Sunday, 7 February 2016

Grace and its opposite

A few years ago I stopped using the word "deserve". The concept no longer has much value to me. Sure, there are some cases where perhaps an athlete running way out in front of a race is hit by a water bottle thrown by someone in the audience just seconds before the finish line. They stumble and end up coming 5th – we might say quite truly that they deserved to win.

But it wouldn't be so true to say that some kind but very poor person deserved to win the lottery. Or that a school student deserved to get a better grade because they had tried so hard. Or that someone deserved to be raped because they dressed provocatively. Or that someone deserved HIV/AIDS because they were a promiscuous homosexual.

No one deserves AIDS. No one deserves to win the lottery. No one deserves heaven. No one deserves hell.*

This is not the desert I mean!!!
Grace is the opposite of desert.**

Grace does not say "I'll be nice to you even though you don’t deserve it". Grace denies any sense of what someone deserves, and surprises people with blessings anyway.

When we ran The Omega Course, one of the videos we discussed was a snippet from Marcus Borg about the key themes in the Bible.*** He suggested that there are three meta-narratives (he calls them "macro-stories") of salvation:
  • The story of bondage and slavery, the solution to which is liberation. The central example is Israel's exodus from Egypt, but it also includes the slavery many feel through addictions, victimisation, and poverty.
  • The story of exile, the solution to which is a journey of return to home. The Hebrew exile in Babylon is a central prototype, but there is sense of alienation most humans feel and which is reflected in the early Biblical story about being expelled from Eden.
  • The story of sin and impurity, the solution to which is forgiveness and cleansing.
People may feel the weight of each of these to differing extents and at different points in their lives. But in my experience of churches within Australia, the USA and South Africa – even ignoring the preaching of guilt and damnation – the preaching of grace is limited to the third of those story-lines. The remedy of all three aspects of the human condition, however, depend on grace.  Salvation, whether by liberation, a return home, or forgiveness, always springs from grace.

As long as we are stuck in the mire of what people deserve, we cannot fully appreciate the grace of God. The Biblical God seeks to restore all things (Acts 3:21), wishes that all would be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), sends sunshine and rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), and has no favourites (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11). This is a God whose grace extends to all, regardless of any reward or punishment they may seem to deserve. A God who releases the oppressed (Luke 4:18), who creates a home for us (John 14:1-4, Hebrews 11:16), and who forgives even those who would prefer that God was dead (Luke 23:34).

Grace is not a stand-alone concept but exists within an ecology that includes love, mercy and forgiveness. Grace is not blind to evil nor does it condone the harm we do to ourselves, each other and our world, but continually undermines evil by enabling a better alternative. Nevertheless, grace is not irresistible: if people could not refuse grace it would not be grace but another form of oppression. That is part of the reason – though only part of it – why we continue in bondage, exile and sin.

"From [Jesus'] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16). It is this grace that says "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female" (Galatians 3:28). There is no "us and them". There is no deserving nor undeserving. God's grace is extended to all irrespective of any category.

May we show the same grace as God, blind to any labels, blind to any cultural or religious notion of what people deserve.




* This scepticism about what people "deserve" is a third of the reason I no longer believe in the value of retribution, the other two-thirds being that I'm trying to model my life on One who eschewed retribution, and it doesn't achieve the effect people hope for anyway.
** I wish I could make a clever word-play here … something about a meal starting with grace and ending with dessert, but of course "getting just dessert" is something completely different than "getting your just deserts"!
*** The video came from the Living the Questions series, but the same can be found in Borg's The Heart of Christianity, p. 175 in the edition I have.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Joy, according to C. S. Lewis and Miroslav Volf

We don’t use the word "joy" a lot these days. The Google Ngram below shows that the words "joy" and "happiness" occur with about the same frequency, but if you add "happy" and "happiness" together, then they occur about 3 times as often as "joy". They can mean the same thing, but I think of happiness as a passing emotion that depends on external circumstances, whereas joy reflects a deeper sense of contentment, wonder and satisfaction that doesn’t depend on circumstances.



An author who influenced me a lot in younger days was C.S. Lewis, whose auto-biography was called "Surprised by Joy". Late in life he married a woman called Joy Davidman, but that happened after he published the auto-biography, so the book wasn't about being surprised by her. In fact the book is about the intense longing we feel for something supremely good, for a state of all-right-ness that the Hebrews called Shalom. Joy is a longing for the source of that goodness, a longing that can hardly be put into words. It is never found by looking for it, but found by surprise when seeking something else. Joy is like finding out that the thing you most wished were true actually is true.

I heard Prof. Miroslav Volf speak in Sydney last year, a theologian whose core topic for many years has been identifying the good life. People often say they want a good life, but what do they really mean?

He said it is very sad that religion often seems to imply that doing what is good and doing what is fun are mutually exclusive -- that if you do one you can't be doing the other. (It reminded me of what it seems like with food. The really yummy food is often not good for you and the food that's good for you can taste awful.) But Volf says that is a stupid idea. He said that we all wish for both pleasure and meaning and the good life has them both. We want to enjoy what we do. We want to do things that contribute to some greater purpose.

The best line of the lecture … I think I will remember it for a long time … was that joy is the unity of meaning and pleasure.

May we all find that true and deep joy. Don't settle for the fool's gold of surface-level happiness but seek all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable; and in doing so may you often stumble into joy.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

God is not in control

In a recent conversation a friend spoke about the need to trust that God is in control. I've heard it before, and often in the context of a reassurance that even if your situation looks bleak, it is supposed to be comforting to know that God is in control.

I don't believe it.

The God I see described in the Bible gives up control rather than always bringing about what God desires. God suffers as much as we do in the brokenness of life. God allows all sorts of personal calamities, disasters that affect millions of people, and horrendous evils like genocide. It would be blasphemous to say God is in control of such things.

Certainly, God often brings good out of suffering. But that's not always in a way that can be seen and might not be in a person's lifetime. Sometimes I think God may use the suffering of one for the good of others, as happened with Jesus.

To say that God is sovereign, or God is Lord of all, does not have to imply that God always gets what God wants. God probably could have created a universe where God was in control, but chose not to.

For instance,  God "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9 claims pretty much the same thing). That either means that God's will is done and all people are saved (which I do think is a possibility), or some people are not saved and God's will is thwarted.

I also think of Philippians 2:5-8 which points out that Jesus, being equal with God, chose to be a servant, i.e. one with no say in what happens. If we truly believe that Jesus was the exact image of God, then we also believe that *God* chooses to be a servant, forsaking power and giving up control. That's God's character. God doesn't always prevent or clean up the mess. God allows things to unfold in directions that are contrary to what God would wish.

Sometimes God does something surprising and turns situations around in ways we can only marvel at. But I do not expect that God has something good just around the corner for me and that since God is in control it is sure to happen.

So quotes like this ...



... don't inspire or comfort me. I am more comforted by the image of Romans 8:18-39. Creation is broken; it groans in agony (22). We too groan within that brokenness (23). And God is not controlling things remotely but sitting in the dust with us, also groaning (26). It is true that what God does is always directed towards that liberation from the bondage of decay for us and for the whole creation (20, 21, 28), but there is a lot God chooses not to do, and the decay continues. God wants good things and sometimes we can work together with God as part of the process of bring good things to reality, but the control over whether those good things come to pass is a complex interplay of divine and human choices and their consequences.

The good news is not that God promises some escape from the brokenness but that God joins us in the brokenness. Not that God is in control, constraining the outcome, but that God has taken the risky step of forsaking control so that we can be truly free.

This is at the core of the Jesus' message: God stands in solidarity with us in the brokenness.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

The surprise of being known

A recent article by Charles M. Stang (*) notes that "Thomas's acclamation [in John 20:28] is the only place in the New Testament where Jesus is called 'God'."

I think that's pretty remarkable. Elsewhere Jesus is called Son of God, image of God, and other similar epithets, but only here is he plainly "God".

More remarkably, the declaration by Thomas is not an abstract philosophical idea but a personal commitment, for the full exclamation was "My Lord and my God!"

What caused the famous doubter to make such a bold avowal? Stang suggests that it was not because the doubts about whether Jesus was alive were removed when Thomas touched him. In fact Thomas probably did not touch Jesus! Jesus invited him to but the declaration "My Lord and my God!" comes immediately after the invitation, with nothing at all to imply that he touched Jesus first.

It strikes me that the Gospel writer has created a clever parallel between this scene at the end of the Gospel and one at the beginning – with Nathanael back at the end of chapter 1.

Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree when Philip says to him "Come and meet Jesus of Nazareth. We think he might be the promised one." to which Nathanael responds derisively "Not likely if he comes from Nazareth!" But he came to Jesus anyway and Jesus surprises him by already knowing what he was doing under the fig tree. More than that, Jesus affirms Nathanael's guileless heart.

In response to this surprise of being known, Nathanael blurts out “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

The parallels with the Thomas scene are numerous. Thomas is also told about Jesus by other disciples and he responds derisively. But when he meets Jesus, he finds that his thoughts are already known to Jesus. And in the surprise of being known he blurts out "My Lord and my God!" To end both scenes, Jesus is recorded as commenting on the basis for belief.

At the beginning and the end of the Gospel, John records people making life-changing allegiances to Jesus because they are surprised and overjoyed to realise that they are already known by Jesus. The significant thing about this kind of faith is not how it is influenced by what you know or how much you doubt. What is significant is that faith – or faithfulness – is based on a certain kind of relationship. In neither Nathanael's nor Thomas's case does Jesus reprove them for doubt, and I am sure both continued to hold doubts. So it's not that they made some declaration of faith because their doubts went away. Rather, they both made declarations of allegiance because in being known by Jesus they recognised the compassion of God.




* Stang, Charles M. 2016. “Doubt, Our Modern Crown of Thorns.” Studies in Church History 52.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

The wild man at the heart of Roger Waters' "The Wall"

Roger Waters The Wall
During last week a friend and I watched The Wall at the wonderful Avoca Beach Picture Theatre, not quite knowing what we were going to see. Was it going to be a remake of the original movie or a documentary reflecting on the album that was first released 37 years ago? It turns out to be an edited version of Roger Waters' 2010-2013 concert tour, with concert footage interspersed with Waters' pilgrimage to war memorials where his father and grandfather died.

37 years! Makes me feel old, because I remember buying that album at the time. Now, when I listen to a lot of the music I loved back then, it sounds pretentious and musically lame, but The Wall is one of a handful of albums that continue to be inspiring: the music is still catchy and complex, the lyrics profound, and the artistic vision monumental.

Pink Floyd was always known for the extravagance of their light shows, and Waters raises that in this concert to amazing heights. I mean "raises" literally -- the stage crew gradually build a brick wall at the front of the stage during the concert, so that by half-way through the musicians are completely obscured by a 10m wall and continue to perform behind it.

The wall has always been the central metaphor of the whole project, and Waters has worked that metaphor to the limit through multiple re-interpretations over three decades. We build personal walls to protect ourselves, but they end up isolating and imprisoning us. As he emphasised in the Berlin concert in 1990, the wall can also isolate and imprison nations.

I've always been a great fan of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense, Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave, and even pretty impressed with Michael Jackson's posthumous This Is It. But from a creative point of view, The Wall has a scope and attention to detail that surpasses them all. The staggering visual effects complement the storyline of the music and amplify the audacious vision that is both a commentary on war and fear, and a semi-biographical reflection on modern masculinity.

It is that last point that stood out to me as I watched the movie. The lasting value of the whole project is likely to be not the creativity, or the music, or the visual effects but the insightful portrayal of the modern western male psyche. Waters has captured the angst I feel, and I think many of my male peers feel. The ambiguity of whether walls protect or imprison. The shame of expressing emotions. The demoralising outcome of modern education. The distrust of government. The misguided aspiration for rock-star status. The disappointment that life has not delivered what we hoped for. The depressing thought they we are no more than a single brick in a huge impersonal wall.

In another review of this movie, Leslie Felperin accuses Waters of misogyny. I think Felperin is wrong about that, mistaking an honest portrayal of the male experience for a denial of the female experience. The movie is almost devoid of females. All the musicians are male. Waters' travelling companions are male apart from a brief scene with someone I presume is his daughter.

The story in the lyrics reveals a youth who had difficulty separating from a perhaps over-protective mother. The original movie (from memory) had more to say about how that psychological rut was transferred to his wife. That's coupled with an absent father. The commentary in this movie explicitly notes that war caused not only Roger Waters to grow up without a father, but that the same thing was true of his father.

Waters is a man castrated, but consciously on the journey to discover what it means to be a true man.

Along that journey he notes -- and discards -- false ideals of the masculine. Waters' repeated use of faux-Nazi characters and symbols satirically presents the emptiness of the supposedly masculine will to power. Woven throughout the piece is a criticism of the tendency to judge those who are different and the way that is ultimately expressed in the stupidity of waging war against the Other. When it comes to male attitudes to women, he notes the pathetic expression of lust for a "dirty woman", and couples that with a fear of being eaten by a vagina.

One of the best outcomes of feminism is that it has forced men to think about the meaning of masculinity. Waters hasn't resolved that here, but he clearly rejects some possibilities, and I think points towards two more helpful possibilities. In "Nobody Home" he sings "I've got wild staring eyes \ and I've got a strong urge to fly \ but I got nowhere to fly to." What I think Waters is attempting here, or at least pointing towards, is to reclaim the wild man archetype. The problem is, how does one get there from here? We feel trapped behind the wall we have conspired with society to build around our male identity. But let's at least affirm the will to break free.

The second direction Waters points to is the demolition of the wall. Sometimes it can be a conscious deconstruction; other times it is forced upon us as a shameful punishment "to be exposed before your peers." But in the end, as is clear from "Outside the Wall", we need each other.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Optical Illusions and the Deception of Desire

I know those two lines are the
same length but the knowing
makes no dent in the illusion
of their difference.

In the Müller-Lyer illusion two lines of equal length are made to look unequal. One explanation of the trick is that our minds interpret the lines as the corners of buildings: the one on the left as an inside corner and the other as an outside corner. Under that interpretation, the one on the left must be further in the distance to us than the one on the right and our perceptual system adjusts it to appear bigger. I’ve read that when those lines are shown to people from the New Guinean highlands – tribes who have never lived inside rectangular houses – they judge them to be the same length as invariably as we judge them to be different. The illusion is culturally dependant

What interests me most, however, is that, like most visual illusions, knowing the truth makes no difference to our perception. We can move one line onto the top of the other, or measure both with a ruler to prove that they are the same, and yet when we look again at the two, one still looks longer than the other. What’s more, neither a psychologist who understood how the illusion works nor a neuro-surgeon who tracked down the exact set of neurons that make the visual mistake would be immune to the deception. A complete knowledge of the illusion does nothing to dissolve the illusion. The one still looks longer than the other. 

Desire

Desire often acts in the same way. 

Some of our desires spring from natural appetites and needs: a desire for warmth when we are cold, a desire for food when we are hungry. But the objects of our desires are usually selected for external and cultural reasons. We learn what to desire by imitating the desires of other people. We learn what food tastes good from our parents and friends. We learn what hair-style looks good by watching how our peers respond to each other. We learn what car is cool from marketing campaigns. We learn what jobs are valuable by observing how others value them.

As a result some, perhaps most, desires are illusions. There is nothing inherently “better” about most hair styles (despite what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:14!). The car most suited to your needs probably bears little resemblance to the car you are encouraged to buy. The hair and the car are desirable because we see what we might look like if we had that hair or that car through the eyes of imagined others.

We do not always succumb to the illusion. There are conscious and unconscious reasons why we might rebel against our desires, or deny ourselves the pleasure promised by the desire, or for any range of practical reasons not pursue the desire.

And yet, like the Müller-Lyer illusion, the desires themselves are immune to our conscious knowledge. We continue to desire something even when we know that the basis for the desire is flawed.

Let’s follow one example in a little more depth. We are bombarded by images of what a desirable human body looks like. Knowing how the psychological mechanism of desire operates does not change my perception that a particular cultural image of physical beauty would bring more satisfaction in a partner than alternatives. At one level that is ridiculous, for the glamorous ideal of beauty changes with time and culture.

The word “glamorous” originated from a Scottish word meaning a magical enchantment. To say that someone is glamorous is to acknowledge that their appeal is an illusion. There is a glamour over our desires, a veil so powerful that even knowing it is there does not dispel its effect.

At another level the beauty assumption is totally contrary to my experience. Good relationships do not depend on it. Why should they? Neither does good sex depend on it. On the contrary, from my limited experience, the most enjoyable sex does not depend on physical beauty but on mutual enthusiasm. But in this instance, another aspect of desire comes to the fore: from whence comes “mutual enthusiasm” if not from both people desiring each other and desiring each other’s desire?

At some other, less conscious level, however, the illusion remains. I want a girlfriend whom others would affirm as desirable and I perceive this girl or that girl in the light of that desire. I’m attracted to a house in a particular suburb not only because I am consciously aware that it will establish my social status but because I genuinely like the house and the suburb. Liking this girl or that house is totally unaffected by my conscious knowledge of the dynamics of desire.


Necker Cube

Ambiguity

In another class of optical illusions, our perception can jump between competing interpretations of an image. A simple example is the Necker Cube on the left. Which face of the cube is in front and which face is behind? You can flip between the two by focusing on either of the inner corners.

A more dramatic example is the train in this animated image, which can be made to move in either direction merely by imagining it to do so.



Such images are ambiguous and what we see depends on what we choose to see.

A similar ambiguity inhabits desire. I noted above that just as the mis-direction of an optical illusion is impossible to dispel, so too the mis-direction of desire. I think it is also true that just as there may be multiple ambiguous interpretations of an optical illusion, so too we often experience multiple ambiguous desires. Sometimes what we desire depends on what we choose to focus on.

Desires are sometimes layered. I desire that house, perhaps because of a deeper desire to impress my colleagues at work, and that may be just an example of an even deeper desire to belong.

Desires sometimes compete. The way we manage personal finances may arise out of a desire to enjoy material possessions now, a desire to save for a secure future, and a desire to use what we have to bless others: desires that ultimately might be mutually-exclusive.

Desires sometimes remain unconscious. We act in order to attain something, but we are unaware of either what we seek or why we seek it.

Add to the mix a type of self-deception that, relying on the ambiguity of our desires, allows us to believe
one interpretation, or act as though we believe it, only by discounting or even disavowing the others.

As a consequence of those layered, competing and unconscious dynamics of desires, there is rarely a clean correlation between how we act and what we desire. Nevertheless, and this is perhaps the point of what I am writing, whether and how we act on our desires can be subjected to conscious choice.

We may not be immune to the deception of desire, but we can occasionally see through the veil and decide to not be enslaved by the desire. It is possible to undermine our self-deception and to behave beyond the illusion.

Maybe this helps to untangle an apparent contradiction in a saying of Jesus. Two of his biographers record Jesus as saying “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves” (Luke 9:23, Matthew 16:24) and yet they also note that in the next breath Jesus asks “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” Which is it? Are we commanded to deny ourselves, to give up what is most dear to us? Or are we advised that it serves no good whatsoever to give up ourselves?

One suspects that Jesus has seen through the deception of desire. He knows that gaining everything we desire would not bring the wholeness we seek. On the contrary, coerced by our desires, we lose our very selves. But by questioning our desires, perhaps we can dispel the glamour enough to decide beyond desire. Perhaps by understanding the illusion we can regain our true selves.



Monday, 22 September 2014

Everything is holy now

Although life has been hard going the last few years – well actually, because life has been hard going the last few years – I'm no longer so black and white in the way I see many things. I used to think the alternative to black and white was an unattractive gradient of grey. But as my friend Annabella has suggested, there is another outlook: to see the world in full colour! Even hurt and brokenness is richly textured and infused with God.

Peter Mayer's Holy Now (nice live version) captures that transformation well.