Category: theology

Magic, Miracles and Policy

Ronnie Hawkins, aka the Hawk. A strong believer in miracles, and booster of popular miracle worker Adam Dreamhealer (not his real name).

In an otherwise erudite essay on the deterioration of knowledge due to atrophying web links, Jonathan Zittrain unfortunately chooses to introduce the subject with a reference to Arthur C Clarke’s quote on sufficiently advanced technologies being indistinguishable from magic. The point of course is that magic isn’t real, that it’s just science that we don’t know yet. Clichéd and overused perhaps, but it did trigger the thought about what magic really is, what we mean by it when we say ‘magic’. It’s a contentious thing: do you believe in magic? The cosmopolitan contemporary answer should be ‘why of course not! that’s just a childish diversion!’ Magic tricks are just that: tricks, entertainment, distraction. Yet the question of what it is that we believe has never seemed so pertinent, so immediate as it appears today. The US Government recently released their UFO files, and a good deal of Americans believe in aliens – 29% according to a USA Today poll in 2013, one third in 2019 according to Gallup. What is as interesting is what people do not believe – namely, that the government is telling the truth. 68% of those surveyed in 2019 believed that the Government was hiding what it really knew about the aliens – a fair achievement given those same people didn’t believe the Government was particularly competent. But belief in things like aliens has little to do with statistics, numbers and science.

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Temporal Gospel

In the modern lexicon, the phrase ‘gospel’ means something that is undeniably true. But does truth change over time?

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the late Pope John Paul II defended capital punishment, ‘…to redress the disorder caused by the offence’. While the pontiff considered the problem ‘in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity,’ it was heavily caveated; it was an almost reluctant accession to conservatism. Nevertheless, ‘[p]ublic authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime,’ the pope wrote. Within two years, however, it was no longer church teaching. The update in 1997 to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while recognising that the death penalty had long been considered appropriate on the part of legitimate authority, that was no longer the case. ‘Today,’ the Catechism goes at section 2267, ‘there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.’ In 2020, Pope Francis cemented the position of the Church in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti. ‘There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide,’ Pope Francis writes in section 263. How could an institution so committed to dogma, doctrine, and a unitary truth shift so dramatically in such a short period of time?

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Technologies of Theology

The British Museum is a controversial edifice. In part a persistently triumphal display of looted treasure – such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes – by a brutal and supremacist empire, part conservator of important artefacts of social history, its symbolism at a time of Brexit and resurgent nationalism is unhelpful to liberal sensibilities. It remains something of a contradiction that its erstwhile director, Neil MacGregor, combines a defence of its virtue as a world museum with criticism of the British view of its history in general as ‘dangerous’ (Allen, 2016).

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The Golden Calf and Trickle-Up Economics

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments (Exodus, Ch. 19 ff.), he took a bit longer than expected. The people, concerned that Moses might not actually come back, decided to make their own God to worship, and created a golden calf, from the assorted gold of the people there gathered. ‘These are they Gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,’ said Aaron, and by all accounts they had something of a party to celebrate. The story always made me think about the utility of the calf; it was very expensive. The economic cost of the thing was immense. And while the yield – being metaphysical – was literally incalculable (what price redemption and/or salvation!), surely there were cheaper ways to fashion a God? What about a nice painted papier-maché calf? That would have looked just as good.

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Falling Down

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

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