Monthly Archives: April 2014

A question about UKIP and the left

Is it really such a good idea for those of us on the left to urge people not to vote for UKIP? 

A lot is made about the publicity that UKIP get these, not least the amount of airtime they are given in proportion to their current level of representation in the House of Commons. This is often contrasted with the Green Party (though oddly not so often with Plaid Cymru, the SNP or the Democratic Unionists).

With the European and some local elections coming up, things are getting ever more heated and partisan. I have seen people urged to mail bricks to UKIP’s offices on the basis that they use a freepost address and so will be made to pay for the delivery costs, rather than the person posting the bricks. Though amusing, it strikes me as rather childish.

One could examine their policies, as some have done, and point out areas of disagreement with an apparent sense of ridicule. One tactic I haven’t seen and wondered “why not” is to point out the contradiction that they don’t want the UK to be a part of Europe and yet they still put candidates forward for the European elections!

But so what? Those who have a tendency to stick to the left of British politics are never likely to vote for UKIP anyway. Who are we trying to persuade?

After the failure of the “Yes to AV” campaign to reform the voting system, we are stuck with the less democratic First Past The Post system. The downside of this system is that where you have multiple parties standing on similar principles, the vote can be diluted so that an overall less popular, but very different, view may win.

If UKIP were to gain a majority in the House of Commons (or be part of a coalition) then one might have a genuine cause for concern, but that really doesn’t seem like a probably outcome. One asks, where are the UKIP supporters coming from?

Some may be protest votes, but it seems reasonable that quite a few are coming over from the Conservatives. This is why David Cameron should be worried. The loony right wing section of racists and xenophobes who helped put him into number 10 are one of the legs upon the Tories stand. Take it away from them and you get the right wing vote diluted, which will favour the likes of Labour, the Greens and even possibly the Lib Dems (though I believe their credibility has been dashed by their role in the present coalition and that after the next election Nick Clegg will be a pariah, resigned from the party leader leadership and will be blamed for the next decade of poor outcomes for the Lib Dems).

So if we persuade those who are currently tempted to vote for UKIP not to do so, where might they turn? I would posit that the obvious place is to go for the party which has the most similar policies, the Conservatives. And do we really want to encourage people to vote Tory? I think not!

Defined by opposition

Some people seem to be having an identity crisis of late. Far more words than necessary have been spilled over whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country – a debate whose only endpoint seems to be applying an adjective to a collective group of some 63m or so people in the hope of electorally appealing to the proportion of those that identify as such.

The prime minister’s comments, coming after talking about his faith but before calling the police when the bishop of Oxford came to visit, prompted the utterly predictable backlash from the British Humanist Association (BHA). Beyond the futile question as it stands, the debate (if you can call it that) is symptomatic of a wider issue of how we define ourselves either as individuals, communities or societies.

One thing I have begun to notice of late is how we often define ourselves in terms of what we are not. I’ve been known to do it myself sometimes. It seems as though it is easier to express ourselves via some means of negation than it is of affirmation. Or at least, if there is some affirmation is quickly followed by a clarification which is expressed by negation. In other words, saying, “I’m X. But by X, I don’t mean Y” where Y might be confused or conflated with X, or may be thought to be some sort of subgroup of X.

In the case of the BHA it may (rightly) be saying we are not explicitly a christian country but without offering any kind of positive alternative.

I might wonder if there is some kind of Popperian sense of falsification going on in some of our heads. To take the work of one of the signatories, Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Extended Phenotype he was very keen to repeatedly point out that his formulation of evolution was not Lamarckian. Here, he provides good evidence which seems to go some way to falsifying the position he is countering. Though in so doing, one must be careful to fairly and accurately portray what one might be defined against, or else fall prey to the straw man fallacy (not that I am suggesting that Dawkins did this in The Extended Phenotype).

I might guess that our tendency to be drawn to the straw man is because it is easier to look to another and say that we are not like them rather than articulate a positive statement about what it is we believe and stand for. And it is, I would posit, easier to besmirch  a view we disagree with it and be loose in doing so than to put forward a tightly argued proposition of our own.

Apart from intellectual laziness, one of the dangers is potentially to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To take an example, I know a lot of people for whom the term ‘Calvinism’ is one of the greatest evils in the world. By running as far away from any hint of it, much of the good and right things that Calvin wrote (though I wouldn’t agree with everything he wrote and wouldn’t usually call myself a Calvinist) may be left behind.

If we were to move to another area of interest, I sometimes wonder about particular expressions of atheism. One wonders how such an idea might be articulated if there were not such a thing as theism against which it could lean.

I’m not really making a point here, just musing out some thoughts on a Friday lunchtime. Do  you see others (or even yourself) trying express their identity in terms of what they are not?

Book Review: The History of Astronomy – A Very Short Introduction by Michael Hoskin

I am still working my way through books I received for Christmas, and this small work was the last of those I received from my parents. The reason for putting it in on my wishlist was simply that it appealed to my joint interest in science and history. Those of you who read much of this blog can hardly have failed to notice my fondness for the subject with reviews such as this, this or this.

In this account, we focus largely on a sequence of individuals, mostly from the latter parts of the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and on into the Scientific Revolution. Before that, though, there is an obligatory look at the early history of astronomy, not least looking at the work of Aristotle and Ptolemy, though even this preceded by “astronomy in prehistory”.

In telling the story of astronomy in antiquity, our focus is largely on the planets, having been considered as stars that behaved in a peculiar way (hence the term ‘planet’ – meaning, wanderer). The puzzle, as seen from a modern perspective, is that of why the planets which are further out from the sun than earth appear to have retrograde motion.  This history that then follows is the history of the ideas put forward by means of explanation as well as a little history of the people behind their ideas. As might be expected, we come across figures such as Tycho Brahe, Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton.

In telling this history, the book’s strongest point is in showing the detail behind the basic outline that most science students know. Our modern model of planets in elliptical orbits around the sun did not come about by a sudden eureka moment, but by a series of gradual shifts in thought.

The book ends in the early 19th century. Hoskin considers that at this point astronomy ceased to become a subject in its own right and became subsumed within physics and chemistry. So readers hoping for a history that included modern astronomy may well be disappointed. If that is the case, then I recommend following up with Peter Coles’ Cosmology VSI. I must confess that I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, so while I normally write my reviews as I read and then tidy up straight after finishing, there has been a period of gestation to mull over this work. Or maybe it was not so much gestation as a period of forgetting. For while it is interesting enough, there was nothing that grabbed me by the lapels to make me remember it.

In the other editions in the VSI series I’ve read, they have come with great lists of references and further reading. Here, though, we have little more than repeated references to Hoskin’s own work, which rather gives the impression that, though he is a subject matter expert, he hasn’t written this a standalone book, but rather that it is a concise summary of his earlier work.

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.