Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Euros and Europe – why saying no-one knows what will happen is misleading.

One of the things I keep hearing in the EU referendum debate is the argument that “No-one knows what will happen in the UK leaves” therefore people who claim that it will bad for the UK are just guessing. This is one of those really annoying things whereby the truth is used to obscure a lie.

It is of course true that no-one knows what the effects might be. It is true in the strict philosophical sense that no-one can know the future. It is however not useful in the real world where we are always making judgements based on evidence and experience without ever knowing for sure. Do I know that this patient will die without this life-saving operation? No, in the strictest sense. But I suspect my philosophical honesty would not be taken as good reasoning by the coroner.

I do like a good analogy. For example, I do not know who will win the European Championship in France at the moment (Euro 2016). I can tell you though that it will not be Scotland. I am reasonably certain that the winner will be one of the countries that is actually taking part.

Back in 1992 Denmark won. This was very surprising as they did not actually qualify. They only got admitted to the tournament 11 days before it started after Yugoslavia had to pull out. This is a really good example of the unexpected. Two weeks before the start it was unforeseeable that Denmark would win but the surprising does sometimes happen.

In terms of the EU referendum, the fact that leaving the EU would be bad for the UK economy and may well be bad for the stability of Europe is fairly clear. The debate is over how bad. The consensus of economists is very strong and based on some decent evidence; The IFS report is a good place to start. No one can tell the future for sure but the outcome is fairly predictable based on what we already know about the UK economy. Spain might win the Euros or Italy, Portugal, Wales, England etc. but Scotland won’t.

To say ‘no-one knows’ what will happen is to bet on Denmark before they were admitted to the tournament or to bet on Scotland now. Except the once-in-fifty years event that led to Denmark being admitted does not look like it is being repeated. It is the same sort of odds as saying I will safely walk across this motorway with a blindfold on. It’s not impossible but it’s also not very wise. What is so striking to me is the idea that in the face of such strong evidence anyone would want to take such a risk with our nation’s future.

Alternatively, invest all your savings on a bet for Scotland to win the Euros. I’ve no doubt the bookie will give you excellent odds.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Thinking Right (And Left)

My politics is well known. Many people approach politics with either apathy or a deep cynicism. I think for the most part, the cynicism is misplaced and most people have the right intentions. (I am increasingly cynical and suspicious of the current government but that is a different post). What I want to talk about here is the philosophy that shapes my thinking. In this sense, politics is a very wide concept, affecting so much of life.

The concept of fairness is often at the centre of this, with both left and right thinking appropriating the word. The problem is they usually mean something subtly but profoundly different by the term. Hence, in my experience often Lefties and Righties end up talking past each other: Lefties declare it's NOT RIGHT that children go to bed hungry and Righties say it's NOT RIGHT that anyone forces me to do something about it, I have what I have, because I earned it. Which is the greater wrong?

I do need to point out at this point that most of my right-leaning friends are at the front of the queue to give freely from what they have. So maybe we have an impasse, should we just agree to differ and know we will always have a different perspective and focus on what works?

But for me, that is not the end of the argument, because I don't think that some having LOTS and LOTS and others having so little is a natural phenomenon or simply the result of some being prepared to work hard and others not at all. Our huge wealth inequalities (in microcosm in our country, and on the full-scale across our world at large) are the result of specific factors. Of course work should be rewarded and people have a right to decide to work for something and enjoy it when they get it. But it is nowhere near that simple.

The bigger factors are things like access to natural resources and who picks up the bigger costs. In the UK in particular, but also in most of the world, if you own land, you are already winning. But who says I own this piece of land? Because I inherited it, or because I bought it off someone else? But why did that person own it...? etc. etc.

I also think that, if you look at the great wealth owners, it's often because they have exploited natural resources, such as oil. Surely, if oil belongs to anyone in a country, it belongs to everyone? But what actually happens is the companies who extract it pay peanuts in access rights and then for the most part, it's the rest of the world who pays the price of the pollution at the end of the day. If you are doubting this, have a look at how Fracking rights are being handed out.

Coupled to that is an economic-political system that means wealth allows access to power that has been used to concentrate wealth and so the cycle goes on.

It is not simply a case of taking MY MONEY off me. It is the case that I benefit from all that a modern society provides: security, legal system, infrastructure etc. etc. and so I should pay towards it. Tax is the means to do so. Moreover, our economic system is concentrating wealth and to argue therefore that it's morally unacceptable to redress that process is a flawed argument in my view. Most of the poor in this country are in-work. For the most part, unemployment is not a personal choice but inflicted on someone by forces beyond their control.

In the race of life, it's a very staggered start.

The concept that success is based on hard work and talent and thus by definition those who do not succeed have mostly themselves to blame underpins this right-leaning view of fairness. The problem is that it is simply not true. For the most part, those who succeed are those who have all the advantages to begin with. So many, who work hard and try to use their talents are by this measure totally unsuccessful.

I have written before about my own story. I am significantly better off than my parents. I came from a secondary school where only a small minority aspired to university. I was the first generation of my family to do so. It would be easy to turn this in to a story of individual striving and reward. Two things need to be said here. Firstly that narrative ignores the fact of all the advantages that did come my way, and secondly it denies the fact that so many equally talented and hard-working people have not had the opportunities I have. Yes, I have worked hard and tried to make the most of the opportunities that have come my way, but I have no illusions about how little I could have done if the opportunities were not provided for me.*

What frustrates me is that rather than try to address the deep ingrained inequalities we would rather lie to ourselves about the systemic bias that exists and pretend that those who are poor are so because it is their own fault.
“So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’.” – John Wesley

I have not even touched on the issues of illness and disability which can afflict any of us. Having a disability (or a child with a disability) is one of the biggest predictors of poverty in the UK. All of us can be afflicted and yet we continue to lie to ourselves about this. Where has the idea of a ‘universal insurance scheme for all’ gone? When did we stop believing in a society with a mutual responsibility to each other.

And finally, as a Christian when I think about these issues, I find one other thought inescapable. God’s grace came to me when there was nothing of value in me. I could not earn his love and acceptance. The idea that people do not deserve help is a very dangerous one for a Christian to adopt.

Essentially, in microcosm in our society and across the whole world, where you begin is the biggest predictor of how your life will be – much, much more so than your personal input:  
In the race of life, it is a very staggered start.


*There are also more insidious factors about how able people are to take opportunities but that would need a whole different blog post.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Thinking Spiritually

Some idle wondering over the last couple of days...

I always thought that the old saying If you understand the trinity it means you don’t understand the trinity a pretty good starting point. It is enough for me to say that I believe in God who is one God and three persons without being able to begin to understand all that means. But belief in the Trinity is not a meaningless mystery. It has all sorts of implications about how we think about, and more importantly, relate to God. It is, I think, central to understanding the statement God is Love as the apostle John puts it in his letter. Smarter people than me have written very eloquently about how the relational nature of God (i.e. God being three persons in perfect love) is necessary in order for God to be Love.

So, for orthodox Christians (small ‘o’) trinitarian thinking is nothing new. The Bible never uses the word ‘trinity’ but speaks of the different persons of the Godhead in various ways that are summed up by this word. It occurred to me that I have a very poor theology of the Holy Spirit.

What I mean is, that we understand God the father as a concept. We relate to Jesus, the son as the God-man who became one of us but the spirit I think is an afterthought in our theology. I have written elsewhere that I am only interested in what could be termed practical theology. Knowledge and understanding of God that affects us and changes our lives is the only kind worth bothering with. This is one of those situations, in my view, that our (of my) poor theology has important implications. The reason for my obsession with practical theology is that the Christian life is to be lived. It is in discipleship, in the following of our master that we find hope and security and reach out to our dying world in His name. The startling realisation for me was when I was reminded that Jesus only carried out his ministry in the power of the spirit. How much more then do we need God’s spirit?

The writer to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the author and perfector of our faith (some translations may vary). This is a verse I love, for Jesus lived the Christian Life – he showed us how to be followers of Him. Jesus said he only does what he sees his father doing and we are called to do the same. I mention this because the mystery of the incarnation has some interesting points in the gospel accounts. We are told that Jesus is and remains fully God but from the gospel accounts we learn something of the limitations on the second person of the trinity in being incarnate and fully human. I do not, for example think that Jesus was omniscient as he walked the earth. He reacts with anger, astonishment and joy to those around him. He states that he doesn’t know the day or hour when he will return. At other times he clearly knows what will happen. Is that by the Spirit? I think so. Moreover Jesus himself seemed to need the indwelling of the Spirit to live out his calling.

Hopefully by now, I have been convincing on the point that our theology of the Holy Spirit is important. However that leaves the question of why do I think it lacking. I think we have some understanding of God the Father. The one from whom all things proceed and in whom all things hold together. The eternal God who sits in righteous judgment over fallen humanity Yaweh, God. We also know that this is the father who so loved the world he was prepared to send his only Son. This is the father whom Jesus depicts as running down the road to meet the returning prodigal. This is the God of love. Now, whilst the notion of a perfect father is a struggle for many of us whose earthy fathers so completely failed us, I think that we get the idea of an awesome, scary, yet unbelievably loving father. I also think that for the most part our theology of the Son is well worked out. The God-man, the eternal Son, who became one of us and who loves and obeys his father and teaches us to do the same.

It may just be me, but to some extent I feel the spirit is a bit of an afterthought. Not in the nature of God of course, but in our thinking about God. Which is a problem. The Holy Spirit is God with us in a way that Jesus never could be. In all places and all times. And more importantly, indwelling our very selves. It is by the power of the spirit that we are called and able to believe and trust in Jesus. It is by the spirit that we are changed to be more like Jesus.

The point I’m trying to make is that we seem to understand the spirit a bit like The Force in Starwars and thus miss out of the truth of God with us. I think the consequences of this are that we have a theology of partial deism that diminishes who the spirit is and thus makes us less able to respond to His work in our hearts and lives. Moreover I think we might miss out of this great privilege of knowing God in our daily walk. Jesus himself defined eternal life as knowing the Father and this life begins now, in the Spirit of God. The comedian Milton Jones described the Holy Spirit as someone who, when invited into your house, will insist on looking at the mess behind the fridge. But He will also insist on helping you clean it up. By depersonalising the Spirit we make it harder to know God and miss out on blessing I wonder if we sadden him by doing so.

Thank you oh my Father
For giving us your Son
And leaving your Spirit
‘till the work on earth is done.

Anyways, just idle wondering…