Incapable of love and prone to hate? (A Personal Catechism #5)

Link to previous part

Q: Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?

A: In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour.


This is stated with specific reference to the previous question in the catechism, so if you’re joining this series just here, then please do take a moment to step back and look at the context.

The point being made in this question lies at the heart of the one of the 5 points of Calvinism, that of “total depravity”. Although it’s very simply stated and here, the answer is also quite short, there is much behind it to consider from a number of viewpoints, though I only have space here to consider the direct biblical basis.

The catechism does provide references to back up the claim. To determine if it’s accurate we must ask whether it is a true and fair understanding of the passages cited. i.e. is this a case of texts being taken out of context or is it a fair exegesis? Then we ask whether it’s a complete picture. i.e. are these the only texts which speak on the subject or are there others which throw a different light on the matter?

The phrase “in no wise” the verses given as backup are Romans 3:10,20,23 and 1 John 1:8,10. If we look at these passages, one fails to see a straight line between what Paul wrote and the catechism’s conclusion. What these verses seem to point at is the fact that humans a) are not righteous (Romans) and b) are in a state of sin and that all sinned (1 John). Here, the link is easier to see between these two, though care must be taken not to equate a) and b). To my understanding, b) comes before a). In other words, we are first of all in a state of sin (how? That may be dealt with later) and as a result of that nature we are those who sin. That was the point I tried to make in the previous part. Because of this we are considered, in the judicial sense, unrighteous.

But does this indicate that we are incapable of fulfilling the two great commandments? I’m not convinced. To leap ahead slightly, if this is a statement about human nature, then if humans were incapable of keeping the commandments, then to state that Jesus was fully human would logically lead to the idea that Jesus could not have kept them. So one would be forced to conclude either than Jesus wasn’t fully human or that he failed to love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and failed to love his neighbours as himself.

If, however, we consider that the catechism is incorrect and that these passages are not indicative of an impossibility, then we may allow ourselves more scope when look at the nature of Jesus later on. One might think that I am trying to ‘cheat’ here by anticipating a later answer and rigging this now. However, I am not trying to build this catechism in terms of axioms and intermediary theories. This is simply looking at one aspect at a time, when really the whole thing ought to be kept in mind.

Looking at the second part of the answer, we are given the following scriptures:

Romans 8:7
Ephesians 2:3
Titus 3:3
Genesis 6:5
Genesis 8:21
Jeremiah 17:9
Romans 7:23

If we read through these, is it a true and fair view to say that they can be encapsulated by the statement “I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour”?

The first Romans passage doesn’t seem to endorse this. Of course, picking verses out of their context is a risky business, as one can easily misconstrue their meaning, failing to see the overall gist and the particular part the passage in question plays in achieving the author’s goal. The phrase (in the NRSV translation) is “the mind that is set on the flesh”. This does not imply to me “all minds”. The Ephesians passage back this up, referring to a past time, “All of us once lived among…” and “…we were by nature…” These imply a past tense. Titus says, “…were once foolish…”. The Genesis 6 passage is, I believe, a bad citation and not relevant for the discussion. The Genesis 8 passage is, though, more revealing. The key phrase being, “…for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…”

The use of the Hebrew neurim is interesting in itself, as it seems to be correct to interpret is as “from youth”. One might wonder why not “from birth.” That may be worth exploring another time. If we pick verses out of their context then one might be able to sympathise with the expression in the catechism. But if we regard, as I do, Genesis as being the background, the opening salvo in the grand narrative of creation, Israel, exile, law, etc. then we come to see that what is described here is the ‘past sense’ that Paul talks about in the passages already mentioned.

The Jeremiah verse seems to be part of a poem, so while it reflects a kind of truthful insight, one should be cautioned against reading it too literally.

Returning to Romans,  I read it as part of a very tricky passage to understand (the whole argument of Romans 7:14-25). I cannot do justice to it here, for which I must apologise, but if we look at the catechism assertion to which it is used as backup, the question that must be asked is ‘Does the passage lend weight to this interpretation?’ – to which I would cautiously say ‘no’. Rather, Romans, though highly pertinent to the idea of the sinful nature, I think that the sinful nature is housed within the human nature.

Here, then the idea of human sinfulness being equated with what it means to be human is a mistake. Rather, the question is the one of the spirit which dwells within the human being. Looked at from this perspective, then Romans 7 comes into better focus as we can see that Paul speaks of a spirit of sin “dwell[ing] in my members”. As opposed to this we have the spirit of holiness (the Holy Spirit) which may dwell within us and which acts as an alternative  motivating force.

So then, with that having taken far too long to write, we have a tentative alternative of the way of looking at what we might refer to as “human nature”, “the human condition” or such similar terms. Not least because of the later questions that come up over the nature of Jesus, one needs to think carefully about we define “human” if (and this is an if, not an assertion) Jesus is fully God and fully human.

What then, might we give by an alternative answer in distillation of the above?

Alternative Answer

The “these things” reference denotes the great two commandments to love God with everything that we have and to love one another. In any person, a person can do both, so the crux really lies in the use of the term ‘perfectly’. If this love is to be perfect then it must be born of a spirit of love. To do this, one must be emptied of the sinful nature (a matter of ontology) which is within us, and which exhibits itself in the form of sin (a matter of action), and instead be filled with the Holy Spirit completely. This is the work of sanctification (i.e. making holy) which is begun in us, but which is not yet complete. So I do not think that we can, as yet, love perfectly, but that does make us wholly devoid of love. It is a work which will be completed, but hasn’t been yet.

Book Review: Whose Bible Is It? by Jaroslav Pelikan

This wasn’t a book that appeared on my reading list or that I picked up at random from wandering around a bookshop. It was a birthday present which I have only just got round to reading (my birthday was back in the autumn). My dad thought it seemed up my street as he had picked it for free in a clearance from a local Salvation Army centre.

The opening hypothesis poses this problem: a catholic, a Jew and a protestant walk into a bookshop and each says they want the whole bible and nothing but the bible. What does the bookseller provide to each?

Here, we come across a problem straight away which I must tackle. Pelikan regards catholicism and protestantism as two wings of one christianity, instead of being different faiths. For my part I always try not to conflate the two, so will hereafter refer to ‘catholicism’ and ‘christianity’ as being two distinct, though related, religions. (For more on catholicism, see here, for why I don’t use the term protestant, see here). He also uncritically uses the catholic (mis)understanding of Peter’s declaration of Jesus as being the Messiah as meaning that the church is to be founded on Peter, as opposed to the christian understanding that the declaration itself is what is foundational.

With that critique out of the way, what of the main substance of the book? For the most part, it is a history of how the bible has come about.  Having stated a critique, I must praise the writing style. Pelikan is great communicator and this is an excellently written book. It is well-researched and communicated in an engaging way. At no point did I feel bored or find the text to be turgid.

In terms of the details, what does Pelikan present us with? We open with “The God who speaks” where we note how the origins of the bible are in oral history and that to focus on written works is a relatively late development. Though it stops short of being a full-blown treatment of form-criticism, it serves as a useful reminder of the origins of belief where, unusually (but not unwelcome) for a nominally christian work, there is a highly sympathetic treatment given to the oral beginnings of Islam.

From here, the focus is the origins of Judaic writings, with a particular focus on the Torah and how it was used by the communities to which it related, along with the body of writings that accompanied it by way of interpretation. The challenge posed to the reader is an implicit dig at the notion of sola scriptura, though Pelikan is always quite sideways in his criticisms.

Moving from the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) to the New Testament, there is disappointingly little with regards to the actual composition of the texts, with the focus more on how the canon of the New Testament slowly formed. Though the endnotes cite Bruce Metzger his work, monumental to this field of study, is never directly referenced; neither is F.F. Bruce, which seems rather odd. In the discussion itself, there is a distinct downplaying of the role of Marcion in the idea of forming a new canon in the first place. So while Pelikan presents a well-written account of the evidence he chooses to submit, this reviewer felt that the evidence was somewhat cherry-picked so as to suit the narrative that Pelikan had chosen.

Likewise, as he guides us through several centuries of work, with a particular (and right) emphasis on Jerome’s Vulgate, when we get to the reformation, we again find a distinct downplaying of the crucial modes of thinking that led to the more protestant views of the bible, not least as a reaction against the medieval catholicism that was prevalent at the time. So while we are presented with a vague discussion over Jerome’s poor translation, don’t expect many details and don’t expect an account of the murder of William Tyndale.

Up to now, we have been dealing with translations of translations. But even the most biased of historians could not avoid the influence of the renaissance on the reformation, where the cry of “back to the source” was shouted out loud. And so with reformed christianity came a desire to study the Greek and do the best justice to the original meanings, a task which continues to this day.

In conclusion, what we have is an incomplete account. Though well-written, I could not help but see massive gaps and an over-sympathetic treatment to the mistaken views of catholicism, though from a cursory reading about Pelikan it seems he adopted Eastern Orthodoxy about 10 years before writing this book. Though this has been a fairly critical review, I would recommend the book to you, not least to see how an anti-reformationist might think. Though for a more holistic take, I would recommend follow-ups with works of F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger and Alister McGrath.

The one point on which I would say I vehemently agreed with him was on the nature of prophecy not as being one of ‘foretelling’ but of ‘telling forth’ which he puts rather brilliantly.

Choosing our battles

There are so many things to care about in the world, it’s hard to know where to start. Of late, my work has been going through a period of transition, which has the upshot that I haven’t had much time for blogging lately. But when I do get an hour or to to sit down at an evening or weekend to write, I am flooded with ideas of things to write about. Every day I read things that challenge me, that inspire me, that enable me to see things in a new way. I’d like to respond to some of these, build on ideas and explore tangential avenues of thought. But which ones to choose?

Because I like to mull things over and, where possible, check my facts, I am rubbish at being a “current affairs” blogger. By the time I’ve gathered my thoughts and crystallised them into writing, events have moved on and others have written with far greater clarity and insight than I could, covering everything I wanted to say in the first place. So does one publish and merely add to the noise of the online world, or are you able to let it go? In thinking about this, it seems that one of the issues at stake is that of personal ego. For individual bloggers, there can be a temptation to think that “my voice must be heard”. Or maybe I’m just projecting…

So if I don’t write about something, don’t assume I don’t think about it. I may get round at some point to spelling out some thoughts on particularly controversial topics, or even on finishing various blog series that I’ve started and never got round to finishing. If there’s anything you’d like to see here, feel free to drop me a line; or if you want to write a guest post, then you are very welcome. For now, though, I shall sit and think some more, mulling over what might be helpful to say next.

Jumping in the middle

In my recent review of Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction I said the following:

“[Cullen] puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.”

Here I wanted to expand on that a little, as it is rather pertinent to some thoughts and conversations I have had of late. Having finished my formal education shortly before my 23rd birthday, I have spent most of the last decade being either taught for a professional post-graduate qualification or being self-taught. It is the latter of the two I wish to focus on here.

The main question is this: if you are to be self-taught, where do you begin?

If you’re reading this, you will probably know that I love reading. Yet I’m not the kind of reader who can pick up a book, find a comfortable spot in a nice chair and read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I read on trains, coaches and buses as I criss-cross the country, either to get to work or to visit family. It is this time that I have to teach myself. But I haven’t thought to myself: “I want to learn about X. So let’s devise a curriculum that will help me do that.” Rather, I just like to dive in.

The problem with this is that jumping in the middle means you’ve missed the start. But where is the start? If you follow the link above, you will see that the discussion there concerned Ludwig Wittgenstein. Though I now own a copy of Philosophical Investigations I haven’t yet got round to reading it. My intention is to start on it as soon as I finish Paul and the Faithfulness of God (of which I am currently up to about page 940 out of 1,520). To read Wittgenstein is to read a work of philosophy. But can it be properly understand as work in its own right, devoid of the background against which was written, ignorant of the target audience and oblivious to earlier work in the same field by others which Wittgenstein may be building upon or rebelling against?

The argument may go something like this: “How can you read Wittgenstein without first reading Hegel?” “How can you read Hegel without first studying Kant?” “Can you really understand Kant without considering Aquinas?” “Do you comprehend the relationship between the views of Aquinas and Augustine?” “Where would Augustine be if it hadn’t been for Plato before him?” And so on.

I have read some works of some of those thinkers, but by no means the majority of the works of any one of them. Others I have only read snippets about in secondary works where they are mentioned. Must one go back in infinite regress in order to understand the most recent thinking? If one tries that, one might be drawn to the writer of Ecclesiastes: “The making of many books has not an end, and much study is the weariness of the whole body.”

So we never end, it seems. If one wishes to be learned, then the age of human civilization (though but a single beat in the symphony of the history of the cosmos) is too great for any one person to master. I know things you don’t, things you will never know or comprehend. Yet you know far more than I. Your experiences, your emotions, your way of seeing the world has been honed over the period of a lifetime. To try to replicate that would take another lifetime, but we each have only one to live.

From philosophy to history. I have made a start at a recognisable beginning with Herodotus and Thucydides, but given the vast complexity of the last few millennia, but should that stop me from reading Hobsbawm until I worked my way through every nation state, every people, in all eras up to the start of the period that Hobsbawm looked at? I would argue that the answer to that is ‘no’. It seems right. It feels right. But why?

I might use the analogy of a scratchcard. If I am interested in one part of the card, I may scratch at it and learn something of what is underneath. To put it in some kind of context, I may scratch around it a little, but does one necessarily need uncover every portion of the card to get a true and fair view of the image on the card? Or can one afford to uncover the centre and bits around it, satisfied that that is enough to form a reasonably well-informed opinion?

I suppose the ‘informed opinion’ is what really concerns me. Most of us know that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” but how do we determine what is “a little knowledge” and what is “a lot of knowledge”?

The irony is, I would suppose that all these questions have been asked before, and others have put forward answers to them, but that I am ignorant of those responses.

One way road systems to be renamed “One Direction systems”

Used by creative commons. Picture by Elliott Brown

Used by creative commons. Picture by Elliott Brown

If ever there was any doubt of the pervasiveness of our shallow pop culture, it comes in the form of a new proposal that is set to be announced in the coming days from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in conjunction with the Department for Transport. A friend of mine who is a civil servant in the former (who shall remain nameless) has been authorised to ‘leak’ the news that in recognition of the commercial success of the boy band, One Direction, all road systems in England and Wales (and Scotland too, if the ‘no’ campaign is successful this September) that are currently designated as “one way systems” are to be renamed as “One Direction systems”.

Initially to be piloted in the home towns of the 4 English members of the band (Bradford, Wolverhampton, Holmes Chapel and Doncaster), the plan is for a 2 year trial period followed by a roll-out across the rest of the country.

The transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, was said to have been up all night trying to think of an appropriate way to honour the success of the boy band. There had been half a heart towards merely honouring Harry Styles, by far the most famous member of the band, but to leave out the others might have given their mothers a heart attack. As one of those little things a government can do, it seemed irresistible, given the band’s widespread appeal.

Some could see it as a way to reach out to younger voters, though I am not convinced that many of their fans are old enough to vote. If it does prove to be a magic ticket for the Tories to appeal to a demographic which is not normally very pro-Conservative, then it may be a master stroke.

This blogger is not convinced by the proposals, but who knows what might change my mind. I’m not a fan of the band and I hardly think they will ever come up with the best song ever, though I think that of just about anything to come out of a talent show.

Book Review: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

When I read the Very Short Introductions (VSIs) they can fall into a few categories. They might be on subjects I know well, where I am seeking a refresher and may wish to critique how well the subject has been communicated (as was the case with Mathematics) or they may be on subjects that I know little to nothing about (as was the case with The Roman Republic). Literary theory falls very firmly in the latter of these two categories.

If someone had asked me beforehand to give either a one line synopsis of what I thought literary theory was about, or write a paragraph or an essay, I would have been wholly unable to do so. I read it because I wanted to find out what it was all about, to continue my daily battle against ignorance by means of self-education. It was also noticeable for the fact that it was one of the very early VSIs to be published, this being number 4 in the series. For contrast, one of the more recent ones I read, on Robotics, is number 330. So this seems to be some way foundational to many later VSIs, as indeed I recongised the titles of others in both the names and the topics covered here.

As with many VSIs, this is not necessarily a simple introduction. As I started reading it, it dawned on me just how alien literary theory is to me. Indeed, it was, and remains, difficult to define. The author tries to be more general and talks just of “theory” as a subject in itself. Now this is very far removed from either the common notion of theory as conjecture or hypothesis as well as being different from the more scientific view of theory (see here for more detail).

Having attempted to define “theory” Culler moves on to the question of “what is literature”. Here, the answer, to a non-expert in the field such as me, seems obvious, but wary of a kind of hubris of ignorance, I gave it a go. That said, Culler does seem to unduly pedantic, though the link between literature and language is interesting enough.

There follows a short chapter on the relation between literature and cultural studies. Here, we really get to see that what Culler is doing is presenting topics that are covered by literary theory rather than examining in any depth various schools of thought. There is a list of schools of thought listed in the appendix and these are referred to at various points throughout the text.

Of these topics, probably the most interesting was on ‘poetics v hermeneutics’ as hermeneutics is a topic I’ve encountered in theological readings. This serves a gateway to the rest of the book (which rumbles on in a similar tone) about how we read things.  For example, if we read Midnight’s Children, is it a book about a group of children born at the same time or is it a story about the history of India? A close reading will render the former while a more metaphorical stance will lead to the latter. So if we ask “what is it really about?” then we have no single answer.

One thing that I gained a lot from was a discussion near the start of the book about the wide-ranging nature of literary theory and how it just doesn’t seem to end. He puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.

Similarly, there some of the schools of thought seem to indicate the opposite of a close reading, but more of a ‘reading through’ a text. For example, I recall a discussion with one atheist (I forget who it was, sorry) who said they loved reading the epistles of Paul because they liked to read into them Paul’s personal psychology. It was a comment that stayed with me, but which made little to no sense. While I would disagree with their view that Paul’s writings are “nothing more” than a way of reconciling his own personal guilt at the murder of Stephen, Culler’s work here has allowed me to see why some might think that a legitimate way of reading a text – in other words, by basically ignoring what is being written and imposing upon a text one’s own worldview.

So, while I may disagree with many of the views that are elucidated in this work, Culler’s own thoughts are well-hidden behind his citation of the thoughts and works of others. So it is really with them that I disagree (and I unwittingly have already done this with my take on a Marxist view of history) rather than with Culler. It is not at all the clearest book I’ve read in the VSI series, but it seems that that may be because of the muddy waters of the subject, rather than any obfuscation on the part of the writer. It’s a tough read, but for an outsider to the subject, it is a window to a whole new world. One that may be explored, all in good time.

The squeezed middle?

Used under creative commons license. Image by 'Images of Money'

Used under creative commons license. Image by ‘Images of Money’

Wednesday sees George Osborne deliver his latest budget speech. Some of it he announced on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show, other parts may well have been leaked by the time you get round to reading this (I’m writing this on Monday night).

In his appearance on the Marr show, aside from being fed his lines by the host who had earlier in the show demonstrated a clear and distinct partiality with regards to the Scottish referendum on independence from the rest of the UK, and aside from the fact that there was no serious or penetrating scrutiny given applied to the Conservative party policy, making the Marr Show little more than an extended party political broadcast for the Conservative party; aside from all that, I was struck by something Osborne said as part of his prepared speech.

Whilst speaking of personal taxation, Osborne spoke of the increase in the personal allowance that has taken place since the coalition came into power in 2010.

Before coming to that point though, I would like to note two things: One, the rapid increase of the personal allowance was a Liberal Democrat policy, not a Conservative one. It was a feature of the coalition agreement that the Lib Dems insisted upon. It was one of the few areas where the Lib Dems led and the Conservatives followed.

Secondly, I would add that it is probably the best thing the coalition government have done. I am in favour of lifting the lowest paid out of personal taxation. Ideally, the personal allowance should be at a level whereby no one is taxed whose net pay would not be enough to reasonably live off. The measuring of how much that is a complex matter and one that I shall not address in this blog post.

But the point that struck me was that Osborne was proud that it was reducing the amount of tax paid by the middle-to-high earners. Without getting too personal here, I will say that in my current job, on my current salary, a small part of my tax is paid at the 40% rate. This is an important point. The media will often talk about those who pay the 40p rate (i.e. 40p in the pound, but I prefer percentages for clarity) but they fail to mention that only the uppermost part of someone’s salary is paid at that rate. There is still a significant chunk that is paid at 20%.

As someone who is counted as a middle-to-high earner, am I pleased that the amount of tax I pay is being reduced? No.

Nomatter what your political persuasion, one should face up to the economic fact that we have both a large debt and a large deficit, both of which need reducing. The two essential ways of doing this are to increase revenues or to cut costs. The current government’s plan has, for the last few years, been to cut both revenues and costs, but to cut costs at a much faster rate, through their austerity plan.

Many more voices than just mine will testify to the great damage that the austerity programme has done, with people losing their livelihoods and even their lives as a result of it. In other countries, such as Greece, it has been taken to a more extreme level but has merely resulted in mass unemployment and has failed to live up to its promises.

So while some cuts are necessary (and here I would rather cut spending on Trident and other weapons of mass destruction rather than removing the safety net of social security which is relied upon by many in their hour of need) the more obvious and sensible measure is to increase revenue. Anyone who has studied economics at any level will be familiar with the idea of elasticity of demand. That is, the more you charge for product, the less demand will be. But how much demand falls off in proportion to how prices increase is measured by its ‘elasticity’. Luxury goods have a high elasticity, whereas necessities have low elasticity. Take train tickets for example. Many use trains to get to work. If the price gets bumped up by 5% we don’t get the choice to not go to work. We are forced to swallow it, increasing the revenues of the train companies.

When it comes to tax, part of modern right-wing ideology is that tax is highly elastic. They love to tell us that increasing taxes will deter rich people from coming to country (hey, that’s one way to curb immigration!) or force people to leave. In France, when they raised taxes, a few high profile people did choose to leave the country. But did it cause a reduction in revenue that crippled the country as the austerity measures did to Greece? No.

The truth is taxation is inelastic. This gives rise to the possibility that, as train companies have exploited commuters, governments could exploit all its citizens by unfair taxation. But what is fair? Surely it is in answering this question that differences between left and right become apparent, especially when we consider what our priorities are. Right-wingers such as George Osborne see fairness in prioritising that people keep as much of their gross pay packet as possible. Left-wingers such as me prioritise ensuring the dignity and the livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

For me, as stated once, but to reiterate the point, tax becomes unfair when the net income after tax is not enough to live on. If you have more than enough to live on, then you have enough to be taxed upon. Note that even if there was a flat rate of 40% (which is much higher than the actual effective rate of tax paid by those whose pay comes into the 40% band) then any individual would still keep more than half of their pay packet.

We also need to consider the seasonality of life. For some of my life I was in state education and not earning a salary, not paying taxes. At other times I have been unemployed and had to claim job seekers’ allowance in order to pay for my rent and food. At times like these, I was net taker from the state. At present, I am a net contributor. If I were to take a simplistic, conservative approach, and demand that I only pay tax for the services I use, then I would pay much less tax than I do now. But what about those who are currently in a season of being net takers? The young, the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled? It is to support them that we need a section of the population to pay more tax than the cost of the services the latter use. It is a recognition of this that makes me despise the term ‘the squeezed middle’. I am not squeezed enough.

To turn a phrase around a little bit, I would say: First, to each according to their need. To fund that, from each according to their ability. This is where I think our priorities should lie. The idea of tax for tax’s sake is as wrong as it is to try to separate the payment of taxes from the provision of centrally provided services.

So please George, let’s get priorities straight. For those who are out of the tax system, let’s ensure that there is a living wage paid to those in work, and a firm support net for those who aren’t. For those who are paid in excess of they need to live on, please tax us more. We can afford it.