Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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RIP, John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong has often been described as a controversial theologian, and by many conservative and fundamentalists Christians as being a heretic or to have left the faith completely. On the other hand, to many Christians, and myself (although I don’t self identify as <em>Christian</em>), he has had an influential hand in dragging Christianity out of the dark ages.

Bishop Spong died on September 12 at the age of 90. Perhaps he’s best known for promoting a non-literal interpretation of the Bible, for which he has also received the most criticism. But it’s necessary to remember that he has been a strong advocate for LGBTQI+ and women’s rights, including clerical roles within the Episcopal Church. Those that knew him recognised his message was one of love and justice – something that is often absent in the modern world, both secular and religious.

Spong believed that taking a literal interpretation of the bible was to miss the truth behind its teachings. In this he held similar ideas to those of modern theologians such as Don Cupitt and my favourite, Sir Lloyd Geering. However, such thinking is not new and there has been a long tradition of theologians who have argued that taking the Bible literally is to misunderstand the intent of the stories it tells.

The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary stated “What he truly came to understand is doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing that.” With regards to doctrine and dogma, and creating a world that respects the sacredness of all people, I concur. Whether it’s the Church or some other social structure that does the leading is unimportant to me.

Bishop John Shelby Spong is survived by his wife Christine, five children and six Grandchildren.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Diocese of Newark, sitting for a portrait photograph.
Source: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 2.0 Created: 1 September 2006


16 Comments

You’ve got to be kidding!

I’ve just read that the POTUS is required by law to issue an annual proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

I thought there was a separation of church and state in the US. The writer has got to be kidding, right?


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Getting what one deserves

Over the last few hours I have read a number of blogs pertaining to the situation in Afghanistan. Many of those blogs are blaming the rapid fall of the nation to the Taliban on the inhabitants, often implying that it must be what they really want, otherwise they would have fought. What the bloggers seem to forget is that the West had already reached the conclusion that it was inevitable that the Taliban would eventually take control – perhaps in a few years. Long enough to appear that their withdrawal appeared “honourable”.

Think for a moment. If the West had reached that conclusion doesn’t it seem feasible that the Afghanis themselves, being so much closer to the ground, also reached the same conclusion. A sense of hopelessness coupled with a fear induced by the barbarity of the Taliban is more than enough for most people to become resigned to their inevitable fate. Few folk will fight, whether by way of arms, civil disobedience or the pen where there is absolutely no hope of a different outcome.

One writer suggested that as women are at least as numerous as men and have more to lose, they should take up arms, and if they don’t the implication was that they deserve (or want) what they get. History has proven time and again that a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and fear can be used by the few to control the many. How is the situation in Afghanistan any different than the rise of fascism and naziism in Europe between the two world wars, the rise of Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Pot, Apartheid, and in the US, slavery, Jim Crow and McCarthyism? How many nations and communities fell to colonial rule/occupation for similar reasons? Military might was not the only tool used.

It’s not only minorities that can feel a sense of hopelessness, it can exist in significant majorities for exactly the same reason: loss of hope. A hope that they might escape Taliban authoritarianism has led to some people taking stupid risks such as attempting to cling to the undercarriage of departing aircraft. In their mind, the risk was worth the effort whereas the risk of remaining and opposing the incoming regime seemed futile.

The advantage with fanatical beliefs is that they are separated from reality. While they are often religious in nature they don’t have to be. Taliban fighters are confident in their belief that their efforts will be rewarded, if not in this life, then in the next. Their blind faith that their cause is just and will prevail just as surely as night follows day gives them all the will needed to continue fighting regardless of what the true situation is at any given moment.

Meanwhile back in reality, the typical, man, woman, father, mother, son, daughter, uncle, aunt has to weigh up the consequences of their action. Would opposing the Taliban pose greater risks of harm to themselves and to those they care about than doing nothing – especially if they perceive their opposition is doomed to failure? I don’t think I need to remind readers, that the inhabitants of Afghanistan will be only too well aware of the atrocities that the Taliban are capable of inflicting on not only those who oppose them, but on their families and communities as well.

To a large extent, the West has only themselves to blame for the current situation, and for this reason I was less than impressed with President Biden’s speech. He considers himself blameless. Instead much of the blame he places on Trump, the Afghan government and military. His own military advisers had predicted the inevitable outcome of a quick withdrawal, although not the speed at which it would occur. Biden, like so many others I have heard and read today imply that the Afghanis will get the government they deserve. They don’t.

With few exceptions, the occupation of Afghanistan was based on military and perhaps political objectives of the West. Humanitarian objectives have been mostly ignored except where they were an advantage to the military and political objectives. If the same effort had been put into targeting humanitarian outcomes for their own sake, I wonder whether the current situation would have eventuated. I’m enough of a realist to admit there would be no guarantee of a better outcome, but on the other hand there’s no guarantee that it wouldn’t. However, from a purely military and political perspective, I don’t think any outcome, other than the one that is currently playing out, was possible – especially in the way the allies handled the two decades of occupation.

I do not know what should be done to reduce the harm that will inevitably occur to many innocent people in the wake of the Taliban takeover, and for this I accept my share of the blame. I’ve had twenty years in which to argue for a more humanitarian approach to moderating the effects of fanaticism on populations but have remained relatively silent until now. In the words of Nanci Griffith “I am not at the wheel of control, I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil“. Are any of us any different?

Feel free to substitute Belfast and Chicago with any other place of conflict of your choosing

It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go – Nanci Griffith

I am a backseat driver from America
They drive to the left on Falls Road
The man at the wheel's name is Seamus
We pass a child on the corner he knows
And Seamus says,"Now, what chance has that kid got?"
And I say from the back,"I don't know."
He says,"There's barbed wire at all of these exits
And there ain't no place in Belfast for that kid to go."

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in Belfast for these kids to go

A cafeteria line in Chicage
The fat man in front of me
Is calling black people trash to his children
He's the only trash here I see
And I'm thinking this man wears a white hood
In the night when his children should sleep
But, they slip to their window and they see him
And they think that white hood's all they need

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in Chicago for these kids to go

I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney and Cronkite and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am a backstreet driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can't drive on the left side of the road

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in this world for these kids to go


37 Comments

A personal challenge

Over on Clare Flourish’s post on comment policy, Ark asks

Do you think you would be unable to live your life, or even have a life full of equal meaning and quality without religion?

9th March, 2021 at 7:18 pm

to which I responded with

Ark, you really need to stop thinking that “religion is believing in things you know ain’t true”. I won’t speak for Clare – She is quite capable of doing so herself, but for myself, religion adds to life – gives it a little oomph, and I would miss it if it wasn’t there. If you want a materialistic analogy, while I could probably live quite well on military rations, it pales in comparison to the experience of creating and consuming meals with my wife.

My understanding of religion is, and I’ll quote Sir Lloyd Geering: “Religion is a total mode of the interpreting and living of life“. As he 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…”

Belief in deities, the supernatural, or any superstition at all is not a necessary component of religion. And while you may consider religion serves no useful purpose, I feel the same about repeatedly whacking a tiny ball over a net.

9th March, 2021 at 9:28 pm

Ark’s response was

Hello Barry. We rarely converse on the internet so this might be interesting.
I will try not to be boring as I know Clare will be monitoring me very closely. 

In order to appreciate my views on religion let’s for a moment consider its origins, and I don’t just mean the Judeo/Christian religions, (though, as we are dealing primarily with Christianity, we can swing back and focus more on it, if you fancy?) but all of them.

Humans have always assigned agency to the things they did/do not understand.
The ‘gods’ were responsible for everything from rain, to thunder and lightening[sic], volcanoes, babies, and toothache.

When we became a tad sophisticated – developing the basics of language perhaps? – it seemed natural that the gods would choose some of the more sophisticated among us – shaman, spirit guides, voodoo doctors, prophets …. maybe a particular rabbi – to convey His / his /her /their wishes to the rest of the unwashed.

And, umpteen years further down the road, what we now have are considerably more sophisticated humans and therefore, the gods or God, even, has naturally. required much more sophisticated intermediaries, with many many more sophisticated arguments.

It is unfortunate that none of these arguments have ever demonstrated one iota of veracity pertaining to any religious/god claim. This strongly suggests that our willingness to believe is all down to two things: Indoctrination and credulity.
If one needs a religion – in whatever form you choose – to validate one’s life, maybe it’s time for a serious rethink?

I suppose some might say that table tennis is Hell, however, within the rules of the ITTF no one gets sent there for playing badly or deconverting and opting to play badminton.

Regards

Ark.

10th March, 2021 at 8:52 am

Ark has also started a similar line of enquiry over on makagutu’s blog:

@ Barry.
If we are honest there would likely be no Judeo/Christian religion if it were not for the bible, it being highly doubtful oral tradition would have survived intact with out the written word, and certainly Christianity probably would have died a miserable( but welcome ) death.

So, I wonder what specific value religion can offer anyone?

March 28, 2021 at 17:48

I can’t help having a feeling that Ark is trying to “convert” me from religion and Quakerism in order to “save” me from some undefined, but possibly unfortunate delusional fate. Apologies to Ark if that isn’t the case, but leading statements such as “…maybe it’s time for a serious rethink?” leads me to think otherwise.

Rather than hijack Clare’s post on comment policy, I’ve started this post so that Ark or anyone else for that matter can continue the conversation here. However there are some rules (aren’t there always?) that apply to this particular post. Please respect them.

  • Courtesy and respect are paramount. No name calling, insults or denigration, even by implication.
  • Acknowledgement that even where evidence is not in dispute, the interpretation or conclusions drawn from that evidence can be.
  • There are no absolute “truths”. We draw our conclusion from the evidence, wisdom and knowledge available to us. It is open to new insights at any time.
  • Do not frame opinion to appear to be statements of fact.
  • Discussion must be on the basis that all religions are products of human creativity; that there is no “true” religion.
  • If you wish to argue that any sacred works are infallible, non-contradictory or accurately convey all the truth and wisdom necessary to live life according to the desires of a deity, please find another platform on which to express your beliefs.
  • As I don’t have god-like powers of anticipating the content of comments that any contributors might make, I reserve the right to change these rules as I see fit.

Okay, with that out of the way, I’ll get right down to responding to Ark. In reverse order:

I suppose some might say that table tennis is Hell, however, within the rules of the ITTF no one gets sent there for playing badly or deconverting and opting to play badminton.

There are sporting codes where the banishment did occur for playing another code. For example, until fairly recently, anyone who played Rugby League in this country faced a lifetime ban from playing Rugby Union. For many that was the equivalent of being sent to hell.

I would also like to venture that all claims of having the “wrong” religion or none at all will lead to some sort of divine retribution are human inventions. As far as I’m aware no deity has ever stated otherwise. And quoting a passage from a sacred text without some other independent supporting evidence just won’t cut it.

If one needs a religion – in whatever form you choose – to validate one’s life, maybe it’s time for a serious rethink?

My first thought is “Why should I?” The only basis for doing so would be if there was no exception to the claim that all religions are harmful, and I am yet to be persuaded of that. But if I break the whole sentence down into its components (it’s something my autistic brain does in an attempt to be sure I understand the nuance(s) that neurotypical folk include in their communications) I’m left with uncertainty over two words: needs and validate.

I’m uncertain whether Ark means need as in I need to breathe or eat or whether he means need as in I need the companionship of my wife or I need mental stimulation. The former is a necessity for life itself, the latter for a fulfilling life.

What does to validate one’s life mean? I exist. Why is there any need to validate it? On the other hand, for sixty years my experiences as an undiagnosed autistic were invalidated (written off as unsound, erroneous or inconsequential, and my behaviour as a result of being autistic were considered to be wrong, bad, selfish, inconsiderate and rude and that my future would amount to nothing worthwhile), so perhaps Ark means validate in terms of affirming the worth of one’s experiences or even of one’s existence.

By putting it all back together I presume by needs religion to validate one’s life, Ark means that religion is necessary to have a worthwhile life. If so, Ark must be referring to my own religion as I have made it abundantly clear on many occasions that religion isn’t necessary for a worthwhile or fulfilling life. At a personal level, I find religion enriches my life, but I must emphasise that this is my personal experience, and I would be foolish to claim what is true for me must be true for anyone else let alone true for everyone else. The evidence does not bear this out.

Which brings me right back to “why is it time for a serious rethink?” If anyone is still with me after the tortuous workings of an autistic mind coping with a non-autistic world, I’m going to leave this thought for a moment before returning to it.

As an aside, If anyone is wondering why I deconstruct sentences so much, it’s the result of some rather unpleasant experiences resulting my failure to grasp the intended or implied meaning of a communication and instead grasping the literal meaning, and also of others reading far more into what I have said than what I actually said. Self preservation starts to kick in after being on the receiving end of sometimes high levels of violence, not to mention lower levels of assaults and bullying due to miscommunication.

Ark refers to veracity pertaining to any religious/god claim. Immediately I run into a problem. I appreciate that apologists attempt to “prove” that their beliefs are true, but I make no such claim. So is Ark referring to claims I have not made but assumes I might believe or is he referring to the claims of others? I don’t know. As I’m convinced religion is experiential, and doesn’t come from intermediaries or sacred texts, both of which are of human origin, every person’s experience will be unique and not repeatable.

I suppose there might be an issue with my convincement that religion is experiential because that too cannot be verified. However, if I start from the premise that Lloyd Geering’s definition of religion is accurate, then I think one has little option but to accept that religion can only be experiential.

In the very next sentence Ark suggests that our willingness to believe is all down to two things: Indoctrination and/or credulity. I presume “our” does not include Ark, so that leaves me (and others) to believe something (what?), and that I believe the something because I’ve been indoctrinated (by who) or that I’m credulous. So I wonder what I believe that might be false or due to credulity? Let me repeat Lloyd Geering’s definition of religion:

Religion is a total mode of the interpreting and living of life

Where in that definition does it suggest any specific belief is necessary? It’s a mode of living, not a set of beliefs. I’ll grant that many religions do come with a string of beliefs attached, some of which are untenable in this age, but simply holding a belief that one feels one holds out of religious conviction does not mean that the belief is erroneous, false or or not worth holding. I’ll come back to that shortly.

The first section of Ark’s comment contains an overly simplistic, and might I add condescending, “history” of religion as if I was unaware how religion may have originated. I would say that Ark is only partially correct when he states that humans apply agency to the things they did/do not understand. Humans apply agency to everything. It’s where the agency is unknown or unknowable that they use their creative minds to imagine a possible agency.

Even ignoring the fact that there is no hierarchical structure nor authority within Quakerism, I find the association of hierarchical religious structures to “sophistication” inappropriate. It might have been acceptable to19th century anthropologists but not today. Perhaps Ark didn’t mean to imply refined, clever or cultivated but those concepts are often associated with sophisticated.

On the other hand, if Ark means sophisticated as in a concept that is thorough and well-worked-out, I’d venture that some “modern” religions fall very short. Theological beliefs that are obviously contradictory while insisting they are objectively true doesn not indicate a high level of sophistication to me. I’ll add that “unwashed” is a pejorative term, and I’d prefer it not used here to label those without privilege or with less privilege, which is what I presume Ark means.

Now back to Ark’s serious rethink. To me, religion is a mode of living, a way one experiences the world and the choices one makes as a consequence. I can no more choose to be not religious than I can choose to be not autistic. For sixty years society tried to mould me into “normalcy”. All it did was force me to hide behind a mask where I acted out being “normal”, clumsily at first but I got better with practice, although never perfect. However it came at a high cost: exhaustion and burnout. Does Ark suggest I should pretend to not be religious, and if so, how?

I grew up under the influence of two very different cultures. One that belonged to my parents and many of my peers, and one that was very present in the small community I lived in until well into my fifteenth year. I received wisdom from both, and equally important, I learnt of the mythology of both. I wouldn’t have been ten years old when it dawned on me that the two cultures were different in one very important aspect. One culture divided life into the secular and the religious. The other culture didn’t. Additionally, one culture believed, in fact insisted, that it was the only correct lens through which to view the world. The other didn’t.

In my twenties, I met and married my wife whose background, being Japanese, is very different from my own. She grew up in an environment where Shintoism and Buddhism are integral aspects of life although religiosity is not., and during university she was exposed to some elements of Christianity. Her perspectives have only enriched my understanding of the nature of religion and how one’s world view and religion are intricately intertwined.

While it’s true I’m a product of the society that I grew up within, and probably hold a great many values and ideas that I’m unaware are uniquely a product of culture(s) I am immersed within, I am aware that everything that I value and the way I perceive the world is the product of my exposure to multiple belief systems and world views.

I reached my current position on religion through a process of continually re-evaluating my perspectives based on new information or insights as they became available – a process that still continues and hopefully will continue until such time as this brain ceases to indicate any sign of life. I’m certain that what I consider My Truth today is not the same as My Truth of five years ao, and is unlikely to be the same as My Truth in another 5 years time. I’m sure that’s true of all thinking people whether they are religious or not. So I see no need to make any immediate rethink based purely on Ark’s suggestion. Unless of course Ark has some important information that I’m not aware of, in which case I might reconsider my position based on the new evidence.

Okay, back to being indoctrinated and/or credulity. For this to be true there must be some beliefs that are unsupportable or erroneous or have simply accepted as truths without giving them much thought, so I’m looking forward to learning what those might be. I suppose this might be the place to ask which comes first: beliefs or values. Are specific beliefs derived from the values one holds, or do values arise from a set of beliefs? Or are they merely different sides of the same coin?

Like 90% of Quakers in Aotearoa New Zealand, I came to Quakerism from a non-Quaker background. I understand the situation is similar within most liberal Quaker Yearly meetings. I was first introduced to Quakerism when my wife was asked to provide translation services for a group of Hiroshima survivors and their descendants who were visiting the Quaker Settlement in Whanganui. What struck me at the time was that the values they held and the way they were expressed were consistent with my own.

It would be many years before I ventured to attend a Quaker Meeting for Worship, but when I finally did I was almost overwhelmed by a feeling of “coming home”. There was no mention of God, Jesus, salvation or sin. The Bible was not quoted from or even mentioned during the hour of worship. If my memory serves me right, two people stood and spoke, each for less than a minute. One spoke on a new personal insight in relation to the Quaker testimony on simplicity. The other spoke on a social justice issue and a concern he had about it.

After worship I was again struck by the absolute equality of worth of every person that emanated from the group. For once, my experiences were not dismissed or invalidated. Of course there were other attractions such as how discussion was carried out allowing someone with very little understanding of social cues to make an equitable contribution. That is something I seldom experience on other social experiences including at times within my whānau. And unless you’re autistic, you possibly have no idea what an hour of silence can mean.

The feeling of “being home” is one I do not experience anywhere else other than within my whānau. So Ark, If you think I should give that up please tell me why and what advantages I will gain.

I have titled this post A personal challenge because I suspect coping with responses to this might very much be a challenge for me.


5 Comments

Special people

On Saturday I and two of my siblings travelled the three hours to Opunake to a commemoration service for an aunt. I’m in my 70s and the two siblings are knocking on the door of 70, and attending funerals, commemorations and celebrations of lives of recently departed is becoming more frequent by the year.

This particular service was called a commemoration as the aunt died in January, but due to the restrictions on international travel imposed by Covid, it was felt more appropriate to delay the funeral until as many as possible would be able to attend. Instead of there being a presence of a body in a casket, there were her ashes in an urn on a table amidst flowers, photographs and a candle. Somewhere between 200 and 300 attended

Looking back on the services I have attended over recent years, it struck me that the only “real” Christian funeral was that of my mother. All the rest either ignored Christian theology altogether or at best may have included a token hymn that reflected an aspect of the deceased’s life more than anything specifically Christian.

Like all the others I have attended (apart from my mother’s) there has been no mention of God or gods, Jesus or an the expectation of an afterlife in heaven or hell. The only token towards a cultural Christianity was a quip by one speaker who mentioned that if her late husband was the one designated to drive her to the pearly gates in his much loved orange Vauxhall Viva, she’d probably wish to be somewhere else – anywhere else. He had a reputation for loudly expressing his view that he was the only competent driver in the world (and probably in heaven), although it was evident to everyone else that he wasn’t.

Aunty Joan was my father’s oldest sister and was just a few weeks short of her 105th birthday. She was one of twelve siblings, of whom only two remain. I was going to title this piece “Another one bites the dust” in light of that comment being made in jest by one of her remaining brothers, but I suspect some of my readers might not think too kindly about such an irreverent phrase, particularly if they have experienced a recent loss of their own.

On the drive back, my brother, who is neither a Christian nor religious made the comment that Aunty Joan was a true Christian, and the world could do with more people like her. My sister and I agreed, but I quipped that a great many fundamentalist Christians would disagree. It all comes down to what one considers “being Christian” is all about.

I live in a society that is secular but nominally “Christian”, and as best as I can recognise, the religious beliefs of Kiwis has changed little over my lifetime. What has changed is what Kiwis consider “being Christian” is. Until the 1960s, most Kiwis regardless of their religiosity would have been offended if they were described as not being Christian. Being Christian did not centre around belief but around action. One was judged by their deeds – generosity of heart and spirit, helping those in need regardless of one’s own circumstances, listening, caring, being supportive and being a warrior of whatever one perceived as social justice.

What has changed over recent decades has been that the concept of “being a Christian” no longer has that meaning. Lead by the importation of fundamentalism it’s become all about belief – having a specific sort of faith, and that “good works” count for nothing. Perhaps if one does “good works” for the purpose of salvation (whatever that is) then just maybe they do count for little. But people such as Aunty Joan never gave salvation a second thought. They give of themselves because, in good conscience, they could not ignore the needs of others.

For old schoolers such as myself, Christianity was (and I’m using the past tense deliberately) about one’s relationship to humanity (Love your neighbour as yourself). Today it seems that for some Christians, all that matters is one’s relationship with a deity and the worshipping of “His” Bible.

Sixty years ago I too would have been offended if someone had declared I wasn’t a Christian. Today, I’d be offended if they said I was. It’s not that my beliefs or values have changed significantly, it’s because the common understanding of what being a Christian has undergone a radical change under the influence of the fundamentalist evangelical movement. That’s why today, if someone asks if I’m a Christian, I always ask what they mean by being Christian. I’m unlikely to be in agreement with many who are younger than fifty.

The following is a poem by David Harkins that was presented at the service. I felt it was most appropriate.

You can shed tears that she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her
Or you can be full of the love that you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.


5 Comments

Christianity without God

On several occasions on this blog I have attempted to describe my religious beliefs. I describe myself as being religious and as being a non-theist. I describe myself as a Quaker but not a Christian. However I still find “God language” useful and meaningful to me. For myself, God is a metaphor, or perhaps more accurately an envelope that holds those ideals I value highly – fairness, compassion, social justice, kindness all rank highly. However, someone else may value obedience, adherence to rules, an eye for an eye, conformity. Whatever values one holds as being most important, that is what is contained within the envelope I choose to call God.

As an aside, I would argue that in fact even those who wish to believe in God as a supernatural being, also do exactly what I do, except they have come to believe that the envelope is the all important bit, worthy of worship itself – something beyond themselves. By doing so, they see the contents contained within as characteristics of the container. The outcome is that the contents are no longer open to question or revision.

What many of my readers may not be aware of is that Christianity today is less liberal than it was a century ago or even in my youth. Theological Liberalism remained the driving force of Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Since then, Liberal Christianity, along with it’s younger relative Progressive Christianity have faced a greater challenge from conservatism, Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism..

Those same forces have had a 50 year advantage in the USA, having gained momentum in the first quarter of the twentieth century. It is presumably why some comments from Americans regarding my attempts at explaining a non-theistic approach to God are so antagonistic, especially from avowed atheists. Most seem to be unable to conceive of God in non-theistic terms.

Complicating matters, is that here in NZ only one in three people claim a christian affiliation, whereas in the US three out of four people claim to be Christian. So the context in which my beliefs developed are radically different from that which most Americans experience. The result is that that neither the American Christian nor American atheist has much in common with the Kiwi form of liberal religion that shaped my world view.

So rather than attempt to use my own words to explain what I believe, here is part a presentation made by Sir Lloyd Geering around 9 years ago (he’s 101 now, and he was 92 at the time of the presentation).

This particular part of the presentation was an afterthought. He was asked to explain the backgound behind his book Christianity Without God. It’s essentially “off the cuff” as he hadn’t made preparation for this part. I’ve included a Youtube clip. As often happens with the Kiwi accent, Youtube’s inbuilt transcript doesn’t do a particularly good job, so for those who find our accent a little difficult, I’ve transcribed it below keeping as close as I can to his actual words.

Well, Christianity Without God came about in a funny way, you know. I don”t know if you have heard anything of the Sea of Faith movement. It is associated with Don Cupitt, the radical theologian in Britain, and now it’s a movement in New Zealand as well. At one of the conferences, I offered a little workshop called Christianity Without God. I did it with a bit of tongue in check really, because it sounds a bit absurd – how can you have Christianity without God?

However, it aroused so much interest that somebody put it on the Internet. Then somebody in America found it on the Internet and drew attention to Polebridge Publishers about it. So Bob Funk who was at the head of Polebridge Publishers and the Westar Institute said “Couldn’t you write a book about it?” and I said “I don’t really know about it. I’ll have a go”. So I wrote Christianity without God.

Now, in the course of this it was really tracing to my own thinking about God, because when I came into the church, they all talked about God. I didn’t know quite what to make of God. I knew the image of an old man in the sky was just an image, and I was content, really, to feel I knew nothing about God – that God was the supreme mystery about life. And then I gradually came (as a result of reading a good deal of theology) to refine that.

So in this book, I have tried to show that in Christianity without God, I mean Christianity without a theistic view of God. Now, theism is the term which means you think of God as personal being – of course infinite compared with us, but nevertheless, one who thinks, and plans, and performs miracles, and answers prayers. That’s theism.

Well, all I want to say is that that view of God no longer gels for me – no longer gels for a lot of people. Now it doesn’t mean to say that I’m casting the word God away. No, If I use the word God at all, I’ve got to use it in a different way from that.

Indeed, one great Roman Catholic scholar said right back in the ’60s we have to learn to speak of God in a radically new way. So Christianity without God means Christianity without that old idea of God, but it leaves God language free.

Of course we don’t have to use God language. God language is a symbolic language, and theology has much more in common with poetry than it has with science because it has to do with that highest dimension of human experience – what sometimes we call the spiritual dimension, because we haven’t got adequate words to describe it otherwise.

That’s why it links it up with poetry and the arts – the visual arts, and the dramatic arts, the storytelling arts. There where we have mediums through which which we can use in order to reach out to that which is beyond us. So if I use the word God at all, though I’m more careful now because, you see it’s ceasing to be a word that you can use without explaining what you mean by it. Otherwise people assume you’re meaning the theistic God, so in some ways it’s better not to talk about God at all. But I do I do so in the way a theologian, Gordon Kaufman (from whom I’ve learned much), suggested.

The word God has played a very important role in the Western world. Not simply because of that image which has to go, but because of what it did. It was a central point. Now to illustrate this, let me say when our pioneering forebears came to Australia and New Zealand to what they thought was a sort of virgin land (forget about the Māori and the Aboriginies), and took it over and planned how to use it.

Their surveyors had to come in, and what did the surveyor do? He went to the nearest hill and put a trig station in, and from that trig station, he measured out the land and it was given out in plots. Now the trig station was on a chosen bit – that is, it was humans who decided where the trig station was to be. But having chosen it, it then became a central point to which they referred for the land.

Now the word God has played that role in the Western world. if you don’t know a thing, you’d say “Only God knows that”. Who made the world? “Don’t know. God made the world”. That’s how we answered all the difficult questions of our children as they were growing up. Use god as a reference point. So the use of the word God as a reference point is very good.

Now, what is my reference point? I was asked this recently when they did a television documentary about me. What was my reference point and I said “Well, they are values. The things I value most,” I said, “are Love and justice and compassion and goodwill and honesty and so it goes on,” and then I said, “and those are, for me, God.

In that sense I think God language has a very important role to play but in the traditional sense of that image, as John Robinson said in 1963, “That image of God has to go”.


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A call for action after Covid-19

Yes, in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is now after COVID-19, although I and the rest of our nation are under no illusion that the rest of world has some way to go (some nations much further than others).

As we recover from the pain and difficulties that COVID-19 wrought, we should take the opportunity to reevaluate what we are doing to harm the planet and our fellow human beings. Most people, especially those with privilege, simply accept the status quo and seldom think that it is we who are responsible for the harm we’re causing in communities, nations and the environment.

I firmly believe that this recovery period give us a unique chance, perhaps the only chance, for us to take action, individually and collectively that will bring about lasting changes that will enable us all to live in harmony with one another and with the planet.

As a community, Quakers of Aotearoa New Zealand have published a statement calling all Kiwis to action. As much of the call is applicable to people everywhere, I’m reproducing it here in its entirety:

To the Citizens of Aotearoa/New Zealand

At this critical time in the history of New Zealand, and the world, the Quaker Community wishes to convey to you and to the broader community, some principles and values that we feel are key to the decision making that will guide the nation to a better future.

We invite you to consider the enclosed Call for Action

A Call for Action after Covid-19

HOPE

We Quakers find hope in the communal response to the Covid-19 crisis across our nation. The collective action of New Zealanders has demonstrated how much we can achieve together in a short time. We see the current pandemic as a warning which creates an unprecedented opportunity for systemic change and as a call to remodel our nation guided by the principles of sustainability, non-violence, simplicity and equity. This is a transformation that will require redistributive and regenerative economic, government and social policies that ensure all members of society benefit in an equitable manner.

VISION
Our vision is of a society that is inclusive and respectful of all people. We affirm the special constitutional position of Māori and a Treaty-based, bi-lateral system of government. We seek government which leads with integrity, shares information based on evidence, and engages with communities prior to decision-making. We oppose violence at every level and look to practices that bring peaceful dialogue and non-violent management of conflict.

SANCTITY
Quakers have a strong sense of the sanctity of creation. We are committed to the development of systems and new societal norms to rebalance climate disruption, preserve biodiversity and water quality and enable New Zealanders to live simpler lives within sustainable natural boundaries. We support the use of national resources to provide housing, low-carbon transport, and regenerative food production to benefit future generations.

CONSUMPTION 

We see that society has been putting profit and consumption above other considerations despite clear evidence that earth’s natural limits have been exceeded. Consumer lifestyles have been destroying the natural ecosystems required by future generations. Decades of neoliberal economic and social policies have allowed a few people to set the agenda and benefit disproportionately. This has condemned many to low wages, poverty and insecurity whilst also degrading the environment.

OPPORTUNITY

Quakers consider that the current pandemic offers the people of Aotearoa New Zealand a chance to reassess the situation and to create a new sense of community and purpose. The Light of the Spirit has inspired Quakers through the generations into social and environmental action. We see this experience with Covid-19 as the impetus to find a way forward based firmly on the Quaker values of peace, simplicity, and equity

ACTION

Quakers call on every person in Aotearoa New Zealand to bring about whatever changes they can to enable us to live in harmony with one another and with the planet.


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Epistle – 2020

Kia ora!

This morning I participated in the a virtual Meeting for Worship held by Friends of the Palmerston North Worship Group. While I appreciate that sitting in front of a screen displaying the faces of twelve individuals in ten frames, all sitting in silence for around 45 minutes may, for some, feel similar to watching wet paint dry, I find the whole experience uplifting. Perhaps not quite as uplifting as sitting in silence for an hour in the Friends Meeting house, but nevertheless, very fulfilling.

One of the “benefits” of the current pandemic has been the noticeable reduction in greenhouse emissions worldwide, and during reflection at this morning’s Meeting for Worship, I was reminded that the current circumstances are in fact a “warning” (sorry Nan, but not so much from God, but rather to humanity) that we have been very poor guardians of this planet.

In this country the private motorcar is so ubiquitous that our public transport is underdeveloped, and will remain so unless it becomes more publicly funded and/or many of us consent to forego private transport. Giving up owning and using even a subcompact car is something I have been considering, but I confess that the convenience of having it on tap, so to speak, makes me reluctant to take that leap. In these times, I can’t help thinking that public transport and public health are not fully compatible.

During this morning’s Meeting for Worship, the Epistle of the Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa New Zealand was read. I reproduce it below with the parts that spoke most strongly to me personally being highlighted. It’s also accessible from the Quakers Aotearoa New Zealand Epistles Web page.

Epistle of the Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa New Zealand – Te Hāhi Tūhauwiri 2020

To Friends everywhere

Greetings in love and peace from Friends of the Yearly Meeting of Aotearoa New Zealand. Because of restrictions during the current pandemic we were, sadly, unable to gather face to face this year. Limited by COVID19 restrictions to our homes, we have met online in our Monthly Meetings to consider our business, and have sought to find unity in responses. We also met online for a time of worship on what would have been the opening evening of Yearly Meeting. In these extraordinary times we send you this epistle, to reflect how the Spirit has been moving among us over the last year and at this time.

For us, for our country, and for the world, it has been a time of change, fear and loss. We feel particularly for all those who mourn, and those who suffer from the direct effects of the pandemic and from the impact of the various measures taken to control it. Many of those who are worst affected, often losing their livelihood, are those who were already suffering from the inequality of political and economic systems, globally and nationally, and from the impact of climate change. This is true of Friends in many places. Can we learn from the disruption we have experienced, and take the opportunity for all of society to rethink how we care for others and the earth? How can we, as Friends, offer witness and service to build a better future?

Peace, in its widest sense, is a calling for all Friends. We know we can do more, but are grateful that our Quaker Peace and Service Aotearoa New Zealand Committee contributes to what is being done with Quaker involvement here and in many other countries. Monthly Meetings, Worship Groups and individual Friends engage in their own actions and donations. At a season when our nation remembers the death and suffering caused in war, we renew our stand against war’s cruelty and destructiveness.

Faithful continuity of worship is at the heart of our life. We are glad to see the development of newer Worship Groups, and some growth of numbers in others. National and local learning events sow seeds of spiritual growth, as do the various ways in which Friends prepare their own hearts and minds and enrich their spiritual life. Children’s Meetings have been growing in number, and we seek to develop them and enhance their life. A new Quaker website has been developed through skilled, perceptive and demanding work, to reach out to the public, and to connect us in unity. We give thanks for all forms of service, visible and invisible. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord” (I Corinthians 12.4).

The many faiths in this country are finding greater unity and understanding since the murderous shootings inflicted a year ago on worshippers in two mosques in Christchurch. Friends responded by reaching out to local Muslim communities, taking part in vigils, and offering other support. Locally we are linking with various ethnic and faith groups, and becoming involved in interfaith and cultural activities, hoping to explore and put aside our (often unconscious) prejudices.

Young people and children have inspired our country in their work and heartfelt advocacy for effective response to the climate emergency; many of our young ones are involved. Yearly Meeting, its committees and Meetings, are donating to some of this work. Our response as a body is imperfect; we are moving to vegetarian food at events, have reduced air travel, have taken action locally, and have made representations to Government and public bodies, including on how militarism damages the climate. The Quaker Settlement at Whanganui applies principles of sustainability and permaculture to its land and gardens. But, like the questioner of Jesus, we still ask, “What do I lack?” (Matthew 19.20). Profound consideration continues of what we are called to do. We are reminded that all action on this concern requires a positive regard for all, and a stand for truth and integrity.

Dear Friends, we pray that in these difficult times you may be protected and guided, and may live faithfully in mutual love. We recall the words sent by Philadelphia Friends in 1683 across the Atlantic to Britain: “And though the Lord has been pleased to remove us far away from you, as to the other end of the earth, yet are we present with you, your exercises are ours; our hearts are dissolved in the remembrance of you, dear brethren and sisters in this heavenly love.” (Christian Faith and Practice 677, London (now Britain) Yearly Meeting, 1959)

In love and peace,

Lesley Young
Clerk

What I have observed in recent times is that the current pandemic and the mosque shootings in Christchurch just over a year ago have brought communities of all faiths, and non-faiths closer together than ever, especially when it comes to cooperation.

Perhaps this has been demonstrated most clearly by opinion polls and Friday’s ousting of Simon Bridges, the leader of the opposition National Party and the largest party in the Parliament, for what was seen as opposition for opposition’s sake rather than constructive criticism. I intend to write more on this subject in another post (with an emphasis on intend – it’s not a promise).


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What is prayer?

I was prompted to write this post after reading a post on Nan’s Notebook titled Prayer or Science? in which she quotes a few starting lines from an opinion piece in a local paper that urged its reader to pray for science. Nan finds the quoted lines dripping with irony.

It’s very clear that Nan’s experience is vastly different from mine. She states “As many of us know, the tendency to berate and discount science is prevalent among a large percentage of Christian believers” but that’s not my experience. Far from it.

I acknowledge there are some Christians may hold that view, but a large percentage? I’m not convinced. One explanation why we take different viewpoints might be our different personal experiences are very different. Another might be that the religious communities within our respective nations are very different. Or it might be because our understanding of what prayer is are very different.

I find the very idea that a God would allow harm or suffering to occur unless there’s sufficient pleas for him to do something about it quite appalling, and yet I do, on occasions, find myself in silent prayer. So what does prayer mean to me>

Perhaps I might have the skills to explain in less than a thousand words, but recent attempts at being succinct have been largely unsuccessful, so instead I will quote two testimonies from Quaker Faith & Practice that speak to my understanding.

2.28
There is little point in praying to be enabled to overcome some temptation, and then putting oneself in the very position in which the temptation can exert all its fascination. There is little point in praying that the sorrowing may be comforted and the lonely cheered, unless we ourselves set out to bring comfort and cheer to the sad and neglected in our own surroundings. There is little point in praying for our home and for our loved ones, and in going on being as selfish and inconsiderate as we have been. Prayer would be an evil rather than a blessing if it were only a way of getting God to do what we ourselves will not make the effort to do. God does not do things for us – he enables us to do them for ourselves.

Elisabeth Holmgaard, 1984

2.29
The sick and those caring for them have need of our prayers. But let us not imagine … that a few sentimental good wishes from a distance are all that is needed. Whenever we intercede in prayer we must be prepared for an answer which places a practical obligation upon us. A prayer is always a commitment.

Thomas F Green, 1952

Prayer is a call to action, not of God, but of ourselves.