Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Reflections


We are born into community. We grow inside another human being and spend the first few years of our lives in absolute dependence on that person and on the others who closely surround us. The ones near to us provide us with more than our bodily needs. Our very self - our sense of who we are - is primarily built as we see ourselves reflected back in the words and behaviour of others.

Before we can talk, this reflection is, obviously, non verbal. It is kinesthetic. In the way we are held, in the regularity with which we are fed and cleaned, in the warmth -physical and emotional - of our surroundings, we find the earliest information about the world and how we relate to it. Later, we listen to the words said to us and about us. Later still we observe, and with a growing theory of mind, are able to perceive other people as separate personalities with their own points of view, and we are able to build ourselves by comparison, identification and imitation. As our perception broadens we take on the mores of our family, tribe and culture. Sometimes a sudden shock or a moment of revelation can have a deep and lasting effect on our sense of self, but usually it is the words and actions of others, repeated day after day, year after year, which forms who we are, and gives us a sense of being a separate entity with a distinct and unique personality.

The stories told by others about us shape us when they become stories we tell to ourselves. We are, for example, impervious to our schoolmates calling us "loser" right up to the point that we acquiesce and say to ourselves, "yes, I am a loser". We are reflected back initially from a small group of people, but the range of "reflectors" gets larger as we grow older. Firstly it consists of our mother and the rest of our family; then our wider family, and our peer group. Then the various sub groups we identify with, the heroes we try and emulate and the general voice of our culture. The process of building a self follows a fairly predictable pattern, spelled out in detail, and with differing emphases by, for example, Piaget, Erickson, and James Fowler. I don't want to go into too much detail here, other than to point out some implications for our spiritual development:

1. Spiritual development is impossible without community. It doesn't matter, I suppose, what that community is, but we will not grow as people in the values we aspire to unless those values are reflected back to us. We therefore need a community where people are at least trying to do this.

2. Spiritual development is ALWAYS ethical development. We are reflectors for all those we come into contact with, and are therefore partially responsible for their sense of self. It MATTERS how we treat them.

3. There is nothing in our sense of self that is unchangeable. The stories about ourselves that we have learned to parrot from others can all be changed...

4. ...and from 3. it follows that there is nothing in our sense of self that is, ultimately, permanent. "We shall all be changed, in the twinkling of an eye..."

5. You need your sense of self to grow as a sentient being, but don't go getting too attached to it. Don't go getting all protective and indignant about your "real self". One day you will need to put it aside as a butterfly puts aside its cocoon.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Welcome Back Old Friend



When I was growing up we had plenty books in our house but not a lot of poetry. In fact, I doubt if we had any. At school, poetry was the rhyming stuff you had to learn off by heart about the boy standing on the burning deck when all around had fled and the highwayman who came riding, riding, riding. I have the sort of memory which could get the poem pretty much off perfectly with one or two readings on the day before the teacher asked for a recital, but which let the RAM get overwritten by next Tuesday, so none stuck around for long. This meant poetry never meant much to me through all my childhood and teen years. One man changed all that. Roger McGough, the first poet I ever read for the sheer pleasure of it.

In my late teens I discovered him. He was (is), one of the Liverpool poets. He was a little older than me, but definitely of my generation. He was in a band called The Scaffold, whose other members counted among themselves Paul McCartney's brother. He wrote about family life and strange relatives. About bus conductors and shop assistants. About people with neuroses and deformities. About troubled relationships and the peculiar tensions of living in the "permissive" society. About the threat of atomic warfare and about not looking as good as the advertisements told you to look. There was not a burning deck or a highwayman in sight, and not a lot of rhymes. Above all he was clever. Wittily clever, inventively clever, wisely clever, sadly and sardonically clever. He ran words together and made up new ones. He scattered his words around the page in ways which added to the sense of the poems. I didn't have to be told to read him.I didn't have to try to remember the poems. I bought everything he wrote and read them again and again. And because I was reading Roger McGough, I started to read other poets and to love the sound of words for the sheer wonder and beauty of them as much as for the meaning.

" To her
life was a storm in a holy-water font
Across which she breezed
with all the grace and charm
of a giraffe learning to windsurf

But sweating
in the convent laundry, she would iron
Amices, albs and surplices
with such tenderness and care
You'd think priests were still inside..."

(from Hearts and Flowers )

I built up quite a little collection of slim volumes which I shared eagerly. Too eagerly in fact, as for the past decade or more I have none left. All went, begged borrowed or stolen from me to end up goodness knows where. I have tried to replace them over the years but most are long out of print, and if copies can be found they are sought after and expensive. Then, just last week, long after I had reconciled myself with having to make do with the small volume of selected works, I discovered there had been a Collected Poems produced in 2004. My feet hardly touched the ground rushing for my Amazon.com bookmark. Today Roger McGough, Collected Poems arrived.

I have spent half the afternoon reading words I haven't seen for a couple of decades but which still make me laugh - great out loud belly guffaws of delight and surprise and admiration. I have read the words which helped me process my adolescence, and others, written in his fifties which speak of my present and others from all the ages in between. Some are new to me, some long gone but not forgotten.And there are 400 pages of them - Ahhhh..... Bliss.......

Let Me Die A Young Man's Death

Let me die a young man's death
not a clean and inbetween
the sheets holywater death
not a famous-last-words
peaceful out of breath death

When I'm 73
and in constant good tumour
may I be mown down at dawn
by a bright red sports car
on my way home
from an allnight party

Or when I'm 91
with silver hair
and sitting in a barber's chair
may rival gangsters
with hamfisted tommyguns
burst in and give me a short back and insides

Or when I'm 104
and banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
and fearing for her son
cut me up into little pieces
and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a young man's death
not a free from sin tiptoe in
candle wax and waning death
not a curtains drawn by angels borne
'what a nice way to go' death

-Roger McGough

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Assembling ourselves II


Theres a game I play with my two daughters, which doesn't have a name, but involves one or two or all three of us competing in who can tell the most preposterous lie. A session might start soon after watching a "Lord Of The Rings" video, for instance and go something like this:

"You know those Lord of the Rings films? You might have seen them mentioned in the news? Well, I made those. Wrote, produced, directed. I starred in them too. All the major parts are actually me. It's a triumph of make up and special effects. I did that too. And all the sets and costumes."

"Oh really? Well, I was having lunch with Peter Jackson just the day before yesterday, and he had quite a different story about who made them."

"Well of course he would. Pete and I had a wee chat some time ago about what he should say to you if you ever asked. How's Fran and the kids by the way? I haven't seen them in weeks...."

I guess for a lawyer, an actress and a clergyman, these sessions should not be regarded so much as games but as professional development. The aim of the exercise is for the liar to maintain consistency and congruence in the story, and for the skeptics to destroy them. The liar always wins. This is because the first of the elements of a good lie, consistency, is reasonably easy to maintain if your imagination is big enough. Maintaining congruence is just a matter of rationalising your story against whatever evidence is presented to counter it and again, this is simply a matter of imagination and verbal dexterity - qualities that none of the participants are short of.

Consistency and congruence are the hallmarks not just of a good lie but of all forms of narrative, including the narrative required to maintain a robust sense of self.

Consistency relates to the internal structure of a story: it must hold together, have pattern and direction and not have parts of itself which are mutually contradictory. We make the fiction of our self consistent by employing the usual mental tricks: reshaping or even complete fabrication of memories, and by careful selection, polishing, forgetting, augmenting, diminishing or recasting of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Our ability to form a consistent sense of self depends on our ability to impose a narrative pattern on the experiences of our lives.

Congruency is the extent to which our story fits with the "real" world. We must remember that we never actually encounter the real world, but rather a ghostly image of it constructed by our minds working on the data conveyed to it by our senses. Our senses are very imperfect and our minds - the bit doing the filtering, judging and assembling of data - are a part of our self: ie the very thing that is being constructed. This is why "we see the world not as it is but as we are." Nevertheless, despite the fact that we are not actually in touch with it, there is a reality there somewhere, of which we are part and with which we interact; a reality which gives rise to our sense phenomena, and the senses for receiving them and the mind for interpreting them. Our sense of self, although it can only ever approximate this reality, must never actually contradict it, if our self is to be robust enough to enable us to live successfully with reality and with other consciousnesses. I guess madness is a term applied to those senses of self which, while they are perfectly consistent, are not congruent.

Congruence is maintained through the feedback we receive. There are two sources of feedback. One is our ongoing experience of reality, whatever that might be, mediated to us at long distance through the remote control of our senses.
[ note: There is an issue that this reality may itself be a construction of our consciousness, but I won't get into that, or the interesting implications of that here. At least, not today. I mean by 'ongoing experience of reality' the commonly agreed sense of what is real- the communal fiction - which enables people to exist together. ]
The other source of feedback is people. People react to us and say things to us. The reactions of people are perhaps the key factors in forming our sense of self. We see ourselves primarily as we are reflected back in the interactions we have with those around us. This is what I meant yesterday when saying that our sense of self is socially formed. The implications of this are huge, and I will speak more of them later.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Assembling Ourselves


I tell stories. I like doing it, and sometimes I do it well. I know what a story is; stories always have the same structure and pattern. Every story begins with a tension - usually the dis-ease caused by two seemingly irreconcilable opposites - and moves through time until the tension is resolved. Stories can be based in actual events or not as the case may be but all stories are fabrications. Think about it. Of all the hundreds of incidents that occur in the course of any given day, why do you tell some as stories of the day, and let the rest slip into oblivion? The fact that you are telling a story at all means that you have made a choice of one incident over a range of other possible ones. And then, as you tell the incident you won't tell every detail. You will select and choose, highlight some details and downplay others. Your story will be told in such a way as to bring about some purpose: to arouse interest, get a laugh, illustrate a point, evoke sympathy... whatever. In other words, all stories, even the most "factual" and "true" involve the selection and omission of details, and the ordering of those details into a pattern. All stories are fabrications. The way we select and fabricate our stories tells us an awful lot about ourselves because the pattern is an imposition of our own devising and will reflect who and what we are.

One of our fabricated stories is our own autobiography. I had an illustration of this once. On my first trip the USA I had occasion to drive several different cars. When I got back to New Zealand, I noticed that in my memory of those events, I was seated on the right hand side of the car, and driving the car on the left hand side of the road. My memory was obviously in error: I had, unconsciously, changed the memory of driving in the USA to fit with the realities of driving cars in New Zealand. I think we do this unconsciously, in a thousand subtle or gross ways, with all our memories, and with all the stories we tell about ourselves. The way we see ourselves, the things we choose to remember or forget, the things we highlight and downplay are a fabrication: a kind of fiction.

For instance, the picture above was taken by my daughter Catherine and heavily edited by me. I like it because I think it says something about me. But it isn't real. It's a fabrication, a picture which talks not about how I am seen but how I would like to be seen. In a similar way, out of the myriad events that have happened to us, we invent our past select and polish it and give it meaning. Or, to put it more starkly, we invent ourselves and give ourselves meaning - and in more matters than just our life story.

Think of a computer. It is not so much one appliance as a whole suite of appliances. They may all be hidden away in one tin box, but there are disk drives and disk drive controllers, video cards, sound cards, logic units and buses and dozens of others, all of them discrete individual components, plugged together by bits of cable or by solder to give the illusion of one working unit (and in my computer at the moment the illusion is pretty tenuous. Ho hum). A similar thing happens inside our heads. Our brains are not so much a wonderful biological instrument as a whole suite of wonderful biological instruments. Our brain is a system of systems: several hundred complex systems working together closely enough to give the illusion of one working system. There is not one of all those systems that is the place where me and my personality reside. Not one place in the brain, not one system is "me". Rather, me, my personality is a sort of a story: a pattern imposed on all that information and processing. I am a fiction, a story made up by selecting some bits of information and discarding others; by highlighting and downplaying; by ordering and reshaping; by recognising and ignoring. There is a sense in which all this shaping is done by me, the thing that is being shaped (and there's a concept to tie your cerebral processes in a knot) but I don't consciously do that shaping, at least most of the time.

So where does this pattern come from? Good question, that. I think it arises socially: it comes from our life in community, but I'll talk about that some other time.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

East Meets West



I'm grateful to Janice for sending me this clip of the Guangzhou acrobatic troupe performing Swan Lake. The clip is roughly 7 minutes long and I advise you to watch to the end (or at least until the annoying German MC comes onstage): the real magic is in the second act. The ballet has been performed extensively in China and in many other countries. Everywhere it is greeted with rapturous critical and popular acclaim. Watch the video and you'll get an idea of why. When I saw it, the question immediately rose, "Is this circus or is it ballet?" The answer is "yes".

I know I'm simplifying this, but ballet is an art form where movement is used with music and story to present a unified and aesthetically pleasing whole. In ballet the extreme skill and athleticism of the dancer is a tool used to present the artform. In many ways the talent of the dancers and the sheer grind required to prepare for the performance are hidden: all appears effortless and the individual performer is sublimated to the overall flow of the piece. Circus, by contrast is a popular entertainment where the skill of the performer and his/her grace and strength are what it is all about. The acrobat performs a series of ever more spectacular tricks for their own sake, and there is little if any attempt to tell a story or interpret music or present an artistically pleasing whole. So, despite the similarities in grace and skill levels, you might think that ballet and circus were at opposite ends of a spectrum and could not be combined. This clip says they can be.

There is a long and rich tradition of circus in China. There is also a long history of dance and both of these are present in the Guangzhou performance. As well as drawing from their own cultural traditions, the troupe has also drawn on those of Europe, for Western classical ballet training and choreography are overtly present. Tchaikovsky's music is reinterpreted and given dimensions not seen before in this most popular and famous of ballets. No one in Europe has seen a ballet quite like this one before. No one in China has seen a circus quite like this one before. Here we have the gee whizz extravagance, the humour and the energy of the circus not detracting from but adding to the grace, beauty and artistry of ballet. The combination is astonishing. Breathtaking. Mind blowing. Wonderful.

The Guangzhou troupe show what can happen when paradigms are broken; when we allow our traditions to be reinterpreted in the light of something new.

Or, as in this case, in the light of something old.

Progress report


I'm glad to say everything is excruciatingly, boringly ordinary. Like a lumberjack I sleep all night and I wake all day, which is a welcome return to normal service. I'm walking most days, except for ones like today when the forecast high is 6 degrees. I have a very neat but nevertheless impressive scar which is rapidly learning an invisibility charm. I know which muscles to flex before I sneeze and mostly I remember. I'm on sick leave for another ten days: that looks about right. I expect to be back at work on Monday 4 August.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Who's Calling?


I was ordained in my late twenties and became an assistant in a large city parish. When I had served the customary three years I had the expected interview with my Bishop. Alan Pyatt, walking out of church with me one morning put his immense arm around my shoulders and said, "My boy, I'd like you to consider the Parish of Waihao Downs." That was it. There wasn't much to consider. The real meaning of his words, as anyone serving in the church in the late 1970s would have known, was, "My boy you're going to Waihao Downs. Pack your bags." So I followed the only course open to me. I went home and got out an atlas to find out where Waihao Downs was, and I packed my bags.

What followed, for Clemency and me, for infant Nick and for Bridget, who was born there, was the most wonderful few years, spent in 1000 square miles of the sort of country I have photographed above, and amongst gracious, spiritual, practical, alive people: the sort of people a city boy like me would never otherwise have encountered. The bishop knew best. Or rather, the church, acting in the person of the bishop called me and I had enough faith in that call to unquestioningly follow, to my very, very, great benefit. Things are done differently nowadays. No bishop would take the risk, even if s/he were able of trying to boss their clergy about like that. Instead there are appointing committees. There are CVs to be submitted and interviews to be undertaken. Sometimes there are Myers Briggs tests or interviews with counsellors. Always there will be a police check. For one job application I recently undertook there was a video interview. For one I declined to be part of there was a sort of gladiatorial bear pit where candidates competed against one another before the "calling" committee. It's all a lot more precise, I suppose, but the precision has come at a huge cost: our church has all but completely lost the sense of call.

Ordination is not a job it's a lifestyle. I can't imagine doing anything else, and the rewards of living with, building and encouranging a community of faith are incomparable. But if you treat the vocation of ministry as a job, with set tasks and rewards, then it simply doesn't stack up. The hours are long and the pay is wretched. In our church, "promotion" means more work and responsibility for the same money. You are always living on the sharp end of other people's expectations, projections and triangulations. The only way of living such a life happily is to do it out of a sense of call: God asks this of me, and because I am asked I will do it. But now, by and large, we have stopped calling. So we seldom talk of the rewards of living a life that we are uniquely fitted for; instead we argue ceaselessly about rights and privileges.We don't challenge people with gifting themselves to service; instead we invite them to submit a CV and apply for a job. If we make the short list, and then the holy grail of appointment, we are asked to sign contracts and job descriptions and goodness knows what before we even think about getting down to building a community of faith in a particular location.

To me it's a symptom of the malaise of the church. We have, in this instance, stopped acting from a time honoured basis in spirituality and have instead opted for methods of appointment borrowed from the society around us. Here is great danger for the church: we lose our sense of God and we lose our very sense of self. I have disliked this creeping secularism in the church for a long time. I have resisted, where possible, invitations to submit an application for particular posts. On those occasions when I have been persuaded, against my better judgment, to go along with this charade of treating the call of God as though it was an application to become an executive of Shell Oil, I have regretted it. So, never again. One of the results of this period of illness and blessedness which I have just gone through is a sharpening of spiritual sensibilities and a clarification of where my future in the church might lie. I know I can't change the church

"Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God,
brothers we are treading where we've always trod.
We are all divided, many factions we,
squabbling over doctrine, hope and charity.
"

The church is intractable. The systems we have evolved all have as their basic raison d'etre the continuation of the organisation and it's protection from radical change. I can do, however, the one thing open to me. I can change myself. I can refuse to play the games that are sapping away the lifeblood of the church. Today I made a symbolic gesture for myself. I burned the last copies of my CV and deleted all traces of it from my computer. I hope in the future I will go where God calls, but I am not going to apply for anything again. I'm blessed that I am in a position to do this, being vicar in a community where I am quite content to stay for the next decade or so. After all, I am called to be here.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

God Is Not Dead: Book Review


In this book the quantum physicist Amit Goswami promises much, but delivers little. Or to be more accurate, delivers quite a bit but not nearly as much as he tells you he is going to. He tells us that he is going to prove the existence of God and establish a new spiritual paradigm. Well.....

Amit Goswami has, in the past, written a very conventional textbook on Quantum Physics and has several other titles to his credit, mostly dealing with his somewhat innovative cosmology. He's the Indian guy featuring in the movie What The Bleep Do We Know!?

The subtitle, What Quantum Physics Tells Us About Our Origins And How We Should Live, is what sold the book to me, and the first section of the book is all about Quantum Physics or at least Goswami's version of it. This first section was, to me, worth the purchase price of the book, as Goswami makes comprehensible the down the rabbit hole reality which underlies the Newtonian physics we are used to encountering in daily life. Start looking at the structure of the universe on a scale smaller than an atom, and Toto, we ain't in Kansas anymore. Goswami allowed me to convince myself that I could understand this stuff - no mean feat. Initially his description of Quantum Physics is quite conventional (if QF can ever be thought of as conventional), but as the book progresses he makes one or two innovations.

His first innovation is small, but, to me, helpful. He reframes the concept of Quantum Probability as Quantum Possibility. Let me briefly explain: Quantum Probability is the concept that when you start to examine the little quarks and muons and other doohickeys that make up matter you never can actually tell where the little blighters are. All you can do is give a mathematical guess at where they might probably be. So, you can't point to a spot and say "yup, it's there, alright!" You can, instead, point to an area, called the Quantum Probability Field, and say, "the chances are, it's in there somewhere." So how big is a Quantum Probability field? Well, actually, how big is the Universe? The thing you are looking for could possibly be anywhere, and all you could say is that there is a certain mathematical probability that you will find it here, and a smaller probability that you would find it there. It's a small shift from Probability to Possibility, but in making the shift Goswami is underscoring the point that the object might possibly be anywhere in the field, that is, anywhere in the universe. He is laying the foundation for the claim that virtually anything is possible, and that it is consciousness which makes it exist or not.

Goswami tells us that the object in its Quantum Possibility field does not exist as a thing at all. It exists as a wave - a possibility wave - and is actually present simultaneously in every part of the Quantum field. He is not making up some weird new age theory here: this is simply a rephrasing of standard Quantum Physics. Again, in keeping with standard thought he says that when the thing is observed, it changes. It stops being a wave, present in every part of the field, and becomes a particle present in one particular place in the field. The possibility wave is "collapsed" into a particular time and place as a particle.

Goswami's next innovation is the one which he bases his book around. He notes that the consciousness which does the collapsing is itself a particular thing. Any individual consciousness is a conglomerate of possibilites, and to exist it has itself been collapsed from a field of quantum possibilities: Quantum Consciousness. Goswami says that Quantum Consciousness is God, and spends most of the book trying to prove it. He says that the Quantum Consciousness field, and not matter is the Ground of Being. This means that rather than the customary idea circulating in Western Culture that consciousness is a sort of by product of a certain arrangement of matter, matter is to be thought of as a sort of by product of consciousness. He identifies the process by which possibility becomes actuality through the process of observation with the Divine Creation, and says this is the means by which our universe exists. This is an intriguing idea, and is perfectly in keeping with, for example Meister Eckhart and many other mystical writers. If Goswami stopped here he would have contributed immensely to the work of reconciling scientific and spiritual paradigms of truth. Unfortunately he doesn't stop here.

Most of the book is concerned with Goswami trying to prove his theory, and thus, to prove the existence of God. He does about as well as you might expect ie not very. His great error is in making authoritative sounding statements with little to back them up. For example, when talking of the process of emergence as an explanation of life, Goswami says this:

" But in view of what we know about how simple systems make up complex systems, such as atoms making up molecules, with no irreducibility there (since we know that molecules can be reduced to atoms and their interactions) the holists' claim sounds preposterous."

That's not an introductory sentence. That is his entire argument against the Holism of, for example, Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. This example is typical of the whole book, where mere assertion is passed off as definitive proof. The book comes nowhere near proving the existence of God, but who should be surprised at that? Those who know God need no proof, those who need proof are incapable of knowing God.

There are some useful ideas in the book; his theory ties in nicely with a Jungian theory of personality for instance. There are also some things in the book which seem to me to be just plain silly: Goswami's guess at the age of the universe, for example. The book finishes with a section on living a life of Quantum Activism which is an acknowledgment that a spiritual life must be an ethical life. Quantum Activism turns out to be a fairly standard restatement of the Buddha's Noble Eight Fold Path, but hey? What's wrong with that? You can't go far wrong sticking to the Noble Eightfold Path.

It's an interesting book, and the first 61 pages are very helpful: intriguing, cogent and illuminating. The rest of it? Worth a flick through, but I might advise trying to borrow a copy rather than buying it.

(Details of the book, including publication data and pricing are found on the carousel widget to the right of this entry)

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Great Evolution Debate


Some years ago I had some well meaning friends who, greatly concerned for my theological failings, used to give me creationist magazines in an attempt to convert me. The magazines were very well produced: large and glossy, with good photos. Each issue contained 20 or so stories each proving without a shadow of doubt the shortcomings and imminent demise of the theory of evolution. Each of the stories was quite convincing. Each of the stories was complete and utter bollocks. A typical story might involve a rock that had been sent to a laboratory for age testing. The age given by the laboratory would be completely at odds with the age calculated by some geologist or other, thus proving, once and for all, the fallacy of the dating process and thus the fallacy of the whole theory of evolution. Of course if the good people at 6 Days R Us want a cover story and send enough samples away to enough different laboratories, they will sooner or later get an aberrant reading, especially if they choose a dating method particularly unsuited to that particular type of rock. The magazines didn't ever convince me, much to the sorrow of my friends, but to try and explain why took a long time, as each of the stories required some research and explanation as to why I thought it was CAUB. They couldn't have been convinced anyway, as no matter what question was asked, which argument was presented, no matter what evidence was shown them, they had already decided on the answer: 6 Days, by God, and oh yes there was a flood.

In the last few days I have had dealings, from a number of sources, with people who hold positions at the other end of the spectrum of this argument. Although the evolutionists are more scientifically astute, I'm afraid that they are no more advanced in their ability to listen or to entertain a position contrary to their own. Their particular modus operandi is to listen tentatively until they hear a trigger phrase - say, irreducible complexity or the names Behe or Dembski - and then out comes a preformed line of argument only incidentally related to anything I have been saying and garnished with equal amounts of vitriol and sputum. The argument runs a course, rather like the lines I used to draw on my desk when I was at school; the more the pencil moves down the line, the less chance there is that in the future the pencil will take any other course than that line. The answer given in any circumstance is: by gradual descent and by natural selection and if there's not a "natural" answer then one will turn up soon, yes really, you plonker.

The pencil, moving down a well worn line over which we originally had control but do no longer; making the line deeper and, with every passage of the sharpened tip, less open to deviation. In all the raging battles over evolution no-one but no-one from either side is ever converted to the other, or even influenced a little. All the arguments do is entrench the other side more and more firmly in their self belief. This is because, in this argument as in so many others, truth is not the objective, argument is the objective. Holding an identifiable position, knowing we hold that position, the emotions which are aroused when we defend it, having recognisable enemies against whom our position can be made distinctive - all contribute to building our sense of self. Unfortunately, the self that we have a sense of is illusory. It is the desire to avoid that knowledge which makes us cling with ferocity to those things which bolster our illusion.

The deep drawn pencil lines are myriad in our psyches: beliefs, habits of behaviour, unvarying ways of reacting emotionally -these are patterns of mind and behaviour over which we may have once had control, but are now so set and so pervasive that they are integral to the way we think of ourselves; to our understanding of who we are. We argue over evolution, and the belief systems called upon, and the feelings evoked in us give us the deep reassurance that we are who we think we are. Of course we don't want the truth - if we got that, we might have to reevaluate everything, and then where would we be?

For the record, my self boosting opinion is that in this particular case, neither side is true and neither side is entirely not true.

We won't find the truth in our entrenched arguments over evolution or gay priests or any other thing. We will only find it when we are able to abandon our reassuring illusions, look within, and understand that I Am.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Which Evolution?


There is no doubt that the earth is very old, about 4.6 billion years old by most calculations and that life appeared on it a very long time ago although no-one is sure when. It is certain also that all the multifarious forms of life we know evolved from a common ancestry. What is not so certain is how. How did life begin and what was the mechanism by which species divided off, and prospered or not as the case may be?

For 150 years the dominant answer to these questions has been "Darwinism." Darwinism is not a synonym for evolution; rather, it is a particular theory about how evolution occurs. Darwinism posits that random variation and natural selection are the two mechanisms which gave rise to all the various species that have ever lived and by which life itself began. There have been other theories over the last century and a half and a determined rearguard battle on behalf of those who are incapable of thinking metaphorically and thus need to accept the literal truth of the Genesis account, but by and large Darwinism has reigned supreme. Given that so much of Western Science is interconnected, and that such questions as "where do we find oil", "how do we fight this disease?" or "where will the next earthquake occur?" have a large evolutionary component in their answers, the commitment to evolution amongst scientist is almost universal. Unfortunately debate over evolution has become narrowly focused into a square off between Biblical creationism on the one hand and Darwinism on the other. This has led to a diminution of thinking about evolution, as any questioning of the Darwinian orthodoxy is seen as caving into the totally unacceptable creationist alternative.

Unfortunately, there is much that Darwinism can't explain about our evolutionary history. The origin of life, for example, and the development of organisms at a sub cellular level. The questions left by Darwinism are met amongst hard core Darwinists with a faith that would do any Christian credit. "The answer is not apparent, but it will be found, and probably soon" is the stock response. The gaps in Darwinism are what gave rise to the Intelligent Design movement. Intelligent Design thinkers such as Michael Behe noted the difficulty of Darwinism in explaining the existence of simple organisms which, when subject to microscopic examination, turn out to be enormously complex and appear to have no more primitive forms out of which they might have developed. The questions were good ones, but the Intelligent Design movement was quickly hijacked by the Biblical creationists who quite wrongly assumed that an attack on Darwinism was an attack on the whole concept of evolution, and that if Darwin was proven wrong, everyone would shrug and return to Genesis. The Intelligent Design movement has lost most of its credibility in this battle, but the questions have not gone away.

Right now, in Altenburg in Austria there is a meeting of sixteen leading evolutionary theorists who are discussing ways in which the obvious shortcomings of Darwinism may be addressed . They are suggesting innovative ways of explaining the obvious fact of evolution in terms of the new knowledge given us by quantum physics and genetics. This may well be one of the most significant scientific gatherings in the history of Western science. Just as Darwinian thinking has given a paradigm that has influenced politics, business and interpersonal affairs for over a century, so now a new way of thinking about ourselves is emerging. It is exciting news not just for evolutionary biologists and geneticists but for all who are interested in truth.

Monday, 14 July 2008

A Thought Experiment


Let's imagine for a moment that reincarnation is true (and, no, all of those concerned for my orthodoxy, please don't send me the scripture references proving that it's not. This is a thought experiment. A fantasy, OK?) Now assume something else: that when your soul departs for the great waiting room in the sky where you hang about until you get your next posting, you are beyond space and time. That is, the waiting room doesn't follow our linear timescale and it is quite possible for your next life to be historically before the one you have just exited from. Or, it might be that you are reincarnated contemporaneously with your current existence.

With me so far? Now let's say, purely as a fantasy that the second scenario holds: that you come back again, in a different body and live a different life, but you live it at the same time as your current life. You could run into yourself in the street, and of course you would never know it.

Now lets take an even greater and more absurd leap of fantasy. What say every human being currently living, all six billion of them, are actually simultaneous reincarnations of yourself. Underneath their differences in gender, ethnicity, culture,clothing, lifestyle and history, all the people you encounter and the ones you only hear about and even the ones you are never going to hear about are actually you in disguise: your spouse and your offspring; Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe; your best friend and the guy you don't like very much; the pleasant person who drives your bus, the tired woman who bags up your groceries, the baby you see on TV with the flies on his face and the swollen belly, the annoying kid from next door with the loud motorbike; all of them, every last one, is really you. The transactions you now have with every single person you encounter are ones which you will one day be viewing from the other side. Whatever you give, absolutely you will one day receive. Whatever it is that is pitiable, enviable, ignorable, annoying, pleasing or desirable about the other will one day be yours to handle. If this were all true, what difference might it make to the way you think of yourself? What difference would it make to the way you think of others and treat them?

Oddly, although this is just a fantasy and although the mechanics are a bit different, Jesus suggests something very like this scenario in Matthew 22:39
We are enjoined to treat everyone as though they were ourselves: to understand and cut them the slack. To realise that they are no better and no worse than us. To know that given their circumstances we would probably be acting precisely as they are now, no matter how idiotic it might look to us right at the moment.

And even more oddly, Meister Eckhart, and in fact all the great mystics suggest that this idea of simultaneous reincarnation is not too far from the way the universe actually works. He is not suggesting that I am reincarnated in everyone, but rather that my consciousness participates in something that is shared by every sentient being. At my deepest level, says the Meister, is my ground. Built on top of the ground is a structure of all that makes me seem separate: -character, history, experience and so forth - but this structure is temporary and in the final analysis, illusory. The ground and the ground only is what is real. And my ground and your ground are the same. And my ground and God's ground are the same. Not just similar, not just made of the same stuff, but identical. We are one, all of us. And all of us derive that part of us that is ultimately real by sharing in the reality of God.

It's interesting how some descriptions of quantum physics seem to be saying much the same thing. It's hard to get your head around, and hard to believe. So if you can't believe it, or can't understand it I guess the best advice is not to try - you'll only give yourself a headache. Instead, follow Jesus' advice: you don't need to understand it and believe it, just act on it.

Here's What You Do With This Stuff


My readings for this morning continue: Joshua 18-19, Psalms 149-150, Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In terms of living the day, I shall probably get more sustenance from the two psalms than from the continuing story of Joshua's division of the booty with his fellow Hebrews, and Jesus' warnings about various spiritual traps will certainly give me pause for thought. But there is something edifying about today's complete set of writings: it's like a core sample down through the layers of scripture. In these four passages is seen the development of spiritual insight down through the centuries. In this progression of understanding and revelation is the beginning of the trajectory which leads from Joshua in the second millennium bc through to me at the start of the third millennium AD.

All things evolve: it seems to be one of the fundamental properties of the universe. Things change, grow develop: individual things, and groups of things such as solar systems and galaxies and species. The things that we sentient beings create - civilisations, relationships, families, technologies, ideas - also evolve. We ourselves evolve - bodily spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. It just seems to be the way things are.

So why be surprised to notice the evolving scripture? Why did I not see this a couple of days ago? That in scripture's evolution is great hope and the promise of redemption. Of course Joshua was a brigand and a despot. Of course he behaved in ways which would have had him up before a war crimes commission in our own century. But he is the beginning, not the end. He's where we started from, not where we're going to. I remembered this morning that he is the one after whom Jesus is named. What begins with brutality and lust for land ends with the golden rule and the sermon on the mount. In that remembering there is, for me, great hope. Joshua, the leader who embodied much that is wrong in the human condition is nevertheless the source of a stream of blessing.

Joshua tells me that there is nothing that can't be redeemed. There is no person so far gone as to be outside the possibility of salvation.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

What Do You Do With This Stuff?


For a long time now I have been in the habit of reading through the Old Testament once and through the New Testament and Psalms twice a year. Usually it's a pleasure. Sometimes it's a discipline. Occasionally it's a burden. Today was occasionally. One of the four chapters I read today was Joshua 11, which carries on the story of Joshua's genocidal progress through the land of Canaan. Joshua, like most mass murderers, has a ritualistic pattern to his butchery. He takes a city. He butchers every person in the city - men, women and children. He makes off with those things - sheep cattle and basic equipment, for example - which his limited imagination can make use of and those things which are too sophisticated for his taste- houses and chariots, for example - he burns. Lastly, if he has captured him, he ritualistically tortures and murders the king of the city, mutilates the corpse and erects a stone cairn as a sort of trophy.

Of course it's wrong to apply the moral standards of the 21st Century to events that happened a millennium and a half before the birth of Jesus. Joshua was no worse (and, obviously, no better) than any other petty despot of the period pursuing the main chance. What is more tricky for us modern readers is the fact that God is portrayed as party to the programme of ethnic cleansing. Not only does God sanction this behaviour he aids and abets it. When Joshua was committing so many murders that he couldn't fit them all into his working day, God, acting on orders from Joshua, caused the sun to stand still in the sky so that more babies, women and men could be hacked to bits. The stories of Joshua are interspersed with brave and heartbreaking stories of the Canaanites desperately gathering in attempts to defend themselves, their lands, homes and families from the murderous Hebrews. These attempts always fail. How could they not? God is on the Hebrews' side.

It is not passages like the profound metaphors of the early chapters of Genesis which should cause us to question our approach to scripture but, rather, passages like these middle chapters of Joshua. The only way anybody could ever possibly take these passages literally is by never reading them. The archaeological record does show a sophisticated Canaanite culture being over-run by a cruder Hebrew one at about this time, so they are, I suppose, of some historical interest, although the fiction of the Earth stopping it's rotation for a while should alert us at once not to place too much emphasis on their factuality. They could be read metaphorically, but even as metaphors they don't work well. They are metaphors of what? What sort of God is displayed here? The murderous, petty, foul tempered old God of Joshua seems to have nothing in common with the father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ or with Einstein's Old Wise One.

The only way I can deal with these passages is to remind myself that evolution is the way the universe works. These passages come from the dawn of historical humankind. A petty leader of an agglomeration of itinerant tribes, a despot who makes Robert Mugabe look good in comparison, is recorded carrying out the business of all petty leaders of his time: carving a homeland out for his people with no regard for the cost to others of his actions. Even in the midst of these brutal, but for the times, probably unexceptional actions, he and his recorders perceive a sense of the numinous. Around this sense of The Other they construct an image of the deity not too different in personality and intention from Joshua himself. It is hardly ultimate truth, but it's a start. Reading these distasteful stories tells us, the people of God, where we began on the great spiritual quest. As we read further, seeing the transformation of Joshua's vengeful tribal deity into the global God of the prophets and the cosmic God of John's Gospel we can see how far we have moved. Further, we can get the sense of a direction, an evolutionary path along which our understanding of God is growing. Further still, we can gain a sense that this growth is not meandering, and is not accidental: there is a mind here, guiding it. God is leading us: God is discovering us just as much as we are discovering God. Even further, as we see the pattern of growth we can speculate further as to where God may be leading us.

All Scripture is inspired by God, says Paul to Timothy. I guess the difficulty with passages such as the one served up to me this morning, is exactly what do we mean by "inspired". If we think "inspired" means "infallible" or "inerrant" or "literally true", we make a tyrant of God and a jackass of Holy Writ. The inspired book of Joshua, distasteful though it appears, requires far more of us than that.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Catching Up


I'm still catching up on Sunday. I went to church for the first time in ages: the 1662 service at 8:00 am suited me just fine even thought here was snow on the ground and the heaters in the church had not quite yet achieved the upper hand. In the afternoon I took part in a prayer service for a greatly respected friend, and afterward Clemency and I hosted those present to afternoon tea. Or at least Clemency hosted and I sat regally on the couch looking pale and interesting. There was a large open fire in our drawing room while the wind and rain grimaced angrily through the windows at the warmth inside. All of the 9 people present were intelligent, well read, accomplished and interested in each other. Some were part of an interdisciplinary group which gathers at the University of Otago to research the interface of spirituality, consciousness and science. There was good coffee and a rather delicious tea cake with ginger and raisins.I couldn't have designed a more congenial, stimulating and invigorating gathering if I had tried. After an hour of it, I was tired. Drained. Shattered. Done. Euchred.

I spent Monday recovering, and managed, today, a drive out to MacAndrew Bay for lunch, sitting in the passenger seat of the car like an old frail man, before returning home to exercise my concentration by fiddling with photos (like the one above) and doing a jigsaw puzzle.

It's not the way I want to be; but for some days maybe even weeks yet, it's the way I am. The reason for being so pathetic are obvious. A little over a fortnight ago I lay on a table for 4 1/2 hours while a guy slashed and hacked and sewed away at one end of me. At the other end, another guy kept me oblivious of the fact by pumping some quite noxious chemicals up my nose. Fumes went in and blood came out, and then, when I was awake and my body started to protest the whole deal, more chemicals were pumped in to keep it quiet.

It's not the way I want to be, but for some weeks yet it's the way I am because my will - what I want to be - is not what decides what happens. The events of the past, and the inevitable consequences of those events are what define much of my present reality, which should not come as a surprise, for this is actually how it is for all of us, all the time. When Paul rattles on about not being able to do what he wills, he is is hard up against this reality: it is seldom, if ever our wills which decide the outcomes of our great inner struggles. In the face of this, most of us take the really stupid course of action: in disbelief at our own impotence we gird up our metaphorical, spiritual and moral loins and try harder. The results of this are that we feel more exhausted for much the same result. So, I recognise the lingering effects of anaesthesia and put more effort into my conversation and cheerful smiles. It just means I sleep longer on Monday. What is required is to ackowledge the inevitability of our own weakness and not to struggle but to be aware; to watch ourselves with the compassion that God extends to us and simply learn what is going on. When we can achieve this, the battle isn't merely won; it evaporates entirely.

The three great laws of spirituality, says Anthony De Mello are these:
1. Awareness
2. Awareness and,
3. Awareness.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Thats it!


That's it. I had the last bit done at 8:00 this morning. It took 5 minutes: short and sharp. Eye wateringly sharp. But now, 4 hours later all is described by Spike Milligan's answer to the question, "is anything worn under the kilt?"
There are blood tests in August, but here's hoping. The odds are, this thing is gone for good, never to return and plague me again.

And for today, it is wonderful to be well.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Road Winds Ever On and On


There's some things you don't want to hear: "This is your captain speaking. There's no need to panic," for instance or "Sir, these tickets are for the flight that left last Saturday," or the one I heard on Tuesday, "Hello Mr. Wright, this is Mr. Samalia. We have your lab results back. I know we have an appointment for Friday, but could you please come and see me at 4:30 tomorrow? Oh... and you'd better bring your wife."

Bugger.

Bridget, who was with me when the phone call came, burst into tears, and, for the first time in this whole process, so did I. Yesterday was another of those extremely long days but in the end it was not so bad. I have, apparently had cancer for as long as 10-12 years. It is aggressive, meaning not so much that it is speedy, but that it shows no scruples about invading organs other than its host. It had moved outside of the prostate and into surrounding tissues, but not extensively and the surgeon is confident that he got all of it. The only warning bell is that one of several lymph nodes taken was cancerous. Only one, but as there is no way of knowing whether other nodes still in my body may have been infected, I'll have blood tests every couple of months from now on which will show up any nefarious activity. If there is anything untoward, it will mean radiotherapy. If the radiotherapy doesn't work, it will mean hormone treatment. These treatments will affect the quality, but not necessarily the length of my life, and there is every chance I am already home free. Yesterday was a calmer night than the one before.

I waddled slowly up to the Roslyn shops this morning, had a celebratory soy latte, then made my way home again walking sort of like ambulatory tai chi. I'll need a wee lie down after all that effort, but there's now a road ahead. Perhaps, God willing, a very long road ahead. Perhaps tomorrow I might slow mo my way up to the Maori Hill shops? Or the botanical gardens? And next week manage a drive to the Catlins? Or that nice little restaurant in Moeraki Village? Or both?

Today, Rhubarb Cafe! Tomorrow, the world!

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Gafcon? The long night of the soul for the Anglican Church


On August 5 1973, when I was 21 years old, I gave my life to the Lord Jesus Christ and became a Christian. I was led through the sinners prayer by a glittery eyed young man in the back room of the Assembly of God in Lower Hutt despite my great intellectual doubts about the whole exercise. My intellectual doubts have, in some senses, continued unabated ever since, but one thing I can't deny. Whatever happened on that Sunday night worked. I was ushered into a personal relationship with God which has also continued unabated ever since. The persistent lived, felt experience of another - not a something but a someone - began at that moment.

We Christians proclaim and live a paradox. We claim that Almighty God has lived amongst us in the person of Jesus and that through his life, death and resurrection we can enter a knowing, experiential relationship with God. Yet, even the briefest reflection on who and what God is should convince us that God is unknowable.This paradox accounts for much in our faith: the fluidity of thought, practice and belief. It lies behind our conception of God, framed as another paradox: three persons in one being. It is, to use a cop out phrase, a mystery of faith, and one which the congregations I first joined avoided like the plague. Unable to deal easily with paradox, the Assembly of God, then the New Life Centre escaped into an easy, but false certainty. They were comforting places for a troubled young man (which I was) but an extremely discomforting one for an intelligent young man (which I was). I might, after a short spell, have retreated from the stifling sense of certainty by deserting the faith altogether, as the overwhelming majority of those converted around the same time as me have done. Instead I found Anglicanism.

There are personal and accidental reasons I became an Anglican, but really, it was the grace of God, for here was a church founded on paradox. We began with a group of faithful divines seeking to realise the new knowledge of the reformation and a randy king seeking to annul his marriage for political reasons as well as prurient ones. We were shaped in the tension between Catholic and Protestant, between presbyterian and episcopal. Held together by agreement on the Lambeth quadrilateral over time we formed a pragmatic amalgam of churches which not only recognised the paradox at the heart of Christianity but lived it. No not just lived it, celebrated it. With the security of our founding principles and methods of worship, we could allow for a variety of thought and a freedom of expression which would have (and in fact did) blow lesser churches apart.

Our robustness has not proven infinite however. A group of Anglicans is at this moment eating their in flight meals as they wing their way homeward from Jerusalem, having spent a week penning this statement . The evangelical part of our paradoxical church have had it up to here with the liberal part, and with many of their concerns, I heartily concur. Sunday school syllabuses that look like warmed over social studies. Worship that seeks so hard to tick all the boxes for the cause du jour that it forgets to mention Jesus, except to drag him out for a bit of proof texting. Theology that seeks to dispense with God altogether. Schmaltzy modern hymns which wring hands over our feelings but not much else. I can't stand it either. But I'm no more enamoured of the church proposed in the Gafcon final statement.

I don't know what on earth they think they're making but it's not Anglican. By plumping for one pole of the continuum they are dispensing with the very thing which makes our church unique and makes it great. We are the spark that leaps across the gap between two electrodes. Over the years the names on the electrodes change, but the spark: that produced by living in the tension of paradox, has remained. It can't remain if you opt for one pole or another. If I'd wanted to stay with evangelical certainty, I would have remained a Pentecostal: I would have been better paid and worn a finer class of suit. Now I am left with a dilemma. As our church divides, as it surely must despite the Gafcon hand waving, which side do I go with? The liberal rump, now unfettered by conservative reticence? You've got to be kidding! The Gafcon conservatives, with their stifling self perceived certainties? No thank you! I have about ten years to go before retirement. Perhaps if I hunker down in St. John's Roslyn and pay all that stuff no mind, I might just make it through before I have to make that sort of choice.

I read that the Gafcon declaration was passed with singing and worship. I hope it was loud enough to mask the real noise being emitted: the sickening crunch of ice on metal and the sound of a hull being ripped open. The Titanic, also, split in two on its way to the ocean floor. I don't think it mattered to many of the passengers which half of the ship they were on.