Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

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January 13, 2011

11-1-11 Goodness

11-1-11 Snark Country

If you want to hunt Snark, the manual states that you need thimbles and hope, and The Bellman teaches us ‘if I say it three times it is true’. In this work, Carroll is telling us that he has first written it, The Bellman spake thus and we have repeated it in our hearts, thus satisfying the Rule Of Three and its truth-conditions.
What do we mean by Truth? It is also written in The Complete Works that Humpty-Dumpty tells us: when I use a word it means what I want it to mean, no more, no less.
Need I state that this is as true as the statement ‘This statement is untrue’?
To save time, I shall state the obvious, that I am facetiously playing with words. I’ve been quoting the Myths verbatim to ensure fair play rather than paraphrasing selectively to my advantage, so I can vouch that the following statement, though hard to believe, is not made up:-

“Myth #4 – I’m a good person, I’ll go to heaven when I die.
Reply: The Bible states that no one is good enough to get to heaven by his own good deeds and this is the book by which all of us will be judged.  Remember that when we lie, lust, cheat or gossip we have offended an infinite being (God) infinitely. How could we ever put those things right? It’s impossible. We need a sacrifice which is of infinite value to pay for those offences. We can’t do that ourselves. We are helpless. We need an infinite person to do this for us and this comes in the form of a saviour  – someone to save us from being condemned by God someday when we die. I would say that most of the people whom I talk with do not understand this concept. They spend their lives trying to pay God  back for their sins or trying to forget about Him altogether. They both have dire consequences. Hell is a horrible place to spend eternity. Why not have forgiveness the way that God wants you to have it?”

In a radio panel game years – gasp! decades! – ago Ian Wallace told an anecdote about his daughter when she was very young. Her pet hamster died and she wanted to give it a proper burial in a shoe-box coffin and a grave was gravely dug in the garden and she conducted her own Service, which ended ‘In the name of The Father, and in The Son, and in the hole he goes.”
If that child had been run over by a bus on the morrow, clearly she was bound for hell. She had heard The Word and made up her own interpretation. (For scholars in succeeding millenia, I should make it clear that however many times you encounter the phrase we do not actually believe in the Omnipresent Omnibus Of Fate).
On her Judgement Day, would we expect God to behave like a jobsworth returns-counter clerk, listening to her excuses and demanding proof of purchase, claiming that there was nothing He could do for her as she was aware of company policy as stated in the Terms And Conditions?
In passing and simply because it occurs to me, one of my favourite indie comic artists, Ed Pinsent – employed by the Diocese of Southwark last I heard – did a comic-strip memoir about mishearing The Lord’s Prayer as a child and going in dread for a while of The Eagle, so terrible a creature that he had to ask God to deliver him from it. See also: yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death I shall fear no Eagle.
To save you making this point too, I do know that it is written ‘suffer little children to come unto me’, so I trust that God will make due allowance and use both Skill and Judgement. As a child, I was unfamiliar with the use of ‘suffer’ to mean ‘allow’, so I imagined in a comma after it and believed that it was part of the deal that you earned your place at His feet by suffering. Even now, I’m not so sure that this wasn’t a spark of theological precocity.
I once interviewed Rabbi Lionel Blue for a newspaper article, ostensibly to introduce a public-speaking tour. We spoke on the phone for about an hour and it was I who reluctantly ended the conversation in deference to what I imagined must have been his busy schedule. He’d been unfailingly patient and happy to follow the conversation wherever it led. I was more than happy to listen to his witty, kind and articulate replies and uniquely I submitted as much of the recorded interview as possible verbatim and uninterrupted (I had it returned with the editorial instruction to ‘break it up with questions’, which felt like a waste of column inches and as if I’d somehow made the rabbi into my ventriloquist’s dummy).
He said that when he was given his first synagogue he spent the first months in accord with his training, teaching people How To Be Good. He noticed though that when people came to him for advice, what they really wanted to know was How To Be Happy. It was that which prompted him to begin to teach with jokes, because when the congregation laughed they were for that moment less disposed to anger and envy, more disposed to see alternatives to despair ‘… and so we arrived at truths by another route.’
I asked him what it meant to be ‘good’ and he said he really wasn’t the one to make that judgement but for example when he walked about the London streets he constantly saw the homeless and hopeless. At this remove I have to paraphrase but the content made immediate and lasting sense: “I never give them money because you don’t know whether you may be giving them the means to harm themselves further, so I never go out without a packet of sandwiches to give someone, but more important, while they eat or share the sandwiches I give them my time. There’s no better way to become invisible in a busy street than to be conspicuously poor and distraught, so your attention is important. Sometimes they’re so angry and lonely that they just want to shout at you. Well, that’s OK, if they want to shout at somebody it may as well be me.’
I don’t know what prompts me routinely to give Big Issue sellers outside the supermarket a pound-coin – less than the cover-price but I don’t take an Issue. I do quite often buy sandwiches to hand over on the way out, and that’s a direct result of Rabbi Blue’s suggestion.
Sadly he too is hell-bound according to the neo-Pharisaical rules.
In my experience there are certain people – of various faiths and none – who have an air of goodness about them as others have an air of authority. They seem gifted at virtue, and I use that in the archaic sense of ‘vertu’; they run true and authentic, as at one time you could describe a sword’s craftsmanship as having vertu, as close to Platonic perfection as could be fashioned in life. I find it hard to believe that an infinite being – sorry, ‘person’ – would turn them back at the celestial Ellis Island because their passport wasn’t correctly stamped. This person must also be infinite in wisdom and justice but apparently infinite offence wins the Judgement Day. It’s of course awfully embarrassing to get someone’s name wrong but usually not sufficient to condemn you to eternal rendition to a kharmic Abu Ghraib.
I notice that as the propositions in The Myths become less verifiable, particularly those pertaining to that bourne from which no traveller returns, they become more detailed. I fall into that category that doesn’t understand the concept.
If I read ‘Hull is a horrible place to spend eternity’ I have an idea of what you mean. Not that I’ve spent enough time in Hull to form an opinion, but I imagine that an eternity confined within its civic boundaries might become a bit dispiriting after a couple of centuries.
At one time you could confidently point to the centre of the Earth as the location of Hell. It would be dark and hot and it was the sphere most distant from the concentric Heavens above. With our altered cosmology Hell is more conceptual and exists as a state of separation from God.
I understand – that is, someone told me – that the successful graduates to Glory are granted a kind of spiritual amnesia, absolution from the love and compassion that might otherwise distress them at the thought of loved ones and otherwise good humans suffering eternal punishment, while they turned to enjoy infinite reward without end. So in effect they become less good than they were in life.
The deal is stacked.
If you say the sky is blue, particularly in this climate, then your description isn’t always accurate but it’s understood. *How* it’s understood is quite a complex cognitive procedure but even a two-year-old can readily grasp its sense.
Gravity, it’s said, isn’t just a good idea, it’s The Law. You can’t decide to opt out because of ideological differences or conscientious objection (That Gravity! Look at all the damage it causes!) or on the Bugs Bunny defence ‘I never studied Law’.
How do we find ourselves then having to place faith, like a stake on a bet, in the various and changing interpretations of a book? How come, after, oh gosh, at least 7000 years since the Earth was formed, are there range-wars between faith groups about the nature and the very existence of God and His intentions? Long before Newton formulated his Laws, Samson was doing empirical experiments with gravity and kinetic forces. He didn’t need to name the principles at work, it was… kinda obvious that gravity works. Einstein famously observed that God does not play dice, but he seems quite keen on hide-and-seek.
The deal is stacked in another way. If the penalty for not believing is so dire, can you take the Pascale Amendment and adopt faith because if it’s true you’ll be rewarded and if not, no harm done? What judgement will be made if God sees that although you made all the right moves and said the right things, really, deep down, you were hoping just to get off lightly?
What if, in the final analysis, you’ve made it your vocation to go about describing God’s nature so unconvincingly that you give weight to the case for non-belief as often as you score a hit? I gather that my friend’s church monitors stats like any pyramid sales franchise – see the Myth reference to market-growth in competing territories – and there’s pressure to recruit.
As local rep you’ll point to those you’ve persuaded to walk like you, talk like you: Ooh it’s True. You’ll dismiss those you leave in your wake for whom you’ve confirmed arguments that make faith in this version of God unsustainable. Will your excuse – our excuses are futile, after all – be that you meant well, you’re a good person; you told ‘em and told ‘em and so it’s they who have no excuse.
There’s nothing in the rules to say that God’s response might not be: better that you led your life in quiet steadfast faith than make Me an improbable God. You did the work of The Deceiver *p-tui!* Dawkins by other means. You talk but you don’t listen. You confuse having ready replies with giving relevant answers.
By the rules you’re denied the response ‘but I sincerely intended to do good.’ God apparently isn’t the kind of father who’ll say oh I know, you poor funny little creature, and that’s the best I ever expected of you. My love is infinite. Welcome Home.
Apparently He’s as likely to send you to His Guantanamo facility run by the partner organisation Satan Solutions Inc., for eternal interrogation about who you’re really working for.
I should repeat here that I was educated to believe in exactly these terms. My favourite hymn was Immortal Invisible and I remember gazing into bright Summer skies, uplifted by that dizzying oxymoron ‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee’. I floated along on the Crimond setting of Psalm 23, singing it like an extended mantra; the words had become as ingrained as the order of the alphabet. The melody is less used these days but when I hear it, it’s a Proustian recreation of that sense of the sublime that even the dutiful plod of Anglicans in song couldn’t obscure.
I ran an internal director’s commentary of prayer, reporting in to HQ that I was trying to make sense of my human predicaments and arrive at humane, rational solutions. I still feel that some kind of thanks are due for *Wow, Me, Here, Now!*, moments when presented with a sunset sky, a mountain vista, a bright full-arc rainbow – all things bright and beautiful – or virtuoso human skill. I’m quite happy to say “Thank You God!” in philosophically mixed company and even non-believers understand what I mean.
This is a learned reflex, like flicking the indicators while driving. Even on deserted streets I find myself indicating that I’m pulling in to park. Rationally it makes no sense but it’s a reflex I see no pressing need to switch off.
Similarly in those moments of the overwhelming inchoate sense of ‘connection’ I see no pressing reason to switch off the prayer-reflex as an expression of pleasure in the sheer improbability of a ‘me’ here to experience ‘that’. I have to say that this occurs more often ‘out there’ than within the magnificent confines of a cathedral or in the pages of a book.
I once sent my friend a link to a short YouTube vid of Alan Watts, which I took as a simple articulation of the makeshift nature of language in describing the world ‘out there’. It’s more to do with linguistics than theology. I’ve tried to retrieve his reply but it must have been one of those lost in the upgrade to Mac OSX, which ‘no longer supports the Classic environment’, curse you, Apple. It was brief: ‘I see that he sees wonder and beauty in Nature but… no-one to share it with. Waste of time.’ I was surprised most by the apparent challenge to his faith which he rose to, where I’d simply seen interesting observation and if anything a counter-argument to the wisdom of scientific methodology. There are no dire threats or dark consequences about not believing his proposition that language obliges us to divide experience into manageable bits that often obscure the bigger pattern. Again, potential support for the author’s case that we – not only Science – can’t explain a lot of ontological phenomenology.
The main objection seemed to be that We have the monopoly on the Truth so there is no wisdom in any competing franchise’s perspective.
I’ve not singled out the author of the Myths, because he’s only acting as the local representative of the organisation. He says in the tract that he’s led many men (he specifies ‘men’) to God, though in our conversations I’ve found it difficult to convince him that I’m actually agreeing with him in many ways even if I paraphrase or come at it from another angle. Where I hoped to pull alongside and explore avenues to understand ‘what he means by…’, anything short of his absolute and undoubtedly sincere conviction, expressed in any other than the approved vocabulary, is ‘making it up for yourself/you think you can Save yourself’.
He’s perfectly happy to chuckle when I apply exactly these critical faculties to, say, my impatience with the magpie promiscuity of New Age nick-nackery, offended when I ask for clarification of his statements. It is written; I have no excuse to question and in his eyes he has removed my excuses for uncertainty on The Day Of Judgement.
I’ve said that I could have a full semantic conversion today, join the club and say exactly the right things in the approved manner, but that would rather defeat the object.
He says ‘There is no middle ground or fence to sit on while you are deciding. NOT to decide is to decide AGAINST.’ (his emphasis)
I say: to question a specious argument is not to say that it might not conceal a truth. If your arguments would make a useful resource for a school debating team to study the uses and identification of rhetoric, devices to spot and ‘out’ in the other team’s proposition, then I’m less convinced that this is a simple case of an objective truth expressed poorly.
Again it must be said that even on a humanist level I see the value in communities of goodwill gathering to aspire to ‘do better’, even if you could describe it as ‘merely’ collective NLP. Again, there are friends who will say this is an apology for a superfluous metaphysic and others who will call it fence-sitting rejection.
Another three Myths left, but, y’know… what the… erm, ruddy heck, eh?  I’m left with the problemmatic etiquette of how to say to someone I like a lot and admire in many ways: you’ve managed to argue me out of even attempting the discussion. Can we just tune up and play?

  1. Dear Graham

    You or your readers may like to know that story about the Eagle – whose title is “Bird of Prayer” – is available in “Magic Mirror”, a collection of my work published last year by Eibonvale Press. It was of course originally published by Escape magazine in 1984 I think.

    Half of the story is indeed a memoir. It was my grandmother who misheard the sermon as referring to an Eagle. The other half of the story is trying to make a faintly ironic point that “there’s nothing to be scared of, because it’s only EVIL”.

    Matter of fact I never worked for the Diocese of Southwark, but that’s close! I was employed by the General Synod of the Church of England as an archives assistant, then an archivist. I left that position in 2001, and now I’m involved in digital preservation instead.

    Kind regards

    Ed Pinsent

    Comment by Ed Pinsent — January 29, 2011 @ 1:32 pm
  2. Ed -so good to hear from you after all this time! Hope you like the fan-mail despite the discrepancies in my memory. Yep, I forgot to add the punchline. duh.
    The Diocesan work was hearsay but it seemed very plausible. Glad you’re still keeping busy and coincidentally just yesterday I unearthed a Windy Wilberforce collection, The Saga Of The Scroll, Vol.1, preserved through five changes of address! It’s now in my new huge bookcase, secured to the wall unlike the one that fell on you in the night during a sleepover lo those decades ago. Newton’s to blame for inventing gravity but I feel obliged to apologise again on his behalf.

    Comment by admin — January 31, 2011 @ 11:11 am

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