Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Faith Evolves

Ian Harris                      Otago Daily News                   May 12, 2017

I was startled to learn recently that I’m engaged in a war on truth. Really? I thought I was engaged in a search for truth. But no, one Paul Thomas, writing in The Listener, declares that “the biggest battalions in the war on truth are those deployed by religion”. That’s because it “elevates belief above rationality and groupthink above independence of mind”.

He then fires the same broadside at religion’s “secular equivalent ideology” (is there only one?). Both, he says, make claims that defy logic, cannot withstand objective scrutiny, and impose the mindset that “if you have commitment to the cause, you won’t need evidence to know these claims are true”. Then the clincher, a Dawkinsesque recourse to “a fundamentalist Christian who believes Earth was created 5000 years ago and Adam and Eve were real people”.

Poor Mr Thomas, bobbing blithely on his backwater! Apparently he is unaware that a progressive theological current has been running within all the mainstream churches for more than a century, and thinking has moved a long way from the dogmatic bunkers of the past. Doesn’t he believe in evolution, which includes the evolution of Christian thought? But he’s not alone. A letter-writer asserted in this newspaper that in Christianity truth has never mattered very much, and tilts at the Bible as “essentially just a collection of fables, full of nonsense”.

It isn’t, actually. It’s a 1000-year record that shows people of integrity wrestling with the great questions of life – meaning, purpose, destiny – in light of the knowledge and understanding of their own times. They teased those questions out in myth, poetry, song, drama, parable, history, law, ethics, philosophy, teaching, preaching, interpretation. In other words, their Bible is a very human book – and a model for moderns to do likewise in our vastly changed world. To literalise the myths, as some conservative Christians and the letter-writer do, is to miss the mark by a country mile.

Reflecting on such distortions, Irish-American theologian John Dominic Crossan says the point is “not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”. Yes, there are churches still stuck on the reefs of medieval beliefs about God, the Bible, heaven and hell, and they give oxygen to those who dismiss religion on grounds of rationality and logic. I share a distaste for that style of religion, but it’s far from the whole picture.

So why do the critics focus solely on that segment of the spectrum? Is it too much trouble, in pursuit of truth, to see the Christian enterprise in all its diversity, and see it whole? Their approach is akin to judging science by its capacity to build nuclear weapons and wage biological warfare, while ignoring its advances in medicine, astronomy, transport, communications and much else. Besides, finding meaning and purpose in life, and determining the values that will be central to the way one lives, was never a science project, and isn’t now.

Rationality is one platform for this, but the search also draws on emotion, imagination, creativity, dreaming. How very human! The knowledge explosion of the past 200 years does not jettison the deep human wisdom of the ages, as if nothing counted until we came along, but provides a basis for re-interpreting and re-integrating that wisdom in the light of new knowledge. There is truth for living that is different from the truths of scientific experiment and discovery. And that is the sphere of religion.

All that is meat and drink to those on the liberal/progressive end of the Christian spectrum, looking to the future rather than trying to shore up the past. The modern world poses questions about aspects of the tradition that once seemed self-evident truths, but may now be regarded as the cultural embroidery of a past age, centred as it was on a theistic God, a supernatural reality, a heavenly after-life. The quest for truth leads many Christians to quietly abandon those assumptions, and build on new understandings that make sense within their secular world.

Christianity then comes down to earth with a bump, and is freed to evolve in fresh ways. It’s all less tidy now, but the motive power is still the same: a truth for living based on relationships impelled by love, respect, freedom and concern. That is central to what the apostle Paul means by “living in Christ” – which is the beating heart of the Christian lifestyle


Corbyn is Right - Manchester was linked to British foreign policy

Simon Jenkins                Guardian/UK                26 May 2017

We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us, claiming our motive was ‘to keep terror off the streets of Britain’

Jeremy Corbyn is
perfectly right to relate this week’s Manchester terrorist atrocity to British foreign policy in the Middle East. Whenever Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron struggled to explain why British blood and finance had to go on toppling regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, they were explicit: it was “to prevent terrorism in the streets of Britain”. The reason was given over and over again: to suppress militant Islam.

When that policy clearly leads to an increase in Islamist terrorism, we are entitled to agree with Corbyn that it has “simply failed”. Regimes were indeed toppled. Tens of thousands died, many of them civilians every bit as innocent as Manchester’s victims. Terrorism has not stopped.

Whenever al-Qaida or Isis seek to explain their atrocities, reference is usually made to British intervention and the military killing of innocent Muslims. It is mendacious to try to sanitise our overheated and jingoistic response to domestic terrorism by pretending that it is unrelated to British foreign policy. It was we who made the link, and before the terrorists did.

Of course this does not exonerate anyone. Yes, militant Islamists are seeking to subvert the west’s sense of security and its liberal values. Yes, the west’s continued bombing of markets, hospitals, weddings and villages is “accidental” – albeit inevitable, given the nature of modern air war.

But we used the language of “
shock and awe” in bombing Baghdad in 2003. We gave the current era of Islamist terrorism a cause, a reason, an excuse, however perverted. We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us.

Where Corbyn spoils his pitch is in relating terrorism not just to foreign policy but to domestic austerity. He stoops to Theresa May’s level in seeking to make electoral capital from a tragedy. Were he not grandstanding himself, he could accuse her of peddling the politics of fear by flooding the streets of the capital with soldiers. He could plead with the Muslim community to do more to combat and expose terrorist “grooming”. But there is no evidence that the security services are impeded in their work by staff shortages. It is the one aspect of policing that has been showered with money.

Politicians who exploit moments of public tragedy play a risky game. Whether Corbyn was tactful to return to the election campaign by citing
Manchester is moot: he would have been wise to wait a few days. But Islamist terrorism is related to foreign policy. However hateful it may seem to us, it is a means to a political end. Sometimes it is as well to call a spade a spade.


Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Religious Diversity

By Ian Harris                             Otago Daily Times                         May 13, 2016

Colonised New Zealand began as a largely homogeneous Christian society, remaining so until well into last century. Now the reverse is true: in terms of religion, our society has become one of the most diverse in the world. Resented, this diversity will exacerbate division and hostility. Welcomed, it will help provide the social cement of trust which people in a globalising world sorely need, in a way that economic integration, currently all the rage, never could.

All it requires is acknowledging “the dignity of difference” – which happens to be the title of an important book by the former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. Religion has a vital role to play in shaping the way ahead. Some will look at history and object that religious difference has actually fomented antagonism around the world, especially when used to reinforce the social, economic and political domination of one group over another. Invariably, that has resulted from an abuse of power, in denial of a tenet affirmed by every major faith: Always treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Christians and Muslims have the worst record here. Think of the crusades, Catholic Spain’s expulsion of Muslims and of Jews, the mutual bigotry of Irish Protestants and Catholics, and in today’s world, Muslim intolerance of Christians in much of the Middle East, and outright persecution by extremists in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan.

Adherents of other faiths are not blameless. Hindus have sacked Christian churches in India. In Myanmar, Buddhists seek to suppress Christian and Muslim minorities. While their motivation is basically nationalistic and political, they invoke religion to cloak their prejudice in a mantle of sacred duty. Add to that some people’s Dawkinsesque intolerance of anything religious at all, and you have the makings of a witches’ brew of discord.

To that there is a religious answer, and people of every faith, and even of none, are called on to contribute to it. From a faith standpoint, Lord Sacks explains why: “Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to his presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.” It is therefore essential to let go of any sense that all would be well if only everyone could be crammed into the same mould (your own, of course): “The test of faith,” says Lord Sacks, “is whether I can make space for difference.”

In light of that, it should come as a relief that there are those who see New Zealand as potentially a role model for religious diversity in the world at large. That was given form and focus in March through the launch at Parliament of the Religious Diversity Centre in New Zealand. It expands on a variety of local interfaith groups, but does not replace them.

The professor of religious studies at Victoria University, Paul Morris, reminded the gathering that New Zealand had moved from being 91 per cent Christian in the 1961 census to around 50 per cent in 2013, while those declaring “no religion” had risen from 5.5 to around 40 per cent. We now have sizeable Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities, and nearly a quarter of a million members of religions other than Christian.

A 2014 report by the Pew Research Centre ranked New Zealand 19th among 232 countries and territories for religious diversity, above Australia, Belgium, France, Britain, Germany and the United States. Most diverse is Singapore. Prof Morris said such diversity could either threaten social cohesion or be an enormous positive resource for social harmony. But its positive value had to be consciously developed.

Studies showed many professing “no religion” nevertheless say they are “spiritual” and interested in religious issues. Also, perhaps counter-intuitively, members of religious communities are more likely to be open to people of other faiths than the “nones”. Presumably they know the value of faith for their own identity, so can value it in others. As Lord Sacks observes: “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.”

The new centre will carry out research, offer training in religious diversity, educate, give policy advice, and comment on relevant public issues. Launching the centre, patron Helen Clark said: “The world badly needs voices of reason and tolerance and people who will work to build dialogue and respect across faiths and beliefs. I do believe that New Zealand can show the way.” Let’s prove her right.


Anzac Day 2017

On Anzac Day this year there was the usual commemoration of the cost of war, as our soldiers who did not return were remembered. And as usual there was some attempt to assure us that we are still protecting our way of life with the traditional means of defence. It is understood that continued peace depends on our readiness to make a similar sacrifice in the future, if another threat should descend on us or our allies. 

I have usually been absent from Anzac Day celebrations, not because I am less concerned about the loss of so many young lives from our shores, but rather because it leaves out, in total silence, the many more millions across the world, who suffered from this great turmoil of contending forces striving for domination. Who spares a thought for them? The civilians, young and old, of nations swept along by imperial overlords, and those wearing the wrong uniforms. Who cares what happened to them?

Here and there, when peace on earth has been the main focus, these forgotten human elements have been briefly mentioned. But they are the collateral damage that always accompanies war. If we care about them we must recognize that war is our chief enemy and theirs.

This year a small group of peace-minded young and old decided to meet, without any display of war weapons, about three hundred yards below the Museum where the much larger memorial service was taking place. Here justice, twin brother or at least close relative of peace, got more than a brief mention from the bevy of speakers. These included the Imam of an Islamic group in South Auckland.

A Muslim? Yes. A missing name from most Anzac Day services. Muslims were on the opposite side at Gallipoli, and in some quarters are being groomed for a similar role in a new conflict. That fact alone should alert us to the need for concern, and some action to follow. So here I ask you to consider a slightly abbreviated account of what Imam Shafiq of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at NZ presented to us on Anzac Day 2017. 
-Arthur Palmer

Assalamu Alaikum… kia tau te rangimarie ki a koutou. May peace be with you. I am humbled and privileged to be part of this Prayers for Peace Service as a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a revival movement within Islam. I begin with a Prayer from the Holy Qur’an:

“All praise belongs to God, Lord of all the worlds,
The Gracious, the Merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment,
Thee alone do we worship, and Thee alone do we implore for help.
Guide us in the right path… Amen

As today commemorates those killed in war and war veterans, and our prayers are with them as well as all the innocent civilians killed, it reminds us the importance of peace all the more. A time when the conflicts around the world are spiralling, and the fears resulting in a global catastrophe are increasing every day, there is a great need for every section of society to gather their energies and efforts and prayers for peace in the world at large. We must commend Church in Progress for organising today’s event.

Islam teaches us to like for others what you like for yourself. This golden principle is also enshrined in the teachings of some other faiths. Therefore, as believers we should be united and we should ensure that our efforts within our circles are for peace to prevail over all regions of the world. Regrettably, in many parts of the world, far greater is priority is being given, either directly or indirectly, towards asserting dominance and satisfying a craving for power and authority. I must condemn the evil acts and crimes against humanity of certain so-called Islamic groups. I do not know how to assure you that the barbaric acts of ISIS and other terrorist groups and individuals are totally in violation of the true Islamic teachings.

Reading the outline of the day… I found a mention of the production of weapons of terrible destruction. It is sad that despite all the conflicts and bloodshed in different parts of the world, mainly the Middle East, the major powers of the world are concerned only with their business interests, and they have continued to sell millions of dollars’ worth of heavy weaponry to the warring parties. All they care about is that their cheques clear so that billions are added to their own national budgets. In short, money talks and morality is left nowhere to be seen. We are living in a world of duality and double standards, especially when we look at world politics and the role of the world powers. Can we still hope for peace? As believers we never lose hope. But we must work harder and pray harder for world peace. 

-Shafiq ur Rehman (Imam), Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at NZ