Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Safe landing

When I was about ten or eleven years old, I joined into the tail end of a conversation about what humans can and cannot do. One of the older boys in the group claimed that it is impossible for humans to land on two feet and not bend the knees. He said that even if you try to keep your legs straight, you can’t as bending the knees is instinctive and you cannot override it.

A few of the kids decided to test this theory by jumping off a chair. Not one of them managed to land and keep the legs completely straight. Their knees bent to some degree, and the group decided that indeed it was impossible to land without bending the knees. I wasn’t convinced, as I observed that none of the children locked their legs straight during the descent. So I decided to demonstrate that it was possible to land without bending the knees.

There was a reason I had been dubbed the little professor. A well as being a mine of (mostly irrelevant) knowledge, I liked to experiment. I clambered onto the chair, launched myself into the air and locked my knees absolutely straight, and held that pose during the descent. And I proved it is possible to land without bending the knees.

What I didn’t prove is that you can do it safely.

I saw stars and flashing lights. I heard a roaring sound like a freight train rushing past. I felt and heard a grinding sensation in my neck. Then there was blackness. I don’t know if I actually passed out, but moments latter when the roaring, lights and darkness abated, I found myself standing upright with flashes of pain going off along my neck and spine. The boy who had made the claim, shrugged his shoulders, said “Oops I was wrong”, then turned his back on me and walked off.

It never occurred to me at the time that I might have been set up. That possibility didn’t occur to me until a decade later, by which time I had lost all contact with the group. If it was a set up, I’m grateful that they chose a chair to jump from and not the garage roof.

The first migraine attack that I remember having was  when I was around ten or eleven, although they didn’t become a regular feature of my life until I was twelve of thirteen. I wonder if there’s a connection…

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Unilateralism versus Multilateralism

It’s interesting to compare Trump’s “America First” stance to the Aotearoa New Zealand global stance as presented to the United Nations by our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. To quote from a 1 News report:

In direct opposition to the isolationist and protectionist policies of the US President, Ms Ardern used her address to encourage global leaders to look outward and beyond themselves, to commit to “kindness and collectivism” and to rebuild multilateralism.
The Prime Minister also stated the importance of global leaders re-committing to gender equality and a global effort to combat climate change, describing “any undermining of climate related targets and agreements” as “catastrophic”.

Below is a transcript of her UN statement. In it she emphasises the importance of kindness and collectivism, fairness and inclusiveness. She points out that #MeToo needs to be become #WeToo. If you prefer to hear her speech rather than read it, I’ve included a Youtube clip under the transcript (22m 47s).


Madam President, Mr Secretary-General, friends in the global community.

My opening remarks were in te reo Māori, the language of the indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand. As is tradition, I acknowledged those who are here, why we are here, and the importance of our work.

It seems a fitting place to start.

I’m struck as a leader attending my first United Nations General Assembly by the power and potential that resides here.

But in New Zealand, we have always been acutely aware of that.

We are a remote nation at the bottom of the South Pacific. Our nearest neighbours take 3 hours to reach by plane, and anywhere that takes less than 12 hours is considered close. I have no doubt though, that our geographic isolation has contributed to our values.

We are a self-deprecating people. We’re not ones for status. We’ll celebrate the local person who volunteers at their sports club as much as we will the successful entrepreneur. Our empathy and strong sense of justice is matched only by our pragmatism. We are, after all, a country made up of two main islands – one simply named North and the other, South.

For all of that, our isolation has not made us insular.

In fact, our engagement with the world has helped shape who we are.

I am a child of the ’80s. A period in New Zealand’s history where we didn’t just observe international events, we challenged them. Whether it was apartheid in South Africa, or nuclear testing in the Pacific, I grew up learning about my country and who we were, by the way that we reacted to international events. Whether it was taking to the streets or changing our laws, we have seen ourselves as members of a community, and one that we have a duty to use our voice within.

I am an incredibly proud New Zealander, but much of that pride has come from being a strong and active member of our international community, not in spite of it.

And at the heart of that international community, has been this place.

Emerging from a catastrophic war, we have collectively established through convention, charters and rules a set of international norms and human rights. All of these are an acknowledgement that we are not isolated, governments do have obligations to their people and each other, and that our actions have a global effect.

In 1945, New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser said that the UN Charter offered perhaps a last opportunity to work in unison to realise the hope in the hearts of all of us, for a peace that would be real, lasting, and worthy of human dignity.

But none of these founding principles should be consigned to the history books. In fact, given the challenges we face today, and how truly global they are in their nature and impact, the need for collective action and multilateralism has never been clearer.

And yet, for all of that, the debate and dialogue we hear globally is not centred on the relevance and importance of our international institutions. Instead, we find ourselves having to defend their very existence.

That surely leaves us all with the question, how did we get here, and how do we get out?

If anything unites us politically in this place right now it is this – globalisation has had a massive impact on our nations and the people we serve.

While that impact has been positive for many, for others it has not. The transitions our economies have made have often been jarring, and the consequences harsh. And so amongst unprecedented global economic growth, we have still seen a growing sense of isolation, dislocation, and a sense of insecurity and the erosion of hope.
As politicians and governments, we all have choices in how we respond to these challenges.

We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless ‘other’, to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism. Or we can acknowledge the problems we have and seek to fix them.

Generational change

In New Zealand, going it alone is not an option.

Aside from our history, we are also a trading nation.  And proudly so. But even without those founding principles, there are not just questions of nationhood to consider. There are generational demands upon us too.

It should hardly come as a surprise that we have seen a global trend of young people showing dissatisfaction with our political systems, and calling on us to do things differently – why wouldn’t they when they themselves have had to adapt so rapidly to a changing world.

Within a few short decades we now have a generation who will grow up more connected than ever before.  Digital transformation will determine whether the jobs they are training for will even exist in two decades.  In education or the job market, they won’t just compete with their neighbour, but their neighbouring country.

This generation is a borderless one – at least in a virtual sense. One that increasingly see themselves as global citizens. And as their reality changes, they expect ours to as well – that we’ll see and understand our collective impact, and that we’ll change the way we use our power.

And if we’re looking for an example of where the next generation is calling on us to make that change, we need look no further than climate change.
World leaders queue to meet Jacinda Ardern after her speech. Photo credit: Office of the Prime Minister

Global challenges

Two weeks ago, Pacific Island leaders gathered together at the Pacific Islands Forum.

It was at this meeting, on the small island nation of Nauru, that climate change was declared the single biggest threat to the security of the Pacific. Please, just think about this for a moment.

Of all of the challenges we debate and discuss, rising sea levels present the single biggest threat to our region.

For those who live in the South Pacific, the impacts of climate change are not academic, or even arguable.  They are watching the sea levels rise, the extreme weather events increase, and the impact on their water supply and food crops. We can talk all we like about the science and what it means, what temperature rises we need to limit in order to survive, but there is a grinding reality in hearing someone from a Pacific island talk about where the sea was when they were a child, and potential loss of their entire village as an adult.

Our action in the wake of this global challenge remains optional. But the impact of inaction does not.  Nations like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, or Kiribati – small countries who’ve contributed the least to global climate change – are and will suffer the full force of a warming planet.

If my Pacific neighbours do not have the option of opting out of the effects of climate change, why should we be able to opt out of taking action to stop it?

Any disintegration of multilateralism – any undermining of climate related targets and agreements – aren’t interesting footnotes in geopolitical history. They are catastrophic.

In New Zealand we are determined to play our part.  We will not issue any further offshore oil and gas exploration permits.  We have set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy generation by 2035, established a green infrastructure fund to encourage innovation, and rolled out an initiative to plant one billion trees over the next 10 years.

These plans are unashamedly ambitious.  The threat climate change poses demands it.

But we only represent less than 0.2 percent of global emissions.

That’s why, as a global community, not since the inception of the United Nations has there been a greater example of the importance of collective action and multilateralism, than climate change. It should be a rallying cry to all of us.

And yet there is a hesitance we can ill afford.  A calculation of personal cost, of self-interest. But this is not the only challenge where domestic self-interest is the first response, and where an international or collective approach has been diluted at best, or rejected at worst.

Rebuilding multilateralism

But it would be both unfair and naive to argue that retreating to our own borders and interests has meant turning our backs on a perfect system. The international institutions we have committed ourselves to have not been perfect.

But they can be fixed.

And that is why the challenge I wish to issue today is this – together, we must rebuild and recommit to multilateralism.

We must redouble our efforts to work as a global community.

We must rediscover our shared belief in the value, rather than the harm, of connectedness.

We must demonstrate that collective international action not only works, but that it is in all of our best interests.

We must show the next generation that we are listening, and that we have heard them.

Connectedness

But if we’re truly going to take on a reform agenda, we need to acknowledge the failings that led us to this cross road.

International trade for instance, has helped bring millions of people out of poverty around the world.  But some have felt their standard of living slide.  In New Zealand, we ourselves have seen the hesitancy around trade agreements amongst our own population.

The correct response to this is not to repeat mistakes of the past and be seduced by the false promises of protectionism.  Rather, we must all work to ensure that the benefits of trade are distributed fairly across our societies.

We can’t rely on international institutions to do this, in the same way as we cannot blame them if they haven’t delivered these benefits. It is incumbent on us to build productive, sustainable, inclusive economies, and demonstrate to our peoples that when done right, international economic integration can make us all better off.

And if we want to ensure anyone is better off, surely it should be the most vulnerable.

In New Zealand we have set ourselves an ambitious goal. We want to be the best place in the world to be a child. It’s hardly the stuff of hard and fast measures – after all, how do you measure play, a feeling of security, happiness?

But we can measure material deprivation, and we can measure poverty, and so we will. And not only that, we are making it law that we report on those numbers every single year alongside our budgets. What better way to hold ourselves to account, and what better group to do that for than children.

But if we are focused on nurturing that next generation, we have to equally worry about what it is we are handing down to them too – including our environment.

In the Māori language there is a word that captures the importance of that role – Kaitiakitanga. It means guardianship. The idea that we have been entrusted with our environment, and we have a duty of care. For us, that has meant taking action to address degradation, like setting standards to make our rivers swimmable, reducing waste and phasing out single-use plastic bags, right through to eradicating predators and protecting our biodiversity.

The race to grow our economies and increase wealth makes us all the poorer if it comes at the cost of our environment. In New Zealand, we are determined to prove that it doesn’t have to be this way.

But these are all actions and initiatives that we can take domestically that ease the blame and pressure on our international institutions. That doesn’t mean they don’t need fixing.

Reforming the UN

As the heart of the multilateral system, the United Nations must lead the way.

We strongly support the Secretary-General’s reform efforts to make the UN more responsive and effective, modernised so that it is capable of dealing with today’s challenges.  We encourage him to be ambitious. And we stand with him in that ambition.

But ultimately it is up to us – the Member States – to drive change at the UN.

This includes reforming the Security Council. If we want the Council to fulfil its purpose of maintaining international peace and security, its practices need to be updated so it is not hamstrung by the use of the veto.

New thinking will also be needed if we are to achieve the vision encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. In New Zealand, we have sought to embed the principles behind the SDGs in a new living standards framework that is guiding policy making, and the management of our resources. And we remain committed to supporting the roll out of the SDGs alongside international partners through a significant increase in our Official Development Assistance budget.

Universal values

But revitalising our international rules-based system isn’t just about the mechanics of how we work together. It also means renewing our commitment to our values.

The UN Charter recalls that the Organisation was formed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which through two World Wars had brought untold sorrow to humanity.  If we forget this history and the principles which drove the creation of the UN we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

In an increasingly uncertain world it is more important than ever that we remember the core values on which the UN was built.

That all people are equal.

That everyone is entitled to have their dignity and human rights respected.

That we must strive to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

And we must consistently hold ourselves to account on each.

Amongst renewing this commitment though, we have to acknowledge where accountability must continue – and that is especially the case when it comes to equality.

So many gains have been made, each worthy of celebration.  In New Zealand we have just marked the 125th year since women were granted the right to vote. We were the first in the world to do so. As a girl I never ever grew up believing that my gender would stand in the way of me achieving whatever I wanted to in life. I am, after all, not the first, but the third female Prime Minister of New Zealand.

But for all of that, we still have a gender pay gap, an over representation of women in low paid work, and domestic violence. And we are not alone.

It seems surprising that in this modern age we have to recommit ourselves to gender equality, but we do. And I for one will never celebrate the gains we have made for women domestically, while internationally other women and girls experience a lack of the most basic of opportunity and dignity.

Me Too must become We Too.

We are all in this together.

Conclusion

I accept that the list of demands on all of us is long. Be it domestic, or international, we are operating in challenging times. We face what we call in New Zealand ‘wicked problems’. Ones that are intertwined and interrelated.

Perhaps then it is time to step back from the chaos and ask what we want. It is in that space that we’ll find simplicity. The simplicity of peace, of prosperity, of fairness. If I could distil it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand it is simple and it is this.  Kindness.

In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any. So let’s start here with the institutions that have served us well in times of need, and will do so again.

In the meantime, I can assure all of you, New Zealand remains committed to continue to do our part to building and sustaining international peace and security. To promoting and defending an open, inclusive, and rules-based international order based on universal values.

To being pragmatic, empathetic, strong and kind.

The next generation after all, deserves no less.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.


 


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The Ego has landed!

After Watching his speech at the UN and parts of his 80 minute “press conference” (I couldn’t stomach the whole thing), I really think Trump’s sense of reality (if he ever had it) has left him for good. Give him a mirror and park him in the corner. The world will be better off.


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Buying friends

Trump in UN speech regarding aid:

We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart.

and:

Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.

In other words, the US will give aid only when it furthers their own interests. The welfare of the recipients is of no significance. How very “Christian”!


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What is religion?

It really depends on who you ask. I recall reading somewhere that someone had collected 27 “authoritative” definitions , and among those, there wasn’t a single definition that had no mutually exclusive definition.

Simple dictionary definitions will tell you that religion includes a belief in the supernatural, and while it’s true that most religions do to some degree, not all religions do. Wikipedia takes several hundred lines of text to tell you that the experts can’t agree on a universal definition of religion, but does present a range of definitions.

It does include one definition that I thought came close to the mark:

According to the MacMillan Encyclopedia of Religions, there is an experiential aspect to religion which can be found in almost every culture:

[…] almost every known culture [has] a depth dimension in cultural experiences […] toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behavior are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience—varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.

I liked this definition because it doesn’t assume sacred tomes, deities, creeds, an afterlife or anything of a supernatural nature. For me its weakness is in the use of the phrase “historically recognizable form“. I’m not sure that all religions today would conform with a historically recognisable form of religion. And it makes no allowance for future forms that religion might take.

However, Sir Lloyd Geering has come up with a simple, short definition that, according to him, covers all religion, past, present and future. His definition is:

A total mode of the interpreting and living of life.

Sir Lloyd explains:

Everybody who takes life seriously, in my view, is taking the first steps in religion. And this definition of religion, fortunately, covers all the types of religions we’ve had or will have in the future, because it recognises that religion is a human product. Religion is what we humans have evolved in our culture to enable us to make meaning of life, and to live together in the most harmonious way.

The clip below is from a discussion with Sir Lloyd Geering at Auckland Museum’s LATE at the Museum Innovation series in 2010. It’s moderately long at 20m 13s. Sir Lloyd starts speaking at 3:14 if you’d like to skip the introduction. He discuses what is meant by “the divine”; the problem with the word “God”; what religion is; the rise of “popular atheism”; NZ secularism vs US fundamentalism; the Green movement as a type of religion; and much more:


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The Last Western Heretic (Part 5)

Previous parts of The Last Western Heretic can be found:

Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3  |  Part 4

In this segment, Lloyd Geering argues that the Resurrection is symbolic and not real.


Transcript:

The Christian faith has always focused on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but the crucifixion by which Jesus died nailed to a cross is an event open to historical investigation in a way the resurrection has never been.

When the Apostles first claimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they meant that God had raised him from the Underworld of the Dead to the Overworld of Heaven. That’s mythical or symbolic language. He belongs to the way people then saw the world. What was historical was the impact that Jesus had made on them. It convinced them that neither he nor his teaching could ever really die.

This conviction came to be expressed in all sorts of stories. One of them said that his tomb had been found empty, and the body had gone. When people began to take the story literally, it gave rise to the further story of his Ascension. That said that Jesus rose bodily into heaven and disappeared behind the clouds. And in the fourth century, Christians decided they knew the exact spot where that occurred, and built a church on it. Faithful pilgrims came and marvelled at the indentation on the stone said to be the last footprint Jesus left on earth.

But the stories of the Resurrection and the Ascension, if taken literally, make no sense at all to us in our scientifically shaped view of the universe in which we now live. The heavenly places to which Jesus supposedly rose or ascended have simply disappeared from reality. That’s why the resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus can be adequately understood only in poetical or metaphorical terms, and no one said this better then the Scottish theologian Gregor Smith. He said “until Christians feel free to say that the bones of Jesus may still lie in Palestine they had not really understood the resurrection“.

Now I agree with Gregor Smith, and said so in an article I wrote for the Easter edition in 1966 of the Presbyterian Journal. Inadvertently it sparked off a controversy so widespread that it culminated in the so called heresy trial in which I was charged with doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the Church. There was a unfortunate misconception about what the debate was really about. The doctrine committee treated it as a question of did Jesus rise from the dead or not. Now that’s not what I was denying. I never said Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I said what did it really mean to say he rose from the dead. The things got worse the following year because I was asked to preach at the inaugural service of the Victoria University academic year, and in the course of this I questioned whether we humans have immortal souls. And this once again raised the question of what happens to us when we die. Is there such a thing as life after death? And because of what has happened the year before, things exploded immediately. At this stage in 1967, everybody up and down the country, not only in the churches but even in the bars and round [the livingroom] were discussing what happens to you when you die. So it’s a period of great excitement really. Very interesting in many ways. I wished I hadn’t quite been the centre of it, but nevertheless it was good to have such theological talk going on. And that, of course, eventually led to the so called heresy trial at the end of 1967, when two of my critics brought charges of doctrinal error and disturbing the peace of the church against me.

“It is therefore submitted that the assembly should consider these matters and clarify the situation by determining whether the points of doctrine apparently denied by Principal Geering are, or are not, of the substance of the Scriptures, and if professor Goering admits that he cannot affirm such beliefs, or if he will not do so, and does not help to restore in the church the peace and unity which he has disturbed, then this assembly should censure him in an appropriate manner.”

“I would like to suggest that what my accusers have been pleased to call the Peace of the church is more properly called the sleepiness of the church, and we should be thankful to God that it has been disturbed.”

“The faith of Principal Geering: this faith of cultural development and discovery is nothing but an intellectually conceited mockery of the real Christian faith. What we would like to know (and it is important because of the very great influence which he exercises from his official position) is wheher Professor Geering himself believes within the New Testament and the Christian hope that when this universe is no more, Christian believers will continue their personal life in the presence of the Living God?”

“What are we to make of death? We learn the answer to this by turning back to the heart of the Christian faith. It was not the dead Jesus who was acclaimed as risen but the crucified Jesus. Some people seem to think that Jesus went willingly to the cross because he knew that within 36 hours he would rise in glory. That I believe to be a grave travesty of the meaning of the cross Jesus was ready to give himself completely, and he did not give himself completely if he expected shortly to live.”

People in the churches and the pews often had little idea of what was going on theologically. The reason for that is that the church didn’t have any kind of organ within the church to disseminate theological thought. The sermon isn’t the proper place to do it on the whole. The sermon is meant to be inspirational.

“Naturally I hope the assembly will see its way clear to dismiss these charges and express no less than full confidence in the way I have been dealing with the position of responsibility entrusted to me. It has been reported to me that there is a rumour circulating that I intend to resign because I’ve been offered another post. There is no foundation for this. I doubt if any church would want me and at the moment. Even if there were a choice I would prefer to serve the church from which i have received most.”

the General Assembly as is its practice is to act as a kind of judge and jury, listening to the charges and then deciding what to do about them. And they eventually decided that the charges have not been proved, and so they dismissed the case and and I was in effect exonerated. But it didn’t really satisfy, of course, my critics who were a very vociferous kind of group and so the attention went on.


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What is Christianity?

At the  SoF (Sea of Faith) conference in 2000, Lloyd Geering gave a presentation titled “Christianity Minus Theism”. In it he asks what is Christianity:

  • Does [the term ‘Christianity] refer to ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’? (Jude 3)
  • Do we mean, for example, the belief system expressed in the creeds and confessions of the church? (including the doctrine of the Trinity?)
  • Does Christianity consist of living a sacramental life within the authoritative institutional structure called Mother Church?
  • Is the essence of Christianity to be found in accepting Jesus Christ as ones’ personal Lord and Saviour?
  • Does Christianity mean accepting uncritically a set of ancient scriptures as the written record of what is ultimately true?
  • Or does Christianity consist simply of a set of moral values by which to live?

He follows up by stating: “Various groups at one time or another have promoted one or more of these definitions, as the essence or sine qua non of Christianity”. As an example, the religious tradition with which I am associated, would, in general, consider that none of the definitions (with perhaps a modified version of the last one) are necessary. On the other hand, the church to which my son belongs believe that the fourth and fifth definitions (accepting Christ as Saviour and the Bible is true) are absolutely essential – one cannot be a Christian otherwise.

Geering elaborates by stating “Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New Testament phrase ‘the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints’ was itself part of the developing Christian myth, that faith consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the centuries. Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence or thing, such as the theistic belief in God.”

I agree entirely, which might explain my irritation when I see bloggers claim Christians believe X, or Christians oppose Y or Christians do Z. Such statements are grossly inaccurate. If one wants to make a statement about a group of Christians, identify the group instead making a generalised and inaccurate claim.

Lloyd Geering suggests we look at Christianity not as a unified whole, which clearly it isn’t, but with this metaphor: “I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture flowing through the plains of time. Sometimes, like a river, it divides into substreams and sometimes it is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material from the banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it crystalizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and other forms of sediment it is carrying along. There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have less permanence that the stream which carries them along.”

He then finds it timely to be critical of those who oppose changes in Christian thought: “Through church history people have attempted to reform the church. Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no ‘baby’; there is only the bath water, or what is preferably called the on-going cultural stream, broadly known as Judeo-Christian.”

I do like his use of the baby and bathwater metaphor. There is no baby! This where I feel both Christian Fundamentalists and New Atheists make the same mistake. They both see a non-existent baby and then draw polar opposite conclusions.

The full transcript of Lloyd Geering’s presentation can be found here.