Archive for February, 2007

A small thought about Rowan Williams

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

The first conversation I ever had with him, he seemed nostalgic for the Orthodox church. He was, as a young man, attracted to Catholicism. Now he believes in the Anglican Communion: he has told the synod that he cannot give up this belief. What all these things have in common is a negative. He doesn’t believe in the Church of England. He doesn’t believe that a national Christianity is possible or right.

Some years ago, I made a joke about how, at the end of a century when intellectuals had sold their souls to every conceivable totalitarian ideology, he was the first to sell his to the Anglican Consultative Council. But I think we misunderstand his Christianity if we don’t see that it requires some kind of supranational body to make sense. American, liberal Christianity doesn’t. At least, for them, the USA is a supranational body. This is at the root of +RW’s policy towards them.

That Gledhill sensation

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Monday morning and the Times hasn’t splashed with the news that Jesus’ body has been found in Israel. So perhaps they have learned something. It is, on the other hand, the lead item in Ruth Gledhill’s blog. I see also that John Allen, in his NCR diary, had a go at Ruth’s great reunion story. He has chapter and verse out of the report itself shooting her story down.

Also, Damian Thompson has started a blog, in which he introduces himself as someone once described by the Church Times as a blood-crazed ferret. This is not entirely accurate: I stumbled by chance on the original quote while searching for “wombats” on my hard disk this afternoon. It read there is no one any longer who can match Damian Thompson’s imitation of a blood-crazed ferret which was so impressive when first he burst upon the scene; even Damian no longer tries. But his stories are better now, too.

But it was followed by something for those poor bastards trapped at the synod this week to meditate on:

As I look around my colleagues and friends and think of them settling to their desks, surrounded by the highest of high technology: the computer to tell them everything about anything, the mobile to shout at a press officer with, the laptop carrying 302 versions of Solitaire, I am reminded of nothing so much as the last shattered and dispirited remnant of some tribe of hunter-gatherers who have slumped outside a deserted petrol station in the outback. Disease and time have thinned their numbers terribly. All of their widgets and web sites are no more than an aborigine’s digging sticks. Every morning, they survey the dismal heap of dull-coloured envelopes, in front of them, as their spiritual brethren survey the wide and ochre-coloured desert. Every morning they have to decide where in this hostile wilderness there might be something nourishing, some few juicy maggots that they can bring home to the hideously scarified tribal elders huddled round the news desks. Of course, the aborigines at least have hope. If all else fails, they can take refuge in alcoholic despair and no one will notice. This is not the case for modern journalists.

That was a bit of a press column from February 2001. Thank God for Islam and Richard Dawkins.

Small news item

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Tom Butler calls for the dissolution of the Anglican Communion (and I am rude about sundry primates) in this World Service programme. Bloody Realplayer, I’m afraid. Shortwave listeners can probably get it on their real radios some time today, but it has already run in the UK.

A drive-by

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

I know haven’t been blogging much. I’ve been busy, and will be at least until Easter, with bookish things, earning a living, and so forth. I’ll try to manage little bursts of entertaining procrastination from time to time. Here’s one.

I spotted an important mistake in the First Things review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. I’m not a big fan of American right-wing Catholic intellectuals, and their tone of pompous weary condescending omniscience but this makes some decent points and, as I said, one instructive mistake:

The social and personal effects of religion, even if they could be proved to be uniform from society to society or person to person, may simply be accidental or epiphenomenal to religion. And even if one could actually discover some sort of clear connection between religious adherence and, say, social cohesion or personal happiness, one still would have no reason to assume the causal priority of those benefits; to do so would be to commit one of the most elementary of logical errors: post hoc ergo propter hoc — “thereafter, hence therefore” (or really, in this case, an even more embarrassing error: post hoc ergo causa huius –“thereafter, hence the cause thereof”). In the end, the most scientists of religion can do is to use biological metaphors to support (or, really, to illustrate) an essentially unfounded philosophical materialism.

I think this genuinely misunderstands an important part of selective processes, and that is the role of death. It is death or the repeated rounds of winnowing in a selective process which allow us to assume fitness for purpose in what survives. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is indeed a fallacy the first time something appears. But it is no longer a logical fallacy when something reappears over thousands of generations. When one sees, for example, strongly conserved gene sequences, there is no logical fallacy involved in assuming that they have been conserved because they serve some function.

I know I am ignoring the question of whether one can in fact observe this process in cultural evolution — though in practice no one entirely does: it would be surprising to find a contributor to First Things who did not believe that monogamous heterosexual families were more successful at raising children than the alternatives — but as a general statement about evolutionary theory, that particular criticism of Dennett fails entirely. Also, “thereafter, hence the cause thereof” my arse.

Since the Reformation

Thursday, February 15th, 2007

I have always suspected that the number of stories Ruth Gledhill has covered which involve something being the first, or greatest, of its sort since the Reformation was remarkable and this morning, being in need of distraction, I did some research into this.

In the first 200 years of its life, from 1785 until 1985, the Times used the phrase “since the reformation” in 366 stories — between once and twice a year, on average. In the last 22 years, epochal events have come at a faster pace. The phrase has appeared in 127 stories in the last 21 years, or six times a year, 43 of these were bylined “Ruth Gledhill”, though Lexis-Nexis is not very good at filing bylines.

So, obviously, there has been a general belief on the Times that the only historical event in the life of the Church of England that readers can be expected to know about is the Reformation. Whether Ruth is particularly guilty of this is a matter for further research. I haven’t checked how often the Telegraph has used the phrase, or the Guardian.

I’m glad I’m not the Holy Ghost

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

Because, to judge from the reports emerging from Dar-es-Salaam, the Holy Spirit has told Rowan Williams to recognise two Anglican churches in the USA; it He has told Katherine Jefferts Schori that one is quite enough. So what it She now needs to supply to Dr Williams is the speech that will persuade Dr Schori not merely to acquiesce in the establishment of a parallel Anglican organisation in North America, founded on the assumption that she is a heretic, but that she should pay for it as well. Like I said, I’m glad this isn’t my job, because I can’t begin to conceive of an argument that would carry any weight with her.

About Dr Akinola I have nothing to add, except that he can’t see an episcopal lawn without planting a tank on it.

Yet there remains one simple gesture that Dr Williams could make which would solve the whole problem. If reports are true that the persecuted and reviled Nigerian gay Christian Davis Mac Iyalla has turned up for this meeting, all he has to do is to leave the bunker and embrace him publicly as a gesture that God loves such people even if the Anglican Communion is divided over how to express this love. I am reasonably certain that this would solve the problem of who stays in Communion with whom right there on the spot.

marriage and markets.

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

When Rowan Williams praises marriage, everyone assumes that this is because he is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it’s the Christian thing to do. Well, it is a Christian thing to do, but no one could claim that it was the only Christian tradition about sex: there is a great deal in praise of celibacy, and the OT is clear abut the benefits of polygamy. Even the statement that a bishop shall be the husband of one wife is ambiguous. Perhaps it comes instead from his socialist roots. Because marriage, it seems to me, is a profoundly socialist institution or a egalitarian one: what Sam Bowles would call a means of reproductive levelling.

What marriage — or institutionalised monogamy — does, compared to the doctrine that consenting adults may do whatever they consent to, and with whoever consents, is to interfere with the market. Under the “consenting adult” regime, everyone, in effect, is constantly present in a sexual marketplace, where they trade various forms of attractiveness. Like all markets, this tends to unequal results. As Jesus remarked, to him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And if we are talking about she that hath not, even more is taken away.

Socially demanded monogamy is an egalitarian tax on this market. Like all taxes, it can be evaded or avoided, but only at a price. It ensures that almost everyone gets something from the market place, because no minority can monopolise the goods and then rig the rules in their own favour, as the winners in markets tend to do.

In favour of this idea is the fact that monogamy tends to be enforced (and regarded as desirable) in communities where there is a lot of feedback and social control while the wholly untrammelled market (and seen as the summit of human felicity) flourishes in cities where there is much less policing by reputation, since anyone can always “emigrate” to a new social circle.

It follows, that if the market is badly regulated, or rigged by the winners, there will always be more losers. So how does it persist? One answer, I think is that here, just as in the American economic system, far more people suppose themselves to be among the winners than actually are. But this supposition is obviously going to be corrected by reality. And perhaps it should be rephrased to say that almost everyone is afraid of finding themselves among the losers, since the penalties for that are so much higher under a system where attractiveness can be freely traded.

I might work some of this up for the Graun. Thoughts?

Shorter Nick Cohen

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to feminism.1

Not being as ambitious as Nick, I’d settle for being able to convert the more backward parts of Birmingham, which has the advantage that we don’t need to invade anywhere first or kill anyone. It’s still not going to be easy; it may not even be possible.

1 cf, obviously Ann Coulter