Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “theology”

Times and Seasons: Happy Equinox!

Today marks the Spring Equinox (in South Africa, anyway). It is also, in the Gregorian Calendar, the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist. And, though it doesn’t coincide exactly this year, it is at about this time that Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the birthday of the universe (Orthodox Christians celebrate the new year and creation on 1 September).

The Conception of St John the Baptist, which roughly coincides with the birthday of the universe in Jewish tradition, also, for Christians marks the beginning of God’s new creation, which we are reminded of in the southern hemisphere because it’s the middle of spring. It’s also symbolic because henceforth the days are longer than the nights, reminding us of the words of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it (John 1:5).

Six months after the conception of St John the Baptist and Rosh Hashanah, on 25 March, the angel Gabriel came to Mary, and told her she would be the Theotokos, the birth giver of God (Luke 1:26). Mary went to stay with Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist, until he was born, which the Church celebrates on 24 June (Luke 1:56f), and then we celebrate the birth of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ on 25 December.

There are all sorts of speculations about the date on which Jesus was born, and what I’ve written above is my speculation, which is probably no more valid than any of the others, but I don’t think it is any less valid. In this matter there is no proof, only vigorous assertion, which is not quite the same thing.

Troparion — Tone 4

Rejoice, O barren one, who formerly did not bear a child
for you have conceived the Lamp of the Sun
who is to illumine the whole universe darkened by blindness
Rejoice, O Zachariah
and cry out with boldness:
“The prophet of the Most High desires to be born!”

For more see the Conception of the Honorable Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John.

Racism as an Orthodox problem

Someone recently posted a link to an ostensibly Orthodox web site that seems to be pushing a racist and white nationalist agenda. 15,000 White South Africans Flee Racist Persecution, Plan Move to Russia – Russian Faith:

…the whole notion that Boers see Russia as a possible new homeland is telling and it is huge in its implications. It is happening, as I predicted a few years ago, that white Christian peoples (which is by definition–a European root) will increasingly see Russia as their salvation.

The racism in that article is bad enough, but the idolatry is worse. The Orthodox Church teaches salvation in Jesus Christ, not salvation through Russia.

I’ve followed links to the “Russian Faith” web site in the past; it often has pictures of pretty Orthodox Churches, and a veneer of Orthodoxy. But looking to Russia for salvation rather than to Christ really is idolatry. There’s even a Russian word for it, dvoeverie — dual faith, double mindedness. Believing in Christ and something else; putting your faith in Christ and… Christ and Russia; Christ and whiteness; because Christ alone is not enough. Which is perhaps why St James tells us that a double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

So I’ll no longer be following or sharing links to the Russian Faith website on social media, because it seems to be promoting the Russian faith, that is faith in Russia, rather than the Orthodox faith, which is faith in Christ.

In pointing out the errors, the phyletism, the heresy, of web sites like Russian Faith, however, one must be careful not to be sucked into the opposite error — the currently-fashionable Russophobia of the Western media, where anything linked in any way to Russia is seen as ipso facto evil. In the eyes of the Western media, to say that someone has “Russian connections” is enough to damn them. I believe that there is such a thing as Holy Russia, exemplified by countless Russian saints, but Holy Russia was the Russia that followed the Orthodox faith, faith in Christ, not faith in whiteness or in Russia itself.

This is Orthodoxy: the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, His Beatitude Theodoros II, visiting the Diocese of Kisimu in Western Kenya, whose bishop, His Grace Anthanasius (on the Pope’s left), served as a priest in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria for 13 years, and was beloved by all his parishioners, black and white (Photo by Amadiva Athanasios).

Just because this article was sparked off by something posted on a Russian website does not mean that Orthodox Christians who are not Russian are exempt from the danger of falling into heresies like phyletism, I once heard someone say, at coffee after Divine Liturgy at a church in Johannesburg, “The Orthodox Church is not missionary because its purpose is to preserve Greek culture.” And there is that slogan I have heard from many people Hellenism is Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy is Hellenism. That too is phyletism, and dvoeverie.

 

Fathers and sons

Fathers and SonsFathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading about this book for fifty years or more, usually in connection with Nihilism as a worldview. Nihilism: nothing exists, nothing is knowable, nothing has value. A dreary philosophy, perhaps, but one expounded by one of the characters in this novel.

Back when I first heard of it, I was an Anglican, and the description of Nihilism reminded me of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

Almighty God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our Lord. Amen.

And so I conceived of a nihilist as someone for whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy. And without God, Nothing is very strong indeed.

This was later reinforced by a computer game called Mazeland, which entailed exploring a monster-filled maze, where one encountered ever more powerful monsters, the most powerful of which was a Nothingness. The game usually ended with the sentence. “The Nothingness hit you 264.76 times. The Nothingness killed you.”

I pictured the book as being in some little winter-bound Russian peasant shack, with father and son shivering in front of the stove having deep philosophical discussions.

Then my son gave me a book voucher for my birthday, and at last I saw the book and bought it.

It utterly failed to live up to my expectations.

It is the story of a couple of university students on their summer vacation. They visit the parents of one, then on their way to visit the parents of the other stop in a town, go to parties, meet interesting people, chat to them, go to the parents of the other, then repeat. On their travels they fall in love, fall out with each other, and do lots of other things that students do on vacation.

This could be any students at any time, but Turgenev manages to describe conversations between the characters that seem to have a hidden meaning, and infuse this picture of everyday student life with something deeper.

At the particular historical juncture in Russia when the story takes place, there was the emancipation of the serfs, and perhaps in South Africa today with all the talk of land reform it rings bells for us in our history too.

I don’t know if Anglicans still use that Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity; I don’t even know if they still have a Fourth Sunday after Trinity. But at the end of the book I wanted to read that collect, and it seems to be the most fitting epilogue to the story. Let the reader understand.

View all my reviews

The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea

Last night I watched a BBC TV programme on The witch hunts of Papua New Guinea – BBC News, and was struck by the similarity with witch hunts that have taken place in South Africa in the last 25 years or so.

The programme had interviews with people who had been accused of witchcraft, and with some of the accusers, and there were many similarities. You can also read more about the Papua New Guinea witch hunts here: Malum Nalu: Papua New Guinea has a witch hunt problem.

I don’t know if there were any attempts by Christian groups to deal with the problem in Papua New Guinea, but in South Africa there was a reluctance to discuss it in missiological circles. The only Christian groups that seemed to have come up with a way of dealing with it were some Zionists, and most Zionists don’t have an academic bent, so not much has been written about it.I did write one journal article, which you can read here: Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery, but there has not been much response to it.

The Western Canon

I took this book out of the library because I had read about it and its author online, and was curious to know more. I won’t, however, be adding it to my books on GoodReads because I doubt that I’ll finish it, which means that it would stay forever in my “Currently Reading” queue.

Is “The Western Canon” a thing? That’s what I was hoping to find out by reading The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, except that the opening chapter is “An Elegy for the Western Canon”, so apparently if it was a thing, it is so no longer, and all that is left is a lament that it is no more.

I resorted to two of my favourite reference books for such things to find out whether the Western Canon is a thing, and if so what kind of a thing it is. But neither The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature nor The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought had anything to say about it, either under “Western” or “canon”. The latter did note that “western” was “a perennially popular genre in American cinema since 1903”, but that was about it.

So what am I to make of the Western Canon, other than that it is a list of books that Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale University in the USA, happened to like? And his elegy seems to be a lament that there were other people who either didn’t like those books, or who liked other books that didn’t happen to be on his particular list.

In my youth I studied English at university for three years. I never got to be an English Major, however, because I repeated English I three times, twice at Wits University, and once at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (UNP, now UKZN). I passed each time, but they wouldn’t give me credit for it.

At UNP I learned all about canons. Back in the 1960s the English Department there followed the Leavisite canon of D.H. Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence and D.H. Lawrence. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad were permissible but everything else was taboo. One English Honours student once noticed a copy of Ulysses on a professor’s desk. We speculated that he might have confiscated it from a wayward student. My friend, Ritchie Ovendale (where is he now?) asked if he should read it, and was advised against it, as it might leave his critical faculties impaired.

The Wits English Department was a bit more broadminded. They included E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and William Golding in their set works for English I, but I was sad that I never made it to English II. I attended more of the English II lectures, though, because there was a lecturer, Cronin, whose lectures were packed with students who were not taking his courses, because of his wit. Even engineering students came along for the entertainment.

Bloom appears to like Dante and Milton, though I’ve tended to avoid both of them, out of pure prejudice, possibly. When I was 13 I used to pore over a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy owned by some friends. What interested me, however, was not so much the text as the illustrations by Gustav Doré. And Doré managed to make hell look a lot more interesting than paradise or heaven.

But since then I’ve steered clear of them. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that there are two wrong attitudes one can take to the devil and his minions, the “lowerarchy”. One is to pretend that they do not exist, and the other is to take an unhealthy interest in them. At 13, influenced by Doré, I was beginning to take an unhealthy interest in the lowerarchy, trying to classify demons and the like according to their infernal ranks. And I suspect that Dante and Milton have had a big influence on Western theology in areas where it differs from Orthodox theology. For one thing, there is no purgatory in Orthodoxy. There are occasional theological disputes about toll houses, but I don’t think either Dante or Milton mentioned those. Yes, it’s prejudice, but until I can read an Orthodox equivalent, I’ll give them a miss. Reading them might impair my critical theological faculties or something.

So I’m not much wiser about the Western Canon. Is there an Eastern Canon?

 

 

 

 

Random thoughts inspired by Enneagram

This morning Duncan Reyburn spoke about Enneagrams at TGIF, and here are some connected and some disconnected thoughts inspired in part by what he said.

For those who don’t know, Enneagram is one of those personality type thingies, and you can get a sample of it here to find out roughly where you fit in.

If it’s any help, my main type is 5, with 9 and 4 as subsidiaries. And on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m INTP (I find the Myers-Briggs one more helpful, as these things go).

As we sat waiting for Duncan to begin Val recalled that I had been rather disconcerted to find myself labelled as a type back in the 1970s. It was actually a jocular piece written by a journalist in the Sunday Tribune for women who felt the need for a piscine cyclist in their lives.[1] She described varieties of nubile males and what I found disconcerting was that her description of one of the types fitted me right down to the last detail. The detail I remember best was the car I drove — an ancient rust bucket with an empty cold-drink bottle rolling around on the floor (picture here). I think it included a beard and scruffy clothes as well. Actually it was rather flattering, in that she said that was one of the better catches available in the pond, But it was the thought that there were enough of us around to be so closely described that I found disconcerting.

But that was totally unscientific, so back to the Enneagram, and more unscientific thoughts inspired by it.

Duncan spoke about mythology and mythical monsters.: The contrast in Genesis 1 between the forces of chaos and the forces of order, and the notion of mythical dragons symbolising chaos. Duncan cited psychologists like Freud and Jung showing that myths and dreams of dragons represent our unconscious, and that the monsters are not really out there, but in our heads.

Now I may have misunderstood or be misrepresenting Duncan at this point, but I question that assumption. I think that it is a peculiarly white, Western and modernist way of looking at it. This business of seeing things as taking place “in here” in our minds, as opposed to “out there” in the world is very much culturally conditioned. Should we let Western psychologists like Freud and Jung have the last word to say about it?

As J.V. Taylor (1963:44f) puts it, in his book The primal Vision: Christian presence amid African religion:

But though these [dreams, thoughts etc] may infect the body with sickness and delude the senses with hallucinations, we believe them to be rooted within the sufferer’s mind. Dreams are only dreams, for we know their fantasies are confined within the wall of the dreamer’s brain.

We are in danger of forgetting that all this is only a figurative way of speaking. The spatial concepts of inside and outside cannot be used literally of something so elusive and abstract as the self; yet in Europe we have allowed them so to dominate our imagery that we have almost identified the mind with the brain and imprisoned the self within the walls of the skull.

But there have been other ways than ours of picturing this unimaginable Self. Some philosophies, notably the Hindu Upanishads, include on the ‘inside’ much that we can only imagine as being ‘outside’, so that even the transcendent Absolute is to be sought only within the innermost cave of the heart. But in the imagery of primal religion, on the other hand, the self is thought of as spilling out into the world beyond the confines of the experiencing body, and echoing back again from other selves. Africans would assert with St Augustine that ‘we live beyond the limits of our bodies’.

So I think that just as physicists something think of light in terms of waves, and sometimes in terms of particles, so we can sometimes see things as inside, and sometimes as outside our heads. Mythical dragons may refer to things within us, but they can also refer to things outside.

As Anderson (1990:256) puts it:

An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard – might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.

And that’s something I do like to get really postmodern about. I’ve said more on that in this article Sundkler deconstructed: Bethesda AICs and syncretism.

Duncan spoke of films of sea monsters, like Jaws. They give chills to audiences in Pretoria, though they are dry and far from the ocean. Why? Because the monsters represent our Unconscious, which threatens to swallow us. Hence the need to face our monsters, because the monsters are not necessarily evil, but can sometimes take us where we want, or need to go. Jonah, for example, was swallowed by a sea monster, but the monster put him back on track.

St Jonah

Films like Jurassic Park are apparently about land based monsters, but are really about divorce. The external monsters force dysfunctional families to face their internal monsters and become reconciled, and in the end it is the biggest, strongest and most fearsome monster, Tyrranosaurus Rex, which keeps the real threat, the velociraptors, at bay.

And that made me think that yes, it was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of apartheid that kept South African Christians on track before 1994. It was opposition to apartheid that made many Christians and Christian bodies more conscious of their core business. And after 1994, they lost their way, and started floundering, and were caught unawares when the velociraptors of corruption charged in. One evil spirit exorcised, but seven others rush in to take its place. But apartheid was not unconscious, and was not simply in people’s heads. It did not remain within the confines of the skulls of theorists. Apartheid changed the landscape of the country and moved thousands of people from one place to another. It was not simply the Freudian unconscious. So yes, we do need monsters to keep us on track. But monsters and the track are not just inside our skulls.

And Val said that while Duncan was speaking about Jonah, the Ode of Paschal Nocturns was running through her head.

Jonah was caught but not held fast in the belly of the whale. He was a sign of Thee who hast suffered and accepted burial. Coming forth from the beast as from a bridal chamber, he called out to the guard, “By observing vanities and lies you have forsaken your own mercy.”

And it struck me that Duncan had cited someone as saying that Christianity belonged to No 2 on the Enneagram, but really needed to practise the other 8. And I recalled that there are nine odes in the Canon, but we only ever sing eight of them. We never sing Ode 2.

 


Notes and references

[1] The current saying was “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

Do something. Kill someone.

Over the last few days I have seen floods of emotional demands on social media that somebody should do something about reported gas attacks in Syria. These appeals are sometimes accompanied by gruesome pictures of unknown provenance.

I haven’t seen any actual media reports of these gas attacks. Perhaps that it because the South African media have been so preoccupied with reactions to Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet changes that demands for regime change in South Africa have taken precedence over demands for regime change in Syria and the United States.

The demands on social media that someone should “do something” do, however, appear to be media driven, and there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland quality of unreality about them. As the Queen of Hearts proclaimed, it seems to be sentence first, then the verdict, then the evidence.

I think this article is worth reading Disharmony: The religious response to Syria’s travails is prolix and confused | The Economist:

Generally, the local Catholic and Orthodox churches remain reluctant to condemn Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as their protector against the furies of Islamism. That in turn influences the hierarchs and adherents of those churches in other places. Meanwhile, some luminaries of America’s religious right (though not of the isolationist far-right) saw their country’s missile attack as a noble act by Donald Trump: a sign of his virtuousness compared with the wicked sloppiness of his predecessor.

I see media reports of a “US-led coalition”, but I seem to have missed the formation of this coalition, and its purpose. I know there was a “coalition of the willing” to bring about regime change in Iraq in 2003, and plenty of scorn from people in the US for the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (the French) who didn’t join it. Someone pointed out that there seems to have been a coalition against ISIS, but the main aim of the current coalition seems to be to put ISIS, or some group very like them, in power in Syria.

The only constant and consistent factor in US intervention in the Middle East has been to establish more anti-Christian regimes, and has led to Christians being killed or driven from their homes in increasing numbers in a form of “religious cleansing” that parallels the ethnic cleansing seen elsewhere. It should therefore not be surprising that Christians in Syria generally take the attitude of “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Which of the groups seeking to overthrow Assad will treat them better?

But the “Do something” response shows that people outside Syria, including Christians, would behave no better than the people in Syria if they had the chance. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the World Trade Center in New York on 9 September 2001. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” that bombed a Metro train in Moscow last week. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the offices of a publication in Paris a couple of years ago.

In most of the social media calls to “Do something” about gas attacks in Syria the “something” was unspecified, but I’m pretty sure that in most of them the “something” that the posters had in mind was something violent.

We sometimes read about psychologists and profilers trying to understand the minds of terrorists. But they really don’t have to look far. We are all terrorists at heart, especially when we call on someone to “do something” when that something is violent.

Until we tame that “do something” in ourselves, there is little hope of it being tamed in anyone else.

Lent is over, but we still need to pray, Grant that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.

 

SABC: Sport and Faith

A few months ago there was an intense public debate about the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and its former head, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. I don’t know if the SABC has a new head yet, or if it is still drifting along flapping its wings like a headless chicken, but yesterday we were made acutely aware of two things that the new head, who ever that many be, should look into.

Sport

Yesterday there was a cricket match where the South African national team was playing against New Zealand. But only the rich could watch it on TV, and it wasn’t broadcast on steam radio at all.

Now this might not matter if you think that sport is a luxury, especially for spectators. No one actually needs to watch other people playing, and there’s nothing to stop them getting out and playing themselves — they could probably do with the exercise.

But the government also keeps banging on about “transformation” in sport, by which they mean that the demographic groups represented in national sports teams should reflect the demographic make-up of the country. But if only the rich can watch those sports on TV or radio, then only the rich will tend to play those sports. Those who can afford to pay to watch those sports on TV will also be the ones who can afford to send their children to the fee-paying schools where those sports are played and effectively coached. If you want to level the playing fields (pun intended) then you must make it possible for the widest range of people see our national teams play. And the government, which controls the SABC, needs to make sure that the SABC encourages this transformation by broadcasting matches where the national teams are playing, both home and away.

Faith

For the last few months, on Sundays when we go to church in Atteridgeville, we’ve caught the second part of a radio programme on SAfm called Facts of Faith. The first few times we heard it, it sounded like a paid denominational broadcast. There was a group of people drawn from various religious traditions who were asked to challenge the views of a very fundamentalist speaker, who then demolished their objections to his point of view in a rather condescending manner.

For a while we wondered which denomination was sponsoring the show. Was it Seventh-Day Adventists? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or some new fundamentalist sect from the USA trying to gain a foothold in South Africa?

We listened to the end of the programme, but they never said which denomination was sponsoring it. It was followed, at 11:00 am by the Sunday morning church service, where one was told which church the service was in, so at least one knew what one was getting.

Eventually we looked up Facts of Faith on the web, and found that it apparently was not intended to be a paid denominational broadcast, however much it sounded like it. Instead it was

Facts of Faith is a platform for religious and faith communities to have a say in social, political, cultural, sexual and general issues. Facts of Faith affords the country and the general SAfm audience’s the benefit of hearing what faith communities have to say about the issues of the day.

Now that sounded as though it could be interesting, except that one wonders why they would broadcast it at a time when most Christians in the country would be in church, and so would not be able to hear it. That too seems a very sectarian thing to do. Nevertheless we continued to listen to the second half on the way home just because we found the main speaker so overbearing and annoying.

But yesterday’s one took the cake.

They were talking about women’s leadership in church, and there was a Muslim, and a bishop of something or other, and someone from the ACDP. We didn’t catch the names because we only started hearing it halfway through.

solascripAt one point they took phone callers from outside, and one caller said he could offer an interesting instance of something in African history that could illustrate women’s leadership from the point of view of Christianity, Islam and African Traditional Religion. He was quickly ruled out of order by the boss of the show (he was the boss, not a chairman or moderator or anything impartial like that). The name of the show, he said, was Facts of Faith, and that meant that they did not accept anything from history, or culture or tradition. It had to be from Scripture and Scripture only. Well that certainly confirmed the fundamentalist bias of the programme, and I was sad, because I would like to hear what the caller had to say.

And I wonder which “scriptures” are used by African traditional religions.

 

 

The Deplorable Word

Quite a controversy seems to have been generated by reports that US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to supporters of one of her rivals, Donald Trump, as a “basket of deplorables”.

I first became aware of this when a Facebook friend, Ed Unneland, asked, “My question is why she regrets saying “half?” Should she not be regretting the word “deplorable?” I am not supporting Trump, but since when did we start excommunicating people from the body politic for voting for another major party?”

dword1And my response was, “It is deplorable to call people deplorable. Words can be deplorable. Political policies can be deplorable. But people? No.

I would have been content to leave it at that, but then other people started discussing it on Facebook and elsewhere. Political discussions often lead to ad hominem arguments, and one of the boring things about Facebook nowadays is the frequency with which my Facebook friends post ad hominem attacks on the US presidential candidates they don’t like. I usually ignore them and pass  on to something more interesting.

But what was interesting about this one was that the target of this attack was not a politician, but it was a politician attacking the supporters of a political rival. And what bothered me was that some of my Christian friends on Facebook were defending this and saying it was OK.

I think it is decidedly unChristian to call people deplorable.

In South Africa we have recently had a controversy about some US “pastor” who appeared to believe that homosexuals were deplorable, and I was amazed at the amount of free and unsolicited publicity that the media gave him.

Words can be deplorable, ideas can be deplorable. political policies can be deplorable, but calling people deplorable is the first step on a slippery slope that leads to genocide.

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not draw the line at anyone, and if we draw the line at anyone, he will be on the far side of that line and not on ours.

Our Lord Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

So if there is any basket of deplorables, I’m right in there with them.

 

 

 

Networking and consciousness

A blogging friend recently drew my attention to an article about scientists’ attempts to understand consciousness — World’s Smartest Physicist Thinks Science Can’t Crack Consciousness – Scientific American Blog Network: The chemist Ash Jogalekar, who blogs as “The Curious Wavefunction,” wrote about Witten’s speech and transcribed the relevant section. (Thanks, Ash.) Here is an excerpt:

I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…

Now I’m no scientist. I haven’t gone beyond high school physics and that was more than 50 years ago, and string theory wasn’t around then, so if you think that what follows is the insane ramblings of a lunatic, you’d better stop reading now. Check the right-hand column for something else to read, or close this window.

My picture of consciousness or an analogy for consciousness is that it arises out of the complexity of networks, and in this case the networks of neurons in the human brain.

This idea was suggested to me by a science fiction short story called A subway named Möbius. “When the MBTA (Boston’s Public Transportation authority) introduces a new line, the topology of the network become so complex that a train vanishes…lost in some fourth dimensional properties of the network.”

The Boston T

The Boston T

I read the story in 1962, when I was 21. There was no Google in those days, so I had to go searching among mathematical texts in the library to discover what topology was. The story mentioned a Möbius strip, which had one side and one edge, which the author described as a “singularity”. It also mentioned a Klein bottle, which managed to be inside itself, and had two singularities. The mathematical texts that I found explained and illustrated these, so at least I could form a mental picture of them, and for a while I enjoyed making Möbius strips and astounding my friends by demonstrating that they had one side and one edge. In the story a mathematician, Roger Tupelo, explains the disappearance of the train referring to the topological qualities of the network. It is a closed system, so the train must be somewhere on the system, but it has no real “where”.

The story suggested to me how it might be possible to have infinity in a finite space. It gripped my imagination, and I wondered if that was what consciousness was. Could this be an analogy to the link between the metaphysical mind and the physical brain? That the network of our brains was so complex that our thoughts jumped into another dimension?

A few years later I came across a play by N.F. Simpson called A resounding tinkle. At one point in the play a radio is playing in the background, and something resembling Anglican Evensong was playing, with dialogue something like this:

Versicle: Let us throw back our heads and laugh at reality.
Response: Which is an illusion caused by mescaline deficiency.

V: At sanity
R: Which is an illusion caused by alcohol deficiency.

V: At thought.
R: which is an illusion caused by certain electrochemical changes in the human brain structure which, had they been otherwise, what is now commonplace would be beyond our wildest imaginings, and what is now beyond our wildest imaginings would be commonplace.

And the connection between brain and mind would be as much beyond our wildest imaginings as that.

Of course this is all completely unscientific, being based on science fiction and the Theatre of the Absurd, but I rather liked the idea that the topological qualities of a network could make the whole network greater than the sum of its parts, and the brain as a neural network is a lot more complicated than an underground railway. I’ve always liked visible networks, like railways, and prefer trolley buses to oil buses, partly because their network is more visible.

When I actually visited Boston, I was rather disappointed to discover that the MBTA network was not nearly as complex as the story suggested, and in that respect did not compare well with the Moscow or London networks.

The Boston T -- August 1995

The Boston T — August 1995

I mentioned this theory of consciousness in passing in another blog post, where I suggested that it could also be used as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that God has us all backed up on tape or some kind of super DVD, and that on the last day we’ll all be rebooted into new and better hardware.

The idea of egregores allows one to extend the analogy, or the metaphor, even further. If the human mind is greater than the sum of the parts of the human brain, then an aggregate of human minds working together could be greater than the sum of the brains that compose it. According to the modern nation, an egregore is a kind of group mind which is created when people consciously come together for a common purpose. Each of us belong to several of these groups. The process is unconscious. There also are drawbacks, some disturbing psychic influences in many cases, and a restriction of freedom. It is impossible to free oneself from certain egregores, for example the egregores of the country you live in.

The egregores of the country one lives in bear a strong resemblance to the angels of the nations referred to in the Old Testament, and the Greek word egrigori (watchers) is sometimes used to refer to them.

Consciousness is sometimes described by scientists as being comparable to both waves and particles. So could not the angels of the peoples be both a kind of group mind, and also bodiless powers?

I’m not proposing a new doctrine here, it is just a theologoumenon. But it might provide a useful analogy.

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