Archive for Theology

Berlin Tourism

In the last week of my visit to Berlin I was able to do some great visits to interesting places.

On Monday I caught the train south from Berlin to the city of Dresden.  Known as ‘Florence on the Elbe’, Dresden was renowned for its beauty, but was completely destroyed by aerial bombing in 1945.  This tragedy was captured by Kurt Vonnegut in his famous tragicomedy novel Slaughterhouse Five, based partly on his time as an American prisoner of war in the city.  I wandered around the rebuilt old city, including a visit to the Green Vault, a museum full of expensive trinkets set up by the king, with large elaborate pieces of amber and ivory and jewels and various baroquoco pieces of kitch.  I actually found this museum somewhat revolting, putting on display the arrogance of the rulers who saw their collecting hobby as more important than work on government.  Seeing this opulence helps to understand why communism became such a popular mass movement of revolt.

On Tuesday I walked three kilometres from my hostel in Kreuzberg to the Pergamon Museum, where the heyday of German archaeology from a century ago and older is on display.  The Germans went to Turkey and Iraq where they excavated large ruins and took them back to Berlin to display.  This includes the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, which I saw, and the Pergamon Altar, which has been removed from display for a decade until 2025.  Reading about the altar I was interested to see its marble frieze depicts the Greek myth of the battle between Giants and Gods, which I had studied in my Masters thesis in philosophy.  Here is my summary of what Plato had to say about this myth, a short story that encapsulates much of the controversy surrounding philosophy as an intellectual discipline.

In the Sophist, Plato compares the effort to make sense of the world to a battle between giants and Gods, in which the difficulties of philosophy are discussed in terms of the quarrel between materialism and idealism. The giants “define reality as the same thing as body, and as soon as one of the opposite party asserts that anything without a body is real, they are utterly contemptuous and will not listen to another word”, while on the other side the Gods “are very wary in defending their position somewhere in the heights of the unseen, maintaining with all their force that true reality consists in certain intelligible and bodiless Ideas” (246b). What the giants “allege to be true reality, the Gods do not call real being, but a sort of moving process of becoming” (246c).

Plato believed that both these ways of thought had something important to offer, but he attacked the materialists for being violent and uncivilised (246d) and for thinking that “whatever they cannot squeeze between their hands is just nothing at all” (247c). He says, “it is quite enough for our purposes if they consent to admit that even a small part of reality is bodiless”, arguing that this must be admitted in the case of qualities of the soul like “justice and wisdom or any other sort of goodness or badness” (247b).

On Wednesday I caught the train to Potsdam, former home of the Prussian Kings, just outside Berlin.  With Berlin at the peak of its summer beauty, Potsdam was packed with tourists.  I wandered fairly randomly by tram to the palace of Sans Souci, ‘without care’, where King Frederick the Great spent his summers.   It includes a rather ironic lithograph portrait of the king by Andy Warhol.  Once again this palace has an extraordinary opulence.  Then I wandered through the large palace grounds and ended up at a Bach organ concert at the church of Christ Lord of the Universe before strolling back to the tram and train.  Potsdam was where Stalin, Truman and Churchill/Atlee agreed the post-war division of Europe.

Thursday, my last day in Berlin, turned out to be a highlight.  Starting at the post office to send a couple of postcards, I then went to Checkpoint Charlie, the former American controlled crossing point into East Berlin.  I visited the museum which provides a comprehensive history, with several cars and small aircraft that were used to smuggle people out of the captive nation.  The contrast between today’s integrated Berlin and the bleak history of its division is quite stark, giving pause for thought about the ongoing political barriers maintained by walls in other countries such as Korea and Palestine. 

Then I went to the Jewish Museum, which totally spooked me out.  You go underground to this crazy architecture of long sloping corridors, then up steps to the museum which explains the whole historical tragedy of the Jewish presence and genocide in Germany.  Ashkenazi was the name for all the Jews north of the Alps.  They mainly lived in Germany where Yiddish developed, until most were expelled to eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages.  The most creepy thing was all these photos of the Nazi Holocaust, such as signs in towns saying Jews Not Welcome, a massive list of the steadily growing restrictions on Jews after 1933, and then a big set of photos of the expulsion of the Jews from a small town, purportedly for resettlement but actually for extermination.

Finally, the actual cultural highlight of my whole visit was the Berggruen Museum of Modern Art.  Heinz Berggruen was born in Berlin in 1914 and fled to America in 1936. Returning to Europe after the war he amassed a collection of art by Picasso, Klee, Matisse, Cezanne, Miro, etc now valued in the billions, which he subsequently sold for a tenth its value to the German nation as a gesture of reconciliation.  There was hardly anyone there when I visited, and the paintings are on magnificent display, so I took the opportunity to photograph most of them, and will gradually add more at my Facebook page.

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Talking About Religion in Berlin

This post is about a tour of some Berlin religious sites and a conversation about theology during the tour.

During the WSCF Assembly I went on a tour looking at religion in Berlin with a focus on interfaith relations.  Our tour guide Uwe was from the German SCM (ESG).  He had given a Biblical reflection the day before at the Assembly, on gender in the book of Judges, a rather gruesome topic which you may like to read up on, notably the escapade of Jael at Judges 4:21.

First Uwe took us to the House of One. This remarkable initiative is a planned multi-faith centre with separate worship spaces for Jews, Muslims and Christians joined by a shared meeting area – see animation.  Our group heard an introductory talk and did a site tour, located on the ruins of Berlin’s oldest known church.  The architectural design reflects how a physical space can enable new cultural practice, given that dialogue and cooperation between different traditions seem so difficult to achieve in our contemporary retreat to tribalism.   The House of One community have laid their foundation stone and raised the money to complete the building in the next few years.  I asked why the name is in English. Uwe explained that there is no German translation of the strange and impossible English word “of”.  Our group had a long conversation with the guide, who was Jewish, including about the growing return of anti-Jewish sentiment among young people in Germany.  Encouraging dialogue and personal contact is essential to foster shared understanding.  I am wondering if a similar faith space might be possible at the Australian National University where I manage the chaplaincy. 

The Friedrichswerder Church, our next visit, is one of these magnificent old buildings the Germans have lovingly restored to its original glory only to find the collapse of faith has meant there is no demand for its original purpose as a house of worship.  But never mind, the architecture creates such a glorious atmosphere of reverence and wonder that they have devoted it to something they really can worship – German marble sculpture.  Some of my favourite sculptures were of Achilles, Cain as a bub, and a bust of the great German scientist Humboldt.  Old cathedrals really knew how to do light and acoustics, and this one shows off the art very well.

Bust of German scientist Wilhelm von Humboldt

We called in for lunch at the café run by the Berlin Student Christian Movement.  It is a lovely street frontage with a kitchen. The German SCM, or Evangelische Studierenden Gemeinde, has active branches in universities all around the country and is a very impressive organisation.

I had the opportunity at the ESG cafe to share views on theology with Patrick Ramsey, assembly delegate from the UK, who is doing a PhD in geometry.  More on that below.

German SCM Cafe in Berlin

Finally, we visited the tragic site of the former central Berlin synagogue.  It was the biggest worship building in the city, with 3000 seats, reflecting the high prominence of the Jewish community until the Nazi destruction. 

The heart-rending scale of personal and cultural loss from the Hitler genocide continues to be a big source of mourning and grief in Berlin.   The synagogue would have been burned down in the nationwide pogroms on Kristallnacht in 1938 except the police dispersed the Nazis and called the fire brigade. We wandered through the empty ground where this magnificent place of worship stood until it was destroyed by British bombing in 1943.  Now the front half is all that is left, enough to provide a clear sense of the former scale. The design allowed for the old Jewish tradition of separate seating of men and women. A haunting photo in the synagogue museum showed the main room full of thousands of men, all well dressed and looking distinguished, educated, wealthy, humane and compassionate. Most would have died in Auschwitz, in utter shock at their bewildering betrayal by the nation they had loyally served.

My chat with Patrick as we walked between these sites in Berlin gave me a good chance to explain my views on theology.  It is not often that I find anyone who has capacity to talk sensibly about theology without strong preconceptions. Religion is such an emotional topic, where childhood ideas and cultural conventions well up from the unconscious to take on an accidentally absolute status. As well, church people often tend to be bigoted. One infamous example of rank prejudice is from the leading Anglican theologian NT Wright, who said he would no more debate some critics of his faith than expect an astronomer to debate authors who claim the moon is made of green cheese.  Fear that any different idea is likely to be crazy is a barrier to courteous conversation and mutual learning.

Patrick’s PhD level studies in advanced mathematics seemed to protect him somewhat from this hostile syndrome.  He was able to ask some astute questions that did not derail the dialogue, a rare thing in my experience.

I explained that my interest is to place Christian faith in the context of science, methodically questioning all assumptions.  This has led me to a completely different understanding of Christian origins from the orthodox story.  For thousands of years, religion was intimately connected to astronomy.  This makes it plausible that astronomer-priests noticed the slow movement of the stars against the seasons, as that was essential for them to time planting and rituals.  We have no direct evidence of this observation of seasonal shift of the stars as it affected culture. There is, however, abundant indirect evidence.  The Gospels are full of stellar images that are best explained by knowledge of this seasonal movement, known as precession of the equinoxes.  The presence of these camouflaged images in the Bible reflects that the authors regarded actual observation of the visible starry heavens as a way to interpret the order, grandeur, stability and glory of God, in ways that have been largely forgotten. 

Ancient astronomers observed the precession of the equinoxes into the constellations of Pisces and Virgo at the time of Christ. This observation is reflected in messianic expectations around that time, and in numerous Gospel images such as the loaves and fishes, the beginning and end, the fisher of men, as well as the whole theme of the BC/AD turning point of time and numerous obscure visions in the Apocalypse. 

I mentioned to Patrick that John’s account of the cleansing of the temple has Jesus sweep out the sheep and cows, matching the astronomy of the replacement of the zodiac ages of Aries the sheep and Taurus the cow by the new age of Pisces the fish.  He asked, very reasonably, why then is Jesus described as a sheep as well as a fish?  This is the sort of question I like.  My reading draws from the symbolism of Jesus as the first and last, represented by the Greek letters alpha and omega seen in numerous Christian symbols such as the Chi Rho Cross. This theme of the unity of the beginning and end creates a cyclic vision in which his imagined role as the logos or incarnation of eternal reason meant Jesus could equally be represented by the sheep and the fish as symbols of the closing cosmic age and the opening cosmic age.

I further explained to Patrick my view that a secret wisdom mystery community developed the cosmic vision of Jesus Christ as universal saviour in continuity with ancient oral religions from numerous countries. This mystery tradition was savagely suppressed as the Roman Empire co-opted Christian ideas for its military security, leaving almost no sign of the existence of the older symbolic mystery teaching.  The main surviving indications of this cosmic origin story after a millennium of Christian censorship are fugitive traces in the Bible, texts that only survived because their real meaning was well hidden.  As well, there are large mysterious gaps in Christian history. Most importantly, the justification for this scientific hypothesis is that it provides a simple and coherent explanation of all the available evidence.  Astronomy provided the original intellectual structure of Christianity, without any need for literal miracles or supernatural assertions, reading the whole Bible as natural parable.

What I like about this approach is that it provides an elegant basis for Christianity to justify its core ethical ideas against an accurate and plausible ancient cosmology, with a systematic theology that furthermore provides an equally compelling explanation of the ideas of the Second Coming, imagined as the dawn of the zodiac age of Aquarius.  My experience is that Christians tend to greet such conversation with a deathly silence, as it generates such cognitive dissonance they do not know where to begin to discuss it.  I mentioned to Patrick that one of the problems is that three rival traditions contributed to Christian origins, philosophy, religion and astrology.  Each is hostile to the other two. That makes the effort to compare and integrate them today as an explanation of Christian origins quite unpopular and difficult.

Some extra photos including me with Saint Gertrude, patron saint of pest exterminators.

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The Tree of Life

We have reached the end of the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation.  It has been a magnificent and inspiring event to attend, with really valuable contacts and discussions.  It is amazing to be part of a global network involving student organisations from almost every country that allows free Christian expression, with notable absence the USA.  I had the privilege of drafting the official WSCF public message to report on the Assembly, and look forward to sharing that when it is published. We included the image from the keynote sermon describing the WSCF as like a living forest of trees, reflecting my theme today of the tree of life.

The main negative of the assembly from my point of view was that I caught a nasty cough, thankfully not COVID, so could not participate in all sessions.  Luckily the bit I missed was mainly just a boring constitutional review. 

The great value of the WSCF is its focus on faith from the margins, including people who are excluded by their societies, or who live in places that are excluded by dominant world systems.  WSCF has a genuine and practical respect for diversity.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post, we heard directly from people who face persecution for their identity, and who find support in what our draft assembly message calls “inclusive and liberating Christian faith grounded in critical Biblical reflection.”  While this principle of inclusion naturally faces tension, such as the difficulty that marginalised Christian churches in Muslim majority countries have in affirming Western ideas on sexual inclusion, it is highly affirming and valuable as a basis for solidarity, love and hope.

For this post, I will reflect on the opening sermon at the Assembly, presented by Rev Peter Ciaccio, a Waldensian Methodist Minister from Italy, about the Tree of Life. Peter focussed on the strongly urban nature of Christian faith, and how this creates a series of tensions and dilemmas.  Modern life is not primarily agricultural.  We have jumped from Eden to the supermarket, via towns and cities.  In the Biblical myth of Genesis 4:17, the first murderer, Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, also founded the first city, named after his son Enoch, in the Land of Nod.  Peter described this story as symbolising a debate between rural and urban visions of human flourishing. 

I find this all fascinating in a broader historical sense, showing how Biblical analysis can place and deconstruct prominent cultural stories into an accurate historical framework.  In this case social pressures were produced by the emergence of agriculture, metal, writing and cities, as Bronze Age technologies that would overwhelm the ancient hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle from Palӕolithic times. 

These pressures of technological change provide context for the story of Cain and Abel.   It is telling that Cain was described in Gen 4 as a tiller of the soil, representing the settled agriculture that enabled cities and kings, while his murdered brother Abel was a herder, part of the older nomadic clan culture that was largely destroyed by the technological productivity of emerging urban civilization.

This all plays into some quite profound theological concerns that have long exercised me regarding the underlying meaning of Biblical myths.  Cities flourished because of having what Gen 4:15 calls “the mark of Cain”, which the Bible says meant anyone who killed Cain would receive sevenfold vengeance.  That is exactly how urban civilizations treated their nomadic precursors, extending into modern colonial times with the European conquerors of the rest of the world using their urban technological productivity to inflict genocidal retaliation against indigenous resistance to theft of their land. 

The Mark of Cain, according to Gen 4:14, meant Cain could no longer see God.  Cain’s power of technology came at the price of spiritual death, gaining the world but losing his soul (Mark 8:36).  That is the central story of the fall from grace into corruption.  Technological progress produced spiritual depravity.  This human defilement led also to the curse of Cain (Gen 4:10) from killing his brother, that the earth cried out against him.  My view is that this problem played out into Christendom, with alienation between spirit and nature generating a dominant church theology that thought it was totally separate from nature.

Peter Ciaccio went on in his sermon to describe the Biblical tension between rural integrity and urban immorality.  God made the garden but people made cities. King David came from the country as a shepherd but was corrupted in the city by royal power.  The prophet Amos was a herdsman called to the city. Jesus mixes elements of the stories of Adam, Moses and David with their rural origins.  Bethlehem was an insignificant village, outside urban power, unknown to Herod.  Nazareth was remote from the city of Jerusalem (indeed so remote that archaeologists have not even been able to prove it existed at the time of Christ).

The integration of these visions of the city and garden comes together in the visions of the Revelation, with Peter suggesting the city of God with its foundations of twelve jewels coming down from heaven shows God accepts us as city dwellers. The River of Life and the Tree of Life are at the centre of this symbolic holy city, and they explain what this new reconciliation involves. The Tree of Life grows on both sides of the river, unlike any real tree, and has twelve fruits, one for each month, ‘for the healing of the nations’. 

My own interpretation of this mysterious image of the Tree of Life, which I have been crying about in the wilderness for decades, is that it is an obvious symbolic metaphor for the visible heavens of the night sky as the manifestation of the glory and grandeur and order of God. The zodiac stars in their twelve monthly groups appear six on one side of the celestial river, the Milky Way, and six on the other side, in exact match to the Biblical text.  I am yet to find any Christian willing to even discuss this interpretation, which seems to reflect how deeply counter-cultural its natural theology is against the prevailing supernatural theories of God. 

Peter explained how the return of the Tree of Life at the end of the Bible completes the book as a well-structured story, a ring composition signalling closure of the narrative, after the previous appearance of the tree in Eden as the symbol of divine presence and grace from which humanity was excluded at the fall. The Tree of Life has evolved in the story from the centre of the garden to the centre of the city, reflecting human urban evolution. 

Meanwhile, our dominant fallen culture has created a ‘cartel of domination’.  Peter mentioned money, power, greed, class, blood, nation, family, binary ideology, misogyny and patriarchy as factors supporting this cartel.  What matters now is to create space for the Tree of Life, as a holy symbol of how we belong to God, a symbol with power to heal divisions and sorrows and broken hearts, bringing peace and justice for humans and nature.  At the centre of our global village, the Tree of Life is a powerful image, a vision to support our sacred struggle for social, economic and climate goals.

This sort of radical theology is what I love about the Student Christian Movement, opening ideas with deep and far reaching implications for social transformation.  There is little public oxygen for such conversation, and I would love to see WSCF do more to encourage it.

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WSCF Stories of Resistance and Hope

Saturday was the first day of the World Student Christian Federation General Assembly in Berlin. This is the first in person assembly of WSCF for seven years since the last GA in Bogota in 2015.  The GA is meant to happen every four years, so we are celebrating coming back together.  The Bible theme is “Rejoice in Hope” from Romans 12:12, where Paul says to be patient through suffering and persist in prayer.  Today I will just focus on the afternoon session titled ‘Stories of Memory and Resistance’, reflecting how Christian faith in the transformation of the world through the love of God offers a profound source of hope amidst immense difficulties.  The following stories were shared by conference participants to illustrate how Christian solidarity faces severe challenges around the world.

A delegate from the Palestine Student Christian Movement (SCM) described coming to Berlin and seeing the history of division and control represented by the Berlin Wall, now fallen for 33 years.  She said it brought a lump to her throat comparing the historical removal of this barrier at the liberation of East Germany in 1989 to the ongoing reality in Palestine of a settler apartheid system and the suffering it inflicts on the Palestinian people.  The opportunity to discuss such problems in WSCF creates the hope of solidarity around the world.

A delegate from Sudan spoke about political suffering since the army took power, with most Sudanese against the 2021 military coup.  Daily protests are met by shooting.  Ethnic disputes affect Christian minorities, with protesters arrested and tortured. The Christian Coptic community find it difficult to worship and be involved as community.

In Peru, we heard how Arahuacos and Ashankinka are indigenous Amazon people who were enslaved by colonial powers to grow rubber. An armed conflict from 1980 to 2000 brought them into conflict with terrorists, drug traffickers and land thieves.  Indigenous people were denigrated as uncivilised but have maintained land for centuries, and now have no government protection against murder.  Resistance is hope.

Ukraine is the biggest story of resistance and hope today.  We heard from a Ukrainian attendee that we are all connected, and are wondering when events will hit us. In Cherniyev, a city in northern Ukraine, old churches are used as place of hiding, and come under artillery assault.  Many children have been killed, and buildings destroyed.  In Kherson, occupied for three months, farm produce is rotting. Farmers are dumping food, with no way to export, and food stolen by Russia.  The invasion is causing global hunger, economic crisis and ecological disaster.  Zaporizhzhia, the 6th biggest nuclear station in the world, has been occupied by Russia, with risk of explosion.  What we do matters, and we need to raise awareness. As Russia launches constant rockets, people cannot sleep. Who if not me?

The Myanmar SCM secretary shared a video greeting. He apologised for not being able to attend the GA due to the impact of the 2021 military coup, with many students fleeing or arrested. SCM in Myanmar cannot do programs, with no zoom access or internet, and invite WSCF to pray for them and provide advice.

As we share these stories of heartbreak, raising awareness of war and violence, the global WSCF family can reach out in prayer, sharing information around our networks.  The whole world is in pain, and is globally connected. Showing interest means a lot.

Chris Ferguson, pastor and adviser to WSCF, commented on these stories, saying what is happening in one country is happening to us all.  Abstract connections at global and regional levels show how the world disorder shapes and determines local reality. Power structures are  interconnected across the whole world, showing the need for ecumenical identity.  The word ecumenical comes from the ancient Greek oikoumene, meaning the whole inhabited earth. Oikoumene was used after the conquest by Alexander of Macedon of the eastern Mediterranean region to describe the reality of a world under imperial domination.  The whole creation is groaning as Paul wrote in Romans 8:22. Structures and systems are living under domination, falling captive and wounded.  The world God created in love faces the common global reality that we are fallen among thieves.  Our struggles are rooted in the common dynamics of necropolitics, the colonial control of life, deciding who will live and who will die.  Everything we do is guided by a sense of planet under threat.  The stories we have heard shine light on captivity under empire. In Ukraine, the Russian invasion reflects conflict between empires. Taiwan is at risk in the context of global empires. Amidst bad news, the Gospel call to repent and believe wakes us to say the God of life comes in the midst of a broken and wounded world.  Racism and gender injustice live out differently in each place.  Injustices together add to create a social, political and military system of global apartheid.  The few live at the expense of the many.  Hope motivates solidarity and calls us to name the world as it is, in constant alert.  WSCF is called through conflict to understand the whole world, joining in common humanity.  Young people are disappointed, depressed and despairing, not hopeful, and yet can find hope in the Gospel story.  The Palestine Kairos document describes how faith can provide hope in an objectively hopeless situation.

Joy Eva Bohol, leader of youth engagement with the World Council of Churches based in Geneva, described inspiring responses to justice issues around the world.  WSCF has provided leadership for the WCC.  We pause to consider and name stories of issues we confront, in the context of efforts to build community, such as extra-judicial killings in Philippines, and Sami people in the Arctic region, who face the impact of green colonialism at cost of indigenous traditions. Wind turbines are forcing out Sami people and animals, creating an exhausting fight to defend ancestral livelihoods.  The pain and hopelessness of systemic injustice puts young people at risk of exclusion, in politics, churches and community organisations.  Half the people of the world are under the age of 31, but are discouraged from engaging. There is a lack of decision-making spaces, despite positive potential.  Intergenerational mistrust has seen young people become more politically active to address structural issues, finding platforms to share with ecumenical partners. Let the Waves Roar is a WCC book of essays affirming prophetic voices to disrupt oppressive systems, with 17 authors including Jasmine Rishmawi of Palestine SCM, available free online.  Young people are seen as the hope of the future, but face eco-anxiety, with chronic fear of environmental doom.  Children are more informed than their parents think.  Climate change is occurring against intersecting issues of gender, hate, race, systemic injustice, military rule, war and conflict.  Creating hope for all generations to move toward a just and sustainable future means older people must be accountable.  Sami people find hope in the midst of struggle, bringing back culture, language and heritage, affirming agency to speak truth to power, reclaiming ancestral rights and indigenous wisdom to combat climate change.  Global solidarity is needed to expose and pressure governments and companies.  We still believe in hope.  Stories of struggle create change, rooted in justice and peace.  The blessing of God lives deep in our hearts, bringing anger at exploitation, tears for suffering.  We reach out to comfort others, rejoicing in the hope that we are led by the spirit of God to transform the world. 

Swiss Protestant Reformer Huldrych Zwingli – statue at Zwinglikirche in Berlin

#WSCFGA22 #RejoiceInHope @World Student Christian Federation @wscfgeneva

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Why take an interest in religion?

I have been pondering why I have such an interest in religion.  All my life my primary commitment has been to understanding truth.  That led me to refuse to attend religious instruction classes at school, because even as a child I rejected the dogmatic method that promotes claims that contradict common sense.  One of my favourite lines in the Bible is John 8:32 where Jesus Christ says “the truth will set you free.”  Conventionally, the church has taken a dogmatic interpretation of this line, asserting that truth is encapsulated in Christian creeds and that freedom consists in assent to established doctrine, with salvation acquired by conversion from false to true belief.  The cultural clash between faith and reason resulting from this view pits obedience to traditional religious authority against the logic of experience and observation in the scientific method.

My reading of John 8:32 begins from the view that Jesus stands on the side of reason and science in this intellectual debate.  Truth is contestable, since as even the great Protestant reformer John Calvin argued in a pre-scientific age, if the evidence of our senses reveals that a claim is false, we should not assert it is literally true. I can’t find this reference, but recall reading it in A History of God by Karen Armstrong. The starting point of systematic knowledge, and therefore of systematic theology, should be the reliability of scientific truth.

And yet, there is a whole further dimension of truth that is not captured by objective data. The truth that sets us free answers the question of how human life connects to reality in a system of relationships.  Calvin saw scripture as a prism that enables us to decipher the mind of God written in the book of Nature, reading the Bible as a guide to interpreting the meaning and value of empirical facts in terms of relationship. 

This theme of connection in relationship opens the problem of the meaning of religion, inviting us to see spiritual faith as a psychological process that can ground our life together in a vision of how we connect to our actual context.  And our context is the stable reality of the natural universe.  As Plato taught, our constructed world of culture is often a deceptive shadowy appearance rather than a reliable truth.  The truth that brings liberation is a mystery, extending beyond our conscious knowledge to connect us in ways we do not explicitly see.

This is all rather abstract and general, but seeing spiritual truth as a path of liberation in this way calls us to question the reliability of received wisdom, and instead to constantly assess our cultural values against evidence, to find what Jesus suggests in John 14:6 is the way of life in truth.  One of the greatest moral teachings in the Gospels is that human salvation requires an ethic of universal love, overcoming tribal and national barriers to celebrate the shared humanity of all. 

The problem is that this messianic teaching confronts strongly hardwired instincts in our brains which have evolved over the millions of years of our clan-based ancestry.  Our natural instincts are tribal, teaching us to trust our friends and relatives and be suspicious of everyone else.  Loyalty, belonging to a group, provides instinctive protection. We face constant pressure from our tribal instincts to assent to the truth of appearance rather than questioning its connection to reality.

My view of the Gospels is that the story of Jesus totally challenges our tribal values and assumptions, calling all of humanity to use our minds to evolve into a new universal spiritual identity.  Naturally, the resistance to this cultural evolutionary step is immense.  This cultural resistance sheds light on the whole story of the crucifixion, that mutation into homo universalis is unacceptable to conventional opinion. Jesus says our salvation comes through an ethic of unconditional love, but this seems too risky and difficult for our dominant ideas of security and stability. 

So instead, the church has constructed an elaborate imaginarium in which salvation is defined as escaping nature into heaven after death, rather than in the Biblical terms of the transformation of the world of corruption to accord with the divine values of grace.  The church largely accepts the corrupt values of tribal identity, kicking the subversive divine values of messianic transformation upstairs into the too-hard basket, as requiring sacrifice that invites persecution, as seen in the story of the cross.

Looking at church history against these ideas, we can see the constant pressure to accept tribal hierarchy as the basis of our moral values.  And yet this ethic of deference is something the Gospels tell us is inadequate and dangerous, like the broad and easy road to destruction described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:13).   Paul wrote in Romans 8 that escaping our bondage to corruption is like the pain of a woman giving birth, opening the way to what he called the glorious liberty of the children of God, imagined as a social transformation of the world. 

A key theme in Christian theology is that humanity has fallen from an original state of grace into a state of corruption.  The profound irony in this perceived loss of divine blessing is that the dominant theology of the church is itself deeply corrupted by the tribal values of patriarchal monotheism.   Biblical teachings have been adapted to meet worldly needs, accepting comforting and convenient emotional fantasies.  And yet the exciting and inspiring message of Christ is that love will save the world.  This message of divine love stands hidden in plain sight as offering a rigorous and confronting vision of transforming liberation, the truth that will set us free.

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Berlin tourism, playing music

Catching up a bit, I have put some public posts on Facebook, with photos and videos. Here are links, and also words of some songs we will sing at the Assembly.

  • Fete de la music in Berlin, celebrating the summer solstice, musicians come out into the parks and jam. I brought my plastic didgeridoo and played for three hours with a bunch of Moroccans. They were great! Would be so nice to do this in Australia in summer, 21 December.  I had to saw my didg in half to fit it in my backpack, no worries, as it makes it far more convenient. I made it from a piece of plumbing pipe, with indigenous art glued on from old calendars. The mouthpiece is made by grinding up charcoal and mixing with melted beeswax.  Kreuzberg where I am staying has population density about 20 times greater than my suburb in Canberra, it is nice to be in an urban place.
  • With friends Chung HiuFan Fanny, Pio and Alissa, from Hong Kong, Korea and New Zealand, over dinner in Kreuzberg, before WSCF Assembly. We had a good conversation about why Christianity is so unpopular among university students.
  • Berlin tourism, climbed the dome of the great Prussian Protestant Cathedral and visited the Gauguin South Pacific exhibition at the Art Gallery on Museum Island. Slightly consternated to see so many WW2 bullet holes in the walls and pillars of the centre of the city dating from the Russian conquest. Surprised to see dozens of church spires in the former atheist East Berlin in the view from on high. Enjoyed running there from my hostel.

I will be playing music for the Assembly, piano, guitar, didg and singing.  Yesterday I met Dianet Martinez, from Cuba, conference organiser, to work on the music, and we also met a bunch of people from the WSCF Executive Committee over lunch, General Secretary Marcelo Leites from Uruguay, WSCF Chair Bishop George from India, Fanny from Hong Kong, Paudie from Ireland and others.  Dianet and I went to the Zwingli Kirche where the assembly will be held, quite an austere old protestant church, and so interesting as symptom of the collapse of Christian faith in Europe, built for a world that is now obsolete.

I shared an Australian hymn, Community, by Dave Brown from Brunswick Uniting Church in Melbourne.  Here are the lyrics –

Chorus – Part of a family, interconnected, this is community. Welcoming strangers, visiting neighbours, this gives us dignity.

Care for the earth and sea, we need to keep them free, so we care for the earth and sea. Care for the ones we meet, love is the face we see, when we care for the ones we meet.

Chorus

Sharing our joy and pain, praying and keeping faith, by sharing our joy and pain. Singing a song of rights, imaging God in life, by singing a song of rights.

Chorus

Talk to the lonely, bind up the broken, this makes community. A glass of water shared with the thirsty, this makes for dignity, this makes for dignity. This is community

I hope we can also sing the SCM Solidarity Song,  by Saw Mathew Aye from SCM Myanmar

The song we sing not for ourselves,
For those who are oppressed and chained,
Build up a new society,
Let share and feel with them.

Chorus: Come SCMs, unite be one,
Pull out injustice from this world,
Live with people, build together,
One day we’ll reach a new just world.

The way we work not for ourselves,
For those who are oppressed and poor,
Suffer with them and let us know,
That our struggle will win.

The life we owe not for ourselves
Women and men work hand in hand
The unity will triumph,
We share the vision and hope.

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John R. Mott, WSCF Founder

John Raleigh Mott.jpg
John R. Mott, founder of the WSCF

As we get ready for the WSCF General Assembly this week, its first in-person meeting since before the pandemic, it is good to learn something about the long and venerable history of this great organisation.  Quite remarkably, WSCF founder John Mott won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, in a time of massive global tumult and disruption as the western nations shifted focus from the war against fascism to the Cold War against the Soviet Union. 

There must have been many candidates for the Peace Prize as the world emerged from such bloody and stupid fighting, carnage and genocide.  To give this uniquely celebrated and distinguished honour to a man who focused on how the beliefs of university students can affect world politics demonstrates a remarkable insight and vision from the Nobel Committee.

Mott’s most famous book, published in 1900, was The Evangelisation of the World in this Generation. It presents a theory of Christianity that was motivating and inspiring for the missionary movement of his time but is now considered obsolete.  Advocating “the sublime purpose of enthroning Jesus Christ as King among all nations and races of men”, Mott’s key goal was religious conversion of people from their ancestral faiths to an acceptance of Christianity as the sole truth.  Even granting that Mott included women in his concept of “all men”, his entire concept of proselytising in order to win souls for Christ is now widely seen as quaint, rude, ignorant and offensive.  And yet Mott was able to integrate this dubious goal with a high intellectual purpose that has in large measure stood the test of time, through his rational principle that knowledge must go before acceptance, that we need a coherent understanding before we can properly assent to any proposition. 

As we today apply the moral lens of questioning all our assumptions against evidence and logic, it is clear that many claims that Mott regarded as knowledge are better understood as culturally conditioned beliefs, open to challenge and dispute.  Alleged facts about Jesus Christ may still retain a power to transform the world, but only as imaginative poetic symbols of a moral vision, not as literal reports of miraculous events in history. Mott sets out the principles that faith must be intelligible and systematic.  These approaches today involve a rigorous critique of supernatural claims that Christian missionaries of Mott’s day never thought to challenge. Accepting this shift of interpretation to a critical rather than a dogmatic approach can help the church to enter constructive dialogue with a wide range of partners. A modern critical approach can address suspicions that Christianity has an arrogant agenda to replace the diverse cultural heritage of other societies with conformity to a western colonial model.

This more humble and constructive approach is reflected in Mott’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, where he pits the constructive forces of the world against the destructive, in ways that retain a strong and vital validity.  Mott calls for wise, unselfish, and determined guides to wage war against ignorance, poverty, disease, strife, and sin.  This is a high moral vision of planetary transformation, where the story of Jesus Christ as the perfect man offers great inspiration, regardless of how much of the Gospel story is historically true.  In a remarkably astute comment, Mott says in his speech the fostering of right international relations faces many subtle and baffling misunderstandings, with resultant strife and working at cross-purposes.

Addressing these basic problems require that people change their motives and dispositions.  The problem, Mott told his Nobel audience in Oslo, is that alarming divisive forces of economic imperialism, commercial exploitation and the unjust use of natural resources have been accomplishing deadly work on an overwhelmingly extensive scale.  Recognising the powerful material and political barriers to the needed psychological and spiritual changes, he says the battle between construction and destruction requires us to restudy, rethink, restate, revise and, where necessary, revolutionize programs and plans.  Just acting on a perspective that is not fully thought through cannot succeed. 

Creative leadership is about new ideas, about spiritual discovery, about the culture of the soul, a vision that in Mott’s phrase sees what the crowd does not see, taking in a wider sweep.  With guiding principles that are trusted like the North Star, we can find the real secret of leadership in bewildering conditions.  In a world where separation and competition are growing, Mott poses the challenge that the future greatness and influence of a nation can be measured by its ability to cooperate with other nations.  Security comes through relationships, not through barriers.

The visionary insight from John Mott that peace is all about cooperation places dialogue, respect and human dignity at the focus of security.  These ideas seem simple but in fact they are difficult, and as a result are neglected by the isolating forces that dominate our culture today.  The calling of the WSCF is to bring young people together in a spirit of enquiry and sharing. This opens the direct challenge of how we can cooperate in practice.  Building constructive relationships is where the framework of WSCF is so essential, helping people to see that their concerns are widely supported, and that together we can transform the world to realise the high ideals of love, justice, peace and truth.

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The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

The astonishing physical barrier of division that separated West Berlin from its hinterland for three decades from 1961 to 1989 seemed when I was young to be a permanent and immutable feature of political geography.  Today in Berlin I was able to walk for 13 minutes along the stretch of the wall that was allowed to stand on the eastern bank of the River Spree, covered with beautiful and diverse and sometimes sombre artwork celebrating freedom and the liberation from communist oppression. 

Here is my video of this walk, just wandering with my phone camera along the wall and commenting on the painting.  Each artist has repainted their work each decade, so the immediate visions of freedom after the collapse of communism are as fresh today as when they were first done in 1990.

Each rose is a person killed trying to escape to freedom

As I mentioned, my transit visit on Saturday to Singapore brought back memories of my 1989 visit to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, a nation that remains frozen and petrified in a stultifying and dangerous time-warp, refusing to allow the tectonic forces of history and economy and politics to break open its tyrannical system.  I hope the political earthquake comes soon for North Korea, and that the transition will be as peaceful and productive as it has been for East German integration with the West.

The big differences from North Korea include that West Berlin was an enclave of freedom entirely surrounded by totalitarian dictatorship, and was radiating the seductive message of prosperity, creativity, diversity, dignity and liberty in ways the communists could not totally suppress.  I watched the hilarious 2003 film Goodbye Lenin last week, with its satirical emphasis on the lies the communists had to tell to maintain their façade of legitimacy and keep their people in ignorance.  North Korea has no West Berlin, so its propaganda brainwashing is unchallenged.  As well, the collapse of the German Democratic Republic was part of the broader collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, whereas North Korea remains mainly supported by China, in the memorable but chilling phrase “as close as lips and teeth”.  And then there is Christianity, with its subversive ideas that the truth shall set you free (John 8:32), and that we are united to God through Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18).  The spirit of conversation and respect created by a desire for reconciliation is very different from the arrogant communist ideological insistence that an unelected political dictatorship holds the total truth and has a historical mission to eliminate its class enemies. Christian history is far from perfect, but the Gospels present a message that is inherently critical of denial of human dignity to those who refuse to buckle.

Say Yes To Freedom

I hope you will watch the wall video I made.  It provides an emotional outpouring of spiritual release when the bottled up stifling control was finally broken. There is a sort of similarity between walls of control and the old imperial idea that just crucifying the messenger can destroy the message. The liberating gospel of resurrection says no regime can control the spirit of truth, which inevitably breaks down the worldly systems of oppression.

In Faith

Robbie Tulip

Freedom Mermaid

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Christian Faith

An old friend recently advised me that in attending this religion conference, the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation, I should not discuss religion, as my views might challenge and shock other people’s beliefs.  I have been wrestling with my conscience over this question, not just recently but for many years, regarding how to relate faith to reason.  My view is that Christianity needs a paradigm shift away from its literal conventions in order to discover the real original meaning and purpose of the faith of Jesus Christ.

Traditional theology still has appeal within the church but has an appalling public reputation. Appealing and appalling, the church continues to accept and promote claims that conflict with historical and scientific knowledge. This appal/appeal contradiction undermines public dialogue about the credibility of Christian faith.  The problem is not just with the literal beliefs of fundamentalists, but also extends to moderate and progressive views about God and the Gospels.  Just shunning people who point out these problems is not a solution.  

WSCF offers a platform for discussion of political direction in the framework of Christian faith. The WSCF has its institutional basis in theology, in ecumenical conversation about faith, providing a sense of purpose and focus and meaning through courteous and rigorous dialogue.  I hope and pray that WSCF can find space for dialogue about how the values of the gospel can resonate with our world today. 

The great founder of WSCF, Rev John R. Mott, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946, an award that recognised the broad political importance of ecumenical Christianity, reaching out in a critical spirit of humility and openness to all.  Mott wrote at the beginning of last century about what he called ‘Strategic Points in the World’s Conquest’, namely the role of tertiary students as agents of peace.  Rekindling that vision today has to shift from Mott’s method of evangelising the world with an allegedly clear message of salvation toward promoting dialogue about what we even mean by concepts like salvation.

The Gospel vision of Jesus Christ is grounded in faith in God’s love for the world. The problem today is that connection between the story of Jesus and social values is highly contested. A systematic theology needs to integrate social values and scientific knowledge, grounded in Biblical scholarship, to offer a coherent and plausible message to a wide audience.  The Christian church is unfortunately not systematic in its thinking. It largely holds to a traditional acceptance of the Bible as history, overlaid with supernatural values and beliefs that try to construct a meaningful mythology.  Conventional church values and beliefs are far from being systematic, but instead derive from ancient traditions that have a widening gulf from modern secular values.  Traditional faith enables a psychology of fantasy, a comforting emotional separation between spirit and nature that is ethically dubious.  Religion has become alien to the scientific mind and to its principal ethical values of evidence and logic. Rituals of faith and worship create an epistemology, a theory of knowledge, that places a supernatural narrative of salvation at the focus, resulting in strong tension with scientific method.

A glaring example of this tension appears in the question of the historicity of the Gospels, their claim to relate actual events.  Science operates on the principle of doubt, requiring coherent evidence to assent to statements of fact.  With the story of Jesus, historical evidence is not compatible with church tradition.  Recent scholarship points more toward fictional invention of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Mark than to the stories being based on the life of an actual person.  This is an essential debate that cannot be simply swept under the carpet and ignored.

The shocking challenge to conventional faith is that we cannot know that Jesus existed.  Yet as Voltaire said of God, if Jesus did not exist it would have been necessary to invent him.  The vision of a coming Messiah in Palestine was so strong at the dawn of the common era that the transcendental imagination of the community gave rise to popular stories about what the Messiah would have done if he had lived.  The necessary Messiah was imagined as Jesus of Nazareth. 

Another hypothesis that I quite like starts from Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ.  He imagines Christ with the ‘netser’ image of the Branch of Jesse in Isa 11:1 – weneser yisay in Hebrew. This phrase may have evolved linguistically into Jesus of Nazareth – Iēsoun ton Nazoraion in John 18:5.  The complete absence of Nazareth from early non-Biblical sources suggests the town of Nazareth was named after Jesus, rather than Jesus being named after Nazareth.  Such questions should be approached objectively, not through the emotional prism of faith.

One of the biggest anomalies in the Bible is that Paul has almost no historical Jesus in his letters, and never cites Jesus as an authority, unlike all other examples of a visionary founder followed by a practical organiser in social movements in history.  An invented Jesus is completely compatible with the letters of Paul.  All the brief hints at a historical Jesus in the Epistles are best explained as symbolic rather than literal.  Paul says he gets his Jesus story from scripture (Rom 16:26) and from divine revelation, not from stories told by people around him (Gal 1:12).  That method is not compatible with transfer of wisdom through a church community established by an individual person Jesus of Nazareth.

All these ideas are quite shocking for the church.  And yet if Christian faith is to participate in contemporary conversation, these doubts strike at its legitimacy and authority as a coherent voice.  The most damaging argument from atheist critics such as Richard Dawkins is that faith is a false epistemology, that the theory of knowledge in Biblical tradition is simply incorrect, grounded in revelation rather than observation. 

It is important to state that this challenge to the historicity of Jesus should not at all suggest that Christianity is obsolete – rather what it calls for is a radical return to the origins in a spirit of modern critical enquiry, to ground our faith in logic rather than emotion.  It is a highly complex problem – for example my own view is that astronomy was central to the construction of the Gospel, with the orderly movement of the stars seen as the grand picture of the orderly rule of God.  This type of thinking became unacceptable to the church. Over the millennium of Christendom, the church tried with much success to destroy all evidence for the real history of how its ideas originated.  Conversation about such radical hypotheses may be shocking but it can only help the church today to relate to a broader audience.

The thing to keep in mind in all this is that the story of Jesus Christ is bigger than the faith of the church.  Whether he existed or not, Jesus Christ is central to human identity, as a voice for justice, peace, truth, love and freedom.  Jesus is an archetype of the collective unconscious, using Carl Jung’s term, who shows what happens when good divine values confront the fallen world of corruption and evil.  By taking Romans 12:12 “rejoice in hope” as the theme for the General Assembly, the WSCF celebrates love in action, and can look toward conversation about how faith can become coherent.  The great Christian symbols of cross and resurrection call us to rejoice in hope that the grace of God sustains us in life, regardless of any historical incarnation of these metaphysical ideas. 

If people in the time of Jesus could imagine what a saviour would be like, we can equally do the same today.  Thinking proleptically is a theological term that means imagining the kingdom of God. A proleptic theology calls us to ask how our fallen world could be redeemed, how social priorities could shift from destruction to salvation, how the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. Those questions can only be answered by scientific method informed by wisdom for the common good.

In Faith

Robbie Tulip, ASCM

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First Day in Berlin Sunday 19 June

First day in Berlin Sunday 19 June

As you might expect, Berlin is an easy place to visit, with a great train network, and also with a heavy presence of history.  I quite easily caught three trains to get from the airport to my hostel this morning.

I mentioned in my comments written in Singapore yesterday my visit to Korea, where the division of the country between north and south remains in place today, as a source of considerable heartache for the Korean people.   Berlin of course has a similar history as a politically divided city between the capitalist west and the communist east, except that unlike Korea it surmounted the political challenges and reunified at the end of the Cold War in 1989.  Still you can see the bleak functional architecture from the Stalinist influence in East Berlin, very dull, conformist and ugly, contrasted to a more free creative spirit in the West. 

Another big contrast I have noticed in Berlin is that travelling at the solstice I have moved from the coldest and darkest part of the year in Australia to the hottest and lightest time in Germany.  At the winter June solstice in Australia it gets dark at 5pm and the mornings in the south of the country are frosty.  Here in Berlin it is hot, 35° today!  And being so far north, 52.5° north of the equator, it has this deep summer twilight, still quite light at 10.30 pm. 

The last time I was in Europe in 2014 was also at the summer solstice, when the European tradition is to celebrate the Fete de la Musique, which I am just in time for in Berlin – https://www.fetedelamusique.de/en/ I might even get a chance to perform. Here it is on the day of the solstice, 21 June, while in France they celebrate it on Saint John’s Day, 24 June.

Today I had a wander around the city by foot and by train.  Walked along the famous Under Den Linden boulevard through the Brandenburg Gate which used to mark the symbolic separation barrier of the Wall. There is a big stage set up in front of the Gate for the Fete.  Seeing the linden trees made me think of my friend Arto Avakian who gave me some delicious linden flower tea.

On a sombre note, near the Brandenburg Gate, symbolic focal point of the German nation, I visited memorials to various groups murdered by the Nazis – Jews, gays and people with disabilities.  It is a heavy history for Berlin to work through.

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