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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