Saturday, 30 April 2011

Morris as 'Sacrament without Word'

Currently preparing my sermon for tomorrow, which will be delivered wearing morris dance costume, since this year May Day is on a Sunday. I've long been fascinated (as a somewhat lapsed dancer) by a powerful ritual that has lost all contact with its original meaning - we're left with speculation. Yet there's probably more proper (that is, ritual, rather than social) morris danced in churches at Morris Ring meetings than at neo-pagan events.

Hopefully I'll get a link up to the finished article. Meanwhile, early to bed tonight to be up at 4:15. As a local councillor for the Magdalen Bridge area I have a particular interest in the policing of a very recent "tradition" : extremely drunk students jumping into the river from a height of 10m - a river that currently has only 80cm of water in it in places.

Let's get physical

An old mate of mine - Jon Cape - has been selected to present a paper at a 'Consciousness Studies' conference in Stockholm ( this week. I found the abstract for his paper really interesting :

"Despite the huge popularity of reality shows, the nature of reality is hardly a popular subject. Well it sort of is - put God in the title of a book and - for or against Him - you can draw an audience. And yet much of the classical 'God versus the atheists' debate generates more heat than light. It does so because so many of the assumptions behind both sides of that debate remain unexamined, at least outside a fairly narrow and specialist philosophical circle. I thoroughly disagree with Socrates. The unexamined life can certainly be worth living. But unexamined assumptions can at least be fun to explore.

When it comes to the nature of reality, what is the dominant outlook? For many, the answer is so obvious it doesn't merit a name. Still less does it merit examination. Within the worlds of science and philosophy, the prevalent outlook, if named at all, is physicalism - sometimes dressed as scientific naturalism.

Physicalism in western philosophical tradition is a version of monism. Monism took battle with dualism and monism won. Monism thought the world was composed of one kind of stuff. Dualism opted for two. Monism had two types. These two types were called idealism and physicalism. In today's language, to show idealism is to aim for perfection, whether this is realistic or not. Supporters of idealism may or may not have been idealistic in this popular sense. For them, reality was basically one thing and that thing was mental or spiritual in nature. Physical reality flowed from this. Physicalists took the opposite view and won the day. Science would hardly make sense otherwise, would it? Physicalism became, and by and large it remains, the only show in town, the emperor whose writ is law in most of modern intellectual life. In many parts of the physical, biological and social sciences, to appear to question this holy writ is to seriously damage your wealth, professional prospects and credibility amongst your peers. Thus we find arguments which might run the risk of giving this appearance being carefully prefaced by a denial of any such intention. But the empire is much larger. For many of us in all walks of life, we might not give a second's thought to the emperor. But he quietly informs what we can think about the world and our place in it.

Physicalism is often presented as if it is simply science, or what science tells us about reality. But this is not so. Physicalism is one view of reality. It is a dominant view, indeed an emperor in today's world. The emperor's clothes are high fashion. But is he really naked?

In this talk, the conventional wisdom of today, physicalism, will be given a philosophical grilling much in the way that Anthony Freeman ('God In Us', 1993) has done so ably with regard to conventional wisdoms of yesterday."

Watch this space for a link to the eventual paper.

Friday, 1 April 2011

'Bible's Hidden Secrets' concluded

Francesca Stavrakopoulou's series concluded with an exploration of the real meaning of the Garden of Eden. She suggested that the story refers to the Jerusalem Temple of Solomon's day. That is not at all far-fetched; however, in the first programme of the series she made much of the lack of any archaeological evidence for the existence of such a temple, and suggested that Solomon did not inherit a united nation capable of building such a grand edifice. You can't have it both ways!

The 'Deuteronomic' Biblical writers want their readers to understand that David didn't build a temple, not because he didn't have the power, but because God didn't need him to (2 Sam 7 : 5 - 7). Solomon's version (according to 1 Kings 5 : 3) is that David was not militarily secure enough. Whilst there may not be archæological evidence, there is an enormous amount of written evidence for the existence of Solmon's Temple, with detailed descriptions of it which Stavrakopoulou herself drew on. We even have the contract with Hiram, King of Tyre, for the felling of a vast numbers of cedar trees in Lebanon in 1 Kings 5 using conscript labour (a mass destruction whose legacy remains, and which was lamented by the prophets e.g. Jer 22 : 13 - 16).

As Margaret Barker has clearly described, the Solomonic Temple was a representation in built form of the seven days of creation as described in Genesis 1, and the Adam figure is the figure representative of humankind in the form of the royal high priest, who alone may enter the Most Holy Place. But is there not a 'chicken and egg' situation here? Yes, it is possible that the story of the so-called 'Fall' of Adam and Eve postdates Solomon's Temple and refers to it. It is likely that Solomon's Temple is constructed on the basis of a pre-existing creation story. Yet it also seems likely that the Hebrew creation story was refined during the exile to draw a clear distinction from the bloodthirsty creation myths of the Babylonians. The final editors felt it logical, clearly, to put these two creation stories and the story of the Garden together; but they are stories that refer back to the lost temple in Jerusalem, which itself was constructed on the basis of the creation story. That suggests that the material out of which these stories were constructed predate the Temple, possibly by centuries. It seems far more likely that this part of Genesis is knitting together well-established ancient Hebrew stories and giving them a contemporary twist.

I couldn't help noticing how Stavrakopoulou skirted round the most obvious garden reference : that of Babylon itself, whose royal gardens were one of the wonders of the world. Babylon (just as much as Jerusalem) leaves its fingerprints all over this Genesis text, as it does that other 'priestly' writing we find in Ezekiel (a Hebrew prophet in exile in Babylon). Ezekiel's detailed description of the Jerusalem Temple he dreams of (Ezek 40 &ff) directly echoes architectural descriptions of Marduk's temple in Babylon, the cuneiform tablet of which was exhibited at the British Museum a couple of years ago.

In the BBC programme, a false distinction was made between Adam as a historical royal/priestly figure and as an archetypal/original human. The whole point of the high priestly role is precisely to become the archetypal human for the sake of making effective atonement with God. The kingly high priest/Messiah in the temple is both. The reason she made this false distinction was because of the evident dislike and difficulty she has with the myth of 'original sin' that she thinks the story of the Garden contains. She tries to dispense with it by pinning the meaning of the story to a particular historical figure. This is simply not possible with a story that has gone through such a complex editing process that it has embedded within it multiple references.

She would have done better to ask whether the story of Adam and Eve in Eden is a story of a 'Fall' into 'sin' at all. Is it a 'moral' story? I don't see it has much to do with morality as such. It's the apostle Paul that we have to thank for that reading, which the institutional Church has capitalised on over centuries to keep women in their place and retain its ideological power. But that's only one possible reading of the text. As a description of the human condition it is profound. It asks and seeks to answer 'what is it about Adam (the 'earth creature') that is different from all other creatures?' and the answer is correct : not that humans are 'sinners' but that they are too inquisitive for their own good. (There are many other messages too). The consequences of that ability to question and push boundaries are not a 'punishment for sin' by an angry God but simply an inevitable consequence. 'Pandora has opened her box'. The 'genie is out of the bottle', and cannot be put back in. There's even the suggestion that this development is God's will (God creates the serpent, after all), and there is almost a sorrowful tone in the voice of God as God describes the tension and trouble that being a God invokes! The story of the suffering Messiah flows naturally from this.

The impression I am left with from the series is that Stavrakopoulou knows a lot about archæology, and a lot about the Bible, but does not know enough about the world of biblical theology. At every turn she has gone to people who articulate what she imagines to be the classic, almost cariacature, teachings of Christianity : creationism, original sin, a degraded view of women, strict monotheism etc., - but has not honoured the rich variety of interpretations and continual wrestling with the inherited texts that have always been part of the Christian tradition. Sydney Carter once wrote : "the function of the Bible is to force us to create", and though I found the series stimulating, it didn't really offer a life-enhancing alternative reading. Because, I think, it wasn't looking for one.