Looking for Love in all the Non Places

(My photo: A ‘non place’ in Barcelona)

Poetry, photography and travel posts have been a bit thin on the ground recently. I’ll get back to them soon, but I have an itch to scratch here first.

I’ve written again on the theme of meaning in a world that distracts attention from it. In particular, I’m interested in the idea of ‘non places’ mentioned a book by Mark Sayers.

“Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval”. Mark Sayers (Kindle ebook).

We’re getting it so wrong it seems. We are looking for love (a.k.a. meaning and belonging) in the wrong places, which actually are ‘non places’.

‘Places’ are where we are involved with others, feel part of the whole and experience community. These could be homes, sports clubs, churches, worksheds, community drop in centres, family reunions, a street party, the clean up after a natural disaster, maybe schools and maybe workplaces (depending on how humane and humanizing they are).

‘Non places’, conversely, are where we are self contained, just passing through, without meaningful interpersonal contact. Examples are shopping malls, CBDs, airport terminals, coffee shops and bars; anywhere anonymous, sterile, faux neighbourly, but empty of any genuine care. And while we’re on the topic: would that include anywhere and everywhere we sit glued to social media?

‘Places’ nurture us and augment our humanity. ‘Non places’ alienate us and stunt it. It’s not really about the actual place is it? It’s what happens there and how we respond. Get the idea? Maybe we should be talking of ‘dehumanizing contexts’ rather than ‘non places’?

Non places offer illusions of freedom, choice and absence of responsibility. We can, and do, use them as an escape where we soar free from everyday reality. Offering freedom, they deliver instead disengagement and passivity. Enticing us to indulge the self, they close us off from others and, in the process, make us less human.

Wandering through a shopping mall (some people enjoy this, I’ve been told) we can dream of purchases that will make us whole. Skipping around the internet we have infinite choice and minimal engagement. Sitting alone in a cafe, people watching, we bathe in our own invisibility while passers by may as well be holograms. What we do not experience generally, is anything much that nourishes the soul, or reinforces who we are, or binds us more closely to our fellow human beings.

Non places are ‘self’ places. The problem is, turning in on ourselves, we become less able to notice others.

Why does it matter? Why should we care about this? Well, it’s kind of relevant if we are interested in becoming fully human.

Are we looking for love (meaning and belonging) in all the wrong places? Are we looking inwards to ourselves to find what can only be found in positive relationships with others?

Who would have thought?

Non places are everywhere and anywhere. One person’s place can easily be another’s non place. It depends on how a person experiences and responds to his or her surrounds there. Perhaps wherever you are, if you are in a cocoon, without emotional connection to passers by, it’s likely a non place for you.

The whole of Sydney was, for me recently, a non place when I had two days to kill while my wife attended a conference there. Lovely scenery and lots to do, granted. However as I walked around, I felt removed and alone. I forget who said it: “One is never as alone as when one is alone in a crowd”. Of course that could have changed in an instant for me for a whole host of reasons. A medical emergency or a lost child would have dissolved the membrane and had me dealing personally and humanely with some who shared the space. Instead, they remained alien souls floating past in a video collage.

I was so happy each afternoon to get back to the hotel (another non place) when my wife had finished her conference session. We would go out for dinner to what could have easily have been yet another non place, except that we enjoyed it together.

Might I deduce that being fully human is all about relationships rather than the self? I’ll qualify that. Relationships that nurture and affirm our humanity. There are far too many of the other sort.

Maybe what Sayers has said about ‘non places’ could apply to ‘non relationships’?

Could it be that our relationships are the key to our becoming fully human?

Maybe I should change the title to “Looking for Love in all the wrong relationships”?

That’s a thought.

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Tough Love 2

(Grabbing some rest in Jaipur, India)

This post begins with a poem I’ve published previously but I’ve reworked it and here it is in a revised form. It sets the scene for the rest of the post.

Tough Love 2

Madness swells and seeps under doors.

The darkness in each of us seeks out its own.

We are blind mice

feeling for the exit

in a warehouse stalked by cats.

 

The anger of a thousand stolen childhoods,

shames inaction and smashes every excuse

for child sexual abuse.

Aromas of respectability become the stink

of yesterday’s household garbage.

Exposed and stripped of defence,

failed shepherds

spread their hands

and evade responsibility.

 

Transitioned into care,

yesterday’s people outlive their usefulness.

Independence reigned in to a choke hold.

Dignity denied them by others’ decisions;

all legal, sensible, faux compassion.

The children who consign them there,

confirm their own decline

in turn and in time.

 

A termination

on the strength of a prenatal scan.

Imperfect parents will try another time

for a perfect child.

This one flawed;

airbrushed out of a family’s history.

Binned as biological waste;

the child spared, at least,

the obscenity of parents like these.

 

Fragments of a hundred butchered innocents

lie on a hot black road;

litter left by soldiers of Allah.

An unfinished jigsaw of heads and limbs

sorted and ripped by beaks and talons.

Forget love and kindness.

Cruelty and violence are the price

of entry to paradise.

Who’d have thought?

 

Somewhere,

love is not set aside for the greater good,

explained away by self interest,

dishonoured through selfishness,

or perverted by pustulant ideology.

 

Somewhere,

people can be

who they were created to be.

……………………………………

 

“Somewhere love is not set aside . . .

This is an article of faith for me and my reason for writing this post. Somewhere there is a place where love is not set aside in favour of chasing other goals. A place where people can be safe and free to be who they were meant to be. I understand that place to be the kingdom of heaven; not a place in the sky with clouds and harps, but the kingdom of heaven right here, as Jesus described it.

I seek that place, and I’m committed to doing what I can to help the world be such a place. It’s not there yet. Not even close. The world continues to be a place where evil roams free, even as patches of light and hope shine through, giving hints of what might be possible.

(Friday afternoon drinks. A small patch of light and hope in the world.)

What sort of world do we live in?

The worlds of our parents and grandparents are gone, and to be honest, they were no more idyllic than ours is, just quite different. We would have to look hard now to find any of the things they would have seen as givens. Automatic respect for authority figures; heterosexual marriage and mother-father families being the norm; Sunday observance; social sanctions attached to divorce, and promiscuity, to list just a few.

In our world authority figures do not receive automatic respect. Their decisions and pronouncements are challenged routinely and defied openly. Marriage is no longer exclusively heterosexual, and marriage itself shares the stage with a variety of arrangements of varying formality. The term ‘partner’ is used in preference to ‘spouse’.

Social sanctions are now applied for totally different reasons than they used to be. Divorce remains an unpleasant, damaging experience, but no longer carries the social and legal sanctions it once had. Promiscuity is now celebrated and assumed to be the norm, although some interesting ethical acrobatics are needed to avoid being caught up on the wrong side of ideology (#metoo).

Not that such changes are all regretable. Easy divorce has had an upside for some people trapped in intolerable circumstances, but the proliferation of divorce has shaken families and weakened our culture. We like our Sundays the way they are. Not so much days of rest anymore, but still we enjoy them.

Promiscuity? We are saturated with messages, overt and subtle, that a promiscuous lifestyle is normal and desirable. Does experience tell us that promiscuity leads anywhere beneficial, or that widespread promiscuity is something any society can be proud of? Seriously

While some of us view these changes with some sadness, many more celebrate what we see as the overthrow of oppressive structures and traditions. Some of us are in both camps. We see the dishonesty, the hypocrisy and the injustice threaded through the institutions of earlier generations. We also see and give credit for the stability and the meaning they gave to people’s lives.

Turning our faces away from traditional values, we might have believed that by doing so we would be free to live more honest, moral lives.

Is that what’s happened?

Convincing ourselves more enlightened than our forebears, embracing our whims and preferences as the guiding moral compass for our lives, we have put ourselves at the centre of everything.

How’s that going for us? Sweetness and light is it?

Lest you think you smell sanctimony, I have more than enough to regret and be ashamed of. I listened to the whispered silky justifications, I was seduced by the promise that it was all about me. As long as I wasn’t hurting anyone, I should have been free to do what I liked. I had no right to judge anyone anyway. After all, aren’t right and wrong so passé? Surely such old fashioned ideas belonged in an earlier time? I remember one self assured woman correcting me for using the word ‘adultery’. “Do they still call it that?” she asked mockingly.

It occurs to me that’s what the western world has come to believe. By changing the language, the social mores and traditions, we consider we have moved to a higher moral plane. We have rewritten the moral code to suit our own preferences and we are free to do that which we are inclined to do. But does it change human nature, or does it make us the fools, blind to predictable consequences?

So, yes. There was much to condemn in the values and mores of the world of our parents.

There is much to be thankful for in new ways of looking at the world and in the lifting of oppressive, hypocritical laws and practices, but have we have got it right yet

Living life as an extended pursuit of indulgence, freedom to make our own choices, our own happiness and fulfillment, as if we were not dependent on others and they on us, has become the reason for being for many of us. Our pursuit of personal fulfillment can see us dismiss the trail of hurt and damage we leave behind, if we think of it at all, as collateral damage, regretable maybe, but an acceptable sacrifice for the greater good (our wants).

Be true to yourself.

Don’t judge.

Follow your heart.

If it feels good, do it.

No one has the right to tell you what to do.

Each of these memes contains some truth, but that does not mean they are the whole truth, or that they are the best way to organize our lives

For all the ways we are encouraged to think of ourselves as free and uninhibited, are we as free as we think? In our culture diversity is seen to be a self evident good; except of course, diversity of thought. Try expressing reservations about some of the memes above and note the reaction

So how do I go about countering a worldview that’s seduced the western world so thoroughly that many people now see it as self evident, beyond questioning? A big ask, I know.

It’s just when you stop, step outside, and look around, you realise that it’s a seductive facade. It’s a lie. An attractive and seductive one, but a lie nonetheless. One leading us away from the kingdom of heaven I mentioned earlier; the place where love is not set aside; the place where we can be fully human.

We are more than our cleverness, the nastiness we cultivate, the selfishness we flaunt, and the misery we ignore. These things do not define who we are.

There is an answer of course. There is a path to follow. So many of us have rejected what we imagined was the Christian message. We rejected a caricature. The established church has much to answer for in that.

The Christian gospel is far more shocking and subversive than any adolescent arrogance could have imagined.

Maybe it’s time to look again with adult eyes at Jesus and to weigh his message in the light of your experience. Like me, you may be blown away.

Spiritual, not Religious

I’ve only just stumbled on the work of English theologian N. T. Wright. Why has it taken me this long, I ask myself? He writes clearly and speaks to me exactly where I am right now.

As a Christian dealing with the contempt of secular materialists, the evaporation of church credibility after disgraceful sexual abuse scandals, and the hostility my faith receives from within my own culture, his books have something to say to me. I recommend them to anyone looking for a way to live life as an authentic Christian in troubled times.

We can not expect to go on as we have done. The days of churches are numbered if they persist in operating as social clubs asking little more from their members than the weekly offering.

I have tried to summarise below the thrust of his ideas from just one book. I sincerely hope I have captured the thrust without misrepresenting him. You can find his books for download by searching the Amazon Kindle site.

What follows is a bare bones summary of ideas from the book “Spiritual and Religious” by Tom Wright.

Western culture has turned away from organised religion, but almost all people are spiritual to some degree. Some carry vague vestiges of Christianity with them, while many have given up all pretence, embracing ideas and values diametrically opposed to a Christian world view.

Christians have a great deal to say that this culture needs to hear. Engaging with the surrounding culture, and not retreating from it, is the way of the Christian disciple. This does not call for ‘in your face’ tub thumping evangelism on the one hand, or being pious judgemental prigs on the other. It calls genuine repentence for the hypocrisy and failings of the church; active involvement in righting wrongs, fighting injustice, and healing hurt; and in the process, sharing the truth of the Christian gospel.

Whether it was ever easy to be a Christian is a moot point, but it has been made immensely more difficult in current times by the loss of credibility by the established church and a lack of leadership from its leaders.

N. T. Wright:

“There is no doubt that something is wrong with our world, and with us as human beings . . .

The modern world is in a crisis of identity . . . (There is) a state of paganism in the modern Western world. . . I suggest that the church itself is called . . . to repent of its own failures, shortcomings, and folly. Indeed, the church can only really summon the world to repent if it is itself putting its own house in order.”

Common Misconceptions of the Christian Gospel

Dualism: e.g. Heaven good, Earth bad

N. T. Wright:

“Many Christians . . . are basically dualists. . . They have been taught that the world . . . is essentially evil; that God sent his Son from beyond the world to rescue us out of it . . . we will all finish up either in a non-physical heaven or a non-physical hell.”

This view is not biblical. It is not what the Bible teaches. The Earth is not bad. It is God’s creation.

Monism: e.g. “all is one”, mother Earth, Gaia, etc. God is in us. New Age beliefs fall into this category. Monism is also not biblical. God is creator and sovereign lord. He stands both in and above creation. The world and God are not one and the same.

N. T. Wright:

“We can only begin with the admission of failure: God have mercy on us, sinners that we are. We need, then, to repent of our half-and sub-and semi-Christian ideas . . . and of the muddles which have enabled us to imagine we were sound or substantial in our faith when in fact we were half-baked and half-hearted. And we need to repent of having made our muddled and half-grasped theologies into weapons of attack against those we did not like or understand.”

Idols and Paganism

Contemporary western culture is not neutral. It is overwhelmingly pagan. People worship a multitude of idols: Money; Power; Youth; Sex; Violence; Self gratification; Status; Nationalism; Material possessions, etc.

N. T. Wright:

“Idolatry begins when human beings treat something which is good as if it were God.

The things to which human beings give mistaken allegiance are not, in and of themselves, bad. The evil consists in human misuse of creation, not in creation itself. . . one of the great truths about being human: you become like what you worship.”

“But what if you worship something else? You will be worshipping something in whose image humans are not made, and it will start to show. Worship money, power, sex, security, prosperity, political advancement, and it will most likely show on your face sooner or later. It will certainly show in the way you treat yourself, and in the way you treat other human beings.”

The Role of the Church in the world

The established church has long related to the world by fitting in with it, taking the easy way, and going along for the ride.

N. T. Wright:

“The trouble with this approach is that it (the church) is so concerned to be like the world that it ends up having nothing to say to the world.”

Christians should stop trying to fit in to the world, and start to behave as if they believed what they say they believe. At the same time, Christians from different traditions and practices should stop fighting each other over matters of tradition and doctrine. The real enemy, paganism (worship of parts of creation rather than God), needs to be countered by a unified church of believers with the common cause of Jesus Christ.

Christians have work to do. They must stop being distracted by stuff that doesn’t matter and which destroys their credibility.

N. T. Wright:

“Christianity . . . must present the true picture which will enable people to see the caricature (of new age thinking) for what it is. If this means planting flags in hostile soil, so be it.”

Planting flags in hostile soil does not mean using violence. It means engaging the wider pagan culture where it is now, not waiting for it to come to us. Christians should affirm the many things that are good in western culture, but call out the things that oppress and damage their fellow human beings; not compromise their faith for the sake of a quiet life.

N. T. Wright:

“The church may well have a fair amount of repenting to do before it can say anything about Jesus that will not at once be invalidated by its own life and behaviour.”

“When the church is . . . welcoming the outcast, healing the sick, challenging the powers that oppress and enslave the poor –then its claim about Jesus will be self-authenticating.”

This has become a very difficult task in the light of the church being seen to be more interested in protecting its priviledges, wealth and good name in the face of the world wide sexual abuse scandal. In the eyes of very many people, the Christian church has no credibility. Christians, as Church, need to repent of this, give up their status, and move out into the world . .

N. T. Wright:

“(We need to be) finding out where pagan gods and goddesses are being worshipped, and finding ways of worshipping Jesus on the same spot.”

“This will undoubtedly mean that Christians will find themselves, as Jesus found himself, at risk morally and physically. But let there be no mistake. Jesus did not shout platitudes at Israel from a safe distance.”

If Christians are followers of Jesus, then let them learn from the early Christians who lived in a similarly hostile pagan culture.

You can find much more detail and fuller explanations at the Amazon Kindle site, with a search for ebooks by N. T. Wright.

Sharing the Gospel or shoring up the status quo?

(Relics of a bygone age. Colourful but stuffed?)

I began to write this to vent frustration at Christian churches that are failing their followers and their societies, and it felt good to get some of it off my chest. After all, churches have brought many of their current woes on themselves. As I wrote though, my focus changed, and I began to turn the arc lamp more towards myself.

The Christian church in the west has long chased power and respectability, and having sidelined the Gospel in the process, now finds itself with little of either. It has allowed its moral authority to be compromised, and in the space of two generations, has presided over the departure of the bulk of its flock. There is no way to sugar coat this ugly truth, although some continue to try. What remains resembles a hollowed out shell, where the rearranging of deck chairs is preferred to the facing of hard questions.

Moral leadership by churches is almost nonexistent, and ineffective where remnants exist. Few people are listening. Church leaders have squandered their moral authority as a result of a long tradition of chasing respectability and power in preference to living the Gospel of Jesus. The child sexual abuse scandal is the latest and most devestating blow; brought about by church leaders who chose to try to preserve the good name of the church over Gospel authenticity and caring for their flock. Why would anyone listen to leaders who failed their mission so obviously? If our anti-religious brethren have jumped on the bandwagon to grasp such a perfect opportunity to bash the church, should we be surprised?

Christians looking for leadership from their church are likely to be disappointed. Church leaders typically are too timid to call out error or to respond to the increasing attacks of secularists, while their followers find it easier to keep their heads down and go along with the zeitgeist than to risk ridicule and ostracism in defending their faith. If we are honest with ourselves, we might conclude our collective spiritual resolve is on a par with partly set jelly.

The church has no reason to exist except as the body of believers who give witness to the Christian Gospel. Somewhere along the line we forgot that. We imagined our aims to be ‘church growth’ (as if we were answering to shareholders), and the shaping of society to reflect our prejudices and reinforce our privileges (as if that were what the Gospel was about). Chasing ‘relevance’, we allowed the Gospel, the best news anyone could ever hear, to be sanitised and neutered so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, including our own. We were left with a bland facsimile that few saw a reason to value.

Sadly, disciples of Jesus in the western world can not expect much from their churches apart from platitudes and worn out thinking. Continuing to chart our course with comfortable clichés will see us absorbed totally into the surrounding secular culture.

We need a radical rethink of what it means to be Christian.

I suggest that we should begin by facing reality. The churches of Christendom have become comfortable and complacent. They are decaying. People are not listening to the good news we have for them. Is it reasonable then to conclude that there is something awry? Does that something have to do with society (in which case we can sit comfortably and tut tut) or does it have something to do with how we are doing the Christian bit? Is it all the fault of churches?

A Rethink

I’ve been scathing of our churches but should I be looking closer to home? After all, the only person I have any authority to change is myself.

I realise I need to be open to repentance, and there is plenty of material for me to work on. What I don’t know though is what I don’t know. This is where I need God and my fellow believers to guide me, and where necessary, accuse me. Repentance is a cleansing process and opens the door to renewal, but I struggle to do it by myself.

What follows repentance is the desire and conviction to do things differently. For me, this may be looking at myself honestly and examining some of my attitudes. It is likely to demand some changes in the way I do the Christian life.

If, in the process, I can grow to be the person my creator intends me to be, and to be the Gospel for my sisters and brothers, rather than just seeking ways to share it, that will be an outcome as satisfying as it is welcome.

Christians face daunting challenges in a culture increasingly indifferent and even hostile to them, but alloting the blame solely to inept and corrupt churches blinds us to the need to look inside ourselves and to God for the renewal we must have to become Christ’s disciples. Blending in with secular society and becoming indistinguishable from it is not the way forward.

I began this post by pointing out the failures of the established church, but as I wrote, came to realise that the failures of the church were not so different from my own failures. Its compromises were not unlike mine; its timidity exceeded only by my own. Neither the church as an institution, nor I as an individual, can fulfill our purpose when we chase goals other than those God has set for us.

Maybe it is only then that we can move beyond the dismissal of Christians as curiosities to be left on the shelf as society moves on.

Certain Delusions

 

 

 

 

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.

All Sorts of Believers

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.

Contrary Views

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.

IMG_0911

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 . . .

 

IMG_0191

(Science Museum, Munich)

and this early digital computer:

IMG_0185

(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.

 

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(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.

 

 

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

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I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.

A Guitar Progression

A Guitar Progression
Adventures in Guitar Consciousness
 
I posted the image below on this blog one year ago. It shows the old Yamaha guitar I used to strum and sing along with before life got in the way and it was left in a cupboard for 40 years. When I posted this I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, making music with my old instrument again. I was so pleased that after months of ploughing through all the teach yourself books on Kindle, I could play stuff. Well, I could play easy stuff, sort of, after lots of practice, and never without mistakes. The music in my head was beautiful. The sounds coming from the guitar were a little less so.
 
 
 
 
Listening to the former, and ignoring the latter, I began to tell myself I wasn't all that bad at it. My own opinion of course, untainted by contact with anyone who could actually play notes, chords and arpeggios without having their audience looking around for the exit.
 
Emboldened, I turned up at the door of a classical guitar teacher. You know! Someone who knew their way around a guitar; had a Masters degree in guitar performance and another one in composition. He combines private tuition with live performances on the national stage solo and in ensembles. If I had been looking for someone to massage my ego I should have looked elsewhere.
 
Luckily, I swallowed enough pride and humility to let him teach me things about technique and practice I had no idea even existed. He was polite, but he left no doubt that what I had been doing by myself had been largely a waste of time if I wanted to learn to play beautiful music. That he was in his early twenties was inconsequential of course, but it did not really make things easy for an old codger more used to giving instructions than accepting them.
 
I began again, from square one. Concentrating on correct fingering, posture, hand and finger dynamics, fingernails, breathing and paying respect to quavers and crochets as they were written on the page, saw me progress – far too slowly for my liking – through the book he recommended for preliminary students (pre-schoolers and the like). All the while, I was straining. Impatient to play real music, I often became angry with myself and with him, frustrated by how long it was taking to learn simple skills. As he reminded me though, ever so gently, the skills were not simple skills. They were complex fine motor skills. The process was not unlike a child learning to use a pencil for the first time. It would take practice and time. No shortcuts, was his repeated advice.
 
He was right of course.
 
So, another year has passed. I've purchased a more expensive guitar (below). I've learned much about playing the classical guitar and am playing pieces from the AMEB grade 3 level. Big deal I guess. Hundreds of school kids do that too, and better than I do. But I am beginning to realise that I do not care about that at all. I just love learning and playing.
 
 
I love the music I can coax from my guitar. On a good day I can almost slide into a trance while brain and fingers work together in a way impossible just twelve months ago. I can play a piece like Lágrima (Francesco Tarrega) imperfectly, but just as its name (teardrops) suggests, I hope one day to play it well enough to moisten the eyes of any listener. Another piece by Tarrega, Adelita, is more difficult, and could take me longer to get my fingers (and brain) around. So be it. The journey is what matters. The destination can be left to itself.
 
Other things I have learned at the feet of my young teacher this past year:
 
Getting angry with myself at mistakes or mastering a technique more slowly than I would like is pointless. It achieves nothing. A mistake is a mistake; nothing more; nothing less. Shrug it off and continue playing. Which reminds me of another of his maxims:
 
 
Do not stop when you have made a mistake. Continue to play as if nothing happened. Most probably your listeners will not have noticed (even though it is a clanging, jarring event for you). (Great advice, I guess, for future concert performers).
 
You cannot practice correct technique enough. Nothing short of perfection is sufficient. (Near enough is not good enough in this game).
 
Practise slowly; very slowly. In this way you can identify flaws in your technique and deal with them before they become ingrained. This is also the best (only?) way to learn a new piece. Practice a few bars at a time, very slowly. If you can play it perfectly, slowly, you can also then play it fast. (So he says anyway, and I am starting to believe he is right).
 
Caress the guitar as you play. Become one with it. Be part of the music. Use it as a meditation technique if you like. (I am trying this).
 
Do not interpret the music your way until you can first play it the way the composer wrote it. (I rankle at this).
 
The metronome is your friend. (Yes, well, maybe).
 
 
There is, however, one particular aspect of the guitar I continue to struggle with. Just one, I hear you think. Well there are many to be honest. For instance I always want to progress more quickly than my technique allows. I continue to become frustrated and grumpy when I can't play something right, although I am getting better at going with the flow. I detest the metronome but I suffer it because I know it is doing me good. No, the one aspect that is providing a big challenge to me – still – is overcoming anxiety and nervousness when playing in front of other people.
 
My teacher has no specific advice for me on how to remain calm and how to still jittery, disobedient fingers and thumbs when playing in public. No advice that is, apart from his observation that I need to work on it. Maybe he is not too worried as I am unlikely to be playing in front of a concert audience ever. That is so, but I really would love to be confident of playing for friends, even if I am a silly old man who needs to understand he is past performing age.
 
 
Well there you have it: A synopsis of a year of classical guitar lessons. Learned heaps. Feel good about myself. As my teacher tells me . . . God bless him . . . “a couple more years and we will have you playing beautiful music”.
 
 
 

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