maandag 31 december 2007

My New Year resolutions...

1. Do not stop smoking. I'll call off my regular encounters with the business end of a cigarette when the government calls off it's killjoy anti-smoker bullying campaigns, allows us back into the pubs, ceases to extort us with ever-increasing VAT taxes, relents on its second-hand smoke emotional blackmail based on highly dubious evidence, and stops insulting my intelligence with plans to place pictures of burnt-out lungs on cig packages (I can read, thank you). Until then, it's war. From my cold, dead fingers...

2. Make work of joining a Church. Which is likely going to be the lutheran Church of Sweden.

3. Get my academic research back to some empirical meat-and-gravy stuff. Try to get at least one paper dealing with corpus-based historical linguistics issues done by the end of the year. If current research proposal falls through, develop a new and exciting one. Look for some hard-to-get material that no one ever took a close look at before.

4. Take up writing poetry again. I'm inspired, the ideas are there - but I simply haven't taken the time to write them down. It'd be a good way to pass the time on the train to and from work.

5. Eat more healthily. Meaning: buy less ready-made salads with stuff I do not know the name of and skip the leaves, and eat more red meat with yellow sauce, beans with brown sauce, and brown meat with red sauce.

6. Visit another country than Finland, Sweden or The Netherlands. In order of preference:
- Northern England or Scotland
- Cape town, South Africa
- Constantinople

7. Buy a plant and make sure it does not die within three months. If successful, buy other plant to keep first plant company. If nervous, rehearse with plastic plant first.

vrijdag 28 december 2007

Sometimes they come back

One simple but at least superficially compelling argument against an afterlife that I once heard and entertained myself for some time is that no-one ever came back from the dead to report on what they saw. Reading Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel's book on near-death experiences and the nature of consciousness, Eindeloos bewustzijn, I realized the circularity of the argument. Because it is extremely hard to pinpoint exactly when death occurs. When our heart stops beating? When we cease to breathe? When electrical activity in the brain ceases? And, of course, parts of me are dying (and, hopefully, being replaced) all the time. Of course, we could define death as the cessation of personal experience, but this would be question-begging with regards to the issue of an afterlife. Now, a fair number of people appear to have personal experience (of some kind) in a situation when some hallmarks of physical death are already present - van Lommel's research would indicate near-death experiences may occur in some five percent of heart failures, or even a little more. But the very term "near-death experience" suggests that we tend to assume they have not yet "really" died in such cases. In any event, the argument against an afterlife seems to me much more circular and question-begging than it once did.

Pim van Lommel's well-written book combines a survey on the current state of NDE research (with a lot of personal testimonies) with a speculative hypothesis on the nature of consciousness. Van Lommel rejects neurophysiological explanation of NDE's (such as a hallucination in response of hypoxia, etc.) as it is difficult to account for hallucinations with the minimal or absent brain activity some people experiencing NDE's yet have. Van Lommel also mentions the enormous, life-changing impressions these experiences seem to leave. Finally, there may be an argument from the similarities across various NDE's. The cigarette I just lighted and am smoking now may be a hallucination. But the world, including other people, seem to be very much coherent with the notion that I am smoking a cigarette. They act in accordance with it. And ultimately, part of my warrant for believing what I'm seeing comes from other people believing the same (or acting as if they do). They of course may be hallucinations themselves, but let's not go there.

Van Lommel's survey contains many fascinating details. The sensory experiences people report from the other side seem to be not quite sensory, or almost akin to synaesthesia: colours are 'felt', rather than seen, etc. Especially striking is a drawing by a six-year old girl of a near death-experience, depicting her smiling and flying at apparently great speed over an operation table where her not-so-happy looking double is attended upon by two doctors. A curious detail is a little row of angels in the upper right-hand corner of the drawing, complete with aureoles and all. I very much doubt that the child actually saw angels with actual aureoles. Perhaps she gained a notion of "heaven" and drew the angels because, of course, that's where the angels are; or alternatively, she may have met people or beings who she interpreted as being angels. The latter possibility points to a problem in interpreting NDE's. Provided they are genuine experiences of a genuine reality, this reality may be so numinous or so alien that it becomes extremely difficult to describe without resorting to more familiar notions.

Van Lommel's speculative notions of consciousness are based, unsurprisingly, on quantum mechanics. I have no real problem with that, though I am of course aware that a lot of ideas concerning consciousness and quantum mechanics are a bit fuzzy, to say the least. But part of this surely results from the fact that quantum mechanics does genuinely point to a relationship between consciousness and matter which sits ill with more causally-based, materialist notions. Van Lommel is careful enough to point out that the interpretation of QM he chooses to follow is controversial, and bases himself on the work of such researchers as Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, Henry Stapp, etc. I'm aware of a lot of his sources and his treatment seems pretty competent to me - nonetheless, the sections on QM and consciousness are very, very dense at times. The problem here is precisely that experiments such as the double-slit experiment, or Alain Aspect's work on entangled pairs, do point to an underlying reality that is very, very weird. Books do not come in unlimited sizes, and Van Lommel's is hefty enough as it is, but this is one part where perhaps a little more time should be spent on making clear precisely why the picture of reality Van Lommel presents is so shocking.

This said, I find the picture in broad outline not unbelievable. Van Lommel defends a largely panpsychistic (or panprotopsychistic) idea of mind and matter in accordance with Chalmer's type-F monism: matter and mind are double aspects of the same underlying reality. As for NDE's, Van Lommel believes they tap into some kind of "non-local" underlying realm of spirit - perhaps akin to Whitehead's notion of the consequent nature of God (where possibilities or eternal objects are perpetually entertained, and which at the same time functions as the "memory" of the universe, to which every single event that has ever happened remains for ever present and manifest). Through intermediaries such as Sheldrake, Henry Stapp, Ervin Laszlo and the like, the influence of such figures as Whitehead, Peirce, Bergson and William James is accounted for.

No singular scientific observation can falsify philosophical materialism (or any other metaphysical notion of mind and matter). It's certainly possible that accounts of NDE's are indeed based on hallucinations, dreams, imperfect recollection, etc. On the other hand, metaphysical notions are certainly not impervious to empirical science. NDE's are just another part of a body of largely anecdotical and some statistical evidence that is hard to account for within a physicalist world-view (Van Lommel refers to quite a bit of it near the end of his book). Taking all of it together, there is a case for taking things exactly as they seem to be: that NDE's are indeed experiences of some kind of reality that awaits us all after death; that instances of extrasensory perception are indeed instances of extrasensory perception, etc. The task then becomes to propose a coherent world-view which is able to account for these notions. Van Lommel's valiant attempt is highly speculative and probably wrong in the honourable way that grand, speculative visions tend to end up being. But I think there's a chance that parts of it, and perhaps even big parts, may actually be correct.

I have very few set beliefs on an afterlife. I would tend to reject notions of an afterlife as "everlasting" rather than "eternal": as a temporal sequence which never ends. The idea seems at times even horrible to me. When I started to take the possibility of God's existence seriously some years ago, I refused to mentally touch the issue because I was afraid that my very vivid and very present fear of death would prejudice me. For quite some time, I entertained a Whiteheadian notion of "objective immortality": my life, and my thoughts, sensory impressions, etc. would remain forever present to God, though there would be no personal survival of consciousness in the works. At the same time, I began to entertain more eschatological notions (the resurrection, etc.) at least as an object of hope.

Currently, I don't know what to think. Van Lommel tends to reject the notion of reincarnation in favour of the notion that "remembered" past lives may be the remembered lives of others, and I would agree with that. I suppose I am torn between the "prophetic" pole of Christianity with its promise of a Kingdom of God and a perhaps very physical resurrection at the end of times; and the more "mystical" pole of philosophical idealisms, Whitehead's notions of process philosophy, etc. For this reason, I am not sure how to take Van Lommel's book. Perhaps for the moment I'll take it as a compelling argument that we, as centres of experience, feeling, consciousness, are after all quite at home in the universe.

maandag 24 december 2007

A happy Christmas

To whoever reads this.

Spiked Online has put up a review, by Michael Fitzpatrick, of a new book by Terry Eagleton on Christ and the gospels. As I figured out it might be fruitful for an ex-Marxist-turning-Christian to read an ex-Christian-turned-Marxist, I did some reading on Eagleton recently - After Theory and most of his study on tragedy, Sweet Violence. His writing style is brilliant and infuriating at the same time - brilliant because I think he's one of the sharpest polemicists in the Anglophone world, infuriating because he tends to hop from subject to subject in a way I occasionally find hard too follow. Especially with Sweet Violence, I am of course handicapped by literary theory being not my own subject.

The Spiked review points out Eagleton's new book is about the same kind of theme that more than occasionally occurs in his other writings as well: that of Christ and political radicalism:

The presentation of Jesus as ‘homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade or occupation, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful’ has ‘an obvious popular resonance’. Eagleton explains Jesus’ austere lifestyle – and his celibacy – not as asceticism or Puritanism, but as sacrifices made in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

I'm not at all unsympathetic to the idea, though (from a religious viewpoint) I think it's important to not try too hard to fit Jesus into categories of zealot, or revolutionary, or moral teacher - as they all seem to miss something essential. My own interest in Christianity was kindled by the notion that, taking the New Testament on the face of it, Jesus was not a Spartacus or a Seneca, but someone quite... different. In some kind of dialectical fashion, Jesus seems to me to encapsulate the notion of political liberation within the higher notion of the Kingdom of God, which is somehow already here, intermittently, in the solidarity between human beings - yet still infinitely far away at the same time. Or the notion of morality within a higher notion of God's love and mercy. In the same way that Jesus indeed did not abolish death but conquered it.

I'm curious as to Eagleton's treatment of these matters, and will look to pick up the book at some point.

Michael Fitzpatrick's review ends, somewhat predictably and anti-climactically, with Spiked's usual humanist pep-talk:

The fact that past attempts to realise the dreams of reason and freedom through the quest for social progress have ended in failure indicates the need to deepen the humanist project – rather than surrendering to the baleful doctrines of original sin promulgated with renewed fervour in the void of the new millennium by Pope Benedict. While Benedict insists that hope depends on faith in transcendental redemption, Eagleton rightly insists that our source of hope lies in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’.

There's my usual gripe with Spiked. They remind me at times too much of the International Socialist meetings I occasionally attended. They always ended the same. A discussion about, well, whatever - Palestine, peace in Northern Ireland, the education system - would meander on for a little until an obviously planted IS cadre member would stand up from the crowd and spontaneously elucidate the need for a genuine socialist revolution to solve the problem at hand, with joining the IS or at least buying a subscription to their newspaper being a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for aforementioned event to occur. Likewise, with Spiked, for all their refreshing optimism, their disdain for political correctness and their willingness to slaughter the sacred cows of environmentalism, the animal rights movement, etc. always end up with a starry-eyed vision of tough self-reliant humans, liberated from their infantile fears of technology, progress, disease and death, and guided by the light of reason, marching off into libertarian socialist utopia. Can't they hire some appropriately curmudgeonly rightist, say an Anthony Dalrymple, as a guest columnist?

This said, they're more readable than just about anything else on the political Left.

Incidentally, I think Michael Fitzpatrick draws a false dichotomy in his conclusions - that between hope depending on "faith in transcendental redemption" and lying in the "in the ‘open-ended nature of humanity’". Though I am ever more sceptical of the latter - not so much of the potential of humans to evolve towards the better as of attempts to help that evolution along - I do not think the two hopes exclude one another. The big thing for me about the Christian narrative lies precisely in the way the universal and the symbolic (the reconciliation between God and man, the redemption of the latter) is played out in the very particular and concrete (a specific historical event concerning some specific people in Palestine). The transcendental, it seems to me, envelops and frames the particular, the historical, the here-and-now, without denying it. Likewise with the religious hope for some kind of reconciliation at the end of history and the here-and-now need for social justice, political freedom, etc.

zondag 2 december 2007

Paul Davies on science and faith

Physicist Paul Davies published an interesting piece in the NYT about science and faith (HT: Telic Thoughts). Paul Davies points out that:

(...) science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

Claims like these have the tendency to have atheists reach for their guns, and this one does not disappoint in that regard. And they do have something of a point. Because the "faith" ascribed to scientists, or atheists in general, often comes down to believing in the existence of an external reality, the existence of other minds, etc. - both prerequisites for the scientific methods that cannot be proven within the domain of science itself. There's a host of subsidiary, tacit knowledge we rely on to make our way in the world but scarcely reflect on, and which would leave us lost for words when challenged to furnish them with rational argument.

However, this kind of "faith" is very different from faith in the religious sense, which deals not so much with tacit, operational knowledge or prerequisite philosophical claims but with trust and hope in an omnipresent, transcendent You. My faith in some kind of ultimate redemption and reconciliation with God is mainly a matter of precisely hope - nothing close to the operational, practical near-certainty with which I deal with the existence of an external world, other minds, etc.

This said, the difference alluded to above does, in fact, shatter the popular conception of faith as "belief without evidence" on a par with fairies at the bottom of the garden, teapots around Saturn, etc.

And Paul Davies' claim is also more subtle and more interesting than the strawman I fought above. I'm not a natural scientist, I'm easily intimidated by mathematical formula, and for some reason the parts in Roger Penrose's books about imaginary and complex numbers and their importance in quantum mechanics disturbed me deeply. But many other mathematicians and natural scientists than Paul Davies have commented on the strange understandability of the physical world, the effectiveness of mathematics in describing it, and the remarkable beauty of those formula. Paul Davies writes:

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

The issue here is the distance between having "faith" in the rational intelligibility of the cosmos, and faith in the cosmos as the expression of rational intelligence, and whether the first might not easily cross over in the second and then result to something much more akin to faith in the religious sense. A question which arises here is then whether the relationship between the scientist and the natural world can become a relationship between an "I" and a "You" without the scientist realizing that herself.

Paul Davies sharpens the point by referring to the anthropic coincidences - the notion that if the fundamental constants of nature differed just slightly from their actual values, life would become impossible. Theistic answers to that conundrum - the "fine-tuning argument" has been often answered with various kinds of multiverse proposals. Perhaps the laws of physics are vastly different in unobservable regions of the universe - it is hardly an interesting coincidence that we happened to evolve in a region of space where the local laws of nature allowed for our evolution. According to Paul Davies, this answer leaves the existence of physical laws itself unexplained:

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

However, immediately afterward, Paul Davies makes a fascinating move problematizing the notion of disembodied laws of nature in the first place:

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.

One way to think about such a possibility, I assume, it to think of physical laws as emergent regularities in the behaviour of singular events. There is something sympathetically Peircean or Whiteheadian about such a proposal, and it does vitiate the need for a "hard" Platonic view on mathematics and physical laws, together with a deistic or classical theistic view to which it would obviously point.

Indeed, theologically I would strongly prefer "emergentist" viewpoints. Because I believe the notion of God as the designer and fine-tuner of transcendent physical laws is often accompanied by possibly misleading metaphors: God as the Divine watchmaker. Which may lead one often to some kind of Deism: God as wholly transcendent with regards to the universe, but not in any way immanent in the universe (I don't even want to start on how a view on God-as-divine-lawmaker can be reconciled with belief in at least that one infinitely important miraculous event).

Compare this with St. Paul's vision of the Son as transcendent and immanent in creation at the same time:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in that in all things he himself might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross (through him), whether those on earth or those in heaven.
(Coloss. 1:15-20).

Here we have a notion of the Son as the agent in the creation, sustainment and redemption of the world. A watch, once assembled, will exist without the continuous presence of its specific assembler - but the world cannot continue to exist without the immanent presence of God. An alternative analogy to God and creation might be one between a poet and a poem (of course, the poem may be written down - but this is not when it is created. It is wholly created in the consciousness of the poet). Of course, there may be many flaws with this particular analogy as well, but as an alternative to mechanistic designer analogies, it may be nevertheless useful to ponder.

To a process philosopher like Peirce, laws of nature were regularities emerging from the behaviour of singular events (which did not necessarily obey these regularities in a precise and automatic matter). The laws of nature are habits. I think the same kind of notion could be applied to Whitehead's philosophy of process as well (in his notion of "societies" of events, those that exhibit regularities in the actualization of the same "eternal objects" or Platonic forms - and thus exhibit a certain continuity of existence not ascribable to atomic events themselves). And a similar notion on physical laws has been recently proposed by Sheldrake - which is why I don't believe Sheldrake is the crackpot he is made out to be. He stands in a very venerable and respectable philosophical tradition.

The infallibilist naturally thinks that everything always was substantially as it is now. Laws at any rate being absolute could not grow. They either always were, or they sprang instantaneously into being by a sudden fiat like the drill of a company of soldiers. This makes the laws of nature absolutely blind and inexplicable. Their why and wherefore can't be asked. This absolutely blocks the road of inquiry. The fallibilist won't do this. He asks may these forces of nature not be somehow amenable to reason? May they not have naturally grown up? After all, there is no reason to think they are absolute. If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity. In the original chaos, where there was no regularity, there was no existence. It was all a confused dream. This we may suppose was in the infinitely distant past. But as things are getting more regular, more persistent, they are getting less dreamy and more real.
Peirce, CP 1:175

Now, importantly, Peirce and Whitehead were both idealists and theists (as is, for that matter, Sheldrake). The ultimate stuff of the universe is in itself mental, experiential, and amenable to final causes, and their exhibitions of regularities perhaps comparable to the way that human beings obey or disobey the norms of language so that language as a normative, regular system emerges from the communicative behaviour of individual speakers.

Paul Davies' notion of physical laws in similar fashion draws the question away from the origin of Platonic, disembodied physical laws to the nature of events themselves. If we do not suppose that the concrete, the actual can be exhaustively described by quantitative and relational physical laws and mathematics, but that these rather may rest in some fashion upon regularities in the behaviour of the concrete and the actual, then the question is about the nature of the concrete and the actual.

And the basic question about the rational intelligibility of the universe remains. Where reformulating the question does indeed provide a possible answer to the fine-tuning argument, it may end up scaring away the Deist cat with the Panentheist dog.

EDIT: I just leafed through the responses to Paul Davies' post at Most of them leap like terriers on the comparison Davies makes between scientific and religious faith without really getting his point about the status of scientific laws. Exceptions are responses by Scott Atran and especially Lee Smolin, who I'm glad to see quotes Peirce.

donderdag 29 november 2007

Religion and civilization

Fred Reed and Mark Vernon, both, I think, agnostics sympathetic towards religion, have posts up about the role religion plays in art and culture. Mark Vernon reviews a TV series about civilization by Mark Collins, detailing the removal of the religious impulse from art and its preoccupation with the human, and asks:

So art becomes the business of expressing human feeling - perhaps in the direction of nobility like the paintings of David, or in the direction of subterranean depths like the paintings of Goya. But the change does not stop there, for the deeper question Collins raises is whether the exclusively human, borrowing echoes of a religious past, is enough? Why this might be thought a problem is that in the years since David and Goya something further has happened to bring about what now might be called the quintessence of contemporary art - a gleeful, giddy, slightly menacing, slightly amusing fun.

The often wrong, but always worthwhile Fred Reed once again acerbically comments the decline of the West, blaming the sorry state of modern art, music and architecture on scientism:

The scientific habit of mind has killed off both religion and the spiritual wonderings behind so much of art. Thought has become purely materialistic in the philosophical sense. Today among the nominally educated it is regarded as uncouth to mention death or to wonder what might lie beyond. Among many of the less educated a hard and sterile Protestant fundamentalism flourishes, but it is an embittered, brainless thing. One does not easily imagine Jerry Falwell sculpting David or writing sonnets. The Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy was corrupt and venal, but it was magnificent and able to ponder things not expressible in equations. Perhaps it didn’t have truth, but it had style.

Writing a Wagnerian score requires (I think) a sense of the transcendent. To write The Lord of the Rings or to paint Leda and the swan, one need not believe in Norse gods raging in battle against chill skies, or a muscled Zeus throwing thunderbolts, or Pan leering from darkling forests. You need a mind that doesn’t smell of electrical insulation. This, few now have. The sciences are remorselessly literal. They do not admit of transcendence, wonder, or magnificence. People today drink this terrible narrowness with their mother’s milk and seldom get beyond it. They do not know what they have lost.

Thus a desert sunset is not a vast expanse of molten dunes on some unimaginable shore, stretching away in cascades of failing colors to the blue-black of the coming night and hinting of…what? That is the question. What is the wind saying?

No. A sunset is differential refraction, roygbiv, lambda equals, dispersion, water vapor, thermal upwellings caused by…

Reflecting on this brought back memories. I grew up in Oude Pekela, a town of 8,000 inhabitants in the northeast of the Netherlands. Religiously varied - Oude Pekela has a sizeable Roman Catholic community as well as at least three Protestant communities, and neighbouring Nieuwe Pekela has more Protestant communities, including, pretty unique for the rural Netherlands, a Lutheran parish - with, until the late eighties, a strong Communist Party presence as well. In many ways, it's a bleak place. Highly industrialized until the 1960s, particularly paper mills - but the closure of factories brought mass unemployment later on. The town and the surrounding landscape has a peculiar beauty of its own, one you find very rarely in the overcrowded, overurbanized Netherlands - vast, almost treeless plains of black clay cross-sected by straight canals and a big and sometimes menacing sky hanging over it. The architecture of the older farm houses and the old, small working-class homes is beautiful. That of the newer suburbs utterly soulless. Older houses had faces - windows as the eyes, and a door as a mouth - and the face could be friendly, or scowling, or even monstruous. The newer, post-war houses simply do not have the same character, being uniform and utterly forgettable.

In any event, though my parents were not religious at that time (my father would convert to Catholicism much later) I was sent to the Catholic primary school because it was the best school in the town. And the bits and pieces of religious upbringing I received there have contributed decisively to my later development. I recall sitting in church and staring fascinatedly at the monstruous gargoyles at the feet of the images of saints, and at the stern-faced saints themselves (I took a liking to St. Gerard Maiella because, being beardless, he did not look as stern as the others), and at the terrible station of the cross and the stained glass depiction of Christ behind the altar - and this opened a whole horizon to me. Who were these people, and what were the awful times they lived in like? The same with the Biblical stories our teacher used to vividly tell. They opened up a new frontier to me, an idea of a world so much vaster, more frightening and terrible, but also more glorious and beautiful than my village.

(And my fascination with ancient times led to an interest in ancient languages at the Gymnasium, etc. etc.).

As Fred Reed points out, what religion did was to put a narrative structure on our human experience - an idea where we came from, a notion about our current nature, and a hope for a deliverance from sin and evil, and a reconciliation with a merciful God. This narrative structure also in a way linked us with the past, with history, with the artistic achievements of prior generations, it provided for a kind of continuity. It made us into historical creatures. And it is, importantly, humans that are central to this narrative, as created in the image of God.

What, I believe, the Christian religion especially did was to unite the highest aspirations with the lowest points of human experience with the notion of the Son of God becoming flesh and suffering on the cross. Before my current, ongoing conversion to some kind of Christianity, I used to regard catharsis as a very important function of religious ritual and religious art: to purge ourselves of some of our lowest, basest impulses by weaving them into a ritual framework or a narrative structure which nonetheless imposed social cohesion, or integrated them into us as human beings.

There's a passage from Donna Tartt's brilliant novel The Secret History which illustrates this idea very well. Julian Morrow, the classics teacher, discusses the strange beauty of particularly the most ghastly passages of ancient literature:

'Aristotle says in the Poetics,' said Henry, 'that objects such as corpses, painful to view in themselves, can become delightful to contemplate in a work of art.'
'And I believe Aristotle is correct. After all, what are the scenes in poetry graven on our memories, the ones that we love the most? Precisely these. The murder of Agamemnon and the wrath of Achilles. Dido on the funeral pyre. The daggers of the traitors and Caesar's blood - remember how Suetonius describes his body being borne away on the litter, with one arm hanging down?'
'Death is the mother of beauty,' said Henry.
'And what is beauty?'
'Well said,' said Julian. 'Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming.'
I looked at Camilla, her face bright in the sun, and thought of that line from the Iliad I love so much, about Pallas Athene and the terrible eyes shining.

Julian continues to compare the Romans and the Greeks - the Romans, for all their pragmatism and logic, yet being strangely vulnerable to all kinds of superstition and foreign religious fads, while the Greeks, in contrast, provided for a place for the mystical, the irrational and the ecstatic in their culture:

'The Greeks were different. They had a passion for order and symmetry, much like the Romans, but they knew how foolish it was to deny the unseen world, the old gods. Emotion, darkness, barbarism.' He looked at the ceiling for a moment, his face almost troubled. 'Do you remember what we were talking about earlier, of how bloody, terrible things are sometimes the most beautiful?' he said. 'It's a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? Euripides speaks of the Maenads: head thrown back, throat to the stars, "more like deer than human being." To be absolutely free! One is quite capable, of course, of working out these destructive passions in more vulgar and less efficient ways. But how glorious to release them in a single burst! To sing, to scream, to dance barefoot in the woods in the dead of night, with no more awareness of mortality than an animal! These are powerful mysteries. The bellowing of bulls. Springs of honey bubbling from the ground. If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.'
We were all leaning forward, motionless. My mouth had fallen open; I was aware of every breath I took.
'And that, to me, is the terrible seduction of Dionysiac ritual. Hard for us to imagine. That fire of pure being.'

The terrible brokenness of being human - to which religion, any religion, is an answer - lies of course in the contradiction between our notion of the Divine and our animal flesh, between our universal intuition of morality and our universal failure to follow it, and the ensuing alienation between us and the natural world that surrounds us on the one hand, and between us and God and our fellow man on the other. Religion, and genuine art, are both ways to escape this brokenness for a while - to approach, momentarily, the Other - whether that be another human being or God. To, just for a moment, break through the walls that seperate us from that (Him) we long for so much.

I still believe this notion has a lot to say for it. And I'll also cheerfully assent to the central message of Christianity being true. There is an idea that one cannot have both. That to regard religion or art as a social phenomenon, or to interpret it through an aesthetic prism, cannot be reconciled with adherence to a central religious doctrine. I think that idea is wrong.

So, I think that in this fashion, religion and art as activities go hand in hand; that art in a way is an expression of a religious impulse.

That doesn't, of course, mean that being religious is necessary for appreciating art. But what, I think, is necessary is some notion of the transcendent, some notion of there being more to the universe than the whirl of atoms, of us being ultimately at home in the universe. As Fred Reed puts it:

Scientism and religion are brothers in intent; they have just chosen different roads. Both are evasions.

Religion sees life as a passage, scientism as a condition; religion as a moral order, scientism as a material order. Thus the religious person thinks we come into this strange world (from where?), reside briefly, and leave for somewhere else (where?). Death seems to him a fact of some interest. It is a leaving. Often it is frightening. He makes up stories to relieve his unease. He may believe that a loving god put us here and awaits us, despite an immense lack of evidence.

The adherent of scientism comforts himself by insisting that the questions don’t exist. We didn’t come from anywhere and aren’t going anywhere. We are just momentary arrangements of matter, like bubbles in a test tube. The bubble bursts, the ripples subside, and we are simply…gone. There is no evidence for this either.

Finally, we have divorced ourselves almost completely from the natural world, and even more for respect for it. Once we were specks on the landscape. The mountains were vast and forbidding; one walked in them with a sense of awe, or at least of being small in a large place. You could lie beside a brook babbling through a forest and reflect that the world contained things other than the trivialities of human existence. This produced I think a tranquility that made for contemplation, a frame of mind conducive to what we call tiresomely “creativity.”

Now we are become a blight on the earth, with the tinker-toy minds of chemists, rushing about in noisy machines and leaving beer cans everywhere. I do not see how a Vivaldi or Corot or Milne can exist under such conditions. And they don’t.

There is a strange contradiction at the heart of modern atheism: on the one hand, there is a strong tendency to assert the moral autonomy of the human individual; to place the human center-stage, including a laudable defense of universal human rights, equality between genders and races, etc. On the other hand, the metaphysics that often accompanies modern atheism tends to utterly undercut this: the notion that consciousness and ideas are a product of matter, that human beings are physical beings in a physical world, etc. The latter does not necessarily accompany atheism - but it often does. Few atheists would assent to dualism or idealism.

The "Copernican revolution" of scientism - the decentering of human beings, being ultimately a rather accidental outcome of natural evolutionary processes around a backwater sun in a rather unremarkable place of an indifferent universe - sits ill with some of the central values that humanism defends, to the extent that some popular ideas (the notion of a possible reduction of the normative realm - which includes reason, moral values, etc. - to the non-normative workings of the human brain; or the notion of "memetics") have the potential to undercut humanism.

This is something I am missing often with pro-science criticisms of postmodern relativism. Because it is not just the fashionable Francophone philosophers who have contributed to the demise of the notion of the human individual as endowed with reason and able to take control over his own circumstances. Scientism - from the unmourned behaviorist paradigm to the hopefully soon equally dead notion of memes - has done its own share.

But, ultimately, I disagree with Fred Reed on fingering scientism as the culprit while agreeing, at least to an extent, with his bleak view on postmodern civilization. Because scientism, as the misuse of science as a basis for a moral or ontological philosophy, is much more a product of (post)modernity than a cause. It is a refuge - an arid, poor, ramshackle refuge - after the death of all the great ideologies and narratives that provided a place for our individual fates within a greater whole. From the political - the old bourgeois order died ideologically on the killing fields of the First World War, and the new socialist order died ideologically on other killing fields not long after - to the religious, to the nation, to the family as a social institution, etc. We're atomized cogs in the wheels that sustain a social order which sustains that atomization. Until, at the margins, something new emerges. I am confident Christianity will play its part in that, and hopeful that it will do so as a guiding light rather than as political power.

dinsdag 20 november 2007

Back soon

Will post something new shortly. Pretty busy with the moment with preparing a presentation for next week. Meanwhile Victor Reppert has a good series up concerning torture. Disconcerting to see that civilization has declined to such an extent that not torturing people is apparently something in need of argument.

zaterdag 10 november 2007

God is for suckers?

Somehow (I don't recall how) I came across this weblog and the title immediately rang strangely accurate to me - though probably not in the way intended by the writers of said blog (rather standard middlebrow U.S. liberal boilerplate- probably not the cream of the atheist blogosphere's crop, so to say). In a very important way, God is for suckers. Jesus associated with publicans, prostitutes, the lame and the crippled, and had the 1st century Palestinian equivalent of provincial hicks for disciples. If you're comfortable and confident about your own moral compass, your deepest and innermost desires, your relationship to your fellows and society as a whole, if you regard yourself as a reasonably good person - and humanity as a whole as intrinsically inclined to the good, if you're not, in some relevant way, a loser, then Christianity is perhaps not very interesting to you. Your lot is with Athens (or perhaps, rather, Rome) than with Jerusalem.

"Just like you don't believe in Zeus..."

William Vallicella the Maverick Philosopher dissects a familiar argument raised by A.C. Grayling, finding that there is really no argument there. The argument, of course, is the following:

Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.

This remark outrages the sensibilities of those who have deep religious convictions and attachments, and they regard it as insulting. But the truth is that everyone takes this attitude about all but one (or a very few) of the gods that have ever been claimed to exist.

No reasonably orthodox Christian believes in Aphrodite or the rest of the Olympian deities, or in Ganesh the Elephant God or the rest of the Hindu pantheon, or in the Japanese emperor, and so endlessly on - and officially (as a matter of Christian orthodoxy) he or she must say that anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods".

The atheist adds just one more deity to the list of those not believed in; namely, the one remaining on the Christian's or Jew's or Muslim's list.

William Vallicella argues that any conclusion about the supposed irrationality of religion simply cannot follow from the premises in a non-question-begging manner. But I think the point can be attacked from another angle. Namely, it contains the premise that there is a relevant analogy between the atheist's disbelief and my disbelief in, say, Wotan or Zeus. And this, I think, is false.

For an atheist, a theist's idea of God may be an illusion, a Super-daddy or an imaginary friend which we project our hopes and fears on - or, to Marx, the "heart of a heartless world", a projection that fills the God-shapes hole that our alienation from nature, from the product of our labour, and ultimately from our fellow man leaves. Marx, of course, was way ahead of the current crop of "rationalist" atheists. The centrality of the notion of alienation, and the eschatological hope for a future where the divisions of class, race, gender that cut across society will be removed, is not that unbiblical. The difference is that I would believe that there is a God to fill the God-shaped hole so central in man's hopes and longing... But anyway, to an atheist, there is no divine reality we are somehow mistaken about - there is no divine reality, period.

And, granted Grayling's not wholly undubious point that "anyone who sincerely believes in such deities is deluded and blasphemously in pursuit of "false gods"" no atheist would state that Christians (or Muslims, or Hindus) somehow pursue a false God. As there is no "true God" to blasphemize against. The notion of a "false god" implies some kind of resemblance to the genuine article. It presents itself as a god - but in some crucial aspects the notion of it, and of our relations to is, differs from the true one, leading us astray. Similarly the notion of "antichrist" implies a resemblance to Christ - but leading us astray to very much the opposite of Christ and the Kingdom of God He preached. (I think the history of Christianity has a lot of candidates for possible antichrist status).

I think it is perfectly possible for a Christian to state that the religious experiences of the ancient Greeks, or polytheistic ancient Germans, are real, and that they ultimately include an intuition of the Divine - but that lacking God's self-revelation in Biblical narrative and ultimately culminating in God's incarnation in Christ, those religious experiences remained imprisoned in anthropomorphic metaphors and ultimately led to an instrumental, manipulative relationship between Deity and man which is the opposite of what God's intends us to do (magical thinking, manipulative sacrifice - compare the way state religion in the Roman empire becomes something wholly instrumental, a ritual way of signifying one's loyalty to the state by sacrificing to a deified emperor).

With the usage of "anthropomorphic" above I of course mean that the Gods of the Greek, Roman, and Germanic pantheons are limited beings, existing within the universe rather than the universe existing in God. A new - and from the perspective above, better conception breaks through with the Ahura-Mazda of Zarathustra, the singular Deity of Plato and Xenophanes, and the one God of Israel. A Christian would be bound to assert the validity of the covenant between God and Israel, of course. But I don't think it would be false to state that I and the ancient Greek monotheists and Zoroastrians, and, probablym, at least some Hindus and Buddhists, essentially believe in the same God in that it would be possible to intelligibly disagree on our beliefs about God. The relationship between my religious beliefs and the three Abrahamic faiths is, again, qualitatively more intimate.

So, I have no reason to state that, say, the religious experiences of the ancients engaging in the Dionysian mystery religions were wholly false in that they did not correspond to a religious transcendent reality. I can quite coherently assert the validity of religious reality encountered there while at the same time adhering to the Biblical revelation of God (and perhaps, rejecting polytheism as idolatry dangerous precisely because of the kernels of truth encountered there, and caught in misleading metaphors).

(If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis at some point remarks on the widespread agrarian religions containing the notion of a dying and rising God - Balder, Dionysus, etc. - seeing them as distant echoes of the death and resurrection of Christ - the momentous event in Palestine creating ripples across time and space, as it were. But of course, death and new life are encountered in a daily fashion in the harvest and the new growth, the passage of the seasons, etc. Here, too, perhaps Christ unites the particular and the universal - actually dying and being resurrected while at the same time being a sign of God's participation in the dying and living of humanity and all of nature, and more specifically of the death of the old world and the coming of a new one - one which is still, to Christians, an object of hope.)

So, I think that the notion that the atheist rejects just one more God, in addition to the theist's rejection of a whole number of Gods, is mistaken: I precisely do not reject Dis or Dionysus in a way analogous to the way the atheist rejects the Biblical God.

woensdag 7 november 2007

Historical linguistics and process philosophy

My paper on Whitehead and historical linguistics, which I had referred to before, is now on-line. I had to cut more than a third - though a lot of that was fluff, and I think the end result is more focused (if denser).

Reading it again on the way home from work today, I was pretty happy with it. Though I think my attempt to have my Platonic pie and emergentistically eat it was a bit cheeky :-). I only referred briefly to some of the possible consequences that a Whiteheadish view on historical linguistics might have on the assignments of genetic markers of identity. I'll probably have a presentation at my department at the end of the month where I might elaborate a bit more.

vrijdag 2 november 2007

Koos Kombuis' Swart September

A song which I find myself listening to again and again currently is the South African singer/songwriter Koos Kombuis' Swart September (Black September). The song (lyrics, translation and helpful comments here) is fascinating on a number of levels. First, there's the language. Which is Afrikaans, but shot through with anglicisms. This in a way ties in wonderfully with one of the main themes of the song (written in the final years of the Apartheid regime), which is problematizing national and ethnic identity in South Africa, and problematizing place, the ownership of land, and the dispossessedness of large groups of people.

In one verse, Koos Kombuis comments on precisely the linguistically heterogenous nature of the language:

Van Tafelbaai tot in Transvaal
loop hensoppers weer deesdae kaal
Maar is jy wit, bruin, swart of geel
kak almaal in die symste taal
Sou jy haar nog liefhe, die ongerymde moedertaal
besef jy sy's met clones en pidins landwyd op die paal

In the linked comments, "StrawberryFrog" points to the usage of the word "symste" (< English same but with an Afrikaans superlative suffix).

One of the main concerns of the lyric is the connection between people and their land, their home, the place they live in. This is evident right in the first lines:

Plant vir my 'n Namibsroos, verafgelee Welwitschia
harvestig hom in Hillbrow en doop hom Khayelitsha

But also in the way the lyric describes the disenfranchised, dispossessed Blacks, who "shuffle along the walls" (skuifel langs die mure) "without passes" (sonder pas). But most strongly, and ingeniously, in the final two verses, which use the melody of the then-national hymn of South Africa, die stem van Suid-Afrika. A national hymn, of course, functions as proclaiming one's belonging to a nation, and that of a nation to a piece of land, but Koos Kombuis' lyrics shatter all that, pointing out the divisions among South Africans right in the first line (uit die blou van ons twee skole), the disconnect between people and place in the following ones (uit die diepte van ons huimwe, uit ons ver-verlate homelands). Kombuis notes how the forced racial divisions, the reservation of homelands for the blacks, etc. reduce that population to squatters - but are the dispossessed blacks the only squatters Kombuis means? What about the coloureds, the whites, with their own differing ethnic origins far away?

Uit die blou van ons twee skole
Uit die diepte van ons huimwe
Uit ons ver-verlate homelands
Waar die tsotsies antwoord gee
Oor ons afgebrande skole
Met die kreun van honger kinders
ruis die stem van al die squatters
van ons land, Azania.
Ons sal traangas, ons sal Treurnicht,
ons sal klipgooi als jy vra,
ons sal dobbel in Sun City
ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika

The theme is highlighted by the use of the two toponyms in the final lines: Azania, the name for South-Africa in usage among the black radical left, which is associated with the voice of the dispossessed "squatters", the defying of teargas and "Treurnicht" (a wonderful dual reference to an ultra-conservative white politician and the verb for to "not cry, not mourn", cf. the teargas), and the throwing of stones. Then, Suid-Afrika, associated with gambling in Sun City. Which, as StrawberryFrog remarks, is an activity associated with the privileged, the well-to do - not the black kids throwing rocks in the previous lines.

There's a fascinating layeredness here. There's first the dissonance between the melody and its associations (the national hymn) and the lyrics, and then the tension between the two voices speaking in the final lines, both of which proclaiming their loyalty to their country (als jy vra, ons vir jou).

There's a way in which I think central to art, poetry, aesthetics, is the tension between contrasts, or as Whitehead wrote: "All aesthetic experience is feeling arising out of the realization of contrast under identity". That's how language works: the contrasts between sounds, the marked and the unmarked - but also the contrast between codes, exhibited throughout Kombuis' lyric, the unmarked Afrikaans and the marked English words with which the former is interspersed. But the lyric offers a host of other opportunities to study the usage of linguistic and semantic contrasts and their employment to build the lyric. Take the lines:

Die aand was vrolik om die vure
Gatiep was olik by die bure

which sketch an apparently merry, carefree scene. But then the following line:

Die tyres het gebrand
daar aan Mannenberg se kant

Note how first of all Mannenberg is there, the other place, not here. And then the ambiguous die tyres het gebrand which could, as StrawberryFrog points out, refer to the usage of burning tyres in roadblocks, or to necklacing. With the latter possibility, the usage of a passive clause is all the more shocking because it is so euphemistic. The "tyres" are mentioned to burn, rather than people; and the subject who set the tyres alight is not mentioned. There is a very disconcerting (and effective) tension here between linguistic form and meaning.

(And why here the English tyres, instead of Afrikaans die bande? Is the usage of an English verb here another way to dissociate the "we" in the verse from the Other, the events "over there", in Mannenberg? But perhaps this is too far-sought).

The following two lines repeat this tension:

Al die volk was hoenderkop
die Caspers het vol guns gestop

Depicting the drunkenness of the merry crowd and the presence of Caspir armoured cars full of guns. Note again the passive: whoever owns and controls the armoured cars and the guns is not mentioned. They seem to be mentioned as just being there in an almost offhand manner.

Then, the lyric radically and shockingly shifts perspective (which is, in the song, accompanied by a change in melody):

En die vroue by die draad
het eerste die gedruis gehoor
Tjank maar Ragel oor jou kind
die boere het hom doodgemoer

The sudden usage of the active clause here - Die boere het hom doodgemoer - is very brutal, in-your-face, compared to the hints towards such events in the earlier lines. Where the armoured police cars, the burning tyres possibly indicating a necklacing, and all that were "far away" and subjectless before, the depiction of the anguished women at the wire, the murder of one of their children by very much named and present agents, is a slap in the face.

The text is full of such counterpositions: the one, for example, between the petty complaints of the man in the main singer's perspective, who has to wait a long time to get his fries after a night out (In Langstraat, waar die cafes nog oop is / tot laat in die angry nag / het ek myn dolla slap tsjips gaan koop / ek moes half an hour staan en wag) and the worries of the passless blacks, consigned to the third class in public transport, in the lines before (die swarte sonder pas / skuifel langs die mure / verlustig hom in derde klas).

I'm not getting tired of this song anytime soon.

zaterdag 27 oktober 2007


(Warning: this post is not much use for those who don't read Dutch).

I recently found some of my old poems while rummaging through my papers. I thought I had lost them all during a hard drive crash. As it is, quite a few are lost unless I re-remember them, but a few have been salvaged.

I started writing poems in my first year at university in the mistaken belief that writing poetry would help me get girls. I apologize to any girl I accosted at the time - most of them were pretty cool and polite about it, only occasionally advising me to get help. My poetry at that time was pretty mad. I read a lot of Heiner Mueller at the time and was impressed with his unforgiving, hammering use of language. And I tried to imitate that. The result was a very cacaphonous, heavy-metal kind of poetry. I think that it saved that from being too pathetic. Or at least, I like to think that. But aside from a few good metaphors which I may be able to salvage in the future, it was pretty bad.

During the year 2001-2002, I worked as a teacher of Dutch in Georgia (Republic of, that is). No television, no computer, no research literature, absolutely gorgeous surroundings, and the books I had access to was the Dutch literature collection from our library. It did my writing a lot of good: what I wrote at that time was a lot more subtle, with metre and rhyme. Occasionally overwrought, but some of it was quite good.

The following two verses were from a poem that was never finished, but perhaps they can stand on their own. I'm not that happy with the first one, but the second I quite like:

Ik hoor je voetstap in mijn hart,
en in mijn hoofd je ademtocht.
Je sluipt door mijn herinnering
- zachtjes, maar ik hoor je toch.

En voel voorjaar, onrust
en regen in de lucht.
In mijn oog verslagen ijs,
in mijn borst een zwaluwvlucht.

One of my favourites was a poem that just seemed to present itself in near-complete form. It's about surrender and sacrifice, and the feeling of loss and powerlessness in those left behind. The religious references are obvious, but were not intentional at the time. Writing it, I must not so much had Christ in mind, but the messianic figure from Dan Simmons' novel The Rise of Endymion.

Ik zie hoe je je beker leegt
en schoonveegt aan het tafelkleed.
Je zoent me vaarwel, en ketent me.

Ik weet hoe daarvoor de hemel zweeg,
slechts de wind die met de takken streed
je zacht zei: ”Nooit vergeet ik je.”

Je kalme stem breekt mijn verzet,
je woord doet mij een knevel om.
”Waar ik ook ga, ik ga alleen.”

Je breekt je lichaam, opent het.
Ik zie de bergen. Ze staren stom.
Ik wil hier weg, weet niet waarheen.

Reading my old stuff with a religious eye, I see references (both Biblical and mythological) brimming just about everywhere - the "you" most of my poems were directed to may have originally been a more or less specific girl, but ends up being much more than that. As I may have mentioned at some point, I'm not a very social person. I guess it takes something for me to develop an interest in another person, and being female definitely helps developing that interest. With few exceptions, most of my close friends have been female. I suppose that also my religious feelings have, at first, developed through female archetypes. But it's interesting to note how all of that was brimming under the surface, so to speak, before becoming obvious to myself.

The following pretty sharply outlines my problems in meeting "the other" (other people, God) - one of fear and longing, a tendency to retreat behind high walls I built around me and a desire to surrender and open up:

Spiegels en muren. Ik verberg mijn gezicht
in handen van steen en stenen van vlees
en dromen en as. Hun taak onverricht
keren duiven en raven van het glas van mijn geest.

En van het puin waarvan mijn geheugen is
bouw ik torens, waar ik met verzegelde mond
steeds jou, die mijzelf en een vreemdeling is
vermink en omhels en zoen en verwond.

Nu wordt het nacht. Ik zie je kamp in het veld,
je huid neemt de kleur van het verdwijnende licht,
en ik wens mijn muren geslecht, mijn vonnis geveld,
je hand en je adem op mijn ontsloten gezicht.

I have sometimes considered translating some of them into English. Particularly because I haven't lived in a Dutch-speaking environment for such a long time. But translating the best ones - the ones adhering most strictly to form, metre, etc. - is quite hopeless.

One that I can translate, because it's quite simple and very prosaic, is unusually bitter. The lovely double meaning in the "depends" is better in Dutch, however (dat hangt ervan af). Anyway, I must have been in a pretty dark mood at the time:

You lean on me
- I support you like
a rope supports a hanged one.

Like now you're swaying above the crowd,
with the birds and the big grey sky,
I'm the only friend you have.

And, dangling from the rope, you ask me:
"My rope, I love you dearly,
will you stay with me forevermore?"

And the rope answers:
"That depends, beloved,
which one of us breaks first."

Gay marriage, liberal consensus and the corruption of power

Currently, a reform of the Swedish marriage law seems underway, and the law seems to be set to be redefined as gender-neutral - that is, in principle inclusive of gay marriage. A coalition of Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostalists have set up a counter-campaign under the title of "Bevara Ă„ktenskapet" (preserve marriage). Among other things, the coalition has bought advertising in the Stockholm subway.

Response to the campaigning poster - which I, even though I travel the Stockholm subway almost daily, have not seen but which I understand depicts a little heart and the words "Father Mother Child" - has been astonishing. The union of subway drivers and personnel have complained about the offensive posters, as have the Left and Environmental Parties. Also, the RFSL, the Swedish foundation for the Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered, have been wondering out loud why such offensive, hateful and discriminating behaviour such as disagreement with them is even allowed. Unsurprisingly, supporters of tolerance and inclusiveness have taken to hacking the websites of the offending Catholics and Evangelicals and tearing the posters down. Perhaps that's why I didn't see any around.

I'm not surprised by the actions of the Swedish Left, which has very strong censorious tendencies. The Left has been in power for most of the past sixty years, and has gotten too used to representing social consensus - which, in Sweden, is still largely social-democratic with a very odd mixture of social liberalism and moral conservatism (the moral conservatism of the Left mainly directed at non-politically-correct expressions of sexuality). It tends to respond with rage to views that fall far outside its own. If Swedish politics is to develop into the same direction as Dutch, Belgian and French politics - where all icons have been torn to the ground and smashed - the liberal-left political consensus here in Sweden is living on borrowed time. Which is not wholly a good thing (political discourse in the Netherlands has its own set of problems).

I'm more disappointed in the stance of the RFSL. I really expected something better of them. Power, it seems, corrupts - even the best.

I'm not against gay marriage as such. I would tend to strongly oppose any inequalities between gay and straight partnerships - such as those dealing with inheritance, and even adoption. This said, legal redefinition of marriage is not something merely abstract, not something that happens in a political vacuum. The family is the primary social institution where the next generation of citizens is socialized - and the piecemeal dissolution of that institution over the past thirty years or so, with increasing divorce, one-parent families, the obsolescence of such family rituals as having dinner together at a table, and all that, may have bad consequences as well as good ones (such as the growing economic and social independence of women). And the issue of gay marriage is not independent of such concerns.

And I, for one, would like to listen to such concerns, and be able to make up my mind about them, without the unions, or the Left party, or the RFSL intervening to shield me from such views! The freedom of the Evangelicals and the Pentecostalists is my freedom as well. And, sadly, it seems the RFSL is its enemy.

My advice, however, for social conservatives and Christians opposed to gay marriage is this: withdraw. You're fighting a rearguard fight, to retain a legalistic remnant of a religious society which has long ago passed into oblivion. Let the state call "marriage" whatever it wish. Meanwhile, resacralize marriage in your own communities, in your own churches, and treat it as your faith tells you to. Be like the Christians under the Roman Empire, pay your taxes to the Emperor and go on building a society within a society. My advice would be the same to Christians not opposed to gay marriage, or to other religious and non-religious groups who regard marriage as something worth saving, whether it is for straight, gays, polygamous unions, etc.: do not fight for your religious or ethical footholds in secular society from the outside. Instead, work in the interstices of secular society, fight for your values from within.

woensdag 17 oktober 2007

Scientism and "antiscience"

Something struck me while casually surfing some of my favourite ScienceBlogs today. Namely a phrase by John Wilkings after defending the ridiculous decision to award Al Gore the nobel peace price:

Of course, the MSM is also spinning in their mental graves on account of the fact that there were supposedly nine errors in An Inconvenient Truth, according to a British judge. James Hrynyshyn at Island of Doubt shows that there were two and a half errors, and all were justified at the time of the making of the film. But don't expect that to stop the slathering pitbulls of antiscience...

There's an eerie echo of some of the less savoury versions of religions (or secular ersatz religions like Marxism) in that last phrase. Now, of course John Wilkings may have been engaging in humorous hyperbole here - but a quick googling of the term "antiscience" shows the attitude is alive and well. I posted about the use of the loaded term "denialism" before.

Chesterton at one point remarked something to the extent that when people stop believing in God, the problem is that they'll start believing in everything else. And in some ways "science" in the Scienceblogosphere is mutating precisely in some kind of surrogate religion. It's seen as a source of values, a guide to political action, and most importantly, a tribal epithet distinguishing allies from enemies (nefarious Republicans, suspiciously francophone intellectuals and the like).

One could make the provocative point that, rather than arguing whether religion can even co-exist with a scientific attitude, religious beliefs (of the classical rather than the fundamentalist variety) may actually be of great benefit to a working scientist as they force her to distinguish values and metaphysical beliefs from science as a method.

vrijdag 12 oktober 2007

Nobel peace prize

I know the Nobel peace prize has suffered a credibility problem ever since they handed it out to Henry Kissinger, but... Al Gore? Who's next, Bono Vox? Bob Geldof? Michael Jackson? Enough aging celebrities with a messiah complex out there.

The bitter irony is of course that Al Gore was vice-president in one of the more warlike U.S. administrations in recent decades - which presided over bombing Yugoslavia, blowing up a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and the starvation embargo against Iraq, punctuated regularly by bombing raids. Whatever one can say about George Bush, at least he gave the Iraqis a chance to fight back (one which they have taken up enthusiastically).

Of course, this is all forgotten, as global warming and the war in Iraq are all too useful sticks to beat the Republicans with. The American liberal political memory is very short.

donderdag 11 oktober 2007

More on socialism and religion

Had a phone conversation with my father, where we discussed the points where Christianity and socialism touch. A very important one is of course the centrality of alienation in both Marxism and the Biblical narrative - especially the Creation account. Where the alienation of the worker from the product of his work is precisely that which Marxian socialism seeks to overcome, the Creation account magnificently describes the alienation between man and his natural surroundings, no longer a luscious garden but a field to be laboured upon, controlled and fought against:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.

(Gen. 3: 18/19).

But the big question is of course what went wrong between the Communist Manifesto and the Gulags. Ultimately, there were tendencies towards historicism - the notion of historical necessity, and the subordination of individuals and groups of individuals to historical necessity - right there from the start, even though Marx may have been much more subtle concerning questions of historical determinism on the one hand and mankind as the master of his own history on the other.

But I guess these tendencies came to the fore much more starkly when Lenin attempted to lead a socialist revolution in a country with a very small working class. Bolshevism of course endorsed an ideology of the Party as the vanguard of the working class - the working class being by itself only capable of attaining a broadly reformist, trade-unionist consciousness. So essentially the working class became a project for the Party rather than a needed corrective influence upon the Party. After the revolution, of course, Stalin undertook industrialization, collectivization and the creation of the Soviet proletariat (and rural proletariat as well) at breakneck speed and at the cost of millions of lives - the original Russian proletariat having died in the Civil War, absorbed by the growing Party bureaucracy or returned to the fields. Man, humanity, and human life became a project of the future to which present generations were subordinated to and sacrificed to; rather than a present and concrete ultimate in our ideologies.

Back when I lived in the Netherlands, I used to devour the texts of the East German playwright Heiner Mueller - the chronicler of the GDR, who started as a loyal socialist but became increasingly sceptical towards the end of his life without ever totally abandoning his ideals. One of Heiner Mueller's plays, Mauser, magnificently presents the question of "What is a human being?" The play itself reads like a comment/excerpt of Brecht's Die Massnahme. In Brecht's play, a group of agitators on a secret mission in Northern China decide that they should execute one of their own for the good of the collective. Mueller's Mauser is a dialogue between the Party, the firing platoon, and its victim, set perhaps during the Russian civil war. There is a certain merciless rhythm in the text - that of concrete stakes being rammed into the ground by cold and not at all benevolent machinery, and at the same time biblical turns of phrase (In Vitebsk as in other cities) are not hard to find.

Unfortunately, I haven't got the text right here, but I found an excerpt which I tried to translate below. There's no way this does justice to the text, but it might give you an idea:

Your assignment is not to kill men, but
enemies. For man is unknown.
We know, that killing is labour
but man is more than his labour.
Not until the revolution is finally victorious
in Vitebsk as in other cities
will we know what a man is.
For he is our labour, the unknown
behind the mask, the one buried in crap
his history, the real one behind the growths
the one living in the fossizilations,
because the revolution will tear down his mask,
will erase the growths, will cleanse the dried crap
from his history, from his image. The man, with
claw and tooth, bayonet and machine-gun,
rising from the chain of generations,
tearing his bloody umbilical cord
in the flash of the real beginning knowing himself
and others, each according to their difference.
Excavate, root and all, man out of man,
what matters is the example. Death means nothing.

maandag 8 oktober 2007

Hitchens on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Hitchens is outraged at the Dutch government's decision to discontinue funding Ayaan Hirsi Ali's bodyguards while she is in the US, mentioning it in the same breath as the events at Srebrenica in 1995 and calling on readers of Slate to register their feelings with the Dutch ambassador.

I personally don't see why the Dutch state should pay for the security of the American Enterprise Institute's personnel. I don't give a damn about the American Enterprise Institute. It can go to the moon for all I care. I don't expect any constructive suggestion from it to deal with the issues the Netherlands - and Europe in general - are currently facing.

If Hirsi Ali had stuck to her guns in her political fight with immigration minister (now turned right-wing populist bulldozer) Verdonk, and stayed in the Netherlands and stayed in the parliament, she might have provided some intellectual content (not to mention dignity) to the secularist criticism of multiculturalism. Probably wishful thinking, to be sure. And we'll never know. Because Hirsi Ali didn't stick to her guns, didn't stay in parliament but went happily off to America. To work for the American Enterprise Institute or something. Kind of a disappointment, really. And the secularist, Islam-critical discourse in Dutch politics she might have contributed further to is now dominated by a conspicuously fascistoid variety of "secularism".

I recall when as schoolkids in the early to mid-nineties, we would organize demos against Neo-Nazism - which was then a menacing but very marginal phenomenon, mainly restricted to the former eastern part of Germany as well as maybe fifty idiot skinheads in the Netherlands. But what we then considered as discourse on the slippery slope to Nazism seems positively moderate now. With all kinds of degenerate would-be followers of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh out-doing each other in radicalism - going as far as to seriously propose banning the Quran and calling upon Muslims to tear it up to prove their loyalty. Enlightenment values, I guess. Oh, and becoming the second-biggest party in the gallups for it, too.

And this is the dominant political discourse in the Netherlands at the moment. This is what makes the headlines. Forgive me if I am a mite sceptical about the "ongoing attack on our civilization" Hitchens mentions. Let's say that I see it coming mainly from the other side.

As left-leaning youth growing up in the largely white, Christian and monocultural Dutch countryside, we were of course very naive about the very real problems that would eventually lead to the meteoric rise of Pim Fortuyn - and the troglodytes that now want to step in his footsteps. As an ideology, multiculturalism is dead. Our sovereignity has been taken over by a religiously and culturally faceless European Union which our political class doesn't dare ask our opinion about. We simply lack the ideological tools to found the co-existence of ethnically diverse groups in the Netherlands upon some kind of common national identity, national idea, etc. We never did - the previous co-existence of various religious factions in the Netherlands was mainly a "living alongside" one another. And we can't get back to that. So now we're headed to some kind of regressive conflict based mostly on skin colour.

I think we crossed a line when, in 2002, a social democrat politician in Amsterdam used the Dutch expression kutmarrokanen - which does not sound quite as bad in Dutch as the literal translation ("c*nt-moroccans") would suggest, but is not really nice either. Overnight, a racist slur became salonfähig, kind of trendy even, a sign you were not going to be silenced by those muslims threatening our civilization and their spineless Leftist fellow-travellers. Now think of how the second-generation of Moroccans, whose fathers cleaned your schools and picked your fruit and manned your factories, and who are caught between an old culture that is not theirs anymore and a new one that is distinctly unwelcoming, think of how they feel about that. And then tell me on how to get back to solving our problems in a sensible manner.

Fortunately we have Christopher Hitchens telling us what to do.

You know, I am getting slightly annoyed by British and American neocons, "Decent" Leftists and Not-so-decent Rightists telling us what to do. Especially because their own contribution to solving the conflict apparently consisted in bombing the crap of a poor country and then letting it slide into a murderous tribal civil war-cum-terrorist training ground. I mean, that really helped. The lack of political hindsight with people like Hitchens is so brazen as to be almost admirable. I mean, I would hardly dare touch a pen myself after such a blunder.

If Hirsi Ali is in America, working for the American Enterprise Institute, let the Americans pay for her security. If she is in the Netherlands, she can have a small army paid for by the state to protect her, as far as I am concerned. As can Geert Wilders. Or sensible ex-Muslims. Or non-sensible ex-Muslims. Or drawers of racist cartoons - their freedom of speech should be unconditionally protected. As should that of idiots who like to refer to Moroccans by the name of female genitalia, or those who find mirth in making those oh-so naughty and risque allegations concerning Mohammed and paedophilia. If not for a matter of principle, then for the practical truth that the country probably can't really deal with another political murder. But let's not make pretensions about defending our civilization or all that crap. That battle has been fought and lost, far as I am concerned.

vrijdag 28 september 2007

A very short politico-religious autobiography


This post is intended for those who read my old weblog and wonder what the hell happened. Or the old friend who e-mailed me a few weeks ago how I was thinking to go about combining Christianity and socialism. My politics are currently a confused mess, and they have been so for quite some time.

In a way, I am following in my father's footsteps. My father was a member of the Dutch Pacifist Socialist Party during the 1970s and later a member of the Dutch Communist Party until it dissolved in the early nineties. He encountered the local Church during the peace movement of the 1980s and slowly approached Roman Catholicism, which led to his conversion and theology studies in the 1990s.

The main difference between him and me is, I think, one of temperament. I was more orthodox as a Marxist than he ever was, and probably will end up being more orthodox as a believer as well. I guess it's because I like intellectual puzzles. Orthodox Marxism, with its emphasis on the dialectic, provides a lot of them. So do more orthodox variants of theism. But I'm fundamentally not a people's person. I think this is probably my weakness: both my approach to Marxism and my approaches to philosophy and religion have been very, and perhaps overly, intellectualistic.

In any event, my family background should explain why a combination between Leftism and religion was never something particularly remarkable to me.


I was involved with mostly Trotskyist groups during my late teens and early twenties, but my sympathies towards Trotskyism were mostly, I guess, a cover for a more deep-lying attraction towards Stalinism - not so much as in the sense of Stalin's politics, but the Eurocommunism combined with a strongly Pro-Soviet attitude of the Dutch Communist Party which was dominant in my home region. The orthodox Trots just seemed to me to be more able defenders of socialism than the Stalinist leadership in East Europe, which caved so easily and sold out in 1990-1991. In any event, this lead to me never feeling quite at home in the Dutch radical-left politics of the late 1990s, which seemed to me to be self-absorbed with a lot of navel-staring, a worrying lack of doctrinal consistency, and an obsession with environmental issues which was pretty alien to me (I was from the countryside. I knew about mud and green stuff and more mud).

An important centre for my political thought was the war in the Balkans and the response of Western governments. It split the Left pretty much down the middle, with groups variously backing the Bosnian-Herzegovinan government or the Serbs. I very much mistrusted the reigning tendency in the Left to regard BiH as some kind of multi-ethnic, multicultural beacon of hope beleaguered by the neo-fascist Serbs. This seemed to me to ignore the notion that the collapse of Yugoslavia was the collapse of a socialist state (or more correctly of course, a "deformed worker's state"). I felt that something was going wrong if socialists were as eager to support the split-off of the new former Yugoslavian republics as the government of (freshly re-united) Germany was.

There were other issues as well. I've never been particularly sympathetic towards (radical) feminism. Obviously, I believed in equality between men and women, within an overall framework of socialism - but the attitude of feminists within the radical left seemed unpleasantly eager towards censorship (pornography, of course - but also the defacing of works of art in the Netherlands), seperatism, etc. I was very much aware that I was a guy, that I liked girls in various states of undress, and didn't feel like apologizing for it.

Anyway, all this lead me to develop politically in a particular direction. I was impressed by the way the Spartacist
combined an orthodox but very analytical and highbrow Trotskyism with a provocative libertarian streak. The journal Living Marxism, the child of which is Spiked-Online later seemed also inspiring to me (though this time mostly as provocative libertarianism with a trotskyist streak). And when protest erupted against the bombing of Yugoslavia in spring '99, I became aware of some very trenchant right-libertarian and paleoconservative criticisms of NATO, centering around such websites as Antiwar and Llew Rockwell's site. I still think that the fundamental libertarian arguments and the leninist arguments against war are not that far apart: they both center around the role war plays in strengthening the state (something which, of course, is very clearly shown by the climate of fear and authoritarianism that seems to have taken off in the US during 9/11).

Needless to say, I never could subscribe to core libertarian ideology, but I still think libertarian thought on particular single issues can be very worthwhile.

In any event, my interest in political activism as such slowly declined without any particular break in my political convictions. I already said that my attraction to Marxism was a very intellectualistic one.

As for my religious beliefs at the time, I was mostly agnostic with vague leanings towards theism or towards atheism at various points. Though I appreciated the socialist criticism of religion from a sociological point of view, I regarded Marxian historical materialism as fundamentally relational, as saying something about the relationship between consciousness and material circumstances, rather than as asserting the primacy of matter. I never regarded atheism as an implication of Marxism.

My encounter with religion and religious people during my youth (my schools were all religious schools - both RC and Protestant) also, I believe, inoculated me to some of the worst caricatures of religion and religionists I see around the blogosphere.


Anyway, fast forward to 9/11. All the time I am thinking that the slow surrounding and annexation of the former Soviet Union by the West would be the main theme of the coming decade. That Kosovo would be followed up by the bombing and occupation of Belarus, the Balkanization of Russia, etc. etc. Turns out I was a bit wrong about that. Out of nowhere 20 islamists perform just about the most spectacular terrorist attack ever - in both callousness and conspicuous mass murder, and symbolism, striking at one of the big icons of the capitalist West.

The new battle lines confuse me. Though I have no liking for US foreign policy any more than I had before, I tend to regard political islam as representing an ideology much more backwards and barbarous than western capitalism. I am also convinced the US neocons as well as Blair are sincere about their messianistic, universalist bourgeois ideology. The "blood for oil" argument didn't impress me (I heard it before during the Kosovo protests. It didn't impress me then either). I find myself more open to accept ideas as fundamental factors in shaping policy, rather than looking for nefarious economical motives behind the ideas, as the vulgar Marxists do.

My opposition to the Iraq war is considerably more reluctant than to the bombing of Yugoslavia. Part of that might be simple pessimism. Remembered the US flattening the Iraqi forces in '91, then NATO by hook and by crook getting what it wants from Yugoslavia in '99, and now war-weary Iraq caves in again. No-one seems to be able to really withstand the US anyway. Of course, I am proved wrong here when the Iraqi resistance starts to seriously kick US arse - but it kicks other-Iraqi arse even more seriously, in an amazingly nihilistic and bloodthirsty way.

It's a sad and horrifying spectacle. The US, without much political conviction, killing massive numbers of people from afar with jet planes and cruise missiles and all those horrible engines of destruction - and then Iraq erupting in a murderous civil war with Islamist groups seemingly simply intent on killing their Shi'a enemies by the hundreds. It strikes me that most political terrorism hitherto seemed to be restricted and focused on more or less limited political aims. The Islamists on the other hand seemed to be hell-bent on simply killing. Death. Of as much people as possible, and preferably fellow muslims.

Recalling Rosa Luxemburg. The choice before us is between socialism and barbarism. I'm considering that socialism has failed, and it won't get a second chance. And that we get barbarism instead.

My political convictions shift a little bit during the following years. I never was very much anti-Israel, not as obsessively as most of the Left was. Sure, I believe that the occupation should end and the Palestinians should have their sovereign state - but I believe the Israelis deserve to have their state as well. The Marxist discussions about whether the Jews are a nation, whether self-determination applies to them, I answer pragmatically: Whether they were a nation or not, they definitely are now, and they seem to be self-determining just fine.

I move towards a more pro-Israel position. My kheffiye goes into the cupboard, and remains there forever (I took it off when I encountered a march of kheffiye-clad Palestinians brandishing portraits of sheikh Yassin - the murderer ordering young boys to blow themselves up. Much as I try, I cannot fault the Israelis for liquidating him). Eventually, when the war in Lebanon breaks out, I root for the Israelis. It seems to me that no peace is possible as long as the Hizbollah and the Palestinians keep shooting rockets at Israeli territory.

This position of course being incompatible with Marxism without some very serious mental gymnastics, so I guess it marks my break with Marxism on the practical and political plane (the one on the philosophical having preceded it).

I grow more sensitive towards anti-semitism among the Left, but ultimately there's a very deep gulf seperating me from the "decent Left" exhibited by such places as Hurry Up Harry. The gulf basically being their support for military adventurism of the US and Western Europe. Kosovo was their defining political moment just as it was mine - except that we moved in opposite directions.

I spend the years 2002-2003 in Finland, after which I move to Sweden. Around that time, I start adopting what I could describe as a strong pro-science and pro-secularism position. For a long time I believed that the fall of socialism also lead to an attrition of Enlightenment values as well - something exhibited very nicely by the fact that the people taking up arms against a decadent Western capitalism end up making it look good. In the academic domain, I encounter post-modern thought and take an immediate dislike of it.

So in my political ideas, some elements that had always been there (secularism - which I never confused with being anti-religion; a liking for technological and industrial development and a dislike for environmentalism; libertarianism in areas of culture, free speech, etc.) get very much emphasized. I think that the product are the posts on the old weblog.


There's a few factors which have lead to me getting politically and religiously where I am now. My belief in God had, in some vague sense, been there for a long time. But I start to realize just how many different layers of meaning can lie behind the notion "God exists" and start reflecting on them. I get interested in ideas of God slowly coming into existence, as propounded by for example Teilhard de Chardin.

In my academic work, I discover the autonomous, metascientific tradition of the human sciences and of linguistics (Collingwood, Coseriu, Esa Itkonen, etc.) which makes me distrust the unity-of-science notions that seem to be implicitly held by so many on the pro-science/pro-reason side of the "science wars". I still don't understand a whit of post-structuralism, but I am not as eager to call it nonsense as I used to be.

I start getting interested in philosophy as well. I realize that the materialist idea I quietly held about man - that basically, we are all chemistry and that our thought and feelings somehow arise from that chemistry - is less universally accepted and less obvious than I thought. Philosophically, my main waypoints are Whitehead and Peirce, and they have been for some time.

But philosophical theism may defend the idea of God as a philosophical category, but not as an object of religion. But I may have been in some sense religious before I became a theist. My attraction to Marxism may have had a religious element in it. What got me specifically interested in Christianity was reflecting on two key Biblical event. The first was of course the story of Isaac and Abraham. Which is not so much about the obedience of Abraham as of the faith of Abraham, who tells his son specifically that God will provide for the offering. By doing so, God proves himself not to be just one more idol demanding the blood of human sacrifices: He proves himself to be a trustworthy God. Years ago, when I started reflecting on the story, I told myself that were I a Jew or a Christian, I would be able to justify my religion by just pointing to that story, to the internal logic of it. I can't quite explain the sensation involved - let's just say that there was a creeping sense that what I was reflecting on was more than just myth with a morale.

Of course the story of Abraham seems to be strangely in contradiction with that of Jephta. The warrior Jephta swears that, if God grants him victory, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he gets home - which cruelly ends up being his daughter (and the daughter duly gets sacrificed). I interpret Jephta's story as a warning: Jephta tries to manipulate God, to get him to do him a favour in return for something later. He basically treats God like He is some kind of idol who can be manipulated. There's an enormous contrast between Jephta's manipulativeness and Abraham's unconditional trust.

The other Biblical event is, of course, that of the Gospel. Reading on Jesus, he seemed to me to defy the categories I would put him into. He was not just a great moral teacher, rather, his central command (love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and love your neighbour as you love yourself) transcends morality. He also was not just a social radical, rather, his notion of the Kingdom of God moves beyond the worldly notions of social radicalism, the idea of matching worldly power with worldly power. To me, there seems to be this strange out-of-time quality about the gospels. The same I had with the story of Abraham, something that both in its literal and symbolic meanings is more real than any other sign or story could be. That Jesus somehow combines the concrete and the universal. It's hard to explain, and I lack the notions to explain myself here.

I was of course very much struck by the notion that, through Jesus, God partakes in the universal fate of mankind: to live, to suffer and to die. Which implies just about the only answer to the problem of evil which I find acceptable. That evil - both natural and human-caused - are implicit in the finitude of God's creatures and beyond God's capabilities to intervene. But that God is not only transcendent, but at the same time omnipresent in the universe, in every human being and every small creature, and that He has joy with their joy and suffers with their suffering.

Isaiah 42 has a beautiful passage, which is quoted by Matthew (12: 15-21):

Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold;
My chosen one in whom My soul delights
I have put My Spirit upon Him;
He will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry out or raise His voice,
Nor make His voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish;
He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not be disheartened or crushed
Until He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.

The God speaking here is a God who does not break into the universe from the outside, but who accepts and loves his creatures despite all their imperfections and their finitude. Note that He did not become incarnate among the philosophers of Athens or the emperors of Rome, but instead as a carpenter at the ass-end of the Roman Empire, and that he decided to associate with the publicans and the sinners, rather than with the pious and notables of his time and place.

My ideas about the trinity are vague and probably marked by at least three or four historical heresies. Suffice here to say that I do believe that in some way, God became incarnate in the man Jesus: that Jesus was both wholly divine and wholly man. This also means that God, through Jesus, experienced suffering and death. Contrast this with Socrates, a wise and virtuous man, who died with dignity surrounded by his friends. Or Seneca, who wrote about the humane treatment of slaves, and on how we should treat ceramics as if it were gold, and gold as if it were ceramics (but who was richer than the emperor, and to whom the idea of giving up on his earthly possessions would sound very quaint). To compare this with Jesus, who rather than preaching on how to live virtuously told people to lose one's life for his sake; who rather than elucidating morality showed how the laws of his day were subverted and transcended by love, and who died the death of a common criminal, in utter abandonment and loneliness, only to arise as a sign of hope to all of us who must face their own crosses and their own deaths. There is a kind of truth here, which to me seems to go both beyond literal truth and beyond the symbolic truth (in the sense that myths, great literature and great poetry can be symbolically true). The Word has become flesh.

But the notion of Jesus' message transcending morality does not make morality invalid, and the notion of the Sermon on the Mount transcending somehow social radicalism doesn't vitiate the need for social radicalism. Rather, I think that the way God in the New Testament aligns with the suffering and struggling and sinful part of nature and mankind, rather than with the virtuous and materially wealthy part, as well as the notion of the "Kingdom of God" as a community of people both marked by love for each other and love for God (and to me, the omnipresent God primarily manifests Himself in the love between human beings) makes some kind of Christian socialism very much possible.


As I mentioned, I reject Marxism as a philosophical doctrine, which is to say, I reject philosophical materialism. I'm not sure about the dialectic. I never understood it when I was a Marxist, I actually came to understand it when, during my Ph.D. studies, I came to understand a certain phenomenon as fundamentally identical and non-identical with itself. I think Peirce's three basic categories essentially restates Hegel's dialectic, and as such, I believe it to be very useful in making sense of stuff.

I no longer believe that the crimes of Stalinism can be simply explained as an outgrowth of bureaucratization and thermidorean reaction, as the Trotskyists like to do. There was too much wanton bloodshed going on under Lenin and Trotsky's command for that to be a sufficient explanation. I think the anarchists may have been correct about Kronstadt after all. And I cannot escape the notion that the rather callous attitude the Communist regimes have taken towards human life and the value of the individual - as something to be sacrificed for the good of future generations - is not wholly unconnected to its historical-materialist philosophical base.

At the same time, it would be unfair to focus on the tremendous bloodshed of the Russian Civil War and Stalin's reign while forgetting what the Bolshevik revolution responded to: the obscene slaughter of the First World War. The twentieth century may point out very clearly the tragedy of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but it also points out the moral bankruptcy of the capitalist powers which they encountered in the trenches at WWI, and the ideological exhaustedness of Western liberal capitalism, which has seen itself beleaguered not only by socialism, but also by Fascism and now by Islamic fundamentalism. People need a transcendent ideal to fight for, something they can put their lives on the line for. If a society cannot give it to them, it is ultimately doomed. Socialism provided a transcendent ideal for millions and millions of people during the last century. But Fascism and theocratic movements can play the same role. The Americans have held out pretty long precisely because their nation provides Americans with some kind of basic ideology with capitalism at its very core. But liberal capitalism has long died out as a vital political ideology in Europe. Trotsky was wrong about many things, but he was right about this one: the time for capitalism to be overcome by a new system has not only come and gone, but capitalism is starting to smell funny.

And this is where the secularists and the pro-Enlightenment "decent leftists" are wrong. People (with perhaps some courageous exceptions) aren't going to die for secularism. They seem very prepared to die for Islam. Michael Corleone would know where to place his bets. Without incorporating Enlightenment values and secular values such as freedom of religion, universal human rights, equality between the sexes and all that into some kind of ideology which can make people feel part of something much bigger than themselves - as communism like nothing else could - Enlightenment values are dead.

So I'm rooting for some kind of socialism to re-emerge which might avoid the tragedy of the Soviet Union. I believe that to do this, it probably must incorporate some religious or quasi-religious values at its very heart (notably involving the sanctity of human life, etc.).

Otherwise, my politics haven't changed very much. Except maybe for the following:

- I modified my opinion on environmentalism a lot. I still don't believe in Global Warming. But I'm very much in favour of conservationism. I believe the weevil and the vole and the mole and the beetles and the millipedes deserve their place on earth as well, as fellow Creatures. I'll probably end up making some lifestyle changes as I don't believe the industrialized cattle-farming of the West is morally defensible.

- I'm still a libertarian on free speech issues, pornography, sexuality in general, etc. That doesn't mean I think sexuality is all hunky-dory. I stared into too much private abysses of myself for that. At best, it's a demonic force that needs to be thrown a bone every now and then. I would tend to regard sin as the tragic condition of finite, mortal beings with an intuition of the infinite and the immortal. Basically, whatever that "drags us down" to the level of merely biological creatures, and tempts us to do evil in pursuivance of biological needs. In that sense, I'd pretty much regard sexuality as "sinful" to the extent that I very much understand C.S. Lewis' and Michel Houellebecq's ideas of asexual future supermen. But I believe that sin as a condition must be overcome by love between humans and love between man and God, rather than denied or extirpated.

- My opposition to the death penalty is pragmatical rather than principal. I believe that there are crimes for which death is the only appropriate punishment. It's just that I don't trust anyone to hand it out.

- Retrospectively, my reflexive anti-West position with regards to Yugoslavia, Kosovo etc. was much too simple. The idea of NATO encircling the former East and Soviet Union probably overestimated the coherence of NATO policy a lot. I still think Kosovo was a very bad idea. Not sure about the intervention in Bosnia. I think that the whole policy, alternatingly supporting seperatism (with Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia as state) and opposing seperatism (with regards to the Krajina Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs, and latterly the Kosovars) was hopelessly contradictory.

- I'm tending to conservatism on culture and education issues. But this is not new, and has itself a long socialist tradition. The socialist publishing houses of the 1920s and 1930s spend great effort in making the literature of the world available for workers to read. Because then the idea was that, as a preparation for power, the working class needed to make the cultural heritage of the world its own. The misbegotten idea that political leftism should involve fighting against the cultural heritage of the world arose in the 1970s, and not from within the working class.

- I remain very much on the Left on issues of social security, workers' ownership of the means of production, anti-racism, rights for immigrants, etc. Particularly the last one is a burning issue in Europe these days, where some kind of alliance of secularism and racism has arose against previous excesses of political correctness and multiculturalism. I don't believe in multiculturalism, mind you. But I believe the idea of multiculturalism itself is a product of the ideological death of Western liberalism. But the current wave of xenophobical and raw racist discourse in for example the Netherlands (presenting itself under the excuse of the need to protect our "secular values" against islamic fundamentalism) must be fought tooth and nail. On this, I believe the traditional radical Left, for all its failings, has generally done better than the "decent left".