The Collapse of Meaning

How our Western culture short changes us as human beings.

It’s a difficult ask to condense the huge volume of material written on this topic, and do justice to its breadth and depth. Certainly impossible in a thousand words or less. In these circumstances all that is possible is a conversation starter, which is what this post is intended to be. Whether that conversation is with me, or in the reader’s own mind, is not important.

I’ve drawn on a book by Mark Sayers: “Disappearing Church” (Kindle). It’s an interesting and thought provoking read, but I’ve just picked up a few ideas and expanded on them. The book itself covers far more ideas than are discussed here. I recommend it to you.

Quotes are from the book are indicated in the usual way. Page numbers are not given due to the digital format of the book.

(Gold Coast Australia. My photo. An icon of secular consumerism)

Sayers’ book observes and critiques the culture that enfolds and forms us in the west. That culture considers itself sophisticated and highly evolved; superior in most ways from cultures that preceded it, and those that continue to flourish in non western societies. It is a culture full of contradictions: Fiercely secular, yet soaked in early religious traditions of gnosticism, animism and paganism; Indifferent or hostile to traditional Christianity, yet celebrating diversity of other traditional world religions; Devoted to the power of the individual, yet gathering itself into tribes where conformity of opinion is demanded; and desperately searching for transcendence and enlightenment, yet generating alienation and despair at the purposelessness of life lived according to its values.

Sayers delves deeply into the controlling beliefs driving our western secular culture, and pinpoints where the innate contradictions of our lives reveal themselves. These beliefs, principles, doctrines are regarded within the culture as self evident and beyond challenge. Those bold enough to challenge them can expected to be silenced and ostracised by the weight of social pressure, and/or legal sanctions.

The controlling beliefs of our western zeitgeist are seductive, powerful and ultimately deceptive. They promise happiness but bring us emptiness; preach self actualization but dehumanise us; offer freedom, but enslave us.

“So distracted by the phony war between left and right, conservatives and liberals, we have failed to notice that a new power had seized control of both our imaginations and the halls of power.

This new power swirls around a small yet widely held set of beliefs**:

1. The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, and self-expression.

2. Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom and self expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.

3. The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology—in particular the Internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.

4. The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated.

5. Humans are inherently good.

6. Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.

7. Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.

So, recognize any of them? Maybe you can add more. Maybe also, you don’t fully endorse each and every one of them and would like to qualify here and there. Fair enough. I’m not here to defend the list, but to claim that, like it or not, be aware of it or not, our culture does shape us. It corrals us into certain ways of thinking, it limits our dreams, and in some ways diminishes our human potential. I don’t have the space (or perhaps the ability) to present a knock down argument for what I just wrote.

I think that its possible to live in the midst of a culture like ours, and be unaware of the beliefs that drive it.

How often have you heard or seen written, “Be true to yourself” or “It’s all about You”, or “You’re worth it”? The words change, but the principle behind it is a powerful one in our culture, shaping millions of lives every day. Of course, it’s not necessarily all bad to believe and follow that principle, but as an overarching principle for life it seems more than a little deceptive and shaky to me. What does it tell us is important about our relations with, and responsibilities toward, others?

The worship of tolerance is another phenomenon in our culture, except that we’re not really tolerant at all, are we? Well, as long as people share our beliefs, which, if they happen to be the socially responsible, earth friendly, diversity celebrating beliefs embraced by the elite, then all is rosy. Except I have never been able to understand how elevating tolerance above all else can not lead to anything but a clear example of intolerance.

If individual freedom and self expression are the highest good, and the self is the reference point for what is good, then what does that say about who we are as human beings? Are we then our own gods? The problem arises, and it always does, when the god in me and the god in you disagree on what “good” means.

We are encouraged in a host of ways, subtle and overt, to see ourselves as sophisticated and enlightened when we reject the notion of a transcendent creator God. If we continue to believe in such ‘fairy tales’, as the message goes, we ought to have the decency to keep that belief to ourselves. Our secular cousins can have free range for their beliefs, but ours are to remain hidden and private. Seems fair, or does it?

If there were any evidence at all that the rise in the number of people who reject faith in God is accompanied by a rise in general happiness, mental health and peaceful coexistence in society I would stop and take a good look at it. Alas the opposite is true. As we throw our faith away in the west and install ourselves as gods, we enjoy all the meaninglessness and ultimate hopelessness that attends that. Our lives are pointless, apart from the goals we set ourselves: wealth, power, self actualization and so on and so on. None of these things brings a sense of meaning, of connection, of being fully human.

“This is a culture in which we (are encouraged to*) believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip.” (Sayers quote)

“Without God, humans attempt to create a beautiful world, filled with fine foods, craftsmanship, fulfilling work, elegant forms, and creativity. Yet this beautiful world becomes a prison as humans are possessed by the things that they create. We are unable to understand or even see the world correctly as a gift from God, to be enjoyed, but not owned.” (Sayers quote)

Our western culture is leading us (or are we leading ourselves) into a place we do not want to be. I believe we were not made to be gods. We were not meant to live stunted alienated, meaningless lives. We were made to be fully human. That is one thing that many of us in the west today can not be sure we are any more.

* My insertion.

** I have edited some of the principles from the book, mostly to simplify them.


A Life Worthwhile

A Life worthwhile.
I've posted on this theme before, but this afternoon I feel the need to continue the conversation, even if this post maybe needs more time spent on it.
(Waterfall in Erawan National Park, Thailand)
Might there be a recipe for a worthwhile life? A formula? A user's manual? A hack?
Don't know really, although I suspect there is some good advice here and there.
Hundreds of priests, sages, gurus and life coaches will tell you such things exist. Not all of them will charge you for the information.
You will be pleased to know I'm not in the business of charging for sharing wisdom. Nor am I in the business of preaching, advising, or (hopefully) patronising. Nevertheless I do have some thoughts on the topic, and here they are, incomplete and hopelessly generalised:
A life that is worthwhile is one for which I am grateful. I could leave it at that, because that sentence, properly understood, is the key to much wisdom. But since I've begun, thoughts flow from this.
A life worthwhile is one in which I stay humble, in which I take time to think, to weigh up. I realise my life isn't and never was all about me.
I know my own mind, my values, and what I would be prepared to die for. It is a life in which I recognise and remember what is important and what is not.
Through many false starts and blind alleys, I begin to understand that how materially successful I am, how much I earn, how much I own, how attractive I am, has no bearing on how much I matter in the scheme of things. I learn to accept others (who all also matter in the scheme of things).
(Street sweeper in Delhi)
Because I understand its not all about me, I have time for others. I hold their love and their dreams gently.
I don't know why I am, or even what life is, so I accept all of it as a gift. I accept I have been created by a loving God whom I worship naturally instead of myself. I realise not everyone will agree. I have given up worrying about that. Religion has a bad press in some arenas, and deservedly so. There is too much temptation to strangle ourselves in misunderstood dogma and to create a monster that imprisons us, rather than frees us. I'd better stop there or I might begin to preach.
((Taken in a UNESCO protected temple complex in Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
(Lady in a village in Armenia)
I know the world is not perfect and that many of my brothers and sisters have not seen justice and love in their lives as I have. I talk to God about this. I don't often understand God's answers.
Notice I've used “I” exclusively?
You need to work out your own path. Hard work, but you don't need to do it alone.
(We're all different. Each of us matters.)

Early Birds have Irrational Thoughts

The day has barely begun. There's not much happening at the coffee shop.
The sun is yet to make an appearance but it's light enough for street lamps to be redundant at 6.15 am. The proprietor is busy arranging furniture and adjusting signage as I walk in, but smiles as he sees me. As is customary, mine is the first coffee of the day to be served.
Our conversation is as bright as it is predictable. I find a seat: Is it always the same table? I resolve to vary this detail on my next visit. I did realise I might be habit bound when he told me I was 'late' one morning. That was some time after he had begun ringing up my order on the till before I had given it.
It's not that I seek out predictability. Mornings however, need to have a structure. My brain needs time to warm up, just like car engines used to, until they were ready to purr smoothly. I remember one superior officer's less than subtle observation many years ago that the young recruit in front of him was not a morning person. Not much has changed since. Kind of comforting in a way that the old me is still there.
This morning sees moored boats swing with the tide, pelicans slice wakes through glassy water, walkers in pairs and single joggers, crisp air, and coffee in a warm mug. By the time the coffee is finished, the sun is up and glaring, seagulls are wheeling and vehicle traffic is beginning to interfere with the serenity. I am ready to face the day.
In this precious half hour or so, before my brain is functioning at full efficiency, thoughts surface that might otherwise stay lost in the background. I nudge them and turn them over, before deciding if they are worth pursuing. Maybe my early morning brain is sort of like a slow cooker: The ingredients need to sit for a while before they're ready for the table.
Rumours of thoughts materialise gently, presenting themselves almost like debutantes, anxious to make an impression, but not expecting to be taken too seriously.
For example, as I rotate the coffee cup on its saucer and rearrange the teaspoon, I begin to wonder at how incredible it is that I am here at all. This morning. This cafe. This city. This planet. Why am I at all? Why am I? Why?
What is my life? Is it something to be endured before dropping onto the ground and shriveling like a discarded apple core? Am I something more than a set of quantum interactions? For that matter, why do quanta interact at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?
(At about this time the coffee is usually getting low and the day beckons).
Lot's of half formed thoughts. The permutations are as many as there are mornings to sit here drinking coffee. Precious few useful answers though . . . except for one:
After my share of lived experiences, a (very) little wisdom has found its way to my door. This wisdom tells me not to give up wondering, or to give up thinking thoughts for which there are no neat answers. It also tells me that it is good to remember that the world can get on really quite well without me at the wheel.
Perhaps then, it might be ok for me to relax and accept my existence as irrational; beyond my ability to explain it, since it seems to be real anyway.
Just as I have an irrational trust in love and friendship.
Just as I marvel irrationally at the power of forgiveness.
Just as is my irrational faith in a God I cannot understand.
I could go on.
Never mind. It's a start, and the coffee's good.

Gentle Regrets

(Available on Kindle)
What a delight it was to read this short book. I couldn't put it down. Partly an autobiography; partly a critique of contemporary western society and culture: and partly a manifesto of belief and wisdom gathered over a lifetime as a philosopher; Roger Scruton has distilled insights that speak to my heart and soul.
In the twenty first century Roger Scruton is very much a counter cultural subversive, although quite a different type from some of the self congratulating 'progressive' thinkers who have graced the stage over past decades. When the spirit of our age is everywhere 'setting us free' from our traditional values, it has been a welcome surprise to find there is at least one voice uncomfortable with that trend.
His ideas confront and contradict much of what is assumed as wisdom in contemporary culture. I have reproduced parts of some of them here. Mostly, I have prefered to let his words speak for themselves. Partly because they are so richly pregnant with wisdom that anything I could add would be trivial in comparison but also, I think, because the more I add, the less likely I expect anyone will bother to read any of this. Which would be a pity. There is wisdom worth reading here. I do not expect everyone will agree with everything Scruton writes, but it is nonetheless worth reading, even if only to clarify what it is you believe.
I have selected, edited and rearranged the order of what follows and used my own headings but I haven't altered anything that would change the thrust of what Scruton is saying. Apart from the headings, my words are in italics. The photographs, apart from the title page, are mine.
On Growing Up
“To grow up aged 54 is not a great achievement. But it is better than not growing up at all.”
Well Roger, I think I may have beaten you by a few years, but not that many. Still, I know exactly what you mean. Growing up has nothing at all to do with reaching voting age, or driving a car, or being able to drink alcohol legally.

On Progress and Human Rights
“We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights. The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. . . . But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame.”
What more can I say?

On Religious Faith and the Rise of Secularism
“My years as a voyeur of holiness (have) brought me, nevertheless, into contact with true believers, and taught me that faith transfigures everything it touches, and raises the world to God. To believe as much is not yet to believe; but it is to know your insufficiency.”
Yes, I know very well my own insufficiency. That seems to me to be a start. I have also come into contact with people here and there whose holiness has inspired me. I'm not talking about the hypocrites who are a dime a dozen in our churches (and outside them too). I am talking about people who are genuinely humble and draw others to them.

“Those brought up in our post religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment . . . without being crippled by guilt.
(But we still) have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess . . . of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.”
And we still have secular sins that by and large will lead to excommunication from progressive society: Being judgemental; a racist, a homophobe, or a climate change denier. But it's not only wrong thinking that will see you excluded. Pedophilia, never acceptable, has been elevated to be the most detestable and unforgiveable sin; a long way above drug trafficking and murder. Who says 'sin' is an outdated concept? It is alive and well in our secular world.

On the need for the Church to be “relevant” and to align its teachings with modern thinking.
“What an absurd demand – to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it.”
Nothing wrong with the Church going to where people are, as long as, in the process, you do not forget who you are and why you are Church. Democracy is fine as a political system, but it is a lousy way to decide theology. If a majority of people believe black is white, it doesn't make it so.

On Vows versus Contracts
“In modern society there is a growing tendency to construe marriage as a kind of contract. This tendency is familiar to us from the sordid divorces of tycoons and pop stars, and is made explicit in the ‘pre- nuptial agreement’, under the terms of which an attractive woman sells her body at an inflated price, and a man secures his remaining assets from her future predations. Under such an agreement marriage becomes a preparation for divorce, a contract between two people for their short- term mutual exploitation. This contractual view of marriage is deeply confused.
Marriage is surrounded by moral, legal and religious prohibitions precisely because it is not a contract but a vow. Vows do not have terms, nor can they be legitimately broken. They are ‘forever’, and in making a vow you are placing yourself outside time and change, in a state of spiritual union, which can be translated into actions in the here and now, but which always lies in some way above and beyond the world of decaying things.
That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom; and when we cease to make them our lives are impoverished, since they involve no lasting commitment, no attempt to cross the frontier between self and other.
Contracts have terms, and come to an end when the terms are fulfilled or when the parties agree to renounce them. They bind us to the temporal world, and have the transience of human appetite. To reduce marriage to a contract is to demote marriage to a tie of self interest, to trivialize the erotic bond, and to jeopardize the emotions on which your children depend for their security.
We become fully human when we aim to be more than human; it is by living in the light of an ideal that we live with our imperfections. That is the deep reason why a vow can never be reduced to a contract: the vow is a pledge to the ideal light in you; a contract is signed by your self interested shadow.”
This discussion of vow versus contract goes to the heart of life. I say this as one who has broken a marriage vow and has seen what darkness results. What I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life. When we define relationships and dealings with contract clauses instead of vows we lose something we cannot afford to lose: our own sanctity.
On Ethics and Decision making
“Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia – subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny – proceed in once Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure- seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.”
And for those who have swallowed the line that science is the highest truth?
“No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. . . . The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why.
However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom . . . Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God.”
On the Hypocrisy of some Animal Activist Campaigners
“The argument (against fox hunting) is serious and challenging, especially if expressed (as it rarely is) by someone who knows what hunting actually involves. However, a moral argument must be consistent if it is to be sincere.
The pleasure taken by cat lovers in their pets (who cause 200 million painful deaths each year in Britain alone) is also a pleasure bought at the expense of animal suffering. The RSPCA, which moralizes volubly against hunting, shooting and fishing, keeps quiet about cat keeping, for fear of offending its principal donors.”
Those who know me know my thoughts on cats.
On Politics
“. . . societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal . . there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.”
That may make you sit up with a start. Really? Have we been hoodwinked into thinking history marches ever onward and upward? Scruton thinks we (humans) will always get in the way of our own grand narratives of progress and so do I.

“The strange superstition has arisen in the Western world that we can start all over again, remaking human nature, human society and the possibilities of happiness, as though the knowledge and experience of our ancestors were now entirely irrelevant. But on what fund of knowledge are we to draw when framing our alternative? The utopias have proved to be illusions, and the most evident result of our ‘liberation’ from traditional constraints has been widespread discontent with the human condition.”
Do we have nothing to learn from our heritage, our traditions and our past? Scruton thinks we have a lot to learn and that we ignore it to our peril.
“There is no way in which people can collectively pursue liberty, equality and fraternity . . . because collective reason doesn’t work that way. People reason collectively towards a common goal only in times of emergency – when there is a threat to be vanquished, or a conquest to be achieved. Even then, they need organization, hierarchy and a structure of command if they are to pursue their goal effectively. . . . Moreover – and here is the corollary that came home to me with a shock of recognition – any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve . . . the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy. Hence the strident and militant language of the socialist literature – the hate- filled, purpose- filled, bourgeois-baiting prose.”
Perhaps this is why politics can be so nasty and adversial? Maybe that is why when we aim at building a new society we feel the need to demonise our opponents? E.g. Climate change deniers? Religious nutters? Bogans? Rabid Right Wing Reactionaries? Left Wing Loonies?
“Real freedom, concrete freedom, the freedom that can actually be defined, claimed and granted, (is) not the opposite of obedience but its other side. The abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellect (is) really nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy.”
Ouch! . . . But pure gold to this old conservative.
On Education and Schooling
“(A) vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it.
(My school) had not been infected by the modern heresy that tells us that knowledge must be adapted to the interests of the child. On the contrary: our ‘beaks’ believed that the interests of the child should be adapted to knowledge. The purpose of the school was not to flatter the pupils but to rescue the curriculum, by pouring it into heads that might pass it on.
Even the most rebellious among us shared the assumption on which our education was based, which is that there are real distinctions between knowledge and opinion, culture and philistinism, wit and stupidity, art and kitsch.”
Today, in schools, it seems we mostly try to train students to be good employees and faithful consumers. By and large we have given up trying to educate them in the sense that Scruton is using. Schools in western countries are funded and run as agents of economic development, rather than institions where education is pursued for its own sake. This has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen happen in my career as an educator. My regret is that I have felt powerless to do anything about it.
Well. That was a small taste of Scruton's ideas and thoughts on what is worthwhile. Maybe you will seek his work out. I think he is worth listening to. Maybe you see the world differently. I'm not so arrogant as to think people who disagree with me must be wrong.

If you are a seeker of knowledge and wisdom I recommend Scruton's book to you.

The Spirit of Japan in Six Photographs

Ok. make that Eight Photographs.

My recent short visit to Japan was a rich experience on a number of levels. It left me marvelling at a country that has adapted so well to western culture while keeping its own traditions and heritage intact. Not many countries have managed to do that anywhere near as well.

It seems to me as if the Japanese might have beaten us at our own game. They have borrowed what they want from us, adapted it, turned it on its head, pushed it to the limits, and sent it back to us sometimes only barely recognisable. Manga culture is a case in point.
The neon garishness and hi-tech extravaganza of Tokyo and other larger cities is part of modern Japan, but it is not its soul. There is a much more subtle and noble spirit in Japanese culture that has nothing at all to do with brashness and materialism. It is that spirit which continues to pervade Japanese culture; a spirit the West has largely lost, and is now sadly utterly alien to mainstream western minds. It is that spirit that has left a deep impression on me and, I hope, a life changing one.
Unlike the culture of most western countries, especially my own, Japanese culture is a deeply religious one. Shinto-Buddhism and its variants remains very much part of life in modern Japan. Family ties seem to be stronger than they are in the West. I haven't consulted any research on that but it seems obviously true to me, even after a short visit. From what I saw, older people are shown respect and children are nurtured lovingly while being trained in courtesy and responsibility.
In my country, we worship youth and have thrown away our traditions. Older people are not looked to for advice, but are treated as nuisances. We think it is a regretful, even shameful, thing to be growing old, and we try all manner of strategies to avoid the reality of ageing, not to mention the inevitability of death.
The denialism we cling to in such matters is sad, even pathetic when looked at from the outside. We have middle aged and older men dressing like boys on skateboards, and middle aged and older women dressing as if they were in the bloom of maidenhood. Neither group fools anyone except themselves. Both groups embrace the lie that tells them their value is tied up with their appearance and diminishes with age. Wrinkles and saggy muscles are the ultimate taboo in western culture.
I sensed a very different attitude and outlook among Japanese people. I am not sure I've got this absolutely correct but it seemed to me their value was tied in to their family, traditions and religious beliefs. These things do not change with the ageing process. An old person has just as valid a place in Japanese society as a young person. It might be a different place, because biology dictates what we can and cannot do physically, but it is nevertheless a place of honour.
I found myself thinking about death as a Japanese might. Or perhaps I should say, I found myself thinking about ageing and death from a very different perspective from that which surrounds me in my own country. Here, we avoid mentioning death. When we can no longer avoid it, we talk about 'passing away' or some such ridiculous euphemism.
I read somewhere that someone described people in western culture as 'living as if we will never die, and when we come to the point of dying, dying as if we have never lived'. Not an edifying image? Maybe I should google that to check its source, but I can't be bothered. You get the point I hope. The contrast between our western attitudes to ageing and death and those in Japanese culture, cannot be starker.
Theirs is a gentler accepting approach, knowing they are in the bosom of family, in synch with ancestors, and in harmony with nature. Ours is an adolescent approach out of synch with our companions and with nature, where it's all about us and we are never going to die; except of course, we do.
The superficial materialistic way we live our lives in the West seems to me beneath contempt. It is just sad. My visit to Japan confirmed this for me, if I needed reminding.
The Japanese way of dealing with grief also left a strong impression on me. My visit to the Hiroshima atomic bomb site and Peace Park taught me a lasting lesson in the space of an hour or so. Initially I felt anger and sadness at what had happened here seventy years ago. As I've said earlier in another blog entry, I understand why the bomb needed to be dropped. I am just so relieved I wasn't in the position of having to decide to do it. I do not think I could have carried that responsibility.
I'm not sure where I read it, but apparently people who were in Hiroshima on that day said the explosion sounded like the low, deep, resonant gong of a temple bell. Ever since then I have not been able to hear one rung without imagining myself on the ground in Hirishima in 1945, hearing that sound and looking up.
Anyway, the sense of peace and acceptance together with undaunted optism for the future that was evident everywhere in and around the Peace Park in Hirishima will, I hope remain with me as long as I live. Not for Hiroshima a grief that is held close and left unresolved to simmer. I did not sense any residual resentment. Yes, there was sadness, but I saw serenity and a preparedness to go forward in hope. Surely this is a lesson to all of us, if we want to hear it.
I left Japan with a profound sense of well being and calm. I am not a Buddhist and have no plan to change to become one, but I have learned some things from that tradition. If anything, the Japan experience is working within me to help me become a gentler, more accepting Christian; a Christian more aware of, and at ease with the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
For that I am grateful.

Frequently Asked Questions (and uncommon answers)

I'm feeling a bit playful this afternoon, so I'm hoping you'll indulge me. Who says I don't have a sense of fun and the ridiculous?
How are You?
This would have to be a frequently asked question, don't you think? Despite the false humility we hide behind, we do like the opportunity to talk about ourselves. Only if the time is right and we suspect you might be interested, mind you. Otherwise you'll get one of our standard replies that mean nothing but sound as if they do.
Ok. Let's assume you might be interested in finding out how we are. What are you really asking? Do you want to know how we are feeling, our mood, about our health. Yes? Now that would be what we expect and, most times, we'd be happy to give you the good oil. On the other hand, you would be one very unusual person, and you would have some of us a little concerned about you, if you were instead asking “how” we are what we are, or how did we become what we are. That is, asking how we came to be male, female, wise, foolish, thoughtful, kind, cruel or whatever. How we came to be born at all; to be sentient; to have a brain; a sense of self and so on.
Very deep and complex questions, and I, for one, would not have a sensible answer for any of them.
It doesn't hurt to ask though, does it? There have to be answers somewhere. Want to share?
Who are you?
What if you didn't mean our name, or our job, or our role, or what position we held in the community? Who are we, apart from where we fit in to a family, a job, a community? That may see us a little unsettled, casting about for the words to describe ourselves cut free from the usual labels.
Are you a wife, a husband, a parent, a grandparent, someone's child, a sibling, a cousin? Do you have a title? A role?
Is that the sum total of you?
I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother. I like to write. I love my family. I love to read, to think about stuff, and to travel. I am empathetic, occasionally cranky and impatient, naturally slothful and a bit of a dreamer.
Is that essentially who I am? Is there more to me than that?
What thread of “you” connects all that you are, and have been, and will be? If you were to ask me I wouldn't have a sensible answer for this question either. Do you?
Where are you?
What? Relative to the chair we're sitting on? In front of, behind, or beside people near us? The room we're in? Our house, street, city, state, country? Are we wondering if we need sat/nav?
Might you be interested in which hemisphere we're currently in, which planet we're on, near which star, or where in the cosmos we are? How about where we are in the space-time continuum? Phew!
Might you instead just be exasperated that we're late? Might you be surprised that we've ducked out of sight unexpectedly?
Or might you perhaps be interested in where we see ourselves in relation to our life journey; the achievement of our goals and dreams?
Another simple and frequently asked question that carries within it the seeds of madness for those so inclined.
If trying to answer those three made you scratch your head, you might like to avoid these:
What are you?
When are you?
Which are you?
Why are you?
Are you?
(This last one would really be messing with your mind so feel free to ignore it).


“Because sometimes you need a biologist,
and sometimes you need a poet.
Sometimes you need a scientist,
and sometimes you need a song.”

“You, me, love, quarks, sex, chocolate, the speed of light— it’s all miraculous, and it always has been.”

“It’s one thing to stand there in a lab coat with a clipboard, recording data about lips. It’s another thing to be kissed.”
Did any of that get your attention?
I've just spent the morning reading a short book I downloaded from the Amazon Kindle bookstore: “What we talk about when we talk about God” by Rob Bell. You can do that sort of thing when you're retired; one of the reasons I enjoy my life out of the workforce.
I'm not usually intererested in books on this subject as they are mostly a big yawn. Neither do I often find myself glued to a book, unwilling to put it down (well, actually I was using an ipad, but you know what I mean). Rob Bell has a special gift. He can articulate spiritual stuff like no one else I remember. I kept saying things to myself like: “yep” and “ah hah” as he painted a picture using common life experiences of a God we might be aware of deep inside ourselves, but whom is rarely spoken of.
This is not your standard apologetic book arguing for the existence of God. No way. Not even close. For a start it's not even the slightest bit dogmatic (ok, maybe it's there but I didn't see it).
Bell doesn't pretend that he has all the answers. He begins from a place of doubt and acknowledges the power of science, the paradox of human beings, and the incongruity of the miraculous, to present a God I can accept. More than that, he presents a God I recognise.
He doesn't avoid or undermine science. He celebrates it, along with the wonder and uncertainty of existence. To paraphrase him, science is a powerful tool, but is no arbiter of reality. He points out that we are all 'people of faith', whether we are religious believers, atheists, believers in the supremacy of science, or in the supernatural. He does not attack atheists. He reminds them, gently, of what they have in common with 'believers':
“Sometimes people who believe in God are referred to as “people of faith.” Which isn’t the whole truth, because everybody has faith. To believe in God requires faith. To experience this world and its endless surprise and mystery and depth and then emphatically declare that is has no common source, it is not headed somewhere, and it ultimately has no meaning— that takes faith as well.”

Bell is also no usual defender of the status quo, and I kind of like that. I feel a deep resonance between my faith and his ideas:
“you can be very religious and invoke the name of God and be able to quote lots of verses and be well versed in complicated theological systems and yet not be a person who sees . It’s one thing to sing about God and recite quotes about God and invoke God’s name; it’s another be aware of the presence in every taste, touch, sound, and embrace.”

How good is that?
I have long been a bit of a rebel, uncomfortable with the pietism of a few church people. It's nice to come across a writer who expresses that better than I can.
“So when we talk about God, we’re talking about our brushes with spirit, our awareness of the reverence humming within us, our sense of the nearness and the farness, that which we know and that which is unknown, that which we can talk about and that which eludes the grasp of our words, that which is crystal- clear and that which is more mysterious than ever. And sometimes language helps, and sometimes language fails.”

Absolutely! He's talking about the God I have faith in. How come I never thought to say that myself?
Bell goes on to explain the essence of the Christian Gospel as clearly as anyone, and more so than most:
“. . as advanced and intelligent and educated as we are, there are some things about the human condition that have not changed in thousands of years. It’s very important that we are honest about this glaring reality. We have progressed so incredibly far, invented so many things, found an endless array of new ways to process and share and communicate information, and yet the human heart has remained significantly unchanged, in that it still possesses the tremendous capacity to produce extraordinary ignorance, evil, and destruction. We need help.”

“. . the counterintuitive power of gospel: When you come to the end of yourself, you are at that exact moment in the kind of place where you can fully experience the God who is for you.”

So, take it or leave it I guess. Believe that you are in control or understand intuitively, as I do, that you are not. Bell would argue that as long as people believe they are in control, God is inaccessible to them. Pretty harsh stuff, no? Probably not what many want to hear. I must confess I have been a slow learner on this issue, having learned what little I have learned after bitter experience.
I loved this:
“We’re all, in one way or another, addicts, aren’t we? Some are addicted to the praise of others, some to working all the time, some to winning, others to worrying, some to perfection, some to being right, strong, beautiful, thin . . . perhaps you are enslaved to your own self- sufficiency, or drugs or alcohol or sex or money or food. “

Sort of puts an interesting spin on things, no? Do you think of yourself as an addict? Or do you (unlike me) have it all under control?
And this:
“And so we come to the table exactly as we are, some days on top of the world, other days barely getting by. Some days we feel like a number, like a machine, like a mere cog in a machine, severed and separated from the depth of things, this day feeling like all the others. Other days we come feeling tuned in to the song, fully alive, hyperaware of the God who is all in all. The point of the experience isn’t to create special space where God is, over and against the rest of life where God isn’t. The power is in the striking ability of this experience to open our eyes all over again (and again and again) to the holiness and sacred nature of all of life, from family to friends to neighbors to money and breath and sex and work and play and food and wine.”

This is my life! This is how my life seems to me. I think Bell is on to a sublime truth here (and in so many other places in this book). The good and the bad; the sacred and the mundane; the wrong choices; the repeated disappointments with myself and the insight that tells me that nonetheless I continue to matter and that my life is not futile. This is how God is real to me. Maybe my life is not the same as yours. So be it.
I recommend this book warmly to you, whether or not you are call yourself a 'believer'. I found his writing honest, generous, challenging, humble and insightful. I hope you too will find it full of 'ah hah' moments.
It would possibly not be a surprise to learn that not everyone is happy about his work.
A quick glance through the comments on the Kindle page shows that Rob Bell is not orthodox enough for some and far too 'loose' and liberal for others. For this particular conservative Christian though, who is also a bit of a rebel, and a bit of a mystic, I was reminded that I am not alone in the way I experience God.
I thank him for that.
“The peace we are offered is not a peace that is free from tragedy, illness, bankruptcy, divorce, depression, or heartache. It is peace rooted in the trust that the life Jesus gives us is deeper, wider, stronger, and more enduring than whatever our current circumstances are, because all we see is not all there is and the last word about us and our struggle has not yet been spoken. There is great mystery in these realities, the one in which we are strong when we are weak, the one in which we come to the end of ourselves, only to discover that God has been there the whole time, the God who is for us.”

Irrationality rules! Thank God

I read a short piece this afternoon on another blog I follow. It was about Christian faith and ‘souls’.
. . . It jarred, not for reasons you might assume, but it also germinated a few ideas. If you have a few minutes spare, you might like to read on.

(Google Images)

The blog extract:
“If you believe you have an immortal soul, and that, as Christianity teaches, that soul is destined after your physical death to go to Heaven or Hell, you will want to do everything in your power to live your earthly life so that you go to Heaven.”

At face value the piece carried a common view of Christian belief. The problem for me was that it spoke of a Christianity I did not recognise. It reduced it to a set of rules that people should elect to follow in their self interest. This is not a ‘Christianity’ in which I could have any faith. Thank God I don’t have to, but more about that below.

I’m not much up on souls.
I do know me, although sometimes I confess I’m not sure that I know as much about myself as I would like. That aside, amidst the uncertainties, I know for certain I am more than the sum of the plumbing, the biochemistry and the electrochemistry I carry around with me in that ever expanding sack of fat (especially fat), protein, connective tissue, muscle, nerves and skin that people see, hear, touch, smell, and associate with me.

(Google Images)

That sack; that body. I do not doubt I am more than it is. I am different. I am other. I transcend it. For me this is a puzzle that defies solution; the incomprehensible, the utterly unreachable; the seed of the eternal; the rock on which everything breaks. I am content to call it a soul. My soul is the thing that remains ‘me’ while my body changes, its cells and organs renewing themselves repeatedly, as it ages and eventually dies.

In this sense then, I share my fellow blogger’s belief in a soul.

I have no idea why I am certain of it. In fact, it’s not too hard to drift through the days of my fairly mundane life, cocooned in the cycles of working, eating, and sleeping, good times, bad times, and convince myself that these are the bounds of my existence. It’s not too hard to come to see this as all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be. Kind of comforting in a way I guess. But it doesn’t last. Any more than childhood lasts; any more than a career lasts, any more than health and beauty last; any more than life itself lasts. So, do I believe I have a soul because I want to cling to the hope that somehow what is ‘me’ will survive after my death? Do I believe because the alternative is too hard to bear thinking of? Is belief in a soul a kind of security blanket? A comforter? A buttress against reality?

I don’t think so. It would be easier to accept the seductive assurances of secularism. It would be so much less demanding to drift through life looking to science and technology for meaning; resting on the comfort of money and possessions; losing myself in the endless summer of consumerism. It’s just that there are recurring tiny tugs at my sleeve: the small voices of beauty; the fleeting moments of transcendence; the occasional grasped thread of meaning; the inexplicable gift of love. These things gently and persistently point me elsewhere for the meaning of my existence.
I can’t say why with any authority but I know calmly within myself that I am some thing of substance that transcends secular explanations that leave me short changed and frustrated.

So, why did that blog entry jar on me?
It was this sentence: “You will want to do everything in your power to live your earthly life so that you go to heaven”.
Plausible, right-intentioned even, . . . but headed entirely in the wrong direction: the complete and diametric opposite of the central message of the Christian Gospel. Of course, all things being equal I would want to do all I could to ensure I get to heaven, if I believed there were such a thing as heaven (which I do). The killer point is however that I cannot ensure that any of this will earn me entry. I can never pray earnestly enough, repent sincerely enough, or or live worthily enough to earn myself a place at the table.

The starting point for me as a Christian believer is the realisation of just how helpless I am and in what a hopeless position I find myself. Yes, being human I immediately jump towards the self-help manuals, the recipes for salvation, the right forms of worship, the works of mercy and charity that I hope will oblige God to notice me and accept me as his own. I do these things naturally but they are irrelevant and unable to help me achieve that goal. God, I sense, doesn’t play manipulative games you see.

The surprising, world changing, unexpected and irrational message of the Christian Gospel is that there is nothing that I can do and nothing I need to do! Everything that needed to be done for my acceptance and salvation has already been done by Jesus.

All well and fine, but what am I getting at?

I hear of so many people punishing themselves with feelings of unworthiness. (Done that once or twice myself). It’s hard to believe God is waiting to embrace people as they are, not as they think they should be. Nor is it helped by images of judgemental and self-righteous Christians but that, as they say, is another story. It is difficult to accept a free gift with no strings attached. Everything has its price in this world. It goes against human experience to think otherwise. Would it not be, however, the single greatest gift any of us ever received: to be accepted as we are, rather than who we might think we should be? This is the surprising and counter intuitive message of the Christian Gospel. It is so different from what we expect from experience, so ‘other’, that it is often discounted, disbelieved, and sometimes it even generates an angry response.

The thing is, the Christian Gospel says exactly that. Despite the oft repeated injunctions of those who should know better, the Bible does not anywhere say we need to earn our way to God. We cannot. God steps in and grabs us from the current. We do not swim to the edge and climb out. We cannot.

Good news for me as I find myself accepted by and belonging to God in spite of myself.
Naturally I want to do good things and love my fellow human beings but these things are responses to God’s initiative; not means to the end of manipulating God’s good favour.

I am not a slave to anybody or anything (if we discount my addictive behaviours and selfishness); not rules; not traditions; not the judgement of hypocrites. I am truly free to live life as God intended. What He has in store for ‘me’ (a.k.a. my soul) when this life is ended, I have no way of knowing, but I have no fear or worry about it either.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

(Google Images)

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