A light to lighten the Gentiles

So this morning Lee was telling me how often he teaches yoga. Five times Monday and Tuesday, four times on Wednesday, three times Thursday, twice on Friday and once on Saturday. Sunday is his day off. “The Lord’s day” I pronounced.

“Are you religious?” Lee asked. “Are you a Christian like?” I said I was no longer a Christian, although in my youth I was highly Christian. Then I remembered what I do for a living. I go to church five days out of seven, and on Sundays I sing at three services. I do more Christian observance than 99% of Christians. Last Sunday I listened to three sermons about Candlemas – the presentation of the baby Jesus to God in King Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after Christmas, just like Leviticus stipulates.

The account of the presentation is only in Luke’s gospel. In it, Jesus’ parents sacrifice the requisite animals – two pigeons – and an old man tells them how wonderful their son is. There is also a mysterious ancient anorexic woman who sings songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if Luke had made it up. He was writing around 85CE. Who had told him about Simeon and Anna (the sage and the anorexic)? I suppose it was just possible Mary told him, but if she was 13 in 0CE, she would have been well into her nineties by the time Luke wrote his gospel. In any matter, it was Luke who chose the words. Well, Simeon’s words, anyway. Anna was a woman, so her words weren’t worth making up. Here is an English paraphrase of Luke’s Greek that he put in the mouth of Simeon, who if he said anything at all, would have said it in Aramaic: “OK, I can die now I’ve seen the light of the world and the salvation of the gentiles.” Luke was a gentile, so I suppose Jesus being a salvation to the gentiles was key for him. Simeon also prophesies that Mary’s heart will be pierced. It’s another one of those curious prophesies that pepper the gospels. At least Matthew looks in the old testament for his. Luke just seems to make his up – I don’t think he was being mendacious – he was merely trying to communicate a truth as he saw it in the idiom of the time. He was trying to make it dramatic for us, bless him.

The preacher in the first sermon I heard today was terribly enthusiastic. He thought Simeon was an actual guy who thought that Jesus had come to die for the sins of the whole world. I don’t think Jesus thought that. It’s debatable whether Luke thought that. Christianity was evolving very rapidly in the first years of the first century. It is still changing today. It has evolved and branched, and the things Christians believe today are not at all the things Christians believed 2000 years ago. Luke’s mate, Paul of Tarsus had started to zip Greek ideas about Gods together with Jewish ideas about God, but the ideas kept coming, and the Christian virus mutates prodigiously into a multitude of denominations.

Hell is a great example of how ideas warp over time. The Jews had the concept of Sheol – the pit. The pit was a literal pit in a valley outside Jerusalem, and contained rubbish and filth and actual dead bodies. The Greeks had the concept of Hades, which is where everybody went when they died – you know rowed by Charon across the river Styx and all that. Lucifer’s domain, with its everlasting torment only emerged after the first Millennium. Dante had more to do with current ideas of Hell than does the Bible. Yet tiresome Bible-believing Christians assure me that lakes of unquenchable fire are going to be my post-death residence unless I change my ideas.

Christianity was the illegitimate love child of Jewish and Greek concepts of the divine, and Paul was the midwife. But that was just the start of the process. The illegitimate child has grown up. Maybe she is near to death. Maybe she is about to give birth to something different. It is hard to know where we are in the lifetime of a religion, but I suspect Christianity is well into its dotage.

Maybe it is better to consider Christianity a banner for a whole family of related religions. So for instance, are Catholicism and Protestantism the same religion, or different related species? Realising religions have evolutionary trees makes Christianity’s mistrust of Darwin completely understandable.

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Is God a man?

God PNGAalliyah said an interesting thing today. She said she had stopped believing in god when she was 20 but now she believes in him again. All I had to say was “him?” and she got what it was I was trying to say.

In the age of #metoo i’m surprised more isn’t made of this. God is not a man, to answer my title unambiguously. “Ah,” says the Christian “but a man was God.” I roll my eyes and draw a breath. Christians make a big thing about the God Thing deliberately not incarnating as a king or a priest or something important. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner stone” quotes Matthew’s gospel from the Psalms. If the God Thing was going to do that, though, then the God Thing got it wrong. Jesus should have been a woman.

Christianity has always been driven by the middle classes, and it is no surprise its central figure is indeed stoutly middle class. Jesus was the son of an artisan. The village carpenter was the first century equivalent of a city engineer. Christianity’s foremost propagandist – St Paul – was a man able to self finance trips all around the Mediterranean. He could read and write, and he was a tent maker and Roman citizen in a time when the Roman army needed tents. A first century Schindler perhaps? During the middle ages, the only route to power available for the commoner was through the church. Cardinal Wolsey is a prime example – he was the son of a butcher. Think of your average priest. Solidly middle class gentlemen to a man, until latter days when there are solidly middle class women as well.

The churches that do well in working class areas look different from those that do well in middle class areas, even if their leaders are solidly middle class. The religion is a reflection of society. Annoyingly for me, religion also affects society. For a prime example of this, consider population. In Medieval Europe, the average wife had to have many more than 2 children in order to keep the species going because of high mortality for both mother and child. I think she had to average 7. It is no wonder the religion we inherited from them is so hot on going forth and multiplying. The Pope still thinks condoms are a bad idea. The trouble is, this attitude does not serve our over populated era. There are so many of us now, the ice caps are melting.

The words we use give us away. God is a man because men (not women) defined God in the creeds and in their minds. And his sex wasn’t the only way in which his reflection was mirrored in the church. His anger at treading over societal boundaries (thou shalt not commit adultery). His concern with property (thou shalt not steal). The way the heavenly angels have rank and there is definitely someone at the top. Our religion says everything about the way we order society. Anthropologists seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time studying religion. If you want to know who we are, look at our religion, and our concept of the divine.

When my native religion was first evolving its way through the – mostly male – human brain in the fist century was the time when perhaps it was changing the most. Bart Ehrman on youtube has three videos that talk about this process. Jesus saw himself as the Messiah; the chosen one; the one to free his people from Roman rule. Twenty years later, Paul thought Jesus was an angel, volunteering to be born a man and rewarded by God to be given the name that is above every other name. Twenty years after that his followers believed him to be the new Moses (the gospel of Matthew) or the new Adam (Luke), come to repair the original sin of the original Adam. Another twenty years on, and the gospel of John has Jesus do and say things only God could do or lay claim to. #metoo has not had much of a chance to affect contemporary religion, but if our species survives long enough perhaps in twenty years’ time new research will suggest Jesus was hermaphroditic and the reason he was taken down so quickly from the cross was that his genitalia were exposed.

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What would you tell your child on your deathbed?

Beautiful Sunset Quotes. QuotesGram

Dramatic title no? Lee’s phone has broken. It is just out of warranty.  It was almost as if it was designed like that. Well it was, of course. When you are designing anything, you design it to pass certain concrete criteria you can get your brain around. “It needs to last for the length of a warranty” is much more concrete than “it needs to last for a long time”. I found myself curious at Lee’s outrage.

“Why don’t they make it to last ten years?” Well I suppose they could, but then it would be a very expensive device. On a species level, the science of how things wear out is well developed. A lot of the early work happened in the UK as it happens in the wake of the Comet aircraft crashes in the 1950s. Absolutely, there is a high probability that the phone will last the length of the warranty before it expires. I would guess over a 99% chance, although i wouldn’t be surprised if i was wrong. The warranty length is a way the manufacturer has to communicate the worth of his (i demurred about the gender of that pronoun, but thought it said something about how i see this way of thinking) product. Of course he(!) will do his(!) damnedest to make sure the bloody thing survives the length of the warranty, and make some money out of the fools who worry to boot. The length of the warranty will be governed by a mathematical probability distribution that my deteriorating recollection of my degree seems to remind me is probably a Poisson distribution, named after some French guy (1781-1840 thank you Google), that in turn depends on something to do with the mean time between failures, which is something you can measure or calculate – something quantifiable in other words. Things have to be designed somehow, you see.

Think of a large device manufacturer; one that has a large percentage of the market; one that keeps drip feeding new devices that need new designs of power lead attachments, so that you can’t use your old spare plugs and have to buy new ones; one that keeps updating its software to make the older devices more cumbersome; one that tries to force its customers to sort out their own damn problems rather than consuming the time of an expensive human by making it hard to talk to a real person; one whose products seem to drop dead as soon as they are out of warranty.  I think we may be thinking of the same company. These tiresome undocumented features represent an additional cost that as well as benefiting shareholders in the company, also pays for future development.

The company is like some composite creature that feeds on the labour of individuals like you and me. It operates like this on purpose because that is how it has evolved. It is part of the level of existence above the individual – a societal organism.

Why does it have to be so mean then? But society is mean. It extracts its dues mercilessly. Oftentimes we don’t even notice it happening. Look what’s happening to the environment. Lee and I looked at each other in despair. I made me wonder what magic items i would place in the lifeboat that sends my daughter into the future. I thought that this would be a good item: the realisation that the thing that is driving us to act so destructively is an entity that exists above our heads on the societal level. I sure as hell don’t want global temperature rises, but i find it extremely difficult to live in a way that doesn’t release way more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than is seemly. It is as if a separate entity is making the decisions. That entity is the society in which i live.  It is as if society has consciousness.

And Brexit! This societal creature seems to be gnawing off its feet, like a hamster confined by a cage into madness.

I guess that’s why there’s a thing about doing acts of random kindness. There was one today, posted by my friend Asher on Facebook that had a whole string of things you could do to affect the group consciousness. Inevitably it came with a picture of a sunset, but some of the ideas were nice. Let’s see if i can remember some of them: smiling in the street, buying a coffee for a stranger, leaving a generous tip, entertaining the fractious child in the supermarket queue (a lot of these have a mercantile element i note) …. I’m sure there were a lot more. You get the idea, though. These banal things with seemingly no advantage for the perpetrator in reality act on the higher consciousness, and now i sound like the hippy i am.

What did for the hippies in the 1970s? My word, that’s another blog i think, but possibly not unconnected with the group macro-culture.


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Two services at the cathedral

Last weekend was Remembrance Sunday. I’ve blogged about this before I remember. I don’t really remember what i said tho. I’ll probably read it again after this, but i seem to remember I find Remembrance sunday problematic. Last sunday was a big one – 100 years since the end of WW1. In the first Remembrance sundays i attended as a chorister in the cathedral, there was still a large cohort of men who had fought in the great war. Now there are hardly any left who fought in WW2. The nature of the event has changed. 44 years ago, it was mainly the forces who placed wreaths, with the police as well if i remember correctly, and the boys’ brigade (do they still exist?) and the scouts and guides. I don’t remember a brownie ever placing a poppy. I imagine that would have been thought too traumatic for her; but i do remember rank upon rank of scouts, cub scouts, guides and brownies bored in the nave. Last week , i didn’t notice any of Brig. Baden-Powell’s people there (curiously, though, I did notice a sea scout. Maybe that says something about the demographic that sees Remembrance sunday as important), but i did see the red cross, several labour politicians, the sea scouts, the fire brigade, the richest man in Britain, plus of course the usual army folk, most wearing uniforms that would have fitted them perfectly 200 roast dinners ago.

When I was seven i  loved all the people in the cathedral, I glowed with pride. When i was older i used to feel the juxtaposition between the things i was singing about and the dirty jobs the service personnel had back waiting for them. I began to imagine what these manly men (it was exclusively a man thing back then. In fact, i wouldn’t be surprised if my earlier brownie memory was a false one) with their bayonet training and raucous camaraderie would be thinking of the spotty adolescent in his cassock. I felt their scorn keenly. Now i wonder what percentage of ex-services politicians are tory.

The following Tuesday we had a special service to commemorate the granting of the franchise to (posh married) women also 100 years ago this year. This service was substantially less well attended, maybe its placing mid-week had something to do with that. We did have a sermon (it was called a homily, but it sounded the same as a sermon to me), during which the bishop reminded us of some ways in which women have been oppressed by law over the last century. Let’s see if i can remember a couple of them. Married women were allowed a bank account in their own name only in the 1970s. In other words, there were practical ramifications from the belief that marrying a woman meant you owned her. Also in the 1980s, it was finally lawful to pay a woman as much as a man: but only if you wanted to, mind. Legislation to say you have to pay men and women equally only followed much later (it was only about ten years ago i think). The elite in power moves so slowly, letting concessions trickle down so meanly, i wonder whether society is becoming in any way better.

Well, it had better become better jolly quickly, because as the world population is predicted to double by 2050 and food production predicted to crumble in the wake of climate change and soil exhaustion, the nations will need to play together very nicely in order to prevent squabbling. Given the glacial speed at which the elite in charge of the military in this country allow the oppressed to participate in democracy, i worry that they are not going to be mature enough to be fair to everyone.

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Just blog and see what happens

I was getting really excited about blogging this morning. I had got up to go to yoga, but Lee had cancelled it because he has a bad knee. When i got home i meditated for a bit. I realised there are some things about blogging that intrigue me. Like, anyone with a computer can read what I’m saying. Not that the traffic on this site is overwhelming, but still. What rules do i apply to my blogging? How honest should I be?

I read some of the rest of the site and had an emotional reaction. I felt embarrassed. Especially the bit about yoga massage. It was so obviously copied from something. I hardly ever massage anyone for money, and i feel guilty even attempting to pretend i am some sort of massage professional. Weirdly, i also think i give excellent massages. Why do i feel so guilty about trying to use this thing i think i can do really well to make money for myself. Maybe it’s got to do with my suspicion that if i had to give three or four massages in a day i would’t enjoy it so much – and neither would my clients. Maybe it’s because i look at all the experience professional masseurs have and all the training they have done, and feel myself lacking. Maybe it’s because i just think the English is a bit shit. Oh well, i don’t have the energy to change it – no one reads it anyway, or if they do, no one seems convinced enough by it to want to ring me up for a massage.

I think that’s honest. I’m not 100% sure, but self examination is exhausting and i’ve had enough of it for the time being. There are other things in my life, I’m not so keen on sharing with the world in general. This blog has been though my filters. But what would happen if i just shared everything that i thought? I think everyone would avoid me. Or worse – snigger at me behind my back (why is that worse?). Why do i even think i have anything of worth to say? Oh well, time will tell, and to a certain extent, time has told, except that I perhaps need to blog every day in order to get more of a gauge as to how the internet perceives me. Maybe I shall write some more tomorrow. Maybe i shall look at this in six months time and wonder that i ever thought i might be a daily blogger. I think doing this every day will show me some things, but the only way to know for sure would be to do it.

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How touching

DSC_0560Our society is fragmented. It exists as isolated units by and large. A high percentage of households contain only one person. It is quite possible to go days without seeing another person, weeks without a conversation, years without touching another human in anything but the most cursory manner. Last week I went six days without hugging anyone. I am not disabled, retired or unloved, yet because I live by myself, I was starved of human contact. Actual bodily contact with a member of my own species. Dogs, cats, lions, monkeys, mice, birds and mammals in general, children do not consent to such a situation between themselves.

It is tempting to point to societal issues that have an obvious deleterious effect, and can be tackled using systems, properly funded and project managed. For instance poverty, homelessness or substance abuse go hand in hand with social isolation. However, properly funded and project managed programs, valuable though they can be, are impersonal and incorporeal. In a society that prohibits touch between its members, poverty, homelessness and substance abuse could be symptoms, not causes, of a fundamental malaise.

On a generational level, our species is adapting to some very freaky technology. Humankind domesticated cattle and developed the plough say 9,000 years ago – 450 generations. Anatomically modern humans have existed for some 200,000 years (10,000 generations) according to Wikipedia. Freeing an elite from the responsibility of finding food has over those 450 or so generations resulted, amongst other things, in the internet. The rate of change has done nothing but increase with time. Only two generations ago we developed nuclear annihilation, and communications technology now out-paces all but the young. We can fly, we can see at night, we can communicate our thoughts immediately to anyone with a mobile phone; and surely this technology has caused us to act in some very odd ways.

Societies that have a rigidity, like the class or caste systems, prohibit touch between classes, and developed I guess at least partly in order that technology be accommodated, whether it be plough, sword, water mill, milling machine or information technology. A patriarchal society, dependent on obedience is not conducive to loving touch, but is ideally suited to war. War, apart from killing people, separates nation from nation, combatants from non-combatants, ethnicity from ethnicity, parents from children.

I guess, given the amount of war and crime in the world, it’s not surprising we don’t touch one another. But this is at variance with our more primal instincts. Everyone is keen to touch a new baby, or a pregnant mother, or an elephant. In the womb, touch and hearing must be the main senses. There’s nothing much to see, smell or taste. We have hands that are great at touching with thousands of nerve endings. Touching one another is the literal way to re-establish contact.

I kinda see what Mao was about, wanting to dispense with the modern world and its useful technology, like dentists, bless them. But I like hot showers too much to want to believe Mao was right. The Buddha said that the body is our means to enlightenment. Hinduism and Buddhism contain a systematic approach to the body in ayervedic medicine and yoga that can form an integral part of the religion. I tend to think of Christianity by contrast as having a poor view of the corporeal. Western post-enlightenment medicine still has some way to go to escape the misconception that the mind is somehow separate from the body. There is plenty in the gospels that makes me wonder how the Western Christian mind-body dichotomy came about. Generations of celibate priests has no doubt got something to do with it.

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Other beings

Ayahuasca - visionary art: Ayahuasca Art, Art, Art Ayahuascavisionpsyche, Fine Art Studios, Hippy Trippy Art, Artist, Visionary Art, Art VisionaryI read the gospel of Mark the other day, what with it being Christmas and all. This is a bit of a joke because Mark’s gospel makes no mention of wise men or Angels appearing to shepherds sore afraid or otherwise. What it does make frequent mention of, however, is evil spirits. I myself am unconvinced by the biblical insistence on evil spirit infestation. If the modern world is to be believed, people described in the Bible as being afflicted by evil spirits were mentally ill. And it does not come as a shock that God and madness have an affinity.

God is spirit, and aren’t our souls meant to be spirit in some way? Anyway, I’m not terribly interested in finding out the difference between soul and spirit because I think the whole thing is misguided. Not that I discount the existence of disembodied entities, it’s just that I think the thing that we identify as soul or self, is just the consequence of DNA and life experience, including societal and familial pressures.

It’s interesting that madness is often associated with hearing voices or, moving further along the mad spectrum, possession itself. The concept seems to be that when I am possessed of an evil spirit, another being inhabits my body and speaks through it. My body may take on certain features of this other being. So my voice might change, or my bearing. Might my eyes change colour, or might my hair sprout long and thick? Those earlier examples demonstrate the power of thought. Those latter examples are hints that possession as understood by the writer of Mark’s gospel does not happen. If humans really were possessed by a supernatural being, then their eyes might change colour, or their hair might grow suddenly long. Such or similar events have never been drawn to my attention, but I accept this may be because I have been living in the sceptical West.

If I imagine strongly enough myself as being another being, then others come to have the same impression of me. Method acting taken to a higher level. One mind affecting another by being convinced enough in a conceit. Such things are not rare. Other examples might include: Communism, any sort of ism actually, religion, the imperative of having banks and/or bombs, the inevitability of the slave trade, and the existence of good and evil.

I thought about it for a while, and can you not say that people thought of as being possessed show in their behaviour that a strong identification with self is breaking down? And come to think of it, why would I be surprised that people like this are throwing themselves on Jesus? Flocking to him they are. Actually, a quick reference to the Gerasene demoniac (it sounds like some sort of wonderful sports car) in Mark chapter 5 might suggest that Jesus actually sought them out. From the description of the Gerasene demoniac, it sounds as if the fellow really could powerfully imagine extremely accurately what it would be like to be a very devil. What did Jesus say to him to cure him? And all the other mad beggars, come to think of it. I think Jesus had a soft spot for these creatures. The ones who realize that self is readily exchangeable merely by changing the assumptions.

In parenthesis, I observe certain assumptions are easier to change than others. So, “I am always unlucky” is an easier reality to believe in than “I am a being from the very pit of Sheol”. And it is debatable whether or not this easier assumption doesn’t do more harm than the less credible one.

So these guys who really could believe in being possessed were becoming expert at challenging the assumptions of their souls. And as soon as you do that, you admit the possibility of being any other person who might possibly be.

Everyone is no-one. Self doesn’t exist. Your characteristics, your choices, your preferences and thoughts and emotions can all be explained away, and would be exactly the same as anybody else who happened to have lived exactly your life with your DNA and with your parents and in your socio-economic bracket, and who was born at exactly the same time in history. It’s just, you’re the only person who has lived with exactly your life circumstances, so everybody turns out different. But try telling someone they are in no manner responsible for their uniqueness, and they get a bit piqued. In fact, the more important they are, the more piqued they tend to get. Religious people also get extremely piqued. They think souls are real things.

So Jesus tells the mad people, they are quite right: their beings are fluid, and changing your beliefs about yourself changes your essence. And because at heart we have no essence, we can be whoever comes to mind, be it God, the devil or Napoleon. But, Jesus cautions, don’t tell this to people who have a very strong idea of who they are because a) they won’t believe you, and b) they will crucify you.

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