Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Mr Magoriums Wonder Emporium

I am watching this film as I start typing this post, which is fun and light-hearted, and Christmassy, but there was one comment or quote that stuck out for me.

Molly Mahoney is talking to a new accountant, and tells him "you are a 'just' person. This is 'just' a store, that is 'just' a tree, or 'just' a bench." (the quote is not exact, but that is the essence). It struck me as an interesting description of someone.

I think a lot of people are 'just' people - all they see is the physical world, the practical aspects. They miss the wonder, the beauty, the divine in the reality.

Let me take an example from church life - communion. There are a number of different interpretations of the communion elements, from being the actual body and blood of Jesus to being simply bread and wine used to represent these. I am on the latter side quite strongly. In truth, I tend towards saying that they are 'just' ordinary bread and wine.

And yet, when taken in context, they are a representation of something else. They may be, to all common chemical analysis, the same bread and wine you might eat the rest of the week, but they are there are something to represent a greater reality, a greater truth.

I don't go all mystical about it - the idea that they actually transform into something else is, for me, ridiculous. I could take them and find that their composition shows them clearly to be bread and wine. But, as I take them, THIS piece of bread is, for me, Jesus body; THIS sip of wine is, for me, his blood. They are symbols of something else, something more. They are not 'just' bread and wine - they are bread and wine and meaning.

It is the same idea when people say the church is 'just' a building, or even 'just' a group of people. Or an internet site is 'just' a discussion board. Yes, they are those things, but they can represent something more, something with significance. In the end, there is no reason I should meet with God more in one place than another, but I do. There are places where that touching the spiritual, engaging with something more, happens more easily. There are discussions that take place online that are important, significant.

This presents two problems: Firstly, 'just' people miss out on the wonder that there is. They so often see places in simple terms - windy, cold, ripe for development. They miss seeing the beauty, the spirituality, the other about things, people, places. I feel sorry for them actually, because it must be like seeing everything in black and white, and missing all of the colour.

Secondly, 'just' people tend to destroy the important places and things. If it is 'just' a tree, it doesn't really matter if it has to go. If it is a special tree for some people, then maybe it does, maybe it has more significance than other trees. Maybe it is important to save it. Maybe it cannot so easily be replaced.

No, I don't believe in magic as in this film. But I do believe that there is more than 'just' what we can see. And I believe that the more may be the most important parts.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

Back in the day, when I first joined the Green party, we had a credibility problem. The problem was that the party was thought to be filled with ex-hippies with odd fringe ideas. In truth, we probably did attract people with peculiar views, because the idea of a political party focused around the environment was pretty extreme.

These days, it seems that some of the same odd fringe ideas are getting traction in government. Let me give some examples:

Homeopathy. All sorts of alternative therapy ideas were very trendy, some of which have been found to have a solid basis, or at least provide some viable relief. One of these is homeopathy. Despite a commons report indicating that there is no evidence found for homeopathy to work, David Tredinnick seems to be supporting it and questioning the science that disproves it.

Over the summer, there were a number of people calling for homeopathic treatment for Ebola. So this is not an isolated incident. It seems that belief in homeopathy is alive and well in the heart of government - precisely what many critics of the Greens were afraid of if they voted for them.

Let me state it here clearly, in case there is any confusion: homeopathy is baseless, does not work, and should not be promoted as a serious medical discipline. It has placebo effects, but no more. That anyone in government could be considering promoting it or supporting it is a disgrace.

Climate change denial. Now of course, the greens have never really attracted any of these. However, in the early days, the idea of climate change - especially as caused by humans - was very fringe, very extreme. These days, the scientific evidence is absolutely clear, there is no doubt that climate change is happening, or that it is being caused by our actions. And yet we still have in government people like Owen Paterson, who rejects the clear scientific evidence. He is not alone - there are climate change deniers at the heart of government.

There are many reasons for rejecting the idea of climate change caused by us, but science is not one. The fact that there is not 100% agreement (more like 99%) is just the nature of the scientific process - it is rare to get 100% agreement. The evidence of the scientific community is overwhelmingly in favour of human-cause climate change. The focus should be on changing this, not arguing against it.

These are the main two areas that I have seen recently. Both are flying in the face of scientific evidence. I do not think that science has all of the answers, I do think there is more to life than that. But where there is a scientific conclusion, I have to accept that, however much I may dislike it. Science has dis-proven homeopathy. Science has supported climate change caused by us. Now I have to get on with it. I can make other arguments, but what I cannot do is argue that the science is wrong.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Reality is overrated

Ok, this one is going to be a roller-coaster, but stick with me. I believe that reality as we experience it is true, but I cannot prove it. In fact, I would argue that it is unproveable. We could be living in a matrix-like reality but we would never know.

I compare to The Matrix deliberately, because they actually had a grasp on the way it could be. Everything we know and experience comes to us through our senses. We take these sensory inputs and process them into impressions of the reality around us, and then into memories. we interpret the sensory inputs through our memories, meaning that they are no more than another sensory input. In fact, our understanding and interpretation of "now" and what we are currently experiencing is simply a set of neurological stimuli.

"OK," you say, "I know some biology, and this is all stored in our brains. so what?" The thing is, all of the biology you know has come via your senses, all of the knowledge that we have, all of the scientific explanation of the reality around us we obtain comes via our senses. We cannot actually know whether our interpretation of reality is accurate, because we have no external frame of reference to explore it from. All we know is that every source of data input into what we know as our consciousness presents a consistent picture that we call reality, and that we can rely on. There is no way that we can know whether this is because it is an external reality or because our interpretation of a generation form of reality is consistent. What is more, because we have a predilection for consistency, it is very hard to know whether even our individual perception of reality is consistent, or whether we simply interpret the reality that we are presented with in a way that is consistent.

What we do find, as we study the way the human mind works is that our ability to impose our personal worldview on the sensory input we receive is quite remarkable. What we find is that any data that doesn't fit in with our worldview - or explanatory picture of how reality is - we tend to reject. This is why it is very difficult to convince somebody that they are wrong in a basic way - that their faith, for example, is mistaken. It is why we often find people stay in abusive situations stay there, because to reject them or get out is a challenge to their worldview. When they do, it can be very damaging to them, because their view of how reality is has been challenged and it takes time to restore this.

The question of whether what we experience is true or not is disturbing to some people. I don't find this, because it doesn't actually make a lot of difference. We can behave as if what we experience is real. But it is useful sometimes to sit back and consider if this core principle is actually one we can demonstrate or not - and it turns out that we are really taking it as a core principle - that is, on faith. Everything else builds on the assumption that the reality we experience has something more concrete than simply our neurological responses to it. But it may not.

There are two points to all of this. Firstly, there is an acknowledgement that our interpretation of reality is based on our own sensory inputs. This understanding is crucial, because, even assuming that the reality we perceive has an existence beyond ourselves, OUR individual reality may differ from another persons. In fact, it will, because it is ALWAYS mitigated by our consciousness.

Secondly, it means that we cannot escape from the possibility that reality is as consistent as it is because it is our own creation. The consistency of reality is important - we can predict and interpret what is going on in other galaxies because we are certain that all of reality follows the same core laws and principles. What we cannot be certain of is whether this consistency is because reality is consistent, or because reality is all our own interpretation.

This is where the matrix references come back full circle. Red pill or blue pill? If you take the red pill, then reality is, you are a human being living in it, and everything is exactly as it was before. You believe what you want. If you take the blue pill, though, you realise that all we take for granted, all the certainties we thought we knew, are gone. It may not make much difference to how you actually behave, how you handle life. There is no way of getting beyond the matrix. But you know just how tenuous this reality is. If your mind survives.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Are we alone?

One important question that is raised repeatedly - and is raised in "What I Believe but Cannot Prove" - is the important issue of whether we are alone in the universe.

It is important to distinguish two questions here: is there other life in the universe; and is there other intelligent life in the universe? These are fundamentally different questions, and have different implications. Firstly, what do I mean by "intelligent life"? I would count this as any species who has an awareness of themselves. It therefore implies that they could have an awareness of other beings in the universe.

So, is there other life in the universe? That is, are there other planets where life has independently evolved? The evidence we have from this planet, and the other planets we have investigated in our solar system, does suggest that life in some form is incredibly resilient, and will find a way to survive in the harshest of conditions. It would seem reasonable to surmise that, if life has evolved anywhere, it would find a way to survive. The question then comes down to whether life had evolved elsewhere, whether the miracle and wonder of life is commonplace or rare.

The question of whether there is life elsewhere boils down to whether the core processes that generate life are common or not, are they easy and natural processes that we can expect to occur everywhere or not? This is actually a harder question to answer that it might seem. While the core chemical components of life are relatively common - Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen - the complexity of the appropriate combination, the necessity for a few other chemicals, the combination of the compounds to make the required amino-acids, the combination of these to produce basic life: these processes are very complex, very difficult. A single celled organism is, in truth, an incredibly complex piece of chemical engineering. How often is this likely to have happened in the universe?

Of course, the universe is very large, so something that will only occur very infrequently will still occur thousands or millions of times. What is more, we don't know whether the processes that turn a few chemicals into life are common or not. We know that if life can start, it seems to be able to adapt to whatever situation, but does it start easily, or only very occasionally? We don't know, and the answer is crucial. If it is common and easy, then we should expect life in many places. If it is not, then life may be very uncommon, even unique.

The second question, about intelligent life, is a different question. For this to have occurred, it requires not just any life environment to be available, but a very stable one, over a long time. this is needed to enable highly complex life to evolve and settle. Our own planet is very unusual - the large moon jeeps it stable in orbit, the goldilocks zone location makes it ideal for a wide variety of life, the presence of larger planets helps to keep the worst of the space debris away from us. How common is a good, stable environment for highly complex life to evolve in the universe? The unusual nature of our situation, the very strange situation that we find ourselves in would suggest to me that we are unusual. Even if life is common, the idea that it should have developed self-awareness seems to require a very unusual state of affairs - our Earths situation is accepted to be peculiar, unusual, very unexpected. Of course, intelligent life doesn't need a situation exactly like ours, but it does need a stable environment. And we do not know how common stable environments are, however they are created.

In the end, there are tow possibilities: We are alone as intelligent beings in the universe, or; we are not alone as intelligent beings in the universe. We have no idea which of these is the reality, but either option gives us a challenge. To be alone should make us value ourselves far more than we do - to treat life as lightly as we do if we are alone is reckless. To be one of many intelligences in the universe should make us consider just how we might appear to others.

The question may be just an interesting point to muse, but the implications of whichever route we go should challenge us and make us thing.

Friday, 12 December 2014

What I believe but cannot prove

I am currently reading a book from the site Edge, asking this question. So I thought it would be an interesting question to answer - what do I believe but cannot prove?

The thing I believe but cannot prove is that there exists a spiritual realm, that there exists reality that is not subject to empirical validation or testing. This is not only something that I cannot prove, but it is unproveable, in terms of scientific or empirical proof. In particular, the empiricist requirement that events are repeatable - I believe that there are events that are one-offs, that are not repeatable whatever you do.

I have deliberately not said "I believe there is a God" - actually, that is a development of the belief that there is a spiritual realm, and one that I would support, but that is an argument you can only start to make if you accept the assumption that there is a spiritual realm of reality, and that this is "real" just as much as the more physical world around us. I will be doing a post later exploring the meaning of reality, because even that is not as solid or defined as we might like or assume.

There are two things that this belief is not doing. Firstly, it is not a rejection of the scientific basis for understanding the reality around us. Trees do not grow because of "mystical spiritual power" - they grow because of reasonably well understood biological processes, because of scientific principles. All I am saying is that the empirical, scientific reality is not all. Of course, this cannot be "proved" in any sense, especially not to someone who starts from the requirement of empirical definition. In fact it is also a matter of belief that is unproveable that the empirical reality is all there is. If that is your belief, and you only accept proof within that context, than I cannot "prove" to you that this is wrong.

Secondly, it is not saying that the spiritual "has to be", to account for things that are not yet explained. I am not arguing for a "God of the Gaps" belief system, because that is a very dangerous and mistaken approach to take. The spiritual reality is not a necessity, which doesn't mean that it isn't real. What it means is that however much scientific advances progress, it will not be squeezed out, because they are not occupying the same ontological space.

What it is doing is saying that science is wonderful, awesome and amazing at helping us to understand the world around us. It can tell me how a tree grows, how and why it progresses through the seasons, it can even go some way towards explaining why I get an emotional response seeing it in various states and stages - and why I can appropriately mourn when it dies. It can explain all of that. And yet, there is still more. There is something in the wonder of a tree, of life, of existence, of reality that is way beyond the scientific empirical definition. There is a spiritual reality in parallel.

So I believe at least.

Friday, 5 December 2014

There is a country

There is a country that needs something done about it. It is a country where violence is endemic. Where the population are armed, sometimes very heavily, because they need to protect themselves against other members of the population, who are also armed.

Of course, in this situation, there are often tragedies, where misunderstandings lead to deaths. That is just the price they feel they have to pay for the safety and security that their weapons give them. There are also cases where young people get hold of weapons, and kill themselves or others. Or disgruntled teenagers shoot up their schools. This is, sadly, the price they have to pay for being safe.

Unfortunately, the country does have a long history of racism and racial oppression. This is not to say that everyone who lives there is racist, just that the the dominant race does have all of the privileges, and the other races are considered to be of the criminal classes by the authorities. This is particularly an issue because of the prevalence of guns, meaning that the security forces are well armed, and will often shoot first. Of course, if they shoot a member of the criminal classes, they are simply protecting themselves, because there is a good chance they are armed.

The final irony is that this country, where nobody is safe, so everyone has to be armed (or everyone has to be armed, so nobody is safe), where racism is endemic, where people can be shot and killed simply for the colour of their skin, calls itself "The Land of the Free". There's the irony - if you are in the privileged group (Wealth, White and Christian) then you are free. But that freedom comes at the expense of the non-privileged.

Freedom for the blindfolded. Freedom at one end of a gun.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sporting injuries

It is a strange phenomena, but when someone died while pursuing their chosen sport, as Philip Hughes did last week, it seems to hit us very hard. Everyone is shocked. And yet people aged 25 and less die every day, some of them may well be very talented people, who also never get to show their talent

This BBC article addresses this to an extent, because these people are the heroes of our times, they are achieving things that we could never do, despite the fact that we share the same basic physiology. But they are also people that we hero-worship, to greater or lesser degrees. Personally, I follow Formula one, where we have not had a fatality for a long time, which is really good news. However this season, Jules Bianchi had a very serious accident, and is still in hospital being treated, and will be for a long time yet. He demonstrates the dangers of the sport, dangers that are managed to a large extent, but not removed completely. Accidents in F1 demonstrate the skill that the drivers need to not have accidents more often. Bianchi demonstrates why accidents at this sort of speed, even in very safe cars, can still be very dangerous.

But I think there is another reason. When someone in the public eye dies unexpectedly it serves as a focus for our grief - grief for many others, grief for those we have not been able to mourn because there has been too many. It focusses feelings that people experience the rest of the time, but cannot explore.

This is why the comments that so often come that "hundreds of people die in x-country every day" are, I think, unhelpful. Yes, lots of people whose names we don't know die each day. Every one is a tragedy. If we were to let ourselves mourn each one by name, we would be overcome by grief, by the senselessness of it all, by a nihilism, because we, as humans, are not designed to take that level of grief. It would destroy us. But we feel it.

When we have a name we can put this grief onto, it is helpful, cathartic. When we see someone who is engaging in an entertainment activity (which sporting is, for the non-participants), we can focus the waste, the tragedy. We can grieve for one person, but in that, grieve for all of those who die needlessly, pointlessly, too young. And we can acknowledge that everyone dies "too young", we always want another day, another week, another year.

So yes, we are shocked when sports people die or are seriously injured. But I think this is because we are shocked when anyone dies, and this is our only way of expressing the pain of the hundreds and thousands of deaths that occur daily. We are made to exist in a social environment, but a small one of hundreds. We are, I think, overwhelmed by the social community that is the whole world. That is too much.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Purists in the Church?

"Purists brush this dilemma testily aside because it’s Mothering Sunday. They would no more say Mother’s Day than they would split an infinitive or drop litter. Such people make up ninety-eight per cent of the population of the UK’s Cathedral Closes." Catherine Fox, Acts and Omission.

 This is an excellent book, and well worth a read, but this particular passage stood out for me when I read it, because I do wonder whether this is true, and whether it is a problem. Earlier, there is a discussion about whether it is a Christening or a Baptism ("A baptism is simply a christening whose significance has been properly understood."), a discussion in real life which did reveal the pedantry that some people have for words.

Personally, I use Mothering Sunday and Mothers Day pretty well interchangeably. For personal reasons, I don't especially celebrate it as a major festival, as some do, but I don't have any problems over what to call it. Language changes, develops, lives, and while there are changes that should be resisted (not all change is good), there are many which are just part of the natural development. Do those people who insist on it being Mothering Sunday also refuse to give out flowers to mothers, because it isn't about mothers, it is about the Mother Church?

But is it a problem that some people are language purists? As a general rule, not at all - we need some people to be focused on accuracy, precision and correctness. We need the conservative pull to ensure that language actually means something, that we retain some semblance of communicability about ideas more complex than the colour of nail polish.

The problem I have is that "such people make up ninety-eight per cent of the population of the UK’s Cathedral Closes" - in other words, this is seen as a positive trait within the church hierarchy. In case those who are not Anglican want to feel superior, the same attitude is present in other churches, to various degrees and in different ways. Even in non-hierarchical churches, the people who rise to the top tend to be the ones who are purists for the particular style and form of that congregation.

I am reminded of the history of the language used in the New Testament - known as Koine Greek. When this was originally seen, it was thought that the style, which differed from most of the other official documents found, was a special, high form of the language used for spiritual writing. In fact, it was a common form of Greek, used for non-formal communication. The New Testament was written in Facebook and Twitter language, not literary language. They would have referred to Mother's Day.

If the Bible was written in language that ordinary people use, because it was written for ordinary people to read (not entirely, because not everyone could read), surely we should worship in normal language, surely knowing what LOL stands for should be more important than knowing that it is Mothering Sunday? Surely a concern to keep up with changing language should be more important than a conservative resistance to change?

In case you have missed it, I am not promoting change for the sake of change. I do think that those who seek to oppose change have an important place (I am not one of those, and I often clash with them, but I accept that they have a place to provide balance). I am just not sure that this place is populating the senior ranks of the church - any church. Because purism is seen as very elitist, and elitism gives a message of "we are better than you". Whereas the Christian message is "we are no better than you. We all need help".

So yes, I do know the difference. But I don't care - there are far more important things to care about.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Band Aid 30

I should point out that I am a great fan of Bob Geldof. Of all the punk musicians from my childhood, he has managed to retain his blatant disregard for authority. By comparison, Malcolm McLaren has become a member of the music establishment - the ex-punk. I admire him for that, for his passion, for his commitment. His "I think they are talking bollocks" response to the TV interviewer was superbly anti-authoritarian.

I should also say that the original idea of Live Aid and the original Band Aid single was brilliant, important and effective. It raised a lot of money, but more, it raised awareness of the problems to a level that could not have been achieved in any other way.

The problem with Band Aid 30 is that it is no longer the right way to do this. All of the same criticism can be leveled at the Children in Need single, and many other charity singles.I wonder if they are driven by the performers need to Do Something than anything else, and they give of their skills and talents, because that is what they do. In the case of the original single and event, by giving of their time they raised more than they could by just giving of their money.

The problem is that in the last 30 years, a lot has changed. Awareness of issues and their impact is achieved in a range of different ways - we have the internet, social media, news web sites, all of which are better at raising awareness of issues like Ebola than producing a record. In fact, the DEC has been using these various means to raise the awareness of the public. I think we all know it is an issue, a problem, something that needs help.

I think there are issues that many people are not aware of - the need for a whole lot of resources in Africa to help fight the disease, control its spread, prevent it becoming more of a problem. We know ABOUT Ebola, but not necessarily what the need is. But there are better ways of raising the awareness of the need than a record.

30 years ago, the way we engaged with music was very different. A record that made it to the top of the charts was important, significant, it would get a lot of plays, because there was very little differentiation in terms of radio stations, most people who listened to pop radio would get to hear it.

Today is very different. Today, most people download music that they want - more and more on services like Spotify - rather than buying physical items. It tends to mean that the listening is rather more ephemeral - listen once and probably forget. An individual song is not that relevant, not that significant.

We are also in a world where we can access many thousands of internet radio stations, and I can select them based on the type of music I want to listen to. I did a search for stations playing Christmas music, and found a list of 70 stations just for this one specific theme. I can find stations playing whatever style I like, and it is easy to find ones that don't play chart music (I normally listen to 6 music, which doesn't play much that is in the charts, and I don't expect to head the Band Aid song on it). There is also a whole lot more television - available 24/7 - so we tend to listen to music we want to hear, not just what others want us to hear. And this is not to mention services like Pandora radio, and the Spotify equivalent, which allow you to generate a "radio" station based on the sort of music you listen to.

It all means that the world in which this song is released is completely different to the one in which the original band Aid song was released. To my mind, releasing a song is not the way to raise awareness today, because today it doesn't work.

So much as I love Bob Geldof, I cannot encourage people to buy the song. I would encourage people to make a donation to Ebola work if that is something that you consider to be important and worth supporting. It is a worthy cause, because we need to do something about the spread of this disease - it is killing thousands, and there is a very high fatality rate.

//The money raised could be raised in other ways.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Kim Kardashians behind

I know I am a bit late to this party, but I do like to consider matters, and not just give knee-jerk reactions (at least on the blog - I know I do on twitter sometimes). Kim Kardashian - the epitome of being famous for being famous - appeared on the cover of Paper magazine showing her naked - and voluminous - behind.

Some people have commented that it is good to see someone with a larger behind getting publicity, because it serves as a role model for ordinary women who may not be the super-skinny size of supermodels. Others have said that her lack of any apparent skills and talents is a reflecting of the degradation of the idea of celebrity.

All of which is rubbish.The reality is that she is just another version of the "ideal woman" model that is constantly pushed by the media (and the rest of the celebrity publicity machine). She is not a reflection of a less restrictive ideal, it is just a new ideal, just as unreachable, just as demeaning to all women, both those who cannot achieve this alternative version of "ideal woman" and of Kim herself, whose image has undoubtedly been touched up and tweaked before publication.

The thing is, whatever shape of woman is presented, she is still presented as a sexually alluring being. Irrespective of the latest style, women are still sold as sex objects. To simply say "even with a large behind, you can be a sexual being" is not liberating for women - it is still saying that they need to be sexual objects. It is saying that, even if you cannot fit one idea to conform to, we will define another ideas to conform to.

The problem is that women with behinds as large as Kim's are now pressured to looking as glamorous as she can - an impossible requirement. It means women who might have excused themselves from the glamour look are now told that "Kim can do it - so can you!" which is as bad as Katie Hopkins arguments that "it's easy to lose weight".

It would be great to say that this doesn't occur in the church, within Christianity, but of course it does. From the monastic ideal to the "wife and mother" image, the church promotes a set of images, a set of models for how we should be, how we should live. For some people, a monastic style of living is helpful, positive, and supports their spiritual growth. For some people, a Joyce Huggett life works and is helpful. Fantastic! But don't impose this on others. Just because it works for you doesn't mean that it is right for anyone else.

The message I get from the gospels is not this one of a set of models to which we should conform to. Jesus would challenge people about specific issues that impacted them, and we so often take these as normative. In fact, Jesus accepted people as they were, who they were, and them pinpointed areas that they needed to resolve. I believe he still does this today - accepts people as they are, and maybe points out something they need to change. I know when I became a Christian, I was very challenged to stop swearing (I know it is hard to believe, but I was developing a rather strong vocabulary), something that I did, and I continue to avoid swearing in my speech. He has challenged me in all sorts of ways since, and I have changed position and views in a range of areas, and actions in areas - I continue to change, to develop, to mature spiritually. I also refuse to and fail to match anyone's model or image of what and who I should be.

In the end, Kim simply provides another model. The problem is not with this model, or any other. My problem is simply that models are dangerous and mistaken. Trying to fit into them - however worthy they might be - is to reject who we are, and who we should be growing into. That is not a model, that is an individual. That is us as God sees us.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Cameron the coward.

Apparently, the global economy is in danger still, with "red warning lights flashing".

This has so incensed me that I need to write a new blog post about it. And yes, we all know the global economy is still unstable - Cameron's response to this is "we must do more of the same", because that seems to have worked so well.

The reason the global economy is still in crisis (and it is still, rather than again, because it has never actually pulled out of crisis) is not that people in welfare are taking up an extra bedroom. It is not that people on disability are just sitting around all day, enjoying their free money.

The reason is that the roots of the global economy has not changed. The banks are still allowed to gamble with our money. The wealthy are given more and more tax breaks encouraging them to hoard their wealth, while the poor are attacked more and more. The biggest corporations are permitted to pay very little tax, while those who cannot afford to pay are demonised.

So Cameron, if you want to avert another global financial crisis, the time has come to even the wealth in the country. The time has come to tax the wealthiest, use that money to provide the resources and facilities that we need. The time has come to support people, not punish them. The time has come to build a country based on fairness, not pandering to your wealthy friends. If we were less dependent on keeping a few very wealthy people happy, we could make this country a much better place to live. We could encourage immigrants, because we would have a stable economy to support them, and that they would support.

By supporting and engaging in Europe, we can help to create a more stable Europe-wide market, that will help our stability, our long-term future.

Of course you won't. This is not about the global economy being in danger, of course. It is about trying to win the next election. It is about scaring voters off a change of policy. It is about fright tactics, because you have to scare people, rather than telling the truth. The truth is, you have contributed to any global economic downturn, because you refuse to do the really difficult things that need to be done in our country.

So I will say it - David Cameron, you are a coward.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Environmental catastrophe here we come.

The latest report from the IPCC makes for very depressing reading. It says nothing especially new, just in more strident tones. We need to change our dependency on fossil fuels, we need to change our attitude to the environment, because we are causing irreparable damage to it.

As its mentioned in the linked report, the cost of inaction is far higher - long term - than the cost of action. The report is clear that we need to start acting now, to possibly prevent long-term severe problems.

And yet, despite the fact that the science overwhelmingly points to climate change being real, and being caused by our activity, there are still those who deny it - climate change deniers. This is not surprising, in that there are always people who reject the findings of science. One can point to the realms of creationists as an example of people who reject the clear findings of science, because they cannot take the trouble to incorporate the science into their faith. Sorry if I seem very dismissive, but for me, science is not in opposition to faith. It provides challenges, and this means that sometimes, our faith has to be reconsidered, understand how scientific revelations fit into our faith - if they cannot, then our faith is meaningless.

Creationists deny the findings of science. It would, of course, be ridiculous to allow people who reject a scientific approach to decide science or teaching policy in government. And it would be ridiculous to have climate change deniers in charge of environmental policy. Just like it would be ridiculous to have someone who claimed that petrol didn't actually burn in charge of transport policy.

And yet we do. We have people who reject the findings of science in charge of policy that should be scientifically based. That does not mean that it should be anti-faith. It means that policy should be based on doing what science says, and doing it in a way that does not dismiss faith (because faith is important too).

For me, my faith informs me that our world, our environment is a precious, wonderful thing, not a resource to be plundered for financial gain. My faith tells me that listening to the results of science in terms of what is physically happening is important. We cannot ignore the facts (which is what they are), any more than we can ignore the beliefs of people.

And yet, it would seem that there are those in power across the world who seek to reject the results of science because it will damage their short-term financial future. While that attitude prevails, we are heading for an environmental catastrophe, not because of science, but because of a misplaced faith. That would be a tragedy. A tragedy not only for the environment, but for faith, which is diminished by this. I would feel the loss of both.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

That EU Clawback debate

There has been a whole lot of discussion about a bill sent by the EU to Britain for £1.7Bn. The whole issue reads rather like a comedy sketch.

Firstly, the fact that this bill arrived unexpectedly - which suggests that the government are not in charge of their own budgets. OK, unexpected bills arrive for everyone, but if we are in control of our lives, our budgets, we should be prepared for these expenses. I prepare for the car bills, the society membership bills, I even try to prepare for the possibility of larger car bills, even expenses for the house. OK, they might be larger than expected, but I make some provision, some preparation.

We are planning some significant work on the house, and have worked very hard to make sure that we have the money for this, including some spare because the final bill might be a little larger. That is preparation and planning. I cannot say that I always do it, but I try to stay on top of potential expenditure, expected bills. Apparently better than David Cameron does.

David Camerons response to this was childish - he simply stated that "we will not pay this". What is interesting is that many people in this country find that they have large bills unexpectedly arrive, or income that is dramatically reduced. The poor in this country struggle with the vicious attacks made on them by - David Cameron. When they say "we will not pay this", they are demonised, called slackers, incompetent.

So George Osborne has been to Europe to see what could be done. He comes back saying that he has negotiated an incredible result - we only have to pay half of the money, and we have more time to pay it. Which is, of course, a whole lot of manipulative deception. As it has turned out, he has not got any reduction on the amount to be paid - it is just that he decided to count in a rebate that we were already going to have. Despite David Cameron's claims that "we will not pay", George Osborne has "negotiated" to actually pay all of the bill. Strangely, I have had negotiations like that, and come out feeling like I have lost, rather than won.

He has managed to get an agreement to pay half of it later. He tells us this is "installments" but it is just a deferring of half - the sort of deal most people could get on a large bill if they were struggling to pay it. OK, it is a deal, it is an improvement on having to pay it all in one go, but I would hardly call it a substantial victory - it is the sort of deal one suspects we could have achieved without a lot of fuss if we had just asked.

Recently, I had a dispute with a mobile phone company. At the end, they sent me a bill that I told them I should not have to pay, because I had previously asked them to cancel the account. If I had agreed to pay half the bill in six months time, I would have been very disappointed. I had the final bill cancelled, which I consider a reasonable and fair result - not a major success, just a reasonable conclusion.

George Osborne has claimed that "The truth is we have achieved a real win for British taxpayers" - that is a lie. He has agreed a minor rearrangement in the terms of the payment. We will not pay any less than we would have otherwise - so David Cameron is shown up as a liar. George Osborne is show up as someone who sill spin minor failures as substantial successes. The truth is that this governments management of the economy and the country is appalling, and incompetent. That is what this farce demonstrates.

Yes, I am not fan of this government, of their politics and their actions. So I will tend to see events in a bad light. I suppose it is up to you to decide whether I am portraying these actions in a deliberately bad light, or whether it is this sort of manipulative spin is the reason that I find the less blatant or obvious deceptions to show them in their true light.

I believe that this government hates us - the ordinary, not-hugely-wealthy people in this country. I don't really understand why, but I believe it is true. That is a bad state of affairs.

Monday, 3 November 2014

What is abuse, and what isn't?

This seems to be far more complex question than it should be. The problem is that context is crucial in determining whether abuse - in particular sexual abuse - is occurring or not.

I think there is a distinction made between abuse and sexual abuse, that is not always helpful or significant. Sexual abuse is abuse with a sexual element, or driven by sexual urges. And yes the urges or drivers behind abuse of any sort are complex - and abuse is abuse, whether there is a sexual element or not. I would question whether drawing a distinction is that helpful.

I think an interesting starting point is rape. Rape is non-consensual sex, pure and simple. And while rape is generally considered sexual abuse, the drivers and urges are power, not sex. Consent is straightforward and yet complex, but in simple terms, consent should be obtained for a sexual encounter. In a long-term relationship, consent can be far less formal - I am not suggesting that a couple in a long term relationship should obtain written permission each time. But it should be clear that there is consent.

In early stages, consent is far more important, because it can be far too easily assumed, when it is not present. I shouldn't need to say it, but "dressing in a provocative way" is not consent. Nor is accepting a drink, being prepared to talk to you, or anything else that is not clear consent.

This should be straightforward: if you are not clear that you have consent, then do not engage in sexual activity. And sometimes it is unclear, sometimes it is confusing (especially in the heat of the moment, or after chemical enhancement), and sometimes mistakes are made. But not often, not is care is taken, not if respect if maintained. You may well regret it in the morning, but then, we all do things we regret.

Lets take this to the other extreme. In the discussions that occur on places like Twitter, or workplace banter, comments are sometimes made that would, in another context, seem abusive. In my view, comments like "I would" - the implication of "I would have sex with them" - are not abusive. This is a shorthand way of saying "I find them very sexually attractive", which is a perfectly reasonable opinion to hold. Bear with me - I will return to this in a moment.

Of course, in a workplace, saying "I would" about a colleague, and then leering at them suggestively is abusive. There should be a caveat to the statement, along the lines of "but it will never happen". In fact, the problem is more about "don't leer at work colleagues", because that is abusive. You see, this is where it start to become complicated and difficult, but a rule of not making those you have to work with, or meet in any sense, feel uncomfortable by your words and actions is part of life in a social environment.

The other problem is when this becomes talking about people, not to them, or treating them as purely sexual objects. It is abusive to treat ANYONE as a sexual toy - as if their only purpose is to satisfy your sexual desires. To treat any person as less than a fully rounded, complex human being is abusive. To dismiss any person as less than a human being is abusive. To say that they are sexually attractive, and that is all there is to say about them is abusive. To say "they only got the job because they are sexy/slept with the boss" is abusive, even if it may have an element of truth in it. If they were hired because of looks, or because of favours, they have already been abused, so adding to that is not helpful. They are more than a sex object. they are a human being, even if a damaged and abused human.

Of course context is crucial. The recent video of a women getting catcalls as she walked through New York is a different context - and many of these comments are not acceptable. There is a huge difference between commenting on a persons behind in an environment where you are regularly talking, and they are free to tell you to piss off, and the same comments where they consist of the entire conversation, and they have no freedom to respond (or are unsure of how a response might be taken). In either situation, if they feel threatened, then it is wrong, and if you don't know or care if they feel threatened, then it is abusive. In particular, women having comments about their appearance thrown at them in the street are likely to feel threatened, not least because they don't know anything about the person making the comments.

OK, lets look into another complex area of abuse - the BDSM community. I should make it absolutely clear that the same principles apply here as anywhere else - consent is everything. While some of their practices may appear abusive, they are not as long as they are consensual.

I think one of the big problems is that some of these practices are more common than many might want to admit. At the least, they are part of the fantasies of some people, even if they cannot engage themselves (for all sorts of reasons). I think one of the problems with the 50 shades series - which I have not read, I should point out, this is based on comments of others who have read - is that the lines between legitimate BDSM behaviour and rape and abuse are blurred. It is not a case of a mutually fulfilling sexual relationship, but a case - once again - of a man abusing a vulnerable woman. It is the vulnerability of one partner that is problematic in this case, which means that consent is far harder to establish - I will touch on this later. What is more this is "romantic" fiction, not reality. To take the success of this as indicating that "most women like a bit of rough" is demeaning and abusive.

Actually, the BDSM community is interesting, in that they do have a set of rules governing practices - they should be "sane, safe, legal and consensual". Consensual is core to all sexual practice, but the others provide limits to what might be considered acceptable practice, and what would, even within this community, be considered abusive. There are sexual practices that exceed these limits, and no I am not going into details, but they are abusive. This community is well aware of abuse. I believe it is far less likely that abuse occurs within this community, while they stick within their own rules. Using their ideas and practices without the rules is, it would seem, abusive.

The issue of vulnerability of one partner leads onto the critical issue of children and abuse.Actually, the issue is, at core, one of a vulnerable partner and a powerful one. In the case of children and adults, the child is the vulnerable partner, and a vulnerable person cannot give informed consent. End of story, in many ways. But this is why matters like the age of consent are not the real issue here. In reality, it is no less abusive to have sex with someone on their sixteenth birthday (in the UK) as it is to have sex with them the night before. More legal, but no less or more abusive. What is abusive is having sex with someone who you have power over, because they are unable to give informed consent - if the options are "have sex with me or lose your job", maybe the sex seems like the better option, but that is not consensual, that is abusive.

Informed consent means that young children, animals, and even highly vulnerable people who have grown up in extremely abusive situations cannot agree. They may appear willing, but their lack of understanding means that consent is meaningless. So any sexual activity is abusive. Just don't.

Of course, there is a question about sexual activity between tow teenagers, who may be under the age of consent. I think this is a very complex issue, but it is not necessarily abusive. The concept of informed consent is crucial - are they both agreeing, knowing what they are agreeing to? If so, it is probably not abusive - still illegal, but I would want to be lenient with them. Others might disagree.

Finally (at least, you say - well, it is a big area to cover), I want to consider the issue of pornography.
From everything I have already said, it might seem that there is no issue here - there is, in fact, not sexual engagement involved here. Consent is hard to identify, but could be considered there by virtue of the images being available. Others would argue that in many cases, there has been abuse - or coercion - to achieve these images, and that constitutes abuse (it does). However, it is impossible to tell or to know. There is a parallel with prostitutes, some of whom - especially the higher class ones - may genuinely enjoy their work; others may find that they have been pressurised into it, and forced by economics into staying in the business.

There is another way of looking at this, which brings us back to one of the earlier discussions - pornography is about objectifying other people, using them as object to satisfy your own sexuality. In the end, failing to treat them as people, as human beings who are more than their genitalia, is abusive. There is a danger that pornography changes the users attitude to other people, into purely sexual objects. OK, this can also be said of Hollywood and the gaming industry at times, and is more about the user controlling their own behaviour. I would accept this, however I still consider that pornography is abusive, because there is a lack of explicit consent. If this is not there, the engagement is abusive.

Abuse is a huge topic. I hope that I have explored a number of areas that are relevant, and my conclusion is that a lack of explicit, informed consent means that there is a high chance of abuse, and abuse is wrong. the truth is, many of us have engaged in abusive behaviours, without it being deliberate. The challenge is to stop, and the bigger challenge is to ensure that more deliberate abuse is avoided. I don;t say that everyone should be perfect. I say that we should always respect other people as full, complex, divinely-created human beings.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Why radio is important

I was listening to the radio the other day, and the presenter made an interesting comment about why radio is still important in a world where we have access to all the music, all the time.

The point is, a radio show is someone else choosing some music for you. A lot of it may be stuff you know and hear a lot, but, ideally, some of it will be new material or artists that you might not think of listening to unless they had been played to you. Kate Tempest is one recent example, who is a poet, but who performs some of her material to music (so, songs really). I love her material, but I would never have naturally come across it.

There is also music that you may know about, but have forgotten, or not heard in a long time. This is always special, and was the focus of the initial comment - they played Hocus Pocus by Focus, the full version. I - and most of the listeners - knew the song, but I had not heard it for ages. It was a great revelation to hear it again - and I don't know if I have ever heard the full version of it. That is why radio is important.

Of course, services like Pandora can also help select music for you, but this is an automated process. I did use it many years ago, and I think it was superb in what it did - it introduced me to the band Ozma, who do some fantastic material. Spotify, which I use at the moment, also has recommendations if you want to use that. But these services can tend to limit your music to "similar to what you already listen to". Great in its way, but I want "Stuff I might like, that is completely left-field".

It is through listening to the radio that I have found bands like Sunn O and Opeth, Alvvays and Kate Tempest. None of these really match what I would identify as what I listen to - they are different, enjoyable, and opening my experience of music even wider. It is also through listening to the radio that I realised how brilliant Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric" actually is, for example - music that I am aware of, but have not heard for a long time.

There is another reason that radio still rules. I am working from home at the moment. It can get very lonely and isolated at home. Having the radio on helps me to feel that I might not be completely alone, and being able to interact using twitter, for example, helps me feel that I am still connected to others. I have had a few tweets read out, and been on The Chain too, so I have engaged with the show. that is something that is not possible when just listening to music.

So, whatever happens in the world of music download and listening, I am convinced that music radio still has an important part to play. Long live 6 music!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

My spirituality doesn't fit

It frustrates me, sometimes, that there seems to be forms of spirituality that are considered "acceptable". In particular, the forms that involve being quiet or silent, often in the countryside - or at least, separated from the business of life outside. It is a monastic sort of spirituality.

I should point out that I fully accept that for many people, this is a way in which they can engage with God, grow and develop themselves spiritually. I have no argument that, for some people, this is really empowering and nurturing. I really hope that they find the places that enable them to commune with God.

Its just that I find such times drive me to distraction. I was on a silent retreat as I was training to be a reader, and I find it did my head in - I had to find the places to talk, to read, to engage with others to help me absorb the material we were being led in.

"Ah you are a classic extrovert then!" Well, actually, no. When I did MBTI tests, I normally came out as Introvert, although I was very close to the middle on most indicators, including the I/E one*. In fact, I do appreciate times alone, without other people around me. In no way would anyone who knows me call me a "classic Extrovert" - I have met @changingworship, and there is a classic extrovert.

I did, for a while, find real strength in times of meditation that were not "silent" but were "wordless" - I deliberately eliminated all words from my environment, and would quietly meditate - eventually driving the words out on my mind too. It was very powerful (and worth a try, if you struggle with silence), but not silent. The sounds around me were part of the meditation, and there was nothing to stop me coughing or drumming my fingers. There was something to stop me reading a paper, which I have known someone to do on a silent retreat. And yes, it helped. It is remarkably hard to avoid words, but also very helpful - and can give us an insight into what it must be like if you cannot read.

But for me, I don't find God in this escapism - which it is, but not meant in a completely dismissive way - I find God in other people, in the hustle and bustle of life. In fact, at the time I did the silent retreat, I was far happier to return to work in The City (London), where I found it much easier to experience and engage with God. In fact, I did get angry, because, I argued, if I cannot find God in daily life - if I have to escape to the country to find God - what is the point? I cannot often escape away, but I need a God who is there and present in my working day, wherever that is. I need a God I can recognise in a city street, not just in a country retreat. I need a God I can recognise and engage with watching television, not just being silent and "spiritual".

So my spirituality does not fit in. I have had a sense from the church that if I want to be "properly spiritual", then I need to meet God in silence. I have also had a sense from other churches that to be properly spiritual, I need to meet with God at New Wine - an evangelical version of the monastic retreat.

These days, it bothers me less that I don't fit. As I am writing this, I am listening to Opeth - a death-metal-turned-prog-rock band. For me, that is part of how I engage with God, how I enable my f*cked up self to reach with the ultimate perfection of the numinous, how I am able to see that God is so much more involved in everything that I can imagine.

Somewhere in that, the fact that I - exactly as I am, messed up, broken and dying - can touch the divine blows my mind.

* In case you are interested, INFJ. I am borderline on I,F and J, and totally and completely off the scale on N.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Emotions Conference review

On October 11th this year, I went to the Emotions conference, hosted by Premier Mind and Spirit. I think there are some important reflections on this that are worth making.

Firstly, I did find that the theological position reflected throughout the day was most definitely not one that suited me. from the worship in the morning (which, of course, meant music and singing) through the format of the day (lectures or talks, not workshops, which would have been very productive), through the positivity about the church and Christian faith that came across - I will mention this again later.

But I can cut through this, and find some positives in the day. Not all of the talks resonated with me, but that is pretty much what I might expect - I have some areas of interest and others that are not for me. Of course, that is why workshops, where I could choose the areas that interest me, would suit me better. But there were some very good, very engaging talks.

One of the best talks for me was Will van der Hart, talking about "perfectionism". It was summed up by the comment that perfectionism is not about excellence, and it is not a positive in any circumstances. In fact, it is about constant dissatisfaction with everything - because nothing is "perfect", and even if we spiritualise it, we are aiming at something impossible. The dissatisfaction at the present is not spiritual, it is psychotic, and it is dangerous, because perfectionists can never be satisfied with the good. Never mind the bad, which covers everyone.

The best part of the day for me was one of the stars of the mental health and faith world, Katherine Welby-Roberts. She talked about the problems she has with her faith and her illness, and how they do not always live in harmony with each other. She always has an honesty and openness about her, not sugar coating the problems, but also being honest about her journey. She remained positive, and it was clear that her illness, while impacting her life all the time, does not mean that she is miserable and gloomy - she is cheerful and smiling, and that shone through more than anything.

There is one more message that I remember, that is significant. It actually relates to my current earworm/favorite song, which is Ripples by Genesis. the message of the song is that you cannot change your past, you just have to live with it, like ripples in the water, you have had your impact, and have to live with it and move on.

Jonathan Clark was talking about worry, and made a similar point, that if we worry about things in the past, we cannot change them, so our worry is pointless. He made more points, but this one stood out for me - he explained how worrying is rarely productive. He also discussed a worry box, where you write anything you want to worry about on a piece of paper and put it in the box. One day a week, you take the pieces of paper out and can then worry about them. What he found was that, most of them, he no longer needed to worry about.

So there was some good material from the day, and it was useful. I did, however, feel that one vital area was missed, which is how to deal with situations where the church, or other Christians, are the ones exacerbating your mental illness. That is, where your faith (or the expression of it) was making your mental health worse. I am aware that there are many churches where those with mental health problems are welcomed and find a helpful community to work out their faith in. However there are also very many people with mental health issues for whom the church (in whatever form) is an abusive and dangerous place. Now, in truth, I would not expect a conference with this particular theological bent to be addressing this matter - the acknowledgement of it seems to be seen as a challenge to their core theology. But as Mind and Spirit is the only organisation I know of looking at faith and mental health together, this means that one of the issues I hear of again and again is swept under the carpet, and ignored.

So that is my sadness and disappointment. What was there was good, but there were gaps, blind spots, and it seems that these are the same blind spots I see so often. So where is the place that these topics - the ones that will disturb people - can be discussed?

Friday, 10 October 2014


The worst system of government possible, except for all of the other ones that have been tried - according to Winston Churchill. I am not sure I entirely agree.

Of course, democracy is the touchstone for Western imperialism across the world, the establishment of a "democratically elected government" being the indication of an acceptable, reasonable and stable regime. Which is why the west like to deal with non-democratic regimes across the world, because they are far more corruptible.

The problem is that in the UK - and the US, although I understand their system very little, so I will not comment on it - we do not have a democratic system. The other problem is that I am not convinced that rule by committee is actually the best solution.

So why do I say that the UK is not democratic, given that we are often seen as the heart of modern democracy? The problem is, we have a FPTP voting system, which means that a government can govern without the majority of the population having voted for them (in fact, it is possible to form a government without the majority of the voters having voted for them). It means that targeting can make a difference, because not every vote is worth the same.

It means that if I vote and my selected candidate does not get the most votes, my votes are irrelevant, they are not being represented. Even if my chosen candidate does get elected, if their party does not get the most MPs, my vote will not count in terms of government. Of course, all of the parties are aware of this, and so they manipulate their resources towards achieving target constituencies, towards those few votes that can make a difference.

The other reason that we are not democratic is that for true democracy - for everyone to have their say - there needs to be a wide spread of representative views. At the moment, we don't have this - the two main parties are both right wing (or centre right I would concede for Labour). Because of the FPTP system, the minor parties do not have a chance of power, meaning that those of us who are of a socialist leaning do not have anyone to vote for. I do support the Green party, who are (in my opinion) the only viable socialist choice, but the systems we have - the undemocratic systems - mean that my views - and the many others who support the Greens - cannot get our views represented.

If my views are not represented - and the 7% or so of others who support the Greens - then we are not democratic. It is not that my views are not represented (if I hold very radical views, it might be that they shouldn't be represented) - it is that the many who share my views do not have representation. If these are shared by a significant proportion of the population - and 7% is a significant proportion - they should be represented.

As I am writing this, UKIP have just achieved their first MP. This is being hailed as a significant achievement by them, and the media is full of this. It was significant that when the Greens achieved their first MP at the last general election (general elections are harder than by-elections), there was nothing like the same media coverage. This is not a gripe about media coverage of the Greens, it is a reflection of the piteous state of democracy today, where MP can win elections because of media manipulation and the personable nature of Nigel Farage (and likewise with David Cameron, but not Ed Milliband). That is the problem with the form of democracy we have today.

But why do I argue that "democracy" might not be the best solution? That seems like a very radical position to take. The thing is, the nature of the democracy we have means that those elected can enjoy their time in power, and not actually have to take responsibility for whether they do a good job or not. It is more about how the party does nationally, what the resources that are put into the constituency is and a whole lot of other causes that have little to do with how well they do.

I want to question whether a benign dictatorship might not be a better option. Now this is quite shocking, because "dictatorship" is a bad word. In truth, most of the dictatorships we ever hear about (in fact, most of them whether we hear about them or not) are not that benign, and when they have complete power, but are not answerable to their people, they can be (and usually are) very dangerous. In truth, a single person in power, is liable to be corrupted. Of course, our MPs are liable to be corrupted, and have shown themselves to be corrupt in many cases.

But this sort of absolute dictator, imposing their own views on the people, is not what I have in mind. It is someone who has the power to put into place their policies, but who also has to take responsibility for them, because they will be in power long enough to have to deal with any problems caused by their decisions. They should be working for the good of their people - all of their people. They should be paid well enough, and not be allowed to take any other job, either while in power or after. Their term should be long, but not unlimited, and their successor should be elected (democratically!) without them having any involvement in this.

OK,. this is not a full or perfect system. How you ensure that they remain benign? How you manage abuse of power - if they are responsible to a group, how do you appoint the group? And keep them accountable? In fact, the truth is, there might be a better option. But I do think that we need to have this discussion, because at the moment, our version of democracy is not working. I can envision a benign dictatorship that would be better, and the UKIP victory makes me even more convinced that out current system does not work.

In the end, the cradle of democracy is behaving more like a teenager. And it is not pretty. In fact, it stinks like a teenagers bedroom.

Monday, 6 October 2014

My holiday

I have had an "interesting" holiday this year. We went to Cornwall, not least, to offer support to a community that was hit appalling by the winter storms last year, and to prove that it was still open and as beautiful as always.

We had, however, a few problems. We had 5 of us and our dog - the dog seemed to survive unscathed this year, which is a change from some years. All the rest of us were struck by an unpleasant gut bug, one at a time, although I did survive until we returned home. One member of the party managed to be ill 3 times. We lost - and found - one phone, missed one train, exploded one computer tablet.

On the plus side, some of us at least visited St Mawes and Pendennis castles, which are fascinating historical places, with a history reaching right up to the 1950s. We visited the Eden project (again), and it is wonderful to see how it has grown and developed, and it is still a fascinating place.

We went to the most southerly cafe in Britain, and saw a steampunk, all-female version of Dracula at the amazing Minack theatre, which is both - and for the same reasons - the most ridiculous and most superb location for a theatre.

The question is, which of these is the right perspective on our holiday? As a natural pessimist, I tend to look at the bad side, except this time, I don't. I view it as an enjoyable holiday, with a few problems.

Now I would admit that, when I had my head down a toilet bowl expelling what was left in my guts shortly after I had been pooping water down there, I was not looking at things in a positive light. At that point, it was pretty rubbish. But that was not the whole picture - the negative aspects don't rule out the positives. Of course, the positives don't negate the negatives either - the holiday was a good one, but with problems.

So often, especially within religious groups, we like to look at the good or the bad, rather more exclusively. There is a tendency to see world events in a negative light, even when that is not the only way to see them. there is a tendency to see spiritual matters in a positive light, even when that is not the only way to see them.

But everything is both good and bad. nothing is simple black and white. It was not a relaxing holiday, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked to write. But to focus on the negatives is to miss the wonder of the place we were in. As so often, to focus on the downsides is to miss the wonder, to miss the real delights of the situation.

So as a person that finds it very easy to see the negative, the downside, I was surprised at my own experience in seeing it positively. But it made me think how easily we see the negative - especially religious people. There is a tendency to see the ideal, the image we are given of perfection, as "acceptable", and anything that falls short of this as "unacceptable", or at least "in need of redemption" (a subtle phrase that indicates "unacceptable, but I quite like it").

The truth, as I see it, is that nothing is perfect, but similarly nothing is without redeeming features. The world we live in is broken, damaged, imperfect, but we have to live in it, see the good, and work for more good. We need to see where God is working in the world. So it was a good holiday. We saw some of the beautiful Cornish sights, we chilled and relaxed. I make a choice to focus on that, because that was also true.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

What if I am wrong?

As someone who questions my faith and the systems around it, and challenges others on it, there is one question that I must continually ask:

What if I am wrong? What if some of those I criticise are right?

I should point out that I fully accept the possibility that I might be wrong on some matters. In fact, I would state categorically that I am wrong on some matters that I believe, some aspects of my faith. The problem is, I don't at this point know which.

The question is more poignant is I turn it round and ask, what if others are right? What if some of those I criticise are right, and hearing the word of God, and I have got it wrong? I have to consider that possibility, and I want to in two specific contexts.

Firstly, what if groups like WBC are right, and they are the only ones hearing Gods work for the nation and the world correctly? It doesn't need to be them specifically, there are plenty of other similar groups, but I will take Westboro as a particularly extreme example.

My response there is that if they are right about the nature of God, then I don't want to know their God. An eternity separated from a God like theirs seems like a far more pleasant experience than an eternity in his presence. If they are correct, then I am condemned to hell for all eternity, and that is life, but I will have done more to help and support other people in this life, more to help others see some form of light that WBC ever will. It may be wrong, but I would rather live a life outside their particular version of salvation. My life, and that of those I encounter will be better than the life of those within WBC, and I am content that I will therefore have made a positive difference to people.

A God who is in the image of the WBC crowd is not one I would give half a minute to. If he is real, then a capricious God like that doesn't deserve me. There is nothing I could do to earn salvation under a God that vile, hate-filled and dualism (in the sense of rejecting the physical world in favor of the spiritual). That is not a God I could worship, so I will not. If they are right - and this applies to a wide range of hate-filled forms of Christianity - then I am not interested.

The second question is, what if the churches I have rejected are right, that I should not bother my head about stuff, just sit in the congregation and be a good boy? This could be the right answer for me, and my rebellion in leaving the church is wrong, is going against Gods will.I find this a more difficult problem to consider, because I cannot simply dismiss them in the same way. I have been part of those congregations, and so cannot simply argue that their presentation of Christianity is anathema to me. It isn't - theologically, I find a lot of common ground.

And yet the same concept does influence me. The thing is, a church group where someone with my skills and experience cannot find a proper place is one that is broken. I would accept that I am not the easiest person to work with - but then the church is full of "challenging" people. I have found places in churches before, so I can be fitted in. So if I cannot be fitted in, maybe there is something wrong with the church?

I think I come to the conclusion that if a church congregation cannot find the right place for me, then it is not the right group for me. I don't think I believe in a God who wants troublesome people like me to conform. So, in the end, if I am wrong in this, and their God would have me sit in quiet acceptance, then I think I would have problems with that God.

The difference here is that I don't think they believe in this sort of God. I think, in the end, it is just that I don't fit, that I cannot find spiritual fulfillment in this sort of organisation.

So what if I am wrong? It is quite possible, and I should accept that, but if God is one for whom my wrongness is a problem, or if God is of the sort that insists on my being in a church congregation or believing the hatred of the fundamentalists, then this sort of rigid, conformist God is not one that I can accept is the creator of the universe, the maker of the wonder and beauty that I see around me.

That is not a God I could worship.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Reflections on Ian Paisley

When Ian Paisley died, I tweeted a comment that at least he had passion for his faith. I had one response that even Hitler had passion. Which is true.

I think he was completely wrong in what he said. But I could admire his passions, his intensity. I would rather someone was passionately right than passionately wrong, but I would rather passionately wrong than meh and right. I think passion - especially in matters of faith - is more important than orthodoxy, because none of us are right entirely. Most are more right that Rev Paisley, but that is matters of degrees.

Passion is important. Dr Paisley believed in what he was saying passionately and intensely. In comparison to the logical and reasoned and calm comments from, for example, the various Archbishops in their New Year Messages, I might agree more with the archbishops, but I am more fired up by Dr Paisley.

It does seem that we have lost and sense of real passion, intensity, drive in our faith today. The only ones who seem to have any passion are those who preach hatred. I wish there were those who would preach a tolerant and open message with the same passion that people like Dr Paisley used to preach. I want passion in my faith. because otherwise it is a dry and meaningless discussion. I want people who get pent up and angry at the injustices that are perpetrated every day, people who get angry at the abuse that is suffered, people who will say "this is wrong". We don't need anyone else who wants to discuss the niceties of theology. There are plenty of people who can do that.

In the end, I don't think we need more people who breed and drive sectarian division in the way that Dr Paisley did. I do, however, thing that we need more people who have the passion of their beliefs that he had.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The problem of Bread

I have just finished reading "The Conquest of Bread" by Peter Kropotkin. He is an important author in the anarchist/communist reading library, and so I was interested to read what he had to say. However, this book has clarified to me one of the core problems of an anarchist/communist revolution, as he desires. At the core, it is the fundamental failure of the communist ideal, but adding in the anarchist beliefs, and so insisting on no rule, no control, simply exacerbates this problem.

The problem is that it relies on people behaving in the right way. At one point he talks about expropriation of all property, and inviting everyone to take a property that they need rather than the hovel they already have. To the question of "surely everyone will want the biggest and best property", his answer is to trust to the good will of everyone to take only something that they need.

There are a number of ways of addressing this and exploring why it is a mistaken belief - why people are clearly not fundamentally good and altruistic. He draws examples to illustrate his belief from the altruistic behaviour of people when there is a crisis or accident, and I would not wish to dismiss these cases, these situations, or to ignore the core goodness that these show. However, these are different situations - communities do often work together to help everyone in a crisis. We do care for our neighbours, because we all live in a community (however large or small). I know that in our road of 6 houses, we will look out for each other, assist if necessary, be prepared to go out of our way to be neighbourly.

However, the Christian message is very clear that we are not at a core level good. This is not a question of Original Sin, which is a doctrine I have real problems with - it is the Christian understanding that we are all "sinners", we all fail, at some level and some point, to live up to our own ideals, never mind Gods.

This means that, if it were to come to a property grab, we would not be lovely and altruistic. If it was about enabling an individual who was homeless to find a properly, we would support that. If it is about what we can get, we would tend to go for the best we can achieve. We are selfish at some level, and would want to get the best we can - maybe on the basis the someone has to, and we would use the space for something good and wholesome, maybe we would justify our greed, but we would still be greedy. That is part of the human condition.

But it is not just the Christian message that tells us this is a flawed approach. The core problem that the communist writings explores is that some people earn money form other peoples work - they are fundamentally greedy or lazy, wanting the riches but not wanting to do the work to make it happen. There is an underlying assumption to this that it is a certain class of people who are like this, wanting something for nothing, whereas the good honest workers, who are oppressed by this system, just want a decent days pay for a decent days work. This idea occurs in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists too, and other works expounding radical left-wing politics.

The truth is, as we can see quite clearly from those who have raised themselves into positions of power and wealth, that this is not just a few who are avaristic. It is all of us who, given the chance, would tend to grab more and more. And, as these writings make clear, if some people take more, this is always at the expense of others. In a global economy, we may delight at being able to get school uniforms for £5, while ignoring the fact that this almost certainly means slave labour has been used to produce them. Somewhere in the world, people suffer for our advantage.

That is why I cannot support that approach to reform - the communist/anarchist approach. That is why I temper my anarchism, and why I am a socialist, not a communist. In the end, I don't believe this approach would work, because it is failing to take a realistic attitude to human failings. It is idealistic, and assumes that everyone could be won over to the ideals, not just the results.

Change is needed. But change has to be realistic, not idealistic. That is a real problem, a real challenge to any political philosophy. Otherwise all that happens is that a different groups of selfish, power-hungry people obtain the power.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Recent reading

In an attempt to read as much as I can around the subject of leaving church, I have read a couple of books recently that have been very disappointing. I will (eventually) put these up on my site, but I wanted to explore a little more here why these have been problematic books, why I would not recommend them to others in my position.

The first book was Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell. Her approach to the problem of those who leave church and/or faith is from the perspective of a psychologist and counselor. I suspect this is the problem, because she sees broken people, and seeks to help them from outside the church.

There are two issues I have with her book, however, that may be related. The first one is pure laziness, because she explains at the start that she is talking about the conservative evangelical church (in the States, which does give some context), and yet refers to it as Christianity, the Church, Evangelicals etc, as if the problems were across the whole spectrum of the Christian faith or even the evangelical wing of the faith. I say this is lazy because she is a medically qualified practitioner, she has a PhD, so she must know how to be rigorous in her writing, but she seems to want to slander the whole of Christianity based on the extremist positions taken by some groups - although, admittedly, a vociferous and dangerous group.

The second issue is that she seems to see the only resolution for those within the extreme conservative ends of the church is to leave their faith entirely. All of her talk is about having lost faith entirely, not about what I have experienced, which is a rejection of those parts which I cannot accept, but an acceptance of those parts which I still believe in. I think this issue is the really dangerous one. There is something really powerful in being able to think about your faith, change your views and position, reconsider what you accept and what you don't. If you can learn how to explore your faith, change your mind without it crushing the whole edifice, that gives you more confidence to rethink other areas, other issues.

The danger of Winells approach is that if you have to reject the entire Christian faith just because one expression of it is damaging and abusive, what happens when you find other beliefs are broken, are flawed? What happens when you realise that your idea of a "perfect family" doesn't work, because a family involves people, who are flawed? What happens when you realise that your politicians are flawed? Or your chosen profession? There has to be a way of accepting the flaws, while not rejecting the entire system. There has to be a way of saying "this aspect of the church sucks big time, but I can adjust my faith to cope with this". That seems like a good life skill to have.

The second book is Kissing Fish by Roger Wolsey. In truth, it is hard to know where to start with this book, because it is quite fundamentally flawed from where I stand. I suppose there are three main concerns I have:

1. What Wolsey promotes as "Progressive Christianity" is a version of liberal Christianity - exactly what I have heard form liberals for years. While I have no problem with liberals - although I don't agree with them - to posit this as the only viable and valid alternative to evangelical (again, because this book is American, a broadly conservative evangelical perspective) Christianity is exactly what kept me in the damaging positions for a long time. As an evangelical, I do not want to be told that if I reject the Official Church Teaching the only alternative is to be a liberal. I have found a different way - being an evangelical, maintaining all of the core principles of my faith, but rejecting the church and the rigid approach they had to acceptable faith.

2. Wolsey presents "Progressive Christianity" in a very authoritarian way. there are constant references to "progressive Christians believe ..." which sound to me very like the "Evangelical Christians believe..." that I have heard a lot of (although the wording does differ). I don't need another form of Christianity that has a large set of beliefs that I am expected to adhere to. Now I suspect Wolsey does not mean it like this, but to anyone coming from the more conservative end of the spectrum, this could be very off-putting. Of course, it could also be very freeing - going from one rule-driven version of faith to another - just not very helpful. It doesn't help people think through their own faith, it gives then a different set of rules to follow.

3. It is very "academic-lite". Now, I should point out that I don't mind if a book is academic or if it is trying to be light and easy to read, but trying to be both fails. It uses the proper theological words, and explains them for those who are not academically minded. But it doesn't follow rigorous academic approaches to issues. In fact, he uses the proof-texting and "Progressive Christians Believe" approach that is not uncommon in evangelical texts, and is just as meaningless. The problem is, stating a belief is simply that - stating what you believe to be the truth, not an argument for why this is valid and reasonable. Proof-texting has the same problem, because it tells you what a particular passage from the bible says, presumably one that seems to support your position. It does not tell you what the bible actually teaches on the subject, which would take a whole lot more work and exploration, and probably come up with significantly less clear answers.

In the end, I think these books are poor, and failing to address some of the crucial issues. That is not to say that some people will not find them valuable and useful - I am sure they will. I just could not recommend them to anyone seeking to rethink their faith and retain it in a different form. I do believe that there is a way for evangelical Christianity to progress in the UK at least (I realise that the term is far more loaded in the US, potentially beyond redemption) that does not involve reverting to liberal theology or rejecting faith all together. There is a place for tolerant, accepting evangelical faith, that may well reject the churches, the meta-organisations, the traditional approaches, but is honest and rigorous.

Maybe I should call it Greenbelt Evangelicalism....

Tuesday, 9 September 2014


Well, I have taken a little while before writing something up about this years Greenbelt. Last year, I wrote a number of posts about various aspects, but this year there were less thought starters for me. Which doesn't mean it was worse, just that it was more an overall experience. There were highlights, and there was a lot to experience, a lot to understand.

Music: Well, there were some highlights here. Lau, on the Friday, were superb, bringing an interesting perception of folk music, after it has been taken round the back and given a good kicking. Or folk music played while listening to metal. Really enjoyed them, a great act, and a good choice. Luke Sital-singh on the Saturday was also very good - a brilliant voice, if somewhat lacking in stage-craft. And finally, Sinead O'Conner on the Sunday who was exceptionally good - I would put her as one of the best live performances I have seen. She totally owned the stage.

There was also the extraordinary Grace Petrie, who is still brilliant. And something different which was Giles Peterson, playing a DJ set on Sunday afternoon. The setting of the Glade stage meant that there was a field where people were dancing in the sun, and sitting and listening, and just enjoying the music. I have thrown in a video of a couple of girls who were having a wail of a time for the whole 90 minutes (sorry that the sound is appalling). This was something fantastic, and we should have this more often. It did appeal to all ages, there were a whole range of people dancing and enjoying it.


Talks: Well I didn't hear that many talks, partly because there were some great ones that started at 9:00, and I couldn't easily get in for that time - I do intend to download these when they are available. I did hear Brian McLaren, who was very good, and made me think a little. I need to explore his ideas more, and have purchased one of his books. I also heard Nadia Bolz-Webber and Sara Miles, who were very relaxed and very interesting. I don't wholeheartedly agree (which is perfectly reasonable - I don't expect to agree with anyone, and find it a pleasant surprise when I do), but they were open, honest and enlightening. I was especially struck by the first question - the talk was on accepting the "others" - which was "what do you do when the person who rejects you has a dog collar and is the vicar". What was most intriguing was that they were stumped, and struggled to believe that it could happen. That - and the huge applause that the question got - said it all for me.

Worship: I don't tend to do that much of the worship at Greenbelt, struggling to find anything that really resonates for me. However I did go to a guided meditation run by Moot on "the Mound" - a huge, man-made hill. It was excellent, and a really important and positive aspect of my time. There was also the Sunday Communion, which I always struggle a little with, but this year, I found it reasonably acceptable. I know that others didn't, which is the problem with this service that you cannot please everyone, or even all of those who attend.

There are so many other aspects I could talk about. the food selections were, as usual, excellent. The layout of the site, and the location of the site in the park were brilliant. The village was easy to get around and to find places. There were various food offerings wherever you found yourself, and there was not too much wandering between venues - sometimes, at Cheltenham, you could find yourself a long walk from the other end of the site. This was much less of an issue - and everyone I spoke to agreed that the village site was brilliant. This is a huge achievement for the first year there.

Boughton House is a great place for the festival. The sculptural landscaped gardens, of which The Mount is a part, are odd, beautiful, and a brilliant resource to have for just messing about in. The estate as a whole is also fantastic - unfortunately we couldn't wander in the trees, but they did set the festival in the countryside, which was brilliant.

Of course there was one issue - that of getting between the car parks and the camp site or the village site. Each day, I had a 20 minute walk from the car to the site, which was tough at the start or end of a 14 hour day. However - and this is crucial - these are issues that can be resolved. The organisers know this is an issue, and they will be looking at how to resolve it. Some of the resolutions are to take the theme of this year seriously, and "travel light" - take less stuff, make sure that you can carry it. I might be staying on site next year, which will ease the problems I had. The mud on the Monday/Tuesday was an interesting challenge to deal with. But these teething problems.

The festival has been at a very different site in Cheltenham for 15 years. The challenges of moving the festival somewhere different are huge. The fact that the festival happened, and that it was a great festival, is testament to the amazing effort. I hope we can stay at Boughton House, because I love the site and the potential of it is enormous. It will take time to sort the teething issues out.

Was it a good Greenbelt? Yes absolutely. If you have never been, I can recommend it. If you are unsure about the new site, then give it a try, and talk to those who have been. It will take time to settle down, but the site is brilliant, inspirational, and I can't wait until next year.