Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fred Lives!

This Easter you may be encouraged to think of someone who gave their life to redeem us.

This is what a messiah is; their life redeems us. And this redemption doesn’t work from the outside but from the inside. The messiah must be one of us so that their life counts as one of ours. That’s why it has this redemptive nature.

How does it save us? It shows us what we can be. Also that means there’s no salvation except through emulation.

From our exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, to our adoration of whatever is powerful, humanity can often seem shitful. Look at the abuse of our children. Look at the idiotic cunning of nuclear deterrence. Look at climate change skepticism, still. We are cruel, and murderous and thick as bricks.

But the messiah figure is different to that. They oppose that. As a human they refuse to be just defined by their humanity. They are kind and wise. They bring joy.

Other than the messiah, we can feel that humanity is worth stopping like a failed experiment, or like an oil spill. These aren’t sensible thoughts. But we feel them some days anyway; Then, because of the messiah… maybe not.

This Easter like every Easter we will be told by some that our one and only messiah is Jesus. I imagine that reflects the experience of the first Christians. I imagine that is why Jesus was celebrated in that way.

You may struggle to see the messianic quality. There are too many Jesus followers who think of kindness and wisdom and joy as secondary issues. They propose Jesus following as attending church, railing against other people’s sins, prayer and praise and obedience to certain biblical laws (though not others). Some can even follow Jesus and cover up the abuse of children; some can follow Jesus and still support nuclear deterrence. There can seem to be little of a redeeming nature there, just more shitful humanity.

Last Easter I wrote about what I think what Jesus’ message was. It’s primarily about God. I think there is something awesome there. However if you don’t, I don’t care. There is nothing in my mind especially gained by “recognizing” Jesus as a messiah or as a redeemer of humanity. The proof of that is history. It’s a crying shame but it’s evident.

Fortunately there is not only one messiah 2000 years old speaking in a language we have to struggle to understand. Instead there are many. Humanity throws up countless lives who respond to whether we deserve destruction with “maybe not”. Malala_YousafzaiCharles PerkinsJonas Salk are amongst many others. Your messiah might be someone very close to you (like my partner is for me). Or it might be Jesus from 2000 years ago.
I often think of Fred Hollows, an Australian eye doctor. That’s a life to emulate. It’s a life that shows us a path to restoration of a humanity of redeemed value, in the midst of human caused pain.

The important thing to remember is that merely admiring a messiah gets us nowhere. Messiahs that we put the work of our salvation on to are false messiahs. They have become separate from our humanity and can no longer redeem us. Ultimately it is not the messiah that truly saves us but the path they show.

Happy Easter.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Nature and the Unnatural.

Through all the challenges our planet and the human race is enduring in these transformative times, we have such a powerful ally in Nature and more than ever, we need to be collaborating with her in all of her aspects.

The concept of nature as a teacher or ally has a salience to our lives expressed in the above quote by “these transformative times”. I feel, with mounting evidence, that we as a human race must resolve our relationship to nature differently, perhaps even more traditionally.

The calving of continent sized ice sheets are signs from the world of these “transformative times”. The increases in obesity in developed countries are symptoms from our own bodies of the same. “Something is dangerously wrong with our shit” sounds louder and louder all the time and it seems only a fool can’t hear it. Alienation from and antipathy towards nature is a diagnosis that makes some sense of our condition.

There’s a spiritual malaise too that focuses our attention on these material signs and symptoms. We don’t feel well. Sure, it begs the question to say this spiritual malaise is due to our not listening to nature. It’s uncertain if feeling the malaise precedes the interpretation or is induced by it. However that sickening sense of artificiality I feel in the middle of a mall is privately convincing our society has some kind of a problem with nature, as is the healthier feeling I get when bush walking.

But then we encounter our problem of definition. Is a mall really something unnatural in contrast to a preserved stretch of bushland? A clearly built environment, whose light hides the stars at night and whose concrete covers the earth, is still the consequence of choices which could be called natural for humans to make. And if so, aren’t we nature too, as much as trees and kangaroos? Nature, in its broadest sense, can lay claim to be whatever is.

Talking to my five year old by the way, her definition of nature excluded angry stray dogs. Nature was in her words, “everything that was around us and nice”. She initially included as nature cars but then doubted that, houses were more natural, rubbish on the ground was definitely not and trees were nature’s best representation. God was a part of nature too.

In the “adult” conversations I’ve had on this topic, the tendency has been to accept that everything is natural. To justify calling anything unnatural (or supernatural for that matter) we have to do two things. We have to have a source for it, or a logic for it that is outside of nature. Secondly we have to retain that outside status. We can’t allow our concept of nature to grow to include the unnatural.

My adult friends weren’t generally willing to do these tasks with anything my child considered “unnatural.” No-one seemed willing to say that a car or a mall has a source or logic outside of nature and that we shouldn’t ever increase our concept of nature to include that source or logic. Human psychology and society in all their forms were accepted as natural.

To put this another way, most people I spoke to accepted a monism of nature. A monism is something which is indivisible. The effect of this is to render impossible appeals to nature:
An appeal to nature is an argument or rhetorical tactic in which it is proposed that "a thing is good because it is 'natural', or bad because it is 'unnatural'". – Wikipedia

Appeals to nature are impossible when nature is a monism because moral language is about alternatives which are at least dualistic. Something can be good or bad in moral language. If nature is the whole of reality, then nature can’t be good or bad.

Instead if nature is a monism what makes sense for us to do is to view morality as something imposed onto nature from outside it. As an example the polio virus is natural. It naturally infects children who naturally suffer for it. However the eradication of polio is good (and also natural by the way). What makes the eradication of polio good are values which we give to events which don’t belong to them in any essential way. Specifically we call the suffering of children bad even though it is as natural as anything else.

By the same logic the extinction of tigers is natural. If we are to say it is a bad thing then we have to justify this in a way that doesn’t belong essentially to tigers or the world. We have to create the value from elsewhere such as our enjoyment of tigers or a tiger’s usefulness in their ecosystem, which then must relate to something else of value to us. This is the point where I begin to question whether we have gone astray.

A refusal to deify nature and to identify anything as unnatural helped us with the polio situation but it seems to miss something with the tigers. We seem to be forced down long paths of utlity measuring to say why tiger extinctions are wrong when more useful language lies in my child’s vocabulary. We seem to have gotten to this point because we are unwilling to complete two tasks – to have a source for something or a logic for it that is outside of nature and to not forbid our concept of nature to grow to include this.

I think this is not a decision we have properly investigated. I also think this is a cultural phenomenon which it is very interesting to imagine undoing. Imagine if we did have a conception of an unnatural logic that was seen as different to a natural logic and we refused to incorporate it into a natural logic. As an example we could identify capitalism as an unnatural culture and deny it the same status as natural. We could declare it foreign to the “real world”. Those are the kind of steps we might need to take for the quote at the start of this post to make robust sense.

Are they impossible steps? Would we be better off or worse off for attempting them? I think our reasonable fear is that we will only be fooling ourselves; that all appeals to nature are based on romantic misrepresentations of nature. After all is it evident that capitalism is unnatural or natural? Are we just making an entirely random declaration and if so could someone else equally declare that reading or women in the workforce is unnatural? Is it better given its potential to oppress and hamper common sense to declare the language of natural and unnatural an off-limits moral rhetoric?

Certainly if we are going to come up with a pejorative idea of unnatural we need to do more than derive “natural” from simple observations of nature. If we do that we may end up modeling human behaviour on that of other species which is never going to fully work and in some cases will be just ridiculous. Should we pick off the weak like a predatory cat? Or be as patient as a tortoise?

Natural and unnatural will need to be fairly complicated concepts if we do employ them. They have to speak to everything we feel about the sickness of our lives, the upheaval of our planet’s climate and ecosystems and still retain a sense of who we are as particularly human animals with our human concerns of justice. I share the belief with all the people I spoke to that this is not an easy definition to come up with. Maybe we should just deconstruct “natural” as a propaganda tool without any real hard meaning and leave it at that.

However if we do merely deconstruct the concept of natural with no reconstruction will there be any way of saying that the things which are “around us and nice” matter in and of themselves?  Will a tiger in a computer game be as good as the real thing? Or better even for being safer? In this matter I feel like consulting my five year old is probably the best idea I’ve had on this topic. For her, language is something she is unsure of and prepared to renegotiate, partly at least to feel well with the world. That’s why I want to give the idea of nature as a teacher or ally proper consideration even if it upsets my "adult" thinking. Language ought to be subject to our needs for wellness, not the other way round.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A preferential option for the poor.

I was recently asked why I often write within or at least around a particularly Christian mythos. It’s a legitimate question. It also has three distinct answers. I’m going to give the most important one, a qualified defense of Christianity, and leave the other two shrouded in mystery. Perhaps I’ll get to them another time.

Christianity is a highly literalized religion. Something in the majority Christian psyche from as early as we have records has been unable to hear phrases like the Son of God without having to imagine a male God literally impregnating a woman. I find that ridiculous. Similarly there are stories of Jesus calming storms, walking on water and even raising the dead with the strong suggestion this could be done by his followers. Given that Christianity did not usher in an era of miracles in which the boat and medicine became redundant I likewise consider these stories symbolic.

There are many ways in which my attitude to the miraculous events of the Christian bible put me outside of normal Christianity. I don’t consider Jesus especially and uniquely the Son of God. I don’t think I can talk to him today in any normal sense of talking. I don’t think Jesus’ triumph over death means they are alive now. That also means that I don’t believe that you and I will be able to chat in a billion years in heaven (or in the other place). You and I will be as dead in a billion years as Jesus. Meanwhile Jesus’ biological father, possibly Joseph or possibly some random raping roman soldier will be even deader.

Given the literalism of Christianity and my statements of belief in the above paragraph it’s pretty simple to say I am not a Christian. The cracks in that certainty appear when we start to ask “what is God?” If God is some very special personage akin to Zeus then a literal Christianity with a literal impregnation of Mary makes sense and can be easily disagreed with. But if God is in fact a symbol (Paul Tillich calls God “the symbol of God”) or, as I have referred to God, a “moral field” then Jesus being the Son of them means something much more interesting quite frankly. It means that Jesus is the image of that morality. His life supposedly points towards it most accurately. Jesus is the human incarnation of the mindset of God.

In a literal Christianity an understanding of how Jesus is the son of God is supposed to inspire worship of Jesus. Jesus is set apart from us by his divine and strangely both supernatural yet biological parentage. He is not to be treated as just some teacher like the Buddha for example. He is above our humanity rather than beside us. In a non-literal christianity however the emphasis is on how we are supposed to share in what Jesus claimed as his authority. We are also supposed to be children of the “moral field”; children of love, righteousness, justice and mercy. That’s the place in which I am in conversation with Christianity.

What that conversation reveals is the stand-out quality of Christianity amongst comparable philosophies. Christians reject the neutrality of god in matters of justice. There can be no doubt that this is a continuation of a jewish heritage but it is also further reinforced in Christianity. In Liberation theology this bias of God is named as God holding a “preferential option for the poor”.

I consider this “preferential option for the poor” to be a very important quality to attribute to our “moral field”.  I don’t think the moral field is so much of a “thing” as it is a conceptualization of the assumptions that give positive meaning or sense to life. For example, the moral field in which science makes sense is one which values honesty. I’m saying that all life, including science, makes sense when we adopt the moral assumption to stand with “the poor” or more generally the oppressed and view the situation from that direction. Without that stance bullying (on any scale) for example would simply look like a “personality clash”.

Taking this stance of applying a pro-poor filter to our moral view is not something that is arguable. It is essentially a radical “free” choice. By free I mean we are not obliged to adopt it by any logical necessity. The historical word for an assumption that is radically chosen and invested in as a starting point for any moral questioning is God. Therefore I find myself saying, using historical language, what I believe about morality is that I believe God stands with the poor and oppressed. Of all religions, in my study, Christianity is the best expression of this view.

This idea of God’s bias in favour of the oppressed is pretty mainstream Christianity. Any enquiry of popular depictions of Christianity would acknowledge that, as in the third Indiana Jones movie, the Holy Grail is actually a pauper’s cup. And of course there is the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. This is why I frequently praise the sort of unpolished Christianity that forms popular fiction. It preaches a sympathy with the underdog and a criticism of inequality as the definition of Christianity. While the idea of Christian humanist values can be overstated, here is the connection between our rejection of might-equals-right and a Christian cultural background. When Christian apologists argue that women’s rights, opposition to slavery, hospitals and public education have come out of a particularly Christian sense of universal dignity they really aren’t wrong.

Some Christians have, however, also opposed all these ideas. When they do so they usually occupy a stream of Christianity which claims that nature is morally teleological – that is to say that what is natural also describes what should be. This stream entrenches inequality through “natural” hierarchies; white above coloured, and men above women. It then denies the inequality even exists by claiming nature as its defense.

My view is that this kind of nature based moral teleology doesn’t properly belong to Christianity. It is not historically Jewish and it contradicts other aspects of Judeo-Christian thought. I think it belongs to Greco-Roman paganism far more naturally.

To be perfectly clear on this: The idea that men and women have different morally obliged functional roles based on their created natures (which evangelical Christians call complementarianism) makes sense as Greco-Roman philosophy but is contrary to the direction of Christian philosophy. The similar idea that natural law codifies our biological instructions for sexuality (ie. that the penis and the vagina are “meant for each other”) is also Greco-Roman. By this I don’t mean that heterosexism in Christianity comes from Greco-Roman roots, just that this particular process of grounding right and wrong in nature and creation does. These ideas are as Platonic in style as looking for moral meaning in the shape of our skulls. However these are the ideas that still justify inequality today.

By contrast the Mosaic era condemnation of homosexuality was about its social implications for patriarchy, not its biological unnaturalness. The created order in Judaism is much more ambivalently able to serve as a template for how we should act. Even in Eden before the consequences of our first disobedience there isn’t any stasis. At first Adam is lonely, then the serpent enters the picture, contradicting God. The apple eating also reeks of inevitability. Creation is never a perfect picture. That idea is to come much later from, I believe, Hellenic influences. In Judaism the status of the relationship between nature and the good is “complicated” and thus can’t be used to entrench inequality.

Christianity may have made a big mistake getting into bed with Greco-Roman thought. It’s a na├»ve project however to separate the two. Jerusalem was heavily Hellenised before Jesus even entered the theological arena. Paul, the apostle, whose writings compose much of the New Testament is a Romanised Jew. The notion of an original Christianity prior to the “infection” of Greco-Roman thought can never be uncovered. Instead if we want to imagine Christianity completely free of a natural moral teleology that justifies inequality then we have to go beyond it to something new.

That is exactly what is underway and has been for some time, in feminism and queer theory. It may seem strange but I see these movements as offshoots of Christianity. In fact I see them as taking the direction of Christianity, with its bias towards the oppressed, further than Christianity itself. In this way feminism and queer theory are at least potentially more Christian than Christianity.

I think it’s regrettable (and understandable) that many feminists and queer activist have jettisoned the language of God; definitely the Judeo-Christian god. In doing so, they concede their own social history. If anyone can claim rightfully to be standing in God’s current place, the claim made by Jesus, it is not church oppressors of women and queers (and queer women) but people working on behalf of those oppressed. When Christianity is viewed in its context, as a movement away from its surrounds, its progressions and arguments are continued by feminists far, far more than they are continued by Christian complementarians.

To express this on a more personal level, when I left the Catholic Church as a young man and became involved in queer politics I was only superficially rebelling against my parent’s beliefs. On a more fundamental level I was living out my parent’s beliefs in a good God who loved everybody and cared especially for the oppressed. Nowadays I think we all see that more clearly. There is something deeply healing about acknowledging my parent’s values in my life even in the places we disagree.

I also believe that myth can only be defeated by myth. Myth is ultimate reality, the realest of the stories we tell, in the sense that Micheal Polyani or Paul Tillich would use the term. (For what I mean here see the end of this post, No-one believes in Reality).

We can’t defeat the myths that support women’s divine inequality to men or the spiritual inferiority of gay love, or the holy purpose of violence with appeals to pragmatics. That kind of a counter can only distract momentarily, like offering candy to a potential suicide. Ultimately when oppression is heaven sent, the oppressed need to locate God on their side. That’s something that Christianity provides.