Merry Christmas

With Domenikos the Greek, exiled to Spain.

El Greco, The Nativity

The centre of the Nativity is the Mother and Child. He glows, and she is overcome with Love. There is the darkness of the stable, but always the beauty and the Love. No angels are needed here.

El Greco, The Holy Family

Here Jesus is slightly older, on solids. I love his hair! Her face- she is overwhelmed by Events, but also courageous, able to face all that comes.

El Greco, The Holy Family

And just as there is the darkness of the stable, there is also always the Glory of Heaven.

Compassion in action

Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!

Quote from Psychology today, hat tip to Melissa.

When I was a volunteer just starting doing benefits tribunals, some of us met up in Edinburgh to discuss our cases. Each would start by describing the client’s situation, and each time a woman would drawl, “How Ahful! AHful!” I did not know who she was, she made no other contribution that I could see, and I hated her: we were taking practical action, and she seemed to be enjoying the feelings we evoked, even getting a mild high.

Compassion is seeking to change the situation, but it starts with the feeling. Only the feeling would motivate me to action.

I was driving home from a dance, and heard on the midnight news that Rwandan troops had attacked a Hutu refugee camp, which I later heard had been thought to harbour the Interahamwe. I screamed. News can be horrible, more likely producing a depressive apathetic withdrawal, but sometimes it gets under my skin. There was nothing I could do: I was doing good in the world elsewhere, and had to be satisfied with that.

I saw a beggar yesterday, who asked for money for food, and I refused her. I feel a similar depressive reaction, cutting off feeling from action.

Swanston does not have a homeless shelter, but when the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing three nights in a row a temporary shelter opens in the churches. Liz volunteers there. Three people came in, and after they closed their doors at 10pm the police brought in a Romanian man who had been working on building sites and had been attacked and injured while homeless. He is entitled to nothing. Later, the police called: they had stopped someone from jumping from a great height, and they wondered if the shelter could take him in. The volunteers discussed it, and decided they did not have the necessary mental health skills. There was nowhere else for the police to send him. We do what we can.

I feel more than I feel able to do.

El Greco, the agony in the garden

Compassion in hurt

I felt good in that woollen Karl Lagerfeld suit- it is always worth going to the charity shops in the posher areas- as I walked from Canal St, the gay area, towards the Bridgewater Hall. If I was going to transition, I had to be able to be myself among the straights, and a concert of the BBC Philharmonic was a good place to practise: the middle classes do not make a scene. I had taken great care of make-up. I turned onto Oxford St., and a man shouted,
“It’s a fucking bloke!”

And I felt crushed.

I had been transitioned at work for five years, and I was walking from one office to the other through the near-deserted shopping mall, not all of its shops yet let. A man was rushing in the other direction, and as he passed me, he hissed,
“Fucking nonce.”

“Weirdo” I can accept, even feel proud of- search for the weirdo inside yourself- but nonce, meaning sex-offender, is too far. I wondered at the hatred he could feel at a person he had never met before. It was rare, by then, for me to be insulted in the street, and I have not been since, but I remain one of a group which inspires such unreasoning hatred from a small part of the population.

I am a safe target for such hatred, a cat to kick. If a man- it was always a man, women with them would protect me from them- is overwhelmed at work, angry at his situation, however powerless and inferior he feels there is always someone he can look down on, the fucking queers, the trannies. His boss shouts at him and he cannot shout back, but if I offend his amour propre, he can give his contempt and derision full rein.

This hurt and bewildered me; it depressed me, so that I could not be bothered going out, and would stew at home for days; and my way through that was compassion. Their hurt is nothing to do with me. They are so wound up that they will lash out at anything. Theirs is a pitiable state.

If my response to that outburst is compassion, then it cannot hurt me. The man gains temporary relief. I feel different about the politicians who inflame and direct such hatred for their own ends, against immigrants and benefit claimants, perhaps, but the poor benighted haters need Love. Nothing else can cure them.

El Greco, the Last Supper

Primary sources II

El Greco, PentecostWho are these people? What do they care about? These are more difficult questions, reading the text, than what does it mean. Perhaps I can only say what it means for me- a Postmodern view- but I might learn a little of the writers.

I am reading Chapter 1, Christian Doctrine, of Christian Doctrine, Practice and Discipline, published by London Yearly Meeting in 1861. It is a book of extracts from the epistles and minutes of the yearly meeting, not as now including writings of individual Friends. The interaction is between the text and Me: what I notice depends upon what I know, and what I care about.

What I know: Quakers are certain we are “non-creedal”, but this did not mean without belief. The first document is an extract from an epistle of George Fox and others to the Governor of Barbadoes in 1671. It is a statement of belief echoing the Nicene Creed in its language- “visible and invisible”- even as it uses different words deliberately to make it personal- “We do own and believe in God, the only wise, omnipotent and everlasting God”. The Creed is expanded, to include more of the life of Jesus.

“We call the Holy Scriptures, as Christ and the apostles called them… the words of God.” I find the Bible inconsistent, a record of continual searching for God, getting closest in Jesus- but I don’t know how far Inerrancy was disputed at the time: that is, I cannot read this as taking a side in a debate, because I do not know whether it existed as a debate, for Fox.

I care about substitutionary atonement, a Protestant doctrine but not the only Christian understanding of the death of Jesus. I care because I reject it. Some words seem to support that doctrine-  Jesus “is the propitiation for… the sins of the whole world”. I cannot be certain, but am suspicious. I like to read later words “at the great day of judgment, when every one shall be rewarded according to the deeds done in the body” as not requiring faith in Jesus to be saved, but this is not a statute, nor a full declaration of every religious belief, so I cannot say that.

In 1671 in England and its colonies, the Anglican church was imposed, as the authorities blamed the civil wars from 1641 on religious dissenters- with some reason. Fox is concerned to tell the Governor that he is Christian. Possibly this is because he declares he believes it his duty to preach the faith to the “Negroes and Indians” on the Island. He does not call for their freedom, whether because he did not think this right, or because he did not think it possible: but preaching to them means seeing them more like human beings, less like livestock.

Oh! I so want them to be Liberal, nice people like me! So I fear they are not, and read with suspicion. What is the problem they sought to address? Why did Friends in 1861 feel the need to quote these passages? I think, to show that they had always had orthodox Evangelical belief: the Bible is “the only divinely authorised record of the doctrines of true religion” they said in 1836.

I can debate with them when they say whatsoever any man says or does which is contrary to the Scriptures, though under profession of the immediate guidance of the Spirit, must be reckoned and accounted a mere delusion. Is there anything in Quaker Faith and Practice 1994 which is “contrary to the Scriptures”? It seems to me that they are concerned to preserve doctrine according to the scriptures against Quakers disputing it, as the epistle is addressed to Friends. Even here they say the Holy Spirit influences our hearts, and enlightens our understandings.

Primary sources

El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1610Yet again: how may I listen, and hear what another says?

I started with Craig Barnett’s post, about how Quakers have always rejected the Christianity “non-theist” Friends reject today, in favour of the “Inward Christ”. I was going to say “continuing revelation”, but there I already substitute my concept for his. “Inward Christ” is a far better two-word summary of his argument.

This is a disjointed post, because I am thinking as I write. I had some idea of what I wanted to write about, and find myself distracted by writing of how I got there. I notice that one of the things which prevents me from hearing is my fear. What do I need to protect? And my illusion: what do I need to be so, whether it is or not? Ah. That could be a way in which spirituality means stripping away emotion, for another, though for me I have to accept my feelings before I can pass them by, or they are unseen cataracts between me and the Light.

I pause to make another distinction. Even Evangelicals theologise, believing in the Trinity and Substitutionary Atonement though these are not the only possible interpretations of the Bible. There is a difference between attitudes to doctrine and to scripture. “Airy notions”, Barnett quotes Robert Barclay calling dogma, though the attitude to scripture is different. I did not make this distinction when I started to think about this post. I went first to Rex Ambler, Truth of the Heart to find Fox’s attitude to Scripture rather than El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1612-14dogma. It is an anthology of short quotations from Fox on a variety of subjects. Here I find The scriptures were given forth by the spirit of God, and all people must first come to the spirit of God in themselves by which they might know God and Christ… and by the same spirit they might know the holy scriptures (2.45), by which I understand that you cannot interpret Scripture without the Spirit within, and Now will I arise, saith the Lord God Almighty (1.52). God acts now, not just in the past.

I leapt to a false dichotomy: this is setting continuing revelation over the authority of scripture, and wondered if this was the editor Rex Ambler’s prejudice rather than Fox’s, not realising that the prejudice was mine.

Without distinguishing scripture from dogma, I was going to consider the Christian Doctrine section of 19th century Quaker books of discipline, retained until 1921. I had a vague idea that they were more respectful of scripture-dogma than we, and I might pontificate on references to Adam after Darwin, and contradict what I thought was Ambler’s prejudice. The genesis of my post, and my title “Primary sources”, was in the thought that reading that 19th century text to find how wrong its writers were was a barrier to understanding. Yes they were “Evangelical”, but not in the Southern Baptist Convention sense, or even as I understand the word.

Already changing my first thought, I would have written how an urge to sympathise with the authors was required before I could make anything of their text, to build my own understanding of historical or spiritual truth. Posting about my thought process itself seems particularly suited to blogging, whether it is “airy notions” or worthwhile understanding.

Improper story

View of Toledo, El GrecoI expect and desire stories to be Moral, and am surprised when they are not. The Man who wasn’t there ends with the murderer’s conviction for murder, which is satisfying. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means, said Ernest’s housekeeper or aunt or someone- Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess, Google tells me. Anything else would be A most improper story to tell to young children, undermin[ing] the effect of years of careful teaching- another aunt, this one in Saki.

This changes the way I see old stories. Arachne boasts she can weave better than the Goddess Minerva, so Minerva challenges her to a contest, and turns her into a spider for her presumption. Hubris- nemesis, a good Moral story. Except in Metamorphoses she doesn’t. Arachne wins the contest, but hangs herself with her threads: Minerva turning her into a spider saves her life. This is more difficult to pigeon-hole.

I like to have sympathy with the main character, so dislike Brighton Rock. I wanted Pinkie’s schemes to succeed, but they are silly and pointless- marrying, so that the witness cannot testify, indeed.

Inspector de Luca, in a dark world, finds the murderer and survives, but no more. Not exactly a happy ending, but the best possible.pixabay 1

This is the effect of Christianity as a religion of moral control, with church and state together working to keep the populace Good for nearly seventeen centuries. Sorry, atheists, if I am telling you what you already know. But it is not the Christianity of the Gospels- eg the unjust steward, where a bad man does a bad thing, and loses his job- Disaster! So he does more bad things, and is commended. So strange. What can it mean? In proper stories, the bad end unhappily, even if not in life.

The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now. This is clearest in the Gospel of Thomas: Jesus says: “If those who seek to attract you say to you: ‘See, the Kingdom is in heaven!’ then the birds of heaven will be there before you. If they say to you: ‘It is in the sea!’ then the fish will be there before you. But the kingdom is within you and it is outside of you!” 

Also in Luke: The Kingdom of Heaven is among [footnote: or, within] you.

Matthew could be read both ways, that the Kingdom is “at the end of the age”, when the wheat is gathered into God’s barn, aka pie in the sky when you die. Or, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure in a field which a man buys- not an analogy for death. It is as if the writer is aware of two understandings and two kinds of Jesus quotes, and mingles them.

We are in the Kingdom of Heaven, if only we see it. It is Reality.

First impressions

metmuseum El Greco The miracle of Christ healing the Blind rightI was unimpressed with my first contact with Greenbelt. Last year it was in Cheltenham, and as the clerk I had an email from Cheltenham Quakers enthusiastically saying how wonderful it was, and how well their meeting for worship at Greenbelt had gone. AM agreed that I could propose worship to them, after I bubbled over at AM.

That was February, and I could not propose worship then. I had to wait until March, and get a response in May. The form I completed referred to Greenbelt 2013, and the woman I emailed did not always email back. I had no idea what the venue would be like- would there be any buildings, or would it all be under canvas? Would there be any chairs? They asked about health and safety issues- don’t think so, but I am not an expert.

A month before, I had a new contact at Greenbelt, and we found our worship was not mentioned on their programme on the website. Initially we were promised ten tickets for the full weekend, but at the last minute told that as we were only contributing on one day, we could only have tickets for that day. I complained, and was told we could have tickets for the whole festival. But we were frightened of them, and this showed in our fear we would not get in- we had no ticket to show. We ended up with five weekend tickets and seven day tickets- we have more than ten? No problem.

metmuseum El Greco The miracle of Christ healing the Blind leftPeter drove me there, and we queued for ages in the car. We diverted to the box office, and when I said I was a contributor they were welcoming. I got my tent up. I wanted to take Peter to the Contributors’ hospitality tent but Security stopped me. So we went to a caff selling tea and bacon rolls, and sat under canvas beside a tots’ climbing frame. Two people joined us, and we started chatting about Christianity and Creationism. Peter left, and with my braw silver Contributor’s wristband I went into the Festival.

I walk on a plastic path through a wood. Less than five minutes’ walk from my tent, I enter the Festival ground, with the main stage and some food stalls on my right. The Mount, where we worship, is over to the left, but I have to go round a square lake. On my way I find inflatable sofas, with a large sign saying “We’re here to listen”- I chat to two Spiritual Directors, cuddly middle-aged women. They hope to hear joys at least as much as sorrows: they are not counsellors. You say what is going on in your life, and they ask “Where is God in that?”

Across a bouncy pontoon bridge then up a steep ramp to The Mount, which is square, a wee bit away from the rest of the Festival. A man had a T shirt inscribed “Hug me” so I asked and had a hug. There is a canopy, providing a roof but no walls, and outside it is perhaps fifty yards square and flat. It is a new feature, put up only four years ago. I was thinking this could be beautifully atmospheric for worship, when a loud BRAAANGGG of an electric guitar sounded from the Main Stage.

I am open, receptive, excited.

Emotional sceptics

File: - Google Art Project.jpgIf you are unaware that a man made a pass at Rebecca Wilson in a lift/ “elevator”, you take no interest in sceptic/ rationalist/ atheist fora.

She was a speaker at a conference in Dublin. In the lift, at 4am, a man she had not met said to her,

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?”

This video is her original complaint about it. Later, she wrote this article about the backlash. Here is the New Statesman criticising Richard Dawkins’ comment on a blog post, and here is “Athefist”‘s blog post, two years later, which has got me writing this. Here is a woman who calls some of Watson’s later behaviour “bitchy”- I love the joke about the “vagina licence”, and that was where I found the video. Here is a blog which protests it is “not just about the lift thing”.

Watson objects to being “sexualised”. If he had just wanted a discussion, he could have had it in the bar. Proposing going to a bedroom, just the two of us, is merely sexual: not really interested in the conversation, or her as a person, just as an object for sex play. I think, Ew. Charm me first. Don’t just proposition me like that. Watson’s reaction, and mine, is emotional.

Athefist calls Watson’s arguments “dogma, irrationality, and faith”. Well, how should rationalist atheists talk about emotion?

Discussing it rationally is possible. In some cases, for example flashing, eliciting an emotional response without physical harm to another is sufficient to be a criminal offence. Where do we draw the line? Is it wrong to proposition someone except in a meat-market bar?

File:.JPGRational thinking can affect emotional responses. The man in the lift did not touch her, and there was no reason to suppose that he would. or would have refused to accept her “No”. These thoughts may reassure.

In the end, though, it is an issue of empathy. Do you feel as Watson does? Do you empathise more with the unnamed man? Should she be safe when alone in a foreign country at 4am from being propositioned for sex? Should he be able to ask her- after all, he did not argue with her refusal?

Watson herself in the video argues by mockery. “It was”- pause, open eyes wide- “a Joke“, she says, about some other matter- if you do not realise that you’re an idiot, obviously. She may be overreacting. “A man tweeted that he’d assault me”. Well, no. He tweeted, “If I run into Rebecca Watson at TAM9 next week I’m totally copping a feel”. That is a joke, not a serious statement of intent. Or so I think. Watson is distressed by the tweet, and here I do not share her distress, so I find reasons why her distress is excessive.

There is so much anger in Athefist’s response. Does he realise that? Dawkins, as well. He is right that she is less subjugated than a Muslim woman- even lots of Christian women– but that is an argument of derision, not a rational argument.

In that first video she was pleased to be on a platform with Prof Dawkins- now, she despises him.