ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (6): the Church as a Community of Life

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

This is the final post in a series on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

This post will focus on the practical implications of the theology outlined in the previous posts.

What does it look like for the church to be a ‘community of life’ within a ‘culture of death’?

Hays argues that if the biblical paradigms (post 4) were put into practice within the church, then abortion would hardly ever be necessary within the Christian community.

There could be some exceptions. Can the Church act ‘in fear and trembling under the guidance of the Spirit’ to identify those extreme exceptions? Hays suggests such cases: pregnancy as a result of rape or incest [not allowed under Irish law]; and abortions performed to save the life of the mother [are allowed under current Irish legislation].

He also raises the issue of disability. Advances in prenatal testing have been significant since Hays wrote (1996). In the UK, non-invasive screening for Down Syndrome and other genetic conditions is becoming standard.

His position is that

the New Testament summons the community to eschew abortion and thus undertake the burden of assisting the parents raise the handicapped child.

Where abortion is practiced, he argues that

The tragedy is primarily the tragedy of a church that has abdicated its call to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Testament envisions a more excellent way.”

The Church in the World

But how then is this community of life to live and witness within the world?

This is a question that tends not to get asked when it comes to Christian campaigns against abortion.

I may be wrong and am happy to be corrected, but it seems as if there is little reflection on the distinction between the church and the world. This suggests to me that there are deep unexamined Christendom assumptions at play like Ireland is, or should be, a ‘Christian country’. This leads towards urgent calls to action that I saw somewhere recently that Christians have a few weeks to ‘save’ Irish society.

Hays calls for Christians to recognise some realities. He writes in an American context.

How does what he writes apply to contemporary Ireland do you think? What are your reactions to these points?

1) Christians “cannot coerce moral consensus in a post-Christian culture.”

2) Christians should “recognize the futility of seeking to compel the state to enforce Christian teaching against abortion.”

3) This is not to advocate withdrawal from society or to propose some sort of dualistic spirituality of the sacred and secular. It is to recognise that Christian rejection of abortion is dependent on the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Word – and that the world will never share that rationale for terminating abortion.

4) Christians in post-Christian Ireland need to recognise that we stand as outsiders to our culture. Our primary task is to be a counter-cultural witness. In other words, a community of compassion and love that acts as a neighbour to the desperate, weak and vulnerable; which bears the burdens of others and imitates Jesus in his inclusion of the marginalised.

5) This means that the calling of the church in regard to abortion in Ireland is to show the world an alternative way of life to one in which abortion seems an ‘obvious’ choice. Hays proposes that

“The world needs to be shown another way, not forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’”

I think this is relevant when it comes to the 8th Amendment. From its inception it has been a controversial piece of legislation designed to enforce and copper-fasten Catholic morality on abortion on Irish society in perpetuity. That was the whole reason to add it to the Constitution. I’m not at all questioning the sincerity of those who supported that move – their motive was to protect the unborn from abortion ever arriving in Ireland. But I suspect part of the groundswell of opposition to the 8th today comes from its ethos of legal imposition on what is now a post-Catholic / post-Christian culture.

In contrast to using the power of the law, Hays proposes that the

“The first and most basic task is for the community to act in ways that embody its commitment to receiving life as a gift from God.”

And he closes the chapter giving several examples of the deep cost such a commitment would entail. Here is one, written by William Durland

We should not look to the state to compel women to complete, nor allow them to terminate, a pregnancy. Rather, God calls us to be our own people and our own community – to witness to the world’s scandal, to love and bind up those harmed by its values. If the energy now being poured into attempts to affect Supreme Court decisions were dedicated to establishing viable alternatives to abortion and substantive support and long-range care for victimized women, “unwanted” children and families struggling with poverty, mental illness and domestic violence, perhaps we would begin to see Christian community being born in our midst – a light to the nations and a sure refuge for these needy ones.

Young Irish Christians I talk to have been profoundly alienated from both pro-life and pro-choice politics. It is precisely this sort of voice that they say they have not heard in the Irish abortion debate. As a result, I suspect a surprising number of young Irish Christians may vote ‘Yes’ on 25 May. If so, I think this represents a tragic failure of the church to articulate – and embody – a loving and theologically informed response to the challenge of abortion.

The commitment Durland calls for cannot be made lightly. It calls Christians to inconvenient self-sacrifice, generosity and willingness to open up their lives and communities to those in need. As Hays says

“In other words, it would find itself living as the church envisioned by the New Testament.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (5): tradition, reason, experience

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

Continuing a series of posts on abortion, engaging with Richard Hays’ chapter on the topic in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament, in light of the upcoming Referendum on 25 May 2018.

In the last post, in the light of how the Bible has pretty well nothing explicit to say to the modern practice of abortion, we discussed Richard Hays’ hermeneutical proposals around these themes

  • God the life-giver
  • Being a neighbour to the weak, vulnerable and helpless
  • Bearing one another’s economic and practical burdens like a crisis pregnancy
  • Imitating Jesus in looking after those in difficulty

But there are also other sources for thinking theologically about abortion – namely those of Tradition, Reason and Experience.

(1) TRADITION

Christian tradition against abortion is long-lived, strong and consistent. Early evidence points to Christian counter-cultural witness against pagan practices of infanticide and abortion.

The Didache (late 1st Cent or early 2nd Cent manual of Christian teaching) contrasts the ‘way of life’ against ‘the way of death’ (language that speaks eloquently into the reality of modern abortion practice as well).

“You shall not murder a child by abortion, nor shall you kill one who has been born.”

The entire historic Christian tradition has consistently rejected abortion. Any shift towards acceptance of abortion by some branches of modern liberal Protestantism is utterly out of step with the traditional teaching of the church catholic.

(2) REASON

It is in the area of reason that most contemporary secular arguments for abortion are based. ‘Pro-choice’ arguments on a leaflet dropped through our door and arguments made in general debate include the following:

  • A woman may not procure an abortion in Ireland on the grounds of rape or if she is carrying a child who will not survive after birth. Pro-Life arguments are “cruel” to such women (moral and philosophical arguments around women’s rights and well-being).
  • Over 150,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1983 when the 8th Amendment was introduced (pragmatic arguments that since it is happening, it should be made legal in Ireland).
  • Many women take abortifacient pills unregulated in Ireland (medical arguments for abortion as safer for women who will have one anyway).
  • The 8th Amendment equates a woman’s life to that of an embryo (legal arguments on the status of a person).
  • Rejection of arguments that abortion increases risk of suicide and depression (psychological arguments on the health of the mother)
  • Abortion law as a misogynistic affront to a women’s right to have control over her own body (feminist liberation argument)
  • An embryo is not a person (scientific arguments about consciousness, personhood and when human life begins)

There are other arguments, but you get the picture.

Reason is the arena where the abortion referendum is being played out. It is primarily a political, cultural and legal debate, with competition for the moral high ground (defence of the rights of the unborn versus assertion of the rights of women to make autonomous choice regarding abortion).

Here’s the danger for Christians in this debate: all too easily Christians jump right into the middle of these arguments without much awareness that they represent a double-edged sword. Double edged in that these arguments inhabit the thought-world of secular rationalism.

If Christians choose to try to win the argument within these terms I think that they have already conceded defeat before they begin. They become just one more pressure group talking the language of law, reason, pragmatism, rights, psychology, medicine and individual choice. They have nothing particularly distinctive to say. They have (perhaps unconsciously) abandoned the thought world of the New Testament in favour of the thought world of secular rationalism.

To be honest, I am dismayed by how so much Christian activism against Repeal the 8th has taken the form of primarily secular rationalist arguments – whether legal, medical, rights based, pragmatic, or psychological. They have, as a result, had little to say to the Church in helping people frame a Christian response to the issue of abortion.

I’m not saying that a Christian rejection of abortion is irrational – far from it. It makes strong, consistent, moral and ethical sense – but it is an argument that is coherent and compelling within the thought world of the New Testament.

Ok, you may be wondering what I am talking about. Maybe some examples will help.

Richard Hays give 6 examples of “fundamentally inappropriate” ways for Christians to frame their opposition to abortion.

i).  It is inappropriate for Christians to set up the issue as one of competing ‘rights’ – the right of the pregnant woman versus the right of the unborn child. This is not the language of the Bible or Christian theology. No-one has a ‘right to life’ nor a ‘right’ to do what they will with their own bodies. All life is a gift from God, no one can claim ‘rights’ over it. A Christian’s body is not their own (1 Cor 6:19-20).

ii). It is inappropriate for Christians to see the issue as a ‘right to privacy’ or purely a matter of individual choice. No Christian is an unaccountable free-floating individual. She or he is called to be a faithful disciple within a community of faith.

iii). For Christians to appeal to the ‘sacredness of life’ is, Hays says, a ‘sacred cow that has no basis in the New Testament.’ God is the life-giver, this is why Christians respect life, not because of life itself.

iv). It is not a Christian argument to appeal to the question of ‘When does life begin?’ or ‘Is the foetus a person?’. There is no clear scientific or biblical answer to these questions. Usually they are asked with the agenda of defining certain conditions as outside human personhood in order to justify abortion. ‘Jesus’ persistent strategy was, on the contrary, to define marginal cases in.’

v). Deeply anti-Christian is the ‘quality of life’ argument – “no unwanted child ought ever to be born.” Christian witness from Jesus and the church has been to receive the marginalised, unwanted, and rejected – not to ‘put them out of their misery’. Such arguments rationally lead to infanticide and euthanasia of anyone deemed not to have a suitable ‘quality of life’.

vi). Christians should stay well away from feeble consequentialist arguments against abortion like ‘What if Mary had aborted Jesus?’ Such silly questions merely reinforce how the NT never engages in such consequentialist speculation. As Hays says, it never asks ‘What will happen if I do x?’ but it asks ‘What is the will of God?’.

(3) EXPERIENCE

The appeal to experience is probably the most significant factor in the Irish abortion debate.

Proponents of abortion appeal constantly to the experience of women forced to travel to Britain or forced to give birth to a child with a severe disability or forced to carry a child conceived by rape.

Opponents of abortion counter with arguments about the psychological and physical risks of abortion.

Such arguments are going to go back and forth and will be inconclusive one way or the other.

For Christians to base their support or rejection of abortion primarily on experience is to venture into a quagmire of competing claims.

 

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Ireland and the Reception of the Bible

Reception of the Bible in IrelandJust received a copy of this book, edited by Brad Anderson and Jonathan Kearney of Dublin City University.

The full details and list of 21 chapters can be seen here . I’ve pasted them in below as well.

Congratulations to Brad and Jonathan on bringing this big project to publication. I look forward to browsing the diverse range of chapters.

Chapter 11 is one I did on the use of the Bible by two Christian relief organisations – Trocaire and Tearfund Ireland: one Roman Catholic, the other Evangelical.

It took the form of a comparison and contrast of how each organisation uses the Bible in articulating their mission and practice.  I found it a fascinating topic – hopefully some readers will too! A lot of overlap and significant areas of difference. Perhaps a blog post on this to follow ..

WIth a price tag of €95 I guess it is a book primarily aimed at libraries and specialist collections.

Introduction: Situating Ireland and Socio-Cultural Reception of the Bible –– (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland and Jonathan Kearney, Dublin City University, Ireland)

Part One: Ireland and the Transmission of the Bible
1. The Multifaceted Transmission of the Bible in Ireland, A.D. 550-1200 CE — (Martin McNamara, Milltown Institute, Ireland)
2. The Bible and ‘the People’ in Ireland, c.1100-c.1650 — (Salvador Ryan, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland)
3. Translating the Bible into Irish, 1565-1850 — (Fearghus Ó Fearghail, Mater Dei Institute of Education, Ireland)
4. ‘The Little Ones Called for Bread and there was None that Would Break it for Them’: Some Notes on the Use of the Bible in the Sermons of Bishop James Gallagher — (Ciaran Mac Murchaidh, Dublin City University, Ireland)
5. Irish Catholic Bible Readers before the Famine — (Brendan McConvery, St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Ireland)
6. The Catholic Lectionary: Its Creation, Reception and Challenge — (Kieran O’Mahony, Diocese of Dublin, Ireland)

Part Two: The Bible and Identity in Ireland
7. ‘This Booke hath bred all the quarrel’: The Bible in the 1641 Depositions — (Bradford A. Anderson, Dublin City University, Ireland)
8. The Last of the Milesians: In Search of Ireland’s Biblical Past, 1760-1900 — (Brian Murray, King’s College London, UK)
9. Between Ulster and the Kingdom of God: Uses of the Bible by Evangelicals in the Northern Ireland Troubles — (Joshua Searle, Spurgeon’s College, UK)
10. Dancing Like David and Overcoming Enemies: Scripture and Culture in Christ Apostolic Church Dublin — (Rebecca Uberoi, independent scholar)
11. God’s Preference for the Poor: The Bible and Social Justice in Ireland — (Patrick Mitchel, Irish Bible Institute, Ireland)
12. How Sacred Text Becomes Religious Artefact: A Cultural Geography of the Book of Kells — (Eoin O’Mahony, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Three: Ireland and Beyond: Reciprocal Influences
13. Toland, Spinoza, and the Naturalization of Scripture — (Ian Leask, Dublin City University, Ireland)
14. Irish Travellers to the Dead Sea: The Interplay and Impact of Empirical Investigation and Biblical Exegesis — (Thomas O’Loughlin, University of Nottingham, UK)
15. The Chester Beatty Biblical Collection: A Treasury of Early Christian Manuscripts in an Irish Library — (David Hutchinson Edgar, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland)
16. ‘Casting Bread Upon the Water’: A Voyage of Discovery — (Carmel McCarthy, University College Dublin, Ireland)

Part Four: Cultural and Artistic Appropriation: Imagery, Music, and Literature
17. The Book of Kells and the Visual Identity of Ireland — (Amanda Dillon, independent scholar)
18. Imaging the Bible in Stained Glass: Five Stained Glass Windows by Michael Healy in St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea — (Myra Hayes, Mary Immaculate College Limerick, Ireland)
19. The Bible in Music during Dublin’s Golden Age — (Siobhán Dowling Long, University College Cork, Ireland)
20. Scripture, Music, and the Shaping of Irish Cultural Identities — (Róisín Blunnie, Dublin City University, Ireland)
21. James Joyce and the Study of the Bible — (Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp, Belgium)

An essay on why Jordan Peterson is worth listening to

img_9823-1024x683Time to come out. For most of a year now I have been watching many of the University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s large collection of You Tube lectures and videos. I’d never heard of the guy until a year ago but such lack of awareness is becoming harder to achieve as his popularity and influence continue to grow.  His new book is bound to be a best seller.

It’s been hard to miss the massive kerfuffle arising from his first visit to the UK last week and particularly the car crash of an interview of Peterson by Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news which you can watch in full. It is worth reading Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic for an analysis of the interview. I think it should become a classic in teaching journalists how NOT to interview someone.

This post isn’t going to add to that noise. Rather, I want to reflect on what lessons can be learned from Peterson. Not just in the sense of ‘Why is he so popular?’ (popularity per se, as Trump has shown, is scarcely an indication of moral or intellectual virtue). But instead asking what can be learnt from both what he is saying and how he is saying it.

In a terrific article, written just before ‘that’ interview, Douglas Murray of The Spectator makes this point

Today, for at least one generation, … Peterson … has become a mixture of philosopher, life-coach, educator and guru. He has the kind of passionate, youthful, pedagogical draw that the organised churches can only dream of. Anybody interested in our current culture wars, not to mention the ongoing place of religion, should head to YouTube, where his classes have been viewed by millions.

He concludes his article with this rather remarkable statement for a journalist

‘What was that?’ asked an old friend I bumped into on the way out. Hundreds of young people were still queueing to get books signed. Others stood around buzzing with the thrill of what we had heard. I still don’t have an answer. But it was wonderful.

Caricatures

When I’ve told some friends about Peterson I’ve been warned that he is ‘extreme’ or a voice somehow supportive of the American alt-right. Such warnings baffled me because I had ‘got to know’ Peterson well through his own material before hearing of his supposed right wing reputation. I stay away from You Tube comments (mostly toxic) and don’t do social media. So they made no sense at all then – and still don’t.

It was manifestly apparent that Cathy Newman had this sort of ill-researched preconceived cartoon-strip image of Peterson as some sort of apologist for Patriarchy. It kept getting in the way of her actually listening to what he was saying. She was literally left speechless because the reality didn’t conform to the caricature. She, and the Channel 4 team, had not done their journalistic homework (or, worse, maybe they had and decided to try to do a hatchet job anyway). It was remarkable to watch such a blundering ideologically-driven binary approach to a potentially interesting conversation.

What is he saying?

This is a big question because, as he says himself, he talks a lot, often too much and often at speed. He also covers a lot of ground from psychology, to philosophy, to men and women, to the Bible, to politics, to the world of work and freedom of speech. What follows is a snap-shot, drawn from listening to Peterson over the last year.

And the fact that what he is saying is now seen as ‘provocative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘extreme’ says more about a contemporary culture of relativism and victimhood than it does about Peterson. Finding out more about his ‘reputation’, I have had to keep asking myself, ‘am I missing something?’. ‘Is this guy a member of some secret right-wing network?’ For I can’t see the evidence in his academic lectures, written material or You Tube videos.

1. Individual responsibility

Sort out your own life before criticising the world. Clean your room – literally and metaphorically. Make a plan. Stand up straight and face the world. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. Take responsibility for what you can influence – mainly yourself. And, in very Stanley Hauerwas type language, tell the truth.

2. Meaning and significance matters

Read great authors – make them your friends. Get beyond the superficial narcissism of much modern culture and think about questions of meaning and purpose. Don’t buy into postmodern relativism and pessimism. Make a difference for good in the world. Values, integrity and hope matters.

Peterson has developed an entire lecture series on meaning within the Bible. He sees it as foundational to the Western tradition, containing mythic truths that describe the reality of our world and the human condition. The individual finds purpose in something greater, outside of themselves. He seeks to live as if God exists. Tim Lott in The Guardian puts it very well.

Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

It is doubtful to me that Peterson is Christian in any creedal orthodox understanding of that term, but that is not the point of this post.

3. Freedom of speech

Peterson shot to ‘fame’ by accident by stating, ahead of time, that he would not use speech compelled by an impending Canadian law, Bill C-16. Now law, it makes it compulsory for federal subjects – widened by most provinces to include personal and commercial interactions – to call transgender people by their preferred pronoun. This was an unlikely Lutheran ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’ moment, but that’s what it turned out to be.

Any fair-minded observer would see that to call Peterson ‘transphobic’ or ‘homophobic’ is just being malicious. His consistent point is one of freedom of speech, standing against the right of the State to compel him to use certain words. His argument is that a free society has to have room for disagreement and offending others without the law intervening, and for the state to do so is fascistic.

4. Libertarian individualism

Linked to iii, Peterson calls himself a classic liberal. He is into empowering the individual – including many women it should be said (another point of surprise to Cathy Newman). Society is stronger the freer it is. Those that seek to control and manipulate through law, oppression, shame, and political bullying are enemies of freedom. Respect is earned and cannot be demanded. He is resistant to a contemporary culture of offence. It simply masks a power play to silence those with whom we disagree. It stifles debate and creates a climate of fear

5. Psychological well-being

I’ve hugely enjoyed his online lectures on psychology and philosophy. I’m not qualified enough critically to assess his approach, I suspect it veers towards behaviouralist. But, on a wider canvas, his lectures, clinical practice and now popularised book (12 Rules for Life) show a passion to enable mental and social well-being. It is here, perhaps that Peterson’s main appeal lies. He is intensely practical in giving advice, backed up by academic research and mainly to young people, on how to negotiate an increasingly complex and uncertain world. The Newman interview closes with him mentioning that he had received 25,000 letters in the last 6 months from people saying he had helped transform their lives. Whatever you think of Peterson, that is an astonishing claim worth serious reflection – another missed opportunity in the interview. Something is going on here and you would hope a journalist would be interested to investigate.

6. Understanding yourself

Peterson uses the ‘big five’ personality test – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It is one of many such tests. Our family enjoys taking them – not sure what that says about us! The big five is a very useful tool, we had fun doing it and comparing results. Peterson himself is very high on openness. The test says “high scorers tend to be creative, adventurous and intellectual. They enjoy playing with ideas and discovering novel experiences.” They tend to be unconventional and artistic. This is a long way from ideological group-think and may help explain why Peterson despises attempts to control and enforce behaviour whether from the left or the right.

7. Gender difference matters

It’s on gender that Peterson is seen as most provocative. But again he is quite careful and nuanced in what he says. Bottom line – men and women are not the same. It is not, as some conservative Christian commentators try to extrapolate, that there is a list of particularly ‘manly’ virtues (there is neither the data or a biblical foundation for such a claim). That is to generalise far too far. But the data, Peterson argues, is clear that, for example, women tend to be higher on agreeableness (tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to cooperate rather than compete with others) and on conscientiousness (self-discipline and control in order to meet goals). These are general tendencies, the differences are not great. They cannot be reduced down to individual cases.

One of his points is that differences between the genders cannot be reduced down to a single cause – say patriarchy. So, once patriarchy is overcome, full equality will follow. But in the most radically equal societies on earth (Scandinavia) data shows that given a relatively equal playing field, men and women make markedly different life choices regarding types of work (e.g. nursing and engineering). Against expectations, the gender gap actually widens rather than narrows. This strongly suggests inherent male / female difference, rather than simply being due to one all-embracing cause like ‘patriarchal culture’. One implication is that the current drive for full equality in the workforce is driving by unrealistic and mistaken assumptions. (For example, a friend of mine in an engineering firm has been given the target to achieve a 50-50 gender balance by xxxx date. But the task is proving far more difficult to implement than to set).

And it’s worth noting what he does not say – he does not defend unequal pay for the same work; he does not defend discrimination against women – he wants to see women empowered and successful; he does not say patriarchy is a good thing; he does not say women are in any way inferior to men or less intelligent.

He does say that there are only two genders, regardless of those who say gender is simply a social construct that can be chosen at will. Such social engineering is ideological dogma, biologically incoherent and psychologically and socially destructive.

8. The crisis facing men

Another area that Peterson has tapped into the zeitgeist is the crisis facing young men. Many men are not doing well – they are dropping out of school and university; they are withdrawing from the humanities; and rates of male suicide are truly catastrophic. The reasons are complex, but Peterson seems to be on to something in giving young men a challenge. Most of his online audience is male (although it is true that a lot of things online are mostly male). He treats young people with dignity and respect. He calls them to acts of meaning and courage. He rejects destructive cultural assumptions that young men by default are an insidious danger to a civilised society and that Western society is inherently patriarchal and oppressive. He believes that people can be responsible and free.

9. Realistic anthropology

Peterson is at his most Calvinist when it comes to human nature. In contrast to a naïve optimism that we are all essentially rational and good and just need to be given equal opportunity in life for justice to flourish, Peterson the psychologist tells us that we are a mess of competing desires, irrational decisions and damaging behaviour. We need to understand this truth about ourselves. We are all capable of being monsters. (Getting back to those toxic comments on You Tube, just look at what apparent anonymity does to people commenting on the internet for example).  The challenge is not to allow the monster control. Overcome it by choosing the light, living ethically, with courage and purpose. Happiness might come and go as a side-effect, but to pursue it is a delusion. Of far more importance is taking responsibility for our own lives.

10. Family and Social Capital

Again in psychologist mode, Peterson has a lot to say about the importance of friendship, family and the value of marriage. Marriage is not, as much modern romanticism has it, the ultimate source of individual ‘happiness’. It is a commitment to another person through which family emerges. We are social beings who need close relationships. I haven’t heard him talk of marriage in religious terms, but there are strong parallels to a Christian view of marriage as covenant love in which context children are born and raised. He does sound utilitarian at times in how choosing not to have children is to store up a relationally barren old age.

11. Thankfulness

From time to time Peterson observes how much modern political activism is relentlessly thankless. Despite living in relative wealth within the most advanced, equal and technologically advanced cultures in human history, there is a narrative of failure, oppression, injustice and victimhood. This fails to balance and be thankful for the extraordinary achievements of the West – by both men and women.

How is he saying it?

OK, if that is a summary of some of the sorts of things Peterson is saying, what about how he is saying it? It is here, I think, that his real appeal lies.

1. Love of learning

I mentioned earlier that being high in Openness means delighting in ideas. This comes through in Peterson’s lectures which are freewheeling enthusiastic monologues (whether monologues are the best form of teaching is a whole other debate). He is captivated by the transformative power of ideas to change the individual. And an associated abhorrence of ideology and identity politics.

In teaching, perhaps the most important quality of good communication, and subsequent student learning, is that the subject matter has first enthralled the teacher. There is nothing worse than a teacher bored by his or her own material. And there is nothing better than a teacher in love with their subject, overflowing with energy to pass that learning on to others. A personal example, thirty plus years after being taught the Gospel of Matthew by Dick France I sure don’t remember all the details of what he said, but I do remember his infectious love of the text and delight in passing that on to others.

2. Scientific method

As a clinical psychologist, Peterson utilises a lot of scientific data in developing hypotheses that interpret that data. Now, ever since Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we should be aware that the way science works is not a nice and neat objective process. All sorts of variables are in play, including chance, personal and corporate agendas and so on. Assorted scientists can interpret the same data in quite different ways. But this does not invalidate the scientific process. It just means that hypotheses – and any claims arising out of them – need continual critical examination. I am not in a position to do this with Peterson’s use of science, but others are. He seems to be a serious and respected figure, widely published and peer reviewed and teaching in a major public university. In the past he taught at Harvard.

The point in saying this is that Peterson is engaging a young, well-educated and critical audience. He is not dumbing down, nor is he expecting them to believe assertions and personal opinions. He is, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, following the evidence to where it leads. If that means contradicting what he sees as ill-founded assertions of gender constructivism or identity politics or right wing nationalism, then let the dice fall where they will.

3. Respect of opponents

For me, one of the most impressive things about Peterson is the way he engages opponents. Watching him being baited by student ‘social justice warriors’ outside the University of Toronto was to witness exasperation and despair at their utter failure (and inability?) to engage in rational discussion. But that exasperation did not turn to bitter sarcasm. He genuinely wanted to discuss the issues and try to change minds. In the University of Toronto ‘debate’ with opposing colleagues on his position on Bill C-16, Peterson emerged as the one more interested in freedom of speech as opposed to shrill restatements of entrenched ideology. Similarly, with Cathy Newman, Peterson maintained composure, humour and grace despite being interrupted and almost comically misrepresented at practically every turn. He engaged her own willingness to offend him in positive terms – ‘good for you’ – stumping her in a good humoured way.

4. Empowering others

Some things are hard to fake. Another attractive feature of Peterson’s persona is what seems a genuine desire to empower and equip others for their own good. This comes through in his classes, in his clinical psychology and in Q & A with young people. Whether you agree with him or not, there is a passion to enable others negotiate the complexities of life as successfully as they can. Whether that means working with women not to be taken advantage of in the workplace or helping someone out of a cycle of depression, it speaks of an other-centeredness that is admirable.

5. Vulnerability and integrity

Peterson gives plenty of advice on relationships, work and success in life in general, often in strongly directional terms. Anyone doing so in a public space (whether a clinical psychologist or a Pastor or a self-help guru) is justifiably opening up their own lives to examination – does he or she practice what they preach? There is a need for (appropriate) transparency here. Of course, the reality can be hidden and often is. But with Peterson you do not get the sense that there is a mismatch. He shows critical self-awareness (on the Dave Rubin show, when asked, he listed things like over-work, talking too much, a potential addiction to alcohol etc etc). He talks about his wife and family in moving terms, deeply grateful for their love, support and presence in his life.

6. Language

There is a compelling attraction and power to language used creatively to express complex ideas. It is a rare gift and Peterson, I think, has it. Listening to his lectures is, for me anyway, a pleasure. Of course, such a gift can be used for good or ill. In general, Peterson is constructive rather than destructive. He values words. At one point, he said to Newman, “I’m very, very, very careful with my words.”

7. Courage

Whatever you think of Peterson’s beliefs, it is hard not to admire a person who has the courage of his convictions. He took a serious personal and professional risk in speaking out against Bill C-16. He was warned he could lose his job, was threatened with bankruptcy by the potential costs of a court process and found himself at the centre of a storm of abuse and vilification. His health suffered under the stress. He has said he will never use compelled speech even if that means going to jail – where he has claimed he will go on hunger-strike. You might think this is over-dramatic, but it is rare these days to find conviction in public life that comes with a tangible personal cost.

Concluding Clarifications and further issues

A couple of points of clarification. These are simply my takes on Peterson and as such are subjective observations that may well misrepresent things in some way. Neither do they mean I am an uncritical fan. I am trying to unpack why and how he has become an iconic cultural figure.

While there are obvious parallels to themes of Christian belief, it would take further posts to analyse and reflect critically on the theological content of Peterson’s worldview. It would also take further posts to consider what, if any, lessons can be learnt from Peterson by churches who have a heart to communicate the breadth and depth of the Christian faith to young people today.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Barna: Finding Faith in Ireland (2): Musings on some political implications

Barna Finding Faith in IrelandOne page of the Barna report Finding Faith in Ireland: The Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland previously discussed here, has a list of words used by Irish youth workers across the denominational spectrum to describe young people (14-25) in Ireland today.

 

Roughly speaking, in order of weighting given they are listed below with more ‘negative’ characteristics on the left and more ‘positive’ ones on the right :

Anxious and Pressured               Passionate

Lost                                                  Searching

Apathetic and Bored                    Gifted

Insecure                                          Open to Ideas

Cynical                                            Hopeful

Aggressive                                      Curious

Image-Conscious                           Creative

Tech-addicted                                Campaigners for social justice

Susceptible

Self-Centered

Fragile

Confused

Entitled

Lazy

Busy

Now these are only anecdotal comments by youth workers. If you live here, do they describe your perception of Irish youth culture?

Class and social location is not discussed in the Report – a church in the leafy suburbs of South Dublin is going to have a very different youth profile to one in the streets of Tallaght a very few miles away. And then there is the urban / rural divide that splits the country.

But let’s go with the descriptions above, coupled with the statistics on religious attitudes and behaviour peppered throughout the report discussed in the previous post. What emerges in very broad terms? (and this obviously is just my reading with its own interpretative bias!).

There is a major ongoing generational shift from Christendom to post–Christendom attitudes and behaviour. It is fast and it is deep, and has not finished yet.

  • individualist morality (moral therapeutic deism) vs Christendom’s communally enforced morality
  • a late capitalist culture vs Irish Christendom’s fusion of church and state
  • lack of job security (high competition; self-promotion; extreme inequalities between older and younger generations) vs Irish Christendom’s limited opportunities and resultant high levels of emigration
  • high levels of uncertainty about the future (jobs, cost of housing, environment) vs Christendom’s modernist assumptions of ongoing progress
  • deep scepticism towards authority (political and religious in particular) vs Irish Christendom’s extreme authority structures
  • embrace of ‘flat’ communities of modern tech (Facebook, Google, Twitter) vs Irish Christendom’s numerous hierarchies [it remains to be seen when or if the ‘dark side’ of the new tech will be recognised and or resisted. It seems to me anyway that so far it has been uncritically embraced.)

None of this is that unusual in the West. But a few things make Ireland different.

1, Just how quickly it has shifted to become very similar to other liberal secular democracies. Tolerance, inclusion, individual freedom, pluralism etc.

2. Its particular relationship with Irish Catholicism, and how young people’s abandonment of that Church is all mixed up in redefining Irishness, rejecting their experience of Christianity per se, and embracing libertarian freedom (we know what we are running from, we are not sure where we are running to, but it has to be better than the past).

3. Its recent experience of capitalism. For a while it seemed to be Ireland’s new saviour, but it is proving to be a ruthless taskmaster for a young post- 2008 Crash generation.

4. Its delayed ‘sexual revolution’. Rather than the 1960s, it is only in recent times that Irish culture has ‘caught up’ with the rest of the West. My sense is that there is deep exhilaration felt at throwing off the past – almost a type of ‘liberation theology’ at work – in the adoption of same-sex marriage and in the upcoming Abortion referendum in 2018. (The Barna report did not ask about abortion – my guess is that it will be supported by a high % of 18-25 year olds in the referendum).

All of this describes, I think, a culture in ferment, uncertainty and confusion.

With the collapse of old certainties, identity politics (political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify) is beginning to exert more and more influence. The problem with such politics is that young people become focused on the battle for narrow political and social agendas that marginalise a wider sense of pluralism and the common good.

Take Katie Ascough’s recent impeachment as President of the Student Union in University College Dublin. It seems pretty clear that the reason she was voted out was that pro-life views were deemed unacceptable to hold by a student president. This is not democracy or tolerance or doing the hard work of actually debating and persuading people who hold different views to you. It is identity politics that denies your opponent the right to hold views that you find intolerable and so you seek to silence or remove them.

This is the paradox of illiberal liberalism.

My sense then is that post-Christendom Ireland is heading in the direction of increasing fragmentation, intolerance and divisiveness since when there is little to hold a centre together all you are left with is competing power groups.

What do these implications these cultural changes have for Christians in Ireland? I’ll come back to that question in the next post (dramatic pause).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m not on Facebook’s ‘behaviour modification empire’

Jaron Lanier

 

 

An excerpt of an interview on the digital future with Jaron Lanier, digital pioneer and inventor of virtual reality on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.

In my view virtual reality can be thought of as some sort of ultimate destination for media. And what that means is it maximises the potential both for beauty and also for peril. I think it is possible to use virtual reality in very horrible ways, I think it could be the ultimate mind control device for instance. What we are seeing with society manipulated by social media today could be much worse if we don’t figure out how to protect ourselves whenever the era of virtual reality arrives …

[Q: asks if he uses social media himself]

Oh absolutely not .. social media is ..  I call them behaviour modification empires. I think they are manipulative. I think it is very foolish to participate in them …

[Q Asks why]

As you are doing these innocent things of keeping up with your football team or whatever it might be, what’s happening is that your every move is being analysed by algorithims and then very slight changes are being made to what you see and then tests are performed on how you respond. So that, for instance, showing the colour blue might get you to like something and then these capabilities for behaviour modification are then sold to third parties that you don’t know about in a very obscure and black fashion.

[Q Asks what different to traditional advertising]

We have crossed over a threshold that it is important to understand. Advertising or persuasion is one thing, that is a form of communication, but if you have a tight feedback loop you are entering into a behaviourist scientific experiment  in which the relationship between what you do and what stimulus you receive is very tightly coupled and can be adjusted to control you gradually. And that is different from advertising, that is why I call it behaviour modification.

[Q  Asks if social media then is like an experiement with rats in cage?]

Yes, that is precisely what is being done now.

… We must appeal to the better nature of everyone in silicon valley and everywhere else to simply cause this change. It might be a difficult transition but it simply must take place, it is a matter of the wellbeing of our species.

[Q Askswill better natures do it? Why would they?]

I don’t think it is about regulation primarily, it is about financial incentives. Right now the financial incentives for companies like Facebook .. the only financial incentive they have whatsoever is to manipulate the behaviour of their users for pay. However, there are other business plans. And, I think the key thing is not so much to regulate in detail … but if we can change the underlying financial incentives I think we can go a huge way to correcting these problems.

Trouble is Facebook is only one such behavioural modification empire … Google is ever harder to avoid.

You can read a fuller interview at the New York Times. Another exerpt on this topic from that interview:

“The whole internet thing was supposed to create the world’s best information resource in all of history,” he says. “Everything would be made visible. And instead we’re living in this time of total opacity where you don’t know why you see the news you see. You don’t know if it’s the same news that someone else sees. You don’t know who made it be that way. You don’t know who’s paid to change what you see. Everything is totally obscure in a profound way that it never was before.

“And the belief system of Silicon Valley is so thick that my friends at Facebook simply still really believe that the answer to any problem is to do more of what they already did, that they’re optimizing the world.

“The Facebook business model is mass behavior modification for pay. And for those who are not giving Facebook money, the only — and I want to emphasize, the only, underlined and in bold and italics — reward they can get or positive feedback is just getting attention. And if you have a system where the only possible prize is getting more attention, then you call that system Christmas for Asses, right? It’s a creep-amplification device.

“Once Facebook becomes ubiquitous, it’s a sort of giant protection racket, where, if you don’t pay them money, then someone else will pay to modify the behavior to your disadvantage, so everyone has to pay money just to stay at equilibrium where they would have been otherwise,” he says. “I mean, there’s only one way out for Facebook, which is to change its business model. Unless Facebook changes, we’ll just have to trust Facebook for any future election result. Because they do apparently have the ability to change them. Or at least change the close ones.”

And towards the end of that interview he talks about the impact Facebook and other behavioural modification systems are having on personality and politics – both liberal and Trump.

“If you’re a mark of social media, if you’re being manipulated by it, one of the ways to tell is if there’s a certain kind of personality quality that overtakes you,” he says. “It’s been called the snowflake quality. People criticize liberal college kids who have it, but it’s exactly the same thing you see in Trump. It’s this kind of highly reactive, thin-skinned, outraged single-mindedness. I think one way to think of Trump, even though he is a con man and he is an actor and he’s a master manipulator and all that, in a sense he’s also a victim. I’ve met him a few times over 30 years. And what I think I see is someone who has moved from kind of a New York character who was in on his own joke to somebody who is completely freaked out and outraged and feeling like he is on the verge of a catastrophe every second. And so my theory about that is that he was ruined by social media.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

Desiring more of God (2) Musings on the Spirit, humility and pride in an age of social media

narcissus-and-echo

In the last post we talked about the restorationist impulse that arises from a theological belief that the description of the first Christian’s experience of the Spirit in the NT is, by and large, a ‘norm’ that believers in all ages should long to see in their own lives and churches.

I say ‘by and large’ because some experiences are historically unique – Pentecost and the sending of the Spirit by the risen Christ and the missionary advance of the gospel in Acts for example.

That ‘norm’ includes the following:

  • being united to Christ by the Spirit
  • being given ‘life’ by the life-giver himself (regeneration)
  • a new status as a child of God (adoption by the Spirit by which we can call God abba Father)
  • empowering to live a life pleasing to God.
  • For Paul that ‘norm’ for Paul means living kata pneuma (according to the Spirit) rather than kata sarxa (according to the old age of the flesh that is passing away – see Romans 8:5

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

  • It means ‘walking’ or ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit and life rather than the powerless realm of the flesh and death (Gal 5).

In other words, the NT norm is thoroughly eschatological.

I’d go as far as to say that Christianity cannot be understood unless as an eschatological faith. The new age of the Spirit has dawned with the coming, death and resurrection of the Messiah, King of Israel and Lord of all. A Christian is someone who belongs, by God’s generous grace through faith in Christ, to the new age of the Spirit. He or she is a citizen of the kingdom of God here in the nitty gritty world of family, work, friendships and whatever else makes up your life.

That new life takes concrete shape in a person bearing the hallmarks of the Spirit of God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We may say, in other words, that a Christian is to be shaped by the Spirit into a person of virtue. Their character is, through the work of the Spirit, to reflect that of their Lord.

While many Christians stop at this individual ethical transformation through the Spirit, there is no hint in the NT that the presence of the Spirit is not also associated with charismata – spiritual gifts.

The term ‘spiritual gifts’ is actually quite unhelpful. It implies that there are ‘higher’ more ‘spiritual’ gifts (perhaps healing, prophecy, tongues etc) and then other more ‘ordinary’ and less ‘spiritual’ gifts (administration, hospitality, leadership).  Yet all ‘charismata‘ means is ‘gifts of the Spirit’ – they are all ‘spiritual’.  They are NOT just natural abilities, they are visible and tangible evidence of the empowering presence of God who gives good gifts to the people of God so that they may serve others within the body of Christ.

So, to come back to the question in the title of this post – what is our ‘role’ in experiencing more of God’s Spirit?

Well, at one level, the answer is none at all. A gift is a gift. The recipient does not ‘earn’ a gift, it is only received by faith. This is true of the initial reception of the Spirit – it is God’s gracious gift of life, inseparable from repentance and faith in Christ. All believers are given the Spirit to ‘drink’, all are baptised in the Spirit – it is a generous gift of God.

For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:13).

This is ALSO true of the gifts of the Spirit – the Spirit gives to whomsoever he wills. Again, a gift is a gift, it can only be received in faith with thanks and used well.

But, at another level, there IS a role for the Christian to grow and develop in his or her experience of the Spirit. Paul’s numerous ethical commands only make sense of the believer has real moral agency. We are not to quench the Spirit or treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thes 5:19-20). We are actively to walk and keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5) – which implies that we can choose not to walk where the Spirit leads – to go our own way and act in ways opposed to the Spirit.

To walk on the path of the Spirit requires profoundly Christian way of looking at the self. By that I mean an awareness of the self’s desperate need for forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

What would you put top of the list?

For me, one word comes to mind:

HUMILITY

For it is only from a place of realistic humility and that there can develop a subsequent desire for God’s Spirit to renew, cleanse and empower.

That desire will lead to a prayer like that of David – acutely aware of the depths of his own sin

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51

And a similar theme is taken up by Peter in the NT:

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

As Peter says, the opposite of humility is pride.

It’s always been the case in every culture, but I think it is here that the Christian faith becomes profoundly, and perhaps increasingly, paradoxical in an age of technological know how, qualifications and expertise. A world where money, power, status, connections, networking, business plans, personality tests and the necessity of an impressive CV dominate the job market.

A culture increasingly shaped by the narcissistic world of social media.

Now, I am not against social media – this blog is a form of it. I’ve learnt lots from other blogs and enjoy processing thoughts in writing – it helps me think for one.

But it also inevitably presents opportunity to present a certain ‘face’ to the world. There is also a certain arrogance, is there not, about anyone writing for an audience? There is an assumption that ‘I’ have something to say that I think is worth listening to.

But we live in an age, unheralded in human history, where the individual has the ability to project him or herself, in an unmediated fashion, to much of the rest of the world. The subject matter on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms is overwhelmingly ME.

In the Greek myth, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection and dies alone since he could not obtain the object of his love (so much for sologamy!). The Nymph Echo, looking on here, is heartbroken as his rejection.

Narcissism has been defined as

Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.

And in psychological terms as

Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration.

Where admiration of the self and a craving for the admiration of others dominates,  the call of the gospel to decenter the self, follow Jesus as Lord, honestly ‘own’ (repent of) the self’s failings and deep brokenness, and walk a life of humility in the Spirit will seem to be utter ‘foolishness to the world.

If you accept the broad outline of what I am describing, what are the implications for evangelism, for discipleship and for teaching about spiritual growth and transformation in the church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.