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Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

I’m going to throw a curve-ball into this forum which has so far been impeccably liberal and politically correct. My fascination with Ayn Rand’s ideas and ideals is the nearest I will get to a sado-masochistic relationship with someone devastatingly attractive but utterly unsuitable.

 

Ayn Rand and her philosophy that she called Objectivism were progenitors of the neo-conservative "small government, Free Market" philosophy in the USA. She is far more of a household name in the USA than the UK, though I suspect her followers exaggerate her influence compared with better-known Right-Wing Libertarian Free Marketeers such as Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, She cited both as influences but later fell out with them over minor nuances of doctrine.

 

Briefly, some background: She was born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a well-to-do family in St .Petersburg, Russia in 1905. The family had all their wealth confiscated after the Revolution which left her with an abiding hatred of Communism, which she widened to incorporate any kind of collectivism. She managed to get permission to visit the United States in 1924, and was instantly dazzled by the wealth, freedom and dynamism that she found there, and became a leading advocate for Capitalism as a force for the liberation of humanity from poverty and oppression. She would have witnessed the poverty of many citizens but believed that Freedom and initiative were all that was necessary to get out of it. She worked as a script-writer in Hollywood, and managed to get married and therefore gained US citizenship and permission to stay there. She stayed married to her husband, an artist named Frank Connor, for the rest of his life despite at least one affair on her part, but he played very little part in her philosophical or literary life. She published several novels and plays, hit the big time with “The Fountainhead” in 1943, and gained the peak of her influence with her magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged” in 1957, which has sold 30 million copies. One survey found that Americans cited it as the second most influential book after the Bible (which has quite the opposite message). Essentially, it is a dystopian fantasy with science fiction elements, where the heroes are capitalist entrepreneurs and the villains are anyone who tries to limit their freedom. She was the centre of a group of disciples who helped disseminate her ideas into American politics. She had celebrity status and was in great demand as a speaker. She died in 1982 in New York, from lung cancer that was probably consequent to her belief that cigarettes symbolized Man’s conquest of fire.

 

I went through a phase of reading up on her a few years back; I read "Atlas Shrugged" and some of her books of essays. Objectivism appealed to me due to its emphasis on the heroic individual (I have always suspected that I am too much of an individualist to be a true socialist!) and due to its emphasis on the supremacy of Reason. She twisted these ideas into a belief that "Ethical Selfishness" is good and that unfettered Capitalism is a force for good that will benefit the whole of humanity. I was almost seduced by this way of thinking, but soon became disillusioned by it's limitations. She certainly believed in the trickle-down theory of wealth generation which has signally failed. Regarding Reason, for instance her argument against State Healthcare would be: “If Mr. X, who I don’t know, has cancer, why should the government take money from me via taxation to pay for his treatment?” Using Reason alone, this seems like a valid argument, but it ignores the fact that human beings are emotional creatures, and the element of Reason that is left out is that almost all species including humans have evolved to find that co-operation is good for their survival and well-being. The balance of collectivism against the freedom of the individual is probably the basic question that underpins all politics and much of philosophy.

 

One of her disciples was Alan Greenspan who was later chairman of the US Federal Reserve under Ronald Reagan, and a leading light of neo-liberalism. I haven't been able to find a direct link between her thinking and Margaret Thatcher's but clearly many of their ideas were the same ("there is no such thing as Community, there are only individuals and their families"). Sajid Javid has cited her as an influence (and he was the Health Secretary!). Ayn Rand's heyday was in the late 1950s and the 60s, and when I read her stuff Obama was POTUS and her ideas seemed to be more or less of historical interest only. But with the rise of Trumpism and the polarisation of US politics her ideas, if not her actual influence, are relevant again: the idea that free state healthcare is socialism and therefore evil; the fear of Big Government; the right to carry guns, etc. All these ideas seem weird, even alien, to the European mind, but are perfectly normal to many Americans, and a reading of Ayn Rand will help to understand the mentality of the US Republicans. Not in every respect though; she was an atheist, and her libertarianism led her to support the removal of restrictions on homosexuality and abortion, none of which would go down well with the Religious Right, and as a Jew she also wouldn't be welcome in some sections of White America. Also, many of the villains in her books are not socialists, but businessmen and politicians who get their wealth and influence from their contacts and their devious and corrupt political dealings, so I am not certain that she would have approved of Trump. His concept of “false facts” is completely antithetical to any concept of Reason, from Rand or anywhere else, and she would have (rightly in my view) deplored the retreat from Reason that we see in the West. Elon Musk is much more like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged; and I confess that I have mixed rather than negative feelings about him: he is a man of vision for the future of humanity who gets things done rather than talk about it.

 

Having said all that, for all her championing of Absolute Freedom and Absolute Reason, she was not particularly receptive to deviations from her beliefs among her followers, and the Objectivist Movement developed into pretty much of a cult; it still exists, but her followers have elevated her to a Kim Il-Sung type figure, and they have a massively inflated sense of their importance. She made a distinction between her Objectivism on one hand, and Libertarianism and Anarcho-Capitalism on the other, for reasons that are hard to fathom except that people thought of the last two before she did. Her movement, before and after her death, suffered schisms over obscure points that mirrors splits among the Protestant Churches especially the Plymouth Brethren, and ironically also the splits among Marxism-Leninism. For me, the Covid restrictions were the final nail in the coffin for a position that says the government has no right to tell us what to do. An absolute belief in Libertarian-type freedom was what led to the anti-vax and anti-mask position, but when you apply Reason properly, the science tells us that masks and vaccines should be compulsory for the greatest good of humanity and the survival of individuals.

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Assisted Dying

It is impossible, at an abstract 'in principle' level, to reconcile the various ethical principles which arise in association with assisted dying. So our task is not to produce some perfect abstract system which satisfies all ethical considerations in all situations, but to describe a system which is good enough, which people are willing to accept as a reasonable, if imperfect, compromise. And a 'good enough' system will have to balance the ethical considerations in a way which is culturally acceptable.
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Garden-of-Eden-Fall-of-Man-460x422.jpg?profile=RESIZE_400xThe story of Adam & Eve in Genesis is often described as an allegory of creation by those believers who recognise that it contradicts the evidence presented by the scientic consensus surrounding biological evolution and the origins of the universe.

However I think this is duplicitous. To me is clearly intended to explain the presence of sin in humanity rather than the origin of our species (or perhaps at a stretch both). Certainly any modern reader with even a passing understanding of the order and timescales of the creation of the universe couldn't treat it asa literal description of creation.

If, however, it is an allegory, and therefore just a metaphor, the deflection in the story becomes even more transparent. If sin is disobedience to God, as personified by Eve (of course it had to be a woman in those even more patriarchic days, leading her husband astray), then without a specific event, the fall never happened. Anyway, what is actually wrong with eating fruit from the tree of knowledge (or life, depending on which version of the tale your read in Genesis)?  Surely both life and knowledge are good things, and I cannot possibly envisage any human being who doesn't want (and need) a measure of both these things.

What has to be surely accepted is that the 'fall' is a core part of Christian theology throughout the ages and certainly central to substitutional atonement.

I would suggest that 'disobedience to God' would be better described as 'disobedience to the God I have described to you, and whose laws I have explained to you', as it is very clear there is no evidence for any kind of involved God who could explain his laws in person. It must seem quite extraordinary to the devout how the great voice rumbling from heaven, or the creator wandering through the garden, only seemed to speak or appear in person in the old writings, but never now so that we can all hear or record it.

If God didn't create the tendency for free thinking, quest for knowledge, desire for life, self centeredness that drives biological evolution, individuality, the dislike of conformity and following instructions, the inquisitive excitement that comes from living on the edge that often causes humans to make poor decisions when judged by objective terms, then where did all these things come from? Good and evil is suggested to be a 'merism', a device that pairs opposite terms in order to create a general meaning (Egyptians use an expression evil-good, which is normally used to mean 'everything'. No human does know everything, so the apple didn't help with that condition much.

Christians have of course used the story with many interpretations of the 'knowledge of good and evil' - usually to underpin a particular obsession with a particular activity they feel is particularly sinful.  

The central message of the fruit [apple came later perhaps as a Latin pun, "by eating the malum (apple), Eve contracted malum (evil)] on the tree in the Garden of Eden must surely be do as I say, even if you don't understand why I'm saying it, or cannot see what harm there could possibly be in eating the fruit. Just do it because I'm God and I'm in charge and I know better. I won't explain the consequences in advance just don't eat it. i.e. a set up.

So my suggestion is that as a description of real events or as an allegory of the nature of humanity and God the story of Adam & Eve, the talking snake and that lovely delicious looking fruit temping Eve to pluck and eat with her husband it is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. 

At least the witch in the fairy tale Snow White is openly portrayed as evil, plotting Snow White's death, and the apple was deliberately poisoned and made available to the victim by deceit and trickery. Is the God of Genesis really so much different? 

The Wikipedia article outlines the various Abrahamic interpretations of the myth as well suggesting that the 'fall of man' story predates the biblical texts, with an image on a cylinder seal, dating from c. 23rd-22nd century BCE depicting two facing figures seated on each side of a tree, holding their hands out to the fruit, while between their backs is a serpent.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_of_the_knowledge_of_good_and_evil

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10223158278?profile=RESIZE_400xI am neither a Christian nor a Jew, however one of the great principles (largely ignored by those who claim we are a Christian country) contained in the biblical traditions is the idea of welcoming strangers.
 
Just a couple of references (one old testament, one new)
 
Leviticus 19:34 - 'The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself'.
 
Hebrews 13:2 - 'Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it'.
The Jewish tradition is particularly strong on this, the Talmud says that welcoming guests is 'greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.' This tradition (hakhnasat orchim in Hebrew) is considered one of the most important Jewish Values (let's not be diverted into the Palestine/Israel abomination).
 
So on this basis perhaps we should be offering all refugees a guest of honour welcome, offering the best accommodation (I believe Buckingham Palace is currently vacant), priority for education, care and welfare services.
 
I am not a believer, but as someone with empathy can see the huge benefit of this approach. We would win friends for life and could be a shining example of what humanity is capable of, a refuge for those desperate for help, love and kindness.
 
Come on politicians, rise to the occasion.
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Ethical Foreign Policy

10223162480?profile=RESIZE_400x1. Introduction

We often hear politicians (or campaigners) using the term ‘ethical foreign policy’, sometimes as a reaction to something that has caused feeling of gross injustice or hypocrisy. However we very rarely hear any analysis or description of what such a policy would look like or how it would operate.

The world is very complex, and growing more interconnected at all levels. Decisions about one thing can very often have unwelcome and unexpected repercussions in another area. Because it is so complex, and I have really struggled as I’ve considered this subject, leaders often adopt a pragmatic approach, suggesting that ethical considerations nearly always have to take a back seat as the national interest takes priority and the unspoken matter of their electoral popularity. Consequently it is sometimes difficult to separate the national interest from the interests of those in power in the subsequent debates.

An early example of introducing ethics into foreign policy is the Lieber Code, drafted by Francis Lieber when he found himself caught in the middle of the American Civil War. The code was a guide on how warring nations should treat neutral citizens that were in the wrong place at the wrong time in conflicts that didn’t concern them. The code condemned cruelty, gratuitous violence and unnecessary destruction of property of these neutral parties.

After World War 2, and the terrible persecution and terrors inflicted upon minorities across Europe, new crimes were introduced into the world order, namely ‘Crimes against humanity’ and ‘Genocide’. The story of how these words (and the ideas and legal thinking behind them) is brilliantly told in ‘East West Street’ by Phillipe Sands, a book which brings alive the process by which human beings translate experience into serious attempts to change and improve things for the future and also demonstrates the enormous difficulties in turning ethical considerations into a matter of criminal law, particularly international law.

To me there are several questions that have to be addressed before considering whether ethical foreign policy can ever be an achievable aim.

2. Questions

2.1 Whose ethics?

Ethical truths are sometimes described as ‘universal’. However even a superficial survey of attitudes suggest that this isn’t true in practice. For example, some would say it is wrong to kill another human being. Even if we ignore the blatant contradictions (killing in war, judicial executions etc) there are so many ways that our actions contribute directly to the death of other people, for example smoking, environmental pollution, dangerous driving). The dominating religious and cultural framework of a particular nation state clearly influence the decisions and behaviours of their governments, including their willingness to sign up to international obligations and then subsequently whether or not they stick to their promises.

2.2 Can any ethical approach rely on the threat of war as the
back stop?

Without getting into the whole philosophical objections to war (does the victory of the mightiest warrior have any bearing on the rightness of the cause), we have to face up to the reality that the ‘laws’ of war are by definition not ethical. Goebbels said ‘In war, the law is silent’. The job of a soldier is utilitarian, they must obey orders and achieve the mission given to them. The end justifies the means. International law has attempted, through mechanisms such as the Geneva Convention, to limit and control the behaviour of warring nations, but with limited success. History is after all always written (and judged) by the victors.

The philosophy of a ‘Just War’ is just one example of trying to allow realism to live side by side with ethical values. Is it satisfactory? Has it really had any power to moderate behaviours?

Does military intervention ever work for the wider good. If a nations past actions have contributed to a conflict situation, surely that nation has responsibility, even culpability? It should surely help to find a solution, but certainly not impose a solution. e.g. Kosovo bombing of 1999 increased the flow of refugees, destabilising neighbouring states, but eventually UN peace keepers allowed in.2.3 Could it ever work? Much of a nations dealing with others requires a level of secrecy, diplomacy and sometimes overt muscle flexing. Could an ‘all cards on the table’ ever result in anything other than being completely taken advantage of. This raises another question.

2.4 Should inter governmental interactions have different
governing ethics to personal interactions?

Treating others as we’d wish to be treated, the Golden Rule, is a central value that’s been central to human philosophical thinking since the beginnings of recorded history. Most people attempt or aspire to that approach when dealing with interpersonal relationships – no-one likes being lied to for example, or threatened, or demonised. Yet we see these behaviours frequently in the exercise of international relationships between states.

One my beliefs, one which I hope is true, is that adoption of the golden rule doesn’t require any fundamental belief about ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but is a pragmatic approach. If I treat others well, then I am more likely to be treated well. Is this a valid approach in international affairs?

Of course intention is a central consideration of ethics, why are we seeking something – is it for narrow national interest or for wider global interest. The whole debate about global warming has brought this consideration to the fore. Surely it is ethical for our nation to do it’s best to reduce carbon emissions even if others don’t? Do the means justify the ends? Are we right to use both the carrot and stick to pursue an ethical agenda such as the overwhelming expert agreed crisis such as global warming?

2.5 National Interest

Narrow, myopic national interest would be seen as selfishness in the personal realtionship sphere. However I would suggest there is a big moral difference between a broad long definition of national interest that would include citizens of other nations and ‘global good’. Of course, rather like my hopes for the Golden Rule, it may be that if we adopt a more open and generous attitude to other nations, they may do the same with us. What is the biblical saying, ‘Wise as serpents and harmless
as doves’? Eyes and arms both open? Palmerston once said that ‘Britain has no permanent alies, only permanent interests’. Well perhaps, but there are an awful lot of interests that are common to all countries. Global warming, despeciation, the rise of fundamentalism, over population, environmental polution etc. We can either allow these calamities to divide us and therefore send us to ruin, or unite us in a common effort to save our civilisation. Warring over the ruins will be on no-one’s interest.

Cosmopolitanism, the belief that all people are entitled to equal worth and consideration is surely contradicted by narrow nationalism?

Liberalism the philosophy that is based on the consent of the governed and equality before the law is also sometimes an enabler of populism. Surely no nation can survive long without sound leadership, intelligence and knowledge which is controlled and constrained by ethical values?

2.6 The problem of ambivalence

Suppose you are a good swimmer reading at the beach and you notice a child drowning in the surf. Would you put down your book and rescue her? Most would say yes. Would it matter whether she called, “Help!” or cried out in a foreign language? Most would say the foreign language would make no difference. If she were somewhat further out and you were not a strong swimmer, how much risk would you take? Answers would range from the prudent to the heroic. If there were two children, one of which was yours, and you could rescue only one, would it matter whether it was yours? Most would say yes.

Do electors really care much about citizens of another country? Do their elected leaders?

On the other hand, does deliberate distancing ever helpful (their problem, they need to solve it)?

2.7 Enforcement

Even when nations sign up to international treaties, this is no protection against nations breaking their treaty obligations in the future.

Ethical policy not enough, we would need ethical behaviours and ethical moderation. How can moderation be achieved without international jurisdiction when some countries simply opt out?

Also the resort to threats of violence is often an unspoken underpinning to the enforcement, which is perhaps unethical of itself.

3 Summary

I have no profound thoughts to answer these problems. Perhaps the thoughts of experienced leaders
may help?

William E Gladstone said:
“Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home”

Henry Kissinger said:
“to strike a balance between the two aspects of world order - power and legitimacy - is the essence
of statesmanship. Calculations of power without a moral dimension will turn every disagreement
into a test of strength. Moral prescriptions without concern for equilibrium, on the other hand, tend
toward either crusades or an impotent policy tempting challenges; either extreme risks endangering
the coherence of the international order itself” and:

“No foreign policy - no matter how ingenious - has any chance of success if it is born in the minds
of a few and carried in the hearts of none” and:

“A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor
security”.

This balancing act certainly requires prudence a great deal of intelligence, sensitivity, leadership skills and experience.

When one cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue in an ethic of responsibility, while hubristic visions can do serious damage. Prudence usually requires emotional intelligence and the ability to manage one’s emotions and turn them to constructive purposes rather than to be dominated by them.

Thomas Jefferson said:
“Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none”.

John F Kennedy said:
“The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or
indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world”,

and:

“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us”.

George Washington said:
“My ardent desire is, and my aim has been, to comply strictly with all our engagements, foreign
and domestic, but to keep the United States free from political connections with every other
country; to see that they may be independent of all and under the influence of none”.

Jimmy Carter said:
“Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense
of nationhood.”

And finally, something to keep all our feet on the ground:

“No modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals”.
Irving Kristol – American neo-conservative journalist

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Personal Statement

I've put this on my Profile, as a statement of where I am now. My relgion and politics have evolved over the years and will probably continue to do so. If someone believes the same about everything as they did ten years ago, they probably aren't thinking. 

Statement: 

I am over sixty now, and the world has changed far more over the last twenty years than it did in the previous years of my life. 

After the end of the Cold War, Progress seemed to be inevitable. Internationalism was triumphing over Nationalism; Tolerance and Inclusivity were overcoming bigotry and tribalism. But then there were the Balkan Wars, and 9/11, and now Brexit and Trumpism. Many countries have gone backwards in terms of democracy - China, India, Russia, the United States. The UK is not exempt. The Covid pandemic hasn't helped, and if we don't sort out Climate Change nothing else will matter. 

I am still proud to be a Liberal (in the broad sense, not necessarily in voting for that party). and a Free-thinker. I am probably what the Daily Mail calls a Metropolitan Liberal. I prefer the term Classical Liberal, though that has become conflated with neo-liberalism which isn't really liberalism at all. 

I was a Christian until the age of 53 in 2012. Exclusive Brethren until the age of 11; regular Brethren until the age of 19, Charismatic Evangeilical until about 28, then slightly saner and increasingly more liberal evangelical. The loss of a Christian friend in a car crash in 2005 caused huge doubts to open up and the whole thing became more untenable the more I thought about it. Looking back, I had had niggling doubts for at least ten years before that. It took another seven years after the event to acknowledge that my attempts at constructing a looser framework of faith were failing. 

I am not going to substitute one dogma for another; Evangelicalism for atheism. There are certainties but we cannot always be sure what they are. The Argument from Design is not one that can easily be dismissed; maybe we just don't know enough science, but it seems that the more we know about how evolution might have occurred, the more complex life appears to be. But if there is a God, he, she or it exists in a very different paradigm to evangelicalism. 

I'm not keen on labels, but to roughly encapsulate my thinking: 

Worldview and ethical framework: Liberal Humanist

Epistemology: Scientific Rationalism

Spirituality: Somewhere between Agnostic Humanism and Unitarian Universalism. 

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The War on Terror

I have just been watching a documentary about 9/11, following the USA President and the people around him on that day, cutting between contemporary photographs and video footage, and excerpts from recent interviews with the key people.  Right at the end, the interviewer asked George W Bush if he thought the decisions he took back then had made the world a safer place.  Bush paused for a moment, and replied: "Well, there haven't been any more attacks on America, have there?"

Bush hears a question about the world, and replies with an answer about America.

There are two obvious ways this can make sense.

Firstly, if you believe that America's interests and the whole world's interests are one and the same - that what is good for America is good for the world.  America is safe - this is good for America, so it is obviously good for the whole world.

Or, secondly, if you believe that the rest of the world  does not matter.  America is safe - who cares about anything else?

Perhaps these two ways are just two sides of the same coin: only caring about our narrow national interest.  Following 9/11, America invaded Afghanistan.  It made promises to the people of that country, then immediately adopted strategies which were bound to fail - arming the warlords, for example.  The inevitable retreat has just happened, and the country is in a far bigger mess than it was 20 years ago.  America pulled out, supposedly to save American lives, although it had reached the point where very few American lives were being lost, and as a result Afghans are dying and their lives are being turned upside down.  Are they going to feel grateful to America for this legacy?

Perhaps the USA and Britain will one day discover that pursuing our national interests in someone else's country may give us short term wins but will always give the world long term problems - and other people will, quite reasonably, blame us for the chaos we cause in their country.  Every time we think we can make the world a better place by starting a war, we are proved wrong - and every time we refuse to learn the lesson that this will never work.

Terrorism is fuelled by a sense of injustice.  A 'war' on poverty and injustice might make the world a better and safer place.  A 'war on terror', trying to kill all the bad people - all the people we think are bad, because they don't support us - has never made the world a better place, and never will.

 

Postscript:

A quote in an ABC interview from former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the dean of Belmont University Law School in Nashville, who was White House counsel to then-President George W Bush on 9/11: "We obviously wanted Americans to live their lives as normally as possible, but to understand that we live and operate in a very dangerous world where there are people, there are organizations, there are groups that don't have very kind views about our way of life, about our values."

This is a very common misconception.  Very few people across the world care  anything about the way of life and values of Americans - apart from the terrible effect of that way of life upon our planet, of course.  What they do care about is the way Americans force their way of life and values upon everyone else, and back that up with soldiers on the ground and attacks from the air when  other people don't do what the American government  thinks they should.

Of course, when you think that the rest of the world should adopt American values, the American strategy of imposing their values makes perfect sense ... but that does not make it right.  And it is equally wrong for Britain to constantly support America in imposing their (our?) values.

 

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Brian’s analysis of the relationship between science and faith in our 22nd July 2021 meeting was well-thought out and fair. I accept that there is not necessarily any contradiction between faith and science. Science does not disprove faith (in the broad sense of the term), but if we could ever know enough science to determine the mechanism for the origin of complex life, it may make faith in the existence of a creator un-necessary. Any secular book on evolution will admit that there are large gaps in our knowledge; the existence of a creator may be necessary to explain these, but so may more knowledge of the science. And if we did understand the mechanism perfectly, it would not preclude the existence of God: they are two different questions.

Faith in a particular religion is something else entirely. As Brian’s slides point out, this depends on the acceptance of a particular holy book, which probably contradicts other holy books. This in turn depends on the need for some mechanism of divine transmission to the writers of the book (the bible glosses over how this happens), and the acceptance of miraculous events in the narrative, which may need the suspension of Reason. If the book is not considered to be the literal truth, i.e. your definition of “inspiration” does not imply that it was dictated word for word, then it seems to me that it cannot claim authority; it is just another book of wisdom.

I still subscribe to “Christianity” magazine. I’m prepared to be challenged; it helps me to not get all my thoughts from one world-view “bubble”; it keeps me in touch with the latest trends in Christian theology and practice, and it gives news on who has died and who has become implicated in ministry-threatening scandal. Generally it peddles an inoffensive set of views typical of mainstream UK evangelicalism; nice, well-meaning people, who hate to be thought of as extreme or bigoted.  

There are at least three interesting articles in this month’s issue. One is by theoretical astro-physicist Luke Barnes. He came from a church that believed in a literal interpretation of Genesis, that the world is only 6000 years old [Young Earth Creationism], but when he went to University he found that all their evidence for this was flawed. He now believes in the scientifically-accepted Big Bang Theory and does not see a contradiction in also being a Christian. Fine, but he mentions but then glosses over the implication that if the first chapters of Genesis are not literal, how much of the rest is not literal?

The other two articles are a bold attempt to present more traditional and controversial points of view compared with the somewhat anodyne theology of today’s UK evangelicals. The first of these asks why UK Christians are now so reluctant to condemn abortion. The allegation is that Churches talk a lot about social action and anti-discrimination, but no longer about abortion. Apparently the author tried to ask several leading UK evangelical leaders and churches about this, but got no response. Well, duh!  No-one other than Piers Morgan is going to criticize a church for supporting Black Lives Matter, but everyone will criticize them if they oppose abortion. US churches have no such fears, but they know they will get a lot more support from Trumpist politicians and Fox News. My opinion on abortion is that it can be objected to if the foetus will suffer or is capable of independent life, and for that reason I support a limit of around the 22 weeks that we have now. But a foetus will not suffer and is not capable of independent life when it is just a bunch of cells, or for the first few weeks in the womb. At that point the only objection to abortion can be if you believe that the foetus was created by God and has intrinsic value as an individual: and that is an unprovable statement that depends on your religion and so you have no right to impose your beliefs on other people who do not share it. I suspect that feeling the need to be dogmatic about this is what makes most well-meaning inoffensive UK Christians uncomfortable. For me, the biggest relief of no longer being an evangelical is that I no longer have to live with cognitive dissonance: having to defend beliefs, even to myself, that the Church tells me to defend but that I am not happy about.

The third article, “Why be a Christian?” is a typically no-nonsense one by R T Kendall, 85 year-old  Calvinist preacher and formerly minister of Westminster Chapel. He goes back to the belief that Christianity is about a reward in heaven and about not going to hell, not primarily about blessings and good works in this life. This of course flies in the face of the Kingdom theology prevalent in charismatic evangelical circles for the last forty years or so, that Christians are to work with God through prayer and miracles and social justice to establish his Kingdom on earth. Kendall points out that many people who become Christians in cultures hostile to Christianity suffer terribly, and St. Paul lists (in 2 Corinthians 11) all the ways in which he has suffered since meeting Christ: would they have endured this suffering if their hope was only for a better world in this life? Well actually some people do suffer for what they see as right in this world with no hope of eternity: those who died for a Communist utopia for example; and Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison with no recourse to any discernable faith. But going back to my own pre-occupations about why Christians suffer, Kendall’s theology makes sense and is the basis for how most Christians saw the problem until the late twentieth century. God may choose to let you and your loved ones live, or he may let them die. Prayer may or may not make a difference, but ultimately it is down to God. God created the rich man in his palace and the poor man at his gate. If life is terrible, there is a better one at the feet of Jesus in heaven. And of course you need to accept Jesus as your Saviour to avoid going to hell. All of which is unpalatable to contemporary Christians who believe in healing and love and that God is there to solve their problems. But the traditional view enabled the Martyrs to go to the stake rejoicing (if Protestant propaganda is to be believed). It allowed Horatio Spafford to accept the loss of his four daughters when the liner Ville de Havre went down in the cold Atlantic night and still write the hymn “It is well, it is well with my soul”. And as a boy I knew old men who had been through the Somme and still retained a strong Christian faith. However, the last surviving veteran of the Western Front, Harry Patch who died aged 111, lost his faith in organized religion: so you can’t generalize either way from a few examples: but church attendance in Britain has been in decline since 1916, which it is hard to believe is a co-incidence.

I spent the first nineteen years of my life in a conservative evangelical tradition that emphasized the Cross and salvation by the blood of Jesus, and paid lip service to love and grace but actually emphasized law and sin. (We were originally in the Exclusive Brethren, then moved towards mainstream evangelicalism). I then spent over thirty years in charismatic, Arminian churches, that believed in the Kingdom of God and personal wholeness, and emphasized love and grace: to be fair they also made genuine positive efforts to help socially-excluded people; in Bromley the food banks are still run mainly by churches. I still keep links to my local Anglican church. As I have said previously, my belief system started to unravel over a period of at least fifteen years of the thirty. But my view of Christianity still tends to default towards conservative evangelicalism, emotionally and in terms of the yard-stick by which I measure theology. Of course there are rose-tinted spectacles at play here: the old hymns about the Cross move me emotionally far more than the pop-inspired ditties of current churches, but then I remember the dreadful bondage of law and guilt under which thousands laboured under hell-fire pulpits. Applying Reason as far as I can, the conservative position has illogicalities in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and using the yardstick of “by their fruits you shall know them” they have a lot to answer for. But the charismatic/Arminian position is inadequate to explain human suffering without compromising either the love or the power of God (as we are discussing elsewhere). To take Reason further, the atheist position also has questions to answer, as I suggested above. Which leaves an Agnostic/Unitarian position of constant enquiry and open-mindedness as the one that will have to do for the moment.

 

Adrian Roberts

1st August 2021

  

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Is God Almighty?

The question of whether God is truly Almighty has been proposed as being relevant to why suffering occurs. If God is not omnipotent, it could suggest that he does not or cannot intervene in every situation. Whereas if he is Almighty, and if this implies omnipotence, and he is also all-loving and presumably therefore doesn’t like to see people suffering, surely he could just zap the devil and put an end to all evil and suffering. (If he exists of course). Paul H suggests the bible does not portray God as Almighty, if our Greek thinking derived from Augustine is discounted (i.e. the assumption that God is only God if he is Almighty). He says that Revelation portrays a final struggle between good and evil in which the saints (i.e. all Christians) are involved through prayer and witness (and possibly actually fighting if you are a Crusader or a present-day American Christian), and they suffer for their faith.

Almighty is of course an English word used in translation of the Greek. I think I still have my copy of Vine’s New Testament Words, but God knows where it is (or maybe he doesn’t!). Revelation 1v8 and Genesis 17v1 are just two verses of many in which most modern versions translate the relevant word as Almighty. (Though regarding Genesis 17v1, Scofield says that it is to be regretted that El Shaddai is translated Almighty when the primary term El or Elohim signifies Almighty).

For a start, if we were to accept that God created the universe, either through initiating the Big Bang and then by guiding natural selection, or by ex nihilo creation as fundamentalists believe, then he must be as near to being Almighty as makes no difference. If he is that powerful but cannot control evil, then either he does not care about human suffering, or the Devil is very nearly as powerful (“Dualism”): neither of those options are acceptable to most Christians. In fact however, many Christians do subscribe to a Spiritual Warfare theory in which the Devil opposes God and the saints, and the Kingdom of God has not yet fully come into being, but they would deny that this makes them Dualists, and would be dubious about the implication that God is not powerful enough to avoid two thousand years of suffering since the Cross if he wanted to. Dualism, or even Spiritual Warfare as understood by many evangelicals, could be a good explanation for the way the world is, but they imply that God is unable or unwilling to take control of the situation. Or, if he is in control, then he witnesses untold human suffering, and either does nothing because “the time has not yet come”, or at best alleviates some suffering but allows some to continue, according to his Mysterious Ways. The Eden story in Genesis does suggest a Dualism where God does not have it all his own way, and the first chapter of Job suggests a universe where God negotiates with Satan: but these chapters are followed by portrayals of God as Almighty (a contradiction?).

But if we therefore accept that God is not Almighty, what are the implications? Revelation tells us that God will win the struggle between Good and Evil, but will he? It hasn’t happened yet. If Revelation is true, then I certainly hope he wins. But is it all propaganda? If he is not Almighty, then to assume a win at this stage is about as sensible as a football crowd assuming their team will definitely win, and getting very excited about it, just because they score in the first two minutes. And a very large part of Revelation is about all the heavenly beings worshipping Him for all eternity. Why should we worship a God who is not Almighty? Perhaps Revelation merely reflects the human culture of the time: people would worship an Emperor or a successful General, just as today some people worship Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump. If God is not Almighty, then we are saying that the world is controlled by (in a greatly simplified list), Joe Biden, Xi JinPing, Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, various hedge fund managers and commodity brokers – and God. Such a God may be many orders of magnitude more powerful than these people, but it would only be a question of degree, rather than being conceptually different.

If the reason that the violence on Earth continues is because of a struggle between two sets of celestial beings who exist in another dimension but somehow impact human life, then it seems like something out of the Marvel Universe, or the Greek or Norse cosmology. That seems even more difficult to believe, than to believe in a being with Absolute Power who cannot be defeated or contradicted. The first option cannot control the universe and stop suffering and evil, and the second chooses not to. So to downgrade God from Almighty causes just as many problems and illogicalities as an unswerving belief in an Almighty God, at least if we try to tie either of these concepts into the biblical narrative. If we feel that a Supreme Being is necessary to explain the existence of life, then the biblical narrative must be very far from explaining the Truth.

 

Adrian Roberts. 19 July 2021. 

 

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Paul wonders “is it a problem?” We don’t need to overthink this. Suffering is a problem because it is unpleasant and distressing. Humans don’t necessarily need a religion to realize that if they don’t like suffering they shouldn’t make others suffer. It takes empathy, which could be explained either by a God-given conscience or by evolutionary advantage, and of course some people have more ability to empathize than others.

There is no over-arching, logical reason why a God should care about human suffering. Maybe he doesn’t. That is a possibly a bleaker thought than that God doesn’t exist. But suffering poses a particular problem for Christianity, especially 21st Century Evangelicalism, because it has to be tied into the concept of a Loving and Almighty God who is involved with humans. To be fair, in the Old Testament, Job and some of the Psalms and other Wisdom books try to address this subject. But in the real world, suffering does happen, including to Christians, and historically Christians have tried to deal with it using Stoic principles: sh*t happens, it always will, deal with it. Or at best, God and your fellow Christians will try to support you. Perhaps it is increasingly a problem for 21st Century Christians who have bought into the world view that we all have a right to a happy life and something is wrong with the universe if we have to suffer; but of course we can always find someone to sue.

So if there is a caring and loving and almighty God, the theology of suffering usually develops along the lines of “God has a plan for us; God is perfecting us through suffering”. In that scenario, I can see a reason why a mature Christian might suffer. My father, who was a congregation leader in Ichthus Christian Fellowship, died of bowel cancer aged 70. That was in 2004, about a year before our friend died in a car crash leaving two young children (that I mentioned in the Zoom discussion on June 10th), and however sad my father’s death was, it caused me less doubt and less cognitive dissonance about my faith than our friend dying. Dad still had a lot to give to the church and the community – he was involved in several social action initiatives – but his children were grown up and he had a pretty good life (once he left the Exclusive Brethren). So I rationalized it by telling myself that however painful the illness he would work it out theologically.

But take that a step further, and consider a younger Christian leader, full of faith and On Fire for Jesus, and be brutally direct and assume that his young child dies. Assume for the moment that it is a cot death; the child does not suffer, and has no concept of death. So maybe it is ok for God to take the child away to make the parents better Christians. (To be clear, I don’t believe that, but some Christian theology leans that way). Anyway, the parents certainly suffer. But they have spent years singing “You are the Potter, we are the Clay”; “Break me, Melt me, Mould me, Fill me”, “God is Good – All the Time”; “Great is thy Faithfulness”, and now this faith is put to the test. Emotionally they will need all the support they can get, and having scripture or logic quoted at them will not be helpful. But when they are ready to tie it in with their faith, they will probably attempt to do so along the lines of “God Has a Plan”; “God is perfecting us through suffering”; “Though He Slay me I shall Love Him”; or if all else fails “God Works in Mysterious Ways”. In less extreme circumstances, I tried all that myself at times.

But what if the child does suffer terribly? Maybe he or she has leukaemia or bone cancer. Can we really conceive of a God who has some Grand Plan which allows him to witness such an event from heaven as in a theatre, and let that child suffer in order to increase the parents’ faith? Even if he doesn’t orchestrate the whole thing, but merely lets bad things happen, why does he let the child suffer when he could stop it? That is where my head starts to explode. Maybe it isn’t God’s job to stop suffering, but where does that leave faith in a God of love, and what is the point of praying? If the answer is that there is a spiritual battle going on with the forces of darkness, how can God be almighty if he lets Satan get one over on him? Maybe the dualism of the first chapter of Job is true, but in that case most of Evangelicalism certainly isn’t. Some of the most sincere and thoughtful Christians (and Jews) that I know of may say that “God is with us in our suffering” or “God suffers with us” – as in “Where was God during the Holocaust? He was suffering with the victims”.. A great thought, and a radical one compared with traditional answers, but what does it mean exactly? How does it help? This is the thinking of the Christians to whom I turned to try to keep hold of my faith: Philip Yancey, N T Wright, Steve Chalke, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy etc., all of whom I respect but they are considered heretics by Conservative Evangelicals. These thinkers may also say that the meaning of the Cross is not Penal Substitutionary Atonement, as the Church has traditionally taught, but that God identified with suffering humanity, and continues to suffer with us. He gives up his Omnipotency, not his Love. That was very much my thinking when I was struggling with my faith, but in the end I am not convinced that it is enough: the logic is weak; it feels like clutching at straws. The possibility that there is no God and there is no meaning to suffering may be only one explanation, but I am not going to discount it purely because is too bleak a prospect.

 

Adrian Roberts. 21st June 2021. 

 

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Ambition

It seems to me that, underneath all the details, there are maybe three distinct kinds of ambition: I want to play my part; I want to be top dog; and I want to make a difference.
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Science and Faith

The world is not divided into rational and irrational people; the scientific method is hard to pin down; the real division is between the people who want to be right and the people who want others to recognize that they are right.
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A few thoughts about suffering

Is the existence of suffering straightforwardly explained by the evolution of our human life? Is the 'problem of suffering' only an intellectual problem once you seek to accommodate the idea of a loving and involved God? For me that the natural world clearly operates on an amoral basis - animals destroy and eat one another without compunction - and it is only the evolution of social cohesiveness in the higher animals, including us, that has given us empathy with which the idea of suffering (which is clearly a real thing) becomes associated with the idea of 'evil'.
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