To create a safe place for open and respectful exchange of views for those seeking a meaningful progressive religious life.
To provide an open forum to explore the challenges and meaning of spiritual and religious experiences.
To disseminate, communicate and debate religious thoughts through a regular newsletter, the website and our library of progressive literature.
To participate in a network of support through links with other progressive religious groups and individuals.
To give financial and organizational resources for progressive religious forums.
2017 DISCUSSION TOPICS
Refer to the last pages of our newsletter for more details on our discussions.
- Where Do we meet?
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought is located in “The Basement”, 22 Badajoz Road, Ryde. (Opposite Callaghan Street) Entrance is via the right hand side path.
The premises are located at the first bus stop in Badajoz Road for the Sydney bus 506 travelling from the Circular Quay.
Please contact Eric Stevenson on (02) 9888 5361 or 0405 758 116 for more details.
Everyone is welcome
We have decided not to charge annual membership fees at present.
You are welcome to make a donation to help us to defray costs, bring special speakers to Sydney, finance our Regional Gatherings and contribute to the organization of national Common Dreams events. Please send us your details and email address to email@example.com so we can send our Newsletters.
For direct EFT or B-Pay banking: -
Account Name: - THE CENTRE FOR PROGRESSIVE RELIGIOUS THOUGHT
BSB: - 082 155 A/c No: - 83 243 0417
Cheques payable to: CPRT (Centre of Progressive Religious Thought).
We have many books in our library which are now listed under "Books in our Library" from the drop down headings above.
The Latest Newsletters
Centre for Progressive Religious Thought (CPRT Sydney)
Freedom to Explore
Summer Newsletter 2017
CPRT DISCUSSION TOPICS 2017
Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Introduction to the amazing Florence Nightingale. Not only a nursing and social reformer, an advisor to governments and a respected statistician, but also a prolific and challenging writer about religion, especially Christianity.
Tuesday, 21 February 2017
See the Discussion Schedule for the rest of the year at the end of this Newsletter.
We meet and share a meal on the first and third Tuesday at 12.30 in the Basement, 22 Badajoz Road, Ryde, entrance via right hand side pathway. Directions: - Take the 506 bus from Circular Quay to Macquarie Centre and East Ryde and alight at the first stop in Badajoz Road. On Tuesdays only it is possible to take the same bus route in the opposite direction from Macquarie Place Railway Station to the second last stop in Badajoz Road.
Please contact Eric Stevenson on (02) 9888 5361 or 0405 758 116 for more details.
Correspondence with our member Rita.
Dear friends at CRPT,
A short letter to let you know that I will not be attending the discussion groups for the time being. This is due to a combination of distance to travel and also it was not quite the group that I was looking for. I remember Eric saying that, if someone realised what he/she was looking for, then there would be no reason to attend the group. Attending the group helped reawaken my realisation of the need for the company of searching people and has spurred me to rejoin the School of Practical Philosophy of which I was a member for 23 years.
I am very grateful for your delightful and informative company and the impetus it provided to make some important decisions as far as the spiritual life is concerned.
With best wishes,
Thanks for your email bringing us up to date with your position and attendance at CPRT.
We have really appreciated your input and perspective as we often lack the feminine input at our discussions. We have been impressed with the effort required for you to travel so far for our meetings especially with a sick husband.
You are welcome to join us at any time and we will keep you on our email list so you can be up to date with our activities. I have attached the discussion program so far for 2017.
We are aware that our discussions lack a variety of ideas at times and have been trying to encourage some of our ladies to lead the discussions.
We wish you and your husband all the best for 2017.
Ken & Eric. CPRT Sydney.
Dear Ken and Eric, Thank you for keeping me on your mailing list. I would like this very much and could occasionally get down to Sydney. Regards, Rita
A Legacy Worth Pursuing: Jack Spong and The Rest of Us
In September last year, our beloved author and progressive mentor, Jack Spong suffered a stroke. David Felten, who is co-author of Living the Questions wrote to him while on his way to the Common Dreams Conference in Brisbane. We quote from David’s letter which was published on johnshelbyspong.com on Dec. 1st, 2016.The letter, presented under the above heading, contains a series of beautiful tributes with which we totally agree, and also best wishes to Jack which we heartily endorse. Ed.
When he learned of Jack’s stroke in September, David was en route to the fourth Common Dreams Conference in Brisbane. He said that at the Conference he couldn’t have found himself in a more supportive and equally concerned crowd anywhere in the world. “Few people know as well as you the peculiar feeling of being both reviled and beloved around the world,” he wrote to Jack, “But it seems to me that nowhere are you more respected than in Progressive Christian circles Down Under.”
The letter to Jack goes on to reflect“with fondness” on the inaugural Common Dreams event in Sydney back in 2007. “Although it wasn’t your first trip to Australia, CD1 was a seminal event I feel fortunate to have attended. As you’ll recall, when news broke that this “rogue heretic” (that would be you) was once again descending on Australia, the Archdiocese of the Sydney Anglican Church sent out a press release banning you from setting foot on any Anglican property while in their city. This was, of course, the best publicity the organizing committee of Common Dreams could have ever hoped for. I recall the delight (tinged with sadness) you expressed in having your infamy splashed across the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald. While providing further proof to the non-religious that the church (or at least the Sydney Anglican Church) was hopelessly irrelevant in its obsession with the past, your notoriety resulted in interviews and other media exposure that drew a crowd exponentially larger than expected. I remember your presentations being both inspiring and encouraging to a crowd that was yearning for new directions. Looking back, your trademark tenacity in the face of controversy seems to have been one of the catalysts for what continues to grow as a broad and evolving network of Progressive Christians in Australia/New Zealand.”
“And so it goes – all across the globe – a legacy of certainties called into question, death-dealing dogmas called out, exclusive and privileged institutions put on notice. You are at one and the same time one of orthodoxy’s worst nightmares and a cup of cool water to the beloved community of “church alumni/ae” – and all of this with a focus, a grace, and a humility that confounds your critics.”
David writes to Jack about the daunting challenge for many Progressives, both clergy and laity, to stay in the institution and not be broken by it. “In you (Jack),” he says, “we’ve seen what it takes and are inspired to rise to the challenge. No matter how controversial, it is crucial for those of us who are clergy to follow your lead in translating the often esoteric theological musings of academia into language that is both understandable and relevant to thoughtful lay people. We need to muster the courage to be outspoken social critics, ecclesiastical whistle-blowers, and prophetic voices calling discrimination and injustice what it is, even in the face of a persistent status quo. All the while being able to express a genuinely pastoral ethos in the advocacy of the most radical of ideas. Sheesh. I don’t think you realize how high you’ve set the bar for us.”
“Over and over again, you’ve reminded us that Jesus’ call is for us to be whole and real, not religious; loving, not moral and righteous; inclusive, not hating everybody that disagrees with us and claiming superiority over them. You’ve proclaimed it wherever there are ears to hear: the mark of Jesus’ disciples is to be loving. A call to life. A call to love. A call to be all that we can be.”
David concludes by expressing his gratitude “and maybe a little aggravation!” at Jack’s having pointed out SO many places that need to be pushed to keep things moving forward. “It is downright daunting”, he continues, “But perhaps one of the things I’m most grateful for is your expectation of not just me, but of all of us, clergy and laity alike. It’s a kind of unspoken summons where, in so many different circumstances, you have demonstrated the importance of standing up and speaking out — not just as “professional” public theologians, but as informed lay people in particular.”
“I’ve seen it at work. It happens around kitchen tables and in coffee shops, on long drives and quiet walks where conversations turn to the things that really matter in life – and often those “things” are weighed down by the burden of long obsolete religious ideas and assumptions. Through your books, lectures, and columns, you provide the vocabulary and give permission to ordinary people to struggle, doubt, and even reject the dogma of their birth. You’ve opened new spiritual vistas for them. You’ve shown the power of simply sitting with and encouraging the hurting and the fearful without burdening them with platitudes or the weight of long-irrelevant theologies. And taking all of it together and holding it up to the light, one of your greatest gifts becomes clear: the ability to stir even those who consider themselves the “least of these” into action.”
“Let’s be honest, People cannot not have an opinion about Jack Spong. Whether you’re stirring people up to totally re-evaluate everything they’d ever thought they knew or steeling a Fundamentalists’ resolve to maintain the status quo, your life and teachings demand a response.
And THAT’S what I’m going for. That’s a legacy worth pursuing. And insofar as I’m able to achieve even the tiniest sliver of that goal, I can say without hesitation that it is all your fault.”…“Working with Jeff to develop Living the Questions has had a lot of unexpected benefits, not the least of which has been your friendship and mentorship.”
“I will always be grateful for your wisdom, your support, and your encouragement. I look forward to connecting with you and Christine in person sometime soon.
Gretta Vospers Reply It's another hearing ....
sub-Executive reconvened to continue its deliberations regarding the recommendations coming out of the
Ministry Personnel Review Committee. You will remember that those
recommendations were based on the finding that I am unsuitable for ministry in The
United Church of Canada.
The sub-Executive Committee has decided that it supports the recommendations of the Review Committee and has asked the General Secretary, Nora Sanders to initiate a formal hearing. Sanders created the process that has been used by Toronto Conference to review my effectiveness. Her reasoning was that one could not be effective if one was not suitable and one could not be suitable if one could not answer the ceremonial questions of ordination affirmatively. Her ruling effectively mooted the much touted claim that the United Church is not a creedal church. Through the ruling, Sanders provided the United Church with something it had, to its credit, long avoided: a line in the sand that clarifies who's in and who's out.
It is not known how long it will take to convene a formal hearing panel. The General Council has only recently taken on the responsibility of formal hearings as a way to remove the potential conflict that would be borne by a conference that had already reviewed a minister's effectiveness. It is also not known if the members of the formal hearing committee will be members of the General Council, that is, commissioners from across the county, or if it will be composed in some other way. I'll keep you posted.
In the meantime, I invite you to hold West Hill in your heart. There is much grief and sorrow yet to be processed. Should you wish to connect with them directly to express your support, please do so. You can send a message through Annie, our office Administrator.
All my best,
Hal Taussig's 'Common Dreams on the Road' tour of Australia & New Zealand this year
Hal Taussig's has blocked out all of October & November 2017 to be in Australia & New Zealand
The following draft itinerary is being
Oct 5th till Oct 11 in Brisbane; Oct 11 to 18th in Sydney; Oct 18 to 25th in Perth; Oct 25 to Nov1st in Melbourne; Nov 1 till Nov 9th Wellington NZ
You will see that this provides for approximately one week in each centre which, for the first time, will allow everyone to schedule weekend events as well as events on other days.
Hal’s teaching ranged widely through the New Testament and recent new documents discovered from the Christ communities of the first and second centuries.
Perhaps the freshest of his work is the very powerful work we are doing at Westar on a rewriting of the history of early Christianity. This is usually best done in a series of two or three lectures, but can be done with one.
I love preaching. I often preach--and have for a long time--on some of the newly discovered texts from outside the canon. But I also love to preach from an assigned lectionary text.
Hal has also reminded me that he also, like Lloyd Geering,
had a brush with a heresy trial when charges were brought against him &
another colleague by the United Methodist Church in the early 1990s because of
a couple of books they had co-authored. The charges were eventually dismissed
six years later!
Was there a Jesus ? An article sent by John Nielson
We thank John again for sending us another interesting article that raises the long discussed question as to whether Jesus actually existed. Our group have discussed that we can see two Jesus’, the man and also Jesus the Christ that history and the Church Fathers built him up to be.
The sources normally discussed fall into three main categories: (1) classical (that is, Greco-Roman), (2) Jewish and (3) Christian. But when people ask whether it is possible to prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, as John P. Meier pointed out decades ago, “The implication is that the Biblical evidence for Jesus is biased because it is encased in a theological text written by committed believers. What they really want to know is: Is there extra-Biblical evidence … for Jesus’ existence?”
Therefore, this article will cover classical and Jewish writings almost exclusively.3
Lawrence Mykytiuk’s feature article, “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible”, from the January/February 2015 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review can be read on the web at:-
This could be a topic for one of our discussion meetings?
CPRT Discussion Programme for 2017
Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Introduction to the amazing Florence Nightingale. Not only a nursing and social reformer, an advisor to governments and a respected statistician, but also a prolific and challenging writer about religion, especially Christianity.
Tuesday, 21 February 2017
Tuesday, 7 March 2017
To be advised
Tuesday, 21 March 2017
“The Spirituality of Leonard Cohen”
Tuesday, 4 April 2017
Tom & Bev Plaizier
Tom and Bev bring us a report of the September Common Dream Seminar that was held in Brisbane.
Tuesday, 18 April 2017 (School Hols)
To be advised
Tuesday, 2 May 2017
Tuesday, 16 May 2017
Tuesday, 6 June 2017
Interfaith and Spiritual direction.
All Mail: 22 Badajoz Rd, RYDE NSW 2112
Web Site http://www.cprtfreedomtoexplore.org
Coordinator: Eric Stevenson Tel: 02-98885361. Mobile: 0405-758116
Sec/Treasurer: Ken Fletcher. Tel: 02-9876 4147. Executive Sec. Guy Mallam
Gretta Vosper “On Trial” in the Uniting Church of Canada
Our comments on the Report of the Conference Interview Committee of its review of the ministry of the Rev. Gretta Vosper
Our friend and fellow progressive, Gretta Vosper, has been considered to be not suitable to continue as a minister of the United Church of Canada. This has followed complaints about her beliefs received by the Toronto Conference in 2015 which referred the matter to the Conference Interview Committee for determination. Rex Hunt has sent us a copy of the Committee’s full report of the interview with Gretta which took place in June last. The following disturbing details of Gretta’s “trial” (our word) have been taken from the report itself.
Because so much of the accusation focuses on Gretta’s so called atheism, it is important to note that she only labelled herself at one stage as an atheist as a protest in support of those who had been unjustly persecuted. Her refusal to use the God word was not because of disbelief in “a power beyond us”, but because of the meaning given to it by the interventionist believers who were conducting her trial.
While CPRT members retain the right to express their belief in God in a variety of ways we wish to raise the more important question as to whether the words which were used to accuse and condemn Gretta Vosper (as well as the trial itself) constitute a self-indictment of the institution and not of one of its ministers. By dismissing her, has the United Church of Canada condemned itself as an organisation which is past its use by date and which has done despite to one of its most valuable leaders?
The Report states that Gretta told the Committee that she did not believe in a Trinitarian God. Instead, by ‘god/God’ she meant what is created between people in relationships, but does not exist separate from us, and the construct is not divine. She said that she does not use the word ‘God’ because its use is a barrier to some people. She does not believe that Jesus was divine. He is not the Son of God. Jesus is not her Saviour. She said that she no longer calls herself a Christian. She does not believe that there is a Holy Spirit. She does not believe that there is a God who calls anyone to ministry. She does not administer sacraments. She does not consider scripture to be the primary source, but merely one source of information amongst many. She is no longer in essential agreement with the statement of doctrine of The United Church of Canada. Instead, Ms. Vosper said that her theology has evolved beyond the doctrine of the United Church.
The report describes the person whom the church has rejected as minister: “Ms. Vosper was called to West Hill United Church in 1997, continues to serve as their sole minister, and is a member of Toronto Southeast Presbytery. She graduated from Queen’s Theological College in 1990 and was ordained by Bay of Quinte Conference in 1993. Ms. Vosper is the author of two books: With or Without God: Why The Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean...... Ms. Vosper is the founder and Chair of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, an organization that provides resources and support to those exploring the boundaries of Christian thought both within and outside of their congregations. Ms. Vosper has been active in her Presbytery and has served as Chair.
Gretta initially appealed the negative Ruling to the Judicial Committee. On March 17, 2016, however the Judicial Committee Executive decided that the Appeal did not meet the grounds for an Appeal as set out in The Manual 2013 and therefore would not hear the appeal. Toronto Conference Sub-Executive decided to reinstate its review of Rev. Vosper’s ministry8 and on May 3, 2016 the Executive Secretary sent a notice to her setting out the process for the interview to be held on June 16, 2016. The notice set out the questions that she would be asked to affirm and advised that she might be asked questions of candidates for ministry at their final interviews for ordination, commissioning or admission.. Gretta was invited to send a written response that would be read by the members of the Conference Interview Committee before the interview. “Ms. Vosper’s submissions (176 pages) were received on June 17th and distributed to the members of the Conference Interview Committee the same day.”
On June 16th West Hill sent written submissions that were distributed to the Conference Interview Committee the same day. On June 27th, West Hill also sent a petition in favour of Gretta Vosper and asked that it be permitted to address the Conference Interview Committee. That request was denied.
(In reporting about the interview, the Conference Interview Committee has used the edited responses Gretta posted on her website. If there was no response posted to a question asked, the Committee has relied on its notes.)
Ms. Vosper advised the Conference Interview Committee that at her ordination by Bay Of Quinte Conference in 1993, she was not asked the questions in the Basis of Union 11.3, but rather:
“Within the ministry of the whole people of God, you are called to a ministry of Word and Sacrament and Pastoral Care. You are to exercise your ministry in accordance with the scriptures and in continuity with the faith of the Church. With God’s people, you are to discern the needs, concerns and hopes of the world and proclaim by word and deed the justice of God’s reign.
You are to love and service the people among whom you work, caring alike for the young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.
You are to teach and preach, to declare God’s judgment and forgiveness and announce God’s blessing in the assembly of the people, to lead in prayer and preside at the font of baptism and at the table of the Lord.
You are to nourish, and be nourished by Christ’s people from the riches of God’s grace and, together with them, to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.
Each candidate for ordination was asked:
a. Do you believe in God who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Holy Spirit?
b. Do you believe that God is calling you to the ordained ministry of Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Call and do you accept this call?
c. Will you, with Christ’s people, be faithful in prayer and in the study of scripture, that you may know the mind of Christ?
d. Will you endeavour to teach and preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received?
e. Will you be faithful in the pastoral care of all whom you are called to serve, labouring together with them to build up the household of God?
f. Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and discipline of The United Church of Canada?
Gretta Vosper told the Committee that she was asked these questions in 1993 and that she had answered “I do; I will”.
(We note that this evidence is consistent with her statement that her theology had “evolved beyond” the old doctrines. Ed.)
The Committee report states Gretta’s answers to the following questions:
i. What is your understanding of God?
Ms. Vosper chose to answer this question using the words from the Basis of Union, section 11.3: God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Ms. Vosper said that she does not believe in a Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world – capriciously or by design – by responding to our prayerful requests, or altering our minds and so, too, our actions, or intervening in the natural world with or without provocation or invitation in order to alter weather patterns, health, the accumulation or loss of wealth, the circumstances of birth including geography – a predictor of health and access to food and water – gender, sexuality, mental capacity, or beauty – all predictors of the power status and ease with which individuals will live their lives, then, no, she does not believe in that at all. Ms. Vosper told the Committee that neither does she believe in a god of no substance who exists beyond the universe yet contains it, interpenetrating it in some incomprehensible way for some incomprehensible purpose.
Ms. Vosper sees no evidence of such gods. And so she said that there is no reason to remain aligned with a doctrine that does not fit the contemporary and ever-evolving scientific understandings of the universe or ethical perspectives on human dignity and rights. She also said that there is no reason why we should eschew the scholarship of the countless theologians who have argued for centuries, that the doctrine of the Trinity is unworthy of our intellectual consideration, let alone our allegiance. Ms. Vosper said that there is no reason to require of anyone who comes to us for service of any kind, including participation in the creation of vibrant, meaningful communities, acknowledgment of or belief in Trinitarian or any other form of ecclesial language and the subsequent study and support they will require to move beyond traditionally held interpretations of that language with which they most likely arrive at our doors. She said that the only faithomable [sic] reason that the Church might consider holding to the doctrine of the Trinity and commencing an ongoing program of investigation of clergy that requires assent to that doctrine in order for their ministry to be considered effective is the maintenance of the United Church’s membership in the World Council of Churches. Ms. Vosper said that the work of ministry with individuals and communities of transformation is more integral to the work of the Church than membership in an organization.
Ms. Vosper said that even if she were given incontrovertible proof that a god does or gods do exist, the evidence of the cruel and capricious realities of disparity, tragedy, illness, and anguish in the world, and the truth that our world and our experience of it is wrapped not only in beauty but also in excruciating pain, would prevent her from worshipping it or pledging her allegiance to it, no matter the cost.
Ms. Vosper told the Committee that what she does believe has come to her through a heritage that is rich in church and in the United Church into which she was born and raised. She said: “It is rooted in my family that, like many families, transmitted positive values to its children. These same positive values have also been projected by humanity, alongside other, more dangerous values, to become the attributes of the transcendent, divine, supernatural beings that we have called gods. During times when social cohesion was crucial to the survival of small tribal communities, fear of those deities provided a powerful antidote to individual expression or actions that might threaten the community’s well-being – murder, theft, adultery, abortion, homosexual behaviours. These became offences against gods and came with god-sized punishments. Twinning social laws with supernatural beings may have been an evolutionary twist that provided for our survival.” Ms. Vosper said that it does not follow, however, that supernatural beings provided the moral codes or values by which we choose to live. She said that while the values instilled in her as a child were values reinforced by her church school and Christian upbringing, they are not values exclusive to that upbringing. And she said that there are no moral codes that have been formed by the mind of god. Rather she told the Committee, there is a morality that we have created and that transcends our personal circumstances. It is a morality that we have the responsibility to review and revise as we each see necessary for our wholeness and, she hopes, social cohesion, which is so integral to our well-being, our future as a species, and our impact on the future of all on the planet. It is in these non-doctrinal things that Ms. Vosper said that she has faith.
Ms. Vosper said that she believes in love and that for her, love is the most sacred value. When she calls something sacred, she said that she means that it is so crucial to our humanness, to our humanity, that we cannot risk its denigration, degradation, or destruction. To live without that sacred thing – in this case love – would mean we had repudiated our evolved and critically negotiated humanity.
Ms. Vosper said that what she understands about love is not a simplistic, self-serving love. Instead, she means a costly, challenging, transformative love that pulls us beyond the people we think we were, the people we may have been content to remain, in order that our humanity be more complex. She told the Committee that love refuses to count its cost, seeking, rather, to disperse that cost into community, pulling us toward one another as it does so and beyond the divisions that otherwise might leave us in isolation.
Ms. Vosper said that there are religious texts and biblical stories that can be interpreted in the light of that kind of love, some of which may even seem to tell of the most complete embodiment of it that has ever walked the earth. These are questions of interpretation. She told the Committee that biblical examples are not integral to the understanding or the living out of love and that anyone, regardless of creed or ideology or even ignorant of such things, may still live in accordance with a costly love. Ms. Vosper said that she believes that the greater portion of humanity chooses to do so.
Ms. Vosper told the Committee that our Christian forbearers were seekers after truth. She referenced Dean William Sparrow, who is said to have ended every lecture with the words: “Seek the truth, cost what it will, come whence it may, lead where it might.” She mused that Dean Sparrow was challenging his students for a life in the ministry that would not be compromised by the quitting of intellectual integrity. She suggested that he was coaching them to hold to what they were learning and to go out into ministry without forgetting to continue to learn. Ms. Vosper said that the quest for truth is never over, and so it remains at the top of the list of those things in which she believes. Ms. Vosper said that she believes in truth and believes that it is important to seek truth, no matter where it comes from, no matter what we may lose in the process, no matter where we end up. She told the Committee: “It is my commitment to truth – both seeking it and sharing it – that has brought us here today.”
There are some who have argued courage is the greater virtue because it is required to live out any of the others, but Ms. Vosper said that she believes love badgers 13 courage into being, and when love fails to do so, she believes that truth picks up the rant. She said: “Love and truth can exist without courage but almost as soon as one or the other emerges, courage is a must. Courage is a must if we are to do anything to protect those we love or to strive toward truth, no matter its cost or destination. Love without truth or truth without love can both deny wholeness.”
Ms. Vosper told the Committee that courage without either breeds indifference or savage violence. She said: “Violence bred by love and justice, is tempered by the very root of its action, which can only ever be to restore rights or to secure safety. It is in the interweaving of these three virtues that positive change happens, in our hearts, in our relationships, in our communities and in the world.”
It is these virtues – love, truth, and courage – that provide for all the rest upon which Ms. Vosper said that her ministry is built.
Ms. Vosper said: “All of these virtues can be found explicitly or implicitly in stories from the Bible, but they do not originate there. To suggest that they did would be inconsistent with contemporary scholarship and dishonour the human story, both of which predated and ran parallel with its writing. To present them as having been created by a god and given to us is to refuse humanity credit for its most noble accomplishment. It also removes our right and inherent responsibility, as their creator and agent, to bring to the fore or limit certain of them as the needs of the human community evolve.”
She told the Committee that hope, as the promise of something we cannot assure, is deeply rooted in our Christian heritage. Ms. Vosper said that she does not speak of hope; she chooses to create, to accompany, to name, to comfort, to acknowledge, to embrace, to lament, to encourage, to convict, to trust again. She said that she cannot bring about a peaceful death with only hope. She said that she cannot mitigate the effects of corporatism, or global climate change with only hope; she cannot redress our tragic history with Indigenous peoples with only hope; and she cannot address poverty, violence, xenophobia, arrogance, or illness with only hope. Ms. Vosper said that only if she has a hammer in her hand, only if action congruent with our responsibilities as human beings to alleviate suffering or redress abuse is in the offering or underway, will she offer the word ‘hope’. She said that she will not offer hope to mollify or comfort when to do so does not alleviate pain or suffering, does not create right relationship, does not forestall death, but only pretends all these things might be achieved and so anesthetizes us to their reality with an illusion that comforts we who extend it more than those to whom we dispense it. Ms. Vosper told the Committee that she does not offer an empty hope and would not wish one offered to her.
The Interview Team asked whether hope, faith and justice were God. Ms. Vosper answered that she has stopped using the word ‘God’ because it is a barrier to participation in the Church. Instead, she speaks of who God is for her. Ms. Vosper explained that they do not sing sacred music at West Hill and she doesn’t use the word ‘God’ there.
When questioned, Ms. Vosper said that for her ‘God’ is what is created between us. Although we cannot measure or describe it, Ms. Vosper said that it is the power in relationships that is pure and strong, but she does not call this ‘God’.
Ms. Vosper was asked whether God was anything more than a construct between two people. She answered: “No, I don’t believe so.” She acknowledged that the construct has a power beyond us, but it does not exist separate from us. It is dependent upon us.
The Interview Team then asked if she believed in a metaphorical God. Ms. Vosper responded that she does not use the word ‘God’ because using archaic words is a barrier. Traditionally, the word ‘God’ is of a supernatural being. Ms. Vosper said that she no longer uses the word ‘God’ because she doesn’t believe in such a being. She would not use metaphors for God in worship.
ii. Who is Jesus Christ for you?
Ms. Vosper said that Jesus is a historical figure with healing skills who lived some time at the beginning of the Common Era. She said that the record of his life is spotty; he was an itinerant Middle Eastern preacher who managed to engage a group of people who were looking for the same things. Ms. Vosper said that she does not see Jesus as divine. She told the Committee that Jesus was not the Son of God and that Jesus is not her Saviour.
Ms. Vosper was asked whether she called herself a Christian. She answered that ten or twelve years ago she wrote two articles that were published side by side. One set out all the pluses of Christianity. The other set out all the negatives. Today, Ms. Vosper never calls herself a Christian.
iii. What is your understanding of the Holy Spirit?
Ms. Vosper responded that the Holy Spirit is a construct of the early church that grew up to deal with the various factions in the Church. She said that there is no such thing as the Holy Spirit.
Iv. Given your understanding of God, why do you call yourself an atheist?
Ms. Vosper responded that because she does not believe in a divine supernatural being who may or may not move and act in the world, the traditional understanding of the word ‘God’, she does not use the word ‘God’. Ms. Vosper said that she first identified as a non-theist, but then realized that it could include something that had an agency. In 2008 she began calling herself a theological non-realist. Ms. Vosper said that she has used the words atheist and non-theist interchangeably because she rejects a belief in a theist God.
Ms. Vosper explained that she first identified as an atheist in 2013 in solidarity, with four Bangladeshi bloggers, secular humanists, who were arrested and threatened with execution following the brutal murder of Rajib Haider and with Fazil Say, the Turkish pianist, who was sentenced to ten months in prison for identifying as an atheist. By calling herself an atheist, Ms. Vosper said that she was joining the voices of others in condemning the actions of the Bangladeshi government.
v. How do you articulate your call and commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ and the ministry of The United Church of Canada?
Ms. Vosper said that she was never asked to commit to the ministry of Jesus Christ. She has a commitment to the United Church. Ms. Vosper said that she believes that a spiritual commitment is the challenge of living out one’s convictions and that she could live out this commitment by becoming a United Church minister.
vi. How do you minister to those in a congregation who have different theologies and beliefs that you do?
Ms. Vosper responded that she ministers the same way to those who do not agree with her as she does to those who agree with her. She considers pastoral care as working with others, to making herself available to others who are in crisis. She is not a trained counselor and therefore refers persons with such needs to qualified professionals. Ms. Vosper said that she understands spiritual direction to take the form of accompaniment, to repair, to commit to right relations.
vii. How do you explain the theology of baptism?
Ms. Vosper said that West Hill does not use a Trinitarian formula for baptism. When she began at West Hill, she used alternative language suggested by the United Church. Over the years the language she uses for baptism at West Hill has evolved. Ms. Vosper said that she explains to the parents that she would not be using the traditional language for the baptism, that they would not receive a baptismal certificate, and that the World Council of Churches would not recognize the baptism.
When asked what are persons at West Hill baptized into, Ms. Vosper said that she does not speak of the Christian Church. Rather, she incorporates the characteristics or qualities the parents want to instil in their child and speaks about the challenge this will provide for the congregation.
viii. What does the sacrament of communion mean to you?
Ms. Vosper responded that communion is a communal sharing of bread. At West Hill, people bring food into a room beside the gathering hall. Juice and bread are at the front of the church. Ms. Vosper said that she speaks about gathering around the table because it is around tables that we have conversations, learn things about one another, and fall in love. She said that she does not use the traditional words of a communion service. At the end of the gathering, the doors to the adjacent room are opened and food is brought in for the celebration.
ix. How do you understand mystical experiences?
Ms. Vosper responded that mystical experiences are personal experiences and, although she has never had one, Ms. Vosper doesn’t deny that others have had them. She said that even if two persons have the same experience, they may use different words to describe the experience. Ms. Vosper has heard Marcus Borg say that he had mystical experiences. When Ms. Vosper has a migraine, she does not see this experience as mystical.
x. What is worship to you?
West Hill calls Sundays ‘gathering’, not worship. Ms. Vosper said: “We come together to strengthen our relationships, to strengthen our love for each other, to inspire each other through music and readings to be as whole and beautiful as we can be. West Hill celebrates what we have done. We convict ourselves when we fall short.”
xi. For you, what is prayer?
Ms. Vosper told the Committee that prayer at West Hill is now called ‘community sharing’. Ms. Vosper said that she explains to newcomers what is going to happen and often ties what is being done with traditional worship. For example, a person may say that they are concerned about X. The congregation will respond, “May love abound.” She said that community sharing ends with the words of commitment. Ms. Vosper said that in her experience, this is the prayer that is answered. Someone might come forward and offer to assist. She gave an example, that during community sharing a person spoke about a professor who was denied admission to Canada because he had a child with Down’s syndrome. Someone in the congregation, who has Down’s syndrome, stood up and affirmed that person’s concerns.
xii. Do you believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you commit yourself to God?
Ms. Vosper answered that if the Interview Team meant the Trinitarian God as she had talked about before, then, no, she does not.
Ms. Vosper went on to say that the question may have served to direct our commitment to God because God transcends our own perspective, our own self-serving ideas. She said: “When the questions of ordination were framed, very likely before 1908, those who wrote them could not have been unaware of the effects of secularization on Christianity, particularly in the three denominations coming into the union. They could not have been unaware of the new interpretations of God that, Trinity or no, were non-traditional in nature. To commit ourselves to God meant we weren’t in this for ourselves, we were in it for a higher, nobler reason no matter what we meant when we used the word ‘God’. She said that the question challenged us to reach beyond ourselves because we were committing ourselves to something that radically transcended our own capabilities.”
Without God, that transcendent, nobler point of reference to which we have committed ourselves in the past, Ms. Vosper asked herself whether it was possible that we might, then, commit ourselves to something mundane and self-serving, something that, in fact, arises out of our ego rather than out of concern for wholeness and social cohesion? She answered: “Of course it is. Without an intention to broaden our awareness, make use of our evolved and empathy-producing anterior cingulate that is exactly what we might very well do. To do so would be, in essence, a compromise of our humanity, and take us back to “the limited and socially-tense world of the chimpanzees.” What makes us different from chimpanzees is that we figured out a strategy for survival that is less taut with potential violence.”
Ms. Vosper told the Committee: “Our basic strategy could be phrased this way: ‘to achieve personal wholeness and social cohesion’ at the same time, balancing them out to our best advantage and creating societies that manage the dramatic tension those two goals create. If we don’t achieve personal wholeness, comprised of a healthy balance of our spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional selves, we don’t thrive, we simply exist. If we cannot build social cohesion, we have no means through which we can achieve personal wholeness; lives are constantly under threat, something to which the current realities of refugee camps and the nations that spawn them attest. Humanity, if it is to survive and develop a robust reproductive strength – admittedly evolutionary terms – must develop healthy and autonomous personalities and do so within cooperative social groups. Belief systems – religions – have been a major tool in the facilitation and maintenance of a helpful balancing of self and community interests. That’s one theory.” Ms. Vosper said: “When the gods of our creation fall away, as I believe that they have been forced to do by the rise of reason and the constant erosion of supernatural belief by science, we still need to find something, a belief system that calls us to do that work – help us keep the equilibrium between personal self-interest and communal well-being. West Hill is doing this.” West Hill’s Mission Statement states: ‘Moved by a reverence for life to pursue justice for all, we inspire one another to seek truth, live fully, care deeply and make a difference’. Ms. Vosper told the Committee that she commits herself to West Hill’s values and to living out this challenge.
xiii. Do you believe that God is calling you to the ordained ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Pastoral Care, and do you accept this call?
Ms. Vosper answered the question in segments.
a. Do you believe that God is calling you…?
Ms. Vosper said that she does not believe in gods who can intervene in the natural world and therefore cannot believe that there is something we could define as a ‘call’ from any god to us to direct us to act in any particular way.
Ms. Vosper said she understands the importance of conviction as a virtue in our lives, a deeply felt recognition that one is to follow a certain path or forge a new one. She told the Committee that she believes that such convictions can be inspired by personal experience – both known and unremembered; our relationships – both good and bad; and our contexts – both the personal and global. Ms. Vosper said that she believes our appreciation of life and our experience of wholeness results from how closely one is able to live according to one’s convictions. She said that the spiritual quest is the search for that point of resonance – that place of passion and conviction – where one’s own skills and abilities best meet the world’s greatest needs. Ms. Vosper said that she believes the spiritual task is the challenge of living in that place of conviction.
Ms. Vosper told the Committee that when she entered theological college, it was the result of years of struggling with a conviction that the most meaningful way in which she could be of influence in the world – the place where her skills and abilities could best meet the world’s needs – was through the work of inspiration and transformation, work she had witnessed in profound and moving ways by the leaders in the United Church. She said that her conviction was further galvanized during her theological training, most particularly through the teaching and mentoring of Christopher Levan and Doug Patterson, and the exploration there of the theologies of liberation, collaboration, and radicalization. For her, these theologies were reinforced by United Church activists and theologians during her time at Queen’s and further entrenched in the gospel stories about the man called Jesus. She said that they also further reinforced her convictions that it was in ministry that her gifts could best be used to serve the world at one of its points of urgent need.
b. Do you believe God is calling you to the ministry of the Word?
Ms. Vosper responded that if ‘Word’ meant the Bible was the sole source or the primary source from which she is to draw wisdom for herself or those to and with whom she ministers or that our ethical and moral choices must be grounded in its content, then no, she does not consider herself engaged in a ministry of the Word nor does she accept a call to that ministry.
Ms. Vosper went on to say that her ministry was built on the wisdom accumulated by and within humanity over the course of its history, including but not limited to the documents of our religious tradition. She stated that the authority of a text lies in its message and not in its source or the source to which it is attributed. Ms. Vosper said that many stories in the Bible would not meet West Hill’s standards of merit as they present depictions of relationships of power and privilege, many of which include violence, to which they do not ascribe or are set within a worldview they no longer accept. Since 2004, West Hill’s sources for wisdom were identified in their congregational documents as ‘diverse’. She told the Committee that she is challenged to source texts for their gatherings that meet West Hills’ standards of love, justice and compassion and that will inform, inspire, edify, or convict. These sources may be from ancient documents or contemporary pop culture or from anything in between. They may be from art, poetry, prose, literature, fiction, biography, screenplay, or script, or any field of non-fiction. West Hill has a library of accumulated wisdom that is added to daily. Ms. Vosper dips into that library to find material that addresses the concerns of the day and engages the congregation.
c. Do you believe God is calling you to the ministry of Sacrament(s)?
Ms. Vosper responded by saying that if Sacraments meant liturgical devices through which she, as an ordained person, is able to change ordinary items into signs of God’s grace, requirements for full leadership, or acceptance to membership in community, then, no, she does not consider herself engaged in such a ministry nor does she accept a call to that ministry.
Ms. Vosper went on to say that she understands her ministry to be the calling of one another to witness the passage of one’s own life and of the lives of others and that there are moments along life’s trail when that is important and meaningful and best done in community. Ms. Vosper said that she understands her ministry invites her to lift up those moments for those with whom she ministers and to invite them to stand witness to one another’s brokenness and wholeness and to commit to standing with, in love, no matter what. She believes the moment of dignity and memory that is created can be powerful affirmations of life, being, and community. Ms. Vosper told the Committee that she believes that the symbolic ritual of marking a child with water is a parent’s opportunity to articulate the qualities of character they commit to instil in their child. It is also the community’s opportunity to embrace and celebrate the possibilities inherent in each new life and to pledge themselves to the support of keeping those possibilities large.
Ms. Vosper said that she believes that the symbolic ritual of breaking bread is a community’s opportunity to ‘re-member’ itself and its commitments to one another.
Ms. Vosper told the Committee that she believes the symbolic rituals for forgiveness, reconciliation, love, leave-taking, marriage, transformation, divorce, new commitments, death, and grief hold the space in which individuals are invited to move into, through, or beyond significant places on their life’s journeys. Visual art that marks these moments has become significant for West Hill. Ms. Vosper said that it is her privilege to work with members of West Hill and beyond to create meaningful symbolic actions and rituals that allow that sacred space to emerge.
d. Do you believe God is calling you to the ministry of Pastoral Care?
Ms. Vosper responded that if the ministry of pastoral care meant the rendering of spiritual care, direction, and counselling to individuals, couples, families, groups, and a congregation that is undergirded by the Holy Spirit or that presumes to guide those under care toward greater discernment of God’s plan for their lives, whether through guided self-exploration or study of the Bible or devotional resources based on it, then, no, she does not consider herself to be engaged in such a ministry nor does she accept a call to that ministry.
Ms. Vosper went on to say that if pastoral care is meant to be working with others in their pursuit of right relationship with self, others, and the planet either with a focus on long term goals or as needed in times of crisis, she does not believe that her position gives her the right to impose herself upon people at times of illness, bereavement, or crises but rather to make herself available as and when needed and to ensure that individuals, particularly those experiencing crises, know that she is available should they choose to avail themselves of her presence.
Ms. Vosper acknowledged that she is not a trained counsellor and therefore said she does not enter into counselling relationships for which she is not qualified.
Ms. Vosper said that she understands that in times of crisis, pastoral care is the work of being present in situations of grief, loss, anger, and confusion in an empathetic way, open to the needs of others and responding as and how she is able, sufficient to the validation of experience, the provision of support, and the witness of love and compassion. Ms. Vosper stated that pastoral care is also the work of providing safe space to individuals, couples, or groups wherein individuals can build trust and speak openly with respect while risking appropriately the work of growth and understanding. She said that creating such space requires an understanding of appropriate boundaries and the creation of them.
The long term work of pastoral care might be considered spiritual direction which Ms. Vosper said she understands to be the work of accompanying an individual as they undertake a spiritual quest to find a place at which his or her gifts might best be offered to an urgent need in the world. She told the Committee that its purpose is to draw individuals towards a greater understanding of their potential, opportunities, unresolved grief, and unacknowledged strengths in order that they develop resilience in their personal lives, and within their relationships. She said it is to repair and recommit to right relationship with self, others, and the planet as is appropriate given the history and contextual realities of the individual(s) involved.
Ms. Vosper stated that she practices all these things in her work at West Hill.
e. Do you believe God is calling you to the ordained ministry?
Ms. Vosper responded that if ordained meant ‘set apart’ by being provided extraordinary and spiritual gifts that allow for the discernment of a divine plan or message in an ancient text or the consecration of juice, bread, or water into sacred elements that have the power to transmit the grace of a supernatural god called God to humans otherwise mired in sin in order to mark them as recipients of that grace to whom she might then extend the comfort of that god, then, no, she does not feel conviction about that ministry.
Ms. Vosper went on to say that her work is an understanding that both awakens individuals to the importance of creating meaningful lives for themselves and contributing to the meaningful-making work of others, and that supports them in that work. She said that it is the work of challenging individuals and communities to reach toward both personal wholeness and social cohesion – the balance which, when achieved, leads to success in the human community. Ms. Vosper referenced five significant tasks of religion identified by Phillip Goldberg:
Transmission – of a sense of identity transmitted from one generation to the next through a variety of means – ritual, shared custom and stories, and historical continuity.
Translation – of the events of life into a form that helps convey a sense of meaning and purpose and which helps individuals understand their relationship to the wider community of greater whole.
Transaction – individuals and communities are better able to flourish when the transactions that take place between them are governed by formal or informal moral codes. These define what right relationship means within the community.
Transformation – encourages the engagement of individuals and communities in ongoing maturation and growth in the pursuit of personal and social fulfilment.
Transcendence – provides a reference point beyond the individual or community that challenges them to expand beyond their understanding to experience themselves as integrated with a larger whole, the web of life. This can be understood as the realization of the impact one has on the vast expanse of life both during and beyond his or her lifetime and does not require belief in a supernatural realm.
Ms. Vosper said that these tasks go toward creating the balance between personal wholeness and social cohesion and recognizes them as deeply human undertakings for which religion has been the purveyor. But she said that each may be engaged or fulfilled without the need for religious language or doctrine.
ix. Are you willing to exercise your ministry in accordance with the scriptures, in continuity with the faith of the Church, and subject to the oversight and discipline of The United Church of Canada?
Ms. Vosper chose to answer this question in segments.
a. Exercising ministry in accordance with scriptures?
Ms. Vosper responded by saying that within the context of a community that sets for itself the work of engaging in contemporary issues with courage, clarity, and compassion, most scripture is obscure at best, most often irrelevant, and at its worst, dangerously prone to misguiding those studying it.
Ms. Vosper went on to explain that Biblical scholarship has long required that biblical texts be strained through a variety of sieves in order to ensure that they are presented appropriately for contemporary audiences and not vulnerable to our own circumscribed perspectives. These include but are not limited to setting the text in a historical, political, and social context; identifying the author and the community to which he wrote; examining the use of words and phrases in the text as they are used in the original languages elsewhere in the Bible to decipher the particular intention of the author; examining conflicting texts not only for the validation of claims within the text but to examine existing arguments or positions against which the text was written; addressing any assumptions or privilege introduced into the text by its author, and finally, guessing at the meaning of the text or intentions of the author to the best of one’s abilities.
Given the challenges presented by a text that ranges in age from nineteen to twenty-eight centuries and the breadth of interpretation legitimated by a wide variety of theological and scholarly perspectives, Ms. Vosper said that she does not understand what exercising her ministry in accordance with the scriptures means.
b. Exercising ministry in continuity with the faith of the Church?
In responding, Ms. Vosper referenced her written submissions in which she spoke of her theological development from her youth through her theological training and on to the continuing education she undertakes as an ordered minister within the United Church.
In that description, Ms. Vosper presented her experience of and development within a denomination that, at much cost to itself, explored beyond the realms of belief that had been charted by previous generations. She said that in that important and ground-breaking work, it was the first church to do many extraordinary things, always leading with an interpretation of the faith that called it and its members to greater love, compassion, and truth. Ms. Vosper said that the United Church was able to do those things because it regularly and repeatedly held the Bible and the doctrines of the church subordinate to the principle of love and all that required of it and us. And by doing so, she said, the United Church has been an inspiration to other mainline Protestant denominations, to its leaders, and to its members.
Ms. Vosper said that the process of change within West Hill consists of the evolution of a congregation of The United Church of Canada ‘within the faith of the church’ insofar as ‘within’ can be described as a reasonable application of scholarship, reason, the discernment of truth, and the subordination of doctrine to the principle of love.
Ms. Vosper recounted that about a decade ago, West Hill began referring to itself as a ‘spiritual community of faith growing out of the Christian tradition.’ In her view, that language was prescient. She said that while that language ensured that West Hill held to their roots, bringing much-loved traditions, hymn tunes, and symbols, values that it continues to share with the wider church, and a commitment to actions the United Church initiates or embraces, it also encouraged West Hill to create space in their community for those who were uncomfortable with ecclesial language, who honoured the value and the work of the United Church but did not want to participate in doctrinally focused services of worship. She told the Committee that this decision has allowed West Hill to be present to many in their immediate community, and across the Greater Toronto Area. Ms. Vosper said that this decision has placed West Hill as a leader in the evolution of church beyond the beliefs that divide. West Hill’s materials are used in schools and in churches around the world. She said that the evolution of West Hill has taken place over sixty-six years.
c. Exercising your ministry subject to the oversight and discipline of The United Church of Canada?
Ms. Vosper responded that she has only ever exercised her ministry subject to the oversight and discipline of the United Church.
Ms. Vosper went on to say that she has a deep respect for the men and women who, over the decades, crafted and evolved an institutional structure that placed the ideals of ministry and its practice within the reach and engagement of generations of Canadians. They helped form this nation through the widespread influence of their vision and their labours.
Ms. Vosper said that she remains committed to working within that structure even as she invites those who love this Church, as she does, to continue to evolve its practices and polity as new realties and challenges emerge.
x. Will you, with Christ’s people, be faithful in prayer and in the study of scripture, that you may know the mind of Christ?
Ms. Vosper responded that she would engage with anyone about the human accumulation of wisdom, including the lectionary. But she would not use scripture exclusively. Ms. Vosper advised that for more than twenty years West Hill has engaged in book study and that study has transformed West Hill.
xi. Will you endeavour to teach and preach the Word of God and to administer the sacraments, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received?
Ms. Vosper repeated her answer to the second Basis of Union vow.
xii. Will you be faithful in the pastoral care of all whom you are called to serve, labouring together with them to build up the household of God?
Ms. Vosper said that she was comfortable with this vow and included what we build between us as the household of God. She said that we must find a way beyond the divisiveness within Christianity and to reach out to those of no faith. She said that it is important that we have the ability to empathize with those who do not look like us or believe what we do.
The Report of the interview goes on to address at length, ten more issues including Gretta’s belief and practice regarding the Holy Spirit, Call to the Ministry, Baptism, Dealing with People of differing Beliefs, personal Mystical Experience, Conduct of Worship, Prayer, the Trinity, etc., etc. Her responses to these and many other aspects of her work are available on the CPRT website.
But the interview did not finish there; the Report goes on to deal with a multiplicity of procedural issues arising from recommendations made in Gretta’s responses.
There is no doubt that the Committee had faithfully and thoroughly observed due diligence in dealing with her case. Their faithfulness to these regulations has in our opinion however, resulted in the crucifixion of a courageous servant of their church and follower of Jesus of Nazareth who, like Him has dared to demonstrate that it is more important what you do than what you believe. Consequently the enquiry began to get off the rails in the very beginning when the Toronto Conference issued the Conference Interview Committee with a mandate to determine Gretta’s suitability purely on the grounds of her breach of her theological ordination vows. The mandate specifically excluded any evaluation of her standards of practice regarding administration, community outreach, social justice, continuing education, leadership, pastoral care or self care. And the problem was exacerbated by the fact that the procedures of the institution were and still are regarded as inflexible in a rapidly changing world. In conclusion, Gretta urged the Committee to find that the way forward in the future is not by using an aberrant disciplinary process, but rather through collaborative effort to improve the United Church of Canada.
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Literalism or liberation?
Reading the Qur'an, the task of Muslim women
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and author of Islam and the Arab Awakening. In the second of a projected three-part series on Women and Islam on ABC Religion and Ethics in November last year, he reported on the role Islamic women are playing in interpreting the Qur’an.
Early ulama obviously could not undertake the task of addressing the question of women's being. As men, they could hardly do more than determine women's functions. As actors in a given culture, they could not transcend that culture. In addition to being subject to their gender, they were necessarily also products of their culture.
Yet, in the light of the higher objectives of Islam - the individual's dignity, integrity, autonomy, development, education, intelligence, welfare, health and inner balance - one can realise that a number of rules inferentially establish an explicit status for women as beings.
Their spiritual quest is recognised as part of their being and development like that of men, and education is an imperative requirement: "Seeking knowledge is an obligation for every Muslim man or woman." Women's recognised autonomy is outlined in their having the right to acquire property and goods and manage them as soon as they reach maturity, without having to answer to anybody (neither their parents nor their husbands), as well as their keeping their own family name when they marry.
On a more personal level, the recognition of their right to sexual pleasure, of their choices regarding marriage, divorce, contraception and even abortion establishes, both in practice and in the purposes of the Islamic message, the groundwork of elaborate discourse about women as beings, their status, their autonomy and their legitimate aspirations, before beginning any discourse about their rights within the limits of their families and social functions.
Scholars were remote from such considerations when they undertook the first legal deciphering. Interested as they were in the legal framework, they mainly focused on function. They were also influenced by culture, which fashions gender relations and the conception of the natural status of women in traditional Eastern, Arab (or Persian or Asian) and patriarchal societies.
Reading the early commentaries proposed by such great scholars as Al Tabari, Al Razi, or Al Qurtubi clearly shows that they were indeed immersed in a specific culture and that their comments about women - their role as well as how they should be treated - stem as much, if not more, from cultural projection as from normative critical reading.
In the light of the revelation's evolution of the Prophet's (PBUH) attitude and of the objectives that have been worked out, this might have continued to propose liberating paths for women if early interpreters had not confined themselves to formal literality or to stipulating rights and duties only or to accepting customs. Men, the texts' early readers and interpreters, felt no need for that, while women, who were directly affected by social realities and possible distortions of the texts, were absent from that legal elaboration. Malek Ibn Anas and Abu Hanifah were able to make daring comments regarding their environment, particularly in fields whose practices they knew from within such as clan relations or trade, but it was impossible for them to do the same in terms of women's issues, precisely because they were not women and they could not understand from within how the latter experienced interpersonal relations and integrated social dynamics.
Accordingly, we should indeed return to the texts and the modalities of their reading and interpretation in the light of the environments in which they were revealed. Islamic legal thinking about women is certainly the field that has suffered most from two phenomena: literalist reduction and cultural projection. The revelations, accompanied by the Prophet's (PBUH) example, represented a divine pedagogy that consisted, over 23 years and according to historical circumstances, in changing early Muslims' mindsets and leading them to consider the issue of women differently.
A study exclusively focusing on the texts, their substance, comparison and chronology - such as that of scholar Abd Al Halim Abu Shuqqah, Women's Liberation in the Age of Revelation - shows that this is a continued process of liberation that is accounted for by the message's global vision and by the objectives (maqasid) inferred from the process. Therefore, in addition to reading the texts, one should examine the cultural environment of the time and understand what these texts refer to and which issues are involved in what they say.
It would appear that in virtually every aspect of women's being and activity in societies, text sequences not only state injunctions, but also open prospects that can only be extracted through a holistic, goal-oriented approach. Whether about the relationship to God, to faith or to the mosque; about necessary education and autonomy, for oneself and towards others; about relating to the body, sexuality, marriage and divorce; about relating to work, money, politics or even war; one can observe that the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions take highly innovative positions, which are also very open about their understanding of and dialectical involvement in social environments. The issue, then, is no longer only to know what the texts say about women, but rather to understand what was promoted, defended and prescribed concerning women's being and power, in relation to the environment of the time.
The relationship between texts and contexts must be studied and this will enable us to extract principles and objectives. Texts do not speak by themselves and teachings are both synchronic and diachronic: the relation to time is crucial, and the relation to the context is imperative.
A literalist reading cannot account for those evolutionary dynamics and their tense relation to time and environments. Specialising in the contents of texts alone (as is required of fuqaha as a priority) is likely to restrict both the substance of the message and its higher objectives. Some existing texts are sometimes read and interpreted without considering chronology and context; it thus becomes impossible for some ulama to dare express clear legal opinions in the light of higher objectives. They should, for instance, speak out on the fact that keeping women illiterate, forbidding them to work, reaching financial autonomy and playing a social and economic role, as well as such practices as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, the denial of divorce or restraint against domestic violence, are absolutely contrary to Islam's message as shown through its evolution (over more than 23 years) and the Prophet's (PBUH) own attitude.
That, however, is not all. Such clear positions must be completed with studies about the different social dynamics or the management of real or figurative powers between women and men, shedding light on the complex situations in which (in the name of religion itself or of its rejection) rights can be lost, discrimination can set in or some forms of alienation may replace others.
Women are the first victims of those reductions of rights in the substance of texts and of the obstacles that lie deep within social structures - that is why they should train in the study of texts, acquire the tools to interpret them and complete the understanding of principles with thorough reflection about environments and the logic of discrimination or alienation. Such issues as the right to work, polygamy, divorce or inheritance cannot be approached only through the study of what the texts allow or do not allow. The approach can only be holistic and elaborated in the light of higher ends. Otherwise, the very essence of the ruling (hukm) may be betrayed.
What can be the meaning, in an environment where unlimited polygamy was the rule, of verses and Prophetic traditions that drastically restrict polygamy and add such demanding conditions that some scholars - in particular, of the Hanbali school - could claim that this requires the first wife's prior consent and that she can oppose it in her marriage contract? What is the higher objective of monogamy and of this restrictive toleration of polygamy?
The full scope of the message, from the texts to the context of their expression and their objectives, must be grasped as an entity. A literalist, strictly legal reading produced by men cannot, by definition, take up this challenge and meet its requirements. Women are necessary here, both to the text reading process and to the study of the social contexts in which they live.
Tariq Ramadan is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University and author of Islam and the Arab Awakening. In the second of a projected three-part series on Women and Islam on ABC Religion and Ethics in November last year. (The full text of his address is to be found on our CPRT website.) He reported on the role Islamic women are playing in what CPRT members would call Progressive Religious Thought. It is very interesting that the major philosophical “driver” of this movement is the same as that which drove Sue in her progressive odyssey — viz. Feminism.. (see her story in the Feb, 2014 issue of our CPRT Newsletter).
Before getting into Women’s Rights, professor Ramadan begins with a re-interpretation of the Qur’an in regard to the recognition of women as persons. Instead of beginning his thesis in fundamentalist style with “The Moslem Bible says”, he makes an unsubstantiated foundational statement, about “the higher objectives of Islam”. These objectives, he claims, attribute individual (NOT MALE) dignity, integrity, autonomy, development, education, intelligence, welfare, health and inner balance to everybody. He then goes on to explain why Moslem women were not given this dignity as human beings by the early Ulama, those Islamic scholars charged with the responsibility of interpreting the Qur’an and regulating Moslem family life. In effect they failed to address THE BEING of women, prescribing only their legal status and their role and function within society.
Professor Ramadan then courageously introduces “sexual pleasure”, marital choice, “divorce”, “contraception and even abortion” as “groundwork” subjects for “elaborate discussion” about the BEING of women . He says that the early scholars were “remote” from such subjects!! He uncritically states that they were immersed in their culture and understandably made negative comments about women and how they should be treated. Their interpretation stemmed more from “cultural projection” than from “normative critical reading”, he says. I presume he is speaking about the reading of the Qur’an and the other sacred Moslem scriptures.
Ramadan excuses the Ulama for feeling no need to “propose
liberating paths for women” and who confined themselves to “FORMAL LITERALITY”,
“stipulating rights and duties” and “accepting customs”. I also presume he was here criticising them
for reading the Qur’an literally. At this point in his argument I find his
words to be quite ambiguous. In
describing the inspiration of the Qur’an he refers to a revelatory evolution of
the Prophet’s attitude and principles as “a divine pedagogy” which would have
led to the emancipation of women had the
cultural and literal (and chauvinistic?? – my words) biases of the appointed
“modality” (the Ulama) been allowed for.
“In the light of the revelation's evolution of the Prophet's (PBUH) attitude and of the objectives that have been worked out, this might have continued to propose liberating paths for women if early interpreters had not confined themselves to formal literality or to stipulating rights and duties only or to accepting customs. Men, the texts' early readers and interpreters, felt no need for that, while women, who were directly affected by social realities and possible distortions of the texts, were absent from that legal elaboration.”
This statement places an unreasonable burden of responsibility on Moslem women for promoting progressive religious thought in Islam. It also to a large degree relieves male Moslem scholars from the responsibility of speaking out, and takes an incredible position by denying to men the ability to appreciate female sensitivities. But to do him credit, if I understand him correctly, Professor Ramadan concludes by advocating that Moslem women should be trained in the art of what Christian theologians call biblical criticism, and become involved in the re-interpretation of the Moslem bible. Does that mean they should become equal members with Mullahs on a post-modern Ulama? And how could that happen without facing the issue that the writings of the Prophet may not have been a “divine pedagogy” any more than that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God?
New Articles of Interest
Members of CPRT have travelled varying pathways to reach their current religious/spiritual understanding.
We are starting a series of personal accounts to help share these experiences.
Please submit your own story if you would like it told.
Sharon's Story starts below.
Sharon Writes: -
I had always been interested in things religious, and one of my prized possessions as a child was an illustrated Bible. I remember I used to pore over the stories and the pictures for hours on end and never doubted the message as it was presented to me there and by the minister of whichever Protestant church I was attending at the time. My mother’s side of the family had been staunch churchgoers and her father regularly preached on street corners.
I enjoyed my teenage years in fellowship and taught Sunday School, I was a traditional believer, never thinking there could be an alternative to the message I had been imbibing since childhood. In my 50s I was invited to become an elder of my church and I felt honoured to be chosen. After much thought – I wanted to be sure I was making the right decision – I accepted and really enjoyed getting to know the people in my care a little better when I visited them.
Then a friend of mine at the church invited me to read some J.S. Spong titles that she had in her possession. I wasn’t familiar with his name and didn’t realise what a wealth of progressive literature was available. I chose Liberating the Gospels from the many titles she had, little realising that it would set me on a different path to the one I had trodden for so long. I can clearly remember exclaiming out loud as I read , wondering why I had never heard from any pulpit the arguments I was reading there. That book really opened my eyes to another way of hearing the Jesus story and it made me want to read more progressive literature.
I made good use of the bibliographies he included and I became aware of Borg, Crossan, Cupitt, Geering and others, and I was thinking deeply about what they had to say.
I began to critically examine the message the minister was presenting to our congregation, most of whom were traditional followers, and one day I asked him if he never questioned the Apostle’s Creed. He replied, never, and turned away from me. I was shocked at his response – I had hoped for a discussion with him on the questions I had been mulling over. I decided at that moment that I would leave that church and try to find a place where I could ask questions and be encouraged to do so.
It was extremely painful to leave the church where I was an elder and where I had many friends and step out into what, to me, was a void. I was leaving behind the security I had always felt in a church environment and it was alarming. My husband was a great support to me through all this – he had had the usual upbringing of Sunday School as a child, but when he became a teenager he chose not to attend again.
I had heard of Ian Pearson’s ministry at Pitt St Uniting Church and decided I would go to a service and see if I felt at home there. I began to attend each week, my husband accompanying me as he was curious too about what a progressive message might be and he wanted to support my search. He knew how adrift I felt.
In the meantime, a remarkable coincidence took place in my life. Bishop Spong had been in Australia and gave an interview which was recorded. One of my progressive friends (fortunately I had a few) had a copy and said she would loan it to me. At the end of the tape, the name of the Eremos organisation was given – they were the ones who had arranged the recording.
I followed this lead and became a member of Eremos and began to receive their magazine. One of them contained an article by Eric Stevenson who, at that time, was starting a progressive group at Eastwood, which became CPRT. This was a wonderful opportunity to explore possibilities and so John and I went along to a few meetings held in a church hall in Eastwood. It was wonderful to have found a group where you could express your doubts and fears in a non-judgmental environment, and to know others were going through a similar situation to oneself. Most seemed to have come from a church background.
It was at one of these meetings that I was told the Uniting Church in our suburb had a progressive minister and I went along the following week. The homily being preached that day was ‘Wrestling with God’ and I thought, ‘This sounds promising’, as it was what I had been doing for a long while. The homily didn’t disappoint, and I was so pleased to have found a minister to whom I could speak about progressive matters and not be looked at as if I was demented, or on a slippery slope.
The association with that church continued for seven years until the minister moved on to another parish. The new man has proved to be a traditional minister and I have no place in that church now. I have been through too much to take a backward step.
All my reading has shown that scholars have been working on the scriptures in a critical way since the 1800s, and I attended a discussion with Eric’s group where the topic was an article by Lloyd Douglas in the 1920s in the US. In it he expressed his gratitude to the congregation for permitting him the freedom to bring these new insights into his time with them. Again I was astounded – if this was happening in the early 20th century, how was it that I never heard anything about it from the pulpit? This made me question why not – was the original message thought to be so ingrained in the community that, to present a fresher version, might cause problems? Were the congregations not thought capable of being able to re-think the original message? With the dying congregations now facing the church, this tactic clearly hasn’t worked. If giant strides have been accepted in other areas of society, with science and medicine springing to mind, then why can’t congregations be offered a more enlightened way of seeing the message than what has been offered for centuries.
I think it is hypocrisy if a minister knows what he is saying each week is old teaching when he has been taught the message of the scholars in training and doesn’t express it from the pulpit. The progressive minister always presented me with something to mull over and he was always available to talk to if you had a query. He never claimed to have all the answers and I applauded his honesty. None of us do, or will, have the answers while we breathe. Of course, the traditional members of the congregation found him a challenge.
My own faith has altered from one where I understood Jesus, the Son of God, died for me and my sins, and if I live according to His message I will be rewarded after I die, to a belief that Jesus was an outstanding, empathetic, sensitive human being who had a message of inclusion for all the outcasts of the world and who offered a way of living which, if it was followed today, would result in a much better world than the one we live in- Jesus’ Kingdom here, now, not in a mystical future.
I think you have to be ready to embrace a change as dramatic as going from a traditional follower to a progressive. I must have been at the right time in my life because I was like a sponge, voraciously reading everything I could to give me a better understanding of what I had been missing all those years. Then again, you probably have to have maturity to work through the different arguments and find what you are most convinced by. Each one of us will be different, each of us have different life experiences and these too colour what we can accept.
Some of my more traditional friends, still attending church, are curious about why I changed and what I now believe. I always suggest that, if they want to know, they should begin reading Spong’s Liberating the Gospels as that was the book that made the first impact on me and started my journey along a different path. But I always warn them that they might find their belief system changing too. It isn’t for everyone – a progressive doesn’t have the blind faith of the traditional – but my faith makes more sense to me now and I am prepared to leave behind that ‘certainty’ for a belief with more integrity. For someone who appreciated certainty, that’s an enormous change.
At the moment, given my recent departure from the church, I have not decided on my next step. Books are always a good resource but it is also fruitful to share with other progressives where we each are in our journeys. It is a very liberating feeling to be able to do that, and is something I have missed over the last 18 months. I will get back to CPRT when my circumstances permit, where discussions take place on many different topics, and there is freedom to express oneself without the possibility of overt criticism, or derogatory dismissal. We are lucky to have such a forum available.
Our CPRT (Sydney) coordinator, Eric Stevenson, wrote the following article and asked CPRT members to write down what was their Religious Hope.
Member’s contributions appear after Eric’s Article.
WHAT IS HOPE? By Eric
“Into a situation of hopelessness, resignation and despair a message of hope can break through with tremendous effect. It serves to shatter old resignations and to re-open the future again. To re-imagine the future is to energise the present”. John Quiripel
Most people need a vision of something better which sustains them especially when the going is tough. The “something better” relates to what would be an improvement in the adverse or mundane circumstances and outcomes of their experiences. Being “sustained” means that by believing or knowing that there is “something better” they are helped to persevere and to achieve their goal, despite the adversity or mediocrity.
TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS HOPE.
The “something better” in traditional religious hope has to do with dissatisfaction with our earthly existence .For most people it is too brief, too unpredictable too painful and too unfair. So the “sustaining vision of something better” is “eternal life. But unlike our earthly hopes this one is hard to test. It depends on a lot of assumptions which cannot be perceived or verified, let alone understood. What aspects of the traditional hope of eternal life do you find hard to accept, and what aspects of traditional hope do you wish to retain?
THE PROGRESSIVE’S HOPE
Do you find it necessary to maintain a belief in a state of supreme hopefulness? If not, what sustains you in adversity? If so, in stating your personal hope, do you need it to be demonstrable and attainable in this present world? Will it be sensed and perceived with any or all of your human faculties, or require the use of additional faculties which as yet you do not utilise? Do you want it to be subject to progress and change as your knowledge and understanding increases? Do you wish to earn it, or depend on someone else or something else to make it happen to you, or take a degree of responsibility for achieving it? Traditional religion places a high value upon immortality and spiritual luxury in an afterlife. Do you feel that you as a progressive can assess and value what is of ultimate worth about life and frame it as a religious aspiration? If so does it need to be?
· A dream of a domain which is friendly to humanity and nature – be ideal?
· Found in this present world of space and time – be realistic?
· Make sense to our reasoning mind – be rational?
· In accord with projected scientific and technological development – be practical?
· Perceived by at least some of our senses and intuitions – be experienced?
· Subject to change as knowledge increases – be flexible?
· Fulfilled with the full co-operation of my strength, imagination and emotional reserves – be achievable?
Dorothy says: -My Spiritual or Ethical hopes for the future are: - That we as a global civilisation will come to understand and accept other cultures and religions, so that together we can live and allow others to live in peace.
I believe there is a very powerful human desire to believe in something.
Although I have and am still questioning my Christian religion, I do believe most religions and cultures have brought (besides many problems) great benefits to civilization such as:-
· Christianity, besides a love of God, preaches a love of man
· Islam promotes brotherhood
· Buddhism — calm and mysticism
· Hinduism — devotion and pluralism
· Taoism — harmony with nature
· Marxist — struggle for social justice and human freedom
These are to name a few.
An Australian social researcher, Hugh Mackay said, “Religion has always existed in human societies as a source of comfort, consolation and inspiration for those people who might otherwise be numbed by grief, or cripples by confusion by their place in the cosmos, or by anxiety about their fragility of their moral existence.”
I’m sure this is quite true for many people.
When I thought about all this, my hope for understanding, compassion and acceptance on a global scale seemed quite unrealistic...But there is a glimmer of hope due to the fact that we really are ever so gradually becoming one world.
Albert says: - The remedy for remedying traditional religion is EDUCATION from whatever direction it comes.
I think that scientific, rational and critical thought will finally get through to the most fundamentalist believers if we can demonstrate that we are not trying to destroy faith and hope.
Love, honesty and perseverance will conquer in the long run.
Marg C says: - About the topic I think that it is the most important one for me. The challenge when a person joins the Group and takes that step to think progressively and listen to others doing the same is a fearful experience. He or she has been held captive in their religion and controlled by threatening tactics. One has to hope to God that a terrible judgement does not come immediately upon them, or that the rope around the mill-stone does not pinch their neck too much as they are cast into the sea.
In other words most CPRT people who have had a religious up-bringing must feel a great deal of trepidation when they take the first steps in thinking outside of the square.
I sit on the fence in this respect as I think what if there is Jesus waiting for me at the end of the tunnel of death? Then I want Him to recognise my desire to think for myself and love and commend me for that.
I am only talking about the hope in my personal life.
I am trying to let go of causes, ambitions, goals that drive a person.
I do not want to be a person looking for hope too much. There is a risk for them searching furiously for any sort of hope that they can muster.
I am trying to get through life, what is left of it, by staying open to everything, standing back, being casual, see what comes.
I want to refrain from the hope analysis, other than keeping one last hope that if Jesus is there I have loved and loved Him and I hope He understands that I thought progressively.
Hoping for a better world, even doing constant little things, for the people of the world, the planet, all these sort of hopes, we all have lived to achieve. In our Group I am sure there is not one person who has not lived a life aiming to help others as much as they could and now hoped that in large ways or small they would die hoping they had made a difference.
Where do we reach out, rationalise and hold on to hope when we are assailed from all sides and can find no help for ourselves or precious loved ones? I do not know.
Margaret K says: - The Catholic Church of the future will, firstly, hang its head in shame at its treatment of women (who have always been the backbone of the Church). Is it too much to hope that they might even have an Apology – a Sorry Day? But Catholics generally will have walked away from the patriarchal structure, with its ‘men only’ club and male pomposity; its insistence on time-worn dogmas and irrelevant readings from ancient times; its resistance to change; its definition of sins.
The few Catholics who remain will continue to age, along with an ageing clergy, hanging on to a faith which they imbibed parrot-fashion in primary school, and protected by a hierarchy which refuses to allow them to hear or read anything which might upset their complacency and – Heaven forbid! – teach them to think for themselves!
Catholics who have learned to think will join fringe groups (like Peter Kennedy in Brisbane, Greg Reynolds in Melbourne and CCJP in Sydney) where they can create their own liturgies relevant to our times; listen to talks by men and women on current issues; sing songs that touch the heart; and leave spiritually charged to make a difference in today’s society.
Some would say: ‘In your dreams!’
Peter M says: - For me, hope does not envisage any form of afterlife – no pie in the sky or heaven; it relates to my life now. My hope is that even yet; at this late stage in life I may make some positive difference which will improve the life of someone or more of my fellow beings. My hope is not wishful thinking; my hope embraces faith and love.
For much of my life I have engaged in pursuits and activities through organisations or associations, including the Christian church, whereby I believed and hoped for a positive outcome in society and community. Many of the ultimate outcomes have disappointed me.
Hope now for me is that after I die those who have known me will believe that I have tried to make a difference.
Ross B says: - I am attracted to the concept that us as humans are:
o part of God’s self-expression, i.e. we are emanations of God rather than creations by God - we are individually ‘divine sparks’, ‘little gods’, partakers and even evolvers or co-creators of the divine nature of ‘The One’
o all parts of ‘The One’, all part of Life’s Self-Expression
o on a spiritual journey from/back to/as part of ‘The One’ through this life (and maybe many lives - I do not discount reincarnation)
o in a way, existed before this birth and will continue to exist after this life as part of ‘The One’
o One question that has intrigued me is “why did you choose to be born to your parents?” - this question infers that:
§ I existed prior to this life
§ In that existence, I had a choice to be born, had a choice to be born to specific parents, to a specific family, at a specific world time
§ Had a purpose by being born into this current world existence
This concept is best defined by the concepts of involution and evolution:
o The act of involving, entanglement
o Nature of Man – dual, has two selves; little self or ego self or false self or sense of “I”; versus eternal Self or spirit true Self (Paul Tillich’s ‘Ground of Being’)
o Involution is the inner path of the human soul to the Self
o Spirit taking form into matter - Life giving of itself, multiplying itself to perpetuate itself, taking form to make a new form
o The act of growing or developing and disentanglement
o our progress during our journey here, before we return
o progress of spirit (life) through matter – starting with rocks, then plants, then animals, man - spirit returns to origin/source
o Ordered and progressive development or evolution of spirit until final ascent to realm of Spirit and source of Light.
Therefore, my personal hope is:
· I will have answers to all those unanswerable questions that have bothered me in this life
· that upon passing from this life, my spirit will remerge/re-amalgamate with God (The One) from which I originally came (maybe more than once)
· that I achieved as best I could my purpose in this current world existence:
· overcame the duality of man, allowing the involution of my ‘self’ to ‘Self’
· assisting others in their own involution
· in so doing, being a co-creator with God/of God (‘The One’)
Assessment of Personal Hope against Eric’s Dot-Points
1. Is it Ideal?
Ø Yes - the domain to which I believe I will return is friendly to humanity and nature as it is part of our current humanity and nature, especially consciousness
2. Is it realistic?
Ø At the moment, most would say that it is not realistic.
Ø However, as we humans learn more about the cosmos to human psychology to consciousness to quantum physics, I believe that it will become more realistic as we acquire deeper knowledge and understanding of what we are, what we are part of, what and where we are in this universe, what space and time really are
3. Is it rational?
Ø To me, it makes sense of all that I have learnt so far in this life
4. Is it practical?
Ø Partially – some would say not at all, but I would contend that there is some scientific evidence to at least ‘open a window’ onto the possibility
5. Can it be experienced?
Ø Yes - it is being experienced daily, especially by those who have had a near death experience and intuitively it makes sense to me
6. Is it flexible?
Ø Yes - our knowledge and understanding is very limited so far, but as we grow in wisdom, I can ‘fine-tune’ my hope/belief to the latest knowledge
7. Is it achievable?
Ø Yes - I do not (no longer) have a choice of not being involved or not – I am here now, what I do is up to me to make the most of my present time
Gerald says: - I attach my statement warts and all. I suppose I have other hopes for other kinds of outcomes. However my hope that we might as a world travel through and beyond religion is near my top priority for the world in which we live. If humans could learn to live without organised religion as we now know it, and find spiritual dimensions of other kinds then surely we will have improved our ability to live more fulfilled lives as human beings on this planet.
A STATEMENT OF PERSONAL RELIGIOUS HOPE
My personal hope for religion is that orthodoxy shall be no longer submission to a concept of a supernatural God to whom acceptance is conditional upon obedience to a set of rules and adoption of a set of beliefs.
This is no longer ‘true religion’, although it may have been appropriate in the past.
The religious life, for me, needs to be a life modelled on the teachings of Jesus, lived as an expression of our true humanness in which we give expression to the source of our beingness. This we might call “God”, a source of being who is within us, empowering us, persuading us and enabling us to love others.
We thus seek to live in peace, unity and cooperation with our fellow human beings in harmony with the earth and beyond, striving to improve our lives as humans, and to live a life style which encourages and continues the evolution of our life as humans on this part of the Cosmos.
Ken says: - Religion relates humanity to spirituality by providing belief systems, cultural systems and world views for its followers. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. They have narratives, symbols, traditions, sacred histories and sometimes moral values that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life and the Universe.
My religious hope is for all religions to focus on the basics of love and compassion, sharing and being there for others. To promote standards to live by that are beneficial and healthy, encourage equality and the opportunity to practice and contribute to the community in a positive way, at the same time providing a safe haven where followers can have fellowship in a supporting environment.
Religion needs to be forgiving and non-judgemental so all can come in times of need for comfort and support. Religion should establish positive life values and guidelines for mankind to have the best chance of living a fulfilled, peaceful, happy and rewarding life. It should assist those with problems to address those problems to learn healthier life practices.
Religion should seek to be the peacemaker when differences arise so that these differences are resolved peacefully and equitably, enabling all to live without fear.
My Progressive Religious hope is to encourage those who find organised religion wanting and seek to address the theology, the teachings, the processes and institutionalization of religions, so that dogmas and beliefs are recognised for what they are. It needs to vigilantly assess the rules religion imposes to define its purpose and meaning so they do not lose their meaning and become themselves idols of worship. Progressive religion needs to be “the salt of the earth”, preserving the good and challenging the outdated, decayed and detrimental beliefs and practices.
Progressive religion needs to be a non partisan and non threatening place to talk through ideas, thoughts and questions by those seeking a greater, more relevant and more meaningful understanding of their belief systems and of the meaning of life and our existence.
A Faithless Faith?:
Is Religion without a Supernatural Leap Valid
This is an edited version of an address given at the Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship on Sunday, January 22. Because of the inspirational nature of Steve’s delivery and his sometimes disregard for grammatical correctness I have chosen to re-work some of his notes and must therefore take responsibility for bits of the content in what otherwise is a brilliant address. I have tried to use brackets for words which I have inserted in the text.
Is there really religion beyond faith, and if so what?
Is faith in God/a Goddess, Jesus or something similar, ...something bigger,... essential for an effective, practical, valuable, contemporary religious/spiritual life? Is belief in something bigger... essential to religion? Honestly, seriously, is some leap of faith required? And what does it look like when you don’t feel like you can?
It is a great question. And I ask it because we as humans –here in the 21st Century-knowing all that we now know, and all that we don’t know...have never been in this position before. And I ask it, because it is our question to train and churn on. It is …. Our question to get right. I ask it because we can’t save religion from itself, and irrelevancy unless we address this question honestly and well.
When I ask if you need faith to be religious… I suspect that many of you as good organic Unitarians are inclined to jump in with a proud, perhaps a touch indignant, “NO!” .... Right behind that proud “No” can be a very existential and practical, “Then why bother?” that deserves some real attention, and we should have a response to that earnest question of ourselves. We or at least many Unitarians have staked our very “faith,” if you can call it that, on proceeding forward without the assurance of a strict belief. I ask this question today because beyond the few of us in this room, there are millions of others who live in the world between religion and science, and need a few guideposts as to what to do with their yearning. (This is) because the world is asking, and worse, ignoring for lack of any guidance the following questions:
What do you do, when you don’t believe the premise that there is some more perfect world or realm on which this world is modeled and to which we might be returning?
What do you do if you give up on the idea that there is a personality that cares what happens to us or me, and that there is a guiding hand or fate, and that history has a meaningful arc to it? What happens to someone religiously when you come to believe that that is “hype” and more importantly, what do you do when you are skeptical enough, perhaps even offended enough by the religious hype across the years to resist falling in line? What can keep you from giving up? The world outside these walls wants to know.
In a world where so much of the religious heritage we inherit tells us that our faith will save us, so likely does your very own heart want to know? So what do you tell your kids about life? What do you do when the plane starts shaking, or when the Doc thinks she found something? And you find you don’t think you believe anymore?
The other day I stepped off the bus at Wynyard had a few minutes to kill before meeting Barbara, Colin, and Eric at Circular Quay for a trip to Fort Dennison. I decided to step into St. Patrick’s and sat to enjoy a moment of peace. I sat in the church, and truly enjoying the colors and the space and the stillness, was taken aback by how overwhelming, how exclusive and how particular the expression of the holy was. I love Jesus, find him inspiring and heroic, but looking at him in every single image every where I turned, I found myself offended even embarrassed for him. And for me, as a person and a second rate theologian I take that feeling seriously, mostly because I know I am not alone.
Since so much of what anyone believes theologically is autobiography projected as philosophy, I should start with me. For me theologically, the first thing that I want to say is that I think faith in “something other” helps. I think... some grieving and some honesty as one transitions from the faith of their childhood. Gulp. There I have said it. I think it and I believe it. It helps to have a sense of the transcendent, because left to our own devices, without a strong other to serve as a witness, we can fall prey quite easily to a meaninglessness that we fail to address head on.
I think belief helps because a witness, in particular a witness with a personality who cares about us and is powerful- a God for lack of a more unique term- is frankly to a finite vulnerable creature who in general hopes to extend beyond the boundaries of this life,- frankly comforting. So when the God that was either created by us, or truly is the source, the impetus for our belief goes away, it matters. Whether we ourselves are over that question or not, it matters...How we in particular answer that question matters because whether (or not) there is a supernatural realm of Gods or Goddesses, as social creatures meaning is socially shared and constructed, and because of that, what we stake our “faith” in will almost inevitably be shared. We care about Jesus, Buddha, and Shiva, or for that matter Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, or Mother Theresa because we collectively participate in, share, and construct reality.
To humans, (my)self included, who have felt intimate enough to call the speculative transcendent Father, or for that matter, Mother, Great Spirit, or even Zeus, it matters when that is shaken. For all of us, and for all those outside who have lost their first faith, let’s take a long moment of silence. But it doesn’t mean everything! And it shouldn’t. A faith extended up to what might be the source of love, compassion, or all of creation is a wonderful thing. If you are a person who sees God, or Gods as behind all that we see as holy. Great!
But for me, I believe our reverence and faith is better staked to the attributes -so often given to God- on their own merits. It seems to me that that, even more than a sermon, that answers the question of whether faith in the supernatural is required. Today is really more about attending to the qualities (that are) granted (attributed to) the supernatural.
Listen to the chalice lighting words we used (for this service):
“To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.”
The things that although we cannot see or touch we know are true.
With all due respect to the God, I occasionally, and a third of the world fervently prays to, if that God, does not exist, does forgiveness, tolerance, friendship and charity lose its poignancy and lecture? NO! That might be the 1st sound-bite of our effort at a faith beyond faith. A faith in God is not essential to validate the values we generally attribute to the holy.
If that feels irreverent ask yourself this (I think a parallel with the god’s of the Greek and Roman Pantheon applies):
If we no longer worship at shrines of Venus or Mercury does that mean that beauty or speed no longer exist? Are any less real? Certainly not!
Too often people loose faith because they hitch their faith, their entire spiritual lives, to their belief in the existence of a God that, among other things, guides history, ...created the earth in a few days, ...or would never let bad things happen to good people, in particular Me, and are inevitably disappointed. Seriously, to me “belief” -the assertion that this or that particular thing is true, is to me a more flimsy foundation for our religious lives than traditional religion would ever want to acknowledge. See, if someone stakes their claim:
That the earth is the center of the universe,
That my particular religion is exclusively true
That religious leaders or traditions are infallible,
That the Bible, Torah, Koran was written by God,
That if you are a good person you (will) be protected.
is not your spiritual life not put in a vulnerable place? In this modern world of ours, Yah, I think it is. How many good hearted modern people just like us, at times have rejected hope, have rejected paying attention to the subtleties of their love? How many good hearted people just like, perhaps you, are leery of cultivating their compassion, simply because they have lost faith in something they once asserted (was) true? Have not a lot of modern people stopped pulling their proverbial religious cart because they no longer believe in the horse? That is sad, but I think it’s right.
We are built to be religious. Our endless ability to pick ourselves back up after getting it wrong is astounding when you think of it. Those people, those increasing millions of people like us might benefit hearing in church that, belief is a bit overrated. I like that... “belief is overrated.” That might be the 2nd sound-bite line of the sermon.
It is true that what we believe truly can change us, and with it our perception of the world, which is huge. What we believe should not be underestimated for its impact. But more often it is over-rated because what we believe, or even that we believe does (not), will not change the nature of things. Said another way, rain dances may work, but they have never worked to make it rain. Never did, never will.
A mature religious life, to me, begins with our experience, our own humble experience of who we are, and what we know, not what we speculate God to be. I don’t have to be a believer, to have the experience of the sacred, any more than all the religious people of the past did not have religious experiences because we no longer believe in their God’s. Let’s put that in our new theology. “Spirituality begins with our experience, and is validated by our experience.” Or, you don’t have to define it correctly, to feel something. Yah, I like that.
To me, a mature religious life, humbly knows that God may truly exist, may truly govern all eternity, or may not. A mature religious life today, knows that we do not know enough to really know for sure. What we do know though is that we can love more or less, still ourselves more or less.
What we do know is that our view of God and or the supernatural has always come and gone like the weather. A mature spiritual life to me knows that we are always changing our mind and getting it wrong! But (yes) we are! As Christopher Hitchens humorously but poignantly notes, “Everybody is an atheist except for the last God.” Not another bad idea for our new theology- We always get it wrong, and yet the questions never go away.
I think this helps us skeptics. Unitarian Thinker and Preacher Theodore Parker noted more that 150 years ago that like the weather religious opinions are always shifting, and yet that behind those constant shifts there is a true religion, a real religion that, like the broader climate, lasts. I love Parker, (who was speaking about) things like hope, love, mystery, compassion, and EVEN that yearning we call FAITH. His point (was that they) even if the faces and shapes of God always shift and are always changing, are eternal, like climate.
Parker asks us to ask, do we revere Jesus because he was wise, compassionate, courageous, and welcoming, or do we validate compassion, tolerance, and courage because Jesus said or embodied them. The deep spiritual values are eternal, always come first.
Is religion possible without an active faith in something transcendent? The answer to that is an indisputable Yes!
There is enough magic right here.
The truth is,
Our Spiritual natures pre-ceed any particular belief.
Our Spiritual natures pre-ceed any particular belief.
Our religious natures pre-ceed any leap (of) faith.
Always have and always will.
Binding ourselves to a path, pre-ceeds and will last longer than any one path. That’s a nice addition to a faith beyond faith repeat.
“The faithful” (make quotation marks) and the traditions that preserve that faith, clumsily are always at work incorporating new truths, new language, new ways of being into the old wineskins of their faith. In the same way we are imperfectly working our deeply held values and principals into a religious context that sometimes has left us clumsy language to describe it. So both the faithful and the skeptics have their work cut out for them. Well, so be it.
Every Sunday here in Unitarian Churches all across the globe I need not tell you that right here, we live out our spiritual yearnings and doubts, hopes and fears, ask our questions, seek real truth, and yearn for and pursue justice without a firm anchor in another realm. So when someone asks you if you can be religious without a supernatural faith you can look at them incredulously and say, “Believe it. I’ve seen it”.
Ok, that is the formal end of the sermon question, but I am not exactly done.
The better question for all of us, -still faithful, still believers or not- is this, what do I do with all I am and all I know? See, being religious, or spiritual, might be possible without the transcendent, but I do not believe it is possible or at least genuine without holding some deeply felt sentiments, without trying to cultivate certain virtues, and making some commitments. The sad news is so much of what many of us have been taught is not religion. Religion is not what we believe, but how we live. Religion now, for it to stand the scrutiny of our world, will better serve to see its job as building people not creeds. Religion is an issue of autobiography not doctrine.
Religion should not ask, do you believe in things you cannot really know, but “Are you fearless enough to live with integrity, but without the promise of a reward?” Religion today should not ask any of us if we are worthy of performing a ritual, it should ask, “Are you committed and immersed enough in the ways and principals and values that you would wish to live to “be bound to something?” “Are you willing to live a life that may not be documented or witnessed beyond those ripples you obviously will leave behind with your actions, or imprinted on the hearts of those closest to you?” Truth is,
our spiritual lives and churches must do (better than any creed can do) a better job of (than) comprehensively brainwashing us. better than any creed or even particular belief can.
And, I pray, that we here at Spirit of Life Fellowship are brain-, nervous system-, and soul- washing ourselves to be the people that can really believe in peace, fight for justice, seek truth, and live compassionately.*
Now that we are done with the philosophical, I ask you personally, “What do you call on yourself to do faithfully?” If you’re philosophically liberated, you’re still not morally entirely free. In religious terms, more relevant than what you believe, is how you live. If you want to be religious, more than a leap of faith, I think a leap of commitment is (more relevant). So, I think the religious question, now, is not so much what you believe, but, “Are you brave and engaged and most importantly concerned enough to pick and sort and work through who it is you want to be, either with or without a supernatural parent looking over your shoulder”?
Even, if you cannot say that you were given a duty from the great beyond, have you paid enough attention to what goes on in our little spinning green and blue planet to give yourself a job, and a blueprint, for how to live your life here now? If you have, and mostly hold yourself to it, and love the opportunity to define your life on your terms, then you are living proof that religion is possible without a faith in the supernatural.
So when someone asks you if you believe in a religion that is not rooted in faith, you can say, incredulously, “Believe in it? I’ve seen it”. You don’t need faith to be religious. You don’t need a leap to a belief that defies your reason to be spiritual, but you can’t really be fully (spiritual) either, without action and experience that binds you to if not the transcendent, the things that are most attributed to the transcendent.
And, that is all I have to say about that.
* In this paragraph I think Steve was stating that either personally or through church institutions, responsibility needs to be taken for “brainwashing” ourselves into a new and better way regardless of whether we believe in God or not. The brain-, soul-, or nervous system-washing consists of giving preeminence over belief to a life of peace making, justice, truth seeking, and compassion. ES
HOPING ONE’S WAY TO MEANING Eric Stevenson
Brain surgeon, Dr. Charles Teo, reports that tumours kill more kids annually than any other disease and are claiming the lives of an increasing number of young people. Yet medical research to improve the quality of treatment is the least funded. Dr. Teo has devoted himself to extending the life of patients with brain cancer using aggressive surgery. He has also founded the Cure for Life Foundation which organised the fun run to raise funds for medical research last weekend. Dr. Teo has a hope which drives his medical and social endeavours.
It is that one day a procedure will be discovered which will enable him to say to his patients, “Do this and this and this and you will be cured for life.”Like most hopes, Dr. Teo’s hope was born out of crisis – the crisis of the brain cancer death toll. It meets a pressing need; it inspires the hopeless; it is realistic in the world of medicine; it elicits his full co-operation and it is open to redefinition and expansion with each new discovery in cancer research and each successful extension of the life span of his patients. That is why Dr. Teo’s hope is so meaningful Without this kind of hope, his surgical and social endeavours would be meaningless.
And I doubt very much whether an individual or a group could perform any meaningful activity without something like it? Hope has to do with an expectation of an ideal set of circumstances which will inspire you to keep beavering away until you arrive at where you want to be. In hoping for something I therefore have to decide initially what and where I really need to be. Then as a rational human being I will conceptualise and act on a hope which will motivate me to strive towards that chosen destination.
For the purpose of this religious talk, we are avoiding the luxury of indulging in our wonderment concerning the sublime beauty of nature, our transcendent enjoyment of the arts, the mind blowing intricacies of micro-biology and nano-science, the expansiveness of the universe, and the sanctity of our loving relationships. All these things almost completely enrich our days. I suspect however that we also use them to avoid facing up to life’s difficulties and as the antidote for our depressive reaction to the dark side of human existence. I am not trying to placate the whingers and complainers who think the world owes them a living. I am talking about our responses to those times when our morose spirits seem to be perfectly consistent with our broken dreams, and our unfulfilled ambitions, our dissatisfaction with our performance and our disillusionment with what is happening in the world. I hesitate to call them depressive episodes; they often are triggers for genuine depression, but are they not more like reality responses to the world the way it is? As stated in the reading, David Tacey disagrees. He says that our failure to give traditionally religious justification for the dark side is the cause of neurosis. To the contrary I am suggesting there would be something wrong with us if we were not depressed by it, and that traditional religion is not a meaningful cure for our existential anxiety. So, have we been misguided into seeking an antidepressant for it? Is there a more meaningful way for religion to deal with what seems to be a normal state of mind?
I think religious hope has to be like Dr. Teo’s, only a thousand times over. It is important because it is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning and gets us through each new day. A meaningful ultimate religious hope must be based on a person’s urgent ultimate needs, not their wants. But this Holy Grail is not to be confused with our hope. I suspect that is why so many people are standing at the bus stop of life for a bus that never comes. It is because they have been easily tricked into wanting things and substituting those things for their hopes. The later gospel writers of the Christian story got their ultimate hopes tangled up with their ultimate needs. Their vain hope was that Jesus would come back again in person, in their lifetime, live his life among them and rescue them from poverty and servitude. Like all of us they wanted their loved one back again. They also formulated their hope within parameters which we no longer believe in. We have no theistic God, no physical after life, people don’t come back from the dead, and there is no spirit world within which to realise such desires. So our challenge in hoping our way to meaning is in firstly deciding what are our most important and ultimate needs and then formulating a hope which can be realised and which fits within the post-modern parameters of our post-modern world.
“The most important things in human experience are not things”. Not even happiness if most of the things that give rise to that happiness are temporary! Not even having popularity; those who have been betrayed, stigmatised and persecuted for swimming against the tide of greed and self-aggrandisement have achieved more for the people of this world than popularity. Not even good health; having courage in bad health is more important than that! Not even having all our faculties; Helen Keller went blind and said after that as a result she saw something more precious than the things of this world. Not even Freedom from anxiety; as I have said, there would be something wrong with you if you did not feel anxious about some of the current world events....
It is what we as living conscious creatures can do with life that is the object of hope; the object of despair is what we let life’s circumstances do to us. I think we can help each other so much in deciding what is supremely and ultimately worth wanting. It is difficult to do so, but so special when in our searching we can share with each other our sense of loss over what we mistakenly thought were the most important things. It is so good being in this place together working through to the position of defining our priceless treasure.......When every superficial thing has been properly devalued, what do we really want to be as individuals and as a fellowship of faith around the world? I presume that it has to do with the stated Unitarian principles of valuing the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and standing for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For me these principles represent the precious ingredients of “LIFE finely tuned”.
Those principles for living no doubt gained their sterling value for us from our cultural heritage. It therefore makes sense to go back in history to the source of goodness in whatever religious culture one belongs. So let me to go back to the very beginnings of my traditional Christian culture, to the historical Jesus who never founded a church and who didn’t think he was dying to save anybody. He left a beautiful example of LIFE finely tuned. It ended in surrender for him and in tragedy for a minority of Jewish people who were hoping in vain for his non-material Kingdom to materialise. His vision of an imminent realm in which love ruled was at first misunderstood by everybody with the possible exception of a prostitute.
For all life’s mystery our ultimate hope depends on learning to value and practise the loving and compassionate ways in which LIFE* can be embraced, and to find in it something more pervasive and more purposeful than its apparent injustices and its pain, or even its un-intentional pleasures. It seems that the first Christian communities were not established by Jesus but by people like us who were endeavouring to hope their way to meaning. It is apparent that these early grief stricken and disillusioned disciples did not renew personal contact with their friend through physical resurrection as recorded by the later writers of the gospel narrative. They simply went on coping and living in the confidence that the abundant life which Jesus demonstrated had been “raised” to transcendent heights. Their desire was for a fullness of living to which they could aspire and into which it was possible for them to enter.
TIME OF SILENT MEDITATION. Let’s become more aware of this abundant life.... Is our ultimate desire for a world in which it can be experienced here and now? If so, where do we begin? I suggest in defining our ultimate goal we start where the original disciples of Jesus started – in our situations of crisis - when all of life’s superficialities have been revealed and stripped away. It is there that we will gain a passionate desire that has been purified and refined by the fires of desperation and by not a little suffering. It is there that we can let go of our resentments and regrets, relinquish the things that have been forcibly taken from us. and find release from the things which we have clung to for a pseudo kind of fulfilment. In order to inspire us to live life to the full, let us consider whether our hope has to be based on a realistic ideal? – an ideal which is nothing less than rational, practical, attainable, flexible and achievable? Or can it be only some of these things? Or none of them?
ADDRESS PART B It is what we as living conscious creatures can do with life that is the object of hope**. The object of despair is what we let life’s circumstances do to us. Millions of people, despairing of the means of sheer human survival have been and still are desperately reaching out for their dream of something better. Who knows how many have already sunk into the slough of despair? But a dream has been believed in by many others of all religious backgrounds whose circumstances have almost completely overwhelmed them. They have tried and are still trying to ‘hope’ their way above an existence which most of the time we would regard is devastatingly tragic. They do so by believing in a real and future perfect set of circumstances for living. – if not for themselves, at least for their children. For some it is after they die. Their conviction is that those ideal circumstances exist. Their hope is that they are attainable and will be a welcome relief for their present dire state of destitution.. Far be it for me to attempt to disillusion them. We cannot dare to sit in our middle class arm chairs and tell starving, diseased, tortured, people around the world how to hope. It is they if we let them who will speak to us.
Some conservative churches dictate what one’s ultimate hope should be, and have been doing it within a set of parameters that have passed their use by date.*** i.e. that there is a space-time dimension of existence beyond the upper atmosphere in a super natural world which will be a future compensation for the pain of our present existence. It is a seductive doctrine. It not only does not fit a post-modern world view. It also offers conditional materialistic benefits to the poor, the sick and the victims of injustice provided they keep the faith and do good - benefits which have already proven to be ultimately unsatisfying and unethical, and a phony foundation for hope.
The early Christians’ hope was radically different. It was that the kind of living exemplified by Jesus in the midst of abject poverty and servitude could be recognised and embraced universally and could be put into practice in the real world by the second coming of the Christ as soon as their God thought it was time to do it. Failing that, they eventually hoped their way to meaning by accessing the supernatural (the power of the Holy Spirit) which for us can be gospel-speak for taking personal responsibility for life . Can we hope like that without the help of an imaginary Saviour? I believe we can! Don Cupitt, without attributing it to Jesus, calls it Solar Living – living like the sun which is continually expending itself, radiating its light and warmth for the benefit of all creation. (“The Old Creed.and.the.New")
Adopting hope for the journey is extremely personal. I venture to say that no two person’s ultimate religious hopes are exactly the same. But our united passion for fullness of life can bind us together. This is where we can begin to hope. Assuming that all we have is life, this life, and the opportunity to live this life here and now, then all of life (including the life of the historical Jesus) becomes infinitely more precious than if it is regarded merely as a pre-cursor of eternal life or of a physical resurrection. If this life is all there is and all therefore that we can have then it has been under valued, under preserved, under protected, under cultivated, under respected, and under lived. If only it can continue to exist, be recognised, be promulgated and exemplified as each day dawns.! Let us celebrate it with the same adoration that the Moslems celebrate Mahomet and the same reverence with which the Christians attribute to Christ.
My hope therefore is that fullness of life is “doable”. Life, as i am using the word is not the tragedies which it involves (or its joys). It is not to be confused with the nasty things which some people do with it, or how they refuse to benefit from it. It is something which persists regardless of what we think or do. It is like a staff on which the high and low notes of a musical piece are written; it is the potential carrier of compassion and indifference, of faith and unbelief, of reconciliation and estrangement, of natural disaster and rejuvenation. If it were not valued as such people would not have anything on which to write love’s score. Hope has to do with our determination to endure the indifference, the unbelief, the estrangement and the disaster and to believe in the persistence and achievement of reconciliation, renewal, faith and love. ****
* In writing this address, I have endeavoured to clarify the confusion over the common usage of the words “life” and “living”. The popular usage for “life”(Life Mark One) is as a collective noun for the train of specific random events and the variety of circumstances involved in one’s human existence. This generally includes the self imposed or self generated ones, but more particularly, it is about the unscheduled, temporary, passing away things that happen naturally and beyond our control and without any moral judgement, and regardless of humanitarian consequences. C’est la vie! “Living” is used as a verb and adjective for existing under those conditions and coping with them.(Living, Mark One) Another popular meaning of “ living” is as an antonym for “dead” i.e. animate, alive. (Living Mark Two) However, there is a Life Mark Two in which “life” is also used more generically to describe the potentialities of all “Living Mark 2” things. Life Mark 2 as I understand it is possessed by every organism which has the capacity at its optimal level of existence to be fully functioning within the boundaries of its particular species. There is also an extension of the use of this “life” word, (Life Mark Three). That is, by inferring that it is a kind of animating spirit - that there is a superior or co-existent force or energy called “life” which is orchestrating the events and circumstances which I have alluded to above. We sing about it in our Unitarian theme song,“Spirit of Life”. I have therefore endeavoured to be consistent and use Life Mark 2 and Living Mark 1 in what I have had to say.
**In talking about an ultimate hope, I am questioning the reality of traditional religious hope involving an after life and a supernatural world. In this sense I am an “unrealist”. i.e. traditional religion’s hope is unreal. For me ultimate hope must be about how best to inspire me to reach and practise a demonstrable and attainable goal in this present world. The object of my hope will need to be perceived and appreciated with at least some of my faculties, or require the use of additional faculties which as yet I do not utilise. It will also be subject to progress and change with the evolution of knowledge. e.g.nano-technology and will require my full co-operation in achieving it.
** *Are things really controlled by a benevolent “out there” god? Does that provide sufficient meaning for us? If not we have no recourse to hope of a supernatural something better now or beyond the grave! To be meaningful it would have to be provided by a different kind of God. Assuming that she exists she would have to be something supra intelligent and non-personal of which we cannot conceive and which we are unable to perceive with our limited and subjective human senses or communicate with in our own language. On record she does not appear to be intentionally malevolent or reliably benevolent. The big challenge about thinking like that is “what about my faith?” Can I still believe in the existence of a pervasive life force? I think we should let people believe in something like that if they choose to. They haven’t necessarily lost their faith; they have just launched out on to the ocean of life refusing to stipulate the details of something beyond their present knowledge and experience. Much of the mystery and wonder of life which others have attributed to a personal transcendent being, they share but have chosen to live with that mysteriousness and wonderment rather than make a dogmatic statement about it.
****Our mission therefore is so to live in hope that life, being finely tuned, will always be recognisable and valued and demonstrable among us. We are inspired by the hope that it will always be possible for us and our friends to passionately foster an enhanced sense of reverence for and admiration of all life and to promote it and live it to the full. Our challenge, despite the threat of depression and disillusionment is to spend ourselves in preserving, cultivating, loving and celebrating it within ourselves and all of nature.
THE ESSAY BY HUGH MACKAY IN NEWS REVIEW OF THE HERALD, CHRISTMAS WEEKEND EDITION
We owe the typed copy of this article on fundamentalism to one of our members who wrote, “I hope you find this article as interesting as I did.
Where there’s faith, so too doubt
Humility is the mark of the true religious believer. The fundamentalist is corrupted by an assumption of superiority.
Fundamentalism is like a steel trap that imprisons the soul and inhibits its freedom to wonder. Australia might be a determinedly secular society, but about 25 per cent of us will attend a Christian service of worship this weekend. Hundreds of thousands more will have participated lustily in a carols-by candlelight event. That might say more about our tribalism than our religious faith. Most religious practice is as much about satisfying the desire to belong as the desire for something to believe in. Both desires run so deep, it’s hard to disentangle them. “A Jew goes to the synagogue to sit next to another Jew,” said the Jewish grandfather of a friend of mine, and the same is partly true for Catholics, Anglicans or, indeed, Muslims. But that’s only half the story. Most once-a-year church attenders might hesitate to describe themselves as believers, especially since atheism has become so fashionable. Yet attending church – rather than, say, going to the movies – does imply something. A yearning for belief, perhaps? Or an echo of religious resonances from childhood that cannot be denied? Or the hope that, whatever you might think about what’s being said and done, the experience itself will be uplifting?
For more regular church attenders, Christmas is quite simply the biggest festival of the year, rich with symbolism and ritual and steeped in enduring myths and legends that – like most enduring myths and legends – have something useful to teach us. In this case, humility is the keynote. The Christmas story is about an unpromising start (no room in the inn; Jesus born in a stable; shepherds the first to pay homage) that ultimately led to a challenge to the established order, with revolutionary consequences. It is also about the idea of an innocent and adored child destined to live a short life that will end in a humiliating execution. We once thought it was about peace on earth, but the old King James Bible’s gloriously relaxed and inclusive reference to “peace on earth, goodwill towards men” now turns out to have been a shoddy translation from the Greek. Recent translators prefer “on earth peace among those whom [God] favours”, which is a rather more exclusive offer. Leaving aside the nuances of rendition, the Christmas story stimulates the imagination in powerful ways, and faith is, after all, the work of the imagination. It is a creative act; a tentative encounter with the possibility of eternal verities; a reaching-out for certainties that always elude us. Faith is also about trust; about deciding to settle for answers to questions we scarcely dare ask.
But faith can never be rooted in certainty. It evaporates under the pressure of rigid dogma. It is no basis for being judgmental, because it is about seeking, not knowing. Certainty denies the very essence of faith. It is the impenetrability of life’s mysteries that encourages our leaps of faith, not into the unknown, but into the unknowable. That’s why doubt is the engine, the oxygen, the essence of faith. We believe (in anything) precisely because we doubt. This is the great paradox of faith: we yearn to know but cannot know, so we construct a set of beliefs – or accept a ready-made set from an established institution – to satisfy our need to make sense of what’s going on. If it’s not religious belief, it might be astrology, “the free market”, feng shui, superstition, science, a particular psychological orientation – Buddhist, Freudian, Jungian – or a moral code we believe will make for a contented life and a better world. (None of these categories is exclusive, by the way: plenty of religious believers are advocates for other political, economic or cultural ideologies as well.) If we knew the answers that faith supplies, there would be no need for faith. And if faith – that mystical, clouded, elusive yearning – is corrupted by the arrogance of certainty, it ceases to be faith and becomes merely delusional.
Enter the fundamentalist.
In the religious context, fundamentalism refers to the tradition that places “holy writ” (Bible, Koran, Torah) at the centre of its theology, and is suspicious of modern scholarship with its more liberal interpretations of religious stories. Fundamentalists worship a God that takes a personal interest in each of us, rewarding the faithful and punishing infidels either here or in an afterlife. Within Christianity, the term “fundamentalist” arose from a movement launched after World War I by a group of US Baptists disturbed by what they saw as the inroads of liberalism into American life. They thought the idea of America as a “Christian civilisation” was an illusion and they saw a link between apparent social decline and a decline in religious observance. So they published a series of hard hitting pamphlets under the title “The Fundamentals”. Their purpose was not only to impose a hardline literalism on biblical interpretation, but to reform American society itself by taking it back to its Puritanical roots. That set the tone for fundamentalism as a religious movement. It has always been about more than religious doctrine and biblical interpretation; it is equally accurate to describe it as an ultra-conservative social protest movement.
It has never been exclusively about religion. Its agenda is packed with prescriptions about the moral (especially sexual) codes we should adopt, and how we should resist the blandishments of liberalism. Fundamentalists want to replace faith with acquiescence and obedience. Of course, they will say their moral, social and even political judgments spring from their faith, but that brings us back to the central conundrum: faith and judgmentalism are the most incompatible of bedfellows. You can recognise the religious fundamentalist by a kind of spiritual swagger. Whereas humility is the mark of the true religious believer (“I believe this, precisely because I can’t know it”) the fundamentalist is corrupted by an assumption of superiority: I know best; my beliefs are correct; if your beliefs are different from mine, then you are wrong. Such arrogance relies on absolute certainty, which is why the fundamentalist is so reluctant to acknowledge the rather misty historical and linguistic processes that have led to particular translations or interpretations of particular passages of scripture. Matthew, for instance, works so hard at presenting his gospel story as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, some contemporary scholars regard the results as strained, if not fanciful.
None of this is a problem for fundamentalists: the way it appears, right there in the Bible they hold in their hands, is, for them, the inspired word of God. When people like Richard Dawkins criticise religion for its fanaticism or its blind embrace of scriptures riven with inconvenient contradictions, this is not a criticism of religious faith, per se, but of fundamentalism. The religious truth seeker, the pilgrim, yearns to see with the eye of faith but constantly falters. The famous plea from the father of a sick child healed by Jesus, quoted in Mark’s gospel, captures the idea perfectly: “I believe; help my unbelief.” That is the tension on which faith relies.
To deny it is to move into another realm altogether, though many churches would like you to move into that realm. The fundamentalists want you to develop a conviction so strong, you lose the capacity for doubt. They don’t want you to believe; they want you to know you are right, with the same conviction you might know it is raining when you get wet. It works for them, of course. If you’ve adopted a rigid world-view – religious, political, economic, academic or otherwise – you tend to see everything through the filter of your convictions and, not surprisingly, you see what you’re looking for. The more you use a particular theory for making sense of things, the more things seem to fit the theory. That’s why fundamentalists feel so sure of themselves. That’s why they can’t understand how other people could fail to see things the way they do (though everyone’s beliefs look weird to the person who doesn’t share them). It’s why they eschew the mystical: they don’t want to rest with the mysteries; they want to wrestle them into submission. Fundamentalism is like a steel trap that imprisons the soul and inhibits its freedom to wonder. It sucks the doubt out of faith and leaves a rigid shell that acts like armour. No wonder it’s so hard for a fundamentalist’s beliefs to evolve and mature: if you crack the shell, it falls apart and you’re left with nothing.
Yet fundamentalism is on the rise in all three of the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – with the potential for divisive and disastrous consequences. Why now? This is one mystery we can penetrate. Fundamentalism (whether religious, political, economic or cultural) thrives at times of social upheaval and insecurity. When we are at our most perplexed or bewildered, gripped by moral panic and baffled by ambiguity, that’s when we are most vulnerable to promises of black-and white simplicity. Given our current anxieties – global warming, international terrorism, the mass migration of the world’s refugee population, the threat of economic meltdown – it’s not hard to see the appeal in a set of beliefs that seem to offer fixed points in a shifting geo-political landscape. The Age of Discontinuity, marked by rapid and unpredictable change, was bound to be a golden age for fundamentalism. Yet the religious practices and stories based on Christmas don’t rely for their survival on being accepted as literally true accounts of historical events in every detail. They survive because they have the power to transcend the local and specific aspects of our lives and reveal “the man within”, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it.
How, then, might we approach a festival that has become such a complex amalgam of pagan, Christian and commercial messages? If you find yourself having difficulty with literal or quasi-historical interpretations of the Christmas story, relax: you’re in good company. Enjoy being comforted or uplifted by the familiar story and music. Sing your heart out. Focus on the inner meanings; the meanings for you. Fundamentalists might think there’s only one way to interpret the story; one way to believe. Yet they, having banished all doubt from their minds, have ceased to be believers at all. Merry Christmas – whatever Christmas means to you, and however you choose to celebrate it.
HITCHENS’ TWO GREAT MORAL COMMITMENTS. Scott Stephens* (Excerpts from Scott Stephens’ article in Religion and Ethics on the occasion of Christopher Hitchens’ death last month)
Let me briefly attempt to distil the essence of Christopher Hitchens, in the form of the two great intellectual and moral commitments that supplied his life with a surprising and often overlooked coherence. The first is his unwavering fidelity to justice, truth and solidarity - a kind of alternative triumvirate to the Christian "faith, hope and love" or the Jacobin "liberty, equality, fraternity," and which consistently proved more fundamental to Hitchens than any ideological alignment with the Right or the Left. In recent times, this took the form of identification with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish revolutionaries in northern Iraq and, for Hitchens, the remnant of an authentic Socialist International. His full-throated advocacy for the military offensive in Iraq was finally an expression of solidarity with the Kurds, and a determination that Saddam Hussein be made to account for the brutality the Kurds suffered at his hands.
.....There is a parallel here with Hitchens' later embrace of a flailing, uneven variety of atheism (or, as he always insisted, miso-theism, God-hatred rather than just God-denial). Rather than representing some positive, articulate position - he instead spoke of the virtue of uncertainty - Hitchens' atheism was the product of his judgment that "religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism," that it had abandoned greatness, sophistication and poetry in favour of banality, stupidity, authoritarianism and even outright decadence.
One could point to numerous signs of this decline: from the hollow sanctimony and cant of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the idiotic mantras of religious "life coaches" and pay-per-view hucksters; from the blunting of the sharp edge of orthodoxy to the emergence of what Hitchens beautifully called a "cut-price spiritual cafeteria" where religious consumers can customize their own faith; from the versions of religious pluralism that can embrace, and therefore condone, virtually anything to the inane worship of a god who, as Hitchens put it, "would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt."
What is striking is that, at precisely this point, Hitchens' critique of religion is so close to that of his believing brother, Peter. To take just one example, both rage against the impotence of Anglican theology and practice stemming from its replacement of the Authorized (or King James) Version of the Bible with the New English Bible (which, as T.S. Eliot remarked, was astonishing "in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic"), and the Book of Common Prayer with, as Peter put it, the "vague half-hearted mumblings" of the "new, denatured, committee-designed prayers and services."
These are indications, for both brothers Hitchens, of a church that had abandoned seriousness and self-respect, that vacated its post in advance of some anticipated secular attack, and that therefore cannot be taken seriously. Paradoxically, had Christianity in the twentieth century shown its theological and political mettle, as it were, Christopher admitted that he would have had greater difficulty dismissing it. Nevertheless, an intellectually serious form of Christianity was engraved deeply, irrevocably, on Hitchens' thinking and moral formation. It guided him, however much he might have kicked against the goads. And this brings me to that second great moral commitment of Hitchens' life: his loathing of totalitarianism of every kind. As he told Richard Dawkins in his final interview:
"I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian - on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy - the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do."
For Hitchens, the essence of totalitarianism is the utter subjugation of the will and therefore the intellectual freedom and the moral responsibility of the individual. As such, totalitarianism invariably adopts the form of politico-religious idolatry. Writing elsewhere:
"If once it was decided that the individual was of relatively little significance when contrasted to the imperatives of the collective, people would awake one day to discover that their own individuality was indeed of small account but, strangely enough, that they were also somehow compelled to exalt and worship, nay even to deify, a single isolated and enthroned person. It might be a human god produced by a history of self-abnegation like the Emperor Hirohito or it might be the product of a massified and aggressive populism like Stalin or Mao, but the pattern would be more of less the same: the less the idea of the individual was esteemed, the more likely that one individual would become promiscuously or even monstrously prominent."
It was precisely this inherent idolatrous dimension that drove Hitchens in the last few years to conflate religion with totalitarianism, to depict existence under any god as living in "a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea" - hence Hitchens' preference for miso-theism, God-hatred, over any sort of benign a-theism. For Hitchens, everything, the entire theological-sacramental economy, is implicated in this malign totalitarian impulse, including the offer of forgiveness, much less the possibility of redemption. As he wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian:
"Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville's unforgettable line, 'Created sick - Commanded to be well'. And there are totalitarian insinuations to back this up if its appeal should fail. Christians, for example, declare me redeemed by a human sacrifice that occurred thousands of years before I was born. I didn't ask for it, and would willingly have foregone it, but there it is: I'm claimed and saved whether I wish it or not. And if I refuse the unsolicited gift? Well, there are still some vague mutterings about an eternity of torment for my ingratitude. That is somewhat worse than a Big Brother state, because there could be no hope of its eventually passing away ... So the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness strikes me as positively immoral, while the concept of revealed truth degrades the concept of free intelligence by purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out the ethical principles for ourselves."
*Scott is the Religion and Ethics editor for ABC Online. Before joining the ABC he taught theology for many years, and even did a stint as a parish minister with the Uniting Church in Australia. He has written extensively on the intersections among philosophy, theology, ethics and politics, as well as on modern atheism's dependence on the Christian legacy. Scott is also a regular contributor to The Drum, Eureka Street and the Times Literary Supplement. He has edited and translated (with Rex Butler) two volumes of the Selected Works of the highly influential philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek.
Agnosticism, Atheism, & Deism
(Our member, John Neilson in Wauchope relates his thoughts on this topic which he has been sharing with his friend on the internet.)
With respect to all that has been said and written on the subject, I tilt towards the agnostic theist - one who believes a God exists but does not claim to know that. (See below) On the subject of religion I am an agonistic. (a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic: Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality.) Here are a few quotes and definitions on some of the things mentioned in our emails. I thought they were entertaining and thought you might like to read them as well.
“For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all, and infinitely far from understanding either. The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed.” Blaise Pascal
Pascal also said, "I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy, Descartes did his best to dispense with God. But Descartes could not avoid prodding God to set the world in motion with a snap of his lordly fingers; after that, he had no more use for God.”
“Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a sceptical approach to questions. In some senses, agnosticism is a stance about the difference between belief and knowledge, rather than about any specific claim or belief. In the popular sense, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves there is a God, whereas an atheist disbelieves there is a God. In the strict sense, however, agnosticism is the view that human reason is incapable of providing sufficient rational grounds to justify knowledge of whether God exists or does not. Within agnosticism there are agnostic atheists (who do not believe any deity exists, but do not deny it as a possibility) and agnostic theists (who believe a God exists but do not claim to know that).”
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists
Deism in religious philosophy is the belief that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator. According to deists, the creator does not intervene in human affairs or suspend the natural laws of the universe. Deists typically reject supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles, tending instead to assert that a god (or "the Supreme Architect") does not alter the universe by intervening in it. This idea is also known as the Clockwork universe theory, in which a god designs and builds the universe, but steps aside to let it run on its own. Two main forms of deism currently exist: classical deism and modern deism.
(If you are interested, John has researched the references for the above unacknowledged quotations which come from Wikipedia .Ed.)
READINGS FOR “HOPING ONE’S WAY TO MEANING”
Gordon Livingstone MD on Hope in “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” Hachette Press, 2004
“As we contemplate the inevitable losses that we have had to integrate into our lives, the way we grieve, and the meaning that we assign to our experience determine how we face the future. The challenge is to remain hopeful.
Many people choose a religious basis for their hope. The idea that we live under the guiding hand of a merciful God and are promised life everlasting is a great comfort that answers for many believers the universal question, and shortest poem of human existence: “I, why?” Religion also provides a way of dealing with the uncertainty and apparent randomness of serious loss since it ascribes purpose to all human events and we are relieved of the burden of understanding by a simple acknowledgement that God’s ways are both inscrutable and ultimately benign.
Those like me, unable or unwilling to relinquish our scepticism about easy answers to large questions, are left with the difficult task of living with uncertainty. Not for us is the comfort of religious formulations. Instead we must struggle to establish some basis for meaning for our lives that does not depend on a belief in a system that requires continual worship of a deity that created us and gave us a set of instructions, which, if followed will defeat the death that is our common fate.“
Albert Sweitzer says, “Life in all its forms is sacred. It is therefore to be revered and respected, not just in ourselves but in all living things. This right thinking about life leads to reverence for life, which leads to responsibility for life, which equates with active love and devotion towards life. That being so, my valuing of life becomes the ground for determining what is the best good. i.e. the best good is everything I do which contributes to the furtherance and fullest development of life in all its forms
Michael Duffy in News Review SMH August 20/21, 2011, IN TRUTH WE’RE NATURAL BORN LIARS....If it were true religious belief is a product of evolution this could explain several features of modern life. One is the apparent rise of mental illness, including depression. David Tacey (in God’s and Diseases, Harper Collins} suggests the loss of religious belief is responsible for the rise in these problems. .....We turn our backs on it (religious surrender) at our peril. e.g the idea of the after life, so important in many religions. If “the mind is unable to affirm any such life , we end up in a stalemate which is a source of neurosis in modern times.” Duffy concludes, A crude secular version might go like this ; on the one hand our heads, thanks to modernity tell us there is no god,; on the other our hearts,thanks to evolution insist we believe in god. Some of us find no difficulty making a choice, and go with head or heart even if for some atheists the choice is a bleak one. But others of us cannot make a choice. .. Our minds tell us our heart is lying but the lie refuses to leave us.
LETTER AND RECOMMENDED READING FROM CLIVE AND RUTH
The Peace Prize lecture by Noam Chomsky, “Revolutionary Pacifism: Choices and Prospects” to which Clive Norton refers is available on our web site. Clive writes:
“You may have heard and got a transcript of the Sydney Peace Prize lecture. It is so important that I would like to draw the attention of all CPRT participants and those on our mailing lists to it. We could not get to hear him on 3 Nov, but a friend sent us a transcript (see below). Ruth and I found that transcript was not easy to read or comprehend in full, without actually hearing Chomsky.
His acute analysis came alive in the ABC radio national broadcast in its BIG IDEAS series; it is free to hear on-line @ www.abc.net.au (One needs to hear and then re-read and re-read all he encompassed!) Very important for it to be widely spread and discussed.”
See the Article next: -
2011 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture
The 2011 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture was delivered to a sold-out crowd at Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday 2nd November, by the 2011 Sydney Peace Prize Recipient, Prof Noam Chomsky.
Source: Sydney Peace BlogThursday, November 03, 2011
Revolutionary Pacifism: Choices and Prospects
As we all know, the United Nations was founded “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The words can only elicit deep regret when we consider how we have acted to fulfill that aspiration, though there have been a few significant successes, notably in Europe.
For centuries, Europe had been the most violent place on earth, with murderous and destructive internal conflicts and the forging of a culture of war that enabled Europe to conquer most of the world, shocking the victims, who were hardly pacifists, but were “appalled by the all-destructive fury of European warfare,” in the words of British military historian Geoffrey Parker. And enabled Europe to impose on its conquests what Adam Smith called “the savage injustice of the Europeans,” England in the lead, as he did not fail to emphasize. The global conquest took a particularly horrifying form in what is sometimes called “the Anglosphere,” England and its offshoots, settler-colonial societies in which the indigenous societies were devastated and their people dispersed or exterminated. But since 1945 Europe has become internally the most peaceful and in many ways most humane region of the earth – which is the source of some its current travail, an important topic that I will have to put aside.
In scholarship, this dramatic transition is often attributed to the thesis of the “democratic peace”: democracies do not go to war with one another. Not to be overlooked, however, is that Europeans came to realize that the next time they indulge in their favorite pastime of slaughtering one another, the game will be over: civilization has developed means of destruction that can only be used against those too weak to retaliate in kind, a large part of the appalling history of the post-World War II years. It is not that the threat has ended. US-Soviet confrontations came painfully close to virtually terminal nuclear war in ways that are shattering to contemplate, when we inspect them closely. And the threat of nuclear war remains all too ominously alive, a matter to which I will briefly return.
Can we proceed to at least limit the scourge of war? One answer is given by absolute pacifists, including people I respect though I have never felt able to go beyond that. A somewhat more persuasive stand, I think, is that of the pacifist thinker and social activist A.J. Muste, one of the great figures of 20th century America, in my opinion: what he called “revolutionary pacifism.” Muste disdained the search for peace without justice. He urged that “one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist” – by which he meant that we must cease to “acquiesce [so] easily in evil conditions,” and must deal “honestly and adequately with this ninety percent of our problem” – “the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil – material and spiritual – this entails for the masses of men throughout the world.” Unless we do so, he argued, “there is something ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical, about our concern over the ten per cent of the violence employed by the rebels against oppression” – no matter how hideous they may be. He was confronting the hardest problem of the day for a pacifist, the question whether to take part in the anti-fascist war.
In writing about Muste’s stand 45 years ago, I quoted his warning that “The problem after a war is with the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will teach him a lesson?” His observation was all too apt at the time, while the Indochina wars were raging. And on all too many other occasions since.
The allies did not fight “the good war,” as it is commonly called, because of the awful crimes of fascism. Before their attacks on western powers, fascists were treated rather sympathetically, particularly “that admirable Italian gentleman,” as FDR called Mussolini. Even Hitler was regarded by the US State Department as a “moderate” holding off the extremists of right and left. The British were even more sympathetic, particularly the business world. Roosevelt’s close confidant Sumner Welles reported to the president that the Munich settlement that dismembered Czechoslovakia “presented the opportunity for the establishment by the nations of the world of a new world order based upon justice and upon law,” in which the Nazi moderates would play a leading role. As late as April 1941, the influential statesman George Kennan, at the dovish extreme of the postwar planning spectrum, wrote from his consular post in Berlin that German leaders have no wish to “see other people suffer under German rule,” are “most anxious that their new subjects should be happy in their care,” and are making “important compromises” to assure this benign outcome.
Though by then the horrendous facts of the Holocaust were well known, they scarcely entered the Nuremberg trials, which focused on aggression, “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”: in Indochina, Iraq, and all too many other places where we have much to contemplate. The horrifying crimes of Japanese fascism were virtually ignored in the postwar peace settlements. Japan’s aggression began exactly 80 years ago, with the staged Mukden incident, but for the West, it began 10 years later, with the attack on military bases in two US possessions. India and other major Asian countries refused even to attend the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty conference because of the exclusion of Japan’s crimes in Asia – and also because of Washington’s establishment of a major military base in conquered Okiniwa, still there despite the energetic protests of the population. It is useful to reflect on several aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack. One is the reaction of historian and Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger to the bombing of Baghdad in March 2003. He recalled FDR’s words when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on “a date which will live in infamy.” “Today it is we Americans who live in infamy,” Schlesinger wrote, as our government adopts the policies of imperial Japan – thoughts that were barely articulated elsewhere in the mainstream, and quickly suppressed: I could find no mention of this principled stand in the praise for Schlesinger’s accomplishments when he died a few years later.
We can also learn a lot about ourselves by carrying Schlesinger’s lament a few steps further. By today’s standards, Japan’s attack was justified, indeed meritorious. Japan, after all, was exercising the much lauded doctrine of anticipatory self-defense when it bombed military bases in Hawaii and the Philippines, two virtual US colonies, with reasons far more compelling than anything that Bush and Blair could conjure up when they adopted the policies of imperial Japan in 2003. Japanese leaders were well aware that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming off the Boeing production lines, and they could read in the American press that these killing machines would be able to burn down Tokyo, a “city of rice-paper and wood houses.” A November 1940 plan to “bomb Tokyo and other big cities” was enthusiastically received by Secretary of State Cordell Hull. FDR was “simply delighted” at the plans “to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu,” outlined by their author, Air Force General Chennault. By July 1941, the Air Corps was ferrying B-17s to the Far East for this purpose, assigning half of all the big bombers to this region, taking them from the Atlantic sea-lanes. They were to be used if needed “to set the paper cities of Japan on fire,” according to General George Marshall, Roosevelt’s main military adviser, in a press briefing three weeks before Pearl Harbor. Four days later, New York Times senior correspondent Arthur Krock reported US plans to bomb Japan from Siberian and Philippine bases, to which the Air Force was rushing incendiary bombs intended for civilian targets. The US knew from decoded messages that Japan was aware of these plans.
History provides ample evidence to support Muste’s conclusion that “The problem after a war is with the victor, [who] thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay.” And the real answer to Muste’s question, “Who will teach him a lesson?,” can only be domestic populations, if they can adopt elementary moral principles.
Even the most uncontroversial of these principles could have a major impact on ending injustice and war. Consider the principle of universality, perhaps the most elementary of moral principles: we apply to ourselves the standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones. The principle is universal, or nearly so, in three further respects: it is found in some form in every moral code; it is universally applauded in words, and consistently rejected in practice. The facts are plain, and should be troublesome.
The principle has a simple corollary, which suffers the same fate: we should distribute finite energies to the extent that we can influence outcomes, typically on cases for which we share responsibility. We take that for granted with regard to enemies. No one cares whether Iranian intellectuals join the ruling clerics in condemnation of the crimes of Israel or the United States. Rather, we ask what they say about their own state. We honored Soviet dissidents on the same grounds. Of course, that is not the reaction within their own societies. There dissidents are condemned as “anti-Soviet” or supporters of the Great Satan, much as their counterparts here are condemned as “anti-American” or supporters of today’s official enemy. And of course, punishment of those who adhere to elementary moral principles can be severe, depending on the nature of the society. In Soviet-run Czechoslovakia, for example, Vaclav Havel was imprisoned. At the same time, in US-run El Salvador his counterparts had their brains blown out by an elite battalion fresh from renewed training at the John F. Kennedy School of Special Warfare in North Carolina, acting on explicit orders of the High Command, which had intimate relations with Washington. We all know and respect Havel for his courageous resistance, but who can even name the leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, who were added to the long bloody trail of the Atlacatl brigade shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall – along with their housekeeper and daughter, since the orders were to leave no witnesses?
Before we hear that these are exceptions, we might recall a truism of Latin American scholarship, reiterated by historian John Coatsworth in the recently published Cambridge University History of the Cold War: from 1960 to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.” Among the executed were many religious martyrs, and there were mass slaughters as well, consistently supported or initiated by Washington. And the date 1960 is highly significant, for reasons we should all know, but I cannot go into here.
In the West all of this is “disappeared,” to borrow the terminology of our Latin American victims. Regrettably, these are persistent features of intellectual and moral culture, which we can trace back to the earliest recorded history. I think they richly underscore Muste’s injunction. If we ever hope to live up to the high ideals we passionately proclaim, and to bring the initial dream of the United Nations closer to fulfillment, we should think carefully about crucial choices that have been made, and continue to be made every day – not forgetting “the violence on which the present system is based, and all the evil – material and spiritual – this entails for the masses of men throughout the world.” Among these masses are 6 million children who die every year because of lack of simple medical procedures that the rich countries could make available within statistical error in their budgets. And a billion people on the edge of starvation or worse, but not beyond reach by any means.
We should also never forget that our wealth derives in no small measure from the tragedy of others. That is dramatically clear in the Anglosphere. I live in a comfortable suburb of Boston. Those who once lived there were victims of “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union” by means “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru” – the verdict of the first Secretary of War of the newly liberated colonies, General Henry Knox. They suffered the fate of “that hapless race of native Americans, which we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty…among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring [it] to judgement” – the words of the great grand strategist John Quincy Adams, intellectual author of Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, long after his own substantial contributions to these heinous sins. Australians should have no trouble adding illustrations. Whatever the ultimate judgment of God may be, the judgment of man is far from Adams’s expectations. To mention a few recent cases, consider what I suppose are the two most highly regarded left-liberal intellectual journals in the Anglosphere, the New York and London Reviews of Books. In the former, a prominent commentator recently reported what he learned from the work of the “heroic historian” Edmund Morgan: namely, that when Columbus and the early explorers arrived they “found a continental vastness sparsely populated by farming and hunting people . . . . In the limitless and unspoiled world stretching from tropical jungle to the frozen north, there may have been scarcely more than a million inhabitants.” The calculation is off by tens of millions, and the “vastness” included advanced civilizations, facts well known to those who choose to know decades ago. No letters appeared reacting to this truly colossal case of genocide denial. In the companion London journal a noted historian casually mentioned the “mistreatment of the Native Americans,” again eliciting no comment. We would hardly accept the word “mistreatment” for comparable or even much lesser crimes committed by enemies.
Recognition of heinous crimes from which we benefit enormously would be a good start after centuries of denial, but we can go on from there. One of the main tribes where I live was the Wampanoag, who still have a small reservation not too far away. Their language has long ago disappeared. But in a remarkable feat of scholarship and dedication to elementary human rights, the language has been reconstructed from missionary texts and comparative evidence, and now has its first native speaker in 100 years, the daughter of Jennie Little Doe, who has become a fluent speaker of the language herself. She is a former graduate student at MIT, who worked with my late friend and colleague Kenneth Hale, one of the most outstanding linguists of the modern period. Among his many accomplishments was his leading role in founding the study of aboriginal languages of Australia. He was also very effective in defense of the rights of indigenous people, also a dedicated peace and justice activist. He was able to turn our department at MIT into a center for the study of indigenous languages and active defense of indigenous rights in the Americas and beyond. Revival of the Wampanoag language has revitalized the tribe. A language is more than just sounds and words. It is the repository of culture, history, traditions, the entire rich texture of human life and society. Loss of a language is a serious blow not only to the community itself but to all of those who hope to understand something of the nature of human beings, their capacities and achievements, and of course a loss of particular severity to those concerned with the variety and uniformity of human languages, a core component of human higher mental faculties. Similar achievements can be carried forward, a very partial but significant gesture towards repentance for heinous sins on which our wealth and power rests.
Since we commemorate anniversaries, such as the Japanese attacks 70 years ago, there are several significant ones that fall right about now, with lessons that can serve for both enlightenment and action. I will mention just a few.
The West has just commemorated the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and what was called at the time, but no longer, “the glorious invasion” of Afghanistan that followed, soon to be followed by the even more glorious invasion of Iraq. Partial closure for 9/11 was reached with the assassination of the prime suspect, Osama bin Laden, by US commandos who invaded Pakistan, apprehended him and then murdered him, disposing of the corpse without autopsy.
I said “prime suspect,” recalling the ancient though long-abandoned doctrine of “presumption of innocence.” The current issue of the major US scholarly journal of international relations features several discussions of the Nuremberg trials of some of history’s worst criminals. There we read that the “U.S. decision to prosecute, rather than seek brutal vengeance was a victory for the American tradition of rights and a particularly American brand of legalism: punishment only for those who could be proved to be guilty through a fair trial with a panoply of procedural protections.” The journal appeared right at the time of the celebration of the abandonment of this principle in a dramatic way, while the global campaign of assassination of suspects, and inevitable “collateral damage,” continues to be expanded, to much acclaim.
Not to be sure universal acclaim. Pakistan’s leading daily recently published a study of the effect of drone attacks and other US terror. It found that “About 80 per cent [of] residents of [the tribal regions] South and North Waziristan agencies have been affected mentally while 60 per cent people of Peshawar are nearing to become psychological patients if these problems are not addressed immediately,” and warned that the “survival of our young generation” is at stake. In part for these reasons, hatred of America had already risen to phenomenal heights, and after the bin Laden assassination increased still more. One consequence was firing across the border at the bases of the US occupying army in Afghanistan – which provoked sharp condemnation of Pakistan for its failure to cooperate in an American war that Pakistanis overwhelmingly oppose, taking the same stand they did when the Russians occupied Afghanistan. A stand then lauded, now condemned.
The specialist literature and even the US Embassy in Islamabad warn that the pressures on Pakistan to take part in the US invasion, as well as US attacks in Pakistan, are “destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States – and the world – which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan” – quoting British military/Pakistan analyst Anatol Lieven. The assassination of bin Laden greatly heightened this risk in ways that were ignored in the general enthusiasm for assassination of suspects. The US commandos were under orders to fight their way out if necessary. They would surely have had air cover, maybe more, in which case there might have been a major confrontation with the Pakistani army, the only stable institution in Pakistan, and deeply committed to defending Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan has a huge nuclear arsenal, the most rapidly expanding in the world. And the whole system is laced with radical Islamists, products of the strong US-Saudi support for the worst of Pakistan’s dictators, Zia ul-Haq, and his program of radical Islamization. This program along with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are among Ronald Reagan’s legacies. Obama has now added the risk of nuclear explosions in London and New York, if the confrontation had led to leakage of nuclear materials to jihadis, as was plausibly feared – one of the many examples of the constant threat of nuclear weapons.
The assassination of bin Laden had a name: “Operation Geronimo.” That caused an uproar in Mexico, and was protested by the remnants of the indigenous population in the US. But elsewhere few seemed to comprehend the significance of identifying bin Laden with the heroic Apache Indian chief who led the resistance to the invaders, seeking to protect his people from the fate of “that hapless race” that John Quincy Adams eloquently described. The imperial mentality is so profound that such matters cannot even be perceived. There were a few criticisms of Operation Geronimo – the name, the manner of its execution, and the implications. These elicited the usual furious condemnations, most unworthy of comment, though some were instructive. The most interesting was by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers,” so it is “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. The words are not criticism, but applause; hence one can raise only tactical objections if the US invades other countries, murders and destroys with abandon, assassinates suspects at will, and otherwise fulfills its obligations in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional Western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as “silly,” Yglesias explains – incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt.
Going back a decade to 2001, from the first moment it was clear that the “glorious invasion” was anything but that. It was undertaken with the understanding that it might drive several million Afghans over the edge of starvation, which is why the bombing was bitterly condemned by the aid agencies that were forced to end the operations on which 5 million Afghans depended for survival. Fortunately the worst did not happen, but only the most morally obtuse can fail to comprehend that actions are evaluated in terms of likely consequences, not actual ones. The invasion of Afganistan was not aimed at overthrowing the brutal Taliban regime, as later claimed. That was an afterthought, brought up three weeks after the bombing began. Its explicit reason was that the Taliban were unwilling to extradite bin Laden without evidence, which the US refused to provide – as later learned, because it had virtually none, and in fact still has little that could stand up in an independent court of law, though his responsibility is hardly in doubt. The Taliban did in fact make some gestures towards extradition, and we since have learned that there were other such options, but they were all dismissed in favor of violence, which has since torn the country to shreds. It has reached its highest level in a decade this year according to the UN, with no diminution in sight.
A very serious question, rarely asked then or since, is whether there was an alternative to violence. There is strong evidence that there was. The 9/11 attack was sharply condemned within the jihadi movement, and there were good opportunities to split it and isolate al-Qaeda. Instead, Washington and London chose to follow the script provided by bin Laden, helping to establish his claim that the West is attacking Islam, and thus provoking new waves of terror. The senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996, Michael Scheuer, warned right away and has repeated since that “the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”
These are among the natural consequences of rejecting Muste’s warning, and the main thrust of his revolutionary pacifism, which should direct us to investigating the grievances that lead to violence, and when they are legitimate, as they often are, to address them. When that advice is taken, it can succeed very well. Britain’s recent experience in Northern Ireland is a good illustration. For years, London responded to IRA terror with greater violence, escalating the cycle, which reached a bitter peak. When the government began instead to attend to the grievances, violence subsided and terror has effectively disappeared. I was in Belfast in 1993, when it was a war zone, and returned a year ago to a city with tensions, but hardly beyond the norm.
There is a great deal more to say about what we call 9/11 and its consequences, but I do not want to end without at least mentioning a few more anniversaries. Right now happens to be the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s decision to escalate the conflict in South Vietnam from vicious repression, which had already killed tens of thousands of people and finally elicited a reaction that the client regime in Saigon could not control, to outright US invasion: bombing by the US Air Force, use of napalm, chemical warfare soon including crop destruction to deprive the resistance of food, and programs to send millions of South Vietnamese to virtual concentration camps where they could be “protected” from the guerrillas who, admittedly, they were supporting.
There is no time to review the grim aftermath, and there should be no need to do so. The wars left three countries devastated, with a toll of many millions, not including the miserable victims of the enormous chemical warfare assault, including newborn infants today.
There were a few at the margins who objected – “wild men in the wings,” as they were termed by Kennedy-Johnson National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Harvard Dean. And by the time that the very survival of South Vietnam was in doubt, popular protest became quite strong. At the war’s end in 1975, about 70% of the population regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” figures that were sustained as long as the question was asked in polls. In revealing contrast, at the dissident extreme of mainstream commentary the war was “a mistake” because our noble objectives could not be achieved at a tolerable cost.
Another anniversary that should be in our minds today is of the massacre in the Santa Cruz graveyard in Dili just 20 years ago, the most publicized of a great many shocking atrocities during the Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor. Australia had joined the US in granting formal recognition to the Indonesian occupation, after its virtually genocidal invasion. The US State Department explained to Congress in 1982 that Washington recognized both the Indonesian occupation and the Khmer Rouge-based “Democratic Kampuchea” regime. The justification offered was that “unquestionably” the Khmer Rouge were “more representative of the Cambodian people than Fretilin was of the Timorese people” because “there has been this continuity [in Cambodia] since the very beginning,” in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took over. The media and commentators have been polite enough to all this languish in silence, not an inconsiderable feat.
A few months before the Santa Cruz massacre, Foreign Minister Gareth Evans made his famous statements dismissing concerns about the murderous invasion and annexation on the grounds that “the world is a pretty unfair place,…littered…with examples of acquisitions of force,” so we can therefore look away as awesome crimes continue with strong support by the western powers. Not quite look away, because at the same time Evans was negotiating the robbery of East Timor’s sole resource with his comrade Ali Alatas, foreign minister of Indonesia, producing what seems to be the only official western document that recognizes East Timor as an Indonesian province.
Years later, Evans declared that “the notion that we had anything to answer for morally or otherwise over the way we handled the Indonesia-East Timor relationship, I absolutely reject” – a stance that can be adopted, and even respected, by those who emerge victorious. In the US and Britain, the question is not even asked in polite society. It is only fair to add that in sharp contrast, much of the Australian population, and media, were in the forefront of exposing and protesting the crimes, some of the worst of the past half-century. And in 1999, when the crimes were escalating once again, they had a significant role in convincing US president Clinton to inform the Indonesian generals in September that the game was over, at which point they immediately withdrew allowing an Australian-led peacekeeping force to enter.
There are lessons here too, for the public. Clinton’s orders could have been delivered at any time in the preceding 25 years, terminating the crimes. Clinton himself could easily have delivered them four years earlier, in October 2005, when General Suharto was welcomed to Washington as “our kind of guy.” The same orders could have been given 20 years earlier, when Henry Kissinger gave the “green light” to the Indonesian invasion, and UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed his pride in having rendered the United Nations “utterly ineffective” in any measures to deter the Indonesian invasion – later to be revered for his courageous defense of international law.
There could hardly be a more painful illustration of the consequences of the failure to attend to Muste’s lesson. It should be added that in a shameful display of subordination to power, some respected western intellectuals have actually sunk to describing this disgraceful record as a stellar illustration of the humanitarian norm of “right to protect.”
Consistent with Muste’s “revolutionary pacifism,” the Sydney Peace Foundation has always emphasized peace with justice. The demands of justice can remain unfulfilled long after peace has been declared. The Santa Cruz massacre 20 years ago can serve as an illustration. One year after the massacre the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which states that “Acts constituting enforced disappearance shall be considered a continuing offence as long as the perpetrators continue to conceal the fate and the whereabouts of persons who have disappeared and these facts remain unclarified.” The massacre is therefore a continuing offence: the fate of the disappeared is unknown, and the offenders have not been brought to justice, including those who continue to conceal the crimes of complicity and participation. Only one indication of how far we must go to rise to some respectable level of civilized behavior.