Sunday, 10 June 2018

The personal God

"Do you believe in God?" It’s a question that I hear seldom these days, but when I was younger it was common enough on people’s lips. Those curious about the nature of our world and of reality often came to ponder the existence or not of a "maker".

In recent times it seems the issue is settled: God is a fiction. Science has won. The Big Bang explains how we got here. There is no longer need for inquiry into first cause. Belief in God is now decidedly fringe, confined to religious fundamentalists, the elderly and people cracked open by personal crises seeking to put themselves together again.

But is God really dead? It seems to me that what has been rejected is a particular image or understanding of the divine. As a "supreme being", as an all-powerful father figure dwelling somewhere in the sky, God ultimately stood no chance against a secular culture bringing the benefits and sensible certainties of science. At least, not in Western countries. And being a He his authority was bound to be eroded by the modern move away from male dominance in society.

Interestingly, while rejecting God many people in contemporary times are not prepared to abandon spirituality, not content to entirely embrace scientific materialism. Writers like David Tacey and Hugh Mackay have identified the "spiritual but not religious" identity trend which incorporates a rejection of established religious forms with an opening to and exploration of different spiritual traditions and pathways. People don't want the old heavenly father, but they do want depth and meaning in life and some means to approach the timeless questions of who we are and how we are to live in this world.

We are living between times. The collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not immediately herald another to take its place. Ours is a period of uncertainty in spiritual matters, of the dying of old forms and search for replacements. It is a time of exploration and groping forwards in the dark. At some point in the future the prevailing spiritual tendencies may coalesce into a new "religion", but we need not be too concerned about this word. The Latin root of "religion" means "to bind" and a religion is essentially a system for binding the individual and group to the source of their being through whatever myths, rituals and sacraments are fitting in their particular time and culture.

If we probe the supreme being, father-in-the-sky myth a little, we may get some important clues about patterns in spiritual observance. The extraordinary thing about the myth is that no religious thinker of any depth in the West has subscribed to it. Scratch Christianity, Judaism or Islam and you find a God that defies description, that is an unknown synonymous with the mysteries of the universe, and that cannot ultimately be talked about or represented. He is certainly not an anthropomorphic image, not the bearded old man of a Michelangelo painting.

So why has the popular image of God persisted for so long, perhaps since the beginning of the great religions? The answer is in the relationship between human and divine. A personal dimension helps us greatly in making the connection to God. We need concrete, direct ways to build the link, allowing us to see the work of divinity in our lives, to communicate with it through prayer, to understand what it asks of us. When God takes on personhood in the scriptures and is ascribed qualities such as love, goodness and mercy, it is for our benefit to be guided by the divine and to live full, decent lives.

But the personal God is, in the end, a device only; merely a convenient trope. The deeper the relationship that is built in an individual, the less is God anthropomorphised, the less is there of the simple human characteristics in the divine image we hold. At the same time, human and divine, matter and spirit, move closer to one another and the hard distinctions between the two gradually fade. We start to see something of the emptiness, the ineffability of divinity, even as we realise it at the core, the very building blocks of our being.

I suspect a future religion will again have to face the tension between the human need for a personal relationship with the divine and the reality of that very divinity, but perhaps the demise of the father-in-the-sky opens new possibilities. Could He become a She? Could the strong pull towards immanence result in a religious reverence for the Earth? Do we go the way of a mystic appreciation of the Universe? It seems, at the least, that many people are now prepared to let go of some of the cruder elements of the personal God towards a new, more refined understanding of the divine.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Golden-orb weaver

I often go back to the poetry of Judith Wright, whose appreciation of nature is deep, sympathetic but not sentimental. Her ability to see beyond the apparent opposites of this world into the realm of Mystery still holds for me a deep attraction. I wrote the following poem after a summer spent observing a particularly majestic spider.

Golden-orb weaver

Within the stand of mulga trees
A net is swaying in the breeze,

And on the net a spider rides,
Crouching and waiting for what collides.

A beast that lives to hunt and kill
By guile and poise and dexterous skill,

The bees it traps, what would they give
For one more day that they should live,

Among the mulga, tussock and creek,
The scented flower to yearn and seek.

Oh traveler, stop and ease your breath
And find the shade away from sun,
Then see the place where life meets death,
Where life is lost and life is won.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

To an Empowered Love

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

- 1 Corinthians 13

I never tire of reading St Paul’s great reflection on the gift of love in his first letter to the Corinthians. It is, in my opinion, the most profound and prophetic reflection in the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. It is also perhaps, in our contemporary post-Christian era, one of the few things he wrote that can still speak to us with any meaning or depth.

Paul himself underlined the difficulty of putting love into practice: elsewhere in his letters he is arrogant and boastful, is concerned to keep women in an inferior place in the nascent Christian community and hectors new converts to keep to his version of Christ’s Way, which he is certain is the only way despite people with other views.

Where Paul, with the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, could be said to have erred is his movement away from the core of his revelation of Christ, centred on love, towards certitude of belief. In his letters love is sometimes lost amid the need to organise and enforce a system of beliefs, to ensure that converts to the gospel align themselves to some ideas and not to others, and the need for unity of the right-thinking faithful. Love at times becomes secondary in his great missionary project.

What is love and how can it help us in the 21st century?

We tend to corral love in personal relationships and the family, but it reaches a lot further and is loaded with spiritual meaning, as Paul indicates in Corinthians. I would define love as the intention and act that benefits life. A loving person is one who consistently acts to support and nurture the creative force that is in all things. Though love can be communicated through words, it cannot be tied down to any set of ideas or beliefs; it exists as a higher-order value demonstrated only in its beneficial effects upon life.

When I think of the immense global environmental and social problems we face in the 21st century, only one solution comes to mind: love. When despair at human ignorance and greed overwhelms me, I look to only one way out: love.

Love is not passive, it does not imply a retreat from worldly concerns but is an engagement in the world on the terms of what brings most benefit in the widest possible embrace. Love has no boundary, no place where you can say it does not reach, no dark corner into which it cannot shine. We can lose sight of love, but it remains with us, ready, still.

Love provides energy and direction in dark times because it is solely about affirmation of life. As we go about our daily lives, the task is to stay anchored to love, to draw from it at every moment, and to return to it if we have lost our way.

Many of the issues facing humanity in the modern era revolve around a crisis of empowerment. Industrial, scientific and medical advances have given the human species immense power, even to the capability of destroying all life on Earth. But in our collective focus on power and on empowerment, we have often left little room for love. Perhaps that’s the immediate challenge facing our species – redressing the imbalance between power and love and becoming as proficient in love and its applications as we have in the sphere of power. That would necessarily mean many difficult decisions where we dampen our desire to control and master in favour of letting go, of accepting things just as they are, and of faith and humility before the greater power of the universe. Our narrow concern just for ourselves must give way to a larger, more expansive realisation of Self that embraces all life on Earth and encompasses the very mystery of being.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great synthesist of science and religion, said: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall master for God the energies of love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” If humanity has any future, and some say our time on this planet is now fairly limited because of the enormously destructive changes we have wrought, to love is where we need to go. The direction of our next stage of evolution must be to an empowered love.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

This is not America

"This is not America" – I’ve heard this said many times in the media by activists in response to Donald Trump, condemning his right-wing policies and all for which he stands.

"This is not America", and I always think "Oh yes, it most certainly is." I reason that if the country in which I live, Australia, has its warts and barnacles, then America must have plenty too. Take the dominance of corporate power that makes democracy at the highest levels in the US an illusion, take economic inequality in the richest country in the world, take its urban ghettoisation and squalor, its addiction to gun-toting violence at home and military empire abroad, its race problems, history of slavery and genocide of Indigenous people.

All of these are surely America, as much so as all that is good about the place. In fact, how is it possible to say that the good outweighs the bad? If you are middle or upper-class you may not be directly exposed much to the ugliness, but it exists nonetheless. Trump, it seems to me, represents raw, naked power and the arrogance and stupidity that goes with it. That's as American, as the old saying goes, as apple pie.

The question for me is: How do we oppose the bad while not casting it as somehow alien to ourselves and the body of humanity as a whole? How do we fight Trump in a reasoned and mature way without denial and demonisation?

This points to one of the burdens that has come down to us from Christian civilisation – the absolute dichotomy between good and bad and identification with good at the expense of evil. Modern psychology takes a sharp knife to this simplistic approach: We are all capable of good and evil acts, it says, and the way through the opposites is a psychic acceptance and integration of all elements. When we accept our own capacity for evil, we may come to a point of integration that allows us genuine freedom to choose how we act, no longer trapped in binary opposition within ourselves and against others.

From this point of acceptance and love we can still fight the good fight, but there’s a qualitative change. We don’t exclude or dehumanise the evildoer because we see them as our self. Even as we act to stop what they are doing, we are conscious not to create an "us and them" picture that severs the fabric of humanity. The result is always an affirmation of wholeness rather than a negation; we ask, “What is it that I am affirming in this situation?” to guide us.

In its own uniquely contradictory way, the Christian tradition offers helpful insights. St Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh … but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." What Paul means is that we focus on combating the wrongness of actions and not the individuals involved, or in another formulation we look to the principles at stake and not to personalities. So much energy in the current opposition to Trump is sucked down into useless name-calling and shrillness.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s, in my view, showed a remarkable degree of maturity. Martin Luther King steadfastly refused to lower the tone of the movement in reaction to the hideous racism of the time, continually affirming the dignity and humanity of everybody – black and white, oppressed and oppressor – while acting decisively for a better society. That’s America, the kind we desperately need to see more.

Monday, 1 January 2018

What is Man?

Most dialogues involving the ancient Greek philosopher Aristageles were written by his students (notably Caro of Athens) after his death in the late-4th century BC. Some dialogues, including the following, are of unknown authorship and likely written much later. How closely these later works relate to the thought of Aristageles has been much debated.

Gordias: Aristageles, I am so glad to see you. Where have you been? Your friends haven’t sighted you for days. Have you been ill?

Aristageles: Dear friend, this cold, damp weather is no good for my bones. What’s more, the flabby old rascal dropsy has been harrassing me for days with pain in the legs and swelling. By Zeus, I challenged him this morning, saying I would go to the Agora whether he liked it or not. And as you can see I am here, grimacing somewhat but still determined, with the aid of a stick.

Gordias: I am sorry for your condition.

Aristageles: Over the years I have prayed to every god on Olympus, tried every ointment known in Greece, but this miserable beast still importunes me. It will pass, I know, like everything, and likely take me with it. But you seem lively, despite the leaden skies. There is a brightness in your eyes and a spring in your gait.

Gordias: Yes, indeed. I am preparing to host a symposium. Phokion, Thoxias and Thribias have all said they will come, and Polydoros will no doubt when he returns from Argos. And I have asked Ascaldea of Miletus, the citharede, to perform for us. It would be an honour if you too could join us, if you are able.

Aristageles: How kind. And what will be the subject of our discussion on this propitious occasion?

Gordias: Uh, well, I haven’t quite fixed on that.

Aristageles: You haven’t something in mind? Something enticing enough for Phokion, Thoxias, Thribias and Polydoros to slake their thirst for philosophy at your well?

Gordias: Well yes, I do.

Aristageles: Out with it, then. No false modesty here.

Gordias: What is Man?

Aristageles: What is Man? Is that it?

Gordias: Are you not pleased?

Aristageles: Well, it is to the point. Philosophy is nothing if it doesn’t take us to the essence of things.

Gordias: I have no doubt, if this be the topic of the night, that the discussion will be lively, deep and reasoned. But I would like to know, Aristageles, your view on the subject; for if you come I would like to place you in the best order of speakers.

Aristageles: Then you are asking me, What is Man?

Gordias: Most humbly, yes, I am.

Aristageles: Man is an animal.

Gordias: Then it is my turn to put on a perplexed face. An animal?

Aristageles: Indeed. Man is a donkey, carrying the burden of his desires.

Gordias: Just that? An animal?

Aristageles: Man is a pig, wallowing in the disasters of his own making. Man is a horse that dances when set free. Man is a nightingale that sings to the glory of God. Man is a curlew that cries out in fear in the night.

Gordias: Nothing more than an animal?

Aristageles: He is a cat, preening himself with simple pride; he is an ox, determined, steady and wilful; he is a fox who cunningly preys on all he can; an oak that with great strength lifts its arms to heaven.

Gordias: Wait, an oak is not even an animal.

Aristageles: I am stretching the cord, it is true. But I mean life, my friend, life.

Gordias: And is that all Man is, life? He is surely nobler, more refined, more advanced than a mere animal.

Aristageles: Have you no great regard for creation, and for the mighty creator and originator of all?

Gordias: Of course I do. I am questioning your placement of Man in the order of things.

Aristageles: His place is that which Zeus assigns him.

Gordias: But greater than an ox, a donkey, a nightingale and all the others you mentioned. A man has reason. It sounds ridiculous, but no ox ever came up with philosophy.

Aristageles: Ah, let me prove to you the connection between the two. Would you allow me to lead such an animal to the symposium?

Gordias: With respect, that is madness.

Aristageles: Socrates said that the greatest of goods comes to us through madness, provided it is bestowed by divine gift.

Gordias: I don’t understand. Man has created civilisation – no animal could do that.

Aristageles: Have you not seen the nests of some ants, where thousands working harmoniously together build the most contrived and delicate structures? Or the hives of bees, that through labour and ingenuity create the nectar we call honey?

Gordias: Great temples, art, poetry – you say all this is comparable to the work of ants, bees and oxen?

Aristageles: It is a matter of how one looks and sees the world. I do not privilege men because I have seen the worst and best of what we are capable. We have our own role, it is true, in this great dance of the cosmos, our unique capabilities and purpose, but as to some special altar at which we should erect and bow down to the statue of Man, of that I beg to express my disapproval.

Gordias: Why you are a contrarian, Aristageles. I have seen you worshiping at the Acropolis, taking part in the rites and processions of the Dionysia, speaking eloquently at debates of philosophy with your peers. You partake in all this, the gift of the genius of our ancestors carried forward by the good men of our time, yet you trifle with it as if it was nothing at all.

Aristageles: I don’t trifle, and I don’t wish my words to fall too hard on your years. But I do say that I would happily spend some days in the fields in the company of butterflies and grasshoppers in preference to my fellow men and women; some time watching the flight of partridges or the play of dolphins.

Gordias: And you would bring an ox to my symposium, let it stand there and defecate on the marble and break wind from its rear end?

Aristageles: It would be no better or worse than what I have seen and heard at many symposia.

Gordias: Then I have nothing more to say to you, Aristageles. Good Day, and until we meet next time.

Aristageles: Until next time, Gordias.