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Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Before that bite ...


I was recently told that I don’t make enough of the opportunities I am given, when you students or even the staff are a captive audience, to force the message of Christianity down your throat. In fact I find the notions of a captive audience or of force-feeding – whether of caged animals or of impelled human beings – abominable. I have much self-consciousness about the role of a chaplain in students’ lives: the god-botherer is about as popular as a dentist, and to most of us both more avoidable and more risible (and if that last word is unfamiliar then it’s time your vocab reached further).

In fact I think I, in the first place, over-estimate the degree to which Christianity and its representatives are disliked, and in the second place probably share many of the points of concern of the disparagers. The failings of Christianity and its representatives – or of any religion and its representatives – are legion. So too are the failings of banks (squeezing every last cent from customers to please shareholders), armies (torture, rape and pillage in the name or peace-making), sports clubs (cultures or drug abuse), even boyfriends and girlfriends (betrayal, misunderstanding, emotional yo-yo-ism). On the whole though, we put up, benevolently or less so, with banks, armies, footy clubs and boyfriends or girlfriends. Believe me: as a religious insider I resent the failings of my institution (the Church) and the Religion it represents (Christianity) as much if not more than most here, though I have perhaps more dedication to the founder and foundation of my faith than some.

So – since it’s the twenty-first century and since at least the nineteenth century this option has been more user-friendly and un-prickly – perhaps I can speak of spirituality? And if I could define that loose and fluffy term, perhaps I can define it as living with an awareness of life-beyond-self. We may focus our spirituality on hugging crystals, on embracing non-self, on adoring saints, on serving the State, in creating a better world for our children – at this point I can say “whatever.” At this point I can just commend – given the opportunities in life you and I have been given – at the very least living for others, making that which is not you more important than merely living for self (deconstructing the infamous ad that referred to “the most important person in the world: you”).

In this spirituality – for now – I do not exclude what I would call “apneumatology”, the belief in a greater-than-self that does not include unscientific and irrational belief in “spirit”, or pneuma. It is worth noting though that the Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “spirit” – not only in the Judaeo-Christian tradition – are simply words for wind, breath, air, and few of us would deny their existence. As someone who has sat often with people as they die I know only too well the difference, sometimes barely discernible, between breath and no-breath, between being alive and being no longer alive, being dead. But let’s just stick with the religious sense: I respect greatly those of you who so not believe in “spirit”, and live in a purely and wonderfully mechanistic universe.

I suggest though, that for all of us life lived solely for self, life lived without living for others, is life mutated, truncated, cheated and abused. Life lived to the full is life that reaches out and embraces and enhances the lives of others. I would even suggest that our lives are a bit like the ubiquitous onion: the further we reach out from our centre, the more we allow our lives to reach from self to family to friends to peers to strangers and even to enemies, the more we are becoming fully human. I suspect we all fall short on that trajectory somewhere, but the truly great people reach right to the very edge of the onion-layers, living to benefit the lives of absolute strangers, even enemies. The Bhagavad-Gita tells the story of a previous life of the Buddha, where, confronted by a tigress too weak to feed her children, he sacrificed his own life so the mother and cubs could draw strength from his blood. To life for others, I suggest, is to truly live. Jesus of course also said something like that, and his followers – like me – believe that he embodies that in his every living and dying moment, even if we fall well and truly short.

Turn to our preferred media though, and role models of such a life are woefully short. Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunctions, Anne Hathaway’s breasts, Ben Barba’s personal problems: all these will generate far more interest than anything remotely encouraging living for others, and it was ever thus. But do we need to live that way, obsessed with self and obsessed with fame? Can we rise above it and live for others (which is not to say, incidentally, that one or all of Psy (or Park Jae-sang), Janet Jackson, Anne Hathaway or Ben Barba don’t live to benefit others – just that it’s not what they are in our consciousness for). We have few role models that inspire us to reach through the onion skins of our existence and live for others, though arguably Angelina Jolie may be a significant exception (as, equally arguably, the Princess of Wales may have been for another generation).

If I were to dig into my kite [basket] of role models I suggest four names immediately: Aung San Suu Kyi, Fred Hollows, Aye Net and Malala Yousafzai. There is a deliberate random nature to these. None, to the best of my knowledge, share my faith, because I do not want to give the impression that only a Desmond Tutu or a Mother Theresa is somehow legitimized as a bearer of justice and compassion. Only one is a male, and he, although not in the normal sense of the phrase, is a dead White Male – and a Marxist to boot (though Wikipedia describes him as a “self-named anarcho-syndicalist” – and a onetime seminarian. I have little doubt he achieved far greater impact on the world that I call God’s world by leaving seminary and perhaps faith behind him. The other two are hardly household names: Aye Net, of whom I had not heard until this week, is a Burmese activist stepping into the shoes of Aung San Suu Kyi in what SBS News called a “David and Goliath battle over one of the world's largest copper deposits”, standing up to a government determined to desecrate village lifestyles and natural environments in the search for profit. Malala Yousafzai is the young Pakistani Muslim girl who took a Taliban bullet for the crime of fighting for the rights of Muslim girls to receive an education. Other names come to mind: Benny Wenda, Gabrielle Giffords, Donald Mackay, Maximillian Kolbe: these are not household names, but each has lived and some died reaching out beyond the onion skins of their immediate lives to touch and transform for the better the lives of those around and beyond them.

Therein dwells the challenge for us. We have an opportunity because we have an education. Will we seize life’s gifts to live only for us and those we love, or will we reach beyond our skin of the onion to, as Jesus put it transform the unjust and painfilled world we live in?
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