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

https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/transform-or-perish

War's toxic legacy can no longer be ignored

The battle for Mosul has left the city caked in soot and shrouded in smog. When will the world realise that the environment is not merely a silent victim of war?

Erik Solheim           Head of UN Environment          Guardian/UK           3 November 2017

The smoke that billowed from the burning oil fields was so thick it blocked out the sun. By the time I reached Qayyarah, where Islamic State fighters had set fire to 19 oil wells, a film of black soot had settled over the Iraqi town like toxic snow. Even the sheep had turned black.

The fires may have been extinguished, and Isis ousted from the city, but the environmental devastation caused by the battle for Mosul will linger for decades. The destruction of hospitals, weapons factories, industrial plants and power stations has left behind a toxic cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful waste. Many of these pollutants are mixed up with unexploded bombs and mines in the vast amount of rubble generated by the fighting. Our team has already found high levels of lead and mercury in Mosul’s water and soil. This is the toxic legacy of one of the fiercest urban battles of the modern age.

When we measure the brutality of war, we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. In the din of battle and the rush to treat and shelter its survivors, the toxic legacy of war is often ignored – as is the long-term damage to the health of millions of people forced to live amid the pollution.

When bombs fall, the environment suffers. In Colombia, which hosts 10% of the planet’s biodiversity, half a century of war has destroyed some of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems. The mining of gold, which funded rebel forces during the conflict, has polluted the country’s rivers and land with mercury. In Ukraine, three and a half years of fighting in the heavily industrialised country has contaminated the groundwater. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan has destroyed more than half the country’s forests. Often, the environmental destruction is deliberate. Environmental infrastructure is increasingly targeted to drain the enemy of popular support. When power plants, water facilities and sewage systems are destroyed, disease and pollution spread and civilian health plummets, prolonging the suffering of people whose lives have already been devastated by violence.

The environment isn’t just a silent victim of war. When poorly managed, the environment can also trigger and fuel armed conflict. In Syria, severe drought drove millions into cities that were ill-equipped to cope with the burden. Popular anger grew inside some of the country’s poorest urban areas, fuelling protests that erupted into a civil war that has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Around the world, natural resources are funding militias, prolonging violence and making it even harder for peace deals to stick.

There are encouraging signs that the world is beginning to wake up to this need. Social media, smartphones and satellite imagery are making it easier to identify pollution hotspots, allowing governments and aid agencies to respond faster and more effectively to reduce the harm to human health. The UN is drafting new laws to protect the environment during conflict, laws which have barely evolved since the 1970s. And the international criminal court may soon try cases that involve the destruction of the environment and the illegal exploitation of natural resources during conflict.

In December, the third UN Environment assembly will take place in Nairobi. Curbing pollution – in all its insidious, life-threatening forms – will dominate the agenda. It is my sincere hope that member states will pass a resolution tabled by Iraq that calls for the creation of a UN Environment taskforce responsible solely for tackling conflict pollution. This would be a major advance in the battle to combat war’s toxic legacy.

Worrying about the environment during war may seem like a luxury. But this is not about birds and butterflies. This is about protecting the soil, air and water that all of us depend on to survive. When we destroy the ecosystems that sustain us, when we pollute the rivers and land with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, we cripple our health and our ability to rebuild amid the ruins. If we continue to ignore the environmental toll of conflict, then we will continue to perpetuate the misery of war and prolong the suffering of those caught in the crossfire. [Abridged]

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/nov/03/sheep-turn-black-mosul-iraq-war-toxic-legacy-erik-solheim-un-environment 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The war against Pope Francis

Guardian/UK                  27 Oct. 2017

Pope Francis is one of the most hated men in the world today. Those who hate him most are not atheists, or protestants, or Muslims, but some of his own followers. Outside the church he is hugely popular as a figure of almost ostentatious modesty and humility. From the moment that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became pope in 2013, his gestures caught the world’s imagination: the new pope drove a Fiat, carried his own bags and settled his own bills in hotels; he asked, of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and washed the feet of Muslim women refugees.

But within the church, Francis has provoked a ferocious backlash from conservatives. This summer, one prominent English priest said to me: “We can’t wait for him to die. It’s unprintable what we say in private”. Francis, the first non-European pope in modern times, and the first ever Jesuit pope, was elected as an outsider to the Vatican establishment, and expected to make enemies. But no one foresaw just how many he would make. From his swift renunciation of the pomp of the Vatican, which served notice to the church’s 3,000-strong civil service that he meant to be its master, to his support for migrants, his attacks on global capitalism and, most of all, his moves to re-examine the church’s teachings about sex, he has scandalised reactionaries and conservatives.

The crunch point has come in a fight over his views on divorce. Breaking with centuries, of Catholic theory, Pope Francis has tried to encourage Catholic priests to give communion to some divorced and remarried couples, or to families where unmarried parents are cohabiting. His enemies are trying to force him to renounce this effort. Since he won’t, and has quietly persevered in the face of mounting discontent, they are now preparing for battle. Last year, one cardinal raised the possibility of a formal declaration of heresy. Last month, 62 disaffected Catholics, including one retired bishop, published an open letter that accused Francis of seven specific counts of heretical teaching.

The question is particularly poisonous because it is almost entirely theoretical. In practice, in most of the world, divorced and remarried couples are routinely offered communion. Pope Francis is not proposing a revolution, but the bureaucratic recognition of a system that already exists, and might even be essential to the survival of the church. If the rules were literally applied, no one whose marriage had failed could ever have sex again. This is not a practical way to ensure there are future generations of Catholics.

But Francis’s cautious reforms seem to his opponents to threaten the belief that the church teaches timeless truths. And if the Catholic church does not teach eternal truths, conservatives ask, what is the point of it? The battle over divorce and remarriage has brought to a point two profoundly opposed ideas of what the church is for. The pope’s insignia are two crossed keys. They represent those Jesus is supposed to have given St Peter, which symbolise the powers to bind and to loose: to proclaim what is sin, and what is permitted. But which power is more urgent now?

The Catholic church has spent much of the past century fighting against the sexual revolution, and in this struggle it has been forced into the defence of an untenable absolutist position, whereby all artificial contraception is banned, along with all sex outside one lifelong marriage. As Francis recognises, that’s not how people actually behave. The clergy know this, but are expected to pretend they don’t. The official teaching may not be questioned, but neither can it be obeyed. Something has to give, and when it does, the resulting explosion could fracture the church.

Appropriately enough, the sometimes bitter hatreds within the church – whether over climate change, migration or capitalism – have come to a head in a gigantic struggle over the implications of a single footnote in a document entitled The Joy of Love (or, in its proper, Latin name, Amoris Laetitia). The document, written by Francis, is a summary of the current debate over divorce, and it is in this footnote that he makes an apparently mild assertion that divorced and remarried couples may sometimes receive communion.

With more than a billion followers, the Catholic church is the largest global organisation the world has ever seen, and many of its followers are divorced, or unmarried parents. To carry out its work all over the world, it depends on voluntary labour. If the ordinary worshippers stop believing in what they are doing, the whole thing collapses. Francis knows this. If he cannot reconcile theory and practice, the church might be emptied out everywhere. His opponents also believe the church faces a crisis, but their prescription is the opposite. For them, the gap between theory and practice is exactly what gives the church worth and meaning. If all the church offers people is something they can manage without, Francis’s opponents believe, then it will surely collapse.

No one foresaw this when Francis was elected in 2013. One reason he was chosen by his fellow cardinals was to sort out the sclerotic bureaucracy of the Vatican. This task was long overdue. Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected as a relative outsider with the ability to clear out some of the blockage at the centre of the church. But that mission soon collided with an even more acrimonious faultline in the church, which is usually described in terms of a battle between “liberals”, like Francis, and “conservatives”, like his enemies. Yet that is a slippery and misleading classification.

The central dispute is between Catholics who believe that the church should set the agenda for the world, and those who think the world must set the agenda for the church. Those are ideal types: in the real world, any Catholic will be a mixture of those orientations, but in most of them, one will predominate.

Francis is a very pure example of the “outer-directed” or extrovert Catholic, especially compared with his immediate predecessors. His opponents are the introverts. Many were first attracted to the church by its distance from the concerns of the world. A surprising number of the most prominent introverts are converts from American Protestantism, some driven by the shallowness of the intellectual resources they were brought up with, but much more by a sense that liberal Protestantism was dying precisely because it no longer offered any alternative to the society around it. They want mystery and romance, not sterile common sense or conventional wisdom. No religion could flourish without that impulse.

But nor can any global religion set itself against the world entirely. In the early 1960s, a three-year gathering of bishops from every part of the church, known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, “opened the windows to the world”, in the words of Pope John XXIII, who set it in motion, but died before its work had finished.

The council renounced antisemitism, embraced democracy, proclaimed universal human rights and largely abolished the Latin Mass. That last act, in particular, stunned the introverts. The author Evelyn Waugh, for example, never once went to an English Mass after the decision. For men like him, the solemn rituals of a service performed by a priest with his back to the congregation, speaking entirely in Latin, facing God on the altar, were the very heart of the church – a window into eternity enacted at every performance. The ritual had been central to the church in one form or another since its foundation.

The symbolic change brought about by the new liturgy – replacing the introverted priest facing God at the altar with the extroverted figure facing his congregation – was immense. Some conservatives still have not reconciled themselves to the reorientation, among them the Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, who has been touted by introverts as a possible successor to Francis, and the American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Francis’ most public opponent. The current crisis, in the words of the English Catholic journalist Margaret Hebblethwaite – a passionate partisan of Francis – is nothing less than “Vatican II coming back again”.

“We need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human,” Sarah said at a Vatican gathering last year, in a denunciation of Francis’s proposals, “but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You can not join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.”

In the years immediately after the council, nuns discarded their habits, priests discovered women (more than 100,000 left the priesthood to marry) and theologians threw off the shackles of introverted orthodoxy. After 150 years of resisting and repelling the outside world, the church found itself engaging with it everywhere, until it seemed to introverts that the whole edifice would collapse to rubble.

Church attendance plummeted in the western world, as it did in other denominations. In the US, 55% of Catholics went to mass regularly in 1965; by 2000, only 22% did. In 1965, 1.3m Catholic babies were baptised in the US; in 2016, just 670,000. Whether this was cause or correlation remains fiercely disputed. The introverts blamed it on the abandonment of eternal truths and traditional practices; extraverts felt the church had not changed far or fast enough.

In 1966, a papal committee of 69 members, with seven cardinals and 13 doctors among them, on which laypeople and even some women were also represented, voted overwhelmingly to lift the ban on artificial contraception, but Pope Paul VI overruled them in 1968. He could not admit that his predecessors had been wrong, and the Protestants right. For a generation of Catholics, this dispute came to symbolise resistance to change. In the developing world, the Catholic church was largely overtaken by a huge Pentecostal revival, which offered both showmanship and status to the laity, even to women.

This is the first section of a very long article. You will find the full article at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/oct/27/the-war-against-pope-francis

Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war honoured with prize

Nicola Davis                Guardian/UK                        27 October 2017

On 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov was on board the Soviet submarine B-59 near Cuba when the US forces began dropping non-lethal depth charges. While the action was designed to encourage the Soviet submarines to surface, the crew of B-59 had been incommunicado and so were unaware of the intention. They thought they were witnessing the beginning of a third world war.

Trapped in the sweltering submarine – the air-conditioning was no longer working – the crew feared death. But, unknown to the US forces, they had a special weapon in their arsenal: a ten kilotonne nuclear torpedo. What’s more, the officers had permission to launch it without waiting for approval from Moscow. Two of the vessel’s senior officers – including the captain, Valentin Savitsky – wanted to launch the missile. According to a report from the US National Security Archive, Savitsky exclaimed: “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.”

But there was an important caveat: all three senior officers on board had to agree to deploy the weapon. As a result, the situation in the control room played out very differently. Arkhipov refused to sanction the launch of the weapon and calmed the captain down. The torpedo was never fired. Had it been launched, the fate of the world would have been very different: the attack would probably have started a nuclear war which would have caused global devastation, with unimaginable numbers of civilian deaths.

“The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world,’’ Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, told the Boston Globe in 2002, following a conference in which the details of the situation were explored. Now, 55 years after he averted nuclear war and 19 years after his death, Arkhipov is to be honoured, with his family the first recipients of a new award.

The prize, dubbed the “Future of Life award” is the brainchild of the Future of Life Insitute – a US-based organisation whose goal is to tackle threats to humanity and whose advisory board includes such luminaries as Elon Musk, the astronomer royal Prof Martin Rees, and actor Morgan Freeman.

“The Future of Life award is a prize awarded for a heroic act that has greatly benefited humankind, done despite personal risk and without being rewarded at the time,” said Max Tegmark, professor of physics at MIT and leader of the Future of Life Institute.

Speaking to Tegmark, Arkhipov’s daughter Elena Andriukova said the family were grateful for the prize, and its recognition of Arkhipov’s actions. “He always thought that he did what he had to do and never considered his actions as heroism. He acted like a man who knew what kind of disasters can come from radiation,” she said. “He did his part for the future so that everyone can live on our planet.” The $50,000 prize will be presented to Arkhipov’s grandson, Sergei, and Andriukova at the Institute of Engineering and Technology on Friday evening.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel peace prize-winning organisation, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said Arkhipov’s actions were a reminder of how the world had teetered on the brink of disaster. “Arkhipov’s story shows how close to nuclear catastrophe we have been in the past,” she said.

The timing of the award, Fihn added, is apt. “As the risk of nuclear war is on the rise right now, all states must urgently join the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons to prevent such catastrophe.” Dr Jonathan Colman, an expert on the Cuban missile crisis at the University of Central Lancashire, agreed that the award was fitting.

“While accounts differ about what went on on board the B-59, it is clear that Arkhipov and the crew operated under conditions of extreme tension and physical hardship. Once the nuclear threshold had been crossed, it is hard to imagine that the genie could have been put back into the bottle,” he said. “President Kennedy had been very worried about the possibility of a clash between American warships and Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and it is absolutely clear that his fears were justified,” Colman added, noting that certain decisions at the operational level were out of his control. “Ultimately, it was luck as much as management that ensured that the missile crisis ended without the most dreadful consequences.”

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/27/vasili-arkhipov-soviet-submarine-captain-who-averted-nuclear-war-awarded-future-of-life-prize

Monday, 16 October 2017

Faith, Reason, and Democracy

by Ian Harris                Otago Daily Times                Oct. 13, 2017 

With the election behind us and democracy in good heart, let’s move on to a new guiding story, urges Ian Harris

Abraham Lincoln famously affirmed democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Winston Churchill considered it “the worst form of government except for all the others”. And said the best argument against democracy is “a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Somewhere in the middle of all that sits the state of democracy in this country – and, thinking not so much of the voting score-cards but the way the latest campaign was waged, it came through pretty well. There was a genuine contest of values, ideas and courses for the country to follow in the years ahead. Tribal branding words such as “socialist” and “conservative” slipped into the background. Even “left” and “right” nuanced into “progressive” and “stable” – though these can mean all things to all people. Who would not want steady gains in human well-being? Who in their right mind would favour turmoil over stability?

One of the roles of political leaders is to embody and convey the values their party stands for, even their vision if they have one, and when we look around the world, New Zealanders can be thankful for our party leaders. All but one showed they were registering a palpable mood for change and ready to move on, some cautiously, some resolutely, from a blinkered neoliberal paradigm. National’s Bill English has found a way to respond by changing the language of “welfare” to one of “social investment”. This clothes a humane impulse in the garb of financial prudence, which presumably has greater appeal to his constituency – and if that’s what it takes, so be it.

Politicians of the left work the other way round, responding first to human need and then setting out to find the wherewithal. The parties forming the new government now have the chance to show that their prescription delivers for all New Zealanders. That means getting serious about climate change, truly lifting people out of poverty, helping them into warm dry houses, assuring them of health care, and giving them the confidence to contribute to and feel fully part of their communities. If they fall short, other parties have other remedies ready to hand.

Elections are never seasons of sweetness and light, but the latest one lacked much of the visceral hostility to “the other lot” (or lots) that sometimes mars campaigns. Of course there were disappointing aspects. National resorted to fake news, Trumpeting [Subs: cap is intentional] a fictional $11.7-billion hole in Labour’s budget, falsely advertising that Labour was bent on taxing a glass of water, overtly quarrying voter self-interest and fear. Labour undermined its sunny positivity by lack of attention to economic detail where it mattered.

But a major plus of MMP is that it incentivises the larger parties to show at least some courtesy towards the smaller players, knowing they might need them one day as partners in government. Hence former prime minister Jim Bolger’s advice to his successors to show respect to Winston Peters and work with the Greens.

Another positive for democracy in New Zealand is that an MMP Parliament is more broadly representative of voters than its first-past-the-post predecessors. Till 1996, elections usually swung on a relatively small group of voters in a handful of electorates. And then the result delivered, in effect, a blank cheque to a cabinet chosen from the winner, valid for three years. True, proportional representation does not necessarily mean proportionality of power, and NZ First’s pivotal role in forming a government is out of all proportion to the seven seats it won.

However, any coalition partner can expect to have a tempering effect on whichever party it blesses (or curses) with its presence. It will be tempered in turn. Negotiation and compromise become virtuous necessities. Looking ahead, the times demand new horizons. Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote last month that the planetary environmental crisis makes the “stories” that drove politics in the 20th century – Keynesian social democracy, then individualistic neoliberalism – inadequate for the 21st. A new guiding story is needed to capture the imagination of the populace, springing from what he calls “the central facts of our humanity: our altruism and mutual aid”.

Whenever there is a disaster, those qualities immediately kick in. Building community through “a politics of belonging”– Monbiot’s new story – would make our altruism and mutual aid the norm in political, economic and social life. Signs are that such a story is stirring here. Transformation and renewal lie at the heart of a Christian approach to life, meaning and purpose. Will churches see they have a part to play?