This painting of the primordial chaos by artist Judy Racz was inspired by the words of Genesis 1:1-2: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."
"Many non-Muslims around the world, including Christians, find it easier to be enraged than engaged with Muslims," but "It ought to go without saying that Christians who are furious with Muslims cannot be effective ambassadors for Christ." (Georges Houssney - Engaging Islam)
I thought I would share with you some interesting observations made by Gary Bouma in "Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the Twenty-First Century." Although he made them back in 2006 I think they are still highly accurate and relevant. He writes:
A society’s religious institution sets the levels of religious belief and practice required for a member of that society to be accepted. While these are basic, both over-conformity and under-conformity will be sanctioned. A society’s religious institutions refers to the patterned ways that society organises access to the sacred and both produces and applies meanings that refer to the transcendent. Religious meanings are assured by reference to some power, force or being beyond the ordinary, beyond the temporal. This institution or set of norms and expectations includes the patterned ways in which a society raises and answers questions of transcendentally grounded meaning; the ways it patterns action relating to spiritual and religious life; and the sociocultural – as opposed to organisational – norms regarding religious belief and practice. A society’s religious institution is an arrangement of norms and expectations that provide a foundation in the transcendent for the hopes, dreams and aspirations of members of the society in such a way as to make sense of the past, motivate the present and cushion the blows of disconfirming evidence.
A society’s religious institution includes norms and expectations about religious and spiritual practice and belief, such as intensity, expressivity, frequency, periodicity and cyclicity. These dimensions are useful for describing and comparing differences among societies. For example, the Australian norms and expectations associated with the dimensions of patterned relations with the transcendent, religious and spiritual include:
intensity: a strong tendency towards the subdued, laid back
expressivity: a strong tendency towards the shy, withdrawn and not exuberant
frequency: a strong tendency towards infrequent or occasional attendance
periodicity: annual/biannual participation is more acceptable than weekly
cyclicity: a tendency for participation to occur early and late in the lifecycle
consistency: a low level of consistency between belief and practice is accepted
singularity: persons are expected to identify with one religion
proximity: the transcendent is expected to be distant, localised and diffuse
efficacy: the transcendent is subject to influence, trustworthy and effective
access: the transcendent to be accessed directly and through professionals
social location: religious groups are expected to be on the margin, not central.
Thus, the Australian religious institution has expectations that shape the nature and operation of Australian religious and spiritual groups and individual religiosity. Groups are expected to offer and adopt forms of belief and practice that are not intensely demanding. Weekly attendance is not necessary for social acceptance and might be seen as over-conforming.
People in their late teens and twenties are not expected to give religion and spirituality much time, at least until they have children and then they might be legitimately too busy. Religiosity and spirituality should not require exuberant expression, particularly in public. Those who must be noisy about their religion and spirituality are encouraged do so within enclosed areas and to think many times before making a public display of prayer, eating norms or religious insignia and distinctive clothing. Finally, people may believe what they like, but the society does not expect either the group or individual members to be explicit about putting beliefs into practice.
These norms of the Australian religious institution are quite different from the expectations of the average Christian church where higher levels of intensity, a high degree of consistency, higher frequency and at least weekly periodicity are the ideals towards which all are encouraged to strive. In seeking to achieve conformity to these norms, Christian churches are making demands that exceed the norms of the Australian religious institution and can be expected to experience difficulties in doing so. The levels of expectation outlined above are also different from the cultural expectations associated with Buddhism, but much closer to those of Islam and Judaism.
I thought I would share some interesting nuggets of information about pentacles as used in tarot and esoteric ritual.
Pentacles in the Tarot
Did you know that the pentacles of the tarot weren't always pentacles? The four suits of the minor arcana of the tarot are popularly known as swords, cups, wands and pentacles. That the inclusion of pentacles can be problematic for Christian tarot enthusiasts should require no explaination. But in more ancient times, prior to innovations introduced by Eliphas Levi, the minor arcana were known as swords, cups, staves and coins. These symbols were said to represent the different classes in medieval society, of military, clergy, peasants and merchants. You'll still see this in Marseilles decks. Not nearly so problematic for Christian tarot enthusiasts.
Pentacles in Esoteric Ritual
Did you know that the pentacles of esoteric ritual weren't always pentacles? In more ancient times, the symbolically inscribed discs used in esoteric ritual alongside chalices and other ritual tools featured six figured stars more often than five figured stars (originating in the kaballah perhaps?) and were sometimes refered to as discs, not pentacles. Curiously enough, the plates and cups used to serve the bread and wine in Orthodox Christian rituals are still known as the diskos and challice. Again, not nearly so problematic for Christians once the connection is understood.
In their book, "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible", E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien observe, "There is a discernible pattern by which Western readers read-and even misread-Scripture." For example, "Our cultural mores tell us sexual modesty is necessary while economic modesty is considerate: preferable but not necessary." I find it fascinative to watch how "figurative" the Biblical literalists get when one suggests economic misbehaviour could be as indictive of unorthodox Christianity as sexual misbehaviour.
In many ethical systems good and evil are seen are equal and opposite.
In monistic systems, like Taoism, good and evil are seen as equally relative and illusory. This is reflected in the design of the Yin Yang symbol. In dualistic systems, like Zoroastrianism, good and evil are seen as equally absolute and hyper-real, originating from separate sources prior to the creation of the universe.
A Biblical Perspective
But is this a biblical understanding? Not at all. If you read the book of Genesis you will see it affirms that, in the beginning, there was only God and there was only good. Evil came later.
This is significant. For it implies evil is a corruption of good, and in a sense, not as real as good.
A Quantum Analogy
How can this be? How can ethical imbalance arise from ethical balance, from a singular source, from a singular God? I find it helpful to draw an analogy from physics, from the process of spontaneous symmetry breaking which gives rise to, amongst other things, the Higgs boson.
Imagine the ball in the above quantum field diagram is a marble, initially perched at the top of a slope. The initial condition is one of perfect balance, perfect harmony. This condition, however, is inherantly unstable. Once the marble is released it is inevitable that the marble will roll down the slope. Which way? To the left? To the right? Who knows. All we can know is that, without support, it will roll till it finds itself in a more stable but more imbalanced state. It can roll around the bottom, even to the opposite side, but it remains imbalanced. For while the field is symmetric along the horizontal axis, it is asymmteric along the vertical axis.
Imagine then, that the vertical axis represents the biblical understanding of the fall away from good towards evil. It's a path that is very broad. What about the horizontal axis? I would suggest we give some consideration to the differences between licence and legalism, between irreligious hedonism and religious hypocracy, both of which Jesus spoke out against.
This is where I think the Yin-Yang symbol can maybe be revisited and maybe even redeemed for Christian use. For I would say it represents the view of this diagram, one-dimensionally, from above. From a Christian perspective it does not represent good and evil as equal and opposite, but legalism and licence as equal and opposite ... equal and opposite evils.
Forgiveness then, in this analogy, is an anti-gravitational force. And what forgiveness looks like will differ, depending on where you find yourself rolling around the rim. Too much our our ethics are, unfortunately, focussed on the other side of the ethical divide (the horizontal axis), rather than transcending the ethical divide altogether (the vertical axis).
So many people misunderstand the Two Trees in the Genesis account that I thought I would give it some mythological reworking, Lord of the Rings style, to illustrate the nature of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil more clearly for people who know movies well, but bibles not so much.
For the fruit of the first tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is not the key to all knowledge. It is only the key to knowing good and evil. And when you consider that prior to this Adam and Eve only knew good, well, there is only one half of the equation that they lack.
Mythologically this fruit functions much the same as the Ring of Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. It is the embodiment of self centred will. A tempation that is best left alone, as did the true companions of the ring bearer.
Continuing on from my comments on relativity theology, I have a few words to say on relativism and subjectivism in Christian morality, hopefully with a bit more nuance.
Firstly, I have come to see I should more carefully distinguish between moral absolutism vs moral relativism on the one hand and moral objectivism vs moral subjectivism on the other. I have illustrated this in the graph to the left.
My relativism is somewhat relative
So, in saying I'm a relatively into relativism I'm saying I move around on the relativist-absolutist spectrum. I would affirm that what counts as moral "often" depends on the circumstances but not "always". Following the letter of the law to the detriment of the spirit of the law is not what God requires of us. Laws are a blunt instrument. We need to be more sophisticated than that, lest we descend into Phariseeism.
Nevertheless there are some things I would be absolutist about, such as rape, for which I believe there is no justification under any circumstance. I deny, therefore, that relativism applies absolutely under every circumstance.
My subjectivism is somewhat subjective
That being said, I would also say I move around a bit on the subjectivist-objectivist spectrum and this is where my critical realism comes in. Although I believe a difference between right and wrong exists, independent of my experience of it, I have to admit my experience of morality has an unavoidably subjective dimension to it. My mind is as fallen as my heart. The best I can do is acknowledge my limitations and seek to maximise my objectivity even if I never perfectly achieve it. So when it comes to my interpretation of biblical morality, I seek to be faithful but have to humbly acknowledge that I am quite possibly wrong in places and have room to grow. I have to acknowledge that some people may have a clearer understanding than my own and be wary of judging their moral decisions even if they differ from the decisions I would make.
So to sum up, while I think there is a time and a place for commenting on what others are doing in other situations, I think God is most faithfully served if I focus first and foremost on what I am called to do in my situation.