Wednesday, 31 January 2018


There was a time when our hymns and our evangelistic sermons were insistent that a faithful follower of Jesus Christ was assured of a place in the kingdom of God in another realm after death. It is not mentioned so often today. Why? Is it partly because there is a growing awareness that there is much more responsible living outside the Christian Church than we have acknowledged in the past? Daily we may see evidence of creative actions that owe little or nothing to most of the theology that we have inherited. In fact, such a religious connection is often vigorously denied by those who have experienced a narrow or cold Christian upbringing. Yet the old understanding of eternal life is still there in the background, and mentioned in the last verse of many loved hymns.

Gradually there has been another way of understanding being recognised. It actually has a long history among mystics, who sometimes suffered for appearing to be out of step with accepted religious truths. This emphasis on the unity of all life, religious and secular, deeply embedded in all of us everywhere, has a growing appeal for me in these turbulent days when the world is facing huge challenges. Pope Francis seems to agree, though he finds it hard to gain clerical support. He is busy trying to relate the Gospel to situations that are clearly evil: Child abuse, (especially by priests), Financial corruption by Church institutions, Refugee questions ignored, and so on. Saving souls for another life after death does not seem to get a mention.

Another question is closely linked with this in my thinking. What has happened to my old vision of a loving Person who ordains most if not all of what happens in the everyday life of our world? Our church has a devoted Prayer Group who keep in close touch and are aware of those in our congregation who are struggling with health or other problems (not usually including financial ones, though this may well come up away from the group). When the Prayer Group reports at the mid-week gathering on Wednesdays a candle is lit for each needy person or issue and God is appealed to. It is assumed that this Person, whom we name God, has all power to decide what the outcome will be in each case, and we should accept this as for our good. Sometimes this is too incredible for me to believe, especially when young children are prayed for. Yes, I am a member of the Prayer Group. Otherwise I would not always know who might need help.

This is a long-standing difficulty. For years I have had to listen to this all-powerful Person being reminded of all the matters needing urgent attention. Indeed I have done the same, both publicly and privately, as I give expression to my deep concerns. It seems instinctive. Yet I have long since been forced to modify what I mean by this, and also to be much slower to use the word God when secular society has almost ceased to respect it at all. It is linked to so much folk lore and obsolete understanding. So I am glad to hear other ways of acknowledging the Power that is there, all around us, and so magnificently portrayed in the life of Jesus and his gospel of Love. I find nothing to admire in legalistic theories of salvation gained by formal belief. The test is whether our life learns to express what Jesus lived to demonstrate. His life still has the power to inspire love.

There is still the problem of finding another word for God. Every Sunday we hear it. It has been a lifetime since we learnt it. So we must accompany the word with other inspired phrases that add to the depth of meaning. I love Paul Tillich’s phrase. God is “the Ground of our Being”. There is so much in that. His other writings are in tune with this but I hardly know them. Sally McFague has other suggestions in her book “Models of God” – Lover, Friend, and others I forget.

Where does the Bible fit into all this? When its texts are used as proofs and guarantees of what has been revealed by God through Jesus and other less inspired voices, acceptance is by no means automatic. Other voices are demanding to be heard. Other loyalties give some evidence that they too have the power to inspire devotion and creative action. Attempts to dismiss them, or suppress them by violence and condemnation – this has given power to repeated wars, some still raging. Our world still suffers as a result. We must engage in the fight against all such violence.

The Bible still inspires us, as the record of a journey with many seekers listening to a challenging and reassuring voice that cannot be denied. The journey continues. The words that speak of our personal survival in some celestial form of existence are losing their power to convince us in the way that they once did. But there is a more important promise, on which my faith is founded: whatever we do that reflects the love that Jesus portrayed has a life that continues to bear fruit, even after death. This is what we should celebrate when we meet with fellow seekers.

Arthur Palmer
23 Jan. 2018

Monday, 11 December 2017

Obama’s right, women are superior to men. Let me count the ways

Julie Bindel                         Guardian/UK                   6 December 2017

As a lifelong feminist I have always balked at the idea that women might be “better than men” because it perpetuates the myth that women and men are polar opposites, and that our skills (or lack of them) is to do with innate qualities rather than as a result of socialisation or opportunity. This particular competition of “who is best at what” further ingrains the false belief that “the battle of the sexes” is here for time immemorial.

The reality is that after thousands of years of living under patriarchy, through no choice or fault of our own, women have developed certain skills as a result of this tyranny. A feminist friend once remarked that “if oppression made one a better person there would be something to be said for it”, and while I agree wholeheartedly with this, the truth is that we have had to become far better than men at most things.

We beat men at raising money from crowdfunding, which is just as well because we are paid less for doing the same job. Women even fare better in those jobs traditionally thought of as “for the boys”. A study published this year in the British Medical Journal found that women make better surgeons than their male counterparts, and that 4% fewer patients die following an operation performed by a woman.

We beat men at raising money from crowdfunding, which is just as well because we are paid less for doing the same job. A report published in Fortune found that globally, women are consistently more successful than men in reaching funding targets. In terms of self-care, we even do that better. More than half (53%) of women will talk through problems with friends compared with only 29% of men according to a survey by the mental health charity Mind.

And women are much safer (and therefore more skilled) drivers, causing fewer accidents and being more likely to survive a serious crash. We are less likely to abandon our children, and therefore make better parents. Our washing up and general cleaning skills are far more honed (we have had loads more practice).

Cooking, ditto. Laundry, ditto.

While men love to brag about “boy’s food”, meaning massive burgers and slabs of greasy protein, women are more likely to have the recommended five-a-day. I would hazard a guess that those men sucking up the carrot juice and quinoa as opposed to burger and chips do so because women prepare it for them.

“Ah,” I hear some men cry over the sound of scraping at the bottom of a barrel, “We are better at DIY than you are!” But even men’s practical skills are diminishing, as they get lazier and more complacent. A survey carried out by a bathroom firm found that women are increasingly likely to get on with tasks such as fixing a leaky tap, fixing the toilet, hanging wallpaper, and sealing windows rather than hanging around waiting for the “man of the house” to drain his lager, switch off the football, and move into action.

But here is the rub. Women tend to be better than men at so many things because we have no choice. Yes we are better at washing up, but only because we do it way more often than men. This state of affairs self-perpetuates our oppression, highlighted by ridiculous scenarios such as restaurants advertising for female washer-uppers because men are rubbish at it.

Boys are privileged from the moment they are born. The fact that girls often exceed them in so many ways is testimony to the fact that patriarchy is really not up to much after all. [Abridged]

• Julie Bindel is a freelance journalist and political activist

Oceans under greatest threat in history

David Attenborough                   Guardian/UK             5 December 2017

The world’s oceans are under the greatest threat in history, according to Sir David Attenborough. The seas are a vital part of the global ecosystem, leaving the future of all life on Earth dependent on humanity’s actions, he says.

Attenborough will issue the warning in the final episode of the Blue Planet 2 series, which details the damage being wreaked in seas around the globe by climate change, plastic pollution, overfishing and even noise.

Previous BBC nature series presented by Attenborough have sometimes been criticised for treading too lightly around humanity’s damage to the planet. But the final episode of the latest series is entirely dedicated to the issue.

“For years we thought the oceans were so vast and the inhabitants so infinitely numerous that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them. But now we know that was wrong,” says Attenborough. “It is now clear our actions are having a significant impact on the world’s oceans. [They] are under threat now as never before in human history. Many people believe the oceans have reached a crisis point.” His sequel to The Blue Planet will focus not only on the marvels of sea life but also the threats to it. The naturalist explains why plastic pollution, climate change and overpopulation are problems too urgent to be left to ecologists

Attenborough says: “Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.” Brownlow said much of the footage shot of albatross chicks being killed by the plastic they mistake for food were too upsetting to broadcast. The programme also filmed on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, witnessing the worst bleaching event in its history.

Climate change is causing ocean temperatures to rise, bleaching the corals vital as nurseries for ocean life, and waters are warming rapidly in Antarctica too. Jon Copley, from the University of Southampton and one of many scientists appearing in the final episode, says. “What shocks me about what all the data shows is how fast things are changing here [in Antarctica]. We’re headed into uncharted territory”

The noise from shipping, tourism, and fossil fuel exploration is also revealed as harming sea life. Steve Simpson, at the University of Exeter, who works on coral reefs in southeast Asia, says: “There is a whole language underwater that we are only just getting a handle on. They use sound to attract a mate, to scare away a predator. You hear pops and grunts and gurgles and snaps.” He shows the noise of motorboats distracting saddleback clownfishes from warning against a predator attack.

The Blue Planet 2 team found plastic everywhere they filmed, even in the most remote locations such as South Georgia Island, an important breeding site for wandering albatrosses. There, Lucy Quinn from the British Antarctic Survey says many chicks are killed by plastic fed to them by their parents, including one young bird whose stomach was punctured by a plastic toothpick.

Overfishing, which remains prevalent around the world, is also addressed. “Every night thousands of miles of fishing lines laden with hooks are set – there is enough, it is said, to wrap twice around the world,” says Attenborough. But the programme also highlights some success stories, such as the revival of sperm whales off Sri Lanka and herring stocks off Norway after bans or restrictions were put in place.

Attenborough also visits Trinidad, where the conservationist Len Peters has transformed the prospects of the giant leatherback turtles who come to the island to lay their eggs and whose numbers have fallen catastrophically in recent decades. “I grew up in a house where turtle meat was normal,” says Peters. But his work to end turtle hunting and encourage tourism has seen numbers rise from 30-40 to more than 500.

Daniel Pauly, who leads the Sea Around Us programme at the University of British Columbia in Canada, and was not involved in Blue Planet 2, endorsed its stark conclusion. He said vast, subsidised fishing fleets were scraping the bottom of the barrel and that ocean acidification could be terminal for many species. [Abridged]

The Christmas Stories

Ian Harris                     Otago Daily Times                    December 8, 2017 

The Christmas stories blend clear-eyed knowledge with grand fabulations – and there’s truth in both, says Ian Harris.

There are many Christmases tumbling towards us, and as many ways to celebrate it. There’s the “thank God we’re on holiday” Christmas. The “what will Santa bring me?” Christmas. The retail bonanza as customers spend up large. The family reunion, with all its joys, tensions, and opportunities to over-indulge. The atheists’ Christmas – they might demur on principle, but will take the holyday anyway. The working Christmas for nurses, police and others who draw the short straw. Muslims will think of the prophet Jesus, born of a virgin under a date palm.

And Christians will again celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some will exalt him as the supernatural God in human form, others hail him as the very human son of a poor working family, born in the nondescript village of Nazareth in Galilee. Either way, he was destined to change history. Born in Nazareth? Shouldn’t that be Bethlehem, as the Bible and carols say? Modern scholarship says no. Bethlehem is there for its Jewish cultural and political associations, but as history it’s most unlikely.

Today we must distinguish between what one writer calls “respect for clear-eyed knowledge” on the one hand, and “reverence for the grand fabulations with which we redesign this messy, cheerless world” on the other. Clear-eyed knowledge is what science and verifiable historical fact tell us. The grand fabulations are the stories told to plumb the deeper meaning of events and our existence. Both are true, each in its own way.

Clear-eyed knowledge is respected when we register that the gospels of Matthew and Luke differ markedly in what they tell us about Jesus’ birth. Matthew, for example, has Jesus’ family living in Bethlehem, so they have no need to look for an inn, and they move to Nazareth later. Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth. But he knows that Bethlehem, 130km south, is the right place for a messiah to be born, and needs a reason to get them there. He finds it in the census which the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius, ordered in 6AD.

That poses a problem or three. The Romans didn’t expect property owners to travel back to their ancestral birthplace to register for taxes – that would have created chaos and been of little use to the tax-gatherers – but to enrol where they had property to be taxed. Well, was Joseph an absentee landlord with property in Bethlehem? Probably not, as he and Mary were poor folk. And if Joseph had a property in Bethlehem, that’s presumably where he would have headed – and without Mary, because census rules did not require a heavily pregnant woman to accompany him on such a long and difficult journey. Then again, while Rome had given the Syrian governor authority over Judaea in southern Palestine, he had no responsibility for Galilee in the north, so his census would not have applied to anyone in Nazareth.

There’s one other wrinkle: Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born while Herod was king of Judaea. Herod died in 4BC. Quirinius’s census was in 6AD. Clear-eyed knowledge concludes that Luke’s device for linking Jesus with Bethlehem is not historically accurate. Most scholars today conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Nazareth.

So why the grand fabulations, and what are we to make of them today? Jesus’ Jewish followers identified him as the king or messiah predicted in their sacred scriptures, who would restore the lustre of their people. That required a royal connection, and Bethlehem provided it. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, pivoting on the great King David. Bethlehem was David’s family home and the place where he was anointed king. The prophet Micah had written that from Bethlehem would come “a ruler who will govern my people Israel”. Matthew leapt on that, discreetly ignoring Micah’s description of this ruler as like a marauding lion devastating the Jews’ Assyrian foes.

That’s a world away from Jesus, Prince of Peace. Nevertheless, the text gave scriptural blessing to the grand fabulation: Matthew and Luke needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem to add cultural resonance to their prime purpose of affirming him as the Jews’ long-awaited messiah. When people realise this, they can see the stories in a new light, appreciating the grand fabulations for what they are, while concluding with the scholars that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth. What matters from both perspectives is the man he grew up to be, and the hugely positive influence he still has on the hundreds of millions who follow him.

Monday, 27 November 2017

A New Reformation

Ian Harris                      Faith and Reason              ODT November 10, 2017

For much of last century talk has wafted in the ecclesiastical air about a “New Reformation”. Over the past year churches around the world variously noted, celebrated or ignored the 500th anniversary of the old Reformation that rocked Christendom after the Catholic monk Martin Luther proposed to debate troubling aspects of his church’s teaching. The ensuing convulsion reshaped Europe politically, and in church life produced new emphases and practices. But as English Anglican Bishop John Robinson observes, the institutions that emerged were “a cluster of little catholicisms, each reproducing the characteristics of the parent, with its own ministry and sacraments, its own buildings and budgets”.

More importantly, the basic affirmations of the medieval church – a supernatural reality, a theistic God, a divine Jesus who died to appease that God’s wrath at human sinfulness – flowed through into the Reformation churches. The Reformation transposed the Christian symphony into another key, but it was essentially the same symphony.

Closer to our own time, some hailed the movement towards unifying five major New Zealand denominations in the 1950s and 1960s as a new reformation. In hindsight, it is more likely to have entrenched those traditional doctrinal emphases further. In some denominations, that’s what happened anyway, as a confession of faith adopted by the New Zealand Presbyterian Church in 2010 attests. Powerfully appropriate as those doctrines were to people’s understanding in the 1500s, in today’s world they are past their use-by date. A living religion must be free to evolve and find new expressions within contemporary realities, or it will wash up on the shores of irrelevance. Any new reformation will have to cut much deeper than the old.

For the church, ideally, does not exist for itself. It exists for the world in which it is set – and for most New Zealanders, that world is secular. A New Reformation would be worth little unless it truly became leaven in this new cultural environment, rethinking its theology so as to offer above all the prospect of a more humble, more compassionate humanity.

Robinson is clear that in such a reformation the church must abandon metaphysical and supernatural thought-forms that have become meaningless in the modern world. American Episcopalian Bishop John Spong fleshes that out in the first of 12 theses for a New Reformation: “Theism as a way of defining God is dead . . . A new way to speak of God must be found.”

Spong would therefore happily jettison some central doctrines of traditional Christianity, based as they are on outmoded understandings of God, the world, and human life poised between heaven and hell. The only reformation that will serve the world, he says, “will not be concerned with authority, ecclesiastical polity, valid ordinations and valid sacraments . . . but rather will examine the very nature of the Christian faith itself.”

There are fringe movements which further that examination. But they are not owned or encouraged by official church institutions, and often express themselves in social activism rather than plumbing the depths of faith itself. A New Reformation, if it happens, will be as divisive for the institutional churches as was the old. You will know it is on the way when visionary leaders roll away cartloads of metaphysical embroidery, set aside the Bible’s 3000-year-old science in favour of what we have learnt since Copernicus and Galileo, Newton and Darwin, Freud and Jung, and tune in fully to the world around them. They will, as Robinson urges, sit down with community groups around them to hear the real questions of life and meaning people in society are facing and then shape their liturgies accordingly, for Christianity still has a life-enhancing perspective to offer.

Congregations will need to muscle up to expand beyond residential chaplaincies for the few, and become creative life centres, accepting all-comers, sharing but never imposing. They will add depth and breadth to their communities through tapping into the vital core of their Christian heritage, drawing inspiration from the in-dwelling Christ as archetype of love, grace and transformation.

I’m not holding my breath. Two months ago Christchurch’s Anglican Synod had a golden opportunity to blaze a new trail by saying goodbye to its medieval Gothic cathedral in order to risk a 21st-century architectural statement of faith in the heart of the city. It voted to gaze firmly backwards. Nothing significant will come from painstakingly preserving an obsolescent past. In today’s world, even a New Reformation would be inadequate. What’s required is a Transformation. For Christianity the choice is stark: transform or perish