Two short notes on theology

I can’t resist quoting at length from a glorious piece by Fred Clark on his problems with a spam filter. Clark is a Baptist journalist, whose blog, “the Slacktivist,”: contains an extended, gloriously funny, deconstruction of the _Left Behind_ books, and a great deal else that is thought-provoking, and clearly expressed. This week, he has been afflicted with Six Apart.

bq. I should note the almost theological response we humans have to this kind of arbitrary system. We look for meaning and, if it cannot be found, we impose meaning. On my end, this produces something like the behavior one sees in a person who believes in the mechanical/magical efficacy of prayer (it’s not doing anything — I’ll do it more and do it harder). The multitude of comments trapped in the filter, meanwhile, seem to be rehashing the dialogues of the book of Job, with several taking the Eliphaz/Bildad approach (I’m being punished, I must have sinned) and others following the counsel of Job’s wife (curse TypePad and die). No one has yet taken the proto-Calvinist approach of young Elihu, arguing that all of our comments deserve to be deleted as spam and that if TypePad graciously allows some elect few to be published we ought to respond only with gratitude. Theology was once regarded as the Queen of the Sciences. If that strikes you as inappropriate, consider the theological scientific method at work in response to the seemingly arbitrary blocking of comments. We hypothesize that there is a reason or a meaning for why a given comment is blocked, and we experiment by resubmitting it with variations in an attempt to discern what those reasons and that meaning might be. Not the sort of thing one can measure with calipers, yet not wholly unscientific either.

On a related note, Quentin Stafford Fraser quotes something he found in one of Dan Dennett’s books:

bq. Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned.

But this doesn’t go nearly far enough, because it assumes that these unchanging answers are always the answers to the same questions. And the great discovery made by scripture-based religions is that they don’t have to be. You can take the eternal, divinely inspired answers, and then choose among the questions until you find one to which the answer is right. In this way it is entirely possible to switch your position on such matters as slavery, democracy, divorce, the position of women, the age of the world, and anything else you care about. The process is slow, I admit. But it is also comprehensive, and erases its own tracks, so that by the end of it, everyone is sincerely, and reassuringly convinced that oceania has always been at war with eastasia. That is the blessed assurance that historical enquiry / the higher criticism really damages. But it is still true that heresy, like treason, is a matter of timing, and they would have burned even the current Pope as a heretic at Trent.

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18 Responses to Two short notes on theology

  1. Simple Country Vicar says:

    Oh, come on! This is just bollocks.
    You start of with the radicalism of God: Tend the land, look after orphans and widows in the Torah, or all are equal in the Christian assembly – Galatians. The Letter to the Romans has women apostles, and to Philemon has Paul saying release your slave, he is equal in the Lord.
    Then, when Philemon’s neighbours’ slaves get wind of a released comrade on the basis of baptism, there is a mass conversion of slaves and civic destabilisation. While Rome is saying women should be at home breeding Romans.
    So, by the time you get to Timothy and Titus, slaves are being commanded to be obedient and masters to be gentle, and women to stay schtum in church and go hang in the kitchen at home.
    It’s the drag of ordinary human nature pulling back on the radicalism of God. The process begins even before the sacred canon is closed..

  2. Rupert says:

    One of the many internal pressures in the conservative reading of Christian scriptures is that they cover a very long period marking very many changes in people, theology and concepts, yet are used to dissuade people from thinking in terms of change happening now.

    Every revolution is followed by reaction: both ends of that process are visible in scripture. It’s hardly surprising that the liberals concentrate on one side and the conservatives on the other. And that process has repeated itself many times since: whichever side has the upper hand is going to define the other as heretical.

    You can see the radicalism as God and the reaction as human, but it’s entirely possible to reverse that view: look at the number of heretics and apostates smashed by divine smitehood in the OT. Even in the New Testament, Jesus was careful to rein in the more hot-headed radicals in his circle and support the status quo in various important ways…

    But I do like the Dennett quote, even if I’d replace ‘religion’ with ‘the church’ in an attempt to make it slightly less glib.

  3. Mrs Tilton says:

    Hooray Andrew for highlighting Fred Clark. Fred is God (though I suspect he might beg to differ).

  4. The ‘radicalism of god’? This being the same god who treats married women as property worth no more than slaves or cattle?

  5. Simple Country Vicar says:

    That’s the drag of human nature, Fragano.

  6. acb says:

    O Simplicissimus, I don’t find Leviticus a terribly radical document. And it’s supposed to be a pretty early one, even if we know that it is in fact a later codification.

    But actually, I was thinking about post-canonical thought, of which your argument is pretty good example. I’m sure they would give you a post next to Benedict in the square at Trento.

    But I have a hard time thinking about this stuff right now. Either someone is roasting live hamsters in the room underneath or my daughter has three friends round and they are all excited.

  7. Mrs Tilton says:

    Seeing as you’ve scarpered from Facebook, Andrew, let me hijack this forum to wish you and your family a festive Cthulhumas, or whatever one celebrates to mark the winter solstice chez Brown.

  8. rr says:

    I hope, btw, that you were not meaning to imply that energised females produce a smell redolent of singed rodent.

  9. Simple Country Vicar says:

    > I hope, btw, that you were not meaning to
    > imply that energised females produce a smell
    > redolent of singed rodent.

    Oh bollocks Rachel. If a woman said that a kitchen full of adolescent males smelt like tom-cats you wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

  10. rr says:

    SCV, I fear you are wrong. I have two male spawn who will spend several years being adolescent in tandem and as such will easily fill the space of the confined kitchen. I also have a tom-cat whose litter tray it is my dubious pleasure to tend. I would bat not one but both eyelids at such a pronouncement. Had you employed the term “civet”, however, no movement of the eyelids would be detectable. But both of these examples are felines not rodents. And neither is alight, as far as I am aware, which is the most salient point. Few things smell as nasty as burning fur. Even a kitchen-full of adolescent boys. And believe me I know because I once set the dog on fire by mistake in an accident involving a tick, some whiskey and a match. Which leads me to remember the excellent joke about how to make a cat go woof, which can clearly be altered encompass hamsters, but this is obviously neither the time nor the place. (Er, sorry Andrew, please have your comment thread back now.)

  11. Mrs Tilton says:

    rr, one takes your point, but are civets in fact feline?

  12. Simple Country Vicar: Really? Human nature is a complex thing, and the assumption that all the negative elements of Xtianity are the result of human nature, while god is a sort of J.S. Mill up in the sky seems to me a bit naïve.

  13. acb says:

    Rachel, you’re welcome to do that to any of these threads. It seems a shame to point out that I wasn’t thinking of the smell produced by griddled hamsters: more the noises they might emit as they scampered round on the hotplate. So the whole of this fascinating and enlightening discussion of adolescent hormones was misplaced.

    Also, how do you make a Venetian blind?

    SCV is confused on these matters because he moves through life trailing swirling clouds of testosterone like a pantominme villain striding through dry ice. “points out”: that the civet is only nominally a cat:

    The civet is a mostly nocturnal animal, from the Viverridae family, found in Africa, , and the East Indies. It is approximately 17-28 inches in length, excluding its long tail, and weighs about 3 to 10 pounds. Although classified within the Carnivera order, the palm civet of Southern Asia (named because it can be found in palms), is a fruit-eating mammal. Although the Viverridae family is distantly related to the Felidae family of which the common domestic cat is a member, the civet “cat” is not a cat. Indeed, it is more related to the mongoose than to any cat.

    However, more testing is needed to determine whether the smell of singed rodent can be distinguished from that of charred dog. A study trip to Korea, perhaps …

  14. acb says:

    Oh, and Mrs T: a very happy squidmas to you and your family in the depths of the Teutoberger Wald.

  15. Simple Country Vicar says:

    > SCV is confused on these matters because he moves
    > through life trailing swirling clouds of testosterone like
    > a pantomime villain striding through dry ice.
    Nah, not these days. Arousal is a more haphazard affair at this age. more like London buses.

  16. rr says:

    And then you get three at the same time? good grief! something I thought most adolescent males only dreamed of.

    I stand corrected on the taxonomy of the civet. Would the word viverrine be correct I wonder? it’s certainly vivid.

  17. acb says:

    Oh dear, your grasp of mammalian anatomy seems terrible shaky: even marsupials can only have two _at the same time._ Come to that, London buses normally arrive in sequence rather than in echelon.

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