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The meta-modern church: some thoughts about church in the post-post modern era

There’s a lot of energy being expended by Christian institutions fighting a sort of rearguard action against post-modernity. The assumption seems to be that to be Christian is to be wedded to modernism with its objective (propositional) truths, authoritative institutions, and an anthropology that thinks human change (and conversion) comes through rational argument and information, rather than experience or emotion.

One wonders if the energy being expended trying to fight not just for the Gospel, but for a philosophy and a cultural moment rapidly in the rearview mirror when it comes to how most western humans understand the world and themselves is part of the conditions producing the so-called ‘pastor drought’…

There are reasonable reasons to be suspicious of some forms of post-modernity. Post-modernity is built on the idea that we as humans are limited in our ability to know anything, and are always a product of the perspective created by our own personal experience, whether we know it or not. Some forms of post-modernism deconstruct institutions (like the church), and question absolute truth claims (like the Gospel) on the basis that authority structures are inherently self-interested in perpetuating an objective truth claim they can’t justify. Embracing post-modernity and its emphasis on experience, subjectivity, and the emotions, has led many to deconstruct themselves all the way out of Christianity. And yet, there’s much we should, and could, learn from post-modernity and its epistemic humility (the idea we can’t really come at things totally objectively, and are limited, is a pretty good starting place for figuring out our limits), we humans are wired to learn and be formed by experience and via our emotions, and we will expand our understanding of the world by hearing voices outside our own experience (or tradition) in ways that might help us get closer to the truth.

One of the things post-modernity ate, whether accidentally or on purpose, is not just the idea of objective propositional knowledge about lots of areas of life (perhaps with the exception of math and (some forms of) science) is the idea of a meta-narrative; a grand organising story underpinning reality. It left us with a fractured, pluralist, community made up of individuals and identity groups with many stories shaped by their own experiences. Figuring out how to be the church in a post-modern context, without trying to be a modernist institution wielding institutional authority and making the same old truth claims that nobody wants to listen to (unless they become a sort of archaic modernist themselves, trying to live as an outsider in a brave new world) has been tricky. We probably don’t need to convert post-modernist thinkers to modernists in order to convert them to Christianity; though sometimes it feels like it; instead, we might need to give people the experiential and emotional data that makes belief in the Christian story plausible (and of course, Sam Chan’s book on Evangelism in a Skeptical World is a great companion for this task). Trying to simultaneously deconstruct the church and its (modernist) practices in the face of the critique from post-modernity, and re-construct it as a community plausibly living and telling the Gospel story has involved a clunky gear shift for the church as a whole, and lots of institutional inertia is still pulling us in the opposite direction; this isn’t helped by those who are committed not just to Christianity, or Jesus as Lord, but to modernism itself, as the way, the truth, and the life.

The rear guard action hasn’t really worked by many measures of a healthy or flourishing church here in the west; and perhaps it’s because we’ve put our eggs into propping up a not super-effective construction of church, rather than putting our energies and efforts into deconstructing both the church and post-modernity; this is an area that Mark Sayers and John Mark Comer have been pressing into (explicitly at one point, Sayers says he got tired of his post-modern friends deconstructing their way out of Christianity and decided to shift gears not to deconstruction of the church, but deconstruction of society and re-construction of the church.

And maybe it’s time to stop the rearguard action, and, though it’ll be a massive headspin, jump straight to the vanguard…

The rearguard is the soldiers standing at the back of the army trying to hold ground while the rest of the army retreats to some sort of safety to regroup; the vanguard is those soldiers at the front of the army on a charge; those who blaze new ground for the people behind them to step into.

The thing about post-modernity is that while it has been helpful in a whole bunch of deconstruction work, and brought lots more voices to the table, it hasn’t done much construction. It hasn’t left us with a better picture for how to co-exist in communities of difference (say, the modern secular state), but has created an environment where opposing truth claims are grounds for conflict, where people play the politics of self-interest, and lobby to win not just protection for their own truth, but the eradication of any others. Post-modernity didn’t create the conditions for hope, but for cynicism. One place this is evident is in the TV comedies of post-modernity, and one way a shift in the fabric of society to a post-post-modern outlook, is the death of cynicism (or nihilism even), and the return of hope (often built around communities of difference, where people are joined together in a common purpose (think Parks and Rec, Community, etc); what’s even more interesting is that more recent comedic efforts from the writers who brought us this turn from cynicism have been grappling with the afterlife (in The Good Place, and Upload), and maybe probing a little around the edges of questions about the ‘eschatology’ of the west (will technology save us? How do we live well now given what we do and don’t know? etc). There are still artefacts of a more post-modern outlook (hey there Ricky Gervais), but a shift is happening.

David Foster Wallace made this case a while back in an interview with Larry McCaffery, when he said:

“The problem is that, however misprised it’s been, what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s one perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony’s become our environment.”

“All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving.”

And…

The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. ”

He wrote an incredible essay on the issues with post-modernity and television in E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S Fiction, where he also said:

“There’s a brashly irreverent rejection of “outmoded” concepts like integrated plot or enduring character. Instead there’s a series of dazzlingly creative parodic vignettes, designed to appeal to the forty-five seconds of near-Zen concentration we call the TV attention span. Unifying the vignettes in the abscence of plot are moods — antic anxiety, the over-stimulated stasis of too many choices and no chooser’s manual, irreverent brashness toward televisual reality”

The art, or cultural artefacts, of post-modernity are entrenched in post-modernities defining characteristics; the death of metanarrative and the championing of experience and emotion over ‘integrated plot or enduring character’ — and of course, cynicism, irony, and deconstruction about institutional authority or tradition. The truly post-modern church is a sort of pastiche of the culture it apes; every moment of the service is curated to produce an emotional response, or experience, nothing is long or deep, the over-arching plot of the Bible, or even character formation understood as a long hard slog in the same direction, are replaced with the cultivation of ‘moments’; silver bullet and quick fix self-help sermons, coupled also with a cynicism about the Christian tradition and the practices of the institutional church one’s new ‘movement’ or ‘independent church plant’ is seeking to detach from as it ‘contextualises’ and re-imagines itself in the style or form of modern entertainment.

But there’s a shift. And maybe instead of fighting the post-modern seeker sensitive church, or the deconstructed ’emerging church,’ or trying to idealise (or idolise) some period in history — whether the modernist moment, or the medieval moment with its cathedrals, liturgy, and enchantment, or the halcyon days of persecution and nimble, subversive house churches of the pre-Christendom era — we should ask what we can learn from each era as we deconstruct not just the church with the lens society brings to us, but so that we can see where our churches and our forms, practices, and beliefs have been produced by particular moments in time, and seek to reconstruct ourselves not explicitly in contradiction to the spirit of the age, but explicitly in ways shaped by the Christian story. And if we’re going to get caught up in the war against ‘post-modernity’ — maybe modernism isn’t a great ally in that conflict (though there might be parts of modernity that resonate with us), and maybe meta-modernity offers a more hopeful ‘common ground’ for conversations with the culture and engagement with the form and content of Christian belief and practice, such that in our deconstruction of post-modernity and its truth claims we might help prod people towards this new meta-modern moment.

The shift from post-modernity is happening in those areas that most profoundly shape our view of the world, where once this was the task of philosophers, now it is the task of the TV comedy writer, even politics sits downstream from culture. It’s not just in literature where what David Foster Wallace described as post-modernity’s deconstruction or ‘patricidal work’ has been felt; it’s everywhere. Our literature — even our sitcoms — are part of the culture that shapes our outlook (where culture is at least, in part, a product of shared ‘cultural texts’ or artefacts). And the shift from irony and deconstruction is in full swing. One way this has been described as a movement is as the ‘new sincerity’… Here’s a video exploring how this is working in the world of the sitcom.

The ‘new sincerity’ has, in some quarters, merged into this new idea of ‘meta-modernity’ or metamodernism. Meta-modernity includes a return to a more hopeful outlook, and even to meta-narrative. This shift also accounts for the popularity of those figures who offer a grand, organising, account of life in the world — for example, the Jordan Peterson phenomena.

This isn’t ‘new’ or cutting edge; a guy named Luke Turner published a ‘Metamodernist Manifesto’ back in 2011; but it’s slowly (I think) becoming clear that metamodernity’s critique of the deconstructing, cynical, hopelessness of post-modernity, and the identity politicking world it creates, isn’t particularly sustainable, and that a metamodernist approach offers at least one way out of the void that doesn’t require a return to modernity (and a loss of the good deconstructing work that post-modernity was built on). Turner says, of metamodernism:

“Whereas postmodernism was characterised by deconstruction, irony, pastiche, relativism, nihilism, and the rejection of grand narratives (to caricature it somewhat), the discourse surrounding metamodernism engages with the resurgence of sincerity, hope, romanticism, affect, and the potential for grand narratives and universal truths, whilst not forfeiting all that we’ve learnt from postmodernism.

Thus, rather than simply signalling a return to naïve modernist ideological positions, metamodernism considers that our era is characterised by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.”

From a Christian perspective this is not without problems; but there is lots in the Christian view of the world that ‘oscillates’ (to use a word from the manifesto), or resonates, with the goals of metamodernism.

The conflict between Christianity and metamodernity will kick off, as it does with any other philosophical outlook, with the claim that some ‘objective form’ of the Christian word, or truth exists; the claims John’s Gospel makes when calling Jesus not ‘a’ word, but ‘the word who was with God, and was God’… and that Jesus, the word, is both definitively ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ and the one we turn to for the truly good life, or, as Peter says in John’s Gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” That said, because we live in a world where the future has not yet been realised — as people who live with the hope that eternal life will be found in Jesus and a new creation — Christians can, and should, recognise that we live alongside those looking for life, and truth and a ‘way’ elsewhere; and where post-modernity deconstructed truth claims in such a way that divergence has bred competition for dominance, metamodernism offers a more humble stance on the idea that we might, as people, pursue grand narratives as valuable and meaning making; and it invites us, as humans, to search for the grand narrative that both resonates with human experience and desire the most, and produces goodness and hope. It adopts a stance that is open to such truth claims, rather than ironic and cynical.

So here’s some ideas for what a church (or the church) for the metamodern world might look like; those who’ve followed along here for a while might recognise some of these qualities being aligned with the New Eden Project as an idea, and it’s true. These ideas are related.

So a church wanting to flourish in a meta-modern world would be a church that embraces and supports, and even, creates, ‘metamodern’ cultural artefacts; those that reject irony and cynicism and replace them with beauty, and a pursuit of something transcendent (even if that search often lands in humanism, community, and relationships, it will engage and critique that landing — resonating with what it can, like Paul in Athens, rather than simply rejecting such texts out of hand).

A church wanting to engage with this world will frame the Gospel as a grand story, or metanarrative, that we are invited to ‘live in,’ not simply a proposition (and indeed, will frame the whole Bible as a story); it will present this story as one that is more compelling than the others, and as the ultimate ‘true’ grand narrative, without adopting a sort of monotheistic zeal that leads to the destruction of all others and their gods (Deuteronomy with sledgehammers style), but will deconstruct other grand stories on the basis that they do not produce the results one hopes for (Paul in Athens style).

Such a church will see itself as a community built around that story to give it plausibility as we embody a certain sort of life together that has both emotional and experiential appeal because it is built on goodness, and hope, and beauty, and character (or virtue, and a rejection of cynicism and utilitarianism.

It will stop thinking that the answer to the shifts in western society is to bring back modernity, or to deconstruct post-modernity, and instead will set out being constructive; and so will move away from purely ‘rational’ propositionalising of the objective truth of the Gospel, and will instead try to match the truths of the Gospel up with people’s experiences and emotions; investing the time and energy of its people into culture making and institution building to produce the sort of cultural artefacts that work alongside the plausibility structure of Christian community to support the truthiness of the Christian story.

It will stop looking to the world of engineering, business, and marketing to shape ‘churchmanship’ and instead will value the arts, and the people industries, seeing church not as an event where a truth is propositionally proclaimed, but a community that lives out a narrative together.

And ultimately, it will engage the world with a posture of hope — in part because of how our story ends, but also because hope is what the world is looking for, rather than despair and cynicism — and even if that doesn’t work to reach more people, it would be a breath of fresh air for those of us already in the church. Wouldn’t it.

On Idol food, Covid Vaccines, Abortion, Retrieval Ethics, and Love for Neighbours

Modern life is complicated.

This piece is both about that complexity, and how hard it is to make good ethical decisions, and about the current conversation about how a potential Covid-19 vaccination uses cells from abortions conducted decades ago.

The Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies has described use of human tissues from abortion as ‘reprehensible,’ and he, and others, have suggested use of this vaccine is now a conscience issue for Christians.  The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said, in an article urging the Government not to create an ethical dilemma, that news of a Covid Vaccine seems great:

“Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”

He said, further:

“Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.

Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.

But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”

There’s a beautiful picture of just how complicated in the Netflix series The Good Place, where modern people have stopped being good enough to earn a ticket into the afterlife because of how deeply enmeshed modern systems are — even when it looks like we’re doing ‘good’ things, the system runs a long way down and our actions are almost always the product of a system that involves some evil. Really obvious versions of this involve supply chains for the goods we purchase in the western world; I might buy some baby clothes to donate to a new mum, but I might buy them from a source who have slave labour in the supply chain for both the raw materials and production of those clothes; at which point I am complicit, whether I know it or not, in propping up that evil.

The Good Place makes the case that, whether knowingly or not, being complicit in evil is inevitable. Knowing that we’re complicit presents a dilemma, because, from that point on, we can’t claim ignorance as a way to mitigate our culpability.

This makes doing the right or good thing pretty tricky; and might just lead us to a fatalism that says evil is inescapable and so we should just do what we want, or what seems best to us, as individuals, without tackling the complex systemic issues.

The Good Place was an attempt to at least frame that conversation in a world without God in the picture; it provided its own answers with a sort of virtue ethic built on love for others and the pursuit of happiness in the realms we can control; it offered a humanist approach to the dilemma of complex, systemic, sin.

The Bible has both an account of and a solution to, complex, systemic sin, and a guide for how to live in a complex world where all human behaviours intersect with evil and are complicit in benefiting from evil. There’s a stream of Christian ethics developed from this understanding that the world as we know it is not ‘turtles all the way down’ but ‘frustrated by sin and curse all the way down.’

The Bible accounts for systemic sin with a vision of humanity that starts in our hearts and minds; we’re actually not capable of pure altruism that only benefits the other and has us escape from the system; at one point in Genesis, God looks at humanity and the human heart, and declares our hearts to be ‘only evil all the time’ (Genesis 6:5). The ‘good’ that we do, even as those still made with the capacity to reflect the image of God in the world, is inevitably tainted by complex mixed motives and especially self-interest.

This is one way that people from the Reformed theological tradition, following Calvin and Luther, have understood ‘total depravity’ — the idea not that all our actions are absolutely depraved, but that sin and its effects are such that all our actions are the actions of hearts tainted by sin; Luther borrowed Augustine’s idea of the heart curved in upon itself; which is a nice picture — even as we offer love for others, or for the world, there’s a self interest in the mix.

One way the Bible unfolds with this in the background is that no person is capable of righteousness, or doing good, until we meet Jesus in the story; the righteous one. This means that as good happens throughout the story of the Bible it happens through God’s actions in the world and despite human failings; the Old Testament is full of figures who do evil stuff, but who God still works through — sometimes, even, God works through people whose hearts have been hardened towards him, like Pharaoh in Exodus (as Paul explains this in Romans). Sometimes what we intend for evil, God can use for good — this is true of, explicitly, Joseph’s brothers sending him into slavery in Egypt for evil reasons (Genesis 50), but is also true of the execution of Jesus; an evil, sinful, expression of human selfishness (as the Bible frames it) that we intended for evil, but that God used to bring goodness and life; this act from God, through the righteousness of the son, is one where we’re either complicit in a way that brings death and judgement on us, or one where we find — in the fruits of that evil act — that is, Jesus body broken and blood poured out — eternal life. Good is retrieved from this act; Jesus, obviously, is willing in this moment in a way that Joseph was not so much (that’s the point of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he says “not my will, but yours” and then goes on to be arrested, tried, and executed as an act of selfless love for God, and for those who will find life in him).

Even as we seek to do good, we’re caught in a world made by people who operate in self interest, and who sometimes operate in a sort of self-interest that doesn’t love others; especially distant others. Our inclination, self-interestedly, is to love those neighbours we get the most back from; those we’re most proximate to (who can effect our well being the most); the distant vulnerable aren’t always on the radar (see how easy it is to cut foreign aid, especially without seeing what that does to a complex global system, or worse, because we do see what that does to a complex global system and want to maintain a status quo of inequality so we get cheap stuff). We cannot actually escape benefiting from sin or evil. This is the system we live in and benefit from; even, for example, Centrelink payments come from taxes raised by the government, including taxes raised from gambling, and mining, and other industries that make money from sin. They’re handed out by a government that makes legislation that promotes sin (for eg, greed), and pays an army that engages in many military activities, not all of them ‘just wars’.

David Foster Wallace captured this in his famous This Is Water address; where he said this selfish default drives a world of “men and money and power’ that hums along in a pool of “fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self,” our lack of inclination to upend this status quo comes because “our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

The account the Bible gives for this systemic mess is that we turned from the life giving God towards autonomous self rule; to self worship (as Wallace put it); this starts in the first pages of the Bible with the story of Adam and Eve, who reject God’s good design for a world in harmony with him; a role bringing goodness, fruitfulness, order, and love — Eden — to the whole planet, and so instead of the whole earth being made as Eden, the world is cursed and frustrated, and people are exiled from God’s presence and the relationship with him that would shape our hearts.

When Paul reflects on the human heart, and its entanglement with a systemically broken world, in his letter to the Romans, he says the system we all end up being shaped by, this system of sin, starts with a decision to worship and serve created things instead of the creator (Romans 1), after a lengthy working through just how bad what the Bible calls sin is for us, our relationships, and our destiny, and how God does something about this with a new pattern for humanity in Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit — so that we can be forgiven, and share in a new humanity (by sharing his death and resurrection) — Paul lands in Romans 8, where he talks about ‘creation’; the whole world; being frustrated by sin; captive to sin. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s sin. In Romans 7 he describes the human experience without God’s Spirit as being one where even if we know what good things we should do, we can’t — our idolatry means our hearts are curved not towards God, but towards created things, and ultimately towards ourselves.

Idolatry is serious business. It destroys life; it creates systems of mess. So, of course, Christians who are trying to live a new life in Jesus — where we share in his death and resurrection, and receive his Spirit to liberate us from bondage to curse and sin — are meant to ‘not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind,’ as we worship God properly, ‘offering ourselves as a living sacrifice’ to God (sharing in the death of Jesus, one might say). The false worship in Romans 1; where ‘self’ rules, is replaced by a different picture of worship — where we give ourselves in love; where we put self interest to death (a theme Paul picks up on repeatedly in his writings, most clearly in Philippians 2).

Idolatry is a picture of the systemic complexity of the world, for Paul, it is both a symptom and a cause of systemic mess and sinful behaviour. One way this complexity manifested itself for first century Christians was in food sacrificed to idols. At a physical level, idol food was still food. It still nourished the body and gave life; it was still meat from an animal that God made. If it landed on your table and you had no understanding of its provenance, you’d be hard pressed to know the difference.

This is a bit like if someone gave you a cotton shirt today, with no label, it might be difficult for you to tell whether that shirt came from a sweatshop, or was ethically produced, or whether the cotton came from an Aussie farm, or from slave labour internationally… you might eat that meat with a clean conscience (or wear that shirt). But once the provenance is made known; after that first bite, or first wear, you’re faced with a new dilemma.

You’re being asked to decide if more bites, or more wears, make you complicit in a whole sinful system, and what that means for you.

The more ubiquitous the meat in the marketplace or shirt in the clothing store, the more difficult it is to avoid such complex ethical questions and participation; in fact, it is almost inevitable that our consumption of goods in this world will be a product of sin and evil (see David Foster Wallace’s description of the default system); in the form of idolatry; and some sin and evil will be more palatable to us than others (for Christians, where we’ll get to below, it’s interesting to ask why abortion is a conscience issue around a Covid vaccine, where sweatshop labour, or supply chain issues, don’t seem to challenge us so much on a daily basis in our consumption of goods).

Paul addresses food sacrificed to idols on two occasions in his writing in ways that I think are helpful for framing the present day conversation about Covid-19 vaccinations and cell lines coming from two aborted foetuses. I’ll unpack a little bit of what he says in Romans and 1 Corinthians, and the principles for ethics in his working out that issue; touch on some key teachings of Jesus that I think are in the mix for Paul and us (on these questions), and then, against the backdrop of acknowledging how complex the modern world is, and how it’s sin all the way down, ask how we might best approach issues where we are being made aware of sin in the provenance of something we’re being invited to partake in; so that one might act according to conscience. I’ll sum these up in a nice numbered list at the end. So feel free to skip to that to see if this whole thing is worth reading.

How one approaches an ethical question like whether to eat food sacrificed to idols, or whether to receive a vaccine that comes from a questionably sourced line of cells, or prosperity in a nation built on stolen land and the genocide of its first peoples, will be the product of one’s ethical system (and often there’s a political shortcut here, where we outsource our ethical thinking to chosen leaders).

It is interesting that the people most loudly opposed to the use of this vaccine are those most interested in individual sin, from a particular paradigm, rather than systemic sin. That’s an ethical outlook. There are lots of ways to do ethics; our default western method is utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means (who cares where the vaccine comes from so long as it works and is safe), some Christians like divine command ethics (our job is to act where God has spoken clearly, how he has spoken, and to discern what he might command of us if he is silent) — in a complex modern world, people from this camp are often looking to create new black and white rules where none have previously existed. Duty ethics are closely related to divine commands; where we have a duty to obey God, but also any legitimate authority he has created (church leaders, denominational articles/confessions, the state (depending on how one reads Romans 13 etc).

These systems will all ask questions about whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to take a particular course of action, with a different authority in the mix (the results, God, the authorities one recognises who establish a duty for us — even nature, in some forms). Another form of ethics; virtue, or character ethics asks not so much ‘is this action right or wrong?’ and ‘who says?’ but ‘am I acting rightly as I take this path’ — virtue ethics can both recognise how inevitable sin is in a messed up world, and provide a way forward that focuses not so much on choosing the lesser of two evils, but on being as virtuous as one can be in a given situation.

There are lots of ways to frame virtue ethics; I love a combo approach that brings Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue together with the Christian story; the type articulated in Stanley Hauerwas’ A Community of Character: Towards a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. Hauerwas, as an anabaptist, is very committed to the idea of systemic violence; the impact of sin ‘all the way down’ — he particularly draws that out with reference to the modern state (or kingdom) as essentially a violent, military, enterprise. I’m sympathetic to a criticism of anabaptist ethics that it ends up seeing people disengaged with worldly institutions, and always operating in parallel (and I like James Davison Hunter’s response to Hauerwas in To Change The World); but Hauerwas is bang on the money in his willingness to see sin impacting systems, and to call for an alternative system that radically reshapes our ethics and our understanding of character and virtue.

Incidentally, there’s a terrific piece on Christianity Today from David Fitch, who is a guy with anabaptist sympathies who wrote a book unpacking some of Hunter’s ideas around “faithful presence” critiquing Tim Keller’s recent paper on social justice and critical theory that is worth a read. I also think given the complexity of modern life, where it’s sin all the way down, the question is not ‘how do I avoid evil?’ — if evil is inevitable — it’s not even ‘how do I pick the lesser evil?’ But ‘how do I do what is most loving?’ It may be that this sometimes means choosing not to participate (in a trolley problem type scenario, you actually never have to pull the lever), but it should always, for Christians following the example of Jesus (and secure in the results that the evil done to him produced for us), involve a heart not curved in on the self, but towards God and others by the Spirit. Modern ethics requires some of us to stand distant enough from the fray, with a degree of purity intact, so that we might ask questions about the status quo, and some of us getting our hands dirty in the mess and muck of compromise in order to work towards change. We need both Anabaptists and Anglicans (but maybe not Anglicans who act as Anabaptists).

Idol food in Corinth and Rome: A path for navigating ethical dilemma in complex and sinful systems

I think Paul, in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, champions an ethical system built on the commands of Jesus; specifically, the command to love God (above idols), to love one another (those within the Christian community), to love one’s neighbour (such that they are clear about God and idols, and might become clear about the love of God for them); and that he leaves navigating life this way as a matter of freedom, conscience, and character rather than in the realm of rules or results. Here’s some of the data.

Paul says:

1. Even though idols aren’t real and people should be free, then, to enjoy idol food as meat made by God, some people don’t know this (1 Corinthians 8:4-7). This knowledge gap is a relational reality; and this makes the right thing to do disputable, rather than black and white (a question, perhaps, of ‘ethics’ rather than law or divine command.

This model doesn’t immediately map on to the vaccine question; because the abortions in question were real and sinful (just as the idolatry in the meat sacrifice was real and sinful); and the vaccines are a fruit (some time removed) of that sin (just as the meat is), part of Paul’s logic is that these idol statues aren’t actually real (not that the sin isn’t), they haven’t magically changed the meat.

Now, it’s worth teasing out that part of Paul’s ethical framework, at least in Corinth, is the idea that ‘an idol is nothing’; that the meat in question is simply a clump of cells, and that meaning is created by the way the cells are framed. An aborted foetus is not nothing, it is someone. The question here is different, but there are similarities too. Abortion, in the form we experience it in the modern west, is not just a health issue (such that one might decriminalise it), but also a biproduct of idolatry (have a look at the behaviours that Paul lists in Romans 1, and you’ll see the behaviours that produce lots of the modern demand for abortion). This means the parallel is not exact; and yet, while the cells used in this research come from people; unborn babies; unborn babies  who experienced an evil (so far as we can tell, or assume, without knowing the medical and social circumstances around these abortions — though the letter from the Archbishop says they were from an ‘elective abortion’), the cell culture involved has been duplicated over and over again in a chain for decades, it is not so straightforward to argue that the cells that exist now are ‘the person’ who was aborted then. It is clear we’re not, in this instance, talking about the ongoing trade of foetal tissue from elective abortions; though this sort of research justifies the ongoing trade of aborted persons for scientific research, and certainly prevents the status quo being changed to make abortion less commercially or scientifically attractive. Part of the conscience question facing us is whether using this vaccine, or this cell line, rather than other options, props up, or justifies, a system that should be torn down; the other question is about what good might be retrieved from that historic evil (not an ends justifies the means argument) for the sake of people now.

The human tissue cultures used in these vaccines is intrinsically connected to the sin in a way the meat isn’t (the meat was a good creation from God, taken by people to do bad things, but there was an original purpose for that meat connected to God’s glory which can be redeemed — receiving it with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4); the cells were a good creation from God, but the human intervention means they can’t be directly redeemed for that purpose — the life of the person who was aborted, though a vaccine is life-giving it isn’t in the same form that God gave the material substance in question; and yet, is also disconnected by time and duplication in a way that makes the question less clear cut (and a matter of conscience), and a ‘good’ can be retrieved from that evil, which is a pattern we see from God through history, and particularly at the cross of Jesus, where a life is taken that then gives life to others.

It’s a complex question; the issue is that some people will inevitably, now, think that anybody who receives this vaccine is complicit in evil. Their consciences will be seared, and it is likely this searing will create division between those whose consciences are clear, and those whose aren’t.

2. How we approach these conscience issues and areas of freedom really matters because of the way those who are a little more black and white (the ‘weaker conscience) perceive your exercising of freedom, and when they choose to act against their conscience, while following your example, or choose not to care about the sin at the heart of the question, because they think that is what you are doing; they do the wrong thing (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). If you’re going to articulate a position on a disputable issue it seems important to make it clear that it is disputable and not binding (like Paul is, himself). And if you’re going to say an issue is disputable it inevitably means making space for the ‘stronger’ position to actually be the correct one (if it is possibly true and explicitly not illicit). In Romans, Paul unpacks this a little more, he says ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your Christian brothers and sisters believe you are supporting evil/idolatry and so leading them to do something against their own conscience.

3. Because life is complicated and often figuring out how the wise and good path is ‘disputable’ rather than clear cut, Paul is keen for people to venture into discussions like this carefully and without quarrels; that means both those who are ‘strong’ and those who are ‘weak’ — that is those who think to participate is to be sinful and complicit, and those who think it isn’t — should make room for one another in Christian community and not break fellowship over the question (Romans 14:1-4). Part of his logic is that ultimately all of us have to give an account to God for our decisions (Romans 14:4, 7-13). But, digging in to questions like this and arriving at a position of conviction in ‘your own mind’ (Romans 14:5) is a good thing (especially in a mind being transformed and renewed by the Spirit and your true and proper worship ala Romans 12). He’d prefer people focus on unity in Christ, and things that will build that, than that they venture into disputable matters in ways that either offend or bind the conscience of others (Romans 14:19-22), and yet also says to ‘not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil‘ (Romans 14:16), and is, himself, writing a letter that got published in a pretty successful book making a particular case.

4. If you decide that to receive this vaccine is sinful, it is quite possible that you are wrong (and I think you are, as I’ll unpack below), but if that is your conviction, then to receive this vaccine is a sin (Romans 14:14); not an unforgivable one, but the lesser of two evils is still evil if you think you’re choosing ‘an evil’. Any deed not done as an act of faith(fulness to God) is sin (Romans 14:22-23).

5. Paul’s ultimate ethical questions are faithfulness to God and relationship with him (Romans 14:7-13), and love for neighbour (especially, but not only, fellow Christians) (Romans 15:2-7), but also explicitly that we act in such a way in society that builds relationships and models the Gospel to non-Christians (1 Corinthians 10:21, 33). His priority is not self-seeking. As he invites people to “come to your own conclusions” he also invites us to recognise that you aren’t only an individual; as a Christian you are both united to Jesus (and you belong to him), and you are a member of a particular community of people (the body of Jesus, the church), and that communion matters more than your individual freedoms (Romans 14:7-9). Paul would rather abstain from meat all together than cause another to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13, Romans 14:13-14); this is another point where the comparison is inexact. To not eat meat is fine, there are vegetables that are nourishing. A vaccine in a pandemic is a slightly different sort of health question than a question of diet preference; and, the Archbishops have also said that if it’s a choice between this vaccine and none, they think this vaccine would be a ‘good’ rather than an evil. Because the stakes are a bit higher (it’s not just about diet, and there are anti-vaxxers in the mix who are, at times, from a Christian fringe), I think there is a case to be made that the ‘stronger’ should actually be speaking up strongly in favour of vaccination as an act of love for neighbour (while perhaps questioning supply chains). To this end, I think the letter does a reasonable job, but the reporting of the letter makes the dilemma a little more black or white than either Archbishops Davies or Fisher were.

6. Don’t be an idolater at idol temples. It should be clear to people you belong to a different world and worship a different God (1 Corinthians 10:18-22). The equivalent here would be that it is enough for people to know that you aren’t complicit in abortion if you aren’t participating in the abortion industry, or seeking a termination. It is quite possible that our public opposition to the sort of world that produces an abortion industry that sells human body parts will be enough to make us not complicit in the evils connected to this vaccine’s history, but also to have an ethical model that sees some good retrieved from that history in the form of this vaccine (not in a way that justifies the continuation of the practice). Our true worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) and what we say yes to, including the ways we show that we value human life, will do more to frame our engagement in these issues than what we say ‘no’ to. In Corinth, the way they were meant to share in the Lord’s table, as they gathered (which they were failing to do very well) was part of the mess where people’s participations at other tables called their loyalty to Jesus into question.

7. If a thing seems to be a good thing that can be received as an act of faithfulness, not explicitly idolatrous, you are free to participate (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). It isn’t necessarily wise to raise questions of conscience when they wouldn’t otherwise be raised. In Corinth, unless meat came from a kosher butcher, all meat was connected to the idol temples and the meat market. It wasn’t that the status of the meat was likely to be idol-free, it was that asking made an issue of the connection. Don’t go digging into the provenance of a thing if you aren’t prepared to act on the information you then receive; but if you receive a thing that appears good without knowing its illicit provenance, you haven’t sinned. Once you’ve got that information you’re in conscience territory.

8. It’s not just conscience territory, but appearance territory. In fact, Paul says the biggest deal is not your own conscience, but the consciences of others — it’s if the people on believe your action is supporting the idolatrous status quo because you are a participant — that makes him take the position he does (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). So ‘don’t participate in a thing’ if to do so makes your non-Christian neighbours believe you support evil/idolatry.

Retrieval and Love: An ethical system for disputable matters in a complicated world

In his The How and Why of Love, Michael Hill develops an ethical system that is kingdom oriented, shaped by a Biblical theology that positions us as those awaiting the return of Jesus in a complicated and fallen world where there’s sin all the way down. He says it’s not enough for us to simply say ‘this is what God’s kingdom looks like’ and do that, because we’re not there yet, but also that the character of God’s kingdom is caught up in the great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. He takes a teleological ethic that says “an act is right if and only if it promotes the kingdom of God,” and shows that the kingdom is a kingdom of loving relationship between God and humans, individual humans, groups of humans, and humans and the created order,” and also “inner harmony within each human.” When I teach this to my RI kids I talk about how God made us to love him, love each other like we love him, and love the world like he does. That’s our purpose; that’s what the kingdom looks like. Hill’s restatement of an ethical system of ‘mutual love’ says “an action or trait of character is right if and only if it promotes (creates or maintains) mutual love relationships between (a) God and humans, and, (b) humans and humans.” Because we live in a world that is not yet ‘the kingdom of God realised,’ Hill suggests a “retrieval ethic,” where “in the context where hardness of heart prevents the accomplishment of the goal of mutual love, love would seem to necessitate the retrieval of as much good as possible, or, at least, the reduction of harm.” He distinguishes this model from the ‘lesser of two evils’ approach because here one is not choosing to justify evil, but rather, seeking to do what is most loving in a bad situation (a sort of virtue ethic, where our understanding of love is shaped by the Christian story, and particularly God as creator and redeemer, through the cross of Jesus, the resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit), and the “kingdom ethic” model where we are told to act as though the kingdom is already fully realised (or as though that’s our job).

Hill does have a chapter on abortion in his book; one that touches very briefly on the use of cells in research. He doesn’t dig into that as a picture of retrieval, but instead, outlines a thoroughly Christian vision of the unborn foetus being fully human. Once that life has been taken though, as was the case decades ago, the ultimate good to be retrieved would be the retrieval of a view of their personhood, and their dignity, and the tragedy of the loss of life involved; we’re decades down that chain now, which is why Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal is a useful vision of what it might look like to both retrieve that good, seeing the personhood of the unborn child, and the good of the medical research, that has emerged from their tragic death, including the possibility of this vaccine.

Here’s how I’d approach this particular vaccine, through an ethical grid supplied, in part, by Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols.

1. The complex world we live in means every act in a network of relationships, or culture, or system, or nation, is tainted by sin. We can’t avoid corruption from the fruits of idolatry.
2. Something more than ‘don’t partake in evil’ is required.
3. Adam’s original sin was partaking in something that had been declared sinful by God, something more than ‘partake in evil without worrying about it’ is required.
4. The law, or ‘divine commands’ in Christian ethics is ‘the floor’; love for God and neighbour (and the imitation of Jesus) is the ceiling.
5. Our ethical systems should compel us to imaginative love and virtue, not just right (moral) decision making.
6. Conscience is a really big deal in Paul’s ethical system; but he always implicitly sides with the ‘strong’ conscience while accommodating the weak; Christian leaders should avoid binding the conscience of others in case they are the weaker brothers and sisters on an issue and they unnecessarily bind the conscience of another by making an issue of provenance where none exists.
7. If we’re going to raise conscience issues on one sin of particular concern, it’s worth being consistent (asking questions about church institutions and their investment policies, super funds, environmental policies, etc, etc). Once we acknowledge complexity as a conscience issue in one area we better be prepared to follow that up with consistency.
8. God retrieves good things through human sin and evil; we are not God, but we might be prepared to adopt a similar posture of seeking to retrieve goodness, love, and life-giving approaches for the sake of our neighbours in good conscience, making the best of it.
9. That there are some goods retrievable from abortion (in the form of this vaccine), in no way justifies those particular abortions involved, or abortion in general. The end does not justify the means.
10. If Christians are never to participate in evil, when the complexity of systemic evil is made known, then we must create parallel institutions like schools, banks, libraries, etc; not to mention an alternative political state (especially in Australia); a paradigm of working towards good as redeemed people who, by the Spirit, are now able to curve our hearts away from ourselves to some degree, towards love for God and neighbour, then a more helpful paradigm for our ethics is ‘am I being Christlike in this situation’ and a working towards retrieving good.
11. True retrieval and love for both God and neighbour, in the face of complexity, means not turning a blind eye to evil or sin, but staring it down, and acknowledging it. Rooting it out of our own lives, but also seeking to change and challenge the systems we find ourselves in (across the board). Speaking out about questionable provenance of ‘goods’ that we seek to consume is one part of a step of undermining such a market, or status quo, creating genuine alternatives has to be part of that picture too. I think it’s a good thing that the Archbishops from these denominations have raised questions about the provenance of the Oxford vaccine, I think it would be great if other vaccines are pursued instead, but if they are, or aren’t.
12. Vaccines are a way we love our neighbours. The anti-vax movement is often built on an individual ethical paradigm (what is loving for self; often built on personal utility around minimising personal risks), rather than a community/relational one (what is loving for others and for God). Questions about the provenance of a particular vaccine aren’t questions about vaccinations in general.
13. The solution to a complex and messy system is the renewal of all things by Jesus, not the righteousness of us people. This doesn’t mean doing nothing; it just means our actions won’t be enough to solve the problem of sin and curse — either systemically or in our individual lives. We live our lives simultaneously recognising that creation is subject to frustration, and that we are, by the Spirit, the children of God the creation is waiting for in eager anticipation; how we tackle sin and mess now anticipates the return of Jesus to make all things new; removing sin, and curse. This is the story that answers the question ‘who am I?’ that provides the answers to the question ‘how should I live?’
14. You should not get a vaccine that is a byproduct of abortion if that is a conscience issue for you; that is, if you think you would be sinning if you received the vaccine voluntarily.
15. You should not subject other Christians to your conscience based assessment of the morality of the vaccine.
16. I do think whether or not one chooses to partake in the Oxford Vaccine is a matter of conscience similar to food sacrificed to idols; and one shouldn’t publicly trumpet your choice as a matter of Christian freedom that destroys a weaker brother or sister, but, nor should we not say anything; finding the balance of speaking like Paul did, and adopting a position on a contentious issue without delegitimising the positions of those who arrive elsewhere is a question of wisdom and imagination.
On balance, given the retrieval framework, it is, in my summation, a ‘good’ to receive this vaccine as an act of love for those neighbours presently alive, whose health and well being and ‘life’ (in pro-life terms) will be positively impacted by your decision.

But this last statement also has to be carefully qualified; and this is how I think I’m discharging that responsibility to not let something ‘good’ be called ‘evil’ in a disputable zone… On balance, personally, and without seeking to bind the conscience of others; I can say:

  • modern practices around abortion are a sinful failure of love for neighbour (the individual unborn neighbour, but also the system that makes abortion desirable represents a failure to love those in our community who might seek an abortion),
  • through the evil of abortion, in the case of this vaccine, some goods might be retrieved that allow love for neighbour in a different form (vaccination),
  • that to participate in those goods is not simply to participate in, or be complicit in, evil. In this I’m drawing an analogy here between the outcomes of idolatry (food sacrificed to idols, and abortion), and whether Christians can partake in free conscience, our knowledge of the sin involved in the production, promotion, and use of this vaccine, and whether our participation is perceived as making us complicit (or makes us complicit in the ongoing idolatry).
  • to participate in promoting and receiving this vaccine, while alternative vaccines might not be caught up in the same sinful system, might not be the most good and loving thing that I can do.
  • other vaccines will also inevitably be the product of other forms of sin (greed, immoral conduct, commercial enterprises built on various problematic practices or products),
  • our job is to act as people motivated by love for God, and love for neighbour,
  • a covid vaccination with widespread uptake in the community is a part of love for neighbour during a pandemic, but even this will involve a complex mix of systemic sinfulness, and possibly even my own selfish desire to preserve my own life, possibly at the expense of others rather than for their good.
  • so, there are more constructive approaches to ethics, and things for us to be talking about and doing as Christians. We might be better off focusing on positive alternatives than highlighting negatives; as a citizen in Corinth might have been better off giving and seeking hospitality with their neighbours, seeking to save the lost to reduce demand for idol food, or starting their own meat markets, rather than policing the food served up in a complex and messy world.

17. In all this, because the world is complex and our hearts still curve in on themselves, none of these actions or positions will totally avoid sin. Participation in sin in this world is inevitable. The Good Place had the diagnosis right. The answer is not that I live a good or ethical life of love though; I can not. Christian ethics are always a response to God’s grace and forgiveness received through Jesus. Whatever point you land on in this complexity (I hope this post is long enough to have earned this…) Jesus is the ultimate vaccine, and he protects us from the deadly consequences of our curved hearts.

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How the comfort offered by companies is pig slop, and why the church should stop lying down with pigs

Once upon a time there was a boy. He believed the bright lights of the big city and the experiences on offer there would allow him to be truer to himself than the life he had been born into.

He was born to a farmer, all his life to this point he’d been playing out the role he was born into. He found that role stifling. Sure, it involved the promise of one day owning a share in the farm — its success was his success. Sure, it involved security, and family life, and knowing who he was… but the order the lack of choice. This life was oppressive and he had to get out. He had to be free to choose his own destiny. His own identity. So he cashed in his shares from the farm and followed the lure of the bright lights; the city lifestyle he’d seen in advertisements that offered him more than he could imagine. So much choice. The ability not just to experience pleasures previously denied; this wasn’t just about hedonism, but freedom. He could be his own man. He could make choices. He could buy what he wanted, spend time with who he wanted. He was an heroic individual escaping a tired regime, aided by the voices of those who would help him be free as he made his informed consumer decisions to express himself as he fulfilled his every desire.

But then, the money ran out. When that happened he found that the companies that had promised so much — promised to be there for him — were no longer interested. He was no longer in the thick of the action in the big city. And even if he had the money to satisfy his desires, that had all proved less lasting — less good — even, than he imagined. He’d found himself addicted to the fast life; addicted to expressing himself and experiencing momentary pleasure; and he’d ended up essentially giving his whole life, everything he’d worked for, in pursuit of this pleasure to these companies that had promised so much, but delivered nothing.

The fast food and fast women he’d enjoyed with his money didn’t just disappear. In hindsight, the choices he made and the disappointment he felt when they didn’t satisfy left this boy questioning whether they tasted that good at all; they certainly were insubstantial and the flavours had nothing on the flavours that came from a home cooked meal served for him by a family that loved him. The fast food from the big city had an emptiness about it; no nutritional value; nothing lasting. As the city rejected him the boy found himself at its margins; unable to be ‘truly human’ on its terms because he now no longer had power, the boy started tending to the animals that would one day be slaughtered to serve up with eggs. He was once the image of success; an image he projected for himself; now he was beastly. Feeding the pigs and desperate to eat of their food; to become beastly, only, he already had, as a piece in the machine that fattened up pigs for market he was already no longer a free person exercising choice. He was a slave. Robotic. A part of the system.

The boy wished he’d never bought into the hype. Those companies didn’t love him. Their success — and the success of those who owned them, with their big houses and lavish lifestyles, didn’t want him to succeed, they wanted him to be a consumer so that they could consume him. Suck the marrow from his bones, while he ate swill.

This, of course, is something like a parable Jesus told. But it’s a parable for modern times too.

Watch this.

Get the message. These companies have ‘always been there’ for you. On your side. It’s corporations that take care of people — families — as we consume our way to the good life. In times like these, these ‘uncertain times’ — this pandemic — it’s companies who are there for us. In our homes. We can consume even while social distancing. Because these companies are here for us. As they have been for decades… We can count on them to help us get through this. Apple’s ad was, I thought, particularly inspired, and kinda beautiful, even if a picture of how much technology has ingratiated itself into our modern lives.

It’s Apple’s products, of course, that promise to bring us together, much like Telstra suggests it does in its magic of technology ads.

These companies offer the lure of bright lights and pleasure and security and all the tools one needs to survive and thrive as we consume our way to pleasure and express the real us in the midst of this pandemic.

Alongside Arundhati Roy’s optimistic dreams that this pandemic might bring with it a ‘new creation’ where people are kinder and gentler to each other; the sort that requires significant disruption to the status quo (and a ‘probably impossible without a shared grand narrative’ end of the culture wars), I read this piece about those forces — the status quo — that don’t want disruption, and how the manipulation required to stop disruption happening is going to begin with ads just like these from companies who do not want your individual consumer behaviour to change; because they want to keep you desiring things and pursuing the fulfilment of those desires through consumption as they sell you pig swill dressed up as a banquet. The article, Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting, says:

Billions of dollars will be spent on advertising, messaging, and television and media content to make you feel comfortable again. It will come in the traditional forms — a billboard here, a hundred commercials there — and in new-media forms: a 2020–2021 generation of memes to remind you that what you want again is normalcy. In truth, you want the feeling of normalcy, and we all want it. We want desperately to feel good again, to get back to the routines of life, to not lie in bed at night wondering how we’re going to afford our rent and bills, to not wake to an endless scroll of human tragedy on our phones, to have a cup of perfectly brewed coffee and simply leave the house for work. The need for comfort will be real, and it will be strong. And every brand in America will come to your rescue, dear consumer, to help take away that darkness and get life back to the way it was before the crisis. I urge you to be well aware of what is coming.

For the last hundred years, the multibillion-dollar advertising business has operated based on this cardinal principle: Find the consumer’s problem and fix it with your product.

These ads are the precursor for this project. Peddling the idea that consumption of products — participating in ‘the economy’ — is going to fix our problems.

Look, here’s a disclaimer, I worked in a marketing adjacent role (public relations). I loved it. I believed in what I promoted. Not all marketing is bad. Some products and services are good for you and it is good for you to know about them; but, on the whole, advertising and marketing are the prophecy and evangelism arms of a greedy consumerism that is bad for your soul. It’s possible not to sell or destroy your soul in a capitalist world, it’s just really hard (camel through the eye of the needle hard). Marketing and advertising can be used for good, but as a Christian I want to note that there’s a hint of advertising in Genesis 1, where God declares things ‘good,’ and more than a hint of advertising in Genesis 3, where the serpent creates a desire and sells a product to Adam and Eve.

It’s interesting for me, as an employee in the institution that once occupied this place in the cultural landscape, or the collective psyche, the place that offered comfort and hope in a crisis; and the stability of having been around for a long time… to see companies now jostling for the position the church once occupied. This fits neatly with Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age thesis,’ as I’ll outline below. The nutshell of Taylor’s thesis is that one of the social changes that produced secularism is the explosion of options we have post what he calls ‘the nova’ — options we have to pursue our own authentic self, freed from traditional power structures (and being ‘born into’ a particular station) we now define who we are; we choose our own identity, and we often express this through consumption of the things that we believe are good and true to ourselves. Corporations then play the role of priest, and shops function as temples, advertising becomes prophetic.

There are three take homes for me from this ad.

One, it reveals not a lack of imagination on behalf of the advertising industry; it’s a sign that the corporate world is on message. And its message stinks because it is selling slops not really fit for pigs, let alone humans, designed to fatten you up, so this little piggy can go to market. They’re trying to convince you, in essence, that the little piggy goes to market to buy stuff, which is a naive reading of that nursery rhyme, rather than to be slaughtered and turned into ham. The whole enterprise of finding meaning through consumption of products aided by corporations is hollow and rotten. People have turned from the church in the west for good and understandable reasons; but to turn to consumption and the pursuit of individual authenticity and freedom through consumer choice — that’s made a bit ridiculous when we see what looks like a smorgasbord of options is just the same swill served up in different packaging. There is nothing truly satisfying on offer from the ‘big city’ with its bright lights, desire creation, and consumption.

Second, these companies are part of an economic status quo that will do its best not to be disrupted by this pandemic; they’ll be pouring resources into advertisements and lobbying to get us consuming once again. Because the way the world was set up pre-pandemic relies on these companies occupying a particular place in the landscape. They’ll keep dressing up pig swill as a gourmet meal (the same one over and over again), but it will still be pig swill, and this is an opportunity for disruption.

Third, it’s a mistake for us in the church to think that the way back to relevance for the church is to play the consumer game; to offer ourselves as another option in the pig pen. Our job is to disrupt by playing an entirely different game; not the game where we’re pigs fattened for market to be killed, but children loved so much the father sacrifices a lamb to welcome us home. This comes with an entirely different pattern and pace of living and a different framework for understanding goodness and satisfaction.

Consumer life in the Secular City

Taylor describes the basis for the secular age we now live in as the ‘immanent frame’ — that is, a view of reality that excludes the transcendent (the realm of gods or spirits or non material reality). This is a relatively new thing (which is why it’s interesting to hear companies in the video proclaiming how long they’ve been serving the community, and the oldest you get is ‘over a hundred years.’

In this immanent frame, the previous social and religious ordering that gave rise to meaning, especially the sort of meaning that might help you through a crisis (whether superstitious, or pagan, or Christian, or a combo of all three), are gone and we are left to make meaning for ourselves. We’re cut off from God or gods, freed(ish) from inherited social obligations, free to make our own choices and choose our own adventure. Basically, the immanent frame makes us all like the boy in our story, cashed up with an inheritance from a previous social order, and able to decide what to do next to make meaning for ourselves without dad (or God) telling us what we have to do now. Taylor calls the individual in this situation ‘the buffered self’ — the self shielded from external, coercive, forces.

This isn’t just about individual selfishness. Taylor suggests that for a society wide change in belief and behaviour to take place it has to be motivated by a shifting shared sense of what is good for people; and the shift is a shift against oppressive structures. Some of this is legit. I don’t want to live, for example, in a Feudal society where my station and my professional options are pre-determined by the family I am born into, or a caste system (which isn’t to say our society isn’t structured in similar ways within the rules of the game as the companies we’re talking about want us to play it; enslaved, rather than freed, by personal choice and consumption and only allowed to succeed if we play the game by rules determined by some other).

Taylor suggests our society has turned to authenticity and expressing our true self as the cardinal virtues, and that we use consumer decisions to both discover who we really are, and then to perform and project that identity into the world in order to be recognised.

The post-war era (the time frame that most of those companies in the ad launched) brought with it an ‘affluence’ and a concentration on “private space” where we had the means to fill our own spaces; our castles and our lives; with “the ever-growing gamut of new goods and services on offer, from washing machines to packaged holidays.” Taylor says “the pursuit of happiness” became linked to consumer lifestyles expressing one’s “own needs and affinities, as only the rich had been able to do in previous eras.” Children born after this period became a new youth market, targetted by advertisers as ‘natives’ to this consumer culture; those who would, by default, express ourselves by expressive consumer choice.

The ‘good’ of authenticity was mashed up with a culture of expressive individualism in a framework provided where consumption was the way to discover and reveal your true self. Taylor sees this particularly playing out in the realm of fashion; particularly when an individual makes a consumer choice to express themselves and their identity as belonging to some thing or other that is greater than themselves (a bit like social media likes and posts also work as the performance of one’s authentic self). This effect of shared expression through shared fashion — be it a hat, or Nike shoes (or an Apple product) — is amplified in public places like concerts (band t-shirts) and sporting events (jerseys) which provide additional meaning for our actions and expression, these expressions of solidarity in public spaces are important in the secular world; because they are essentially religious experiences. Where once we might have conducted such meaning making activities in pilgrimages or religious festivals, now we do so in an immanent frame, and it’s our shared consumer decisions (buying the same shirt, for example) that produce this impact. Such moments ‘wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves,’ such that our consumer choices can sometimes in replacing what the transcendent once did for us (in terms of meaning making and connection) give us a haunting sense of what has been lost.

Experiencing this haunting, this sense of connection, those glimpses of the transcendent, may also be what fuels our consumption — and it’s kinda no surprise when those responsible for driving our consumption — advertisers — tap into that, with imagery (or iconography) and the sort of language and purpose you might once have reserved for religious organisations. Taylor says the result of all this is that:

Commodities become vehicles of individual expression, even the self-definition of identity. But however this may be ideologically presented, this doesn’t amount to some declaration of real individual autonomy. The language of self-definition is defined in the spaces of mutual display, which have now gone meta-topical; they relate us to prestigious centres of style-creation, usually in rich and powerful nations and milieux. And this language is the object of constant attempted manipulation by large corporations.

So we’ll either consume as an expression of tribalism where we can mutually display our belonging (like wearing a band shirt to their concert, or the shirt of our local football team), or with an eye to the life we wish we were living (like wearing a luxury brand, or a shirt bearing the logo of a company whose values and prestige we aspire to… and companies will fuel this dissatisfaction in us by seeking to create desires that only their product can fulfill (which is marketing 101).

Tech in the City

You can stack Taylor’s observations against the behaviour of companies a decade after he wrote A Secular Age (so, now). And start to bring in some observations here from other thinkers, especially about the role technology companies play in facilitating modern life. We can now perform our identities online, not just in the public square; which is what telcos are offering us (especially in a time of social distancing), what social media companies facilitate (via your ‘profile’ and your ‘feed,’ and what tech companies (like Apple) provide us with tools for (like phones with cameras). These companies, as much or more than bricks and mortar stores in public places, and large scale public gatherings (especially right now) are providing the ‘social imaginary’ for us, as well as providing the space for us to ‘be ourselves.’ Which is a problem if part of the ‘corporate status quo’ that is making a stack of money off helping us ‘express our true selves’ (and so enslaving us to their own oppressive system) is a sort of ‘Babylonian’ technocracy. I mentioned the ‘technocracy’ idea in yesterday’s post, where I linked to Alan Jacob’s piece about the over-promising made by the technocratic regime about the satisfaction technology might bring us. Neil Postman actually (I think) coined the term in Technopoly, where he described the way tools work in connection to our symbolic performance of things that give meaning. Postman said:

“In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”

Postman, Technopoly

He sees tools — our technology — pushing into the vacuum Taylor observes in A Secular Age, the search for meaning in an ‘immanent frame,’ to become ‘the culture.’

That quote is startling to read alongside the Apple ad above, given what it depicts and what it promises, but unsurprising… because commentators have long observed the religious function of Apple and its mythmaking engine. Marshall McLuhan (writing before Apple was a thing) suggested technology, especially communication technology that embeds itself in our ecosystems and our individual lives, functions religiously, that is, in a technopoly our technologies become idols. And these idols end up enslaving us.

“The concept of “idol” for the Hebrew Psalmist is much like that of Narcissus for the Greek mythmaker. And the Psalmist insists that the beholding of idols, or the use of technology, conforms men to them. “They that make them shall be like unto them… By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms. That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions… Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology.”    

McLuhan, Understanding Media

McLuhan also believed escaping this status quo will prove very difficult because of how embedded technology and consumption is in our modern life — and how much they reinforce one another until we become these robotic ‘servomechanisms’ — thoughtless consumers who can’t escape, and probably don’t want to…

“For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their lives by waiting on machines, listening to much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods.”

McLuhan, Mechanical Bride

Scott Galloway, a tech pioneer, entrepreneur, and business academic wrote a book titled The Four, examining the big four tech companies that dominate our ecosystem: Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google. He viewed them all through a religious prism, and (following some stuff a while back by Martin Lindstrom around the brain activity of Apple users while interacting with its products mirroring the brain activity of religious people while practicing their religions), Galloway said:

“[Apple] mimics religion with its own belief system, objects of veneration, cult following, and Christ figure,” … “Objects are often considered holy or sacred if they are used for spiritual purposes, such as the worship of gods. Steve Jobs became the innovation economy’s Jesus—and his shining achievement, the iPhone, became the conduit for his worship, elevated above other material items or technologies.“

Scott Galloway, The Four

A call to (secular) worship

These ads aren’t just neutral. They aren’t just designed to keep the economy afloat and people in jobs. They are a call to worship. A call to not be disrupted. To keep eating the pigswill dreaming of a time when you might be at the centre of the city, not its margins, and telling you that it’s consumption that’s going to get you there as a consumer.

David Foster Wallace talks about this status quo in his famous speech This Is Water. He said this pattern of consumption; of worship; is the ‘so-called real world’ — our default settings. He said:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. 

It was this siren call, the idea that he was missing out on the good life, that pulled the boy in our story from his father’s garden-farm to the bright lights of the big city. The call to fast food, fast women, and parties was an invitation to worship at a different sort of temple (and, you know, those activities were actually stock in trade for first century pagan temples). The boy in our story is invited to worship other gods, and they end up treating him the way the gods of other pagan nations, especially Babylon, treat people; as a slave.

Disrupting hollow gods

Our boy found himself feeding the pigs, on the outskirts of the big city.

One day, as he looked at the muck around him, as he noticed the slop looked a lot like the leftovers of the meals he came to the city to eat… he realised he’d been sold a lie. All it took was a momentary break; that moment where he pictured himself on his knees tucking in with the pigs. He new. He knew the city was turning him into an animal. In that moment, the emperor had no clothes. The bright lights of the city were flashy and distracting — just the right amount of visual noise and trickery to keep you from seeing the city’s ugly underbelly. He began to daydream; imagining himself back at home on the farm. The clean air. The clean living. The clean eating. Feasting with his family. Better to be a servant there, in a life giving system, than a slave here, on the path to being chewed up and spit out, he thought. So he hit the road. On his way out the billboards by the road started crowding out his vision; promising fast food; fast women; fast money; fast satisfaction. Doing all it could to claw him back. To gobble him up. He ran.

All he needed was a little disruption. And he was gone.

The city promised our boy freedom, only it didn’t offer real freedom, but a certain sort of slavery. This is the same deal our advertisers offer us now; it’s the same city. The same world.

This is a world that doesn’t want disruption.

This is a world whose gods are hollow; a world that tries to dress pig slop up on a big white plate as a gourmet meal. It’s a bit like Ephesus in the book of Acts — a world that pursues wealth and flourishing from making, marketing, and selling, silver idol statues; that feels very threatened when the hollowness of those gods is revealed by a God that actually offers satisfaction.

My favourite part of This Is Water is not the bit about how ‘everybody worships’ or the diagnosis of what flows from the worship of false gods (dissatisfaction). It’s that all these false forms of worship of things from within what Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’ — the decision to, as Paul puts it in Romans, worship created things rather than the creator — leave us with a ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing,’ but also, that anything immanent we worship, and worshipping anything not transcendent will, in Wallace’s words “eat you alive.” Take that piggy.

Taylor describes this too; he says the turn to expressive individualism — to performing our ‘authentic self’ via consumption actually leaves us hungry. The promises of advertisers and their corporate masters do not satisfy our hunger; they are hollow. This is what the ad compilation reveals. The utter hollowness of the promises of the corporate world; the hollowness of the idea that companies and their products can be ‘there for us’ in a pandemic when we are fearing for our health and our lives, the emptiness of meaning that this turn from the transcendent to the immanent can provide… Taylor says this leaves us haunted and with a sense of lack; not just in those times were previously we’d have turned to religion to help us make meaning (key markers like births, marriages, and death) but “in the everyday” — and actually, it’s in the everyday where we might notice it most. It’s the idea that we feel the lack not just when we’re feeding the pigs from the margins; but right there with the bright lights, in the big city. The emptiness of what we’ve replaced God with bites just as hard as the hunger pangs in the pig pen. Taylor says:

But we can also just feel the lack in the everyday. This can be where it most hurts. This seems to be felt particularly by people of some leisure and culture. For instance, some people sense a terrible flatness in the everyday, and this experience has been identified particularly with commercial, industrial, or consumer society. They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape.

Taylor, A Secular Age

Taylor says this is one of the things that keeps us from defaulting to unbelief in the immanent frame; there’s a contest, and it’s both the haunting — the sense there might be something more — and the hollowness — the “nagging dissatisfactions” and the rapid wearing out of the utopian visions the prophets of the immanent frame cast. It’s precisely moments like this ad montage that pull back the curtain and throw some of us towards faith in something other than consumption.

Stopping to see the cost of the status quo — the price it makes us pay as little piggies — has the capacity to disrupt us. That’s the point of the gaslighting article linked above, and the quick pivot to advertisements announcing that companies are “here to help.” To keep us blind.

Big business is going to want us to forget the almost immediate impact on our natural environment that our scaling back consumption has had. And it’s not just the environment that has felt some of that oppression lift. I’m seeing lots of appreciation for the way this crisis has pushed us towards local relationships. Kids playing on the street. A return of the neighbourhood or village. Taylor saw the ‘nova’ — this explosion of possible choices — produced by technology and cultural changes that allowed us to escape the village. “The village community disintegrates,” first through the “age of mobilisation” and then the “nova” as people are able work and live in different locations, or as people uproot for sea-changes or to pursue employment wherever they choose (again, not all of what he calls the ‘age of mobilisation’ or the ‘nova’ is negative, but our ability to ‘choose’ previously unthinkable options does produce change to village life).

They’re going to want to keep us from finding meaning in village and communal life, so that we’re back stocking up our private castles. Apple can’t make money from me talking to my neighbours. They’re going to want us to slip back into the pursuit of meaning and desire-fulfilment that their machinery creates in order to satisfy its own hunger. It’s not relationships that satisfy, but relationships-completed-by-products that satisfy…

The ‘status quo’ that makes money and gains power from the system staying the same is under threat; disrupted by a pandemic. The cracks are showing, so they’re returning to what they and we know. Inviting us to consume our way to comfort. Reminding us that “they” are there for us (I mean, Lexus has a TV ad inviting me to call them if I want a chat — although this is probably just for people who own a Lexus)… And we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

And more than that, we, the church, should not participate in this system as another product to be consumed, but as disruptors. Like Paul in Ephesus.

Lots of the stuff I’ve been trying to articulate in my last few posts about our need to resist the siren call of technology has been a call to be disrupted by Covid-19 so that we can become disruptors in this manner.

We can’t be like the advertisers offering up Christianity as just another form of pig food, or fodder from a food truck in the big city the prodigal ran to (prodigal means ‘wasteful’ not ‘runaway’ by the way).

We can’t think the way to be an ambassador for home style farm life is to become card carrying citizens of the system; not from home. We’re the farmers coming to town for a farmer’s market, in our farm gear, with our country pace — not salespeople trying to compete ‘like for like’ with McDonalds. We’re trying to pull people out of the immanent frame, not playing in it as though that’s where satisfaction and the good life is to be found.

We must be people who take the opportunity to expose the hollowness of false gods and their noisy prophets. Prophets who without getting together to plan, all produced messages from the same boring song book. These ads are a stark reminder of the emptiness of what expressive individualism based on consumption offers. A haunting moment.

We must be people who point to the redemptive power and value of a home cooked meal with the God who loves us; people who point beyond the immanent frame our neighbours want to live in to the transcendent reality; that there is a God who is not just our creator, but our loving father who wants us to share in his task of cultivating life and goodness in the world.

The problem is, for much of the period the companies in the ad above have been operating (so not for very long — that is, in the post-war period) the church has positioned itself as just another consumer choice in a world where our identity is chosen and performed, rather than as an entirely different way of being. Church has been treated by just one other consumer option, and we’ve jumped in to play that game.

We’ve served church up on the buffet next to other consumer decisions, and so cultivate the idea that we’re just another attraction alongside the bright lights in the big city, and so have become a slightly more nutritious form of pig food; more fodder that just reaffirms that the good life is found in expressive individualism performed by consumer decisions.

Taylor describes this step that kicks in once religious life is approached in these terms:

“The expressivist outlook takes this a stage farther. The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church”. Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable.”

We treat church like a product, culturally, and so churches start acting like products — or like corporations. Imagine what happens there when church starts to be advertised like every other product. Imagine if you were presenting your online church services in much the same way that products are selling themselves during Covid-19.

Our church has been around for x years. In good times and in bad. We’ve always been here for you and your family. Now more than ever. We might be socially distanced, but you can enjoy God, and our live streamed services, from the safety and comfort of your home… press like to come home. God will see you through these hard times, and will be there still when we get back to normal… we’re here to help…

Applause

Pig slop.

Or at least indistinguishable from pig slop; even it it’s all true. It’s certainly not disruptive; it buys into the idea that church is a consumer decision that will allow you to be your true self. And I reckon I’ve seen a bunch of variations of this theme. People seeing Covid-19 as an opportunity to reproduce the status quo; just digitally.

This is especially true for those churches that have bought into the “technocracy” and the age of expressive individualism and so gone to market to shape church as a desirable big city option, rather than a taste of home on the farm with the father.

The church growth movement and the sort of toxic churchianity that it produces, which then leads us, in a time of crisis, to turn our services into shows that can be consumed using the same technology we use to binge entertainment, buy stuff, and satisfy all sorts of other desires at the click of a link is disrupted church rather than a disrupting church. A church shaped by the ‘nova’ and playing in the immanent frame trying to win consumers. Taylor says this approach produces a spirituality that is individualised, superficial, undemanding, self-indulgent and flaccid.

This is not who we are; at least it’s not who we are meant to be. The whole expressive individualism via consumption enterprise is not who we were meant to be; and that’s part of what we’re experiencing now. The best application of Taylor’s A Secular Age to today’s technocracy that I’ve read is Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness. It’s a call to a thicker, non-consumer oriented, practice of Christian witness in an age where the good life is thought to be caught up in ‘authenticity’ and expressive individualism through consumer choice, and where the church has too often pandered to that framework. He suggests a series of disruptive practices we might adopt, but one of his main points is to stop playing the game of approaching our witness like marketers selling a product. He thinks at the very least a deliberate stepping away from the methodologies of the church will protect our witness so we might disrupt some lives. He said:

“As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths.”

What I found interesting when digging back into the book today, was that his criteria for widespread disruption might just be being met (and this might be why the gaslighting article is worth heeding).

“If history is any indication, the distracted, secular age can only be uprooted by a tremendous historical event that reorders society, technology, and our entire conception of ourselves as individuals: something like the invention of the printing press, the protestant Reformation, or a global war — a paradigm shifting event. But trying to correct the effects of secularism and distraction through some massive event is quixotic at best and mad scientist-is at worst. This leaves us in a difficult position. There is no reasonable, society wide, solution. Which is not to say that we can’t ameliorate the problem through policies and community practices.”

Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

There is an opportunity here for us to be disruptors rather than disrupted.

If your church’s response to Covid-19 is to produce anything that looks like these ads, or that plays in the same frame that they do, then you’re doing it wrong.

Our response to Covid-19 can’t be to think ‘how will I turn this into an opportunity to sell my product to people who are scared,’ our response isn’t to get people to add Christianity to their array of consumer choices in the city, a city that wants to fatten them up as piggies going to market, but to invite them to run back to their heavenly father, who loves them, who waits with open arms, who’ll kill the fattened calf (or the lamb) to bring them home.

The boy had been walking for some time. Finally the landscapes around him were familiar. It was getting dark; but that was ok, darkness actually meant the bright lights of ‘sin city’ were a long way behind him. He already felt human again. He found he had no desire to eat pig food. Progress, he thought. His speech for when he came face to face with the father he’d abandoned was running through his head. To take his inheritance and squander it, ‘the prodigal,’ was to say to his dad ‘I wish you were dead,’ he was sorry. He set the bar low; “I’d rather be a servant than a pig being fattened for slaughter” he thought.

The father had been sitting on his front step each day since his son left. Waiting for his son to return; hoping that the light and life and love of home would be enough to bring his son home; knowing that the city talked a good game but that it only offered emptiness; hoping his son had not been destroyed by the endless pursuit of more. He looked up, and saw a figure on the horizon. It’s my son, he thought. The city hasn’t been kind to him. He called to a servant to butcher a calf in the field, and to start preparing a feast. Then ran to his son. Embracing him before he could speak a word.

The boy was home.

The Gospel is not pig slop. We should stop treating it like it is.

,

On words and meaning

In 2001, American writer/philosopher David Foster Wallace wrote a famous review of a dictionary.

Just ponder for a moment how a review of a dictionary might become famous.

It’s one of my favourite essays because while it does what it says on the tin, it also explains huge swathes of disagreement in modern life; it accounts for why so often we talk past one another in disagreements while using the same words.

It’s because the same words mean different things to different people based on an underlying understanding of how words work; what DFW called ‘a usage war’ — we’re seeing the fruits of that war, and most of the time we don’t even realise that’s what happening. He said, of introductory essays published in dictionaries:

“They’re salvos in the Usage Wars that have been” under way ever since editor Philip Gave first sought to apply the value-neutral principles of structural linguistics to lexicography in Webster’s’ Third. Gave’s famous response to conservatives who howled when Webster’s Third endorsed OK and described ain’t as “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers [sic}” was this: “A dictionary should have no traffic with … ‘artificial notion of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.” These terms stuck and turned epithetic, and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as Prescriptivists and linguistic liberals as Descriptivists.

In one sense the war between prescriptivists and descriptivists is a war between objectivity and subjectivity; modernity and post-modernity; or conservatives and progressives. On the one hand are those who think words necessarily have an objective meaning, dictated by their ability to describe an actual thing, and only ever that thing. The meaning is fixed etymologically. Dictionaries tell you what a word actually means. On the other hand, there are those who think words are subjective; that our words are always analogies coming from our perspective attempting to describe reality in intelligible ways, but always limited — and also contested and subject to change, and meaning is dictated by usage. Particularly how the user conceives of the meaning of the word; but also how that word is understood in particular interpretive communities — and we must be mindful of that context, not just etymology.

I might be a nerd; but it fascinates me that this approach to language actually, fundamentally, plays out in disputes across those trenches — between modernists and post-modernists, and conservatives and progressives (and post-modern conservatives and modernist conservatives and post-modern progressives and modernist progressives). There are often things at stake in the definition of these words and how they’re used too; take a couple of examples; there’s currently a debate being waged within the LGBTIQA+ community, and within the feminist community (as much as those can be monolithic communities) about the meaning of words. Those communities are typically progressive (in many ways that we would understand that word). And yet, traditional feminists fought very hard for the word ‘woman’ to mean a particular thing; they’re now labelled as “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” (TERFs), because they won’t broaden the label to mean something new — to assign the label based on a constructed gender identity, rather than an objectively observable biological reality (anatomical sex), even while recognising that gender is constructed. For members of the LGBTIQA+ community this same issue plays out for, say, gay men, who have lobbied for the recognition of their rights to love other men, only for the meaning of the word ‘men’ to also be contested. The contest is a language usage war.

I tend to be a descriptivist, because I think that better reflects the reality of how language is used, though deep down I’d prefer a more prescriptive approach to words and meaning. But this means we have to be careful, as individuals, when engaging in discussions, to notice not just what others are saying but how others are using words. It’s very easy to insist that other people are using words the way we believe they should be using them, and then crucify them, rather than entering the contest of meaning for words or terminology by bringing a broadened perspective, or arguing for a particular manner of usage.

One person responded to my last post about ‘toxic churchianity’ by saying I’d lost his interest in what I had to say by using the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ He suggested there is no such thing as ‘toxic masculinity’ — there’s just the objectively positive good that is masculinity and anything else is actually not masculinity. This was a ‘prescriptive’ approach to language, that doesn’t grapple with a larger cultural conversation around what the meaning of ‘masculinity’ is, and where some proffered definitions might sometimes need contesting and qualifying to distinguish them from others; I’m comfortable entering that contest for meaning, and that conversation, because of how I think language works.

For a prescriptivist, language is ‘ontological;’ to name something is to describe it as it really is prescriptively, on every occasion. A word means what it means. This is a lot of weight for language to bear; and it limits the creative/artistic/poetic use of language where we can use words to create things that are not. This has interesting implications for how we exegete the Bible too — if words always mean what they etymologically mean in a prescriptive, technical, dictionary sense then we are assuming a certain sort of approach to writing from the authors of Scripture (a modernist one). This ontological thing is at play in a debate currently taking place within the conservative church, in a similar way to the debate playing out in the progressive communities described above. There’s a debate about how Christians who experience same sex attraction should describe themselves; and whether they should use the label gay. This debate, from a conservative prescriptive perspective is a no brainer; because to use the word ‘gay’ is an ontological claim about who a person is; and in Christ, one’s identity is transformed. In that theory of language, it makes no sense to use the label gay. But here’s why I’m not convinced by that argument; I don’t think language works that way, or that this is the claim being made by those people who use the label gay while pursuing a traditional Biblical sexual ethic. When you listen carefully to these brothers and sisters they say they use the label to describe their experience; or story. It’s not an ontological claim in terms of being an objective fixed reality (though I do think ontology/personhood/identity actually works narratively, not simply as a fixed objective reality too; I think a materialist, objective, ontology is a modern construct that we often impose on ancient texts, like Genesis, where ontology there is more relational and functional, and connected to a narrative — so my approach to language is theological, but this is circular, and prescriptivists would say the same thing about their exegesis, their theology, and their approach to languge). If we insist that words work a particular way; if there was no contest; then I think one camp in this debate could insist that the other use words in a particular, objectively correct, way. But I don’t think there’s much space for Christians, especially english speaking Christians, to insist things like that — because as people reading translations of texts from ancient languages, where the complexity of language has to be part of the fabric of how a translation is produced, we know we are experiencing the subjectivity of language as we read the Bible and dig into the Greek or Hebrew to find the semantic range of a word. We read a Bible that has puns, and deliberate ambiguity, and word play built in because words do not always have objective fixed meanings. Also, on the belief that words and labels function ‘ontologically’ and in prescriptive rather than descriptive ways; and the idea that a Christian cannot identify (ontologically) with their sin as though that is a prescriptive reality; someone ought to tell the writers of the New Testament who refer to Rahab as “Rahab the prostitute” and Simon as “Simon the Zealot”— those are descriptions of part of their stories, not a prescriptive ontological claims about them.

Understanding how we use language is important; but the debate is not neutral; adopting a ‘descriptive’ framework — one born to some extent out of post-modernity’s reaction to modernity — is now politically loaded. George Orwell famously noted how political regimes with nefarious intent blur the meaning of language through doublespeak and the creation of very technically correct prescriptive looking language to describe things in particularly opaque (though technically correct) ways; and we see this in modern bureaucracy where ‘public relations’ is used (or “effectively utilised”) to prop up powerful status quos. Progressives (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) want to change the meaning of words through pointing both to the contested nature of understanding, but also to the dubious authorities that gave words their meaning. Sometimes word meanings should be contested; etymology is a useful guide for description and employing words carefully to describe reality as we understand it. DFW notes that descriptivism is the air anyone educated after about the 1970s in the west lives and breathes.

“For one thing, Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively-via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males’? and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic,’ homophobic, elitist: unfair.”

We’re not going to solve this dispute about how words work any time soon, but understanding that the way words and language works is contested might help us listen better to each other in areas of disagreement. It might also help those of us who care about objective truths contend for understandable descriptions of reality.

Play as Re-Creation

This is the second of two talks I gave at our church’s weekend away which we called Re-Creation. It’s on the way play is an act of formation, or discipleship, or a spiritual discipline that is also part of our witness to an overly busy world that takes itself too seriously. I’ve written about play as a disruptive witness previously, but since giving these talks I enjoyed this piece from Awkward Asian Theologian and this news story about a cathedral that installed a playground on the inside not the outside.

What is Play?

Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called A Theology of Play back in the 1970s. He opens by talking about our innate burning desire for happiness and enjoyment. He says: “to be happy, to enjoy ourselves, we must above all be free… we enjoy ourselves, we laugh, when our burdens are removed, when fetters are falling, pressures yield and obstructions give way…” he says that when this happens we “gain distance from ourselves and our plans move forward in a natural, unforced, way.” He talks about humanity as ‘homo ludens’ (the playing man).

Play is different to work — which comes with different limits and a certain sort of burden, but it is also different to rest. It has similarities with both — work, because it involves using God’s good creation, and our energy, to certain ends, rest, because it is ‘recreative’ and not connected to particular ends beyond the activity itself and the pleasure it produces for us. Play is an ends in itself, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t do things to us, and through us — or that it has to be ‘non-productive,’ it’s just that the things it produces are a bi-product of the activity — so someone could ‘play music’ for fun and produce music, or do woodwork and create something beautiful, but the product (while you may pursue beauty and goodness as part of the ‘play’) is secondary to the effort. Moltmann says, of ‘games’ that the game must “appear useless and purposeless from an outside point of view” to be meaningfully ‘play’ — to ‘ask for the purpose’ makes one a “spoilsport.”

Education academics and philosophers are increasingly convinced about the formative power of play — and not just for children. Play as ‘pedagogy’ isn’t a new idea, it’s almost self-evident that children play their way to an understanding of the world, and people as old and wise as Plato have recognised the formative, educative, power of play. We’re hard-wired to play, and through play, to come to know not just the world and ourselves as they are, but also as they could be. Play is the seedbed of the imagination. Plato’s approach to learning was built on the idea that the way we play appears ‘harmless’ but “little by little” the way we play “penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions” and so can ultimately totally overthrow the system, though he saw rightly ordered play becomes a ‘habit’ that leads to good ordering of society as well (Plato’s Republic, book 4).

That play does things to us as we play — that it has a utility — can’t be the ‘reason’ that we play — if play is forced it loses some of its essence, but it is a reason to not take ourselves so seriously that we never play.

Moltmann, writing when he did, noticed a then ‘modern’ (now old) tendency for ‘playfulness’ to be “banned from the realm of labour as mere foolishness” as we have been forced by the industrial revolution to shift our views of what it means to be human. He saw this creating a haunting sense of loss and our desire for ‘play’ as something beyond our reach as part of a “melancholy criticism of our modern culture and its alleged loss of childlike innocence, of ancient good and religious values.” Moltmann notes that the Reformation, and especially the values of the Puritans, “abolished the holidays, games, and safety valves” of the Medieval society it reformed. Charles Taylor, writing much later in the piece in A Secular Age notes how much of the public religious life of old was ‘festive’ — filled with feasts and celebrations that have been removed from our disenchanted, disembodied (excarnated), head-focused, modern religion  that no longer marks ‘spiritual time’ or a liturgical calendar, but treats all time the same; such that our calendars or schedules are dominated by a different ‘immanent’ understanding of life that prioritises work and the pursuit of pleasure through economic productivity and security. The sort of modern myth that Brian Walsh identifies in The Subversive Image (quoted in the post on rest). Work and play do relate — though the balance has been tipped somewhat in modern thinking (perhaps Protestant thinking, connected to the ‘protestant work ethic’) so that our rest is oriented towards making us ‘more productive units’ rather than rest being the thing we enjoy as the fruit of our labour (or, in fact, both being true).

Moltmann notes that the world of the 70s made ‘vacation’ a servant of ‘vocation’… where we “get away for a time to become better achievers and more willing workers” our other past times that pass as ‘leisure’ — like watching TV — have become forms of escaping a monotonous world, a world particularly devoid of ‘adventure’. Moltmann argues that “these areas reserved for free play are of considerable importance to the structures of authority and labour and their respective disciplines and moral systems” — the way the system has us ‘play’ and ‘systematised play’ itself is geared to reinforce the economic/industrial status quo. This is a fascinating point that lines up with more recent observations about the place of ‘mindfulness’ in the corporate world in a book I’m reading titled McMindfulness by Ronald Purser (read some more about it here). Play then becomes ‘enslaving’ rather than ‘liberating’ — if ‘play’ is re-creation though; and something to pursue as a spiritual discipline or part of Sabbathing, then we need to change the way we play, and consciously be formed by our play in ways that liberate us from false worship and false stories about humanity; play, like rest and work, is part of how we worship. Moltmann suggests that play is serious business — and that as a result we should “wrest control” of games from “the ruling interests” that enslave and “change them into games of freedom which prepare people for a more liberated society…” and more than that, he sees, like Plato, any effective revolution starting not with the economic structures of a society but in its play.

“We enjoy freedom when we anticipate by playing what can and shall be different and when in the process we break the bonds of the immutable status quo.” — Moltmann.

This idea is echoed in the book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. He says:

“Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” — Steven Johnson

C.S Lewis also makes the point that how we play is significant. That our choices about re-creation matter because they form us: “our leisure, even our play, is a matter of serious concern. There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan … It is a serious matter to choose wholesome recreations.”

Play in the Bible

In the beginning, God makes a good and beautiful world. Our Jesus Storybook Bible gives a beautiful sense of God delighting in his good creation, that at least some part of his joyful declaration “it is good” at the end of each day is not just the satisfaction of an engineer but an artist; that there is ‘play’ involved in his imagination and creativity. He doesn’t ‘create’ because he has to to complete some deficiency in himself, but rather as an outpouring of his love and character. Some part, then, of our ‘image bearing’ task is to take up this playful, delighting, creative role — this is part of the call to “be fruitful and multiply” (a command often called the “cultural mandate”).

God is also hospitable. He puts Adam and then Eve in a garden that is delightful. A garden that is a feast for the senses where even the forbidden fruit is “pleasing to the eye”. He invites them to eat and enjoy his good provision in relationship with him — he is the God who walks in the garden in the cool of the day. Part of the ‘cultural mandate’ in the Genesis narrative is the task of spreading this hospitality of the garden — expanding it — across the face of the world (Adam is tasked with ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden in Genesis 2). This is a task of spreading beauty and a creation that is to be enjoyed; and while there is work involved here, it seems that work is held in balance with enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labours (frustrated by the curse) and with rest. Some part of a Biblical definition of play is connected to our created purpose — we embodied creatures are hardwired for pleasure and created to enjoy relationship with our good creator. We are tasked with imagining and creating new realities (the raw materials for such creativity are there in Eden and highlighted for us as readers). Pre-fall the lines between work and play seem more blurry than they are now, because there is no oppressive social order and no frustration of our work. Play, at this point, seems to, by inference, involve enjoying creation as creatures in relationship with our creator – including enjoying our bodies and our senses – and through our senses, so feasting, and dancing, and laughter, and sex, and making art, and music, and sport, and imagining new worlds, and telling stories, and experiencing stories… not all of this disappears with the disordering of the fall, all of these are ‘play’ – and all of them are at their best when somehow they’re connected not just to those things as ‘an end in themselves’ but to God, either as an extension of our human call to live as his image bearers, in a deliberate engaging with these things with thanksgiving and to glorify God, so that we see in these things something of his ‘divine nature and character’ (Romans 1:20, 1 Timothy 4:4-5). Work is similar in many ways, in that we are cultivate things, but there’s something more consciously ‘utilitarian’ in our work; it has a purpose in itself that play doesn’t, which isn’t to say play doesn’t have a function, or a purpose, or that it doesn’t do anything, but when you try to make it do that thing it loses its essence. Nobody likes ‘forced fun’ or ‘going through the motions’… which is an interesting phrase with play, especially when it relates to professions that are professional versions of things we play at… whether its music, where a musician ‘plays’ until their instrument becomes an extension of the self, and the capacity to produce music shifts, or runs the risk of shifting, to being a ‘craft’ or ‘work’ rather than simply an ‘art’ or ‘play.’

As well as being a writer who wrote fantastic things about tennis and beauty (see his essay on Federer), David Foster Wallace was a capable junior tennis player who understood the strange overlap of play and work, where some things we mere mortals might ‘play at’ become serious business. In his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest, DFW follows the career of a junior tennis prodigy in an academy where players are encouraged to eat, sleep, and breathe tennis. To ‘go through the motions’ — playing — until the game becomes muscle memory; until they are hard wired ‘tennis machines’ — the risk here is that a player who habituates themselves into this machine-like existence disconnects the processes from their love for the game. Play has a certain liturgical quality — and Wallace makes this point because his book is ultimately about worship and the idea that we become what we love. We see this sort of disconnect in liturgical churches who ‘forsake their first love’ and go through the motions of liturgy without their hearts and hands being animated by the love of God and the desire to participate in the story of the Gospel, and we see it in tennis players who have been hard-wired into skillful machines but who hate the game, like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic — both see tennis as a ‘means to an ends’ — whereas, someone like Federer plays the game because he loves it (which perhaps allows him to be an artist rather than an automaton).

Play forms us, and it does have an interesting relationship with work that seems to somehow work best when play informs and transforms the way we work, because it transforms what we love and the new possibilities we are able to imagine. Play can be ‘re-creative’ or ‘de-creative’ — it can be ‘transforming’ or ‘de-forming’ — the fall itself is an act of ‘playful’ rebellion; the pursuit of enjoyment of a good and beautiful thing apart from God. Part of this dynamic, whether with music, tennis, or the fruit in the garden, is a loss of the ‘purpose’ or ‘telos’ of the created thing we are enjoying; we should, in our play, be able to ‘look along’ the things of this world towards God, and so glorify him — but they become idolatrous when we either become fixated on the created thing itself, or on ourselves and what the thing produces for us. This sort of ‘looking through’ the objects of our play has the capacity to prevent those things becoming ‘ultimate’ for us whether as objects of delight or drudgery — it stops us becoming mastered or enslaved (the way Tomic and Kyrgios might feel enslaved by tennis).

Play is frustrated by the fall both because it becomes the grounds for idolatry, because work itself is frustrated (and frustrating), and so too is all of creation (Romans 8). The time for play, then, is reduced by the thorns and thistles the ground now produces, its connection to the creator is more tenuous or less obvious for us ‘outside the garden,’ and the way we play often becomes idolatrous. Even as the effects of the curse start to bite, play continues. The genealogy in Genesis 4 lists people who make tools (for work) and musical instruments (for play). Play is a narrative theme of the Old Testament. Culture is still being created. People are spreading — it’s just a question of whether people are spreading ‘garden like’ conditions, or curse, or a mix of both. The Old Testament is full of the tension between people who are ‘lovers of the world’ who still feast and make music and do lots of ‘appealing’ stuff with leisure and pleasure; who are given over to sensuality… and with Israel’s own counter-cultural sensual practices of self-denial (bacon) and festivals and feasting in a land flowing with milk and honey…

Play under the sun

The wise man in Ecclesiastes; at least in his exploration of life ‘under the sun’ is the human trying to live in Charles Taylor’s ‘closed system’ – as a ‘buffered self’ — he’s exploring a world without God, and decides that a world with God is essential for meaning. In chapter 2 he describes a ‘re-creation’ project; an attempt to build an Eden like life without curse; the #BLESSED life. He starts by declaring ‘pleasure’ itself “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3) and then turns to work and its relationship to pleasure.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labour,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. — Ecclesiastes 2:4-11

Nothing is gained, because all of this is frustrated. Especially because we are temporary; we are but breath. You’ve got to be careful with that phrasing right… it sounds like “butt breath” – but that’s actually kinda what he’s saying… The word rendered ‘meaningless’ in the NIV is the Hebrew word הֶבֶל (‘hebel’), which is a word that captures the ‘fleetingness’ or ‘breathiness’ of existence. It more literally means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour.’

He particularly decides that a life that is all work and no play, no goodness, no joy, is meaningless; it keeps us despairing. Especially because work is pointless because life is fleeting; we don’t enjoy the fruit of our labour, we give it to those who come after us who haven’t worked to earn it. Our lives are marked by days of work that are “grief and pain” and nights where our “minds do not rest”. So his verdict is we may as well work and ‘play’:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” — Ecclesiastes 2:25-26

Everything “under the sun” in a disenchanted world is temporary. Work. Life. Play. All are meaningless if all they do is confront us with the reality of this temporaryness; but there is a chance that play — that ‘enjoyment’ of the fruit of our labour — might throw us towards God. The writer of Ecclesiastes doesn’t find much hope ‘under the sun,’ but he does start to connect meaning to God and to an ‘enchanted’ view of life and reality. If life is connected not just to ‘immanence’ (Taylor’s term) or our ‘under the sun’ experience, but to the God who has set eternity on our hearts, then play throws us towards something our hearts are created to long for: the eternal… joy… the heart of God.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:-13

That longing for the eternal is innate, and play can either numb us to it as we ‘escape’ that reality by atomising ourselves or conforming to patterns of this world or “status quos” that immunise us to this ‘gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as David Foster Wallace describes it in This Is Water), or liberate us, as Moltmann suggests. It’s interesting at this point to consider how much our ‘play’ is dominated by ‘screens’ that operate as portals for us into fictional worlds where space and time are suspended; where once we had a liturgical calendar that measured the seasons around Christian holidays, we now have TV seasons and lives dictated by what’s just dropped on Netflix or the latest video game. Unless we curate our art really carefully; unless we’re careful about what stories we allow to shape our imagination, these forms of ‘escape’ don’t pull us from the real world at all; they keep us trapped there. J.R.R Tolkien has some fascinating points to make on the necessity of fantasy being ‘real escape’ into worlds where the status quo does not reflect our own in order for stories to work to capture and re-create our imaginations. In his On Fairy Stories, Tolkien says stories have a redemptive capacity not just the capacity to enslave, and that participating in them (and creating them) is part of our calling as humans; a necessity for us as image bearers of the story-creating God:

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen. Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum (wrong use does not negate right use). Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker. — Tolkien

Tolkien sees fantasy, or stories, as offering recovery, escape, or consolation. The closer the stories are to our reality the more the best they can offer is simply a renewed way of seeing the world as it is, the more we are pulled into an alternative world the more we are free to question the ‘status quo’ we find ourselves operating in. Great fantasy operates in parallel with ‘great play’ — it allows us to rediscover the ‘divine nature and character’ of God through seeing the things he has made more clearly. Recovering sight like the blind man Jesus heals who first sees people moving as trees, and then as people — Tolkien says that it is in fantasy (think ‘play’) that “I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.” Escape is, for Tolkien, the sort of response a wise person has to the predicament caused by having eternity written on their hearts and the crushing reality of life and toil under the sun being so fleeting. He says “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” — the danger with our means of ‘play’ — our consumption of stories via screens is not that they are escapist, it is that they are not escapist enough; we simply open the doors of our prison cell to find ourselves in the prison yard; still imprisoned by the world as it is, just with the illusion of new horizons. For Tolkien it is consolation that is the true purpose of fairy stories — and by analogy, of play. Consolation refers to the way stories and our experience of them throws us towards the eternal; towards the ‘happy ending’ where the desires of our heart are met by the God who made us and implanted such eternal desires in our heart.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief. It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

For Tolkien this ‘good catastrophe’ (or eucatastrophe) — this ‘happy ending’ — this ‘fleeting taste of joy’ — which is analogous to what we hope to experience through play — throws us towards the heavenly reality and reveals something of God’s character as the God who creates the ultimate fairy story; the God who plays. Our fairy stories, like our play, are where we enact the ‘liberating story’ of the Gospel — not just the suffering or the work of service and renewal that the Gospel calls us to participate in, but a taste of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. The ‘liberating story’ we enact as we play is one of resurrection, redemption, and renewal. Play ‘re-creates’ us as characters in this story; those re-created by the Spirit to be part of God’s kingdom. Those who do not simply live ‘under the sun’ but ‘under the son’…

Play under the son

Did Jesus play? It’d be hard to declare some sort of ‘imperative’ for us to play as a Spiritual practice in the absence of evidence that Jesus himself played — and not just as a child, but as an adult. It’s interesting to consider the ways that play might be described in the life of Jesus in ways that we take for granted; there’s a certain playfulness in his confounding of his ‘serious’ interlocutors — the representatives of the all too serious status quo — the Pharisees — through the telling of imaginative stories that build new worlds. And it’s clear when we read through the Gospels, perhaps especially Luke, that Jesus spends lots of time at dinner parties. In fact, he is accused of partying too hard. Of having too much fun. Of too much play — his first miracle is at a wedding, where he turns water into wine, with a similar sort of delight that you imagine from his father in Genesis 1…

But it’s possible he also encourages us to play as his followers because play is a natural part of being a child. His instruction to ‘let children come to him’ as an expression of the nature of the kingdom is interesting to ponder at this point; especially if play is a necessary way to cultivate the sort of imagination that might allow us to escape forms of slavery and find ourselves liberated. This isn’t to say the Spirit isn’t at work by convicting us of the truth of the Gospel and the emptiness of the patterns of this world, but rather that the renewing of our minds might happen through the sorts of pedagogical behaviours, led by the Spirit, that form us as God’s children. Children play. We don’t have to teach children to play (we might, if Plato is right, and if this thesis is right) be best to guide play towards constructive ‘formative’ ends rather than deforming ones, because play does ‘re-create’ us into a certain sort of image, or person. Play is the natural way children learn. Play is not work, but it teaches us how to approach our work.

We impose structures on children to churn them out as cogs to serve an immanent ‘machine like’ economic reality built on science and technology as little ‘worker bees’  to toil under the sun; who aren’t given the sort of education setting that fosters the imagination… and we do the same in our churches and church programs that imitate school classrooms. But children learn to innovate and imagine through play… so do adults… We beat play out of children in the name of ‘education’ because of our idolatry of work, and because we’re too serious about life, and don’t see play and joy as good and essential things to pursue; perhaps especially as (protestant) Christians who have inherited a protestant work ethic and a sense that our awe and reverence for God is best expressed through seriousness, not through coming to God as our good father wanting to play with him (and you know, there’s that famous book that says a life spent playing and enjoying God’s good creation, and bringing that goodness before God in the form of a shell collection is “a wasted life”… that doesn’t help).

What if play, like fairy stories, isn’t just for children? C.S Lewis in several essays bemoans the way we moderns banished fairy stories to the children’s section of the library because like Tolkien, he saw these stories as essential for us in expanding our horizon.

What if we have bought into the ‘status quo’ lies of an industrialised, economy mad, world so we see play either as trivial ‘not work’ or simply as the means by which we self-medicate in order to do our work better?

What if we’ve bought into a work ethic that comes from our theological tradition that emphasises the ‘heady’ nature of learning at the expense of embodied experience where play might actually be a better tool for forming us as people than teaching that feels like hard work?

What if all this conspires to disenchant and thus deform us so that we aren’t living as people liberated to enjoy being part of God’s kingdom, but rather we keep living as people enslaved by the worship of the things of this world?

What if we don’t take play seriously enough and we keep trying to be like the ‘grown ups’ who can’t get back to Narnia anymore, rather than the children whose eyes are opened to the goodness and bigness of God and his world as it really is. What if Jesus calls us to be childlike and thus to be more playful?

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:2-4

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. – Matthew 19:14-15

What if play is not just a type of formative or ‘re-creating’ behaviour that orients us towards the kingdom; but one of the ways we bear witness to that kingdom in our lives? What if cultural change actually does happen better through influencing the way people play rather than the way they work?

If these ‘what ifs’ are true we need to re-learn how to play in a way that is different to the play served up for us by the world; to play in a way that marks us out and teaches us that we have been liberated from the status quo offered up by the world by a king who calls us to come to him as children. Maybe we could start with collecting shells?

As Steven Johnson puts it in Wonderland, “Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” If we want to transform not just ourselves, but our world, as we live and play the liberating story of the Gospel, play becomes part of our ‘disruptive witness’ providing an alternative vision for life to the ‘under the sun’ status quo. Alan Noble’s excellent Disruptive Witness, hints in this direction as he calls us for ‘habits of presence’ that help us recover the way we see reality, but also ‘console’ us in Tolkien’s terms by giving us meaning in a way that satisfies our desire for transcendence.

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence… Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.” — Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

What would it take for our church communities to be known for the way we play? Both together and in our own lives? For us to be serious about playing together being one of the best ways to grow together as characters in God’s grand story? I like this quote from Robert Hotchkins:

“Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We all ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable orgies of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death. We ought to attract people to the church quite literally by the fun there is and being a Christian.”

How’s that for a vision for ‘re-creation’? Maybe, despite the condemnation they earned from people closer to my theological tradition, those churches that built playgrounds inside Cathedrals — buildings that are meant to throw us towards God through their very design — maybe those churches were actually on to something after all.

 

On colourblindness, race, and imagining a reconciling church in Australia

On Saturday I was invited to speak at an event called Gracious Conversations, an initiative of Aboriginal Christian leaders Aunty Jean Phillips and Brooke Prentis, and Common Grace. This is an adaptation of what I said there. I started by inviting people to use their imaginations to write down or capture in some way their vision for a reconciled Australia, and the part we Christians might play in that as individuals and, more importantly, collectively as the church. That’s a worthwhile exercise I think, to try to conjour up some vision of a different Australia to the one we have now — because no matter how good we think it is now we should all have the human faculty — the imagination — that allows us to picture something better.

I’m colour blind.

Not in some sort of trendy ‘post-race’ way — but literally… You throw some of these dots up on the screen and ask me to see the number 7… And I’m lost. I can’t even imagine it…

I am also, so far as I can tell, totally ill-equipped to wax lyrical on questions of race and the future of the Australian church; I’m very much a pilgrim on this journey and I’m thankful for wise leaders and co-walkers like Aunty Jean, but to the extent that I am in a position to share anything worthwhile to this conversation, if it is to be a ‘gracious conversation’ I shared some thoughts on my journey out of ‘colourblindness’ on questions of race… suggesting that it isn’t enough, as an individual, to claim ‘not to see colour’ in interpersonal relationships if we want to imagine a better future together…

Have you ever imagined trying to explain the colour red to someone like me? Someone who no matter how hard I strain my eyes is totally unable to see the world the way you do? Here’s how wikipedia describes ‘red’ in its entry:

“Reds range from the brilliant yellow-tinged scarlet and vermillion to bluish-red crimson, and vary in shade from the pale red pink to the dark red burgundy. The red sky at sunset results from Rayleigh scattering, while the red color of the Grand Canyon and other geological features is caused by hematite or red ochre, both forms of iron oxide. Iron oxide also gives the red color to the planet Mars. The red colour of blood comes from protein hemoglobin, while ripe strawberries, red apples and reddish autumn leaves are colored by anthocyanins”

Which is all nice and kinda evocative and poetic — but utterly useless if you can’t see the distinctive features of any of those reference points.

The thing is, when it comes to the colours of reality — the world as it really is — we’re all colour blind.

Meet the mantis shrimp.

“Some species have at least 16 photoreceptor types, which are divided into four classes (their spectral sensitivity is further tuned by colour filters in the retinas), 12 for colour analysis in the different wavelengths (including six which are sensitive to ultraviolet light) and four for analysing polarised light. By comparison, most humans have only four visual pigments, of which three are dedicated to see colour, and human lenses block ultraviolet light. The visual information leaving the retina seems to be processed into numerous parallel data streams leading into the brain, greatly reducing the analytical requirements at higher levels.”

These bad boys and girls see much more of the world than we do — and if we gave them human voices and the ability to describe the world they would expand our horizons a little, even if we couldn’t actually see the reality for ourselves, so long as we trusted the description of their experiences was an accurate rendition of a world beyond our grasp.

I want to confess.. For a while I did believe that when it came to issues of race in Australia — colour blindness was my super power. I grew up in a small town in northern NSW and had plenty of indigenous classmates — friends — even. I’ve always been convinced of the full equality of our first nation’s people. I was so proud of myself that I told myself I don’t see colour… I think this is symptomatic of a view of race issues in Australia that focuses on the responsibility of the individual to not be racist in the we we think of or speak about others; we can tell ourselves ‘I’m not racist because I have aboriginal friends.’

And then I realised that’s a massively limiting decision in terms of what sort of change might be required in our nation — an imagination limiting decision… and a limited view of what is actually wrong with the world when it comes to race — the systemic side of life; and that I’m blind to the experiences of that system. So I had to try to get past this colour blindness; and to some extent that’s the journey I’m still on today.

If we Christians collectively want to free our imaginations and to be able to work for real change in our nation as people with renewed imagination, who are perhaps able to discover something ‘super human’ — we need to be to be more like the mantis and less like colour blind me.

And I have to confess it wasn’t just when it comes to the issue of race in Australia that I feel like I struggled to see something important… It’s this passage from Ephesians as well. I feel like meditating on it over the last few weeks has been eye opening. It’s a prayer from the Apostle Paul as he writes to a church he loves…

Paul writes out a prayer that he prays for them — a rich prayer — there’s some great stuff here when it comes to race, where God is the god of every family… Every nation… Every race… And Paul says he kneels and prays that “out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in their inner beings…”

It’s the sort of prayer that should shape the life of the church…

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. — Ephesians 3:14-21

His prayer is that Jesus may dwell in their hearts — not a small prayer — so that they — and we as we take up this prayer — may first be rooted and established in love — that this church might have power with all of us who are the Lord’s people; power to grasp… To properly imagine… The love of Jesus.

He dwells in our hearts so that we might know how great God’s love is for us…

That’s a bit mind blowing. Right?

And this isn’t just a ‘head knowledge’ thing… Paul wants them — and us — to know the love of God and be filled with the fullness of God. These are big words for Paul; ‘fullness’ comes up a bit in his writing.

The other thing this prayer suggests — that God is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine — is that our imaginations about what is good and possible in this world are always going to be limited; God always imagines more, and in this there’s a challenge for us to be expanding our imaginations to something closer to God’s imagination.

What is it that limits our ability to imagine?

Why is there more possible? How might we expand our imaginations towards something closer to what God hopes to give us in his fullness and according to his power?

Is it possible that our dreams of a reconciled Australia and the part the church might play in it are too small?

Here’s a few principles from some white blokes that I think diagnose how, ironically, it can’t be white blokes alone who pull us out of this mess.

We can’t know what we don’t perceive

This seems so obvious that it almost doesn’t need saying — and Donald Rumsfeld famously got tripped up trying to explain this once — but a basic aspect of our creaturliness — or our limits — that we exist in a body in time and in space — is that we don’t know everything, but a corollary of this is that we don’t actually know what we don’t know, and we’re especially limited when it comes not just to things that we haven’t seen or experienced or studied yet, but in things that we can’t possibly see or experience…

And what’s extra troubling for us as social creatures is that so many groups or ‘identities’ are formed around things we cannot possibly experience for ourselves…

I can’t, without being told — or without changing the picture — access all the information in the Ishihara tests above. Many of you can.

But perhaps the only thing worse than realising your limitations is deliberately choosing to stay limited. Choosing to live as though your perception of reality is reality. Which is what most westerners have adopted as a default way of seeing and being in the world…

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor wrote this massive book called ‘The Secular Age’ — it’s an account of how the modern western world functions — charting some of the default assumptions that guide society as we experience it… It’s not an all-encompassing theory and there are insights in it that you can take or leave, but perhaps his best thinking is around the way we see ourselves in individual terms

Taylor talks about the “buffered self” — he says the typical modern individual is, by default, ‘closed off’ from the world; we live in a bubble — we’re now suspicious of the idea that there’s a spiritual reality interacting with our experiences, but we also like to believe we aren’t shaped by causes beyond our own will or control, we’re suspicious of descriptions of the world that involve ‘systems’ at work. This translates into a bunch of practices all of which ultimately serve to limit our perspective on the world and reinforce this buffering.

The opposite to the ‘buffered’ self — closed off from the world — is the ‘porous self’ the self who realises our creaturely limitations and so is open to the idea of a spiritual reality, and open to listening to other ‘selves’ and realising that the world is bigger than we might imagine… The imagination is important for Taylor — he developed this idea of a ‘social imaginary’ — the reality around us that shapes our view of both our selves, and the world…

For Taylor the modern, let’s say typically white western  ‘social imaginary’ is what he calls ‘the immanent frame’. He makes the point that the modern, secular, world of buffered selves has evacuated God from the universe — where once people believed in something more like a cosmos where the supernatural and the natural worked in concert, we now, in part because of science and our sense that the world is predictable and machine like, don’t believe in ‘transcendent’ things but what he calls ‘immanent’ things… Basically only our experience and perception of the material world matter; and only these experiences and perceptions shape the way we imagine life as individuals and together…

This is a problem because it cripples our ability to imagine, and makes us less inclinced to listen to other voices. It keeps us in a status quo, bumping and grinding through life like cogs in a machine. This is one place where non-white western voices are important; perhaps particularly indigenous voices in our context, in my conversations with first nations people in recent years — not just Christian ones — there is certainly a different sense of the spiritual reality of life in this world, expressed in some ways through a connection with country and with stories.

Another white guy I like is the American novelist-slash-academic David Foster Wallace. He’s dead now. But he once gave this cracking speech to a bunch of university students urging them to see beyond the default… To escape this immanent frame. He wasn’t a Christian but he had this insight that everybody worships. He talked about our default desires to worship sex, money, and power — immanent or material things — and said when we worship immanent stuff — or worship ourselves — it is destructive to us and others; if we never get beyond these default we never escape a system that has been set up to keep people in the default. He started pushing against this immanent frame, urging people to see more

“The world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” — David Foster Wallace

Like Taylor who says the loss of transcendence still haunts us, Wallace said this ‘default’ — and our decisions to ‘worship’ material things leaves us feeling a sense of loss, but not necessarily knowing how to scratch that itch. He describes this constant nagging… gnawing… Sense that something more is true, that we’ve “had and lost some infinite thing” and perhaps that we’re increasingly blinded to that reality.

The problem is that our default western way of seeing the world as individuals limits our imagination. It stops us truly imagining the power and scale of the systems arrayed against change; but also stops us imagining shared solutions to those systemic ‘status-quo’ problems.

C.S Lewis (a third white bloke) wrote about this tendency we have too — about what the default does for us — what the pursuit of pleasure, sex and power does for us in terms of narrowing our ability to enjoy the infinite… He says this stunts our imagination… So that we become like a kid who thinks the best thing on offer is mud pies in a slum when there’s a beach down the road…

“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” — C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Somehow we have to open our eyes — and our imaginations — to see both the problem and the better way forward.

We can’t see beyond our default without expanding our horizons

For people who take Taylor’s Secular Age seriously — the idea of the buffered self and the disenchanted world — the challenge for all of us who want to upend the default system — the patriarchy; the status quo; the way sin permeates this world not just in individuals but in structures… is to see the world differently… To re-connect with other people beyond our ‘buffered’ boundaries of comfort; we’re quite happy hanging out with people who help us maintain this buffering… And we also need to re-enchant the world; rediscover the super-natural, or what Taylor refers to as the transcendent... The idea that God is present and acting in time and space…

The challenge for those of us who follow Jesus is to see living and bringing a taste of the kingdom of Jesus into this world as the path to doing this, and to figure out where we, in our creatureliness and our sin, and our privileged ‘default’ participation in these systems is limiting this change. To do this we have to get outside ourselves somehow — if ourselves are buffered — and we have to keep asking how much our own view of the world is disenchanted or ‘machine like’… We have to expand our horizons — to expand our social imaginary. This is, for example, part of why C.S Lewis in his intro to his translation of Athanasius’ On The Incarnation urged us not just to read modern books but ancient voices as well; but we don’t have to go back in time to find different perspectives.

We have to see that each of us is colour blind by default — we don’t see everything — but also to realise that colour blindness is part of the problem… Not the solution.

Part of this — like my colour blindness — is just creatureliness. We actually don’t know everything because of our particular limits as creatures — we see this in the Mantis Shrimp — who sees more of the world than we do… But we also know that we are finite and God is infinite, but part of the humility of accepting our finitude is acknowledging that other people will see and experience things that we don’t, and that their perspectives are part of accessing bigger truth about the world we live in.

We can’t ‘imagine’ what our mind can’t conceive

To imagine something is essentially to conjure up an image in our mind. The problem with our limited seeing isn’t so much that we don’t experience all there is for ourselves — we can’t experience everything, everywhere, everywhen… The problem with our limited seeing is that it places limits on our shared future because it limits our imagination. If we can’t know what we don’t know, we also can’t picture — or envision — or imagine using these concepts that are beyond our grasp.

If I can never truly see or experience red how can I appropriately paint with it — how can I imagine a world with a different use of red? A richer use of red? A red consistent with or subverting our experience of red…

You can, of course, replace red with any experience foreign to your own.

How can I imagine a world where the experience for our first nations people is vastly different to what it is now — but also consistent with the desires of our first nations people — if those experiences and desires are utterly beyond my comprehension?

How can we repaint or reimagine the world without the full array of colours — or experiences — at our disposal.

Some time ago I discovered Tolkien’s masterful essay On Fairy Stories — it was life-changing for me — not just because the epilogue is a most fantastic description of Jesus and his story that makes my heart sing, but because of its explanation of the relationship between the imagination and creating new worlds.

He talks about this power beginning with our ability to see the world… To describe the world… To use our minds to see ‘Green Grass’ not just as ‘grass’ but as ‘green’ and to take that ‘green’ and do things with it…

“The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass… The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.” — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We can take green from grass, and other colours… And use them to make magic… To re-imagine or create worlds in our heads… But also to reimagine the world we see before us… We can imagine our white house painted blue, or green… And make it happen… But we can also do this on a much grander scale…For Tolkien this is part of being made in the image of the imagining God; the God who creates by speaking. By imagining something and then describing it in such a way that it happens. Tolkien is wary of our capacity to create — to use this power well — he uses the creation of fantasy to explore not just opportunities, but the dangers of the human imagination — we can use our power for evil — not escaping the default craving for gaining the things of this world at the expense of others; so we use our imagination to make weapons, or new systems, to paint others as ‘less than us’,  to create advantage for ourselves… But what’s going on as we do this — as we use our imagination to create things — is what it means for Tolkien for us to be God’s image bearers — it is for us to be ‘sub creators’ — following the example of God and ‘building worlds’…

But we can’t create — we can’t sub-create — we can’t build worlds — in stories or re-making the real one — without first being able to see and describe this world such that we can re-imagine it differently… My ability to use these powerful adjectives is limited by my vocabulary, or my conception of reality. If we want to bring changes to the world as it is, and have some idea what the real problems are and what real changes might be good… We need more words and more than just the desire to extend our limited status quo to the lives of others… Which is to say, when it comes to questions of race we can’t be colour blind in such a way that we expect the solution to be that everybody just becomes like me. Or like you.

Imagining something totally new requires expanding our vocabulary

If we’re going to imagine a new world we need words and concepts from outside our experience; words that come from new experiences but also from the otherwise inaccessible-to-us experiences of others.

I’m a bit of a coffee nerd… But not to the extent that I’ve forked out the few hundred bucks it costs for one of these… This is a scent kit. It’s designed to help you expand your scent vocabulary so that you can more accurately describe the tastes and smells of coffee — using descriptions like ‘elderflower’ that are going to be meaningless to most coffee drinkers… The idea is that we’re basically ‘scent-blind’ — and unless you have experienced and become familiar with a scent, you won’t be able to describe it… all the labels that get used for the tastes and smells of coffee when you go to your fancy roaster are meaningless unless you have some reference point — unless you have this shared vocabulary…

And maybe our exercise of re-imagining Australia is a bit like this….

Maybe what you wrote down or pictured before is limited by your experience and your sense of the world — or by the people you have spoken to so far… Colour blindness in the ‘I don’t see race…everyone is the same to me’ sense isn’t a solution, it’s a commitment to the status quo never changing — and to never hearing why it should.

It’s an excuse not to listen. An excuse to stay buffered. To deliberately limit your imagination; to not expand your experiential vocabulary and to insist that others should instead talk and see and imagine like you do.

Maybe the equivalent to the scent kit for the coffee taster is the art of gracious conversations for those of us who want to imagine a better future for our world and so work towards creating it together…

The realisation that I mostly just listened to the voices of middle aged, educated, white blokes – as useful as they might be for some stuff – was part of what prompted me not just to read wider but to seek out local voices like Aunty Jean. To start the journey of conversations with her re-imagining what life in our churches and communities might be like. But there’s another voice we should be listening to to blow our horizons out towards the infinite… The transcendent… To help us see reality as it really is…

True imagination begins with seeking the imagination of God

“For we are God’s handiworkcreated in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” — Ephesians 2:10

One verse I had noticed in Ephesians before and spent lots of time reflecting on is this one – but here’s something cool – those bolded words – are words that require imagination on God’s part; we are his handiwork because he imagined us in a particular way – we are created in Christ and there’s a particular image the Spirit is working on in his work to transform us, and God has even imagined the work we will do – he has pictured and prepared it in advance…

Our job is to get on board with imagining life according to God’s imagination, not our own…

There is a story in the Bible about our unfettered collective imagination that pays no heed to God’s imagination — an imagination without limits — which shows the danger of us imagining in ways that want to supplant God, in ways where we think we should be God… Where people listen to one another in an echo chamber. The story of the Tower of Babel; a pre-cursor to Babylon, the Bible’s grand image of an earthly city captivated by idols that ultimately captures Israel (whose hearts have long been captivated by ‘material’ idols before that moment); the way out of the corrupt ‘social imaginary’ we create for ourselves by failing to pay attention to God is for him to intervene and to interrupt the ‘material world’ we want to build for ourselves.

The defining pattern we have for keeping our imaginings in step with his is Christ Jesus… who we are re-created ‘in’. When Paul talks about God doing more than we imagine… it’s according to his power at work within us (Ephesians 3:20-21) as these new creations who, by the Spirit and through God answering Paul’s prayer are able to ‘grasp’ or imagine the size and scale of God’s love for us as we’re filled to the measure of the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Fullness is an interesting word in Ephesians – in chapter 1 (Ephesians 1:9-10) it gets translated as ‘fulfilment’, but it’s the same root and somehow ‘the fullness of time’ God’s ultimate plan is this unity or to steal a word from Colossians, reconciliation, of all things in heaven and earth – and it is reconciliation in Christ. The fullness word comes back in Ephesians 1:22-23 with this picture of ‘all things’ being placed under the rule of Jesus, under his feet, with him as the head of his body, the church, the ‘fullness of him who fills everything’… somehow we – the church – the body of Jesus – are where the ‘fullness‘ of God is to be found in this world… we’re a taste of God’s imagined ‘full’ future… Ambassadors of reconciliation as we’re ambassadors of Christ, but ambassadors who are meant to work in the world trying to line up our limited imaginations and ability to see and taste and touch with the infinite imagination… and how can we hope to do that without listening to him and watching him at work in Jesus, but also listening to one another – those he is at work in by his Spirit.

There’s another prayer in Ephesians. Not just the one I hadn’t really paid much attention to…

 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. — Ephesians 1:18-19

The power we have in us to reimagine and change the world – what we’re meant to be able to accomplish when the ‘eyes of our heart’ – our imaginations and desires – are enlightened is hope and this incomparably great power

That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,  far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” — Ephesians 1:19-21

It’s the power of resurrection… as we seek reconciliation in Christ we’re really carrying the miraculous power of moving people from the kingdom of sin and death and darkness and disenchantment – the status quo – into a kingdom of colour and light and life… We are resurrection people; God’s handiwork, imagining and working towards a resurrected world.

We don’t want to be colour blind…

We want to be cross eyed…

Gracious conversations centred on the death and resurrection of Jesus are the key to re-imagining Australia for the better

What might it look like if we re-imagine Australia not just listening to each other — and so enjoying the fruits of reconciliation that Jesus won for us through the cross; forged by the Spirit… But listening to God and seeing that the source of his power is the death and resurrection of Jesus — the cross — which gives us a new way to imagine solutions to the problems of this world.

It gives us a new way of seeing the world… It’s like seeing more colours… The sight that comes from the Spirit. Gracious conversations mean:

  • Acknowledging our limitations… And realising that when we have more colours in the can we can paint something even more vivid and beautiful and real…
  • Getting a bigger picture of the world as it really is…
  • Listening to others and having their perception of reality shape ours.
  • Bringing all our colours and perspectives and experience and insight to a conversation where we are seeking to be gracious to one another – acknowledging our own limits and focusing on listening rather than speaking – so that we might bring God’s grace — the ‘vivid colour’ of God’s imagined future to the world.

That’s what I think Aunty Jean means when she keeps telling me the cross of Jesus is the hope for our country – not just for first nations people, but for all of us.

That’s the vision – the imagination — I think God wants to inspire in us by his Spirit as we dwell on the mystery of Jesus and our glorious inheritance – that we taste the infinite; and have that gnawing sense we all carry satisfied in Jesus; that we have a new status quo — a new ‘social imaginary’ – a new way of seeing the world and a new understanding of our limits in Jesus.

Imagine that.

On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

 

 

 

 

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Meat and more: You are more, but not less than, your body… and Christmas shows why ‘meat’ matters

“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)

This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).

It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.

One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.

The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).

But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.

The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human.  In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology).  Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension;  this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.

It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:

“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer

Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :

“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”

I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.

‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”

At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.

”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.

“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”

“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”

I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.

“You have to actually do it,” she said.

“How?” I said.

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

So I did.

I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.

David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us. 

“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest

Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:

“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest

One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.

Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.

You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest

And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.

It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest

For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not

In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not

This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not

For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the body working in sync with the ‘soul’ and flourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…  

“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not

These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.

Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma

The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.

The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.

The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.

The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.

The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.

The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.

Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…

There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.

Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1

Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…

We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.

Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14

The worship wars (3): porn as deadly (idol) worship

“And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

worship-wars
Last week news broke that two 12 year old boys had sexually assaulted a six year old girl in a bathroom in their school. Twice.

Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.

Awful. There’d be societies in the ancient world wearing sackcloth and ashes over that sort of behaviour (and others where that sort of behaviour would be a clear symptom of a huge societal problem — there are a couple of stories with echoes of this in the Bible around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then later in Judges).

What gets us to this point? What is it that teaches children to behave this way? If people are worshippers who build cultures on shared objects of worship (one of the implications of the first two posts in this series), if the actions of people within those cultures reveal our gods; our ultimate stories; then what are we worshipping that produces these actions?

What are we teaching our children?

No parent sets out to tell their kids to act like this, and if the model of human habits being a product of our gods and loves, not just our rational thoughts is true, telling kids not to do this won’t actually stop them; they’ll be much more shaped by what we, as a society are doing and what we’re loving.

This is awful. But it’s not the only story like it… and it’s not just kids…

Consider how far our society has progressed, such that the only service for children who perpetrate sexual assault on other children is oversubscribed; the expert in this story says two causes for this prevalence are the sexual abuse of children (who become perpetrators) and the availability of internet pornography.

Consider that the Washington Post published a piece recently that called pornography a “public health crisis” which pointed out that:

“Because so much porn is free and unfiltered on most digital devices, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by some researchers to be 11. In the absence of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum in many schools, pornography has become de facto sex education for youth. And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.

In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.”

Consider this story from a parent recently that compared the ability to access the fantasy world of pornography to the mystical through-the-wardrobe land of Narnia, but showed the real world, habitual, fruits developed by the modern fantasy story.

Consider this ABC story by Collective Shout’s Melinda Tankard Reist about a published study Don’t Send Me That Pic featuring widespread interviews with Australia’s teenage girls, which (the story) features this quote:

Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:

“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”

The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.

Note the role ‘fantasy’ — the sort of story of desire, that shapes our imaginations, loves, and actions, plays in this quote. Ask yourself what god or gods we are worshipping as a culture that produces behaviour like this.

It’s horrid.

Pornography: worship gone wrong

This is worship gone wrong. Pornography is a form of worship — an evil counter-form of worship that is claiming the hearts and habits of men and women in our world, and destroying families, and individuals.

In Christian circles, for thousands of years, churches who have sought to raise little worshippers (such is our view of how the desires that centre our humanity operate) have catechised their children; believing that teaching a child how to worship is the key to teaching a child how to live. That, say, the golden rule, works best when you have in view the life and death of the one from whose lips it came, who also called us to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… then modelled that with a couple of pieces of timber and some horrid spikes on an awful hill outside Jerusalem.

Worship matters. Teaching our kids how to worship matters. And our society is teaching our kids how to worship.

It’s porn doing the teaching. If you want to know what’s catechising our kids… claiming their imaginations… shaping their desires… look no further than what is streaming into their eyes via their smart phones and internet connections. And it’s not just the kids. Is it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week (you may have to google this phrase to get in behind the paywall) from a Jewish Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Pamela Anderson (yes, that Pamela Anderson), calling for people to snap out of blindly pursuing satisfaction through pornography (more on their suggested solution later). It contained this observation about the current reality…

“Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?

The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, with the former group often reporting less satisfactory intimate lives with their wives or girlfriends as a result of the consumption. By contrast, many female fans of pornography tend to prefer a less explicit variety, and report that it improves their sexual relationships.

We’re catechising them. Only it’s not the story of the Gospel that’s shaping them. It’s the story of cheap pornography; which leads us to view one another as meat puppets for our own personal sexual gratification.

Pornography is worship.

False worship. But worship.

The god of uninhibited sexual pleasure isn’t a new God — there’s plenty in the Old and New Testaments about sex and idolatry (and the idolatry of sex)… but if you’re looking for an enemy in the war for people’s worship — their loves — and looking for a demonstration of the truth that we are worshippers whose lives are profoundly shaped by our loves and habits, then pornography is it.

Pornography is worship.

Awful. Habit shaping, story changing, insidious, idolatrous, deadly, worship. And it is powerful. It offers a powerfully corrupt vision of the ‘good life’ that many buy into; that the good life is an orgasm brought about no matter the cost. The cheaper for you, and the more expensive for someone else the better. What an awful story to habitually participate yourself into believing.

It’s not old hymns or modern praise songs that are the enemy in the worship wars; it’s not whether we partake in the sacraments daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or at all, that we should be putting our energy into when it comes to deciding who and how we worship. It’s insidious gods like the idols behind porn — the worship of one’s own sexual gratification and the pursuit of an orgasm as though that’s our fundamental telos, be it by ourselves in darkness or shame; or in the relationships we destroy in the pursuit of the stories we see played out in pixels. Porn kills. It’s worship. And it so perfectly fits the paradigm described in the first two posts of this series. That we’re worshippers. And what we worship shapes us as we participate in the ‘liturgies’ of whatever ultimate love story we’re living in. Porn offers a terrible ultimate love story, and it’s terribly destructive.

The war for your worship  involves your heart, your imagination, and your habits: porn attempts to claim all three

So far in this little series I’ve argued that we are, by nature, worshipping beings; that we bear the image of the object of our worship, and that seeing the worship wars as a civil war — a conflict within the church about how we gather (and the style of music we sing), profoundly misunderstands the real enemy and what’s really at stake in the war that’s raging for who and how all people worship. In this post I’ll explore what I think the major strength of James K.A Smith’s work in his three recent books on this stuff is for those wanting to engage in the worship war and fight on the good side, not the evil side, in the next I’ll make some suggestions about where I think Smith’s answer to his diagnosis goes somewhere I wouldn’t (especially because of a slight difference in what I think ‘worship’ is, and how it relates to Sunday gatherings of Christians).

Smith suggests that as worshipping creatures we are liturgical creatures; and by this he means we’re actually more shaped by our practices than we realise. Our actions aren’t just things that flow out of our beliefs and loves, but shape them. Liturgy, our habits, have the capacity to both form and deform us; to make us more like Jesus, or make us more like our idols.

Porn is worship; and it deforms us. It takes us away from being the people we were made to be, and from worshipping the God we were made to worship. We see this because it leads to destruction; not love.

This insight has a nice little overlap with the discipline of media ecology and a famous maxim about media practices and tools: “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us”… Introduce a new piece of technology to an environment, a technology that changes our habits, and not only will we potentially do more with that tool, it will change the way we do things and so change us. Think about someone whose job is to get rid of a concrete slab. A sledgehammer is effective and gives you big arm muscles, a jackhammer is effective and gives you a tough stomach, a remote controlled piece of high powered digging machinery is super effective and you only have to use your thumbs. Holediggers over the ages look very different. We’re shaped by our habits. Now picture the hole digging thing as ‘communicating information’ and think about the changes from pen and ink, to typewriter, to printing press, to internet… This isn’t just true of hole digging and communication — our lives and identities, our loves, who we are and the stories we tell ourselves are profoundly shaped by our habits. What we do doesn’t just reflect who we are; it shapes who we are. We cultivate the type of person we want to become based on our image of the good human life, which is based, in turn, upon the stories we tell ourselves. As Smith puts it:

Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically—they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say.

“Liturgy,” as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for. They carry within them a kind of ultimate orientation. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Porn makes for terrible, deadly, effective liturgy. It is powerfully wired to do exactly what Smith says liturgy does; but with horrible and destructive results. It tells a terrible story about our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our telos, and our humanity. The stakes are high.  This is about who you are. And who we are as a society. That’s why it’s legitimate for us to draw causal links between our practices, the virtues they demonstrate to our kids, and the way our kids then behave. If kids are sexually assaulting other kids in the playground there’s something very wrong with how we adults are conscripting their imaginations, their love and their worship. We’re losing the war, as a culture and as the church. Here’s perhaps the tightest summary about the way Smith calls us to observe and participate in the world (and to understand ourselves as participants).

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. — You Are What You Love, James K.A Smith

When we believe the story porn tells us, and reinforce it by our addicted, habitual, practices, it kills us. It rewires our brains, literally, it corrupts our imaginations and so damages our relationships (and the imagination and relationships of our children), it changes our understanding of the purpose of our existence as we’re captured and addicted (chemically) to a particular sort of stimulus that functions on the law of diminishing returns so that we always want more, more twisted, more extreme, and in capturing us like this it does what David Foster Wallace, and the writers of the Old Testament, and Paul in Romans 1, and so God, warn us it will do, as an idol, it eats us alive. Till we’re a shell of the image we were meant to be. And we die.

In Romans 1, Paul says this sort of thing is exactly what we should expect when we replace worshipping the God who made us with the gods we make from good things he made. You worship sex, and pursue orgasm with every fiber of your being via whatever object necessary — including porn — and it’s going to end up messing you up. And messing up your view of other people; whether you love them or use them. What is pornography if not the desires of our hearts being captured by images made (by the power of airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, and photoshop) to look like a mortal human being

Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:22-25

The end result of this false worship isn’t just the messy consequences now — which Paul says God gives us (perhaps to teach us a lesson) — but death. False worship all leads to one place. It leads to destructive and deadly relationships with each other (note the testimony of girls in our schools and those awful news stories), and it leads to death. Only that doesn’t stop us, such is the lure of our idols and the power of liturgy, even bad liturgy, to claim our hearts and imaginations. Paul specifically mentions both the desires of our hearts and our depraved minds in this description of the human condition.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” — Romans 1:32

How do we fix this? How do you ‘fight the new drug’ as one anti-porn platform calls us to do, if we’re natural born worshippers?

Three ways to change your worship (and maybe kick the porn habit)

1. The Pamela Anderson solution – worship yourself in different ways (bad)

The Anderson/Boteach story in the Wall Street Journal that I quoted way back at the top does a great job of highlighting the insidious, pervasive, and perverted impact that pornography is having on the lives of individuals, families, and thus our culture. But it offers a terrible and ultimately doomed solution — especially if we are worshippers and what we worship determines our fate. It’s no good just replacing one form of worship of self with another — say, the worship of our sexual pleasure, freedom, and the liturgy of pursuing orgasm, with the worship of our healthy self-autonomy, discipline, and the liturgy of pursuing self-mastery. As the narrator (or Tyler Durden) in the movie Fight Club so eloquently put it: “self improvement is masturbation”…

Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:

“The ubiquity of porn is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution that began a half-century ago and which, with gender rights and freedoms now having been established, has arguably run its course. Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a “sensual revolution.”

The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships. In an age where public disapproval is no longer an obstacle to personal disgrace, we must turn instead to the appeal of self-interest.

Simply put, we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”

If everything in this series so far is legit, or close to being right, this will not work. This is a call to do what is actually best for yourself by educating yourself about harm.

It does not replace the story that gets us to where we are. It relies on the understanding of the human being as a brain on a stick who will think themselves to better solutions. Thinking alone won’t combat the sort of chemical addiction our brains develop to release-via-orgasm attached to the fantasy world of pornography. We need better worship; including better liturgy; built on better loves; and the love at the centre of this solution is the same love that gets us to porn. The love of self, and the love of sex. It’s just the 2.0 version of the same idol. But it does seem better, so if you’re going to do anything and you don’t buy the whole Christian thing but have read this far… this is a start. And the second way might work too…

2. The David Foster Wallace/Fight The New Drug solution — worship others in sacrificial ways (better, but still theologically deadly)

David Foster Wallace’s response to observing that everybody worships and to noticing the destructive ‘eat you alive’ power of worshipping the wrong stuff, was to call us to question our default self-seeking settings. To change the story by paying attention to the world outside ourselves and leaving the isolation of ruling our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” where we think of ourselves “alone at the centre of all creation” in order to participate more fully in reality; a shared, corporate, reality filled with other people who matter. His sort of observation is what drives the sort of altruistic response to the pornofication of our world that we see championed by organisations like Fight the New Drug and Collective Shout, where you don’t have to be a Christian to sign up; you just have to recognise the harm that a self-centred view of the world — self-worship — creates.

This way of fighting in the worship wars against pornography is a call to worship a less destructive, but perhaps no more transcendent/out of this world god. It still leaves you with a ‘created thing’ as a God, just not yourself. And it provides you with a new story, and perhaps a new set of liturgies based not just on self-discipline but self-sacrifice, and discipline oriented towards not harming others in your habits.

Here’s perhaps my favourite part of This Is Water; paired with the Gospel story of the self-giving king who connects us to the infinite thing we’ve lost, the call to petty little self-sacrifices is incredibly powerful, and oh so close to being a brilliant liturgical framework. Practice this self-sacrifice until it’s your new default.

But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This sort of approach — this fight against the default — is to take up the other half of the Fight Club narrator’s mantra: “self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is real change“— it’s to die to yourself and your desires in order to give some sort of life to others. So Fight the New Drug provides a tool kit for doing just this — tools for embracing self-discipline, a change of habits, and a new story (and a new hashtag, because #pornkillslove). It wants you to get the facts but it also wants you to think about your loves and your habits so that you can fight and thus destroy that part of you that leaves you consuming other people. It’s a good, albeit, imperfect solution reflecting a reasonable understanding of how people work — but if habits aren’t tied coherently to our ultimate loves, they aren’t shaping us in any particularly identity shifting way, they aren’t liturgy in the sense described above, and if our ultimate love is still a ‘created thing’ then we’re in just as much trouble according to Romans 1.

While we’re on Fight Club and ‘created things’, if you’ll indulge a tangent… Fight Club shares the same understanding of the idolatrous human condition — our life as worshippers — as Wallace and Smith and these three posts. In the scene where the narrator’s apartment is disintegrating before his eyes, the things that consumed his desires go up in smoke; demonstrating to him that their value wasn’t (and isn’t) actually ultimate. He makes these observations about the stuff and the meaning we instill in our stuff… and he shows that our idolatrous consumption isn’t just tied to sex and porn. There are other narratives where we’ve created a liturgy for ourselves; whether its the porn habit, or the IKEA accumulation habit…

Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, had blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with the orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. Mine fell fifteen stories, burning, into a fountain.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. — Fight Club, Narrator

Self-improvement via self-discipline even if it’s self-sacrifice for the sake of others will only get you so far because it’s still the worship of a created thing; of images made to look like mortal human beings. It won’t answer that gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing; it won’t really meet the need we’re grasping for because our telos as humans involves us looking for the right thing to worship, because it’s not the right thing to worship (even if it involves right habits of worship). It doesn’t ultimately change our story or our loves so that our ultimate love is not something that should be loved after first loving the Lord your God with all your heart. We’re definitely called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves and that should change our approach to pornography, but the first bit Jesus says is the most important bit.

Pornography is worship. Deadly worship. But worshipping ourselves (loving ourselves ultimately) or others (loving our neighbours ultimately) isn’t actually less deadly (though it might be less damaging to people around you). If you really don’t buy the God stuff then just go immerse yourself in This Is Water on repeat for a few hours and then habitually look for myriad petty little ways to serve others with your life. It’ll change the world.

3. Change what you worship via the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’ (good)

Smith’s understanding of the human being as a worshipping being isn’t new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s the understanding put forward by the Old Testament, the New Testament, the inter-testamental literature, the early church, Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans. It’s not a revolution. It’s our buy-in to the enlightenment-modernist-cartesian concept of the person as only or primarily a ‘thinking thing’ that makes it seem ground breaking. But if all these people are right then you don’t think your way out of a terrible and destructive pattern of deadly idolatry; or even simply act your way out of it using accountability software, tracking, or even self-flagellation… you worship your way out.

You don’t combat wrong worship by fixating on the thing you’re trying to stop being consumed by, or by fixating on some other idol instead.

We combat wrong worship with right worship.

The real worship war is against porn and other idols. You fight porn, and other idols, with Jesus. By worshipping Jesus. By taking on the challenge from Jesus to first “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind” (Luke 10:27). God is after all the bits of you that porn claims. Your heart. Your imagination. Your habits. Your very self.

This fight will involve the habits, certainly, a new liturgy to combat and replace the old one. It’ll involve us being those who participate in true worship where we ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’ tied to a renewing of the mind away from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-3, ultimately this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Romans 8). The next post in this series will consider some alternative liturgies, or an alternative framework for understanding liturgy to both the liturgies of idolatry and the solutions put forward by Smith.

But first it involves a new story, a new understanding of our telos and identity, that we’re being conformed into the image of Jesus, and a new love that fires our imagination and desires and occupies our worship such that the idols we’re at war with fall into disrepair and fade away into disuse like so many ancient temples. In our world there are temples that have been torn down by conquerers who hold rival religious beliefs — like ISIS is doing in Syria — and temples that have simply been abandoned because not only did nobody see their value any more, the gods the temples housed have been replaced by new loves in the hearts of the people who built them. That’s what we have to do to fight porn — to fight in the worship wars — love Jesus more, and believe he offers something better than a finite number of orgasms in response to a real human person magically (cursedly) reduced to some flesh coloured pixels on a screen.

We need what the 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called the expulsive power of a new affection” — a love that pushes all other loves out of God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. It’s not enough just to show that our worldly idol-emperors — like pornography — have no clothes (see what I did there)m we also have to replace them with something plausibly better and truer and more satisfying.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…

To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place… The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity – and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one. ” — Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection

For Chalmers that new affection is best if it is the God revealed in the Gospel. The one who made, rules, and will judge the world. The one who gives life to dead people by laying down his life as the ultimate act of love.

Jesus is better than porn. It sounds twee, but that’s a better answer than Wallace or Anderson and the Rabbi offer because it involves a better and more fulfilling type of worship and we are worshipping beings. Porn is a terrible liturgy because sexual pleasure is a terrible, finite, god and your pursuit of it will leave you disappointed and ultimately eat you alive.

Jesus is better than porn and more satisfying, even, than sensuality. It’s time our practices, and the lives of our community, reflected that in such a way that the lives of children (and adults) both inside and outside our communities are better for it.

Enough is enough. Don’t just kick your porn habit; get a Jesus habit. In the next post I’ll ponder how we might do just that.

The real worship wars (1): You are what you worship

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” —David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Image Credit: davidhardie.com

Here’s a confession. It irks me when people call music ‘worship’ or music leaders ‘worship pastors’; not because music is not worship but because worship is so much more, and our terminology matters (so does music). What irks me more, even than this, is that we’ve spent so much time in the ‘worship wars’ fighting about whether to pursue contemporary or traditional styles of worship that we’ve missed the real worship war.

If you google the phrase ‘worship wars’ you’ll find a whole bunch of stuff about music in church, and different styles of church service. There were some shots fired in the worship wars by the Gospel Coalition recently (it’s so unlike them to be combative), which, because I’m irked by the terminology slippage of the word worship, irked me enough to get me to kickstart this series that has been in my head for some time.

Worship is more than music. It’s even more than the liturgy involved in your Sunday ‘worship service’ (including the sacraments). Worship is bigger than Sunday, and until we see that, we’re going to lose the worship wars to the real opponents. Idols and Satan.

There is a real battle going on when it comes to our worship, but the question isn’t so much about music on a Sunday or the aesthetics and regularity of the sacraments (though aesthetics matter too).

I’m going to spend a couple of posts on what I think the real worship war looks like, and where our attention should be focused in what is a real battle for the lives of people in our churches and our world.

To “Arr” is pirate, to worship is human

Everybody worships. We are born worshippers, and as secular novelist/philosopher David Foster Wallace puts it in the most excellent This Is Water, the only choice we really get as humans is the choice of what to worship; that defines everything else about us.

The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

What if this is the worship war that matters, not a choice of style of worship — or music — within the church, but the competition for your heart and your service?

Only, what if it’s not a choice? What if what we worship is determined for us by our participation in this great worship war, where different objects of worship are competing for our love and our attention? What if those default patterns aren’t just products of our decision to worship, but form it? What if we worship from the hands (the habits), to the heart (the desires), to the head (the imagination), rather than from the rational mind down? What if it’s harder than DFW thought?

What worship is

So if worship isn’t music or the Sunday service — but rather, those are aspects of our worship — what is it?

I’m going to make the case that worship is the whole-hearted, whole-handed, and whole-headed, attempt to reflect on, and so reflect, the image of our god(s) as we bow to and serve them with our whole being. When it comes to the God of the Bible, and our worship of him, our worship is what leads us to glorify him as we bear his image in his world. The New Testament uses two Greek words for worship: proskuneo and latreuo; roughly translated as ‘bow down’ and ‘serve’. The Old Testament pairs these (in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint) in Exodus 20:4-5, the first commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

We’re consciously worshipping creatures; we pick a god and that choice shapes us. That’s part of what separates us from the animals (although they too declare the glory of God, with the rest of the heavens); we’re made to be oriented to God, via worship, and part of the sinful human condition is that we orient ourselves to all sorts of other stuff instead. The image we bear in this world reflects the God we worship, and so, we become what we worship with our hearts, hands, and minds.

We’re made to bear God’s image, and so his first commandment to Israel is about worshipping him — not the stuff or animals he made. We’re made to bear God’s image, and yet we keep exchanging God for other images; and that’s deadly. Paul describes the human condition — our defective worship — in Romans 1 (and I’m suggesting ‘glorified him as God’ is synonymous with worship).

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

Now let’s just pause for a minute.

Do you think Paul, here, is talking about people singing songs about rabbits? Or sex? Or some other created thing? Or about people going bird watching on a Sunday?

Now. He might well be talking about these activities as forms of worship but the sort of worship he’s talking about is actually the orientation of our desires, and imaginations such that our habits and lives reflect the object of our love. A nature-worshipper might well sing about the beauty of creation and go bird-watching on a Sunday, and that might refresh them, but they keep finding ways to practice their love for nature all week ’round; cause that’s what worship is. A sex-worshipper will sing songs about sex, but will also consume magazine articles about sex, pursue sex, and ultimately, desire as much sex, and as many orgasms, as possible in their finite life on this mortal coil. Worship can’t just be about the songs we sing — or Sunday morning — its about the desires of our hearts, and the practices of our hands that cultivate those desires and inform our thinking as we live lives that express our fanatical service to these gods. In David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, two characters, Marathe and Steeply discuss this aspect of our humanity — our fundamental need to worship, and the reality that we do so without choosing consciously if we don’t consciously choose…

“Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple… Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith…”

“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you… You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self… choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice… This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance?” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

You are what you worship

We all grow attached to things — become fanatical worshippers of some god; and this happens whether we’re conscious of it or not as we are lured into worship by different visions of the good human life; different stories we’d like to see ourselves living in. As a result of our hearts and imaginations being conscripted, we start practicing new liturgies — new habits — which reinforce this conscription. That’s the pattern of the rest of Romans 1; defective worship leads to defective lives (and defective lives lead to defective worship).

Idolatry — the worship of other gods, or the making of gods out of good things God made — has transforming power with damaging consequences. The Old Testament is full of warnings about these consequences but the concept of becoming what you worship is never far from the surface of these consequences; worship dumb, dead, stuff and instead of being the living people of the living God you’ll be dumb, dead, stuff. Or as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 115:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see.

 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

The thing that’s truly beautiful (and truly tragic) about David Foster Wallace’s insight into worship is that he highlights how even as our idol worship delivers it doesn’t ever satisfy. Worship sex, pursue orgasm after orgasm, and your god will give you what you want (Romans 1 promises that too); but you’ll spiral into awful objectification or addiction (the next post in this series will consider pornography as a form of worship). That’s true of almost all our idols; as we attain the thing we desire we find it doesn’t scratch the itch we thought it would, or that we become so detached from flourishing patterns of humanity and relationships that we are utterly destroyed. We become what we worship, or, as DFW puts it:

If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He also observes the spiralling effect that comes with worship of things that aren’t God (and so aren’t really able to satisfy what he calls the ‘gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing’). This dovetails with the Psalmist’s observation that we become what we behold; what we worship. The Bible differs on its assessment of the morality of these default behaviours; it’s not just that this sort of worship of something other than God is sinful, it’s the heart of all our sinful acts.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

At the end of This Is Water, a truly profound assessment of the human condition, Wallace asks the students he’s speaking to to consider their habits, to consider living a life that runs counter to this default. He does this, in part, by challenging the narrative behind these defaults by urging us to pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of those around us

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This is liturgy — or worship — of a particular kind, but he’s really just urging people to switch idols, moving from a selfish worship of self, to a self-emptying worship of other people. His narrative here is a form of humanism (unless you take his advice to worship some spiritual thing). It won’t answer the gnawing sense he identifies, and it won’t achieve the aim he suggests (eerily, given his end), that it might.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He’s right though. The worship wars are a matter of life and death. What you choose to worship will give you life, or take your life. To win the worship wars — where the real enemy is actually death — we need to take up a better story one that captures our desires and imaginations, and adopt habits consistent with that story; lest our loves lead us to death. That seems to be Paul’s agenda in much of his writing in the New Testament, where he speaks specifically of worship (in a way both similar to DFW, but grounded in a different story), and of a story that changes the orientation of our hearts, minds, and habits.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  — Romans 12:1-2

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things… — Colossians 3:1-2 (we’ll see below how this relates to our habits, and is perhaps the product of our habits).

Paul’s approach to worship differs from DFW’s because his story connects us to something transcendent; something beyond ourselves; something above, something infinite. It’s built from a better story — the story of the transcendent God who both calls us to worship him alone, and makes himself knowable in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice in Jesus’ divinity; and who provides the model of the ultimate worshipper in Jesus’ humanity.

The worship wars are a competition for our loves, a conflict based on what story we live — and thus a conflict that shapes our destiny; the end of our story. Will we live, and live in the light of eternity, like Paul, or live, and face death with the gnawing, nagging, sense of having lost eternity, like DFW, or simply choose the default rat race setting of life for ourselves, and so destroy those around us for the sake of our very temporary happiness, while being shaped and destroyed by whatever it is we’ve chosen to worship.

We’ll see next post that the worship wars are not so much about the songs we sing in church, or the sacraments, or even church on a Sunday, but about much more. The stakes are much higher than a Sunday runsheet, or who gets in the band.

What do you love? What are you prepared to die for? Will it give you life? This is where the real action is in the worship wars;

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

 

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

 

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

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Confessions of a politically religiously motivated radical who wants to see the world as we know it come to its end

I am a religious radical. I confess that my religious beliefs are my primary motivation for how I live in this world, and I believe my actions to be consistent with bringing about the end of the world as we know it. But. Don’t panic.

dontpanic

In How (Not) to be Secular, Christian Philosopher James K.A Smith unpacks fellow philosopher Charles Taylor’s theory that the modern, secular, world has collapsed everything supernatural into a sort of ‘rational’ natural basket.

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

Or, as Douglas Adams put it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 

“My universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay.”
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

To me, Douglas Adams is a bit like the Lewis/Tolkien of this sort of disenchanted world, perhaps even a bit like the wise teacher in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. Adams built a fictional cosmos in The Hitchhikers Guide that allows him to fantastically weave his way through the big questions, and implications, of a disenchanted world, giving that helpful piece of advice — “DON’T PANIC” — for anyone who comes to the conclusion that life has no meaning, or that its meaning is 42 (an incorrect answer to “what is 6 times 9”). His point, at one point discussed in a little dialogue between Zaphod and Arthur, is that a world devoid of meaning from beyond itself is a world where a belief in, or search for, a sort of ‘transcendent’ meaning — or any meaning at all — is meaningless, and inaccessible.

“But nothing! Think about it. The Meaning of Life! We get our fingers on that we can hold every shrink in the Galaxy up to ransom, and that’s worth a bundle. I owe mine a mint.”

Arthur took a deep breath without much enthusiasm.

“Alright,” he said, “but where do we start? How should I know? They say the Ultimate Answer or whatever is Forty-two, how am I supposed to know what the question is? It could be anything. I mean, what’s six times seven?”

Zaphod looked at him hard for a moment. Then his eyes blazed with excitement.

“Forty-two!” he cried.

Arthur wiped his palm across his forehead.

“Yes,” he said patiently, “I know that.”

Zaphod’s faces fell.

“I’m just saying that the question could be anything at all,” said Arthur, “and I don’t see how I am meant to know.” — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

One of the implications of this shift is in how we think of the way people are motivated to make choices or decisions. Where, in the past, people saw themselves as actors in a divinely created cosmic play, their position placed, determined, and directed by God’s mysterious plans, now, people assume life is a smorgasbord of choices and we are our own agents, able to place ourselves wherever we want (so we’re more mobile than ever, in terms of social status, education, and physical location, able to determine the course our own life takes, and directing ourselves via our own ethical framework or set of moral rules (sometimes with socially constructed frameworks that make sure other people, or as many other people as possible, enjoy these same freedoms). In this new script every action is ‘political’ because every person is a monarch. According to this new script, no actions are ‘religious’ — even if they are — because religion is just one choice we make among many, and we choose one religion among many equally (in)valid options. Religion, in this secular script, cannot, and should not, be spoken of as a motivating factor for action — because it gets dangerous when it is. In this script religion is, rather, a consequence of action, of choice, rather than a motivator.

“It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears.”  — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

There’s been a bit of a secular paradox at play in the reportage of the Parramatta shooting. On the one hand, the government, and a bunch of secular spokespeople, are very keen to eradicate the clear and present danger presented by ‘radicalisation’ — so keen that they’ll throw all sorts of religions into the mix as potential sources for dangerous radicalisation (see Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC), they’ll even throw poor people like the hypothetical “Karen” under the radicalisation bus in order to protect the masses from these ills. If you break the Internet’s First Commandment “Never read the comments” on that article you’ll see that the discussion sort of proves the point of Jensen’s piece, any religious belief, taken seriously, is dismissed as dangerous.

On the other hand, when speaking of the Parramatta shooting, reporters do not speak of the event as ‘religiously motivated’ but ‘politically motivated’…

“We believe his actions were politically motivated and therefore linked to terrorism.” — NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, ‘Teen Shooting Linked to Terrorism

The shooter was ‘politically motivated’ by people he met in a religious place. A place of worship. I’m not claiming that his actions were a necessary product of the religion he aligned himself with by faith, but they were almost certainly a product of his faith. Of his understanding of the world and its end. Obviously there’s a massive link between religion and politics for most people of faith, for good or for ill, but I can’t help but think this plays into a narrative that isolates people of faith and robs us of the dignity that comes from being able to make choices about how we understand life and are understood. As a person of faith, putting myself in the shoes of someone who might be robbed of dignity in this sense, I’d like to offer a few alternatives for ‘deradicalisation’ that don’t involve ‘depersonalisation’… I’d like to suggest that the secular narrative being used to disenchant this narrative with a view to de-radicalising it (making these actions politically motivated (immanent) rather than religiously motivated (transcendent) might actually be counter-productive because it might reinforce a sense that the secular west is not interested in understanding those who don’t subscribe to its disenchanted story. I’d like to suggest that perhaps, even within a secular frame, what would be productive, virtuous, and just response would be to treat the perpetrator — and others — as human agents, giving them the dignity of understanding their choices and motivations, without thinking that doing so would either ‘radicalise’ other like minded people, or insult those who share a similar way of seeing the world as ‘enchanted’ and meaningful through eyes and ears of faith. Maybe a better way forward would be to invite those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world — be they Muslims, or people of other faiths — to enter dialogue in the public square that offers alternative ways of seeing the world and its end, through better stories (without shouting them down in angry comment threads).

Secularisation: an exercise in not seeing the emperor’s old clothes

Secularisation in its modern, disenchanted form, and especially the secularist narrative playing out in the analysis of the action of people of faith ends up being a deliberate attempt not to see things as they really are, but also, not to see people as they truly wish to be seen. It fails to give people dignity because it denies them the robes they choose to give context to their actions. When a person of faith acts in a way motivated by that faith the secular narrative is that this is ‘political,’ a category I certainly wouldn’t put first in describing my own actions.

This new narrative is disingenuous and unloving. It doesn’t love ‘political’ actors — or perpetrators — with the kind of just love that requires us to pay real attention to the motivations for action and decide on reasonable and just consequences or solutions. It dehumanises those who do not share the new narrative. It robs a religious person of dignity, stripping their life of the meaning they have ‘chosen’. In this it both undermines the secularist narrative of ‘choice,’ and also deliberately holds ignorance and arrogance in tension — it’s deliberately ignorant, in failing to consider possibilities beyond one’s own ‘eyes and ears’ or beyond a consensus reached by many eyes and ears, and part of this ignorance manifests itself in an arrogant failure to listen to narratives that don’t fit this dominant view. It’s a failure to listen, and a failure to see, other people as they wish to be seen, and perhaps the world as it should be seen.

If the old view of the world was one where the universe was fully clothed in rich, enchanting, meaning, where it was vividly coloured and beautifully formed so that both the emperor wearing the clothes was special, but the designer was clearly a good and creative genius who wished this to be the case, then the new version of the world is one where we, the new emperors, are naked and left to construct an outfit, and dignity, for ourselves.

The secularist assumption is that its those who have stripped off their old clothing who are dressed, while those who hang on to the idea of an enchanted world given meaning by a divine creator, are naked and foolish.

The secular status quo runs a real risk of dehumanising people according to its own account of meaningful humanism, where our sense of what it means to be a person with dignity, a monarch, a ruler of our own tiny kingdom, is caught up in making the decision about how to live and to channel David Foster Wallace, what to worship. In This Is Water, Wallace points out that our new default is to worship things within the world, immanent things, things that will ultimately eat us alive, and that our secular age is structured in such a way that it wants to keep us exercising our freedom, so long as its directed at these immanent things. So long as we don’t rock the boat. But he ponders whether or not this default is really freedom, or if freedom might lie elsewhere, in questioning the default narrative, and the default ‘secular’ gods.

“And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

 

A radical story — motivated by a view of the end of the world

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. 

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” 
― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

As he explores Taylor’s understanding of The Secular Age, Smith mentions that part of the movement from an ‘enchanted’ or spiritual sense of reality was a depersonalising move from describing the world as a divine creation (as it had been understood right up to modern times), to simply ‘nature’… a neutral and unthinking thing, at best governed by ‘natural law’…

“The shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence… Now, from the vantage point of secular humanism, this new interest in nature can look like the next logical step on the way to pure immanence: first distinguish God/nature, then disenchant, then be happy and content with just nature and hence affirm the autonomy and sufficiency of nature. Such a story about the “autonomization” of nature posits a contrast or dichotomy between belief in God and interest in “nature-for-itself”…

Part of the fallout of such a metaphysical shift is the loss of final causality (a cause that attracts or “pulls”), eclipsing any teleology for things/nature. Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence its telos (end). Instead we get the “mechanistic” universe that we still inhabit today, in which efficient causality (a cause that “pushes”) is the only causality and can only be discerned by empirical observation. This, of course, is precisely the assumption behind the scientific method as a way of divining the efficient causes of things, not by discerning “essence” but by empirical observation of patterns, etc. The result is nothing short of “a new understanding of being, according to which, all intrinsic purposes having been expelled, final causation drops out, and efficient causation alone remains””— James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

I can understand why people choose to see the world this way though. The universe is vast and intimidating. Douglas Adams goes on and on about infinity in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and its to explore just how uncomfortable a view of the universe is if it is very infinite, and we are very finite. There’s this thing in the story called the Total Perspective Vortex which promises to show anyone who attaches their mind to its probes just how small they really are. Trin Tragula built the machine to annoy his wife, but when he plugged her into it, it had disastrous consequences.

“To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

“For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.” ― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This is what happens when we strip the universe of enchantment, of meaning beyond the physical. Suddenly the sheer, immanent, physicality of the universe is intimidating, rather than comforting. It’s better to think of it as uncaring, and uninvolved, and as without an ‘end’ at that point, so that we don’t have to worry about getting the ‘end’ wrong, given our new freedom to choose how to live in it. Robbing the world of an ‘end’ — a telos in the old Greek sense — a purpose — in itself, means we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating meaning. We understand the world as we experience it with our eyes and ears, and we, within the world, are free to come up with our own vision for how things should be, and what things are for, and we’re free to direct our own lives. If people come up with some approach to their own life — an understanding of their own purpose, or ‘end’ that is tied to some broader purpose in the universe, some other director giving things purpose, especially a divine purpose, we treat them with suspicion.

And looking around at all the alternative understandings of the purpose of the world posited by religious people — including some Christians — I share a fair amount of this suspicion. I can totally understand why we’d want to take the shortcut of robbing people of their dignity by stripping them of their metaphorical clothes and leaving them naked. Exposing them and their folly for all to see. But when I put myself in the shoes of those seen as ‘exposed’ it leaves me feeling a little empathy for the religiously motivated person. It leaves me thinking that perhaps this strategy might leave other people of faith, who feel the same way about the world, feeling naked and foolish. Which is a brilliant ‘deradicalisation’ strategy. Except that it’s not. Especially if the ‘secular west’ has a habit of pushing the sorts of people who have faith to the margins, away from the benefits of the ‘secular defaults’ which builds a further degree of resentment.

Let’s come back to that alternative strategy — inviting those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world to the table to discuss solutions to radicalisation, rather than excluding us by lumping us all in together as potential dangerous radicals who want to see the end of the world as we know it.

For those who see and experience the world as shot through with meaning, the vastness of the universe helps build self-esteem. The universe is the stage in a divine cosmic drama that tells the story of the value of human life to the creator of the universe — one vaster than the universe itself. In this drama, especially the Christian version, the creator of all this steps onto the stage, and takes part in the drama, by laying down his life for the actors he made. The cross of Jesus is a new Total Perspective Vortex that puts us at the centre of a vast and infinite world. It gives the world a new end, both in an understanding of its purpose — as the ground upon which God became incarnate, made himself human, died, and promised to redeem — and it gives us a new understanding of how it all ends. Jesus, by his resurrection, promised to be the ultimate and final solution for this world, inviting those who follow him to ‘take up their cross’ becoming part of the picture of what the end of the world looks like. Eating with a radical Christian should be like eating at the restaurant at the end of the universe — you should see and taste the end of the world.

I confess, I totally buy into this ‘enchanted’ vision of the world. I believe the world is ‘shot through with meaning’ – that it’s a divine creation, carefully maintained, damaged by our selfish ‘default’ following lives and crying out for a solution. I pray God brings that solution every time I say anything remotely like the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is an incantation of sorts, an act of enchantment, and this is the prayer of a ‘radical’ who follows the God-man.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’” — The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

This is a radical prayer for the world as we know it to end, for the world to meet its end — the kingdom of God. I suspect if our politicians knew what they were asking for when they prayed these words the attempt to further disenchant our ‘politics’ by removing ‘religion’ would gather steam.

I’m a religiously motivated Christian radical. I want to bring about this end. I want to confront people with this story and I want them to see that without it they’re actually naked.

This is what being a Christian radical looks like.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12

It’s interesting that this largely matches up with how Christians were perceived to be living in the early church, in the Roman Empire. Pliny, a Roman governor, wrote to his friend, the emperor, Trajan, asking how he should deal with the Christian radicals popping up all over the empire and threatening to end the world as they knew it. The Roman world was also a world shot through with meaning — where Gods existed within the cosmos, and men (emperors) could become gods. Christians threatened this status quo, as we now threaten the secular defaults of our age. Pliny describes their radical behaviour as:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

It was concern for the status quo that motivated Pliny’s query, and Trajan’s response that Pliny was right to put these Christians to death if they wouldn’t worship his divine image, this was his litmus test for deciding who to execute, he spared those who “worshipped your [Trajan’s divine] image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ” — because people who did this were no threat to the established order. Here’s why he says he wrote — because the enchantment/superstition that led Christians to act radically like this was spreading.

“For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

People will do all sorts of things in the thrall of a compelling story, be it secularism, or your garden variety secular -isms like communism, materialism (but perhaps not naturalism, unless its paired with something else — or threatened by something else, which is why it’s a compelling antidote to enchantment). People will die for a secular ‘-ism’, just as they will for a religion (or a religious -ism like Judaism or Mormonism), an enchanted story.

Religious stories don’t just enchant life, but death as well. Often they involve some picture of martyrdom, which is closely tied to our sense of the world’s end, and how it the world. An interesting working definition of a ‘radical’ might not just be someone who is prepared to live by their story, but to die by it.

Being a Christian radical also means martyrdom — death to self — not just in the David Foster Wallace sense of death to the default in order to love others — but perhaps even in a literal sense, laying down our lives to give life to others. This is where our ‘enchanted story’ is fundamentally better for the world than any of the others. Jesus produces a different sort of radical, and a different sort of martyr. The diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe are horrified by how willing their meal — a sentient cow — is to die for their good, their food and entertainment, and yet, its this same willingness that Christians have historically shown in the face of death so that others might see the way the world ends. This same horror, for a secular citizen, extends to the idea that anybody might throw away their immanent existence — assumed to be their only existence — for the sake of some ‘religious’ notion.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body? It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”…

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur. “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

I’m totally on board with being terrified by the sort of martyrdom that comes at the cost of others, but I can’t get my head around being opposed to a deliberate exercise of freedom that takes that sort of freedom David Foster Wallace identified to ‘sacrifice’ for others ‘over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’ to its radical conclusion. It’s this sort of exercise of freedom, as he rightly identifies, that helps people see the world through different eyes. But it’s when we connect this freedom to the Christian story — where the infinite God steps into his finite creation as a man, and lovingly sacrifices himself for us — that we are no longer haunted by that “gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing” because in the ‘incarnation’ — in God becoming flesh — the transcendent and immanent are revealed at once in vivid colour. We see the emperor in his truly magnificent clothes as the God-Man hangs naked on the Cross, exposed in order to re-dress us. This story answers that ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost touch with the infinite, because in it the infinite one finds us, and draws us to him. It’s this story that gives us enchanted eyes and ears by which we now see the world, and imagine a better end  — both in terms of a better purpose, and a better future.

This new way of seeing is what brings the political and religious together. It’s what gives a deeper meaning to a radical life and death. It’s people living this radical story that best displays the enchanting and compelling power of this story. The Cross isn’t just our Total Perspective Vortex, it’s our Restaurant at the End of the Universe. When we stand near it — reliving it by living it each day,  through our words and practices as extensions of our story, as we practice dying to self each day, is what gives people the taste of the end of the world that Douglas Adams could only dream of meaningfully depicting in a secular sense by inventing time and space travel.

Tertullian, a guy from the early church, showed what it looks like to be both religiously and politically motivated at the same time when he wrote to the Roman government, the same government that kept executing Christians

“It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” — Tertullian, Apology

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On outrage: Contemplation, rightly-ordered love, and loving attention as an ‘outrageous’ response to outrageous events

This is the last in a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage, then some ancient Greek visions of virtue.

Remember Cecil the Lion?

How about Kony 2012?

What about Aylan Kurdi?

How quickly do we move on from that which outrages?

Cecil the Lion was a shot almost two months ago. His was the story that sparked this series in which I consider why we get outraged, what our tendency towards outrage might teach us about the world and our humanity, and what a more virtuous, loving, and constructive response to our disordered world might look like.

It turns out that outrage has a shelf life. The dentist who shot Cecil is going back to work this week. It also turns out that there’s a saturation point where people stop caring about information released in chunks (probably including this series of posts — but hey, I like to write for the “long tail” not the cheap virality of a sensationalist piece). So onwards into this question of outrage, and how we respond virtuously — with love — to those at the heart of outrageous events — be they victims or perpetrators. Because I think it’s this sort of radical love for people at both sides of something outrageous that defines a Christian response to disorder in the world. Here’s what Jesus says…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48

But what is love? What is love in the face of disorder?

Love and Virtue as attention seeking understanding in a virtually connected world

In the first few posts in this series I’ve basically suggested that outrageous events should propel us towards God and acting virtuously not towards forming lynch mobs or misdirected anger.

How then, should we define what is ‘good’ or virtuous— not just for ourselves, but for the community we’re part of? And what is this ‘community’ in the global age? Aristotle’s view of virtue was very much limited to proximity, you could only be concerned about those in your sphere, and only be assessed as a virtuous/moral agent based on how you treated people in your orbit. This obviously worked in his media culture which was transitioning from exclusively oral to oral and written. You found out about disorder as you experienced it, immediately, or as you were told, a long time after the fact. The media landscape we live in has fundamentally changed because space and time aren’t the limiting factors they once were for us in terms of forming communities or connections with people around the globe, or for being confronted with disorder and given the capacity to respond.

We may feel like solving world events is beyond our control, but the changing nature of ‘connectedness’ or community doesn’t just bring more awareness of problems, it brings more opportunities for us to communicate, relate, and love, beyond geographic boundaries. A solution to something outrageous may involve us sacrificially directing our attention, or love. This direction of love may involve activism, it may involve a movement towards physical proximity via a flight (we’re also more geographically connected than ever before), it may involve us giving money…

But the new media landscape means we’re actually bombarded with outrageous events, almost faster than we can possibly receive them, let alone respond to them. And there’s still plenty we don’t see because media agencies filter the least palatable material from global conflict and disaster so that we don’t have to see things as they really are.

If Aristotle was right about our moral responsibility resting with causes that we’re proximate to, and able to change, what is our moral responsibility when our new connected landscape means we’re just a mouse click away from outrageous events, and potentially a mouse-click away from a solution to these outrageous events?

What does virtuous or moral action look like in this connected and obviously disordered world? What do we need to do in order to be loving? And how do we decide what to love? It’s a question I grappled with in a more specific sense when people were changing their profiles to a ن in response to ISIS persecuting Christians, and tried to apply practically here. But it’s still a question I’m trying to unpack a little more.

In the last post in this series I looked at how Aristotle’s concept of virtue and arete (moral excellence) and the form of virtue promoted in the New Testament revolved around contemplation and knowing, the sort of contemplation and knowing that produces right actions. I’m going to suggest here that contemplation and knowing, via the application of loving attention, is the first virtuous act that we should bring to the table when we’re trying to respond to outrageously disordered events in the world, and that this should form the basis of whatever moral actions we take in response (and this will necessarily mean ‘outrage’ and forming an outraged mob is not the right, loving, response. This sort of love is the foundational virtue we should bring to the table, and because I’m a Christian, I’m going to suggest this love should be understood as “Christlike love.”

And I’m going to suggest that the act of love is an act of giving true attention, whether you’re a Christian or not.

From Aristotle to Augustine: Love, contemplation, and order

A few posts back, I suggested that most of the disorder we’re responding to the world is a result of our disordered hearts — our disordered love — hearts that orient humanity towards self-love at the expense of others. Virtue, or re-ordered love, will necessarily break this default pattern and seek order, rather than disorder. There are non-Christian accounts of virtue that seek to break this default, which I’ll get to below, but there’s also a sense that current visions of virtue, in the secular west, are derived from Christian moral philosophers who spent time reflecting on thinkers like Aristotle. If you were handing out jerseys to people who were influential thinkers on this front, after Aristotle and the New Testament, Augustine would definitely get a run in the team. People are still unpacking the implications of the stuff he wrote 1,600 years after he wrote it.

Augustine pinpointed the source of disorder in the world — the sort previously attributed to self-loving hearts — to hearts that reject God’s purposes for creation and humanity because they are hearts that love things in the wrong order. Disorder is a product of us paying attention to, and seeking satisfaction in, things that are not capable of satisfying our desires because they aren’t God. He saw the path to virtue as involving re-orienting, and re-ordering our love of objects in this world — people or otherwise — by loving God first, and having our love for other things ordered by this love.

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.  When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.  For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love:  it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately.  It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator:  “These are Thine, they are good, because Thou art good who didst create them.  There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.”

But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously.  So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me.” — Augustine, City of God, Book 15, Chapter 22

Then, in On Christian Doctrine, basically his version of the sort of ethical/rhetorical work which envisaged the ideal person as the ideal orator or teacher (following in the tradition of people like Cicero who spelled out his own vision of the virtuous person as a seer, knower, and speaker of truth in works like On The Ideal Orator (De Oratore)), Augustine wrote:

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.”— Augustine, On Christian Doctrine I. 27. 28

When it came to defining what love actually means, Augustine started with the love he saw on display within the Trinity from person to person of the Trinity. His understanding of what love looks like was built from the Trinity up, and so, in a thing he wrote reflecting on the Trinity, called De Trinitate, he unpacked a series of links between knowledge, love, and the will. After establishing this same point about God being the first object of our love, saying “so God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself…” he turns to how this sort of love shapes and defines a mind so that it can be called “good” — our minds, he suggests, are shaped by the things we love, and the things we love are the things we seek, and I’d suggest this seeking, for Augustine, is a sort of attempting to understand a thing accurately within our mind.

And to what can it turn itself that it may become a good mind, except to the good which it loves, and seeks, and obtains? And if it turns itself back again from this, and becomes not good, then by the very act of turning away from the good, unless that good remain in it from which it turns away, it cannot again turn itself back…

For Augustine, truly loving God (and by extension true loving) was a matter of seeking to truly know God in our own minds, by applying our minds to knowing and perceiving God (and by extension, whatever it is we seek to love).

But who loves what he does not know? For it is possible something may be known and not loved: but I ask whether it is possible that what is not known can be loved; since if it cannot, then no one loves God before he knows Him. And what is it to know God except to behold Him and steadfastly perceive Him with the mind?

The sort of love Augustine pictures here — both directed at God and others — is a love that seeks to know the mind of the other, not simply a love that loves another on our own terms. It essentially seeks to picture, or understand, the mind of the other within the mind of the self. This process begins with trying to understand God’s mind, and one’s own mind…

What, then, is love, except a certain life which couples or seeks to couple together some two things, namely, him that loves, and that which is loved? And this is so even in outward and carnal loves. But that we may drink in something more pure and clear, let us tread down the flesh and ascend to the mind. What does the mind love in a friend except the mind?

For the mind cannot love itself, except also it know itself; for how can it love what it does not know? Or if any body says that the mind, from either general or special knowledge, believes itself of such a character as it has by experience found others to be and therefore loves itself, he speaks most foolishly. For whence does a mind know another mind, if it does not know itself?”

For Augustine, perhaps unlike Aristotle, this sort of mindful love occurs as a response to seeing, paying attention to, and knowing those you love, but can also come through hearing about some other person removed from your immediate proximity…

For whence is the ardor of brotherly love kindled in me, when I hear that some man has borne bitter torments for the excellence and steadfastness of faith? And if that man is shown to me with the finger, I am eager to join myself to him, to become acquainted with him, to bind him to myself in friendship. And accordingly, if opportunity offers, I draw near, I address him, I converse with him, I express my goodwill towards him in what words I can, and wish that in him too in turn should be brought to pass and expressed goodwill towards me; and I endeavour after a spiritual embrace in the way of belief, since I cannot search out so quickly and discern altogether his innermost heart…

But those things themselves we either touch if present by the bodily sense, or if absent remember their images as fixed in our memory, or picture, in the way of likeness to them, such things as we ourselves also, if we wished and were able, would laboriously build up: figuring in the mind after one fashion the images of bodies, or seeing bodies through the body; but after another, grasping by simple intelligence what is above the eye of the mind, viz., the reasons and the unspeakably beautiful skill of such forms

This, of course, is interesting where we now hear and see things that we are not physically proximate to almost instantly. For Augustine this hearing could take place generations after the fact, and could also happen as someone received word about the plight of a person who seemed a world away. Our senses are now bombarded in a manner that does away with physical proximity, or time, as a barrier for knowledge. We form images of others — and see images of others — faster than ever before. Faster than we can possible process and understand with the sort of attention Augustine relished. The answer to navigating the complex mix of disorder that hits our eyes, I suspect, is caught up with rightly ordering our loves, and rightly understanding ourselves and our capacity to respond with love to others. We need to choose to weigh up the needs of those who can be pointed out to us by a finger, or who we see with our own eyes, and those whose presence is mediated to us via a screen, and presented to us via algorithms designed to hold our attention by presenting us with things we are likely to be outraged by — be it the dead squirrel in our yard, a dead lion, dead unborn children, or a dead child tragically washed up on a beach, or any number of meaningful or trivial things — the algorithm has an interest in fanning the flames of our hearts, and stoking our imaginations, in order to grip our attention.

This sort of bombardment of things to love, or respond to, leaves us in an interesting web of relationships with those we know and those we don’t.

It’s complicated.

Virtue as love, and love as the acts that flow from unselfish true seeing by paying attention

What’s the best we can hope to do amidst this complication? I think it’s caught up with the idea of the ethical life being the virtuous life — the life that isn’t as much focused on responding out of a sense of duty, but simply caught up with the idea of responding as a virtuous agent. Responding to whatever it is we see with a rightly ordered love. A love, for Christians, that starts with loving God, but moves to loving our (global) neighbour (or enemy) as we love ourselves. And I think the way to love, at least in this complicated world, is to love by paying attention in order to see things, and people, truly.

I think this model actually works without God too. Because I think it’s the most virtuous initial response to something happening a world away, because this true seeing underpins truly loving actions. It helps us know what is best. This is the sort of ‘good’ life that David Foster Wallace called people to live in his speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

I think it’s a really nice picture of what I understand to be a model of virtuous living without God, and even a model for life with God. David Foster Wallace is the secular world’s CS Lewis. The beauty of his writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is that it practices the sort of virtue described in This Is Water. He notices things. This virtuous attention to detail, an attempt to describe things and people as they really are, not just as you’d like them to be, is a virtuous and loving approach to writing, and to life. It means we must pay attention to things other than ourselves.

This idea of attention as virtue is interesting, it was a seed planted for me when I was reading something comparing two of my favourite writers— David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker — as I grappled with what it is I like about their writing, and the thing I like is that they are attentive to, and bring out, detail. The thing these guys might have in common is that they share a vision of goodness or virtue with novelist/moral philosopher Iris Murdoch. There’s an essay that examines the moral philosophy of This Is Water that suggests a link to Murdoch’s framework, and Baker is an avowed fan. I like the idea that novelists (like Wallace, Baker, and Murdoch) can teach us how to see and perceive the world morally, by asking us moral questions but also by inviting us to pay attention to life through the eyes of their characters, here’s a little paragraph from a Slate article about Baker, its the paragraph that sent me off to read Iris Murdoch because it intrigued me… For context, this comes as the piece discusses Baker’s expressed desire to preserve factoids and articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia (you can read Baker’s Wikipedia essay here).

“That same instinct for preservation underpins the way Baker writes. Ever since his first essays and stories appeared in the early ‘80s, he has always been noting things deemed non-notable by others, gently urging them towards us with his precise, delightful language.  His style is deeply moral—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world. His ethics are absorbed into his aesthetics, and vice versa.

In all this there is the flavor of one of Baker’s favorite authors, Iris Murdoch, who centered her moral philosophy on the idea of “loving attention”—the idea that looking at a person or situation with intense care and imaginative sympathy is, in her words, “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.” The lovingly precise descriptions Baker offers of even the most fleeting things that he comes across are a way of doing justice to those things—of honoring their dignity, if that’s not too grand and religious-sounding a phrase to use. (Baker is an atheist, and also a pacifist.)”

Murdoch unpacks this vision of virtue and morality in a book called The Sovereignty of Good, like Baker, and perhaps like DFW (nobody can really pinpoint exactly where he landed on the God question), Murdoch sees no need for God to form part of defining morality.

It’s hard for me to go this many words, in any written thing, without quoting Cicero, so here’s how he defined virtue. Which I think is important too. Especially the “habit” bit.

“A habit accompanied by, or arising out of, deliberate choice, and based upon free and conscious action”

Murdoch agrees, but suggests this habit starts with the application of the senses, and the mind, to things beyond ourselves. A conscious act of “unselfing”…

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.”

“But I would suggest that, at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.”

“Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the ‘unself,’ to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness, in the light of the idea of perfection. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. ‘Good is a transcendent reality,’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

This fits with how Augustine, and the “Augustinian Tradition” understood love based on God’s love within the Trinity, and towards creation, or, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “The term by which the Augustinian tradition expressed the idea of an originally committed attention is “love.” This idea of “love as committed attention” means true seeing involves both understanding and being oriented towards a right response. This, I’d suggest, is what virtue looks like in the face of outrageous events in a disordered world. First knowing who we are, and who we are to love, and then acting according to our judgment from this basis. Or, as O’Donovan explains it…

“To know any thing is to grasp its inherent intelligibility, which is its good: but to grasp its intelligibility is to grasp it and, in grasping it, to cling to it in love…”Thinking morally” is a much wider activity than thinking toward decision. It includes an attention to the world which is both affective and evaluative…Our whole world of beings and events is known to us only as we love and hate. At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking stock of the world. a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world. We shall call this taking stock “moral reflection,” to distinguish it from moral deliberation, which is directed toward decision. The metaphors contained in these two words suggest the distinction: `reflection” is “turning back” to look on something that is already there, an existing reality, “behind you,” as it were; “deliberation” is “weighing up,” facing an alternative, looking at possible courses of action that have not yet occurred…Moral reflection is not without a practical significance but it is nor oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question ‘how shall we live?” not “what shall we do?”

“By relating ourselves cognitively and affectively to the good and evil that we see within the created world around us, we adopt a posture that is the source of all our actions, but is not itself another action, or a summary of actions, but an affirmation of what we are.” — Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love

David Foster Wallace thought this sort of seeing of the world necessarily produced a freedom from the selfish default, and simultaneously tapped us in to some deeper sense of connection with “some infinite thing” — I’d suggest this infinite thing is caught up with our created telos — the purpose and sense of the divine written on every human heart.

“… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So how does this seeing, this giving of committed attention, work? What governs how we understand what we see via our attention, and how we respond? It’s all caught up with the narrative we use to see our lives — the equipment we have for processing outrage — and this is a product of what we worship — what we place at the centre of the narrative.

David Foster Wallace also understood this act of deciding how to see the world as an act of worship, and something which frees us to decide what it is to worship — the thing, other than ourselves (and for some, the self) that helps us not just see the world, but how to interact with it well. This sense of true seeing and true acting being based in something other than ourself is important if we are self-aware enough to believe that we shouldn’t be setting the universal standard of our own accord. And our selfish default, when we recognise it, should be enough to prevent that sort of self-belief. It’s what

Virtuous seeing begins with a realisation that we are people-in-community, or people-in-relationship, not just selves running around existing in isolation. Christian moral philosopher Stanley Hauerwas says:

“The self is fundamentally a social self. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. We are not “I’s” who decide to identify with certain “we’s”; we are first of all “we’s” who discover our “I’s” through learning to recognise the others as similar and different from ourselves. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. After all, the “self” names not a thing, but a relation. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others.” — Stanley Hauerwas

Hauerwas sees ethics about truly seeing the world, but he locates our ability to do this in looking beyond ourselves to a bigger story, starting with God’s story and what it says about us…

Ethics… is not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed to see the world truthfully. For Christians, such seeing develops through schooling in a narrative which teaches us how to use the language of sin not only about others, but about ourselves

This “language of sin” stuff is really, in one sense, a description of the realisation of our default selfishness, and also the realisation that left to our own devices, we produce outrageous events, we don’t just witness them. The narrative Hauerwas calls us to find ourselves in is the Gospel narrative, the narrative that rewires our default, and reorients our sense of self through that commandment Augustine loved so much (and the one from the start, the words of Jesus that call us to love our enemies).

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Jesus, Matthew 22:37-38

Seeing and acting is the basis for Christian loving that follows in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s what we’re called to do as “children of God” in 1 John. It’s how “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!… This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:1, 16-18

For Christians, our response to the outrage we see in the world is meant to mirror God’s response to the outrage he saw in the world, and our lives, sacrificial, costly, getting amongst the mess because we are motivated by love. Love isn’t just about attention, or “words and speech” — outpourings of outrage from behind a keyboard. It’s hard stuff that costs us. Actions. Truth. True seeing leads to true actions, and true seeing, linked with the truth of the Christian narrative — both the outrageous truth it reveals about us, and the outrageous love shown to us to change our narrative — reshapes the way we respond to outrage. We pay attention to the stories and the people involved because they have dignity and are worthy of love, and seeing truly is important for true actions. We avoid outrage and knee jerk reactions. We extend grace and love to those who are disordered, because we were once disordered, and we extend grace and love to those who are victims of disorder, because that too, is how God first loved us.

This doesn’t necessarily help us when there are 1,000 things commanding our attention and our pity, responding to this bombardment involves:

  1. Prayer as our attention is drawn to things, which costs us time, but takes us to the one who can provide solutions, and we’re confident of this because of the solution we found in our own lives,
  2. Seeking truth, and being known to be credible givers of attention, rather than simply believing every unverified rumour shared on social media, and gives us pause to check the truth of what we say before we say it, or post it,
  3. This means looking for truth beyond the headlines and the soundbites. Paying the sort of attention to detail we see in the work of virtuous novelists to the characters in these stories.
  4. Continuing to pay attention long after the attention span of the self-loving community moves on. How many people still have ن pictures as Facebook profile pictures? How many people are still crying out for justice against Kony? How many people care about dead lions? How many people are going to care about Syrian refugees in six months when they might actually be arriving on our shores.
  5. Speaking truth, and thinking about the nexus between love as committed attention and action, and considering what actions might be appropriate for us in the communities we belong to.
  6. It involves discipline and discernment. Knowing our limits and avoiding being desensitised to the chaotic disorder in our world, we actually can’t respond to everything, and outrage will be just about every where we look, so we may need to moderate where we look based on where we are able to act, though this doesn’t mean being interested by geographic proximity, rather it involves being limited by where we’re able to respond. That we can respond with prayer does significantly broaden the geographic scope.
  7. It involves costly action in response.

It’s worth checking out this Centre of Public Christianity interview with the ABC’s Scott Stephens about the moral responsibility that comes from disturbing images.

Here’s the CPX blurb.

“Scott Stephens argues that, in a visually saturated culture, images can both move us and dull us to the plight of others. There exists then a moral dimension to our exposure to images that requires a careful and intentional response.”

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On outrage: Dead squirrels and the algorithmic distribution of news and attention

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg, cited in the New York Times, When the internet thinks it knows you.

It used to be that media moguls would set an editorial agenda based on what they thought would sell papers. Well. They still do. It’s just a dying method for presenting an audience with ‘news’ via media.

That’s what news is. It’s how media works. The traditional broadcast media functions with an editorial agenda and a business agenda built on providing content that is relevant and of interest to its audience. It’s kind of our fault if these businesses choose not to show us shocking and harrowing things from across the globe, but tend to spend more time on dead squirrel issues, or even cute warm fuzzies if you watch The Project. We get the media we deserve.

Now, our media consumption is shaped by the people we connect to, and sources we allow, but more subliminally, its shaped by algorithms designed to give us exactly what it appears we want based on our habits.

The internet as we know and experience it is built on our desires and our curated network of relationships. The platforms we use online make their money by matching up our desires with solutions, or content.

Major platforms like Google and Facebook earn their keep based on shaping an experience of the Internet that is the experience of the Internet that most appeals to you. Our algorithmic experience of the Internet is a subjective experience, not an objective one. It becomes more objective only as we seek out truth through the application of our attention and our minds, going beyond what has been called the “filter bubble.”

These algorithms are coded to care about, or present to us, what they calculate matters to us in an immediate attention-hooking way, rather than what might be said to matter objectively. This filter bubble means we’re likely to be served things that engage our emotions, or even outrage us, based on how an algorithm understands who we are.

The filter bubble means we’re unlikely to be confronted with all the things that matter objectively, or even subjectively to others, if they compete with the subjective things that matter to us. Or as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, put it when describing how Facebook decides what to put in your newsfeed (see above)… dead squirrels.

The media is like a mirror being held up to the things we care about. The media, including social media, plays a part in determining what we get outraged about, and now, also, where we get outraged about it.

This filter bubble raises a question about our moral culpability for attention, or inattention, are we really to blame for being outraged at the wrong thing if the thing we’re predisposed seeing is not X or Y, dead lions, or dead babies, but dead squirrels? What is our responsibility, as online citizens, if we’re aware of X and Y, when the default setting is ignorance?

It’s interesting how the question of attention, and default settings features in David Foster Wallace’s famous insights from This Is Water, a speech in which he is arguably extrapolating from and applying Iris Murdoch’s system of virtuous loving attention… He suggests our ignorance is the product of our decision to worship some thing, to give it our attention, and often that thing is our self.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I wonder if our tendency towards outrage in the face of disorder is also a product of a “constant gnawing sense,” but in this case its the sense of paradise lost. Of a world without disorder. But more on this soon…

I’m interested too, in the idea of being morally culpable for not knowing, or not being outraged — for not paying attention — to something beyond whatever else we do know about or are outraged about. Is it immoral to only care about a dead squirrel when there are lions and babies out there? Is it immoral to care about a lion, if you’re unaware of the babies? If we know about the babies, and know that most people only know about squirrels, is it immoral not to raise people’s attention via our own outrage? Are we culpable for never moving beyond the default settings? For not looking beyond our backyard, and paying attention to those in our neighbourhood, or around the globe? Where do we draw a line?

Karen Swallow Prior wrote this helpful opinion piece, Is Cecil the lion more devastating than the Planned Parenthood videos?, for the Washington Post, asking this sort of question about the relationship between ignorance and culpability. She particularly emphasised wilful ignorance, but what about algorithmic or default ignorance?

On social media, many have connected the two stories through mutual finger-pointing at the perceived lack of outrage for one story or the other. But there is a stronger connection between the two events.

While elective abortion and trophy hunting are different issues surrounded by different ethical and political questions, both news stories offer — regardless of one’s views on either issue — an opportunity to consider the moral responsibility that comes with knowledge — and the moral responsibility that comes with willful ignorance…

…So perhaps the more important question is, when does one become morally culpable for ignorance?

… We readily accept that with knowledge comes responsibility. But both the Planned Parenthood and the lion slaying controversies show that at some point, even our willful ignorance confers the weight of moral responsibility.

How do ignorance, and the alternative, loving attention, work in terms of morality and ethics in a new media world? Do we need to deliberately seek knowledge, seek to pay attention to things, beyond a dead squirrel to be acting with virtue? Our eyes have the capacity to be more globally connected than ever before thanks to the Internet, but our hearts and minds are still as self-interested as ever. Does outrage serve some sort of ethical purpose in that it forces us, and others, to pay attention to things beyond ourselves, or is it simply an expression of selfishness, a knee-jerk defence when something attacks what we hold to be sacred, what we have chosen to worship with our attention?

Outrage seems to be one of the natural responses to paying attention to the disorder in our world. Just what can we give our attention to? Just how much attention do we have to go around?

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Snippet // David Foster Wallace on humans as creatures who worship

This is still, I think, one of the better things David Foster Wallace said or wrote, from the much lauded speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I’m working on trying to write something about how we’ve collapsed what it means to be human into whatever we make it mean for us in our own mind. Maybe one day this thing will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. But this is powerful stuff.