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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Reflections on the implications of enantiadromia....beyond the church

 This week we read, in Al Jazeera, that the neutrality of Austria ‘is not up for public debate’ according to leaders of mainline political parties. Having been divided by various ‘world powers’ after European conflicts, there is a strong public the commitment to neutrality. And, in the middle of Russian invasion of Ukraine, although previously the Austrians purchased 80% of their natural gas from Russia, they have now reduced that to 50%. So, there has to be some kind of at least minor in the official ‘thinking’ in Vienna. Attempting to serve as potential broker in and when there might be a peace negotiation to end the conflict, seems now to be kind of ‘wishful hope’ rather than a legitimate expectation.

Back in the1950’s James M. Minifie wrote a book entitled, “Canada: Peacemaker or Powder Monkey,” in which he concluded that Canada was a “powder-monkey in that the U.S. could launch acts of aggression against other world states and Canada would follow. And that has largely been the pattern.” (hamiltoncoalitiontostopthewar.ca)

Jean Chretien, as Prime Minister, must have been fully conscious of this theme in Canadian history when, in 2003, he declared that Canada would not join the United States in its declared war against Iraq. Canada did however join the U.S. conflict in Afghanistan in one of the longest wars in U.S. history.

The question of neutrality/engagement/choosing sides, however, is one that faces each individual, as well as each family, community, church, and government on various levels at different times. And at the centre of that tension is the question of the relationship between duty and public expectation and identity, belief, conviction and ego reality. The first, duty etc. can be referenced as the ‘mask’ or the public face that one puts on in order to ‘facilitate’ the daily and hourly encounters, in a kind of seemingly ‘scripted’ performance. The second is more closely integrated with the authentic feelings, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs and core benchmarks of one’s identity.

Public performance versus a private reality is a theme that runs through literature, all of the biographies of all of the major world figures whose lives have touched their writers and their readers, and certainly throughout the oceans of fiction that have been published.

Yesterday, this space mentioned the concept of enantiadromia, the place, condition in which the person/organization/government/corporation/church/nation flips into a state in which it (we, they) become so extreme that they turn into their opposite. Jung adds that ‘this characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time an equally powerful counter-position is built up which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.” (Wikipedia.org) At the personal level, when the ”mask” (Persona) of the performance in a role subsumes the identity of the individual, the individual loses ‘sight’ of or consciousness of his/her inner identity, then the individual flips intro that state described by Margaret Laurence in The Stone Angel, “Pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear.”

A similar principle is articulated in the Chinese Yin-Yang, in that yang lines become yin when they have reached their extreme, and vice versa. Yin (dark on the right) is the receptive and yang (light on the left) the active principle. This duality, in Taoism is not an either-or but an indivisible whole. In Confucianism, however, a moral dimension is added to both yin and yang.

I first met this concept in a piece of research on a life ended tragically when I discovered the extreme of the ‘persona’ (the mask) having fused with the ego (the identity) and the individual had succumbed, at least in my interpretation to the extreme demands of his professional role which drowned his sense of his ego and left him no perceived hope. So the fusion of the mask and the ego, as the initial meeting with this concept has impacted much of my subsequent thought, feeling and perceptions.

There is, undoubtedly, a kind of either-or aspect to this kind of thinking. And yet, given that there are forces, energies, winds, and seasons, including masculine and feminine genders at work, the thinking behind these various iterations of the concept do not reduce to Manicheanism, whereby everything is either good or bad. It would seem reasonable to observer that perhaps there has been a fusion of the two ideas, in North America, whereby “Good and Bad” have gone to war, as if the forces on one side of the political ‘aisle’ see themselves as ‘good’ and that those forces on the other side of the aisle can be and are only bad. And that frozenness, (call it stubbornness, fossilized, frozen, intransigent or ….) seems to have burned the concept of nuance out of the potential for public debate. We seem to have turned to a form of extreme Confucianism and neglected the Tao. Whether that has been a collective unconscious cultural shift, or whether it has taken place at a conscious collective level, seems worthy of more study and thought.

The church (taken generally as the Christian church) has positioned itself as force dedicated to the relationship between humans and God, whereas the secular society, the economy, the political institutions and the business world sees itself as the agency (collectively) that manages the public need. And while there has been an implicit divide, (“Caesar v God”), and some theologians have written that there is no real separation between the things of the world and the things of the spirit, the religious institutions have traditionally taken a different lens, theory, modus operandi and purpose: to help humans orient to a different attitude, perception, value system, belief and praxis than that of the “street”.

As these ideas percolate, one cannot help but acknowledge that the whole notion of  “divide” whether of self, or between those aspects of human existence that we consider sacred from those aspects we consider secular, is itself a deeply “European” notion. Some are becoming familiar with the distinctions between, for example, the indigenous and the European world view. From the website, ictinc.ca (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc.) we find these words:

Eight differences between indigenous and western worldviews:

1.   I (Indigenous) Spiritually oriented society, system based on belief and spiritual world.

W (Worldview) Scientific skeptical, requiring proof as basis of belief

2.   I –There can be many truths; truths area dependent upon individual experiences

W-There is only one truth, based on science or Western style law.

 

3.   I- Society operates in a state of relatedness. Everything and everyone is related. There is real belief  that people, objects and the environment are all connected. Law kindship and spirituality reinforce this connectedness. Identity comes from connections.

W- Compartmentalized society, becoming more so.

 

4.   I- The land is sacred and usually given by a creator or supreme being.

W- The land and its resources should be available for development and extraction for the benefit of humans.

 

5.   I- Time is non-linear, cyclical in nature. Time is measured in cyclical events. The seasons are central to this concept.

W- Time is usually linearly structured and future orientated. The framework of months, years, days etc. reinforces the linear structure.

 

6.   I- Feeling comfortable is measured by the quality of your relationships with people.

W- Feeling comfortable is related to how successful you feel you have been in achieving your goals.

 

7.   I- Human beings are not the most important in the world.

W-Human beings are most important in the world.

 

8.   I-Amassing wealth is important for the good of the community.

W-Amassing wealth is for personal gain.

Given that in North America, we are influenced by forces from Europe and forces inherent to the indigenous peoples who inhabited these lands prior to the European “conquest” and “colonization”, we can see how the worldviews, perspectives, vocabulary and language of both, as well as the eastern concepts of Yin and Yang are ‘swimming’ around in the cultural ethos. And while attempting to apply the notion of enantiadromia not only to the human individual, but by extension to the ‘institutional’ psyche is necessarily a euro-based kind of argument, the lens of biology, as well as the lens of botany and zoology have frequently been deployed as metaphors for observing phenomena in other spheres (from a euro-perspective).

Recognizing in oneself, when one’s life has tipped over into the extreme in which the ‘role’ and the ‘performance’ has supplanted the ego, is, as one might expect, neither obvious, nor comfortable. The western world view of success/accomplishment/achievement/status/wealth/power have been so indoctrinated as “commonly agreed values”, and the notion of human intervention as “critical parent” has been embedded into so much of our epistemology, cosmology, and social dogma, means that from the perspective of both the law and medicine, “things we do not understand, tolerate or accept” (what we call abnormal) have been compartmentalized into ‘sickness’ or ‘criminality’. That euro-compartmentalization, has, as a consequence, imposed a kind of ‘narrow path’ on fitting in that impacts literally and metaphorically, every single person and role.

As part of our being “formed” we have what the French call  “formation professionelle”…the impact of our formal education and training on our world view. And, naturally, much of that formation has roots in euro-think.

And, as we have been reminded by Lionel Tiger in The Manufacture of Evil, that as our processes of manufacturing which have become so precise and operate in increasingly narrow margins of error, so too we have imposed a similar kind of “manufacturing tolerance” on our assessment of evil and wrong-doing. It is not difficult to speculate that, once ignited in a person, or family or institution, those guidelines for ‘acceptable’ (call it professional, ethical, normal, moral or political, conventional) become a kind of straight-jacket, (depending on one’s perspective) that either ‘liberates’ or constricts individuals (and organizations) from the prospect of become self-aware, as well as the prospect of adapting to new insights or threats or opportunities.

It says here that the conjunction of a divide between the secular and the sacred, with a highly steroidal-injected ambition to “succeed” and to “fit in” and with the methods of both manufacture and communicate that have accompanied the industrial and the technological revolutions, and the determination to ‘fit in’ to the conventional culture (both the collective conscious and the collective unconscious) that accompanies the requirements and the job descriptions of all organizational leadership and their executives, has imposed an inscrutable, inevitable, and tragic set of forces that have so crippled the heart, the mind and the spirit of both the institutions themselves and their responsible leaders, that their form has succumbed to their function.

In art, “form follows function” is the principle that the form art takes    should be based upon its intent and purpose. Some posit that form follows function, while others like Frank Lloyd Wright argue that “form and function are one”.

It is this “unity” of form and function that, in all things, physical, relational, spiritual we are, it seems, hardwired, to search for a kind of oneness…with nature, with ourselves, and with God. And this impulsion can been extrapolated, at a very basic level, from our origins….separated from the mother at birth, and then oriented to a world of highly defined, moralized, inculcated, nurtured, motivated through both extrinsic and intrinsic conditioning, and then launched into various worlds of their own “forms of conditioning”. And whether there is a deity included in the various forms of “formation”  both personal and professional, the relationships are documented in terms that can be transmitted, and both rewarded or sanctioned, depending on compliance.

And, while this process of development, psychologically, socially, intellectually, spiritually differs from region and culture, it ostensibly is designed by frameworks of language and thought that, by definition, and by observation and analysis, require significant, critical and frequently very uncomfortable and distressing and conceivably radical transformation.

If enantiadromia is one of the canaries in our collective coal mine, singing of the tip from form into exclusive function, and we can observe that negative flip, then it might be feasible to envision some warning lighthouse blinking lights that warn of the shoals of excessive and extreme commitment to something none of us can or will sustain.

The constrictions of a perfect public face, whether for an individual, a family, a church or a corporation, has the risk inherent in its perfection, of capsizing that identity. It already has in the lives of many individuals; it threatens to capsize the American ‘ship of state’ and also the so-called world order of the last several decades.

As the world tips into an excessive dependence on numbers, size, science, technology and the multiple indoctrination streams (called euphemistically the education of our youth), we risk a catastrophic collapse of the collective human consciousness and unconsciousness, as we all succumb to becoming what we are not, things, to be manipulated by some power structure outside of ourselves and outside of our control.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Can the church waken to its own enantiadromia?

 Several times, in this space, the question of faith in God, and the relationship between the institutional church and human faith, have had many words and thoughts and reflections dedicated to the river of their equations.

The decline of the Christian church, in both numbers of seats in pews and dollars in coffers, has been predicted, forecast and in some cases declared for several years. There are numerous pieces written about the ‘impossibility of the role of clergy’ in a culture in which human emotional, spiritual and social needs have, like their associated climate threat numbers, gone through the roof. Cor-relation, rather than causation is a minimal connection, and there are multiple factors in the ‘burn-out’ of both the clergy and the ecclesial institution.

While focussing on the social demands of parishioners, such as feeling abandoned if the clergy does not check in, or feeling anxious if and loved one falls ill or dies, or feeling especially depressed while facing a divorce, a job loss, an unexpected health crisis, the death of a child, or any one or more of a plethora of crises, those individual crises are much more than social ‘needs’. They are personal, existential often, and can and often do become triggers for serious long-term fragility, including psychic breakdown. And, in many cases, the clergy is expected to provide presence as a bottom-line type of service and then to assess the degree of trauma being experienced with a view to possible referral to another professional.

Rescuing alcoholics, those dependent on drugs both illicit and prescribed, and individuals whose early lives have been flooded with trauma, is a spectre of potential human issues that stretch beyond the basic needs of ‘stopping the pain’ and ‘reforming’ the daily life and habits of the individual. And, given the convergence of social and cultural attitudes, values and vocabulary, with the ideals, hopes, aspirations and beliefs of the church, those practicing at the intersection of those forces is tasked with discerning an appropriate ‘intervention time’ and both strategy and tactic. Such interventions too often require immediate crisis response, even after the paramedic and medical professions have been contacted and have begun their work.

And the difference between the prospect of an intervention by a clergy, known commonly as a ‘pastoral intervention’ is quite different from what is known as a psychiatric or psychological intervention. A clergy might begin with a silent or shared prayer, invoking words like trust, and love and a prospect of God’s love in a form and face and image that might be accessible to the person in crisis. Often, a person in such a state will utter words like, “Why is God doing this to me? I have tried to live a good life and have worked very hard, and tried not to hurt others and I do not understand the meaning of this pain.”

No deeper or fuller truth has likely every crossed a human’s lips that that deep and searing question. And, being expected to ‘answer for God’ is, of course, both impossible and also ‘expected’ at some level by the person in pain. The conjunction of a life crisis and the issue of both mortality and life meaning and purpose seem, in a large number of instances to present simultaneously. And, naturally, a single conversation, prayer, even a comforting story taken from personal experience, scripture, or a relevant piece of literature, is not going to have the impact of transforming the moment and/or the life of that person into something bearable, meaningful and founded in hope.

And while there is a human inclination to ‘care’ for those in crisis, and neighbours do it every day, in the case of a devastating fire, or a criminal act, or an untimely death, there are no formulaic words or expressions that can or need to be designed and imposed on such situations. People in public crisis are so vulnerable, fragile and recognizable that almost any person encountering them would offer comfort, a blanket, a phone call, a tourniquet if needed, and even a prayer. Professional medical personnel, like doctors and nurses, on occasion have refused to help fearing the possibility of a law suit should their intervention run ‘amok’ somehow. In some jurisdictions, Good Samaritan laws have been passed by legislatures in an attempt to ward off that resistance to help.

However, being a “Good Samaritan” as a clergy, is not only taken for granted by the general public; it is a cornerstone of the job description in most churches. And, if, for example, more than a single crisis occurs in a given morning, for a clergy in a small parish will be expected to ‘attend’ to each crisis with a deep and meaningful “intervention” appropriate and instrumental and effective in the eyes of the family in stress. And, by the way, the situation first encountered must never have any visible, audible or even mood impact on the second encounter. Such a ‘porous’ psychic, emotional and cognitive failure of boundary would be held as a serious failure in professional conduct, if not by the respective families, then certainly by any supervising superior.

Crisis intervention, and management, while important, is not necessarily the prime item on a clergy’s job assignment. “Showing up”, however, or not, will be considered a sine qua non of any satisfactory job performance review. Whether or not the intervention was ‘appropriate,’ fulfilling or even commensurate with the situation is such a subjective assessment and open to multiple and conflicting views and interpretations that the clergy can, and often is, left hanging out on a limb of professional dissatisfaction, if not actual termination. And, pour the various now public-gossip iterations of the intervention into a crock-pot of fundraising attempts, building repairs, volunteer training and assignment, liturgy preparation on a weekly and even a ‘special holy day’ nature, conflict among parish lay men and women, and a church hierarchy calling for the quarterly financial report that is overdue by three week, hypothetically,….and it is not hard to envision a clergy, whether a man or a woman, who is risking frayed nerves. And those frayed nerves are jangling inside the muscles and the blood stream, into the digestive system and also into the coffee shop where it is conceivable that the clergy encounters two of the more dissatisfied parishioners having coffee.

Of course, the clergy, steeped in and schooled in some of the supporting theology of pain and suffering, from the stories of Jesus, and the time in the wilderness of angst, one of the more supportive and inspiring narratives in the New Testament, will be silently returning to those stories as an essential spiritual nourishment in the midst of the whirlwind blowing around and through the parish. And, if you think that this hypothetical ‘picture’ of a clergy’s life is exaggerated, please rest assured it is not. Of course, not every day or every week is flooded with crisis, and yet there is a tendency among church regulars to ‘take the affairs of the church’ (all of the people, the dollars the numbers and the stories that are sliding over the internet and across the coffee shop tables, and over the bank counters, and into the doctor’s offices) extremely seriously. It is as if, for many, their church affiliation is an extension of or a surrogate for one’s personal family. And guarding and protecting the reputation of that ‘church’ is one of the top priorities in their spiritual pilgrimage, as worshippers of God. Indeed, for many, they are ‘doing God’s work’ in whenever and however, and with whomever they ‘act’ as part of that church community.

In fact, those ‘obligations’ including assuming official church roles in leadership, in choir membership, in altar guild discipline and membership, in church education leadership, in social activities co-ordinating are, for many, far more important than any private reflections about how their attitudes, actions, words and relationship might reflect on the kind of theology they might be living. Collecting the collection on Sunday morning, or serving at the altar on Sunday morning and then offering a character assassination of a parishioner or a clergy on Monday in the lunch-room at work seems to be missed as a personal example of how one might connect the dots in one’s own life.

And, it is precisely this notion of “judgement” as epitomized by the Christian church’s basic theology, in which the conventional interpretation of the Garden of Eden story, finds all human beings and defines us all as ‘sinful’ and needing the grace of God to be free from that sin, that is not only a theological abstract, but a practising ritual, baked into the cake of each and every parish in which I have worked and worshipped. Judgement, perhaps euphemistically considered a preparation for the Eschaton, when a final judgement is to be levied, lies at the heart of the church’s social, psychic, cultural, historical and existential identity.

And, merged into that ‘less-than-adequate’ picture, of course, is the natural self-assessment, whether conscious or unconscious, that one is never enough. And lying at the heart of the clergy’s pain is the notion that s/he can and will never be enough, depending on the perspective of the ‘assessor’….and certainly of the ultimate assessor, God.

Only if and through a serious transformation of the church’s co-dependence on a theology that demeans and reduces both God and each of us, through our inherent evil will the church and the clergy see a radically different approach to the ordinary and inevitable pain of ageing, social discrimination, gender politics and even parish administration. And the “more abundant” life that the gospel speaks about will not be integral to the church’s basic message, as well as its modus operandi will require a shift from the formal Christian doctrine of sin and evil, to a more God-centered and human-supportive personal and organizational commitment to ‘help’ and to care for each person and family, as depicted in the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee people.

Recognizing that each of us is capable of erring, and straying from our best decisions and choices, and in most, if not all, of those instances, there are forces that are at least implicated in such choices, First Nations peoples have discerned that the ‘good mind’ is the natural state of their people and each person is capable of returning to that good mind, if only after authentic and unconditional help and care are available.

Also, from myjewishlearning.com, we read:

Judaism teaches that human beings are not basically sinful. We come into the world neither carrying the burden of sun committed by our ancestors nor tainted by it. Rather, sin, chet, is the result of our human inclinations, the yetzer, which must be properly channeled. Chet literally means something that goes astray. It is a term used in archery to indicate that an arrow has missed the target. This concept of sin suggests a straying from the correct ways, from what is good and straight. Can humans be absolved of their failure and rid themselves of their guilt? The ideology of Tom Kippur answers: Yes.

And while rabbi’s are also ‘burning out’ while attempting to address the needs and the demand of their communities, their faith has a very different attitude to that of the Christian church.

There is no deity worthy of the appellation who would condemn or would expect any disciple to conduct their relationship with that deity in the manner in which the politically and socially and reputationally perfect church is attempting to operate. And, at the heart of this perspective is the inevitable and invariable notion that such “perfectionism” generates a protective mask of hidden truth, sometimes known, in psychological terms as the Shadow, which has grown like a colony of barnacles over the church’s institutional ‘ego’ leading to an inevitable enantiodromia*. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite.

And the Christian church, in order to begin the process out of this fusion of the ‘public face and the Shadow’ will start by publicly and painfully acknowledging its institutional, historical and theological Shadow.

And, in that painful and dark process, there is a light, not only for the institution, but for the people who find even more enlightenment and spiritual energy in their affiliation.

*enantiodromia—the tendency of things to change into their opposites, especially as a supposed governing principle of natural cycles and of psychological development.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Moving from bromides to responsibility?

 Yesterday I listened as an apparently well-known television actor uttered the words that he said captured the essence of his many addresses to graduates from high schools and colleges: carpe diem. (“Seize the day!”)

Very noble, very Roman, and also, somewhat sadly, very North American.

“Youth is a wonderful thing. It is a shame it has to be wasted on the children” is a quote generally attributed to George Bernard Shaw and it has some useful and cogent guardrails for those giving commencement addresses to the youth.

There is a kind of flaccid and obvious ring to the carpe diem moniker. It has become so cliché, and while bearing a kernel of truth, nevertheless, ultimately falls far short of inspiring and challenging young minds. Indeed, it could be said that those defaulting to that theme invariably and inevitably fall victim to the co-dependent trap. Of course, the young graduates (now even as young as three or four in kindergarten) are over-flowing with relief, anticipation, expectation and an impatience to get the formal ceremonies over with and get on with the parties. Over the last couple of decades, the call to empowerment for women has been  another of the preferred themes selected by commencement speakers. Another in more military institutions has been the call to duty to serve the national interests of the respective country. Of course, ‘making a living’ and ‘chasing the brass ring’ has also resounded in the business schools, and over a more than half-century, that venue has also heard a chorus of enlightened management and leadership.

One of the more enlightened, courageous and creative leader on the modern world stage currently (since 2017) is Prime Minister of New Zealand. Jacinda Ardern called on graduates in Harvard’s Class of 2022 to pursue “genuine debate and dialogue” in order to protect democracy. (She) told graduates to ‘treat difference with empathy and kindness-those values that exist in the space between difference and division. We are richer for our difference, and poorer for our division. Through genuine debate and dialogue, through rebuilding trust in information and one another, through empathy- let us reclaim the space in between….(Warning against the role of disinformation, she went on “The time has come for social media companies and other online providers to recognize their power and to act on it. The issues we navigate as a society will only intensify. The disinformation will only increase. The pull into the comfort of our tribes will be magnified. But we have it within us to ensure that this doesn’t mean that we will fracture. (Pointing to the deadly terrorist attacks at two mosques in Christ Church New Zealand in 2019 she said)..We have the forums for online providers and social media companies to work on these issues alongside civil society and governments. Let’s start with transparency in how algorithmic processes work and the outcomes they deliver. But let’s finish with a shared approach to responsible algorithms-because the time has come. (from thecrimson.com May 26, 2022)

And while there are flecks of the carpe diem theme in her address, there are challenging and hopefully motivating connections between the kind of education and culture to which the grads have been exposed and with which they have been imbued and the wider world. She mined some of the more cogent warning signs that threaten to derail civilized debate around the world.

And, “in the Senior English Address titled ‘The Caged Bird Sings’, the first popularly elected Black male student body president in the history of the college-spoke about how the resilience of his enslaved ancestors encouraged him to speak out for those less advantaged. ‘We must see ourselves in those who are caged, (Noah A. Harris, 22) said. We must use our talents to help them, but most of all, we must be proximate enough to hear the tune of their song.

Before the spurning and the guffawing from the peanut-gallery on the right, incensed that Harvard would be the model chosen for this piece, let’s give credit where it is due. These addresses, both, in their specificity, and in their motivation from the speaker and then transmitted to their audience, are pieces not merely of sound rhetoric and scholarship; they are also ‘spot-on’ in their diagnosis of two of the most challenging mountains this graduating class, and all of us, currently face. And while the news media is focussed on the floods, the draughts, the fires, the mass shootings and killings, the war in Ukraine, and the Chinese war-games in the Taiwan Strait, and the threatened assassination of John Bolton and others by Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the growing dangers of pandemic viruses…the graduation ceremony is and once again has been demonstrated to be, another opportunity to lay down markers of truth, reality and hurdles on which graduates, their parents and families, and the wider world might consider.

And it is the shared consideration, not only of the import of these remarks on the political and economic and academic leaders in our society, but on the bus drivers, the nurses, the civil servants and the teachers among us, that, by itself, has the potential to shape the construction of the social highway out of the hell demise (on so many levels) and into the potential of a shared consumption, recycling, re-using and re-creating, not only of the consumables we devour but more importantly the values, attitudes, perceptions and interactions we share both with biological humans and with our avatars from the algorithms.

There has been a stampede, for well over four decades, into the “wealth-pools” of the financial services sector, headed by many of the graduates of schools like Harvard, Yale and other Ivy League schools. And that stampede’s reverberations are still being heard and felt along the veins and the capillaries and the arteries in the towns and cities of the heartland. Holding an extrinsic brass ring, proverbially and theatrically imaged as a ‘pot of gold’ as the highest rung on the social, political and societal ladder of success, a la a Horatio Alger, author of young adult novels about impoverished boys and their rise from humble backgrounds to lives of middle-class security and comfort through good works, as seen in the ‘rags-to-riches’ stories and aided in the development of the Gilded Age, is no longer either appropriate nor tolerable.

The pursuit and the acquisition of personal wealth, as the core value of capitalism, has so morphed into a surrogate theology, that it can be said to have been fed an overdose of a cultural drug that emulated thalidomide. “Prescribed to many pregnant women in order to relieve pregnancy nausea, the drug caused irreversible damages to the fetus and thousand of children were born with severe congenital malformations. Many of them did not survive more than a few days after they were born.” (from thalidomide.ca, the website of the Thalidomide Victims of Canada)

Easing personal and societal pain, through some extrinsic, prescribed formula, whether of the chemical or the economic variety, is, nevertheless, is the life-blood of those opportunists who seek ‘instant gratification’ regardless of whom that gratification might impact or how. The energy that is required to over-see, to monitor, to inspect, and to devise and impose and then enforce regulations and controls on the production of all experimental ideas, including those from the chemists lab and also those from the investors vaults and boardrooms, all of them designed to inject steroids into the profit-motive, in both the shortest and the least expensive manner, is far less sexy and exciting than the inventor’s legends of small town garages. And, in the current political climate, those regulations, controls and guardrails that exist to protect us from the unfettered capitalism are too often considered to be restriction of personal freedom, and then inflated into historic cadences of a kind of autocracy and tyranny with which the world is all too familiar.

When we step back to examine the equation that pits

‘instant gratification’ plus release of physical/emotional pain plus available cash…we too often get a kind of seduction that we have seen from the tobacco industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and certainly the political establishment that relies on the cheques from those sectors. Inject into such an economy, the epic arsenal of the RNA, also funded by the right, and then produce theatre that is so addicted both to the audience’s appetite for sex, violence and instant heroism (really metaphors for the orgiastic), and then, without actually performing the excision and removal of the spine of those recipients of the political donations, to be replaced by the slick, cash-paved, propaganda-flooded highway to retaining power, and we have what we now face, a self-immolating democracy.

And, while forest fires of historic proportions are motivating leaders like the Governor of California, where the existential threat is in his and his constituents faces every moment of every day, such attitude and actions based on exigency have not filtered through the veil of denial, avoidance, prevarication, and irresponsibility in Washington, at least among Republican in the trump cult.

And those attitudes, conspiratorial addictions and dependencies, like the early pain of pregnant mothers, is fed the thalidomide of trump lies, trump delusions, and trump sycophants. It may feel like an easy, accessible and effective topical pain pill; however, it is far more toxic and dangerous than that pain-relieving pill in the 1960’s.

It is the need for relief from that pain, similar to the need for the elimination of the menstrual cycle (another marketing opportunity for pharma) and also similar to the perverted, distorted arguments for ‘stand your ground’ killings, and banned books that attempt to paint a real and honest picture of the nation’s slavery, racism and its implications (Critical Race Theory*).

Those exhortations to debate and dialogue from the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and delivered to the 2022 graduating class at Harvard are notes for the social, political, economic, environmental and ethical debate in which we are all currently engaged. Authentic debate and dialogue depends, by definition on the concurrence of individuals about the current reality, the facts we all face, and then also embraces a plethora of workable and necessary steps to bring us back from the brink of our own demise.

And from Noah A. Harris, ‘we must see ourselves as those caged’….if we are ever to come to a place, in our own minds, first, and then in our circles, and then into the wider global theatre in which we all breath, and from which we drink our water and from the ground and sea of which we forage our food…ultimately to take responsibility for our own lives and for the lives of our grandchildren.

Are we really listening?

 * Critical Race Theory is a cross disciplinary intellectual and social movement of civil-rights scholars and activists who seek to examine the intersection of race, society and law in the United States and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice. (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Another sad disagreement with Christian fundamentalism

 There is a rolling drum-beat coming from many Christian churches declaring the world’s ‘need for God’….And the ‘sales pitch’, while familiar and somewhat historic, nevertheless, reeks of more desperation on the part of the church than it does of the desperation of the world. Phrases like, ‘the time is now for the church to be that Holy, Chosen, and Called Ones of God to clearly step up to the plate’ sound like a clarion call for God and for those chosen to ‘step up to the plate’ and warriors of the kingdom.

 While uttered, scribbled, prayed or even included in a homily, these words are anathema to the faith, devolving from the premise that believers are holy and separate and ‘Chosen’ and ‘Called’. Not only is the rhetoric hollow as a sales pitch, it is even more hollow as a theology.

The notion that God, the Christian God, the Hebrew or the Muslim God, the Hindu needs to have a “special forces brigade’ of saved individuals, as his army to save the world, is both pretentious, specious and tendentious. The notion comes from one who, as a proverbial story about such ambassadors of this theology goes, turns to the few adolescents in his car while driving them to a church event, takes his hands off the steering wheel and proclaims that God is now driving the car. It is also redolent of the Sunday School teacher who, while orienting new volunteers to the program, indicates, following the direction of the teacher’s manual from David Cook’s curriculum, “these are the words to say to the five-year-old’s who are saved, and these, different words, are those reserved for the five-year-old’s who are not saved.”

Rubbish, and the examples are not summoned up from an over-exuberant imagination. They are documented from a small stint as a clergy in small parishes where I followed this kind of theology. And where, to the surprise of none of those parishioners at that time, I was formally confronted by one of their ‘leading members’ and told to pack my bags, and leave the church and the town. I had been delivering a small number of homilies, based on a more liberal and less literal interpretation of both scripture and tradition, and was already deemed a ‘heretic’. When an announcement was handed to me during the offertory hymn in mid-service, without previous warning or viewing, and told to announce the screening of a video on Tuesday evening that week, (again to demonstrate how heretical were the homilies I had been writing and delivering) of course, I put the announcement in a pocket, without uttering a word of its content. Subsequently, I wrote to the ‘leading member’ a letter outlining his resignation as ‘warden’ from that congregation, and delivered it to his business address.

Sales pitches, in the church known as evangelism, that not merely suggest a divide between those who are Christians from those who are not saved, is a scourge not only on the faith itself, but on the whole community. It designates a single passage, under the direction of those already saved, to a consummated relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It also postulates a reading and interpretation of scripture that fails to acknowledge the poetic, the mythic, the historic and the legal as very different forms of thought and writing, irrespective of the extensive historic nature of scripture, and the multiple human minds, hearts, bodies and spirits that have had their part in its delivery.

The ‘road to Damascus’ bright light conversion written about by Paul, and then held up as the eye of a needle through which God intends and expects those who are seeking a relationship seems about as kindergarten-like and reductionistic a proposition that does not and cannot withstand scrutiny as a proposition of a faith worthy of the name. And yet, steeped in such interpretation, are many in both the pulpits and also in the theological schools as instructors who have a considerable following.

This kind of theology, however, while leaning toward the kind of dichotomous, binary, Manichean view of salvation that has not and will not penetrate the consciousness of some of us. And any sustained search for God, (itself a phrase fraught with meaning, complexity, nuance, dynamism, poetry, music, art, and even a prospect of spiritual health) has to be considered one of the more ephemeral, mysterious, mystical and both delicate and substantive journeys of the whole person imaginable. As the Pope uttered on a plane when asked about the “faith” of the gay and lesbian community, “Who am I to judge?”….a statement repeated and echoed around the globe for its surprise and its humility and its historic breakthrough the seemingly steel curtain of exclusion that has precluded such a papal utterance for centuries.

A child-like dependence, again based on a phrase from scripture, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3), that has been reduced to a single-minded innocence and submission to something like the will of God, through the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who died for ‘your sins on Calvary. There are, as we are all aware, multiple paths to changing and becoming like children. For some of us, that notion starts with a kind of awe and mystery and the appeal of both a story and a potential relationship that knows no boundaries and limits to its expectations. It cannot and must not be reduced to a simplistic, reductionistic total and absolute submission and surrender of one’s mind, body and spirit to this deity, as defined by some humans. And the Manichean nature of such a black and white faith posture, leaves those embracing it, and the faith itself vulnerable to the exclusive and superior component of abuse of its self-appointed, anointed and deployed power, in the name of God.

Manicheanism, is a faith that breaks everything down into good or evil. For Augustine, one of the primary pillars of Christian theology, according to  Roland J. Teske S.J. writing in the Catholic Historical Review, January 2011, pp 112-113, reviewing David BeDuhn’s ‘Augustine’s Manichean Dilemma,’ writes: (BeDuhn’s) “study, has for the first time, made Augustine’s conversion to the Manichean religion and his remaining in it so long intelligible for me. He argues that Manicheanism offered a religion to the young Augustine that promised to satisfy his deepest spiritual and intellectual aspirations--aspirations that remained much the same for Augustine the apostate from Manicheanism and new convert to Catholic Christianity.”

It (Manicheanism) is such an easily grasped perspective and the binary, dual, either-or concept has had considerable prominence throughout western history. Comparisons of related concepts, through research that postulates a null hypothesis to be disproven, for example, is one application. News and public affairs frames are historically and traditionally deemed to be a ‘position’ by one source countered by an opposing view from another source. In the court rooms, the plaintiff offers a version of the facts, while the defendant offers a different version of those same facts. Literature is seeded with multiple examples of so-called “Good” characters in conflict with so-called “bad characters” with more minor characters often serving as the porridge that brings them to the same table (metaphorically).

And yet, at the root of most of these “systems” of thought, is a primary concept: the focus on the literal, the nominal, and the tension that exists, (or we assume, or postulate, or profess, or believe or actual attempt to demonstrate) between one aspect of each nominal* notion and another.

In such a culture, ostensibly deemed by its political, economic and many of its theological and spiritual leaders to be “Christian” in some form and to some varying degree, much public discourse, and too much so-called theological and spiritual discourse, including the above quotes, are little more than heated (yet still dark and unimaginative, and uninspiring) debates about the ‘correctness’ of one position or view and the error of another.

“Is Hitler in heaven?” was hotly debated in first year in seminary at Huron College in 1988.

Is the apocalypse near? Is another such question that has fueled debates for centuries and even driven religions apart.

Does God have a class of ‘chosen’ people? Is another of those questions to which an either-or approach too often is applied, by people sincere in their faith.

What is the difference between faith and perception? And what role does perception and world view have in the development of a faith?

Who/what/where is God? Is another of those proverbial questions that tends to divide believers from non-believers.

Does DNA, or the Big Bang, or the mystery of the universe confirm or deny, or complicate the question of the existence of God?

Is war an instrument of God, or does God prefer peace?,,,,similar to the age-old, does God support capital punishment for criminal behaviour?

Is solitary confinement God’s chosen path to rehabilitation for criminals?...

The questions are endless,….and yet the answers are too often reduced to one side or another….as in the recent ‘abortion debate’.

The definition of a fetus, (at conception, or later) has consumed both tank-fulls of ink, and eons of air time among those contending on both sides….and yet, if we are open to a more tolerant, compassionate, complex and less simplistic notion of how we might regard this issue, along with many other issues, we might be able to take a view as a culture that, while preferring a general overview and stance, could still see the ethical value of individual situations in a manner that might try to emulate a less constricted and less rigid and less dogmatic application of “our personal” view of God’s will.

While I disagree with attempting to sell Christianity, and believe fully that such prosletyzing has resulted in both theological thought and praxis that has been detrimental both to the church and to the relationship between humans and God. And, lying at the heart of the western culture’s religion is the notion of evil, and the acts that comprise that empire, and especially the people who are accused, convicted and punished for their crimes.

Only recently have we begun to hear tentative rumblings about the correlation between young lives that have been seriously abused and the projected actions of many of those abused into their adult lives…and that kind of research and social policy has to be taken into account, as does the most recent discoveries about the multiple universes out there, by those who would take up the mantle of thinking about and reflecting upon and praying about the Christian faith. And such a project will need both the best efforts of clergy and laity, given the narrowness of mind and heart and spirit of too many standing in the pulpit.

 

*nominalism, of or pertaining to names, is the ontological theory that reality is only made up of particular items, denying the existence of general entities like properties, species, universals sets, or other categories.

Monday, August 8, 2022

The universe says 'no' too, so I learned

 It is not only the need, and eventually the habit, to say ‘No’ to whatever seemed ‘off the rails’ but also the inherent irascibility, scepticism and actually ‘fool’ that starts each moment with a sardonic ‘I don’t think so’. Without sensing a need for a rebellion, a revolution, or anarchy, in any situation, the ‘fool’ is, almost by archetypal identity and definition, familiar with, comfortable with and even bent in the shape of the ‘outsider’. The concept is articulately put in simonkidd.blog, the free-range philosopher:

There’s a well-known joke about a tourist in Ireland who asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’. Being Irish, (as am I) I can tell that joke with impunity! Indeed, like some others in this category, it’s hard to tell whether the joke is actually racist, since there is something of the ‘Wise Fool’ in the Irishman’s response. After all, if you want to get somewhere, then it’s better to start from a place where you have a good chance of reaching your goal.

It was not a self-conscious ‘fool’, and certainly not a ‘wise fool’ who agreed to debate, at thirteen, the resolution: “the Christian is to remain separate and apart from the secular society,” taking the negative side in the debate. And, on reflection, who would be such a fool to agree to debate that position in a church run by and dominated by a group of born-again men who clearly considered their recent conversion to put them outside of, if not actually superior to the secular society in the small town. It would be redundant to note that the negative side lost the debate, given the predisposition of the judges to the affirmative.

It was not a self-conscious ‘fool’ or again a ‘wise’ fool who, when invited to debate the ‘relevance of the Christian faith’ in a Lenten series, sponsored by the local ministerial association, some twelve years later, when I was twenty-six, and employed in the local high school, agreed to participate. And then, (even more ‘on edge’) to write and deliver a brief push-back against the kind of absolutism and dogmatism that too often accompanies ‘theology’ from a intolerant and unchallenged bigot (recall the Irish evangelical fire-brand), calling instead for the more collaborative, conciliatory and potentially moderating model of the seminar, from university days.

The Irishman, not to be upstaged, and without my knowledge, had secured the job of delivering the ‘clerical perspective’ to conclude the evening. It was only much later that I learned that the public/secular billing of the event had my last name and his in the banner headline of the street talk. And, it was only a matter of a couple of weeks that that Irishman, in collaboration with one of his recent ‘converts,’ the father of a co-ed with whom I had become friends, and to whom I had written a friendly note borrowed from one of Coleridge’s letters, directed the father to demand my immediately removal from the faculty of that high school or face a law suit.

Fortunately, another Irishman, a local family physician, who had also been on the panel on the night of the Lenten Study, admitted me to the local hospital upon learning of my dismissal, and then referred me to a Toronto therapist. Learning of  the story from back home, that doctor sent me back to be visible and present, when a story broke of a different and much more serious incident in an adjacent town and high school hit the news. My ‘innocence’ apparently needed to be demonstrated, before the same town that had expelled me. And it was the Investor’s Group agent who called to offer: If you want to walk down Main Street with another, I would be happy to accompany you on that walk.” And, together, we walked the full length of James Street, visible to any and all going about their business that morning in the Spring of 1968 in the time bookended by the murder of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Those words, never fully appreciated in the moment, given the degree of stress under which I operated at the time, have echoed in my memory, along with the regret that I never fully thanked or fully appreciated their meaning and import, until much later.

The public side of the narrative played out while the levels of the private story, both in the marriage and in my psyche, remained out of the public domain. And, the discrepancies between those two narratives, is now and was then, a graphic illustration of how the world works. Shame, guilt, anger, frustration and public humiliation were the depictors of the public story, while a very different kind of frustration, anger, disappointment and alienation boiled under the public waves and winds. A three-year marriage that had converted a summer cottage into a permanent home on the shore of Georgian Bay, and seen both partners engaged on the same high school faculty, and had returned from a visit to the Montreal Olympics in the summer of 1967, seemed to be foundering, like a small cedar-strip boat on the rocks of different expectations, different perceptions of a shared future, and different professional levels of confidence in the expectations of the classroom. I became almost instantly immersed in the energy and the youth of the school environment, coaching and referring basketball, sharing duties to produce a variety show, joining a local Rotary Club, and chairing a planning committee for a Catherine Mackinnon vocal concert as part of the fundraising for the service club. If I recall, a fellow teacher, without my knowledge, had submitted my name as a potential candidate for the town council, a post I thankfully declined. Conversely, my then spouse was struggling with the ‘eyes of thirty adolescents on her in each forty-two-minute class period. And that ‘exposure’ was, for her, unbearable, without my being fully conscious of her struggle. Whether and when to have children was also a point of conflict, and it will not take a detective’s mind or intuition to infer which of us favoured having a family and which deferred. Some fifty-four years later, the heat and the bitterness of those interactions may have dissipated; the substance has faded ever so slightly.

So, at twenty-six, I had two rather histrionic divorces from the “Christian church’ to include in my resume. The first at sixteen, prompted by a bigoted, unforgiveable and irreconcilable homily, and the second prompted by the vengeance of a bigoted and vindictive clergy who had delivered that homily, and a born-again convert.

On the personal side of these events, flows the stream of both consciousness and unconsciousness about my own relationship to the female gender. As a young child of a dominatrix mother, along side an appeasing and passive-aggressive father, I never felt acceptance, approval and support from mother all of which was abundantly free from father. Melodramatic ‘spurts’ of sumptuous baking of such offerings as finnegans (a cinnamon-sugar spread on rolled biscuit dough), hockey gloves and the occasional knitted sweater or socks or mittens, while they were appreciated, were never fully appreciated by a naïve and sheltered and emotionally sensitive young boy. I seemed to have been known intuitively by my dad, and always a “project” for reclamation, like antique furniture, for my mother. And that project seemed to be guided by an unwritten mother’s user’s manual, that started from the position of adoption of the slogan, “spare the rod and spoil the child”! Trips to the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, and to New York, including the touristy visit to the top of the Empire State Building, orchestrated by mother, ostensibly to visit cousins in Binghamptom N.Y., and  East Orange, New Jersey, while different, somewhat exciting and an ‘escape’ from the unpredictability in our little brick salt-box, were nevertheless, not the daily or the hourly pattern. That pattern was invariably of failed expectations, ticked notes and physical abuse, pounding meter sticks on the top of the piano as I attempted to learn a new piece, and as the neighbourhood girl with whom I played duets and I rehearsed for a recital or a festival competition. The home-front was also characterized by a turbulence in the dynamics that erupted between the two parents.

In grade nine, I recall numbers of body shape and size, for which I am both ashamed and somewhat angry. At 5 feet, nine inches, I weighed 195 pounds. And while I had had some modest success as a piano student, I was the antithesis of a young boy in whom any young girl might be interested and I was fully conscious of that disparity. In fact, like most young males, I suppose, I fantasized about one or two young girls whom I considered attractive, but only from the perspective of a fantasy, given that they were always and inevitably ‘going out’ with some other guy. A single date, to the Christmas Dance when I was in grade nine, with a benevolent and kind Ann, was more memorable for the frozen walk back to her home, some two miles from the school, in minus 20 F, than for our time at the Idance itself.

And then, at sixteen, while working in the Dominion Store, my summer employer for eight years, while I had only barely acquired my driver’s license, I decided to invite two friends to a truck-ride out to the Y.W.C.A. camp Tapawingo, just south of the swing bridge that connects the mainland to Parry Island. I had met a camp counsellor, at the grocery story, from Windsor, whose first name was Allison, and who had exhibited a glimmer of interest in me and proposed a Saturday night visit, after her shift ended. She had promised her friends would meet us behind the camp. All went as planned, until the return trip back into town, when, on coming over a small incline, and likely going too fast for the half-ton truck with the three ton engine to adapt, mixing in a neophyte and somewhat excited driver, after our  “Y” visit, I noticed a taxi cab coming up the other side of the incline. Immediately, I turned the wheel to the right, only to realize that the truck was slipping into the gravel ditch where it stopped against a huge boulder on the edge of the ditch. The truth rolled onto the driver’s side, where my red leather jacket was pinned to the ground under the door, making it impossible for me to remove it, before climbing up and out the passenger door.

Needing a police officer from the O.P.P and being yelled some curse words by the cab driver for having slid into the front of his cab, I impulsively ran the two or three hundred yards to the nearest house to phone the cops. On arrival, I met a mother and teen-age daughter standing in the doorway, both having heard the sound of the collision just up the road. Patiently and kindly, they offered their phone; the police came and drove the three boys back to their office. Claire Edgar, the officer on duty, kindly called my parents, to come a bring me home. My father appeared, sullen, angry and very silent through the four-block walk back home where my mother was waiting for her opportunity to pounce, this time in words, without physical punishment.

The ages sixteen (1958) and twenty-six (1968), as you might imagine, are indelibly etched on the calendar of my memory, and visits to my home town have been infrequent and mostly kept secret ever since. Their respective impacts on my life continue, however, to oscillate like the strings of a long-abandoned violin in an attic, only to be formally struck whenever an event, a word, a face or an incident triggers its vibrating sound. And it is not an altogether musical memory; rather, seeded with intense emotion, some impulsivity and certainly a sizeable if not a desperate need to be liked and appreciated by a female. All of that need, however, did not rise to consciousness until decades later, after I finally departed a twenty-three-year marriage to that daughter in the doorway on the night of the truck incident.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

The paradox of "No" in pursuit of an abundant life

 The ‘catch phrase’ abundant life which has been at the front of mind for many years, is a moniker that has so many different faces and applications, along with both circumstance and supplementing and complementing guideposts.

At first blush, for anyone to claim that s/he has attempted to follow such a potentially ambiguous and abstract notion, without having been formally coached, mentored and even classically conditioned into that perspective, seem arrogant and narcissistic and self-congratulating in the extreme. Thinking back, remembering a childhood trying to navigate between two parents of very different tendencies, approaches and attitudes, one highly vocal, somewhat spontaneous, verbal, physical,  demanding, and aggressive, the other more restrained, silent, tolerant, compassionate and passive, on reflection, the irony seems to have been that the assertive/aggressive kinetic parent in my family was the mother, while the more sensitive, collaborative, moderate and deliberate and retiring/reticent was the father. Given the traditional stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, these two people presented very paradoxical versions of their respective gender.

Verbal combat frequently erupted between these two ‘protagonists’ although, as might have been expected in the fifties and sixties, the public was curtained off, ignorant of the domestic violence and the daily and hourly tensions that could develop, against a backdrop of turbulent weather the extremes of which could/would appear without warning or forecast. Muscular opinions, with or without supporting evidence seemed to be counter-balanced by a vacuum of opinion, and this seemed especially evident when the subject of ‘other people’ was under consideration. Denigrating, demeaning and dismissive views of those of ‘lesser’ value were a normal part of the ambience were the expected verbal line drawings from mother, while silence, tolerance, and even kindness was the preferred attitude to others from father.

Into this cauldron, wrapped in summer with vibrant floral rock gardens and bountiful vegetable gardens, framed in disciplined rows of raspberry bushes, a highly disciplined and rigorous ‘work ethic’ dominated. In winter, sidewalks were meticulously shovelled, as were porch roofs, and a back-yard ice rink glistened under a single 200-watt light bulb hanging from the clothesline. The imposition of the work ethic for me emerged in a requirement of daily piano practice, increasing as the years passed, and invariably including Saturday mornings extending to three hours. It is not so much the notion of getting things done that prevails in memory, but the intensity of the emotions, mostly domineering, mostly critical and, on reflection mostly self-loathing projections onto the world that seems to have been at the heart of an over-achieving, insecure and highly ‘masked’ practical and professional nurse. The French phrase, “formation professionelle” addresses the influence of one’s training in any field, almost like a kind of branding with regard to the things that are important, and the lens through which the world is perceived, and the methods and the protocols one learns and masters, as integral to that ‘formation’ that then carry over into one’s daily, yet non-professional or domestic life.

Spending three years, interrupted by a full year of health-related illness due to severe eczema, under the tutelage of the nuns at Saint Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, after a first decade living in a boxcar in the bush in Brent in Northern Ontario with only a pet dog and dolls for play-mates, has to have been a recipe and a diet of considerable discipline, minimal social interactions, and exuding ambition for mother. Today, we might use words like anal-micro-management, including hygienic perfection that overflowed into scrutiny of ticked notes when I practiced piano, and cleanliness evocative of the hospital emergency room.

On the other hand, a son of a Baptist clergy father and a kindergarten teacher mother, born in Alvinston, and moved to Burgessville, Thornbury and then Parry Sound in the first decade of his life, the eldest of four, bore the bruises of scarcity, a stammer of social insecurity and a muscular and athletic body. Living in conditions of considerable poverty, recalling frozen water in wash basins on dressers in winter, and summers on sandy fields for baseball (later known as softball), my father was the epitome of the PK (priest-kid) who rarely spoke and if and when he did, he uttered mostly pablum epithets about the weather. Any emotive expression, especially those of anger and frustration, while rare, were usually extreme. Appeasing his partner was so familiar, having learned the ‘skill’ in his home, almost as a religion.

Into this familial melting pot of bombast and appeasement roared a hot-headed, highly articulate and charismatic protestant from Northern Ireland, the new clergy in the local Presbyterian church. Hell-fire and brimstone were the promised after-life conditions for ‘sinners’, according to him and his religiosity, himself the product of a very different ‘formation professionelle’ in an ethos of religious strife that sounded fifes-and-drums and rifles at home and spread dark clouds of religious hatred and bigotry and violence around the world. For the decade from six through sixteen, our family attended church regularly, and we were expected to attend “Sunday School” and Sunday School picnics, and sing in Christmas choirs. And, the Sunday morning ritual began with a one-mile-plus walk, (we did not own a car), to the service, irrespective of weather.

Steeped in the often over-heated home of unpredictable and often violent emotions and verbiage, not always easily or even partially understood, naturally I preferred being outside that home, including in classrooms, church, music lessons and playgrounds where I could be reasonably confident that I would be, in a word, ‘safe’…Safety, and the predictability of safety, might seem an exaggeration to some. However, the combined impact of being unable to have even a hint of the ‘mood’ of our mother whenever we entered the house, and the absolute conviction that to let anyone outside the family ‘know’ about the dynamic that was unfolding inside this little brick box, ‘mascared’ by lily of the valley, peonies, gladiolas, and evergreens throughout the double yard, was what comprised ‘normal’ for the first seventeen years. Little did I know that, while other kids may have endured different pain and struggles, this family of origin had some unique features.

 Unexplained and seemingly incoherent and irrational decisions were both gratifying occasionally and highly confusing at times. New hockey gloves immediately prior to a Saturday morning game, for example, like the over-laden plates at meal-time, especially if we had guests, were signs of a generosity that served as a counterpoint foil for the emotional volatility. Rejection of the invitation to an all-star hockey tournament in Collingwood from the coach, ‘because he (I) did not win the singing festival last week’, while never challenged, was also never explained or justified. When confronted by a suggestion to stop smoking cigarettes, her response rings hollow to this day: ‘If God had not wanted us to smoke, he would not have created tobacco!’ I had no rebuttal at eleven;  I have no other response than a bewildered shrug at eighty.

The tension, however, did induce, birth, generate or energize a continually ‘on-edge’ mind and sensibility that was then, and has never ceased to be, almost radioactive as a radar testing the ethos and the meaning of that ethos for my safety, acceptance, alienation and disapproval. Immediately upon opening the door to our house, I could “feel” (although I would not have ascribed the experience to my emotions as an adolescent) looming conflict, deafening and tomb-like silence, or that certain ‘weather-signal’ the false-jutting lower ‘plate’ and the doleful whistle…a sure sign of unhappiness totally unhinged from a specific trigger. That ‘sixth sense’ of basically fear and apprehension is more inextricably embedded in my psyche than the hairline, now having receded completely, on my head.

If fear and apprehension, underlined with repeated ‘you’re no good, just like your father’ chants comprise the ‘soil’ in which this seed has been planted and expects to grow, then one quickly develops the vital and vibrant mask of how to perform when ‘in public’ so that no one will suspect the cavern of shame within. Performing at piano recitals, at special occasions for service clubs’ ladies nights, at music festivals including the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition), and the preparation that was required, along with regular if not yearly piano examinations under the aegis of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto, engendered a public mask of some modest acclaim. It also covered the dark interiority of life at home.

While these brief glimpses merely draw pencil lines illustrating the skeletal outline of childhood and adolescence, they might be helpful in ‘showing’ some of the impulses that energized my thoughts, feelings, fears and aspirations. And thoseb impulses came then, and have continued to accompany me, on the various and somewhat unpredictable and certainly unimagined journeys over the last several decades.

Facing fear and the unpredictable acts, words or especially attitudes of others, was a constant lens through which I viewed, assessed and responded to all others. Letting my guard down, rarely if ever, was on the occasion of what I now see as unexpected acceptance, even if merely minimal, and normal for others. A boss who wryly jokes, upon hearing a panting and grunting noise from a grocery store basement, ‘that has to be John’ to the laughing delight of co-workers, when I was thirteen, rings like a vote of confidence. A public-school teacher, after listening to a less-than-optimal performance of a Bach Prelude, at a Lions Meeting, comments sardonically and ironically in passing, ‘That was a nice piece’ to which I sadly reply, ‘Yeah, if only we could find someone to play it!”

In fact, that approach, soon to become a habit, of self-deprecating words depicting a less-than-perfect reality of performance, morphed into another facet of the same attitude: scepticism, questioning, debating both with self and others, and engagement with the world, partly as a fascination with the unknown, and partly as a way of ‘soothing’ and escaping from the pain of home life where the cacophony of the grinding parental tectonic plates of seemingly irreconcilable world views, faiths, and even ethics seemed to generate ‘emotional earthquakes’ that could not be forecast, prevented nor explained. And the residue of those several quakes, while unsettling and disturbing, and, in adolescence, pinned almost exclusively on the irrational and the unstable words, acts and attitudes and beliefs of mother, is never far from consciousness.

Where was there safe space? With whom? What did that look and feel like? What are the options available when one does not feel safe? And what actions must one contemplate and take in order to “feel safe”? These are not, on their surface, complicated questions. They become more complex when they drive feelings, perceptions, and potential actions. They impose a kind of invisible time clock on each moment; they evoke scenes in which escaping to a bedroom for quiet is clearly not an option when in public; alternative methods of ‘looning’ or ‘diving’ underwater, both physically and emotionally, served as surrogate. The gestalt of such questions has the impact of collapsing time, metaphorically, to the moment when, while, at eighteen, lying on a beach on and island in Georgian Bay, I uttered what I now consider a seriously flawed and yet also poignant prediction, ‘I do not expect to live past forty!’ without a spec of physical, financial, emotional or intellectual evidence of either mortality or danger.

Learning, almost embodying an impatience and a kind of energetic ambition to live in words that today would read, ‘on steroids’, in a very short period of time, has cast a shadow over a lifetime, exclusively from my own DNA and history. When the fire-brand evangelical proudly and unequivocally chanted what were totally intolerable judgements from his elevated pulpit, as I listened, at sixteen, in horror and disgust, I knew that ‘saying no’ was the only available option. Telling his congregants, most of whom ‘hung on his every word and faith utterance,’ that Roman Catholics were going to Hell, those who drink wine are going to Hell, those who attend dances or movies or prepare meals on Sunday are going to Hell, so light a fire in my belly that I vowed I would never attend another service in that church, while he was the clergy. And, although my father served on the Session of that church, and my parents had a long history of adherence there, nevertheless I never returned.  (Sadly, and regretfully, I relented and participated in a first marriage which he co-conducted!)

So, at the heart of this attempt to embody an abundant life beats the drum of when and how and where to say, “No!” for the sole purpose of being true to myself. And the repercussions of that pounding drum, both literally and metaphorically comprise the narrative of now eight-plus decades.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Reflections on Christian scepticism as integral to faith

 There are so many intellectual critiques of Christianity that have been levelled for centuries, without actually eviscerating the institutional corpus of the faith, that some have posited the notion that, by default, the faith has proven to be both invincible and legitimate.

Historical inaccuracy, idolatry, disproving theism, incompatible with science, antidemocratic, literalism of scripture, historical Christian behaviour including colonialism, religious intolerance and bigotry, support for slavery, subjugation of women, support for capitalism, refutation of miracles and immaculate conception and the resurrection itself, and then there is the question of the eschaton* and soteriology#….these are some of the arguments against the Christian faith. Lastly, there is the overriding question of human “sin”, the study of which is called Hamartiology**

Arguments of apophatic/cataphatic terms, defining and describing God through negative (apophatic, what God is not) or positive terminology in referring to the divine have been into use around the subject of faith and religion, (and here we are referring to the Christian faith), that would leave many people exhausted and detached from the discussion, if not anxious and confused.

Whenever one wades into the turbulent waters of “God-talk” one risks considerable push-back, given that all arguments and positions proferred in words, even (or perhaps especially) words describing the indescribable, the ineffable, the absolute. And one of the questions at the core of any attempt to articulate a human relation/response whether conscious or unconscious or both, is the nature of any notion of a/the deity and the nature of man (human beings).

Perhaps my perceptions come from decades of both physical and emotional experience, as a child, an adolescent, and several chapters of adulthood, as those of all others would as well. And at the centre of my “views” continues to be the word and concept, the definition and applications of “power”. Humans have agency in thought and action, in feeling and imagination and we also have limitations to our several capacities both to understand and to accomplish. And, whether or not our notion of our identity includes/excludes our own agency, or perhaps some form of  evolution of both in states of internal harmony and angst, like a river of energy, we continually are in motion.

A common cliché is to hear people in extreme crisis pray to God to protect and  defend them from their unique exigency. Seeming to be in a situation which exceeds their concept of their own agency, and thereby at the whim of forces beyond their control, there is always a question of survival, and praying is one of the expressions of ‘agency’ to continue to exist. Psychological evidence abounds that suggests such prayer is calming, perhaps for providing a focus of thought and words and perspective away from the crisis, as well as offering a glimmer of something we call ‘hope’ (variously expressed as light, calm, peace, quiet, music, angels, memory, vision, slowing of heart-beat, etc.) The notion of being isolated in the face of extreme danger while remaining conscious and alert is one of the more difficult of situations each of us face. And the idea/notion/belief/conception that there is a loving and protective God (however we might conjure that God to be), is both supportive and necessary, for many of various faith communities.

Death, after all, is the last exigency we face in this physical existence and given that fear is attached to anything and everything with which we are unfamiliar, in Christian terms and concepts, whether or not we are going to a ‘better place’ in a heaven or not, may be part of our conscious and our unconscious apprehension. Often, it is and has been a central focus of consideration of death and an afterlife that has prompted many to conceptualize a good life, following some form of comprehended and assimilated and exercised morality. And that “good life” has not only been the subject of philosophy but also of religion and faith.

The intersection of “being good” and “being healthy in body, mind and spirit” continues to command much attention in both street and scholarly discourse. A similar intersection of the human being with the forces of nature including seeds, growth and development of both flora and fauna, the health and protection of land, water and air has increasingly captured much human attention, scholarly, politically, ethically and existentially. The question of how and whether God ‘speaks’ (and relates) primarily to individuals and/or groups (institutions, governments, nations, corporations is also a matter for considerable discussion and debate.

Indeed, there is virtually no aspect of man’s relationship to “God” however and whomever that entity is considered to be, that has not been written and spoken about, prayed about and fought over from time immemorial. Whatever words are tapped into this keyboard will never, and cannot be expected to have any impact on either individuals or the body of “mother church” or “father church”.

The notion of a singular God, as opposed to multiple gods, a tradition from Greek and Babylonian histories, is also one that has confounded thinkers and pilgrims for centuries. And while people like James Hillman, through the vehicle of archetypal psychology, have attempted to separate religion from psychology, by ascribing multiple mythic gods and goddesses, as archetypes (metaphors) working in and through our lives at various times, the separation of the human psyche from the human gestalt of a relationship with God, remains one of the more perplexing questions needing far more intellectual rigor and fervor than this scribe’s remaining time and energy permit.

It is at the intersection of human thought/action/attitude with theological ‘dogma/theory/creed/liturgy/language/archetype of God that this piece is specifically focussed. Immediately, one confronts the mountains of evidence of hypocrisy between what people of faith say and how they/we live their lives. And while it might be feasible to make an historic judgement of the relative merits of more or less hypocrisy between faiths, and even among different branches of a faith (e.g. conservative v. liberal; orthodox v conservative v. reform); Sunni v Shia), such an exercise seems at this point to be analogous to the ‘how many angels can one put on the head of a pin?’ sophomoric inquiry….somewhat specious, tendentious and hollow. One clergy of my acquaintance summed up Christian hypocrisy this way: “Church is the best place for Christian hypocrites to be, given that they might actually come face to face with their hypocrisy there and then.”

One cannot begin to reflect upon the intersection of a human being with a faith/God/Allah, without acknowledging that there are no traffic lights, no ‘cops’ and no standardized vehicles intersecting. What one can attest to, however, is that the intersection is a beehive of thought, reflection and especially judgement. And it is in the sphere of judgement, of one human being by another, that one could view as the nexus of how faith is both incarnated and demonstrated. What we each think, feel and express (through words or actions, and/or their withholding) offers one perspective on if and whether and how a faith has been, is and potentially will be enacted.

And in the busyness of our lives, bombarded with information, threats, dreams, temptations, losses, hopes and fears, coming from outside and intersecting with those on the inside, we can be compared in this light to a gnat zipping over the surface of a pond, lake or river, as the water (representing the world) lies dormant, circles in eddies and whirlpools, and flows or rushes and tumbles, depending both on the forces of its own energy and the state of our own individual perception. Perhaps our “faith” or our religion could be considered to have implanted a kind of geodesic dome or map of how the world works, not merely physically, and astronomically, but also inter-personally, and even organizationally and politically. And embedded in this map is our notion of what constitutes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’....no matter how strongly or tentatively we hold on to those guardrails. Notice, too, that, even among all faiths, whatever guardrails have been ‘established’ by those who have paved the way for the specific faith community, history and the ‘flow’ of culture and new learning, as well as new sensibilities tend to change the shape, the hardness, the elasticity and even the location of those previously considered ‘sacred’ guardrails or moral imperatives, depending on the faith and the moment in history.

It is more than a little interesting to read, this week, in coverage of the Pope’s visit to Canada, on his pilgrimage of penance, that the Roman Catholic church does not issue revocations of previous papal edicts, but rather issues ‘new teachings’ that are intended to have the impact and import of demonstrating that the church’s theology and practice has changed. The current application of this method of declaring the evolution of the faith regards the question of the revocation of the Doctrine of Discovery, which permitted Christians to colonize indigenous peoples, the affects of which have stained both thousand of individual lives, as well as the ‘standing’ of the church itself.

The question of the ‘church’ as an institution, or as a collection of individual humans, too, ranks as prominent in whether or not the Pope has asked for forgiveness and sought penance for the institution in addition to that sought and prayed for on behalf of misguided Christian men and women. Does the church bear responsibility for the actions of individual humans or not? There are many church writings that separate the ‘value’ and the sanctity and the sacredness of the sacraments at the Eucharist/Mass from the personal purity and/sin of the celebrant/priest. This attempt to separate the holy from the human is one of the more perplexing aspects of all discussion and reflection on the Christian faith.

On the other side of that coin, (separating the human from the holy) is the notion, widely expressed (think Tolstoy and Fox, Quaker ‘father,’ among others) of the in spark of the divine being inherent in each human being. How to seek and find that spark, depending first on the conviction that it does indeed reside within, obviously as metaphor, is another of the several complexities at the heart of each pilgrim’s journey. And here is where the issue of the perspective/interpretation/understanding/acceptance/tolerance-intolerance/belief/conviction/adoption/sharing of who we are as people of faith (or not) has to reckon with another feature of human existence: the truth that truth comes in many different forms, faces, and levels of language, including allegory, metaphor, archetype, fantasy, dream, illusion, documentary, letter and poetry.

Any conscious or unconscious reduction of any notion of a deity, of whatever faith, that attempts, as a botanist to pin the various component parts onto a slide for microscopic viewing, is not only reductionistic. As Graeme Gibson once told a grade twelve student in North Bay, “You have to murder (the poem) in order to dissect it.” Whether individuals ‘see’ God as a judge, a teacher/mentor, a healer or a shepherd/pastor, cannot be contained in any single perception, given that we all have the capacity to consider God through eyes and ears and sensibilities that encompass all of those roles. Perhaps it is feasible to rank our perceptions, and thereby to follow up by searching for and possibly even finding a church community that tends to have a similar ‘ranking’ of the role and identity of God.

However, that search is highly dependent on the kind of relationship one seeks in a faith community, which search is also dependent on the early formative years of one’s exposure and experience with ‘church’.

Doubtless, the evolving panorama of perceptions of both God and the identity of the individual is one common to millions. My own, having been apparently undergirded by a scepticism of whatever was being delivered as “hard and fast truth” tended then, and continues even today, to ask not so much for proof, as in empirical proof of the validity of the proposed theological statement, thought, observation or especially sanction and threat or prediction. My own scepticism comes from a conviction that I do not and must not etherize my mind, brain, heart, emotions and even my demons if and when I enter a church, a seminary, a retreat, a counselling session as counsellor or client. Indeed, my neon banner of how I envision God starts with, and clearly does not end with the exhortation.

I had to look up the scriptural reference (John 10:10) and I have and continue to consider this promise to be relevant, applicable and verifiable in the life of each and every human regardless of their specific religious/faith convictions:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy: I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly.”

In truth, I have no idea and certainly no historical conviction that Jesus, himself,  actually uttered these words, nor that whoever wrote and transcribed them witness their original issue. I also have no need to “submit” my conviction to a literal and thereby a legal interpretation of that dictum. Indeed, I consider it less a dictum than an ‘ideal’ by which I have tried to live, however imperfectly and intermittently and however insensitively and injuriously to others. Indeed, the pursuit of an ‘abundant life’ (not a life filled with investments, cash, mansions, BMW’s, yachts, titles, offices and power over others) as the prime motivation of the last eight decades. And, with or without a church community, or a faith seminary, or a spiritual mentor and guide, or a professional colleague or a life partner, this simple phrase has provided a bridge between my darkness and my unknowing and my own turbulence and whatever deity God may be envisioned, imagined, prayed to, engaged with and debated.

Does that epithet negate a Christian faith, prove a Christian faith or merely offer a secular guidepost?

The limits of my own ‘knowing’ prevent a final answer, but clearly prompt a continuing and searching walk in the forest…and preclude any attempt to foist my views on any others.