Thanks for Thinking

A theory that explained everything else in the whole universe but made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid would be utterly out of court. For the theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking were not valid, the theory would of course be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound – a proof that there are no such things as proofs – which is nonsense.”25

 

 

 

25CS Lewis: Miracles P.18 Fount – 1980


Intolerant of Tolerance

The issue of tolerance featured strongly in the survey and showed that most of the students valued it. What was not addressed (and was a failing in the survey) was the meaning of the word ‘tolerance’. Frequently it is used in the media to imply no disagreement at all. Even tolerance will not be tolerated by our ‘thought police’.

For example someone who says they do not agree with another person’s worldview is now in danger of being branded as ‘intolerant’. Even the most opinionated of us now feel intimidated into being grotesquely agreeable in conversation. Witness and yawn at the ‘yes, yes’ head-nodding in conversations with strangers at parties.

But tolerance was never about thought control, it has always been about the freedom of an individual to hold whatever beliefs they like, provided they express those beliefs in a courteous manner towards those who disagree with them. How then can my agreeing with another’s beliefs be described as tolerant behaviour?

Not that we were ever supposed to stop at tolerance. Love goes even further than just being patient and putting up with what it doesn’t like, it gets involved. It brings an olive branch; it ‘loves even its enemies’, as Jesus said. It puts itself out for others not because it is driven by guilt (as many snide commentators would have you believe and in so saying tell you more about themselves than anything else) but because love is a living being who’s nature longs to make its home in our very soul, and once there, it simply cannot help itself. In other words, as love grows in a human soul, it becomes intolerant of tolerance, not in the aforementioned ‘thought police’ manner, but in the way a nine month old becomes impatient with not being able to walk.

‘Love … looks for a way of being constructive,’ 1st Corinthinas 13 says. ‘It is is not touchy, it does not keep an account of evil, nor gloat over the wickedness of others.’ In the same way that an embryo, having enjoyed the comfort of an eggshell, must break out, love finds that the longer tolerance stays as just that, it begins to look suspiciously like apathy and must be broken through. George MacDonald makes a telling comment on apathy when he says, ‘Only good in the place of evil is evil dead.’

Paradoxically, the followers of Jesus have not always shown much appreciation of his teachings on love and tolerance. There are many in our society for example, who—having heard a preacher lay out a message laden with strange jargon words like ‘created’, ‘cross’, ‘sinner’ and ‘blood’—have concluded that this Christian God has a deep dislike of people and is even intolerant of them, so much so, that rather than getting close to us, has handled the problem like a grumpy school teacher and left us with a complicated theological vocabulary test, as if to say: ‘Look! Get these words right or you will all go to hell.’ ):

 

Results of Citizenship Day Survey

Citizenship & Worldview Survey

(Conducted by Cornerstone Community in collaboration with Sydney University Student Life)

      • Date: 17th September 2012
      • Location: Sydney University
      • Total Number surveyed 20 (10 M & 10 F)
      • Ages: 18 – 25
  1. Did you know that it is Australian Citizenship Day?  1/ yes            ( 4 answers not recorded)               15 / no
  2. What makes a good Australian citizen?
7 x being tolerant of other cultures
6 x work and being socially and community minded
6 x mate-ship and selflessness
5 x Play by the rules
3 x proud of Australia
3 x Morality and selflessness
1 x ability to speak English
1 x a willingness to challenge the government
  1.       3. What do you think is the most powerful influence on the values of   Australia as a nation?
11 x media and popular culture
3 x religion
2 x tolerance
1 x apathy
1 x America & Europe
1 x participation in the wars of the 20th century
1 x tantrum throwers
1 x education
1 x government
    1. 4. What are the things that concern you about our culture?
14 x balance of culture and tolerance
6 x people are uneducated, easily swayed & won’t speak up
3 x drunken-ness
1 x sexuality
1 x Tall Poppy syndrome
1 x lack of community & lack of culture
1 x none
      1. Is there any particular Australian music/poetry/writing/artwork that is having a profound impact on your values?
4 x Triple J/ music
3 x no
2 x selflessness & tolerance
1 x Tim Winton
1 x Aboriginal Dreaming
1 x Steven Fry
1 x Classic Film
1 x Bible
1 x Mumford & Sons & CS Lewis
1 x Dorothea Mackeller’s ‘My Country’
1 x Whitlam
1 x America
1 x Aussie Films (I Am Eleven, Bra Boys, etc … )
1 x popular culture
* ‘Our high school curriculum ruins it’ (vision of Aussie art/culture), said one interviewee

 6. Do you believe there is more than the material realm?

           12 / yes             2/ unsure                5 / no

7. have you ever had a spiritual experience?

2 /  yes              2/ unsure                     10 / no

8. What do you think are the main intellectual obstacles to faith / spiritual belief?

10 x proving it
3 x fanaticism
2 x lack of searching
1 x busyness
1 x other opinions
1 x fear
1 x no obstacles

 9. We hold to a Christian world view. What do you understand the basic message of Christianity to be?

10 x doing good to others (Good Samaritan)
3 x following Jesus & accepting his teachings
1 x ten commandments
1 x not sure … distorted by institutions

 10. Would you like to hear a brief explanation of the basic elements of the Christian worldview?

                    12 / yes               8 / no

* Caveat: this sample is too small to be statistically significant. Also, some of those surveyed used more than one category in their answers, which means that some answers have more than twenty responses. However, these factors do not negate the survey since it’s purpose is to add to Cornerstone’s ongoing research on community opinions and to be a catalyst for conversation and discussion on the relationship between Australian worldview and faith, with a particular focus on Australia’s Christian heritage.

* Discussion: I will post some thoughts about this survey over the next few days.

 

 

The Catch

Talking of a colourless dream

Floating in the pin-stripes, drinks

And speechified air

Is a father: his wound is closed.

The only one who knows it … almost.

There is one other

A boy with a clock ticking

In a tight tie

Checking the walls

His wound is open.

He opens his mouth before his mind

Can bolt the gate and slam the cell

And play a colourless game

Feel a colourless feeling

And talk in a colourless language.

 

Heart out on the sleeve

Caution to the wind

He capsizes and swims

A cold flood of thoughtfulness

A drowning flood of kindness

A correcting, tidying, mopping flood of darkness.


In one searching, furtive glance

The stricken boy in the crowded room

Swings his searchlight round.

 

The clock runs down

The eyes meet

The father stumbles and almost drops the catch

Like an ungainly slips fieldsman

The boy smiles inside, happy.

 

For one, the moment’s lost in a blur of childhood dreams,

But for the other

That furtive glance

Has stamped a fearful mark in the gilded halls of spirit memory.

(Peter Volkofsky. Winter 2006)


‘The boy smiles inside ‘ … and outside

 

Dorothy Sayers: laughter, singing, praying & green parrot earrings

‘I will build up my house from the stark foundations,

… and search unwearying …

for stones or better stuff.

Though here be only the mortar and rough hewn granite,

I will lay on and not desist

Til it stand and shine as I dreamed it when I began.’

The above is an excerpt from a well-written biography of Dorothy Sayers22, which captures the musical score of a mysterious inner heartbeat that inspires much of her work. The author paints an elegant and honest picture of this quick-witted and delightful lioness of language and literature who loved to sing in choirs, laughed at sanctimonious sermonisers, bemused and worried her colleagues by wearing outrageous bird-cage earrings carrying green parrots, and sewed large red roses to her hat and blouse.

Not surprisingly she won the respect of her contemporaries Chesterton and Lewis, and like them, infuriated the literary world by agreeing with Chesterton’s definition that ‘heresy is the fashionable literary position of the day’. A damning charge that suggested their writings—rather than being the much vaunted work of brave and honest souls—were conceived by nothing more than a desire for the approval of their peers. Peers who all did obeisance to the ‘sacred cow’ of literature: ‘we don’t care what you write about as long as you do not commit the unpardonable sin of taking the Christian Messiah seriously.’ This impulse was well described by James Joyce (a contemporary of Dorothy’s) in a letter when he said that he wanted a ‘special odour of corruption, which I hope floats over my stories.’23

At the same time as disturbing her literary friends, this loudly laughing and cigarette-smoking woman of letters rattled, scarified and re-invigorated Christendom by making it remember what it is always trying to forget: that God is the god of chocolate, of flowers and of jokes; and of wine; a being who doesn’t just love human beings, but likes them, is besotted by them and so-oo delights in them enjoying the little things. This self-forgetful pleasure in everything is highlighted in a few lines that Dorothy wrote when she graduated from Oxford.

‘Now that we have gone down …

I would not hold too closely to the past …

thou enchanted town … leave me, clutch me not so

fast …’

‘the thing that I remember most of all

Is the white hemlock by the garden wall.’24

 

 

22 Maker and Craftsman: Alzina Stone Dale p.45 Harold Shaw Illinois 1992

23James Joyce and The Revolution of the Word: Colin McCabe p.29 McMillan 1978

24Maker and Craftsman: Alzina Stone Dale p.42 Harold Shaw Illinois 1992

 

Flesh

Tonight, as the ageing preacher-man prepares to meander down into the darkly-curtained realms of sleep, he knows he has just a few more rounds of prayer to go and then he will find his way to a room where his wife is already softly breathing under the warmth and stillness of blankets. It always amazes him that she somehow makes sleep look and feel like some kind of romantic and beautiful place to ‘go’ and ‘stay’ until the sun returns in the morning—as if she was visiting an old friend; whereas he has spent half his life attempting to avoid it as if it were some nagging interrupter.

He walks out into his night garden where tiny buds gleam on the hard, wiry branches of a small grove of severely pruned ‘almost-stump’ plums, their few remaining blossoms catching rays of moonlight like miniature L.E.D’s stuck on spidery black ropes. Not that this is a surprise, for the change of seasons has been much heralded by faint swellings on the tight skinned boughs, which he has enjoyed touching on the darkest and coldest of nights. Even the earth underfoot seems softer tonight.

It is with some misgiving that he pictures these cold, crisp nights softening into the glow of spring. Not that he dislikes the change, but it reminds him of how much he enjoys the edgy personality of a freezing winter’s day when some flapping gust of wind hardens the tips of goose bumps and forces the coat up around the ears. He imagines Vivaldi (the red priest) and virtuoso, standing with his violin at the chin in a freezing gale with red hair flaming as he belts out the brittle, quivering notes of his famous ode to the Cold One. The right amount of chill-factor, it seems, was made for human flesh to truly enjoy and even to adore.

Weeks later he is still thinking about the chill, the buds and the cold, when the thought of adoration comes straight to him again from a line in a William Blake poem: ‘Thy own humanity learn to adore18.’ Blake in turn makes him think of an Anne Rice interview he has been reading in which she speaks of the human impulse to cherish and to adore human flesh. ‘What other religions believe about the evil of the flesh,’ she says, ‘is in many ways more shocking than what Christianity holds about it.’19

As a preacher, he has taken a deep interest in Anne the Vampire Lady’s rage about religion’s gross contempt for the physical world, for he knows that she speaks on behalf of billions of other perplexed people with and without faith. He also knows that the God he worships shares the outrage and he suspects that Anne has conveyed this deeply and intuitively in her vampire books: none of which he has read.

Further along in the interview (which is book-length) Anne acknowledges she now believes in God but doesn’t know exactly what this means. But the preacher—having already read a later book of hers—knows that in the two years following this uncertain confession, Anne was subtly and tantalisingly wooed in what might be described as a divine love affair akin to the sensual categories of Saint Francis or the mytho-poeic insight of Chesterton when he wrote, ‘I tore you from the old red hills and in tearing made you free … you can be all things other, you cannot be a slave.’ ‘I thought, something is pursuing me,’ Anne said. ‘Something is happening.’20

As wonderful as it was to read this god-encounter, the preacher feels vaguely embarrassed that Anne reached this moment only after decades of heart-searching and wading through mountains of confusing doctrine, which was generated by his fellow believers. The saga of her journey makes him wonder even at himself and some of the dumb things he has done and said in his own efforts at representing God to the world. ‘You grow up being taught that the flesh is bad,’ Anne tells her interviewer on page 148. ‘The world, the flesh and the devil, those are your enemies.’

Inwardly he groans at the fact that no one seems to have taken the trouble to explain to her that this statement is not to be found in the bible but that it grew out of a corrupt translation of a term that is best translated as ‘lower nature,’ or even ‘shadow self’, which is well described in a scene from Phantastes, one of the preacher’s favourite books. He wonders whether Anne—with her love of gothic—might have even read it herself and delighted in the trueness to life of this portrayal of the problem as MacDonald depicts it:

‘I looked around over my shoulder and there on the ground lay a black shadow, the size of a man. It was so dark that I could see it in the dim light of the lamp, which shone full upon it, apparently without thinning at all the intensity of its hue.

“I told you,” said the woman, “you had better not look into that closet.”

“What is it?” I said, with a growing sense of horror.

“It is only your shadow that has found you,” she replied. “Everybody’s shadow is ranging up and down looking for him. I believe you call it by a different name in your world: yours has found you as every person’s is almost certain to do who looks into that closet …”22

The preacher knows that this awful moment of remorse-filled shadow attachment is followed by a long quest filled with great wrestles, astonishing discoveries and even joy, which in-part answers the question that he and Anne and multitudes of others have raised about the woes of Christendom: ‘Is this the jury finally coming in and saying that after all this time it’s proven to be a crock?’ ‘No,’ the voice of the ancient muse seems to reply. ‘It is as it always has been: the blood of gods courses in the veins of men and there will be no apologies, and great joy and great trouble.’

Like Anne, when the preacher was young he feared that the dark and cold churches were right: god was in fact the stern cook and cop of civilisation, the gate-crasher on all flesh and fun. But then, as he had tentatively waded through an entire library of books called ‘The Bible’, and followed that (for several years) with various other sacred books, all advocating their own versions of ‘how to fix the problem’, which inevitably blamed ‘the flesh’ as the culprit, he was relieved to find himself one day reading a psalm in which some man and his god were celebrating loudly with wine and oil and music and delighting in being fully human.

‘Yes!’ this god seemed to shout back at the preacher’s head-ful of responsible wonderings, ‘Yes this world is a mess, but I love it!’

‘This is my kind of god,’ the preacher thought. ‘The true mother-father of us all.’

Tonight the preacher fondly remembers this as a strong and clear ‘jury-coming-in’ moment, in which God asserted an incurably human sympathy and desire to join in on the human party and all it’s troubles. As brazenly stated in John’s gospel, ‘The word became flesh.’

‘You are such “a hedonist at heart,”21‘ the preacher murmurs as he looks for a cheerful glass of something to celebrate his luck before he joins his wife in the mysterious room of bed clothes, slumber and happiness. Then as he’s falling off to sleep he relishes the thought that just as it is said in the Greek myths, he is related to a god after all and the blood of that god courses in his veins.

18The Everlasting Gospel: William Blake

19Interview With Anne Rice: Michael Riley p.149 Chatto & Windus 1996

20Called Out of darkness: Anne Rice p.168 Chatto & Windus 2008

21CS Lewis in a statement describing God’s delight in giving and receiving pleasure

 

22Phantastes: George macDonald p.63 Pan Books (Ballantine) 1971

‘My flesh came out of the heart of god (gold); it fell under a curse (grey); the curse was broken (red); we are now free of its power (white); the crucial risk in the puzzle: what is true becomes real in me when I surrender to jesus (rainbow); the river of the holy spirit flows in me (blue); I prepare this physical world for the great day of its resurrection by growing little gardens of goodness (green); I speak and live this good news (red); my flesh belongs to heaven(gold); I pray (purple)’