Pre-political spaces where hope has yet to be crafted…

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I have been dipping in to twitter a little of late – I was challenged to try to do a bit of twitter poetry, and so have been dropping in a few lines each day. It is perhaps a futile pursuit, which I may not do for long, but for the first time in my life it has put me in regular contact with the vast seething mess of the twittersphere.

And what a place it is. So much anger. So much righteous indignation. The delight taken in the shaming of other people. But you know all this. You probably stay away for all of these reasons, and I salute you for it.

Of course, even if the platform has an unfortunate way of highlighting the worst of us, it is not all hate and vitriol. Yesterday I read a tweet from author and activist Alistair McIntosh. Here it is;

This, on #TheoryOfChange. Vaclav Havel describes “the pre-political” zone, the work of artists, musicians “or simply ordinary citizens” who refuse to live in the lie and insist on living “within the truth”; the “theatre of the spirit” that transfigures social consciousness.

McIntosh was quoting from a 1978 Havel essay, entitled ‘The power of powerlessness‘, which you can read in full here.

It his me like an arrow, because I needed it to. I have been feeling very low recently – as I examine myself to try to understand why, I think it comes down to a feeling of pointlessness. I started a spiral which began with seeing myself as over, failed, unsuccessful. This felt true both in a personal sense and more generally, as if the ideals and passions I have lived my life towards are over, done.

At the same time as feeling like this, I was trying hard to look for hope. Perhaps the hold of right wing ideology was starting to crumble? Perhaps we were finally starting to turn towards climate justice and economic justice?

The problem is that for every tiny ray of hope there is so much looming darkness. It can be almost impossible at times like this to dream of things getting better; a lonely and broken place to be; a dark well with few hand or foot holds.

I do not share this account in order to wallow, or to seek sympathy. Many of us go through these times, particularly creative people because the sensitivities we bear are often related to woundedness and this makes us vulnerable. Add to this the overarching historical and cultural context and it can be very hard to keep going, to keep creating, to keep hoping.

Perhaps these things are cyclical.

Every year I plant seeds early in spring, riding the crest of spring optimism. I till the ground, mulch it and trust in future fertility. I thrill to the emergence of green shoots, then carefully and tenderly transplant them to beds inside and outside the polytunnels. I water them and wait in hope and expectation.

Then there are the crops that fail, through slugs or birds or some other mystery. The rain never falls just when we need it, the sun scorches. The cold nights nip and curl the leaves. Weeds start to choke out new growth at just the time when I am busy with something else, so that when I come to pull them out, damage has been done. This year, bumble bees have nested in the best patch of spuds so that I do not harvest them. The big squashes seem slow and the second planting of carrots have not germinated. It all seems hard work and I wonder if it is worth it. The supermarket is not far away, after all.

Then I start to question why I am doing this. I accuse myself of pursuing some kind of middle-class fantasy, preening myself with a coat of green virtue whilst in reality living fully within the norms of an overconsuming and unsustainable society. In the words of Ecclesiastes (ch 1);

Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors
    at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
    and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
    ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
    yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
    there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

My recovery from this kind of cynicism is never complete, but I was also greatly helped by listening to this man again. Brian McLaren was talking about his new book Do I Stay Christian? over on the Nomad podcast. You can listen here. McLaren has been one of the most important thinkers/writers in my life, so it was lovely to hear him speak again, in that way he has, skewed towards kindness. The book deals head on with the problem that many of us have with Christianity- an inability to see ourselves part of what the whole thing has become, alongside a deep yearning for what it might be. McLaren actually says that some people, for all sorts of reasons, need to leave, but he also hopes that those that can will stay and try to be part of the change.

(As an aside, I’m not sure where I fit in to this. Did I leave or did I stay?)

In the middle of this conversation, McLaren made some comments about change, which reminded me of Havel’s comments above. McLaren said sometihng like this; most of the work for change happens before hope has arrived.

In other words, those who work for change do so in spite of hopelessness, and in the very presence of suffocating futility.

It happens in what Havel calls th ‘pre-political zone’, before ideas have become solidified. Before disatisfaction has colectivised into protest. Before fringe activism has beome a movement.

Long before ideals have been made into policy. Long before any solution can be visulised, let along laid down in law.

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I have been thinking about this idea of artists, poets and musicians who play within the ‘theatre of the spirit’, and how these murmurings might become the seeds of change.

It sounds fanciful, in the absence of hope.

But that is the point.

The narrative power of old stories…

Fire stoking as at intermission of story telling, ATC Cranborne by Simon Barnes is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

If this (17 year old!) blog is about anything, it is about a search for meaning. I seldom have any desire to look back at early entries but this seems consistent throughout. Often I have found myself concerned with religion – as a source of inspiration and frustration in equal measure – because surely religion is also primarily concerned with meaning?

But the religion I knew most intimately was not really about meaning – not directly anyway. It was mainly about providing ‘answers’, albeit to questions framed only in a way that we wanted them to be considered. The rest was more about belonging- using the right words and singing the right songs. We were not encouraged to search too far from the fixed tramlines that we were given or to do too much questioning of the certainties that our tradition provided.

Aside from the frustrations that many of us feel about such religious restrictions, there are many problems with this kind of closed-circuit religious thinking, particularly in a changing world dominated by problems that our old doctrines either provide no answers to (such as climate change, or economic injustice) or actually seem to make worse (such as polarised attitudes towards gay people or other conflict with other religions.)

If we are to be seekers of truth (which is just another way of saying seekers of meaning) then integrity must draw us to adventure further. I do not necessary mean a rejection of our tradition (although many of us have found this to be a necessary step) rather that we remain open to renewal and re-reformation.

I need to say a little more about this word ‘truth’.

Truth, according to Jesus, will set us free. What he might have meant by that has been debated down the generations, but any religious types think that truth is found in the literal sense from the words of scripture. It will be of no surprise to you to hear that I do not believe this reading is correct. If it were, I find it odd that Jesus used his words in the context of challenging religious bigotry (check out John chapter 8) not underlining it.

And here is the rub. If we use scripture like a definiative rule book/text book/blueprint that has been locked and closed, all we have open to us is to learn what has already been decreed and declared to be ‘correct’. There may still be many subtleties and depths that we can dive in to, but fundementally the only way we can read these old stories is the way that our religion has mapped out for us. To put it another way, we are presented with stories that have already been shaped to tell the over-arching story that has been provided by our tradition. It has all been made to ‘fit’ this narrative, a feat that has always required considerable contortions and calisthenics.

Typically we miss the many blind spots and assumptions behind these readings, because our first concern will be ‘correctness’; a feeling rendered all the more urgent by the fact that getting it wrong might result in eternal damnation.

I am speaking here with intimate knowledge only of my own religious beginnings but I think there is good evidence to suggest that we can generalise this to other forms of religion – both Christian and other faiths – particularly those who rely on scripture as their primary (and sometimes only) reference point. I think this is a terrible shame, for a number of reasons, which I will try to tease out below.

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The first thing that I would say is that closed system readings of scripture are not honest. They are only made possible by imposing restrictions on the minds of the reader, who is expected to read them only in the way that is authorised. For example, readers are expected to accept the ‘inerrancy’ of the bible, no matter how hard it is to make it all fit together as a coherant whole.

It is also often intellectually blind, in that it ignores or rejects any knowledge that might be seen to challenge the closed reading of those stories. For example, most of the people in the tradition I grew up in have no idea about how the canon of the bible came to be compiled. Asking questions about how the events told in these ancient stories mapped on to archeological discoveries or alternative histories would be seen as dangerous and subversive to correct belief. For the same reason, our knowlege of other streams of Christian theological thinking was limited indeed- mostly to just knowing that ‘they’ were all wrong.

The reader is also asked not to question certain underlying assumptions, without which the whole closed system would collapse. For example, we might be encouraged to read backwards from understandings gained from narrow readings of one part of scripture, interpreting complete other sections of the canon in the light of those understandings. The key assumption here is that the bible must not be seen as a library-like collection of ancient scriptures written by ancient people over a considerable length of time, but rather as a complete and whole manuscript that was always intended to be provided in its current form from the beginning of time. Perhaps you might protest that it can be both, but it does not change the fact that the assumptions we make changes the readings immeasurably.

The effect of these assumptions means that we have to ignore contradictions. If the reformation taught us to value scripture, it also soon taught us to value our own understandings of this scripture more. Truth wars became the way we did religion for hundreds of years and we in the West live at the end of all this; arguably an increasingly irrelevant remnant, defined more by our narrow religious views than our capacity to live for grace and goodness.

Perhaps the most problematic result of these closed system readings is that they lock us in to black-and-white thinking. Any command-words from anywhere in the canon of scripture have to be taken as fixed instructions handed down directly from God. It is true that we did not do this completely (ignoring purity codes from Leviticus about mensturation cycles for example) but this was a bit of a guilty secret, with no easy explanation when confronted.

Another aspect of this is how our approach to religion becomes highy legalistic, as if the scriptures themselves exist as a code of instruction that is applied and interpreted by our priest/judges, or our bishops/supreme court. Legal correctness takes precedent over anything else, even if the outcome is undesired, as in the rejection of homosexuality alongside the desire to remain loving and accepting of outsiders, and the church has to endure more of this sort of thing.

Finally, if we use only closed reading systems, there is little room for adventure. Institutions will tend towards control, order and a resistance to radical diversity. Arguably, any spiritual journey worth making will be towards personal (and hopefully collective) transformation, NOT towards greater doctrinal convergance. It is not impossible to make these journeys within closed reading systems but I would suggest that this will always be difficult.

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So what value have these old stories? Why not just treat them as quaint old folk tales intended for children? Why continue to expect them to be relevant all these thousands of years after they were written?

Well, in these fast changing times, I think we need these old stories more than ever, and I am not willing to throw any babies out with the bathwater.

It is perhaps worth remembering that there are many other ways that Christians have always read scripture. There is a summary of some of these in this post, in which I listed the following kinds of reading;

  1. Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.
  2. Conversational reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.
  3. Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending his overarching mission of blessing all nations through a community of people.
  4. Political/Economic reading- the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.
  5. Rhetorical reading– in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.
  6. Contextual reading – in which we try to understand how the specific context might have influenced the writing of the text
  7. Literary reading– “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” (Brian McLaren)
  8. Close reading– better readings of scripture will examine the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.
  9. Communal reading– the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.
  10. Recursive reading– understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.
  11. Ethical reading– text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended social consequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.
  12. Personal reading– “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”
  13. Mystical reading– we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”
  14. Christo-focussed reading – where we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

This is far from an exhaustive list and whilst some of these might be seen to be more practiced by theologians, the point here is that scripture has ALWAYS been used in a much wider way than the narrow closed readings that we have locked them it within.

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My argument here is not against scripture, but for it. It is not a tirade against the value of these old stories, but a desire to rediscover them, to reframe them for our new context, to set the power they contain free again to do new things.

I am comfortable with seeing the Christian scriptures as a library of generations of people trying to make both personal and collective meaning out of chaos- much as we are trying to do now. Much of these stories also seemed to have been written down in the context of abject failure (slavery in the OT, occupation in the NT) – again, much like the feeling that some of us feel now. Nevertheless, throughout the whole mess of this scripture, themes emerge of a longing for justice, restoration and wholeness. Above all, these themes come together in the stories told about a man called Jesus.

The relevance of these stories, when encountered outside the closed readings that we have been used to, is startling. Consider, for example, the stories from the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, that go something like this;

Simple people, living in harmony with nature, rise and seperate themselves through the accumulation of knowledge. Soon there is conflict between the hunter-gatherers and those who fence the land and accumulate belongings, leading to the murder of one brother by another. The accumulation gets more extreme, leading first to cities, then to empires, followed by more empires. God is so angry that he wants to wipe the world clean in a flood and start again.

You can read these stories in all of the ways discussed above, but I want to propose one last reading, one that I will call a ‘radical reading‘. Radical, that is, in the sense of looking for prophetic inspiration towards change. Looking for ways towards justice that might be relevant to our situation.

Against such there is no law.

What must change first, our lifestyle or our belief system?

Polar Bears Across the Arctic Face Shorter Sea Ice Season by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

Someone dear to me has been feeding from a trough of environmental despair. S/he knows the science rather too well- the degrees of warming, the predicted tipping points, the posisbilities (or probabilities) of ecosystem collapse. At times this knowledge becomes a clarion call for action, but faced with something so huge, so seemingly unassailable, it also leads them down towards a place where everything seems pointless.

This eperience is far from unique. There is even a name for it – climate trauma.

“I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,” said award-winning biologist Camille Parmesan in a National Wildlife Federation report. “Some of these people have been studying a particular reef or a particular bird or a particular mammal for 40 to 50 years and to start seeing it die off is a very hard thing.”

From here.

For people like me – non scientists whose thinking about climate change is driven most commonly by guilt and distraction – the whole debate can be so confusing and troubling as to be best ignored. What else can we do anyway?

Also, old lefties like me can struggle to fit climate change in to our old left/right dichotomies. Sure, the right wing tend towards sceptisim on this issue, but the dualistic right and wrong is harder to chart because human-scale victim and oppressors are harder to identify. Climate justice has been a harder concept to champion, or at least it seems so to me.

At times, it seems that the only actions we can take – and any relevant choices we can make – are all consumer driven. We choose to buy a different kind of car, or a tin of salmon with an impressive-sounding label, or refuse a plastic wrapped fruit in favour of one without. But we still consume. Our lifestyle makes at best only very small adjustments to the overconsumption that characterises the western world, and drives the very change we are trying to buy our way out of. No amount of beach cleaning or community gardening is going to change that, right?

So what can I say to my friend to encourage him to keep going?

What can I do myself that will make any difference whatsoever?

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It seems to me that activism is one route open to us. Get involved in direct protest action or awareness raising of some kind. Shout loud and make people in power sit up and notice. Chain yourself to petrol pumps and handcuff yourself to trees.

But this kind of direct action may at best be something possible to you for only a season in your life, even when given the priority it deserves. Activists burn out, have families and need to make a living. Some kind of post-activist normality will eventually have assert itself, and if we are to hold on to any integrity, this new normality cannot be like the old one.

So how do we seek to live with passion, love and integrity? What does a good life look like in our present broken context? What needs to change, and where do I start?

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All of which brings me back to the title of this piece. Lifestyle or beliefs.

Many of us have been making changes to our lifestyles for years. Often these micro-changes seem tokenistic in the way described above. It is easy (perhaps too easy) to dismiss them as the conscience-easing activities of the comfortable middle classes. We all know that the transformative changes necessary in our lifestyles require far more radical action. That is not to say that our efforts mean nothing however. Even knowing that an individual choice to eat less meat (for example) will make no difference to a global phenomenon, it is an individual step worth taking. More than this, our individual actions might connect with others to form chains of influence. This is not nothing, but neither is it enough.

Jain temple in Anekere lake, Karnataka, India

The ancient Jain religion teaches a version of ahisma (or harmlessness) in which it is not just people who have souls, but also animals, trees, plants and even rocks. Out of this should then flow a radical empathy with all things, to which are owed the same respect that we might give to fellow humans. This is one of the stories told in Karen Armstrong’s new book ‘Sacred Nature’, in which she says that ‘recycling and political protests are not enough. Her call is towards a new world view – one that learns from the ancient spiritual traditions and practices that we have largely forgotten.

This from here.

Much has been written on the scientific and technological aspects of climate change, explaining the impacts on our world and the measures we need to take to avert catastrophe. But Armstrong’s book is both more personal and more profound. Its urgent message is that hearts and minds need to change if we are to once more learn to revere our beautiful and fragile planet, and to stop polluting it. For this to happen we need to reconnect with the myths and even the rituals of ancient spiritual traditions that have the power to awaken our primal emotional bonds to nature and reveal our “utter dependence” on it.

The spiritual tradition I grew from has much to learn. We have been slow indeed to grasp the spiritual aspects of climate change – in fact, climate change skeptisim has often been heard from Christian pulpits.

However, there are many rich strands of Christianity that have direct relevance. I can give no greater recommendation than to point you towards Richard Rohr’s book The Universal Christ. Drawing from his own Fransiscan roots, Rohr paints a picture of the Christ as ‘another name for everything’. In a previous post, I tried to describe this in this way;

Jesus stepped into human history, but he was always the Christ.

Through him, all things were made, and have their being. He is both beginning and end. Through him all things are held together. He is the essence that lives in all creatures.

He is the unity of all things that we partially sense when the sunset fades into starlight.

He is love, light.

Through him all things are being made new, always, for all time.

And what of us? We are like him because he is the life within us. ALL of us, not just the chosen frozen few. Even the most dissolute, hardened, poisoned and venomous specimens of humanity, because even though we are like tombs in which the Christ is dead, he has this trick of coming back from the dead, remember.

The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, gave us the Sermon on the mount, in which he told us over and over again to love one another, particularly the poor and the broken, the weak and the stumbling. The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, excluded no one from his love. He became angry at those who sought to do so in the name of religion and he said ‘Follow me.”

The eternal, cosmic Christ, loves things by becoming them.

In this way, everything that we see and touch – everything of rock or fur or feathers; everything that smiles or weeps; everything that grows leaves or feathers; everything that hides in pools or in a twist in the stream or the tide – all these things are by their very nature, the Christ.

If we look, we will see him. That is what he longs for us to do. If we see him then everything changes, right? That climate change thing? The mass extinctions? The poverty? The racism? The sexism? The exclusion and dividing up into good and bad, in and out, saved and unsaved?

Remember that trick he does in making things new, even when everything seems too late? Even when the tomb is closed and the funeral party has ended?

Far from being subject to logical legalism, the Christ is much more interested in restoration- you could say, restorative justice. He seeks to connect us again to our own deep humanity, which is where he waits for us, at the core of our being.

Christ-who-was-also-Jesus calls us to participate with him in the great divide dance. It is remarkably close and remarkably ordinary.

What might this do to what I beleive? What statements can I make about this belief? Why does it matter?

Back in 2019 I wrote this as my own statement of beleif. I think I still stand on it. I hope it is shaping my lifestyle in both big and small ways. It is all I am, and all I can do.

I believe in the Christ, through whom all things have their being. He came into history as a brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman, but he is so much more than that; he is the very essence of all things and the glue that holds it all together.

Other cultures know him by other names.

He calls us to follow the way of love, which means looking for him in the most unlikely places; in the eyes of our enemies for example, or in a tangle of endangered forest.

He is particularly to be found in all that is beautiful and all that is broken.

He is also to be found in ourselves.