A series of talks given at a Retreat for Uniting Church clergy in the Canberra and Region Presbytery at St Clements
Conference and Retreat Centre at Galong NSW from the 28th to the 31st October 2018.
David Oliphant, retired Anglican Priest and Uniting Church Minister. 39 Bate Street, Central Tilba, NSW, 2456 firstname.lastname@example.org 02 44737838
Four Books and a VideoTalk One: Introduction
I feel honoured by the invitation to give these talks. I live at Tilba on the far south coast and until a few years ago was the Minister of Mt Dromedary parish. I am a member of the contemplative community Open Sanctuary that meets regularly at Tilba and I continue to train people for chaplaincy and pastoral care work with my wife Angela.
The one thing I really want to do before I die is to write about Christ, even if no one reads any of it. I have called my book The One Who is to Come: Re- Thinking Christ for a Twenty-First Century World. So when Kevin asked me to give this retreat, I could think of nothing else. These talks are then, if you like, the bare bones of this big apologetic task I have set myself. I feel very conscious that this might be more than some of you had bargained for in attending this retreat. Can I assure you that I believe myself to be someone without an axe to grind but with a very deep commitment to Christ coming out of some transformative experiences in my twenties, and a long service in the institutional church. I believe this church is being challenged in our day like never before since the early days of interpreting Christ into the Greaco- Roman culture of the first century. Are we up for the challenge I ask myself and others? So please see these talks in that spirit. If you have responses I will listen carefully and take full note.
If you are at all like me you will be wondering about the world we live in more than usually, and you will reckon most things have become more uncertain in the last three years or so. Armageddon is no longer a ridiculous idea. I think of the famous words of the Irish poet W.B.Yeats in his poem The Second Coming,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The great challenge at a time like this is not to become overwhelmed and hence unable to act effectively but at the same time not hide our heads in the sand. The challenges before us as a human race are enormous. What I want to do in these talks is to introduce you into how I am grappling with this challenge in my own life, at least at the level of my thoughts about Christ and God, given the person I am and the experiences I have had. You will no doubt think differently because of who you are and the experiences you have had. I am hoping this might lead to some good conversation and quiet reflection for all of us. If Christ has ever been important to the human race before this, tell me. For he is surely so now if he really did rise from the dead and is somehow alive in the Universe or the Multiverse. But let me creep up on this grand theme gently.
In June this year, two of the world’s leading public intellectuals, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, held a four and a half hour debate before a huge audience in Vancouver. It is now available on YouTube. Sam Harris is one of the original Four Apocalyptic Horsemen of the New Atheism, alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, and author of many books including The Moral Landscape. Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and university lecturer who rose to celebrity status relatively recently by opposing the excesses of campus identity politics and the compulsory use of non-traditional gender pronouns. His opponents have tried to label him either right wing, even alt-right, or left wing, but all this is far from the truth. Unlike Harris, Peterson is steeped in religious studies and thinkers such as Jung and Eliade. He has set up a large collection of videos on YouTube. His lectures on the book of Genesis have been particularly highly rated.
The nub of their debate that interested me is that while Harris believes values can be derived directly from facts without having to resort to religion or any such intermediary, Peterson believes an overarching story or myth or meta narrative is needed that instructs people how to live and act in the world, including how they apply science. Such stories or myths have been the foundation of societies from the beginning of human community. If Peterson is right, as I believe he is, it is not enough to say value can be derived directly from facts. Science would need also to construct a meta narrative, an overarching story that tells us who we are, where we have come from, where we are going. The question then is can science do that, or does science in fact have boundaries? The scientist Rupert Sheldrake answered Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion with his own book The Science Delusion. He successfully maintained that the belief that science can in principle explain everything is a delusion.
Perhaps a far more sensible project for Harris would be, Can science contribute to a new meta narrative that is so desperately needed in our western world, and perhaps all the world, a story that can unite us all? For surely what we are seeing in the world today, and very much in our own culture, is a clash and confusion of meta narratives. Add to this mix the incredible fixation with rights in our culture and the scant regard to responsibilities, and we have the current ferment around such things as gender and race identity, religion, and equality and diversity. We are many worlds being kicked, screaming and shouting, into One World. Our need for a new meta narrative that might bring us together in the same story is urgent. Post modern relativism cannot hold. Surely science, which has successfully crossed all cultural boundaries, could be the catalyst we need for a new all embracing meta story or narrative; as long as we also understand that science has boundaries and can let us down if these boundaries are crossed.
Let’s face it, even within our Christian tradition across the world there are many meta narratives, all linked by the fact that none of them now really connect with the heart of our western culture, so influenced as it is by materialist science. I remember that one of the first things I learnt in church history was that there were three key elements in the stabilising of the early church and its institutionalisation; the role of the clergy especially the bishops, the scriptures and the tradition. The tradition was all important. It contained the meta narrative; it gave the outline of where we came from and where we were going and it taught the faithful how to read the scriptures in a way that affirmed this meta narrative. By the middle ages the meta narrative had changed and developed, particularly with the general adoption of the Great Chain of Being; but its function remained the same.
In our pastoral care training group recently, a candidate who is steeped in the Vedic traditions, gave us a talk about his view of reality. He pinned up a large poster that told the outline of the story distilled from the Vedas and handed down over many ages, and he pointed to it as he expanded different aspects of the story. It reminded me very much of similar charts that outlined the biblical story into various dispensations from Creation in 4004 BC to the coming of the New Jerusalem at the end of time as we know it. Such meta narratives pervade not only fundamentalist groups but also most evangelical groups. A group’s identity is tied into the meta-narrative that prevails in its view of the world.
The liturgical traditions on the other hand have their meta narratives more entwined with the institutional church and its doctrines and dogma. I am part of a reading group based at St Marks in Canberra which reads books by Rene Girard together. This year we have been reading an about- to-be published book by the group’s convenor Scott Cowdell. Scott is a Girardian scholar with an international reputation. His book is entitled Rene Girard and the Non- Violent God. In it he is attempting to show that adopting Girard’s ideas need not necessarily put one off side with the received traditional liturgical church, especially in its Anglican incarnation. Scott is both affirming the received meta narrative and also pushing it into the modern world as seen by Girard, without losing the former as he argues for Girard’s ideas, he hopes. He may be trying to have his cake and eat it; and it must be acknowledged that dealing with meta narratives is not a superficial process. People’s sense of identity and understanding of the world and reality are all tied up in the meta narratives. Scott wants a non-violent God, rather than the traditional God of the Bible, but he does not want to lose the Church he loves in advocating for such a non-violent God.
What of the Uniting Church? Where are we with meta-narratives? There are others present here who are in a much better position to answer that of course. My own opinion was formed in part from a conversation I had once at a presbytery meeting. This person told me that she was a member of the Uniting Church because in the UC issues were discussed intelligently. True story! We should take heart from it; these are the people I want to talk to in putting forth my apologetics. However, the Uniting Church probably mirrors modern day Protestantism generally, with people at one end clinging to old meta narratives and at the other, the so called liberals, engaging modern western secular culture as best we can. I place myself in this second group but I am the first to recognise that we have let go the old meta narrative but we have not yet found a new one of any power and influence to replace it. We embrace an evolutionary world view but it plays little part in our understanding of God or Christ. We don’t assume the Bible is the Word of God in any literal sense, but we don’t yet make clear how it does fit into our religious life. We want little or nothing of substitutionary atonement theory, from either Anselm or Calvin, but we struggle to name any greater meaning to Christ’s death than that it happened. We come alive most around issues of social justice, and increasingly the environment; all good but what of the faith once delivered to the saints. Where is there a meta narrative to guide us, to help us know who we are, to tell us where we have come from and where we are going, a meta narrative that embraces the big story and has Christ somewhere there in the centre, that faithfully acknowledges the scriptures and the history of the church, that embraces other traditions and shows how they fit into it all as well.
It is this quest for a meta narrative that takes our modern secular world seriously, spiritually, and religiously that I am introducing to you in these talks. Only introducing mind you; that is all it can be. And it is only as I am seeing the issues. I want as much to learn as to share my thoughts.
I will be doing this by reference to four books and a video.
The first book is Origin Story by David Christian. This is the latest of his books on what he calls Big History. It encapsulates what science has already contributed to a new meta narrative, the story of the cosmos from the Big Bang to Now. Bill Gates has underwritten pilot programs on teaching Big History in schools, and apparently the results have been significant. It is doing for these students what the dispensation charts in bible study groups once did for Christians; it is providing a framework in which knowledge and understanding can be placed.
The second is Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman. Friedman is a significant scholar of the Hebrew Bible who, possibly more than any other modern writer has placed the Bible in history while deeply respecting it as sacred text. It is essential that in any meta narrative that is persuasive that all our sacred texts can come eventually to be seen in their historical origins. This is no mean task, and probably impossible for some traditions. I think Friedman has achieved this for the Judaeo/Christian tradition. The challenge for us rather now is how do we incorporate this into our church life, into our teaching and liturgy and preaching, into a meta narrative that truly engages the Mystery without recourse to thinking of the Bible as the Word of God in a simplistic way.
The third book is The Age of the Spirit by Phyllis Tickle. This is the most important book on the Holy Spirit I have read, recommended to me by one of our current Presbytery ministers no less some years ago. Taking the Spirit seriously is the challenge Tickle puts before us in this turbulent time she calls The Great Emergence. And she means it both practically in our spirituality, and theoretically in our thinking. In a way what I am saying to you in these talks is in part my response to her challenge.
Next comes a video by Jordan Peterson entitled What Talking to Sam Harris Made Me Realise in the Past Few Months. This introduces what Peterson sees as a fundamental part of most myths and stories that carry the capacity to release in us energy that can change and transform us and inform us of the values we need to live by. Without recognising the abyss and its central place in life, we have no means to grapple with the big questions. We are left only with our science and our technology but no moral or ethical base.
Finally, my fourth and final book is Underworlds: Philosophies of the unconscious from psychoanalysis to metaphysics by Jon Mills. Mills is a Canadian philosopher, psychoanalyst and psychologist who has possibly done more than anyone to anchor the floundering psychoanalytic world and our understanding of the unconscious back into the philosophic tradition. He did this initially in an earlier book The Unconscious Abyss: Hegel’s Anticipation of Psychoanalysis, and has developed his analysis in this book, specifically looking at developments in psychoanalysis since Freud, including Jung. As you will see, I think the time has come for those who would follow Christ to take the unconscious seriously.
It is important that you know that what I am attempting to talk to you about has a very personal dimension for me. It is definitely part of my passion. I underwent an experience when I was 24 that I believed was God. It was a very powerful spiritual experience that completely changed my life. Up until that point I had thought of myself as an atheist, despite the best intentions of well meaning clergy at a grammar school. Three years later I experienced something that drew Christ right into the centre of my understanding. I experienced something similar to the experience Jordan Peterson talks about in the video he made after talking to Sam Harris. I looked into, in my mind’s eye as it were, the abyss. It was the most horrific experience of my life. At its height I heard the words in my mind, ‘My son not only looked into this, he went into it’. It is important to realise that at that stage of my life I knew little or nothing of the traditional faith. I was largely atabula rasa! That Christ went into the abyss and this was an horrific but all important experience has been central to my understanding ever since. What I am presenting to you in this introductory way is, if you like, the fruit of a life time of reflecting on this mystery that changed my life so dramatically.
Let me finish this Introductory talk with a quote from Professor Ewert Cousins, author of 'Christ of the 21st Century'.
"For the first time since the appearance of human life on our planet, all of the tribes, all of the nations, all of the religions are beginning to share a common history. We can no longer think in terms of Christian history, or even Western history. When Christians raise questions about Christ, they must now ask: How is Christ related to Hindu history, to Buddhist history - to the common global history that religions are beginning to share?"
Indeed, it is within the common global history that a meta- narrative for the modern world has to emerge, a narrative that takes seriously all human experience and traditions, and that means relating Christ to our secular, scientific, materialist history as well. The apologetic challenge facing us who would follow Christ is surely of an order not less challenging than that which faced Paul and the early Church.
What follows is my first formal attempt to be an apologist for the man in whom all my hope is placed.