The symmetry of beauty has been on my mind, especially the way it happens in the symmetry of sacrifice. As an expression of deep love, God shouldered a cross in order to create the universe—in turn—as an expression of deep love, we shoulder our cross and the beauty is impossible to hide. (see CS Lewis’ poem, ‘Love’s as warm as Tears’). It all falls over of course the moment we allow sanctimonious pride, fear, repressed anger, score cards and so on to replace self-forgetful love as the motivation behind the sacrifice. This latter experience would be a bit like finding a flower growing in your yard but you realise that one half of it is plastic. This is what happens when our love starts out well but then slides back into a contrivance.
‘The glory of Christ has no weight while ever it is only present in your imagination and your mind; but when it reaches your will, the true weight of glory pours into your soul. The solid weight and gravity of God’s glory is activated by obedience.’
(George MacDonald, The Hope of The Gospel, Sunrise Books, 1989)
‘A God Delusion’ is what Richard Dawkins should have titled his book, which (in a dead giveaway of his rather pompous approach) he called ‘The God Delusion’. I haven’t finished reading it yet but every page so far is reinforcing the fact that all of us at different times in our lives—whether we are believers or atheists—harbour various ‘God Delusions’. These tend to be expressed most boldly when we are rich and healthy or angry and in pain.
And this is not all bad, we find much of this in the psalms and other writings in scripture. Putting these kind of thoughts out of there is, not uncommonly, one way of processing them and sometimes realising how silly they are, and that they are delusional. In the light of that, it may well be that Dawkins’ book will help both Christians and atheists to be rid of one particular delusion* about God.
The difference of course with Dawkins’ book is the relentless rage—even hatred—that comes through. This guy is not going to listen to reason and his outbursts read more like those of someone in stage three of faith development** where everything is either ‘black or white’, ‘this or that’. A hallmark of this stage is the inability to see inconsistency in your reasoning and the inability to hear valid criticism.
Sometimes though, it turns out that the expression of our hurts and disappointments about God is not merely delusional, not silly and is in fact quite profound. Dawkins does allude to some of this but in a manner that suggests he’s not actually serious, he just wants to hate—like a propagandist—and that is that. On the other hand, when CS Lewis said the awful pain of having a wife die of cancer made him wonder if we were just ‘rats in a cosmic experiment’, he did it in a way that spoke on behalf of millions and enabled them to go somewhere with it. Interestingly—despite what some Christians thought—he hadn’t lost his faith, he was simply expressing it honestly.
* a delusion is a false impression that’s held onto despite the contradictory evidence of reality
** James Fowler, Faith Development
A birthday invitation to my aunt’s 80th has been lying around on my desk for a while now. I’m sure it’s here somewhere. I push a hand underneath the pile and tip it all upside down. There it is! A lovely sheet of pale, silken paper in a stylish font.
I look at the calendar. I can make it if I pull the pin on these other guys—but then I did that last time over a wedding. I probably shouldn’t stretch the friendship.
I send a text to my cousin explaining that I won’t be able to make it. Perhaps I could ‘visit’ via Skype, I suggest. I can already hear her laughing (with her mother’s laughter and a twinkle in her eye) and saying something about this being a rather cheap way of ‘assuaging my guilt’ at not coming.
I add (in the text) that I’ve always enjoyed her mum’s warmth and grace and her beautiful imagination with its storehouse of knowledge, music, art, jokes and memories—and her quiet prayers and joy in Jesus. I want my cousin to know that I thank God for this lovely lady.
In an afterthought I tell her I would have loved to have been able to go back in time—just once—and to have been close by (incognito) when her mother and my own mother were two young women having a picnic in a park. The laughter, conversation and joy in life would have been at once silly, deeply reflective and so human.
While I’m thinking about that I recall something one of my other aunties once told me. She was with my grandmother—on my mum’s side—at a time when it was clear that her daughter was going to lose her struggle with Motor Neurone disease. The news had been a crushing blow to my grandmother.
‘So,’ she said to my aunty, whilst looking up at the heavens. ‘Is there anyone up there?’
I don’t say anything about that in this message. It just sits there in a melancholy space in the back of my mind while I type. I finish the text and touch ‘send’.
Putting the phone down, I look up, and there, scrolling into view on my laptop screen is a photograph of my mother (looking a little gaunt) and the aunty who’s about to have her 80th. Between the two of them are my mother’s parents and her brother. I can’t take my eyes off my grandmother. She’s smiling. She looks so happy!
Once again, heaven has been reading my mind—has told me it’s thinking of me—and I’m losing it. It overheard my deepest longing and took me back in time. It’s so lovely and so terrible. Something deep inside is breaking open, again.
The following news link tells of three Brazilian women ‘challenging the traditional family unit’ by marrying according to law in Brazil. http://elpais.com/elpais/2015/10/27/inenglish/1445948093_804967.html. I suppose it is a new thing for them to have a law officially pronouncing three women to be married but it all seems so beside the point, so tedious, as if—once again—we Westerners are casting about for something to make our lives interesting. Meanwhile, we forget that there are others at this party of so-called civilisations, who are rolling their eyes, even laughing.
Western culture is the funny little glitzy, flirty girl at the party who likes to paint herself up and imagine that everyone is talking about her supposed sexual innovations. Sorry love, but if you read history you will know that it’s all been done before—just with a few male warriors to protect you so you don’t get taken by the gremlins in the jungle. There’s nothing new or surprising here, it’s as old as Genesis.
To say that these women are ‘Challenging the traditional family unit’ is misleading and oh-so ‘tabloid’. Human beings have been getting together in various sexual arrangements since whenever and thinking of themselves as families. It’s embarrassing actually, this thing we in the West do with our narcissistic obsession and our determination to think of ourselves as on some cutting edge, some scandalous, avant gard, sexy thing. Frightening the rest of the world. Really?
‘Free will is an attraction to truth the way a flower is attracted to light.’* The more you bend your free will towards the darkness (of your lower self) the more the flower wilts and the less free will you have—hence the frustration, the desperation and sameness when we choose the dark of self-will at all costs.
*quote taken from Jean Vanier in his you-tube talk on ‘Big Questions’
The day is done, the night has come
Our home no longer in the sun.
So quiet and still, the body fades and folds
Sweet as that old brown river’s black soil plains.
We slept—we did—on hot summer nights
And talked and stirred the coals and looked and knew
We were loved, so loved.
Looking for quiet and stillness, I walk along a back street. The sun on my shoulders is warm. Nice: almost as good as the sun on the back step where our dog sleeps. I relax and let my mind and soul wander.
This alleyway is a new one to me. I expected something more desolate. Instead it’s rows of cars, parked not long ago by workers who have all walked through the rear entrances of grey and brown buildings. Exhaust fumes are in the air.
Yes, it’s quiet, but more like the ambience of expectant energy. The air hums. If you were a film director this would be a good place to have a killing scene: lots of metallic energy but not a soul in sight. The bitumen is clean and well used, ready to brutally stop the fall of a human body. This is a place of youth, of energy and of death—young death to my mind.
Lots of workers come here every day—park their cars and walk inside—not having a clue about why they live, why they work or why they have this urge to keep busy. They ‘love to work’ they say and joke about doing it to fund their weekend hobbies. That one sounds hollower every time you hear it, especially from the tribal elders
of Big Business Inc. I wonder if those kids working in there know what their tribal elders are really thinking. They suspect it, I suspect.
I turn a corner, walking past an office for the unemployed. This is where I feel an affinity. These are my people these days. We emerge from our homes later in the day than the rest of the town. If someone is having a heart attack or getting executed, it won’t be one of us. We drink our coffee and enjoy the sunshine while the other half work and keep the bitumen fresh: just right for that film director.
I turn another corner and stroll along the main, past the old man who’s always there in his motorised chair: drinking coffee in the sun, catching up with his mates and keeping a stern eye on the noisy kids that should be at school. I smile at him as I walk past.
Finally, I make it to the appointed coffee shop. They laugh when they see me. They know why I’m here. I tell them I’ve got a publisher. They smile and look at me with excited disbelief.
There’s no way I’m writing a blog in a place like this. Coffee shops deserve something with much more chemistry: a thriller for example. But then, blogs can be like a thriller, especially when you’ve just read someone saying the following …
‘We can try to deal one at a time with the problems of the sanctity of life ethic. But the overall result will be a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which have to be forced into place, until the whole picture is under so much pressure that it buckles and breaks apart. I think there is a better way. There is a larger picture in which all the pieces fit together. Whatever issue of the moment may concern us; in the long run we all need to see this larger picture. It will offer practical solutions to problems we now find insoluble, and allow us to act compassionately and humanely, where our ethic now leads us to outcomes that nobody wants. I want to paint that larger picture.’41
This statement is filled with the language of our age: words like ‘ethic’, ‘a larger picture in which all the pieces fit together’, ‘practical solutions’, ‘paint that larger picture’. It’s the language of pragmatism (making things work) and what is known as ‘reductionism’: ‘the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.’
In other words, the compassion (and anxiety) that drives such a reductionist’s thinking will mostly be about his or her own beliefs on the origin and meaning of life. Their talk of what is morally right and wrong won’t have much at all to do with intuition or soul, it will mostly be about logic and common sense. Interestingly, Peter Singer describes himself as an altruist, which means ‘someone who has a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.’ It raises the question of what is meant by ‘disinterested’, ‘well-being’ and ‘others’.
Peter Singer, for example, has openly stated (the italics are mine), ‘We have seen that the basic reason for taking this view derives from what it is to be a person, a being with awareness of her or his own existence over time, and the capacity to have wants and plans for the future. There is also a powerful social and political reason for protecting the lives of those who are capable of fearing their own death.
‘Universal acceptance and secure protection of the right to life of every person is the most important good that a society can bestow upon its members. …. Only a being able to see herself as existing over time can fear death and can know that, if people may be killed with impunity, her own life could be in jeopardy.
‘Neither infants nor those non-human animals incapable of seeing themselves as existing over time can fear their own deaths (although they may be frightened by threatening or unfamiliar circumstances, as a fish in a net may be frightened). This provides another reason for recognising that another person has a right to life, or in other words that it is a greater wrong to take the life of a person than to take the life of any other being…
‘Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as killing a person. But this does not mean that we should disregard the needs of an infant to be fed, and kept warm and comfortable and free of pain, for as long as it lives.’42
According to Nancy Pearcey, ‘Personhood theory,’ tells us that, “Just being part of the human race is not morally relevant. Individuals must earn the status of personhood by meeting an additional set of criteria: the ability to make decisions, self-awareness and so on … many ethicists have argued that non-persons may be used for utilitarian purposes such as research and harvesting organs. Wesley Smith43 describes this as a proposal for ‘human strip-mining.’”44
So, is Peter Singer some kind of complete ‘bad guy’, period? Not at all. He genuinely cares and wants to help us deal with some of the awful dilemmas being created by advances in medical technology. To his credit, he is actually attempting to make us all think about things that many of us would rather ignore. In ‘Lovely Mess V’ (my next blog) we will wrestle with one of his case studies.
41 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life & Death (The Text Publishing Company Australia, 1994) 6
42 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life & Death (The Text Publishing Company Australia, 1994) 218-220
43 Culture of Death, W Smith, referred to in Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey, 58
44 Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey quoting W Smith, 58
‘I couldn’t wait for the end of year footy trips to Hawaii and Bali, as I enjoyed the excitement of picking up girls and rushing back to tell the boys what had happened. I had sex pretty much as often as I liked; for a guy my age I was living the dream.’ Jason Stevens (former NRL player and Australian rep).
Jason goes on to say, ‘Sometimes I would recall that day in class when I had raised my hand like a moral crusader, and I’d think to myself, “What the hell did I say that for?” I had gone in the opposite direction and even argued with a friend of mine that sex is supposed to be fun and saving it for marriage is ridiculous and old-fashioned. I’m not sure why I took that stance. Maybe I was trying to justify my behaviour to him.
‘Sex is fun let’s face it. I enjoyed having sex in short term non-committed relationships, but saying these relationships was hard for me because the sexual excitement would soon fizzle out. My problem was I didn’t know how to develop a deep connection with someone. However, even when a relationship was lifeless and unexciting, it still hurt me whenever break up time came. Sometimes the pain was unbearable, so I would numb it with another sexual encounter.
‘Between the ages of 17 and 21 I had six relationships. It was like being on a merry-go-round, with each relationship taking me to a place of pain and frustration. I had to get off this ride.
‘Eventually I came to a point where I had to think about the way I was living. I started to question whether my “do it cause it feels good” attitude to sex and relationships was working for me. Although I was leading the typical single footballer’s lifestyle, dating great looking girls, getting VIP entry into the best nightclubs, and hanging out with the odd celebrity, it still wasn’t enough.
‘But a part of me had begun to accept that this is the way life is and that I couldn’t really expect much more from relationships that what I had experienced. I had heard of people being soul mates, but realistically I didn’t fancy my chances of finding one.
‘My parents had a troublesome marriage that ended in divorce, and for me this was more proof that that relationships rarely work out. It is harder to make a relationship work when you have never seen one work. Nevertheless, I wanted something different from what I had seen and experienced, so I took a step back and listened to the people who cared for me most and thought about what they had to say. Until this point I did whatever my hormones felt like doing, and found myself emulating my friends’ values and those presented on TV instead of developing my own…
‘Eventually, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life, which was not to have sex until the day I stand at the altar and say, “I do”. The first friend I told about my decision was a high school buddy. I wasn’t sure that he would understand because we had chased girls for as long as I can remember.
‘I felt nervous and awkward as I spoke to him on the phone, and when I told him about my decision he was disgusted. I will never forget his reply: “Jay, you’ve lost the plot. It’s unreasonable. You can’t expect that from anybody. As if we are expected to save sex for marriage when sex is so good!” It was hard to hear but I knew deep down I was right.
‘Funnily enough, three years later, my friend, who all but hung up on me that night, decided to save sex for marriage too. He changed his mind after he listened to me explain why it is better to wait. We now laugh about his initial reaction to my decision, but believe me, he didn’t think it was funny at the time.’32
How could it be that a society supposedly as advanced as ours could fail its young so miserably when it comes to something as sweet as romance, home and family and sex? Firstly, it doesn’t actually see itself as failing them. It has gone out of its way to teach them that (as the Russians say) ‘the lawyer is your conscience.’
The very idea that a young NRL player would refrain from sex because of his conscience (or his faith), is held up as ludicrous. We all know don’t we that lifestyle choice is an untouchable golden cow? How dare anyone teach a young man that certain lifestyle choices are wrong: not just for him but for everyone!
Jason was daring to challenge the idea that we are actually free to choose whatever lifestyle choice we like. He began to realise that we are broken people, that a part of us wants to actually choose what is evil and what will damage us and our family. That things are sinful because they are harmful, not because they have been randomly deemed to be wrong. Yes, it is true that ‘a man’s first duty is not to follow his conscience but to enlighten it’, but we must approach that ‘enlightening’ with the greatest respect and care.
Secondly, when a nation is having a crisis of meaning and has no foundation for making moral choices other than the majority vote, or vague feelings, you have a recipe for an outpouring of fundamentalist extremism on the part of whoever has enough money to hire the lawyers. The whole vision of the law being an ass and being a curse (both thoughts abounding in the bible by the way) is forgotten.
What shape might such extremism take? Bombs and flames? That’s highly unlikely in a society like ours, which prides itself on being ‘nice’, meticulously nice. It was recently said of a famous inquisitor, for example, that, ‘He was in possession of a brilliant intellect, he was a religious fundamentalist and you could not hope to meet a nicer bloke.’33 Niceness is a favoured quality of all the best dictators whether they talk of Jesus, PC Democracy or the Third Reich.
So, with all the pc courtesy in the world, and without the complications of inner meaning in the heart of the ‘young man’, we can do our work unhindered by any gods or sacred texts. Our dilemma of course is that in our efforts to create meaning inside ‘the young man’ through politically correct pronouncements, we have come full circle to law as the only means: politically correct law. All we now have are shame and coercion, rather than wisdom and grace, as our weapons of choice. Government administrators—not friends, not parents, not the young man’s soul (he’s not even allowed to have one)—make the calls on what family, marriage, home and family life will look like.
Not that all pc is bad. The original thought behind courtesy and duty of care etc. was love. Where it all begins to go wrong is when we lose the heart and soul of it and begin doing it for no other reason than the fact that it is ‘the done thing’. As TS Elliot said, ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’
Another way it can go awry is when an entire nation loses its spiritual core and pc becomes the only moral compass left. Suddenly everything must be legislated and we find ourselves living in an absurd world where freedom of speech, freedom to camp somewhere, freedom to walk somewhere, freedom of expression and all kinds of other freedoms are seen as threats. Classroom Moralists who were once politely tolerated, are now heroes, even Prime Ministers.
Art is one of the first things to begin to wilt in such a poorly fertilised garden. A brilliant song will be written but all the audience will think about is the fact that it used a stereotype, wasn’t inclusive, was done by someone of the wrong racial grouping or didn’t fit the funding criteria. How did this disease of thinking like a responsible social scientist creep into so many souls, even (God-forbid) artistic souls? How the mighty have fallen! I once came away from a writers’ festival with the distinct impression that every writer there had been tamed, de-clawed and de-fanged.
When a society (that idolises lifestyle choice) invites people of faith to agree with its opinions about what is right and wrong in sex and marriage, it’s asking ancient mythical music to sit down at table with bureaucrats and lawyers and endorse the majority vote. Since when was God the puppet of the government? Lots of times unfortunately, thanks to compliant priests and ministers of the Royal Order, as the bible (and recent history) shows us.
The real question is, as Ravi Zacharias says, ‘How does anyone ever know if anything is right or wrong?’ The only solid ground the prosecutors found—at Nuremberg—for prosecuting the Nazis, was to invoke the moral law of God. In the heat and the dust of legal debate, this point of view was almost lost.
Not that legal debate is a bad thing. Everyone should be allowed to have their say. For example, a ‘magazine for homosexuals explains that people today “Don’t want to fit into any boxes—not gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual ones.” Instead “they want to be free to change their minds.” The article was addressed to people who had come out of the closet as homosexuals, but later found themselves attracted to heterosexual relationships again. So ‘What am I?’ they wondered. Not to worry the author reassured them. The idea that one is born with a certain gender that cannot be changed is so modernist. Society is moving to postmodern view in which you can choose any gender you want, at any time.” It’s being called the ‘PoMosexual view.’ 33 (a)
Steve Gershom (a gay Catholic), has another perspective: ‘I have heard a lot about how mean the Church is, and how bigoted, because she opposes gay marriage. How badly she misunderstands gay people, and how hostile she is towards us. My gut reaction to such things is: Are you freaking kidding me? Are we even talking about the same Church?
‘When I go to Confession, I sometimes mention the fact that I’m gay, to give the priest some context. I’ve always gotten one of two responses: either compassion, encouragement, and admiration, because the celibate life is difficult and profoundly counter-cultural; or nothing at all, not even a ripple, as if I had confessed eating too much on Thanksgiving.
‘Of the two responses, my ego prefers the first—who doesn’t like thinking of themselves as some kind of hero? — but the second might make more sense. Being gay doesn’t mean I’m special or extraordinary. It just means that my life is not always easy. (Surprise!) And as my friend J. said when I told him recently about my homosexuality, “I guess if it wasn’t that, it would have been something else.” Meaning that nobody lives without a burden of one kind or another. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said: “The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?”
‘Where are all these bigoted Catholics I keep hearing about? When I told my family a year ago, not one of them responded with anything but love and understanding. Nobody acted like I had a disease. Nobody started treating me differently or looking at me funny. The same is true of every one of the Catholic friends that I’ve told. They love me for who I am.
‘Actually, the only time I get shock or disgust or disbelief, the only time I’ve noticed people treating me differently after I tell them, is when I tell someone who supports the gay lifestyle: “Celibacy?! You must be some kind of freak.”
‘Hooray for tolerance of different viewpoints. I’m grateful to gay activists for some things—making people more aware of the prevalence of homosexuality, making homophobia less socially acceptable—but they also make it more difficult for me to be understood, to be accepted for who I am and what I believe. If I want open-mindedness, acceptance, and understanding, I look to Catholics.’ 33 (b)
The Royal Order ‘god’ of the West. doesn’t want to know about the above point of view. It always insists that its way of doing things—’acquiring enough power and knowledge to tame the terror and eliminate the darkness’ and make it easier for us to indulge our appetites—is making ‘everything better and better’. It must insist on this, and it must silence the voices raised in alarm—especially those voices in non-western countries. Hence it’s indignation, its strident affirmation, its determination to keep it’s perspective on the issues on the front page and to never, ever talk about what is being assumed behind these issues. In our case, what is being assumed is that ‘we all know what is right and what is wrong’ when it comes to sex and marriage: ‘we all’ being that wealthy minority group (in the global village) known as ‘the west’.
Seriously, how can we—the western, secular enlightenment world, which is lousy with ‘free sex’, drugs and broken families—even begin to talk to the non-western world about what is right and wrong with marriage and sex? Our social workers tell us that we are facing a virtual tsunami of abused children right here in Australia. The rumour is that—in order not to cause too much alarm—childhood trauma categories are being re-written.
Words come to mind, words like, ‘self-importance, sense of superiority; high-handedness, condescension, contempt, sneering, scoffing; presumption.’ According to the thesaurus, these words relate to one single word: ‘arrogance.’ Perhaps even embarrassment. The world of horse racing might use the metaphor of a ‘nerve-blocking operation’ being carried out in order to hide the truth of the embarrassing social train-wreck called ‘Australian family life’.
It’s the kind of thing that provoked Jesus to say, ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ (Matt 23:27)
‘If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything,’ John Mellencamp used to sing. But what if the thing you’re standing for has been made to look ridiculous? “Do not give dogs what is holy,’ Jesus said. ‘And do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.’34 It’s no surprise that there’s so much anger directed at God. We sense that our Maker has concluded we won’t be told, has walked away from us and is allowing an ‘unmaking’ of what we have made so well.
A few years ago I was reading a book on Spinoza (a philosopher from the 17th Century) where the author/editor, in his preface, had this to say: ‘For to-day in marriage, if anywhere, it is glaringly evident that the legal or religious or social ceremonial law can at best secure man or woman wealth and social position.’35
The writer (Joseph Ratner) had a point but in making it he betrayed something about himself. What he failed to see was the fact that many couples will tell you they took the marriage vows not primarily to secure their happiness—or because they thought their love was so great it would never fail—but because they loved each other and God so much, they wanted to give themselves to creating a mysterious thing called a home and a family. They wanted to grow a garden where children would be safe and blessed and where friends (and even the lost and hurting and broken) could come and enjoy the warmth and grace of a lovely fountain of faith, hope and love.
What an ambition! What a high hope. Of course they know their love will waver, it’s why they take the vows. And it’s during those times they will need something as sober and as public as a vow (supported by a God who is a forgiver, and a community of family and friends) to hold them to what they promised each other. And this promise is not just a matter of ‘staying married’, it’s a commitment to cultivating a beautiful garden where things like kindness, forgiveness, honesty, reconciliation and communion can grow.
Even so, if it were to stop there it would merely be another ‘lifestyle choice’ thing: ‘what floats your boat’ as they say. What really makes this other way of living and of seeing life so shocking and so dangerous as far as our secular world is concerned is that first and foremost it’s a commitment to another world, and another King. In this world the very idea of putting any form of ‘life style choice’ first is laughable. Those who live this way are following Jesus the Messiah, who said, ‘Anyone who would come after me must deny all right to themselves, take up their cross daily and follow me.’36
Yes, of course this is open to dangerous abuse but what a fear-breaking (individual elevating) force it has proven be against all the ruthless might of Pharisaic misogyny, stonings, Roman cruelty, English Monarchy, African Warfare, Protestant and Catholic Inquisitions, Soviet terror and now—perhaps—it might be just what is needed to give people courage to stand up to a democratic society so obsessed with democracy that it’s creating a coercive PC Dictatorship.
In his intro to Spinoza, Ratner goes on to say, ‘Happiness or blessedness lie altogether beyond its (lawful marriage’s) powerful reach. Marriage is sanctified or made blessed not by the ceremonial law or priest or city clerk but by the divine law of love. Natural love or free love, free from all ceremonial coercions, is not merely not a questionable source of marital happiness: it is the only source. The ceremonial law, the legal or religious marriage custom, has nothing whatsoever to do with human happiness. If by free “love” is meant love free from all legal, social and religious ceremonial restraints, then free love is, according to Spinoza, the only basis of rational marriage.’37
There are things to admire in Ratner’s words, his point that laws will never give us happiness for example. But what does he mean by the ‘divine law of love’? And what about ‘natural love’? In the end ‘what is natural’ is defined by the nature of the individual. A predator will tell you that their behaviour is perfectly natural, and so also will a paedophile. Who decides?
One minute we are nodding our heads in agreement about the banality of it all. ‘The law is an ass’ we say, but then (on the basis of that) we are expected to take a great leap of logic and say that ‘free love’ is the only basis for rational marriage. This is a high and optimistic view of human nature. ‘Viva the revolution’—or maybe not.
Ratner wrote before the era of atheist empires where ‘60million people were killed by the Soviet Communists, 35 million by the Chinese communists and 21 million by the Nazis –not to mention one quarter of the population of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.’38
Jesus had a much more realistic approach when he warned us, ‘For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.’ (Matt 5:19). Does this have to be a formula for hating ourselves? Of course not. Jesus directs us to love ourselves in Mark 12:31 and especially to learn how to confess and forgive.
But isn’t this outlook an impetus for harsh laws? It could be, and it has been by those who take the bible the wrong way. One major point of the bible’s library of thousands of years of history is that ‘living just by the law brings a curse’. Our only hope is something new on the inside: people who live with courage, grace and humility because of what they have become on the inside, of what they are, not because they have to.
“You search the Scriptures,’ Jesus said, ‘because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!’39 In another place, the Apostle Paul says, ‘The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives!40
The fact is that we need grace and we need each other, which means we need laws to help us and even to hold us back when the ‘beast within’ threatens to destroy us and our loved ones. But without that mysterious grace within, we have nothing but pc laws, shame and coercion.
History itself gives us plenty of examples. Whoever said, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something’, hadn’t thought about Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler. Sooner or later, experience forces us to realise that a person’s soul is far too beautiful and dangerous for their beliefs to be a matter of their own private business. We fail to care, to pray, and fail to challenge, debate and disagree at our peril. Like it or not, we are forced to be our brother’s keeper. And who better than Jesus to be our guiding light for that impossible task?
On the one hand, there’s much fun to be had in this great ‘lovely mess’ and then there are these awful consequences—when we don’t give a #@*!—that few want to speak of, and if they do, they are howled down. ‘You’ve lost the plot!’ Jason’s friend said. But that friend would now say he is so thankful Jason spoke up. Both men realised that there is such a thing as becoming lost like sheep. But if there’s no meaning (or only pc coerced ‘classroom meaning’) ‘being lost’ is not a concept. We realise why CS Lewis calls nature a ‘dumb witch’, she beguiles us with her magic but she’s unable to teach us anything.
Eva Cassidy sings a song that says it all …
‘Tall trees in Georgia
They grow so high
They shade me so
And sadly walking
Through the thicket I go
The sweetest love
I ever had I left aside
Because I did not
Want to be any man’s bride
But now I’m older
And married I would be
I found my sweetheart
But he would not marry me.
When I was younger
The boys all came around
But now I’m older
And they’ve all settled down.
“Control your mind, my girl
And give your heart to one
For if you love all men
You’ll be surely left with none”.
Tall trees in Georgia
They grow so high
They shade me so
And sadly walking
Through the thicket I go.’41
32 Jason Stevens, Worth The Wait—True love and why the sex is better… (Griffin Press, 2002) 15,16
33 James Hannam, God’s Philosopher’s—How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon Books, 2009), 309
33( a) Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, eds., PoMosexuals: Challenging Assumptions About Gender and Sexuality—Quoted by Nancy Pearcey in Saving Leonardo, (B&H Publishing, 2010), 65
33 (b) Steve Gershom) http://www.strangenotions.com/catholic-gay/
34 Matt 7:6
35 Joseph Ratner (editor/author) in his preface to The Philosophy of Spinoza, (General Books LLC, 2010 reprint from the work of 1927), 22
36 Luke 9:23
37 Joseph Ratner (editor/author) in his preface to The Philosophy of Spinoza, (General Books LLC, 2010 reprint from the work of 1927), 22
38 Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey, 238
39 John 5:39
40 2Cor 3:6
I’m sitting on floorboards with an eager-eyed group of children around me. We’re in the middle of the story of Samson (from the Old Testament7). Some of the boys in the audience are rapt, other children look incredulous, and others a bit wary. What on earth is Mister Vol telling us this story for? they seem to be thinking. The story concludes.
‘Why is this story in the bible?’ someone says.
‘Good question,’ I say. ‘Why do you think it’s in the bible?’
There’s a long silence and we leave it there for the moment.
‘Where did he go wrong?’ I ask them.
‘He played up,’ someone says.
‘And he broke his promise,’ another says.
‘But he didn’t cut his hair and he didn’t get on the grog,’ I say.
‘What’s “grog?”’ another voice says.
‘Alcohol,’ someone explains.
‘So,’ I ask again. ‘How come it all went pear-shaped?’
We talk for about the fact that there were actually three parts to Samson’s vow: to guard his soul, to not cut his hair and to stay off the grog. Samson failed on the inside I explain to them. We conclude the session by singing a little song …
‘Keeping the rules is a start.
But what’s in the heart?’
To be fair on Samson—in his efforts to defend an oppressed minority tribe—he did some pretty heroic stuff: tearing a door off a city and walking away with it, killing a lot of Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass and (at the last) caving in the roof of a palace on his enemies. The story is worthy of inclusion in any Home And Away episode.
But you can’t read it without feeling for Samson’s mum and dad. The baby boy was marked out to be a great ruler according to prophesy and it leaves you wondering about many other part successful/ big-part failed rulers. Did Mao Zedong’s parents, for example, secretly pray for him? What if he had made some different choices and hadn’t given in to the urge to liquidate millions?
Books on leadership tell us that there is process and there is task. History is littered with leaders who failed on one side or the other. Historians and historical commentators keep these two aspects in mind whenever they evaluate leaders. But there are some who don’t.
In his book Atheist Manifesto8, Michael Onfray certainly doesn’t when he attempts to critique monotheism. He describes the monotheistic religions as being ‘religions of the book’9, suggesting that they are all on about the same kind of stuff: keeping rules and regulations to keep God happy. What he doesn’t tell us is that it was Islam that coined the phrase, ‘People of the Book’.
Jesus, on the other hand, would never have used such language. “You search the Scriptures,’ Jesus said, ‘because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!’10 In another place, the Apostle Paul says, ‘The plan wasn’t written out with ink on paper, with pages and pages of legal footnotes, killing your spirit. It’s written with Spirit on spirit, his life on our lives!11
Onfray’s misrepresentation of Christianity and the bible goes on and on … He talks of the prohibition against eating from the ‘Tree of Knowledge’12 to suggest that Christianity has a bias against science. The fact is that Genesis says it is the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil’13. Science has never been about the study of good and evil. And anyone who reads James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers’ can see that this is unfounded. Hannam makes an overwhelming case for medieval Christianity laying a deep foundation for modern science.
Onfray goes on to say, ‘Genesis says that God created the world in a week.’ It doesn’t actually. Onfray has reached this conclusion by refusing to recognise the literary genre, which is clearly poetic, mythic language. Genesis has no problem—for example—in telling us that the sun was created on the fourth day. The majority of Christian teachers agree that the word ‘day’ being used here is to be interpreted as a ‘period of time’. One commentator even suggests that the author/s of Genesis recorded a series of visions whereby the words, ‘there was evening and there was morning’ represented a kind of curtain call.
We will miss the point of these early chapters of Genesis if we don’t appreciate the genre. What we have here is a remarkable example of ‘inspired myth’ and as such it is laden with phenomenological language (describing things as they appear), drama and poetry. We use phenomenological language every day when we say things like, ‘the sun rose’. How much more lovely than saying ‘the earth turned on it’s axis’.
But Onfray won’t be told. He says, ‘Genesis teaches that there cannot be multiple worlds.’ Where exactly it teaches that he fails to explain. He goes on to to say, ‘Christians insist the world is 4000 years old.’ What he doesn’t tell us is that this statement is not to be found anywhere in the bible. Onfray has simply chosen to substitute orthodox ‘Christian’ teaching with that of a minority group who read this entire library of 66/73 books the same way he does: without any recognition of genre. What would it be like hearing Onfray’s interpretations of Shakespeare?
Not satisfied with this, he tells us the bible teaches it ‘Was all Eve’s fault.’14 No wonder some people are up in arms about Christianity. Unfortunately they are misled—happily misled—because anger is impatient with process, with facts, it prefers convenient untruths.
When this lens of bigotry and prejudice is put away, it’s not hard to see a delicate process of God becoming incarnate and joining the sister/brotherhood of humankind. These early chapters of Genesis give us an unfolding drama which—rather than being some literalist/science text attempting to explain Carbon atoms and the Big Bang—is a telling account of the deep sense of broken-ness and wonder we humans live and wrestle with each day. It’s why many of our greatest artists and composers have painted it and composed symphonies about it. It’s why it fills art galleries and theatres all over the world.
As a case in point, we find a brilliant artist’s interpretation of another kind of ‘Genesis fall’ in the novel Phantastes.
“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….’”28
In this story, the awful moment of shadow attachment is followed by a long quest, which in-part answers the question our society has put to Western Christendom:
“Is your collapse proof that you guys have been wrong all along?”
“No,” the voice of the ancient muse seems to say. “It is as it always has been: the blood of gods courses in the veins of men and there will be no apologies, great joy and great trouble.”
There was a time when I feared that the cold, dark churches were right: God was the stern cook and cop of civilization, the gate crasher on all flesh and fun. But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed that this idea came not from God but from a bent vision of spirituality. At one point, having finished reading the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita, I was relieved to find myself reading an Old Testament psalm29 in which a man and his God were celebrating loudly with wine and oil and bread.
“Yes!” God seemed to shout back at me “This world is a mess, but I love it!”30
“This is my kind of God,” I thought. “The true mother-father of us all.”
This picture of a God who delights in human flesh makes so much sense when you read the words of John 1:14: “The word became flesh.”31 The very idea of God joining the human race feels so theatrical, so romantic and so right. No wonder it has inspired a never-ending fountain of music, paintings and wars.
7 Judges 14 – 16
8 Michael Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, Arcade Publishing 2005,
9 ibid. p.95
10 John 5:39
11 2Cor 3:6
12 ibid p.68
13 Gen 2:17 NIV
14 Michael Onfray, Atheist Manifesto, Arcade Publishing 2005, pp:90-91
28 Phantastes, George MacDonald, 1971, Pan Books/Ballantine, 63
29 Psa 104:15
30 A thought inspired and provoked by a Reinhold Niebuhr comment in Neibuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role and Legacy by Charles C. Brown. Reflecting on the gloomy prospects of the world, Niebuhr said, ‘It’s a mess … but I like it!’ which apparently brought the house down.
31 Joh 1:14