Thursday, 14 January 2010

on wine

The intersection of readers here and the gathered on a Sunday evening is likely nil, either way here are my thoughts ahead of Sunday, more than their 15minutes will permit. Posting allows for a sort of protospective feedback, a sort of wiki-preaching by committee – so a prize to anyone who can email the nine main points alliteratively or acrostically. I wrestle with the conviction that in sermon writing the impulse to pen something clever, or worse, something novel, is as irresistible as it is counter-productive and unedifying.. and there is that haunting fear that bad preaching has limitless potential to be poisonous.


- A Wedding Feast - John 2:1-11-
150 gallons of wine. If your Christian friends are not in the regular habit of hosting parties of the sort that 150 gallons of wine need be called upon, then speak gently to them, but they may have missed a conspicuous and central priority of the faith they profess. This is a passage much preached on and one still challenging in its implications. There is a lot of good news here, the first and possibly biggest challenge here is believing it, of taking it in by our tiny eyes, submitting to the glory of it.

1. News is Good News.
So, lest we take news for granted. The atheist bus campaign goes something like this “There probably isn't God, so just muddle along and have a nice day..” That is not good news essentially because it is not news, it is speculation. It is not positive observation, it's word play. I want to know the answer to painful questions: Does this story end well? Is all I do for nothing? And while agnosticism is a valid position, no one should pretend it is worth preaching, just as the channel tunnel is a valid route to France, no one pretends the tunnel to be a nice spot to pitch a tent in; it is dark, damp and boring.

Not only is speculation insufficient, it can be wielded woundingly: “My friend has just been hit by a car, is there a hospital nearby?” “Maybe... maybe not.” Not helpful, callous even. We are waiting for news, someone who knows the area, someone who can offer us an account we can wrestle with, an eyewitness testimony, news, data, someone who has found a hospital. John here has no time for ponderous bus campaigns; he claims to have seen God in the flesh, doing God stuff. So, Christianity is story, the story relating what it looked like when God came into flesh 2000 years ago, and Christianity is the story relating what it looked like when God came into my flesh 2000 years later.

2. God can be known through the senses and he is glorified in our satisfaction.
“Good” wine (v10)

In the beginning God created light and it was good, sky and it was good, land and it was good, vegetation and it was good... In Cana a man came, claiming to be God, this man created wine and it was declared by the master of the banquet to be? Good. Do you declare the Goodness of the things you see? God only does good; God is working all things for the good. In declaring goodness, you are observing God at work. The alternative is to say: things happen, coincidences occur, flavour is no more that primary appeals to basic survival instincts of biology.

In declaring 'good' wine, you are entering into a relationship with God which recognises his provision. This provision, this giftness of the gift nature of all of reality is good news. The alternative to gift is a debt unpayable for the undeserved privilege of that sunset, the wonder of that snow, the sheer sensory beauty that offers itself to us every morning. Few appreciate this with the clarity of the deep end of the Deep Ecology movement who venture that the Earth would be better without humans, such is the beauty of creation and our inability to pay for our tenancy. God wants us to let him provide for us, when God became a man this is how he wanted to be known, as our all-providing bridegroom.

And this is the experience of God, this is the manifestation of his glory (v11). I am willing to concede a certain mystery in the distinction between God and his gifts, but the Psalms encourage us to Taste and See that the Lord is good (Ps34:8). Do you talk in such experiential language about God? We should be encouraged knowing that the news about God is intellectually credible, but this scene in Cana wants more than that, here we are presented with an account of a God who would be existentially satisfying. Even existentially overwhelming, this is no meagre topping up of half-full bottles. If someone brought that much wine to a party at mine I’d have to think of options for bottling the vinegar.

3. God meets us in our shame.
“They have no wine...” (v3)

At a wedding like this it was the bridegroom's responsibility to supply the wine, at a wedding like this in those days, everyone was there, the whole community from miles around the village, for several days. And to compound this, in the ancient near east, in eastern societies now, they have a far deeper and more clearly articulated culture of shame and honour than perhaps we are familiar with.

So, have you let people down? Have you failed to live up to your own low standards? Have you aimed and fallen short? We know shame, we inherit cultural notions of what an adequate human being should at least manage, and then in our weakness don't come close. We are forgetful, we get sick, we get distracted, we find ourselves trapped juggling too many things, and cracks appear and the mask slips. Jesus offers a manifesto for us, for those who have let the wine run out, “Blessed are you, Blessed are the poor in Spirit..” He comes to our failing wedding party, crumbling marriage, fraught degree and announces, it is going to be alright, this story is going to end well, I am with you, I am on your side.

He meets us in our shame, when we've run out of wine, when we've let the world down. He lets us know he is working this out for the good. If I know that, Know that, then I can face anything.

? [(On shame and cultures of shame. I find the expression 'a shame-based culture' fascinating and foreign. Presumably we, in 21st century secular Britain, are just as likely to fail our ideals, just as weak to fulfil our aspirations, and I want to venture that this notion of a culture of shame is foreign because it is predicated on a quality of community now absent, or at least a proximity and longevity of relationship. So if shame is bound up with identity in community, we have saved ourselves from a ' 'culture of shame' in part because technology makes our identity more fluid and individual affluence has allowed us to move, to escape those people who would shame us and our past failures which would shame us. Christians should not be blind to this, the privatisation of shame.. we must put ourselves in the way of failure and allow ourselves to be known. Anyone?)]

4. God does not want us to be religious.
“...six stone water jars there for Jewish rites of purification” (v6)

So, these stone water jars, heavy jars daily carried down to the well lowered in, heaved up, heaved home. There are still such labour intensive rituals that we pin our hopes on, these fruitless, exhausting, cosmetic things we do to feel like we're OK. We are so desperate to cover our own brokenness, we perform elaborate, largely superstitious, displays of self-mortification, driving your fair-trade wine bottles to the recycling in that hemp bag on the back seat of your Prius. And all the armour we put on before a party like this, the names we drop, the tidy house we present, labouring that we might look like we're got it together. So too the Jews at this wedding, by scrubbing between their toes, making sure they didn't dirty themselves by touching gentiles, making sure they tithed their mint and dill, hoped that they might be thought a good person, holy and acceptable to God. This is religion, this is behaviour modification, and it is completely futile. Either you succeed and end up proud that you managed to make your feet a shade cleaner than Bob's, but pride a sin so you're back to the beginning. Or after forty years of scrubbing, your feet are no cleaner, you've scrubbed to the bone and the bones dirty, and you have only despair. [(Perhaps it is stretching the metaphor to say that the reason your feet are dirty after all this time because you had to be walking back and forth to the well filling the stone jars when they got empty..?)] Pride and despair are the two quantities religion trades in, religion only makes the problem worse. (Rom5v20?)

So if Jesus turns this water into wine how is the game changed? That which was done outwardly under the old covenant, those things we and the Jews do to fix things were a limited picture of what Christ would go on to do, finally, conclusively and prefectly when his 'time' came, on the cross. No longer are we cleaning ourselves to get up to him, he is come down that we might savour him as wine here.

5. God is jealous for the goodness Creation, his concern to restore is a picture of Heaven in-breaking.
“...you have kept the good wine until now” (v10)

There is good news in this passage because of what wine represents. Wine in OT prophecy is a sign of Shalom. Jesus here, with a precise intentionality, chooses a wine-less wedding to make wine his first miracle, aware of the meaning this held and prophecies it fulfilled, as there presumably had been other opportunities to start out his road to Calvary, miraculously turning wood shavings into coffee or clay pigeons into living birds at any point previous in 33 silent years.. To say that Jesus found himself accidentally at a wine-less wedding and decided then to begin a ministry would be to have things in reverse. Jesus is on a mission to proclaim a Kingdom which fulfils some of these prophecies which are anticipating the Messiah:

Isaiah25:6 - Jeremiah31:12 - Joel3:18 - Amos9:13-14

All of them, looking from a place where everything, the very creation, seems broken, all of them looking towards the coming Shalom, towards the coming New Creation, where a Messiah will come and everything will be rebuilt, redeemed, restored, renewed in those times, new wine will flow. Jesus is saying loudly and clearly: this is happening now, here is the new wine now, here I am the beginning of a restoring work of all creation.

Note in these prophecies, just like the wine they use as a picture, the new creation is earthy, it is being reborn out of the soil this creation (Rom 8:22?).

Wine is interestingly apt, it can be seen as representing both the ecstatic sensation of the Kingdom and the grace-filled and abundant economics of the Kingdom.

[(Note also John's parallels with the creation narrative, 1:1 in the beginning…, 1:3 names God as creator, then in 2:10 it is declared good just as in Gen1.)] [(“..until now.” There is temptation to look back, and to say oh things back then.. What does it mean of the new creation that ‘good’ is used as sufficient adjective on its own to set it apart from the old?)]

6. God has written a Bible we can trust
For me there is a reassurance in having a book which, while sometimes complex, again and again offers a robust internal coherence of anticipating things prophesied and then observing its fulfilment.

Are you comforted, excited by that? It is easy to take for granted. We live under that arch of promises that have been made, anticipating their fulfilment. Given their fulfilment in John's account we should have license to a reckless confidence of obedience now.

[(Further, there is something reassuringly unspectacular and domestic about this miracle, 'Social Embarrassment Avoided at Wedding' is not selling me your newspaper. If fictional or embellished, a mythologized Jesus ideally ought to grab my attention with a something bigger, or at least more humanitarian, political and useful. That text doesn't give us that is because, conceivably, this awkward miracle really was.)]

7. God is concerned for the peripheral, God is present in the nowhere places.
“at Cana in Galilee..” (v1)

So, there they were, broken under Roman rule, holding out for a hero. Just as we now hope some messianic politician would stand up at COP15 and fix pollution, that Bono would sing some world shifting song at Live Aid and fix poverty, because that is where change happens, the sort of big change we need, the sort of change that we can believe in.

Where are you looking for your rebuilding, renewing, restoring to come from? Where are justice and the good life going to come from for you? Lobbying central government? A new flat in next best postcode? A career in London? Cana is a nowhere place, the sort of place you have to spell out on the phone to the bank, Bethlehem and Nazareth were fairly peripheral, Cana was a satellite of Nazareth, archaeologists aren't sure where Cana was any more precisely than that. Yet, and yet everything we have in the new Testament, then the Jesus movement and its worldwide consequences up to and including our standing here now was catalysed in that obscurity, and from there to the Jerusalems and Romes of that world, from there. This is good news for every forgotten and unimportant square inch of earth, God is there restoring and rebuilding.

8. God is not a tribal deity, He will not be coerced.
When Jesus addresses his mother as 'Woman'(v4), his tone is brusque. (I love the word brusque). While not disrespectful, there is a hint of rebuke in this, we can understand Jesus here, as elsewhere in lk11:27-28 and mk3:32-33, as straining earnestly to confront the assumption of the day, that Yahweh was their tribal God, a private saviour, a politicking side-taker. Nothing could be further from grace.

What is your evangelical pedigree? Do you struggle with your family's faith? Just as God doesn't privilege the geographies we consider important, neither are we privileged into or ruled out of his goodness by dint of biology. Whatever your family upbringing. So, the good news we take with us is that Christianity is not a western thing, not a Jackson thing, its not a middle class middle England thing, the message of the saving grace of Jesus Christ is true truth for every man, woman and child who opens themselves to receive it, drink it in, and dance under it.

9. God is not a pragmatist. Extravagant worship and extravagant evangelism are appropriate for an infinitely good God.
Jesus here is intentional and explicit about the details as well as the symbolism of his actions. He does what he does here because he had a message to proclaim and a message to embody. So do we. There is something offensively unpragmatic about 150 gallons of wine, just as there was in the spilling of perfume lk7:36-50. What is the message that Jesus is embodying? How do we, in the small things in our own lives, point to the wedding feast the Jesus has initiated? We should allow ourselves to be challenged by the application of these.

I believe Jesus wants to save us from our narrow definitions of utility. Some of the commentaries cite weddings in the 1st century where guests might sue the host if the wine ran out, which may well be have been an issue here, and the temptation, quietly, is to reduce this ridiculous miracle into one of fiscal utility.

[(Please picture yourself, family gathering over Christmas, Uncle B is a bit late, rings to ask if there's anything he can pick up on his way over, “Oh yes, we're running out of drink could you grab some.” Half an hour later he's there with a trailer full of champagne, the good stuff, from the top shelf, with the security tags on. “Thanks, things were getting a bit awkward in there..” or even “Thanks, you saved me the petrol of popping out to Sains myself.” Don't be silly. Don't miss the glorious absurdity of Cana.)]

In applying this I would caution against thinking in terms of expense, an acutely post-industrial temptation. Rather think of the breadth of talents you have. If I spent a few days carving a sculpture to give as a gift for she that I love, if she then were to ask how much it was worth, it would be to miss the point entirely.

I should keep myself from applying this for you, as I will only work myself up into rant about stone and stained glass but these would be two points it seems not unbiblical to consider:

9.1 A rule of sevenths and Sabbath. Which is in this passage: this wedding happens on the seventh day of John's account of Jesus ministry, in the only passage where John makes a numbering of days [(counting with Carson who reasonably assumes 1:40 begins a new day, as Jesus spends the day with the Baptist's disciples before Andrew brings Peter the day after.)] We submit our calendars to God who has said that we only need work 6 days of the week and that he will provide for the seventh. On that day we should play, thrive and Be, be at Rest, rest in Wonder. It is possible even for an extended period to burn the candle at both ends, to work seven days out of seven, and it is profitable – it advantages your career, Eric Liddell could have run and presumably won his Sunday heats. But there is a bigger story going on, life in all its Lifeness is not found in making things faster, in reaching the top sooner. So, just as we can submit our calendars to God, we can submit everything else to God, and by Sabbathing those demonstrate His provision. Does your architecture, do your weekends, does your dining table offer pauses, ornament, candles, flowers, embellishment celebrating simply Being? Are they one seventh redundant? Are they one seventh playful?

9.2 A rule of craft and soil. Jesus chooses wine to do his miracle through, significantly because it fulfils a slew of OT prophecies and by those it draws on a cultural association of wine with Shalom. It is worthwhile to ponder why wine, and what does wine represent and practically involve even still now. To those who have taken the time to learn wine a single glass speaks of what grapes in what soil in what season, the wine betrays the tradition of the craft specific to that region, the oak of the barrel, the weather of that year and the age of that bottle. Wine is a superlative celebration of dominion done well, of that subtle relationship between man and nature, and the tacit knowledge of an ancient craft. What better way to epitomise Shalom. Now, just as then, do we affirm craft, excellence and agriculture in our community?

Miscellaneous Applications~
1. Pray
See how Mary speaks her situation to Jesus (v3) and asks Jesus for help. She does this because she knows his power and because she knows his character. On this basis we can be bold enough to pray. Contained within the act of prayer is obedience (v5), by which we are made conduits for the power we petitioned for.

2. Live symbolically
If Jesus is our model we should consider the extensive ways he worked to make clear and to embody the metaphors by which he defines his true nature and the nature of reality. This whole wedding scene so weighted with the poetic as to prompt some commentators to suggest it was in fact a parable. It is our prerogative to demonstrate otherwise, to do so intentionally.

3. Celebrate
We are to take responsibility for our joy, even, some have constructed, to initiate a 'Discipline of Celebration'. Christianity is not a glum deism it is a wedding feast, if we are not celebrating it is not for lack of good news.

(image:sxc)

15 comments:

Thelema said...

Interesting posts you have, though I think Christianity is dead and will be redeemed and brought to fruition and perfection through Thelema. Check out my blog at http://christianityisdead.wordpress.com/ if you will. Love is the law, love under will. ;)

postJazz said...

This is tangential to your thoughts about shame, which is a complex and interesting concept. There is a difference between a ‘shame culture’ and a ‘guilt culture’. Both are different sorts of pain to pride and come about in different ways. The first is external - what you feel is predicated on what the people around you think of your action or inaction; the second is internal - what you feel has its origins in your own expectations of yourself.

I came on the distinction myself studying Greek versus Shakespearean tragedy. Greek society in the 5th century BC was governed by gods, none of whom cared much at all about what happened to man - one could offend the gods entirely without knowing that one had, and no amount of repentance would heal the wrong. You would be punished for the fault, no matter how many ‘I didn’t knows’ or ‘I’m sorrys’ you could legitimately put forward. The best example in the literature is Oedipus, who entirely without intention kills his father and marries his mother, for which crimes the gods punish him hugely. His downfall comes from the fact that the gods/society punish the crime without taking into account the fact that his actions were in themselves both logical and moral according to the standards of the time. He is shamed by circumstance, but he can hardly feel guilt, because guilt implies that he could have behaved differently and chose not to.* The important part for my argument is that he is ashamed of the situation he powerlessly finds himself, rather than guilty for having put himself in a situation of which he is ashamed.

The difference in Shakespeare’s time is about free will – which is a Christian concept. There are groups of tragedies and not all support the following thought, but protagonists have the option to make the right decision and make the wrong one, which is always obvious to the audience. The best examples I think are Macbeth and King Lear. Each gets his comeuppance for actions that are either wilfully evil or rashly foolish. At the end, each realises where he went wrong and in the case of Lear tries to right the situation - the tragedy is guilt for action rather than shame. The latter, in the context of ‘what everyone else thinks’ is less important – and I think always is in a Christian context. Morality is the responsibility of the individual before it is the responsibility of a community. How else is a relationship to God personal? How else are all men equals? Why else hide what the right hand does from the left hand? It might be right to stand up and claim your failure, because apart from anything else there IS a general acceptance of what constitutes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – and it is possible to find oneself feeling guilty for something for which guilt is not the appropriate reaction. Any conclusions from that sort of ‘group confession’ have to be held up to personal scrutiny, to see, still, that what everyone else thinks holds up to what one thinks and whether what everyone thinks or what one thinks needs alteration.

*NB Other examples could be drawn from shame/suicide type ritual in Japan/China in more recent history, but I’m not familiar with these cultures.

postJazz said...

I also wanted a little to take umbrage at your metaphors for agnosticism – I don’t think either of them are fair. You might have a valid point, but these aren’t the way to make it. True, it isn’t helpful to say to an injured person that ‘maybe, or maybe there isn’t’ a hospital nearby – but better that truth than a lie about a hospital that can never be found. Instead of making use of resources that are near your casualty, like the skills of the people around, you might send somebody off on a wild goose chase that will do them more harm than good. I see what you mean I think about not pitching a tent in no-man’s-land, but I can’t follow the logic any further than that. Maybe I shouldn’t try. The thing is, England and France both definitely exist – you aren’t being fair to the agnostic position if you examine it from your own position of similar theistic certainty. More fair to say that the agnostics are camped at the bottom of an unassailable cliff at the top of which is certainty and possibly a better life – it might be inhospitable at the bottom of the cliff, but a reasonable existence is possible. Nobody knows what might be at the top of the cliff; maybe it would be worse. Anyway, the cliff is un-climbable. Not that I like that metaphor much either.

Philip Jackson said...

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Hazel, hello. I have been unfair, being vague in my metaphors, incomplete in my argument and abrupt. I will try to clarify my terms, better express my concern regarding agnosticism and its bus campaigns and I will try to flesh out my metaphors. I think a trade in metaphors is among the healthier forums for God banter, and to the ring you have added wild geese and unassailable cliffs.

To clarify terms, ‘agnosticism’ popularly brands two starkly different positions under the same banner, those who say “we cannot know” and those who say “we do not know”.
To clarify also, where I had paraphrased the text of the bus campaign, it actually read: “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The agnosticism with which I am fluent, sympathetic, and drawn to frequently is that which says ‘we do not know’, an agnosticism which understands that there are things which slip through our fingers if our concept of knowing is of clenching power over, an unfinished agnosticism which is reconciled to the possible data of a mysterious, infinitely complex universe presenting itself to the finite capacity of my tiny eyes.

The ‘we cannot know’ agnosticism is one of which I am fearful. This is the agnosticism ironically sufficiently confident of what it claims to not know to buy bus ad space. I would stress my concern at the subtle violence of the bus campaign regardless of the validity or no of contending theistic claims thus:

- It is advocating the unexamined life, when there are real questions worth ‘worrying’ about. Stop worrying, cease curiosity, stop putting yourself in the way of difficult questions – these are a route to ignorance.

- ‘Stop worrying’ is only valid if you have given me security in a calamitous world or if you have given me a cause within greater than that which I risk by daily living. Tragedies happen, our inclination toward worry, our consternation at the state of things reflects the reality of a difficult world, to numb that feeling and suppress those emotions is to invest our research into the development of painkillers when we could look for a cure.

- ‘Stop worrying and enjoy’ Perhaps this hinges on our definition of enjoy, but the buses niggled me for their appearing to affirm a consumerist status quo, exacerbated by the medium of bus advertising chosen for the message, it risks promoting a selfish and escapist hedonism to shop away your worries.

- Another inference (who argues by inference? Apologies in advance) is that in spite of its ‘probably’, be there a God or no, the poster’s declaration would set the pursuit of God as antithetical to joy. This is not the experience of a wide spectrum of spiritual seekers from a breadth of faith traditions.

- Possibly my vexation is with these grating simplifications, these sound-bite jousts, like the Alpha posters which played the same game with a humorous polemic “probably” riposte. Beliefs bickering on billboards should possibly be asked to leave the pool.

Agnosticism within my experience is a painful place, born of the wounding of bad church. Rarely and least of all in my own case was it embraced on intellectual grounds, but rather emotional and aesthetic, a self-protection in the one direction and a fervent, heart-felt, whole-body desiring towards that which so tangibly was good and full of life in the domain beyond the self-conscious truth claims of the theistic traditions of my former and limited experience. ...

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Philip Jackson said...

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However, if I am a Christian now it first is a product of collapsing sacred-secular arbitrary fences, but possibly more significant than that, I am here now because of the crushing inadequacies of an agnostic world view. It is a limply parasitic philosophy, unsustainably re-active rather than proactive, defining itself by what it is not. Doubt doubts doubt in an utterly unsatisfying and self-referential pool of knowledge, so the slightest hint of shafts of light gracing the corners of my room were seized and savoured.

I will try a few further points of my disappointment with agnosticism and then try to rework the metaphors:

- The settled agnosticism, resolved that “we cannot know” is a coward’s atheism, deflecting by “probably” any culpability for their bus advice, having the supposed privilege that comes of living free of submission to any higher law or consequence, without the responsibility to then keep the peace in the fall out from suggesting a death of god.

- This agnosticism, which is relativism applied to the language of theology stumbles over the same internal incoherence as relativism, if you cannot know, then you cannot know that you cannot know. (Conscious that there are different forms of knowing and different measures of confidence, but I think the sound-bite still holds)


The road accident and the hospital:
- I will stand by this metaphor for its description of the condition we find ourselves in, dazed from a hit and run, bleeding to death. I feel this.
- And for the metaphor’s end, the universal search for medicine or at least anaesthetic. We all do this.
- A meta-narrative structured between these two anchors recognises a primary remembrance that once we walked healthy and it gives us categories by which to counsel the ways we pour our energy towards trying to rebuild a former deathless body or towards trying to forget the vanity of trying.
- The crux of the parallel was in the message about a hospital. If the message borne is ‘no hospital’ at least I can die well, absolutely it is better that message than a lie about a hospital that can never be found. But the message I was contesting was ‘maybe.. maybe not’ which is a waste of breath, it is not a ‘truth’ statement but two unqualified hypotheses.
- And of goose chases, I would affirm that having been taken to empty, closed, superbug hospitals for a life time, to find only witch-doctors, con-artists and the prosperity gospel, there is an understandable cynicism in the roadside encounter. But to my imagination, these forgeries point to the existence of a genuine article which they are poorly and ruinously imitating.
- On street surgery, the picture breaks down here for me, and possibly here is where humanism steps in to complete my flagging simile? ...

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Philip Jackson said...

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The channel tunnel:
- As with the ‘maybe, maybe not’ my concern is that people not hold to this intellectual fantasy that we can be both here and there and neither, to believe that it is possible to live between hypotheses. So this has to do with wilful indecision and the misery of it. Being in a wet England being told of the sunny weather over the channel and only going half way, you can’t go half way, you can’t be both stealing and not stealing, the cake cannot eaten and not eaten.
- So in this binary division of things, just as England and France definitely exist, the historical Jesus definitely existed, he is recorded as claiming exclusive claims pertaining to great joy for you in the present which are either true or false.
- I am being simplistic as a great many people, religious systems and car advertisements make the claims of Jesus. They are yours to explore, the discussion about the historical Jesus is another discussion – in this sense I am not being fair because I am side-stepping the specifics of the tunnels end, but I hope the metaphor holds in showing invalidity of indecision on these things that are binary and related to a state of being and not being.

Unassailable cliffs of theistic certainty:
- There are popular points of reference in our symbolic universe, the allusion to an up there, a higher plane, something just beyond the veil, some consciousness to reach, some special knowledge that will set us free. That is not my theology, probably I could run some distance with the imagery, of the steep sided holes we dig for ourselves, of impenetrable fortresses built by established religions. If anything God, or theistic certainty, is found hiding in the cracks, under pebbles. A God, or theistic certainty which is gentle, humble and compassionate?

- Can my constructions find a place within the landscape of your intended picture? Where does your cliff touch earth and who do you know who has been to the top of it?


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g_12 said...

I know it must feel odd to think that you might be praying to some clouds, but you are, so why not use your energies to make the world a better place.

There's nothing philosophical about what you're doing. You're choosing to believe in something that isn't real just in case you end up with a pitchfork up your ass, but you won't, we're biological organisms that eventually, once we cease working, turn to dust.

Philip Jackson said...

Dear g_12.
I will. I hope very much to use my energies thus, to make the world a better place. I'm not sure what our dispute is.

I would love to know the better world you seek, what is its architecture, how are its Homes formed, what is the good life? As often as I can sit down with another Hoper, these are my questions, what are the streets like, what parades do they have in the Place you hope for?

I long for a time when everyone has their wine, that is, a time when the economy is run justly and people are nurtured in the fullness of the humanity to craft things, beautiful wine. That is the better place I hope for.

Philip Jackson said...

*their humanity

postJazz said...

Part I.

I completely agree that the bus campaigns have huge problems. You validly explode a lot of the faulty reasoning, faulty morality and faulty facility in those campaigns. But - don’t tar all the agnostics with the same brush. I don’t really think you are, but sometimes you walk close. On the subject of definition, your two camps are not so completely different as you suggest – those who feel ‘we cannot know’ are by definition also in the ‘we do not know’ group. That’s mostly semantic, but is perhaps important.
I suspect quite a lot of the discourse on agnosticism in recent years is predicated on our society’s ever increasing fluency in the language of science. Science is rarely if ever certain about anything beyond a few pure and indisputable mathematical laws. Everything else – everything – is theory. The Empiricists of the C18th begin this – it is David Hume who argues in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that just because an action has been observed to happen several times in a row does not mean it will again. He applies this to the arguments about the existence of god:

‘You then, who are my accusers, have acknowledged, that the chief or sole argument for a divine existence (which I never questioned) is derived from the order of nature; where there appear such marks of intelligence and design, that you think it extravagant to assign for its cause, either chance, or the blind and unguided force of matter. You allow, that this is an argument drawn from effects to causes. From the order of the work, you infer, that there must have been project and forethought in the workman. If you cannot make out this point, you allow, that your conclusion fails; and you pretend not to establish the conclusion in a greater latitude than the phenomena of nature will justify. These are your concessions. I desire you to mark the consequences.

When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must proportion the one to the other, and can never be allowed to ascribe to the cause any qualities, but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect. A body of ten ounces raised in any scale may serve as a proof, that the counterbalancing weight exceeds ten ounces; but can never afford a reason that it exceeds a hundred, If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause, or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect. But if we ascribe to it farther qualities, or affirm it capable of producing other effects, we can only indulge the licence of conjecture, and arbitrarily suppose the existence of qualities and energies, without reason or authority.’

Hume wasn’t prepared to subscribe either to the traditional theisms of his period or to the newly emerging atheism. As you can see above, his god if he had one at all was more partial than any interpretation of the Christian deity. His thoughts are only certain about the fact that there is a great deal beyond our understanding that we cannot know, limited as we are by the restrictions of our senses. He insists, which I myself believe is valid, that it is impossible to be certain about anything that cannot be argued from first principles. When it is put in this way, I find it virtually possible to come to any conclusion other than ‘maybe…maybe not’ for the existence of god. It is the only one available that makes allowances for all observed facts. This isn’t you cannot know, so you cannot know you cannot know. It believes that there are some things you can know but that these are limited – and beyond them, you cannot know. I’m afraid that the different forms of knowing and degrees of confidence that you cite do invalidate your sound-bite…

postJazz said...

I don’t think this can fairly be called ‘a coward’s atheism’, based as it is on observable truth. Indeed, precisely because it is the uncomfortable shifting footing between two firm certainties, it is not the place that anyone would choose to stand. But this is not about choice, it is about truth and honesty. It is arguably the cowardly position to shy away from the basic logic of the true agnostic space towards any sort of faith-based certainty in god or not-god. Both of those are positions that do not face up to the grim reality that we cannot know more than we see and can reason in our limited fashion out from that. We’re in ‘I think therefore I am’ territory. An atheism that insists that there is no god and that there cannot be is supremely arrogant in its certainty and foolish in its failure to recognise that the reasoning of man is (observably) fallible. The same applies to theism. The original suppositions of both positions are unverifiable, so anything built upon them may well be found to have foundation stones missing.

This isn’t a comfortable place, as you note. It is bleak, but it is the bareness of a solid rock from which to build up. When all we are left with is ourselves, we must make even better use of the resource of one another in our attempts to live together. We will always be stronger together, against everything that life throws at us. Community is even more fundamental if you dispense with any certainty that there is a force outside the tangible acting for us. Unity in the here and now becomes even more important. That would be salvation – peace, the best possible for everyone, because only when everyone has all of those carefully drawn up human rights can we move out further and progress as a group. It gets a bit Marxist, I suppose – but just because the implementation of a Marxist world has failed thus far does not make it doomed, that’s back to Hume. The hedonism that you cite as consumerist need not be, the actual original concept is about maximising pleasure and minimising suffering for the greatest number. Before one gets to be able to take ‘pleasure’ in something though, one must be safe, well-fed, healthy and so on, and so actually the concept of ‘hedonism’ is not such a bad one. ‘Enjoy your life’, with caveats, is an acceptable aim when life is all you have and joy is the best of it.

postJazz said...

Part III
This then is my humanism. My understanding of the term might not agree with everyone else’s, and I don’t think it is a word that should ever be capitalised. I find it both terrifying and reassuring that we have only one another for certain around us. It IS simpler not to be factoring any wwjd type questions into daily life – and that is where the bus takes its horribly facile ‘stop worrying’ from. Or that is the kindly way of interpreting it. The sound-bite doesn’t add as I think it should that worrying about what comes after, once you have reached the conclusion that you cannot know what comes after, is a futile and tiring exercise and that ‘worry’ might be better used in improving our journey. It is trying to remove one worry, but skates as you note over the fact that this brings a new set of worries of its own. This is also the place where your hospital analogy breaks down (and I agree that by definition we are bruised and broken and confused – it is the only reasonable reaction to our world, and I agree that we are all looking for a way for it to be better) – when ‘maybe…maybe not’ is the only available valid answer, then it better to dispense with the hope of help beyond the resources at hand and worry about those rather than worry about how to find any other help. Denying the existence of a hospital when there might be one is just as much of a lie as saying with certainty that there is one. The easy death is not one permitted to the casualty – it might be wished for, as much as the existence of the hospital and salvation. Perhaps the way to think of it is to understand that hope is not lost for the casualty, but it is only hope and no certainty. It is in this hope that your search for ‘the genuine article’ can be located. To read your own point again, you yourself recognise that it is by no means certain that such a thing exists, only that what we see at the moment suggests that it might. Hume would not see you disagreeing with him there.

I suspect that my argument with your Channel Tunnel metaphor is more about being a literature student and poetry devotee than to do with philosophy. It isn’t clear enough, and I don’t think it makes your point in anything other than the most simplistic way – the metaphor adds nothing and may have just confused me unnecessarily. As I understand it, you regard theism and atheism as the H1 and H0 of a hypothesis test – and in such a test, there is no space for a third hypothesis. I would disagree there, no more than that. Is there more to it that I’ve missed?

My cliffs were an attempt to understand your metaphor, I’m not sure they have any function at all in my argument if my re-assessed interpretation of your position there is closer to the mark. I know only a few people who feel they have true certainty – and they would only cite faith as their underlying reason for that certainty. I would probably include a few blood relations of ours in that group, though not all of them by any means and it’s not a conversation I have had with many of them.

Unsatisfying all of this might be. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t real, and living in reality is so much more likely to lead to real progress for humanity – you can guide a dream wherever you like, but that doesn’t change where you wake up in the morning. Definition of absence it maybe, but zero is the absence of value and without it any calculation would be impossible, to finish with yet another pair of metaphors which are incomplete and will prove unsatisfactory under examination…

postJazz said...

....might it be obvious, Philip, that neither you nor I have any employment at the present?!

andymoore said...

1) I don't know of any hospital, but I do know a little first aid...

2) umbrage is another fantastic word

3) the bus campaign is frustrating because of its arrogance - and because it is really atheist rather than agnostic. but it did win points for humour.

4) I'm still blown away by the 700 bottles of wine. That's one hell of a party...

5) how did the preach go down?

Philip Jackson said...

Andy. 1) Not GU33? 2) i had to look it up, now I'm looking for an excuse to take it. 3) i'm not a fan of advertising altogether, the medium (which is the message) of sales invariably starts with an estimation that the quality being sold does not speak for itself, not only that, but that someone hopes to profit from your consent. I am at a loss why the campaign was launched, who it reached, to what end? 4) The commentaries want to say that the wine was most likely the strength of beer in this context (would that have been the 'best' wine?), even then I would be struggling to call up enough friends/relatives/strangers for this party. 5) People were polite. There will be land and sea between us from this Sunday so if they are planning such a party I haven't been invited. I think the Lindop and I should start a church.

Hazel. Yes, we the underemployed and overeducated, floating at night in swimming pools the temperature of blood. I will try to address these presently.