The argument for a diminished god

I’ve written a page in my notebook some time ago; it’s on my mind this morning as I sit awake, jet-lagged, in a Dallas airport hotel at two in the morning:

An argument for a diminished god; a system based on ‘Almighty God’ does not allow for a society based on self-governance. It sets up ‘leaders’, not representatives. We have set ourselves a god that is harmed by insult, whose face and name we must protect at all cost. This has led to much suffering for both ‘ourselves’ and ‘the other’. A god of jealousy and grudge can never be stable—who can look up to a god that embodies the worst of our nature.

It seems to me that, deep in the kernel of ‘organised religion’ that this is the crux of conflict; it’s not that people have faith and disagree over this in general, it’s that people become obsessed with the power of their proclaimed god and, by extension, their own power. When that power is defamed or threatened, there is a vigorous response (all involving some kind of spiritual or physical violence to either oneself or the other). When that power remains unchecked, there is hubris and the entitlements of power. 

When one’s god is beyond all question of power and the norms of reality and you are part of or under the charge of that god, there is always the risk that you extend yourself beyond what you, as an individual, have any warrant to do. This can, of course, lead to great creative beauty and humanity; however, the more trodden path (or at least the more currently visible one) spans the range from everyday pettiness to violent martyrdom. It is the same hierarchal framework of war that we’ve been living under since the first king was set up over a given square of land (and there is  a story in the Bible where God warns about the nature of kings). We’ve put the sceptre and sword in god’s hand and look for the opportunity of blood.

Last night, I continued a conversation with a friend begun after Easter weekend. We had spoken about the continuing process in us of learning to live in this life; the difficulties of learning hard lessons and having death and resurrection as we go. I wrote to her,

I think that is just the model of the spirit of Christ within us; there is always this talk about ‘dying to self’ from the view that one has to sacrifice and leave behind everything that makes us human (so much so that the dying leaves the human part so deeply buried and removed and we are almost expected to be this inert perfected spiritual being). But the resurrection part, the living on and evolving, is what too often is forgotten. I think people are not so afraid of dying; they are afraid of the struggle of coming back to life afterward.

We cannot make death the focus of god in our lives (either calling upon the vengeful god to support us in our violence to others or pleading with the merciful almighty god who will save us in the end). I want to listen for the quiet diminished god who is there in the much more difficult process of life and resurrection; the god who is close as the slow process of growth comes to bear or my wounds are healing cell by cell. That is the god who is everywhere regardless of these confusions of creed and conflict. I don’t wish for a more almighty god of power and sudden intervention; that’s not going to bring healing. I wish for a diminished god working slowly in this quiet Cosmos; that may be an idealist’s dream but I would rather close my eyes to dream on this than shut them in fear when the terrors come.

The martyrdom of silence

There is much discussion about the need for better clarity and connection in 'The World'. I'm sure that whatever future we have together will require more understanding and cohesion; however, I wonder, again, if we so much lack the ability to communicate or we have simply lost the capacity to be silent. On the news last night, after the arrests of several suspected terrorists in Belgium, an imam in the town they were from said, "I think, unfortunately, much of the radicalisation is taking place online now; it's certainly not happening here in the mosque." The problem may not be that people are isolated it's that they are too filled with an infected language—and the spirit can only bear so much filling before it overflows into violence. 

We've evolved in sparse small quiet groups. Now we are overwhelmed with sound. I've noted that some of the most socially desperate places I've been are also the most noisy—that the actual physical environment tends toward an unrelenting wash of sound (hard surfaces, crowded living and working spaces, etc.). This is not insignificant; I think it's actually a substantive issue. If you live in a place where, even to be heard, you have to constantly shout and strain your voice, this will form your perspective on how you interact with others. It will have some bearing on every kind of social interaction. Also those who are quiet won't be heard; it's only the loudest voices that can speak over the din. This is, metaphorically and physically, where much of the ideology of violence springs from—obviously not all; that's too much of a generalisation. However, I'm extending my generalisation into the online connections that seem to feed this phenomenon of radicalisation. People are caught up in little hard rooms with too much reverberation and it's driving them mad.

I wonder if these self-styled 'martyrs' are, instead of glory and acclaim through their own death and the death of others, deep down only trying to find a place of silence? That they, in their physical and spiritual lives, are so overwhelmed with the noise that they are driven to silence it all and would, ultimately, silence everyone. We continually hear from the families of 'good boys' who have 'suddenly and without warning' killed dozens of people that 'we never saw it coming; he was such a quiet young man.' Well, yes, he might have been a quiet young man beaten down with the noise of his school, his city, his broken society and then by the screaming preachers of hate he found online. If he was boisterous and outgoing, he might of found some outlet to vent his frustrations; he may have thought he could find work or interact with people different from himself (there is another discussion here about the loss of traditional shepherds and rights of passage for young men). But if one is in a world with no silence and no retreat, then that is going to break people eventually. Unfortunately, that brokenness, for some, leads to what we see in the evening news. That gets amplified, from news to reaction, reaction to further violence, violence to the sounds of war. 

On Difference

There is a special awareness that comes from reading old journals whilst jet-lagged; the words don't seem any more profound, but the filter of strange tiredness certainly adds a layer of 'did I write this? What was I thinking?' which could be a positive or negative observation. 

I wrote the notes below about ten years ago when considering how a very conservative religious institution (I had my former university in mind) could open a discussion on racial diversity. Much of this would apply to ethnic or interfaith conversations as well. All, of course, presupposes a level of openness to begin with.

This is just the rough list; perhaps it would be worth writing up into something more coherent (when I myself an more coherent!)

  1. Must be presented as a tool to help those of whatever background communicate in a cross-culturally competent way–not as something that helps the white people be nice to the black people.
  2. Is not to be something that dredges up the harms of past generations (but must recognise them nonetheless).
  3. It's not to make everyone 'like' everyone else; should recognise the cultural differences that go beyond race.
  4. There can be no 'Generalised Diversity'. A place must be made welcoming but not artificially so.
  5. Be careful not to introduce racial stereotypes that people may not have to begin with.
  6. You do not have to compromise religious or moral convictions in order to sit at table with someone who differs from yourself. 
  7. A given 'methodology' or 'theology' is almost by definition excluding of 'the other'; a person aware of diversity seeks to understand others regardless of difference.
  8. People are, and will remain, different from one another; to realise this is the first step in bringing them together. It's the paradox of the matter.
  9. If Christians (or whatever creed) are not peacemakers we can expect little of other faiths in that arena–if one is ready to denounce an individual (or half the world) over some difference (even a major one that you both perceive as a matter of eternal importance) without bothering to explore him as a person, you've forfeited any right or chance for further conversation.
  10. Do not generate an empasse as a matter of course.
  11. Within your own realm, there must be a system open to discussion and debate without fear of either physical or 'spiritual' reprisal. If that openness is lacking, you've just made your belief static and there is no way for it to live and mature.
  12. If people live in an environment where they cannot develop a self-sustaining spiritual persona, they will forever seek others who are 'just like us'.

 

Smaller Faith

A couple months ago I was visited by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door (again). We had a conversation that really didn’t go where they wanted it to go (it rather dulls their efforts if the person they are speaking with has actually read and studied the Bible and already has some thoughts about its ramifications). However, they were pleasant enough and we had what seemed like the necessary dialogue. At one point, one of them asked if I was a person of faith. I said, “Yes, I’m a Quaker.” She paused with a bemused expression. It was a cross between now, who are the Quakers again? and we should probably make a hasty retreat down the street; he’s some kind of cult member!

As they left and I returned inside, I thought it must be a challenge to be part of a small marginalized religious community in secular Australia. Then the irony of that thought came to me; there are surely more Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia than Quakers, yet I never really feel marginal at all. I think this comes from years of once being part of a church movement that placed such an emphasis on numbers in the pews. One sits in church surrounded by others who are of a similar mind and spirit; it’s reassuring to know that you are all there in an equal state of ‘rightness’ (I’m not saying that as a condemnation; it’s not just a ‘church thing’).

However, the Quaker focuses one down to the smaller confines of a very personal faith; back to the mustard seed. We are around others who share a common tone of the spirit; however it's not necessary to completely harmonise to one accord. On Sunday, one of the Friends spoke of singing in a massed choir here in Sydney. She said it is so uplifting to mix one voice with so many others and magnify it manifold (or, in my case, at least nullify my flat tonality). In Quaker Meeting, we sit in silence. Each silence augmented and shared by the gathered Friends; a quiet collective (I wonder how people would respond if we went door to door and just stood there silently when people answered...)

TAFE Announces Major Rebranding

I drafted this several weeks ago to release on April First; however, for some reason, nobody was very keen on posting it as an official press release at work. But here it is as an exclusive on edgeofsomewhere:

Today TAFE NSW announces a major rebranding and refocus of its educational mandate. TAFE NSW Director of External Communications, Angelo Moriondo, says that TAFE acknowledges the changing landscape of education in the 21st Century. "We've examined growth industries across the state and country as a whole. We're looking at the places where almost everyone in Australia interacts and the businesses they encounter everyday." With that in mind, TAFE NSW will expand its reach with a new concept in education, TAFé. Moriondo continues, "We aren't dropping any of our current courses, instead, we are revitilising several of them with a coffee themed curriculum that, we hope, will draw in a new generation of students. In fact, we plan to reach out into demographics we don't traditionally cater to with new satellite campuses in several urban neighbourhoods."

The first new campus will open September 2013 on Crown Street in Surry Hills; it's an experimental concept campus housed entirely in a swish café (or TAFé, to use the new terminology). "The current trends in technology encourage distance learning and online collaboration; our field research noted scores of people wandering around Surry Hills with powerful laptop computers and seemingly little use for them other than checking Facebook and fashion weblogs. They aimlessly roam from café to café drinking coffee all day. That's a potential student population who we can help educate and give some purpose in their lives; they can use that time in a TAFé to build skills and develop into productive members of society." TAFé 'campuses' will be wholly staffed by specially trained students and teachers equipped to speak fluent Hipster and function in that environment. "It's already acknowledged that TAFE educates tens of thousands of Australians at a high level every year; however, we are leaving out a whole segment of society that need practical skills beyond the ability to find someplace with Wi-Fi."

The TAFé concept was developed in conjunction with Brothers, Sons and Oswald, the American firm behind last year's highly successful Megamucil brand launch. Pierre Laxitif, branding manager for Brothers, Sons and Oswald explains, "When Metamucil realised their product image was limited in scope, we considered that their traditional demographic was much less sedentary than thirty years ago. At the same time, brands like Mother and Red Bull were mostly marketed towards youth. So we developed Megamucil, a highly caffeinated, high fiber drink targeted to the Boomer generation. So far, 'Megamucil, You'd Better Run' has been our most successful campaign. Likewise, TAFE has traditionally missed out on the I'm wearing a trendy t-shirt with tiny coffee in hand market and we think the TAFé concept will help draw them in." TAFé will offer themed beverages that pay homage to past great shifts in education such as the Frothed Whitlam in honour of the former Prime Minister's efforts to make higher education accessable to all Australians. "We'll offer a free round of Whitlam's every day for whomever is in the room at the moment, but they'll gradually increase in price after that. We've got the very strong long black Midnight Oil as well and, of course, the Piccoli."

Normally a major rebranding comes at significant cost, however TAFE NSW was able to strike a deal with a Czech company also in the midst of rebadging. Angelo Moriondo explains, "They are dropping a couple letters out of their name and, because of this, will have a significant amount of surplus accent marks. It's really beneficial for us as, with the current round of budget cuts, we can barely afford to hire permanent staff, let alone purchase a bunch of apostrophe things. All we'll need to do is go out and affix these to our current signage and we'll just have everyone use a pen on their business cards and stationery. They also had a bunch of háčeks which we could have used as well but we figured that nobody would be able to pronounce TAFě."

Theresa Rasputin, spokesperson for the Government Office of Rebranding and Door Signage voiced support for the change, "We are eager to see TAFé innovating with the changing face of education. We are especially keen to see students gaining the skills needed to work in café environments as we feel that will probably be a necessary step for many of them as we restructure funding for higher education."

Surry Hills Hipster, Johann Strauss-Strauss seemed eager to give TAFé a try, "I did a double major in Art and English Lit. in uni then went on to do postgraduate work in Anthroposophy. If I could learn something useful at TAFé, I'd be willing to give it a go." Strauss-Strauss went on to enquire whether TAFé would do it's own roasting and whether the beans would be organic.

Also, TAFé will simultaneously release an Android and iOS app as well as a special Gestetner machine for every TAFé campus. This will allow teachers (or Baristeachers as they will be known) to distribute assignments in the most advanced--or excessivly retro way possible. Students (or 'denizens') will, in turn, submit work via a wiki or typed out on manual typewriter.

Latching on and liars

I have an ability to define my own space in the city; I can stand in a crowd of thousands and still maintain my own boundaries. However there is a particular form of boundary interruption that tests my limits; I’m not sure what they are actually called, but it’s the people on the street who are attempting to get you to join…something. Unfortunately, I seem especially unable to avoid encounters with them. I’m not sure if it’s that I look approachable (or perhaps gullible). But these people latch on to me and won’t take no for an answer no matter how much I protest I’m not interested in even talking to them. Unfortunately, my work is right next to Central Station in Sydney and there are usually a phalanx of them standing at the entrances waiting for passerby possibilities.

I am just not good at turning people away in these situations because they are often smiling and pleasant and I don’t want to seem rude (I am seriously trying not to obtain the permanent ‘do not interact with me in any way’ city scowl face). However, today, I was approached by a fresh young faced representative of [well known Australian not-for-profit which I shall not name]. I made clear to him that I didn’t want to stop and speak and kept on walking. He walked with me. I said I really didn’t want to speak. He persisted; ‘Haven’t you heard of XXX?’ ‘Yes’ I said, ‘I am a member’ (which, in fact, I am) and I walked on. As I walked away, he said, ‘Well I know that’s a lie.’

I stopped. For a moment, I’m sure there was some deep desire to unleash righteousness upon him, but I just quietly said, ‘no, really; I’m a member already.’ Then I walked away; I walked away really hurt. I wasn’t so much hurt for myself, though I had just been called a liar by a complete stranger on the street. I was hurt at just another evidence of the ‘civility drain’ that seems so evident all around. Smokers blow smoke into the crowd at crosswalks. The loud music listers on the train. The people who do…all the other things…on the train. Why did that at all seem like an appropriate comment for him to make? Why, in the first instance, was it not my right to say that I did not want to stop and talk? Who is he to define what boundary choices I make?

As I came home, I reflected on what effect this same scenario might have on others. Were I a violent person; I might have reacted aggressively if challenged. I might have attacked this fellow for calling me a liar. What if I rarely went out and had issues with being in public to begin with; I might have completely withdrawn for weeks from an incident like this. I did come home, call the organisation he was representing and cancel my membership. I realise that it’s a large organisation and that one voice on the street does not represent the whole. But I explained to the membership rep on the phone what had happened and why I was withdrawing my support.

Organisations cannot harass people into support; I do wonder how many people on the street just delight in the approach of someone attempting to garner their dollars as they go to the train at the end of a busy work day. I am sure that insulting the potential (or current) member is not a good strategy at all.

Misinformation

My web host is changing hands and, for whatever reason, I’ve not been able to access the back-end of my weblog for weeks now. However, it seems to be back and I’ve got some things to write about in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here is a bit of political satire I wrote and filmed last month at work.