Worshipping the Ashtaroth

Sometimes I turn willingly to the Ashtaroth, purposefully
A sensual evening for less than one
Sometimes I turn happily to the Ashtaroth
Sometimes I don't
...
The editor blankly waits for my input
Distant clients set my pace
Data streams, accumulates, challenges
I am the learner, the investigator, the one who likes puzzles, the genius
The house overflows me with chores and tasks
The wife expects my support
The ripe day waxes, wanes and crumbles
I am the flexible one, the listener, ridiculous, cook and cleaner
Where am I apart from I?
...
I am the mirror of your affected desire
I am the mood of all your choreography
I am every body in this picture
Flood my palm
A blush of shock
               of pleasure
               of shame

Reset #pornfree

And they forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.

Judges 2:13

As predicted (or planned), my wife Sara was away for a week, and I have been worshiping the Ashtoreths. After day 117 of the streak, I reset the counter to zero, where it remained until Sara returned.

In that last blog post I had a few ideas for avoidance techniques — things to do that were “as” attractive as looking at porn. Well I didn’t do any of them. They were never really in the race.

I revisited the old haunt I mentioned, and got up-to-date. I dusted off an old twitter account. I toured a few other old haunts too.

I had set limits and rules, but of course in the heat of the moment such rules are forgotten or abandoned. However, I seemed to stick to the most important ones. I didn’t end up drenched in porn, didn’t have an eye on it during the day (the twitter account I ended up not using at all), or even every evening. I wanted it to be a treat and a relaxation, entertainment, and it has been.

Consequently, I have no feelings of shame or regret. I enjoyed the holiday.

What now? Perhaps now is the real test: how easily can I go back on the wagon? A voice will be telling me I don’t need to — if I can start and stop any time, why stop now? — but watching porn with one eye while the other eye is looking over your shoulder is not really a treat.

Porn and masturbation go back on the shelf, and I develop those other attractions that don’t require me to watch my back.

Assuming re-wagonning goes well, this will be the last post in the #pornfree category.

Susannah: a confession

#pornfree is going well (though the real test will be how I recover from a fall). That leaves one last bad habit to confront: looking.

Going back to the office after a long time WFH is a good time to break bad habits, and this is a good bad habit to break.

I have nicknames for a few of the women in the building — Clip-clop, Slinky, Pneumatic, … — I keep an eye out for them, entertain daydreams and fantasies. The woman in the office next door, my nickname for her is just Slut. Her presence is the strongest trigger — her voice, her footsteps, the sight of her waddling along the corridor, the sound of her car arriving — can flip me into a sudden overpowering hunger.

The David and Bathsheba story is not really useful here, in fact it’s rather gratifying to the voyeur: David gets to do what he wants to the girl, and she doesn’t have a speaking part (iirc) so remains an object of desire to be used as desired.

Slut’s real name is Susan. I looked to see if there were any Susan’s in the Bible, and found the “deuterocanonical” Daniel 13. I read it, transfixed and horrified, as if under a spotlight, feeling as if the story had been written directly about me.

9 And they perverted their minds and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering righteous judgments. 10 Both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, 11 for they were ashamed to reveal their lustful desire to have her. 12 And they watched eagerly, day after day, to see her.

I want to use this story as a memory aid, a “reverse trigger”.

The men ambush Susannah when she is alone, and threaten to accuse her of adultery if she doesn’t let them “lie with” her. Susannah refuses and calls for help (“it is better for me not to do it and to fall into your power than to sin before the Lord.”), she is accused and condemned. The young Daniel intervenes and cross-examines the men, and they are exposed, humiliated, and executed.

Unlike Bathsheba, Susannah is a strong and memorable character in the story — stronger and more central (her steadfastness and faith) than Daniel really, though the happy ending is important.

The men are repugnant and weak, each acting as a tempting devil for the other. In cross-examination, Daniel describes each of the men as being cut or sawn in two. That is the experience of being overcome with a repulsive desire.

Two strong images to hold on to and use are:

  • the men being sawn in two by their weakness and their desire:
    “this repulsive desire that cuts me in two”
  • the root cause of the men’s sin, their failure to look to Heaven:
    “Let Me Look To Heaven” LML2H

Have the second pinned to the wall somewhere visible in my office. Be ready to use them both.

Counting the days #pornfree

I have stopped counting “days since” — in the sense that I am no longer using length of the “streak” as a motivator. Although I let my eyes linger over certain photos in the press longer than I should, there is no pull from the old ways. The habits are broken.

However, I have noticed that I am counting “days until”. As the lockdown rules are easing, there is now a real prospect of either me or my wife Sara spending a few days away (on business, or family responsibilities) — in other words, of me having a few evenings to myself.

I find myself looking forward to revisiting a particular old haunt. I feel confident that I’ll be able to indulge while S is away without losing self-control once she has returned. I’ll be able to start a new streak!

Who knows? I have surprised myself in the past when I have not taken advantage of this kind of opportunity.

How to avoid? Have other goals that are “as” attractive:

  • creative writing: write a story, or begin one
  • yoga blowout: do morning and evening sessions every day for sensual overload
  • prayer challenge: pray out loud

(I do know the “days since” count ofc, and log it in my diary: it’s 87.)

What harmony has Christ with Belial?

What harmony has Christ with Belial?

2 Corinthians 6:15

Even though I’ve been looking for it, it was still a shock when I found it, and not at all what I was expecting. This seems to be the only occurrence of “harmony” (συμφώνησις symphōnēsis, in the Greek) in the New Testament [1].

“What harmony has Christ with Belial?” is a fearsome admonition. Who or what is Belial? If Belial means idolators (so says my Big Book of the Bible), then the next verse is the challenge and reminder:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God.

2 Corinthians 6:16

[1] Using BibleHub as a search engine, and based on occurrences of “harmony” in the English translations. So, not a thorough search. English “harmony” is often translated from Greek words for things like togetherness or unity.

Harmony Q1 Review, Q2 Preview

Four Quarters:

  1. (Jan-Mar) Together
  2. (Apr-Jun) Melody
  3. (Jul-Sep) Matrimony
  4. (Oct-Dec) Desire

Q1 Together Review

This has felt like a very Lenten quarter, pruning, shedding. Though in some ways I feel less distracted and more focussed, I also feel rather bleak and empty. I am ready for Q2.

Of my concrete goals for the quarter:

I have ideas for Lent, I want to find some male Christian bloggers to follow, and some online Christian communities to join and take part in.

  • The Lent idea was a great success, and continues to be, starting on 18th Jan and still going strong (see the pornfree category).
  • The related livefree social network almost fit the bill perfectly as an online Christian community, but they only take payment by credit card, not paypal.

Bonus: (hé, harmony). A Confucian concept I only vaguely understand but which has been close to my heart for a few years. Came up while I was reading Faith after Doubt. I posted just once about this but hope to investigate further.

Q2 Melody Preview

Q2 has already started — with a failure: Easter churches are all locked down, so I didn’t have anything to attend. I have had my first vaccine this week so hope to venture into public spaces soon.

The point of the idea of melody is to be more active, to get away from the idea of harmony as “fitting in”.

  • be more outgoing I: There are some Christian neighbours: make friends with them.
  • be more outgoing II: … start talking more like a christian; have that Christian humanism book around.
  • write more: by the end of Q2 I’d like to be posting weekly.
  • looking forward to Q3, be more explicitly and physically affectionate with my wife — even if I’m not in the mood. Test the water.

Some reading goals:

  • reading through the Old Testament is going according to plan (reading Deuteronomy for April). Keep that up.
  • By “that Christian humanism book” I mean one of these books by Jan Zimmermann. Probably the Bonhoeffer as Incarnational Humanism seems like it might be controversial.

Faith after Doubt

Faith after Doubt, Brian Mclaren, 2021

review

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. I found it engaging and inspiring, even (or especially) where I had criticisms.

The core idea of the book, stated early on, is that doubt is not an enemy of faith but a kind of stimulus to faith’s development. Our faith develops and grows by transcending our doubts — not by ignoring them or by bulldozing over them, but by listening, engaging, finding the fit, and restructuring.

This made the book exciting to me from the beginning. The idea that “contradiction is the engine of development” and the importance of a developmental perspective are familiar to me from philosophy and psychology, and very much the way I approach things generally.

Many thanks to Lisa for bringing the book to my attention, and for reading it with me. Reading in company adds an extra set of dimensions to a text, and Lisa is such a generous and positive reader (as shown in the book reviews on her blog). Reading with Lisa helped me see that this story of development applied to my own journey of turning to Jesus.

The first half sets out the idea and outlines four stages through which our faith develops (slogans added by me):

  1. Simplicity: Off the shelf
  2. Complexity: My own personal Jesus
  3. Perplexity: The centre cannot hold
  4. Harmony: Love conquers all

A bit of description:

  1. An unthinking, implicit faith, often inherited or found. Perhaps not experienced as faith or belief, or even noticed at all. eg the atheist who follows an “everything is physics” viewpoint, without much of an idea of what the natural sciences actually do. The realisation that one’s beliefs are just that — beliefs — is the first step to the next stage.
  2. I have a set of beliefs and attitudes, and I notice how this relates to the set of beliefs and attitudes of my community, those of neighbouring communities, … I begin to pick and choose and make my own nest of beliefs. If the goal is to grow in faith, then this stage — of consciously or not selecting beliefs that are easy or convenient or useful to hold — is like putting up scaffolding or putting training wheels on a bike. The transition comes when we start to be self-conscious about this cherry-picking, and when we notice that … everyone is doing it!
  3. This stage seemed to be all transition, characterised by questions like, “is there a faith at all?”, and can lead to dead-ends like postmodernism and nihilism. The move up from here is more of a decision or an act of faith than in previous stages — “yes, there is a faith, and I will find it!”
  4. The realisation that love of God and love of neighbour take many forms, and a realisation that tensions, contradiction and resolution are all part of the process of building love and faith.

“Harmony” was a huge and pleasant surprise! And this stage in the book had a strong Christian humanist flavour, which made it even more attractive to me. In my late-pre-believer days I thought the humanism of Christianity one of its most attractive features. And “strong, confident humanism” is what I thought when reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Mclaren gives a clear disclaimer and caveat about “stage theories”. There are plenty of these in developmental psychology. The important thing is not the number of stages, what they’re called, or even their characteristics; the important thing is what drives development. Here, our exploration of our own faith, and testing it against the world, reveals contradictions and doubts that we overcome to strengthen and transform our faith.

In the second half, Mclaren explores the implications of this developmental idea — the tone is basically, how and why to get everyone up to stage 4.

This was a beautifully encouraging book to read in Q1 of my Year of Harmony. It seemed so rooted in many of the ways I think already. Along with the strong humanism with which Mclaren characterised Stage 4 Harmony, I felt it as a confirmation that I can make Christianity my intellectual home as well as a spiritual home.

A story like this has to be very abstract (in which case nobody will understand it, like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit), or it needs concrete examples. Mclaren gives plenty of stories, … unfortunately they are rather homogeneous. The stories also conflated a faith journey with a policial journey — essentially the adoption of the currently fashionable identity politics of BLM, LGBTQIA++, etc.

This will limit the appeal of the book, it confuses the issues (or at least begs the question), and it denigrates the unique perspective of Christianity and humanism, as if harmonising were merely about “fitting in”.

Ironically, Mclaren’s attitude to identity politics has hallmarks of Stage 1: adopting jargon (“white privilege”, prioritising gender over sex) uncritically and apparently unconsciously; and showing little familiarity with the product (how many Pride marches has he been on if he hasn’t seen all the corporate sponsorsip? Corporate marketing and HR departments love postmodernism and identity politics).

I found this exceedingly annoying while reading, and the book’s ideas will reach a narrower audience than they should because of it. However, I think it is a fairly superficial flaw.

next steps

  • I’d like to find some contemporary “Stage 4” Christian voices who also have “Stage 4” politics. For example, critiquing identity politics from “the left” and/or from a Christian and humanist perspective.
  • Christianity and humanism. Follow up this theme. eg Tom Holland’s “Dominion” caught my eye when it came out. I’ve been reading a chapter on Levinas in a book by Jens Zimmermann called Humanism and Religion. It was a good chapter and he’s written a few attractive books recently on the theme, one of which I shall read soon. eg as well as the above:

Day 54 #pornfree

It is now 54 days since I have looked at any porn or masturbated. That’s less than two months, and the new state doesn’t feel entirely secure, but I think this is the longest time I have Gone Without since the late 1980s.

I shan’t crow about this very frequently, but this battle is one of the main points of the blog.

In general, I feel much more clear-headed and directed — though life’s ups and downs are as daunting as ever. Perhaps the biggest change is that I’m more careful that my downtime is nourishing rather than draining.

I’ve never stopped lusting after my wife Sara. The challenges of showing affection, and of encouraging shows of affection, remain.

I have not been good at avoiding pictures of attractive women. Quite the opposite. At times I am leaning heavily on the narrow definition of pornography and going looking. That is a weakness I want to put a stop to. Perhaps find something else mildly attractive, engaging and addictive instead (eg do a quick Duolingo exercise).

The real test will be when either Sara or I go away for a few nights, and I have some evenings alone. I can easily imagine spending some of those evenings “catching up”. … but that day can worry about itself.

In the meantime build my strength and enjoy my freedom.

和而不同 “with but not and”

In Confucianism, 和 (hé) harmony, is an important central concept. This post is first in an occasional series exploring 和 in Confucianism, and how that can inspire my own search for harmony.

The phrase “和而不同” (hé ér bù tóng) could be literally translated as “with but not and”, or more helpfully as “harmonious but not identical”.

Much is made of the difficulty of translating Classical Chinese. A large part of the problem is its extremely telegraphic nature (think shorthand, pre-smartphone text messages, or shopping lists) — problematic especially when the target language is the extremely loquacious style of anglophone intellectual writing.

The phrase is from 13:23 in the Analects:

子曰:“君子和而不同,小人同而不和。”

zǐ yuē: “jūn zǐ hé ér bù tóng, xiǎo rén tóng ér bù hé.”

Zi said: “noble persion harmonious but not identical, small person identical but not harmonious.”

The 君子 (jūn zǐ) noble or exemplary person is the ideal human we should strive to emulate. The 小人 (xiǎo rén) small person (petty might be a good translation) is the opposite. These two characters reappear often in the Analects.

Three real translations:

The Master said: “The noble man is in harmony but does not follow the crowd. The inferior man follows the crowd, but is not in harmony.”
(acmuller.net)

The Master said: “The gentleman, although he behaves in a conciliatory manner, does not make his views coincide with those of others; the small man, although he makes his views coincide with those of others, does not behave in a conciliatory manner.”
(OUP)

The Master said: “Exemplary persons seek harmony not sameness; petty persons, then, are the opposite.”
(Penguin)

I think the OUP translation is embarrassingly bad. The Penguin translation is crisp, but in fairness I should say that it has a footnote that is three and a half pages long. I like the Penguin book. It’s also in parallel so you can see how much shorter the Chinese is:

Readers of the Bible will be familiar with problems of translations, and the strangeness of ancient languages.

Harmonious togetherness is not sameness, not an army of identical people. Harmony is a set of differences which together make up something pleasing and powerful. A new body, not just a bigger louder body.

I think of the body of Christ as a harmony composed of all of us together — a complex harmony with some dissonances as we grow.

Leviticus

So many rules! But as they pile up — rules for diet, medicine, commerce, agriculture — the picture that builds is one of care for the health of the community. It’s a community of a particular kind, with a particular character:

  • Care for outsiders – 23:22
    “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.”

  • Reward planning – 25:20-21
    20 And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ 21 I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years.

This verse — however obvious and true to the story — really shocked me and I couldn’t help taking it personally. Bit mean to call All That “the land of Egypt” but in this personal sense the verse is very true as well.

  • 26:13
    I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.
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