Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Whatever’s the opposite of writers’ block I’m suffering from it. I just seem to keep on writing and writing without much editing capacity and the results are not so good.
The following is one of several posts I’ve been working on and they all seem to have no end in sight. It’s scaring me. So I’m posting in the hope I break the trend. I don’t think it’s too painful to read but you could skip to the “aside” at the end if your short on time and you’d get the gist.
One of the perennial challenges of discussing spirituality with other people is when you encounter the person who expects you to treat their experience of the spiritual as evidence – the testimony as proof.
Just the fact's, Mam.
I’m fairly liberal when it comes to what constitutes evidence; I think we should compose our opinion of the world and god based on our experiences even if they aren’t repeatable under controlled conditions. Other peoples’ experiences that aren’t repeatable or even independently observable should also be allowed to influence our world view. That doesn’t mean that there is no standard to testimony at all however. It doesn’t mean someone can make any kind of assertion as their experience and call it proof.

If you want a testimony to be credible and evidential to other people you need to actually talk in facts. These facts are not interpretations of events but the “stuff” that leads into the interpretation. This includes subjective feelings, heck it can even include thoughts but those thoughts are treated as events. Here’s a basically decent testimony of a premonition complete with feelings and thoughts as events;
“I was walking along the beach on a sunny day and I felt a cold chill along my spine. Although I felt fine I had a thought pop into my head that I could die soon. I decided not to go swimming. Later I read the reports of shark attacks that day.”
Because the testimony stuck to facts we can consider them and come to our own conclusion. We can also spot missing details. An obvious question that comes to mind is whether there are frequent shark attacks at that beach or not. Another obvious question is whether the person avoids swimming for fear of death most days or just that day. Is this the one in a million premonitions that came true? Personally I don’t believe in premonitions however if there were rarely any shark attacks at that beach and if this person regularly swam there then this testimony would weaken my disbelief.
Here is a terrible example of a testimony;
“I have experienced Gods touch, his love and his mercy over and over again. Recieving his Holy Ghost, and being renewed are times I will never forget. Being able to be in his prescence should never be taken for granted. God has blessed me tremendously as a young person...” from
This person has just strung together a series of conclusions with none of the “stuff” that led into them. “I have experienced God’s touch” and “God has blessed me” are interpretations of facts. Those facts may have been the sensation of a touch or a lift in mood or a run of good luck but the attribution of them to God is the conclusion. Jumping to conclusions adamantly and repeatedly is not good testimony.
I’ve included a decent testimony about a psychic phenomenon and a poor testimony about Christianity deliberately (and without difficulty). This is because a particular type of Christianity is the religion par excellence for both privileging the testimony as proof and doing it badly. This particular type of Christianity is labelled Evangelical; those churches of the Wesleyan legacy and the American revivalist traditions and their numerous offshoots. Due to their prominence in America these groups have had profound influence across the western world so much so that many denominations outside of a strict category of Evangelist contain members with a similar flavour.
The evangelical tradition is the inspiration for many amazing elements of modern Christianity. Although other Christians also opposed European slavery it was evangelicals who turned the tide. Many of the suffragettes were evangelicals. The Salvation Army is also born of the evangelical movement as was Alcoholics Anonymous, the YMCA, the social work profession, many Christian peace movements and so on. Evangelicals have challenged other Christians to roll up their sleeves and involve themselves in the need around them. Evangelical churches reversed a nineteenth century European trend that church was for the wealthy by growing new churches among the poor. In the case of African Americans and Hispanics, along with the missionary movement in Asia and Africa (a mostly evangelical enterprise) this has challenged the ethnic and geographical centre of Christianity as European.
The evangelicals also expanded Christian liturgy. Most Protestant Hymns were just reworked psalms prior to Evangelicals. Pop music and church music were very separate. An evangelical liberality in worship styles brought forth both Amazing Grace, and O When the Saints Go Marching In. Today Christian Heavy Metal, Rock, Folk and R&B music all owe their acceptance to evangelicals. On the one hand Evangelicals gave us the alter call, estatic worship and mega-churches. On the other the small home church and the pub church go back to them too.
Lastly personal testimony as evidence is also a legacy of this movement. Due to its evangelical nature (which means to spread the gospel) non-christians encounter personal testimony more so than quieter expressions of Christianity. Some people first encounter it on t.v. on many Christian panel shows or when approached by a street preacher or at a drop-in youth group. In such cases there may be no other knowledge of Christianity to compare it to even when the viewer converts. Subsequently modern generations of Christians see personal testimony as a core element of Christianity even though it plays little part in Orthodox, Catholic, High Anglican, Lutheran and Presbyterian traditions historically.
Personal testimony is so central in evangelical Christianity it can rival and exceed the importance of scripture. From;
“Skeptics may debate the validity of Scripture or argue the existence of God, but no one can deny your personal experiences with him. When you tell your story of how God has worked a miracle in your life, or how he has blessed you, transformed you, lifted and encouraged you, perhaps even broken and healed you, no one can argue or debate it. You go beyond the realm of knowledge into the realm of relationship with God.” (Their emphasis)
That’s an insanely privileged place for personal testimony to hold. I’m not even sure what the last sentence means exactly but you know it’s good. I can’t think of any other faith outlook that puts personal testimony on such a high pedestal except the equally conversion orientated Seventh Day Adventists or interestingly aggressive atheism.
As for doing it badly Christians who testify seem to suffer under an obligation to say that there is nothing metaphorical at all about their meeting Jesus. Some will tell you it was a real meeting of a real person, as real as they are meeting you. Those people will then say that Jesus entered their heart. Now either one of those statements is false or there would have been a god-awful mess. This obligation to effectively lie is the consequence of first of all the privileging of personal testimony amongst evangelical Christians. A personal meeting with God can in some churches be the difference between a real Christian and a pending one. This can even be referred to as a second baptism (baptism being a Christians ritual introduction to membership) so that without such a meeting you are only a nominal member. This pressures an evangelical Christian to amplify the personal basis of their faith.
I also think there is a wider cultural bias about the right basis for belief that Christians must contend with and that newer denominations are themselves riddled with. Perhaps it’s a by-product of the cultural reach of American individualism or maybe it’s a consequence of empiricism as the default way of knowing; maybe it’s the inevitable effect of Protestantism feeding back into itself; maybe it’s just diversity in the spiritual marketplace and our consumer role in it. Whatever the cause, we seem to expect people to believe in God for unique individual reasons in a way that was less common for people only a few generations ago. In addition this experience must be absolutely non-metaphorical. It must conform to direct sensory perception. This certainly afflicts the newest faith on the block, popular atheism, which equally treats a personal and empirical experience of God as the sole legitimate basis for belief. Christians who rise to this criticism of their faith are obliged to produce such an experience of God.
Personal testimony is also a key element of the other new faith which competes in the western world with Christianity –New Age beliefs. The problem for Christianity (as I see it) is those phenomenons included as New Age are just so much more amenable to this kind of evidential testimonial treatment. Whether it’s a premonition as testified to above, or psychic pets or the recollection of past lives these are phenomenons which are happily reducible to facts. They are discrete chains of cause and effect distinct from every day life with each link able to be described independently of the observer.
In fact New Age beliefs seem to me to be exactly those aspects selected from a range of broader traditions which are amenable to evidential testimony. Crystal healing are removed from any broader understanding of how spiritual and physical overlap. The I Ching is used to divine without a broader appreciation of Chinese thought. The New Age movement takes the rituals of Paganism or Wicca and throws them into a toolkit of “useful” things from completely different worlds such as an Egyptian motif tarot deck. Each selection though is pseudo-scientific enough to provide the basis for evidentiary testimony.
The experience of sinfulness and salvation, of changes in what seems important and insight into one’s own behaviour are never going to fit neatly into the sort of testimony that constitutes evidence because these are not independent facts occurring at discrete moments in time in chains of cause and effect. This may be why such elements of faith outlooks like Wicca are left out of New Age toolkits. Perhaps this is also why when such Christian experiences are competing with new age stories then the metaphorical language which sums up the whole experience has to be turned into a series of mundane facts, e.g. I met Jesus. He spoke to me. This would explain why such testimonies are so hollow of detail such as the sound of Gods voice or where they touched you; because these mundane facts are really metaphors.
Ultimately if Christianity remains committed to evidentiary testimony it will evolve Christianity into the type of faith that evidentiary testimony can express. Healings, prophetic messages (inspired premonitions) and full sensory experiences of a walking, talking Jesus will be more central to the faith because that is what can be talked about in a testimonial format. In those churches which most think of testimony as evidence we can already see this trend. It’s a sort of New Ageing of Christianity just as other faith outlooks have suffered.
On my very first post on this blog I expressed an interest in hearing about people’s experience of God. That interest remains and I’ve certainly heard a few experiences since then. I’ve written this post partly because I’m getting tired of slippery language that insists on being taking seriously without a standard for what evidential testimony is. But more so because I don’t like what the trend towards that language is doing to Christianity, a faith tradition I admire.
There are amazing stories to be shared by Christians. There are lives lived differently in response to a big idea like love one another and a reliance on faith to maintain that commitment. There is the feeling of coming home to the faith, of being disconnected without it and of understanding oneself best in the language of Christianity. I am more interested in these stories than those miraculous evidentiary moments that some seem to think an atheist needs to hear. But if you do insist on telling me that a corporeal Jesus held your hand then I will expect you to remember left or right.
An aside...(probably the best bit)
The Gospels contain a fascinating story about an apostle who needed personal physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas is called the doubting apostle but it would be fairer to say that he is disbelieving. Without any doubt at all Thomas thinks that the other apostles are talking rubbish when they say that Jesus is alive. And Thomas has a pretty high standard of proof before he’ll change his mind.
Jesus then appears to the apostles, in a locked room none the less, and in accord with Thomas’ demand for proof places Thomas hand in the wound in his side.
Here’s the thing; I identify with Thomas. I like a guy who needs to experience something for himself all bloody and mucky too. In fact the comments about atheists and their privileging of personal experience in this piece are about myself. However I also think that this need is warping Christianity by producing false testimonies of Thomas like experiences. On the one hand I won’t believe until my hand in is in his side. On the other I don’t think Christians should make that the focus of their faith. Am I having my cake and eating it too here? What do I really want Christians to do?  Whatever it is I hope they don’t care enough to jump to it.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Don't Diet, Riot."

I have a t-shirt in my closet from the last decade. Its a little paint stained now. It’s from the RMIT Tafe Womens Collective and bears the slogan “Don’t Diet, Riot”. Even at the time I got the t-shirt I could see the irony to it. After all, I knew a few people inclined to riot that might have benefitted from changing their diet of a litre of coffee for breakfast first.
The point of the slogan is to challenge how much energy women in particular are encouraged to devote on self-change rather than social change. Back in those Uni days I was involved in a lot of efforts to produce social change. I organised as well as attended rallies, I helped create free-food networks. I published zines, postered and otherwise proselytised. I took a bucket of chalk into the city regularly and encouraged people to take up temporary graffiti. I was a member of collectives who occupied buildings and built tent-cities. I even joined the Greens and stood as a candidate for a seat they would never win; It allowed me to talk to all the high schools in my local area about workers rights and feminism.
I often saw and seized opportunities to demonstrate collective action and build solidarity in everyday situations; the dole que or the supermarket. I identified as an activist before anything else. I was radical but committed to engaging with society not separation. My final student placement was at Centrelink and I was employing action research principles to engage young service users. I wasn’t just an angry lefty. I was an optimistic anarchist.
Then I got beat up at a protest. By police and pretty badly. (September the 11th a year before the trade towers fell) Further to cover up their crime they charged me with assault. Afterwards poorly aware of how badly this had affected me I pretty much trashed my health and a long term relationship I was in. This certainly replaced my optimism about activism with fear. I never knew the readiness of the state to turn to violence to serve the powerful so well before. It wasn’t that which really ended my activism however. It was a feeling of the uselessness of the “movement” in helping me hold it together and eventually get back to some healthy place.
The post-protest support networks seemed to be organised by and for various political factions. I was never a member of those. I felt unknown. One activist “ally” even refused to hand over photos of my injuries for the court case because they were her property. The only people who I felt stood by me were my real friends, many but not all of whom were fellow activists, and family. Subsequently I felt and still feel that I was naive in my belief in ideological solidarity. If family is blood to friendships’ water then ideology is as thin as air.
After the court case died down I was still angry and suffering for it. Even more than trusting family and friends I had to conduct some serious self-change. I went to counselling. I cut down caffeine, did some relaxation techniques, worked on my sleeping and (with the assistance of my elder brother in particular) paid attention to my diet. Perhaps to the mortification of Tafe Women’s Collectives I even made sure I looked after my appearance. These things made a life saving difference. It was good dieting not rioting that I needed then.
When I felt well enough I did re-engage with society but it wasn’t as an activist. Although I now had a social work degree my self-confidence was still too low for paid work so I took some volunteer work at a drug and alcohol detox. A year or so later this turned into a job. I remember talking to some young firebrand of a uni student about this time. She saw me as burnt out and didn’t want to hear when I said “I just feel it’s healthier for me to be working on the individual level at the moment.” She couldn’t see that the individual level and the social level are connected, that the one forms the other. She would be even more unimpressed with me now.
Now I’m a dad. I’ve worked in a few places, more detox work, in prison briefly, with street-involved youth in Toronto, at a supported accommodation for people with mental health issues, but I was very happy to give it up to be a dad. My partner has worked full time for almost two years now and aside from a day a week of family day  care started six months ago I’ve been the stay-at-home dad (horrible term really) since our kid was one and half. Further we have no t.v. and I hardly ever read the paper. We live in Bendigo. At the last election I handed out how to votes for the Greens with a stunning lack of knowledge of the issues. This is really the apex of my withdrawal from social activism and my involvement with society writ small.
So why am I telling you all this? Well I asked for some blog post ideas because the piece I was working on started to look a little crappy. I got two suggestions. One about what Democracy means and another that asked “How important is physical occupation as opposed to conceptual heft/virtual profile etc. to the Occupy movements success?” Where I’m coming from at the moment I don’t have a lot to say that easily addresses these topics. Both are interesting but I look at them sideways in a way that some people might feel misses the point. I thought I should explain why I want to speak from this place instead of any other. I’m not against big movement, public activism but it doesn’t capture my heart either. I still remember its uselessness in my hour of need.
That said I often feel dissatisfaction with my almost complete disengagement with social activism. As the kid gets older I want to reconnect with making the world a better place alongside other people rather than at home one load of washing at a time (which reminds me). This blog is actually a part of that.  I’m also contemplating chicken co-ordinator at the kids kinder.
You can look forward therefore to a few more political posts mixed in with the philosophy and theology. I even have some thoughts about the specific topics suggested to me; about 1,400 words worth at last count but I’ll let my sexy editor review it first.
Until then, eat well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I don't exist.

Before you read the following please read this particularly if you support marriage equality for same sex couples (I’ll be starting my posts with this link for the next while.)

At a recent talk on Hindu philosophy at Bendigo library the statement was made that one thing for certain is that we exist. Each of us can begin a philosophical enquiry with “I am”.
I objected in a way that probably didn’t make a ton of sense at the time. Fortunately I have a blog to explain myself properly in. Score!
The speaker at the library is a Hindu nun, Sister Nivedita Chaitanya and she gave a great address – calm and clear with well illustrated points. It went over-time but I don’t think anyone minded so interesting was the discussion.
The point of the talk was to illustrate one aspect of Hindu philosophy; we (along with everything else in existence) are all the same basic stuff, the same “pure being” with our differences being merely form.   Further the form is illusory and believing in it is damaging. The “reality” is the pure being we share with everything and we should aspire to know it.
Now Hindu philosophy is more complicated than one paragraph but it’s not a terrible summary. In Hinduism our self or soul is called Atman and the divine is Brahman. The point of Hinduism is “moksha” or release and liberation from “samsara”, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Philosophical Hinduism would tend to say that Atman is Brahman – the two are the same. Perhaps not the same exactly but Atman is “in” Brahman like salt in salty water. They are indivisible. Realising this truth is the key to moksha.
I feel like I’m raining on an ecstasy trip but I just don’t share the sentiment that our form conceals a true self we share with everything. I applaud how we-are-all-one inspires people to live in harmony with others and the environment but it’s hardly so profoundly “true” that I feel any desire to nod sagely at its wisdom. Allow me to explain. It’s a round-about journey to my point but please travel with me.
First find me one thing that doesn’t have form. Find me a person without a body; find me a plant that doesn’t have structure, an element that isn’t an arrangement of molecules, an atom that isn’t an arrangement of particles, a particle that isn’t fundamentally an arrangement of energy. There are none.
It is only on a completely basic level of energy and vibration that we are all the same becomes any kind of physical fact. On the level where everything is shit boringly virtually nothing then I am one with the tree, the stars and your momma. But... do I care?
Forms make us what we are. Form is what makes water wet, a carrot delicious, and shit stink. Without form you have nothing. Well nothing of any interest anyway. You certainly don’t think and feel without form.
Perhaps you think you do. Perhaps you think that somehow your consciousness can exist without a form like a body. If so you have no hard evidence for that position. There are ghosts and there is astral projection but they are at best unverified. I however have oodles of repeatable evidence that consciousness is dependent on your body. Skip sleep or drink alcohol and observe your thinking change. Have you ever been under a heavy general anaesthetic? Affecting brain chemistry changes your consciousness repeatedly and reliably. Isn’t it a fairly intuitive leap to assume that if the body was truly broken that consciousness itself would not survive?
Bah, who says we have to be so scientific. If you have experienced ghosts and astral projection then fair enough the idea of an independent soul is consistent with that and I won’t argue with your experience. If like me, you haven’t then it strikes me that assuming your consciousness is divisible from it’s form just seems odd. It’s odd in terms of how we know life; consciousness is intimately dependant on what happens to our body.
Now the idea that we are some sort of little self piloting a body on planet earth with the capacity to jettison ourself from the craft at death is a mischaracterisation by simplification of Hindu philosophy. Exactly what of us is the Atman that is Brahman is the complexity. So we may say that memory has a physical basis evidenced by Alztheimers but maybe memory isn’t Atman/Braman. We may say that pregnancy changes our moods and tastebuds but those things are not Atman/Braman either. The little self inside, the true self, the soul, is maybe not even a thinking entity.
All I’m contending is that whatever’s left is boring. My soul without memories, moods and tastes is such an abstract concept that sure I can share it with another person, a chicken or even a chair (as the talk suggested).  Yet this won’t be prompting any recognition of myself in the other. There just isn’t any of my self left in that soul.
So what is the reason for this enduring belief in the soul? I think that most people must experience themself as an enduring and stable personality in some way despite what I’ve described as the relationship between the body and the mind. When Sister Nivedita Chaitanya said we all know that we exist, there were murmurs of agreement with this statement. I suspect I sounded like a nut to some people when I said that I know no such thing.
I concede that I talk about myself as an enduring concept. “I” am all over this essay after all. But that is a convention of language. The way we talk about seeing doesn’t prove that sight issues from our eyes like a cartoon gaze beam. Nor does it prove that images are instantaneous and light has no speed because our language implies it’s so. When I say “Bugger me,” I don’t mean it either. Perhaps people fall for language as truth?
Still the audience nodding in agreement did seem to be reflecting on a deep inner knowledge of their soul’s existence not just being caught up in word games. Maybe at the end of the day I should concede that I just don’t get it, that Hindu philosophy or other ideas of the soul captures many people’s reality but it misses mine completely.  
I experience myself like the foam at the crest of a wave. Whenever I reflect on myself I don’t see myself at all. All I see is what I was a moment ago. I am therefore always a “was” ending and never an “am” being. I live perpetually a moment after that which “was me"’s death – in that death, by that death even. I am not that thought, that feeling, that sensation or this sentence but I am not anything else either. This is my lived experience. I don’t exist.

The real meaning of Christmas.

Before you read the following please read this if you support marriage equality for same sex couples. (For a while I’ll post this link at the top of each new post)

Since before record, people across northern Europe celebrated the coldest and longest night of the year with a gathering together of family. Scarce food was shared in a wintery land. This was midwinter, late in December.
Stories of death and rebirth were told around campfires. Surrounded by what seemed to be a dead landscape of barren branches and iced rivers these stories wrought a fragile hope and instilled courage. The fir tree with its evergreen foliage was a potent symbol for these people for its signs of life did not die.
Two thousand and ten years ago a child was born in a manger in Bethlehem a dry hot place that never knew snow or ice. This child was to grow up to be called Messiah and Prince of Peace. They told their small band of followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. They preached of a loving, forgiving God. They spoke of the resurrection of the dead.
One thousand and seven hundred years ago the Roman Empire adopted the symbols though not the content of this now called Christian faith. This Empire maintained its armies and its conquering agenda but now carried at its head the cross instead of the eagle.
This Roman Empire had previously marched armies into northern Europe but was never fully able to subdue its people. Now it sent forth Christian missionaries. Wealth and power were offered to those leaders who converted from pagan faiths to Christianity, particularly the bloody and authoritarian Christianity which served the interests of Rome. Swear fealty to the Bishop of Rome (and the child of Bethlehem) and you will be rewarded was the promise wrapped in a garland of divine salvation.
The pagan celebrations however were strongly adhered to amongst the people. The growing Roman Catholic Church struggled to outlaw these feasts. So they chose to replace them with Christian ones on the same dates and with the same symbols; the egg for Easter, the fir tree for Christmas.
Today a southern continent that has traditionally known eight indigenous seasons and that in many parts has no winter at all now shares a holiday on the 25th December with most of the world. Complete with an introduced fir tree this holiday recognises the birth of the child who became a messiah of peace before becoming a champion for conquerors and the absent ruler of an authoritarian church.
Just like before recorded times, families gather to celebrate. Now for the most part in Australia they share in plenty – great swathes of food are wasted every year, children almost overdose on candy. The fear of the cold death around us and the need to cling to any hope we can to get through it is gone.
Or is it? Is there another “death” for this old midwinter rite to observe? We hear all the time that the “real meaning” of Christmas is dead or dying. Could it be then that the cold death around us may not be a natural winter but a spiritual one? Christmas can be seen as it was before Rome converted it. It can be used to mark the darkest hour in a time of death; rampant consumerism, gross kitch, gluttony, shabbiness, sparkle and spectacle distracting from an absence of character. Christmastime itself serves as spiritual winter.
But always fear’s greatest hour is hope’s greatest hour too. We can share what little we have of spiritual wealth at Christmas time. We share it with family and friends. The boldest of us share some with strangers. Still even to just remember family in a world in which every “contact” and “network” we have is mercantile is a radical act. At Christmas we can look for and hold up the evergreen; those parts of our culture that haven’t succumbed to spiritual death.
Paradoxically in this new spiritual winter the child who became the conqueror’s totem is a better pagan symbol of hope than the fir tree. Our venerance of the child is a something of life that hasn’t been killed even by it’s use to justify killing. Why? Because the child in the manger has a majesty in poverty which endures despite a season of overtime, shopping (and for children just getting.) The child speaks to the worth of us without what we have. There isn’t any contrast between the fir tree and Christmastimes’ spiritual winter. It is just one more thing to buy and to decorate gaudily.
Let’s huddle together in the spiritual cold of this peak shopping season. In a pagan spirit let’s pay attention to the child in the hay. The real meaning of Christmas is that we are never completely lost; snow cannot bury us and capitalism cannot totally commodify us. That’s the message that midwinter has always held. Everything just looks dead. Look there is still life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Marriage discrimination: Not in our name.

To the extent that opposite sex couples are stakeholders in the same sex marriage debate we just arent being well represented.

The official Christian lobby groups would have the government believe the majority of opposite sex couples see their relationships as radically different from loving same-sex relationships and under threat from marriage equality. I see my relationship as fundamentally the same as a loving same sex relationship (as do many Christians in fact).

Please add your name to the comments section below if you are a) in a heterosexual relationship b) married or contemplating marriage and c) in agreeance with the statement (obviously).

Our marriage happens to be (or will be) heterosexual but that's not the point of our marriage.
What really defines (or will define) our marriage is love and committment not being man and woman.
You won't be defending our marriages definition by excluding same sex couples from marriage.
In fact marriage equality allows our definition of marriage to be finally fully recognized alongside others. In a multicultural society that should be our right and the right of same sex couples.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Discussing Poverty and Greed with the Bendigo Baptists.

Recently I attended an event at Bendigo Baptist Church. It was part of a seminar series they’re holding with that weeks’ topic on “Greed and Poverty”. 

The worship side of things –a rock band for Jesus and the high tech, big stage prayer and praise left me unmoved. For one thing the hymns all proclaimed both a perfect god and a perfect worship of them; like “Jesus answers all my needs” and “I love you, God, more than anything else.” 

I had to wonder if this congregation ever sung a hymn like “Jesus, you’re driving me insane with your mysterious ways. I wonder if you’re really there at all”. If not, how many Christians leave church feeling like pretenders to this perfect faith? Although the grammar of these hymns was descriptive the content was prescriptive of an extremely (impossibly?) high standard of devotion.

The seminar itself however was humbling and inspiring. The panel were people involved in living out different responses to poverty with an approach of following the Christian gospel as they understood it. I was particularly impressed by the work of the Slatter family in giving to a Fijian community, the village of Rukurukulevu. They support schooling, including child and adult education, food hampers, toys for kids and small business sewing classes.

In this post I’d like to tease out what the panel highlighted as aspects of the Christian response to Greed and Poverty. I’m going to try and pull it together into a consistent philosophy/theology because I think it’s a fascinating approach to the issue. Also this way any Christian readers can challenge my comprehension of the matter.  

1.       1. Wealth is more dangerous than poverty.

Christianity has historically included views that poverty is spiritually “disabled” in some way. The Protestant work ethic grew out of Calvinism and is based on the idea that wealth is a seal of election while poverty is a mark of God’s disapproval. Putting this relationship in a different order Christian welfare organisations like the Salvation Army have in the past seen poverty as a consequence of immorality while wealth or at least a middle class existence is the direct result of honest living. These aren’t especially Christian views however. They crop up inside Hinduism, Confucianism, New Age philosophies and pretty much any religious (or irreligious) tradition somewhere.

The panel here wanted to correct this view with what they saw as a scripturally authentic opposite. The story of Jesus telling the rich man to sell all that he has and distribute it to the poor (Luke 18:18-25) was shared at the beginning of the discussion. This was interpreted by the panel as reversing the usual notion of riches being blessings. Jesus says “For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:24)

It’s important to distinguish the panel’s attitude from one of asceticism. The problem they were identifying is not wealth in isolation but wealth in relation to others. There was no sense amongst the panel that luxuries were problematic in the way that we would understand as monkish. Ipods, fancy coffee and fashionable clothes were treated as reasonable objects of enjoyment in themselves. The problem was the enjoyment of luxuries while other people went without their most basic needs.

2.       2. It’s all Gods anyway.

The primary reason why the enjoyment of luxuries while other people go without necessities is problematic was expressed as “all of creation belongs to God to be shared with our brothers and sisters.”

This statement’s first element “that all of creation belongs to God” was contrasted with the idea that some of creation at least is owned (and owed) to me. My property is mine is obviously a core principle of capitalism. The panel pushed a consistent message of human stewardship but never ownership of creation.

The panel weren’t challenging legal rights to private property. Instead they were arguing that those legal rights can’t be moral rights for Christians. Christians can’t say to any claim on their wealth, “that’s mine.” This includes claims on their wealth from people in need.

3.       3. All other people are your family.

The second element in this statement; that creation is to be “shared with ones brothers and sisters” is what makes the claim from people in need righteous. It is why this claim outweighs the competing claim we have for luxuries. 

This is a notion of family that is non-immediate. It is a consequence of God’s “Fatherly” love for all humanity which creates firstly a special status for human beings and secondly a fraternal relationship between us all.

This universal family has not always been the Christian interpretation of scripture. There is a theology which disagrees strongly with “universal salvation” and asserts that Jesus came to save a few and not all. These few, the elect, have been set aside for salvation since before time just as others have been set aside for judgement. 
 Any common language definition would struggle to say how God “loves” those set aside for judgement or how they could be seen as part of a family with those saved. In this limited definition of family “one another” in Christs’ command to love one another can even be understood as meaning other members of the elect only or at least primarily.

This is the dark side of Christianity which has not only preserved the wealth of some over the needs of others but has justified the atrocities of the crusades, the brutal colonisation of South America, the attempted extermination of Germany’s Jews and hate crimes against gays and lesbians.

The panel at Bendigo Baptist Church didn’t express a limited definition of God’s family. No-one in the audience asked them about it. In hindsight I’d love to know if they have even encountered this theology.

4.       4. Intimacy is key.

A limited view of Gods family is a difficult theology to maintain in the intimate presence of those excluded by it. As are the beliefs that the poor deserve their fate or that the wealthy are more moral. The panel members all talked about getting to know those in situations of need and being in community with them as a key part of their path to share more.

This desire for intimacy with one’s brothers and sisters is a logical part of the notion of family. On a superficial level we can acknowledge its value as motivation for anyone sharing their wealth with others but for a Christian its motivation is especially valuable because it is directly attacking the core problem.

Intimacy is so key it can define the Christian conception of the problem by its opposite. Opposite to intimacy with the poor is individualism and distance from them. These opposites are clearly inconsistent with recognising God as universal Father. Greater intimacy however embraces siblinghood and erodes any proprietary attitude to ones wealth.

Intimacy was important to the panel members to change how they made their daily decisions. One panel member described having photos of the people they wanted to help around their house and in their wallet. This way they made mundane decisions like whether to buy a block of chocolate with the awareness that one of their siblings had no food.

5. Unmaking a Difference.

As in any discussion about poverty the question of how can we make a difference came up at the seminar. This aim of “making a difference” has sometimes allowed Christians to partition “sharing their wealth” as some kind of “social gospel” almost at odds with the rest of the gospel.

Christianity like many religions has a tolerant view of life’s suffering. If a child dies this is seen as a tragedy however the tragedy is mitigated (even replaced by blessing) by the promise of a joyous afterlife. Alternatively even if a person lives a long and healthy life the “good” of this is insignificant if balanced against eternal torment in hell.

Some Christians have disrespect therefore for action which aims to improve people’s material standard of living as if that was important. Such Christians would only give (and may even give generously) to evangelisation efforts but just don’t think they should give to drives to eradicate blindness for example unless the drive is intended to convert people to Christianity.

Personally I find this stance hypocritical unless a person would be willing to suffer their own blindness to further evangelise others – after all if they are already Christian its’ a waste to spend money on their own eyes as it won’t convert them twice. Derisions of the social gospel just seem to me to be excuses to evade any fraternal connection to the poor and to hold on to the pleasures of wealth.

The panel at the Bendigo Baptist Church sidestepped the whole issue of the importance of material benefits by framing the issues very differently. There was no separate social gospel for them but a social expression of the one gospel.

As a consequence making a difference to world poverty was not the primary goal. Certainly there was a desire to make a difference in specific lives however that was the result of intimacy with them. The primary purpose of their engagement with poverty, to create that intimacy, was actually about unmaking a difference between themself and their siblings - not making a difference at all. This difference to be unmade was one of value reflected in putting luxuries before the others needs.

To put it another way one argument against “selling all that you have and giving the money to the poor” is that this will just leave everyone poor. The really simplified gospel answer to this seems to be “Good.” The primary issue isn’t material benefit anyway but spiritual separation from our siblings.

6. A systematic approach

An emphasis on “unmaking a difference” can sometimes produce poor outcomes in alleviating poverty. For example people in poverty often have a culture of complete sharing of their wealth which unfortunately means that money is spent on immediate consumption. There is no way to share assets as completely unless there is a significant degree of coordination.

The panel members’ involvement in alleviating poverty incorporated both immediate consumption (eg. free food distribution) and more systematic goals like skills training and building community resources, even protesting for government action. This probably would have been discussed in even greater depth though at any non-church forum into poverty. It may be a limitation of the gospel approach that this can’t be easily based in scripture but the panel all seemed to embrace a systematic approach anyway.

7. It’s supposed to change you.

I had one question for the panel that there wasn’t time for but I was able to ask privately later. My work with people especially young people in situations of poverty has often involved trying to maintain some emotional distance. The fear I have is that if the lid came off my concern I wouldn’t be able to stop. I would be reduced to... I’m not sure what the fear is exactly but something like “caring all the time.”

Now that I am a father this fear is even greater because I feel like caring for others all the time would be in competition to my responsibilities to my child. This is illogically applied to protect spending on luxuries for myself not only my child’s needs. Sometimes I rationalise those luxuries for myself as for my happiness which is for my child in a round-about way. Very dodgy I know.

The interesting and challenging answer I received from Kim Slatter was to let intimacy with the poor change me. This was an answer I have a lot of respect for. Being broken down and remade and broken down again is a life well lived in my opinion. I have always subscribed to that view and as a philosopher I often despair at the lack of impact people allow philosophy to have. If these words are supposed to change you how much more should growing closer to actual people change me.

After all am I all that content surrounded by trinkets and emphasising the importance of my family over others? From a Christian perspective that discontent is a great place to start.

Next week the Bendigo Baptists continue their seminar series with a discussion on Same Sex marriage. I am currently wondering about attending it. If I do go it would be with the fervent hope that I won’t be the only one in the room prepared to throw confetti at a same sex wedding. A shout out through this site of anyone else attending who is supportive of same-sex marriage would be much appreciated.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sermons I would like to hear - On Marriage as a Sacred Institution.

This may be part of a series. I like to sermonise in the shower. To get the full effect you need to read this with a Desmond Tutu accent.

Marriage is a sacred institution. Perhaps this is so. However those who say this in order to exclude people from marriage by their unfitness have forgotten what the sacred is for.
We do not utilise sacred institutions because we are eligible for them. We enter into them because we are inelligible for what lies beyond it. Sacred institutions are the means of approach given to us so that in our unholliness we can come closer to that which they point to. Were we already holy we would have no need for sacred institutions. Or rather the sacred would be paths leading to us.
Who can say that of themself? Who can say that they in their holiness are what the sacred points to?
Equally who stands before marriage and says “I am fit”. Who says before marriage our relationship is perfect and so deservedly we claim marriage as our right? Actually we are what marriage is about?”
I reply, “Then what do you need marriage for? Marriage is not for you who are already perfect. Marriage is for the rest of us to approach such perfection.”
I am not saying that Marriage perfects us. We long for that to happen. We want our vows to ensure we live up to them. They won’t. They are not magic words. We must ensure we keep our vows ourselves each day.
And we will probably fail. Most marriages fail. Most people don’t keep their vows. Marriage is just not that kind of magic unfortunately.
However maybe Marriage can improve us. There is something ideal in our hearts; the old couple who only grow more and more in love with each other; the one who has the others back even past death to ensure that their final wishes are served. If Marriage is a sacred institution, an institution of Gods design, then it is perhaps the best means we have to approach this ideal.
 But we only ever approach Marriage unfit for what it points to. We come to it deficient, distorted, looking nothing like the ideal beyond it. We try to feed on its sustenance without teeth, gummily draw what we can of it into a stomach riddled with tapeworms. We get distracted by its least sustaining qualities; the circus of the wedding. Time and time again we misunderstand it.
We misunderstand it most of all when we think it is a reward for being already sufficiently marriage-like. A wedding veil is not a homecoming queens crown. We do not fit it. In fact wedding attire should be several sizes too big to remind us we need to grow into it.
How foolish is it therefore to claim that a person mustn’t be gay if they want to enter into it, that gay people can’t fit this sacred institution – as if others did. I think if any of us are walking upright into it we are definitely going to bump our head. That’s the other thing that sacred institutions should do. They should take us to our knees.