28 August 2011

Testimony & Epistemology

After recently reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, some thoughts crystallised in my mind that had been floating around for a bit. This post is my attempt to articulate those thoughts.

Epistemology is a subject in which I have a steadily growing interest. I have just started reading Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery, though it’s a bit of a beast of a book, so don’t expect to see the review much before October. I may come back and revise this post after I have finished that.

As alluded to in my review of Bauckham’s book, the willingness to accept eyewitness testimony (hereafter, to be simply referred to as testimony) does not immediately imply a hermeneutic of credulity. There is a word for those who would accept without critique what they are told as testimony: gullible. Now, in spite of how often I have heard that accusation levelled at all Christians, it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; if it were true then everyone who has ever professed faith must be intellectually retarded, but a brief look around the world today, and in history reveals this to be untrue. Of course, that is not to say that every Christian has reached their faith by careful reasoning and the examination of the available evidence; indeed I have met many who prefer to not think about the challenges posed to the claims of Christianity, but these are the minority. There is also then the adage that if you have met a Christian who doesn’t seem to have any doubts, then you just don’t know them well enough.

When I read or talk to critics of the bible, there is a phrase I often hear is “there’s no evidence for….” At which point a look of puzzlement usually smothers my face. The reason for this is that the person I am speaking to has completely disregarded the fact that we have the collection of books known as the bible, which is evidence. I think a far more honest term would be “there’s no corroborative evidence for…” which is a very different statement.

I have heard it said that Christianity is the religion of the historian. I am increasingly coming round to this point of view as most of the strongest arguments come from history, rather than science, philosophy or sociology. That is not to say that these don’t have important things to say about Christianity (and vice versa), rather I just don’t find them as convincing as I do for the historical basis for the person, death and resurrection of Jesus. Where certain ideas taken as cherished by Christians have had to be thrown out of the window because of subsequent research, there do not appear to be any scholars who have credibly formed and tested hypotheses for the origins of Christianity on an historical basis; there may be plenty of supposition, but very little evidence to support this. If anyone knows of a suitable riposte, please let me know as I would love to read it/them.

As I have said before, my worldview is that the set of things for which there is evidence is smaller than the set of things which are true. That is to say, there may be many truths for which there is no evidence. Of course, this then raises the question, “How do we know it’s true?” which is perfectly valid and deserves serious consideration. I still don’t have a definitive answer for that.

One of the key differences between history and science is the ability to generate evidence. Science can devise experiments in order to gather new evidence from well-designed experiments in order to confirm or deny an hypothesis. History, on the other hand, has to build the most reasonable explanation, based on the evidence available. Of course, you can always do archaeological excavations, or search through ancient libraries, but you can’t always find what you want. To go back to Bauckham, much of his book was based on the testimony of Papias, but we have no surviving manuscripts of his; only some quotes from Eusebius a couple of centuries afterwards.

To give a somewhat trivial example, I could tell you what I had for dinner last night. It happened to be a chicken curry. I can testify that that is true, and I know it to be so. However, I ate alone, with the blinds shut, so there are no other eyewitnesses, as far as I know. So how might one determine whether or not my testimony is true? Well, one could go through my bins and examine the contents thereof to find evidence of the ingredients of a chicken curry. This would certainly not constitute proof as there would be no way to pin the ingredients down to a specific date (it could have been the night before) or to ascertain that the ingredients were used together, as opposed to being used in the cooking of two separate meals.

An alternative approach may be to pump my stomach and examine the contents. Now this is a pretty extreme measure, but if you really wanted to find out, then this may be an option; albeit one that I would resist with what little physical strength I have! Also, this method would only work for the last couple of meals. If my question had been posed about what I ate on the 10th of February this year (or last year) then the answer would be quite unknowable; although in this case, I couldn’t testify myself, as I don’t have that good a memory.

Of course, we could try to falsify the proposition, yet what are the falsification criteria? Perhaps I was seen elsewhere, eating something different; but in the absence of other eyewitnesses, this cannot be a possibility. It is not clear to me that there are, given what the circumstances outlined above, any criteria upon which can be based any level of falsifiability. To draw the analogy to a close, before it gets over-strained, the fact that I ate a chicken curry is, for all practical purposes, unfalsifiable. However, this does not impact on the truth of the assertion. So it is with testimony. There may be many potential ways in which a testimony may be falsified (e.g. by direct contradiction with another testimony – although we need to be careful about the possibility of two different views of the same thing appearing radically different, or contradiction with other corroborative evidence, etc.). However, as noted above, the historian cannot generate additional evidence. He or she may search for it, but it may simply be the case that what they are searching for has been lost.

So then, if testimony is all we have, what can we say about it? Bauckham’s approach was to give them the benefit of the doubt. In this, I would somewhat agree with him, but with a word of warning. If a witness is shown to be untrustworthy in related key areas, then extra doubt may of course be cast on their testimony. I would think it unwise to reject them outright because of this.

There has been a recent example, when such a rejection has taken place. That is, in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK). The case was dependent on an eyewitness, but the case was ultimately thrown out because of a lack of corroborative evidence and aspersions made against the eyewitness. For my part, I do not hold an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of DSK. I merely include this paragraph to get you thinking at how relevant, and thorny, the issue still is today. It is not a problem restricted to historical theology, and one which I think we will continue to wrestle with for many years to come.

25 August 2011

Book Review: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

I’d not really come across Richard Bauckham much before and this was the first book of his I had read. He was heavily referenced with some favour by Tom Wright in The Resurrection Of The Son Of God, and a five minute search reveals that Bauckham is an emeritus professor at Edinburgh (though currently on placement to Cambridge), where Wright now has a nominal post, though I understand this is merely to let him write his prodigious amount of books.

There is no great lengthy introduction to this work, and Bauckham dives straight into his proposition, giving us a quick glance at the conclusions he will reach (I would graciously assume that the book was researched and the conclusions reached prior to the writing of the introduction). The title kind of says it all, although Bauckham does not think that the 4 gospels were all first-hand eyewitness accounts. Rather, his assertion is that they faithfully record the eyewitness testimony of others.

The depth and breadth of Bauckham’s reading and understanding can hardly be doubted, and this is a work of immense scholarship. The downside is that in being rigorous, it gets extremely dry in places. It took me an awfully long time to get through this, not least because I kept dropping off during my daily commute, though that may have had something to do with the workload I have had of late.

I did get the impression that at times he made a little too much of some very scant evidence, though that is not to undermine his whole argument. For those who would contest his viewpoint that the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony and were not either invented or significantly distorted through oral traditions, Bauckham’s work would need to be very carefully dissected; something I am not knowledgeable enough to do.

The book’s first main contention is that those who were name-checked in the gospels were present because they were witnesses. I found this quite an unusual proposition and not entirely convincing. From here, Bauckham looked at the frequency of names in the society at the time, and concluded that the names we find are fairly typical of what we might expect, though I was unsure of what this was meant to prove. That said, it did contain some extremely interesting points about individuals known by two different names (I immediately thought of Saul/Paul, though Bauckham, oddly, didn’t mention this) as the disparity between lists of names is an objection I often find cited against the gospels.

One writer on whom he hangs a lot of his argument is Papias, who I think is very seldom known in modern Christian circles (at least the ones I move in). This demonstrates for me quite well how historians have to deal with the evidence they have available, as opposed to scientists who can devise experiments in order gather evidence. For those of you who don’t know, there are no known surviving works of Papias. So how can Bauckham rely on his writings, if we don’t know what they are? Well, it’s because he is quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. The quotes amount to just a few hundred words, much shorter than the length of this review!

One of the most interesting chapters concerns the proposition that Mark’s gospel (widely regarded as the first to be written) was based predominantly on the testimony of Simon/Peter. The main piece of evidence in favour of this is some Greek grammar, where a third person perspective is used quite awkwardly, when a first person perspective would read more naturally. Unfortunately, my Greek grammar is not good enough to be able to form a suitable critique on this, though there is a lot more to it than the crude outline I have given.

After his detailed look at Mark, Bauckham then moves on to look at the way the testimonies of the original eyewitnesses would have been passed on. He takes a sceptical view of the form critics, most notably Rudolph Bultmann. He also takes a look at the more modern, moderate style of form criticism, more widely accepted, as put forward by Kenneth Bailey in his highly influential work, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels; a copy of which you can find, for free, here.

In Bauckham’s analysis he draws out a very important point which is often ignored by critics who dismiss gospel tradition as “Chinese whispers” in that the gospel stories were not passed down through many generations, with each generation adding new material in an uncontrolled way. Rather, we are talking about 1-2 generations, where many of the original eyewitnesses were still alive and could be consulted if there were any doubt on the details.

From here, he takes a slightly different direction and looks at psychology. I suspect that this may be Bauckham’s weak area, unless he is a true polymath. He looks at whether or not eyewitness memory can be reliable at all. He cites a couple of examples both for against the proposition, before looking at the characteristics of what distinguishes true memory from false memory and examining the gospel evidence to determine which we find there.

His last piece of analysis is to look at the gospel of John in more detail and to examine the view (which Bauckham supports) that is the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Much of the discussion regards the identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and whether this was John the Elder or John the son Zebedee. However, given the earlier discussion on the frequency of names, John was the 5th most common name, so the discussion, though interesting, does not really progress the argument much.

The concluding chapter of the book is one of the most thought-provoking and I intend to write a much fuller post on this chapter alone. As mentioned at the top, there is very little by way of introduction. It is only now, at the end that I realise why; the introduction is at the end! In this chapter, Bauckham sketches his epistemology and his reasoning behind why he considers the testimonies he has reviewed to be of value to the historian and the theologian (as well those for whom the two disciplines are intimately entwined). He adopts a possibly controversial approach by drawing parallels, albeit with significant caveats, to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Much of the best available evidence we have for the details of the Holocaust has come from the witness of those who were present at the time, and similarly the best available evidence for the details of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus comes from the witness of those who were present at the time. I can understand that some may see this as poor form, citing an event so emotionally charged and volatile, which his critics may pounce on, though I think Bauckham does not overstep the boundary into disrespect or emotional blackmail. In this chapter, Bauckham is extremely critical of those who would undertake an historic review of the gospels with a default position of rejection. So, it might be reasonably said that the author is advocating a hermeneutic of credulity, though this would be to misunderstand him, as he does explicitly state that witness testimony should be reviewed critically.

There is one interesting omission, which I felt was not dealt with properly, and that was the relation of gospel writers (OK, Matthew & Luke) to the nativity. In his chapter “Eyewitness from the beginning” Bauckham is clear that this refers to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was around 30 (according to John). There is no space given to the discussion of the possible eyewitnesses to the birth of Jesus, his early life, or the family tree (however problematic that is!).

So what shall I say in conclusion? Well, it’s not the faint-hearted. It does get quite tedious at times and Bauckham’s writing style is not the most lively I have read. Nonetheless, it is a book worthy of very serious consideration, with many important questions asked and challenges raised to those who would not accept the gospels as being grounded in the contemporary eyewitness testimony.

23 August 2011

Round-up of interesting stuff.

It’s been a while since I did a roundup of interesting stuff to look at, so here are a few snippets that have caught my eye:

The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Riazat Butt is currently writing a series from Afghanistan entitled “Religion on the frontline” where she is spending time with troops in the desert.

Have recently come across Rogue Stardust, who has an excellent quality of writing. Here’s a particularly good post on depression.

The New York Times has a fund little feature on “name that scientist” – I scored a paltry 5/10 (and a couple of those were guesses)

Phil’s Treehouse ponders the question, who actually saw England become the world no. 1 in Test Cricket?

Meanwhile, something caught my eye, but not the reasons you might expect. The web’s friendliest atheist, Gurdur (who is also the wearer of the most awesome hat – seriously, have a look), has had a disagreement with someone on twitter. It just so happens that it was a bloke I went to school with some 20 years ago! And considering it was a small, private Christian school that has since shut down, having only turned out a few hundred students in its ~20 year history, I marvel at how small a world it can be sometimes!

The Independent has a roundup of the best acts from the Edinburgh Festival, in which WitTank get a favourable mention, although the paper have sadly overlooked the excellent Gentlemen of Leisure.

And to finish, something utterly silly which I hope will delight: an orang-utan on a bicycle! However, note how the article and the picture don’t quite line up with another in terms of the safety message.

22 August 2011

The different worlds we live in

A note to begin with. I started writing this before the riots and looting broke out in London. The addition of the section on that was inserted after the first draft was completed.

The other day, while I was waiting for a train, I was thinking about how different a life I lead from those around me; probably. We all inhabit the same world in a spatio-temporal sense, yet many of us live in completely “worlds.”

When I was a child, I was used to my environment. It was the very definition of normal. Any changes to this or different environments or lifestyles were completely alien and, to my mind, unnatural. I think I still live with something of this mindset, even if the framework by which I understand the term ‘normal’ is now somewhat different from what it was a few decades ago.

Before I give you a little window on my world, to see what defines a ‘normal’ life for me, I will tell you what I think many of friends and family consider normal. Most got married young, to people they met either at university or shortly after graduating. There may be between one and four children in the family by the time they’re 30. They live in houses (with a variety of terraced and semi-detached, with detached being reserved only for the richest) and drive cars. They work close to home and have a working day (which I define as the time between leaving home and getting home) of around 9-10 hours. They take holidays once or twice a year. At weekends, they go away and “do things” to relax.

I occasionally visit this world, but to me it is a strange, alien place; a kind of Middle Earth, if you will (albeit far more resembling The Shires than anywhere else).

For my part, I do not marry. I have explained at some length about this before, so I shan’t go into that again. Consequently, I do not have children of my own. I’m perfectly happy to be an uncle, and I hope my nieces and nephews find me to be entertaining, informative and a welcome occasional visitor into their lives. I live in a one-bed flat above a busy junction with the constant noise of traffic outside, which I have learned to block out for the most part. My work is a long way from where I live. Typically, I spend about 2.5 hours on a number of different trains every day (hence why I can get so much reading done) and, combined with longer than average working hours, my typical working day is around 13 hours. This would appear to leave me with 11 hours at home per day, which sounds an awful lot. But there are some things I missed out.

I sleep less than the average person, and typically get about 7 hours per night. Anything less than 6 and the effects on my health quickly become detrimental. So do I really have as many as 4 hours a day spare? Well, as noted above, I do not marry, so I am entirely dependent upon myself for all domestic chores. To prepare, cook and eat a decent meal from scratch will typically take at least an hour; maybe an hour and a half. Then I have to clean up afterwards, as well do any other cleaning and tidying around the flat, as I am convinced that my presence there accelerates the increase of entropy far more than natural. That would, of course, imply that I am doing something particularly ordered and constructive, though I do not know what that might be. My meals are typically done more for nutrition and taste than for presentation. So cleaning will take another hour. This has now left me with 2 spare hours a day. However, you may note that I have not washed yet in all this time. (*eeewwww* I hear you say). Well, there is a little more to that. I would estimate that washing, getting dressed and generally waking up takes about an hour. I’m not a morning person.So, as you will have worked out, the “me” time I get is about an hour a day. This time is where I try and squeeze in my bible study, prayers, food shops, blogging or watching tv. This is only an average. When I have been particularly busy, this can be zilch, leaving me with zero spare time from Monday morning to Friday night, which is pretty exhausting.

In spite of being a bloke, I can multitask a bit. Thankfully my home is arranged so that I can watch tv or listen to anything while I am doing the washing up or cooking, or ironing my shirts. I do in fact have a link on the right of this page to some lectures which I find very interesting. The Gifford lectures have very few recordings online, although I did recently spend a week going through those of Simon Conway Morris. The Faraday lectures can be quite interesting (though of varying quality of speaker) and the sound recording isn’t great, so you can’t really hear it if you’ve got a stir-fry sizzling away. If I miss church on a Sunday (if I’m away with family, or upstairs doing the childrens’ work) I can catch up mid-week via a download from the church website.

So that’s a rough outline of my week. It mostly consists of work, commuting and household maintenance. I’m sure, if you could somehow quantify how interesting someone is, I would fall into the bottom few percentiles. As for the weekends, I am perplexed at how people who “do things” can find that at all relaxing. Some friends go horse riding, some go scuba diving, some go bird watching, some race cars, some play football, some play golf. I fail to see how any of those things are anything but stressful. Maybe I’m strange. I find talking to people stressful. Even if it’s a so-called “casual” conversation, my heart rate goes up and I start to perspire. That’s why Saturday is always my favourite day of the week. I very rarely speak to another human being on Saturdays. Even if I do, it’s usually only the checkout girl at the local supermarket in order to tell her:

a) I prefer to use my own bags; they won’t split by the time I get to the end of the car park
b) I am capable of packing my own bags
c) If I had wanted cashback, I would have asked for it.

During a recent training course at work, I was told (amongst other things) that this was because I find supermarket checkout staff “intimidating.” I think this statement lacks truth and was a verdict delivered by someone who had only met me a few minutes beforehand. I would rather just get on with my day.

To further contrast myself with those around me, I neither drive nor take regular holidays. As mentioned above, spare time is at a premium, so finding a regular hour in the week to take driving lessons is just not a possibility for someone in my position. As for holidays, I had one last year, but I won’t be able to take any more than a day or two off work at a time for this rest of this year. My only hope is to try and get as far away from London this time next year, as I would quite like to be 300+ miles away from the Olympics.

So that’s the window on my world. If you’ve read this far, you may be as boring as I am – just consider that!

In spite of this, I am well aware that many people, not only this Western culture I inhabit, but many more besides, lead greatly differing lives. There are countless “worlds” which I doubt I will have the opportunity to experience. It is my firm belief that we are all shaped to varying extents by the environments in which we grew up and by those in which we find ourselves today. Our outlook on life is dependent on the things we see, the books we read, the music we listen to and the conversations we have.

As an addendum, it was very interesting to be in London the other week during the riots. I saw some horrific scenes on the television, and read some quite disturbing things online describing what was going on. And yet, had it not been for the media or for half-overheard conversations, I would have been none the wiser about it. I walked 3 miles across London, through several estates, and saw absolutely nothing. I “knew,” from the media that there had been trouble in the areas I was in, but there was nothing apparent. From my perspective, it might as well have been in a different city in another country. It raises certain epistemological questions, though I shan’t embark on those here.

OK, I think that turned a little bit rambly, but that just reflects my thought process. I am just in wonder at the different worlds we live in and how different they can be, in spite of their proximity to one another.

18 August 2011

Justice, Love & Grace: The christian response to the England riots

I started writing this about a week ago, but have been ridiculously busy with work lately, but I hope it is still relevant.

Though I touched on this in another recent post, I thought I would expand a little on some of the reactions coming out of different sections of the Christian community in this country in response to the riots. It seems to me that there has been a distinct left/right divide that has exhibited itself. Those that know me are aware I am unashamedly liberal in my outlook. Here, I will provide the reasons for my views, which will include some lengthy Bible quotes. So if that isn't your cup of tea, you may wish to skip the rest.

I was ashamed to see so many people who profess to be Christians speaking so much intolerance in relation to the recent spate of violence in some of England’s largest cities. In my earlier post, I included some quotes. Below are a few more that I have taken off facebook:
“Dear police, if you do feel the need to shoot anyone looting or rioting whilst on duty this evening, please feel free, we don’t mind. Dear fire brigade, if you want to shoot the miserable scum with your high powered water hoses whilst they are preventing you from doing your job, that’s absolutely fine. Dear ambulance service, if you get any phone calls from injured/dying or bleeding rioters, stay at home and watch corrie.”
“I hereby give my consent to curfews, water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas and the army on the street to sort the rioting and the looting on Britain’s streets.”
“Human rights?! Surely these idiots lose their rights once they start being as stupid and reckless as they are now!”
Whenever I have sought to point out how wrong this thinking is and pointing people to relevant scripture passages, all I got back was hatred. They didn’t want to listen to sound teaching and correction. One comment I got was “when they ask for forgiveness, I’ll consider it.” I know I’m not the brightest button around, but did Jesus wait for us to ask for forgiveness before he was executed? No. In Mark 2:1-12, did the paralysed man ask for forgiveness before it was offered by Jesus? No. Jesus is a very counter-intuitive figure, and while it may be gut instinct (or sinful nature, depending on your favourite terminology) to put the onus on those we perceive to be perpetrators, we should be the ones to take the first step, even if it hurts our pride.

There is an oft-quoted incident whose veracity may be questionable, but whose sentiment is pertinent. It regards the Inklings, who were discussing comparative religion. They were trying to work out the characteristics that distinguished one from another. After having come to an impasse with relation to Christianity, C.S. Lewis arrived late and replied along the lines of, “That’s easy: grace.” Although I am not an expert at comparative religions, I am not aware of any evidence that contradicts this view. Justice is common, but grace is uniquely Christian. It is one of the central themes of the gospel, and if you take it away, the gospel you would be left with would not be worth keeping.

From what I have seen in the news the most vocal advocate of well-reasoned grace came not from a Christian, but from a Muslim: Tariq Jahan, the father of one of the men who were murdered in Birmingham during the unrest. When I see the above words of hate I have quoted and compare that to the gentle answer from Jahan, turning away wrath, I wonder what perception those outside of the church receive of our worldview. How is it differentiated from that of any other person?

To my way of thinking, if grace is what we have been shown by God, then that is what we ought to show to the rest of the world as a means of our witness aboutGod. But grace is an action that stems from a root cause: love. Paul describes what happens when our outward actions are not motivated by love:
“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
It’s when I think of the above scripture that it saddens me at how poor a witness is being given by some Christians. If, as a community, we speak what is in our hearts (c.f. James 3:9-12, Mark 7:20-23), then to speak words of intolerance & hate is to testify that Jesus was a man of intolerance & hate. But this is not a Jesus that I recognise. It is a false impression, distorted by a failure to remember the love that has been shown to us:
Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him ten thousand talents.He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sistersfrom your heart.” Matt 18:21-35
When I read that, I fail to understand how anyone can claim to be a Christian and yet hold a grudge. Of course, Christians aren’t the finished article. We are all works-in-progress, liable to slip up. Nor am I saying that those who spew forth words of hate and condemnation aren’t Christians. I simply say I do not understand how they reconcile such right-wing views with the grace of God.
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” Matthew 5:38-42
To the modern reader, this may sound trivial; but when you apply it to the violence and looting that we have seen on the streets of England, you can begin to get an idea of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he talked about “costly grace.” To give someone a blessing, when convention tells us they deserve the opposite, requires real strength of character and self-sacrifice.

I think it is right that as Christians we should call for justice in the world. At the same time we need to show the world grace. It is not always easy to get the balance right, and I am sure I’ve got it wrong plenty of times myself. I do not set myself up and “better” than anyone else in this, or any other matter.But we have to understand where our notion of justice comes from. Too much of what I have read seems to come more from the Daily Mail than from critical reasoning, based on what is found in the Bible. If you take the words of Jesus seriously, then you may well agree with Gandhi in his paraphrase: “An eye for an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It is also written (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30) “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

My interpretation of that is that it is not for us to meat out any form of retribution. We need to understand that there is a difference between divine justice and the secular rule of law that is needed to govern this, and any other country. I am not an advocate of theocracy as a form of government, as it inevitably leads to people being in charge and hence it is no less susceptible to corruption and greed than any other form of government. So I’ll happily stick to democracy.

Please do misunderstand me; I am not condoning or encouraging violence, theft or any other form of criminality. I am here merely looking at the reactions of individuals and communities in response to these actions.While I agree with the response from some sections of the Christian community, I am not convinced that other parts of the witness given has been either unified or dignified.

17 August 2011

Book Review: Wired for God by Charles Foster

I picked this book up quite a few months ago, as the subject really piqued my interest. It would probably be good to note that the subtitle is “The biology of spiritual experience.” Now those of you who know me will be well aware that I am not a biologist. However, in recognising my own ignorance of this subject, I am seeking (albeit slowly) to add in some more biology into my science reading, which tends to be heavily weighted towards to maths & physics.

I was prompted to take it off the bookshelf and take it with me on the train after I recently listened to the Gifford lectures given by Simon Conway Morris (you can find a link to the Gifford Lectures on the right of this page) in which he puts forth his views on convergent evolution and touches on the area of the relation of “mind” and the brain. For me, as a christian with a scientific background, I love looking at creation and not only marvelling at the end results, but also to look at the methodologies God used to bring it all about. That’s just my metaphysic viewpoint; I know not everyone will agree with it.

I think the same will be true of Foster’s book. I found plenty in there to agree with and some which I disagreed with wholeheartedly. I think there is something in there for everyone to object to, and I can think of few people I have met that would agree with all of the opinions (which cover a wide range of subjects) espoused by Foster.

The book was not quite what I expected. What I thought we were going to get was mostly neurological with some talk about how “religious” experiences affect the brain, along with discussions about causality, and whether what happens in the brain was the result of a “real” external stimulus or whether the experience was merely a product of what was going on in the brain.

Instead, what we have is a survey of various psychological experiences which might be considered to lie “outside the norm.” A lot of space is given to psychotropic drugs and the different effects experienced by users of a variety of different substances. Foster also covers some aspects of shamanism, out-of-body experiences, near-death-experiences, epilepsy and sexual ecstasy. So I wouldn’t have thought I’d see in a conservative Anglican church. In touching on shamanism, it gets close to, though does not reach, my own less-than-popular opinion regarding the presence of shamanistic practices in the Anglican church, specifically in what is known as liturgy, but which I see as being no different from ritualistic chanting, regardless of the veracity of the words being chanted.

Foster hides his own voice in the book sometimes. He does this by spending most of the chapter laying out the testimonies of others and gathering other viewpoints, whilst not commenting on them until the very end of the chapter. This left me a bit frustrated, as I would be reading a chapter, disagreeing with it, shaking my head, only to find in the last couple of pages that Foster actually & I were in agreement.

Along the way, he has a few pops at the reductionists, most notably Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett. Though written with erudition, his critiques are potentially too concise and I would love to read a fuller comment from Blackmore on Foster’s work (she does contribute a quote on the cover, but little more than that).

In conclusion, I think the book spends too little addressing the subject of the subtitle, and too much on merely describing drug experiences which may or may not be related to spiritual experiences.

8 August 2011

Voices from the London riots

News moves fast. I started writing this at 22:16 on the 8th of August.

I have to admit I do not know the underlying reason behind the riots. I cannot put myself into the mindset of those who choose to express themselves through violence, with scant regard for others. There seems to have been (at first sight, pending an investigation) a great injustice with the killing of Mr Duggan by the police.

Below are just a few of the comments and eyewitness testimonies that I have gathered off facebook and twitter. I do not agree with all of the statements, and find some of them positively vile, though I include them only for reasons of demonstrating a range of views. The identities of all involved have been removed, as I have not requested permission to repost. If anyone objects to these, then please let me know and I will remove any offending comments

“The worst terrorism London has seen yet. The Met should be ashamed (how much taxes do we pay towards the Met?) London should be ashamed.”

“Surely looting is just another word for stealing isn’t it?”

“Just hoping all my friends and family are safe.”

“riot police on our road, downstairs neighbour just told us to ‘get our knives ready’ – brilliant”

“Where are the police? The whole of Clapham junction has been ransacked.”

“Wanted…Jo Frost & one humungeously large naughty step to be deployed in London.”

“If you’re going to set fire to any house in London please make it the Big Brother house.”

“the government should buy up all the old coal mines etc and anyone convicted of this rioting be sent to work down them. Riotous jobsworth hooligans!!”

“Wish people would stop criticizing the emergency services, especially Police. I’d like to see them do a better job!”

“My friend’s dad goes to hackney to reassure her. His car has been torched.”

For my own part, I have not seen any violence. I work in London, and in the late afternoon, we could hear a lot more sirens than normal. There was no sign of trouble on the trains or anywhere within sight during the later part of the evening rush hour. I remember watching the cars burn in the race riots on Marsh Farm around 20 years ago and have no desire to see that.

From the news and from the social networking sites, I see actions of violence, greed and hate. I read comments of condemnation and fear. There is very little love around. I am ashamed to say that some of the more vile comments above came from those who profess to be Christians.

I have no fear of returning to work in London tomorrow. I shall not however be staying late into the hours of darkness. I am reminded of 1 Thessalonians 5:5. “for you are children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night nor of the darkness….for those who sleep, sleep at night and those are drunk get drunk at night.” There is a kind of thoughtlessness that is akin to a kind of drunkenness which seems to be present in these pockets of unrest.

To my Christian viewpoint, the first course of action is to pray. I think most Christians would agree with me on this (I hope). But it is not the only thing we can do. These problems seem to be related to community problems, and if any entity has a tradition of being at the centre of a community, it is the church. Where the churches can be in the geographical centres, stand up to the violence and demonstrate love, then that will be more effective than any amount of street preaching.

Words of condemnation do not help. In order to demonstrate love, we first ought to recognise that those who loot, steal, burn and destroy are just as loved by God as you and I. They are deserving of no less love and grace than that which has been bestowed on us.

6 August 2011

Debt and the ratings agencies

Last night, before I went to bed, there were rumours circulating about the possible downgrade of the American credit status by one of the ratings agencies. When I woke up this morning, it was confirmed.

This week has been extremely very busy for me, so I have not a very good opportunity to keep on top of all of the facts. So I’m just sharing some thoughts, and if you spot any mistakes, omissions or the like, then please let me know.

At the start of the week, the reporting we had in the UK about the US “debt crisis” was along the lines of saying it was on a knife-edge where different factions who had a say in the matter could not agree on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling, an international version of a credit limit. This made no sense to me, really. If I have a time limit to pay my credit card bill, it doesn’t help if the action I take is to simply increase my credit limit. What I need to do is to start paying down the debt. Mercifully, my own finances are in good order (which is helpful, since I do work in finance!) and I can always pay down my debts.

But let’s suppose that I had managed to save enough of a deposit and get a mortgage. I would need to pay down this mortgage at a sensible rate. I’d need to make sure I had enough cash to pay for my everyday needs. If I paid too much, too quickly, then I’d have to cut back on some of the essentials. In terms of national economic finance, this would mean public service cuts which inevitably means unemployment. This is the strategy which the current conservative-led government is pursuing.

What the americans seem to have done is remortgage their country. It’s not a long-term solution, and I was shocked when I found out that they had raised their debt ceiling several times over the last few years (I forget the precise number).

What fascinated me was the credit ratings agencies. I have a lot of questions that I haven’t found adequate answers to. To me, as a mathematician, it would be fair to call me a Platonist. So I view the credit ratings as merely recognising a platonic reality that already exists. So if the US has become less credit-worthy, then the downgrade merely reflects this, rather than the US becoming less credit worthy as a result of the downgrade.

But who are these credit ratings agencies? A brief look at their websites show they have some blurb but not a lot of substance. What is surprising is that they seem to be listed companies, rather than international bodies. So who are the shareholders and what are their political-economic agendas? The same question could be asked of those who run the companies. I’d love to find out their political links and leanings, but I don’t have the spare time to research.

4 August 2011

Book Review: Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

I became interested in this book after reading an endorsement from it by the writer and columnist, George Monbiot, who I have some time for, even if I don’t agree with him in all things. The subtitle of the book, Tax Havens And The Men Who Stole The World, gives a better impression of what the book is about. This also impinges on my own area of professional expertise: accountancy. I have often been struck by how poorly tax related issues are reported in the news, particularly issues of tax avoidance and evasion. So while most people are aware that the former is legal and the latter is not, the “common knowledge” of such matters goes no further than this. Even amongst people who are more politically aware, I still hear and read comments such as “companies try to avoid capital gains tax by….” which demonstrate an ignorance that companies are not liable for capital gains tax. It is purely a tax levied on individuals. Or similarly, the term non-domiciled (non-dom, for short) as a shorthand for people who don’t pay income tax, when the truth is that a person’s domicility is irrelevant as far as income tax is related; as that is entirely dependent on their residency status.

Anyway, I digress. My hope was that Shaxson would be more financially literate than the vast majority of most journalists. In the first chapter, I seemed set for disappointment, due to a lack of clarity in his terminology and a very clumsy attempted sleight of hand in order to make an erroneous point of rhetoric. The particular point in question was on page 12 when he mentions some companies “did nearly $750m of business in Britain but paid only $235,000 in tax…” Now the phrase “did x amount of business” is not particularly precise or helpful, though in more careful wording, one might say that $750m is the revenue. However, his implication is that this inherently unfair. But what he doesn’t state until the following chapter is that tax is based on profit, not revenue.

From this shaky start, the book massively improves. Shaxson’s main thrust is that a tax haven is about secrecy and being able to hide income behind layers of silence. He then goes about giving a history of how these structures have arisen. He begins with a look at probably the most famous tax haven in the world: Switzerland. The notion of this being a tax haven is not so much the fact that they have generally low taxes (which is still true) but more to do with the code of banking in that country and the laws surrounding it. For Shaxson, the term he uses constantly is secrecy, although the term confidentiality may equally be used. The difference is merely the connotations each word has, depending on your political leanings.

Given my introduction above as a recommendation from George Monbiot, there is little room for doubt as to Shaxson’s own left-of-centre leanings. His broad approach is to give the historical story of how tax havens have come into being along with the key lobbyist who have sought their existence and protection as a proxy for the protection of their own wealth.

The book is quite wide-ranging in its scope, though I found the most interesting sections to be those on the Caymen Islands, Jersey and the City of London. Ironically, it was while I was reading the chapter on the square mile that I was on a tube train on the Northern Line going from London Bridge, through Bank and Moorgate, up to Old Street, thus traversing the City and passing almost (if not actually) directly underneath the Bank of England. It gave a wonderful sense of irony, and though a few people glanced at the cover with interest (I do not have a Kindle, nor do I wish to own one). It reminded me that I would still like, at some point, to sit outside 1 Canada Square whilst reading a copy of Das Kapital.

As mentioned earlier, Shaxson does write about some topics that I know quite a bit about, having worked in those areas for some years. Specifically, he talks about accountants, auditors, LLPs and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). It is here that he woefully falls short of anything resembling understanding, which leads me to question the integrity of the rest of the book, where I rely on his word to provide an accurate picture.

Audit

To be specific, he refers to auditors as “the private police force of capitalism” and “audits are the main tool through which societies know about, and regulate, the world’s biggest corporations.” This is pushing a widespread misconception that leads to much misunderstanding and unnecessary vilification. An auditor is not a regulator. Their job is only to provide an opinion on whether or not the financial statements give a “true and fair view” of the company’s position at the period end and the activities during the period being audited.

When I worked as an auditor, one of the jobs I was given was to make notes on the 2006 Companies Act, and present it to one of the partners. This was immediately after it was published, so no one really outside of Parliament had had a chance to read it in full. At the time it was (and I think it still is) the largest single piece of legislation ever passed by the UK Parliament. The role and duties of an auditor are very clearly laid out in the Act, though they take up a tiny amount of space, as deference is effectively given to those who make the accounting standards. For publically listed groups of companies (which make up less than 1% of the total number of companies in the UK) these standards are set by the aforementioned IASB. The standards are known as the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).

Financial Reporting Standards

Now I do not agree with 100% of the IFRS standards. When I was studying them, there did appear to be some level of obfuscation, where the standards are derived from a set of principles laid out in what is known as The Framework. What we end up though are standards like IFRS 9, which is a labyrinthine standard relating to exotic financial instruments which are very seldom used in the vast majority of companies. Though it makes sense in a step-by-step logic derived from the Framework, when looked at as a whole, it just seems devoid of common sense. One of the principles is to make financial statements understandable to the ordinary reader, unversed in accountancy and reporting standards. I have tested this on a small scale by giving some accounts to some non-accountants to have a read to see how well they understand them. I must add, that these were from publically available accounts published online by the companies in question, all of which were audited by different firms from the one I worked for, so there is no hint of any potential breach of confidentiality. Shaxson’t beef though is not with the standards that tend to baffle. Instead, he is not happy about segmental reporting, where a company breaks down its figures into the different segments that are used to report to management. He would rather make all companies disclose all cross-border transactions.

Transfer pricing

The basis of this is transfer-pricing, which he misleadingly states is a method by which companies move costs into high tax areas and profits into low tax areas. The reason I call this misleading is that in a short space, the author has misdirected in several different ways, which is quite an impressive feat. The first is in financial literacy. He treats costs and profits as though they are unrelated. It is like saying I’ll move my apples to Germany and my oranges to Switzerland. If you move costs to a higher tax jurisdiction then you do not then move your profits. Your profits are your total income minus your costs; yet Shaxson seems to be unaware of this most simple of equations. The other is to pretend that transfer-pricing is a tax dodge mechanism, when it is the precise opposite. Transfer pricing is the mechanism by which to avoid the unfair transfer of costs for tax minimalisation purposes. These agreements have to be presented to the auditors (who will usually bring a tax specialist onto the team for this purpose) and the agreements are subject to inspection by HMRC, who can prosecute if they think a given company is trying to avoid paying taxes by such methods.

LLPs

The last point which I think needs addressing is that of limited liability partnerships (LLPs). LLPs are portrayed by Shaxson as a tax-dodge vehicle which the big 4 accounting firms (PWC, Deloitte, KPMG and Ernst & Young) pressured the UK government into adopting. What he fails to mention is that the reason they were set up was to recognise the growing corporate nature of professional service firms such accountancy firms and law firms, which had historically been for the most part plain old partnerships. These would be governed by partnership agreements, but the English Law (I cannot speak for Scottish law or that of any other jurisdiction, as I have never studied, nor taken any exams in it) that governs partnerships was not designed for firms that had grown to the size of large corporates, where company law was more apt for this. So the LLPs were set up as a half-way house whereby large swathes of the Companies Act were adopted by the LLPs, whilst allowing them to retain their partnership structure, thus not destroying the heritage and ethos that allowed them to flourish; along with the many mergers that happened along the way to give the weird and wonderful compound names and acronyms that govern the largest firms in the marketplace.

Conclusion

OK, so that was an extremely length aside. But if you’d read this far (or seen the word ‘conclusion’ and skipped straight to it – tut tut to you for your laziness), then you show the level of patience needed to get through Shaxson’s book. As demonstrated above, it is not factually correct in all places, which does undermine slightly the credibility of the rest of the book. That said, I do not think it is entirely erroneous and would recommend it as an introduction to the history of tax havens and how they operate. There are some incredibly powerful testimonies included; most notably for me were those of William Taylor’s battle with the Corporation of London, the secrecy laws that are in place in the Cayman Islands and the subculture that pervades Jersey.

Read it with due scepticism, and learn what you may never have realised was going on right outside (or even inside) your office.