxist prejudice that runs through his critique, his caricatures make it hard to imagine that religious organisations could provide the network of socially responsible services to the public that they do or produce the armies of volunteers who lend a hand to the needy. In short, Onfray does not accept the sociological truth that religion has not only accommodated the laws and ethos of a democratic state but in a pervasive way supports it. Nor does his swan song for religion take into account the fact that religion, in its many forms, some of them thriving outside the church, provide personal support for millions of people who find meaning and comfort in the love of God or the divine embrace.
Whatever language is used, it is this poetic dimension of the spiritual life that Dawkins, Onfray and friends have no ear to hear or eye to see. If Germany in 1933 had been invaded by people in prayer singing "Praise Jesus" instead of Nazis in jackboots it would not have presided over the worst mass killing in history.
Rachael Kohn's latest book is Curious Obsessions in the History of Science and Spirituality (ABC Books).
I was later told by someone that he was "sexist" and I shouldn't show it to my children.
I don't think that he was any more "sexist" than the "Carry On" films, and in fact, as Wikipedia points out:
"Curiously, a common criticism was that Hill played a "dirty old man" who chased women in public places, when in point of fact it was an established part of the comedic style of the Benny Hill Show that the the women always chased Hill. Hill and his producer Dennis Kirkland were reportedly always upset about the widespread misrepresentation of his show in this way, and believed that it demonstrated that Hill's critics could not have actually watched his programmes"
In fact, much of his humour came not from the few sequences where he was chased, but in spoofing films and TV shows, and using the kind of visual comedy of the silent films, which is probably why Chaplin admired his work.
I wonder if it the extreme denigration of Benny Hill was more to do with looking for easy scapegoats?
What is it about Alfred Hawthorn Hill that makes him persona non grata among his own people? The rest of the world adores him; his shows have been sold to 140 countries and still attract audiences in the billions. Yet the British remain deeply embarrassed by their most popular comedy export.
It was not always thus. When I was growing up in the 1970s, my father insisted there was nothing on television worth watching except Benny Hill and the Six O'Clock News. My sister and I were too young to understand either, but since there was nothing else on offer, we tried our best. We observed with quiet bafflement how, with the first blast of the "Yackety Sax" theme tune, my mother's eyes would fill with tears of merriment and my father would grasp his corduroy knees in anticipation of the hilarity to come.
Admittedly, not everyone shared this enthusiasm. Once, while having tea in front of Crackerjack at a friend's house, I grumbled that we were allowed to watch only Benny Hill at home. My friend's mother gaped at me in horror. "You shouldn't be watching that sexist rubbish," she practically screamed. I blushed until my armpits prickled, partly because she had said something that sounded like "sex", and partly because she seemed to be criticising my parents. After that, I kept our family viewing habits to myself - but I began to feel a protective fondness for Benny.
The more unfashionable he became, the more I learnt to love him. In the 1980s, Hill came under concerted attack from feminists and (the killer blow) the new wave of alternative comedians. Ben Elton denounced him as a "dirty old man, tearing the clothes off nubile girls while chasing them round a park". This was not strictly true (Hill thought it was funnier to get the girls to chase him), but it was said in a tone of such moral righteousness that only the most reactionary braveheart dared to question it. The curious thing about the alternative comedians was that they would not brook any alternative. Despite their socialist pretensions, they despised the coarse, working-class, vaudeville tradition from which Hill's comedy derived. Theirs was the humour of the middle-class dinner party: all politics and irony and verbal jousting. The sheer physical exuberance of Hill and his Angels suddenly seemed gauche by comparison.
Hill's demise was painful to behold: like watching an elderly, confused uncle being picked on by young thugs. As his ratings slid, he cranked up the bawdiness levels, hoping to give the British public more of what it once loved. But times had changed: comedy had become self-conscious, and young people knew better than to laugh at gags about saucy nurses.
In 1989, Hill was dropped by ITV. His ratings were still strong, but the Zeitgeist was against him. Three years later, he died alone in his tiny flat in Teddington; his corpse was discovered only when neighbours complained of the smell.
I sometimes wonder whether it is this that stands in the way of Hill's rehabilitation. The British public is haunted by the manner of his demise and death - and guilt is not conducive to laughter. Any feminist argument against him has long since been lost. By today's standards, Hill's sketches seem tame to the point of quaintness. His Angels, though scantily clad, at least looked like real women: they had dimpled thighs and buck teeth, and they wobbled when they ran. The average rap video, featuring a bejewelled patriarch surrounded by oiled, undulating female flesh, is a much worse assault on feminist sensibilities.
Hill wanted us to laugh at lechery, not condone it. Men who lusted after women usually came to a sticky end: Ernie the Milkman was slain with a rock bun hurled by his love rival, Two-Ton Ted from Teddington. It's old-fashioned, nostalgic, surprisingly clean fun: just the thing, in fact, for a Conservative on a desert island.
Monday, 21 May 2007
"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and
concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than
our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say,
'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A
religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as
revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence
and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. "
If Sagan had looked a bit further afield, as far back (and probably further)
as Robert Boyle, he would have found this is not the case. For example, I
find this quotation from the 17th century!:
"When with bold telescopes I survey the old and newly discovered stars and
planets, when with excellent microscopes I discern the unimitable subtility
of nature's curious workmanship; and when, in a word, by the help of
anatomical knives, and the light of chymical furnaces, I study the book of
nature, I find myself oftentimes reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, How
manifold are Thy works, O Lord! in wisdom hast Thou made them all."
Robert Boyle (25 January 1627 - 30 December 1691)
To rephrase Sagan: How is it that people make glib snap judgements without
doing the smallest modicum of research?
Tim Jackins said a good way to respond to people who irritated you was not to get cross, but instead to beam at them and say:
"What a wonderful mess you've made of your work. I wish I could make mistakes like you can."
or (to get the full American tone)
The effect is to "discharge" your irritation. What a wonderful idea (he says in a tone dripping with sarcasm).
However, I think a warning should be given to retreat very hastily before the person you address attempts to discharge their irritation on your face!!!!
My girlfriend (whose copy this was) said she was irritated by my habit of "pouncing on her magazines and commenting on them". She decided not to follow Mr Jackin's advice.
So it would be nice if, for example, Simon Vibert, would say that while he held particular views about women priests, bishops etc, that he would not push that agenda in an unbalanced way as vice-Principle of Wycliffe Hall, but take into account the diversity of the Church of England, and note also that his views, while held honestly, were in a minority amongst those who - equally honestly - disagreed on the subject of women bishops (as evidenced by Synod resolutions); moreoever, it can be seen from Tom Wright's contribution that it is not just a matter of saying - if you look at the texts, scripture supports the Vibert position - as other equally scriptural arguments can be made to the contrary.
A case in point from the atheists. I've just been reading Michael Ruse on Christianity and Darwinism, and he gives a vey balanced and fair assessment, and engages with the history and variety in Christianity. That contrasts with Richard Dawkins, who is simply full of hot rhetorical air, and has about as much idea of what Christianity is about as thinking Easter is about the Easter Bunny and Easter Eggs. One is balanced, one is not. A lesson for Wycliffe Hall, perhaps?
From the Church Times (UK) --
WYCLIFFE HALL, Oxford, is the focus of a dispute involving allegations of a culture of bullying and intimidation, and of an ultra-conservative attitude to women. The governing Council of the theological college, a permanent private hall of the University, is chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones. This week it said that it had embarked on a review of the college's governance. The complaints centre on the management style of the Principal, the Revd Dr Richard Turnbull, and his appointment of the Revd Simon Vibert as Vice-Principal. Mr Vibert had made public his belief that women should not teach men. He co-wrote, with the Revd Dr Mark Burkill and the Revd Dr David Peterson, a Latimer Trust paper that argued that a woman on her own should not teach men about faith or lead a congregation (Ministry Work Group Statement concerning the ministry of women in the Church today). Since Dr Turnbull was appointed in 2005, six full-time or part-time academic staff have resigned posts. In a letter of resignation to Dr Turnbull in March, the former director of studies, Dr Philip Johnston, accused him of leadership "without significant regard for your staff colleagues". Dr Johnston wrote that the new Vice-Principal had been appointed despite a "very strong consensus" of staff and students in favour of a different candidate. Copies of emails suggest that staff and students were then ordered not to speak to the press. The former Principal, the Revd Professor Alister McGrath, said that it would be "quite inappropriate" for him to comment. But he now had no connection with the college. When the former Vice-Principal, the Revd Dr David Wenham, resigned last October, Dr Elaine Storkey, a broadcaster teaching at the college, is understood to have objected when she was told "under no circumstances" to speak to the media; and to have told Dr Turnbull that she reserved the right to speak on any matter not directly related to the college's "inner workings". Dr Storkey said on Tuesday: "A lot has happened since then." But she confirmed that she would not speak to the press. Dr Turnbull, it is understood, told staff that Dr Wenham resigned because of "disagreement with myself as Principal over matters of leadership and management". A further complaint is that the new leadership had signed Anglican Mainstream's "Covenant for the Church of England", which warns bishops to be "biblically orthodox" if they are to retain the convenanters' loyalty. The Revd Rob Merchant, an ex-president of the common room, now a lecturer at Staffordshire University, said on Wednesday that he was watching "the demise of a beloved theological college". "Under the guidance of people like Professor Alister McGrath, Wycliffe Hall was a place of generous orthodoxy able to encompass a spectrum of views and offer support and respect to students and staff alike," he said. He had watched, "bewildered", as excellent staff had left, one after another, with little or no communication from the current management. In one of the documents sent to the Church Times, two members of the governing Council are said to have visited the college and to have been "shocked by the hostility they found at every level of the community to Dr Turnbull". They also found many were dismayed by the Council's "laissez-faire attitude" to the issues, it says. Dr Turnbull said on Wednesday that women were welcome to train as priests at Wycliffe Hall, and that their numbers had increased "significantly". He said that, balancing Mr Vibert's appointment, he also appointed the Revd Will Donaldson, a Charismatic, who was in favour of women's ministry "at every level". Mr Donaldson, from the Willesden area in London diocese, has been appointed as director of Christian leadership. Both men start work on 1 August. Dr Turnbull said that the Council had reaffirmed his leadership of the college on Tuesday. He would not comment further, as disciplinary proceedings were under way. A Council statement on Tuesday said: "The Council has embarked on a major review of its governance and a new development strategy for the future of the Hall in the light of changing patterns of ministerial formation. This inevitably involves changes that are unsettling. "Wycliffe is committed to maintaining its Evangelical ethos and its international reputation for excellence in theological education, ministerial formation, and training for Christian leadership in the Church and the world. "At a meeting of the Council to consider the report of a specially commissioned 'listening process', the Council unanimously reiterated its support for the Principal and committed itself to facilitate the necessary changes."
The Eldila, C.S. Lewis, Perelandra
I love this quote!
science and religion" by Michael Ruse.
Ruse lays out the ground by exploring the Darwining paradigm, with all its
variation (from Dawkins to Gould), and Christianity, with all its variation,
noting that Creationist fundamentalism actually only forms a small and very
late distinctive variant (even if a vocal American one) to Christianity. He
notes that from at least the time of Augustine that the Genesis stories were
taken as mythical rather than literal (he missed Jerome on that one), and
that was the position long before Darwin. Exploring in particular the ideas
of Augustine and Aquinas (although he is also up to date with later thinkers
such as Karl Barth, Rowan Williams, Keith Ward, John Polkinhorne), he shows
how well these dovetail in with evolution; there are really not that many
contradictions, some theological ideas mesh better than others, some
patently have problems: "Some areas require still a great deal of thoughtful
work and discussion. The notion of original sin, and its origin in the light
of Darwinian evolutionary theory, is an issue on which no final word has yet
been spoken."; however, the problem areas he considers not fatal, but as an
area for exploration.
Ruse states his position clearly: he is an atheist. Yet he does not see that
there is any inherent contradiction between Christianity and the theology of
evolution, unless you are a Creation Scientist / fundamentalist, but he
knows from his reading of history that is a late development, and not
representantive of Christianity as a whole. It is a balanced and fair
appraisal by a thinker who presents arguments (rather than Richard Dawkin's
brand of rhetoric), and it is a shame that this book, rather than "The God
Delusion", is not in the best-seller lists. It engages with real issues, and
not "straw men", and Ruse is equally aware that, like Christianity,
Darwinism covers a spectrum of different positions, all of which have
arguments to comment them.
John Habgood, writing in the Sunday Times, noted that "By concentrated
argument around a number of themes -- the origin of life, the soul, design,
miracles, pain, ethics, social Darwinism etc -- he manages to throw real
light on the complexity of the issues, while suggesting how different
standpoints might be re- conciled. Ruse's grasp of the subject, clarity of
exposition, fair-mindedness and light touch make it a thoroughly stimulating
Friday, 18 May 2007
I've looked at his paper (http://www.latimertrust.org/download/66comment.pdf) on women and the church, and it is very much the old style "this is what the bible says and these texts prove it" approach.
"For the same scriptural reasons outlined above, if episcopacy is the exercise of authority through teaching and discipline, it is not a defensible form of ministry for women. The issue is not simply that of oversight in the diocese but of modelling biblical patterns of relationship and responsibility."
That is a quite appalling thing for a minister in a church which already accepts women priests has to say! Most of his arguments almost seem like "roll the clock back" moves, to do away with women priests. He leans over heavily on a few key texts. Maybe he should join the Plymouth Brethren; the last time I heard that kind of argument was an Exeter University from them.I compared it with N.T. Wright's much better http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm.
At the moment NTW also seems to have caused a certain amount of annoyance to the Anglican fundamentalists by presenting a different perspective on atonement theories, and critiquing theirs!
I don;t know if this Simon Vibert is the same one who is based in Wimbledon, or if there are several! (http://www.wimbledonchurch.co.uk/people/simon_vibert.htm); he also has an aggressively anti-Catholic sermon (or diatribe) on the Eucharist (http://www.wimbledonchurch.co.uk/articles/communion.htm), in which he says "Jesus was not talking about some future perpetual act of sacrifice going on down the history of the church. He was talking about one sacrifice, the sacrifice he is about to make on the cross....".
Other notable comments: "One practical consequence of this is that it is important that we use appropriate church language when we gather to break bread and drink wine. First, I don't think we should use the word 'Priest' for that is an inappropriate word for my job...Secondly I don't think that we should use the word 'Altar', because the table at the top is not a place where a sacrifice is being made, rather it is a place where a meal is being prepared. ...There is no change in the substance of the bread or the wine. The bread remains bread; the wine remains wine.". I doubt if he understands what Aquinas meant "substance" in Aristotelian categories! It would be interesting to know how he deals with left over bread. John Macquarrie in his book 'A Guide to the Sacraments" (which is one of the few to appreciate the subtelty in Aquinas idea of transubstantiation), mentions that how the bread is disposed of is an interesting pragmatic test of how it is perceived (i.e reserved, eaten, or just thrown away).
WYCLIFFE HALL, Oxford, is the focus of a dispute involving allegations of a culture of bullying and intimidation, and of an ultra-conservative attitude to women.
The governing Council of the theological college, a permanent private hall of the University, is chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones. This week it said that it had embarked on a review of the college's governance.
The complaints centre on the management style of the Principal, the Revd Dr Richard Turnbull, and his appointment of the Revd Simon Vibert as Vice-Principal. Mr Vibert had made public his belief that women should not teach men.
He co-wrote, with the Revd Dr Mark Burkill and the Revd Dr David Peterson, a Latimer Trust paper that argued that a woman on her own should not teach men about faith or lead a congregation (Ministry Work Group Statement concerning the ministry of women in the Church today.
Since Dr Turnbull was appointed in 2005, six full-time or part-time academic staff have resigned posts. In a letter of resignation to Dr Turnbull in March, the former director of studies, Dr Philip Johnston, accused him of leadership "without significant regard for your staff colleagues". Dr Johnston wrote that the new Vice-Principal had been appointed despite a "very strong consensus" of staff and students in favour of a different candidate
"The meeting took place in the S.C.M. Secretary's room in Trinity, the C.I.C.C.U's representatives being the President, D.T. Dick and myself. After an hour's conversation which got us nowhere, one direct and vital question was put: 'Does the S.C.M. consider the atoning blood of Jesus Christ as the central point of their message?' And the answer given was, 'No, not as central, although it is given a place in our teaching.' That answer settled the matter, for we explained to them at once that the atoning blood was so much the heart of our message that we could never join with a movement which gave it any lesser place." (Norman Grubb)
I find it amazing that "the atoning blood" terminology is given such a central place in their message! It is a kind of Marcionite bias. From my point of view, the gospels are central, and the simple credal statement of the letters of the New Testament - "Jesus is Lord".
John's Gospel says: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have everlasting life". It seems to me that belief in Jesus is important here, and John does not seem to mention "atoning blood". What is going in with a message that uses a language which one doesn't find anywhere in the ecumenical creeds, and which is being made a standard for defining "true" Christianity - "I believe in the atoning blood"? Well, that is not in my creed, or the Nicene creed.
Plato's dialogue, the Theatetus, contains a nested sequence of accounts-interpretations of interpretations-that lead back to a purported discussion on the nature of knowledge between Socrates and two mathematicians, Theodorus and his young student Theatetus. This discussion is of interest to historians of mathematics because, in passing, it describes Theodorus as having established the irrationality of square roots of non-square numbers up to 17-'where for some reason he got stuck'-and it indicates that Theatetus may have generalized the result. It is not clear why Theodorus stopped at 17 and many plausible and implausible interpretations have been proposed. But what is more important in the context of the Platonic dialogue is that Theatetus invokes the binary classification of numbers in terms of rationality as a possible metaphor for what he imagines are two sorts of knowledge, namely the sciences on the one hand as opposed to something else on the other, that he does not yet quite understand, but which is implicit in Socrates' method of inquiry.
Further issues about the nature of knowledge may be found in the multiple resonances that Plato establishes in his writing. Plato starts by presenting a conversation between two philosophers, Euclid of Megara (i.e., not the mathematician) and Terpsion. This is said to take place on the day in 369BC that Theatetus is dying from dysentery and wounds incurred in the defence of Corinth. Euclid recalls that many years previously Socrates had described a discussion that he had had with the then young Theatetus and his teacher, Theodorus, Euclid recounts that he himself had taken notes during Socrates' spoken account and had then written up a version in direct speech, which he claims he had afterwards carefully checked over with Socrates. Terpsion suggests this might be a good time to go through the written version. The two philosophers then settle down to hear a reading of the piece by a boy servant, and Plato provides the script for us. It is not until the very end that Terpsion-and the reader of Plato's book-realizes that the discussion about knowledge must be supposed to have taken place in 399BC on the same day that Socrates was charged with corrupting Athenian youth. Thirty years later, the philosophers are reminded of the death of Socrates at the very time that they are aware of the dying Theatetus.
Plato presents some arguments about the nature of knowledge in the form of an account (his) of an account (Euclid's) of an account (Socrates') of a conversation between three people. And the present reader is now reminded that what is being read is my account of someone's translation of this sequence of accounts. Which
of these most truly reflects what is supposed to have happened? Can there be knowledge without some sort of representation, without some sort of account?
Or, to put the problem in another context, suppose someone gives you an account of a transcript of a film of some classroom dialogue: how confident are you in your understanding of the original event? Consider, for example, the account given by David Pimm (see Chapter 9 of this book) of a transcript of a sequence from an edited videotape of a classroom episode: what do you feel you know about the original event? Would you have felt more confident if you had been there yourself when the episode was being filmed? Some knowledge may be immediate; but much of what we know comes to us mediated through representation, through preconception, through theory. Socratic ignorance may be preferable where the only other choice seems to lie-in the words of Seth Bernadete, a recent translator of the Theatetus-'between an immediacy that is not available and a mediacy that is uneliminable.' (Bernadete, 1986a, p. 88).
But another alternative might be to embrace mediacy and make it serve one's ends. Socrates seeks to persuade Theatetus to discard an understanding of knowledge as 'true opinion'. He is critical of the view-ascribed to the philosopher Protagoras and advanced here by the two mathematicians-that knowledge is based on perception and that man is the measure of all things. For then knowledge becomes relative, and this was unacceptable, at any rate for Plato. But it is more commonly accepted nowadays that truth is a problematic notion and that what we can demand of opinion is that it be fruitful. And according to Goethe, was fruchtbar ist, allein ist wahr (only that which is fruitful is true). This is certainly the approach taken by psychoanalysts, who are of course very centrally concerned with interpretation in their work. Analysts invoke a distinction between narrative truth and historical truth: interpretation is understood to be a creative construction rather than a supposedly accurate historical re-construction.
Interpretations are persuasive…not because of their evidential value but because of their rhetorical appeal; conviction emerges because the fit is good, not because we have necessarily made contact with the past. (Spence, 1982, p. 32)
So, in considering classroom accounts, it may be helpful to consider various interpretations, judging them not for some supposed veracity but in terms of their fruitfulness for the matter in hand, which may be supposed ultimately to be the improvement of our understanding and practice of the teaching and learning of mathematics. It may also be helpful to borrow some of the notions invoked by psychoanalysts when considering our own interpretations of classroom events, whether mediated or not. Thus, I hope to show that it could be fruitful to invoke the unconscious processes of displacement and condensation. These have also been characterized by linguists as associated respectively with the grammatical notions of metonymy and metaphor, and I have described elsewhere how interpretations of classroom practice, and of mathematical history, might be made in these terms (see Tahta, 1991, p. 229). Here, I want to try to illustrate the working of displacement and condensation in our understanding, or interpretation, of a mathematical theorem, and then in some further comments on Pimm's account of a classroom episode.
It seems appropriate to take as an example the irrationality of the square root of 2, the classical result which Plato describes Theodorus and Theatetus as having generalized. It is not known for certain how it might originally have been proved that the diagonal of a square was not commensurable with its side: there are some plausible, geometric reconstructions. The well-known, dramatically elegant, arithmetic proof-ascribed by later Greek writers to Pythagoras-is a typical (and often claimed to be the first) mathematical example of proof by so-called reductio ad absurdum, a logical argument used over and over again by Socrates in Plato's dialogues. The proof is by analysis (as opposed to synthesis) in the sense that it starts with what is required, only in this case with its negative: you pretend (liar!) that you know the square root of 2 to be rational. In modern algebraic terms, the pretence is that √2 is a fraction a/b where a and b may be supposed to have no common factor. A sequence of transformations yields in the first place the result that a must be even-in which case b, having no common factor with a, much be odd; but further transformation then yields that b must be even. It seems that b must be both odd and even. Not accepting this, you backtrack to find the mistake in your argument, to find (surprise, surprise!) that it can only have been with your initial pretence.
The sequence of steps from one algebraic equation to the next can be associated with the psychoanalytic notion of displacement, a process in which links are established through a chain of connections some of which may not always be conscious. A typical example would be the slip of the tongue, in which a word gets substituted by another word. An example-from The Merchant of Venice-is Portia's hint to Bassanio that she is wholly his: 'One half of me is yours, the other half is yours-mine own, I would say.' A sequence of such shifts often occurs in dreams or in the activity of free association of words. Algebraic transformation of the equation √2 = a/b also involves a chain of substitutions. Seymour Papert has suggested that many students faced with equations of this sort engage-'almost as if they have read Freud'-in a process of mathematical free association (Papert, 1980, p. 198). And just as the psychoanalyst occasionally interrupts the flow of associations, the algebraic transformations are punctuated by an occasional conscious interpretation-for instance, when d = 2b2 is understood to mean that a², and so also a, mustbe even.
In the course of the proof, the square root sign is got rid of, but the 2 reappears, not in its original form but as a sign of evenness. Papert describes this feature as a sort of mathematical pun and associates this with the psychoanalytic notion of condensation, a process in which a single idea or symbol is at an intersection of several associative chains and coagulates a cluster of meanings. Dreams, for example, are shorter and more compressed than their verbal descriptions and eventual interpretations; a play on words-a pun-operates in the same way. Mathematics is itself a powerful condensation of experience; its 'abstractions' are derived from a number of different 'concrete' examples.
Moreover, as mathematical theorems are transmitted across generations, they condense the accumulated experience of past interpretations. This yields another sequence of accounts of accounts; but, as in the game of 'Chinese whispers', the final account may be quite unlike the initial one. Irrationality is not quite the same notion as incommensurability: in my end is not my beginning. John Mason has
suggested that many named theorems would not now be recognized by their originators:
Cayley's theorem, a fundamental theorem in group theory, doesn't exist in his writings. Unless you dig and dig and dig and recognise-because of your current awareness of what is a significant result-a sort of little kernel, a little something or other which you want to hold on to and say, 'that is a theorem'. It seems to me that in mathematics we transform everytime we present a theorem. (Mason, 1991, p. 16)
There is a further sense in which the proof of irrationality condenses a number of very dramatic, external associations that do not illuminate the mathematics as such, but have an expressive, mythical quality of their own. Such are the stories-and they may well be fictions-about the supposed consternation of the Pythagoreans at the discovery of irrationality. Some historians of mathematics would now deny that these are historical truths, and they would not wish to multiply narrative truths. Others-and I declare my own sympathy with these-are prepared to weave as rich a tapestry of associations as possible. For example, Michel Serres reads the supposed crisis at the dawn of Greek mathematics in terms of three deaths: not only the legendary death of the shipwrecked Hippasus who was held to have divulged the discovery of irrationality, and the historical death of Theatetus who developed a classification of irrational numbers, but also the turning away from some of the teachings of the revered Parmenides, which Plato somewhat startlingly called a form of parricide (Serres, 1982, p. 130).
The third death-the parricide-arises in the following way. Parmenides had formulated the law of contradiction invoked in proofs by reductio ad absurdum. But he was emphatic that Being (that which is) is One; its opposite, non-Being (that which is not) cannot be. Whatever exists can be thought of, and conversely, everything that can be thought of exists. But, he claimed, you cannot think of what is not, you could not know it, you could not even say it. However, in another Platonic dialogue, the Sophist, Theodorus brings along a philosopher, referred to as a Stranger, who tells Theatetus,
Don't take me to be, as it were, a kind of parricide…It will be necessary…to put the speech of our father Parmenides to the torture and force it to say that 'that which is not' is in some respects, and again, in turn, 'that which is' is not. (Bernadete, 1986b, p. 33)
The Stranger is prepared-despite Parmenides-to take opposites into account; the supposed parricide may be seen as a return to the dualism of the early Pythagoreans. (Theatetus, the mathematician for whom everything is countable, is certainly already prepared to take opposites into a count!) 'That which is not' can be conceived: for 'thinking makes it so', as Hamlet claimed, illustrating this with a pair of opposites, namely good and bad. How would the early Pythagoreans have conceived of that which is not commensurable? John Fauvel has pointed out that incommensurability is not in itself plausible without some sort of proof: its first proof must have constituted its discovery (Fauvel, 1987, p. 18). Proving irrationality made it so!
The proof establishes the contradiction that a number can be both even and
odd. By a series of intriguing displacements, Serres suggests that because 'even means equal, united, flat, same while odd means bizarre, unmatched, extra, left over, unequal, in short, other, the contradictory result may be described as asserting that 'Same is Other'. This cannot be so; but because that which is not rational has been proved to exist as well as what is rational, then numbers may just as well be irrational as rational. This dualism-masterfully explored by Theatetus-means that irrationality, or what Parmenides would have called non-Being, is in a sense on the same footing as rationality, or Being. So, according to Serres, Same is indeed Other 'after a fashion'; and this is the parricide of Parmenides.
'Legend, myth, history, philosophy, and pure science have common borders over which a unitary schema builds bridges', writes Serres, stretching the condensations even further to include a play on the name, Metapontum, of the birthplace of he who was shipwrecked. The 'unitary schema' reasserts the oneness of Being with a vengeance; but the crossing of boundaries brings disparate and sometimes contradictory things together. Following Parmenides, we usually assume that contradictions cannot-must not-be simultaneously entertained: either something is or it is not. But condensations demand otherwise. David Pimm has suggested that this is why metaphor can be so disquieting in mathematics:
for the very essence of metaphor…is to be able to claim at one and the same time that 'it is and it is not'! I assert 'a function is a machine' (and yet I also know it is not one)-the strength of the metaphoric assertion comes through the use of the verb to be-yet it carries with it implicitly its own negation. (Pimm, 1995, Chapter 10)
The ambivalence of simultaneous assertion and negation is familiar in psychoanalysis. It is perhaps this accommodation of the contradiction inherent in metaphor that makes some psychoanalytic narratives seem, at first sight, implausible. David Pimm quotes some startling examples from the work of Melanie Klein, including that of a 17-year-old patient, known as Lisa, who had understood addition when the things being added were the same, but not when they were different. Klein suggests, in effect, that addition was a metaphor that condensed various meanings for Lisa, including her difficulty in entertaining the idea of parental coitus, where different genitals are brought together. These remarks occur in a very comprehensive survey-based on some of her cases-of the role of the school in the libidinal development of children. Lisa is mentioned quite often in this survey; for example, it is reported that she recalled always finding it difficult to divide a large number by a smaller one. She associated this difficulty with a dream involving mutilation of a horse, and her going shopping for an orange and a candle. This-and its inevitable (Kleinian) interpretation in terms of castration-may seem far-fetched to some people, but it is precisely the way of the unconscious to be far-fetched. Another analyst might have made a less severe interpretation, but the issue must always be how fruitful this particular interpretation had been in the course of Lisa's analysis, and this, of course, we do not know.
For Klein, 'the tendency to overcome [the fear of castration] seems in general to form one of the roots from which counting and arithmetic have evolved' (Klein, 1950, p. 80). That arithmetical operations might symbolize such matters is supported by evidence from many other analysts. Klein assembles a lot of further detail about Lisa's-and other children's-unconscious thinking in her account. For instance, Lisa disliked the number 3 'because a third person is of course always superfluous'. Similar oedipal conflicts have been reported recently by Lusiane Weyl-Keiley, a therapist and teacher, who has shown how some typical problems encountered in remedial work in mathematics may be interpreted psychoanalytically. For example, 3 may be associated with the family triple-mother, father, child-and Weyl-Keiley describes a depressed adolescent for whom 5-2 was always 2. Asked to display this by folding fingers of one hand, he was unable to sustain the display of three fingers and had to fold down another. 'You see it makes two', he announced, keeping himself, it is suggested, out of the family conflict (Weyl-Keiley, 1985, p. 38).
Another example of the possible psychic significance-for some individuals-of a mathematical topic may be found in Klein's report that Lisa recalled never understanding an equation with more than one unknown. The exercise of interpreting that in psychoanalytic terms is, as they say, left to the reader. But another sort of condensed meaning may be found in the reminder that in the early development of algebra there must also have been something particularly difftcult about the notion of two unknowns. For Diophantos, who tackled various problems with apparently two or more unknowns, seemed unable-or unwilling-to symbolize more than one. A second unknown was always arbitrarily given a particular numerical value, the problem then being expressed in terms of one variable. When this caused some inconsistency or infelicity, the value of the second unknown was modified in order to satisfy all the conditions of the problem.
For example, Diophantos sought a Pythagorean triple such that the hypot-enuse less each side is a cube (see van der Waerden, 1988, p. 288). His method is here more conveniently described in modern notation. Pythagorean triples can be expressed in terms of two parameters; calling one of the associated parameters 5, Diophantos arbitrarily took the other to be 3. The base, height and hypoteneuse are then s² - 9, 6s and s² + 9, respectively. Hypotenuse less base is 18, which is not a cube. To make it one, you need to have assigned the second parameter a number whose square, doubled, is a cube. So try 2! The sides are then s²-4, 4s, s²+4. Hypotenuse less height is now the square of s - 2, which has to be a cube. So set 5 = 10! The sides are now as required. This was also the approach to such problems taken later-and independently-by the Arab mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi; it re-appears once again in the mediaeval 'rule of false position'.
We admire the crucial step that Diophantos made-the awareness that he could name the as-yet-unknown by a special symbol (it looked like an s and may have been an abbreviation of the Greek word for number, arithmos). We have no idea why he was unable, or unwilling, to invoke a second symbol at the same time. But it was clearly a difficult issue. The point here is, of course, not to interpret Diophantos as having some kind of unconscious block, but to establish that entertaining two unknowns may be problematic in itself, and to suggest that in Lisa's case, where other relevant evidence is also available, this might be seen as having come also to symbolize unresolved issues about her oedipal conflicts. It is not, of course, that two unknowns will always represent two parents for everyone, but rather that they may attract such unconscious condensations for some individuals at some time of their lives.
Listening to, and trying to make sense of, other people's accounts of their experience can be difficult. Interpretation is a fragile instrument which is often made to bear too much ontological weight. Socrates explains to Theodorus that he is afraid that they will never be able to understand the thought of Parmenides, and that in their discussion of the nature of knowledge they can only multiply interpretations which will never allow them to reach a satisfactory conclusion. All that Socrates, whose mother was a midwife, can do is to use his 'maieutic art'-or intellectual obstetrics-to help Theatetus deliver his own understanding.
So I'm afraid that we'll fail as much to understand what he [Parmenides] was saying as we'll fall far short of what he thought when he spoke, and-this is the greatest thing-that for whose sake the speech has started out, about knowledge, whatever it is, that that will prove to be unexamined under the press of the speeches that are bursting in like revellers, if anyone will obey them. And this is all the more the case now, since the speech we now awaken makes it impossible to handle by its immensity, regardless of what one will do. For if one will examine it incidentally, it would undergo what it does not deserve, and if one will do it adequately, it will by its lengthening wipe out the issue of knowledge. We must do neither, but we must try by means of the maieutic art to deliver Theaetetus from whatever he's pregnant with in regard to knowledge. (Bernadete, 1986a, p. 51)
Introducing his own discussion of a transcript of a videotape of a classroom dialogue, Pimm emphasizes how difficult it is to present convincing descriptions of supposed unconscious processes. His interpretations of the quoted extract in terms of the linguistic dimensions of metonymy and metaphor seem to be both apt and convincing. His account could also be seen-more or less equivalently-in terms of the associated psychoanalytical processes of displacement and condensation. In the first place, when the teacher asks Lorna to recall the word 'infinity', her answer 'fidelity' may be interpreted in terms of displacement: the associated, but possibly disturbing, word 'infidelity' is swiftly disavowed and replaced by 'fidelity'. On the other hand, taking infinity to be a powerful condensation of meanings, her answer may be interpreted as directly relating to an associated meaning, that of 'lasting for ever'; unable to recall the actual word required she responds with the word 'fidelity' that has a similar, and for adolescents a particularly potent, meaning. Both interpretations can be taken into account at the same time, for the unconscious accommodates contradictions and converses.
The example underlines how irrelevant the quest for historical truth may be in such cases. But why, someone may ask, would anyone be interested in some narrative truth, let alone a proliferation of such truths? One possible answer is clear from a further reading of the transcript, which like so many classroom reports, is a record of someone's public success (here, significantly, that of the two boys, David and Gary) at the expense of someone's humiliating public failure.
The teacher is described as repeating Lorna's word 'fidelity' with 'rising tones of surprise and disbelief'. The rest of the class can be left in no doubt that Lorna has got it wrng. This is common enough in the contemporary classroom. But, to paraphrase an oft-quoted sentence of Jules Henry's, To a Zuni, Hopi or Dakota Indian, David and Gary's performance would seem cruel beyond belief, for competition, the wringing of success from somebody's failure, is a form of torture foreign to these non-competitive cultures.'
The point about the possible interpretations of Lorna's mistake is that they suggest ways in which she may, in fact, have got it right. They support a classroom attitude which encourages everyone-teacher and fellow students-to find the truth in the mistake. Whatever our view of what psychoanalysts say, we know, at least, that they listen, and this is something that we should all do more of in our classrooms. We can also strive to contain our premature interpretations and let our students deliver their own.
Andrew, aged 5, is enormously energetic and egocentric. The world revolves round him. He has an exuberant preoccupation with words-talks incessantly, rhyming when he can and following up word-associa-tions with unconcealed glee and self-delight. He pushes people and things, jumps up and down, shouts, tears and throws paper, stamps his feet. His aggressive masculinity is at once charming and intolerable. Andrew and friends are measuring. lan solemnly records that he is '3 recorders and 1 pen tall'. Andrew has been measuring the length of the table using a block of wood. He asks me to write out an appropriate sentence for him. The table is…pieces of wood long.' Gripping the pencil like a dagger, he inserts a 7. He then stabs the paper a few times and produces what looks like a row of 7's under the sentence. I say nothing, but I feel puzzled. Is Andrew being exuberant and generous with his numerals in the way he is with spoken words? After a brief, shared silence, Andrew explains to me: 'you write it seven times because there were seven of them.' (Tahta, 1975, p. 10)
In a moving postscript to his chapter, David Pimm relates what he heard when he listened to 3-year-old Katie. She counts, pointing a finger in turn at him, her mother and herself: 'One, two, two'. She says she knows it should be one, two, three, but adds, 'I am pretending'. The previous evening she had told him, 'I thought you were daddy' and earlier that morning she had announced, 'daddy dead'. He offers some sensitive possible interpretations of her apparent avoidance of' three'. It seems overwhelmingly obvious that feelings about the missing father are being processed in all this. This confirms the authenticity of Klein's account of Lisa's version of the (not always homely!) maxim, 'two's company, three's a crowd', and of the other examples of number avoidance mentioned by Lusiane Weyl-Keiley among others. I cannot resist adding a further possible interpretation that links with Andrew's explanation of his seven sevens: in counting the two two times because there were two of them in her family, perhaps Katie was also unobtrusively telling David that she knew that he was not her father and that was all right. The unconscious can be a creative as well as a destructive force, and young children often tell it like it is. Moreover, alternative interpretations can be
simultaneously entertained, even where they may seem to be contradictory. For that is the way of the unconscious: same is other, after a fashion.
|1.||I am particularly grateful to John Mason, David Pimm and David Wheeler for their perceptive comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.|
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|BERNADETE, S. (1986b) Plato's Sophist, University of Chicago Press.|
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