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Sunday, December 26, 2010

When words fail

In the all-too-brief visit to my home congregation in Adelaide, fresh from the zeal and excitement of beginning theological study, I receive the sobering news that one of my congregants (with whom I had formed a warm relationship over the past few years) has effectively been handed a death sentence: palliative care. Cancer treatments have failed, and all that is left is the waiting for the inevitable end.

Oh please, can we not do this?
His attendance at last Sunday's service required a Herculean effort, though I did not know it at the time, to honour the relationship we had formed, by attending. I feel unworthy of this, and had I known, I would have begged him to forebear.

Ministers jokingly refer to the "rites of passage" function of our work as the "hatch, match, and dispatch department." It's a blithe way of filing events of emotion and mystery and great significance so we don't have to take our role in them too seriously, and avoid the crushing sense of responsibility that comes when people actually NEED us to AD-MINISTER these passages.

The hatch and the match can be "diarized" around other commitments, and are negotiable and non-urgent.

The dispatch, however, is nobody's poodle. It comes when it will and you need to be ready to drop things and just be there for the people in your charge. And, in cases like this one, where you know and love the departing, you have to wrestle your own grief and sadness and sense of impotence into a firm choke-hold, so that the engagement doesn't become all about you.

People most need religion, it seems, just like they most need poetry-- that is, when the usual order of life drops away, and the abyss is glimpsed.

For all the keyboard-jousting I've been doing, for all the libraries chock-full of theological texts I've been gorging on, for all the jumping-through-verbal-hoops I'm called to acrobat--what USE is any of it, in the face of what Phillip Larkin calls:

... the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

And how does a minister comfort one facing this without the customary blandishments of "God" or "Heaven" or "Eternal life"?

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

So, failing an appeal to child-like faith, can stoicism be any real comfort? Brave words, after all, are just words.

Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

I see now that the month I spent at my dying father's bedside in 2003 changed me utterly and forever, and constituted a second puberty, a rite of passage, for me. For all the false hope and happy talk that went on around him that month, we all knew what was coming. He knew I did not share his bog-Irish Catholic faith, and to his credit he did not ask me to pray with him or for him, though I would have, and without a nano-second's hesitation, if I thought it might comfort him. But he knew me better, and this showed he loved me better than I loved him, and I loved him a lot.

In the end all I could do for him, as he drifted in and out of consciousness, was to be there, quietly witnessing ('with-nessing'), suffering it with him, in what I can only call 'solidarity'. In the end, words failed. Much of his conscious time, we just held each other's hand, and I can feel his calloused palm now in mine as I type this sentence.

If this is what is wanted, I can do this, and an age of theology cannot teach it. Solidarity with suffering has to be learned (what cannot be taught can still be learned) by bitter experience. It took me a month with a dying man I loved to move from false hope ("surely God will save him") to silent witness (Mary and Mary Magdelene weeping at the foot of the cross, powerless). That he was my father intensified the urgency, made me learn it quick.

What were they thinking, back in the day, when 20-something, fresh-faced young virginal males were the preferred ministerial livestock? What in that time could they have suffered? What could they have known about counselling, say, the bereft, or the couple locked for years in bitter marital strife? No wonder churches got a reputation for being staffed by irrelevant, dreamy, bookish bird-brains.

Butter could not melt in that mouth

Every time I complain about how old I'm getting, I need to remember that if this work is worth doing, I actually NEED the aches, pains, losses, scars, and open wounds I carry from a half-century of living on this 'b*tch of an earth' (as Beckett put it).  All the dark stuff we enshadow to make ourselves look so capable and invulnerable--the doubt, fear, and despair we keep constantly at bay--is precisely what gives us solidarity and communion with our fellow beings. It is easier to feel closer to someone like Larkin, who puts all this out there, tells his secret terror of death, than to someone like, say, Donald Trump, who has evidently never had a moment's self-doubt (even about that absurd comb-over of his).

Sir, your mortality is showing...

In fact, now that I think of it, Trump's combed-over quiff is an excellent emblem of the armour of persona, the shiny shop-front we construct to meet the world that doesn't want to hear about our fears and failings and mutability. All such constructed selves are usually absurd, swept as they are over phrenologically lumpy underside writhing with demons of mortality and decay. As more hair falls out and the lumps begin to show, more hair spray, more elaborately concupiscent blow-waves are needed to hide the awful truth--and the construct gets stranger and stranger.

Such a natural look-one of the many faces of denial

In an age of Berlusconi's hair-transplants (which he denies), Clooney's nip'n'tuck (which he admits), and washed-up rock-chicks' collagened lips (looking for all the world like a transplant from Nemo), we have never in human history been in greater denial of aging, and the only end of aging.  There is nothing more mutable than the flesh, but you wouldn't know it. We seem to have lost the knack of aging gracefully, in full realisation and acceptance of the life cycle. Perhaps this is because no-one any longer believes in heaven, and the idea of fitting your INNER life for the next world seems pointless.

You can always tell the age from the hands, they say.

If this is IS all there is, it's hard to argue with that ethic. But notwithstanding all the glossy surfaces, "to this end must we come" as Hamlet said, and the dying man I will sit with today is having to weigh all this--fear, faith, doubt, meaning, purpose--and in that grapple, it's good to have someone in your corner, ready with the water and the towel, a witness without words, to "ad-minister" some comfort.

The "ad" part means "to the other". Let me not forget that today.

Solidarity forever.

Post-script: news today that my friend has passed away, Christmas morning. I had visited him two days earlier, and the fore-going was written around that visit.

In accordance with his wishes, I have been asked to conduct the memorial service. Past suffering now, he goes ahead to discover the great mystery. I will do my best for those of us who remain and will miss him.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some assembly required--notes toward a pre-Christmas address

Congratulations on your purchase of the new Christmas 2010, Millenium edition! Once assembled, it will give you 12 days of shiny, fluffy service, creating rosy nostalgia that will long outlast what you ever intended!

Please ensure that the following parts have been included:

Parts list:

12 months a-paying off credit cards

11 cards from people you’ve never met.

10 metric tonnes of shredded wrapping paper

9 unwrapped bottles of undrinkable wine

8 hours whiled away a-tv watching

7 9-volt batteries needed

6 buttery puddings

5 useless things!

4 maiden wickets

3 invitations declined

2 hours at church

....and Her Majesty’s Christmas address!

Assembly instructions:

Step 1: Fold ‘goodwill toward men’ into 'peace on earth'. Note: this may require the use of force.

Step 2: Insert token incarnation of God into large corporate-profit-driven consumer orgy.

Step 3: Screw financial solvency.

Step 4: Hold ever-dimming fragments of nostalgic Christmas memories in your hands. Do not worry if they dissolve like wet cake in the rain. This is normal.

Step 5: Join these fragments of memory together with lashings of exotic foodstuffs and liberal amounts of drink

Step 6: Place well to the back of your mind the nagging sense that you should be giving all this money to charity and spending time working a soup kitchen

Step 7: Nail Samaritans' number directly above phone.

Step 8: Wipe with clean soft swaddling cloth and lay in manger. (Avoid contact with livestock if planning to travel.)

Please discard packaging responsibly. Or in the Coles parking lot dumpster.

Congratulations! your Christmas 2010 millennium edition is now IN-complete.

(If for any reason you are not completely happy with your purchase, contact one of our service centres for support. Note: due to factors beyond our control, response times may vary up to, well, eternity.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Haggling over the price"

Churchill (drunk) to Socialite: "Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?"

Socialite to Churchill: (thinks a moment) "Why of course, Winston."

Churchill to Socialite: "Madam, would you sleep with me for 10 pounds?"

Socialite (outraged): "Of course not! What do you think I am?"

Churchill: "We've established what you are; now we're simply haggling over the price."

The story may be apocryphal, but it sure sounds like him.

As I write this, Derek Jacobi, one of the greatest classical actors of his generation, is featured in a series of UK TV ads wherein he plays Ebenezer Scrooge in order to shill Sony electronic products for Christmas gifts. This, while he prepares form a national tour of King Lear.

Why oh why did he not choose a dignified retirement?

Also during the silly season, Dame Helen Mirren cheerfully spruiks Wii Fit for Nintendo. Apparently it keeps her the fit GILF she is widely reputed to be. And she never needs to leave the house to do anything so common as join a gym.

What next, the Ab-swing?

John Malkovich features along with Clooney in an ad for Nescafe instant coffee. They both look a litle embarassed.

One imagines their lives are actually a lot like this.

These are a just a few examples. The list goes on.

All actors do ads. But you'd think you'd get to a certain level of success, or wealth, or notoriety, or at least self-respect to be able to turn demeaning dreck like this down.

I have a pretty good idea of what they'd say to this carping--"Oh yeah? Do you have any idea how much they're PAYING me to do this? I'd have to run Lear for ten years before I made this kind of money. You, son, are just jealous no one wants to give YOU a millions quid for an ad. Or for anything. Grow up."

The depressing thing is that there just no longer seems to be an answer to this sort of logic anymore. Ads pay well; money's what it's about. Too much of it is never enough. There's always another chalet, another island, another private jet to buy, or whatever. A buck's a buck.

 I mean, I know if you do a film, you're essentially fattening up the bottom line for some multi-national conglomerate, that's just part of the game. But getting in front of a camera, and charming poor in-debt slobs out there in a major recession to buy more junk they don't need with money they ain't got? And doing it only because it makes you more stratospherically rich than they? Is that what you spent years honing your talent, developing your career, giving up the easy blandishments of a normal life for? Is this finally, what you've come to?

Have you, finally, no sense of shame?

I've been trying to think of great actors that never sold anything, never became a corporate shill, not once, not ever. I'm struggling...Any suggestions?

I've done ads, but had no noteworthy and respected career to foresake or to cheapen by doing so. Yes, they paid insanely well, totally disproportionate to any "acting" involved. I once made 12 grand over two years just for showing up on a given day, eating french fries, and doing one smirk to the camera. I do the smirk at parties now. I call it "my 12 grand look". There were many others, some better paid, and none of them worth the money I was getting. This is where the real dough is in the acting game.

Mamet called acting "A whore's profession", and this sort of thing makes it easy to see why. I used to get the standard question from casting agents: "Is there anything you wouldn't advertise?" 

"I draw the line at land mines," I used to joke.

But I think we both knew that if the check were big enough, that qualm might be sorely tested. Toward the end, I refused anything connected with drink or gambling or the financial sector--in Australia, this represents quite a lot of commerce. And if you're going to have scruples that discount advertising obvious social ills, you might as well quit. Which I did.

I don't claim moral credit for this, and the Catholic in me suspects that the stains on my conscience will not wash off as easily as the make-up did. Once you take money for something you know to be disgraceful, your soul dies a litte bit, and like brain cells, the bit that dies never comes back.

For, once upon a time, and not that long ago, I looked squarely into my soul, and saw that if the money was right, I'd have f***ed Churchill too.

The horror. The horror.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A humanist Advent poem (with commentary)

After Isaiah

How we have hurried toward this time of waiting,
Head-long to this fully fallow stretch of days!
We pick the calendar’s windows’ dating,
Keeping vigil at the stubble-field’s lowering haze.

Gone the days of full-bellied harvest,
Gone as surely as the sun goes west.

How we gorged on the fruit of the vine.
How we wrung the windfall from the tree.
And wolfed the blood-warm lamb, cut fine,
And sopped the juice with loaves we gathered, free.

Now the sun slung low across this field of time
Sheds milky light on furrows, tumbled clods.
Even steeple bells seem muffled when they chime,
Above a land laid waste, abandoned by the ancient gods.

This is “the sign you shall be given”: longing, dearth.
Below the spent, expectant, sulking earth,
The hidden powers shift and knit and surge;
Burgeoning life awaits in womb, as soil and soul converge.


This was the result of a creative writing assignment meant for one of my MA classes. It was intended to be written to be part of an advent liturgy within the context of my denomination. Originally, I thought it might be an invocation, given at the beginning of the service. However, after reflection and discussion, it's probably too rich a pudding to start the meal with. It could probably work as a reading.

It was seeded by a couple of words: "waiting" and "fallow". It was fertilized with a passage from Isaiah 7, something about a 'land laid waste' and 'a sign will be given unto you'. But the sub-soil is all TS Eliot's "The Wasteland" and Keats' "To Autumn". The 'feel of the words in the mouth' owes a lot to Seamus Heaney.

We'd been seeing a lot of countryside lately, fields plowed into furrows or stubbly with chaff. It occurred to me that the bleakest time must be this long after the harvest festivals of September, when the feasts have been eaten and all that's left is what you smoked, salted, dried or pickled. The land won't yield for a long time yet. The "sign" we're given in the run-up to Christmas, then, is the bleakness of mid-winter. The world saying: "expect nothing from me." But there's always something cooking, deep down and unseen...

A few technical points. The second stanza is intentionally short to create the sense of something abruptly stopped. The "Gone" repetition is meant to be the chimes referred to in the third stanza, but I think it might be too far away to have that effect. The religious imagery in the third stanza is intentionally eucharistic: loves, wine, blood of the lamb, and the 'tree of life'.

I wanted more uplift in the last stanza, more a sense of something gathering force, hence the throbbing rhythm. Ah well... I'll leave it for now. But my tutor, Rev. Dr. Andrew Pratt, is interested in working with me to make it a hymn. He's only written about 600 or so.

That, I'd like.
You have to want to see it

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eff-ing the ineffable

"We keep saying God is ineffable--but we keep on eff-ing him!" --Don Cupitt

You've probably heard the old Buddhist story of the Blind Men and the Elephant? If so, skip down a bit.

If not, here's a jokey Victorian poem that puts it neatly (read it aloud, enjoy the bouncey meter):

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
--John Godfrey Saxe ( 1816-1887)

Any resemblance to an actual Elephant is entirely accidental

What's interesting to me in this story is the omniscient point of view of the narrator. He knows there's more to the elephant than those with less sight have seen. He's not blind, and sees the whole of the WHATness of the elephant entire.

Problem is, we're not him and no one else is either. We're all the blind, and there is no omniscient narrator to instruct us on the folly of our ways. It's tempting to say that in matters theological, the blind lead the blind, and that the theological project is to spin ever more elegant and compelling analogues between, say, the SPEARness of the spear and the TREEness of the tree.

The story uses 'seeing' as an analogue for engagement with the true nature of an object, and reminds me of Plato's Myth of the Cave, wherein chained captives mistake shadows of objects for truth of the object itself. From this, Plato gets his notion of "forms" the ideal things which are most true ("horseness" is the form of all horses, etc.).

"No, no, no! Since they all have four legs, they must all have a common nature!"

At the heart of this approach is an assumption about what we mean by truth--that when our descriptions CORRESPOND well to the nature of the thing itself, we have truth. But if we can't ever actually get at "the thing itself'--that which is beyond our experience--how can we measure how well our descriptions match the actual nature of things?

There are approaches to truth other than this correspondence theory. Most of our theological training seems to take the COHERENCE model--that is, how well our descriptions fit other descriptions that have been found reliable in the past. It's easy to see the weakness in this 'house of cards' approach, where each questionable description relies on other questionable descriptions and the whole rickety structure can be brought down if just one part is thrown into doubt.

Oh the humanity!

Neither of these approaches are entirely reliable. "What is truth?" asked jesting Pilate, a question especially difficult when we're trying to "eff" the ineffable. I suppose all theology is predicated on faith, which St. Paul calls "The substance of things hoped for. The evidence for things unseen."

If belief is the only criteria for approaching the ineffable, the trouble is you can believe anything--fairies in the garden, Big Foot, junk bonds. "I believe I'll have another gin-and-tonic" is about the extent to which I'm willing to rely on belief alone. But if not belief, and not correspondence, and not coherence--what, then?

Absolutely general skepticism about the world looks challenging, but it's really not. Unless you're absolutely mad, you don't live as though nothing can be reliably known. We trust, for example, the authority of science, when we could not possibly verify scientific claims with our own senses and intellect. We thus take on faith things like the Big Bang, the speed of light, sub-atomic physics. I'm sure there are a few people that thoroughly 'know' these things which are otherwise ineffable to us, but I don't know any, and so that sort of knowledge remains a sealed, gnostic priesthood of the few.

Why not admit that we take most of what we think we know absolutely on faith? That my wife loves me, that my daughters are really mine, that my house is a sound investment, that certain acts like charity, mercy, pity, temperance, are good in themselves? Maybe I'm utterly wrong about one or more of these. Maybe what I take to be truths as solid as a spear, tree, or a rope is REALLY something utterly other and beyond my ken?

I believe I am eff-ably happy.

We can only do the best we can, blind as we are, seeing 'through a glass, darkly.' Work needs to be done. Children need to be raised. The garden needs tending. Every day you get up, and get on with things, is an act of pure faith.

I can eff that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Mock the Yank: Or, "it's not paranoia when everyone's out to get you"

I recently passed my 25th anniversary as a ex-pat. So that's nearly half my life making a home, a life, careers, and networks in other countries, namely the UK and Australia.

When people learn this, they nearly always express surprise that my accent hasn't changed. My standard response to this is to bore the socks off them by pointing to research in developmental psychology indicating that once you hit a developmental threshold at around the age of 15, you pretty much have to want to change it. Before that age threshold, accent is soaked up by a kind of codependent osmosis of 'fitting in". When my older daughter Kate spent a year in Australia as a 12-year-old, it took only a few months for her to pick up the laconic drawl.

After that threshold, you have to make yourself do it. Think of Mel Gibson's mid-career morph from Mad- Max drawl to flattened Californian in the Lethal Weapon series, the better to advance his career in the USA. If you know any adult who, in adulthood, acquired an accent, there was some reason they wanted to do it, and had to work at it for a while. This requires a sustained act of will.

yankee as apple pie

So in my case, it may just be laziness. In Australia, working as an actor, there was financial encouragement to remain the token Yank, as it pretty much sewed up a niche market I alone could fill. Never mind the talent, feel the authenticity of the vowels. However, if I'm honest, there's more to it than laziness and self-enrichment.

Especially in Australia, since 9/11, I have often longed for my accent to vanish. I became a lightening-rod for local anti-American sentiment. This took many forms, and usually said more about the interlocutor than about geo-politics. A guy mowing my lawn said he  had "a bone to pick with me about that Rupert Murdoch of yours." It was no good telling him that Uncle Rupe was an Adelaide newspaperman. No, no, once you become a US citizen, that's it.

yankee as a meat pie

More often, though, confrontations took the form of "you yanks are all alike", like whatever the negative judgement was. If you demonstrate self-confidence, it's typical American arrogance. If you express enthusiasm about something, it's typical Yankee showmanship. If you vigorously argue a point, you are a fascist. If you succeed at something, the game was rigged. If you fail at something, there is barely concealed glee. You get the idea.

For a while, in the wake of the Bush-era foreign policy insanity, I felt like a spent my life apologizing around the world on behalf of my birth-country, at pains to point out that there were many of us who voted democrat, opposed war, were outraged by the curtailment of civil liberties, appalled by the use of torture--the the things that filled the headlines in those dark days. New people i'd meeet would find out where I was from, and they'd pull an intake of breath, gearing up to recite the litany of our foreign policy offences, and I'd have to beat them to it: "Look, yes, I'm sorry, I know. It's horrendous. It's not me they represent." And so on.

As yankee as a pie full of wet rocks

Now, you'd think that a theological college would provide a safe haven from anti-American prejudice and stereotyping. But you'd be wrong. In the two months I've been here, the "small pond' has only amplified prejudice (as in pre-judging one's character--an American is necessarily like thus and such) and stereotyping ("spoken like a true American"). As if any person is MERELY determined by factors beyond their control--colour, birth-country, gender, etc. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: ministers and aspirants are only human, and prone to the same us-and-them reflexes as everyone else. But it is dis-spiriting nonetheless.

"Anti-americanism is the last acceptable form of prejudice." Discuss.

All of these reminders of my "radical otherness" reinforced my alienation from whatever country I lived in, worked, in, paid taxes in, raised my kids in, had my being in. Had adopted BY CHOICE, not chance.

So why not adopt the local accent and short-circuit the confrontation, stereotyping, blame, and alienation? It's not like I didn't have the voice skills. I could have done it easily.

Thinking about this, I can see three reasons that may account for this apparent masochism. First, hanging onto my accent is just about my only through-line to my past, my only link to my origins. Maybe this is fear, that I'd be so un-moored without it, I'd lose a sense of self. Second, choosing to sustain my 'radical otherness' give me an 'outsider' perspective that I've relied on in my writing, teaching, acting, and preaching. I enables you to offer people new ways of looking at things, and that novelty of perspective is in itself different, interesting, educative, and thus valuable. Third, otherness indulges a personal taste for dialectic, and this is not always helpful (see the post "Leading with my chin" below). You can disrupt comfortable, reflexive views of things and thus create the conditions for conflict. As a life-long, gigantic sissy, I actually hate arguing and just want everyone to get along and play nice.

"A man reaching his fiftieth year is more certain than he was at forty that he now possesses more past than future." (--James Lander, Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science, and Religion)

Given this hard truth, how do I want to live the remaining years? Go back the the US and finally, finally just "blend in" again? Is that even possible, given an adult life spent doing the opposite? Can you ever really go home again?

Three passports=belonging nowhere?

Or continue to plow this rocky furrow--a man without a country, a stranger in a strange land, offering to the locals the strange and exotic fruit of that labour?

Stay tuned, friends.....

As Yankee as a...umm...doodle?

Friday, November 5, 2010

On why I appear to be a feminist theologian

Of all the theology I've read in the past two months, and that's rather a lot, no theories or "schools" have struck such a major-key chord with me as has the feminist theology of Mary Grey. (Let me assure you if you're outside such discourse, that her work has nothing to do with deciding which gender God is.)

Funny how people you've never met can 'speak' to you.

Maybe it shouldn't be so surprising. After all, I'm married to an academic with some considerable professional form as a feminist, am the father of two daughters (for one of whom I was a single-parent dad for many years--see the August post "So much depends on a crappy old bike"), and have been fortunate enough to number many strong, independent women among my close friends for most of my life. In touch with my feminine side? I'd have to say, more or less, yes I am.

So the soil was fertile to begin with. But as you, dear reader, will know, much of my reflexive response to Christo-centric theology has been characterized by resistance, rebellion, and subversion. To a mind trained philosophically, many theological arguments offer a "target-rich environment" of false dichotomies, questionable premises, and subtle evasions. But a purely rational approach, as I am becoming aware, is essentially an arid pursuit. No theology of, say, suffering, is ever going to wholly satisfy, unless you accept the premise of a detached God's essential goodness. To me, that's far from demonstrable, so maybe we need to look at divinity from a more remote perspective, one that compasses creation and destruction a la the Hindu gods, and the ultimate purpose of our suffering so far beyond human understanding as to render it a "mystery", which is in any case, where we start from. "Take it on faith," we are told.

In my own feeble and un-informed attempts to deal with the problem of suffering (in addresses to my congregation in Australia), using only the human tools of philosophy, grass-roots experience, and reflection, it seems that I unwittingly struck on themes which Grey takes up in the work I've been reading. In my address, "Eating Dirt", I reflected on why a God worth worshipping would visit such suffering on the innocent, in particular on the people of Haiti through the recent earthquake, people who were already reduced to eating "mud cookies" to stay alive.

In a cruel irony, the collapsed buildings, lacking any costly structural reinforcement, were shaken into their constituent dirt, and buried the occupants in that dirt, filling their mouths (and ears, and noses, and eyes) yet again. It seemed to me that, while the earthquake itself was an 'act of God' (or nature if you prefer), the deaths were largely an act (or lack of action) of man. These deaths were evidence not of a cruel or indifferent God, but of the broken and distorted relationships between people and nations that so reduce fellow humans to such grinding penury. Global corporate capitalism, colonialism, exploitative and abusive patriarchal 'governments', and international indifference to severe, endemic poverty right on the doorstep of the most affluent cultures in the world.

One of the key elements in Grey's theology is "right relationship'; that is, the task of realising God's work as truly our own in creating full, nourishing relationships--inter-personal, social, ecclesial, and political. Certainly how Haiti got to be more vulnerable to an earthquake than a country with decent infrastructure has a lot to do with its colonial history, corporate exploitation of its resources, and the indifference of its neighbors. In Grey's terms, these are all conditions that grow from traditional patriarchal relationship--dominance, exploitation, treating 'equal' human beings as a means to an end. Right relation, nurturing the full worth of every person, is reflected in traditional maternal values and the essence of Jesus' life and teaching. Right relation, an immaterial energy rather than a concrete entity, may then be understood as the very presence of God. We come to know God in relations of self-transcending love. The kingdom of God is not so much in each of us, as kind of between us, in the shared dimension of mutually nurtuing relationship.

The vulnerability that necessarily happens when risking relationship is he subject for another entry, but is no less fascinating and urgently real.

I can think of at least two other addresses where I explore the same theme of suffering in different contexts. But moreover, it has been those times in my life where I have been most sure of the divine presence, have been in moments of self-transcending love in all its forms--eros, philos, you name it. "The awful daring of an moment's surrender that an age of prudence can never retract" as Eliot said.

But it's more than discovering that I've unknowingly endorsed such theological views--"ah! I see her theology is meaningful because it perfectly accords with my own." It's that it also has wonderful internal coherence, which defuses and resolves troublesome and conflicting dichotomies of spirit/matter dualism. (This is perhaps a subject for another blog entry, and more technical, but take it from me!)

So internal coherence that resolves many of the logic problems of other theologies, plus an accordance with my own lived experience, equals a compelling theology (for me at least), and it gives me joy to be able to say that. As to whether is corresponds to the way the universe is actually set up, who can say? But for once, I don't care if I can say or not. The proof comes in the living of it.

FLASH: Even as I write this in my miserable room in a cold, wet, alien Manchester, the fireworks from Bonfire Night are bursting outside, in full view of my window over my laptop, filling the room with extravagant light in an insanely joyous display that mirrors how I feel having written this, having finally found something to say YES to rather than "no". (The video gets good around 25 seconds in. The timing of this moment is proof of something, but I'm not sure what.)

Right relation? Love? An end to the aridity of pure Reason? Feminist theology?

Yes, I said Yes I will YES!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Leading with my chin

Regular readers of this blog (or probably only obsessed ones) will note that I have modified the language of my last two posts somewhat. I removed personal references, removed language that was, shall we say, rather tart, and generally "took it down a notch" in tone. By the age of 53, I should probably have the maturity, or at least the grace, not to have to be schooled toward this, but I was, by a helpful, kind, and well-intentioned colleague. And of course they were right to do so.

I have been noticing lately that in matters theological, I tend to "lead with my chin".

This of course, refers to something you should NOT do in boxing, for if you do, you tend to get hit. This is true not just of my blogs but of my engagement in class discussion as well. Basically, I am the lone Unitarian in a room full of Trinitarians, and as I've said before in this blog, the Biblio-centric/Christo-centric focus I find challenging.

And this challenge takes two forms. First, I find it challenging not to want to defend my corner, and so I set about challenging the (to me) unexamined assumptions of religion based on faith untempered by rational questioning. Like most Unitarians, I find the doctrine of the trinity absurd and un-necessary, and unexamined ideas about God, unworthy. It's the teacher in me. So, I have a tendency to pull out a samurai sword and slice-and-dice in the name of clarity and orderly thinking.

Second, and more importantly, I feel challenged because I haven't made my mind up about God, and I'm not sure I want to. Like many of my Trinitarian colleagues, I have a SENSE of a loving, awesome intelligence subtly pervading all of creation, unknowable but there and capable of surprising you. But I also know that that sense could just be me, imagining or projecting this. I seem cursed (or blest?) with the ability and desire to hold both of these completely contradictory notions at the same time, forever in tension. It's like holding two magnets of opposite polarities together. They slip and slide and will not stick together, and never will.

And this tension produces a lot of heat. I get equally infuriated by the credulous theist, and by the smug, reflexive atheist. So, to extend the pugilist metaphor, I am in a fight on two fronts, and we all know how well that usually works out. Ask Hitler or Napoleon.

It's wearing, but that's no reason to quit. Both are right. Both are wrong. This is what I truly feel. And the questions are too important to just forget it and join one side or the other for the sake of ease or fellowship.

However, this doesn't mean I have to 'lead with my chin', picking fights with everybody. After all, what's the worst that could happen if I just shut up? What am I, some sort of caped crusader? Isn't it more important for everybody to just get along? Isn't peace more important than truth (or at least, avoiding error)?

So my mission now is to see if I can not let the heat drive me from the kitchen. I mean, this theological study is a fascinating ride, in the company of good, committed, curious people. Because in the end, this heat-creating tension of opposites is MY problem, not theirs. It's not that I mind taking hits. I'm a big boy, and I can take it. But by doing so, I make them the aggressor, and nothing could be further from the truth or more unjust.

So maybe I'll just sit with it for a while. And listen. And keep my chin tucked....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The (Holy) Ghost in the Machine

An interesting discussion last night about the future of the function and models of ministry in a social context that is rapidly and fundamentally changing from the kind of culture that supported community-based churches in the past.

Our new director of ministry, Rev. Linda Phillips, encouragingly addressed how we need to think of new ministerial models to do more with less, including the use of the technology of social networking, to build community. 45% of UK internet traffic, she noted, is entirely Facebook. It was good to hear someone in religious leadership for once actually embracing the new technologies as a possible tool for ministry. I mean, it already is in many denominations, but rather less so in ours, and our church membership numbers are plummeting here in the UK. No one denies this sad fact. A connection, perhaps?

I shouldn't have been as shocked as I was, though, that this unsentimental engagement with the reality of social change was met with loud rejoinder by one of our colleagues, rejecting this notion, in favour of 'ye good olde' model of getting people physically present together, which of course is working so well for us and for lots of other traditional community structures. Predictably, this passionate appeal was met with applause. But I fear a return to the past is not possible.

Did you know, for example, that bowling leagues in the USA, once a community staple, have utterly collapsed in the last few years? A recent study by Robert Putnam, called "Bowling Alone", sees this as an indication of the sort of radical social changes described in Rev. Phillips' talk.

Can technology like Facebook ever hope to effectively redress a loss of physically co-present social networks? The answer is nuanced, complex, and full of paradoxes, effectively and simply articulated in this under-graduate short film by students at Middlebury college.

For a denomination like ours, "Both...and" needs to supplant "either...or". Drawing battle-lines between technology and church is utterly counter-productive. Technology and physical co-presence are not mutually exclusive. This is effectively demonstrated in this film of students and seniors (who used to belong to 'real' bowling leagues) meeting together to use a Wii bowling set-up. This meeting is both technologically mediated AND physically co-present, and would not have been possible in a REAL bowling alley, given the seniors' physical frailty. It's a lovely interaction where everyone wins:

The notion of "social capital", raised in the first film, can come, it seems, in all shapes and sizes, technologically mediated and physically co-present. Last night's anti-technology spokesman quipped "You can't hold hands with a hologram", and that is true. But if the alternative is no hand at all, I know what I'd want for my aged parent. As an ex-pat for 25 years, virtual community with family, friends, and yes, even lovers, has sustained me in ways that would not otherwise have been possible within the constraints imposed by distance. So bless it, I say.

Contextual theology asks "where is God in all this messy contemporary context?" And I'm sure I can't offer a definitive answer. But to suggest that any "Ground of all being" cannot operate in virtual contexts is to impose limits on God, and to suggest that revelation of God is sealed in the past. And what sort of God would that be?

Answers on a postcard (or email), please....

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"A sharpened pencil to the heart"

It was one of those strangely vivid and memorable dreams you get that feel like prophecy.

It followed an otherwise pleasant evening attending an ceremony of induction into ministry for one of my colleagues. This took place in a room full of people who now, and rather suddenly, comprise "my people"-- a self-selected tribe of Manchester area Unitarians. I felt at once warmly included, and strangely detached. I mean, I've only been her 6 weeks or so.

But this strange dream, last night! In the dream, I had found the perfect community of fellow travellers, people who thought and felt and behaved exactly as one would wish for oneself to be included in. I had examined their articles of faith carefully, and found myself in utter agreement with them, as though I had written them myself, had I only been wiser and more articulate. I felt nothing but loving fellowship with them, and was ready to commit unreservedly to community and service with them.

Then came the rub. To join, and to be accepted fully, I had to take a leap of faith, a kind of fire walk. Namely: I could only sign up with a frighteningly sharp pencil I had stabbed myself in the heart with.

They had all done this, they assured me. It was true test of faith, to be done in their presence, and there was no other way to be included in a community that would accept me exactly as I was and yet think the best of me. They showed me the marks where they had stabbed themselves, and then handed me a freshly-sharpened, red, and (most strangely) dripping-wet pencil. They smiled encouragingly.

Then I awoke, clutching my heart.

What can this mean, other than that there is some sort of  threshold of commitment I am not yet willing to pass through? What threshold is that?

I remember being somewhat taken aback last night by the fact that several of my ministerial colleagues attended the event wearing what was for all the world Catholic priest garb: black suits, black shirts with dog-collars. I understood it to be a dress code for the official nature of the occasion, a ceremonial attire. Still, I have come a long way from my Catholic roots and had a bit of an anti-Catholic reflex at the idea that one might take me for a priest if I were to walk abroad dressed like that. While I have no intention of doing likewise in my Unitarian ministry (a denomination whose progressivism has for me been a mark of looking forward to a better future as a truly ecumenical religion), we are a broad church and I must respect my colleagues choice to represent themselves in this manner.
But I think it goes deeper than a mere reflex against what I felt I'd left behind. What the challenge of the stab to the heart with the pencil feels more like is an invitation to bring forth into my ministry my very heart's blood. To pierce the armour and let my whole thick, smoking hot, messy insides out. To kill the invulnerability I have become accustomed to, and to become totally opened for all to see. Only then can I know true community. The price is no less than having no where else to go and having nothing to hide.

I've been reading lately about theologies of subjectivity, transcendent experience, and "theology by heart". to quote and paraphrase the theologian Bernard Lonergan:

"Genuine objectivity is the fruit of genuine subjectivity". That is, knowledge of what's really real can only be achieved by achieving authentic subjectivity. It is in attending to one's transcendental subjectivity, therefore, as it reaches out naturally toward truth, that one finds oneself doing authentic theology.

So maybe, just maybe, the detachment I continue to feel is not simply newness. In a way I've been the new boy all my life, new careers, new countries, new partners, new friends. No, the detachment I am aware of is a direct result of the fear of discovery, that if I "pierce myself and bleed", I will surely die, even though the kindly fellow travellers in my dream assure me I won't, and I believe they mean it and are right.

And it's a pencil because I'm meant to disclose (apt word choice) myself through what I write. It's a writing tool, of course, but more. In terms of the dream, the pencil is a weapon of destruction, and a valve to release liquid life, and a spade for mining the truth, and a key for a locked heart, all at once.

It is a rich symbol, and you don't have to pay a Jungian therapist to recognise that. I'm supposed to write it all out, spill it out, spare nothing, and then, in my vulnerability (and only in this) I will be absorbed into true community.

May it be so. I think I just took a 'stab' at it here.


Friday, October 22, 2010

The Mancunian Way

Is it possible to fall in love with a city?

That's the only way to describe my unfolding affection for the City of Manchester. It reminds me of Carl Sandburg's description of his hometown, turn of the century Chicago--"stormy, husky, brawling, city of the big shoulders."

The southern corridor I live is is home to some 70,000 students, all swarming to Manchester U and MMU daily, as if there was some giant sporting event every single day. As a result, Wilmslow/Oxford road is the busiest bus corridor in Europe. It's not uncommon to see 8-10 buses in a row at a stop, engorging or disgorging fresh-faced hipster cargo and their bags and packs and shopping. The result is a perpetual buzz during term-time on the streets and in the many excellent pubs, as well as a thriving cultural industry--music, theatre, comedy, public lectures, and on and on.

On top of that, it is a city that embraces vastly divergent cultural groups from all over the world. I live just off the famed "Curry Mile". Strolling through this precinct is like a trip to Lahore. Gaudily neoned, smelling of tandoori spices and sheesha curling from hooka-cafes, shop-windows gleaming with be-jewelled saris and gold jewelry--the subcontinental assault on the sense is almost overwhelming. there are also thriving African and Asian communities...and all of it doesn't just work, it positively thrives on the heady cocktail of sheer human cultural richness.

Historically, it is the birthplace of industrial capitalism AND its dialectic siamese-twin, communism. Engels' ran one of his father's mills here--one of the many during the 19th century when 60% of all the world's cotton came here to be processed (see my previous blog "Looking for manchester in Manchester" below), and invited his friend Karl Marx along to study the conditions of the English working classes. Result? Well, the only comprehensive challenge to treating people as units of labour, Kapital. In the wake of the GFC and the up-coming British public sector cuts, a vigorous challenge to de-humanizing effects of global industrial capitalism seems blindingly urgent again.

Recent events by the current cabinet ministers, 18 of the 23 of whom come from careers in the financial sector, call for a careful re-reading of ideas which began in Manchester

Chetham library, where Marx worked on this tome, is but a stone's throw from Cross Street Chapel, where at the same time, Unitarian minister William Gaskell and his novelist wife Elisabeth were under-taking a brave and necessary program of social action in educating the children of the urban poor. Elisabeth's novels remain one of the most moving and searing indictments of the conditions of mill-workers' families and the inequities of the system that created so much human misery. Her 200th birthday was recently marked by a series of public lectures and media attention.

Not your ordinary minister's wife.

And a stone's throw from that is Manchester cathedral, where last night novelist and Mancunian native Jeanette Winterson, all 5 foot nothing of her, stood tall in a church whose denomination is riven by internal squabbles over gays and women in the church, and raised the self-same moral questions this city threw into sharp relief 150 years ago, decrying the church's lack of challenge to the twin juggernauts of the war on terror and using the GFC and the financial-sector bailout to disenfranchise society's poorest and least powerful in the recent ideologically-driven budget cuts.

Gave one of the best sermons I ever heard and reminded me why I'm doing what I'm doing

It' not just me that thinks the city is MORE ALIVE than others. Manchester is the only non-Chinese city to be allowed to hold the annual Dragon festival, the most sacred of all Chinese cultural festivals. Why? It has been judged to be the only Western city with a strong enough CHI (life force) to handle it. Impressive, no?

Dirty? Yes, but no longer due to the mills, which have been converted into shops and offices and living spaces. Crowded? Yes, filled to the brim with students, immigrants, shoppers, and tourists. Cold and wet? Yes, it's Northwest England, dummy.

But I love this feisty, blowsy, loud-mouthed, down-at-heel old tart more than I can say. It's the Mancunian way.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A plea to those who follow this blog

I'm aware from emails, tweets and FB updates that many of you follow this blog more-or-less regularly. If you do, please (if you've not already done so) take 2 minutes and become a "follower"--yes, I hate the sound of that, too., but it could really help me out.

If you don't want your identity known, create an alias. No problem; others have done this. It also gives me hours of fun trying to figure out who's who.

Why the plea? Well, I may monetize the site by running inoffensive side-bar ads for cool stuff. How many followers I have impacts directly on how much the advertisers are willing to pay. More followers, more pennies per click. (In fact, if you're already following, create more aliases--the advertisers won't know the difference!)

This will in no way make me rich, but will provide a trickle of income while I'm beavering away as a student, living on ten pounds a day.

So puh-lease click the "follow" link at the bottom. It costs you nothing, and helps support this struggling, mature-aged student.

Thanks, grazie, danke, merci, gracias, 'ta' and cheers!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rant in B minor

Liberal theological views (which take account of the context of contemporary life and knowledge, and which approach faith in unseen things from a questioning point of view) appear to have absolute limits at my college. For a Unitarian, this is disappointing.

All my classes are utterly Bibliocentric, focussing and founding themselves on ONE cultural expression of humanity's grapple with the meaning of existence--that happy-hunting ground for scholars, the Bible. Apparently, this magic book is supracontextual, was not written by particular people in a particular time and place, for particular needs and out of a particular understanding of the world. Or if it is admitted that it DOES have a specific context, that context is somehow SPECIAL because these people wrote this amazing stuff then.

And that's just the stuff we KNOW of...

Many admirable, robust, and highly intelligent scholars here can unpack it endlessly, using historical analysis, textual/literary analysis, postmodern analysis, anthropological analysis, and so on ad infinitum, but never ask themselves why all this energy, unabated over millenia, should be directed at this single source. Or that a more fertile avenue might be to stand back from this single source (complex and rich though it is, but so is Shakespeare), and see it in relation to the vast and ever-unfolding web of sources from other cultures and contexts, from the sciences, from literature and art, etc., the better to see the Bible in something like a fuller perspective on the human engagement with the fundamental mystery of our existence.

Today for example, I spent most of the working day in the library, poring over two exhaustive critical analyses, one on the Book of Esther and one on Paul's letter to the Galatians. The scholars who write these are amazing minds at work--in both the detail of their historical and textual knowledge of the books and in their acute application of a range of sophisticated modern and post-modern theory.

And I caught myself thinking: "If these gargantuan and laser-like minds had been trained on something actually USEFUL TO ACTUAL HUMAN LIFE, the world could not help but be a better place".

Minds like these could easily be evolving new economic policies to undo the brutality and banality of globalised corporate capitalism, which has reduced the majority of humanity to soul-crushing, debt-laden serfdom. They could have perfected photovoltaic cell technology and given us free energy forever. Maybe they could even have evolved new ideas about the nature of reality and our place in it, because really, look around and tell me--is THIS the best we can do?

Each one of them with hopes and dreams and an endless inner life just like you
 But no, a better use of this mental energy is clearly to atomize, re-frame, and construct new shades of meaning from a story thrust by circumstance into history's limelight.

I mean--someone please tell me--what is the point? The feminist/historical/structuralist analysis of the Book of Esther, revealing that the tale of the Jewish wife of Xerxes subverting male power is actually an analogue for the way God works in the world through the chosen people of Israel, prefiguring the revolution of vulnerability in the person of Christ. For Pete's sake, this is a fairy tale from preliterate middle eastern hill folk who thought the world was flat and the sun circled the earth! And the promulgation throughout 3000 years that the state of Israel is somehow SPECIAL is responsible for, oh, about 75% of the political instability, terrorism and genocide of the past 60 years or so. Get over it already.

And do NOT get me started on Paul's letters! Every time I try to digest one of these, I realize that if I met this bore today I would cross a busy motorway to avoid this pewling, kvetching, bullying, egomaniac. Forever bitching at all the early churches like a stage parent to their confused tutued 5-year-old: "You're doing it wrong! Do it like I TOLD ya!"

Higher! Higher! God's watching!!

It's so clear to me that he's one of history's first marketing/PR experts. He's found a nice little wheeze--a huge untapped market of the miserably oppressed and this new drug he's hot for them to use, like crack cocaine. Enslaved? Forlorn? Impotent? Existentially lost? Teeth falling out? Short life expectancy? Here, take this. You'll forget all about the pain of living in a world you didn't make or ask to be born into, but there's a slight catch. You're going to need to keep seeing me, or one of my confederates, regularly for the really GOOD stuff. Accept no substitutes.

PUT THIS BOOK DOWN AND STEP AWAY FROM IT! Put it on the shelf with the other stuff no-one of consequence actually reads and leave it alone! Try a but of Proust or something, ANYTHING else for a while.Your OBSESSION with it (for that is what it is) is...just...DISPROPORTIONATE!

The worst part is the thought that one of my tutors or colleagues or fellow theology students will read this, shake their head, pity me, and pray that the Holy Spirit will enter my heart and open my eyes to my own folly.

"That's right, Rob. This is how God works in the world through you. You just don't see it yet. Struggling with these thoughts and feelings IS how God engages us. He lives IN YOU, right now. He is the struggle."

(Cue beatific, knowing smile.)


Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Candle for 'Crackers'

If you need proof of the provisional, precarious nature of our lives, look no further. Quite out of the blue, the wonderful, talented, energizing and energetic Australian actress Michaela Cantwell, whom I have had the good fortune to work with and to know, was struck down this week when a hidden, totally unexpected condition hit her like a bolt from beyond. Without going into details, it is severe, massively debilitating, and multi-layered. It will be a long road to who knows what degree of recovery.

A fundraiser is being held by the excellent folk at State Theatre and Brink Productions to pay her bills while she is recovering. Close friends have rallied in support. 'Crackers', as she is known, knows what has happened and knows what is going on around her, and what lies before her.

One tries to think of things to say by way of encouragement, consolation, solidarity, but the event has been so vicious and unjust that Hallmark card-type expressions feel like ashes in the mouth. To make matters worse, I've been reading a lot of "liberation" theology from people in South America and Africa and Asia, whose people have suffered horror and injustice in their millions. Without fail, every one of these attempts to find scriptural texts to make sense of people's suffering. And without fail, they fail, for me, to do so. Try the Book of Job--we're puny, deal with it. Or Isaiah's story of the suffering servant--suffering is your solidarity with God through Christ. I cannot imagine trying to comfort anyone in your situation with that.

Shit happens to us and we can't really know if it means anything beyond itself. But the Greek tragedians knew a thing or two about what suffering can become. As an actress, she'd know this in her bones, so I wrote her this:

Dear Michaela,

You probably already knew that I’m in the UK studying for ministry, so I’ll say right off that I’m not writing to you to get all “churchy” on you in your current troubles. This is just an expression of warm wishes from one friendly colleague and acquaintance to another. I can’t pretend we’ve been terribly close, but I can honestly say whenever I worked with you, chatted with you, or shared a smile and a wave across a crowded opening night party, my heart never failed to be lifted by your infectious happiness, your boundless energy, your sheer joie de vivre. Nor can I pretend that I have any idea what you’re going through, but that its suddenness, severity, and utter cosmic injustice shocked me deeply, happening to one so very much alive as you.

That Michaela, untouched by such suffering, we probably both realise, is gone forever. And that a new Michaela is being born, as in all gestations—slowly, painfully, mysteriously. It’s easy for the un-afflicted to say to someone in your condition that your brokenness is a gift in disguise. The stuff about crisis and opportunity being two sides of a coin, or that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, that we are all broken, but we, like bones, we get stronger is the broken places. It’s easy to say those things because the un-afflicted are not right inside the pain and shock and despair of it.

You’ve also probably found out by now that many who come to comfort you are seeking something for themselves. But you will also have discerned, or had confirmed, just who your true friends are, and though they are fewer by comparison, they are a real source of hope and love. Both these types always emerge in these circumstances, and that knowledge of just who is which is a real blessing. As is the unconditional love of true friends. These few will know you are entitled to your outrage. They will know, without being told, that your are entitled to your fear, and all the negative stuff going on inside which I don’t presume to imagine. The loving kindness of friends is, I think, all the real divinity we get to experience is this life.

The new Michaela being forged out of parts of the old one, with the tools of character you already have, with the love of friends, will be crucially different in that she will have been tempered by great suffering. For better or worse? That’s really up to you now.

Theatre has always been better at interpreting how suffering changes people. Particularly, the Greek tragedians well understood its necessity, its uses, and its precise trajectory—it generally leads to wisdom. They do not simply curse the darkness, or pretend that the awful isn’t awful. They light a candle, and this is yours, from Aeschylus:

“No one knows suffering better than you-
And in our sleep,
Pain which cannot forget,
Falls drop by drop
Upon the heart until,

In our own despair,
Against our will,
Comes wisdom,
Through the awful grace of God.”

From here on, Michaela, though never absolutely whole again, you get to know about that sort of healing. Only those who’ve been cracked can let in the light.

Rest and be healing. And if by chance I ever get to meet the new Michaela, on that day I will rejoice.

 With every good wish and a blessing,

Rob MacPherson

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Call me "Mister Difficult"

As part of a course for ministerial training called "Learning Theologically Together", I was directed to investigate my personal preferred "learning style"  by answering a battery of questionnaires by different learning theorists. The results were surprising.

This is not going to end well...
 According to the Honey and Mumford questionnaire, which categorizes learners as either Activist, Reflective, Theorist, or Pragmatist, I have no strong preferences for any learning style, with only a slight, borderline preference for Activism, so slight as to hardly matter.

The NC State University learning style assessment, on the other hand, rates learners along four axes--Active/Reflective, Sensory/Intuitive, Visual/Verbal, and Sequential/Global. This contradicts any hope that I'm actually an Activist learner, as I'm right in the middle between active and reflective on this scale. Likewise, I'm right in the middle of Visual/Verbal and of Sequential/Global.

There is one sharp spike, however: I'm right at the end of the Sensory/Intuitive, suggesting a very high preference for Intuition. Yes, intuition.

What can all this mean? Am I a perfectly balanced learner with the added bonus of the magical powers of intuition? Am I hopelessly self-contradictory? An utter people-pleaser who never expresses a preference? Or am I just lousy at answering such questionnaires with any degree of personal insight?

One thing I think Learning Style analysis does suggest is that human beings can be complex. And that there may be dangers at relying to heavily on such invented categories. First, knowing what your learning style is may lead to a kind of deterministic view that says, in essence, "I can only learn in this way, so if I don't learn it's because the course was not geared to my style." Thus, the individual learners agency to learn new ways to learn can be subtly undermined.

Yes, Virginia, there is a sanity clause...

Second, we may forget that fine, comprehensive, engaged learning was going on long before theorists undertook systematic studies of how people learn. Shakespeare, for example, never got past grammar school, but learned a thing or two about writing poems and plays that have had academics busy for centuries. How did he manage? Was he Activist? Global? Reflective? On thing was for sure--he was highly motivated by fame and money. And probably women.

Which leads me to conclude that your learning style, while interesting and useful to a point, may not matter at all, as long as you want to learn badly enough. If that desire is keen enough, people always find a way to learn.

I'm reminded of a key scene in the excellent TV series The Wire, shot in and about my hometown of Baltimore. A young African-American boy asks for help from an older brother with his math homework. Both of them are in the drug trade. The older brother points out that's it's a simple addition problem that's the same as keeping "the count"--the number of vials of crack, and the total of money they hold. These numbers, obviously, have to equal out. He asks his younger brother why is it he can't do a math problem, but he can keep the count right.

The younger brother says, "You get the count wrong, they f*** you up." Meaning, he gets beaten up by the drug bosses.

Do you feel motivated, punk?

Now, I'm not suggesting that corporal punishment be used to motivate people to learn. Merely that if a learner finds the motivation, the learning will follow. For theology students, motivation should not be hard to find.

Bottom line: you gotta want it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Govinda and the Heartbreak of the Bentley

One of the singular joys of living in greater metro Adelaide is its multicultural mix. There are something like 143 discrete ethnic groups speaking something like 152 different languages and dialects. In the course of my week, I happen to meet a lot of people newly immigrated from the Indian subcontinent. This is because I no longer own or use a car of my very own.

My wife Susan and I share one, and as she has the longer commute, she generally drives. I like to walk, bike, and take the bus. Occasionally, when pressed by weather or time, I take a cab. The cab industry in Adelaide is staffed almost exclusively by young men from that region, all of them here to work and study in an environment that one must assume is preferable to where they came from. They are quiet, courteous almost to the point of courtliness, efficient and pleasant in their provision of rides for people fortunate enough to be able to grab a cab once in a while.

Often we get to talking. Since I've been teaching tertiary, I ask them about what they're studying and where, and what they hope to achieve. We generally need to get past some slight disbelief on their part that I'm actually interested.

Govinda was a very quiet cabby, but then it may have been one of those days when I didn't feel much like talking. At one point, he shifted his mobile phone from his pocket to the hands-free caddy on the dash. His mobile phone screen-saver/wallpaper thingy was this:

If you've googled your way to this page searching for this shiny logo, you are a jerk, and part of the problem.
It is of course the Bentley logo, sign of the world's priciest hand-built car, and symbol not just of wealth but of aristocracy itself. A Bentley is beyond the avaricious dreams of even the most comfortably-off.

I remember feeling something like a sharp, tender shock that this was his self-selected emblem, his talisman. Not his home, not family, friends, wife, kids, himself even--this brand was his aim. Govinda, remember, is an immigrant cab-driver in Adelaide. It's good to aim for high goals, of course, but the odds that Govinda might ever achieve a Bentley (or anything remotely like it) in this social milieu, are nothing less than astronomical.

Living the branded life is not a new phenomenon. Identifying ourselves with where we shop, what we consume, is one of the well-documented ways in what hegemonic corporate power colonises our minds and identities through the production of ideal stories (ideologies) about what is normal, natural, and right. For example, I am "brand loyal" to LL Bean, a US sportswear and outdoor gear retailer. It's based in Maine and its whole ethos screams white-bread, Normal Rockwell, "Our Town", conservative Northeastern republican elites. Doctors, lawyers, accountants who salmon fish or duck hunt, have cabins on lakes in Maine, who invest wisely.
This is a powerful Yankee mythology.
Most of the clothing and gear now, be it duck-shooting gumboots or fly rods, button-down Oxford cloth shirts or good, honest chinos, are made in "developing countries" whose labour laws and salary expectations are, shall we say, not quite what we would be willing to work for . Which is precisely what makes this "lifestyle" affordable to a mug like me, who was (and always will be, I guess) a working-class Catholic boy from Baltimore city. The stuff is as cheap as K-mart, but you can still feel that lifetime guarantee quality.) Having LL Bean gear allows me the cache of Harvard or Yale, without the trouble and expense of having gone there.

There's no such thing as a Malaysian-built Bentley, however. The walls to owning a Bentley are high precisely to keep the majority out. It's not affordable on purpose, and there will be no outsourcing of the manufacture of Bentleys without them losing their brand identity, which is the very thing that makes them desirable to Govinda.

Plus which, just in terms of resources, if everybody drove a Bentley, the world would have to be depleted.

Of course, I blame Top Gear for this. The world's most watched show is, in effect, car porn for the aspirational classes. Each and every episode features high-end examples of automotive engineering as far out of the reach of those watching it as Jenna Jameson is to the average middle-aged man who "boxes the Jesuit" to her tantalizingly splayed image. And like its fleshy equivalent, car porn can be addictive, especially when you tootle around each week in the company Commodore or Falcon.

Yes, it is ALL this guy's fault.
What makes Top Gear particularly teeth-grindingly painful, is that it hosted by a meat-faced bully, climate-change denier, and all-around laddy oik, one Jeremy Clarkson. Come to think of it, he's just vain enough to Google himself on a regular basis, so there's every chance there's a lawyer's letter in the post for that last crack. This is made more likely by the fact that the show has made him richer than a drug lord, so much so that he now owns something like half the Isle of Wight.

Whether its drugs or porn of the flesh or car varieties, there's always someone willing to shill to the unsuspecting, take their cut, and say they're just "giving people what they want".

And in every addiction brokered by the Clarksons of the world, the addict loses his sense of reality. Govinda might as well have a picture of the space shuttle to aim for. Certainly the guy's allowed to dream, but this carrot he hangs before him as he drives the car-less around this small city, tells of a colonial enslavement to values of Western elites, of a consciousness not just false, but intentionally deluded by a system that wants him to aspire to such luxury items, the better to keep him producing.

It's a bit like our insanely bi-focal attitude toward drugs. Drugs that keep you producing? Hell, you can have as many of them as you want--Zoloft, Xanax, Prozec, Efexor, you name it, we'll write you a prescription and even figure out a way to discount them. But the other drugs, the drugs that make you want to stay in bed until 12 and learn to play the sitar, HELL NO, boy. Not only are they illegal, but in some countries, you can do hard time for a nickel bag of grass. And once that happens, you're basically screwed for life.

From the viewpoint of utilitarian economics, it's good that Govinda drives every day with the pleasant impossible dream of the Bentley before him, even if all he ever drives is a Toyota. A productive man is good for society. But you can't help think (well I can't) that there is something more than a little sad in beavering away your whole life for something you won't get. And that somewhere inside him, Govinda must be aware that he's setting himself up for heartbreak, self-loathing, and a sense of failure in the dream of the Bentley.

Why grieve for what's not possible?

This is an idealised portrait. Govinda the starving ascetic would not have looked so flash.
But there's a deeper irony at play here, ironic enough to think the Gods may be mocking us. "Govinda" is the best friend of Prince Siddhartha Gautama (later The Buddha). Like Siddhartha, Govinda undertakes the quest for enlightenment by first practising asceticism, the renouncing of all material comfort, as a means of purification. This Govinda probably hasn't read the story (or maybe he has!). This Govinda is on a different path.

I, of course, the privileged, white, western, educated man, who up until recently had amassed not inconsiderable material wealth, am the one who is radically "down-sizing" in an attempt to focus on the genuine use and purpose of what's left of my life, by entering a kind of exclusive priesthood. I, of course, have read the story, and taught it many times.

A big house in the country and rare, expensive cars, and LL Bean clothing won't avail if you're spiritually empty and morally bankrupt
So of course, I see the Bentley as an emblem of everything that's sending the world spinning into chaos, having already reached a state of being materially sated, and felt sick. Govinda, the struggling immigrant, sees all the luxury around him, knows only his hunger, and wants to take a big bite.Certainly, he has a right to want what he wants, but I wish I hadn't just paid him (plus an extra large tip) and let him go. I wish I had said to him, "Mate I've been there, and if you're dead inside, no car in the world will make you feel better."

The world is moving toward a weird kind of justice. In the west, in the wake of the GFC, urban man is trying to "go green", down-size, make do with less, seek quality over quantity, live lightly on the planet, while the thronging billions in China and India and everywhere else, having endured such want for so long, want their big homes, and air-conditioning and Mercs now, thank you very much.

We're passing each other on the material ladder, and not speaking to each other with travellers' advice about where each other is headed.

I know, I know. Such advice is easy for me to say now. And white guilt and late repentance are the mark of the privileged. But I'm more interested in a story of a young Indian man, dazzled with the druggy lure of western luxury, driving a cab, to pay for study, to get a job. to buy a Bentley. The energy, psychic and physical he will waste in its vain pursuit, and the heartbreak when he realises he cannot, will not, will NEVER have it.

An old ad in the states, in promoting a college fund charity, said "A mind is a terrible thing to waste". I'm reminded of that now.

And not one mind: billions. I just find that unutterably sad.