Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Joy to the World. Mostly.

At Hilton Resort Hotel, Mangaf. How very festive

It's Christmas Day and I am back, fleetingly, in Sandy Town, complete with, let's say, seasonal showers. No, I confess that the truth is not in me. It's pouring with rain and marble flooring turns public places into an adventure in staying upright. I'd be safer on ice skates.
It's instructive to have a quiet listen at a few cultural doors while I'm here. Are there changes? One always expects that places will somehow shift on their axes after one has walked away from them, but in many ways, as the surfers say on Bondi Beach - same shit, different day. Traffic is manic, as always, and people console themselves by spending money, as they have done since the black gold arrived.  At least I have six litres of pure US V8 under my hood when out and about, which snarls menacingly should people get too close. Or, is that my imagination too?  And yet - perhaps there's been a subtle change in the light, almost unnoticeable if you live here, but as the afternoon luminance gives way to the evening, there's a subtle breath or two of change. Mixing metaphors, one senses rumblings the size of a man's hand closer to the surface than it used to be. Perhaps it's my imagination but there do seem to be rather more determinedly longer beards about, a few more ladies with heavier veils in public, perhaps. People are concerned about juveniles with weaponry in schools and public places - not surprisingly since a Lebanese dentist lost his life by being stabbed repeatedly and in broad daylight in The Avenues a few days ago. The argument started over a parking space, it would seem. Crime is up by ten percent - attributed to 'wasta'. Young men were caught firing airguns at expatriate passers-by. More people it seems are getting caught with alcohol - how despicable. Some expats are weary, their souls abraded by the relentless desert sand.
I read this today.
The Lighthouse Church in the city has a number of satellite congregations, one of which has been meeting in a villa for the last seven years. Its lease has suddenly been terminated without notice. Some are whispering amongst themselves, speculating that the hardliners in Islamic politics, clamorous and vocal as they are here, are beginning to actively target non-Muslim groups. An announcement was made the other day that a few hardliners were attempting to legislate against Christmas celebrations, much to the apparent dismay of a vocal liberal wing  who had the decency to cry 'foul' loudly in the press, which by and large shared their distaste for what amounts to religious apartheid. At least the Arab Times led with a jolly headline this morning - 'Merry Christmas to all' - plus a front page image of the remarkably well-attended solemn Pontifical Mass on Christmas Eve. Despite my personal antipathy towards Romish heresies, I found myself quietly murmuring a muted huzza. I did wonder what the indigents might think about the befrocked flummery and whether they had speculated about how they might be able to get their hands on one of those rather jolly gold dishdashas. Sorry, everyone - quite unnecessary, that. Joy to the world then. Mostly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In the Ashes. Part Two

detail from 'Christ of St John of the Cross'. Salvador Dali, [Glasgow]

When hell freezes over. Forgiveness may, perhaps, be the last thing on the minds of the bereaved parents and families of Newtown, Connecticut today, as back-to back funerals consign the victims of Adam Lanza to their final resting places.
My thoughts today have turned towards an attempt to understand reconciliation and forgiveness, as I feebly attempted to put myself in the shoes of the devastated residents of a small Connecticut town asking myself 'what did I really know or understand about these things, supposedly at the core of my faith?'
“The Shack” is an unlikely candidate for runaway success. William P Young, who wrote the story for his children, an unlikely author for international fame. It tells the allegory of a man who on a camping trip realises that his youngest daughter is missing, later discovering that she has been abducted and murdered by a serial killer, her bloodstained dress having been found in a remote shack. 
He receives a note in his mailbox from God, asking for a meeting at, of all places, the Shack. He goes, and in so doing, learns about redemption and forgiveness.
The book has been heavily criticised by the Christian press for its 'unbiblical' content - some going as far as to suggest that it contains 'undiluted heresy'. I myself dislike the word 'Christian', small c or large. It was once a pejorative, derisory epithet - I would prefer that my integrity is defined by something more substantial than a label. Over the years, from evangelical, uncomplicated beginnings to liberal theological college, I have come to the conclusion that God is able to and often does reveal himself - or herself - in ways that are outside of either my experience or my own preconception and often in fresh and culturally relevant contexts. In a moment or two of uncharacteristically transparent self-disclosure, I have come to realise that unless the Church has a clear unvarnished grasp of atonement and redemption - in other words, the work of the Cross, we could spend millennia chasing our theological tails. Furthermore, to embed our belief system into the concrete of received dogma deals it a death blow from which only the explosive power of grace can dislodge it.
A few years ago Steve Chalke, a Baptist minister from the UK, wrote a book which set a few people's ears on fire.  In 'The Lost Message of Jesus' he asks, amongst other things, how we came to the belief that at the cross a God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse - a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. He argues that we have historically propounded an individualistic Pauline penal substitution gospel which Ben Myers describes as ‘a theologically repugnant model with potentially vicious and disastrous social and political implications’. The idea that Jesus died in order to appease a morally outraged God, secure a change in his attitude towards us or to somehow settle a score, balance the books or whatever, is fundamentally flawed.  Protestants have usually looked to Calvin for doctrinal leadership in this area and in its classical expression it is the lynch pin of “sound” conservative evangelical theology. In essence it says that divine justice demands that humanity must “pay the price of sin,” and that the sentence is death; but that on the cross, Jesus identified himself with our sinful condition and died in our place, taking our sins to the grave with him. We shouldn’t forget that Calvin was first a lawyer so it’s not unsurprising that his doctrine requires the additional idea of the transfer of penalty, and this theory requires the addition of Anselm’s feudal view of debt repayment and a Roman view of criminal law. I have come to the conclusion that vengeance can never be rebranded as reconciliation, otherwise how could the Man from Nazareth ever be ‘one in being’ with such a vengeful Father?  I can hear the outraged intakes of breath from here from any friends I might have left who are still reading this, but it’s not my purpose here to melt down golden calves. Instead, what if we look at the events of Newtown and ask its residents – but not today - about reconciliation? The truth is, I think, that whether we like it, understand it, or not, reconciliation in the cosmic sense has already taken place, the wrongs done accounted for. Substitution, the liberating initiative, has already begun to pour grace into the bleeding lacerations of those most in need of it.

In the Ashes. Part One

Seven hundred dollars. Twenty lives.

Thoughtful people all over the world are attempting to find reasons why a young man armed with a semiautomatic assault rifle walked into a school and opened fire. The shooter, it is alleged, had Asperger’s syndrome, a brain-related, high-functioning form of autism marked by poor social skills, trouble communicating and repetitive behavior, but there’s no apparent correlation with the cold, premeditated violence that broke out. We therefore ask ourselves whether the shooter was also ‘mentally ill’. Nevertheless, as people wrestle with the loss of life at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, people with autism are finding themselves the focus of misunderstanding and more than a little scrutiny.

Diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is stigmatic, expensive, error-prone and its propensity for violent behavior, it must be admitted, is not well understood. The easier target and perhaps the one more likely to succeed is to attempt to restrict the availability and type of weapons. Once again, therefore, gun control legislation is high on the White House’s agenda. As one who handles guns very rarely and always with the same caution as one might handle a venomous reptile, I fail to understand why a weapon of such destructive power could ever be able to be legally placed in the hands of someone other than a trained soldier and even then only on a battlefield. Which hunter could possibly require a discharge rate of a full 30 round magazine in less than a second. I further fail to understand why gun sales - in particular, sales of semiautomatic weapons - spiked dramatically after the event, unless purchasers were afraid of knee-jerk legislation banning sales of such items.

The Second Amendment was influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689 after James II sought to disarm Protestants. The wording is specific – the arms borne are ‘those allowed by law’ and the arms borne are ‘for [their] defence’.  Dianne Feinstein’s call therefore for a ban on assault weapons with high capacity magazines seems entirely reasonable. It would not be unreasonable also to restrict the sale of the popular .223 calibre ordnance, specifically because of its high impact fragmentation. What perverted logic asserts that such things are for defensive purposes only?

The US has had a love affair with weapons since its inception, it romanticises their carrying and almost fetishises their use. Raw statistics speak for themselves – in countries where more weapons are freely available, more people get shot and the people who want most fiercely to obtain and use guns include many of the same people whose access to guns society most needs to restrict.  The USA has 88.8 privately owned guns per 100 people, 270 million in a country of 312 million, the highest in the world - such a disturbing statistic must surely give major cause for concern. Like race relations and gay rights, if America comes to terms with its own deeply rooted paranoia concerning self-defence, a cultural shift will, indeed must, presage legal reform. But, this of itself may not nearly be enough. Guns are America's Moloch and gunpowder toxically flows in her bloodstream. The gun, for her, is a metonym for redemptive violence, and there is a pervasive culture of death that has been present since her wars of attrition at the beginning of her nationhood. To deprive the national psyche of guns altogether would be to fatally emasculate it. Wherever reason surfaces, therefore, not in the committee rooms of Washington, initially, but in a thousand small villages and towns where the groundswell of dismay over a million gunshot wounds annually will eventually and hopefully permanently shift the axis of change. The consequent paradigm shift will redefine America at the core level of national identity. Twitter and Facebook both went viral with comment and sympathy; as we learned from the Arab Spring, social media has teeth.

The residents of that small town are now sitting down in the ashes and many, I expect, are wondering ‘where do we go from here?’ Words like ‘justice’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘revenge’ are probably swirling like dark clouds in their minds. The shooter himself is dead – there can be no lynching here. Forgiveness?  When hell freezes over.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Elven Law

A little light, pre-Christmas entertainment today. The Panopticon was a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept is simple – a watchman can observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched.
The design consists of a circular structure with an "inspection house" at its centre, from which the managers or staff of the institution are able to watch the inmates, who are stationed around the perimeter. Bentham conceived the basic plan as being equally applicable to hospitals, schools, sanatoriums, daycares, and asylums, but he devoted most of his efforts to developing a design for a Panopticon prison and it is his prison which is most widely understood by the term.
Bentham himself described the Panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.” Quite so. Why is this particularly significant? 
I read today of a baleful, Orwellian descendant of Bentham’s devilish architecture in the form of a new and jolly Christmas tradition, the Elf on the Shelf. Some American parents, some time after Thanksgiving, introduce this impish little creature, which can be perched, hung, or otherwise displayed somewhere in the house. Parents then blithely propagate the Santa Claus myth to their children who are solemnly told that should they misbehave the Elf is watching and he is empowered to inform Santa Claus of any poor behaviour by travelling back to the North Pole overnight. He then reappears elsewhere in the house the following morning. Should Mummy or Daddy have been bingeing on Southern Comfort after the little ones are abed, and inadvertently fail to move the creature to some new vantage point,  the game is up and all is lost unless parents compound the felony by spinning further untruths like 'he has special places that he likes' or 'he must be real; he has his own Facebook page'. Various pointless and Draconian rules can be introduced, especially for parents with Fascist inclinations, such as the child is allowed to talk to the Elf but must not touch it. These rules do not, of course, apply to grown-ups. Some children seem to become unreasonably attached to the little fellow – after all, Winston Smith loved Big Brother, ultimately, but I do question the wisdom of befriending the weaselly little snitch. If he were mine, I'd put him in the blender.
Some are regretting playing host to a diminutive spy. One mother rewrote the Serenity Prayer so that the last line gave her ‘the strength no to throw the Elf on the fire and watch him burn, like Joan of Arc’. Another mother told her children that the Elf had perished, like Scott, in a snowstorm.
At least he’s a low-maintenance guest and even drunk old Uncle George can’t get away with blaming the Elf for finishing the last of the malt whisky.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Darwin's Valhalla

“Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.”

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)

I have been wondering for some time how to write down clearly a few opinions about so-called ‘intelligent design’. Do I ‘believe’ in it or not? If I do, how can I justify such a belief? If I don’t, what can I come up with to satisfactorily replace it? 
It is unwise to ridicule or dismiss the achievements of western science. It is equally unwise to dismiss religious thought as dangerous foolishness. Militant atheism and its vociferous proponents often use scientifically fuelled ridicule as a weapon which is dangerous on the grounds that the objective for such a tactic is to rob the object of such ridicule of the power of reasoned debate – in short we don't like being made fun of and when we are we respond inappropriately. Many scientists also use the tactic of the ‘snobbery of clever superiority’ their science and its conclusions are so difficult to understand that average thinkers like you and I aren’t competent to follow their arguments. Thus we are presented with their conclusions as intellectual  faits accomplis.
In 1874, Max Planck, arguably the father of quantum physics, was in discussion with Philipp von Jolly, a Munich professor who attempted to dissuade him from studying physics by saying that "in this field, almost everything is already discovered and all that remains is to fill in a few holes.”  Planck replied that he did not wish to study new things, only to understand the fundamentals. His later contributions created a paradigmatically astonishing way of looking at the world. The great physical theories are mighty Babels to mankind's formidable collective intellect but are they enough support the pretensions of those who insist it can be, indeed must be, the ultimate touchstone for understanding our world and ourselves? Furthermore, do they offer a coherent description of the cosmos or the methods by which it might be investigated?
I have often supposed that we as a species are hard-wired to 'believe' in something. By this I mean that we insist upon either actively or passively supporting a set of ideas which for us carry moral weight, intellectual resonance and satisfy our unshakable conviction that the course we have chosen is, if not 'right' then more 'right' than others, which some might characterise as ‘faith’. The replacement of traditional religious thought by a belief-system exclusively based on a science which others teach us is correct writes David Berlinski in The Devil’s Delusion, “marks the consolidation in our time of science as the single system of belief in which rational men and women might place their faith, and if not their faith, then certainly their devotion." [or willingness to defend and/or support - parentheses mine]
It might be instructive to reverse the mirror and ask with Berlinski a few difficult questions, all of which have the same answer.
·         Has anyone provided a proof of God’s non-existence?
·         Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here?
·         Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life and for us to be here?
·         Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought?
·         Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral?
·         Has secularism in the twentieth century been a force for good?
·         Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of method, thought and opinion within the sciences?
·         Does anything in the sciences or in scientific philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational?
The answers to all of the above are 'no' but this of itself is not enough. Merely casting doubt by ‘straw man’ hypothesising randomly like confetti will not bring us nearer to the truth. While all the descriptive language makes for interesting or offensive reading, it does not change the facts. If we push aside all emotion, insults, character assassinations and credibility attacks, instead try to look for facts, what do we find?
In his book “The Deniable Darwin” Berlinski identifies a number of issues that evolution has neither addressed nor overcome to find the necessary supporting facts and become a viable theory to qualify its entering into the realm of truth. To assert that 'it works but we're working on it ' doesn't convert a theory into anything more than a hypothesis or series of conjectures, much less a law. At this late stage in its life, evolution is still little more than a workable hypothesis that has been kicked around for a long time, supported by paper-thin conjectures. Here are a few of Berlinski’s observations from an article ‘All Those Darwinian Doubts’:
·         The suggestion that Darwin’s theory of evolution is like theories in the serious sciences, quantum electrodynamics, let’s say, is grotesque. Quantum electrodynamics is accurate to thirteen unyielding decimal places. Darwin’s theory makes no tight quantitative predictions at all.
·         Field studies attempting to measure natural selection inevitably report weak to non-existent selection effects.
·         Darwin’s theory is open at one end since there are no plausible accounts for the origins of life.
·         The astonishing and irreducible complexity of various cellular structures has not yet successfully been described, let alone explained.
·         A great many species enter the fossil record trailing no obvious ancestors and depart for Valhalla leaving no obvious descendants.
·         Tens of thousands of fruit flies have come and gone in laboratory experiments, and every last one of them has remained a fruit fly to the end, all efforts to see the miracle of speciation unavailing.
·         The remarkable similarity in the genome of a great many organisms suggests that there is at bottom only one living system; but how then to account for the astonishing differences between human beings and their near relatives, differences that remain obvious to anyone who has visited a zoo?
It appears the “theory” of evolution is closer to a religion than a science, for it takes faith to believe a theory lacking a foundation of facts. A noted characteristic of devotees is their being dogmatic to the point of not being open minded enough to be led by the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, prediction, testing, and corroboration. They have a strange tendency to skew any results to support their initial view that “God does not exist” instead of letting their work lead them to its inherent conclusion, one which may be less palatable.
Regarding Berlinski’s motives, as a secular Jew he is not asking anyone to believe in God, indeed perhaps he doesn't want to; rather he is quite clear that he wants the “theory” of evolution to undergo surgery to become a healthy, viable, actual scientific theory rather than the pseudo-scientific dogma it currently is. He wants scientists to face up to and tackle the many issues and get cracking on solving them. With some reluctance, I am inclined to agree.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Wagging Fingers

What an interesting week it has been and there's lots I'd quite like to write about, but since this little morsel captured my attention, I'll say a brief word or two about it. Palestine is a sort-of, nearly member of the International Club - let's stop calling it the UN because it's neither united nor comprised, now, exclusively of 'nations'. This has had some interesting spin-offs, not least that someone has found some money, which was probably donated by the US, to erect a few signs which seem to have sprung up in Judea and Samaria. It all seems a bit weak, finger-wagging and feeble to me.
I wonder who the warning is for?  In my innocence and naivete, I can't help feeling that there seems little point in erecting such a notice, howsoever helpfully in three languages, unless some kind of sanction will be brought against those who for whatever reason choose to ignore it. Surely a better warning sign might read something like this one on the left. No ambiguity here - the word 'trespasser' is a dead giveaway. Seven possibilities are presented although execution of the first - do pardon the pun - might be considered a sufficient deterrent. A trespasser is somebody who, without permission, stomps his dirty black boots over your nicely manicured lawn and wreaks havoc and destruction on the prize roses, which you don't much care for, so, you lay down a few simple ground rules to discourage him. Unfortunately, the law of trespass doesn't quite cut it in the first caption.The world has rewarded the party which has consistently refused to lay down its arms, rejected the Oslo proposal, systematically pursued violence and moreover taught its children to do so and removed the framework on which basis Israel made many risky concessions. In short, the Israelis donated the land and invited the PLO to look after it. Ah.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Democracy Postponed

It’s not just been election time in the USA. Kuwait – where I used to live – has called yet another election. Which prompted a few thoughts about the whole democratic process.  A friend was kind enough to provide a few numbers.
"Of the 3.8 million population, only 1.2 million are Kuwaiti. Among the Kuwaiti nationals, only 422,000 are eligible to vote.  That’s  35%. The voting age is 21 and servicemen in the police and army are banned from taking part in the ballot.  How very instructive. Why should democratic rights be taken away from the very people who are supposed to protect the Constitution. Female voters make up 54 per cent of the electorate, having been given the vote in 2005. I wonder how free they are to actually cast an unbiased vote or do they look to their husbands for political guidance? How very cynical of me. Polling opens at 8:00am (0500 GMT) and closes 12 hours later, with the first results expected after midnight (2100 GMT) as ballot papers in Kuwait are still counted manually." Are they, indeed.
People have been out on the streets in protest. Sometimes, it’s not clear exactly what the protests are about – but electoral reform is high on the agenda. Kuwait's Constitutional Court recently rejected the government's move to amend a controversial electoral law. The much-anticipated ruling maintains the division of the country into five electoral constituencies which some see as a cynical move to hold on to power and prevent co-ordinated opposition. From an outsider’s viewpoint it looks very much like a clash between the Old and Young Guard. The Old are the ruling family who pays lip service to democracy without much enthusiasm for change – the New have travelled, seen how other people are engaging in the democratic process and want a piece of it, perhaps even to the extent of a genuine constitutional monarchy. It's no surprise that the lawmakers, with fine disregard, forbade gatherings of more than twenty people not so very long ago, but since most protesters had Twitter accounts, it didn't matter very much.
Neither are people prepared to put up with their politicians becoming embroiled in one financial scandal after another – less than a year ago thirteen MP’s were summoned by the public prosecutor to account for vast sums of money being transferred into their accounts with no apparent justification. This  endless bickering and continuous conflict has taken its toll on the psyche of Kuwaitis and some have begun to question the feasibility of their pioneering model – at least in Gulf terms - of representative politics. This in turn has dissuaded GCC intellectuals and people who looked at Kuwait as a beacon for democracy in the region and discouraged investors who have stayed away from the hostile environment of Kuwait and its Byzantine, ragged and untamed politics.
But, back to the 35 per cent. Why so alarmingly few and what constitutional wrinkle disbars the remainder, I found myself asking. After the US elections, I picked up a piece from Richard Dawkins, the most famous atheist on the planet, it would seem, who has his own flavour of Blackshirt commentary. He presses for voters to question possible candidates on their religious beliefs, suggesting that any prospective MP who actually believes in literal transubstantiation, for example, or any other belief which in his eyes defies logical scrutiny (like Joseph Smith’s angelic visitors, or, worst of all a man who actually rose from the dead) has disqualified himself from public office on the grounds that if he applies the same fatuous logic to his work in Government, there’d be a tax on the fairies at the bottom of the garden. I'm always amused whenever I read about a big atheist gathering since it's democracy which allows them to meet freely in the first place, this democracy having been founded on a moral and religious foundation on which it relies for successful operation.