The Ark of the New Covenant

The old as a reflection of the new

One thing I was sometimes concerned about when I first became a Catholic was the whole idea of praying to saints. I had discovered god, and it seemed (and still seems) that prayer is something between created and creator.  Over time I have learned to understand it better; to understand what prayer is (a type of spiritual communication),  to understand the “communion of saints”, and to understand better the difference between worship and prayer.

The extraordinary respect given to Mary in the church is perhaps the most extreme example of this. There have been times when I had concerns that the distinction between prayer and worship was blurred in her case. However its worth considering who Mary is, and why she is important.

In the old testament, because of his faith, god makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. However he makes it clear right from the start that this is a two part covenant, at first for his descendants, but then a second part “for all nations”.  All through the old testament, as god reveals this original covenant with the 10 commandments (the law) written onto stone tablets, the Ark in which they are kept, and the temple in which he would remain present on earth, god makes it clear that this is all a first part of his covenant. The second part – what he calls the new covenant – would not just be for all nations, it would be heralded by a messiah.  It would be a spiritual covenant for Abraham’s spiritual descendants.

In Jeremiah 31 god again talks of this new covenant, one he will make with people from all corners of the earth. It would start with Rachel in Ramallah weeping for her children because they are no more,  fulfilled when Herod saw the signs of the prophesy of a new king.  In the same chapter god says that this new covenant – with “Israel” (meaning “judge with god” or “man sees god”) – will not be like the old covenant. Instead;

I will put my law in their minds

and write it on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people

So instead of a covenant written in stone – housed in an Ark – and god’s presence on earth being in the temple, the new covenant would involve the law itself being alive, with god, in his people. In Isaiah, god says;

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and she will call Him Immanuel.

Immanuel means “god with us”, and so the fulfilment of this new covenant starts with a virgin giving birth. In many ways, that virgin becomes the Ark of the New Covenant, although the new covenant only replaced the old once the other prophesies of the messiah were complete, including later in Isaiah (53);

But He was pierced for our transgressions,

He was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him,

Its worth noting that the law of the old covenant – of loving god and your neighbour – is not replaced. Instead it turns from letters on stone to living words in communion with living flesh. All starting in the womb of one woman.  As she herself says, as recorded by Luke;

My soul glorifies the Lord  and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me

It is worth thinking about the honour god placed on Mary by giving her such a central role in the most import story that has happened on earth at least.  She is not the story.  She should not be worshipped, as that should be reserved for god alone.  She is nonetheless the one through whom god physically came into his own creation, as a ‘son of man’.  She is not the one who offered us freedom from the clinging pit of our bad choices.  She is the one that the god who created the universe trusted enough to rest his plan for us all on her shoulders.

We don’t really know what challenges she had in fulfilling her role, though its fair to assume the great trust god placed in her was shared with Joseph and no doubt others around her. We can imagine the challenges of becoming pregnant whilst unmarried in the Jewish society of the time.  We have no idea who other than Herod was drawn to try and crush the seed that would start the victory over evil.  But ultimately her role in it all was fixed by god, and she accepted this willingly.

The only reason Mary is special is because of Jesus.  Unlike him, she is not god, and that’s incredibly important.  He is the one that deserves glory,  He has such unfathomable power and knowledge, and yet admires the humble, the simple, the kind.  Mary was just an ordinary human.  Nonetheless, its right to honour her, as long as we do so in the hope that we can ourselves become as trusting of, and trusted by, the one she gave birth to.  As unlikely as that may be for most of us, we should aim to be like the saints.   To the world this may seem like hypocrisy when we each often fall so far short, but when we join them in our communal prayers to god, it is gods perfection we celebrate.  Not our own, nor any of the saints.

Categories: History, Religion

The Circles of History

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There is an idea that if you study history, you can help avoid the mistakes of the past. However when you look back with the benefit of hindsight, its clear that we make the same mistakes over and over again. No matter how well informed some people in society are about history. There seems to be some component of emotion involved in this which blinds large portions of the population at the time.

With examples such as the English civil war, the French revolution, the rise of communism, the rise of facism; in all cases people were angry, and a group of people took that anger and shaped it into something that sounded better, but usually turned out to be worse than the thing people were angry about in the first place. With communism you had the great ideals of Marx. Anyone who reads the Communist Manifesto can’t fail to see the logic and even beauty in the idea. Instead of the rich living in absurd luxury and the poor struggling just to stay alive, you have everyone working together for the common good, and sharing equally. The reality was of course very different. Not only did this not take into account some elements of human nature, resulting in as much poverty as before, it left a moral vacuum which caused its own problems.

With fascism you had anger about war reparations in Germany, and more general anger at the failure of capitalism leading into the great depression. There was a narrative about making the nation great again by taking back control from the demons of capitalism, of everyone working together with good traditional ideals. In reality it resulted in levels of suffering and destruction to match anything that came before.

Each time these cycles of history turn around, they are different enough that people find it difficult to see the patterns at the time. Hegel saw it as a struggle between two essential ideas of the age, each time resulting in a new and more improved idea to move to the next generation, ready for a new opposing idea to rise. I’m not so sure its always progressive like this, more like smaller cycles within larger cycles. Certainly when the clash of ideas reaches its zenith each time, there is nothing more noble or improved in the state of the world.

This time around it seems the clash of our time is ultra left progressivism of the type you see in some Guardian opinion pieces, quick to be offended and ruled by the self entitled; versus the Trumps and Putins of the world, selling the old fascist lies about aggressive nationalism. Both can spin great sounding stories to their devotees, neither has a clear and sustainable view of a better world – its always focused on addressing wrongs of the past. These wrongs are inevitable based on some genuine concerns and suffering, but they are pumped up and inflated to become all consuming.

The only real way out of these cycles is compassion and forgiveness. Those are the only traits that survive the judgement of hindsight. Yes, World War 2 would not have been as bad if Macmillan and his supporters had not tried to appease. There are countless more arguments for the fact that sometimes its necessary to use force to contain bullies. But each time an individual in a society reacts with compassion and forgiveness, the bullies become both less likely to develop into bullies, and less pervasive to contain.

Israel/Palestine is a good example of this. One side in the divide sees the issue purely in terms of the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians; of a people robbed of their land, living under a kind of apartheid where they have less rights that their neighbors. The other sees it purely in terms of a people struggling persecution for thousands of years, an outsider wherever they go. Always the scapegoat when things go wrong. Finally with a ‘home’ again, but attacked from all sides; willing to negotiate, but no strong and honest leader to make a deal with. Both of these views are at least to some extent true, and viewed through either lens it can be powerfully emotive. This is what drives the wheels of history. However the only possible solution to this does not focus on either of these views. It involves each of these groups of peoples, as individuals, working together to make the land one where they can live together in peace. This takes two things – forgiveness and compassion.  Neither of these are things a person can just decide to adopt, and then be free of their opposite.  They require time and effort to cultivate, through the likes of contemplation and detachment.  The more people that are actively choosing love and mindfulness, the less trapped we all are in the wheels of history.

Categories: History

From Edward Bernays to Cambridge Analytica

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Advertising has had a huge impact on society over the past century. From getting people smoking in the 1930s, its sophistication has increased exponentially over time. Edward Bernays took the power of early Freudian psychology and started making people want things. By the 1960s, the marketing machine developed more sophisticated techniques that sold forms of individualism as the only choice other than totalitarianism. Music and TV became platforms that both carried the lifestyles along with the adverts – the bait with the hook.

If you doubt the power of advertising to affect the choices you make – then why do companies spend such large portions of their budgets on marketing ?

Now the exponential growth of this phenomena has continued with the internet, but the power of the data being generated at the same time has raised things up to a new level. Your shopping habits online allow companies to target you as an individual in ever more sophisticated ways.

But its the way the likes of Cambridge Analytica use data from huge sampling studies to develop algorithms that can make stunningly accurate predictions about what drives individuals emotionally that is giving cause for cold shivers. Suddenly you have people using the sophisticated psychology behind marketing, but applying it directly to an individual based on their specific concerns, fears, hopes and dreams.

If you doubt the power this has, why did the trump campaign engage them ? Why did the Brexit campaign ? Why are the most successful political campaigns confident in spending the lions share on these techniques being better than knocking on doors and discussing the issues directly ?

The ‘fake news’ hype is just one part of this, with those like Trump who have benefitted from it also trying to smear mainstream media with the same stick. Straight out of Goebbel’s playbook. We are also weaker than ever to resist these things – with people congregating in online groups where their personal views are prone to be exaggerated and reinforced. The hope for finding a broad, rational consensus based on reason and compassion is potentially under threat as a result. All it takes is another event like the great depression where people en mass are suddenly in trouble, and we are more ripe than ever for a narrative that hijacks that emotion.

There is of course another side to this, and the fact that people are having to get better at weighing the veracity of all the crap out here on the web may give some cause for hope. Also, the fact that its easy for an individual to challenge a narrative, and difficult for countries that claim to be free to suppress that, is another positive control.

Winston Churchill once famously said that Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all other forms ever thought up. His concern was that ‘the people’ were not always the most informed, but his reason for supporting it was that it is the only way to counter the truth that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts completely’. However, if technology has reached the point where ‘the people’ can be controlled, one at a time, to vote in a way far more powerfully than they are already persuaded to shop, then are we sleepwalking into something ? At best we end up with politicians with the biggest pockets to buy votes – not something new but something many countries have generally been moving away from. At worst we have a justification for totalitarianism or cruel dictatorships.

Categories: Current affairs, History

Deception – walking the line

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In some of my previous posts, I have suggested that we need to be more open and honest about what we do not know, to leave space for possibilities that have not been ruled out.   However there is a very good reason why we have developed the habit of ruling out things that aren’t supported by evidence – called skepticism.

There is a long history of humans believing all kinds of wrong things for very bad reasons.   It was the arrival of critical thinking with Greek philosophy that was the birth of various forms of skepticism, from those who argued that nothing is meaningfully true, to those who simply argued that some things are more correct that others.  I won’t delve too far into the nature of skepticism in its different forms now as its a vast subject that is written about extensively by people far more learned than me.  However there is an important point about the nature of knowledge – aka epistemology – which is worth spending some time on.

Being skeptical about things is an important part of reason.  I recently told someone that a full super tanker has so much momentum at full speed that it would keep going right across the Isle of Wight.  As I was saying this I had a queezy feeling in stomach, and by the time I’d finished the sentance I seriously doubted what I’d just said.  At some point when I was younger someone I trusted – a teacher I think – told this to me, and I seem to have accepted it and it lodged away in my head for 40 years or so until it happened to come up in a conversation.   To be fair I probably missed some detail or caveat, but why I didn’t question this more at the time is a mystery to me.  Either way, I think we all agree that education should encourage everyone to have a level of critical thinking that (gently and respectfully) questions everything.

However there is also another side to this.  Not all types of knowledge are the same.  For example, if someone says that they see blue where you see green, its very difficult to confirm that empirically.   So we have some things that we see as solid facts, and others that we term “subjective” to suggest that they are unreliable.

I would like to question this way of thinking about what is true and what is not.  But first I need to reject one alternative philosophy that treats all these subjective ideas as just as valid as any other idea or fact – what you could broadly call post modernism, or relativism.  I believe there are things that are true, and things that are not true.  As the late Pope John Paul II said when supporting Evolution Theory, “Truth cannot contradict Truth”.

To some extent, the philosophical debate around the validity of subjective views has hidden what is to me the more important point – namely that there are different types of knowledge.  There is no reason not to try to build the wall of truth in each of these realms, as long as you have a way to realiably identify the range of competencies against which each wall can be applied.

The wall of empirically verified facts is to some scientists, and indeed to the average educated person (if at least subconsciously), the closest we have to a wall of truth.  For these groups, the empirical approach is not just a scientific method, its a philosophy, a worldview.  They would deny it, but it could be said to be like a religion itself, a belief in science so encompassing that it becomes scientism.

Despite the incredible power and sophistication of this empirical way of building a picture of the truth, the foundation of this wall is composed of temporary objects that change, decay, and are gone.  The idea that physical objects – which are mostly empty space described by weird force fields – should be the bedrock of our picture of everything, is okay to question.   What if we consider a wall of truth where the foundations were the likes of symmetry (which makes things like physics possible), the platonic concept of numbers and shape (which make maths possible), of self awareness, even concepts such as love, hate, forgiveness.  We tend to think of these things as in some ways not being as real as bricks and hammers, as scales and rulers.  Maybe because they involve the world interacting in some way with consciousness, they are understandably seen as part of the world of human emotion and imagination.

The interesting thing is that the empirical wall of truth we have built has almost disolved its own foundation.  It points to the fact that the idea of a local reality, of something physical existing in space and time, is more illusion than reality.  There are philosophers and scientists that take extreme interpretations of these things, and say that the universe is nothing but maths or information, or even those who say that the universe is all mind at some level.

There is a quote from Stephen Hawkins “A Brief History of Time”, which I think describes these diferent types of truth well;

Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

So going back to skepticism, my view is that like the scientific method, its a powerful tool that should be used often.  However its also important to limit that skepticism to its rightful place in building a wall that will never be the complete picture.  Just as you would never use a hammer to read a book, you need to use the right tool for the job it was made for.
Truth is surely one of the most valuable things to everyone; if that were not true then why do people spend so much of their lives debating things.  My decision that I was an atheist was made through a kind of skepticism which drove a narrative in my mind.  But when I look back, none of the arguments I’d created in my mind supported atheism –  at best they supported agnosticism.  The human mind likes certainty, and this is one reason the scientific method is so important in controlling this tendancy.  However there is another side to this where the same type of comfortable certainty in rejecting unproven things can be just as incorrect.

Categories: History, Religion, Science