Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Where/who/what is God?

When God is no longer a person up there in the sky, where is God? When God is no longer personified in ways which can be controlled and manipulated by the powerful, who is God? When we stop creating images of God which are mere projections of ourselves, what is God?

Rev. Dawn Hutchings, pastordawn Sunday 5 December 2021

The above paragraph is from the sermon NATIVITY – a parable born in the darkness of trauma given by Pastor Dawn. She is one of several Christian pastors/preachers I follow on WordPress. Pastor Dawn Identifies herself as a 21st Century Progressive Christian Pastor. I suspect most of the others would also identify in a similar vein, even if they haven’t identified specifically as such.

The sermon itself, places into perspective the minds of the gospel writers in light of the genocide being committed against the Jews by the Roman empire that started in the latter part of the first century AD, and continued for another fifty or so years. I agree with Pastor Dawn, that without understanding the circumstances of the writers, it’s not possible to understand their intent, nor the meaning of what they wrote.

Even though the Gospels were written nearly 2000 years ago, our modern understanding of the effects of social upheaval, and how people responded to tyranny and genocide at the end of the first century means that we should be able interpret their contents in a nonliteral way, which I suspect was the intent of the writers, and perhaps implicitly understood by the first generation Christians who were predominantly Jews facing extreme persecution by the Roman Empire – as Pastor Dawn describes it “the first Holocaust”.

Given the conditions of the time, why any thinking person today should believe that the Gospels must be read as factual history is beyond me. And while I can understand that fundamentalist indoctrination might be reason why some Christians conflate universal truths told in the form of storytelling, parables, metaphors and symbolism with historical facts, I struggle to understand why so many non Christians also hold a similar view – that the gospels are meant to be understood literally so are therefore a pack of lies. Neither perspective is accurate and both do an injustice to the works of art contained within the Bible.

Pastor Dawn offers a plausible explanation as to how early Christians came to deify Jesus. Although she doesn’t mention it in the sermon, Roman emperors of the day were deified and surprise, surprise, myths were created claiming some to be the offspring of a union between a mortal and a god. At least one of them had a star hovering in the sky to announce the birth. Under the circumstances, attaching a similar story to the birth of Jesus seems an obvious way of describing the significance of Jesus and his teachings to his early followers. The symbolism would have been very obvious to those of the day.

I’m a firm believer in what Quakers describe as “continuing revelation“. This can be understood in many ways, (old Quaker saying: Ask four Quakers, get five answers) but my take on it is that with new knowledge comes new understandings (of the world around us and of us as individuals and communities). While I vehemently disagree with Richard Dawkins’ view of religion, I can thank him for naming (but not originating) an evolutionary model to explain what Quakers have intuitively known for generations: that ideas, values, concepts of morality, or art, be they religious or otherwise do not stand still. They change over time.

Dawkins coined the term meme to describe the mechanism by which ideas and concepts are inherited from generation to generation, and in a way similar to how genes combine and mutate and subsequently succeed or die out, so do memes. An example might be the concept of slavery as it evolved in the West and culminated in the horrors associated with slavery in America. In its heyday, most people in southern USA considered slavery to be part of the natural order of the world. Today, remnants of that concept remain in the form of racism, it’s a meme that has mutated by not (yet) died out completely.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Christian history should be aware how much Christianity has changed (evolved) over the centuries. Let’s face it, Jesus was a Jew, in both ethnicity and religion. His desire was reform, to place an emphasis on ethics and social justice rather than rigid ceremony and law. It was not to create a new religion. I have no doubt that he would find Reform Judaism closer to his goals than most (perhaps all) forms of Christianity.

Meanwhile Christianity evolved into a multiplicity of forms – some developing characteristics that expanded on the ideals of the first followers of Jesus and some that developed traits that Jesus strongly opposed. I see that as an inevitable and natural outcome of the evolutionary process. Just as organisms evolve, so do religions. If they don’t evolve to adapt to their environment then they either become restricted to a niche environment to which they are suited or they die out.

Evolution also applies to our concept(s) of God(s). One characteristic that most fundamentalist Christians and many atheists have in common, is that they have an almost identical notion of how God is defined. Both seem to be unable to grasp the fact the Christian God has been under constant evolutionary change from the moment Christianity became a movement – even before it moved from being a heresy of judaism to a movement followed by Gentiles.

Some Christian fundamentalist movements will insist that God hasn’t evolved. He (it’s always ‘He‘) has always been the same, only no one fully understood the scriptures until the founder/leader of that particular movement/sect discovered their “True” meaning. In extreme cases theirs is the only “Truth”, and any who believe otherwise are heretics, deservedly destined to whatever fate their God has reserved for non-believers.

Atheists can find no evidence to support the existence of any god as an entity, and I have no issue with that. In fact, I concur. But then some atheists make the assumption that every form of religion must, of necessity, include a conviction that at least one deity or supernatural entity lies at its heart, even if that means shoehorning their concept of a non-existing deity into faith traditions that have evolved different notions of what God is (or is not).

I belong to a 350 year old faith tradition commonly referred to as the Quakers, and to a particular branch that in the 20th and 21st centuries is often described as liberal Quakerism, although in many ways it is the most traditional branch when it comes to practising our faith. In the short history of Quakerism, there is ample evidence of Dawkins’ memes in action. What is now viewed as the liberal branch were the conservatives in the eighteenth century, holding true to the tradition that everyone has direct access to the divine without the need for any intermediaries such as clergy or scripture, whereas the progressives/liberals of the day embraced the new evangelism and biblical authority that was sweeping through Christianity at that time and adopted articles of faith, creeds, clergy, and much else that is found within the evangelical movement.

In evolutionary terms evangelical Quakerism has been the most successful branch within the Quaker movement with about 85% of Quakers worldwide belonging to one of the evangelical branches, whereas the then conservative, and now very liberal branch account for around 12% of all Quakers, and confined to Britain and former British settler colonies (such as Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Canada), Western Europe, and some parts of the USA.

My reason for the (extremely) truncated description of Quaker branches is that on many occasions in the blogosphere, I have been “corrected” for making claims about Quaker beliefs and practices that are true for Aotearoa, but incorrect when referring to Quakerism in many other parts of the world. In fact I’ve been told in no uncertain terms by one atheist blogger that I have no right to call myself a Quaker as I don’t profess to be a Christian. Whenever I refer to Quaker beliefs and practices, my only point of reference is the religious community I am connected to (Quakers Aotearoa, Te Hāhi Tūhauwiri). Please keep this in mind whenever I refer to Quaker beliefs and practices. I accept that Quakers in many parts of the world have different beliefs and practices, but I am less familiar with those.

So, back to the question of where/who/what is God. For atheists and Christian Fundamentalists, the Answer is simple. For the former, there is no such thing, end of story. For the latter there is no doubt of “His” existence, and they can (and do frequently) quote passage after passage from the Bible to support their claim. For the rest of us it’s not so simple. God has evolved and continues to evolve.


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Religion and superstition

Are they the same thing? Many of my regular readers will will be unequivocal about their answer – it will be Yes!

I’m not persuaded. And my reason for holding such a position is that it depends on what one means by religion and superstition. Obviously these two terms will have slightly (or significantly) different meanings depending on the society and culture in which one resides. I live in Aotearoa, and there is absolutely no doubt that what these two words mean here is very different from what they mean in the Bible Belt of the USA. I’ll leave it to others to define these terms for other parts of the globe, but whenever I refer to religion or superstition, I can do no better than to yield to the view of this country’s most celebrated theologian – Sir Lloyd Geering.

Sir Lloyd defines religion as:

A total mode of the interpreting and living of life.

He goes on to explain:

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.

He defines superstition as:

a belief or practice for which there is no longer any rational basis, because it has survived from the cultural context where it could be deemed reasonable

Sir Lloyd suggests that the creation myths (yes, myths – there’s two versions in Genesis) were an attempt at explaining how the world came into being and humanity’s relationship to it, and given their understanding of the world around them at the time and information available to them, it was reasonable to hold such a belief. If you like, the two myths represent two theories of creation.

But to continue to believe the creation myths as being true given our current understanding of the universe, is to believe in superstition. Similar arguments can be made about a physical resurrection of Jesus, the existence of heaven and hell, the Immaculate Conception, the miracles described in Old an New Testaments, gender roles, human rights, to name just a few.

To insist that to be a Christian, one must believe such superstitions, as some Christians and some atheists do, is to fail to understand the true nature of religion.


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Why I am a Quaker: reason #5

Democratic decision-making.

By this I don’t mean one person, one vote – that can result in tyranny by the majority. What I mean is the type of decision-making where all voices can be heard, where we seek unity about the wisest course of action.

To be effective, the process requires that everyone come ready to participate fully by sharing their experiences and knowledge, by listening respectfully to the experiences and knowledge brought by others, and by remaining open to new insights and ideas. When everyone present is able to recognize the same truth, the meeting has reached unity.

The practices used to reach unity have been refined over a period of almost 400 years, and is now being taken up by other groups where a genuine desire for unity is sought. It can be a slow and lengthy path on the way to reaching unity, but it’s a process in which there are no losers (or winners, for that matter).


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Why I am a Quaker: Reason #3

Progressive revelation: What I believe to be true today may not necessarily be true in the future. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to recognise, appreciate and understand that beliefs I held in the past were not so much “wrong” but they were tentative, based on the experiences and knowledge available to me at that time. As I gain new experiences, knowledge and insights, my perception of Truth, right and wrong, changes.


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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


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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