Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Don’t expect an easy definition of Quakerism…

Taken directly from the Quakers in Leeds Website (the emphasis in bold is mine):

Quaker thought and practice has always refused to be contained in credal formulas or systems of belief. We don’t offer neat creeds or doctrine. Instead, we try to help each other work out how we should live. All people are welcome and accepted at a Quaker meeting.

Quakers seek religious truth in inner experience and everyday life, rather than authority, ritual and ceremony.

Quakerism is not itself a religion nor is it, any longer, entirely accurate to describe it as a Christian denomination because many of our followers find no purpose in affirming or denying traditional Christian beliefs about God or Christ.

The Quakers are probably best described by their official title; we are a “Religious Society of Friends”.

I was led to this site by a post on Raking Sand, Leeds Trinity University staff and students raking over religion and philosophy titled Considerations of the insider/outsider problem in a Quaker meeting.

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The Fall of Man

The following essay was written by Angelina Grimke Weld a Quaker, woman’s rights campaigner and abolitionist. I’m not sure when it was composed, but was presented to the Pennsylvania Friends Yearly Meeting in 1857. If some of the content seems dated, keep in mind the era. Dawin’s On the Origin of Species was not published until 2 years after this essay. However, I find much of her essay just as valid for our time as it was for hers.

I do not know whether Angelina believed “God” to be a supernatural being, a mystical force, or a non-real God, common within Quakerism today, and it makes little difference in the context of the essay. Although not universally held, her theological viewpoint was consistent with much of Quaker thought at the time. Her belief that the Fall of Man is a myth, is consistent with Quaker belief from its inception. It’s certainly not the God of modern America’s Evangelical, Fundamentalist churches. In this regard, a passage within the essay stands out:

Individuals live now, who so fully believe that the doctrines they hold are the only saving ones, that they seem in their element only when forcing them upon others. Had they lived in the dark ages, they would have been Inquisitors. They embalm the dead body of the past, setting it upon their hearthstones as a household god. Let us be patient with them – they are not useless. But for them we could not so vividly contrast the dead fossils of the old with the living forms of the new.

As always, I value your comments.


A prisoner, who had been confined several times in the Walnut street Prison of Philadelphia, was subsequently sentenced to the State Prison at Auburn, N.Y. A gentleman, appointed to prepare a report upon the comparative merits of social and solitary confinement, visited Auburn upon his tour of prison inspection. There, in one of the workshops, he recognized this old convict, and found upon inquiry that he had conducted himself with great propriety. This surprised him, as he knew that he had been most incorrigible in the Walnut street Prison. Obtaining permission to speak with him, he inquired into the cause of this change. The prisoner’s face glowed with indignation as he replied, “Sir, in Walnut Street Prison I was treated like a dog, and so I behaved like a dog; here I am treated like a man, and so I behave like a man.”

This anecdote illustrates the truth, confirmed by every day’s observations, that human character, like gross matter, takes its hue from the light in which it is viewed; that it manifests most those elements most powerfully appealed to; that it manifests most those elements most powerfully appealed to; that if, in our judgments and action, we assume it to be bad, and only bad, we supply the conditions for making and keeping it such. Hopes, aspirations, high ideals, all are taken away. The soul’s true motive power, its mainspring, is broken, and, like the high-bred hound, scourged until it slinks away like the commonest cur, humanity crouches into the dust.

This brings us to the inquiry,

Is man really a fallen being? Is his nature intrinsically and utterly wicked? In selecting the “Fall of Man” as my topic, it is with no desire to excite “wordy strife,” but from a deep conviction that the belief in this doctrine has been a blight to the human mind.

We will first consider the character of God. If he is a God of love, he could not have designed that a holy being should fall into sin and destroy himself. If he designed it, then he was himself a demon. If omnipotent, he could have prevented this catastrophe; if benevolent, he would have prevented it. If he desired man’s continued innocence, and yet subjected him to a temptation which he knew would overcome him and involve the whole race in ruin, then he did not obey his own rule of “doing unto others as we would they should do unto us.” If he desired man’s good, and yet could not prevent the devil’s tempting him, then he lacked power, and was thwarted in his designs, and is not fit to be the God of the Universe; for if a man is unfit to be a bishop because he cannot “rule his own house,” then God is not fit to be the Ruler of the Universe, if he could not rule over one man and one woman, keeping them in the sphere of duty and love.

If it be further argued that God could not have prevented “the fall,” without interfering with the free agency of man, that it was impossible to create a world of free agents without friction in its moral machinery, and that be cannot be arraigned, because he did the best that could be done, although moral friction is a great disaster; then 1 say, even this is unworthy of God, for if “his understanding is infinite,” it is absurd to suppose he could not have devised some plan without any disaster attached to it. Is it not more rational to believe that friction exists, not because our Heavenly Father could not help it, but because it is as necessary to the progress of human beings as the friction between the wheel and the rail is necessary to the progress of a train of cars ?

Moral friction, then, is a blessing to the race; it was part of the original plan. Men could not unfold their moral powers without it, any more than they could develop physical strength, had there been no forces in nature to overcome. God endowed man with an intellectual and moral nature, and stimulated it by the love of knowledge and an ever-growing ideal of life, to work out for himself a noble manhood,  he is “ working in him to will and to do of his own good pleasure.”

We find a striking analogy to this in the external world, which is filled with an infinite variety of materials, inciting men, continually, by their growing wants and desires, to exercise their ingenuity and efficiency in invention and construction, in literature, science and art.

So also in the vegetable world, innumerable fruits, flowers, grasses and herbs, under the hand of culture, are made sweeter, more nutritious and more beautiful, symbolizing that perfection of character which results from intellectual and moral cultivation.

Reason then, calls upon us to seek some explanation of “the fall,” very different from that generally received– one which will justify the ways of God to man, and reconcile the past and present condition of the face with his character and the great law of progress.

The belief that man is a fallen being lies at the foundation of that system of false doctrines, which, for many ages, has pervaded Christendom. The widespread prevalence of suffering and wrong, coupled with the universal tradition of original purity and bliss, led to the hypothesis of “the fall”; but does not the principle of growth in the race reconcile the apparent contradiction?

As man is a microcosm of the universe, and one man is a microcosm of the race, so in the unfolding of the varied powers and susceptibilities of being, there is a striking analogy between that of the individual and of the race. In the words of a modern thinker, “Nature works after few models, she repeats herself over and over again. The rock is composed of little rocks, the tree of little trees, the body of little bodies (every part having its organs of sensibility, circulation, and nutrition), and humanity of men. The part is a type of the whole, the individual of the race.”

Every human being, then, is a type of the race, first in its innocence, and then in the unfolding of its propensities and powers. The infant is innocent, only because, in the commencement of its being, the animal passions are undeveloped, the sin-producing faculties are only in the bud: so, in the infancy of the race, the passions and propensities were all undeveloped, and life was consequently characterized by childish happiness and sensuous enjoyment. No necessity for exhausting labor imposed fatigue, no strong development of will jarred the harmony of our first parents by conflicting views and wishes. No pinching want, no extremes of heat or cold, no need of artificial shelter and clothing, nor yet one of those countless desires, which an advanced civilization has imposed, were felt in that low grade of development called the “golden age.” Theirs were the enjoyments of innocence only. The tragedies of selfishness and crime could no more have been enacted by humanity then, than those of hatred and violence can be enacted by babes in the cradle now, far less those more abominable crimes, which have marked the race ever since the passions which gave birth to them have, in the process of growth, come into activity. These passions are the sin-producing element in man.

Adam and Eve, then, were the types of this golden age of innocence, and poets and philosophers have looked back upon them as we now look upon infancy, with its unwrinkled brow, its joyous smile, and that fascinating unconsciousness which wins our souls. Innocence, not virtue, was the crown of that age, as natural to its brow as the blossom is to the tree.

But, as the will unfolds itself in the growing child, and the embryo passions gradually strengthen with its strength, converting the gentle infant into the wilful and selfish child, so did the natural growth of the race result in the development of its animal propensities long before the intellectual and moral faculties were sufficiently unfolded to govern them, and before experience could have taught man the duty and necessity of self-control.

The crimes incident to the unripeness of human beings are a constant source of bitter invective. Men curse humanity, “because the time of fruit is not yet.” They cannot see that the sins they inveigh against indicate a stage as necessary to the development of the race and the individual, as the greenness of fruit must precede its ripeness. Long after the fruit has set in the orchard, it is hard and bitter, yet we do not scold at the trees, but patiently wait for the sun to shine and the rain and dew to descend upon them, in storm and in calm, until at last their fruits arrive at maturity.

Since, then, the development of the animal propensities before the intellectual and moral seems to be an ordination of God, wholly beyond human control, it becomes us reverently to seek the cause of this universal law of our constitution. Are we creatures of blunder and mistake?

Nature appears to be built up upon the principle of opposing forces. The animal passions are purposely allowed to grow toward maturity, whilst the intellectual, and especially the moral powers are yet feeble, because the only way in which they can healthfully unfold is through exercise. This implies obstacles to be overcome. In the illegitimate use of the animal propensities this exercise is provided. hence life has hitherto been a continual conflict with evil, in every breast and in every age. Humanity purifies itself by its own ceaseless heavings and tossings. In the conflicts of ages, in the throes of nations, we see her struggles with evil, those death-pangs which give birth to new eras full of hope and promise.

Can the limbs of the infant grow strong, unless in due time we let it try to walk alone? By repeated efforts, it learns to keep its centre of gravity, and through frequent failures it slowly achieves success. The child who is kept in moral leading-strings and never trained under a sense of its responsibility to act untrammelled by any considerations but those of duty and love, can never grow up to a symmetrical maturity. Must parents shut out their children from the world in order to save them from temptation ? As well might we shut them up in our houses to keep them from taking cold. In the former case, we deny them the contact necessary for the vigorous unfolding of their moral and intellectual powers; and in the latter, of the healthful influence of fresh air. As with the individual, so with the race. Both grow by the same laws and through kindred processes, the one being a type of the other.

History, read in the light of this analogy, acquires a new significance. We learn our most valuable lessons through personal experiences. That knowledge of good and evil which comes through others deserves not the name. I do not mean by this to imply that every age, and every human being must pass through all the phases of vice, in order to be saved from vice – far from it. Each age and each individual stands, as it were, upon the shoulders of a predecessor, and passes through the experiences which belong to its or his plane of development – no other. For instance, a man feeling no desire to drink, cannot know what it is to be a drunkard, and the age which acknowledges the rights of conscience, escapes the sufferings of that which utterly ignores them and institutes an Inquisition.

We cannot devise or imagine then, any better way by which the race could be educated to a noble manhood, than that which the Creator has Planned for it. If, during the helplessness of infancy, the race had not been placed where, with little need of shelter or clothing, its food was furnished by spontaneous growth, destruction would seem to have been inevitable. But, as the mother provides for coming babe, so had Nature provided every thing necessary to man’s comfort in his then state of non-development.

But this innocence and comparative freedom from want was, in its very nature, transitory as the blossom of spring. The happiness it afforded was too negative to satisfy the unfolding energies of his nature. A transcendentally glorious future had been projected for him. He therefore grew out of this state of innocence, and dropped off those restraints which his undeveloped condition had necessarily imposed upon him, and unconsciously gave himself up to the hard and severe discipline of life.

Our faith in the ultimate destiny of every human being is identical with our faith in God, whose character is the fullest guarantee that all evil is negative and transitory, and will finally be overcome by good, which is positive and eternal. Evil is correlative with the unripeness of the human race. It can only be extirpated by the gradual subjugation of the lower nature to the supreme control of the intellectual and moral, and this cannot be until the race has had time to ripen.

In the economy of the Universe, evil is used by its great Architect, as masterbuilders employ mechanical powers – a means to an end – no part of the building itself – or, as the rough scaffolding, to be pulled down as soon as the grand temple of Humanity is completed. This conflict between truth and error is educational: it is preparatory to a higher condition. It is not the effect of any fall in man, but the legitimate result of his growth out of the innocence of infancy, through the frowardness of childhood and the tempestuous elements of youth, before his intellect has had time to develop into wisdom, or his moral nature has ripened and mellowed into love. Hence, when the Prophet described the rule of ancient empires, he symbolized them all by ferocious beasts, which tore, trampled and devoured Humanity; contrasting their terrific reign with that of the “Son of Man,” whose nobler mental and moral nature typified that age which lies hidden in the future “Millennium.”

Man, then, has grown out of innocence into savageism, chivalry and civilization successively, and these characteristics in the race correspond to those of childhood, adolescence and youth in the individual. Now, in his young manhood, he has thrown off the despotic authority of Popes and Kings. He has assumed self-government in this Western world, and blinded up institutions which secure political and personal freedom. As surely as he has, in this age, put on the vices which belong to young manhood, stimulated as it is by that love of excitement which cleaves to this stage of development in the race and in the individual, so surely will he grow out of these, and put on the intellectual greatness and goodness which appertain to the ripeness of his full-grown manhood.

Humanity may be likened to the Palm tree, which bears its fruit upon the summit. For ages it has been striking deep its roots and building up its lofty trunk, covered with the scars of its fallen leaves. These apparent losses to the tree have fertilized the soil, ministering food and strength to the growing plant. Thus it has been with Humanity. Terrible convulsions have shaken down the nations, as storms strew the leaves, and we have mourned over them as though they had dropped out of existence, dead losses to the world; but not so; they have left behind them rich experiences which the life of man has absorbed into itself. The leaves have fallen that the tree might be nourished, and nations have perished that the race might grow by their experiences and be nurtured by their decay.

While, then, we recognize the fact, that there was an age of Innocence, let us not regret that it is past. Let us rather regard it as the nascent condition of human nature, and with calmness look upon the different phases which have succeeded as necessary to the unfolding of all the faculties of the perfect man. Tender consciences may be shocked at the proclamation that man is not a fallen being; to such the assertion may seem presumption yea, blank infidelity.

But progress is indelibly engraved upon every rock, plant and animal, and is he who is the crown, and flower, and fruit of Creation, the microcosm of the Universe, an exception? Does not he embody in himself the law of progress, whether we regard him in the individual or the race?

It is puerile to point me to the tottering frame of the aged man, as nullifying this law of Progress in the individual; these are not the man, but the tattered garment that drops off, as he leaves this infant school of his existence to pass on to a higher life. His worn-out body is but the old wigwam of the savage quitted by its inmate for the abodes of civilization. Think not that his immortal spirit has waned, because the media through which it shines to us are blurred and broken. The old age and death of individuals symbolize the gradual decay and downfall of nations, while the race itself is forever onward.

The science and philosophy of our time are modifying the existing doctrines and institutions of the Church, as the philosophy of Greece, four hundred years before the Christian era, modified the Mythology of that day. It destroyed confidence in a system of Religion which deified demons and sanctified vice. So will science and philosophy destroy the myths of our age, and dethrone the Moloch whom we have worshipped, annihilating that hell, in which we were taught to believe that untold myriads of our race were to burn for ever, while a few saved souls would shout hallelujahs.

It was the philosophy of Greece which first shook the foundations of Grecian theogony, by appealing to the reason of man to decide whether the myths and legends of that day were worthy of credence, and whether the gods whom they worshipped were worthy of this homage. Reason had decided these questions long before Christianity asserted her claims in Greece. Her Mythology was the natural growth of the child stage of human development, when the imagination is in high activity, and its phantoms are as exaggerated as the phantasmagoria of a magic lantern. Those vast myths, which seemed truths to such a state of mind, became idle fables to the deep thinkers of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., and, for holding such opinions, Socrates became a martyr, the disciples of Aristotle were banished, and Anaxagoras was forced to choose between exile and death.

This theogony was, after the lapse of centuries, superseded by a system which we call Christianity. In Rome a similar process of disintegration took place, and it was followed by the introduction of Christianity also. But, as these two nations emerged out of the one Religion into the other, they very naturally retained the forms and ceremonies of the old, infusing into them the ideas of the new. Hence the idol temples and festivals of heathen worship became identified with the new ritual. And the religion of the meek and lowly One, of the persecuted and self-denying and crucified Jesus, was forced to put on all the gaudy paraphernalia of Grecian and Roman superstition, which subsequently ignored the rights of conscience and of reason.

A long dark reign of terror ensued, in which the Christian Church, so called, was busy in building time tombs of the prophets and garnishing the sepulchres of time dead, while imbruing her hands in the blood of living prophets, and practically denying the precepts of him whom she called “Lord, Lord.” Such were the legitimate fruits of this hybrid Church, which, with the name of the Lamb, carried the teeth and claws of the lion. Humanity was too undeveloped then, to comprehend the life of Him whose name she devoutly bore; too young in spirit to embody the Divine Humanity of that Religion which is yet to be upbuilded upon the ruins of the sects.

I have no charges to table against her. Doubtless she thought she was doing God service in forcing her doctrines upon all heretics, in torturing to death those who rejected them. Individuals live now, who so fully believe that the doctrines they hold are the only saving ones, that they seem in their element only when forcing them upon others. Had they lived in the dark ages, they would have been Inquisitors. They embalm the dead body of the past, setting it upon their hearthstones as a household god. Let us be patient with them – they are not useless. But for them we could not so vividly contrast the dead fossils of the old with the living forms of the new. Reason is now sitting in judgment upon the Past, it is but right that its advocates should be allowed to plead before the judgment-seat of the Present.

As philosophy dissolved the old systems of Grecian and Roman Paganism, and lifts never ceased to war against all doctrines and principles in conflict with reason; so, as intellect unfolds, it will more and more search into the causes of all things, basing its beliefs in Theology, as in Geology and Chemistry, upon wide deduction and universal law.

The experiences of the past and the discoveries of science have opened wide the field of investigation into Anthropology, as well as into those sciences which appertain to matter. And many begin now to question the truth of their Theology, in the same way as the idolators of Greece and Rome began to question the truth of their Theogony in the days of Pythagoras and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The old religion has always branded the new as infidel, and justly too. The God whom we worship is our highest ideal of perfection. As the mind grows, this ideal is exalted; we then become infidel to our first crude conceptions of Deity. Thus has it been with the race; its conceptions of divine perfection have been continually advancing, so that the infidelity of one age has become the religion of the next. Was there ever a greater infidelity than was Christianity itself, both to the Jew and the Pagan?

Two parties have always divided progressive nations, one guarding with religious veneration the fossilized relics of the past, and the other welcoming the new forms in which truth embodies herself in the present. The science and philosophy of this age are gradually disintegrating our system of Theology, which was the legitimate outgrowth of the era which gave birth to it, and doubtless ministered strength and love to its intellectual and religious life.

It seems to have been too commonly overlooked that Christ established no outward church. Life was his only badge of discipleship. When he explicitly declared his mission, it was in these words: “For this cause was I born, and for this end came I into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth.” He did so by word and deed, and by his life has been drawing men up to a higher plane, and by that life has laid the foundation of that practical and humane religion which can never be established on earth until men, by the gradual unfolding of their own great humanity, shall grow up into the fulness of the stature of perfect manhood.

The “fall of man” is one of the myths of our age. I reject it, because,

  •  1st. It charges upon God the enormity of committing the destinies of the race to the custody of one man and one woman, knowing that they would by their disobedience betray their trust, and involve all mankind in misery, and, according to the generally received idea, most of them eternally.
  • 2d. Because it ignores the law of progress, which is universal and must be eternal.
  • 3d. Because it falsifies the history of mankind, which chronicles a steady advancement from innocence to savageism, through barbarism to feudalism and chivalry, and through civilization to republicanism, which is now preparing to put on a still higher form of life, which will be characterized by equality, fraternity and harmony. This age will be as superior to the “Golden Age” as bodily strength, intellectual culture and high moral development are superior to helplessness, ignorance, and infant innocence, for “wisdom is more to be desired than fine gold.”

 


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More lies, damned lies and statistics

From time to time I browse through older posts of bloggers that were written before I started following them. Recently I came across Exploring Reasons Why “Atheists” Have Extreme Moral Prejudice Toward Atheists by Victoria NeuroNotes. What tweaked my interest in the post was that Victoria had put one of the words Atheists inside inverted commas. I read her article and the study link to an article about a global survey on which she based her article, but I failed to understand the purpose of the inverted commas. So then I read the articles in the following study and studies links, but was still none the wiser, and somewhat confused, as the latter two links were findings on morality itself, whereas the first link is to findings on the perception of morality. Not the same thing at all.

That discovery bothered me because in my experience it’s not like Victoria to make this sort of mistake. Just as puzzling was that she doubted the accuracy of the study because it was contrary to her personal anecdotal experience.

The findings of the study didn’t match my own experience either, but for a different reason. I have not seen any evidence that either theists or atheists regard atheists as less trustworthy. Then I read the notes link and part of it fell in place. That article refers to the same study, and this sentence jumped out at me:

Only in Finland and New Zealand, two secular countries, did the experiment not yield conclusive evidence of anti-atheist prejudice, said the team.

So that explains why my experience didn’t match the conclusion of the global study. Kiwis really don’t care about the religiosity of their fellow citizens. It’s also consistent with a 2009 NZ survey that gave atheism and all major religions (with the exception of Islam) a 90% approval rating. Islam lagged well behind with an 80% approval rating. A similar survey in the US at the same time gave atheists a 64% disapproval rating. This is also consistent with the study conclusion that one’s opinion of atheists is strongly influenced by the beliefs of society in which one lives, regardless of whether one is or is not religious.

It was only after I started reading the comments that the penny finally dropped and I understood why Victoria put inverted commas around Atheist: Perhaps many of the so called atheists weren’t really atheists at all. Now where have I heard similar types of statements before? One atheist even suggested that some Christians might have deliberately lied to distort the findings. There’s even the example of one atheist accusing another atheist of not being a “True Atheist”(TM) because the latter participates in the activities of a UU church. Sigh.

There was another thread to the criticism of the survey, and that was in regards to the motives of the researchers, but this wasn’t really pursued very far.

My curiosity aroused, I decided to investigate the findings a little further. I did locate the paper involved, but wasn’t prepared to fork out precious funds to purchase the right to view it, so I had to settle for this Supplementary Information PDF document. In it, in Supplementary Table 4. Religious demographics (%), I found what I was looking for.

The number of Christians, atheists and agnostics are similar to other surveys I’ve seen for young adults in Australia, the UK and the USA (the only ones other than NZ that I have any knowledge of). The number of Christians are 41%, 20%, and 79% respectively, and the number of NZ Christians is recorded as 22%. Again consistent with other surveys.

What I find interesting is how those who are not religious self identify. At first glance, the US has more atheists than NZ (UK: 22%; Australia:15%; US: 4%; NZ: 2%), and far more agnostics (UK: 15%; Australia: 15%; US: 5%; NZ: 0). It’s when considering those who identify as having no religion that there is a clear difference between NZ and all other countries (NZ: 71%; UK: 27%;  Australia: 14%; US: 10%). Even in Finland, only 25% self identify as having no religion.

What I believe this shows is the relaxed attitude Kiwis have towards religion, and that includes those who self identify as being religious. Religion is a private matter, and it doesn’t intrude into the public domain. Neither believers nor non-believers feel threatened by the other. This is in stark contrast to the USA, where to me as an outsider, both sides seem to be in a state of siege.

As to whether some Christians lied about their beliefs to deliberately distort the findings, I very much doubt it. The supplementary document includes the questions presented to the students, and I think one would need inside information (or assistance from their God) to know the purpose of the questionnaire. That some atheists are willing to believe that Christians will deliberately lie to present their faith more favourably is so very similar to the belief some Christians have about atheists, and  supports the last sentence in the previous paragraph – that a state of siege exists. To be honest, I find this very disappointing.

In a Medical Xpress article “Reminders of secular authority reduce believers’ distrust of atheists” we are informed that a majority of Americans would disapprove of their children marrying an atheist and would not vote for an atheist president. Compare that to NZ where we’ve had an atheist or agnostic government leader in 20 of the last 21 years and no one, including Christians are in the least bit bothered by it. I find the last paragraph in that article very compelling:

“There is evidence that gods and governments can fulfill similar roles,” Gervais says. People want the world to be orderly and controlled, but it seems like the authority that keeps people in line can be religious or secular. There’s some evidence that when people feel less confident in their government, they’re more likely to seek out religion. Norenzayan and Gervais find that in countries where the government is more effective and stronger, atheists are both more common and more trusted.

I think that the contrasting perspectives of Americans and Kiwis supports this hypothesis. So, what have I learnt from this exercise?

  • The trustworthiness that members of a minority group have towards fellow members is influenced by attitudes of those outside the group
  • That makagutu’s commentThere’s no difference between an ideologue of any ism” is absolutely true.

What I would like to know is why ideologues are a dime a dozen in America, but as scarce as hens’ teeth in Aotearoa New Zealand. Any suggestions?


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As my own faith tradition reminds me, the Kingdom of God is not some “other” place that good Christians “retire” to at some time in the future. It is here and now, or at least can be if we, as a community, make an effort to bring it about. We are all capable of making this world a kinder, more caring and equitable place, not by praying or expecting others, even God, to make it so, but by getting stuck in yourself.

As Kiwis, we haven’t done too well in many respects in Aotearoa New Zealand. As Bill points out in his post shared below, childhood poverty in Aotearoa has increased from 11% in 1986 to 25% today. As many prophets have warned (and I’m not referring to those who claim Biblical authority) we are starting to see the consequences of our joint inaction.

As these to quotes remind us, don’t expect God or your deity of choice to bow to your requests through prayer. Choose wisely the prophets you listen to, and then act accordingly to make this world a better place.

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
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

A few years back I recall a TV interview with a man who had survived 11 lightning strikes and lived to tell the tale. The lightning victim’s explanation was that God must therefore have some special purpose for him. I am afraid my cynical reaction was to assume that if whatever that man meant by […]

via Lectionary sermon for 18 November 2018 on Mark 13: 1-8 — Bill Peddie’s website


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Curmudgeon day

Today I’m “officially” a curmudgeon. Opinions expressed here today may not necessarily be held by me tomorrow.

He’s no husband

I’ve watched a number of video clips from American current affairs programs and talk shows related to our Prime Minister’s visit to the United States. I’m surprised that Clark Gayford was frequently referred to as her husband (and occasionally spouse). Only recently has it occurred to me that this occurred during daytime shows, while late shows referred to him as Prime Minister Ardern’s partner.

Just to make it clear America, Jacinda Ardern and Clark Gayford are not married, have never been married, nor are they in a civil union. And yes they have a daughter. Why haven’t they got married? Because they haven’t got round to discussing that. Will they get married? It’s nobody’s business but their own.

I’m sure such relationships are not that unusual in the USA these days, although perhaps not as common as here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Is there some unwritten rule, some remnant of nineteenth century religious fundamentalist morality that says that such arrangements are socially unacceptable for political leaders and cannot be openly mentioned in case it corrupts delicate minds, hence the need to refer to Clark as “husband”? I kid you not, that is how it appears from this distance.

And while we’re on the subject, Jacinda’s family name is Ardern, not Adern or Arden, or as in one case, Aden.  I saw all those forms in online publication that should have known better. Yes, I’ll acknowledge that New Zealand English in non-rhotic, but that simply means we don’t pronounce the letter R at the ends of words or within words unless it’s followed by a vowel. It doesn’t mean we drop the R when writing.

Oh, and when spoken, the stress is on the second syllable of Ardern, not the first. It’s not supposed to rhyme with harden. And ease up on the formality will you! When addressing her directly, especially on talk shows, it’s Jacinda, just as with previous Prime Ministers it was Bill, John, and Helen. The job title is attached rarely and only if really necessary (or if you don’t like the person or their policies).


Literal idiots

Anyone who reads the Bible as a literal work or thinks that is how it should be read is an idiot. This applies to both the religious on one side and the agnostic and atheist on the other. There is a much sense in attempting to prove the Bible is true by constructing implausible explanations as to why obvious inconsistencies are not inconsistent as there is in attempting to prove it false by finding its many inconsistencies – and let’s face it, there are many.

The Bible is no more than a collection of works by multiple authors, some dating back to when culture was preserved through oral history. It’s value today lies in the fact that it gives us a glimpse into the evolution of a very anthropomorphic tribal god of war into a perfect, all powerful, all knowing, all seeing deity. It consists of allegory, metaphors, oral history, lessons in morality, essays on the human condition, even erotica. It displays prejudice, bigotry, hatred, kindness, generosity, ignorance and wisdom. In fact it tells us a lot about ourselves as human beings, about the human experience. What it doesn’t do is tell us how to apply what we can learn from it (and the many other works from the many traditions that modern society has access to) to how we live today. That’s up to us, individually and collectively.


Work and play

The fourth Monday in October is celebrated as Labour Day here in Aotearoa New Zealand. This year, it fell on Monday the 22nd. Legend has it that a carpenter by the name of Samuel Parnell fought for, and gained, the right of an eight hour working day way back in 1840. It became an official public holiday in 1900.

Essentially it recognises the right to have a healthy work/life balance. In light of modern technology, work can now intrude on one’s own life 24/7 and can seriously impact one’s life and health, is it time to re-evaluate what Labour Day represents?


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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.

 


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Lloyd Geering: on faith (#2)

You have to have faith to live. Because faith is just an attitude. It’s an attitude of hope and trust towards the future. And trusting other people, your friends.

 … … …

The point of going to church is joining a group of people who help one another to face the future in faith, allowing considerably wide varieties of opinion and also accepting of people as they are.

Sir Lloyd Geering at 100: ‘I find a lot of things to rejoice in’

Listen to Sir Lloyd Geering in conversation with Kim Hill (29′ 00″)