Sunday, January 29, 2017

Check the label - ad hominems and labels in political discourse

Have you ever checked the label on a product? Maybe you're health conscious, carbon miles sensitive or boycotting for whatever reason. We expect the labels to be accurate in whatever case. When it comes to people and the discussion of politics, religion or ideology, we need to be more careful that the label truly represents what's in the box.

I see things people post and wonder how often I've done the same. One might choose the most outlandish of things and use this to represent the whole. Sam Harris would call moderates hypocrites and say only the extremists are true to the faith. Or those who see one act of violence and paint the whole as the same. As one meme goes, if you can distinguish between the KKK or Westboro Baptists and most other Christians (and in the vein of this post I'll say either can be), then you can tell the difference between ISIS/ISIL and the majority of Muslims.

So, when we see someone engaging in reductio ad absurdum arguments (reduction to the absurd) by showing something patently ridiculous or easy to ridicule yet attacking the whole spectrum of a group, we should be able to see through it.

You see this in the way in which the idea of triggering is used in humour. To be sure, some of what I have read on micro-aggressions and a certain fragility of modern thinking deserves critique. However, trigger warnings for those who've been the subject of sexual assault for certain news articles, or for cultures that have sensitivities around seeing footage of people who are deceased is another order altogether. Likewise, you might find some obscure YouTube rant by a 'triggered feminist' and think all feminism is like that. But this is unfair to an idea that has given women the right to vote, equality in employment, and unlike Russia, sees domestic violence as a crime.

So always check the label and think it through. Voting for Trump doesn't make you a racist even though racists voted for Trump. And Trump doesn't represent all Republicans. Believing in social security and health care doesn't mean you'd like to move to China or North Korea! Satire has its place, but it's not the only rhetorical tool we have in discussions, so let's drop ad hominems and always wanting to reduce our opponents to some straw man or lowest common denominator. In a so-called post truth world of alternative facts, we need to do better.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Worldviews are like the sun; beliefs and hypocrisy

I got up this morning to see the odd anti-religion meme in my Facebook news feed. Rather than engage them directly, I wanted to take a step back with a favorite quote. Perhaps another time I'll spin off some of them. This quote by C S Lewis should get us thinking about worldviews. We might say we believe in x, but the way we live our lives says more about what we believe that often what we say.

A worldview consists of symbols we uphold, things we do, stories we tell ourselves and questions we ask about the world. I recently saw a meme that compared Donald Trump to a church building - both not paying taxes and both full of shit. Both these ideas deserves posts of their own, but it is interesting for my purposes here to evaluate the claim of what a church represents, or more broadly the variety of Christianities, and the function they play as worldviews. Indeed worldviews as a whole.

One of the things about worldviews is that they are rarely consciously or deeply examined. And they are rarely held consistently, i.e. most people are hypocritical. To consider the first point, anyone who thought it disgusting that Anthony Mundine called for people not to stand for the Australian national anthem hold a worldview with a narrative that excludes large parts of our colonial and present history. They can't even begin to evaluate their own reaction because they see the world in a way that cannot comprehend Aboriginal dispossession and suffering.

Likewise, there are many Christians who cannot see through their own worldview of say Christendom, the wedding of religion to political power (another time I'll talk about different views of this, just in case you think I believe the Church should have no voice in political issues).

On the second charge, it is very true that many religious people are hypocritical in that their behaviour doesn't match their beliefs. Some people conclude wrongly that being religious doesn't make you good or that what you do matters more than what you believe. What you really believe does influence what you do, it's just that you are often not aware of what you really believe. But what is often not thought through deeply is that atheism should lead to nihilism, and meaning means nothing, good and evil are a matter of choice. I'd have thought people who believe nothing rarely live consistently with what they truly believe - call it easy unbelievism if you will. Of course my major concern is lining up what I believe with what I do, not what you believe or do. But I just find it ironic as a fairly public Christian I can be called out by those who can't see they should be called out.

One of the things about "converting" is that you are forced to think through your beliefs. I certainly think rather different things in many areas of life than I did nearly 30 years ago when I first came to faith. But it isn't simply about a book of stories, or a list of statements, or even just about praxis, but about a whole way of seeing reality. Show me someone who has a fully developed, water tight way of seeing the world, and I'll likely see a fundamentalist of some stripe or other. C S Lewis outlines a process, a view of the world, but not a closed set of beliefs, set in stone for all time.

So for me, the journey continues with integrating the answers science gives, with personal experience, with theological understanding. And hopefully, I can avoid what I think would be the biggest hypocrisy in this journey; a lack of humility.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Post-colonial non-gluttony

I've started preaching a sermon series on the seven deadly sins while my minister has been away. We've done pride and lust to date. The aim has been to focus on the positives rather than just the negatives, in these cases the value of self-forgetfulness over self-loathing, and sexual desire in marriage over rampant lust.

Gluttony is the next cab off the rank is gluttony - something you might not hear discussed. There are plenty of issues to cover - associated health issues (non-pejoratively, no one needs to guilt people with disorders), fast food, vegetarianism, poverty, famine, etc. There is of course the issues of sin, food as an idol, etc.

I have a copy of the 2007 Aquila Press book Still Deadly: ancient Cures for the 7 sins. I hadn't consulted it to date until starting research on gluttony. The chapter on this topic focuses on the views of Clement of Alexandria. It is interesting, because the chapter notes that his theology was affected by Greek dualism. I'd already quoted him in my lust sermon saying that women should cover their faces in church. It seems to me going for Clement for guidance on something as earthy as eating while noting his shortcomings would be a bit like saying "I know Hitler was an anti-semite but let's see what he has to say on race relations anyway."

That said, not everything Clement has to say is wrong, but I was kind of shocked when an application from him by the author, in reaction to the gourmand excesses of his day is to extol a plain diet. In particular:

"I live on a street with innumerable That restaurants, and an assortment of Chinese, Italian, French ... and I know what it is like to walk from one end of the street to the other unable to find something to eat."

Now I'm going to be somewhat charitable and take the view he means he is spoiled for choice. But in then going on to suggest we focus on a plain diet, pretty much baptising Clement's diet, intended or not, the following flows on.

  • This is preferring one period of time over all others. This kind of one thing for all time thinking smacks of Platonic idealism. More than that, it's a new form of food laws (ironic as the author notes Jesus dismissed those).
  • It's colonial - are we to suggest all these fancy cuisines are too fancy? Are they sinful? Is our simple fare less sinful than theirs? Is all conservative Christianity able to offer an endless critique of the unknown? While not intended, this "keep your wog food" is intolerably WASP gospel.
  • It ignores the every tribe and tongue messages from Revelation and elsewhere. Is the eschaton so monoculture?

I'm often reminded of how much God loves diversity when looking at the natural world. In an effort to combat the gluttony of taste, such theology condemns us to the dull, familiar, safe and the us, while judging the other and providing yet another fence to our theology. Will I even bother to critique such a view in my sermon, or toss the book aside?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Singing from the wrong hymn sheet at Christmas - carol theology

Ok so I'm getting older and more crotchety, but do you ever stop to think about the songs you sing? I can remember going to a primary school concert and being dumbstruck that pre-teens were singing 4 ever by The Veronicas. It's a catchy pop song (I love the guitar) but it is very typical of hook up culture, and young children shouldn't really be singing that should they?

Coming away from a carol service I was reminded of subtle assumptions in music. I'm assuming this matters (if you think theology is the study of nothing leave this blog now and go back to cat pictures, LOL). Two we sang that just ended up depressing me were Silent Night and Away in a Manger.

Now for a Christian, the idea of the incarnation should be Earth shattering. God adopts the human condition, enters into our world in order to radically transform it. This means more than just be nice to each other one day a year - it's a metaphysical bombshell, a theological conundrum and a life changer. But we miss it so badly. Take Away in a Manger

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

What? Did Jesus never crap himself? Did he never teeth? How close did he come to dying of the diseases the modern, individualistic smart ass doesn't want their kids getting immunized against in case 'they get autism'? Why the heck doesn't a fully human baby? What's wrong with crying? A false view of perfection, of sin, of humanity and of what it means for God to assume all that we are. Fake, plastic Christianity.

Now Silent Night
Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild
Why the blazes was it silent? Again, no crying. What is so holy about being a mild baby? Was the Jesus who denounced the religious leaders, who called Herod 'that fox', who cleared the temple 'tender and mild.' Save me from plastic baby Jesus!

To top it off, back to Away in a Manger 

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

Gah! Add to the docetic 'Jesus didn't cry like a baby' some 'beam me up Goddy' theology. Heaven is important, but it's not the end of the world. What of resurrection? Of heaven descending to Earth? Of his will (peace, justice, righteousness, radical neighbour love) done on Earth as it is in heaven? Thank goodness for Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Hail! the heav'n born Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!" 

Here we have one born to be king, to bring righteousness, healing, second birth (resurrection). Now there's a meaty carol.

Veil'd in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail, th'incarnate Deity:
The incarnation cannot be reduced to kitsch. Accept it or reject it, Christmas is Earth shattering, Advent is about being adventurous. Time to shake it up.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Paris, online shaming and a hermeneutic of love

I've waited a while to post this, partly letting things cool and partly becoming apathetic about blogging. This cartoon represents some people's approach to the Facebook profile picture changing over the Paris shootings. I wanted to say a few things about this.

The first thing is, that people want to be able to respond to tragedies. Particularly in the absence of religious belief where you can say "I'm praying for Paris", even a simple act of changing a profile pic is an act of empathy and grief. I can understand the cynicism towards tokenism, but people want to find ways of expressing their feelings. Cynicism is overrated. Shaming is unhelpful.

The second thing is, any single act is not nuanced, and may occur in some state of ignorance. No, changing a profile pic doesn't change the political situation, doesn't acknowledge past foreign policy sins (Algiers), doesn't take into account the secularisation that wanted to ban the Burka or the wearing of other religious attire in government jobs. It's as simple act. It doesn't have to affirm or deny these things.

Thirdly, we relate to what we know and find familiar. Yes Beirut should have more coverage, as do other issues. But condemning support for Paris over ignorance of other tragedies robs Peter to pay Paul.

Fourthly, right wing reactions to Islam are ignorant, predictable and depressingly lacking in understanding. This doesn't mean that the sneering superiority of the left about other people's ignorance is any better.

Finally, the predictable condemnations of the evils of religion conveniently ignores the crimes of fundamentalist atheism in the 20th c, or indeed the French Revolution and the events that followed. The song Imagine is so wonderfully naive; the anti-religion crowd so wonderfully boorish.

And hence the turn to love. Love won't seek to shame, but inform or extend. If the press never reports about massacres elsewhere, how does the left know? Better to invite people to conversation than ridicule or shame them. What is your aim? Likewise, knee jerk reactions from closing borders to more bombs lacks love - both for those who suffer, and yes for the enemy. Jesus calls us to love our enemy, and no I'm not convinced love and justice are not mutually exclusive.

Social media is hard enough to use effectively without being driven by superiority from either side of the political spectrum - be it conservative jingoism or progressive hubris. No, changing my pic (which I didn't in the end) doesn't change the world. Maybe it's not "helping". It is expressing something of my shared humanity. Invite me to think more broadly, to act more effectively. But don't shame me for my efforts or look down on me. There is enough dehumanising of the other by those we label "the bad guys", for us to do the same.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The ecology of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

I've recently been doing some reading about ecology and ecosystems. In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis wrote about natural ecosystems and ecology, but also about human ecology - well functioning societies where individuals flourish, and not at the expense of natural ecosystems. I've even recently read a paper that considered education as an ecosystem. So why not consider BJJ as an ecosystem. I think there are three aspects.

Firstly, techniques don't exist in isolation, but in a rich ecosystem of other techniques. One simply doesn't drill a technique again and again without reference to other techniques - variations, common reactions of training partners and so on. Of course you can't drill for every eventuality, as rolling contains a large degree of randomness, but you can learn principles and then play with a technique by experimenting with it. Techniques also exist with others in a progression, what some call a game plan; e.g. pull guard, sweep, pass, control position, submission. Having a broad knowledge doesn't meaning doing a lot of moves, but knowing how they work with other techniques, and how to get where you feel comfortable, out of where you feel less comfortable.

The second aspect of a BJJ ecosystem is other grapplers. Rolling with a range of sizes, ages, ranks and both genders is critical to being part of a good BJJ ecosystem. Different techniques will work in different situations, with different body types, etc. If you can get your favorites to work with everyone you know you are onto a winner. More than that - a good functioning ecosystem means it is not all about you (see below). Rolling with those who present little to no challenge is an opportunity to try new things, yes. But it is also a chance to share and give them an experience that will help their growth.

Finally, ecosystems are constrained by a temperature range and rainfall (actually available water) - that determines the flora and hence the fauna. A BJJ ecosystem's climate is its culture. Culture can mean a survival of the fittest gym, red in tooth and claw, or a symbiotic gym where mutual growth and flourishing is encouraged. This is the spiritual side of a gym if you like. Being symbiotic doesn't mean that there is no competition, no hard training, no pushing people to mental and physical limits - but it's all done to pull everyone up, and not just a few. For me of course, this spiritual side is based on a Christian faith and the aim of loving and serving.

Maintaining a good culture can mean culling or pruning - some people won't fit the culture or add to its flourishing. That said, jiu jitsu is big enough for all sorts of people, and some people need more watering than others in order to flourish.

So try and see your own training as part of a larger whole, and know even when your own individual experience is not as positive as you'd like, you can contribute to the larger goal and may be just growing more slowly through a rough patch.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sorry - a National Sorry Day poem

Sorry to the dispossessed and sorry to those who have been left behind the progress that loss has paid for.

Sorry to those who’ve heard the lies of promises made, but in disguise an agenda deeply hidden, a lack of understanding, by those with eyes that cannot see.

Sorry for those prison deaths, for this whole rotten bloody mess where cells make easier solutions than teachers, classrooms and inclusion of native tongue to speak, to listen and to learn.

Sorry for a land that’s stolen, for rent not paid, for home invasion, for mother earth her guts ripped open and laid bare in service of the white man’s dollar.

Sorry for the racist rants, for insults, patronising comments of cultures misunderstood, ignored, of stories covered up and stored in the recesses of histories untold.

Sorry that it’s been said before, words, words, words and more but where is the listening to those who might have the answers, to those who don’t just want solutions, to those who want the right to decide.

Sorry that in the midst of this I play a part to keep us moving backward while my voice is silent, stuck while my mind is ignorant.

So sorry just won’t be enough unless it comes with promises where rubber hits the long hard road, where hands are joined and shoulders put against the wheel.

You can’t know where to go unless you know where we’ve all been. Let sorry be our starting point, our journey together to a better destination.