How then should I live?

And does it matter anyhow?

(Photo taken in a public park in Tallin, Estonia)

Not for the first time in my life I realise I’m a bit different . . . in a nice way of course. Some would no doubt describe me in less complimentary terms, but I’ll just concede that I don’t run with the herd and never really have.

In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that if there is a fashion trend or a mass movement, widely held opinion or whatever, I will be out of step with it. And so it is now. Except that I feel different this time, and I want to explain (perhaps to myself?) why.

The need to write this piece has welled up in me for some time, and I’ve been fighting it. Finally, I’ve given in. Having a rant holds no attraction though. Raging against the zeitgeist is not a good use of time. I’ve seen what it does to people. Demonising opponents and not conceding any shortcomings in your own position is quite properly the territory of those whose arrogance is matched only by their ignorance. I want no part of it.

So I’ll do my best to avoid a rant, but I will be saying it like I see it so buckle up if you’re interested.

My issue is this:

How do I continue to live authentically while surrounded by a society that does not share my beliefs and values, and is hostile to them?

“This is the 21st century!” I hear you say . . . and so it is. Living in the past is not an option, and although no doubt I have been and will be accused of trying to do so, such is not my dream.

I will start by giving some context. I am a Christian; certainly not a good one, hardly a very devout one, and certainly not a bible bashing one. But a faithful Christian nonetheless. I think I know truth, but I don’t fool myself that I know all the truth there is to know, still less that I own the truth. The truth I do know is precious to me. I will not retreat from it, but neither do I want to use it as a weapon to belittle or control anyone else. I don’t believe I am a bigot, a dinosaur, or any one of the many labels used as insults or to intimidate or shut people up. It’s not that I think I’m perfect, but for every pointing finger there’s another one pointing right back.

I’d much rather have respectful conversations than megaphones at 10 paces, and I’m more than happy to accept people as they are. I’ve long since abandoned any attempts to change what anyone else believes or thinks.

I’m not saying that one truth is as good as another, or that it doesn’t matter what truth we hold as long as we play nicely. Not at all. I’m just saying I’ve no enthusiasm for getting involved in the rants, ridicule and name calling that passes for contemporary public debate.

The catalyst for me to start to write this has been the release of survey results in Australia this week on changing the law on marriage to include same sex couples. A catalyst, but not the main purpose. For the record I wish them well; the couples who will take advantage of the law change to marry. Their marital status does not concern me. I listened to the arguments in favour of the law change and was not convinced by them, but I accept that a majority of other voters were. So be it. I’m not interested in arguing against what is now a fait accompli.

What does concern me is that I find myself in a position where I am swimming against the tide of popular opinion on this issue at present, but more generally also. It might be convenient to dismiss me as a dinosaur, an aging white male unable to adapt to a changing world, who in any case is one of a class responsible for creating the inequality and injustice in the world. Should I just take my medicine and slink off to the corner assigned to me, according to the new rules?

Well, I could do that. It would be the easiest course. But then there are deeper questions that remain and they tug at me, demanding my engagement. The temptation to stay silent is strong when the risk of ostracism is real. To say nothing however, and retreat to my private corner would be a betrayal of what makes me me.

So, what questions would they be? Would you mind if I pick out only a couple from the many? Would you mind also if I don’t make any attempt to answer them? That’s not my aim in writing this. No doubt you will have much better answers than I do anyway. My aim is to explain (to myself?) how it might be best to live authentically with my beliefs and values in a world that no longer shares them, if in fact it ever did.

Is morality a changeable commodity, at the mercy of popular vote or whim?

Must my faith bow to the dictates of secular law?

I’ll allow the first one to hang there, unanswered and unsupported. It might be important only to me, after all.

It’s the second that I find myself increasingly challenged by. Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but I wonder how long I can continue to accept secular laws that conflict with my beliefs and values. The Same Sex Marriage thing in itself is not a big challenge to me, but it begs the question. What will I do when/if the secular state legislates on other issues using values that seek to override mine?

What should I do if they force me to choose?

Do I close my eyes and ears and retreat to my bubble, pretending the status quo has not changed? (Do I run away, in other words).

Do I enter political debate? (Do I attempt to talk to people who aren’t interested in listening, in other words?).

Do I adjust my beliefs to make them palatible to secular sensibilities? (Do I surrender, in other words).

Do I engage in nonviolent resistance? (Do I take my beliefs and my faith seriously, in other words?).

How far would I be prepared to go? When the time comes for me to choose, which path will I follow?

There is one inescapable role model for me in the person, Jesus Christ. I know what he has already done and I am afraid I know what he would have me do when facing challenges like those above. I would rather be left alone to zip myself up inside my bubble, but I wonder if I will be allowed that luxury.

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After the Funeral

Samurai or butterfly?

Razor edged, transient,

enduring, fleeting.

Impermanent.

Stuttering fingers of flame;

flashes of colour over grey.

Shopping Centre orchids to bloom once and only;

delicate, temporary, wonder patterns

always, we’ll be;

tomorrow, yesterday’s love.

Bedouins happenchancing on puddles don’t ask why.

Should you?

Should I?

. . . Maybe.

 

 

 

 

The decades have passed almost without my noticing. I’ve mellowed. Those powerful youthful certainties, towering passions and cruel emotions have ebbed away with the hormones that stirred them. I’m comfortable in my own skin now, more or less. I’ve learned to recognise the battles worth fighting, and ditches worth dying in.

 

While there are certainly still battles worth fighting, there are now fewer ditches I would choose to die in. Those that remain seem so clear to me, so fundamental, so bleeding obvious. If only people would listen! But they don’t.

 

They wont, any more than the younger me did when truths were simpler, possibilities were many, and freedom was a word that resonated through my soul.

 

I ask different questions now. I value different answers.

 

Which is the bigger delusion then? The brittle arrogance of youth or the patronising wisdom of age? Is it possible they are flip sides of the same thing? Who would have wanted to miss out on the power and the impetuousness of their youth? Who at the time would have swapped it for sensible, safe and cautious?

 

Some of us don’t survive our youth. A few of us never outgrow it. For the rest of us, caution and wisdom grow from the seeds of mistakes that went with the territory. I speak only for myself here, but I don’t want my youth back. I grieve for it, but like a butterfly in the wind, it’s gone. Wisdom is the compensation. Wisdom, and acceptance, starting with acceptance of myself and extending it to others.

 

I should clarify something. Acceptance is not the same thing as approval. Far from it. This is where wisdom begins for me. Accepting other people as they are does not mean that I need to approve of them or things they do. They do not need my approval, any more than I need theirs. It’s nice of course, but unnecessary, and counterproductive if we make it an overarching aim to be approved of by others. For me, approval is a personal thing, a testament to who I am down deep. I’ll award or withhold it as I see fit.

 

Now, where was I?

 

Lost in my delusions, that’s where. In my more expansive moments, I concede the arrogance of youth is no more a delusion than my thinking I have now tamed wisdom. We grasp at certainties, and having caught some, cling to them at all costs, even at the expense of discounting the humanity of those who see things differently.

 

In so many ways I see us divided into camps, dismissing those holding opposing views as stupid or perfidious (one commonly applied cliche is ‘hateful’ I believe). We deny the personhood of those in the opposing camp. Politics has descended to this. Look around you and say it’s not so. We have done this to ourselves, at least partly because we crave certainty and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

 

I sit comfortably with ambiguity. I do not and never will have enough insight to be able to judge other people with authority (although I admit I haven’t always remembered that). I don’t approve of everything I see around me, but I don’t believe I hold all the answers either. Nevertheless I hold some beliefs deeply and without compromise.

 

This does not of itself make me a bigot. My certainties do not imprison me; they free me to accept and make allowances for those who are so certain of themselves they would deny me my humanity.

 

So, which ditches would I die in now? As I said earlier, not too many, but I’m wise enough to keep my powder dry and not list them here. If and when they come for me, I’ll be waiting in one of my choosing.

Baltic Gallery

I’m sitting in Stockholm airport with a few hours to kill. What better way to spend them than putting together a few thoughts from the past ten days spent in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia?

The top photo was taken in a ruined former soviet submarine base in Estonia. The second one was taken on the Curonian Spit, near Klaipeda, Lithuania.

Each one of these countries deserves more time than we were able to give them. Beautiful, engaging, stirring, struggling, memorable, quircky, intriguing, interesting, inexpensive and friendly; all three should be at the top of your list if you’re looking to experience cultures at once similar to and very different from those in the mainstream.

Growing in understanding the evolution of languages, witnessing national determination to overcome recent soviet occupation, and gaining an insight into cultural traditions of the West are added bonuses if you want them. The food is phenomenal too, but someone else will have to write about that.

Expect to be surprised when you visit the Baltic. For a start, it’s quite inexpensive if you are prepared to explore outside international hotels, major department stores, and tourist trap old town centres. Large beers for one euro and a tasty, filling salad from a supermarket for 2 euros might give you an idea. In any case we came away having spent much less than we planned for!

Anyway, enough of the travel advice. I’m more interested in sharing the impressions that will stay in my heart and call me to return to this less visited region.

These are personal impressions gained over visits of about four days to each country. A longer visit would of course yield a fuller picture.

In brief:

Lithuania is a diamond in the rough. It struggles with infrastructure such as roads signage and public transport, but excels in convincing the traveller that what they are experiencing is the genuine deal. People are friendly, and the food is phenomenal, but there is not as much money here as in the other two countries. Tons of natural beauty but few signs to point the way to sites. This can be frustrating and be prepared to ask, ask, and ask again to find places like the Hill of Crosses.

In order: Hill of Crosses, Curonian Spit (2 and 3), Old Vilnius.

Latvia is a beauty, shy of too much attention but full of forests, astoundingly beautiful wooden architecture and like Lithuania, good food. Latvians seem very proud of their country. I’m not sure why I say that but it is a strong impression. The infrastructure seems a little better here, and prices are correspondingly a little higher than in Lithuania. Signage was no better though!

Top: Jurmala beach resort, near Riga. Bottom: City park, Riga.

Estonia was my favourite, but maybe that is because it was the most recent place visited. The Estonian economy seems to me to be stronger than in its two southern neighbours and the prices are noticeably higher, although not as high as in other european countries. As a rough guide, prices were double those in Lithuania, but I realise that is just my estimation. The national parks in Estonia are to be savoured, as are those in the two other countries. It is very much worth taking the time to visit them, maybe on an organised tour.

All above photos are from Lahemaa National Park, east of Tallinn, Estonia.

As to politics, they each seem to be stable democracies, even if they are at different stages on the road to economic development. We spoke to one guide about the perception of threat from their Russian neighbour. Her response was that while the people were generally concerned about Russian influence, a re-occupation would be, in her words, a “mistake”.

English is widely spoken in all three countries, especially by younger people in tourist areas. We found the languages themselves to be quite challenge to master even a few phrases and we gave up, unfortunately. Sign language helped a lot. A longer visit might have seen us try harder.

Do yourself a favour. Visit these small yet impressive countries. Take your appetite and your camera.

What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.

img_0864-1More thoughts about stuff that doesn’t seem to matter all that much, except to me. This is really two posts, but they are sort of, more or less, related.

If you’ve been around a while you might recall a book and subsequent TV series by Jacob Bronowski (pictured below). Then again, you might not. Either way, it’s not really central to the topic, but it’s a handy place for me to start.

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At the time (early 1970s) I was quite taken with its grand story of how human kind had emerged from caves, lifted itself out of ignorance, cast off superstition, and scaled the heights of science to reach enlightenment. Heady stuff, and I was on the brink of adulthood. The future stretched out, assured, onwards and upwards, to ever greater achievements until all the questions worth asking had been answered, with the help of science of course, and of the human intellect. And I would be part of all that.

Or so I assumed. Looking back, I think I was sold a pup.

How’s it all gone in the years since then? Have we stuck to the script? Answered all questions have we? Especially those that gnaw at the human soul? Have hopelessness, loneliness and meaninglessness been given their marching orders? Eliminated poverty have we? Banished violence and warfare? Created a completely just, equitable and safe society anywhere yet?

On the other hand, I guess I should concede that in many matters science has taken central position and assumes it can speak with authority on what is ethical and good for us. Religion, tradition and superstition have lost a lot of ground in western culture, if not elsewhere. “Scientifically proven” is still a well used phrase in knock down arguments by people everywhere who should know better. I don’t have time or space to explain or debate that here, except to say that “scientifically supported” is a much more accurate phrase. Science does not, in general, prove anything. It is a very good method for establishing whether certain propositions are consistent with starting assumptions but, unfortunately, shiny instruments, miracle cures and wonder materials aside, that is all it can ever be. You may not agree with me on this, and may think science has, or can find, all the answers worth finding, and if so I know I cannot convert you and I wish you well in your belief.

I no longer buy it myself however.

To summarise. There is a popular way of viewing the world that elevates science and the human intellect to the pinnacle of all existence. It is not my world view.

That popular world view can be represented, admittedly in a fairly simplistic way, as follows:

Ignorance and superstition, epitomised by religious belief, is a primitive state for people to occupy until they discover more advanced ways of thinking. These advanced ways have grown out of scientific study of nature . . . With this telescope for example . . .

IMG_0178

(Photo taken in the Science Museum, Munich)

which has been followed by ever more advanced contraptions such as this early mechanical clock . . .

 

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(Science Museum, Munich)

and this early digital computer:

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(Science Museum, Munich)

I could (and maybe should) continue with examples of the advancement of science bringing with it the advancement of human civilization. I don’t have the space however, and I suspect you may not have the patience.

Suffice to say that, while I believe in the value of science, have studied it, and appreciate the things it produces, I do not have any faith that it can answer questions that are important to me, or serve as a guide to my ethical decision making, or tell me who I am, or where I fit into the scheme of things.

Anyhow, I sense myself drifting off topic a little.

Back on topic.

The reason I began to write this is I read a commentary article in a national newspaper on the weekend. The article argued that the fabric of western societies was crumbling, disintegrating, weakening, whatever, and that the cause of this was the declining interest of western people in Christian faith.

Naturally, it elicited a host of feedback comments from defenders of Christian faith and attackers of that faith. Nothing new there. Ho hum . . . I prepared to move on, but then I began to think. I did not agree with one of the article’s central propositions.

The decline of western civilization may indeed be underway (I don’t want to get involved in any arguments on this) or it may not be. It depends on what you use to measure whether civilization is declining. I would, however, take issue with the assumption that the level of Christian faith in the population is the same thing as the level of influence of the established Christian church. I think that’s nonsense! They are two very different things.

Where I part company with the newspaper article bemoaning the loss of faith and its effect on society is that I just don’t believe that the level of individual faith is lower these days than it ever has been in the past. My reasoning is this:

The Christian church took a wrong turn and transformed itself into a great edifice of power when it allowed itself to be aligned with the civil government of the Roman emporer Constantine, 1700 years ago. It never looked back from there, gaining influence, wealth, power and adherents who basically had no choice but to join up. In the years since, the church institution has kept itself closely associated with the powerful and successful end of town in all countries where it established itself. This necessarily compromised its role as messenger of Christ’s gospel.

In my view, the Christian church as an institution compromised its authenticity as Christ’s followers and representatives by embracing worldly success, amassing wealth, and legitimating the rule of the powerful. The Christian gospel is, and always was, the complete antithesis and repudiation of the seeking of worldly power and wealth.

 

IMG_0025

(Photo taken in the cathedral choir, Toledo, Spain)

Recently, of course, the moral authority of the church has all but collapsed in western countries as a result of reveations of sexual abuse of children and the protection of offenders by church heirarchies. The church has been exposed as caring more about appearances than the children in its care.

I grant and admit that the Church ( with a capital ‘C’) is doing it tough in western countries these days. So it should be! There are very good reasons for where it finds itself at present.

On the other hand Christian faith exists both in the church and outside its established structures. As the church loses legitimacy and influence, it is my belief that individuals with Christian faith find new and different ways to live their faith.

In the past, it was not nearly so easy for people to live outside the structure of the church. It would be a mistake to interpret this as evidence of higher levels of faith in the past. There has always been probably a majority of people at all times in the history of the Church, especially since the time of Emporer Constantine when it became more or less compulsory to be a ‘Christian’, whose ‘faith’ was little more than a matter of convenience. The declining numbers of people who list Christian adherence on census forms is, in my view, simply a result of a decline in social pressure to declare Christian status. It is not evidence of a general decline in Christian faith among the population. Put more simply, there has never been a time when the majority of people had any more than a passing interest in faith, still less an active personal faith in the Christ of the gospels.

The doomsaying in the weekend newspaper article may well have been justified. There is evidence enough of societal decline around us. Whether or not our civilization is decaying has little to do, however, with a general decline in personal faith as the article argued. The declining power and influence of the Christian church may indeed be related to the general decline of the west, but that decline is more likely due to the church having long since backed the wrong horse and forgotten its reason for being.

Those of us who have faith in the Christ of the gospels will continue regardless.

 

 

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Beach Walk

Grieving for a father
who was never there.
Missing a man
who couldn’t share
himself in moments
as (I hear) other fathers did.

Already gone before he’s dead
All that we should have said
We cannot now, nor ever.
Dementia snapped the only thread
of a link that never ripened.
He could not do father, nor I son;
both of us too frightened.

I stand and gaze at winter waves,
their foamy sunlit diamonds,
and wonder why I feel such loss.
He was never destined
to stay and care and nurture me;
the child man dad who left me.

I wondered what it was he loved
all those years ago.
Can a son ever know
things a father cannot show?
I walked away and knew it wasn’t me.
Perhaps he wanted to be free.

Beyond the grief; behind the frown;
the hurt and shame,
pushed so deep down,
has long since ceased to matter.
You once were dad and I was son.
All else is only chatter.