So why all the legal stuff? I seem to be posting little else these days; I’ve even started a separate blog, devoted to one specific corner of legal theory. Am I a lawyer? (No, I’m a lecturer in criminology.) Have I got a legal background? (No.) Is it connected with my work? (Well… no, not really. Not just yet.)
So what is the fascination of this (very specialised) field of study? And what has it got to do with my actual academic career – particularly bearing in mind that I began this career fairly late on (it’s my third, roughly speaking), and it took me several years of hard work to get across the starting line? It’s taken me long enough to get to here, in other words, so why am I digging over there?
I’ve been wondering about this, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Here’s the first instalment, at least; the rest will appear on another blog.
BROD: Then there’s no hope?
KAFKA: Plenty of hope, endless amounts of hope! But not for us.
It begins, as far as I can make out, with damnation. Or rather, with preterition, which isn’t quite the same idea (although it does end up in the same place). My mother’s parents were devout members of the Plymouth Brethren. My grandfather served in the First World War (having lied about his age so as to enlist), and sold tracts from trench to trench – “Here’s good news for you!”. The Plymouth Brethren were an offshoot of the nineteenth-century Great Revival, which was massively influential in the US (and Northern Ireland), but didn’t make much of a mark in Britain. As such they can be classed as charismatic millennial Calvinists. As Calvinists, they believe that only certain people are saved – are already saved; have always already been saved; will, when the roll is called up yonder, always already have been saved. The Elect – the chosen ones – are, were, have always already been selected for salvation. This is not because of any merit on their part (for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God) but by the unfathomable workings of divine grace. If you’re not one of the Elect, then you are (will be, have always been, will always have been going to be) preterite – literally ‘left behind’. (For those Christians who believe in the Rapture – a group which doesn’t include the PBs – preterition means precisely that: post-Rapture, life on Earth will carry on as before but without those who were saved, and with no possibility of salvation for the rest of us.) As millennialists (technically pre-millennialists) they believe that the Second Coming is due any day now – we know neither the day nor the hour, obviously, but that’s no reason to suppose that it won’t be in our lifetimes. (At the time my mother knew them, at least, the Brethren took this tenet of the faith deadly seriously; weddings among Brethren used the formulation “until death do you part or until the Lord do come“.) As charismatics, finally, the Brethren believe that God is still pouring His Holy Spirit out on the right people; to put it another way, they believe (with John the Evangelist) that believers must be born of the spirit, and that being born for a second time is something you will know about when it happens. There is no way of knowing that your spiritual experience is in fact the prompting of God’s irresistible grace – to know for certain would mean that you could know you were one of the elect, which is by definition unknowable (Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?). But it would seem like a pretty strong pointer, particularly ex negativo: anyone who had never had any kind of spiritual experience could reasonably assume that, on the state of the evidence, Election was not for them.
As a child, my mother firmly believed in all of this, including the imminence of the end of the world. She also knew that she personally had never had a conversion experience, which suggested rather strongly that she would not be saved. One unfortunate man at her parents’ Meeting believed that he, personally, was irrevocably damned – he’d committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, the only sin that cannot be forgiven (nobody knows what this is). My mother’s situation, as a child, wasn’t much better. She believed – she knew – that there was an Elect; that only the Elect would be saved; and that she wasn’t in it. I’ve been critical in the past of the assumption that religious beliefs have fact-like truth-values, but in this case we are talking about statements which my mother took to be true on a simple “the book is on the table” level – or, worse, which she took to be incontrovertibly true (“the book is, always has been and always will have been on the table”). She told me once that she used to pray to God not to roll up the heavens like a scroll just yet – maybe she wasn’t going to be saved, but could the Lord at least wait until her younger sister was old enough to be reborn? This plan to buy the sinful world a bit of time unravelled when her little sister – who liked to keep her parents happy and didn’t think about these things quite so deeply – cheerfully announced that she had been born again. I’m not sure what my mother used to bargain with God after that.
Life in a tiny Protestant sect in south London in the early 1930s seems a long way away, not least because it is. My mother got out of the PBs as soon as she could; for most of her life she was a member of the Church of England, which (from personal experience) is a much more comfortable religion to live in: it allows you to worry about the great mysteries of the faith, while reassuring you that things are probably going to work out all right. But I think that basic mindset had taken root quite early on – the conviction that you’re not good enough because you’re you (and vice versa). What a terrible way to bring up a child, I used to think – what an awful, lonely, self-doubting mindset to pass on – and these days I think something pretty similar. Feel like some people have all the luck? Guess what: some people quite genuinely do have all the luck, and you’re not one of them (people like us never are). And it’s no use complaining, that’s just the way the world is – for you, and for me, at any rate. She never actually told me we were totally depraved, but it amounted to much the same thing. In fairness she did find her way to a kind of grace, or at least an acceptance of the possibility of grace, in later life. There’s hope for everyone, perhaps, after all.