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The Nested Storyverse

Based on a few ideas coming out of conversations on the advent of evolutionary christianity, I thought it would be good to articulate a schema of our stories, especially in the light of the  evolutionary/emergent paradigm, and compare it with the orthodox/evangelical construct.

As I grow towards an understanding of the universe as a divinely imbued processes (emergent spirituality), rather than a predetermined machine (deist/theist orthodoxy), I have come to appreciate the centrality of story in life.  Indeed, I did an album a year back entitled “Story” (The Sout Project) and have just done another quite different offering, entitled “Space and Story: Soundtracks for mythmaking“. So the understanding of us being involved in a “Storyverse” is resonating.

Our stories help articulate our realities, far better than other “objective” modes such as sermon, text book, news report, bullet-point summary, or twitter snippet. (Story can however exist in these spaces, but they are not necessarily the best media).

The subjective, experiential or imaginative nature of a story enhances the opportunity for connection between us and our world at a deep level. Stories exist at different levels simultaneously, and that is why we can say we live in a Storyverse. In fact we could say that our stories are “nested” in one another. More local stories belong inside larger, more universal ones.

Having said this, indulge my analytical bent as I present a few ideas about these nested levels of Story.

  1. My story – The core of it is my life, history and particular sensibility having a unique shape which can be shared in telling, writing, or any other form of creative expression.
  2. Our story – As an individual I have a communal context, made up of the confluence of many stories, all told within this community.
  3. Our tradition – Our community usually centres around shared interests which have history in themselves, such as a faith community like a denomination, sect or philosophy, or other interest group to which we belong.
  4. (At this point I will get more particular regards my own christian tradition).

  5. The “christian church” – the tradition/s I have been part of have all existed in the context of 2000 years of christianity.
  6. The Abrahamic promise – In turn, christianity grew from Judaism, whose roots are in God’s promise to Abraham “In you I will bless the nations of the Earth”.
  7. The Wisdom traditions – alongside Jewish history, we need to include other wisdom traditions, both those emerging from the middle East as well as from the Far East – (Vedic, Taoist etc.), and importantly, the natural primal spiritualities existing globally outside of “civilised” urban cultures.
  8. The history of man – homo sapiens consciously (“knowingly”) develops and lives within a religious frame of reference (to a greater and lesser degree) as part of life.
  9. Life on Earth – man emerges from the process of life as a unique and highly complex species, and relatively recently in Earths 4.3 billion years. However, some of us draw too exclusive a line between man and the rest of life, forming the basis for many of the crises we experience today – a lack of appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things.
  10. The Great Story – The Epic of the Universe, the 14 billion-year journey of light and dust, humanity’s common creation story. To me, this makes sense in the context of a Creator who spoke this into existence. However, this cannot be proved – scientific knowledge seems to stop at 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang, and so a barrier exists beyond which no evidence appears to be currently accessible. So it is by faith that we can say with the writer of Hebrews that “the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” [1:3]
  11. The transcendent Creator – the first cause, ultimately much larger than any category we might hold, mysterious at heart, who can only be accessed through the mystery of faith. Here, all categories – time, matter, mind, and even “story” itself – break down.

It might be best to allow the perennial texts to speak:

A way that can be walked is not The Way
A name that can be named is not The Name
Tao is both named and nameless
As Nameless, it is the origin of all things
As Named, it is the mother of all things

Tao Te Ching 1 (trans. Jonathan Star)

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:33)

Eye cannot see It, tongue cannot utter It, mind cannot grasp It. There is no way to learn or to teach It. It is different from the known, beyond the unknown. In this all the ancient Masters agree.

The Upanishads

I began by suggesting a contrast of 2 Storyverses I have inhabited. This involves my journey from modernist deist-theist orthodoxy to the emergent/evolving wisdom consciousness.

Typically, the orthodoxy misunderstands, ignores or rejects 6 – 9, in which the Abrahamic promise is hardwired to “God”, with no cultural or physical context or consideration. This eliminates the arena championed by the natural sciences, and creates the quite unnecessary conflicts of worldview typical of the young earth creationalist vs. materialist evolutionist stand-off.

If we consider the materialist side of the debate, including evolutionary atheists, their story will include points 1-3 and 7-9, rejecting both historical expressions of religion (4-6ish) as well as a theistic first cause (10).

The more we accommodate these nested stories, the more credibility and integrity our spirituality will have, not just as presented to the world, but as lived and experienced within our own lives.

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A South African Emergent Conversation

A group of friends met on the 4th and 5th December 2009 in Cape Town, around growing these friendships and working towards a common vision for emergence Christianity in South Africa. These included Jackson Khosa, Muzi Cindi, Marius Brand, Cobus van Wyngaard, Theresa and Andrew Hendrikse, Ann and Nic Paton, and Amahoro Africa’s Claude Nikondeha. In addition to socialising and relaxing, we shared meals, drummed, and talked.

One focus was the book by Muzi Cindi, whose unorthodox journey has sparked both indignation and amazement especially in his own African community, dividing established patterns of church authority with a host of radical questions about God and Atheism. Continue reading “A South African Emergent Conversation”

Pattern-based Worship: The loop vs. the line.

One of the major features of the modern era, from which we are currently emerging, is linearity.  This is propped up by the “myth of progress” wherein all history moves towards the future through Greek conceptions of time – telos (purpose) and chronos (linear time) – expressed though our systemising of natural time via clocks. In this idea, accuracy and efficiency have become of utmost importance, because of our capitalist belief that “time is money”.

And these manifestations of modernity are not limited to the dominant economic model either, communism (especially the Soviet type) had an implicit faith in the ability of this “progress” to transform society, based in scientific materialism, atheistic humanism and Hegelian philosophical optimism. Continue reading “Pattern-based Worship: The loop vs. the line.”

The “Kingdom”: of God?

Part of a syncroblog on the “The Kingdom of God.” For other posts, see below.

“In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”

netsMost people agree that these words are deserving of full acceptance. But I’ll guarantee that despite their elegance, determining what exactly constitutes “essentials”, always seems to prove their undoing.

However, as far as Christians go, one notion that holds a considerable place as an “essential” is that of the “Kingdom of God.” This is after all the deep uniting theme that emerges from the known words of Jesus. The Kingdom of G-d, (Gk Basileia tou Theou) is for many the overarching raison d’être – the fundamental descriptor of G-d’s purpose in history, a notion bigger than say “salvation” or “Church”. Continue reading “The “Kingdom”: of God?”

Does Emergence = Global Religion?

“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
 
christ-buddha-shakti transfiguration mandala by Jack Haas
christ-buddha-shakti transfiguration mandala by Jack Haas

Few statements cause as much reaction in Christian circles as those proposing that all religions lead to God. After all, it is generally accepted that Jesus himself stated “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

One topical variant on this theme has to do with “Global Religion”, and the idea that Christianity is but one of many faiths which point us towards Divinity, the Sacred, or Enlightenment. And with the advent of Emergence Christianity, with its pluralism, and its revisioning of Biblical Faith, the Emergent Church is viewed by many as leading us away from true orthodoxy into a new religious synthesis. This urge is typified in such statements as Continue reading “Does Emergence = Global Religion?”

AB 08 scorecard / Syncroblog

Update:

Afrika Burn 2008 Syncroblog:

Also see

We are back from the burn! Just thinking that causes the dust to rise.

Next Monday 27th October 2008, we are inviting anyone to Syncroblog with us; to participate see this post.

But to get the ball rolling, here is my initial scorecard for AB 08. Bear in mind this view is personal, and I did not visit all the camps and attractions I would have liked: Continue reading “AB 08 scorecard / Syncroblog”

A Chernobyl Meditation

//www.angelfire.com/extreme4/kiddofspeed/spring2008.1.jpg

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
… Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
… Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
… And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
 [Bob Dylan : A Hard Rains a’gonna fall]

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. [Revelations 8:10, 11]

We cannot say how the wind blows. From whence, towards where, how strongly, how varied, bearing good or ill omen. The wind remains, even in this proud scientific age, a profound mystery.

And so it is that the fateful events of April 1986 have been blown into my ambit. I have been reminded of something that is part of the wallpaper of the 20th century, something I saw from afar, the implications of which I clearly did not grasp at the time. I am in the grip of this tale of horror, and feel compelled to make some sense of it. Continue reading “A Chernobyl Meditation”

Shamanism, interview 1: Anthony Paton

Anthony Paton, a “materialist fundamentalist with and interest in alternative perspectives”, works for the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site. Besides being my brother, he in a intrepid bipedal student of all things natural: Birds, Reptiles, Rocks, People, and Natural Selection, and is not known to pass an opportunity to opine. So I asked him for his views on Shamanism.

Where does shamanism fit into the picture we now have of mans social and spiritual evolution?

Chief SeattleShamanism seems to have a long history- tens of thousands of years and is prevalent in many pre-agrarian societies, and is possibly associated with hunter-gatherer culture.  That would make it possibly a 250 000 year old tradition. There is a strong argument to suggest that shamanism is associated with traditional medicine- that since people discovered that plants can be harvested and consumed in various forms- through eating, smoking, steaming etc. and some of these plants contained chemicals which sent people on a mind journey which they interpreted through their own animistic (or other) beliefs.  Seeing that people already had a notion of deities and a spiritual world, it made a lot of sense to them to interpret these trips as informing them of the contents of these worlds, and receiving messages from them.

What is the role of the shaman in the Bushman culture of the Kalahari?

Continue reading “Shamanism, interview 1: Anthony Paton”

Ecclesia as Sacred Tribe.

Ecclesia – (lat. from Greek ekklesia [εκκλησία]): a “gathering” of citizens, in an ancient Greek city-state; a “gathering of the called out ones”, gathering of those summoned”.  [britannica.com]

Tribe – A socially, ethnically, and politically cohesive group of people. [wiktionary]

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. [1 Peter 2:9]

Written with a view towards “Afrika Burns” with the theme “tribe” (November 2007), the South African version of Burning Man.

I have no real training in social theory, anthropology or ecclesiology, but I’m not going to let that get in the way: I’d like to take a non-expert, common sense, imaginative foray into the idea that G-ds people, the ecclesia (more commonly but more problematically known as “the church”), might be imagined as a Sacred Tribe.

Firstly, I like to explore my own myths (as at least somewhat representative of my culture), to unpack the key terms. What do I mean, and not mean, by “ecclesia”, and by “tribe”?

Ecclesia is not

  • a building or place where Christians meet.
  • any organisation based on certain doctrines.
  • the moral authority.
  • a time of the week.

Rather, the ecclesia is the community of believers who seek to follow Jesus, the mystical “Body of Christ”. It includes people of all cultures, ages, subcultural affiliations, denominations, and doctrinal persuasions. It has a time dimension, and exists through history, as well as into the future. As to who is actually included, only G-d ultimately knows.

What about “Tribe”, or “Tribal”? Here are some of the thoughts that come to mind:

  • non-Western – e.g. “The social structure of African Tribes”.
  • non-Urban or Pagan – “The Tribal customs of the countryside”.
  • primitive – “In earlier, tribal days”.
  • an ironic anachronism: (re-using an ancient term to describe contemporary subcultures), as in “The Modern Tribes of Britain”.
  • having a similar ethos : “We have like this rapport, y’know, we’re the same tribe”.

So why would one bring the concept “ecclesia” together with the term “tribe”?

As we see in the above definition, the ecclesia are “called out”, and there is a sense in which they need to forge an identity different to the default identity of their culture. Generalising, the “Western” culture which I for one find myself in, is essentially individualist, materialist consumerism.

Inside this culture, people identify with brands or economic classes before other things – ethnicity, culture or nationality. Globalisation is about the homogenisation of world culture around consumer values and technology. Whereas the Catholic Church may have been the overarching authority for a millennium and a half, and nationality thereafter, it is now the superbrands who call the shots. I wear Nike, I use a Mac, I drink Coke.

In my western, 21st century context, this global consumer culture is what is rejected by Jesus when he says, “My kingdom is not of this world”. [John 18:36]. This culture stands diametrically opposed to the “Kingdom of God”. To my ears there are more than a few echoes of the Roman Empire, the dominant political power of his milieu, in the current consumerist age.

One of the key features of Empire is its veneration of the City as the seat of authority. Empire is essentially urban rather than rural. As such, many fundamental values of life – connectedness to the soil, closeness with nature, and simplicity, are superseded by market economies, abstraction from nature, artifice, and increasing sophistication.

As an aside, I am not dispensing entirely with the hope that “City” might represent more than this negative picture, note its uses in Augustine (“The City of God against the Pagans”) and the book of Revelation (The New Jerusalem). Additionally most of the apostolic writings are letters to churches in urban centres, and there is no direct suggestion that living in an urban setting was of itself unethical.

Also, it is important to realise that the “pagan”, so often demonised by christian theology, means both “rustic” as well as (in the Roman context, according to Steve Hayes) “civilian, not in the imperial army”. I have been discussing the prophetic nature of the pagan in recent posts.

But I feel that it is now appropriate to re-examine our assumptions about the urban, especially insofar as we are living in an advanced state of spiritual dis-ease. The unchecked trend towards urbanisation has a cost, and we need to count this.

To the extent that it represents the Kingdom of G-d, the ecclesia will find itself at odds with the Empire of Materialist Consumerism. The called out ones are “called out” precisely to live a life different to this, where the values of G-d are both respected and enacted: community rather than individualism, spiritual rather than materialist progress, serventhood rather than mastery, obedience rather than autonomy, creating rather than consuming, nature rather than artifice.

As far as I understand, before Cities and City-States, community took place in a different way: The Way of the Tribe. I need to acknowledge that any elevation of Tribe (even using a capital “T”) is open to the romantic. But since this is not social science, but rather an exercise in re-envisioning, I am not going to be afraid of skirting ideal and dream. Obviously if we go too far we end up with something no-one can practice, and I am interested in changing the way I live rather than simply playing with ideas.

Clearly, the tribal is not without problems. Warfare between Iraqi tribal groups has derailed the nation; intertribal fighting almost derailed the South African transformation process. And as David Ronfeldt points out : “Continuing to view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting–edge, post–modern phenomenon of the information age misses a crucial point: Al Qaeda is using the information age to revitalize and project ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale.”

Obviously we need to radically rework any concept of the tribal with a view to values such as peace, compassion and inclusion. Despite notions of hospitality and care of the stranger in many bona fide tribal cultures, most models of tribe seem to have had strong delineators defining who was in and who was out. If we have a view of the world informed by G-d’s Kingdom, then we cannot define belonging based on hard borders and bounded sets.

I have increasingly found that looking backwards is a good way to move forward. We are not trying to romanticise the past, or become something archaic or premodern, but rather to understand and distil principles we see having merit and reapplying them in our context.

The Way of the Tribe seems to me to represent a viable alternative to the domination of the urban, as well as offering a worthy expression of the ecclesia and the Kingdom of G-d.

So we can not accept the idea of the tribe uncritically. But neither can we reject it without proper understanding; we need to recognise that modernity has not in fact superseded tribalism, but rather sublimated it. Many aspects of the tribal have simply been repressed; as such they are still present but unacknowledged. This repression results in, for example:

  • gang mentality – banding together to survive, especially in a ghettoised situation.
  • an unearthed spirituality – spirit-matter dualism, whereby the shamanic or nature based aspects of religion are demonised. We are left with spirituality unconnected with creation.
  • unnatural and impotent social alignments – birds of a feather still flock together, but over things like economic status/aspiration, branding, racial identity, nationalism leading to xenophobia, sporting allegiances, hobbies, and a variety of other factors which do not have the power to build true community.

I would like to present a few ways in which I find a tribal paradigm helpful, especially as a metaphor for the ecclesia:

  • Common Good: In a tribal ethic, the common good comes before the individual good. Acts 4:34 records that “there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”. And 2 Cor 8:15, “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
  • Honour Motivation: As opposed to the profit motivation of the City, Tribes according to David Ronfeldt “… behave more like balance–of–honor than balance–of–power systems.” If we remind ourselves of the purpose of the ecclesia, which according to N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, are to “be Gods agents in the putting the world to rights”. The means of this are the placing of the creator on the throne, in worship. An honour motivation, in honouring G-d the creator as the central presence within the tribe, appears to be a credible alternative to the profit motivation of this current age.
  • Connected to the earth: “Treat the earth well, it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children”, says an American Native proverb. The tribe lives close to the earth, lives off the soil, is deeply aware of season, climate and its place in things. Rather than the land belonging to us, we belong to the land. One of the most devastating effects of western colonial expansion was the annihilation of native and tribal peoples in their deeply misguided belief that they could “own” what ever land or resources they wanted to. In so doing, the real custodians of the creation were systematically wiped out, their millennia-old wisdom disappearing in the process. Not only are the effects of this western attitude are now being felt, but the genocide and ecocide of the last 2 centuries has been a corporate sin of immense proportions.
  • Bound in Ritual: The rituals and icons commonplace in tribal culture are, like the tribal itself, sublimated in western urbanism. This sublimation creates lifeless habits from healthy ritual, and idols from icons. The empty informalism and lack of imagination of our way of life robs us of a sense of the sacred, the creative and the communal. Many westerners are starting to acknowledge that the rites of passage practiced in earlier times – coming of age, birth, death – have gone missing at great cost.

The 21st Century Tribe

What might this new Tribe look like in practice?

  • New or creatively reappropriated Rituals and Liturgy appropriate to our situation.
  • More dance and rhythm : “I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.” [St Augustine]
  • Eldership over Celebrity. We need to acknowledge the wisdom of the wise and root out our need for gossip and celebrity as sources of affirmation.
  • An ethic of gifting and servanthood over acquiring and self-preservation.
  • An economic of sharing over profiteering.
  • An economic of barter, wherein we exchange things and skills based on what we do, make or already own, rather than buy into the cult of the new, the cool or the industrially manufactured.
  • The decommodifying of our exchanges. Friendship and kinship over sales and “client” interaction.
  • An active ecology: care of the earth, and efforts to live more in tune with it, political action with existing efforts. More time spent in the open, walking, camping, gardening.
  • A new agriculture: Growing our own, or supporting organic farmers, and going directly to the source rather than via the repackaging supply chain of the market process.
  • A vibrant spirituality which acknowledges the untamed, rediscovering the shamanic arts. Aligning to nature based approaches such as the Wheel of the Year, over more artificial or “scientific” calendars; rediscovering the totemic.
  • A living mythology which feeds the imagination, in which narratives are told and retold, directly and intimately rather than via the products of industrial mythmakers like Disney.
  • Technology in its right place. Always question the increasing ubiquity of computers, entertainment devices and impersonal systems instead of passively accepting it. Says Adbusters Kalle Lasn: “When the TV malfunctions, don’t fix it; decide to suffer through the withdrawal. Fight your way out of the consumerist cage.”
  • Creativity in all things, to combat our industrial alienation from the processes of production. Buying less, making more.
  • Holding our place in the created order, and holding the Creator as the “Honour Centrepiece” of all that the Ecclesial Tribe does.

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