Saturday, September 25, 2010

the patron saint of whistle-blowers?

Well the latest revelations about Mary Mackillop have suddenly raised my interest in the future 'saint'. Not that I've ever lacked admiration for a woman who was such a battler for children, education and overcoming disadvantage. Also for her struggles, as an obviously headstrong, dedicated and independent-minded woman, with the male authoritarian hierarchy of the RCC. It's just that she was no more a saint or a miracle-worker than anyone else.

The revelations are that Mackillop was ex-communicated in 1871 at least partly because she attempted to blow the whistle on a sex abuser in Kapunda. As is the way with these things, the offending priest, Father Keating, was shifted back to Ireland, where he continued to practise as a priest, and no doubt to pursue his other interests. Meanwhile, Keating's crony in Kapunda, Father Horan was apparently incensed by Mackillop's interference, and was bent on revenge. He prevailed upon bishop Shiel of Adelaide to act against the sisters of Joseph, the order set up by Mackillop and Father Tennison Woods.

In fact the article I'm referring to isn't clear about whether Mackillop was ever actually ex-communicated. It seems that the issue never actually went to Rome, and I'm not sure if local bishops, or archbishops, have the power to ex-communicate. In any case she was banished for a time. That means being put out on the street, with nothing but the habit on her back. A few months later the dying bishop repented of his decision and lifted the ban. It's quite likely that the bishop finally decided the Josephites' good work among the poor outweighed their meddlesome interference in secret men's business. One commentator suggested that Mackillop be declared the patron saint of whistle-blowers. That's one form of sainthood I would subscribe to..

Of course priestly child sexual abuse has been going on since the RCC came into power, and no doubt before. This site mentions four texts illuminating the problem, to which Geoffrey Robertson's new book should no doubt be added:

- ‘The Power and the Glory: Inside the Dark Heart of John Paul II’s Vatican, David Yallop, Constable & Robinson Ltd, London, 2007.
- ‘Sex Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church’s 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse’, Doyle et al, Volt Press, Los Angeles, 2005.
- ‘Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy, and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio’, Karen Liebreich, Grove Press, New York, 2004.
- Peter Damian, ‘Book of Gomorrah: An Eleventh-Century Treatise against Clerical Homosexual Practices’, Ed. P Payer, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982.

The site also provides lots of online info and links on the subject.

I should also add, for my own information if nobody else's, the work of the American, Patrick Wall, especially his book 'Sex, priests and secret codes'.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

religious commitment, boredom and counsels of dullness

Still reading, and almost at the end of, Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians, a most excellent book which has massively informed me about the so-called 'pagan' religion of the Graeco-Roman world, as well as about the organisation, and sometimes lack thereof, of the early Christian church, and about the details of various heresies, persecutions and new religions, further offshoots of Christianity, such as the phenomenally successful cult begun by Mani.
Fox has a wonderful way with the throwaway comment which you certainly wouldn't want to throw away. Two of them have, to me, provided entrees into thinking about religion generally. First, he writes about 'boredom, that great enemy of religious commitment', and then he refers to 'counsels of dullness'. Whether or not Fox himself is religious, I've no idea, but he strikes me as realist, not without a wry sense of humour.

In his comment about boredom he was referring specifically to the late third century of the Christian era, during and after the emperorship of Gallienus, when the persecution of Christians, and their consequent obsession with martyrdom, faded to nothing. With their growing power from the early fourth century, heresy became the obsession. But of course this observation about boredom and religious commitment has modern application. It helps explain the battles over intelligent design, the bombings of abortion clinics, Peter Jensen's need to meddle with ethics classes, and Ratzinger's urge to keep himself in the spotlight with assinine remarks about atheism's links to Nazism. For the fact is, there are some religious types, and perhaps especially Christian types, who will never do what Anthony Grayling wants them to do, that is keep their religion to themselves. For them, religion is all about drawing attention to themselves, and if there are no controversies ready to hand, they must create them. Hence you'll always find noisy young earth creationists, placard-waving Christian homophobes, flashy predictors of the Last Days, evangelical excitement machines and the like. In the early years of Christianity, 'over-achievers' [another delicious term employed by Fox] drew attention to themselves by absurdly long periods of fasting, in-your-face devotional acts, and constantly attracting martyrdom by spurning the Graeco-Roman gods.  When there wasn't enough real martyrdom to feed their need for perpetual religious excitation, they invented stories about martyrdom, of which there were hundreds. Interestingly, though, the early Christians martyrs didn't go the next step, of committing terrorist acts, as modern, mostly Moslem 'martyrs' do. I don't think that this was simply because they hadn't thought of it or because a 'fashion' for it hadn't arisen. I think it was more because of the example of Jesus, as presented in the gospels, whose passive martyrdom and other-wordliness had set the trend. Many over-achievers sought to out-Jesus Jesus in terms of suffering, as well as in other ways, such as poverty, simplicity and meekness.

The term 'counsels of dullness' refers to all the early killjoy precursors of Malcolm Muggeridge. As Christianity became more commonplace, and as the End of the World or the Second Coming receded into the unforeseeable future, many Christians became just as worldly as their opponents. The acquisition of wealth and power, illicit sex, over-indulgence of all sorts, these started to become the concern of those bishops who weren't 'part of the problem'. Fun was never part of the gospel message. This world was meant to be endured not enjoyed, and certainly not taken advantage of. Muggeridge and Ratzinger continue in this long, thin tradition.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

on so-called ethics

before it goes cold, must give vent to my annoyance with the insufferable peter jensen - who presumably gets trotted out by the abc because his very insufferability is such a goad to the liberal spirit - on the subject of ethics classes in nsw schools. according to the piece i saw - i think on the abc 24 hour program - these classes are run by the st james ethics centre, the manager of which, not surprisingly with a title like that, is a christian. but let that interesting if slightly worrisome fact pass.
these ethics classes, which i'd read about some time ago, were highlighted on the compass program on abc 1 a few days before. i rarely watch the program, which is devoted to religious issues, because watching religious programs presented from a religious perspective generally makes me feel queazy, but on this occasion i had to keep watching because the contrast between the 'religious instruction' class and the ethics class was so striking. The kids involved looked to be about nine or ten years old, and they apparently had a choice between ethics and ri, and it seems the vast majority were choosing ethics. even the parents seemed to be encouraging this [even in faith-based schools]. it was no wonder, as the ethics classes encouraged debate and negotiation between students, who clearly relished the opportunity to express their own views and have them tested against others. the ri class on the other hand featured kids reading from the bible, after which the teacher told them what it was all about - the usual sermonizing.
enter peter jensen, who in this abc interview complained about how these 'so-called ethics' classes - his term -  threatened to undermine or replace religious instruction. he was never probed as to why he used this term, but he did 'clarify' it later himself. these classes weren't really about ethics, they were about philosophy and argument. they didn't really teach right and wrong. so, according to jensen, it was the teacher's job to tell kids about right and wrong, something they wouldn't be able to work out for themselves. and the clear implication was that religious instruction is the class that provides the answers vis-a-vis right and wrong.
so how does this come about? are all the answers in the bible? the ten commandments, the sermon on the mount? let's take a gander. thou shalt not kill, god says, through his intermediary [and there are always intermediaries - unless we assume that, on this occasion, god himself got out his hammer and chisel to carve his edicts on stone tablets]. unfortunately, god doesn't obey this commandment himself, committing mass-murder quite regularly throughout the old testament. and you can't argue that god is different, he's above the law, because he encourages humans to commit mass-murder too, and rewards them for doing so, as in the slaughter of the midianites, and elsewhere. So forget that particular commandment, it wasn't worth the stone it was chiseled out of. How about keep the sabbath day holy? eh? oh, that's about people necessarily resting on the seventh day because this god made the universe in six days and rested on the seventh, so we should rest too to commemorate the god's work. yeah right. fact is, none of the commandments stand up to the scrutiny of modern philosophical ethics.
As to the sermon on the mount, love your enemies, great, but don't imagine jesus ever did - just ask the worthy townsfolk of capernaum, bethsaida and chorazin. In any case, loving your enemies is a questionable tactic - love loses its meaning if we apply it universally, just as friends mean nothing if we don't have enemies to contrast them with. This 'philosophy' is quite impracticable, and it's apparently the best the new testament has to offer.
so where then do we get our right and wrong from, mista jensen? if not from the bible, maybe from your god, by some other means? well, your god doesn't seem to say much - or does he speak to you and your reverendy brethren, perhaps? i mean, you're closer to him than the rest of us, aren't you? we await your instruction.

Monday, September 20, 2010

some obvious remarks about work practice, etc

Up to 81 kg this morning. When will the balloon burst?

Training for training continues. Before I get stuck in, some troublesome acronyms in the training sector. We might call it the VET [vocational education and training] sector, which you can find out about through NTIS, the National Training Information Service. Another useful information station is NCVER, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research. For specific industries, you can check out the ISC website, a portal for the eleven different Industry Skills Councils. For standards, qualifications, accreditation and pathways, the Australian Qualifications Framework [AQF] website provides much useful info. This is not to be confused with the Australian Quality Training Framework [AQTF], though it will be, because it's totally confusing, but maybe that will be unravelled later.

This field is of course littered with the corpses of defunct acronyms, such as ANTA, ASTD, NTQC [now NQC, the National Quality Council], as well as the acronyms for various ever-changing government departments that have connections with HRD [human resource development]. I won't provide all those acronyms, but my textbook, Training in Australia, the biblical text covering the field, has all the data. There's more to say on this stuff I'm sure, but now I'll go on with answering some textbook questions.

An activity: imagine a 24-7 convenience store, run by a couple, with three full-time and six part-time staff. Their turnover is around $1.5 million a year. They're about to automate their accounting system, having installed the necessary systems for electronic funds transfer. Discuss the workplace changes and training required.

The couple have manually handled their business since it began, and they recognize the difficulties involved. Clearly, general computer skills will be required, as well as skills possibly related to specific software such as MYOB. The processes of internet banking need to be developed, as well as computerized inventory and labelling. Those who work directly with customers will need to be efficient and relatively speedy at accessing computerized data and processing payments. There will need to be outlays for computers, eftpos facilities, software and the like. The staff will need to be conversant with laws or in-house rules relating to transactions [minimum amounts for eftpos purchases, maximum cash-out, types of cards accepted, validating signatures].

Another little exercise - how have things changed in the workplace since around 1980?

Before, the workforce was more stable, jobs were mostly full-time, there was full employment [well, actually that was more like before 1970] and job security or security of employment. There was some shift work, but work hours were standard, with the main employers being in manufacture and agriculture. Systems and procedures were manually operated and the workforce in general was male-dominated. Of course, we were operating in a cash society in them days.

After, service industries were the main employers, there was an increase in female employees and part-time work, systems and procedures were automated, we became a plastic card society, things became highly competitive, and work structures much more flexible. Operations were often 24 hour, requiring 24 hour staffing, though staffing in general was significantly reduced. There was generally less than full employment, though the whole concept of employment underwent considerable revision.

Friday, September 17, 2010

training for training

More on the organisation of the early Christian church, as well as the beginning of canon law, later.

Not having much in the way of money or prospects, I'm trying to do something about it by turning my voluntary, and sometimes paid, work as a teacher [I currently teach ESOL, basic computing and, just recently, literacy] into something more of a bread-winning nature. So I've commenced the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment, with financial assistance from Maxima. Being a lazy bugger, I might use this blog to further my studies [which are terribly boring - even the lecturer recommends reading the course materials with a glass, or even a bottle, of your favourite beverage ready to hand]. Basically it's about multi-skilling, employability and being a change agent for your students, methinks.

So how have things changed, work-wise, since the late 1970s? Well the participation of women in the workforce has increased apace; there has been a move, in Australia and elsewhere, away from large, mostly unskilled numbers of industrial workers to a more diversified workforce, with in particular an increase in work in the service sector; the typical nine to five, or at least eight hours a day, five days a week job has been replaced by more flexible working hours, and a higher level of part-time and casual work; and people move from job to job, and even from career to career much more readily than they used to. This sort of chopping and changing was once frowned upon; now it is seen as a fundamental asset [as long as it's not a sign of incompetency]. Even within one job, more of a diversity of skills is now required. All of this is positive change; people feel more motivated when they have a hand in every aspect of the job. They feel a greater ownership of the work they do.

These changes have brought the importance of training to the fore, and have highlighted the importance of training to employers, who have come to recognize that if they aren't able to provide a varied environment to their employees, they're likely to lose them. This involved multi-skilling and the concept of life-long learning. I should return here to the changes since the seventies - I didn't mention the rapid and endlessly ongoing changes in technology, which requires ongoing training to keep up with it. It involves changes in occupational health and safety, and in personnel management in the ever-changing environment of work practice. Trade unions, for example, have seen their roles transformed and diversified, as they have seen the importance of collaborating with employers in the provision of training.

As training has come to the fore in recent decades, issues of uniformity, proper targeting and accreditation have arisen, and this was an obvious role for government as a body transcending particular workplaces and industries. It's essential, given that people are moving more than ever from job to job and from career to career that their skills can be transferable and flexible, applicable to a range of workplaces and industries, and that tey are able to get recognition for skills acquired in previous positions. An over-arching system of accreditation and quality control  was required. The government is an essential player, considering the globalisation and the international competitivism of skills and productivity. The whole working nation needs to be able to compete in the international market-place.

There you go, and I didn't drink a thing.

Weight and exercise problems. I'm up at 80.7 kgs, need to lose about 10kgs. It's mainly just overeating.

reflections various

This post by P Z Myers, dealing with one bunch of loonies in particular, but with apocalyptic other-worldly types, like Muggeridge, in general, is rather more scathing and succinct than my piece of relative politesse. If only Malcolm were alive to read just how contemptuous, and articulate, many modern non-believers are when confronted with the sort of bilge he used to promulgate. To me, one of the problems with Muggeridge's rhetoric was that it just wasn't challenged enough - he didn't have to deal with tough debates, his appalling treatment of evidence was never properly exposed, and he was generally treated with kid gloves. In my research on him, I constantly encountered Catholic hagiographies, describing him as one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, and a great intellectual. Don't these people ever read? Most of the blogs I read are far superior, in style and content, than Muggeridge's work, which is largely undisciplined pap. If this is the best the Catholics can do - and Muggeridge was a fierce critic of Catholicism himself, especially after Vatican II - then it's no wonder that institution is on the nose wherever ideas and real morality are respected in the world.

And speaking of that august institution, the pope's copping a fair bit of flack as he kicks off his visit to Britain, which coincides with a new book by Geoffrey Robertson, The Case of the Pope, dealing with human rights abuses, the Vatican, immunity and such issues. Child abuse victims, humanists, human rights advocates and other activists will be trying to make things as hot as Hades for ole Pope Ben, and he can't help adding fuel to the fire, with vague and vacuous complaints about atheists and their narrow beliefs, with strange, questionable allusions to the nazis of his youth. I've been leaving a few barbed comments on catholic websites, but none of them seem to be getting published.

I'm still reading Robin Lane Fox's book Pagans and Christians, and I'm learning about how the very early Christian church actually became a church, from being an informal, more or less underground movement, with people meeting in houses, to a hierarchy of elders, bishops, archbishops and popes. When was the first bishop appointed? How were they chosen? What did these early cultists talk about at these clandestine meetings? Did they complain about the Christ-killing Jews? Did they mock 'pagan' rituals? Did they confabulate on how to deal with the Roman authorities? Presumably there were the usual problems, encountered by the Jews, of being required to pay lip service to Graeco-Roman religion, including the swearing of oaths [expressly forbidden by Jesus] and blood sacrifices. And then there were questions of doctrine. As Fox describes it, the early Christian period was, if you like, plagued with 'superior' Christians who forged their own enlightened path - many of them taking the religion, or trying to take it in altogether unexpected directions. Marcion is the most famous, or notorious example. Given the diversity of thought put into the new religion, doctrinal coherence would have been the first major problem. There were no accepted canonical gospels, and new texts were springing up all over the place, some of them harking back to Plato's Timaeus and developing labyrinthine gnostic mysticisms. And then there were the inevitable reactions, harking back to the clear and simple message of the founder, Jesus. More anon.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

versions of jesus - malcolm muggeridge

the divine mr m smoking a worldly fag

I think this might be an interesting series to do - versions of that vague and protean figure of yesteryear, Jesus aka Christ, according to various believers past and present. Each essay could end up being longer than a blog piece, but I'll post bits and pieces here.

I remember Malcolm Muggeridge's dour and imposing presence on the television of my childhood. He seemed always grimly disapproving, rather like the Christian god, to my sense. Yet also, like the god, a peripheral figure, no concern of mine.

More recently, having decided to look more closely at Christianity, its inherited god, and its transformation of that god and of Judaism in the form of Jesus, I picked up a book essays, articles and sermons by Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, published in the late sixties. It was a best-seller at the time, and marked an increasing interest in matters of faith for the one-time satirist. Considering that he has been described as one of the pre-eminent Catholic intellects of the twentieth century [though he only became a Catholic in 1982, when he was nearly eighty years old], I'm sure it would be worthwhile to examine Muggeridge's version of Jesus, as presented in his book.

Muggeridge is no theologian, far less a philosopher. He likes - I use the present tense, though he's long gone, and not particularly contemporary in his thinking - to present himself as a humble, hesitating everyman, modeled on one of his favourite characters, Christian from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. However, he certainly doesn't hesitate, in this book at least, in rejecting 'the things of this world', including all of science, as well as politics, economics, history, entertainment and, above all, sex. We might think of him in terms of the Christian fundamentalism that has sprung up since his time, though in some ways he's more like the Islamist imams who abominate western decadence. I can't say that reading him has brought me much pleasure, or insight, except as it has led me to reflect on other-worldly utopianism - a feature of Christian thinking throughout its history.

Muggeridge's version of Jesus, such as it is, is most centrally presented in his essay 'A life of Christ', based on a BBC2 series he presented in 1968. I'll look most closely at this essay, while supplementing my commentary with reflections on the other pieces.

Muggeridge begins his presentation by describing the birth of Jesus as 'on any showing, the most momentous event in the history of our Western civilization'. This may be so [or it may not be], in spite of the event being entirely legendary. I'm not making here the large claim that Jesus never existed - though I don't rule that out. What I am saying is that, though Jesus may have existed, the stories of his birth are entirely legendary. There are of course two, in Luke and in Matthew, and, unsurprisingly, they don't entirely cohere. If Jesus did exist, then the gospel accounts of his adult sermons, his trial [though that was likely held in camera] and his execution may be based on handed-down eyewitness accounts, but these eyewitnesses, who would have come to observe Jesus as his reputation grew, wouldn't have been present at his birth and childhood. These parts of the story are surely inventions. Not that they aren't plausible inventions, apart from the bogus genealogies and the immaculate conception, but they add to the legend of Jesus's humble origins, the fellow from nowheresville who turns out to be the king of the Jews, the Messiah.

Muggeridge differs from most modern fundamentalists in that he's far from a biblical literalist, so the possible legendary nature of at least some of the Jesus story doesn't seem to bother him. Not that there aren't other problems with his take on Jesus. Take this revealing passage from his sermon 'Unto Caesar':
The various dogmas of institutional Christianity – like, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Immaculate Conception – just do not impinge; I neither believe nor disbelieve them, and feel no inclination to defend or denounce them. I find them perfectly comprehensible, perfectly harmless, and - as far as I'm concerned - totally without significance. Nor does the historicity of the Gospels' account of Christ's birth, life and death worry me at all. If, tomorrow, someone were to unearth another Dead Sea Scroll proving that, in earthly terms, the traditional Christian story just didn't happen in that way at that time, it wouldn't disturb my attitude to Christianity at all. Legends, in any case, seem to me more relevant to our human situation, and in that sense more 'factual', than history, which is really only the propaganda of the victor. Thus - by way of example - I find the Book of Genesis, considered as legend, infinitely more prescient on the subject of the origins and subsequent unfolding of our human story than, say, the theory of evolution, considered as fact. 
Clearly there is plenty in this to say 'hang on a minute' to, but for now I just want to emphasise Muggeridge's absolutism. Jesus's birth is absolutely the most important event in Western, or perhaps human, history, just as the Genesis origin story [stories, in fact] is infinitely more important to our understanding of the human story than Darwin's Origin of Species, which [we can be absolutely sure!] Muggeridge never opened in his life.

Of course, Muggeridge has to be exaggerating when he claims that the veracity of the gospel account is of no importance to him. He has staked everything on Jesus being 'the light, the truth and the way', the light coming from another world which will lead himself and presumably a select few others out of the utter darkness of this world. Jesus, therefore, cannot be a mere human, he must be divine. This helps explain why the gospel of John is Muggeridge's favourite - it's the only gospel that really promotes Jesus's divinity. In terms of the human story, though, the real significance for Muggeridge of Jesus's birth is its apparent insignificance:
The essential point, as I see it, about Christ's birth is that it was so poor and so humble. The Son of God was born into the world, not as a prince, but as a pauper. So, to deck up the legendary scene of his nativity with precious hangings, pictures, glittering lamps and other ornamentation, is to destroy whatever valid symbolism it might otherwise have. Truly, we human beings have a wonderful faculty for thus snatching fantasy from the jaws of truth.
Indeed, Malcolm.

The unworldly, sackcloth-and-ashes element of Christianity, first suggested by Jesus's humble birth, obviously appeals to Muggeridge, as it appealed to the early Christians, who saw little future for themselves in a rigid, highly stratified Graeco-Roman society. The early Christians inherited their exclusive 'superior' god from Judaism, but rejected Judaic insularity in favour of evangelical or missionary enterprise. What they offered to converts was the promise of a new world for the faithful, a complete transformation, where the first would be last and the last first, and in order to make this new world more enticing it was naturally necessary to denigrate the Roman world around them. This forsaking of the real world for a promise of happiness in some other place, of mind or body, of heaven or earth, has been a feature of many religions since, and no doubt before, the advent of Christianity, but I've rarely encountered anyone so devoted to this dubious promise as Muggeridge. In this, he is happy to number himself among the credulous herd, as against the wise men of Jesus's age and his own. He is unimpressed by the tale of the wise men of the east:
Judging by our own wise men, I find difficulty in believing that any such would recognise God's son in Mary's. Let the vastly more numerous unwise go on marvelling at that stupendous moment in history when, for the first time, God was revealed to men, not in the guise of power or wealth or physical beauty, but of weakness, obscurity and humility.

Muggeridge's profound anti-intellectualism is first referenced here, though it's in evidence throughout the collection. I've already provided his 'thoughts' on evolutionary theory. On science generally he has a number of throwaway comments. In the foreword to the book he writes:
All I can say for the Genesis version [of creation] is that it strikes me as more plausible than Professor Hoyle's.
For Hoyle, we can of course insert the name of any cosmologist, but he seems particular disdainful of the irascible Englishman. Maybe Hoyle once give him an intellectual box on the ears? He mentions him again in his essay 'The crucifixion':
Towards any kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo we display a credulity which must be the envy of African witch-doctors. While we shy away with contumely from the account of the creation in the Book of Genesis, we are probably ready to assent to any rigmarole by a Professor Hoyle about how matter came to be, provided it is dished up in the requisite jargon and associated, however obliquely, with what we conceive to be 'facts'. 
This favourable comparison of Genesis with various scientific explanations is reiterated throughout the book, as if he seems well pleased with himself for coming up with it. Of course he doesn't deign to explain why Genesis is superior to all of science, it's apparently too too obvious [and Muggeridge sprinkles his text with such terms as 'obviously', 'of course', 'without any question' and so forth, often in connection with the most laughable claims. Take this doozy: 'I have no wish to luxuriate in apocalyptic prognostications, yet it would seem obvious enough that the last precarious foothold of law and order in our world is being dislodged']. In his brief article on Simone Weil, one of the few 'lights in the darkness', as he calls her, he quotes with approval her remarks about science [a subject that clearly interested her more than it did Muggeridge]:
Everything that is most retrograde in the spirit of religion has taken refuge, above all in science itself. A science like ours, essentially closed to the layman, and therefore to scientists themselves, because each of them is a layman outside his own narrow specialism, is the proper theology of an ever increasingly bureaucratic society.
As a more or less regular reader of New Scientist and Cosmos, and a consumer of many popularist books on science, I see plenty of scientists and science writers happy to reach out to the general public, but a lot of science is genuinely difficult and necessarily complex and 'technical'. Any language will be mumbo jumbo to those who are convinced that even attempting to learn it is beneath contempt.

Muggeridge next considers the political context of Jesus's birth, and life, in an outpost of the Roman Empire. He makes the extraordinary claim that at the time of Jesus's birth, this empire was 'already beginning to decompose, as even a carpenter's son on its periphery might vaguely realize'. Even when taking into account Muggeridge's revelling in the idea of worldly decay, this goes a bit far. At the time of Jesus's birth [between 10BCE and 10CE] Augustus was in power - the first emperor in Roman history! Some ninety or so were to follow. Of course, to describe this as an egregious error on Muggeridge's part would be to make the mistake of believing that Muggeridge cares about historical accuracy. He prefers the deeper truth of legend. This becomes clear when he compares this decadent empire to the modern era [that is, Britain and the US at the time of the 'swinging sixties']:
One cannot live by bread alone, [Jesus] was to say, thinking, I dare say, of the bread and circuses, the avid pursuit of wealth and luxury, the permissive morality and eroticism, which characterized Roman society at the time, as it does ours today.
This description of  Roman society [more accurately Graeco-Roman society] would not be agreed with by any historian that I've read - and I've read a few. Augustus was quite an abstemious ruler, and in any case the vast majority of his subjects would have known little or nothing about him. They went on with their lives regardless, lives of daily toil, wheeling and dealing, civic duties and religious observance, all depending on their place in that complex and relatively rigid society. In spite of the indulgences of a minority of Roman emperors and governors, Graeco-Roman society, though it would have had its prostitution and its homosexual haunts like every society, was not sexually permissive by and large. Certainly there was corruption and avarice, just as there was in later Christian society. But 'mere facts' shouldn't be allowed to interfere with Muggeridge's message. His interest is in making a connection between the 'darkness' of the Roman world and our current 'dark age', so that he can bring his version of Jesus, the light of the world, into sharp contrast with each of them.

After describing, with breathless credulity, Jesus's greatness and importance in bringing light to the world, and his prophecy-fulfilling baptism, Muggeridge turns his focus to Jesus's ministry. All, of course, is praise and admiration. The miracles are somewhat downplayed, with more focus given to infirmities of mind rather than body:
The world at all times is full of shattered or distorted bodies and minds (not least now, despite all that modern medicine can do). To them Christ offered, not medicine, but forgiveness; when he relieved them of their burden of guilt, he also automatically relieved them of their infirmities.
The fact is that, at the time of Jesus, and before, and for a long time afterwards, physical and mental illness were believed to be caused by the displeasure of the gods, or God, or the ancestors, or other such other-worldly entities. The fanatically other-worldly Muggeridge buys into that of course - as does the Jesus character. That there are lots of suffering people out there in spite of the wonders of modern medicine is a sign of 'spiritual malaise' rather than practical problems such as economic disadvantage, isolation, lack of proper facilities and treatments in particular areas and a host of other causative factors. We are sick - no matter what the sickness - because of individual and collective guilt. Hard to know how to respond to such fatuous claims and inferences.

Muggeridge's point, as always, is that this world is worthless. Or perhaps, more accurately, this world has its beauties, but to invest in it in any way, rather than focusing on the world to come, is a sure sign of worthlessness:
If cures were found for every disease ever known or to be known (a miracle far exceeding any achieved by Christ in his random essays as a healer), everything would be the same. We should still be blind and sick and crazy as long as we allowed ourselves to be preoccupied with the hopes and desires of this world.
Muggeridge reveals himself here as an other-worldly utopian absolutist, and his version of Jesus is geared toward that end. This would be a good time to examine his background, which certainly helps to explain his extremism. His father was a committed socialist, who was indefatigable in his efforts to further the cause of utopian socialism. Muggeridge often accompanied him on his mission to convert the workers, and he apparently adored his father [who was also a Christian]. As Muggeridge and so many others have pointed out, there was much evangelism and religious ritual in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century socialist proselytizing, but as a journalist in the thirties, Muggeridge came face to face with two horrific examples of worldly utopian failure, the Nazi attempt to impose an Aryan 'thousand year reich', and the bolshevist state, so degenerate under Stalin. Clearly these two horror states had a profound effect on Muggeridge, but it's also clear to me that his devotion to and loyalty to his father made it impossible to give up on the utopianism his father worked so hard to bring about. In transferring his utopianism to the other world he was able to reject socialism without entirely betraying his Christian father. This is a very sketchy piece of 'psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo' as Muggeridge would describe it, yet I suspect even he would admit there's more than a grain of truth in it.

So Muggeridge's version of Jesus is simple enough. He's a representative of the other world, or if you like, an embodiment of the other world come down to earth. He harps on Jesus's 'obvious' uniqueness: 'Never man spoke like this man', he quotes the gospel of John. The sermon on the mount is, of course, sublime and unique, and if Jesus has a worldly message it is one of love. Love your neighbour and love your enemies, and love without desire [which is naturally selective and horribly fleshly] . He doesn't go into too much detail about this, as it's worldly stuff. More important is to 'die in the flesh so as to be reborn in the spirit', which is why the crucifixion is, to him, the high point of Jesus's life.

Having read the gospels several times myself, I see little that is extraordinary or original in Jesus's remarks. In any case I don't like being preached to, I like being encouraged to think for myself. This was the Socratic method, and it's also the modern educational method, and I suspect that Christianity will never survive the relentless application of this approach. Of course, Muggeridge, so enamoured of his version of Jesus, has no great interest in examining the gospel texts closely for inconsistencies and less than sublime utterances. My favourite has always been Matthew 11: 21-24, in which Jesus, having only a few chapters before proclaimed the necessity of loving one's enemies [to me, a paradoxical remark that undermines the meaning of 'love' and 'enemy'], curses the folk of three towns, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin, for not listening to his preaching, and promising them a fate worse than that of Sodom [whose townsfolk, you might remember, were burned alive for their sins, after which they presumably burned forever in the fires of hell].

There's little point in continuing with too much detail here. It seems to me that Muggeridge's utopianism, and anti-utopianism, is strictly an adolescent approach to the world. It's very often offensive, belittling real efforts to alleviate suffering (he mocks the distribution of spam to the survivors after the second world war, instead of, presumably, the distribution of  much-needed spirituality), expressing contempt for the development and use of contraceptives, which he seems to think is about the only innovation we have to crow about, and predicting, with repetitious regret, the downfall of western civilization. It's no wonder that he was trotted out, in his last years, as a conservative buffoon, always liable to outrage those who didn't know him well enough to be bored stiff by his apocalyptic rhetoric.

Darkness and light are favourite terms of Muggeridge. This world is all darkness, the other world is all light, and that's really all you need to know. It's a kind of adolescent black-and-whitism, boring enough in an adolescent, rather more disturbing and creepy in a grown-up. Of course, Muggeridge preferred to see himself as a clear-sighted anti-utopian, but it's clear enough to me that his ideological commitment to the 'new life' [as vague as any Marxist utopia] somehow symbolized and brought into being by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has blinded him to the realities of the real world, where there is much corruption and much benevolence, much thoughtlessness and much self-sacrifice, much genious and much stupidity, much expense of spirit in a waste of shame, much hard work for no gain, lots of fun to be had, many obstacles to be overcome, and a world of suffering to sympathize with and to try to alleviate. It's the only world we have after all. But then again, you never know. Now that he has passed out of this world, I'm sure that he has found, on the other side, precisely the utopia he deserves.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

climate change complexities 1 - the nitrogen cycle

I'm just a dull dilettante, and, as Oliver Morton says, 'the carbon/climate crisis is almost unbearably complex', so I'm trying to break it down always to see if I can somehow fit all the complexities, or as many as I can, into my incapacious brain. So I've started a series of notes to myself [and anyone out there who is like-minded and happens to stumble upon this], Montaigne-like essais or 'attempts' to understand and further my knowledge of this issue. Hope I don't end up getting overly discursive a la Montaigne.
Morton's book Eating the Sun, about photosynthesis and other plant matters, has provided a starting point for my explorations. It's a pretty good introduction, but I still find myself struggling, both to grasp and to retain.
Plants need many elements to survive and thrive, to make proteins and other chemical material. They get carbon, oxygen and hydrogen from the surrounding air. They also require nitrogen - oxidized in the form of nitrates, reduced in the form of ammonia - and phosphorus [oxidized phosphate]. Nitrate and phosphate fertilizers are, of course, much-used in modern, non-organic agriculture.
Plants are eukaryotes, of course, and one of their deficiencies, if you can call it that, is that they can't 'fix' nitrogen. That's to say they can't transform, via electron transfer and enzyme action, nitrogen gas into reduced ammonium ions. This nitrogen fixing is done by bacteria, including some cyanobacteria. Up until recently, eukaryotes have been dependent, for the two billion years or so of their existence, on nitrogen fixed by bacteria.
Now to look at a little of the complex history of nitrogen fixation. The experts divide earth history into four periods, the Hadean, the Archaean, the Proterozoic and the Phanerozoic. The nitrogen-fixing machinery evolved in the iron-rich oceans of the Archaean. Nitrogen-fixing occurs through the electron transfer chains of proteins, and they require iron and molybdenum. However, in the Proterozoic, the longest period of earth history, iron and molybdenum levels dropped substantially. We're talking here about the oceans, and in the very stable and 'boring' Proterozoic, what evolved and was maintained for a long time was what has been called a 'Canfield ocean', named after earth scientist Don Canfield.
The Proterozoic lasted nearly two billion years, half of the lifetime of life. Its beginning was marked by the 'Great Oxidation Event' and the snowball earth, its end was marked by what Morton calls 'isotopic wildness' and global glaciation leading to the Cambrian explosion.of complex life forms. The middle Proterozoic period has been described as the 'boring billion', due in part to its flat, unchanging carbon isotope record.
Eukaryotes had evolved by the early Proterozoic, and the atmosphere was oxygenated, though not to today's extent. This allowed the slow development of complexity, and the evolution of sexual reproduction, but the fossil record shows little change during this long period. Canfield and others argued that the atmospheric changes at the beginning of the Proterozoic not only oxygenated the oceans but, perhaps more importantly, changed their sulphur chemistry. In fact, oxygen levels in the atmosphere were still too low to affect the oceans much. To quote Morton:
The oxidized surface of the planet would have provided the oceans with a greatly increased supply of sulphate, which microbes in the oxygen-free depths of the oceans would reduce into sulphides. Something similar can be seen in the poorly aerated waters of the Black Sea.
The point is that this 'Canfield ocean' is distinct from the previous Archaean ocean and the later oxygen-rich Phanerozoic with its 'dissolved oxygen available even at depth'. This view of things disrupts ideas of a smooth transition to today's oxygen-rich world.
So, during this period, 'the sulphides would have precipitated out any iron' [and I can't pretend to really understand what this means], and they would also have 'got rid of the soluble molybdenum oxides which provide today's bacteria with their supply of the metal' [ditto]. Nitrogen fixation in such an environment would not have been easy, and eukaryotic algae were basically starved of usable nitrogen. This explains, probably, the flatness of the carbon 13 record, which usually fluctuates according to the dumping of phosphates into the ocean through erosion and tectonic plate movements. In modern times, the limits to the growth of oceanic life are set by the phosphate levels - in the Proterozoic it was probably set by the usable nitrogen levels [ammonia, essentially].
None of this is set-in-stone science, however, and I'll leave it there and look at the nitrogen cycle from a more contemporary perspective. The nitrogen cycle [as well as the sulphur cycle] is driven by bacteria. So is the carbon cycle, if you allow that chloroplasts were once bacteria, now harnessed to eukaryotes. Basically, usable nitrogen is fixed through a two-stage process, first of oxidation of ammonia into nitrites, and second the oxidation of nitrites into nitrates. Ammonia oxidation is performed by bacteria and archaea, nitrite oxidation by Nitrobacter, mainly. This two-stage process is called nitrification. I don't want to go into too much detail, because I'll probably get it wrong. Ammonia is available through waste material, animal and vegetable. Importantly some of the bacteria are endosymbiotic, attached to root nodules and thus directly providing plants with usable nitrogen. Denitrification completes the process by returning nitrogen to the atmosphere.
Soils become 'depleted' if there isn't enough nitrogen-fixing bacteria to keep plants healthy. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth a lot of work was done to develop artificial nitrogen-fixing, culminating in the Haber-Bosch process, which led to a massive production in chemical fertilizer in the twentieth century [and a near four-fold increase in soil yields in the course of that century]. Morton tells the story nicely; the great pioneering geologist James Hutton was one of the first to recognize the importance of compost and manure for healthy productive farmland. He himself was a model farmer, utilizing the 'Norfolk rotation' to greatly enrich the soil. By the nineteenth century, such rotation systems and an increased use of manure had trebled the yield of wheat on English farm lands - a massive boon to the rapidly growing population. Of course it wasn't always understood that nitrogen-fixing was the key to increased productivity, but once this was established, interest was raised in the possibility of artificial nitrogen fixing. By the 1930s, almost a million tonnes of nitrogen was being fixed annually into fertilizer. Nowadays, the figure is more like a hundred million tonnes a year. This helped enable humanity to feed itself, but it has a down side. The excess nitrates go into river systems and out to sea, with various negative consequences, or back into the atmosphere, sometimes as nitrous oxide, a very powerful greenhouse gas.
Artificial fertilizers also break the cycle between manure and bacteria naturally enriching the soil and diversity of growth producing various endosymbiotic or otherwise mutually beneficial organisms. They have enabled the production of high-yield monoculture, which in turn requires pesticides and other inputs to be maintained at a constant level. To abandon the use of such intensifiers, to return to organic farming, would inevitably mean giving up a great deal more land to crops, with all sorts of attendant consequences. Thorny problems abound, and on that note I shall abandon this post.