Saturday, April 30, 2011

The history of the universe in under 18 minutes


Yes, 13,700,000,000 years in 1060 seconds. And worth every one.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A wedding sermon

Heard this at a wedding today. Given that it has now set the record for being the most widely heard sermon in history, I would love to know your thoughts.

"Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day this is. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.

Many people are fearful for the future of today’s world but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one – this is a joyful day! It is good that people in every continent are able to share in these celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to each other.

The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. People can dream of such a thing but that hope should not be fulfilled without a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.

You have both made your decision today – “I will” – and by making this new relationship, you have aligned yourselves with what we believe is the way in which life is spiritually evolving, and which will lead to a creative future for the human race.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely the power that has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century. We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.

Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform so long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:
"Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon."
As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive. We need mutual forgiveness in order to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads on to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can receive and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

I pray that all of us present and the many millions watching this ceremony and sharing in your joy today will do everything in their power to support and uphold you in your new life. I pray that God will bless you in the way of life you have chosen. That way which is expressed in the prayer that you have composed together in preparation for this day:
God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.
In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.
Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer.
We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

- Richard Chartres, 132rd Bishop of London,
delivered in Westminster Abbey on 29th April 2011.
Full text is from here and you can watch it here.

I found it interesting that on a day of widespread celebration, where continuity, tradition and history are very much on show, he made two mentions in seven minutes of the converging crises on the horizon. What struck you?

If you had seven minutes to say something in that context, where would you have gone?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Can we feed ten billion people?

By popular demand, my link dump posts will continue.

Jeremy asks the $64,000 question (ok, so you can add a few more zeroes to the value of that question due to inflation): can we feed ten billion people? He also answers the question: yes and no.

Another Jeremy wonders: what has nature ever done for us?

Bryan reviews a new book co-authored by John Cook (of Skeptical Science fame) on climate change denial. The book makes the point that there are different kinds of denial and that one kind is simply doing nothing with the knowledge that we have.

"I just want my child to go to a good school." Chris Bonnor points out the effects of this mindset.

Ross Cameron offers some reflections on the royal wedding: "The vows are uttered in public because they are so outrageous they have to be witnessed. In lives bombarded by change, there is something incredibly attractive in the idea of making a promise for life."

Mike Wells encourages us to stop being Australian (especially if we actually are).

What do philosophical arguments sorely lack? Referee hand signals.
H/T Kath.

Onion: Obama's new plan to balance the budget.

And xkcd makes us all feel old.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is the problem really China?

The metric used to measure carbon emissions significantly shapes which countries are seen to bear the lion's share of the blame for anthropogenic climate change. If we look simply at total emissions, then China has recently overtaken the US as the world's major carbon polluter. But of course, such a measure is simplistic, as it takes account of neither historical emissions, nor relative population sizes. Once these are factored in, the list looks very different.

Much is made in some circles of the fact that over the last decade or two, the vast majority of the global increase in carbon emissions has come from China (and to a lesser extent, India). Yet this way of measuring things (enshrined in the Kyoto protocol) attributes emissions to the country of production, not the country of consumption, effectively enabling rich consumer nations to outsource their emissions. This not only gives them an artificial moral superiority based on being able to point to stable or falling emissions (despite rising consumption), but also means outsourcing the health problems associated with carbon-intensive industries. Of course, China has been benefitting economically from this arrangement, and so has been quite willing up to this point to become the world's factory (and increasingly, its banker). I am not exonerating China, simply trying to highlight some illegitimate ways it is sometimes made into a global scapegoat on this issue.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What does radical climate action look like?


"You are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is most radical thing that people have ever done."

- Bill McKibben, Power Shift 2011.

I support radical climate (and ecological) action because I am fundamentally a conservative. I would like the planet on which Aurora grows up to bear some resemblance to the planet on which human civilisation developed.
Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come è, bisogna che tutto cambi!
"If we want things to stay as they are, everything must change!"

- Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo.

H/T Michael Tobis.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Was Jesus a looker?

"An attractive Christ, or a Jesus who is a better-looking version of us, effectively endorses the existence so desperately sought after in the West, where looking good is an indispensable part of the 'good life'. Submitting Jesus to the values of our culture - that patently worships the new, the attractive, the young, the white, over the wizened, the ugly, the infirm, the non-white - is much safer than heeding his often blistering critique of power and our failure to love God and each other as we should."

- Justine Toh, "God must be beautiful - it runs in the family", SMH 25th April 2011.

Justine Toh has a good SMH article reflecting on portrayals of Jesus and our tendency to equate beauty with worth.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Approaching the Cross III: Stay awake!

A three part sermon on Matthew's account of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36.46).

I. The gathering storm
II. Draining the cup
III. Stay awake!
-----
And at this crucial time, his disciples cannot keep their eyes open. Why is Jesus so keen for his disciples to stay awake and so disappointed to find them repeatedly sleeping? At the start of our chapter he has already told them that he was about to be handed over to be crucified. Were they to give him warning when his enemies were approaching? Was that it? Or was he making a much deeper point about the necessity of paying attention? I don’t think he was so much trying to prevent his arrest as asking his disciples to watch carefully what was about to happen. He didn’t want them to miss the full significance of what he was doing. He was not simply setting them an example of non-violent resistance to hatred and hubris. He was fighting a battle on their behalf, on our behalf, forging a new way to be human, emptying the cup of God’s judgement so none is left over.

The passion and cross of Christ that follow are also well-known, well-trodden ground, holy ground. Will we nod off? Will we let our attention slip? Will the familiar stories wash over us?

Jesus bids us too to pay attention, to stay awake, to keep watch. Will we join in his vigil? Will we share his prayer and entrust ourselves to his Father, our Father? Will we watch him as he dies, not turning our eyes from the whips and thorns or closing our ears to the mockery? Will we gaze intently at this death to catch a glimpse of the hope of true life? Will we, like him, out of love, enter into the sorrow and pain of our neighbour, be grieved by the wrongs of the world and allow our hearts and lives to be broken for the sake of others? Will we wake up and watch? Or have our eyes already glazed over, our hands reaching for the remote to change the channel and return to our all too easy, soothing slumber?

Let’s pray.

Father, keep us awake that we may learn from your Son how to pray. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Approaching the Cross II: Draining the cup

A three part sermon on Matthew's account of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36.46).

I. The gathering storm
II. Draining the cup
III. Stay awake!
-----
Why is Jesus sorrowful and troubled? Why does he say his soul is "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death"? Extreme emotion is not alien to Jesus. He was no calm Stoic walking through life unaffected and unengaged. The Gospels record his anger, grief, delight, compassion, weariness, joy, sorrow and here, deep anguish. He shows us that being human doesn’t mean seeking to minimise or escape from our emotional life. But why is he so sad on this night? Is he scared of pain? Crucifixion was a horrendous procedure, designed to maximise the suffering of the victim, and made worse by the fact that Jesus had already predicted the desertion of his closest friends, even Peter, who had sworn to die for him. Being abandoned by his companions to a gruesome, extended death – is this what makes him so sad? It would be understandable if so, though certainly many others have faced death with more courage. Socrates drank his hemlock calmly, and many of the early Christian martyrs were said to been smiling or singing. Is Jesus weaker than they, to tremble at what he knows is coming?

A clue to what might be going on can be found in the combination of terms that appear in this passage that hint that we are dealing with more than just the impending death of an innocent man. When Jesus speaks to his father of “the cup” that he must drink, at one level this is a simple metaphor for having to face the particular experience he is about to undergo, but this language was also a common Jewish image found in Isaiah 51 and elsewhere depicting God’s anger as a cup of bitter wine that must be drained to its dregs. When we find this image in close proximity to talk of "the hour" having arrived and Jesus instructing his disciples to "stay awake" and pray in order to not come into the "time of trial", then this cluster of references all fit within a Jewish apocalyptic framework that pictures God’s decisive judgement upon human sin and wickedness, a powerful divine interruption into the normal course of events to bring evil to account. This night in this garden praying with friends was not like other nights. Not just because Jesus anticipates his own death just hours later, but also because he is anticipating that in the events about to unfold, nothing less is at stake than God’s definitive evaluation upon wayward humanity.

The cross of Jesus is not simply another tragic example of miscarried justice involving an oppressed minority, or of imperial brutality against perceived threats, or of religious violence against heretics. In short, his death doesn’t simply carry some of the various human meanings we attribute to such deaths. It has meaning for God. The meal of bread and wine spoke of a renewed covenant, of God acting again with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm to redeem those enslaved. But here, in the garden, the meaning of Jesus’ death is that it will be the point at which the world is judged and found wanting, where God’s own sorrow and anger at human pride and corruption is concentrated and expressed, where God says a resolute "no" to human violence and folly.

Jesus’ grief and anguish is because he himself will hear that "no", will suffer that judgement, will experience God’s rejection. This is the horrendous prospect of Gethsemane. This is why the man of sorrows is sorrowful. This is the bitter cup that Jesus would prefer not to taste. And yet, in obedience to his Father, he is willing to finish the last drop. "Not as I will, but as you will." In these words, Jesus fights and wins the battle to be obedient. He refuses the paths of violence self-assertion and self-justification as well as of retreat and hiding. And he entrusts himself to his Father.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Approaching the Cross I: The gathering storm

Last weekend, I preached on Matthew's account of Gethsemane. As it was a sermon about paying attention to the events of Easter, I thought it may be an appropriate piece for this holy weekend. It comes in three parts.

I. The gathering storm
II. Draining the cup
III. Stay awake!

-----

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me." Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." He went away a second time and prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

- Matthew 26.36-46 (NIV).

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. That aphorism reminds me of a story I heard about the days during the Cold War when both sides were seeking to gain an edge over the other. The Americans were trying to develop a translation computer that would be able to quickly and effortlessly translate Russian communications so that the important information could be identified. After years of working on the programming, the software engineers thought they had done it. The programme was brought before their superior, who decided to test it by giving it a sentence in English to translate into Russian and then back into English, to see if it would come out the same. The sentence he picked was from our passage: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. This was fed into the computer, which translated into Russian and back again, giving the answer: “The vodka is strong, but the meat is rancid.” Has nothing to do with the passage, but that’s what I think of when I hear that phrase.

Let’s pray.

Father, keep us awake that we may learn from your Son how to pray. Amen.

Actually, my little story does have something to do with our passage since it illustrates seeing something familiar in a new way, fresh light on something well known. If you are like me, then you’ve heard the story of Jesus’ passion and death many, many times. Each time we head towards Easter and reach Palm Sunday at the start of Holy Week, these stories are told and retold. Can anything new come from them? Will today’s sermon be a message you’ve heard before? Indeed, heard so many times you could give it yourself? Most of us are probably on well-trodden ground in hearing this story, and if you are like me, it is easy to forget that it is also holy ground.

This episode in the garden is the calm before the storm. A week earlier, to the acclamation of the crowds Jesus, arrived in a Jerusalem bursting with visitors for the Passover festival. He rode a donkey into town, signalling his humility, but also signalling to those with eyes to see it, that he was claiming to be the coming king spoken of by the prophet Zechariah. Having arrived, he engaged in a provocative symbolic protest, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and so temporarily disrupting the activities of the Temple. He was picking a fight with those who claimed to lead God’s people. Then, all week, the storm has been brewing. Day after day, Jesus has been teaching in the Temple, delighting the crowds, silencing the religious leaders, dodging their traps and stirring the pot. At the end of a busy and eventful week, Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples, that ritual meal in which the memory of God’s redemptive work was kept alive and brought into the present. It was a meal that spoke of slaves being set free and being gathered as a new people with a new identity. Jesus hadn’t just observed this tradition, he gave the meal a distinctive twist, taking elements of the supper and saying that instead of pointing back to the Exodus, they pointed forward, anticipating what was about to come in his own bloody death. This death would seal a new covenant, a renewal and transformation of God’s work of redeeming slaves and forgiving sins, an intensification of the promise of God’s coming kingdom.

Having provoked the authorities and taught his disciples to celebrate what was he was about to do, Jesus takes his friends to a garden outside Jerusalem in order to pray. Our passage ends with Jesus announcing the arrival of his betrayer and the pace of the narrative immediate picks up. And so this episode is the last quiet moment before the end, the calm before the storm. Yet for Jesus, the tempest already rages within.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The future according to Google, and other stories

xkcd: The future according to Google.

Mother Jones: How we fool ourselves. "Expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts. [...] We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself. [...] When we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing." H/T Rod Benson.

UK voters: The lies of the No to AV leaflet. I'm getting pretty annoyed by how misleading so much of the No campaign has been. The BNP are being used as a scare tactic, and yet they are only party to officially endorse the No campaign. It bugs me that such misrepresentations are being effective. H/T Neil Stewart.

SMH: Memos show oil motive in Iraq war. Perhaps this comes as no surprise, but the confirmation is important.

SMH: How Obama is morphing into Bush. Change we can believe in, because it is so small and non-threatening.

SMH: What is the secret to long life? Good table manners.

Reddit: If all you lazy, whining two-thirds world readers think you have things tough, you need to get a sense of some real first world problems.

Oatmeal: The deep ocean is a weird, weird place. Despite being a cartoon (with some naughty language), this is apparently true.

The Cost of Energy: Unemployed? You might want to consider applying for this position.

And a quick straw poll. I occasionally put together lists of random links like this. Which would you prefer:
(a) for these to continue in this fashion, with occasional dumps of lists like this;
(b) for me to post single links as I come across them; or
(c) for me to stop all random links and focus on a narrower band of topics?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Collaborative consumption


Collaborative Consumption Groundswell Video from rachel botsman on Vimeo.
So many of the things we own, lightening our wallets, filling up our space and burdening our lives (not to mention the planet) we could rent, borrow or share. This is indeed one of the excellent uses of the information revolution, since co-ordination of the use of material objects between multiple people has never been easier. It generates trust, saves money and reduces the burden on resources. We've been on Freecycle for years, enjoyed free hospitality from strangers through an organisation something like Couch Surfing and shared power tools through Ecomodo for those once-in-blue-moon times of need. These schemes are generally quite straightforward and it is worth looking into them rather than feeling the need to purchase and own every object you could conceivably ever need or desire.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why are Christians scared of the sciences?

There is a common perception that Christianity and the sciences are mortal enemies, that faith and reason are mutually exclusive, that following Christ requires the rejection of a host of well-established scientific understandings (and vice versa).

I don't get it.

My theological convictions invite me to see scientific research as an expression of common grace rather than a threat to cultural identity. Having a self rooted and established in Christ can mean that we are liberated from the pursuit of identity in a community of like-minded opposition to perceived cultural opponents (those god-hating egg-heads!). Praise God for the sciences and for those amongst us who serve the common good through careful attention to the world that lies in front of our eyes!

Of course like all good gifts, scientific endeavour can be abused, scientific communities can express hostility to the grace of God, scientific insights be applied to destructive and enslaving technologies and the heady power of empirical observation can tempt those who taste it to reductive philosophies of scientism that (ironically) overstep the reach of empirical oberservation. The ubiquitous presence of sin and relative absence of wisdom undermines but does not erase or invalidate the dignity of scientific research. Abuse does not rule out proper use.

Indeed, the church itself can be a place of abuse, closed to divine grace and trapped in patterns that diminish life. Let us focus on the extraction of woody fibres of great magnitude protruding from our own ocular organs before presuming to conduct moral surgery on the vision of others, or pronounce others blind when we are the ones falling into a pit.

Scientists are not enemies; that label belongs on fear, greed, ignorance, folly and self-deception.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is catastrophe inevitable?

"[I]f we are to confront adequately the threat of (social or environmental) catastrophe, we need to break out of this "historical" notion of temporality: we have to introduce a new notion of time. Dupuy calls this the "time of a project", of a closed circuit between the past and the future: the future is causally produced by our acts in the past, while the way we act is determined by our anticipation of the future and our reaction to this anticipation:
The catastrophic event is inscribed into the future as destiny, for sure, but also as a contingent accident: it could not have taken place, even if, in futur antérieur [looking back from the future], it appears as necessary. ... if an outstanding event takes place, a catastrophe, for example, it could not not have taken place; nonetheless, insofar as it did not take place, it is not inevitable. It is thus the event's actualization - the fact that it takes place - which retroactively creates its necessity."
"If - accidentally - an event takes place, it creates the preceding chain which makes it appear inevitable: this, and not commonplaces on how underlying necessity expresses itself in and through the accidental play of appearances, is in nuce the Hegelian dialectic of contingency and necessity. In this sense, although we are determined by destiny, we are nonetheless free to choose our destiny. According to Dupuy, this is also how we should approach the ecological crisis: not to appraise "realistically" the possibilities of catastrophe, but to accept it as Destiny in the precise Hegelian sense - if the catastrophe happens, one can say that its occurrence was decided even before it took place. Destiny and free action (to block the "if") thus go hand in hand: at its most radical, freedom is the freedom to change one's Destiny.

"This, then, is how Dupuy proposes to confront the disaster: we should first perceive it as our fate, as unavoidable, and then, projecting ourselves into it, adopting its standpoint, we should retroactively insert into its past (the past of the future) counterfactual possibilities ("If we had done this and that, the calamity we are now experiencing would not have occurred!") upon which we then act today. We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, that the catastrophe will take place, that it is our destiny - and then, against the background of this acceptance, mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past. Paradoxically, the only way to prevent the disaster is to accept it as inevitable. For Badiou too, the time of the fidelity to an event is the futur antérieur: overtaking oneself vis-à-vis the future, one acts now as if the future one wants to bring about were already here.

"What this means is that one should fearlessly rehabilitate the idea of preventative action (the "pre-emptive strike"), much abused in the "war on terror": if we postpone our action until we have full knowledge of the catastrophe, we will have acquired that knowledge only when it is too late. That is to say, the certainty on which an act relies is not a matter of knowledge, but a matter of belief: a true act is never a strategic intervention in a transparent situation of which we have full knowledge; on the contrary, the true act fills in the gap in our knowledge."

- Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), 150-52.
Internal quote from Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Petite metaphysique des tsunami (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 19.

This somewhat dense passage is either nonsense, or very profound. It can be difficult to tell, and perhaps only hindsight will let us know for sure. But this is precisely Žižek's point: that we act (largely) in the dark, and certainly in the dark about whether future events are inevitable or not. A terminal diagnosis could prove to be wrong. But this doesn't mean we just write off such a diagnosis, no, we embrace it and feel the full weight of living under a death sentence, and then live as those who will be resurrected.
Images by HCS. The eagle-eyed may have notice that the young man attempting to prevent the apparently inevitable collapse in the second image is your truly, age 11.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Open source hardware

This seems like quite a simple and noble idea: the development and sharing of free, open source hardware designs that make use of local and recycled materials in order to construct cheap, functional versions of the most useful machines. Projects like this are a reminder that for-profit operations don't have a monopoly on innovation and social benefit and represent a broadening of our social and moral imagination.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Fixing Facebook (a little)

Speaking of Facebook, I was helpfully pointed to this advice, which shows you how to reverse a recent automatic change that Facebook unilaterally made (unannounced) to news feed settings. The new default settings means that you only seen items from people you interacted with in the weeks before the change was introduced or anytime since then. Any friends you haven't contacted in Facebook world during that window have been quietly excised from your feed. If you'd like to reverse this, instructions and further explanation can be found here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

In search of the perfect Bible

Stumbling briefly last night through the mirky recesses of Facebook, I noticed that for some reason many Sydney Anglicans currently seem obsessed (once again) with the question of the merits of various English translations of Holy Scripture. Some are saying "I follow Paul", others "I follow Apollos", and yet others "I follow Christ". Extravagant claims are made for one version or another, one opening the eyes of the blind, a second making the lame to walk while a third comes with a free set of steak knives.

Removing tongue from cheek, there are indeed relevant differences between the various options and such discussion is not empty of benefit, but all the major and well-known translations are generally very good and the benefits of one over another are relatively slight. Yet the marketers are not content with this, seeking to create artificial scarcity to generate an economy of fear and desire (and sell more units), and so claims are made that cannot possibly be true of any one translation.

The question of which translation is the "best" is context-dependent. It depends who is reading and for what purpose (and sometimes even the passage in question). The ideal study version for a scholar is going to be different to the ideal version for children and those still learning English. The merits of different approaches shine in different contexts.

And this is how it ought to be. The search for the perfect English Bible is a chasing after the wind. The Scriptures may be venerated, but not worshipped. The are holy, but not themselves divine. We are happy to translate them because their value ultimately lies not in the words, but in the word they communicate, that is, in their message, the good news about Jesus. The words are our access to this word, and it is our delight to pay close attention to them (and for some to work hard at the difficult and imperfectible task of translation), but in the end we pay attention because they point to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the one who is the true Word.

But don't take my word for it, read this excellent piece by a translator of Holy Scripture with years of experience in the craft.

Or better still, follow the simple advice that transformed the life of Saint Augustine: take and read.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lent: Simplicity and contentment

Lent is a time for the deliberate discipleship of our desires through refraining and focusing. Often this is portrayed as a somewhat arbitrary burden to be carried, as though the carrying of a burden were itself good. But fasting (or refraining from some regular activity) is not an end in itself, but a means to sharpen our hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for God’s justice. Such disciplines as we accept for this period are not meritorious works of supererogation earning divine brownie points, nor do we seek out pain so as to enjoy the relief from it all the more at its end. We are, in Rowan Williams’ evocative phrase, setting out on "a journey into joy". Lent is a time of preparation for the good news of Easter, but in the light of the cross and resurrection, we discover that the very disciplining of our desires is already good news, not merely preparation for it. The gospel does not add ethics as an appendix, the fine print of obedience you sign up for when you accept the gift of forgiveness. No, ethics is already good news. The disciplining of desire is also the liberation of desire; by learning self-control, we become free. We are learning to love rightly and so learning to be more human.

I submit that a key aspect of this joyful journey for many western Christians is an exodus of liberation from consumerism, the state of bondage in which we are consumed by what we consume. Our toys so often own us. In such a context, learning to delight in less is an affirmation of a life with more of the things that matter. The simple life is not only a matter of justice (living simply so that others can simply live) – though it is certainly that in a world of ever more apparent ecological limits – the simple life is also the good life. Receiving all God’s gifts with thanks enables us to let (many of) them go and to let go the desire for more that makes us discontent. Let us instead become discontent with our discontentment, which robs of us of peace and perspective.

The pursuit of justice, insofar as it is woven within the Christian good news, is also part of this same joyous adventure. It is not a fight, but a dance. We do not create it or establish it; we share from what we have ourselves received. Our goal is not the spread of consumerist “wealth” to every member of society and every corner of the globe. Our goal is that in walking the way of the cross, all may discover it to be the way of light.

Not yet concrete enough? Go and sell your possessions, then come follow Christ.
Originally posted at Theopolis.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Are Australians rich?

On average, yes, almost twice as wealthy as a decade ago. It would be interesting to see these stats broken down into bands in order to make inequality visible.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

In lieu of a comments policy

One of the many updates that is well overdue on this site is an explicit comments policy. One day, I will get to it, along with fixing all the problems in the sidebar, adding tabs for easier navigation and perhaps revising the general appearance.

Until then, I thought I would make clear that any comments whose primary purpose is advertising a commercial product will be deleted without notice. More of these have been appearing recently and while I suspect that most of them come from search engines (and so won't read this post), at least this can be considered some kind of warning.

This blog is not available for commercial advertising. I do not and will not use Google AdSense. I have turned down a few dozen offers of free products or financial benefits from people or companies wanting to use this platform to promote their wares.

I believe in our shared ability and responsibility to shape one another's desires and refuse to become a mercenary in this regard. If I want to persuade others to desire something, it will be because I believe it is a worthy object of desire, not because I'm being paid to do so.

Please explain: Preferential and proportional voting

One of the criticisms made against proportional voting is that it makes it easier for extremists to gain a seat in parliament since a successful candidate only needs to secure a relatively small percentage of the vote. Indeed, it had been looking like Pauline Hanson, the extremist Australians most love to hate, was going to get a seat in the NSW Upper House after the recent election.

However, it was not to be, because proportional voting in Australian Upper House elections is combined with preferential voting, and so even though Hanson won more primary votes than the two other candidates with whom she was competing for the final two seats, on preferences, they both overtook her.

Preferential voting prevents extremist candidates from winning in races where multiple candidates split the vote, since it allows voters the chance to indicate who is their last preference, as well as their first. UK voters, vote "yes" to electoral reform on 11th May.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Threatening to leave

In other news, Jimmy Riches, 9, of Little Waddington, has threatened to take his bat and ball away from the local village boys' game of cricket unless his special rules are retained. Since he owns the only equipment in the small settlement, he demanded to set the terms on which the game is to be played. "Jimmy's code" included extra lives for Jimmy while batting and all his runs counting triple, plus being allowed to be sole umpire for contentious calls. The other boys felt these rules gave Jimmy an unfair advantage and sought to soften them, suggesting that perhaps he should only score double and that he had to state how many extra lives he had today before coming to the crease. Jimmy rejected these modifications and has warned that if the other boys insist on them, he will go and play with the lads in the next village.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Child sacrifice: A political debate

A two-party system
A: For the sake of national security and prosperity, we must sacrifice ten children each month to Moloch. Moloch is an angry god, but fair. If we burn ten children alive on the temple altar, Moloch will ensure that we are well-fed and our enemies do not prevail against us. That is how things have been and we must observe the ancient traditions.

B: No, no, no, no – have you no heart? No conscience? You want to kill one hundred and twenty innocent children each year? Are you nuts? How horrible! Of course we should only sacrifice seven children each month. And we should make sure that the priests are well trained, that the sacrificial fire is sourced from sustainable wood and, for the sake of equal access, the victims are selected on a points-based system.
Image by CAC.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Inequality and the promise of growth

Economic growth promotes social stability by keeping the lid on revolution through the promise of wealth: one day, if only you keep working hard, you too can be rich.

Growth as the price of stability has enabled the pressing question of justice and equity to be deferred, since even if the rich are getting obscenely rich, at least all have the promise of betterment in a rising economy. But take away the expectation of growth, and the disparities of wealth become more pressingly obvious.

The same effect is realised when growth is confined to the rich. When Hosni Mubarak become Egyptian president in 1981, about twenty percent of the population lived on less than US$2 per day. After three decades during which Egypt experienced annual economic growth rates of seven per cent or more, at the time of the revolution, about forty percent lived on less than US$2 per day. There had been extraordinary growth, but the benefits went to the elite without "trickling down".

During those same three decades, the income of the bottom 90% of US workers has remained flat while that of the top 10% has skyrocketed. At the same time, the rich have successfully shifted the tax burden onto the rest. Again, the benefits of growth have not been a larger pie to be shared amongst all, but have increasingly lined the pockets of the most powerful, multiplying their power.

But not everywhere has the same story. China's boom has seen hundreds of millions move out of absolute poverty. Indeed, never before have so many escaped the burdens of grinding need in such a short space of time. Nonetheless, it has again been the richest who have benefitted the most and inequality in China is higher than anytime since the revolution. And political stability may well require this growth to continue.

If the prospect of growth becomes dim (as I think it is over the next few decades), then the question of justice must come to the fore. Whether this occurs through violent and unpredictable revolution or through reform is largely the choice of each society. Few seem to be choosing the latter, however. Indeed, globally, the rich are getting richer and only seem more intent than ever to remain in control of the reins of power. That is the path of violence, not that I am advocating or condoning it.

Of course, the absolutely poor deserve the right to develop their basic economy to a level required for the possibility of living a humane life. This is nowhere near present levels of western consumption, and nations that are well above this level have a moral duty to pursue justice through planned de-growth, or rather, pursuing things that are better than growth. It is quite possible to live a more human life while (indeed often through) embracing less. A simpler lifestyle is a gift to oneself as well as one's global neighbour.

Finally, it bears repetition: the pursuit of endless growth is increasingly terrible for ecology, which after all, owns the global economy. Growth as we currently know it likely cannot continue for more than a few more decades (at best) without so severely undermining the ecological health of the planet that the economic costs of ecological degradation overwhelm any further growth. If we want to live in a stable society, let us throw off the love of money, that poisonous stimulant slowly killing us all.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Shadows of the Divine: an exhibition

An exhibition at New College
To mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, this upcoming exhibition features works from the internationally renowned Methodist Church Art Collection - including pieces by Sutherland, Frink, Roualt, Eric Gill and Craigie Aitchison - alongside recent works by leading Scottish and Scottish-based artists and a rare first edition Scottish 1611 King James Bible. The Methodist Church Art Collection is the most significant denominational collection of art outside of the Vatican and of course the King James Version the most influential English translation of the holy scriptures in history.

The free exhibition will be hosted at New College in Edinburgh from 14th May to 11th June, Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm.
Crucified Tree Form by Theyre Lee-Elliott, 1959.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bank makes money: in other news, dog bites man

Major US bank launders billions of dollars of Mexican drug money.

That big banks generally make stratospheric profits means they are also the target of much suspicion and criticism, a fair bit of which is justified, as the above story illustrates. If you haven't already seen it, watch Inside Job. The problem is not a few bad apples, but a rotten system. Contemporary banking practices are the embodiment of hypercapitalism's myopic obsessions.

"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

- Mark 10.25 (NRSV).

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Democracy and plutocracy

"Plutocracy and democracy don't mix. Plutocracy too long tolerated leaves democracy on the auction block, subject to the highest bidder. Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. The name for what's happening to our political system is corruption - a deep, systemic corruption."

- Bill Moyers, "Shades of Howard Zinn: It's Okay If It's Impossible".

This lecture, delivered late last year at Boston University by journalist Bill Moyers, is worth reading in full if you are interested in how hypercapitalism is corrupting democracy. If you haven't watched the video I posted a few days ago, go and do that first, then read the lecture. Here's another taste:
"I must invoke some statistics here, knowing that statistics can glaze the eyes; but if indeed it's the mark of a truly educated person to be deeply moved by statistics, as I once read, surely this truly educated audience will be moved by the recent analysis of tax data by the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. They found that from 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to everyone but the rich increased from 64 percent to 65 percent. Because the nation's economy was growing handsomely, the average income for 9 out of 10 Americans was growing, too - from $17,719 to $30,941. That's a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

"But then it stopped. Since 1980 the economy has also continued to grow handsomely, but only a fraction at the top have benefited. The line flattens for the bottom 90% of Americans. Average income went from that $30,941 in 1980 to $31,244 in 2008. Think about that: the average income of Americans increased just $303 dollars in 28 years. That's wage repression."
I am increasingly convinced that ecological problems cannot be separated from economic, political and spiritual ones. Unless we face the reality of the hyper-rich largely running a political system that oversees an economic model designed to extract maximum profits at whatever price in which the majority willingly participate through hope of sharing in a life of more stuff, then no amount of technological fixes will paper over the cracks we are causing in creation.

And so the corrupting influence of corporate money (both directly through campaign contributions and indirectly through the perceived necessity of bowing down to "the economy") on mainstream western media and (generally) both sides of politics in various countries means that our ecological woes are largely suppressed (unless they can be quantified in reduced profits).

I do apologise for posting repeatedly on the USA. It is not that there are no local expressions of the same phenomena in nations where I live or hold citizenship (nor significant differences), simply that the USA is a picture of the global predicament.
Image by CAC.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Equality or liberty?

One of the classes in undergraduate philosophy I took many years ago was on distributive justice, the question of what a just distribution of social goods looks like and how to pursue it. One of the key questions in the course concerned the relative roles of notions of equality and freedom.

At one end of the scale is strict egalitarianism, in which all resources are to be redistributed so that all have the same amount of everything. But this immediately runs into trouble the moment anyone tries to use of these resources. Imagine that a nation tries this approach, and tallies up all the goods held by its members and decides to spread them evenly amongst its citizens. If, during this redistribution, I lose most of my books (since I assume I probably have many more than average) and gain a few shoes (since I don't seem to have nearly as many of these as some people), then it seem that I've actually moved to a less desirable state. I've lost something I value highly and gained something I care little about (beyond having one decent pair). And if, as a result, I decide to swap some of my excess shoes with a neighbour to regain a few books, then we have introduced inequality into the system.

At the other end of the scale was strict libertarianism, in which the exploitation and exchange of resources is determined only by the market. Everything is for sale to the highest bidder as long as any contracts for sale are entered into freely, then the results can fall where they may. Those with the ability to gain more for themselves can do so unimpeded by any obligation to those who can't or won't (unless they voluntarily choose to give out of charity).

Egalitarianism identifies justice with a particular outcome (equality in the distribution of the relevant social goods), libertarianism with a particular procedure (agreements to which both parties consent). Of course, most people fall somewhere in the middle in an attempt to gain elements of both.

What I remember about the course was a very simplified illustration where we were asked to choose between various possible political and economic arrangements which were assumed to give various distributions of wealth and other social goods. The numbers represent some arbitrary unit of material wealth. Which of these systems would you prefer if you knew the outcome was going to be the following for one fifth of the population?

A. 5 - 5 - 5 - 5 - 5
B. 9 - 7 - 5 - 4 - 4
C. 20 - 10 - 5 - 3 - 2

Notice that option A is strictly egalitarian; all segments of society share its wealth equally. Options B and C are mild and more extreme versions of inequality, though with larger total wealth. In trying to evaluate these admittedly fairly abstract examples, one of the things that came up in the class was the moral relevance of knowing where the poverty line was. If on "5" you could still feed, clothe and house a family with decent medical care and the opportunity to perform meaningful tasks in a community, but on "4" you couldn't, then the first option is looking pretty good. If you could do it on "4" but no lower, then the middle option might be preferred. However, if it only takes "2" to do so, then the last option might also be morally permissible and have the advantage of being a bigger pie overall, if that is something that is important for some reason.

There are many shortcomings to this simple exercise, two of which are the respective ecological costs of the various options (is the third pie the largest because it is degrading the ecological health of the planet faster than the other two?) and the social cost of inequality (would the middle group in option C actually be less happy than those with "5" in option B or A because they would be comparing themselves unfavourably to those with "20"?). Nonetheless, it focuses our attention on a question of justice. Is there something wrong with some having much while others have little or is it only when some are in absolute need of some basic good that there is a problem? That is, grinding poverty may be agreed to be a social evil, but is inequality per se?

An interesting recent US survey into perceptions of equality was conducted by professors at Harvard and Duke. The image below summarising their results is striking in demonstrating not only that a random sample of 5,000 respondents would prefer a more egalitarian society than they currently perceive to be the case, but also that their perception significantly underestimates just how deep the divide between rich and poor in their own nation actually is.

Indeed, inequality in America requires more than a single graph to grasp. Here are a whole string of them. How similar or different are other countries? I don't have comparable statistics to hand, though my impression is that the current phase of capitalism over the last few decades is increasing inequality around the world.

Why is this a problem? The social effects of inequality are explored in this book, but the larger problem is that our current economic model is thoroughly unsustainable and the present levels of inequality will only lead to more pain down the road once the promise of forever growing material wealth for all fades from view. More on that anon.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The bugs are winning

Antibiotics are one of the truly remarkable discoveries of the modern era.* By suppressing or eliminating infections, the widespread availability of relative cheap antibacterial drugs has contributed to significant reductions in the mortality rate and consequent increases in life spans. Antibiotics have thus serves as an enabling cause for the unprecedented global population boom of the last century or so.

However, microbes may now have us at checkmate, developing resistances and immunities to our antibiotics faster than we are producing new ones. Despite five decades of warnings from public health authorities, global response has been slow and poorly communicated. Resistant strands are spreading and some are immune to all contemporary drugs.

And it is largely our fault. The overuse and misuse of antibacterial drugs have enabled and encouraged these strains to gain a foothold and spread. Whenever their use is either unnecessary or discontinued prior to a complete course, the surviving bugs (who will be the ones least susceptible to the drug) are left to breed. Just as we have "helped" evolution in our animal husbandry for centuries, selecting the most productive livestock to preserve their genes, so we are helping the evolution of superbugs, selecting those who don't fall down at the first sight of an antimicrobial drug. We are killing off the weaklings and leaving the heroes to breed. And they are fearsome warriors, being perhaps the most effective and feared killers throughout the history of civilisation.

Being the son of a physician, important health lessons like avoiding the abuse of antibiotics were inculcated early. We used them only for bacterial problems that lacked other solutions and always finished our course of drugs. Yet personal responsibility is only effective when widespread. My vigilance seems wasted when others take a few pills as a precaution every time they feel under the weather.

This issue seems to suffer from some remarkable similarities with climate change: a dangerous by-product of a highly desirable human activity with an insidious effect over long periods of time requiring global regulative co-ordination and a personal culture of restraint. It is hard to see in either case how a response adequate to the scale of the problem can be mobilised in the timeframe required amidst the various competing interests and under the ponderous influence of cultural inertia.

Like many of our battles, we go into this one ill-prepared, with failing equipment and not always even sure who the real enemy is. What does it look like to lose well?
*More specifically, I am referring to antibacterial drugs, since there are other microbes than bacteria and other agents that suppress them than antibacterial drugs. However, in common usage, most people mean the latter when using the term antibiotics.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

God with us, for us, in us

Today's sermon from our rector had a memorable little coda I hadn't heard before (actually, I think it may have appeared in his prayer after the sermon).

Christmas: God with us.
Easter: God for us.
Pentecost: God in us.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Rescue

From xkcd.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Working hard?

Andrew Cameron, my former ethics lecturer, recently gave a talk at the Centre for Christian Living on a Christian ethical analysis of work. Worth a listen if you happen to work or know someone who does.