Done to death?

The death penalty is back in the news in Britain, as it becomes likely the House of Commons will debate the issue following a high-profile e-petition.

Most of the discussion I’ve seen so far polarises between “liberal” distaste for the very idea that the death penalty could even be considered (sample comment: “what a horribly regressive step into savagery that would be”) and “conservative” enthusiasm for the return of the rope.

Now I’ll admit I’m rather closer to the former than the latter. However, I think I’m closest of all to the Roman Catholic position set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – where the question is not a simplistic “capital punishment is barbaric” vs “capital punishment is just desserts for murder”, but instead: What best serves the common good? As the Catechism puts it:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (CCC, para 2267)

This summarises my own view: I wouldn’t absolutely rule out the death penalty in all circumstances, but in modern, peacetime conditions it is hard to see any circumstances in which it is the right thing to do – in which, that is, it best serves the common good.

The last quotation in that passage from the Catechism comes from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which JPII compares the growth in opposition to the death penalty with the “spread … of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war”:

Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but “non-violent” means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defence” on the part of society.

Posted in Politics, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Prayers for healing

I’ve posted this before, but it felt appropriate to do so again: prayers for healing, taken from the Church of England’s Common Worship: Daily Prayer. For those of us who struggle to pray in our own words, especially on such a sensitive topic, I hope this will be helpful:

Holy God, in whom we live and move and have our being,
we make our prayer to you, saying,
Lord, hear us.
Lord, graciously hear us.

Grant to [N and] all who seek you
the assurance of your presence, your power and your peace.
Lord, hear us.
Lord, graciously hear us.

Grant your healing grace to [N and] all who are sick
that they may be made whole in body, mind and spirit.
Lord, hear us.
Lord, graciously hear us.

Grant to all who minister to the suffering
wisdom and skill, sympathy and patience.
Lord, hear us.
Lord, graciously hear us.

Sustain and support the anxious and fearful
and lift up all who are brought low.
Lord, hear us.
Lord, graciously hear us.

Hear us, Lord of life.
Heal us, and make us whole.

Almighty God,
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
renew [N, N, … and] and all your people
with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Posted in Liturgy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Mirror image

BBC News report:

An Austrian atheist has won the right to be shown on his driving-licence photo wearing a pasta strainer as “religious headgear”. Niko Alm first applied for the licence three years ago after reading that headgear was allowed in official pictures only for confessional reasons. […] The idea came into Mr Alm’s noodle three years ago as a way of making a serious, if ironic, point.

James Alison, in his essay Love Your Enemy: Within a Divided Self:

However, one of the things we pick up from our social group with astonishing ease is enemies: the one who is not like us and by comparison with whom we know who we are. What we do not realise of course is that the moment there is comparison, the other is already inside me as part of my identity-building kit. In the act of thinking that I am defending myself against becoming such a person, I am already giving free rental space inside me to the person “whom I am not like”. And the more attention I give to that person or group being wicked, and not like me, the more I allow myself to be fascinated by the evil of that person, the more I give that person or group permission to dance around inside me outside my control.

What other people will notice is that I have become the mirror image, the enemy twin, of the evil that I am fighting against. I, however, cannot recognise this. And this is not because I am stupid, or haven’t studied enough, but because my conscious “I”, the one which “knows” things, is a symptom of the pattern of desire which runs me, and symptoms have no direct access to their causes.

Just sayin’.

Posted in Theology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The language of the soul

How comfortable are we in talking about “the soul”? I must admit that I do not often use the term myself, and this reflects a wider tendency in both the church and wider society to move away from talk of “the soul” in favour of words such as “identity”, “individuality” or “personhood”.

However, the Anglican priest and theologian W.H. Vanstone (whose best-known book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, I blogged about last year) argues against this abandonment of “soul talk” in the closing chapter of his final book, Fare Well In Christ. Canon Vanstone writes:

It is quite recently, within my own lifetime, that the word “soul” has drifted out of common and colloquial usage. Its use is confined to strictly and specifically religious gatherings and occasions. (pp.141f.)

He continues by observing that “the reason for this is not difficult to see”. The traditional belief in the soul as something that inhabits the body (and departs at death) was rendered untenable, in most people’s eyes, by scientific investigation of the human body:

Science denied what religion taught; science dismissed as a non-entity “the soul” which was constantly being referred to in religious teaching and practice. Religious teaching was misleading and even fraudulent in telling us that we have a soul. Surely the conviction, or at least the suspicion, that religion is fraudulent in this respect is the cause not only of the drift of the word “soul” out of common usage but also of what we call “the decline of religion” in the present century. (p.142)

Vanstone argues, however, that we still need the language of the “soul” in order to express “the mystery of what I have so far called ‘my identity'”. He writes:

We should admit that the soul is not in the body; but we can still speak of “body and soul” as our forebears did. My soul is what I have, or am, in addition to my body, and it would be an improvement to our language if we all spoke of this addition as “my soul” rather than “my identity”, “my individuality”, “my uniqueness” or “my personhood”. (p.143)

Now in many ways I think Vanstone has a point – and his preference for the “religious” language of “soul” over the “scientific” language of “identity” reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s attempt, at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, to reinstate the term “the heavens” in place of “outer space”.

However, I’m less keen on his references to the soul being “what I have, or am, in addition to my body” – which, in the context, would appear to mean in addition to what can be scientifically described or analysed, whether in our physical bodies or our minds. This seems to be a “soul of the gaps” argument, analogous to the old “God of the gaps”, and suffering from the same problems: first, the marooning of the soul (or God) in the ever-smaller “gaps” left by scientific investigation, and second (and more importantly) the conceding to science of its claim to give the sole and exhaustive account of everything outside the “gaps”.

I’ve said before that I think the proper Christian response to science is not to try to pick holes in the story that science tells (or to seize on any “gaps” left in science’s story), but rather to insist that science “is not the only story that can, or needs to, be told” – that different accounts or descriptions of reality can be more or less useful in different circumstances and for different purposes.

I wonder if the same principle can be applied to talk of the “soul”: that the soul is not the “something else” which is left after science has completed its examination of our bodies and minds, but rather that talking about the “soul” is another way of telling the story about who and what we are, another way of organising and arranging the data about our bodies and (especially) our minds – one that expresses the mystery of “my awareness that I am I and your awareness that you are you”, and the wonder evoked by that mystery, more adequately than scientific-sounding notions of “individuality” or “personhood”.

Posted in Theology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Žižek: the video

The talk by Slavoj Žižek on which I posted the other day is now available on YouTube. The talk itself is about 55 minutes long, with about 35 minutes of Q&A. Enjoy!

Posted in Culture, Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Towards a prolegomena of a blog post about Slavoj Žižek

I went (with E) to a lecture by Slavoj Žižek last night – one of his popular, “intellectual showmanship as the new rock ‘n’ roll” lectures rather than one of his weighty, academic lectures on critical theory or Hegel or whatever. The lecture was based loosely on his most recent book, Living in the End Times, and focused on the role of ideology.

If you’ve never seen Žižek in action, it’s well worth doing so – I’ll post a link to the video of last night’s lecture once it’s available. If you have seen him on screen or in person, or if you’ve read any of his books, you’ll know what it was like: an hour-long whirlwind of pop-cultural references, Marxist analysis and outright contrarianism (“The King’s Speech is a deeply ideological movie”).

As such, an orderly, linear blog post summarising his argument is impossible – at one point one of my scribbled notes just read “fetishistic” – so here are just a few snippets from his lecture (and/or thoughts triggered by it).

The King’s Speech and The Black Swan

Žižek opened with a couple of references to recent films as examples of how ideology operates in today’s society.

First, The King’s Speech, which he characterised as a film about an intelligent man (who is intelligent enough to realise how preposterous it is for him, or anyone else, to be a king) who is able to become stupid enough to take up the role of authority bestowed upon him – the critical scene (spoiler alert) being the one in which Logan sits on the throne and George shouts that Logan has no right to do so, but that he does “because I am king by divine right!”

Žižek argued that the film’s ideological purpose is to show how men, who today often feel uncomfortable simply taking upon themselves traditional “authority” roles (husband, father and so on), must make themselves stupid enough to be able to do so.

While The King’s Speech is about how men can enjoy both a private/family life and a public one provided they make themselves stupid enough to do so, The Black Swan (which I haven’t seen, so please forgive any plot-mangling or inadvertent spoilering) is about how women have to choose between the two – and if they should choose to forego the path of romance and family life in favour of pursuing their public career, then they will die. (*laughter in audience*)

Coffee without cream?

One of Žižek’s key points was how, in order to identify and understand ideology at work, we need to look not only at what is said, but at what is not said. He illustrated this with an exchange from an Ernst Lubitsch film in which the protagonist asks for a “coffee without cream”. The waiter replies, “I’m afraid we don’t have any cream. Would you like a coffee without milk?”

As a practical illustration of this, Žižek cited Brazilian carnivals, which are seen as a setting aside of all sexual, racial and class differences in a common celebration. However, there is a big difference between a poor worker deciding to set aside his daily struggles in order to celebrate the carnival and a rich banker who sets aside his privilege in order to feel part of the common mass of humanity. The worker is having coffee without milk, while the banker is having coffee without cream…

Žižek developed this “what is not said” idea further with a scene in Brassed Off in which Tara Fitzgerald asks Ewan McGregor in for a coffee at the end of a date. “I don’t drink coffee,” he says. “I haven’t got any,” she replies. The result of this double-negation, of course, is not a failure of communication but “pure erotic invitation”.

Catastrophic, but not serious

A similar paradox is at work in the story of the telegram exchange between the German and Austrian armies during the First World War, in which the Germans communicated that their position was “serious, but not catastrophic” – and the Austrians replied that their position, by contrast, was “catastrophic, but not serious”.

Žižek argued that this phrase describes our current position as we face economic and ecological catastrophe: we know the position is catastrophic, but we are unable to take it seriously. Ideology is not about what we know or don’t know, but has a deeper, underlying position: so that we know, but act as if we don’t know it.

Look for the hamster

Žižek has little time for those who affect a cynical detachment from the world and call it “realism”. He sees this as “fetishistic”: not necessarily in the sense of a sexual fetish, but in the sense that what one really feels is dissociated from its true object and transferred onto another.

He gave a heartbreaking example of this: a friend of his whose wife had died, suddenly and very young, from breast cancer. Žižek and his friends were shocked at how, from immediately after his wife’s death, the man was able to speak openly and without emotion about the terrible suffering she had undergone in the final two months of her life.

Then they realised that, whenever he did so, the man was holding and stroking his wife’s pet hamster. On some subconscious level the man had “fetishised” the hamster so that it now represented his dead wife – and so he could feel that she hadn’t really gone. Six months later, though, the hamster died: and the man underwent a complete emotional and mental breakdown that resulted in his hospitalisation.

So Žižek claimed that when we encounter someone who claims to be totally detached and cynical, to see the world as it is, a meaningless void, then we should not engage with them on the level of rational argument (“The world has so much beauty and meaning!”). Rather, we need (as it were) to “look for their hamster”, the object or concept that enables them to distance themselves from what they truly feel.

As he put it: “We believe much more than we think we believe”.


Another function of ideology, Žižek asserted, is to make us understand a phenomenon (such as capitalism) only in terms of its positive features, and to see its negative features, its exploitations, horrors and contradictions, as merely “distortions” or “corruptions”.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is a “totally non-functioning state”, racked by civil war, divided into the fiefdoms of competing warlords – each of whom is supported by contracts with western mining corporations for metals and minerals which are essential for our electronic equipment. It is tempting to present the DRC as an aberration or distortion, an example of a “primitive” nation that hasn’t yet fully developed into “civilised” capitalism. However, Žižek argued, instead we should see it as part of the totality of today’s capitalism.

Whatever you think of that particular example (and I don’t know enough about the DRC to judge), that idea of engaging with the an idea in its totality, rather than just dismissing the negative aspects as “aberrations”, is one I will carry away from the lecture. It’s a particularly important one for Christians, who often try to dissociate themselves from the horrific aspects of church history (and of current situations within the church) in this way.

Factories for producing experts

The area where Žižek’s lecture intersected most clearly with current practical politics was the change in the nature of universities that is currently underway. Žižek argued that what is happening in the UK, with the introduction of tuition fees and the consequent privatisation of university education, is part of an international trend in which “the university is no longer to be a space of freedom but a socially-useful factory for producing experts”.

As for how we oppose this, Žižek suggested that we should throw back at conservatives their own professed concerns about “European values” or “the Judeo-Christian legacy”, pointing out that the greatest threat to the “Judeo-Christian legacy” (in particular the positive legacy of freedom of thought) comes, not from Muslims or immigrants, but from the very measures which conservatives now propose, such as the marketisation of universities. “Do not concede to the enemy too much”, and in particular do not concede to conservatives the mantel of “protecting European values”.

Ideology today

Žižek argued that the old capitalist framework of ideology was based on education and law. However, today these are being superseded by the market. The logic of market competition is the hegemonic ideology of today.

So in education, the bourgeois conception of education as a pure space which exists above and outside the market is being replaced by education as a privatised product. And in politics, democracy is now a market exercise in which what is on offer is not competing ideologies but a decision as to “the best party to do the job”.

Why isn’t Bond attempting re-entry any more?

Why is there no sex at the end of the most recent Bond film, Quantum of Solace? Žižek suggests that it is for the same reason that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code contains no sex between Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu, and the film version of The Lost Symbol actually removed a sex scene that Brown had included in the novel: any form of passionate attachment is seen as a threat in our narcissistic, solipsistic and individualistic culture. (It occurred to me that this might also be relevant to the so-called “hook-up culture”.)


Neoliberalism, Žižek asserted, is “an ideology, not an economic reality”. No country in the world actually practising neoliberalism as an economic system – least of all the United States, as evidenced by the bank bailouts.

Rather, neoliberalism is an ideology used to justify economising at home (cuts to education or health) or to put pressure on third-world nations.

What Žižek is most afraid of…

…is summarised by a manifesto issued by recent Spanish protests against government austerity measures. Žižek described this as “totally apolitical”, going out of its way to emphasise that the protestors “were neither of the right nor of the left”, but were rejecting the entire political class.

What Žižek found depressing about this leaflet was that, while it stated the protestors’ intention to dismantle the entire political class, it still did not say “We the people will do this”, but was still a call for “someone” to do it.

And the problem when people call for “someone” to do something is that “the place of this ‘someone’ may be taken by who knows who”.

There is no alternative

The biggest weakness for the left is that “we do not have, even in the barest outline, an alternative to propose”. Žižek described friends of his who express great excitement about what might happen in Greece, but who then have no answer when he asks “What happens next, after the collapse? A bit of Keynesianism? Nationalising the major industries? What?”

During the Q&A, Žižek expanded on this point, observing that much of the radical left (such as the Socialist Workers Party) is “still a little bit in love with the twentieth century. But the twentieth century is over”. This includes the dreams of the twentieth century, not least the dreams of the various forms of twentieth-century socialism – all of which were ultimately a failure.

A divergence is arising in terms of what is seen as possible and what as impossible. In the sphere of private life, technology is seen as having the potential to make practically anything possible: artificial organs to prolong life, and so on. However, in the economic and political sphere, almost everything is impossible: we can’t spend more on health, we can’t change the economic system, and so on. This is the work of ideology.

In mid-April, the Chinese government prohibited all works of fiction (TV, movies, novels) that depict time-travel or alternative realities. Even the fictional depiction of an alternative to Communist Party rule is intolerable. But as Žižek pointed out, we should not be too quick to laugh at China over this: at least the Chinese still need to prohibit alternative realities. In the west, ideology makes it impossible for us even to think of alternatives.

The role of the critical intellectual

Žižek argued that the role of “critical intellectuals” such as himself is “not to provide solutions, but to open up space in which alternatives can be thought about”.

I’m sure that’s one reason why his freewheeling, scattergun approach is so effective. The point is not whether one agrees with everything Žižek says. I strongly doubt that Žižek agrees with everything Žižek says. However, what he does is to spin your head round a few times so that you are jolted into thinking about things you normally take for granted. This is surely a healthy thing to do: if not quite cleansing the doors of perception, then at least opening them a little wider.

Note: the title to this post was inspired by a comment Žižek made as he ran out of time in the Q&A. He referred to the 1980s fashion for Marxist intellectuals to preface their book titles with phrases like “Towards a…” or “Notes in preparation for a…” – in contrast to the 1990s postmodern preference for a “poetic title with explanatory subtitle” (“He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kiss: The Collusion of the Feminine in Male Violence” or whatever) – and said that he had at least provided “Notes on a prolegomena of an answer to your question”. Anyone who was present at the lecture, and who heard the first “question”, will also appreciate the significance of a supposedly brief post ending up as a 2,200 word behemoth…

Posted in Culture, Politics | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Beloved (and raised?) disciple

I remember some years ago reading a suggestion by Alastair Roberts that the author of St John’s Gospel may be Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who is raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11.

At the time I filed this straight into my “interesting, but sounds a bit unlikely” mental file. However, recently I’ve come round to the view that Alastair may well have been on to something. As I was challenged by Andy Stager on Twitter to give my reasons for this, here they are:

  • The key reference is John 11:3, where the message sent by Mary and Martha to Jesus is: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” This contains a clear echo of the repeated references throughout John’s Gospel to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, who is identified as the writer of the Gospel (or at least of its underlying source documents) in John 21:24.
  • The text that prompted my tweet on this subject, though, was John 19:26-27, where Jesus hands over his mother into the care of “the disciple whom he loved”. We’re told: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” Given that the most prominent home in John’s Gospel is that of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, it seems fitting and credible for it to be their household to which Jesus gave the honourable duty of caring for his mother.
  • In John 21:20-24 we are told that “the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die”. If John were the “Lazarus” of chapter 11 then that would surely help such a rumour develop: “give it legs”, as it were. It would also explain St Peter’s curiosity as to the fate of that particular disciple.
  • Finally, given the reticence* of the author of the fourth Gospel in referring to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (rather than by name), it is also not unlikely that he would choose to hide his being the subject of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles behind a pseudonym. (*Note that I don’t see the writer’s use of this phrase as an immodest claim to special status, but rather as a personal appropriation of Jesus’ love for the whole world. That is, for John/Lazarus, every disciple should be able to describe themselves as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.)

I quite deliberately wrote this post up to this point without doing any further research, as I just wanted to set out the aspects of the fourth Gospel that had persuaded me personally. But it turns out that (as Richard Campeau drew to my attention) that Ben Witherington has also discussed this idea in more detail. Which gives me greater confidence that I’ve not been on a complete wild goose chase.

For the record, however, I remain a convinced Stratfordian. 😉

Posted in Theology | Tagged , , | 6 Comments