There’s something surreal about walking into a space called a ‘shop’. The street you walk along, the big slab of glass, the posters, the counter and the merchandise all make it easy for you to meet a total stranger, give them some money and walk away with a piece of merchandise without even having to know the name of the guy you gave the money to. For all you know he might be a liar and a cheat, he might be the most amazing person you’ll ever meet, he might be agonising over some awful mess in his family or he could be about to drop dead.
Today, it’s the bike shop, and I’m a bit irritated that we’re down to actually having to spend money on a spidery piece of machinery that you can lift with one hand and which might blow away in the wind. And while the facts and numbers are getting sorted, we get talking about other facts: my son has just finished his HSC; he’s actually #6 child.
‘By the way,’ I say to him. ‘Can I tell you about a good parent question I discovered? It goes like this, “What’s it been like having me as your father?”
The man behind he counter looks at me in astonishment as I explain to him that I’ve been working my away around to asking that question of each of my older children—and yes, you do need to put your rhinoceros hide on first.
‘So when is a good age to ask them?’ he says.
‘Maybe seventeen?’ I say.
Our conversation quickly moves onto what might be called the ‘other real things of life’: hope, faith and meaning. And we are no longer just a customer and a merchant, we are two human beings talking about the stuff that makes us human. And all this in a shop filled with machines, which I grudgingly have to admit are stunning creations—and to go with every machine, hundreds of magnificent little spare parts.
As I walk away with my bike-part, I can’t help thinking about another ‘fact’: that my friend in the shop, and the people now walking past me in the street, are being made to think that all that hope and meaning stuff is just a noble lie and—worse than that—a prison, which limits our freedom and puts our destiny in the hands of religious creeps. ‘Come on people,’ goes the sales-pitch. ‘If you will only let go of all that stick-in-the mud stuff you will be free to embrace the absolute freedom of Total Quality Life (TQL) where questions about what is allowed or what is right and wrong are out the door and the only guide is your personal lifestyle preference. You need to wake-up to the fact that the universe is nothing more than a shopping mall—you create whatever meaning you want damn it!’ Kind of like the bike shop—without pesky things like that conversation about family, hope and meaning.
Nancy Pearcey in her book Saving Leonardo explains it this way … ‘The assumption that drives all these futurist scenarios, says embryologist Brian Goodwin, is the Darwinian claim that there is no such thing as a species—that what we call ‘species’ are merely temporary groupings in the ever-shifting population of evolving organisms, eddies in the genetic stream. Because of this Darwinian assumption, Goodwin explains, “we’ve lost even the concept of human nature”. As a result, life becomes a set of parts, commodities that can be shifted around” to suit some geneticist’s vision of progress.1 A cosmic ‘bike shop’ if you like.
Another way of putting it is to use a literary metaphor: Biologist Thomas Eisner says a species is not a “hard-bound volume of the library of nature” but instead a “loose-leaf book, whose individual pages—the genes—might be available for selective transfer and modification of other species.” This is a highly revealing metaphor, because it suggests that if there is no author of the book of life, there is no basis for regarding organisms as integrated wholes.’2
That conversation in the bike-shop about parenting, fatherhood and learning to listen and love our children, is starting to look kind of irrelevant in this so called ‘truer world’ where we humans are ‘merely temporary groupings in the ever-shifting population of evolving organisms’. The idea of purpose and meaning starts to look irrelevant. Their obvious rejoinder is, ‘Purpose? I dunno about that. I’m thinking of tweaking my sex life with some DNA from a rhino, and yeah, we’ve been looking at Lemur prices, ’cause we thought we might hit our kids with some lemur gear—over the holidays—just to get a bit of peace and quiet you know.’
Remember? We are in charge now and TQL is what this is all about. “We are on the cusp of a new Enlightenment,” enthuses Adrian Woolfson of Cambridge University. “We can finally entertain the possibility of modifying our own nature and creating artificial life.”3
One cool spin-off is that if you wipe the slate of meaning, then you can forget about all the complications of the kind of guilt that comes with the ‘problem’ of having meaning in your life. ‘In an opera written in 2002 by minimalist composer Steve Reich, the libretto juxtaposes quotations by two scientists. First Richard Dawkins asserts that humans are nothing but “machines created by our genes.” Then biologist Robert Pollack draws the logical conclusion: “I have no sense of guilt in pulling the plug on any machine.”4
It kind of makes for a much simpler life if your grandmother is no different to an ageing motor vehicle. Interestingly, it was Aldhous Huxley who—many decades ago—said, ‘I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning and without any difficulty was able to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation: sexual and political.’ At least Huxley had the honesty to talk about motives and assumptions.
In the next blog (of this set of three) we will look at how this kind of thinking is creating economic and sexually mercenary cultures, and the fact that people are now talking of ‘economic triage’ and of a superior lifestyle called ‘PoMosexuality’.
1. Brian Goodwin, Interview by David King- GenEthics News, Issue 11, March / April 1996, 6-8. Goodwin is author of How The Leopard Changed its Spots (Princeton University Press, 1994, 2001) – as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.59 2010 B&H Publishers
2. Cited in E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (New York, Norton, 1992, 1999,), 302 – as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. p.59
3. Adrian Woolfson, An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Genetics (New York: Overlook Press, 2006), preface
4. “Three Tales” a 2002 Opera by Steve Reich – as quoted in Saving Leonardo by Pearcey N. 2010 p. 57
Tonight I’m in the midst of what is becoming a long and interesting conversation with a mate about ultimate reality, faith and meaning. We have agreed that we will be happy to allow for robust argumentation and that we will not be ‘arguing for a win’ but for truth. Below is a small excerpt from the conversation …
‘This is probably not what you are saying, but we need to be clear that it’s inappropriate for a person to attempt to ‘go and get faith’ so that they can then have meaning. Better to remain honest and without faith and meaning than to have a faith that’s what has been called a ‘noble lie’. For example, the person who says, ‘I wish I could have faith’ is totally misunderstanding how it works—and I have heard Christians talk about it this way, which to me seems rather oxymoronic.
The fact is that—contrary to what some educated believers might suggest—faith is not normally the outcome of reading a series of good books and then reaching some tidy logical conclusions, it’s something that normally happens after an extended time of shy information-gathering via pain at home, love affairs and arguments, book-readings, tragedies and/or joys, and maybe a war or two thrown in along with a stunning concert, and then—at some moment of curiosity, desperation or mischief when no one’s looking (along with a dash of courage and/or stupidity)—we quietly open a spooky little door and get an interesting surprise!
It’s not always a happy surprise, but at that moment we are in no doubt that there is such a thing as the mystery of a personal being called God, and if we wish for anything after that it’s likely to be either that we had never opened that little door (cause you now have this inconvenient problem of being convinced and are stuck with this dreadful and captivating presence who you can’t get enough of, but who also kind of frightens you and at the same time seems to demand and expect things of you. And weirdly—seems to be the one who has found you. On the other hand, it might be that you wish desperately for more and more of this amazing being of grace and life and joy—but either way you suspect that from here on your life is going to be more dangerous, more interesting and definitely much less under your control—damn it!/bless it!
As far as what happens after that: some believers seem to reach this place and never move away from it, others move away and never come back, and others seem to have to come back to it again and again. Some have a clear memory of the first time this happened and others say that they have always been there as long as they can remember.’
[these thoughts owe much to my own personal experience, the New testament, GK Chesterton, George MacDonald and CS Lewis]
Part-way through a long tour of our southern communities, I’ve come to a stop at our Swan Hill campus where a group of students have enrolled in a twelve month course called a Certificate IV in Christian Studies. Tomorrow I’ll be talking with them about what it looks like to communicate faith, hope and love to our society (in fact I could translate that as ‘reminding people that their work is sacred, that they are sacred and in fact that [ultimately] they are not made for this world, that we are all supposed to be helping each other on our way to ‘becoming creatures so magnificent that we might be tempted to fall down and worship, or so awful that we might run away in terror’ as CS Lewis says. But right now I’ve found a cup of tea and settled—with my laptop—into a lounge chair under a ceiling that’s rather too radiant with powerful white lights.
The lounge across from me is draped in a homey-looking patchwork quilt with heavy black stitching holding the pieces together on smooth, grey, fabric-upholstery. A tall blonde in black overalls sits on it reading The Brothers Karamazov,1 and next to her—on another lounge of the same kind but with a less chunky patchwork quilt—a shaggy-haired young man sits reading the book Future Shock 2. The young man wants to know if I’ve read it. I explain that I haven’t but I’ve heard good reports about it. Our conversation moves to another book The Gamble 3 (on the Iraq war) and soon we’re talking about strategy and what it actually means.
While we speak, one of the community leaders, a wiry-looking man with a young boy following him, walks into the room. The son is quite distressed and we realise that the two of them are on an urgent mission to find the boy’s Classic Car, which has gone missing. While we rattle around in the room searching for the car, the father—sharp-witted as ever—announces in a playful tone that this ‘strategy’ talk of mine (as depicted in The Gamble) is never going to make any sense to him, and before I can defend myself he challenges me there-and-then to give him a definition of the strategy of our organisation.
I shoot back that our strategy is ‘Well-trained, well-supported, well-supervised, committed missional communities.’
‘Here’s a piece of strategy gone wrong!’ he says, holding out a snapped D-bolt link from a recent accident with a piece of heavy farming machinery—of which he is the minder and master in this community. ‘Great object lesson for you to use,’ he adds.
‘Perfect,’ I tell him and laugh. ‘Definitely not well-supported.’
‘But amazing commitment,’ he points out.
‘And,’ he continues. ‘It’s the committed ones who get broken first.’
‘Cause we think they’re so amazing they don’t need support,’ I add.
The poetry of what just happened makes me think of the gospels. Somehow when you read them you can’t escape the feeling that Jesus—the main character—behaves as if every bit of time, space and matter is impregnated elegantly with meaning and poetry. He expects that everything is alive with this kind of thing: not in a clunky, religious way but in a natural, easy-going kind of way, so that he can—in the same breath—look at a seed and tell us that life is about dying every day and lift up a child and tell us about the greatest thing in the world. In his understanding, everything counts. And when we listen to him we feel that perhaps it’s true after all that we were made for another world. In fact, three days ago I asked an unhappy-looking woman in a service station what she thought about it.
‘If it’s true that our deepest longings will never be fulfilled in this world,’ I said. ‘Is it fair to conclude that we were made for another world?’
‘We must be,’ she said, looking even more unhappy. Then, in a tone that sounded like she was about to cry, she added, ‘There must be hope. Don’t you think?’
Somehow, this ordinary lady working at a job she hated, broke my heart as I walked away and thought about the competing voices in her world telling her that all that stuff about being beloved of God is a crock and the sooner she gets it out of her system the better. An excerpt from Farewell To Arms (quoted by Nancy Pearcey) puts it this way: ‘ “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice,” says a character who clearly represents Hemingway himself. “Only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates … Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates.”4
Such twists and turns in the world of art, in its search to cope with the embarrassment of God, are always being ‘tried out’. Centuries before Naturalist artists (such as Hemingway) tried to undo the influence of the gospels—the world was astonished when the sacredness of ordinary people was brazenly displayed in art galleries. ‘Realism broke with this prevailing tradition,’ Pearcey says, ‘by emphasising the dignity of the ordinary, even humble, people. Where did this new style come from? From the doctrine of the incarnation.’
‘ “It was the story of Christ” that broke down the classical rules of style, writes literary critic Erich Auerbach, through its “mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy.” The world-changing events of the gospel took place among everyday, ordinary people. Jesus welcomed sinners and prostitutes. He invited humble fishermen to be his disciples and ate with tax collectors (despised collaborators with the Roman occupation forces). These characters would never be considered suitable for representation in classical art. But amazingly their lives became the locus of the great climax in God’s plan of salvation. As a result, for the first time in history, it became “possible in literature as well as the visual arts to represent the most everyday phenomena of reality in a serious and significant context.” Moreover, because Christ died the ignominious death of a criminal, Auerbach adds, it became possible to portray, in a sympathetic way “even the ugly, the undignified, the physically base.” ‘
‘Thus Jean Francois Millet, a devout Catholic, became the first to give peasants a Michelangelesque grandeur,” according to art historian Frederick Hartt. “Before his time peasants had been portrayed as stupid or even ridiculous.” They could be used in comedy or even genre painting, but not in serious art. Initially people were shocked by Millet’s paintings because they accorded dignity to humble figures. He broke new ground because of his Christian perspective. As one historian puts it, Millet gave daily life a biblical gravity, painting the human being as “ the lifelike icon of the invisible God.” ‘5
Somehow, I’m feeling more than ever that the extravagant demand of the lady in the service station —that any other hope than the one which speaks of us being made for another, better world—is not worthy of being described as ‘hope’. And thanks to Jesus and artists like Francois Millet, she might one day fully embrace the thought—without being intimidated—that she is a sacred being, one to be cherished in fact: really cherished in the only proper way that honours all those longings for friendship, family, love and grace.
- Dostoyevsky F.
- Toffler A.
- Ricks T.
4 Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 156, 157 B&H Publishing 2010 5 Pearcey N. Saving Leonardo pp: 113 – 114 B&H Publishing 2010
The trouble with coarse language in our prayers is that sooner or later we start to know—to really know—the one we are speaking to: we begin to see their point of view, and we are embarrassed, not so much by our language as by the attitude behind the language, which suggests the thought, ‘I’m just as good as you’. And that is why Peter (in Luke’s gospel chapter five) for example—having just been quite gruff towards Jesus—soon found himself saying, ‘Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!’ Admittedly he might not have been using ‘language’, but either way, the change happened not because Jesus criticised his manner of speaking but because Peter saw something that Jesus did, which opened his eyes to a reality that was staring him in the face. You could say he unwittingly allowed himself to be found by Jesus, and it was as if he was caught unawares in the presence of something and of someone he had never really imagined. And—like a drunken man who is suddenly sober and realises he has elbowed his wife in the face—shame is what he felt, but it was that good, cleansing kind. And his attitude and manner of speaking was transformed. Meanwhile God continues to be happy to listen to, graciously translate and respond to even the most awful prayers—provided of course that they come from a sincere heart. ‘Awful’ by the way, can still happen when the words themselves are beautiful but the heart is far away. The Africans have a saying that goes something like, ‘Do not speak when your heart is far away.’
Below are the prayers from the previous blog, ‘Good Prayers Using Bad Language’ but this time they are in polite language instead.