Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist

It's all over the twitters! Ricky Gervais turns the tables on theists and demands proof in his column, A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist

His big point is to place the burden of proof on the theists, rather than the atheists. I imagine he'd be surprised to see such a fuss made about this point. It's not new. It's the application of scientific method (specifically empiricism) to God. In short, the idea is that God can't be objectively measured or observed, and that means there's no reason to believe that God is real[1].

Case closed. Right?

Well, yes and no. It provides compelling argument against a particular concept of God, while opening questions about the application of cross-disciplinary analysis. One at a time, though. The interesting question is whether the scientific method is the superior method for answering all questions. Whether God is real is a metaphysical question, but scientific method is not metaphysics. Should we use aesthetic methods to analyse the federal budget? Why is scientific method considered superior to aesthetic methods? Is it even appropriate, or is it like using a hammer when a screwdriver is appropriate? The use of scientific method is great when applied to scientific questions, but it's not a universally-applicable method.

As for the compelling arguments against God and heaven, he makes a great point. He talks about God as the one who lets people into heaven or sends them into hell.
And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”
This is brilliant. Religion based on a two-ways thinking of reward and punishment is driven by selfishness and fear. Instead, Ricky wants us to do unto others as we'd have them do to us. It's not unique to Christianity, but it's right near the centre.

And although I don't think that Ricky's plea is quite as strong as Jesus' command to love, it's a great start. We should be good to each other for no reason and no reward. That's going to be hard enough, and the right step towards genuine love.

1. I hesitate to say whether God "exists" or "is" because those are other kinds of questions.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Nuclear hostages

A lot has been written already about nuclear deterrence theory, and I've not read it all. The one part of it which sticks in my mind and won't let go is the role of civilians as hostages. After all, what is the deterrent other than the threat against civilian targets (people and places) to be exercised if certain demands aren't met?

Therefore, the key difference between a country maintaining a nuclear deterrent and a man with a gun to the head of a bystander is the number of hostages.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

US pressure on UK about Iranian banks

Senior US officials urged British banking regulators two years ago to take more draconian action against Iranian banks suspected of financing nuclear and missile programmes, US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks show.
WikiLeaks cables: US pressured British regulator to act against Iranian banks | Business | The Guardian

This is some promising news from the wonderful world of Wikileaks. I'm pleased to see non-military methods at work to stop nuclear proliferation. It's unfortunate that the evidence of involvement by these Iranian banks wasn't available in the cable, but I imagine that if there was inscrutable and solid evidence, there would be more than just financial pressure on banks.

Any use of non-violent methods to achieve objectives is better than violent methods. Nevertheless, I'm reminded that the country exerting the pressure here is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in war, and still maintains a very large stockpile of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. A single nuclear weapon is still one nuclear weapon too many, and is only made worse when that weapon is in the control of a demonstrably violent nation. We can have a world without nuclear weapons. We had one for a long time before the Manhattan Project and we can have it again if we want it.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Wikileaks Conflict

In the past week, there has appeared a lot of support for Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief, and there has been a lot of opposition to it and him. What many people are outraged about now is the action of a government to shut down an organisation that promotes itself as part of global journalism. By doing this, I think Wikileaks' supporters are missing the point and are playing into the hands of their opponents. It seems to me that there are three points of conflict in the entire debate.

The struggle to maintain or destroy Wikileaks as an organisation. At present this is the main focus of the media and social networking. You can see it as the government decries the actions of Wikileaks and as various organisations (Paypal, Visa, Amazon, etc.) withdraw their facilities from access by Wikileaks. The counter-arguments appear in newspapers and through the Wikileaks' use of Twitter and Facebook. This struggle is about whether the leaked information continues to be published and not about leaks in organisations themselves. This is about controlling the flow of information.

The criminal accusations against Julian Assange. This has the appearance of an ad hominem attack, designed to discredit Assange and, by implication, his work. The claims are quite serious, however, and should be taken seriously. Sexual assault of any kind, by anyone, should not be tolerated. If Assange is convicted, he will no doubt be imprisoned but the work of Wikileaks will continue. Wikileaks appears to be decentralised enough to withstand the loss of its founder.

The criminal accusations against various presidents, ministers, governments, officials, etc. In other words, the actual content of the leaked documents. Before the current round of leaked cables, there was little doubt that the actions of various individuals was criminal (e.g., the actions of the American helicopter crew in killing Iraqi civilians). A clever summary of this has appeared on the web. Refreshing the page loads new content each time. This is the forgotten area of conflict at the moment, and I think that's quite intentional. The accused have deflected the argument away from the content of the cables and press forward with their attacks on Assange and the existence of Wikileaks as an organisation.

It seems to me that anyone who wants to be involved in this issue has these three areas to consider. Opponents of Wikileaks are winning in the second area by having Assange arrested. They're especially winning in the third area by creating the first area. That is, they have successfully deflected attention away from the content of the leaked documents by creating a new focus for the argument.

For myself, this is a quick summary of where I stand on the three.
1. The activities of Wikileaks is important, whether or not is is conducted by Assange or even by Wikileaks. Crime and corruption in governments, corporations, institutions and other organisations should be exposed. Wikileaks could even retreat into obscurity and become an intermediary between individuals with information and journals who will report on them.
2. The investigation into sexual assault claims should proceed. Assange has done the right thing by cooperating with the investigation rather than remaining a fugitive.
3. People everywhere, especially journalists and bloggers, should read and comment on the leaked documents, and they should be noisy about it. Make more noise about this than anything else. It is clear that crimes have been committed, and that the perpetrators should be removed from office so as to prevent further harm. Any other legal consequences are a matter for the courts.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Religion, Public and Private

Expecting a religious person to keep their religion private is much the same as telling someone that they can fall in love but must keep it a secret. It's a waste of time. Anyone seized by love will be quite unable to do what you ask. You'll see it in their eyes.

But that's no justification to bare the whole of the relationship to the world. Imagine a couple in love who broadcast their entire life to the world. All the whispers, the kisses, the lovemaking, the arguments, the drudgery of housekeeping... Some things are best nourished in private, and the same is true with religion.

Religion must have public and private aspects. There are parts of religion which are wholly internal just as much as there are parts which affect the public life of the believer. It's unrealistic and inauthentic to confine it in total to one or the other.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Zizek gets the RSA Animate treatment

Quick! It's Zizek! You know you want to watch it. Eleven minutes of Zizek, turning something on its head, complete with clever pictures on a digital whiteboard.


Tolstoy's Christianity

I've mentioned elsewhere that I've started on some Tolstoy[1]. He seems to have two different approaches to Christianity as a thing. On the one hand, he is adamant that the Christian conception of life is self evidently correct and understood by all to be the truth, but on the other hand he writes persuasively about it for those people who aren't yet living that way. In other words, Christianity is obviously right to everyone, and (even though you know this) you should be genuinely Christian (because you aren't living that way now).

He argues for Christianity using reason, and not just as an exercise in faith. Christianity is not a lifestyle choice, one alternative among many, but is the best way for humanity to live. And he argues that this is self-evident to everyone. Although most of his argument is centred around the issue of not resisting violence by force, his view is clear that Christianity is right because it is universally beneficial and better than the social view or the state view of life.

This, of course, puts him in contrast to Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argued for Christianity on the basis of authority and revelation, not rationality or reason. Through the inheritance of scripture, the written words of people who witnessed Jesus in person, a person has testimony and instructions for how to be Christian, but that this testimony and instruction only has value through the leap of faith.

Both of them make a return to the individual (reader) and argue that as a result of this reason or faith, the right way to live is to obey the commands of Christ to love God and to love one's neighbour. For Kierkegaard, when the individual obeys Christ they become a kind of authentic human, freed from the structures of the humanly-established order to live in genuine liberty. For Tolstoy, individual obedience to Christ awakens the person from the hypnosis of the existing human order, and when many people do this then the kingdom of God becomes a physical thing, freeing people from the structures of states and institutions.

In short, for both writers, the kingdom of God is an emancipatory project for all people, contingent upon the individual obedience to the commands of love.

1. Coincidentally, this is my first exposure to audiobooks as well, courtesy of Librivox. It's an experience entirely different to reading, but I might write about that some other time.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Adjustment to the comments policy

I've changed my mind a couple of times about whether to allow anonymous comments on this blog. I figured that it would allow people to contribute meaningfully without having to have an OpenID account, or something similar. But I've forgotten what the guys at Penny Arcade have to say about this.

So I'm shutting down the ability to anonymously post onto this blog. I still like freedom of expression and opinion, and in the interest of reducing bile in the comments, I'm taking away the anonymity.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Kierkegaard and Tolstoy

I'm part way through my first real encounter with Tolstoy, through his book The Kingdom of God is Within You. Perhaps some important quotes will venture their way onto the blog in the coming days and weeks.

However, and I might be the last person in the world to pick up on this, the resemblance between Kierkegaard and Tolstoy are striking, even just in this book alone. Kierkegaard's three spheres of life are tremendously similar to Tolstoy's three philosophies of life. Similar, but not identical.

With a little hand-waving, one could make them superimpose on each other, but the more interesting approach is to find how they inform and critique each other. And more interesting still is that they both advocate a relentless pursuit of the teachings of Christ. Christ is, for both of them, the teacher par excellance, who instructed people how to live as though God was king of this world, and that if we are to take Christianity seriously, then it must be immediately (and militantly, if we invoke Badiou) obeyed by the individual, and not enveloped in the mists and shrouds of sacramental observances.

The rest of the book, and maybe some other Tolstoy work, await me.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Essay topic for NaNoWriMo

I'm narrowing down a topic for the essay. Could be quite polemical. Looks like it'll relate to the physicality of the kingdom of God, even though the more I read around, the more I realise that it's an old topic.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


During November, some people like to write novels and call it National Novel Writing Month. I'm no novelist, but I'm considering writing an essay instead. Unfortunately, the abbreviation would be the unpronounceable NaEsWriMo.

Undeterred, however, I'm starting to think about a topic. Suggestions welcome. Take a look at the tag cloud at the bottom of the page to see what sort of things I've already written about, including topics from before the split between Divine Trauma and Tabletop Manifesto.

Friday, 8 October 2010

No law against love, just a command

It seems all too easy for us to over-complicate Christianity. There are complex angelologies and demonologies, catastrophic eschatologies and medieval metaphysics to name a few. Perhaps we're embarrassed about the origins of our faith, that it's too simple or lowly.

The solution, I think, is to remember that the whole of Christianity begins and ends with Christ. Once we identify Jesus (the peasant from Nazareth) as the total embodiment of God, we are obliged to obey his commands. And his commands were quite simple: love one another.

We can spend hours and hours figuring out what this means in daily practice. In fact, that's something we should definitely do. In fact, I imagine that if we did that, we'd spend less time with the trivia of our faith, and more time making the kingdom of God a material reality.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Post-election Gillard Analysis

From ABC's The Drum comes an insightful piece by Glen Milne, exposing the wonders of political spin from a newly-elected government trying to renege on election promises.

"She would not like the comparison, and Tony Abbott can't make it, for reasons that will become apparent, but all of a sudden Julia Gillard is looking a lot like John Howard." Glen Milne, Gillard looking a lot like Howard.

This is clever and biting assessment of Gillard's spin. Before the election a carbon price was out of the question. And after the election? See how Milne scrutinses Gillard's remarks.

"It's absolutely no secret, after particularly the election campaign that was, that the Government believes we need to work towards a price on carbon. The Government has consistently said that we want to work towards a price on carbon."

Oh really?

Note the lawyers' parsing: "...after, particularly, the election campaign that was". Hang on; it's only been less than a month since voting day. But clearly already, Gillard has already segmented time - and promises -according to the election and post election periods. Post election, apparently, the old order no longer applies.

I won't steal any more thunder from him. Go and read it for yourself.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Of flags and books

Pastor Terry Jones wanted to burn copies of the Koran. Most of us know about this story. A google news search will give you all the relevant details, along with plenty of bluster.

Before I go any further, I should say that I think the proposed action goes against Christ's command to love. I don't want to go into a laboured explanation of this point, but it's enough to say that Christ commanded his followers to love, and burning a book which is valued by someone else doesn't seem to fit that bill. One could argue more abstractly that by burning a detrimental book[1], one loves the other by saving them from it. At the same time, there is an argument to say that concentrating on texts one opposes is a distraction from loving the people associated with that text. I'll let you think about it in your own time.

I think what's more interesting to me is the reaction from the "land of liberty" itself. America is founded on principles of liberty, with a bill of rights geared to give people a rights-based mentality. There have been plenty of public debates there about the legitimacy of flag-burning as a means of protest. Usually these debates will invoke the famous remark (allegedly) from Voltaire, which appears in a number of forms, but they all look a bit like this:
I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to your death the right to say it.
It's usually taken to mean that the liberty of speech is more valuable than the content of speech. Many people are swayed by this approach and, although they love their flag, will let others burn it in protest.

So how about the Koran? Or the Bible? Or the Baghavad Gita? Or any other religious texts? Semiotically, they're both symbols that convey meaning. The text conveys its meaning more clearly than a flag, though, but is that enough difference to adjudicate that burning a flag is acceptable, and burning a book is not? What this reveals is that privileging the liberty of speech over the content of speech requires that everyone agree to that preference. When the content of speech has primacy over the liberty, an act like book burning will almost certainly enrage someone.

The question for civil society to think about is whether liberty of speech or content of speech is more important, and whether the necessary social conditions are present to even give people that choice.

From a theological point of view, it must be questioned whether burning a Koran is within the command to love, and whether burning a Koran is using a liberty for self-indulgence (Gal 5:13).

1. At least a book that is considered detrimental by one person and not another. For example, some Christians believe that Dungeons and Dragons is a harmful game and would encourage burning the rule books.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

It's just like football

The election result, that is. 90 minutes of to-and-fro, and then the final whistle. Now we're in the penalty shoot-out where it's down to five to make the decision. The best of five.

Yes, it's a sport metaphor on this blog. Normally I don't enjoy sport, but I make an exception for football.

So what's the problem? Nothing. A hung parliament is the right recipe to get some fire back into politics. Politicians will have to argue a case and reach compromise, and to argue a case means that you need to have a case to argue. So go back to your philosophy and figure out what you stand for, rather than who you stand against, and go for it. Just stop being lukewarm, because the electorate has spewed you out of our collective mouth.

(And that makes for two irregular occurrences on this blog: sport, and a quote from the Apocalypse. I'll try not to let it happen again.)

Friday, 20 August 2010

I Blog and I Vote

I like elections and election campaigns. All sides of politics are put back into promotion and selling, convincing me to vote for them. I get to throw them out, or keep them in. This might sound arrogant to you, but based on the last election results, where I live now is the most marginal seat in Australia, won by only 64 votes out of 82,000. And that was with a swing against the sitting member.

So what does that mean for my vote? Just like every election, I based my vote on care for the most needy. To steal some biblical phrases, we'd call them "the least of these" or "the widows and orphans." The way we treat the marginalised is the measure of us, and that applies to us as individuals and, more importantly, as a community. If you read some of my previous entries on this election, you'll get the idea. I've looked at more policies than those I wrote about, and I would have liked to blog about them all, but time is against me this year.

But here's the summary. The Labor Party and the Liberal Party are like Pepsi and Coke this time around. The differences are trivial on the issues that matter. From what I've seen, the campaigning between the two has been more like Australian Idol than a genuine battle of ideas, with the added element of negative advertising. They've appealed to the hip pocket of middle Australia, but in the end they don't offer much that's different to each other.

And the Greens? Yes, I've looked at them too. Full points goes to them for not being the Dr Pepper in this metaphor. They aren't just another flavour of the same, most evident in the issues that I did write about.

So this is how I'm going to vote.
1. Below the line. Every preference is my preference, not theirs.
2. ALP and Liberals last.
3. Greens first.
4. Fill in the rest with preference away from nationalistic parties.

Yes, this year I'm voting Greens and I encourage you to do the same.

EDIT: I use a tag for all my posts about the Australian Election 2010. It will explain my position a little better if you read them as well.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Making golf courses useful

In the news this week:
The Department of Housing has confirmed it has reached an agreement with the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder over a new site for an Indigenous short-stay facility.

The council was asked to suggest alternative locations for the centre after community opposition to the Government's preferred location of Vivian Street.

A spokeswoman for the department says plans are underway to buy a section of land at the Boulder Golf Club.

She says the sale is subject to the outcome of community consultation, which is expected to continue until mid-September.
ABC Online, Golf land to be used for short-stay facility

It reminds me of this piece by George Carlin.

I'm just sorry that George didn't live long enough to see it happen.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Policy Comparison at the ABC

Regular readers will know that I've compared a couple of policies across the Labor, Liberal and Greens parties as we approach the election. This is clearly a popular pasttime. The ABC has done something similar, but without the value judgements, and mostly without the Greens. They have a page which serves as a launching point for you to make your own comparisons. The section headings operate like search tags, though, and will take you to stories about those issues.

Nevertheless, you can learn a lot from these links. Our national broadcaster has done a lot of work for you by bringing together the stories about the election. You should look through it before you vote. Make your vote a deliberate and informed choice.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Boats, The Boats

Refugees. Illegal immigrants. Queue jumpers. Terrorists in disguise. In the past decade, our media and politicians have called them all sorts of things. The images are of brown-skinned people, dressed shabbily, crowded onto boats and staring at the camera. Foremost in people's minds is the question, "Who are these people? Are they genuinely fleeing persecution, or are they lying to sneak into Australia?"

Before I look at the major parties' policies, I'll briefly go over three points. The size of the problem, our historical response to the problem, and our moral obligations.

The size of the problem is important. Just from the TV and the newspapers it looks as though it's frequent and it's large, as though the boats are another form of public transport. Famously, a couple of graphic representations have been crafted to show the scale of the situation. Relative to the population, it's small. Relative to other refugees, it's small. Relative to the number of people who overstay visas, it's small (the count was about 47800 people, around five years ago). If we, as a community, are concerned about illegal residency, the bulk of the problem is here, not on boats, but it doesn't make for good video-bites and sound-bites to deport a hundred backpackers.

Historically, we've seen an increase in the numbers of boat people, without a commensurate increase in personnel to assess their claims for refugee status. "In 1998-99, 926 boat people were detained, in 1999-2000, 4174." The number of people in detention rose, and the length of time they were in detention rose as well. Courts were unable to handle the increased demand, and the terrible situations in the detention centres arose. Hunger strikes. Suicides. It became "prudent" to send them offshore. It's cheaper to run a detention centre in Nauru, and it's harder for the Australian media to investigate. The solution was to find more space for the queue, rather than find sufficient capacity to evaluate claims for asylum.

But what's the problem? Why can't we just let them all into the wider community? The problem lies in the notion of government as the ordering force in society. Government has a role to provide the rule of law and security for citizens and residents. They are even given the right to use violence, in the form of the police and the military, to accomplish this. As Max Weber put it, the state is the entity that claims a "monopoly on the legitimate use of violence." So governments want to protect the community from...

...from? Well, from terrorists hiding as refugees, said Wilson Tuckey, Liberal Party MP in 2009. And maybe from ethnic gangs that form in ghettos in the suburbs of Australia. There have certainly been plenty of cases of ethnic violence in Australia, some allegedly caused by Sudanese, some by Serbians and Croatians, some by Anglos. In all cases, this view of government shows that the moral responsibility of government is to impose order.

But what about our moral responsibility to genuine refugees? It doesn't take much googling to see that the situation in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan is terrible. Women living in the DR Congo fear for their safety and her lives. The process to assess asylum claims is required for this situation. People who are in such peril in other countries want to take refuge in safe countries. No one should argue that. Furthermore, a wealthy and peaceful country has the resources available to provide that refuge. The next time you go shopping, look around you at the products on sale. More clothes. More jewellery. More electronics. We have more than enough money in Australia, and yet we spend it on ourselves for things we don't need when there are others who have neither the money nor the opportunity to even have clean water and regular food.

And with that in mind, let's look at the policies from the big three.

The Greens have a policy on immigration and refugees. It has three main points: No mandatory detention, end offshore processing, climate refugee visas. The first one sends a shiver of fear through anyone who thinks that governments should enforce order to protect society. Refugees can disappear into the community, true. In that way they'd become like any other illegal resident, from backpackers to Chinese sweatshop workers who overstay visas. The second point is good. Asylum claims should be reviewed here, with the people here close to services that they need, like medical care and psychological care. The third point is also good, and quite forward thinking. Sea levels are rising (for whatever reason) and there will soon be a number of people who need somewhere else to live.

The Labor Party has, well, nothing on their website. I looked for immigration. I looked for refugee. Only when I looked for asylum did I find some commentary. No policy, just a press release. Let's work from that. They want a regional centre (Timor?), which is another way of saying that it won't be in Australia. Sri Lankans are welcome again, because they improved internal security. I wonder whether there will be such a need for asylum claims from a country that has improved internal security. And not much more than that. A regional centre that assess claims by people fleeing countries with improved internal security and humans rights performance? This is not the action of the strong protecting the weak, it's the strong showing some concern for the average.

And the Liberals? For a start, it's listed under National Security issues, so already we see their approach. The policy is called Restoring Sovereignty and Control to our Borders. Despite its ominous name, the policy focus in on people smuggling with a final point about "a compassionate and fair refugee and humanitarian program" for refugees who "come to Australia through legitimate processes." Although I'm pleased that they've not ignored genuine need, I'm stunned that they think a person in fear of their life will queue up at an Australian embassy to follow "legitimate processes."

Fleeing in fear is just that. People leave homes, possessions, culture, and sometimes family, to preserve themselves. Bellowing "STOP THE BOATS" is a shameful trivialisation of the issue. There are people on those boats, and people should be treated as exactly that, people. If the problem is people smuggling, then say it as it is, and deal with it as people smuggling.

And lastly, perhaps as poetic reminder, another country once sent plenty of boats to this land. Those boats brought soldiers, violent criminals, petty thieves who stole bread for their families, and a whole host of other social problems (alcohol abuse, disease, etc.). By the standards of some Australian political parties, not even the First Fleet would have landed.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Indigenous Policy, Some developments

I posted last week about the indigenous policies of the Liberals, the Greens and the ALP. The weekend news has had some developments. The Australian has reported,
Under pressure over Labor's lack of progress on its promise to hold a referendum to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin held talks yesterday with Aboriginal leaders Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Marcia Langton at the Garma festival, near Gove in northeastern Arnhem Land.
The article goes on to show that both Rudd and Howard proposed amendments to the constitution on this issue, but neither saw it through to the end.

I also agree with these comments by Prof. Marcia Langton (from the report).
"She has said nothing about indigenous people. If she has nothing at all to say about indigenous people . . . that will set a very bad tone for the relationship should she win the next election," Professor Langton said.
While it's important for the campaigning to be spread across the relevant ministers and senior figures, it's also important that the candidate for Prime Minister speak across the whole range of policies.

Perhaps the least impressive aspect of this is the return to reliance on community consensus rather than community persuasion. Strategy like this doesn't look like leadership, it looks like vote-winning through focus groups. I'm left wondering what the ALP believes. The members of the ALP aren't ignorant, I'm sure. Jenny Macklin has an honours degree in economics. Kevin Rudd has a first class honours degree in Arts (major in Chinese history). Julia Gillard has degrees in Arts and Law. These are are all people who have the ability to think and argue, but in this campaign I don't yet see it.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Indigenous Policy

Indigenous quality of life is a great metric for the success of Australia. These are the conquered people of this continent, who previously had sovereignty over the land in a diverse mix of tribes (or nations, depending on your translation). I say conquered because no treaty exists between the British invaders and the conquered tribes. Legally, the Anglo-Australian state recognises citizens regardless of place of birth or colour of skin, and that's a good start, but to think that the Aboriginal peoples are anything but conquered is to forget the violence brought by Europeans in taking the resources of the land.

But suppose that we take the view that we all peacefully co-exist now, and that we are all Australians, and that The Apology has put it all behind us. The sociological group of Australians who live in the worst conditions are the Aboriginal peoples. If the prosperity of society means anything at all, it will be evident in the lives of people in the worst conditions. Middle Australia is doing fine, rest assured. Just look at the rate of ownership of mobile phones. We apparently have "one of the highest rates of mobile phone ownership in the world." A lot of Middle Australian money has contributed to that rate.

But enough from me. Let's look at the major parties' policies on indigenous issues.

The Liberal party doesn't have an explicit policy for it. They've bundled it into a Community policy. That's a good move because it acknowledges the necessity of equality across the community, that everyone should be regarded in the same way. It covers a few areas, including mental health (with a focus on early intervention, hospital beds, youth sites) childcare (child care rebates and child care centres), families (a single-page about what Labor did wrong) and paid parental leave (26 weeks paid). Overall, it makes the assumption that we're all living within reach of hospitals and child care centres. That doesn't bode well for remote communities, where most indigenous people are.

The Greens have a separate policy for indigenous affairs. Although I'd mark it down for being a separate problem, at least it has some explicit words around it. It (like my preamble) pays attention to the prior occupancy and the lack of a treaty, and wants those issues dealt with. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of it is the demand for implementation of the recommendations of seven reports into indigenous affairs. Money has been spent on research and investigation, and recommendations have been given; so I understand why the Greens want to see some action from all that expenditure. I'm still undecided about some of the points to do with native language education and so on, because it feels as though we should then fund schooling in Mandarin for the Chinese enclaves throughout Australia (for example). The jury is out on that.

And last on my list of Big Three is Labor. They don't have a policy for indigenous affairs, but they have a hot topic, just like the Libs. One key advantage that Labor has over the Liberals is the ability to take action on the issue. Looking at the ALP tags on indigenous affairs shows a lot of activity, from job creation and doctor placement through to sports programs and accommodation for trainees from remote communities. Of course, I read it with some skepticism because it's election time, and this skepticism would be allayed if I had an idea of their policy. Where is the ALP going with all this? Do we just see a series of random "photo opportunities" here, or a clear strategy to improve living conditions for aboriginal people?

This is important for my vote. Our treatment of aborigines is woeful, like the sans papiers in France. This is a "symptomal torsion" as Badiou would say. Fix this problem and along the way we will solve so many other problems.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A regular occurrence

This article in the Australian about a multiple shooting incident in a US workplace has a subtle remark near the end.

"Many US states have loose gun ownership laws and massacres in public places are a regular occurrence."
Beer warehouse driver shoots 8 co-workers dead | The Australian

If the Australian is right, we have come to expect this violence as regular in the US. It's part of the American landscape, claims this view, for an individual to shoot several random people and then themselves as a means of dealing with some intractable problem.

It makes it sound like it's part of the weather patterns, or the migratory habits of local fauna.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Tax Policies

This is the time of year when Australians avoid thinking about tax. That's not supposed to happen until late October. But we have an election (yay!) so tax is important again.

It's important because it directs how people behave. Taxes are increased as a disincentive, and deductions are given as an incentive. I'm not impressed about incentives, though. They require individuals to learn about the incentive and find a way to game it. If someone works two jobs, they probably will never find out about it. This is probably an argument for the flat-deduction now available.

But let's look at the Big Three and their policies on tax.

The ALP had a specific policy on tax. It was ambiguous, whereas I want some concrete actions. There was even an odd promise about tax breaks for interest earnings. Brace yourselves for, "a new 50% tax discount for up to $1,000 of interest income from saving deposits held with any bank, building society or credit union, as well as interest on bonds, debentures and annuity products." Calculate how much money you need to have in savings to earn $1000 a year (NAB offers 6%pa on 12-month term deposits, for example) and ask yourself whether you would use that money for savings or for paying off the mortgage. But the "50% tax discount" grabs your attention, doesn't it?

The Liberals had a lengthy PDF about economic principles. Reading this thing (it's 48 pages long, by the way) takes more effort than the ALP and the Greens policies, so there's a lot of detail in there. And most of it is about company tax and business tax. To get the most out of the Liberal policy, start your own business. Maybe you can use the savings from your ALP term deposit.

The Greens have a policy on economics too. It's punchy and numbered, like all their policies. Thankfully it's easy to read. The Greens want to place the burden on consumption and the excessively wealthy, with a mention of a "shift in the tax system from work based taxes to taxes on natural resources and pollution." This move away from income tax and towards consumption tax sounds great, except for the apparent opposition to the GST, which is a consumption tax. Some more clarity is required, I think.

But none of them seem interested in raising the tax-free threshold. Even the Henry report called for this.
Recommendation 2: Progressivity in the tax and transfer system should be delivered through the personal income tax rates scale and transfer payments. A high tax-free threshold with a constant marginal rate for most people should be introduced to provide greater transparency and simplicity.

Tax cuts, if applied, should be applied from the bottom up and not from the top down. The beneficial effect on low-income earners is more significant in relative terms, and in absolute terms everyone gets the same cut. Furthermore, since the current tax-free threshold is below the poverty line, the very act of taxing low-income earners is taxing the poor further into poverty.

Currently, none of the three political parties explicitly advocate for this, and some of them are actually opposed to it. I'm disappointed yet again (as I was for the last few elections) that this simple idea remains ignored.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Election ignores marginalised: Anglicare

Time for some election commentary. I like a good election and I have every hope that this could be a good one. So let's start with the most important issue of politics: the marginalised, or the biblical widows and orphans.
"The poor and marginalised will be left out of this year's election debate as leaders focus on middle Australia, the Christian charity Anglicare says.

Recent Australian elections had been fought to 'capture the hearts and minds' of the population's middle 40 per cent, Anglicare Sydney CEO Peter Kell said on wednesday.

'And this election is shaping up to be, unfortunately, no different,' he told reporters in Sydney."
Election ignores marginalised: Anglicare
And there goes my hope for a good election.

If the Anglicare report is correct, then this is a shoddy piece of work by the two major parties, and reflects poorly on the mind of the voter. It shows that people vote through self-interest and not through community-interest. A vote for self-interest asks how the new government will treat my life, my bank balance. A vote for community-interest asks how the new government will treat the community, especially the most vulnerable.

Whereas it's easy to say that the political campaigners are evil and nasty to play the election this way, it's much harder to say that the electorate laps it up. So when you think about your vote, think about how it affects the marginalised, the widows and the orphans.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

ABC Portal on Religion and Ethics

The ABC recently launched a portal for Religion and Ethics and, as should be expected, it's come under fire with the usual line of argument from non-religious people: Why should my taxes pay for religion?

Now I'm in favour of the ABC portal, and not just because it's being edited by someone I know. Here are two reasons why I think it's worthwhile.

First, the portal is about coverage of religious and ethical issues, not the propagation of religion itself. Articles are written both from within and without the religious point of view. Up front is a piece by Rowan Williams as well as the question of whether it is ethical for government to fund religion. Taken individually, both articles advocate a position on religion, but taken together they show a diversity of opinion about a related topic.

From what I know about the editor - a theologian who is critical of church and state equally - and the little I know about the ABC charter, a biased approach to coverage of religion and ethics would just not eventuate. For as long as religion and ethics are part of the life of people in Australia, there should be coverage of it.

And that leads to my second reason to have the portal. The argument that the portal is an abuse of tax dollars looks like this, "My tax dollars pay for X despite my opposition to X." In light of what I've written above, perhaps it should be, "My tax dollars pay for coverage of X despite my opposition to X." If I look at the ABC site, I see coverage of a wide variety of things. Some interest me, some don't. Some excite me, some disgust me. Nonetheless, they are all features of Australian society and the issues they contain should be covered by the national broadcaster. Certainly there will be a threshold of interest (I'm sure there won't be a portal for flower arranging) but for features of significance like sport, children and environment there is enough societal interest to warrant this expenditure. Imagine a person who is opposed to further population of the planet and who thinks we should stop having children. If the argument that "my tax dollars should not be spent on things I oppose" were valid, there would be no 'children' section on the ABC website. Australia has children all over the place, so the ABC has a section for children. Australia has religious activity all over the country, so the ABC has a section for religion.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Campers too Camp for Christian Camp

On the problem of pluralism and morality, today's story is about a campground run by Christians and a homosexual camping group who tried to make a booking there.
"MARK COLVIN: Can a corporation have religious beliefs? Is there a Christian doctrine against homosexuality? And can a commercial operation be exempt from discrimination laws?

Those are just some of the questions being raised in a discrimination case being brought against a camping group run by the Christian Brethren. It refused to take a booking from a group called Way Out, which was set up to tackle homophobia."
PM - Rejected campers file gay discrimination case 07/07/2010

This will be interesting to watch. From what can be read in the ABC report, most of the right questions will be asked. Admittedly, they'll be from the point of view of civil liberties and not theology, but in a secular system of law with legislation about discrimination, that line of questioning makes a lot of sense. I expect that a key issue will be whether the campsite a business or a religious organisation, and whether it's necessary to enforce that distinction. The second issue will be how religions treat people who intentionally break the moral tenets of that religion. Unfortunately, it might just turn out to be a repeat of previous arguments with nothing new added to the debate.

The problem is about judgements and authority, though. Do the campground owners have authority to refuse service to people who contravene a particular sexual ethic? If they do, I wonder whether they would refuse a booking from the Sweatshop Owners Association (James 5:1-6), or the Debt Collectors Society (Luke 6:30-35). The Christian bible has more to say on both those issues than it does on homosexuality.

Regardless of how the courts decide, the constant association of Christianity with the policing of sexual activity is wearisome.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Universally addressed to the individual

The gospel is a message of repentance. As Paul puts it in Galatians, it's the call to turn way from a life according to the flesh and to turn towards a life according to the spirit. Especially interesting is that the gospel is also the pathway to the kingdom of God on earth. In short, the gospel calls people to repent and promises to manifest the divine reality.

It operates on two levels, both as the critique of how we currently live and as the vision for how we ought to live. The vision always seems to display a picture that is utopian, a new world in which all problems are solved. The lamb will lay down with the lion, the hungry will be fed, the sick will be made well, etc. These kinds of images give hope to plenty of people that God cares and that God is going to act, and rightly so, but there's a catch. This utopian vision isn't separate from the call to repentance, but is necessarily linked with it. In fact, the call to repentance is the necessary prerequisite to the kingdom.

Perhaps a more clear way of looking at it is to say that the gospel is a call to repentance so that the kingdom of God can be real. All the biblical promises of a new world of peace, etc., are contingent upon the biblical call to repentance. Repent of your former way, live the new way, and you will see the kingdom of God.

Looking at it like this means that the gospel is universally addressed to the individual. That is, the gospel is not addressed to humanity as a whole, but is addressed to every human individual so that all of humanity will live in the divine reality. Ultimately, the response and responsibility is in each individual. No theocracy required. No hierarchy required. Just the single individual obeying the call to repentance.

(This post was brought to you by Kierkegaard and Badiou)

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Just Don't Feel That Way, OK?

Timana Tahu to take racism battle to Human Rights Commission | The Australian: "'Nobody could ever doubt Timana's sincerity in what he did last Friday,' Gallop said. 'He cares deeply about ensuring others don't feel the need to take a similar stance and we are also committed to that.'"

Even though it's old news, the woeful part of this quote is that it refuses to identify Johns' remarks as racist. The actions that the NRL will take are to ensure that people don't "feel the need to take a similar stance" implying that as long as people feel OK with racist comments, the comments can continue. This is the harm principle at work, roughly equivalent to saying that people are free to fire machine guns through a school as long as the bullets don't hit anyone.

A better approach is to make racism the focus for eradication, rather than ensuring that the targets of racism feel good about whatever else happens around them.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Pentecostal Papacy

Benedict is speaking in tongues and jumping to the jam of the great I AM. w00t!

Not really. It's not that the Bishop of Rome is getting ready to bounce at Planet Shakers, but that the Pentecostals are creating a sprawling denomination. Once upon a time, the Assemblies of God in Australia were a loose confederation of independent churches, banding together out of mutual theology and cooperation. More recently they've become the Australian Christian Churches and seem to be creating a hierarchy within the confederation. Brian and Bobbie now oversee churches in eight countries. They haven't quite cracked the Asian or South American markets yet. Paul and Jo oversee three campuses in Brisbane.[1] James and Samantha oversee churches in Townsville and the Sunshine Coast.

It would be easy (and perhaps cheap) to criticise this trend by asking whether these arrangements give enough time for them to conduct pastoral duties for the whole flock. I'm sure someone has already tried to make the point. But what's more interesting is the semblance of history repeating itself. With the growth of the movement, there is the implementation of bureaucracy and centralised doctrine. In a confederation, the interpretation of Scripture is more difficult because there are others to convince; whereas under a papacy the top voice is unchallenged. All teaching cascades from the holy father (senior pastor) out to the dioceses and parishes (campuses). And a bureaucracy is necessary to support the structure. Attendance counts, budgets, office managers, interns, etc, are all part of the hierarchy and the function of this church.

The Pentecostals, so long in contrast to the older denominations, are now moving down the same path. I wonder if they will implement Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith any time soon.[2] Either way, I can't help but hear the words of Kierkegaard echo down the years.
The established order, however, at that time insisted and always insists on being objective, higher than each and every individual, than subjectivity. The moment when an individual is unwilling to subordinate himself to this established order or indeed even questions its being true, yes, charges it with being untruth, whereas he declares that he himself is in the truth and of the truth, declares that the truth lies specifically in inwardness—then there is the collision. Practice in Christianity
The Danish State Church was the established order of his time, complete with sprawling hierarchy. It stands as a warning to all who are part of large church, whether pentecostal or catholic, that we cannot let the church become the established order, otherwise it has failed to be the church because it "always insists on being objective, higher than each and every individual." Rather, Christianity must be the result of the individual Christians who subordinate themselves to Christ and nothing else.

[1] Bless me father, for it has been many years since my last confession, but I confess to being a founding member of Metro. For my sins, I will spend several years in a Baptist congregation.
[2] Your laughter is just a sign that you won't expect it. No one expects the Inquisition.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

It's alive!

Unless you've been living under a rock (or perhaps with your head in the sand) you would have heard about the stunning announcement from the J Craig Venter Institute about the creation of synthetic life. This remarkable, amazing research bears thinking about theologically, and not just ethically.

For a start, it has the potential to threaten the notion that organic matter cannot be created form inorganic matter. Many Christians (and other religious believers, I'm sure) would hold the belief that this was impossible, that life could only be created by the intervention of a creator, and not through chemical processes. But now, since it has been developed in a laboratory, by humans no less, one argument to support the existence of God has less sure footing.

This is good for two reasons. First, it weakens the case for natural theology (clutching at straws, if ever there was a-clutching). There are now fewer arguments to derive God from "evidence" in nature. The argument has been exposed as tenuous. Second, it makes us more aware that the material is all there is. The dualism of the ancient near east has held on for too long, insisting on the heavens as a real place, with complex angelologies and demonologies to accompany it. All of this is a distraction away from being Christian.

Being Christian does not demand an exhaustive metaphysical account of the universe. It demands a daily choice to follow Christ. It is a waste of effort, time, breath and ink to try and use theology to systematise the cosmos. Jesus did not command his disciples to do anything of the sort. His command was to love.

Unfortunately, I anticipate that the everyday Christian (especially the fundies) will find another circular or flawed argument to flail about as an alleged proof of the fallacy of the Venter research. It'll be about as convincing as the "But Darwin's theory is just a theory, not a fact" argument that still floats about. And once again, it will distract us all from being Christians.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Papal Penance

Further to my previous post on the pope's latest comments, read this article at The Drum.

ABC The Drum - Bravo, Benedict, bravo! On the finally penitent pope

(yes, I know... it's another Scott Stephens piece)

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Catholic Confession

'The greatest persecution of the church doesn't come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the church,' Benedict told journalists travelling with him to Portugal. 'The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice.'
Pope Benedict silences child abuse conspiracy theorists on Portugal visit | World news | The Guardian
Two things delight me about this move by Benedict. First, he demands that the church take responsibility for its own sins. There are critics all over the world, and mostly outside the church, who have pointed out the evils of church institutions, but this is a rare moment that a leader of the church does the same thing. Regardless of denomination, this is an important call.

Second, the call is the same as some of the earliest sayings of Jesus, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near." It's a call to change, to turn away from evil because God's justice is near. And I don't mean that in the sense of a Final Judgement, but in the sense that the act of turning away from evil is the first step to the manifestation of God's justice. Turning from evil opens the way to forgiveness between people and to love between people. Forgiveness and love, not reward and punishment, is God's justice.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Henry Review of Tax

This week's bland news for Australia is the Henry report into tax reform. Overall, it will have little immediate difference to Australia since most recommendations won't come into effect, and of those that do, it will be quite some time before they do.

Most attention has been given to the mining super-profits tax. I understand the policy that the resources are public assets and the people should get benefit from them, but I'm sure the shareholders won't care. Now we can watch the fight between big business and big government. Of course, taken to its conclusion, the resources are the public assets of the people who live in that region, not just in that nation. If a mine near Mt Isa earns enough to pay this tax, perhaps the money should go to the city of Mt Isa.

More important are the host of changes that are smaller and probably won't be enacted. I think especially of this recommendation:
The Henry Review also recommends that the tax-free threshold for personal income tax be raised to $25,000 and that there should be a simple, transparent two-step tax scale, with 97 per cent of the population paying 35 per cent. After five months of reading and discussion, surely the Government could have formed a view about that. Well, actually they obviously have formed a view - that it's too hard and they should just shut up about it.
Tax reform more like a Robin Hood shuffle - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

The tax-free threshold has been too low for too long. It hasn't risen with inflation at all. Raising the threshold is a tax cut that has the biggest relative benefit for the lowest earners, and the same absolute benefit for everyone. It's absurd that poverty level of income (single income, family of four) is just below $30,000 per year, but that we tax low income nonetheless. It's immoral to tax the poor back into poverty.

If only one recommendation was accepted, it should have been this one: raise the tax-free threshold.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Biblical Texts (again)

My thoughts on the nature and authority of biblical texts continue to develop over time. The last post about this was a retreat into ambiguity, I think. Although I still think that it's important to elevate the involvement of the human author, I think there is still something to be gained by classifying the texts.

Kierkegaard moved in this direction when he insisted that we should take any text from the New Testament and just do it. As far as he was concerned, any New Testament command must be obeyed. It had the status of unquestionable authority. As has been pointed out elsewhere, he didn't give the Old Testament this kind of lofty status.

While I won't go so far as to advocate for the inerrancy of the New Testament, I'm happy to leave those texts as canonical for Christianity. That makes it the core of the Christian scriptures. And as for the Old Testament? I like to think of it as apocryphal. I don't quite take the approach of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglicans though:
And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine;
Rather, I think the apocryphal works are the texts of the situation of the Christian Event. They describe the ideology, philosophy and theology of the time but are not the foundation of Christianity.

I think they're still worth reading, but only as situational documents. There's much better reading with the Christian Scriptures, and much more that can be followed.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

What morality looks like

The court case which arose from the inquest into the death of Diane Brimble has closed, and the defendant has been found not guilty of the charges. The article in the Sydney Morning Herald takes a look at the situation, and compares the verdict and the public interest in the court proceedings against the public interest in the inquest. Our moral outrage, it seems, is confined to inquests and not court cases.

More important than commentary about the state of public opinion is the overall point of the article; that is, the court case was about legal responsibility between people but could not be about moral responsibility between people. From the article by Geesche Jacobsen:
"Despite the inquest's approach, the case was not about moral responsibility, about what ought to have been done. And ''bad, loutish or maybe even insensitive behaviour'' as Justice Howie called it, is no crime.

Should she have been photographed during sex?

Should she have been kicked off the bed?

Should she have been left lying on the floor, having defecated?

Should people - young men and four young women from another cabin - have laughed about her, even looked at her, and done nothing?"
Dianne Brimble saga ends with lives still to heal

Jacobsen highlights that the prosecution's case was only about legal responsibility.
There was no general duty to help a stranger in distress, however unusual that seemed, Justice Howie told the jury after the prosecution acknowledged in the final days of the trial it could not prove Wilhelm had had a duty of care towards Brimble. No legal duty.

Although there was no legal duty of care, I share Jacobsen's dismay that no one helped a person in need. I also share this sentiment from Scott Stephens[1] that we no longer recognise what morality looks like.
By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctuary of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to well-being and personal security, and by neglecting to advocate some alternate form of virtuous community, they end up supplying the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of rationality.
Hillsong for the unbelievers
If morality is reduced to "well-being and personal security" such that there is no moral duty between people, then we are in need, more than ever, of the gospel. It's a poor reflection on human nature that we have taken the ideas of personal choice and individuality beyond the realm of community responsibility. An individual is free to choose, and will experience the consequences of those choices, but if those choices lead that person into trouble then the gospel insists that the strong help the weak.

In the parable of the Samaritan, the traveller chose to journey along the road and the consequence was severe assault and theft. The priest and Levite did not help, but the Samaritan did. Now, which of these fulfilled their legal responsibilities? All of them. And which of them embodied the gospel? The Samaritan.

We've are too comfortable with the notion of personal choice and personal responsibility, to the extent that we feel we can abandon compassion. This is woeful, and the gospel calls us to live better than that. The gospel tells us to look after the people around us, to take care of the stranger in need, to be good neighbours to all.

[1] Yes, I know I refer to him often. He's usually right about things like this.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Forgiveness and Penal-substitution

Lately I've been thinking about forgiveness and the penal-substitutionary explanation for Jesus' crucifixion (yes, even before AUFS brought it up, despite my delay in writing). I think, perhaps quite simply, that forgiveness itself is enough obstacle to oppose the idea of substitutionary punishment.

Forgiveness is, after all, an act of the will that leads to reconciliation. Suppose two people argue and hurt each other, when they forgive each other they are reconciled. No one needs to be punished. Furthermore, during Jesus' ministry there doesn't appear to be any obstacle to Jesus just simply forgiving people. He said it to the lame man in Matthew 9.

Now, you might argue that Jesus can do this because he's divine, and we can't because we're not. But even a little later (Matt 18) Jesus commands his followers to forgive others. So if the authority to forgive is freely given, what is the point of a substitutionary punishment?

It's a simple thought, I concede, but is enough to cause a problem with the doctrine of penal-substitution.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Atheism stumbles over Easter

I'm happy to be reading again, along with a little "Blogger" button that let's me just grab the page I'm reading and start commenting. Ain't technology grand?

Courtesy of Online Opinion comes this opinion piece. Atheism repels feeble Easter attacks - On Line Opinion - 15/4/2010. It's the usual atheist approach to religion, beginning with the scientistic declaration of the primacy of positive evidence over the absence of evidence.
Atheists simply accept that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural—no more, no less. There is no element of indoctrinated belief about atheism. Atheism is founded on the concept of evidence.
Supposing this is true, then I imagine that I'm an atheist. A declaration of "Jesus is lord" is the central declaration of Christianity, marking the claim by the believer that they acknowledge the lordship of Jesus. There is credible historical evidence that Jesus the Jewish Peasant lived in second century Israel, teaching and gathering followers. However, when the follower declares that "Jesus is lord" this is a statement of faith, a statement of devotion. This kind of statement doesn't even require a supernatural being to be involved. What it does require is discipline by the Christian; discipline to learn, understand and obey Jesus' teaching.

Whereas "Atheism is founded on the concept of evidence" faith is founded on the concept of conviction and fidelity. The believer encounters a truth that redefines their world, and goes on to live in fidelity to that truth. This kind of truth is not in the same language game as facts and evidence, making a scientific assessment of an individual truth difficult. The closest we have so far is something like Badiou's ontological theory of the Event. Even this, however, insists that truth does not arise from the systematised facts of the situation, but that it cannot be named or accounted by that situation. The desperate search for the facts of a truth is a waste of time because it is impossible.

I'll give the author some credit for this gem, though.
Religious leaders have never encouraged their congregations to use their brains throughout history, and this situation has not improved in modern times.
Mostly true! This is a double-edged sword, though. On one side, few religious leaders (especially contemporary pentecostal Christian ones) encourage intellectual engagement with the Bible, preferring them to read short, disconnected snippets of the text. The broader themes and intra-biblical dialogue is lost this way, resulting in some wild and crazy theologies. On the other side of the sword is the necessary property of the gospel: it is universally addressed. It's not a message exclusive to the intellectual, or exclusive to the working class. As a universally addressed truth, it ignores those distinctions and presents itself equally to all.

Again, an atheist has come to religion with the hammer of science; seeing everything as a nail. Despite the clumsiness of their approach, they still have valid critique of religion in general (and often Christianity in particular) that the Christian must address.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

More AC Grayling Critique

I confess that I wrote my previous piece on AC Grayling before I'd heard the whole talk. That was a mistake. It so happens that I found two more points to object to, so perhaps I should have waited and bundled it all together. Nevertheless, let's continue with objection 4.

Remember that Grayling identified that science can help religion, but religion can't help science because religion has nothing useful to say about the Higgs boson? This, apparently, was enough justification to discredit religion; that is, if religion cannot contribute to a single area of science, it is useless. Now let's find out what Grayling has to say about how science gives answers to questions of
those matters of the heart and mind of human beings which concern them most—questions about love and their relationships and their response to beauty. And the answer is no, they don't because that's not what science is about.

You know if you said to the botanist who is examining some dicotyledon somewhere what is the meaning of life, or how should I best love my wife or something, the botanist should properly say well, just let me put my botany to one side and respond to you as another human being. But to think that the natural sciences are somehow going to answer everything would be to be scientistic, and no responsible scientist is scientistic, no responsible scientist thinks that science is going to have all the answers and that is why we have such a rich resource in the arts, in music, in drama, in the novel, in philosophy, in history, in the conversation we have with one another at that dinner party that Mr Hitchens is talking about when the possibilities for these things arise.
Religion and Science, Part 2 of 2

It seems that Grayling has double standards. Religion is flawed because it doesn't provide a complete overlap with science, but science is not flawed when it doesn't provide a complete overlap with the arts.

And lastly (again, I know) Grayling asserts that of all the oppression in the world, the oppression caused by religion should be removed promptly. Again I quote.
It's certainly true that most of our fellow human beings today as throughout history have been impoverished and oppressed in ways that make it very difficult for them even to have a chance to address these questions. A long time ago again Aristotle said the possibility of good lives for people does involve an element of luck: where you were born, when you were born, in what circumstances, whether your family has wealth, whether you can have an education. And it behoves us all I think, as being sensitive to the plight of our fellow human beings around the world, that we should strive to ensure that they do have the chance to think in these terms about what would make a good life, rather than mere survival.

Now of course one of the things that we would have to do is to reduce the oppressive effect of religions on them.
Religion and Science, Part 2 of 2

I contend, however, that to isolate religion here is scapegoating more than it is a solution to the problem. A larger problem is the oppression of capitalism and greed. Multitudes are still enslaved today through the capitalist structures that create Asian sweatshops and the slave camps of Dubai. It isn't religion that led to this, but the love of money. Grayling is right to say that we should work together to remove oppression, but he's wrong to isolate religion and put it at the top of his list.

With these extra two objections, I have to say that my disappointment is bigger than it was before.

A.C. Grayling at the Atheist Convention

I was listening to selections from a talk by A.C. Grayling, given at the recent Global Atheist Convention. Based on the introduction, I'd hoped for some robust argument to provoke some discussion. To be honest, I was disappointed. Here are just three parts of his talk that I take issue with.

In the discussion of "science and religion" he posed the question about what each could offer the other. His answer was that science can help study the phenomena of religion, whereas religion can't help understand the Higgs boson. Not only has he presented this only from a scientific viewpoint, but he's been quite selective about his areas of interest. Should we instead be asking about how religion can contribute to discussions in the philosophy of science, or the social dimensions of science? While I'll be at the front of the line to argue that science and religion are incapable of contributing to each other in all areas, it was oddly dismissive of Grayling to target only the asymmetry between the two.

Going further, in his critique of religion, he bundles all religions together in order to build a picture of religion in general. Christianity, Islam, Roman religion... all with their own nuances that distinguish one from another, and with dialogue inside each one, but selectively lumped together as RELIGION for his own purposes. It's precisely the same technique as the woeful selection of proof texts used by the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church, harnessed only to support a preconceived notion.

Lastly, his analysis of the common ancestor of science and religion was a cheap shot. Ignorance, he proclaimed, was the common ancestor of the two and there has been a parallel evolution of science and religion ever since, in just the same way as from a common ancestor came Cro Magnon man ("Us," he said) and Neanderthal ("and them," he said). The invocation of "us and them" is a sorry indictment, and perhaps the genuine self-disclosed exposure of the talk. Just as he grouped the Nuremberg rallies with the skilled rhetoric in a megachurch, he himself uses the same techniques in order to appease and enthuse his audience.

I'd hoped for a reasonable talk, but didn't get it. Instead I heard biased argument from someone claiming to pursue a scientific method of inquiry. I'll leave this with some words from Scott Stephens, in his more lengthy review of the convention.

But the GAC was a different matter entirely. As was observed by several of the speakers at the Convention — Phillip Adams and Tamas Pataki being the most courageous - that initial sense of moral outrage seems to have been traded for satire, and the commendable desire to argue for the superiority of atheism over every rival outlook has devolved into self-indulgent bravado.

This style of atheism lacks the appropriate seriousness, and so ends up pandering to the fashionable cynicism and ethical disengagement that dominates Western societies.

Paraphrasing Dietrich Bonhoeffer's description of German Protestantism in the 1930s, the upshot of such atheism in our time is to make people feel better, or at least more smug, about their morally bankrupt lives.

Consequently, the GAC will prove to have been little more than a Hillsong for the irreligious - which is to say, an orgy of self-congratulation presided over by egotistic pseudo-celebrities.

To put it in a nutshell: the fundamental problem with the type of atheism on display at the Convention is that it is a conceit that perfectly suits our times by providing morally indefensible lives with an alibi, a kind of rational overlay.
Hillsong for Unbelievers, Scott Stephens

Edit: See also some comments from Margaret Coffey about the Global Atheist Convention. She shares similar disappointment about the actual content of the GAC. See, for example:
It seemed inside that group think prevailed, in the collective responses to quips, characterisations, and comic routines, in the apparent imperviousness to chauvinism, ignorance and simplicities on stage, and in the absence of critical questioning of speakers. I am still astonished that no-one challenged John Perkins’ depiction of Islam, that no one picked up on Richard Dawkins’ shift from naked ‘mental money’ to ‘gratitude’ still vested in all its cultural (including religious) clothing, that no-one responded to Peter Singer’s dull flattening out of Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ remark, that no-one remarked the focus on Christianity and the figure of Jesus, the strenuous and mocking rejection of ‘the tragic vision’.

Monday, 12 April 2010

What do we preach?

The proclamation of the gospel has, for far too long, felt like a sales pitch. First, convince the customer (unbeliever) that they have a need that they didn't know about. Second, provide the customer with a potential solution. Third, get the customer to take action. This is the basic structure of the "all have fallen short of the glory of God, including you, and need Jesus to get out of it, so believe!"

But does Christ need a groundwork of sin-awareness before we can preach Christ? Not according to van Driel.

Against those who would defend some version of felix culpa (and here van Driel names Schleiermacher, Gregory, Milton and Barth), Incarnation Anyway challenges Supralapsarians to ‘explore the meaning of the incarnation, the presence of God among us, as an excellent good in and of itself, and not take refuge in a doctrine of sin to beef up incarnation’s meaning. We do not need the bad to enjoy Christ’ (p. 131). Again: ‘we do not have to preach sin before we can preach Christ; we can preach Christ as the offer of love and friendship with God; and it is thereafter, in the light of that offer of friendship and love, that human beings discover themselves as sinners’ (p. 166).
Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology: A Review � P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

Although this is not enough argument by itself, it should serve as a caution not to burden the gospel proclamation with unnecessary baggage.

Christianity and politics

We have an election here in Australia later this year, and although most of you aren't thinking about it yet, the idea of what it means to vote as a Christian is worth thinking about.

"My own view is that, in respect of the “Big Four” political issues - war and peace, the just distribution of wealth, human rights, the environment - orthodox Christian teaching supports a generally “left-wing” policy prescription. Conversely, in respect of a raft of vitally important social phenomena - sexual mores, marriage, drug-use, gambling, pornography, sanctity of life questions, to mention just a few - the Christian position is decidedly conservative."

On yet other issues, such as crime and punishment and censorship, Christian teaching is impossible to categorise in worldly terms.

Further, even the apparently clear-cut issues have a Christian twist. For instance, the Bible unquestionably takes the side of the poor over the rich, and posits charity as one of the greatest human virtues. But it also encourages thrift, self-reliance and obedience to (secular) law.

Most importantly, while Jesus’ sympathies were fiercely egalitarian, he was not a social reformer. His primary emphasis was upon individual salvation.

With all these considerations in mind, the great English theologian C.S. Lewis once observed that a fully Christian society would thrill almost no one. “Each of us,” he wrote, “would like some of it, but I am afraid very few of us would like the whole thing”.

Tellingly, and wisely, Lewis added: “That is just what one would expect if Christianity is the total plan for the human machine. We have all departed from that total plan in different ways.”

Ultimately, the best that each of us can do is to try to obey the dictates of conscience.

The ugliest feature of modern politics in Australia is that our mainstream politicians are discouraged from following their conscience (Christian or otherwise) when voting in parliament. Not to toe the party line on a given issue is to risk ridicule, ostracism, demotion - even expulsion.
Christianity and politics: a problematic mix - On Line Opinion - 1/3/2010

Get ready for the campaign.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Zizek reviews Avatar in New Statesman

As always, Zizek turns his attention to a blockbuster to turn it inside out. His key critique is not so much about the film (but he certainly gives his opinion) but about the film and its audience.
"So where is Cameron's film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself - the film substituting for reality." - Slavoj Zizek, New Statesman - Return of the natives
The problem is not how the film portrays the conflict between the industrialised colonisers and the native tree-huggers. Rather, the problem is that it fantasises the conflict confining it to the screen so that we can ignore it in the actual world around us.

Is he correct? In a way, he is. The film hasn't been followed by mass political action that supports the violent defense of ancestral lands. If everyone who "loved the movie" did so, our news headlines would have much different content. So it's an easy step to conclude that the problem is in the audience. We just aren't stirred enough, and we say, "It's just a movie."

Alternatively, suppose that James Cameron intended to stir political action of this kind. How would we see that evinced in the actual world? Would Cameron and the studios divert the profits to supporting the Naxalites? Possibly. But if the evidence of the intent is in the act that follows, Avatar-the-political-film is a failure, and Avatar-the-entertainment-for-cash is a success.

Monday, 8 March 2010

What's marriage really got to do with commitment

An interesting op-ed piece about marriage and the state.
But I say, let them have it. That is, the churches can have marriage because I don't want it. Let them not recognise divorce. Have them suggest that only virgins should wear white. Allow them to marry only those whom attend their churches regularly - and not just for the last few months. Lend them their airs and lend them their graces.

But don't let the state have at it. Our private sexual relationships are none of the Parliament's or executive government's concern. The state should not be telling me or you that my or your relationship is less legitimate than another. Nor should it be paying any attention to my or your sexual relationships. Ever. And if you do believe that marriage is about love then why on earth is the state dealing in love? What's marriage really got to do with commitment - On Line Opinion - 26/2/2010

I like this approach because it sanctifies marriage as a religious activity over and above a legal activity. It makes the assumption that both parties are religious and intend to honour the lifelong commitment. What I don't like about it is the lack of legal protections associated with such intimate living. Suppose one partner walks away from the faith and no longer commits to the marriage. Although divorce is ugly, it happens to about half of marriages. Any couple that intermingles finances (from petty cash to life insurance) needs independent arbitration to disentangle all of that. Although I'm happy for marriage to remain a religious rite, the high rate of divorce indicates that some pragmatic approach be taken to help manage the arbitration process.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Ontology of the boudoir

Ontology of the boudoir
Just go and read it, because "Rule 34: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions."
And now I wonder if, because this blog exists, there is porn of it. :)

Apocalyptic action

Halden's live-blogging of two Harink lectures on Peter let to this interesting quote.
Because of Christ’s transfiguration, we are called, not to passivity, but to radical apocalyptic action, which, in summary means to subject all our actions to the lens of Christ’s own agape, the radical love that gives itself away for others, even to death. - Apocalyptic action – Inhabitatio Dei

The genius of this is that, once again, we can see that Christianity is not about pie in the sky when you die, but must be focused on the here and now. The sooner we get rid of the phrase, "get into heaven" the better we'll all be.

Enemies of the Faith

Four easy steps to conservatism. Thanks Roland!
Enemies of the Faith – the Radical Orthodox and Red Tory Version

Barth on the Christological centre of the Old and New Testaments

I just read this quote from Barth. It seems that I have more in common with him than I previously thought.

Narrative and Ontology: Barth on the Christological centre of the Old and New Testaments

Velvet Elvis, Movement Two: Yoke

This chapter concentrates on the problem of the authority and reliability of the Bible. Simply put, the problem is that the Bible was written by people, and was assembled into a canon by synod vote much later than the events described in the texts, and yet it is considered to be the authoritative Word of God. This kind of construction leads to a Bible that is neither complete nor self-consistent, and that treating it as absolute will cause problems. What, then, does Bell have to say about this?

He begins, as always, with a story. This story takes the form of a love story, in which he did not set out to love the thing he encountered (preaching the Bible) but once he'd been on a first date (his first sermon) he couldn't tear himself away. It became his lifelong passion. However, he quickly points out that the Bible is a difficult book, and is consequently misused by well-meaning Christians. Typical problems are misquoting a verse in isolation, using selections as proof-texts to justify evil, and so on. Other problems arise from the inconsistencies between the character of Jesus and the character of the vengeful God of the Old Testament.

Bell's solution to this problem is twofold. First, the Bible should be read and interpreted using Jesus' reference to Scriptures as a touchstone. In other words, we should use the Old Testament as Jesus used it. Second, the Bible must be interpreted rather than read at face value, and we should trust authoritative figures to approve interpretations. He argues for this by citing a rabbinic tradition that one rabbi would derive authority from the rabbi who taught them, each one pursuing a hermeneutic purity.
The rabbi was driven by a desire to get as close as possible to what God originally intended in the command at hand. (47)
Jesus is incorporated into this rabbinic tradition by the authority of his own teaching, and also because he came to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. Jesus' life shows "what it looks like when the Torah is lived out perfectly, right down to the smallest punctuation marks." (48)

This rabbinic tradition has continued from Jesus to the disciples and onwards, allowing Christians today to make new interpretations of Scriptures. This ought to produce an "endless process of deciding what it means to actually live the Scriptures" (50), from the Jerusalem Council onwards. Christians are expected to acknowledge that the canon is God's Word without confining themselves to sola scriptura. This acknowledgement should lead to "wrestling" with the text, just as Jacob wrestled with Yahweh. It should be a struggle, and leave the Christian with a limp as a sign of the struggle.

Bell gets top marks here for pushing the case that Christians should interpret the Bible and not have some naive view that it can be read at face value. I couldn't agree more, and I'd like to see this turn into genuine and thoughtful engagement with the Bible. Caught up in this approach, however, is the danger of heterodoxy and the sectarian squabbles likely to ensue. The usual Church structures shudder at the thought of allowing (encouraging!) people to disagree with the pastor. Ultimately, Bell can do no more than let people interpret, but within the bounds of canon. Swim between the flags, people.

I've long been skeptical of the origins of canon, and the origins of texts. Although I like that Bell brings up the human origins of the texts, I'm not convinced that the vote at Hippo was entirely about marking the truth as it was about suppressing broadening heterodoxy. This idea that the vote was somehow divinely-inspired seems flawed, leaving out the insight available from other Christian thinkers of the first few centuries. Bell also performs his usual acrobatics in this chapter, alternating between "written by Man" and "God spoke" without ever resolving it. We're left with the feeling that he regards both statements as true or identical, rather than allowing them to be complementary or differentiating.

So his answer is interpretation that gets us as close as possible to what God intended. This kind of interpretation comes, not from peers, but from rabbis. Bell's model of authority is inherited, and seems a little like the Greek idea that the older generations were closer to the gods and were therefore closer to divine wisdom. Or perhaps he advocates an Hegelian approach, in which we will eventually synthesise our way to divine truth. This is a step in the right direction, but I don't think he takes it far enough. If we combine his ideas of heterodoxy, discussion and a Christological hermeneutic, I think we find our way to authentically lived Christian theology. Rather than trying to inherit a sense of "what God intended" from the rabbis, the discussion should be grounded in Christ. That is, after all, the key identifier of the Christian.

Christ as the definition, not the exemplar. This puts paid to the idea that Jesus was the only one to perfectly and completely obey Torah. The problem of "fulfill, not abolish" isn't resolved by a Jesus who obeyed every clause of Torah, but by the definition of a positive law, rather than a negative law. Yes, this is Badiou through and through, but more importantly it's how the problem was resolved by both Jesus and Paul. Jesus' "perfection" is not "full ethical compliance" but an inversion of a flawed and incomplete negative. Once again, Bell posits Jesus as an extension of Torah and the laws of the cosmos, rather than an interruption to nature. If Christ is foundational at all, then Torah should be read in light of Jesus, rather than the other way around. Bell grasps at this, but by this stage of the book is yet to completely commit to the idea.