Thursday, April 8, 2010

Moving On...

I'm moving this blog over to WordPress. More recent updates will be posted at:

See you there!


Monday, October 27, 2008

It Burns us...

Well, Afrika has burnt, although thanks to liberal application of sunscreen and judicious use of shade I managed not to get toasted to a cinder along with it. I find it difficult to write a measured retrospective analysis of the event, as I didn't really have any concrete expectations of what I was expecting or what I wanted to specifically get out of it.

I guess I wanted to go hang out in the desert for a couple of days and just, "tune into, like, this whole community thing, you know?" And to a certain degree I succeeded in that aim. I went with a decent-sized crowd of people, not all from the same background, and together we formed the mini-community of Sanctuary+, or, "Sanctuary with occasional extras". I was looking forward to spending time with open-minded freaks (and I mean that in a nice way), and serving tea was certainly a good way to attract people to us. Our group was aiming to create an atmosphere of welcoming acceptance and peace, and I think that we succeeded collectively in doing that (loud neighbours notwithstanding). We certainly gained a reputation as "those friendly guys who serve tea", but in a way I was surprised that being friendly and welcoming was so remarkable. I speak very specifically for my own experience - I know many others had different ones - but I did not find that the people in general were particularly welcoming. Non-hostile, certainly, but not actually over-friendly.

Part of this may have been the timing. We arrived at midday on Friday in a state of eager anticipation, but the camp was largely still empty, and those hardy souls already at the venue were still setting up their tents, so the whole event really just consisted of one day, with most people only arriving on Friday evening or even Saturday morning. Expecting people to spontaneously shift gear to a new paradigm of social interaction is unrealistic, but I do think that staying there for several days would have helped us all to tune into the atmosphere we were trying to create. Communities need to develop, and without enough time, we are bound to see a lot of baggage from regular life still hanging around. This may also be exacerbated by the particular context of South Africa. In this country we tend to have a survival instinct which is honed towards hostile self-preservation, suspicion of the stranger and an assumption of impending danger from others. To move directly from that to a mental state of love, peace and goodwill to all God's creatures is quite a jump.

In addition, I was actually affected pretty badly by the heat on Saturday. The 33 degrees on Friday was perfectly fine, but when it topped 40 on Saturday I was ill-prepared to deal with it, and was basically out of action for most of the day. Serving tea was fine, occasional musical ventures into drumming or Taize singing were just about possible, but moving from the shade of our tent and actually exploring the rest of the community was simply out of the question until the sun was safely low. As a result, I didn't have all that long to really explore on Saturday.

By the evening I did start to recover, and was determined to enjoy what remained. I wandered over to the Desert Rose Saloon, where I listened to some decent live music and managed absolutely no interaction with the other people in the tent. I went across to the samba drumming circle where things were far more engaging - the orchestration and rhythms were brilliant, and standing in the midst of that while the sun went down was electric. I returned to the Sanctuary for dinner and then strolled out to the main Burn, hoping for a time of peace and meditation before the pyrotechnics, but my mind was feeling the strain of the last two days, and I can boast of neither stillness nor insight. The Burn itself was fantastic, though - I loved every minute of it and was far more impressed than I had expected to be. Strolling back to camp, I saw the bands and moons of Jupiter through a telescope, and relaxed in the cool of the evening. It was peaceful, but to be honest I was just too tired to absorb it properly.

things I wanted to do:
- hang out with some interesting people who I would not normally intersect with
- meditate in the stillness of the desert
- absorb the glorious barren landscape
- groove on some funky installation art

things I did:
- hung out with people I knew from before
- lay immobilised by the overpowering heat
- absorbed the glorious barren landscape
- grooved on some funky installation art

I enjoyed it. I'm really glad I went. It didn't transform my life, but maybe that was just me.

This post is part of a synchroblog:

Also see

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sympathy for science

I've had a week of philosophising, and I've actually been left with a more sympathetic view of the scientific mindset. As a scientist, this may seem curious, but I've always struggled with the attitude of strict dogma which typifies a lot of scientific thought. A recent discussion on via positiva and via negativa brought new insight - but I get ahead of myself with the jargon...

So, for a quick and dirty summary of the philosophy:
Via Positiva: attempts to explain something by positive comparison: eg, "God is good, God is powerful."
Via Negativa: regards this approach as inadequate, because the subject of the comparison (God) is beyond a simple likeness to that which is known, so it rather attempts to explain it by negative comparison: eg, "God is not wicked, God is not weak."

As far as implementation goes, the major influence in the western evangelical Christian mindset is the via positiva, whereas the Eastern philosophies focus exclusively on the via negativa (the koan, f'rinstance). And as is usually the case where there are two strongly entrenched camps in a debate, the most useful solution is compromise: it is clearly useful to explain something by referencing things with which we are familiar, but at the same time, we must understand that when describing God, He surpasses all comparison. Yes, He resembles "goodness" as we understand it, but His goodness is nonetheless beyond our mortal comprehension.

And so to Science, which since the time of Francis Bacon (or even since Aristotle, if you like), has been adamantly pursuing the notion that we can understand it all. If you have a question about how stuff works, keep looking for the answer, and if you work hard enough and examine it in enough detail, you can fundamentally understand everything.

But for the last 150 years, Science has been increasingly beset by challenges to that notion. From Heisenberg to black holes to electrons, there is stuff that is fundamentally unknowable. And as we delve deeper, we do understand more, but we also discover that there are little pockets which we cannot ever know. It's not an issue of needing to work harder or investigate in more detail, we absolutely fundamentally cannot know it.

So we have elecricity, and we learn about electrons - and our understanding has increased. And then we learn about the electrons orbiting atomic nuclei - and our understanding has increased. And then we learn that they occupy different energy levels and stay in discrete orbits - and our understanding has increased. And then we discover that they don't actually exist anywhere, they only exist as a probability field in a particular orbit... and we have encountered an immovable obstruction to our complete understanding. And our faith in the fundamental comprehensibility of the world around us is profoundly shaken.

That's gotta be tough.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Cures for the Healthy

I was recently invited to attend (as a guest, not a speaker) a debate entitled: "Belief: Poison or Cure? - An Atheist and a Christian present their case for or against faith". As the invitation put it, "The UCT Atheist & Agnostic society and the UCT Student Y present a public debate on the subject of faith. Jordan Pickering (Student Y Staff, BTh) will outline some key reasons why Biblical faith is essential to a satisfying worldview, and Tauriq 'Easton Ellis' (AAS, ex-Islamic agitator) will reveal some of the inadequacies of belief."

I declined because I thought that it was unlikely to be an intellectually useful experience. Debates of this nature generally involve blind zealotry on the part of the atheist community - saying things like "religion is the cause of all the death and suffering in the world over the past thousand years!" (which nicely ignores that under the firmly atheist rules of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, et. al., life was just swell and everyone got along great). On the religious side, there is often an ill-advised attempt to reason a justification of faith as a good thing for the human condition, or to employ poorly-presented and questionable science as evidence. I also had a strong suspicion that there would be very little persuasive discussion taking place - more like two groups of fervent ideologists lining up for a polite version of a street brawl.

But I've been thinking (as I am sometimes wont to do), and it occurs to me that a debate is perhaps not the best forum for such a discussion. Debates are best confined to contentious issues on which public opinion is moot. There is considerable support (from an ethical, sociological or whatever other perspective) for each point of view, so a debate is a useful way to allow both sides to have a public discussion and respond to each other's points. But it's important to realise the limitations of debate - its usefulness as a medium is strictly confined to matters of opinion.

Indulge me in a little tangent. For millenia, the Earth (or whatever small region of the planet the society was familiar with) was considered to be overwhelmingly the largest and most significant object in the universe. There was a small, very bright object (crazy people called it a ball of burning gasses, but the clever ones knew it was really the chariot of Apollo or whatever local custom held) which gave warmth and light and went across the sky each day. There was another object, about the same size but much less bright and of inconstant shape, which traversed the sky at odd times (though most noticably at night). There were other tiny lights which hung in the night sky, just out of reach. But Earth was the only real heavyweight in this arena.

Then something happened. People started to become aware that their view was flawed - for a start, the whole Sun-Earth rotation thing was the wrong way around. And wait, the moon is actually tiny compared with the sun, but the Sun is unimaginably far away. And as for the stars - not only are most of them actually bigger than the Sun, but we don't even have units to deal with how far away they are. Better invent some new ones quick. Wow, this is getting out of control. Oh, wait, now you say that our entire galaxy, which is massive beyond mortal comprehension, is in fact an inconsequential speck in the vastness of the Universe? I think I need to sit down.

No really, I do need a seat. And a drink - better make it a strong one. I mean, here I was, human society, master of the known world, and now I find that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, I'm a microscopic dot on a miroscopic dot on a miroscopic dot with a little sign saying "You Are Here". I feel so small. So insignificant. Do you have any idea what this does to my self-esteem?

I tell you what - maybe we should have a debate about whether or not the universe really is that big, or whether the Earth is big and important and the stars are actually little fairy lights floating just above our heads. I mean, sure there is some indicators pointing one way, but I don't really understand most of that, and anyway I liked it better the other way.

But, you see, having a debate won't influence any of that. The Universe is massive beyond comprehension, and the Earth, as dear as it is to all of us, really is miniscule in comparison. It's not open to discussion. It's just the way it is.

And whether you consciously accept Him or not, God doesn't cease to exist because of your opinion. He is, was, will be - you get the drift. It's not something open to discussion, either.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Emerging Heresy

It makes a change to be considering heresy in its original context. I mean, usually when I call someone a filthy heretic it's because he has claimed that consoles are a better platform for gaming than PCs, or something equally worldly. (Yes, disputing Lord of the Rings as a work of genius and towering pillar of literature would also earn you that kind of label). But it's perhaps symptomatic of the extent to which we can get caught up in the material world that such labels begin to lose their power.

Fortunately, we no longer live in a society where mob rule determines the heretical and reserves the right to burn at the stake those found guilty, but the reasons that this is a good thing are not necessarily obvious. Let me clarify - mob rule is bad, and killing people is bad. People taking their human desires and prejudices and justifying them in the name of God is definitely very bad. But taking spiritual concerns seriously enough that you are driven to rage and passion by them is not necessarily bad. Jesus didn't sigh and shrug at the money changers in the temple, he stormed through them, overturning tables and driving them before him. (He didn't act violently towards them either - note that restraint does not exclude passion).

On to the real meat of the question, though - what of our emergent heresy? It's tricky to judge, really. We would be foolish to cast out and ignore two millennia of theology which pre-date us, but at the same time, there's a fair amount of chaff (not to mention goat poop) mixed in with the wheat in the history of Christianity, so to emerge (or even diverge) from certain aspects of the established church is perhaps desirable. But I feel that the emergent phenomenon which I see around me is not one of leaving things behind, but rather embracing more. I see an increased appreciation for things which tend to fall outside the mainstream consideration - creativity, primal cultures, alternative expressions of worship and the real potential of the information age. It is not so much exclusive as inclusive.

Of course, we must be careful what we include. And there is certainly wisdom and caution required in this. Mostly, there is a need for guidance from God in this. Remaining close to God and being led by Him through the wilderness which we are now exploring, no journey can be heretical. But we need to stick close - we are in a land where many paths look similar, and only some are good to walk upon.

It's like on the borders of the old maps, where the unknown lands were simply marked with "Here be Dragons" - there truly are dangers lurking in the intellectual wilderness. But God is the ultimate dragonslayer - stick close, and no harm shall come to you.

This post is part of a synchroblog:

Aratus - The Gender of the Creator and Face forward
Cobusvw - Conversing with the heretics
FakeExpressionsOfTheUnknown Who's Heresy
Liquid Light - Coming out a heretic emerges
Mike Smith - Emerging Heresy
Nic Paton - The Lif Cycle of Heresy and The Blessings of Heresy
Roger Saner Towards a heretical orthodoxy
Ryan Peters - Calling the "H" word and dropping the "H" bomb
Steve Hayes Cult
Tim Victor - Confessions of a heretic

Monday, January 14, 2008

All in agreement...

Yesterday we were playing drums and generally getting lost in rhythm and worship, and we started using a wooden whistle from the Rio Carnival - the sort that would normally be blown, in the words of one participant, by "a bronzed bikini-clad Brazillian beach babe". And we were discussing the focus of our developing tribe, finding common ground and starting points of reference - foci on which we agreed and would like to build. In the discussion was a strong emphasis on the openness to inclusion (where appropriate, d'accord) of cultural elements and practices which may not necessarily fall within the accepted pantheon (if you'll excuse the pun) of Christian traditional activities.

Of course, a Brazillian carnival would not necessarily be the precise cultural exercise that would would try to include. But at its core, it is a celebration and festival involving dance, music and good food and drink, which are surely elements of any culture. Indeed, are these not elements which are central to our humanity?

"That whistle is an instrument of the Devil!" thunders the preacher, pounding his fist on a large bible with a black leather cover. Sweat glistens on his brow, his face is red and contorted with passion. "It is made for a grotesque festival of lust and godlessness, a feast of destruction and sin!" he cries.

But Satan has no instruments of his own. All things are created by and ordained by God. And all people, of all cutures and nations, are in with God if they want to be. "the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, 'All nations will be blessed through you'." (Gal 3:8)

Thus it is not the whistle, or the food, or the person which is inherently wicked and perverse, but the practice and use to which it is put. And so why could we not put the same instruments to a different purpose? If the very body of Mary Magdalene, for instance, which had been entirely dedicated towards ungodly purposes, could be redeemed and made acceptable to God, is it so hard to believe that we could use a carnival whistle in worship? I mean, Christmas is pretty much a pagan festival, but the church certainly tries its hardest to extract something Christian from it...

Of course, there are certain caveats to this, as further mentioned in Galatians, where Paul exhorts us to be pure in our intent. "If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant." (Gal 1:10) But with that in mind, it's all potentially useful for the sacred. Paul himself was an example of an instrument of wickedness reworked to divine purpose, which he points out later in that letter. Much of his text expresses concern for those who have come to know God, and yet still fall back into ways of ritual and law, where they should be exploring new freedom and joy in their faith, unbounded by petty restrictions of culture and tradition. He goes so far as to call the Galatians "foolish" and "bewitched", in their habit of returning to routine and legalistic forms of worship, rather than following the spirit of their faith.

Anyway, enough with the heavy stuff. The point is, if you want to do your thang in worship by dancing naked in the desert while banging a drum, you go do that - just don't try to impress anyone with it. Oh, and take some suncream.

All in agreement?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Moving towards worship

I am the heart, I need the heartbeat;
I am the eyes, I need the sight;
Now I see clearly I am just a body, I need the life;
I feel the beat, I go through the motions;
But who’ll give purpose to chance?
I am the dancer, I need the Lord of the Dance.

Dance has long been used as a metaphor for the interactions between Creator and creation, leading and following, the invitations and acceptance of Grace. In the above lines, Stephen Curtis Chapman considers the permeation of God throughout existence as giving direction and vitality to what is otherwise just an empty vessel, giving function to form and purpose to potential. And as a dancer, I’ve always had a keen sympathy towards this analogy, the leading and following of a dancing partnership are deeply ingrained in me, and it is undoubtedly a superb illustration of the dynamic between us and God. But what of dance as an explicit act of worship?

Last week I went to a Nia session to explore movement and dancing in a worship environment, and to try to experience something of God through these forms. I was unfortunately only able to attend the second of the two sessions, and this may have been a contributing factor in my experiences, but I have to admit that the whole thing left me pretty cold. We began with exploring simple movement and focussing on the details of motion, but I found my attention wandering continuously. Was the action too slow? Was it familiar and over-done territory for me? I’m not sure. But I realised that the group setting and the medium were both posing some fundamental challenges to my experience of worship.

Let’s firstly consider who is involved in a worship environment, and who is really important.

Of course it’s nice to say that God is the focus and the sole consideration of a worship event, but realistically, if that’s true then why do we worship communally at all? We can always interact with God by ourselves, so gathering to worship implies an important degree of support and reassurance of ourselves and others. We are focussed on the community of believers, and any useful ecclesiastical body is aiming to build up a supportive group of people. Sit on a mountaintop all your life and you can commune with God – it’s for people that you need a church.

So what of worship? If we are involving our fellows in our act of worship, it needs to be comprehensible to them. That’s why music so popular – with or without lyrics, it provides a tangible and collective emotional and philosophical anchor. It is understandable. For dance to do the same would require a high degree of sensitivity and intuition towards understanding movement, and I’m afraid that in my case at least, I just don’t have that. A well-choreographed routine might be understandable, but there isn’t a “vocabulary” to dance which I could use to freely communicate with God or with others. Simple gestures, fine, but complex thoughts and sentences?

And so I find myself distracted. I am happy to pray or sing freely and unscripted as an act of both worship to God and community with my fellows, but with movement I feel I’m trying to communicate without language. The end result is random and just frustrating, like a meaningless jumble of sounds when you are trying to speak.

There is another advantage of music over dancing in my experience of worship – you can do it with your eyes closed and not bump into anyone. This may sound trivial, but seriously – I found myself wanting to “express freely”, and thus not be influenced by what others were doing, and at the same time to “avoid collision”, which meant that I had to keep an eye on others. So I ended up doing a strange corner-of-the-eye kind of thing where I tried to be aware of where people were without seeing too much... as if I wasn’t distracted enough already. But with music, you can sing and be joyful with the community, you can retreat into your closed-eyed solitude and spend a quiet moment with God, or whatever.

For me, it seems that dance is destined to remain a metaphor as an act of worship. To take delight in the glory of creation, and feel the love of the Creator, to sing and praise and revel in the abundance of His goodness and grace, that is to dance with the Lord.