09 Jan

There are threads here, perhaps forming a pattern, coming from my reading of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), an op-ed piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald by David McKnight, and norrie’s Sponged — that is hard-G spongD, not soft-G spunjD. To begin with norrie:

I’ve been reading Spong’s “A New Christianity for a New World”, a radical look at God as seen by all religions, and what ordinary people actually mean by “God”, and how sick our society is having lost its faith in the white jealous patriarch in the sky, and having nothing else to relieve it’s existential angst apart from its chronic addiction epidemic…

norrie is a radical believer. There is a not entirely enthusiastic review of this book on the site Radical Faith: A New Christianity in a New World.

There can be no more difficult task in the Church today than to attempt to change the way its members think about God and Jesus. It requires both courage and imagination in the face of an aggressive resistance which tenaciously clings to tradition in the face of all reason.

To put it another way: If John Spong had written this book in 17th century England he would have been burnt at the stake as a vile heretic. Fortunately, Spong has retired from his work as an Anglican bishop. He is now more or less beyond retribution by the system…

It helped me when reading this book to recall that Spong is a thinking preacher (not, thank goodness, a preaching thinker). As such he tends towards hyperbole and somewhat loose statement. So, for example, he advances a theory about why and how human beings originally adopted theism. The fact is that there is no hard evidence to support him. We can only guess at the processes by which humanity invented God.

Similarly, I’m not sure that Spong understands the meaning of “hysteria” in the sense that he uses it. He thinks of hysteria as uncontrolled emotion which was held in check by theism. This is not what is usually meant by the term in clinical psychology. Nor is it likely that theism controlled it. Just the opposite – theism has provided an excuse for the emotional excess which energises fundamentalist unreason and unreasoning persecution of those who oppose Church authority.

What mediates and thus positively channels emotion is reason, not religion. Spong must be careful when he offers wide conclusions on so narrow a base. Indeed, it is reason which now spells the inevitable death of traditional doctrines – not the loss of a personal, other-worldly deity.

Spong is not at his best when dealing with theism. What he says will no doubt help some and perhaps persuade others. But the problem is that God belongs to everyone, not just to Christians. There are many more constructs of God in the world than Spong’s theism. Above all, while God is in some sense central to being Christian, theism does not define a Christian. It is a deep, personal attachment to Jesus of Nazareth that sets some aside as Christians, not just a certain type of “belief in God”.

What then are we to make of Jesus? This is the crunch – and it is here that Spong gets into his stride…

If he is correct, I wonder how the Christian establishment in its many forms will be able to tolerate rank heresy within. Even in the broad Church of England, for instance, there are apparently inexorable moves to outlaw free speech from the pulpit. Any clergy who break ranks and expose the stupidities of much doctrine will feel the lash of canon law.

In other words, I suspect that Spong has failed to grasp the enormity of the challenge which faces the Church. That challenge is not merely how to understand God and Jesus if you are a Christian. It’s how to understand God and Jesus if you’re a normal secular person living in an almost totally secular society, and how live out that understanding amongst those for whom it is to all intents and purposes irrelevant.

In this situation a mere reformation such as Spong envisages is unlikely to get very far. I don’t like to talk of revolution, for that sort of change destroys without altering the fundamentals. The latter take a very long time to modify.

Even if not a revolution, I think that what must happen before Jesus takes a new lease of life in the world is much more radical than Spong imagines. Having said that, this book is an excellent introduction to the Christian exile seeking new life and light in the name of Jesus.

Then, and not such a great leap as you might imagine, we come to David McKnight’s thoughts today on the “war on terror”.

It’s time to make a spiritual attack

A classic mistake in conflict is to underestimate your enemy. In the conflict with Osama bin Laden and his followers, this underestimation takes the form of seeing only the violence of Islamic terrorism and not its idealism. The warm and fuzzy associations of the word “idealism” are a long way from the blood and body parts left by bombs in Bali, Madrid or London.

Yet when young men or women willingly sacrifice their lives in a suicide bombing, their murderous motivation includes a sense of idealism. Suicide bombers clearly believe they are serving a greater good, as perverse as that may appear to us…

In his 1996 manifesto from a cave in Tora Bora, bin Laden railed against the corrupt media which had tricked so many young Muslims into loving the “materialistic world” of the modern West. One of his sources of inspiration, the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, spent time in the United States in 1948-50. In his account of the period Qutb was horrified not just by the relative sexual freedom, but also by the obsession with technology and materialism and the denigration of spiritual values. Its moral paucity contrasted to its material greatness.

His critique forms a key part of radical Islamic ideology which damns the spiritual emptiness of modern industrial societies. Bin Laden’s version of this ideology aspires to create a society totally suffused with religious values…

All of this has implications for our responses to terrorism. The radical utopians and murderous idealists inspired by al-Qaeda will not be persuaded to abandon their cause by negotiations or concessions. A military and intelligence dimension to the struggle is legitimate and necessary.

But this will not defeat terrorism. The aim must be take away their false aura of moral superiority and dry up the stream of recruits. As Barber says, terrorists swim in a sea of tacit popular support. Part of the answer is ethical behaviour by Western governments and the creation of democratic global institutions.

Another is to ensure that actual and potential sympathisers with bin Laden’s group are challenged by different kinds of religious idealism. The only people able to engage in such a theological debate and be listened to are those with spiritual authority. The executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, Amir Butler, makes the point that such people are mostly other kinds of fundamentalists in Islam who have long opposed the violence of bin Laden’s branch of fundamentalism. Only they can ground their arguments in Islamic law, he says.

To help this process requires the kind of sophistication which this Australian Government has not displayed. In the short term it is far more politically useful to demonise Muslims and engage in catastrophic actions such as the invasion of Iraq. For these kinds of reasons the terrorists and their tacit supporters will continue to believe that they hold the moral high ground.

And my conclusion is? None as yet… Just food for thought.

More food for thought may be found in the Herald’s special multimedia presentation by Paul McGeogh: 9/11 five years on. That is well worth adding to today’s various threads. (A couple of years ago it was normal for some to refer to Paul McGeogh, and anyone who admired his work, as a “delusional leftoid”. The truly deluded have since emerged very clearly; some prominent ones have already lost their jobs, haven’t they, not to mention their credibility.) This does all relate, however, to why I am drawn both to Kevin Rudd and to the US site Sojourners.

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Posted by on January 9, 2007 in Aussie interest, Current affairs, Faith and philosophy, Kevin Rudd, Religion


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