A Morning Prayer

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Lord,

Grant me eyes that I may see Your goodness

Grant me ears that I may hear Your loving call

and words of guidance

Create in me a pure heart, that I may know You

and You dwell in me as I reside in You

Strengthen my hands by Your Spirit

that Your temple may be built

and your people rejoice freely in Your Glory

Amen.

 

Autumn 2016 – Stellenbosch, South Africa

 

 

Serv.

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Sex in Progress

I had one of those rare ‘worthwhile discussions’ on social media this morning. One of those where you feel better about the world and its people afterwards. You know? If you don’t, it is totally understandable, they happen rarely and I contemplate leaving all forms of social media (apart from instagram) at least once a week because of that fact. This morning’s discussion was on ‘progressivism’; what makes someone a progressive and does being a progressive necessarily mean one departed from orthodoxy. As all worthwhile discussions do, it involved mention of sex. Well, sort of. It was about whether a prominent Christian figure’s alleged departure from orthodoxy on human sexuality was indeed an ‘evil’ progressivist act, or the more benign ‘progression from orthodoxy’. That is not the question I was hoping to pose to you, however, but rather wanted to draw your attention to these fascinating articles which I read minutes thereafter:

 

“Human conception was still basically a total mystery until as recently as 1875.”

Why it took scientists so long to figure out where babies come from

and

“Nearly a third of Japanese people are entering their 30s without any sexual experience, leaving the country facing a steep population decline”

Young Japanese people are not having sex

The first article shares the bizarre views (to man in the 21st century at least) people until 1875 held on how exactly sexual reproduction works. The second article is on the problem of population decline in Japan, which involves a seeming decline in desire for intimacy with other, embodied people. This is accompanied by a turn towards disembodied sexual activity. Some suggest this might be a growing phenomenon in other countries as well.

Of course scientific insight and technological advances have the potential to be greatly beneficial. The fact that we now know ‘ground-breaking’ facts such as that eggs and sperm cells do exist and that if they meet under certain conditions human beings are formed, is most certainly a sort of progress. I refer to such knowledge as ‘a sort of progress’ as it might simply increase the potential for progress. But when is something beneficial and when is it simply new? Or when do we refer to something as progress and not just change?

When we talk about things being ‘better’, we are necessarily assuming something about the true, the good, and the beautiful. We ascribe meaning to life, probably possess a definition of ‘freedom’ and have certain ends or a purpose in mind. We picture ourselves within a story or attempt to write a good one of our own, casting ourselves as main character.

In reading the above two articles the following questions came to mind: Do we know more about human sex than the people of the 1800s? We understand conception quite well and have ideas about sexual attraction but do we have a better idea about what sex is? While we are better at preventing STDs and undesired children, are we actually better at sex? I guess we have to know what it is before we can say whether we are better at it or not.

Earlier this week I saw someone mockingly accuse the Church of England as being obsessed with sex, as they appear more concerned about questions of sexuality than other ‘more important’ matters. Our answer to what human sex is, actually has a lot to do with how we will answer many other questions of importance. We will draw from the same story to answer sex related questions than we would for the other big ones. Wrong views about sex can literally destroy nations it appears from the article above and some argue it played a major role in the fall of many an ancient empire. This is because our opinions on sex are very much tied in with our opinions on personhood and the meaning of life in general. Also, when I ask whether we are doing better I do so because regardless of how you might be doing we are all rather dependent on the we, and you do often derive what you do from what we believe.

And finally, a quote I read in Brooks and Nicholas’ book, Virtually Human: flourishing in the digital world, which deals with the question of how we place technology within the right story in order to use it wisely and for flourishing:

 

 

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

 

                                                -T.S. Eliot

 

 

Serv.

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In search of ‘shame-covering’ garments

The review of Hélène Opperman Lewis’ Apartheid: Britain’s Bastard Child (image below) intrigues me especially as my research this year focuses on identity and its need for a narrative. Apart from this I am of course a South African from within the broader Afrikaner context, associating mostly with the Southern Cape/Boland perspective, while having roots stretching to other regions as well.
Lewis discusses her work on the cycle of being shamed and shaming in turn through oppression as a means of dealing with one’s own shame. Her work highlights how it is not only the case for individual shame but also collective shame and looks at how it played out in modern day South Africa, leading from Britain to the Afrikaners and now the modern ‘Black’ collective. The peoples named in this specific book are then simply examples and the British of course not the root of the problem. Also, not every individual within a people associates similarly to the overarching narrative which haunts them as a group – degrees of being bound up or committed to the narrative differ. While simultaneously, that culture cannot be reduced to that aspect of its narrative. What I believe can happen though, is that people can say, “I feel shame” or “I feel superior” and begin to ask why.

 

apartheid-bastard-child-cover

 

Ascribing primarily to the Biblical narrative, I see shame’s origin lying in an experience before God, also ‘losing face and status before the rest of creation’, as one commentator puts it (read the Genesis account in the Christian Bible for context). Mankind has since been binding itself to identities apart from its relationship with God in attempts of self-justification. A recent (Eastern) Orthodox Christian scholar I read talks of ethics that flows from this, as attempts to manage and ease the blows of our rootedness in death (sin/shame – just using these terms interchangably and perhaps somewhat carelessly here).

We put on many ‘shame-covering’ garments but the good news of the gospel is that we, even us who are of pagan, Gentile decent, may put on Christ and be reconciled to God – in a somewhat similar fashion that he extended skins to Adam and Eve to cover their shame (Genesis) – and in that also to one another.

It remains a tricky business but I would propose we must at least seek to find ourselves in the fully true story, while seeking to allow others to do so too.

I am working with Paul Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity as the suggested means to interpret the fully true story (as opposed to partly true stories, such our cultural narratives, for instance) but there is of course much to be said about the process of entering a fully true narrative. I would certainly begin in agreement with Ricoeur that we are confessing beings, asking to be interpreted by ‘the other’ (or Other), and so too participate in interpretation.

 

Serv.

PS – being here in England now (2016/17), it is also sad to see how shame leaves them confused and seeking to write a new ‘shame-covering’ narrative, while there is also so much that is beautiful about Britain and its historic seeking to be rooted in God; how it shaped them.

 

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Freedom of Speech – a Scruton lecture

The following is a compilation of notes drafted during a lecture by Professor Roger Scruton on ‘Freedom of Speech’ at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, on 21 March 2017. Note: this is not a verbatim transcript of the actual lecture but a paraphrased version containing additional notes of my own and some others.

 The core idea I took from the lecture: 

The legal right to free speech is important for it is meant to facilitate public discourse and invite all opinions into the public square so that they may be exposed; it assists us in developing a better grasp of the truth.

First, a few introductory questions to guide us…

What is ‘freedom of speech’?

It is basically the right to say what you wish to say, regardless.

But regardless of what?

We do need some account of what we are trying to avoid. Words have effects. People can be stirred up to violence or psychological collapse could be caused, for instance.

What kind of right is freedom of speech – legal or moral?

There is, for instance, a legal right (on occasion) to commit adultery but is there a moral right? In this instance we are referring to a legal right, for we are arguing for state protection against being silenced; to prevent those trying to shut us up from doing so.

We are calling on the state to protect us. Those who try and stop you are thus infringing on your rights.

When is such a right infringed upon? What does stopping someone from saying something mean? Noise? Intimidation?

Some might argue that shouting people down is not technically stopping them. What about threats of violence or, what seems to be a primary location of conflict today, a mass attack on Twitter? Many instruments of intimidation are not necessarily a violation of the right to speak.

Regardless of what?

The law generally draws the line at words which are a prelude to assault. They are condemned as criminal. British common law would refer to incitement (affray, sedition). Certain uses of words are not free to be allowed and so it is also illegal, for instance, to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, for it can lead to bodily harm as mass panic and trampling occurs, which is a further example of words having an effect.

What about the area of blasphemy?

Blasphemy is unacceptable in Muslims contexts. In pluralistic contexts we ask who defines blasphemy and how?  The reality is that in praising one god we often blaspheme another.

Should we enshrine the honour of God in law?

Protected and unprotected beliefs

In relation to our question, human beliefs are divided into two types.

Protected beliefs are ring-fenced against criticism, being made fun of, etc. Unprotected beliefs are those we expect to see or even invite criticism against. Scientific theories or judgements would typically be thought of as unprotected beliefs. But even here the instinct to protect beliefs arises. Examples are the Creation vs Evolution or Climate Change debates. Critical engagement does not occur but rather silencing of the other or in the case of the latter, in particular, people are polarised into groups of either ‘denialists’ (of climate change) or ‘part of the conspiracy’ (of fabricating climate change), for instance. A great scientific question all of a sudden turns ideological and moves beyond the sphere of scientific investigation and criticism.

John Stuart Mill argued that scientific beliefs must be unprotected – non-protection and exposure to refutation help us gain better understanding, otherwise you are unable to say what you are defending. True science is the science which survives criticism over time.

Protected beliefs and the issue of identity

Most protected beliefs, however, are not scientific but issues related to identity. What matters when it comes to identity-forming beliefs is not whether something is true or not but whether it enhances my life. These beliefs are not arrived at by pure reasoning or observation but by inheritance or conversion – through revelation of some sort. It is through such beliefs that a community is retained in a corporate entity – if you lose such a belief a radical existential change occurs. You become community-less with no sense of metaphysical rescue. Protected beliefs are incorporated into the deepest sense of who a person is; when that is afflicted everything goes out of joint.

Protected beliefs are badges of membership; an insult to the group is an insult to me personally. When such beliefs are criticised I can call on other community members to band with me in resistance. These beliefs are hungry for authority to validate it – such as a priest in a religious setting or a crowd of supporters in other instances. Appealing to such authorities frees me from having to justify these beliefs myself. It is therefore that we have dogma, with dogmatics being ‘the enquiry into that which cannot be enquired into’ – a fascinating field of study.

Religions traditionally satisfied these beliefs with dogmas being accepted from the magisterium. Take a religion away and a host of other beliefs flow in to take their place as protected beliefs with their own sets of dogma.

A posture of identity is required to form communities which is why orthodoxy is important and a ‘necessity’ for a community to exist. It is hardly possible to live in ubiquitous doubt. Living as an individual with an ever open mind is an ideal of the enlightenment and hard to live with. Religious dogma assists us in closing our minds, on the right things.

In the case of protected beliefs, it is not the falsehood of the opponent that is offensive but the truth. Silencing is the manner through which to protect a falsehood. When someone verbalises a truth that you are afraid of, you feel the need to protect it. If you have built your life on a falsehood, you must fight at all costs against the truth. Silencing is the only way of protecting the false argument from being dismantled.

Religion (such as our Christian tradition) portrays us as being in it together under a benign Sovereign from whom truth flows; remove this and we are to cohere around the negative – that which ‘we’ do not possess, we are united in our contradiction of this or that. The movement away from a single source of truth drives us back into tribes, and this is also the source for the ‘Twitter wars’. Remove religion and you remove the positive going forward nature of human life; religion helps us to confront the absurdity of life.

‘Equality’ is one concept drawn from in such a way to target aspects of the surrounding society for its oppressiveness. Large sections of the modern feminist movement and others engaging in identity politics take on such a posture; they do not necessarily stand for wrong ideas but gather around an identifier and aim to silence those who criticise or joke about them. Self-criticism and jokes at their own expense are also taboo – it touches on the idea of blasphemy. We see various figures in academia reprimanded, not for being wrong but for criticising a protected belief.

Should they get away with such criticisms is the question at issue?  Most of us do say what is on our mind. Should the belief be so protected that people are to be hounded out of the professional communities like universities?

The community needs a scapegoat

Some sociologists are of the opinion that communities need scapegoats to cohere. Persecuting a scapegoat is a way for communities to re-unite. Those who transgress the protected doctrine can present themselves as scapegoats. Intimidation may take many forms. Even I (as a figure already on the outside and somewhat irrelevant) am hesitant to draw from the ‘gay marriage’ debate as an example, which testifies to how problematic the situation has become. In the academic world, if you express views critical of the orthodoxy of the day, you will be fired.

We further need to distinguish between givers and takers of offense. Certain academic programmes seem to be training people in offense-taking, rather than teaching them how to reason and participate in public discourse. Identities are now formed through narratives of victimhood. These new identities are so fragile that they cannot accommodate reasonable questions or any risk of being triggered, and so public spaces of discourse are often required to provide safe spaces to cater for this fragility. The aggressor too have become an expert at offense-taking, posing as the victim while responding with hate to the speaker (scapegoat), who is portrayed as the source of aggression by this victim’s own confused state of mind.

Visiting speakers do not get fired but face opposition in attempts to censor them. The loss of religion also changed the face of censorship in that it created a situation in which we are uncertain where censorship might come from next. There is no longer a moral code against which we rebel but multiple new ones popping up all over the place. Consider someone like feminist Germaine Greer for instance, who used to understand the orthodoxy she is challenging; she now gets opposed by various tribes (such as the transgender community) to her own surprise.

It is in light of this phenomenon that the question of free thought and speech is raised anew today.

It has been a temporary achievement of our culture to be free to ask questions about anything. Freedom to enquire sets humans apart from the world and makes it a place we can enquire and wonder about, and be surprised at what we discover. This helps us to live in uncertainty; in a public realm where we do not know who people are but whom we trust. This is the Christian legacy – we are led to believe the other is like us, that we need not think of them as the enemy within but be reconciled to them in truth. We share with them attributes to defuse a quarrel which might arise and might even laugh at each other’s idiosyncrasies and at our own. We recognise the validity of laughter. Laughter is an acceptable way to respond to the absurd parts of religion which has been the standard since 1688 in England, before which we were all killing one another. There is among some Muslims a tradition to laugh at pieties while others struggle to cope with such ironies. It is not a sin to laugh, provided you do laugh in a proper way. Such laughter is not to dismiss but a way in which people live with the absurdity of life. We have the ‘Life of Brian’ etc. but do not want to kill the Monty Python team which produced it.  Mormons too laugh at The Book of Mormon currently in the London theatre. There is still the understanding that what we are laughing at are virtues and that we laugh at our own practises thereof. Could you have such a play be written about Islam?

Use of irony

In the Christian tradition there exists matters about which we disagree and at times we treat cultural certainties with irony. I think of Christ’s response to the woman taken in adultery as such a use of irony in defusing a dangerous belief. “Who of you have not thought of sleeping with this woman yourselves or perhaps have slept with her, or others like her? Go ahead, cast the first stone”.

In closing

It is important that free speech be protected, especially in a space such as a university. We should be able to criticise certainties and the more certain we are of them the more open they must be to criticism. It is through criticism that we gain better understanding of the truths we hold on to.

Q&A session

 Q:  Why have universities and theological colleges abandoned free speech with such alacrity?

A:  University staff underestimated the importance of free speech and also realise now there is a cost to stand up for it. An academic lecturer focuses on and is primarily passionate about his or her professional work in a specific field. They regard their ability to continue to do that work as more important than the general maintenance of academic freedom.

Q: There is a tension between your argument that freedom of speech is a cultural phenomenon since 1688 and an assertion that it should be a universal right. Is it not cultural oppression to suggest it should be a universal right?

A:  Freedom of speech is a tradition and inheritance – an identity forming idea.  This is not cultural oppression to commend it to all because it liberates the rest of us and worth defending in multicultural societies.

Q: I recently went to speak at a British university and it was indicated in the disclaimer that academic staff have freedom of speech but not students nor visiting speakers. Is the closing down of free speech on campuses aiming to censor what the students say?

A: It may very well be a preventative counter-terrorism strategy to keep out radical Islamic preachers or students who propagate similar ideas. In my opinion, there is no reason radical Islamists shouldn’t be allowed to speak as long as the meeting is open and all others can attend and disagree.  The law of incitement can of course be applied. This is part of the importance of free speech; to invite the absurd into the public square so that it may be debunked or laughed at. Radicalisation happens when ideologies are driven underground.

Q: Along the understanding that attempts to censor are protecting identities – eg. denying a “transwoman is a woman” – the consequentialist argument is mostly used, arguing that talking in a certain way inevitably harms people and must therefore be avoided. Where does this figure in all this?

A: That is a good observation. Yes, the consequentialist argument is certainly used; it is thought that people are being upset in the deepest part of their being – it touches on their identity. It is here that ‘phobia’ words have great force. Phobias burst onto the scene post 9/11 (Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) Every belief can indeed have adverse consequences but apart from harm, the opposition encountered exists primarily to prevent proper discussion from happening. There is a dramatisation of issues which humanity has been dealing with throughout history in one way or another, as if it is something new. Talk of transphobia is one such way of dramatising something so that certain matters relating to men and women cannot be discussed anymore. People do really care about the harm of others and want to see it avoided but as it is said, “sincerity guarantees nothing but itself”; it does not make something true.

Q: What about the censorship of something like pornography? Should that be allowed?

A: Porn entered the world in a profound way when the US Supreme Court said it was protected by free speech provision. The law does, however, still provide for censorship of representations of life which is considered ‘obscene’ and offensive to humanity. I believe a distinction can be drawn between the expression of a view or opinion and the portrayal of people in a certain way (or employing people to be portrayed in a certain way). I do not think we are preventing people from expressing beliefs through the censorship of pornography.

Q: Are we in a situation where we need martyrs for free speech to draw attention to the matter?

A: Maybe we too easily opt for martyrdom. People should use the law where it is on their side and push back when they get pushed out of jobs, etc.

Q: We do still enjoy the right of preaching the Christian gospel – in lots of places this privilege is not enjoyed – how can we avoid becoming such a place?

A: It comes down to courage. Without courage you cannot establish a faith anywhere – the example of your courage displayed is what persuades people that this faith is more than a few minor dogmas. They have to see you prepared to make that sacrifice. In the 18th century people had a shared religion and culture and were very outspoken – it was all done against background that could not be shifted. We have lost that background which makes us more uncertain and hesitant.

Further thoughts

Liberalism (perpetual open-mindedness) tends to become a censorship of religious faith which is about closing your mind on the right things. Christian faith could be driven underground. Liberalism is a universalism which says we all have the same aspirations – it neglects local attachments. Attachment to the place and way of life that is yours is indispensable, however. All the freedoms are pointless because there is nothing you can do with them. This was at the foundation which led to the Brexit vote in 2016. Social attachments are extremely important and fundamentally necessary for freedom; it is a form of giving up freedom in order to live freely.

We must not forget that there is also a certain sense of joy which comes with transgressing orthodoxy. Behaviour we all know to be quite typical of late teens and students in particular. The problem though, is that people tend to end up with a more restrictive orthodoxy than the one they are attacking. The Christian orthodoxy (which also silenced speakers at times) has been displaced by another.

Free speech can be as damaging as anything else, yes, but we have no alternative but to invite free speech – to protect us from ourselves in the long run. Freedom of speech prioritises rational discourse and silencing such discourse ought to be prevented. There is no point to a university if subjects for discussion can be removed without explanation.

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No Ordinary People

I live about a ten minute walk from the university offices where I go at times, to work on my thesis. It is the same route I go down to get to church on Sundays and halfway along gets me to the bus stop from where I leave to every other gathering I regularly attend in the city. Needless to say, it has become familiar to me.

The corner shop to the left as I turn right, which I’ve visited on occasion to buy an emergency bottle of milk or shampoo. The pub on the right where people gather after work, which makes me wonder why they are here and not at home. On the odd occasion I could also be seen in this pub and perhaps it is for them too such an odd occasion, or perhaps it is because they are English and going to pubs is what they do. The fish and chips shop on the left which you only enter to place your order and then wait outside until it is ready because you don’t want to smell like fish and vinegar when you get home. Nearly every single time I go there I think of the Eastern European cook in The Beach who is fed-up with smelling like fish and requests soap – “something toxic, something industrial” – to wash with, and wonder whether the Romanian guys working in this shop feel like that at night when they come home. The Turkish place on the left which offers possibly the biggest, healthiest and tastiest plate of food for £5 in this part of London. It seems like a family business with grandma rolling out dough at the window looking into the street while the son and his wife, who appears to be the owners, work the floor with others who could be cousins or sisters of theirs. Another pub on the right as I turn left but this one always seems a bit over-crowded and not too cosy. An estate agent on the right as I also make a right-turn where a plaque on the left says “Vladimir Ilyich LENIN 1870-1924 Founder of the U.S.S.R. Lived here in 1908”. Although the individuals are no longer familiar from here on in, the characters certainly are.

lenin

Cyclists looking somewhat comical as they charge down the bike lanes in their bright yellow attire and focussed expressions on their faces. A foreigner (from a non-biking city) might be excused for momentarily mistaking it for an actual race peloton. As I go further along I pass by countless students making their way to and from classes. I see student society posters asking whether Marx was right and wonder how many of them admire “Vladimir Ilyich LENIN” who lived down the street in 1908. I do not think all of these characters are students; some look too old but may very well be lecturers or simply people walking past across the university ‘campuses’ for some other reason. Tourists maybe? I have never quite figured out which university is which, and which buildings form part of a university and which don’t. There is no obvious campus in the way that I am used to. I am reminded of the last words of the young English lady sitting next to me on the plane, coming back from a short holiday in Bali, after we landed at Heathrow: “So this is your first time to the UK, right? Yeah, you’ll see everyone’s miserable all the time … but you’ll love it”. I couldn’t quite make sense of it at the time but I might since have begun to understand what she meant. I am not quite sure whether I like London or not. Maybe I have adopted the love-hate relationship the English has with everything? (I just googled ‘love-hate’ to see how it is spelled and the first suggested search showed up as ‘love hate london’) Next up I pass the church on my right as I enter the centre of ‘student capital’, greeted by the friendly presence of the three-story book shop to the left and sign-board-Kitty friendly yet sternly reminding me and other passers-by: “Read More Books”. Across the book shop, in large letters in the windows of a university building I read the phrase, “Change the World”. Not ‘for good’ or ‘for the better’, just ‘change it’. It might be best to stick to Kitty’s advice? I take a final left and continue to the office where I will work on my paper, arguing for the good life, hoping that I myself change accordingly.

kitty

Leaving the office, on my way back, a C.S. Lewis quote pops into my head: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal”. As I walk back, I look at every person I see around me, quoting Lewis and considering them in light of it. I experienced something fascinating. It felt somewhat like one of those cinematic portrayals in which time slows down and senses are heightened. I see beyond every character-projected image and become immune to the tempting invitation to perceive the person behind it through prejudice; I could see vulnerability and uncertainty. I imagined the back story which gave identity to each person as I pass by; not trying to imagine it but seeing it as I reflect on Lewis’ words. I now try to make this a habit as I walk the streets of London. The characters come to life. Objects are subjectified. Beings made for eternity, like me. They long for something other than merely ‘changing the world’.

Serv.

This pic of my friend, Ivan, was on my room wall for many years with the shortened Lewis quote (above) written along the yellow line on the platform. [Sydney, Australia, 2008]

Ivan_Sydney

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

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At the intersection

I have lived and worked within the East Mountain community for the past few years and am resharing a thought on this experience and some wisdom I gained along the way. It appears in the format used for EM’s weekly newsletter to partners and supporters.

What is the fastest way to travel from point A to B? When one has ground to cover with limited time and resources available, this is a crucial question. What is the most efficient way to travel the world in order to experience a variety of cultures or serve among other peoples, for instance? One way to confront such a challenge is to construct an algorithm, directing one along a journey from place to place, experience to experience, opportunity to opportunity. However, should we consider culturally shaped spaces and the encounters therein as expressions of the human heart, we are presented with another alternative altogether: positioning oneself at an intersection.

Through East Mountain I find myself living at a constant intersection.

Encountering “the world on your doorstep” is not an unusual experience when living in a metropolitan city like Cape Town. A hotchpotch of cultures finds expression in people from all over roaming the streets and tourist hotspots of the city. They all gather here. Some temporarily; dotting down to take in the sights and sounds before soon taking off again with a bank full of memories (on which airlines are fortunately yet to place a weight restriction). Others again, arriving with not much more than memories; having migrated from somewhere with a desire to establish something of permanence in the Cape of Good Hope.

Although a local, I often find myself among these ‘incomers’ as I play the role of tour guide; and, in the fortunate position of observing the cross-continental, cross-cultural, cross-lingual shoulder rubbing that takes place.

I, however, do not live in Cape Town.

Intersection

I enjoy the privilege of living near Stellenbosch, and through East Mountain have been given the opportunity of encountering “the world in my living room” – something that hit me as I considered the variety of fluid containers which found their way into our kitchen cupboard through the past few years (see picture). Firstly, instead of saying, “an Englishman, a German and a Frenchman”, one might as well say “three South Africans” and possess the same cultural diversity necessary to tell a proper (or improper for that matter) joke. And so, in having three South Africans in the house, one can very easily encounter three nations in the process of living here. Then, apart from my own countrymen, the community living room is a place where, if you wait around long enough, you will encounter American diversity, the odd Englishman, other Africans, Asians and who knows, maybe one day a stray Australian?

It is at this intersection where my ministry happens. It is here that I learnt what ministry could look like. It is not always about going out but also inviting in. ‘Receiving the sent’, if you will. It is a strangely easy but also tough task. Both highly enjoyable and at times tiring.

My conclusion: it is possible to encounter and impact the world by opening the door to your living room.

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Beauty overcoming Death

“Why would anyone want to get rid of this?”, asks Jonas of his mentor, simply referred to as ‘The Giver’, to end a scene in The Giver (2014) – a film about a community which sheltered itself from the outside world, creating for its citizens some sort of Brave New World. It’s one of the most powerful scenes I’ve experienced in a film. Powerful, not because of an epic speech or victory in battle but because it appeared to communicate a truth which so many of us yearn to gain more insight to. For a moment it appeared to give a glimpse into what may be the answer to probably the greatest question faced by man: why suffering?

rosemary's piano_2Of all possible worlds, why do we find ourselves in one where suffering reigns? It is always there, always lurking, an undeniable reality. It is not simply the fact that it is here creeping among us but that it is still here, threatening never to depart from us. Every victory is short lived, for tomorrow it is swallowed by death and forgotten.

There is a question – or rather, a scathing accusation – constantly echoing through bomb-ridden cities, poverty-stricken towns, love-depraved suburbs, hospital wards, school playgrounds, lonely bedrooms… why does God not bring an end to this? Asking, “How come the one Being, able to (apparently) destroy evil and end the suffering which flows from it, decide to look on as it devours lives?” Saying, “Knowing what I know, He ought to have done so; long ago already.”

The question goes beyond the problem of human participation in and perpetuation of this evil. It enquires into the problem of a lost Paradise. The notion that a perfect world is (again?) attainable. A world in which not only natural order is restored but also peace to our souls. The belief that life has meaning and that we could somehow grasp what things ought to be like.

Whether we conclude that God is unwilling, unable or practically non-existent for not solving what we believe to be wrong in a way we would like to see it solved, we decide to take up the task of destroying evil and suffering ourselves. We are left with a problematic situation: with the death of a benevolent God came the death of both inherent meaning and the immorality of evil. Nevertheless, we set off on a paradoxical quest to create a better version of the meaningless chaos we find ourselves in, based on the hunch that things could be different.  But what do man’s efforts to replace God as the restorer of peace produce? This might be exactly “why anyone chooses to get rid of this”, to answer Jonas’ question. In our quest to create a better reality we create sub-realities; lesser realities. As we work to reject all the suffering on our own terms, we reject the beauty as well. As we aim to create pain-free lives we end up living less than human lives.

That scene in The Giver touched me as it illustrated what we may be giving up in our quest to destroy evil along our own reasoning. It reminded me that despite the suffering, our current reality remains very attractive. We would prefer to have tasted this life than no life at all.

I do not possess the knowledge with which to inform you of the exact reason why suffering continues to exist but I would tell you that I am convinced it is being dealt with in the best possible way. It may have to do with the fact that to destroy evil in any other way would mean to destroy life, beauty and all other things with it. The Creator chose to refine and perfect beauty – that which he initially deemed ‘good’ – rather than destroy it. The glorious character of the High King of Heaven was most beautifully revealed as He took on human form and defeated death as He entered into the fulness of life through suffering. Is it not expected then that those made in His image would most completely know, display and enjoy His glory in the midst of suffering? Suffering being part of what beauty overcoming death looks like; beauty often being most obvious in the midst of suffering. And therefore, perhaps, He chose not “to get rid of this”… or suffering, yet.

Who can look at himself in the mirror and honestly say to his own face: “The emotions I feel are meaningless and the music I hear, mere sounds”?

 

Serv.

“God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross.

“And now we are Free. I will see you again… but not yet… Not yet!” -Juba, character in Gladiator (2000).

 

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