29 September 2006

The Marcion Invasion

(What follows is a little bit of a rant, and a little bit of a sermon, and a quite a lot of a party political broadcast for the For Christ's Sake Get Some Perspective party. It starts off fulminating topically about events of the first few centuries A.D., but does become rather more relevant thereafter.

I'm sorry about that. A lot of this has been fermenting in my brain for quite some time now.

Over the last few Wednesdays, B. and I have been attending our vicar and another vicar's course entitled A Bluffer's Guide to Heresy. So far we've covered Gnosticism, Marcionism and Pelagianism, and are due to be finishing off next week with the Donatists.

It's all good fun -- pop-theology done in an engaging, entertaining way without being in any sense dumbed down. Gnosticism is a subject I know something about, having written in my thesis about science fiction as a modern expression of Gnostic thought, and I enjoyed Simon and Paul's presentation on the subject.

I have some sympathy, to varying degrees, with all of these "heretical" positions. I suspect that Pelagius, in particular, is only considered a heretic because his opponent, Augustine, managed to convince the church he wasn't one. Of their two positions, Pelagius' idea that human beings are created capable of moral perfection seems merely over-optimistic, while Augustine's Manichean-influenced ideas of a fallen world and original sin -- and in particular his negativity towards sex and women -- have caused great harm to the later development of the church. It seems to me that the only reason Pelagius was a heretic and Augustine a saint is the familiar one of history being written by the victors.

Gnosticism I can see good arguments for in that the material world is clearly very imperfect, but have to reject insofar as my own religious experiences have been necessarily mediated through that same created world. Marcionism has a point in that some aspects of the Old Testament are, to say the least, questionable, but makes the mistake (an all too familiar one in a modern context, but rare at the time) of assuming that such scriptures are to be read as historical fact rather than as pointers towards spiritual truth.

Even as pointers towards spiritual truth, some aspects of the Old Testament are, in fact, questionable, which is why I believe that the Bible consists of a progressive series of variously imperfect revelations of God, rather than anything you could sensibly call "fact".

And yet...

Today I read this piece by Stephen Unwin in The Guardian. I haven't read Unwin's book, and I haven't read Richard Dawkins' book to which he's responding (although given that this seems to be the one where the good Professor finally comes out and says that I and all people of faith are delusional and dangerous, I should probably get round to it sooner or later).

This whole area is -- thanks to the indefatigable efforts of fundamentalists of all stripes in the politics of the the U.S., the Middle East, and increasingly here in the U.K. -- a blood-soaked, bomb-strewn minefield.

For the record, I see any kind of theocratic government by scriptural fiat as dangerous, deeply immoral and -- I'm a liberal christian, so I get to swear -- quite astoundingly fuckwitted.

What's more I fully agree with Dawkins, as quoted by Joan Bakewell, that the Bible is "a chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents", that "sucking up to God" is a poor rationale for moral behaviour and that Unwin's supposed proof of God's probable existence is "quite agreeably funny".

What dismays me is the polarisation expressed in the debate, visible not only in Dawkins' frequent fulminations but in the comments appended to that piece of Unwin's. Despite the visible and vocal presence -- in the U.K., the U.S. and indeed the Middle East -- of christians, jews, muslims and other people of faith who do not reject the truths of science, do not wish to see their particular interpretation of divine ethics enshrined in law, and in particular do not believe that the killing of innocents is an act which any sane form of faith can justify... despite the continual protests of these people against the sickening excesses of their co-religionists, Dawkins and his sympathisers persist in speaking and acting as if all religion, all faith is the enemy of humanity, rather than merely the religion and faith of unbearable mindless fuckwits.

I find this, to be frank, incredibly painful.

I also, needless to say, find painful the fact that apparently American christian fundamentalists are now training their children to believe themselves participants in a global religious war in which they may be called upon to give their lives for Jesus.

Great move, guys. Because what the world really needs just at this precise moment are more fanatical religious zealots prepared to die for their beliefs.

The problem -- or at least, a large part of that aspect of "the problem" which gives rise to this zero-tolerance attitude on all sides -- is precisely the inability to separate the realms of spiritual and factual truth which so beset poor Marcion (and to some extent Augustine, although I think his overly literal reading of Genesis arose more from his psychological hangups than vice versa).

Truths about "God" (and even the word is problematic) are allusive, symbolic and obscure, not because God is vague or shifting but because our only tools for discussing or conceptualising the divine have been evolved for talking and thinking about the experiential world which God exists beyond and outside. (Also "throughout", of course, but not in any way which can be physically quantified or even detected.)

All statements made about God, whether by believers or unbelievers, are therefore suspect. "There is no God but God" and "There is no God" both tell us important and valid things about the divine -- but to take either of them as fact is a grievous category error.

The ways in which this expresses itself in the politics of the U.S., Israel and Islamdom are perfectly clear, and reliably appalling. Unfortunately, Dawkins and his supporters, while not yet at the stage of blowing people up who disagree with them, are equally misled.

Dawkins can protest all he likes that (in Bakewell's words) "given proof he was wrong he would at once change his opinions". His difficulty with faith arises precisely from the fact that God does not exist as part of that realm about which science is better qualified than any to speak. As Dawkins' book presumably attempts to demonstrate, no proof of God's existence (or indeed probability) has yet been produced which was not intellectually flawed, nor can there ever be such a proof. "Proof", as Dawkins and indeed Anselm understand it, is simply not a concept which can apply.

When the divine demonstrates its own existence (which, as I've indicated, I faithfully believe it does), it isn't in a way which can be duplicated or falsified through scientific experiment. If Dawkins underwent a genuine spiritual experience of the kind which has been sufficient to commit so many believers in the history of the world to such diverse faiths, his worldview would force him to dismiss it as a random aberration of his brain chemistry -- ignoring that very qualitative, unquantifiable gap in the rational through which God manifests God's self.

(I sometimes suspect that Dawkins is a very spiritual man. I sometimes think that he longs desperately for God to intervene with a material proof of babelfishesque undeniability, to demonstrate beyond all possible doubt on Richard Dawkins' part that God is real. His berating of God, I sometimes feel, is the lament of a spiritual yearning which can never be satisfied within the material cage which his mind has constructed for itself.

I can't prove this either, of course.)

You may feel that, in arguing against the one group of zealots who aren't currently in control of vast arsenals of tanks, bombs and helicopters, or at least of specially-tailored clothing containing shrapnel and moderate quantities of triacetone triperoxide, I'm going -- like so many of the zealots who are in control of these things -- for the soft target. You would, of course, be quite correct.

Dawkins' confusion is forgivable in a world where the aforementioned unbearable mindless fuckwits persistently declare that God's existence can be proved with science and logic, that Genesis has anything whatsoever to tell us about the biological origin of species, that God regularly intervenes in history, politics and economics to ensure that good people prosper and wicked people founder -- that, not to put too fine a point on it, propositions which are quite evidently false in the real world are or should be part of the belief-systems of those who accept God.

Making God's existence incompatible with the world as our reason and our perception understand it: that, ladies and gentlemen, is one type of doctrine which I'd be very willing to dismiss as heresy.

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