Saturday, 30 August 2008

Persona and Shadow


Over the past day or two I have been reading John Fowles' documentary book The Enigma of Stonehenge. I got it because I was interested in John Fowles and not because I was particularly interested in Stonehenge, but it is a fascinating story. The familiar ring of giant stones was built by my ancestors in several phases over about 1300 years from 2800bc onwards. No one is quite sure what it was used for, but its construction was made possible when one neolithic group conquered and enslaved another, and stole their technologies and some of the big boulders they had put centuries of work into assembling at Avebury. It seems likely that amongst the uses to which Stonehenge was put was human sacrifice, a practice my relatives were apparently quite keen on back when they were painting themselves blue. So there in my ancestry is murder and warfare, enslavement, and the sacrifice of children. I've got to assume that the people who did this were not too dissimilar from me in their genetic makeup and that if I had been born a couple of hundred generations or so earlier I would have been an enthusiastic participant. So what stops me from indulging in my ancestors' unpleasant behaviours now? A different growing environment, that's all.

Some people vaunt "natural behaviour" in humans and decry the "repression of our natural instincts" as something harmful. My ancestors show, however, that amongst my natural inclinations are some fairly nasty tendencies. If I am to live as part of a society where we don't habitually murder people because we fancy their croplands or wish to offer them as a gift to the Earth Goddess in return for better lambing averages, some of my natural tendencies have to be rigorously and ruthlessly suppressed. This process of learning to hide the behaviours not suitable for our culture is part of the work of childhood. We learn what is socially acceptable behaviour and form all of our desirable traits into a sort of mask, our persona, which is the self we use to deal with the world. Our less desirable traits are pushed down and out of sight, into the darkness of our subconscious; any time they pop their nasty little heads up we push them back until they are so far down we don't notice them any more. They are not all gone though. They live down there in the dark, forming a sort of anti-personality, a counterpoint to the persona, which Jung calls the shadow. For the most part it is good that the shadow is repressed; we could have no sort of civilisation if it were not so. But on the other hand, our choices about what is repressed are sometimes a bit arbitrary.

So when I am four, my father says to me, "Kelvin, don't fart before your mother" and I reply "sorry, I didn't realise it was her turn." Then, in the next 25 seconds, I painfully learn the social undesirability of flatulence and of making smart replies to my parents. These two get pushed into the shadow, but so too, perhaps, does mental and verbal dexterity, and inventiveness, and self assertion. It is of course more complex than this. As well as the process of repression, the shadow is formed by the variable rates of development of our most important personality preferences: our tendencies to choose the inner processes of intuition, sensing, thinking and feeling. A good introduction to this process is found in Naomi Quenk's excellent book Beside Ourselves. What is important for spiritual development is to realise a number of things about our shadows

They are always there, and can emerge, often in times of stress or tiredness, to influence or even take charge of our personality by temporarily displacing our persona.
We will never but never get rid of our shadow or ever be fully conscious of it.
Nevertheless, growth requires increasing understanding of the structure and makeup of the shadow, and the integration of these things into our complete personality - or at least the partial integration of them.
In the final analysis, our persona is a temporary structure, one that we, and those closest to us have formed for culturally defined purposes. So is the shadow a temporary structure. One day we shall grow above and beyond both.

Mama Mia! What's Wrong?

This picture must be (c) to somebody. Don't know who though. Just don't go selling it.

There are some things I just don't get. Pedigree dog shows for instance, or those big fluffy dice in cars. The inimitable John Clark, speaking about synchronised swimming, (another thing I just don't get) said, "It's like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. You've got to admit it's an accomplishment, but you've got to ask "Why?'" Exactly. I went to see the film Mama Mia last night. It's another of those things I just don't get.

The movie starts with a series of little establishing shots. One is of a girl in a boat on a picturesque moonlit sea. She's holding the tiller, but she's not rowing. There's no sail and there's no motor, but the boat is making quite good headway as it pulls out from the shore. It sort of sets up what we are to expect. There are three histrionic girls. Three histrionic middle aged women. A diary. Three middle aged blokes who each, bafflingly, tries hard to claim paternity for a girl born out of a one night stand 20 years ago (even more baffling because the mother is one of the 3HMAW ). People lip synching and exhuberantly jiggling about to old Abba songs sung by people who became famous for things other than singing - and lots of evidence as to why they wouldn't have become famous if they'd tried the singing earlier. A Greek Orthodox chapel containing a Catholic priest and a water main or a spring or something which bursts out of the ground on the top of a hill. Lots of mugging and hamming. Lots of pretty scenery. Lots of lush colours and a whole compendium of cliched cinematography.

Now this isn't the first piece of entertainment where there is no plot to speak of, and where the characters are shallow one dimensional caricatures. Most operas would fit this description, but at least in opera you are compensated for the inanity of the storyline by being able to listen to Puccini or Mozart. Here you listen to old Abba covers. Abba songs are like advertising jingles: they have very catchy tunes but mind bogglingly drivelous words. The effect this gives to Mama Mia is that if has all the intellectual power and all the emotional depth of a television ad, except that in this case it lasts for 108 minutes. 108 very very long minutes.

Now, of course I realise that this is all my opinion. I know many people who have seen this movie and really enjoyed it. When Clemency and I told folk we were going to it we were universally assured: "you'll LOVE it!" I found myself afterward like some grumpy old curmudgeon; like Mr. Hurst in Pride and Prejudice muttering as he is coming out of the Ball where everyone else has had a good time, "Dem tedious waste of an evening." Perhaps it's a gender thing, except I went with two women, one of whom yawned and went out halfway through for coffee and the other who sat rolling her eyes and snorting in derision. So, all those of you who found this film toe tappingly engaging: tell me where I am wrong. Is it me? What am I missing?

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Reflecting


Apart from a persistent hacking cough I'm more or less back to normal. Our Bishop is away, which leaves me in charge around here - well technically, anyway; my colleague Helen Wilderspin has been doing all the work and a jolly fine job she's been making of it too, let me tell you. This week though, even with Helen covering the rear, it's been wall to wall appointments. You simply would not believe how many things need to be done, even in a small organisation like the Diocese of Dunedin, and it all has to be fitted in around the requirements of St. John's parish, and the hospital and rest home which our parish owns. No more sitting around reading arcane French philosophers and pretending to think profound thoughts for me! Instead, I sit around reading minutes and pretending to know what to do.

Is this what Jesus came to establish? All this busyness? Earlier today I was reading something by a man who was, by all accounts, busier than I am: the apostle Paul. In Romans 12 he gives a long list of admirable behaviours and personality traits, which is daunting in its comprehensiveness and its unattainability. It might seem that Paul is laying down a list of laws whose only purpose will be to make us feel exhausted and guilty at the end of the day, but I think he's trying to do something else - something bigger. He's trying to describe a quality; an aura; an atmosphere. He's trying to put in words the feel of the life we will live if we try to treat our journey through each day as an opportunity to follow Jesus. He's urging us to offer up our journey - not so much the things we do in each day but rather the attitude we have to those things, and the spirit in which we perform them. It is this attitude to the tasks of each day rather than the tasks themselves which is of ultimate significance.

I can be as busy as I like and in the end achieve nothing more than another day jammed with stuff that nobody will remember in six months time. Or I can let myself be transformed by the renewing of my spirit and live a rich, satisfying day no matter how many things, or how few, fill my diary.

Monday, 25 August 2008

An Invitation To Walk the Way


I am indebted to Brian McLaren for the reminder that the way of Jesus is not a thing that is to be possessed, or a state to be entered, or an institution to be maintained, so much as it is a path to be walked.In my last entry, I briefly reviewed his book Finding Our Way Again. I would like to talk about the book, perhaps on here, but not only on here. I would like to discuss it, but I don't want to teach it. I would not like to trade and refine ideas about the book, or acquire more knowledge, I would like to use the book to help me walk further on the Way of Jesus. So here's the deal:

Anybody who would like to talk about the things in Finding Our Way Again is welcome to come to my place on Thursday September 11 at 7:30 pm, and for subsequent Thursdays for as long as it seems good to continue. I will advertise this in my parish, but to come you don't need to be a member of St. Johns, or an Anglican, or even, I suppose, a Christian, although seeing as I want to talk about following The Way, just know what you're letting yourself in for. I will provide a warm place and a cup of something hot to finish with but I don't intend to lead a group. If you want to come, you'll need to be aware that once in a while it will be your turn to begin the conversation and try and keep it on the rails. It'll be quite easy as all the questions are neatly laid out at the end of each chapter. Oh yes, although I will order a copy of the book for the parish library, it's probably a good idea to try and get your own one.

So if this sounds like something you might be interested in, send me an email, or add a comment on here, with your name, or phone me, or even just turn up on the night, although it might be helpful to know numbers in advance. If it's me and the cat, I guess that's what God wants, but I would like a few people to act as traveling companions. Think about it. You'd be very welcome if you can make it.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Finding Our Way Again - Review


Brian McLaren is the founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church. He is a prolific author and one of the most listened to voices in the Emerging Church movement. The Emerging Church aims to forge a Christianity that is consistent with the post-modern society of the West, and is sometimes at loggerheads with the essentially modern Evangelicalism out of which it grew. He is thus, sometimes controversial, but usually compelling in what he says and writes.

This book is the first of a series of eight books under the overall editorship of Phyllis Tickle. Finding Our Way Again acts as an introduction to the series, and the other seven, to be produced by various authors during 2009-2010, will each deal with one of the ancient practices of the church which the series is seeking to encourage: Regular daily prayer, sabbath keeping, fasting, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observing the liturgical year and tithing. This introductory volume is 214 pages divided into 20 brief chapters, each ending in a number of spiritual practices: ie questions for reflection, prayer of discussion. This book would keep a home group happy for a good six months at least. The writing is lucid and accessible, with a good scholarly depth without being intimidating. It is a useful book.

Brian McLaren divides his book into three sections. After an introduction, eight chapters present an argument for the rediscovery of the seven spiritual practices common to all the Abrahamic faiths, that is, those covered in the subsequent books of the series. He argues that the West has become dominated by three religious paradigms: pushy fundamentalism, mushy amorphous spirituality and militaristic scientific secularism, none of which has delivered on its promises. He argues for recovery of faith as a way of life:
"Without a coherent and compelling way of life, formed in community and expressed in mission, some of us begin losing interest in the system of belief, or we begin holding it grimly, even meanly, driving more and more people away from our faith rather than attracting them toward it."
This first section ends with a plea to combine passive spirituality with Christian activism.

The second section is an outline in 5 chapters of spiritual disciplines which he classifies as arrival, engagement, listening and response practices. He suggests ways in which these can be incorporated into a lived Christianity. There is nothing here which will be new to anyone who has read widely in the field of contemplative spirituality, but McLaren's listing provides a concise and practical summary.

The third part of the book, the final 6 chapters tie everything back to the beginnings of Christianity, and the development of the faith through the early centuries of the church's history. his plea is to take the learnings of the past, and to live them.
" When our churches are schools of practice thay make -and change - history. Otherwise they simply write history and argue about it, and of course, in so doing, tend to repeat it."

This is an engaging, practical and helpful book. Well worth the purchase price, but for me it is something more. Our old Church is declining into something with which even many of us within it can no longer identify; but this is not the end of faith. A new church is emerging, like a phoenix not soaring but slowly blinking as it extricates itself from the ashes and looks about. This book is one of many that stakes out the territory that the emerging church will one day occupy. It is not only a helpful catalyst for contemporary practice but a sign of hope for what may yet be.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Departed Grandeur


Back in the days when Dunedin was the wealthiest city in the country we built ourselves a Railway station in a style befitting a city of our importance. This grand, heavily ornamented, expensive building in bluestone with limestone accents


was similar in construction and style to many other buildings of the time: the law courts, the banks and commercial buildings. The exterior boasted a tall clock tower,


and the interior was resplendent with mosaic floors and stained glass windows.

As a small boy in Dunedin, I often queued with my family to purchase passage on steam trains to Christchurch or Timaru at the ticket booths that looked like shrines.


For about a hundred years the Railway Station was a temple to progress as it was expressed in the greatest and most powerful technologies known: steam, and then oil. Today technologies have moved elsewhere: out to the airport and into people's garages and onto people's desktops. The trains have stopped running, but the station remains. The ornate building, recently restored, is now home to only one working train: the Taieri Gorge railway, a tourist operation making a daily run up through the Maniatoto. The station has become a photo opportunity, a home for a sports hall of fame and for a good restaurant, and the place where our Saturday morning farmer's market is held. The station has outlived the hopes and the convictions of grandeur that were expressed in it but remains as a beautiful reminder of a bygone age and it's values.

Three of the station's contemporaries in terms of era and values also remain in downtown Dunedin: St. Paul's Cathedral, St. Matthews Church and All Saints Church.

All are within a mile of each other and each is about to begin fundraising to raise the million plus dollars necessary to perform essential maintenance long neglected over the years. As the membership of our diocese dwindles, we, the remnant, are left to restore the spiritual self assertions of our forbears. As someone who has recently helped raise a horse chokingly large wad of cash to restore an antique ecclesiastical building, I wish the respective congregations every blessing on the long but interesting struggle ahead of them. As trustees of these prayers in stone we can't neglect the duty of maintaining them, but even as we follow our unavoidable duty, we need to ask ourselves whether or not the trains have stopped running? Has the spirit moved on, to find expression in places other than these beautiful old buildings?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Names


A few years ago I stopped by a field of sunflowers to take some pictures, and filled a CF card with some fairly predictable, cliched pics of big gaudy yellow things that look like daisies on steroids. The best things are usually not the ones we were looking for, so, even after fiddling with them in Photoshop, I wasn't really pleased with any of the sunflower shots except this one; :

which the more observant amongst you will have spotted is probably not a sunflower. The colour's wrong somehow. The shape is odd. So what do you call it? A thistle? A nodding thistle? A musk thistle? Carduus nutans? A weed? A noxious plant? A reminder of the Highlands? A thing of beauty? A nasty nest of prickles? Now you need to be careful with your answer because what you call something doesn't define the thing named. It defines you.

The little ball of purple spines is completely unaffected by the name I give it - it lives on, soaking up sunshine, seducing bees, photosynthesising, nodding. The name I chose to give it states my relationship to the plant, my education and history, my emotional and affectional states with regard to it. In the same way, the names people give me - Kelvin, son, Vicar, Kel, sir, Dad, Reverend, IRD #465399, Sweetheart, you prat, Next! Yes you - define them, not me. That is of course, unless I make the mistake of taking the name to heart and using it to name myself, in which case I allow myself to be defined by some other's idea of who and what I am.

Which is the point of Jesus' question to Peter in Matthew 16, who do you say that I am? I notice that although Jesus doesn't refute Peter's insight, Why you are the Christ! he doesn't pick it up and use it himself and he was fairly insistent that people not go telling others their opinions of who he, Jesus, was. The conversation delivered Peter to a place he didn't even know he was traveling to - a new sense of Jesus and a new sense of himself.

Jesus is who he is; what Peter calls him defines Peter. What we call Jesus defines us.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Cave Of The Tiger

photograph (c) Madcleric. Used with permission

In his classic book on prayer, Beginning To Pray Anthony Bloom says,

...the Gospel must reach not only the intellect but the whole being. English people often say, 'That's interesting, let's talk about it, let's explore it as an idea,' but actually do nothing about it. To meet God means to enter into 'the cave of the tiger' -it is not a pussycat you meet - it's a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it.

This paragraph (and the book as a whole) informed a retreat I made in 2005. I was revisiting it lately because I was aware of myself intellectualising more than I needed to; I was turning the faith into an exercise in thought. Thinking about things is no great crime of course, except when it becomes a pretext for not doing anything. It is easy to fall for the delusion that because I have nutted something out to my own satisfaction (by which I mean to a level whereby I can use it to bolster my ego by bamboozling folks) I have somehow mastered it or integrated it into my life. Mastered it. That's the tricky phrase, because although I can master some concept of God or other, I can never but never master God. I step into the cave of the Tiger and I am dealing with all that is real; with life and death. I am the one mastered.

Anthony Bloom says, paradoxically, that the beginning of real prayer is a sense of God's absence. This is because prayer is about relationship with God, and as in all real relationships, we cannot mechanistically draw the other into our presence by the performance of some trick or technique. In prayer we enter a relationship with an other and all our clever ideas about who or what this other is must be left at the door. The images of God we have constructed in our minds to comfort ourselves are of no help in this real relationship - they must be dropped. So prayer often begins with this sense of absence.In this empty place the real relationship begins: one which will shape me and change me. One in which I am required to move beyond my comfortable little nest of ideas and open myself to life with the one who can make or unmake me with a thought.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A Reasonable Balance


Having talked about the limits of reason the other day, an anonymous commentator made the valid point that abandoning reason entirely was not a very clever thing to do, and asked a good question:

Nothing in the human experience should be elevated to the position of a god including 'reason' but with what, and how do we find our way among those ideas that could very quickly produce a world full of magic potions and snake oil?

I've been thinking about it for a day or two, and want to answer it out here on the verandah rather than away in the back room.

Historically there was an attempt to abandon the dominance of reason very soon after The Enlightenment: this was the Romantic movement. This attempt to find truth and meaning in nature and natural processes unfettered by sterile reason gave rise to some of the world's great artistic and literary treasures. Like anything pursued in isolation and without counterbalancing emphases Romanticism became turgid and even dangerous. The tug of war between reason and its competitors as arbiters of truth continues - dressed up sometimes in appeals to earlier, purer forms of Christianity ("New Testament faith" Celtic spirituality etc) sometimes in cheap and cheerful books about left and right brains or wet and dry economics.

So, in answer to Anonymous' question, about what can be used to evaluate ideas and prevent quackery and trickery and internetical knavery, might I suggest the following list:

Beauty

Reason

Faith

Morality


These should enable us to meet the demands of those three orders that Diderot says we are subject to: natural, social and religious. But of course we in the Anglican Church don't have to look so far. Most confirmation class graduates will tell you all about the three legged stool the vicar drew on the whiteboard by way of illustration that our church strives to keep a balance between three things:

Faith
Tradition

Reason

The current divisions in the church show what troubles can ensue when one or more legs is ignored. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! I think either list would be fine, as long as it's adhered to although I do wish we had thought to include beauty in our Anglican triumvirate.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Who Knows?


In a couple of weeks the bar tailed Godwits will leave Alaska to make a journey lasting about 9 days, across the Pacific to New Zealand. Some will be adult birds who have made the trip before; they will return to precisely the same beaches they left from some time in March. Some will be juveniles who will, for the first time, find their way here across 12,000 km of empty ocean. This is astonishing enough, but a recent study by the University of Groningen, which involved implanting tiny transmitters into the abdominal cavities of some birds found something almost beyond comprehension. Last year the overwhelming majority of birds set off, from their various departure points, so that their flight paths would take advantage of a weather system 1500km to the south, and which the birds would not encounter for several days. How does something with a brain the size of a thimble do that?

The cop out answer, "by instinct" just won't do. (So what, exactly is instinct, and how, in this case does it work? See? We're right back where we started.) Neither will postulating some sort of spooky action at a distance, such as "they are in touch with the spirit of the Earth", perhaps or "God tells them." Attributing things we don't understand to God is a lazy explanation reducing "God" to a sort of gap filler - and one who will obviously get smaller as knowledge increases. The word "God" thus becomes a portmanteau synonym for "Gosh, that's a tough one, I'll have to get back to you on that". This approach also diminishes God's universe, making the universe into some sort of machine separate from and empty of its maker. The universe, in other words, works by explainable processes but God is in the other bits, the mysterious ones. Yeah right.

Godwits must have a perfectly natural way of doing their weather forecasting. The fact that it is natural does not make it one whit less holy or less Godly. They must have some way of sensing things that we don't. Perhaps the small variations in pressure associated with distant storms. Or the smells on the air. Of the tiny fluctuations in the earths magnetic field which, unbeknown to us, affect the weather. Or some sort of light phenomena in parts of the optical spectrum invisible to us. Who knows? Indeed, that's precisely the point. Who knows?

We see the world by virtue of a limited number of senses acting on a small range of the possible information available, and processing that information in a number of biologically, culturally and personally restricted ways. The world is a great deal more vast and mysterious than the limited version of it we construct inside our heads and label "reality". In the first week of September the first tired and thin Godwits will plonk down in the Estuary near Sumner, the Firth of Thames and in one or two other places before dispersing throughout the country. They will arrive because of sensory information that, to a godwit, is entirely unremarkable, but which should make us quake at the mystery and wonder of it and remove our shoes. The world is charged with the grandeur of God and we would see it if only our little certainties didn't obscure the view.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Be Reasonable

Photo: a drop of water on a CD

A recent edition of New Scientist (26 July 2008) carried a feature entitled What's Wrong With Reason? in which 7 commentators outlined the limits of reason as a tool for finding truth. There is a trap with this sort of article, that people may use the fact that some learned people point out the limits of reason as an excuse for believing all manner of quite unreasonable things. That being said, the article does ask important questions - questions which seem almost blasphemous to many in our science and reason besotted culture.

The two commentators who most interested me were the great linguist Noam Chomsky, and Chris Frith, a neuroscientist, who point out that neurologically, no-one understands reason anyway. Some interesting experiments (such as this one) show that far from making "reasoned" decisions about even such simple matters as what car we are to buy or what we are to eat for breakfast, the overwhelming bulk of our thinking occurs unconsciously and reason exists as a post hoc justifier: that is, that after the complex and hidden systems of our brains have made their choices, reason is employed afterward to make up a story to tell ourselves about why the decision was made. As the Anglican Church tears itself apart into camps all making "reasoned" cases for their own points of view, this observation should give us pause for thought.

Since the enlightenment, reason has become the overwhelming paradigm of thought in the West; with the rise of the scientific method, reason alone has become the standard by which everything is judged. When I went to theological college in the 1970s even Christian theology had been shoe-horned into the scientific method; text were examined as cultural and historic artifacts and we responded to them objectively, writing essays that were reasonable and tried, as far as possible to conform to the scientific method. The effect of the texts on our faith was never discussed. Such subjective responses to the material were discouraged as an interference in the the critical examination of the material. It's no wonder so many of us foundered in our faith at St. John's College. It's no wonder so few of us learned to preach; instead we learned to write essays which we then read to our congregations with fairly predictable results.

It's not reason per se that is the problem but rather the exaltation of reason as the only touchstone of truth. One of my favourite books is John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West in which Saul examines how our Western culture has become besotted with reason, and reason devoid of any other corrective considerations has been employed to the point where, in the name of reason, extremely unreasonable things are done. On his title page he says,

Reason is a narrow system
swollen into an ideology

With time and power it has
become a dogma, devoid of
direction and disguised as
disinterested inquiry.

Like most religions, reason
presents itself as the solution
to the problems it has created.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Shepherding


I started back at work today, although it never seems like work to me.

It was a very cold day. The water left from yesterday's rain was frozen and Dunedin streets were treacherous. Given that going out this morning meant that bones were guaranteed to be chilled and risked being broken, many opted to stay home and watch the Olympics instead. We had 8 people in church at 8am and about 90 at 10 am, well down on our usual muster. I was a bit zonked by the time 11am rolled around, not helped by having a cold, but it was great to just be there, to see the familiar faces and to feel part of it all again.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Outside


Today I drove through the Pig Root to Naseby and back home again through Middlemarch and Outram. Skies were grey and there was crusting of light snow over most of the Maniatoto. On the high ridge between Middlemarch and Outram I ran into a blizzard; snow traveling horizontally, blown by winds strongly enough that it was not settling on the windscreen but packing up tightly on the windward side of trees, sheep huddling and putting their backs to it all. The storm had not been going long enough to have built up much depth of snow on the road, so driving was safe enough. Sitting inside a heated steel cocoon, it all raged around me, except when I simply had to stop and dash outside to photograph some snow encrusted tree or other.

Out into the swirling cold, like Peter leaving the small wooden safety of his boat, I suppose, to venture out into the stuff that could quite conceivably kill you if you were in it long enough. And in the frothing white, where all the action is, far from the safety of boat or car, is where Jesus is to be found strolling unconcerned. I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer later in the afternoon, and he said that although our faith is formed and nurtured in community, it is out there that we actually belong. Out there where it is thrilling in its power but deadly in its intensity.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Still Waiting


I had a chat with the surgeon today. It wasn't the all clear I was hoping for, but it's not necessarily bad news either. There is a protein they measure, called a Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA), an elevated level of which is an indicator of cancer. Now I've been dealt to, my level should be zero or pretty close to it, but apparently it's not. It might mean nothing. It might mean some residual PSA left from before the operation or it might be more sinister. The surgeon advised against rushing into any treatment right now. I'll have more blood taken over the next couple of months, he'll see me again in November and we'll make the call then.

I felt a bit flat coming out of his office and went for a walk on the beach to think about things. It was a beautiful day and St. Clair was dotted with people walking dogs. I took some photos and admired the view. I remembered that I'm now at a stage where this thing isn't going to kill me. At worst, my life could get a little restricted. I guess I was sombre because I had, secretly, been hoping to return to the comfortable assumption of bodily immortality which I had enjoyed all my life until the end of this April past, and now I had to face reality: I am fallible and fragile and limited. Get used to it. I strolled until our parish secretary phoned and reminded me that I actually needed to be somewhere else. I forsook my planned coffee and took a picture of the cafe instead. Then I turned and walked purposefully back to meaningful activity.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Simple Faith


I've finished reading Roger McGough's Collected Poems and I'm now part way through his Autobiography, Said and Done. He handles prose as well as he does verse. It's lively, funny, witty, wise stuff covering a particularly interesting period: the Mersey scene of the 60s and beyond of which he was an integral part. Before he gets to that bit though, near the beginning, speaking of his boyhood Catholicism he has this to say:

"The unimaginable force that governs us, the benevolent energy behind all we see and do, has been oversimplified in the excitement of evangelism, and in their attempts to personalise God, artists have anthropomorphised a concept that is beyond human comprehension, so many of us have come to reject religion. Except on those evenings as the light drains away into the horizon, and the old questions rise up again and we lift up our eyes from the ground and search for answers beyond the stars."
(Said and Done p41)

I had my Christian beginnings in a Church which did indeed oversimplify in the excitement of evangelism, endeavouring to make the Gospel simple enough that every person could understand it in half an hour. This was an aim that they achieved in Spades, but unfortunately if you were in the church for any more than half an hour, the simple Gospel could begin to pall just a tad. The anthropomorphised God we worshiped with such experiential fervour gave me an exciting (and perhaps, for me, the only possible) entry into the Christian faith but has not been able to sustain me through the decades. The questions are too big to be shoehorned into Pentecostal sureties. Where did I come from and where am I going and why? How did this amazing universe begin and what is it anyway? Who am I that looks out through these eyes and what is this ME that keeps getting in the way of the view? Is there an unimaginable force that governs us and is it benevolent?

The story is told of Karl Barth, being asked in an interview what was the greatest theological truth he had learned. He replied, without hesitation, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." I guess he could only give that answer if he knew that the simplistic Sunday School song and Der Kirchliche Dogmatik were saying pretty much the same thing. Which means that the Sunday School song has to be seen not as literal truth but poetically, as an allusion to much deeper truths - the truths contained in Der Kirchliche Dogmatik . But of course, if we see this, we have to acknowledge that the truths in Barth's masterwork are also provisional, also allusional; also, in a sense, poetic, as are all our answers to the great questions, always.

How often do we forget that all theological truth is metaphorical? When people, who have palled at our literal acceptance of provisional truth, see the light draining away into the horizon, does our quest for reassuring certainty hinder our attempts to make known the unimaginable force that governs us?

Perhaps it is easier for a Catholic or an Orthodox, whose worship is so overtly dramatic and metaphorical, to grasp this. Perhaps it is harder for us Protestants whose preoccupation with The Word and its exposition can fool us into thinking that the hard won intellectual insights we arrive at are in some way final or absolute. Religious truth has to do with the infinite; therefore we are never going to arrive. To be sure, there are waystages and points along the way when we have some of the uncertainties of the past explained, but there is always a further on. This doesn't mean we are forever lost, however, for there is a certainty which comes not from arriving at the right answers but from knowing that we are engaged in asking the right questions.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Another Amazing Dance



If you liked the Chinese Swan Lake,here is another example of just how far dance can be pushed. This time there is another dimension: all the dancers are deaf. More information can be found here, but take a look first.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Wood Pigeon


On the front lawn There is a bundle of green and white feathers. A woodpigeon. A dead one. We have a lot of trees in our neighbourhood and a very busy road, which is not a good combination for wood pigeons. They are great big ungainly birds and before they have acquired a sense of self preservation the young ones are inclined to accidental jousts with cars. The cars seldom lose. This bird has just won the silver medal in a bout with a Toyota Camry and has retired as far as our front lawn before becoming considerably short of breath. I go out with a shovel and dig a hole in the flower garden, and go a pick up the carcase.

I love these birds. Their feathers have a rich metallic sheen, and the green and white of their plumage reflects back every shade of red - but just in suggestion, depending on how the sunlight catches them. They are preposterous in their clumsiness. They fly overhead with no pretense at stealth, making a sound like a pair of old fashioned manual hedge cutters with each laboured thrust of their wings. They land desperately on twigs and power lines and rock back and forth, gaining equilibrium and dignity over a minute or so as they come to rest. Tiny heads and huge bodies. No wonder they hit cars. They do have one impressive trick, though, which takes advantage of their generous girths. They painfully flap their way to the top of something very tall, sit there for a while catching their breath and then fling themselves at the ground in a breakneck dive. Just about the point of terminal velocity they pull out of the dive and allow their momentum to carry them back up into the air in a climb as steep as the dive. When they stall at the top of their climb, they point themselves downward, and without a single flap of the wings, do the whole thing again. They thus maneuvre their way across the forest canopy in a series of great U shaped sweeps. I'd dearly love to be able to do it.

There used to be thousands of them moving about in great flocks. The arrival of firstly the Maori and then the Pakeha soon put a stop to that. Wood pigeons are dim, tasty and conveniently family sized, so the flocks are long gone. They now get about singly or in pairs, and, for the past few years protected from hunting, keep themselves just above the endangered species line by dodging the depredations of cats and rats and motor cars. Or at least mostly. I look at this one lying stiffly on the shovel. Her feathers are still pure white and irridescent green. She is beautiful but very dead.

What is it that animated this body only a few minutes ago, and where has it gone? Thousands of her forbears have disappeared into the cooking pots of the settlers and the hangis of the Tangata Whenua and nothing now remains of any single one of them, not even a memory. I am aware that her dim little consciousness was smaller than mine, but it's only a matter of degree, not of type. One day, as I have recently been sharply reminded, I will follow her and her many ancestors and mine into a similar oblivion.

Although I know that I originate in eternity, will return to eternity and can participate in eternity in this time between, a day will come when nothing will remain here of me, not even a memory . Ernest Becker says that the knowledge of our death and our wish to deny its inevitability is the motive behind most human endeavour but I think that what we need is not to deny our deaths, but recognise it as inevitable. This is why Ignatius Loyola's spiritual exercises include meditations on our own deaths. So, I bury this bundle of meat and feathers and think about what is and what is not there on the end of the shovel. What is buried is temporary, like the consciousness that so recently animated it. If we want to find what is truly lasting, we will need to look elsewhere: not at those things which come into existence, are for a while and then fade away; the body and our own temporary consciousness. We need to look, rather, at that thing - accessible to us all but ignored by most of us - which is truly eternal.