Category Archives: Opinion

Opinion: The Cosmos and our connection to it.

The Cosmos and our connection to it.

George Stuart

Huge numbers confront us when contemplating the mystery of the Cosmos.   Huge numbers!!!   A billion is a thousand million.   A trillion is a million million.

One of the numbers we need to try to understand relates to light.  A Light Year is a measure of distance.  It may not sound that, but that is what it is.    It is the distance light can travel in 1 year. Light does travel. It travels at about 300,000 klm /sec.  So, to calculate the distance of a Light Year, we need to find out the number of seconds in a year; about 31,000,000 seconds, and then to multiply that by 300,000; the speed of light.  So, the distance of 1 Light Year is approximately 9.5 trillion kilometres, or 9,500,000,000,000 klms.

In the Cosmos, there are approximately 2,000,000,000,000 galaxies in the universe – that’s 2 trillion.  Scientific estimates vary quite a bit.  Andromeda is the name given to the closest galaxy to the galaxy Earth is in, – the Milky Way.  However, it is more than 2.5 million Light Years away.   That is more than 20,000,000,000,000,000,000 klms!  Andromeda is bigger than the Milky Way.  In billions of years or so into the future, it will collide with our galaxy, the two will probably become a single galaxy, and all the structures of both will be changed, destroyed or modified.

The Cosmos contains countless stars. Our Sun is just one star, among astronomers’ estimate of about 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way.  Our whole cosmos contains approximately 200 billion trillion stars in the Cosmos. Or, to put it another way, 200 sextillion. That’s 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!  Quite a few!  Estimates vary, but this is science.  No one has made a count yet!

Have I lost you?   I have lost myself!   I just cannot understand or even begin to comprehend the meaning of such numbers and such distances.  They are just too gigantic!

Cosmologists and astronomers now believe that most stars have one or more planets that revolve in orbits around them.   Millions, if not billions, of these revolve around their ‘parent’ star in orbits that are in the ‘goldilocks zone’; the zone where it is not too hot nor too cold for some form of life, as we perceive it to be, to exist.   Surely there is life elsewhere in the Cosmos!

The ancient Hebrew, biblical concepts of creation.

The diagram below is from the Teachers’ Commentary, edited by Hugh Martin M.A., on page 406.

It is very important to read the biblical references accompanying the diagram.  They point to the physical features about the ‘Heavens and the Earth’, that were thought to exist at the time the Bible was written.   For us in the 21st Century, they are quaint ideas and without any semblance of valid foundation. We might learn some theological truths from the Bible creation stories, but we learn nothing at all that is helpful regarding its physical reality. It is absurd to think we can!

As you can see from the above diagram, this is not a diagram of the Cosmos.  It is totally different to that which is held today, but this is what the writers of the Genesis myths were writing about.   They had no idea at all about the cosmos as we understand it today.   You will not find the words ‘universe’ or ‘cosmos’ in the Bible.  The concepts we have today were totally beyond their comprehension and imagination.   We should not criticise these ideas too much, because the writers had no scientific information that is readily available to us today.   Biblical ideas belong to the human imaginations of more than 2½ thousand years ago.

If we seek verses from the Bible to use when speaking of the physical nature of the Cosmos, we will find none of any value.    We can find verses which point to very important theological ideas, but for the actual structure of the Cosmos itself, NO!  Nothing.

One of the theological ideas that comes to us from the 1st creation story in Genesis chapter 2, is that of humans, animals and birds being made from the dust of the Earth; Genesis 2:7, 18 and 3:19, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return’.  Theologically, this could remind us that we should practise humility and not think of ourselves ‘more highly than they ought to think’, Romans 12:3.  We are dust; dust of the Earth!

However, our modern knowledge suggests that we are ‘star dust’, not dust of the Earth.

Our/my connection with the Cosmos.

Humanity has always sought to discern how and when we, as humans, came to be.   We have been told numerous stories and myths about how we all started.   Many of these stories point to truths about humanity but none have given us solid information about this issue. As followers of Jesus, we are familiar with the Hebrew myths in the Bible, in Genesis. They point to theological insights but give us no solid information about the physical structure of the Cosmos.

We need a new origin story.  And now we have it and it has scientific validation.

A smattering of the science about the Cosmos.

This is not theological or poetical.  It purports to say what the situation actually was.

In the beginning, there was a tiny ball of matter of nearly infinite energy and density.  It underwent a sudden violent expansion; we call the Big Bang. This Big Bang happened about 13.7 billion years. After this sudden burst, the expansion continued at an astonishingly high rate, doubling in size every 10-34 seconds, creating space as it rapidly inflated. One of the results of the Big Bang was coming into being of stars, galaxies, as well as much of the stuff of the Cosmos, we can observe today. We know that Hydrogen, came to be with the Big Bang.  We also know that Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen came to be with the burning of stars, a short time after the Big Bang – about 300 million years.

A smattering of chemistry, with comments about our physical human body.

 There are over 100 different elements.  Each element has been given a chemical symbol, e.g. Oxygen-O, Hydrogen-H, Carbon-C, Nitrogen-N, Chlorine-Cl, Sodium-Na, Iron-Fe, Calcium-Ca, and so on, for all the more than 100 different elements.  Using these symbols makes it very easy to tell us a lot about a compound.  Compounds are the results of ‘bonding’ of different elements.  For instance, water is formed by the bonding of Hydrogen and Oxygen – H2O.   The symbols denote what elements are present and the little number denotes how many atoms of each element are present.  For water, there are 2 atoms of Hydrogen to every 1 atom of Oxygen.  Another example is table salt. Another example is table salt. It is formed by the bonding of Sodium and Chlorine, NaCl – arranged in a crystal lattice with equal numbers of each atom.

Most importantly for us, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen atoms make up 96% of our human body, 65% Oxygen, 18% Carbon, 10% Hydrogen and 3% Nitrogen.  They don’t occur by themselves but occur as bonded with each other or bonded with other elements to form compounds, some of which are very complex.

Water, H2O – is the most abundant compound in our bodies.  Up to 60% of the human adult body is water. According to H.H. Mitchell, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31%.  Water is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen, H2O.

The Hydrogen atoms in you and me came into being with the Big Bang, and the Carbon, Nitrogen, and Oxygen atoms in us, were produced by stars burning.   These atoms, 96% of us, existed at the time of the Big Bang and just after, when stars began to burn.   We have billions upon billions of these atoms in us, and they all are many billions of years old.  Being naturally indestructible, they have had an extremely long and complex journey, getting into us, but that is the result of the processes of evolution, over billions of years.   What we are made of, is as old as the Big Bang.  We may not look it, but that’s the truth! That’s where we originally came from.  We are star dust.  We are part of the Cosmos, always have been and always will be.

However helpful the teaching of Genesis might be, we have needed a new origin story.

Now we have it!   Actually, we have had it for some time!

It is very appropriate to use our 21st Century knowledge and say we are not really dust of the Earth, as Genesis tells us.  We are ‘star dust’. As such, we are physically part of the Cosmos.   We are all part, a very privileged part.  Let us be thankful and celebrate this, our origin.

And when I die?   The Cosmos will reclaim all the indestructible atoms of Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen atoms in me, that it has loaned to me for my 3 score years and 20, to use them in some other way for a different important purpose.  This is evolution.  I continue to belong.

To all this, I confidently add my belief, that the same unknowable life-force-energy mystery that was active in the Big Bang and exploding stars, etc, is now active in my life, as it is in all life around me.    This has been the case for always.  We are all part of this wonderful Cosmos, always have been and always will be.   This unknowable life-force-energy mystery, which I am comfortable calling ‘God’, has been, is, and always will be the active creative force in this changing, expanding and evolving wonderful Cosmos.  And in ME!!!

I was there at the beginning, and I will be there at the end.

oOo

 

Opinion: Truth-Telling about our sacred book – the Bible. The story of the Exodus

About the author.

My name is George Stuart and I am married with four delightful daughters, who, with their partners, have presented my wife, Wendy, and myself with 7 equally delightful grand children.

I have been an ‘ordained’ minister for a number of years, as well as an analytical chemist, an administrator, working for the Broken Hill Pty Ltd and a Rehabilitation Counsellor. I have degrees in Applied Chemistry, Arts and Theology . I retired from ‘paid’ work in 1995 and Wendy and I live at Newcastle, Australia.

Truth-Telling and our sacred book.

In the pursuit of ‘Truth-Telling’, I believe the church has some difficult ‘Truth-Telling’ to do about our past particularly regarding our sacred book, the Bible. Why the Bible? Because it comes to us from our somewhat distant church past; 2000 years ago and more. This ‘Truth-Telling’ is not absent but I believe it has to be far more obvious to the general public and also needs to be given more voice within the church to help our members confront the issues this ancient book raises. By this, I believe the church will gain again some credibility in our world today.

With the call to excise from our present situation the ‘honoring’ of the names of historical figures who are now being exposed as slave-traders, violent leaders, racists, etc., along with the disfiguring and dismantling of statues of past prominent figures of history, some of it in the name of the ‘Truth-Telling’, maybe now could be an opportune time for some more hard thinking about what more needs to be said by the church about the our church’s past.

There are many issues raised by our sacred book but being specific, I believe it is very necessary for the church to ‘call out’ and repudiate the violent activity of the God which is depicted on so many of the Bible’s pages, particularly of the Old Testament but also to a lesser extent of the New. I think this ‘Truth-Telling’ about our sacred book needs to be done especially when Christians and Christian leaders make critical comments about the way some people, particularly non-church people like President Trump, use the Bible.

‘Truth Telling’ about the past, as we all know, can often be very difficult and painful because it can bring to the light those parts of history we wish to ignore or forget; parts that we do not wish to discuss with, or teach to those who may not know. It often raises those parts of history about which many of us take a very different posture today, thank goodness, but it can also raise guilt feelings which we find very uncomfortable and to a degree, sometimes resist.

Self-examination within the church can be unsettling particularly when it exposes our ‘dark’ past and thus can offend others who are members of our own ‘tribe’.

When Jesus involved himself in some ‘Truth-Telling’ about his Jewish history in the Hebrew Scriptures, he got himself into strife. Early in his ministry, we are told, he was in the synagogue at Nazareth, teaching. The reaction of those listening was,

And all spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth ;…(Luke 4:22.)

However, the gospel writer tells us that Jesus continued his teaching with,

And he (Jesus) said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon to a woman who was a widow. (Referring to a story in 1 Kings 17:8-24.) And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them were cleansed but only Naaman the Syrian. (Referring to a story in 2 Kings 5:1-14.) (Luke 4:24-27.)

Jesus certainly knew his Jewish scriptures. Very selective in his quoting, but the stories are there and were probably avoided by the current religious leaders and teachers. Some confronting ‘Truth-telling’! Was this exposing a side of their history his fellow Jews didn’t want to hear? The stories he was referring to were suggesting that foreigners were respected and even cared for more than their own Jewish ancestors. What was the result of this ‘Truth-Telling’?

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath, and they rose up and put him out of the city and they lead him to the brow of a hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away. (Luke 4:28-30.)

It amazes me how quickly crowds can turn from praise to persecution. I find it worrying that this can be the reaction to ‘Truth-Telling’. The fear of persecution may even lead to the avoidance of ‘Truth-Telling’ particularly if it is thought that this persecution could be carried out by members of one’s own ‘tribe’. It may also lead to unwanted division within the ‘tribe’.

So, I hope you find this paper useful. It is my honest attempt to do some ‘Truth-Telling.’, as I see it. I think we regular church-goers sometimes accept, without a great deal of scrutiny, what we are told in the church.

Although extremely difficult for me, I feel I need to construct this paper using the concepts of God that are nearly universal in the church and certainly promoted right throughout the Bible. These concepts include the anthropomorphic characterization of God and connected with this, that God is a being, a person, who ‘does things’. This biblical God intervenes in human history to execute God’s will and purpose. Being a panentheist I find all this unacceptable and I use quite different images when speaking of God. I am somewhat reluctant to use the word God at all, because of the immense unwanted baggage which it carries and which seems extremely difficult to throw off. My concept of God is that God is in everything and everything is in God, so for me, the life force, the inherent underlying foundation of all that is, is ‘involved’ but not intervening from ‘outside’.

So in this paper I use biblical images and concepts to try to connect with regular church-goers because I think this is where many start. But by using these images, I do not wish to convey the impression that I like using them or that they are the foundational images and concepts of God that I embrace. Not so!

In this paper I refer to ‘Reader-Response interpretation’, quite a few times. Because of the study I have done regarding the numerous Bible references I make throughout this paper, I recognise my interpretations can differ from other people’s interpretation. I have found that very different interpretations are given by various biblical commentators when they deal with the same text.

‘Reader-Response interpretation’ is reading into the text one’s own experience of one’s own day and culture, rather than reading the text itself; taking note of what the text actually states and then learning from it, always taking into serious consideration its 1st Century middle-eastern cultural context.

I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged in this ‘Reader-Response interpretation’ a great deal, and in extreme cases, have created their own text and then proclaimed it as being what the Bible teaches. I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation, hopefully not to an extreme.

Moises Silva expounds on this matter.

Insofar as every reader brings an interpretive framework to the text, to that extent every reader generates a new meaning, and thus creates a new text. [1]

Edgar McKnight, a respected proponent of Reader-Response theory, suggests that since we cannot completely break out of our self-validating system, ultimate meaning is unreachable. All we can hope for is to discover and express truth ‘in terms that make sense within a particular universe of meaning’. We may, therefore, continue to discover or create meaning, ‘which is satisfying for the present location of the reader’. [2]

With this in mind, in this paper I am claiming to do some ‘Truth-Telling’. That may be seen by some as being arrogant. Am I saying, “My interpretation of the Bible is one of ‘Truth-Telling’ whereas other approaches and interpretations are false and not concerned with ‘Truth-Telling’?” I certainly hope not. I don’t wish to give that impression but I suppose this is the predicament that one can get into when one expresses one’s views with passion and strong commitment. Others who disagree with me are ignorant and wrong!! I don’t wish to even suggest that. I certainly have passion and strong commitment to what I put forward in this paper, however, I wish, in no way, to say or suggest that other people who have different approaches are not as concerned with the truth as much as myself.

Their search for truth may be more productive than mine. For you to decide.

To read George’s paper click here.

oOo

The Ukraine

A Time of Sadness and A Time for Action

[Thank you Peter Robinson for this article]

By Malkhaz Songulashvili

[Presently, Songulashvili is the diocesan Bishop of Tbilisi and head of Peace Cathedral in Tbilisi. Formerly he also served the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia as its leading Archbishop for 19 years.]

Many of us did not believe that Putin’s Russia would attack the coreligionist country of Ukraine. Now worst fears of brutalities and atrocities are coming true. The war as an organized mechanism of murder has been brought to motion. For me as a Georgian this war reopens some wounds of unhealed memories of Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008: deep feeling of helplessness, humiliation and disapointment in humanity. The same scenario, same tyrant, same lies, same venomous rhetoric. 25th of February is also the day when Georgia mourns its falling at another invasion of the country by the Russian troops in 1921.

Ukraine has been dragged into in the fratricidal war. The future of our civilization in Europe and beyond now depends on the courage, bravery and strength of the Ukrainian people. It is our duty as people of all faiths or none to support them.

Our support will require clarity, sacrifice, resiliency and intentionality. Clarity in our words to speak out against the injustices of war and the lies of leaders who care only for power. Sacrifice of our need to protect only ourselves. Resiliency to not give in when the days grow long and our souls become weary. Intentionality to pray continually for peace and to put our prayers into action.

Pray

 We are calling our fellow Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans, Americans and others to pray for peace. We suggest that every day at 7 am and 7 pm we meet in our churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and offer our prayers for peace. If we cannot meet in the houses of worship we should meet in our homes for prayer. If we are not allowed to pray openly for peace let us pray in the sanctuary of our heart. It is essential that we do not succumb to the fear of the murderous forces. The inadequate ambition of one single person inflicts suffering on tens of millions of people, animals, birds, and of course the mother earth. This is a suicidal attempt to push the whole of creation towards unprecedented disaster.

Act

 Praying is essential but this is not nearly enough; the prayer should be accompanied by action,n and this action will become a prayer itself. “I felt my legs were praying,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel after the protest walk to Selma. Similarly we need to be engulfed into prayerful action:

If we can use our hands to stop the war, we should use our hands,

If we can use our brains to stop the war, we should use our brains,

If we can use voice to stop the war, we should use our voice,

If we can use our resources to stop the war, we should use our resources,

If we can use our time and energy to stop the war, we should use our time and energy.

Show compassion

 While striving to stop the war we should also need to commit ourselves to show compassion to the innocent people who have already been afflicted by the war: children, elderly, refugees from either side of cruel divide. There is no mother, no parent wishing to see their children brought in bags from the battlefields; there are no children wishing to see their parents dead. It is in such a time when our true identity is tested: who are we, what are the values we affirm, does justice and fairness mean anything to us. We need to be compassionate towards the suffering of the creation and all its members if want to maintain human dignity.

 Believe

 It is indeed the time of Sadness, frustration and anguish. But these circumstances should never blind our perspective that in the end justice will prevail, hatred and lie will be debited, love and compassion will definitely win. It is essential to believe that forces of darkness and stupidity will fail. It has always been the case; it shall always be the case. Therefore, let us heed the words of the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Peace Cathedral, Tbilisi, February 25th, 2022

oOo

Initial responses: Values driving youth

SOME EARLY FEEDBACK

The emerging responses to our request for material and survey show youth values falling into the following categories (maybe they are similar for many adults):

Relationships – with friends, family, work place people, teachers and include openness, trust, generosity, caring, openness.

Social – relating to the rest of the world – justice, freedom, respect, community, responsibility. abuse of power, discrimination, greed, current generation leaving for future generations

Young people are saying they want more – empathy, love, respect, loyalty of friends, and honesty.

They are already actively applying their values through social media.

Older youth are wanting to be treated like adults. They are looking for a purpose in life with males and females thinking differently. Males more than females are seeking wealth. Females more than males are seeking to make a contribution to society.

The Mission Australia annual survey of 20,207 15 to 19 year olds in 2021 gave the following overview:

As in previous years, responses to the Youth Survey 2021 reveal that, in general, young females have more heightened concerns than young males about some issues and were more likely to
experience certain negative outcomes. This includes in areas such as confidence in achieving study or work goals and barriers to achieving their goals, concerns about coping with stress, mental health and body image, and unfair treatment due to gender. The experiences
and concerns of gender diverse young people were even more heightened in relation to all of these and additional areas.

While the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people were connected to education, valued their family and friends and felt positive about the future, they also reported more and deeper challenges than their non-Indigenous peers, including being less likely to
feel happy or very happy with their lives. Particularly concerning is the higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents who reported having been treated unfairly in the past year compared with non-Indigenous respondents (47.1% compared
with 33.6% of non-Indigenous respondents). Half (52.5%) of those who had been treated unfairly said the reason was race/cultural background.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young females had more heightened concerns and were more likely to experience negative outcomes in a number of areas than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young males, including concerns about mental health and related issues. Of particular concern, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female respondents
experienced comparatively low levels of happiness and comparatively high levels of stress.
The marked differences based on gender and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status indicate that policy and service responses to the issues and concerns raised in the Youth Survey need a nuanced approach. The inclusion of data for gender diverse young people this year has
highlighted some particular challenges for this group.

These findings remind us that diversity has to be specifically recognised and included in the development of strategies, programs and policies for young people. It is incumbent on us all – governments, health professionals, community services, businesses, schools, members of the
community – to create welcoming environments that are responsive to the needs of all young people, whatever their background and circumstances. Young people need to be at the centre of policy and service design and development, to bring their unique perspective to bear on issues that affect them and on the development of solutions.

Most important issues:
COVID-19 45.7%
The environment 38.0%
Equity and discrimination 35.4%

Full report of Mission Australia Survey.

Please keep your input to this project coming and thanks for finding time for this.

Paul Inglis

oOo

OPINION: IDENTITY, UKRAINE, THE KINGDOM

IRPIN, UKRAINE – MARCH 03: Destroyed buildings are seen on March 03, 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine. Russia continues assault on Ukraine’s major cities, including the capital Kyiv, a week after launching a large-scale invasion of the country. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

If you missed Stan Grant’s recent Wilkes Oration—25 February in Adelaide, organized by the Effective Living Centre—I recommend you catch up on the video recording (go to https://effectiveliving.ucasa.org.au/). Stan presented a profound diagnosis of the geo-political woes of the world at the present moment—how the divisiveness of identity politics weakens the liberal democratic West, setting us up as easy prey for the tyrannies of the world, principally Russia and China.

Obviously, there are two parts to Stan’s thesis: his view on identity on one hand, and his view on the age-old confrontation between freedom and tyranny on the other. Let’s see if we can make sense of these two very urgent issues by applying to them that greatest of all hermeneutic lenses, namely the wonderful (though enigmatic) notion of the Kingdom. What we’re looking for is some hope, at a time when things seem to be all gloom and doom—Stan’s address on Friday night, for all its heartfelt eloquence, didn’t leave us with the impression that things could get anything but worse—and where better to look for hope than to the Kingdom?

Identity firstly. There’s something essentially misleading in the notion of identity, because initially you think it’s primarily about the individual, when it’s actually always about the group. Identity is really the process of isolated individuals finding the solidarity of a group to identify with. Usually, the driver is fear or oppression of some sort—people band together under the banner of some common trait or experience—family, tribe, race, religion, trauma, economic status, gender, sexuality, etc.—in order to throw off the fear or oppression that besets them. So, identity can be tremendously positive, a powerful force for human liberation. There’s no doubt also that this goes right to heart of the idea of the Kingdom—but let’s circle back to that a bit later, after we’ve done some more digging around.

Identity can also, as Stan so passionately declaims, be very divisive. This is really referring to a later phase of the process—what happens when you stop at any limited human identity and allow it to become fixed, permanent, exclusive. Identity is a great tool for liberation, but once you achieve liberation, you’d better drop it immediately like a hot potato before it becomes a tool for the very opposite – oppression. Yes, identity is a tool of oppressors as well as oppressees—you can wield it yourself on a small scale (it’s called racism, sexism, discrimination, exclusion, trolling, etc.), or you can let some tyrant or demagogue manipulate you into wielding it on a larger scale.

Which brings me to Vladimir Putin. Vlad is the arch-manipulator of other people’s identity. As to his own motivation/identity, the Russian patriot mantra, the travesty of the collapse of the Soviet “empire” narrative, even the devout Russian Orthodox believer act, are all just a front—don’t be deceived by it as a large proportion of the Russian population are. He’s really just an old-school tyrant, not “evil” or “insane” (whatever such words actually mean), just a seriously bad person in the Ivan the Terrible or Josef Stalin mould. Psychopathic? —probably. He’ll stop at nothing—manipulation, lies, murder, laying waste a whole country—to get what he wants – power, control, riches, the adulation of his people, the rest of the world fearing him. He wants to be loved, in other words, just like the rest of us; he just has a seriously distorted idea of how to get it.

So, identity can be anti-Kingdom as well as pro-Kingdom—a tool for oppression as well as liberation – this is really what Stan was getting at. Don’t stop, therefore, at any limited human identity—this is nothing less than an injunction of the Gospel itself – the call to unlimited, universally inclusive human solidarity. It’s also central to the idea of democracy and, dare I say it, to the Kingdom. Don’t be black or white, male or female, gay or straight, Indigenous or European, Ukrainian or Russian, etc.—just be a human. In fact, don’t even be a human, because that excludes the plants and animals—be a living soul (that’s my recommendation of what to identify as, at any rate).

Now to freedom versus tyranny. Is history just a cycling back and forth, freedom winning one minute, tyranny resurgent the next? Or is there something profound going on—at a deep, deep level, so that it’s sometimes not visible—in which gradually, inexorably, freedom is growing, overcoming, advancing, like a mustard seed as the parable says? Freedom aka the Kingdom. That’s the $64,000 question.

It’s certainly hard to see any hope right now, with Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine, and Xi Jin Ping threatening Taiwan. Except that—and here’s some Kingdom hermeneutics—tyranny always sows the seeds of its own destruction. In fact tyranny is, always, a sort of Ponzi scheme (think Bernie Madoff, New York financier c. 2008, died in jail last year), drawing ever more deeply on a diminishing resource—your ability to marshal other people’s hatred in your favour—it’s a one way ticket to downfall (German, “der Untergang”)—sooner or later it comes back to (excuse my Esperanto) bite you on the bum. We might almost feel sorry for poor old Vlad, except for all the carnage and horror he’ll cause in innocent people’s lives before he finally brings the temple down on himself.

I reckon Xi will be absolutely dismayed by Putin’s absurd over-reach, his massive over-playing of his hand—he even threatened to go nuclear on Monday. Xi just wants back what’s never stopped being a part of China, namely Taiwan—and Taiwan itself has never stopped wanting to be part of China—the dispute is over who gets to govern the reunified country. Putin’s crazy actions, which will inevitably fail and bring about his own certain downfall, will only make it harder for Xi to get his hands on Taiwan.

What we’re seeing right now is the unity of the West lining up against the Russian regime, with massive aid, military and otherwise, being sent to Ukraine, and financial and other sanctions strangling the Russian economy. At the same time opposition to Putin is growing rapidly within Russia—any day now law and order might collapse, there could be a military coup, Putin could be removed, or worse. In the end, it will be his own people who will bring him down—God bless them when they do, finally freeing themselves from the tyranny of the Tsars, the Commissars, and the Oligarchs. What the tyrant never counts on is the spiritual development of other people because they are incapable of it themselves!

You know, and back to the description of tyranny as a Ponzi scheme, how could anyone be sure that people’s hatred is always a “diminishing resource” (you might say a “non-renewable resource”)? Well, it’s really a statement of Christian faith, of the Gospel in fact—that love will always overcome hate—that the power of love is always stronger than the power of hate. So, you might say that love, by contrast to hate, is a renewable resource—not diminishing but increasing. And love = freedom, so we circle back once again to the idea of the Kingdom.

Anyway, you wouldn’t want to try to predict the future, but my best guess (my Kingdom-inspired guess) is that Putin is on the way out, and that the world will be a better place for it afterwards; but in the meantime, who knows what suffering we’ll have to endure. We’re in solidarity, therefore, with the people of Ukraine and, for that matter, the people of Russia—in a world which often seems beset with chaos and danger, but in which freedom is most certainly lurking just around every corner. Your Kingdom come. Amen.

Fergus McGinley — March 2022

Fergus is an Adelaide writer, teacher, lay preacher.

oOo

 

Understanding others – suspending the urge to be right

Understanding Others

Greg Spearritt considers the history of Christian theology in dealing with other religious traditions, and ponders the lessons that might offer for Anglo-Australians attempting to understand First Nations cultures.

A little less than a century ago the German Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch made a radical statement. Christianity, he said, was a “purely historical, individual, relative phenomenon”. 1.

He prefigured by some decades what was to become a problem for Christian thinkers of all stripes: how do we understand ourselves when other religious traditions are appearing “in power among us on our turf”? 2. It’s been argued that accounting theologically for religious pluralism has been as formative for Protestant – and I’d add Catholic – thought as an earlier generation’s struggle with Darwinism was. 3.

Suddenly, as the world began to emerge from the hegemony of colonialism after WW2, the Other was in our faces, and had become more than an easily-dismissed curiosity. It was among us, challenging our long-held belief in the superiority of our own faith. What to do?! There were three main responses.

Christian exclusivism was exemplified by the view of influential Calvinist theologian Karl Barth that Christianity “alone has the commission and the authority… to confront the world of religions as the one true religion”. 4. Needless to say, this approach didn’t result in a great deal of interfaith dialogue. It substantially remains the view, of course, of many conservative thinkers and groups to this day, though I suspect they fall short of the confidence in their views that was possible when the European empires were riding high.

Then there were the ‘inclusivists’. Karl Rahner was the poster boy here. A Catholic, Rahner proposed that sincere people of other faiths could conceivably access salvation, describing them as “anonymous Christians”. 5. He was probably surprised that his idea didn’t go down too well with the Buddhists and Muslims. Condescension is, after all, pretty hard to swallow.

It’s no surprise, however, that the theologians most inclined to actually engage with other traditions were the pluralists. Here we find John Hick, the process theologian John B. Cobb Jr, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Ninian Smart and others. For them, though each of course had their own particular take, there was a ‘rough parity’ among the world religions.

Even with the best of intentions, however, it’s never easy coming to terms with Otherness. I have argued elsewhere, for example, that for Hick, Smith and the theologian Winston L. King an inability to appreciate the Other as truly Other mars their well-meaning attempts to understand and portray Buddhism. In spite of their best efforts, they frequently fall back into using western and Christian categories such as ‘salvation’, ‘Ultimate Reality’ and ‘faith’. They often assume too close a correspondence between Buddhist and Christians concepts and terms. And they fail to sufficiently acknowledge the diversity and complexity of Buddhist traditions: the Buddhist Other comes across as essentially the same, wherever she or he is found.

A haste in the work of these theologians to pursue common ground – to claim that Christians and Buddhists are actually on about the same Ultimate Reality – leaves those Buddhists who refuse to give up their particularity portrayed as not really knowing their own traditions. No matter what they say, Buddhism actually accesses Christian realities like grace, or it supports a global view that Reality or salvation is what matters and that all particular truth claims are merely mythological. Buddhist recourse to protest – where that is even possible – is futile, since it may simply be seen as further evidence that those protesting have not yet seen the ‘big picture’. As I have (again) noted elsewhere, Bishop John Shelby Spong is culpable here too: he says Buddhists “clearly believe in God” and describes a well-known Buddhist monk as living “inside a God consciousness”. 6.

This all makes me wonder about the extent to which those of us of European descent can truly understand Indigenous Australian cultures.

My default lens for understanding Others in the world is the Enlightenment one of rationality and science. As much as I’m a fan of this particular lens, however, I have to acknowledge that it is a lens. Science is a socially constructed enterprise, bringing with it, at least to some extent, an inescapably western-Christian perspective. It has certainly been a tool of colonial oppression throughout Australian history. The Cartesian dualism on which (in part) it’s based is not shared by many Indigenous peoples: nature and society, for example, do not constitute separate domains in Indigenous thinking, as noted by Fulvio Mazzocchi (p. 22). Mazzocchi has serious doubts about whether Indigenous knowledge and western science can be successfully integrated.

Just as with Christians and Buddhists, apparent correlations between western and Indigenous concepts must be viewed with some suspicion. Sorcha Tormey, in the third edition of the Treaty Matters newsletter, notes that even talk of sovereignty for First Nations people must be approached with care, since it’s a fundamentally western concept.

I’m hopeful that it is possible to apprehend Other cultures or peoples in a way that is respectful and allows those Others to speak for themselves. The pluralist theologians who do this best in relation to Buddhism – and there’ll be others from more recent times (including women!), and from non-Anglo-American countries – include Ninian Smart, John B. Cobb Jr, David Tracy, Don Cupitt and George Rupp. It is probably no accident that these thinkers, much more than those who focus on commonalities and underlying unity, are open to the ways that Buddhism might influence Christian thought and practice. Tracy, for instance, speaks of the other of the Buddhist who, precisely through the challenge of… radical otherness, can help Christians, especially those sensitive to our contemporary situation of possessive individualism and the terror of transience, to let go, to rethink, to suspect anew, and to retrieve the forgotten mystical resources of our own tradition. 7.

Suspending the urge to be right, and to persuade others to align with our views is no easy matter for westerners, including Christians. We will be all the richer, I suggest, if we do indeed begin to “suspect anew” our own motives and assumptions, and learn the art of truly listening.

  1. Christian Thought (University of London Press, 1923), p.22
  2. Langdon Gilkey’s words: Through the Tempest: Theological Voyages in a Pluralistic Culture (ed. Jeff B. Pool, Fortress Press, 1991), p.24
  3. Leroy Rouner ‘Theology of Religions in Recent Protestant Theology’ in Hans Kung & Jurgen Moltmann (eds) Christianity Among World Religions (T & T Clark, 1986), p.14
  4. Church Dogmatics I/2 (§17 no.3, T&T Clark 1975) p. 357
  5. See Theological Investigations Vol.5 (Daton, Longman & Todd, 1966), Chapter 6
  6. Why Christianity Must Change or Die (HarperSanFrancisco 1998), pp. 57 and 185 respectively
  7. Dialogue With the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue (Peeters, 1990), p.83

Greg Spearritt is editor for SOFiA and author.

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Commentary: Greg Sheridan Article

A Time of Enchantment

Archaeological research confirms the accuracy of the New Testament as it restores meaning to our lives.

Greg Sheridan

(Sorry that the article does not copy well to this blog)

Reference for those who subscribe to The Weekend Australian December 18-19  2021

Full scanned copy can be sent to those who request it.

Response to Questions on Sheridan Article

Keith Turpin – Caloundra Explorers

Where do you stand on ‘mistaken propositions’?

First, he has quite a mouthful on Christianity as the universal faith unlimited by culture. As a Christian believer I’m not sure I can go with him that far!

God is dead. I clearly recall the controversy Robinson’s book caused at the time of its publication, but I don’t know if I ever read it. But I’m pretty sure that Sheridan has got his idea entirely wrong. I believe he meant that the God portrayed by fundamentalism is dead, and must be replaced by a totally new understanding (like J B Phillip’s your God is too small). That is one of the great things that modern scholarship has given us.

The Bible is full of lies. Some ‘way out’ liberals may have promoted this, but for the mainstream of genuine Christian liberals, this is sheer nonsense. I think of a person like Fosdick to whom such a criticism could never be levelled. With my own high regard for the ‘good book’, the phrase, historical reality, is a bit much to claim for written records from an age when our modern understanding of history was in its infancy.

Is Sheridan’s criticism of New Atheists valid?

Here again we have a great flow of rhetoric which doesn’t do much other than polarise the discussions.

Personally, I can’t claim to have read Dawkins, Hitchins, etc. widely and maybe they are addressing  a  ‘farcical caricature’ rather than Christianity itself. Whether or not they put in a lot of irrelevant science to buttress their argument, again, I don’t know. But at least they have a right to be heard and debated seriously, or else we are all losers. Certainly, I can agree with Sheridan that 14 milliion years is a very little time scale in God’s dimensions. (I think Thelma mentioned we have God is Good for You).

Is it true that the Jesus of History and the Christ of faith are the same?

We also have Sheridan’s book mentioned.

My response to this question would be that I think our Greg should read Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ (a Franciscan from his own tradition). He sees Jesus as One, indeed a very unique One, of the many Christs or means by which God reveals himself to us. [I know that’s a poor expression of Rohr’s ideas] but it’s something I am still struggling to come to terms with. If we fully identify the man Jesus with the Christ, we do a great injustice to the incarnation. We either end up with a God who masquerades as a human, or a human who has been somehow exalted to the heavenly places. That would make nonsense of Jesus’ words, God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

This is a strong criticism of progressive Christianity.

I find his “flickering half-life within Christianity” a sad summation of the legacy of Spong, who has personally been such a blessing and inspiration to me. If Greg departs this life with a mantra for Christian living anything like Spong’s “live fully, love wastefully & be all you can possibly be”, then I will eat my words. Films and books like The Da Vinci Code pale by comparison with the legacy of such men and women who have been leaders in Progressive thought. My prediction is that their work will outlive much of today’s hard -line fundamentalism. If not, then God help us all!

Do you think people today have been ‘indoctrinated from birth etc? ‘

In a word, NO! It’s much more likely that they have felt that the kind of Christianity that the Church generally has preached in modern times is so out of touch and irrelevant, that they have simply walked away from the Church. The number of fierce anti-Christian parents debarring their children from any Christian teaching would be small in comparison with the indifferent ones and those of other faiths.

As regards the work of modern Biblical scholarship which he blames for the demise of faith, I want to say that I recently ‘waded through’ a book by John Dominique Crossan called The Birth of Christianity, in which he seeks to explore the silent years between the first Easter and the writing of the Gospels. Apart from his many insights into the world of Jesus’ time, I gained a profound appreciation of the meticulous way in which Biblical scholars go about their research, which I would put on a par with most sciences.

I really think Greg might be the one needing to exercise a certain becoming modesty before he rubbishes their work so lightly.

Do you agree…..the discovery of ancient Jewish synagogues…?

I think that like most researchers in every other discipline, Biblical scholars would be ready and willing to amend their ideas as they surely have had to do with the discovery of manuscripts and other ancient relics. The Jewishness of Jesus has been recognised by most of the Biblical scholars I have read recently, as well as the understanding that has grown that a large number of Jewish Christians participated in synagogue worship regularly, and that the pattern of the Gospel narratives was aligned to the Jewish year and its festivals.

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Newton’s Theology

Peter Robinson has passed on this fascinating article from The Times about an interesting period in history, bridging Middle Ages and early Enlightenment times. He adds:

“During the Middle Ages, people generally approached answers to questions by an appeal to authority –  to figures like Aristotle, Ptolomy, or church fathers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Isaac Newton on the other hand was driven by scientific inquiry and promoted experiment based science – setting out the three Laws of Motion in his Principia Mathematica, discovering the law of universal gravitation, inventing mathematical calculus, and writing extensively on the nature of light and optics.

“What is less well known, is that Newton, like many in his time, was also a devout Christian – a monotheist who saw God in the order and beauty of the world, and his scientific contribution as casting light on God’s creation.

“At the same time, Newton was a deep Bible scholar, who also studied writings of early Christian fathers, comparing later writings to original Latin and Greek manuscripts. Newton is reputed to have devoted more time and written more on the subject of theology, than on science. Newton became convinced that the Church had moved away from its early foundations, and many of the doctrines of the Church had no basis in the original Gospel teachings of Jesus. He took  particular issue with the doctrine of the Trinity and Athanasian creed, based on his study of the Bible (rejecting 1 John 5:7 as the concept did not appear in original Latin vulgate and Greek manuscripts, but a later addition), declaring it a false doctrine, a position that saw him refuse ordination in the Anglican church (which came close to costing him his position as a Fellow of Cambridge University). He came later to be regarded as an Arian Christian (Arius c.274-337CE), among those who saw God alone as divine.

“Newton chose not to publish his thoughts on religion during his lifetime, such was the power of Church and State at that time, as he recognized the potential damage it would cause to his standing in scientific matters.

“As a side comment, it is relevant to note that Newton lived through the pandemic known as the Great Plague in 1665-67, a time when he did most of his research from his mother’s home in Woolsthorpe, England.”

NOTEBOOK SHEDS LIGHT ON NEWTON’S ENIGMATIC FAITH

by TOM BALL – London

Sir Isaac Newton’s ‘complex’ views on Christianity can now be better understood after scholars gained access to his confidant’s notebook for the first time in almost 350 years.

The manuscript, written by John Wickins, Newton’s university roommate and assistant, is the earliest evidence of the mathematician’s theology.

It highlights Newton’s engrossment in mainstream questions about God’s foreknowledge and human free will, at a time when England was staunchly Christian, and shows how he developed this into his unique theology.

The notebook, which had been under private ownership for two generations, was bought at auction for 63,000 Pounds last March and has been added to the library at Cambridge University, where Newton studied.

The notebook, which contains 12,000 words in English and another 5,000 in Latin, is the most comprehensive record of Newton’s writings to be found in the past 50 years.

Jill Whitelock, head of special collections at Cambridge University Library, said: “The notebook adds significantly to our understanding of Newton and his writings, as well as casting new light on other manuscripts in the University Library. It is only through the documentary heritage represented by his scientific and mathematical papers that we see a full picture of Newton.”

The notebook contains one of Newton’s two university lectures and three letters to Wickins, whom he called his “very loving chamber-fellow”. Wickins acted as Newton’s amanuensis while functioning as his unpaid assistant and helping him to turn the rooms they shared from 1665 to 1683 into a makeshift laboratory. They worked together on Newton’s third telescope.

One Latin segment of the notebook records a university mandated “disputation” or debate, where Newton covered the contentious topic of the compatibility of God’s perfect foreknowledge with human free will.

Dmitri Levitin, of All Souls College, Oxford, and his co-editor of the Wickins notebook, Scott Mandelbrote, wrote that the topic “was a subject that was as difficult as it was sensitive”. In an article for the Times literary Supplement, they added: “The difficulties were the classic problems of free will and evil: how could an all-powerful, omniscient God create a world in which humans had genuine freedom? At the same time, how could that perfect God not be the author of the sin which his creatures had committed?”

Newton came to privately hold unorthodox Christian beliefs and, by 1690, had dismantled the standard biblical proofs for the doctrine of the Trinity. He kept his idiosyncratic views – the focus of much rumour – to himself, a prudent decision considering his successor as professor of mathematics at Cambridge lost his post in 1710 for supporting similar views. It was not until after his death in 1727 that Newton’s unusual views became public knowledge.

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(This Article was first published in The Times newspaper in London, and re-produced in The Weekend Australian, January 8-9, 2022)

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