Monday, 28 October 2013

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

It happens sometimes. I have a question or am pondering some conundrum or other and the right book arrives at pretty much the right time. In a session with my supervisor a few months back Paul mentioned an article by Rene Girard, whom I had never heard of. I read the article and over the past month have read two of his books, The Scapegoat and this one. I have another couple sitting on my shelf and they have elbowed all others in my to be read pile out of the way and sit firmly on the top.

Girard has pulled a number of threads together for me: he has enabled me to rethink the atonement in a way which is consistent with an evolving Universe: he presents a view of scripture which is again consistent with what I know of science but is also faithful to the Bible as the Word of God; he has given me, for the first time in my life a theology (if that is the right word) of Satan which makes sense to me. Most importantly for me, he is consistent with my own lived experience of God's saving action in Jesus Christ.

Girard is primarily an anthropologist and a philosopher. He writes with that convoluted almost poetic style of the French academy but he is a quite accessible writer. In any event, there is, at the beginning of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning a succinct summary of his argument, so that no-one need get lost. His primary aim is to be understood.

The starting point for his work is the phenomenology of myths. He takes mythology very seriously and says that behind even the most fantastic of them there are actual events which have gone through a process of revision and retelling which follows an identifiable pattern. His elucidation of this in many instances is quite compelling. Behind every myth he says is a process of escalating mimetic competition, and isn't that a phrase to conjure with?.

Mimesis is the human instinct to learn through mimicking others. Our skills are picked up in this way, but so also are attitudes and thoughts. In particular we learn what is desirable by copying what others find desirable, particularly those we regard as our superiors. This mimetic learning is what makes us human and enables us to build a culture that outstrips that of any other animal known to us. Mimesis is thus a very commendable thing, but it does have a serious drawback. Even as it builds community, and instructs us in the requirements of our particular culture our mimetic desire brings us into conflict with others. This conflict escalates and would destroy the culture created by mimesis except for the fact that every culture has found a common way of dealing with the problem: the scapegoat mechanism. An individual is singled out - someone different in some way from others in the community who is identified as the cause of the problems caused by mimesis. This individual is then expelled - exiled or killed - thus allowing the community to be (temporarily) rid of its conflict. The expelled one thus becomes not only the cause of the conflict (from the community's perspective) but also the cause of its healing. The identity of the victim and the stories told concerning him/her then undergo a transition - the victim grows in magical power with every retelling,  and eventually is divided into two, a good and an evil character, and over a period of time the stories of the victim are bowdlerised and become the myths of the culture (although always retaining an identifiable trace of the original mimetic escalation and act of violence).

The process of mimetic escalation leading to victimisation Girard identifies with Satan, who does not possess Being, but is sort of a hyper projection - a parasite, he says, living on human consciousness.

This process is universal, claims Girard, and is countered in only one way: namely the life death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus becomes the classic scapegoat - or more accurately, The Lamb of God. The innocent one becomes the focus of the escalating mimetic contagion of the various groups in first Century Palestine. His death allows them all to unite and find a harmony otherwise impossible. Jesus acts, in other words, in a way common to scapegoated victims in every culture and every grouping the world has known to date, but there is one important difference. Unlike other scapegoats, Jesus returns and thus begins the unwinding of the whole mechanism which has both built and enslaved humankind.

I have, of course, greatly simplified Girard's argument, and there are points on which I do not quite agree with Girard. I am not sure, for instance, that all desire is mimetic; some arises from those instincts and impulses hardwired into us by our evolutionary history. But generally I find his theory refreshing and convincing.

This is a shortish book, 200 pages or so including footnotes, and one I would recommend. It sits comfortably with my contemplative practice and has given me a new depth of understanding of and appreciation for the scripture and of Jesus

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Order of St. Luke

Part of the farm attached to Living Springs campsite. I brought a camera but didn't use it for any of the more typical bits of the week's activities. This shot will have to do. 
This past week was spent at Totara Springs, near Matamata, attending the international conference of The Order of St. Luke. I was there to deliver a keynote address and lead a workshop on meditation. The OSL has as its raison d'etre the promotion of the ministry of healing, an aim with which I have developed a considerable sympathy over the past few years. I had been a member many years ago, but let my membership lapse. Back then, in my thirties, I had found my fellow members to be a decade or two older than me and their ways of doing things a little too highly regulated for my taste. When Archbishop David Moxon moved to Rome and could no longer attend the international conference I agreed to take his place in the programme. Coincidentally, the invitation to attend and speak came at about the same time that Bill Sim was putting effort into reinvigorating the local branch, and with Bill's enthusiastic encouragement I had become peripherally involved once more. 

I arrived in Matamata wondering how much had changed in the OSL in the 20 or so years since my departure, and it seemed on first glance, not much. I play a little private game in most Anglican meetings: I count the number of people in the room younger than myself. No matter what the size of the meeting, I seldom have to use the fingers of both hands, and the first night's informal gathering was no exception. In fact that first night I didn't have to use the fingers of even one hand. This was one of those cases where first impressions were more than a little deceiving. Things have changed in the OSL and I suspect they are about to change a whole lot more.

After the opening pleasantries I was first up. I spoke of an incident that had happened in our family some years ago which had caused me to retain an unshakeable belief in the power of God to heal. I spoke of my own current illness and of the difference between healing and cure. I spoke of the link between body mind and spirit as three interrelated dimensions of our being and of our temporary presence in this world as part of a greater scheme that God seems to have for the universe. It seemed to be received well.

It was a pleasure to be in the audience for the other conference speakers. Dr. Jack Sheffield from Texas spoke about his work in healing centres and of the Glory of God. He is a lively personality and a very entertaining man but he showed the depth and vulnerability that can only come from someone who has faced and integrated personal loss. Dr. Colin Campbell from Canada soundly addressed the link between faith and science. He gave a brief history of the development of scientific thought in the West, linking it to the development of Western Christian thought, and outlined a metaphysics which can accommodate both the physics he teaches in his professional life and the the healing ministry his practices and promotes.

There was the usual conference round of workshops and discussion groups and worship services, but for me the most revelatory part was meeting the other participants. As the main body of participants arrived the next day I did find a few - well, actually quite a few - people younger than myself, some of them much younger. Regardless of age I found in almost every conversation people who have struggled with their own issues of health and wholeness but who despite this - or perhaps because of this - are deeply committed to developing the theology and practice of divine healing. I had some powerful and moving encounters with some very special people. Amongst the younger attendees in particular I found an urgency to connect their faith with what they knew of the workings of people as bodies and minds and spirits.

I was impressed by the growing enthusiasm for establishing  Healing Centres. Jack Sheffield ran a workshop on this way of  opening the ministry of Christian Healing to the general public, and there are already several places in the country where steps are being taken to establish them.

The OSL is reinventing itself and could, over the next few years, be a means by which we can develop a more complete practice of Christian healing than we have hitherto known. I left on Friday and was driven through familiar Waikato countryside to Hamilton airport feeling refreshed encouraged and hopeful.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013


Photo (c) Nick Wright 2013
Lately our little house has been bursting at the seams, with five extra adults and two infants. My daughter Bridget and her husband Scott returned from Doha so that I could baptise 19 week old Noah. Nick, Charmayne and Naomi came over from Sydney for the event as did Clemency's sister and some of Scott's family. We had borrowed folding cots and high chairs and car seats. There was an airbed in my study and people sleeping in the caravan, and the house had the sort of pleasantly chaotic holiday feel of lots of people in a small space that I remember so fondly from childhood Christmases.

We had decided that the most appropriate place for the baptism was our local parish church - this was not a Diocesan occasion , so the other logical choice, the Cathedral, was reluctantly set aside - and the people at St. Michael's and All Angels Anderson's Bay did us proud. This was St. Michael's Day, their patronal festival, so there was a beautifully arranged service followed by one of those spectacular morning teas where the best recipes of  most of the parish are (literally) up for grabs. I was glad my family concerns could be so generously accommodated. I presided at the Eucharist and preached and then baptised my grandson.

An odd thing happens to me when I baptise children, or at least sometimes it does. I take the child from its parents and hold it. I look into its eyes and a connection is made. The child will often stop crying and smile, but something deeper than that happens. I can't quite articulate this, but in that moment I know the child; that's not to say I know about the child or have some sort of clairvoyant access to information concerning its future, but I have a deep sense of what is in this little one and what they will become. On one occasion, sadly fulfilled,  it was a sense of  imminent tragedy, and on a couple of other occasions, a sense of the hugeness of mind and spirit. If I seek this connection or expect it, it won't happen. So with Noah, I tried to be open, to him and to God, as we moved towards the sacrament.

I had preached about the hugeness of time, and the utter improbability of something which cannot be denied - this Universe's arising from the Big Bang. I gave Noah a small fossil - a bivalve from the Jurassic period I had carried about for the 20 years since, in company with his mother, I had dug it out of a cliff face near Raglan. I tried to convey the loving intention of the Living God in creating this universe and calling us all to be part of it. I spoke of how the purposes of God, intuited in the discernible progress of the Universe are clearly revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; who calls us into the life into which I was about to initiate Noah.

Then I took him asleep from Bridget, and poured water on him in the name of the Holy Trinity. He woke and smiled , and I held him to me and knew nothing of him but my love for him, and his for me; and of the love with which he was surrounded on every side, and which had flowed through the Universe since the beginning of time until this point in that little church just down the road from our small, heavily populated house. I prayed for him and for his parents, three of the dearest people in the world to me, accepted the candle offered by the parish as a token of the light of Christ and gave him back to Bridget.

We talked and ate, and returned home to talk and eat some more. Late in the afternoon the crowds thinned out a bit. Today Bridget, Scott and Noah returned to Doha, and Nick's family return to Sydney on Saturday. We will be back to normal, but Sunday has reminded me how beautiful and how privileged "normal" is.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Auld Mug

Photo (c) TVNZ 2013

1.5 million of us Kiwis watched the America's Cup, which is pretty impressive in a country of a little over 4 million. Even as I turned on my TV at 8 every morning and waited impatiently to see if the winds would be right in San Francisco Bay I wondered why. After all, the America's Cup must be as far from the mythical Kiwi image we all try and project as it's possible to get.

For a start, two syndicates spending more than a quarter of a billion between them on yachts that would have no use whatsoever once one of them crossed the final line seems to give a pretty big two fingered salute to our clean and green self talk, even if they are wind powered. And then there's the whole cup ethos. Ever since the schooner America beat the field in the Isle of Wight race in 1851 to claim the cup for the first time, it has been a contest of egos between extremely rich men for a prize with no real intrinsic value. What with sailing being probably the most highly regulated sport on the planet, and with the yachts being taken from the water to be weighed and measured after every race, it is a contest in which it is pretty near impossible to actually cheat. But within the rules laid down for the conduct of the race and for the construction of the boats the tradition of the cup has always been that competitors use all their vast reserves of money and ingenuity and personnel to carve out some small advantage for themselves. So the contest is one of management, where the skills of designer, engineer, sailmaker, boatbuilder, programmer and, occasionally, lawyer are as decisive as those of helmsman and navigator. You can't win the America's cup without having lots and lots of money, or at least knowing where to get it. You can't win if you allow your sympathy for your opponent get in the way of your desire to be first. As Sir Peter Blake said,

"To win, you have to believe you can do it. You have to be passionate about it. You have to really "want" the result - even if this means years of work."

 So how does this sit with us Kiwis with our self professed egalitarianism and our instinctive empathy with the underdog? Why does this waterborne parallel of Formula One car racing take on such symbolic significance for us? Why are we gripped by a contest where the winner is the one who can best get one over the other guy? Why in the country which first enfranchised women and where we took social responsibility so seriously do we become obsessed by a pointless competition between extremely rich men?

We all live fairly close to the sea, so a lot of us sail, or at least have had a crack at it. Many of us have had the experience of actually racing or of crewing for a mate on  the occasional Saturday afternoon, so we do  know the peculiar joys and frustrations of harvesting winds and tides in order to move a boat in a certain direction.

Partly it's spectacle. With the quality of television graphics (designed and developed in New Zealand, of course) and the omnipresence of cameras on and below and above and beside the boats even the least nautically minded spectators can grasp the fundamentals of the race and the subtlety of the tactics. Watched from shore a yacht race is a few triangles of cloth moving picturesquely but incomprehensibly in slow motion in the far distance. On an LCD widescreen  it is a gripping, high powered duel, demanding from its participants high levels of  intelligence and muscle power, steely nerves, patience and quick decision making.

But there's more than that. To quote Peter Blake again,

"The America’s Cup is what it is because it is so difficult to win.
It is not a game for armchair admirals.
It is not a game for the person who is not prepared to come back.
It is not a game for the faint hearted.
It is a game for those who are not scared of pitting themselves against the best that the world has to offer.
It’s a game where winning is almost impossible, almost, but not impossible.
And this is why it is worth fighting for. It is the difficulty that gives any challenge some sense.
This is the essence of life itself."

So the America's cup is the apex of sporting achievement, a task as difficult to accomplish as climbing Everest, and inviting those who dare to knock the b****** off. I guess this explains the attraction for those turning the grinders or squinting anxiously at the sail, the horizon and the opponent, but it still doesn't explain the near religious preoccupation with the cup by those of us who would think twice about being on board the boat if we thought all that sea spray might get us a bit damp or that being out on the bay for so long might cause us to miss our tea.

At the same time that I was compulsively consulting the weather forecast for North Western California as often as I was for Dunedin, I was reading Rene Girard, and he put things into  perspective for me. Seen in the light of Girard, the cup, and the reactions of people around me to the unfolding dramatic narrative of challenge and defence and whitewash and slow, inexorable comeback, became a sort of lived exemplar of much of what I was reading. In short, the phenomena of mimesis, community formation through hero worship and scapegoating and the preservation of the process in mythmaking seemed to be playing out all around me.

In long, I hope I can unpack all of that at another time.