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Monday, January 11, 2016

Odd Ministerial Request #327: A Blessing for a Snowboard

This was passed on to me through our fellowship in Brisbane this past week:

"My name is _____________ & I am wondering if it is ok/allowed to have my snowboard blessed?
I am a good humble man who was born & raised a Mormon but now as yourself's (sic) have a 
more liberal look on life.
If this is rude of me to ask I apologize. I ask because it would mean a lot to me to have snowboard
blessed before my journey to Japan.
I hope to hear back from you guys"
The sincere tone and sense of child-like trust prompted a typically binary response in your humble scribe.

On the one hand, I was strongly inclined to disabuse him of the notion that some words written by someone he'd never met would have the least effect on the performance, efficacy, or indeed safety of something he's proposing to hurtle down an ice-glazed mountain upon. I was going to say that he if he wanted to be blessed in this endeavour, he'd do better to bless himself by taking lessons, wearing safety gear, or maybe not undertaking what amounts to 'extreme sliding' at all. Snowboarding is a dangerous sport.
Further, I thought it my duty to develop his 'liberal look on life' by suggesting that he liberate himself from magical thinking (surely a persistent hangover from his lapsed Mormonism). That blessings are mere well-wishing, and you don't need clergy to do that. I have no magic powers to spread over the board like wax.
And yet...
On the other hand, liberal ministry (and contextual theology more generally) has to begin where people actually are, rather than where one would wish them to be. Anybody in a place of spiritual transition is a delicate alpine flower that wants slow and careful opening to allow them to adjust to environmental conditions that can be as harsh as a winter blast to a new awareness. Besides, if blessing his snowboard gives him relaxed confidence in its powers, he may ride better.  
Thirty years ago, I was trying to learn to ski in Saas Fee, Switzerland (on a glacier no less). I resisted the extreme sliding with every fibre of  my being. I trusted nothing--not the snow, or the ice, or the skis, or the poles, or myself, or the instructor. And for that lack of letting go... I fell. I fell often and so hard that my instructor told me he'd never seen a person hit the ground so hard and get up again. 
Finally, I twisted my knee hurtling through an appalled crowd and into a snow bank, and gave up to drink Gluwine in the chalet. 
If my correspondent trusts in the efficacy of blessings, maybe I might be good enough to overcome my own peevish lack of trust that "there are more things in heaven and earth..."
So I sent him this:
"May this board that carries me, carry me for joy: joy as pure as the snow it glides upon.

Let forces of gravity, friction, and torque work in harmony with the sparkling miracle of my inner ear's balancing act,
Like a spirit level on the moving ship of my soul's deep delight.
 May it ever keep me mindful that the joy of living gleams just at the sharp edge of risk.
And at the end of each day's use, may I be thankful for its part in my safe return to the level plane of home."
There's no God in it for my snowboarding friend. None at all. Or is there? When we put aside our Pharisaic insistence that our way of seeing the world is right, and just try to use what gifts we have to help someone take the next step in something like comfort and perhaps joy, maybe that's all the God we get to know.
Someone said 'God comes into the world disguised as your life.' The me that tried and failed to ski thirty years ago could not let go, and so he crashed and crashed and quit.
This me can let go, a bit. And I know which feels better, and makes the downhill plunge that is called 'life' a bit more fun. Fun and...what's the word?...Blessed.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

"I'll choose what to wear, thanks"

These are the opening remarks I prepared for the opening of Catherine Lambert's exhibition of paintings, featuring iconic women wearing niqab. Present were federal Senator Nick Xenophon and the Muslim Women's Association of SA. (You'll have to read to the end of the post to see samples of the work.)

I’m deeply honoured and flattered to be asked by THE one and only Catherine Lambert to open her first ever exhibition of a series of paintings I first saw a couple years ago in the early stages of development. I liked them immediately and immensely: they are technically accomplished, crisp and draughtsman-like in their rendering, gorgeously, lusciously colourful, and boldly composed. But moreover because I found them provocative and very, very timely in touching a couple of intersecting subjects that lie like exposed nerves in the tissue of our culture: gender equality and Islam. Touching either of these is like touching a live wire—it doesn’t take long before someone’s jumping up and down with their hair on fire.

I admired Catherine’s brave and accomplished work so much that when I was asked as her church Minister to open the show, I very nearly declined. Because when I thought about speaking about it to room full of the sort of people likely to be here, all I could think was “Yes, I’m sure these people will be just dying to know what another white, western male clergyman thinks of art which intersects feminism and Islam. I’m not a Muslim, and I’m not a woman. What right have I speak about such things?

But thankfully your identity isn’t your destiny and further reflection helped me see that the audience these paintings seem to seek to engage (nay, confront) are neither women, Muslims, nor Muslim women, but people for whom the in-your-face contrast in the paintings might just jolt into something like a new way of considering these two very live issues of our times, issues that are poised to evolve and must evolve for all our sakes. For all our technological advancement, we are still in the dark ages about gender equality and about freedom of religious expression in pluralist, multicultural societies.


An anecdote to illustrate: I recently had to endure one of those leafy neighbourhood dinner parties so saturated by grog and privilege that your antennae are on high-alert for the moment anyone blithely strolls into the minefield of politics or religion (this is an occupational hazard of ministry). One gentlemen was in high dudgeon about how Islam oppresses women. He was morally certain that any woman wearing hijabi (burqa, niqab, etc.) was necessarily coerced into wearing it, therefore cruelly oppressed, by being denied their fundamental right to choose what to wear. Allowing that this was not some half-baked brain-belch from a mono-diet of the Murdoch press and talk-back radio, I helpfully, I thought, pointed out things like World Hijab Day--the movement within Islam to frame the wearing of hijabi as an expression not of absence of choice, but of a particular kind of choice—a choice for modesty, piety, and their inherent worth as children of the God of their understanding, rather than any apparent worth as objects of the male gaze. That true freedom might just have more to do with expressing your essential being than with conforming to current western notions of female beauty.

Of course, I failed to sway him, but my neighbour’s view is far from aberrant, and is supported by more sober and thoughtful folk. The ex-Muslim feminist writer Arshia Malik, writing in theNation says that when Muslim women claim wearing hijabi is about the freedom of choice of clothing, they deny the freedom to those women who would prefer to reject it as a sign of oppression. The "freedom to wear what I choose" argument, she says, is in fact sustaining the patriarchal order of Muslim society.

Anyone with any experience in student politics will recognize this as the old ‘false consciousness’ argument: you poor darling, you only THINK you’re free, and any claim you make to freedom of choice is but more proof of your self-deluded enslavement. False consciousness is an insidious form of argument because you can’t disprove it! Like the old doctrine of sin: “The sinful don’t know they’re sinning because they’re sinful”. Or the psychoanalysis trap: “The more you resist psychotherapy, the more you clearly need it.” There is no escape.

Thankfully postmodernist thinking has exploded that old trick: when people claim to be exercising agency, exercising freedom to choose despite (or in accordance with) their enculturation, you have literally no way of knowing that they are not doing so freely. No one has a clear, comprehensive, and objective window into another person’s thoughts. There can be no moral certainty about the inner life of another.

This exhibition is titled, with disarming directness, “I’ll choose what to wear, thanks”, and celebrates and makes visible that free inner agency. I was taught by nuns who wore the full wimple (practically indistinguishable from the hijab). In my youthful innocence, it never once occurred to me that the nuns hadn’t freely chosen to don that striking and inconvenient garb, just as freely as the many nuns who later chose to take it off. I am the father of two grown daughters. In my paternal innocence, it never occurred to me that all of the ways I watched them accommodating their identity to the male gaze—hair colour and style, makeup, jewelry, clothing, tatts, and piercings—was not something they too were freely choosing . If the patriarchy is so comprehensive and inescapable, can anyone exercise a truly free choice unconstrained by the power of patriarchal norms and expectations?

I’m not so sure. To say there’s no free choice in such matters is to deny the very existence of free will, an essential quality that makes us human. The common-sense materialism of our times suggests we are mere matter, mechanically running a DNA program, and thus choice and free will are an illusion we’ve developed to give ourselves an empowered self-image we can live with, and thus gives us the self-confidence to reproduce the DNA program.

But free will is the ghost in this machine. Think of the difference between just wanting something and wanting to want it. If you put 6 kinds of cat food in front of the cat, you aren’t giving it free choice. The cat will be driven to eat something if it’s hungry. But a cat can’t decide to want to want the food. The cat can’t decide for example to go on a diet-- or starve itself to waif-like thinness (speaking of accommodating yourself to the male gaze). Human beings can want to want things, or not. That’s free choice.

So when we speak of free will and free choice, we speak of a mental event, an event un-locatable in space and time, unmeasurable, and therefore beyond the reach of science. Something of a mystery. It certainly feels autonomous. Whether it is real or not, whether it IS actually as free as it feels, is a much-contested philosophical question, and (you’ll be glad to know) beyond the scope of this chat. But I would ask you to consider if life would be worth living if free will and choice were just illusions. What of personal responsibility? Praise? Blame? The notion of morality itself presumes freedom of choice. Without that mental event we call a free choice—a mystery I would claim is evidence of something very like a soul—what would we be but automata?

We may still be in the dark about truly knowing ourselves as much as we are about gender equality and religious freedom, but Catherine’s paintings fairly burst--not with darkness--but with spectral light—a light that is only partly veiled by the hijabi...like fig leaves that almost ask to be whipped off to reveal the starkness of this truth—that choosing or not choosing to wear something is not where our fullest human liberation lies, but in the act of choosing itself. It does not skill to ask ‘how free is that free choice’. We’ve little enough knowledge of our own minds to claim exact knowledge of the mind of another. And this should counsel humility, even (dare I say it) modesty best expressed by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

This should apply to anyone—man, woman, Muslim, white western clergyman… whoever. That understanding takes mindfulness and imagination. That sort of thinking is hard, and judging is easier, so mostly people judge. Catherine, it seems to me, wants you instead to think, and this striking series of paintings makes you do just that.