In Athens

In Athens, transiting.  First visit to Greece, regarded as the “cradle of civilization”.  Slightly chaotic process in the airport.  At school I studied ancient Greek history, with focus on the Persian Wars and Peloponnesian War in the 5th century BC, and the conquests of Alexander.  My grandfather Robert Grant read classical Greek at the University of Queensland before becoming a doctor, and I inherited his copies of Homer and some Latin books through my mother Marie.  I studied Greek philosophy at university, writing essays on Plato, Parmenides and Heraclitus, and on Heidegger’s unique existential analysis of the Greeks.  One challenge I had in this study was that my mother had a strongly feminist approach to philosophy that she passed on to me, with a focus on the theology (or ‘thealogy’) of the Goddess in prehistoric times.  I found this fascinating, and have continued this interest all my life.  For example, I read the wonderful book Black Athena by Martin Bernal, which provides a rigorous critique of the modern school of classics exemplified in nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge.  The imperial propaganda in classics asserted that culture primarily originated in the west, whereas Bernal shows quite clearly this is wrong, and that much older eastern civilizations including Babylon, India, Assyria and Egypt provided much of the source material for Greek philosophy.  Greece was not the cradle of civilization!  His title Black Athena refers to how the patron goddess of Athens evolved from the Egyptian Goddess Neith.  Comparative mythology is a controversial and esoteric subject, but is immensely important for understanding human identity.  So I have a great interest in counter-cultural scholarship, especially with the evolution of mythology (incidentally a key theme in my father Jim Tulip’s PhD on Shakespeare’s Richard the Third).  Astronomy had a central role in Greek philosophy, and then in the origins of Christianity, but much of this has been forgotten and lost, only surviving in fugitive traces. 

I don’t think I will see the Acropolis from the plane window, as the airport is 30km east of the city.  Now on to Berlin.

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In Singapore, Korean memories

Just arrived in Singapore with Andika Mongilala, reminds me of the last time I was here, 33 years ago in July 1989, travelling to Pyongyang to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students in a WSCF delegation.
My dear wife Caroline Reid had to mail my visa to me here in Singapore as the North Koreans said I had to travel on the World Student Christian Federation visa, not the Australian Socialist Party visa which I had received. I had not received the visa from WSCF Geneva before going to South Korea, from where I had to travel all the way to Singapore to get to the Hermit Kingdom. I vividly remember going by taxi to meet the plane from Australia here at Changi Airport where the mail was tipped out on the tarmac and I found the letter with my WSCF visa. I got to the North Korean Soviet Ilyushin plane just in time at midnight.

Quite a stressful adventure, and interesting memories of a tumultuous time after the Tian An Men Square massacre and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tragic that North Korea remains such a backward and oppressive enclave while their compatriots in South Korea, with the same history and culture and language over 5000 years, are relatively rich and free.

We used to sing a song with the Korean Student Christian Federation “Our hope for unification, even in sleep it is our dream, we offer even our lives for the unity of our land. Come to us unification, all people in this land pray for you, we offer even our lives for the unity of our land.” Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tbZuQYkIM8

Visiting the two Koreas influenced me to see Christianity as having immense potential for reconciliation, and also to see that communist ideology is a source of poverty and tyranny. Seeing the contrast between systems inspired me to read most of the books of Solzhenitsyn mocking the Soviet regime.

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Sustainable Development Goals in the Bible

One of my church activities is to serve as Secretary for the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. In this capacity I represent the Uniting Church on the ecumenical Council of Churches for the Australian Capital Territory. I presented the following short Bible reflection at the meeting of the council yesterday, on Matthew 25:31-46, the Last Judgement. I call this text the SDGs of the Bible, comparing it to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Last Judgement describes the centrality of works of mercy to the salvation of the world, in a way that is directly relevant to modern development priorities. The salvation proclaimed by Christ in this text is supremely practical, while also resting upon the spiritual call to have faith in the grace of God. The Biblical claim is that our connection to divine love is the main thing that matters, as the source from which all blessings flow.  Discussing the love of God for the world can inspire us to ask what we must do to be saved. 

The six works of mercy described by Jesus in the Last Judgement say the key priorities for salvation are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome strangers and visit prisoners and the sick. These all show how the love of God can appear in our lives through a transformation of our world.  These six actions are brought together in the seventh commandment, to treat the least as though they were Christ, like the story of God resting on the seventh day after six days of work to create the world.

Together these commands from Christ form what we can call the sustainable development goals of the Bible.  The starting point for sustainable development in this approach is to see the glory of God revealed in parts of our world that are often despised, rejected and ignored.   The vision of the reign of Christ in the Last Judgement calls us to live proleptically, which means living as though we were now in the kingdom of God.  Simple practical measures that show our love for the least work to include people who are excluded by worldly prejudice, challenging prevailing social values and enabling sustainable development. 

The vision of transformation here is like Saint Paul’s explanation in Romans 8 that the natural creation groans like a woman giving birth as God works for good through love. 

The priorities for change in this vision from Christ reflect the theme of the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation, “rejoice in hope” (Rom 12:12). The vision of planetary transformation for sustainable development in the Last Judgement gives a basis to rejoice in hope, confident that faith in God revealed in Christ can show a path to make our world a better place.  

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Perspectives on WSCF

The World Student Christian Federation is a remarkable organisation, though now little known in Australia.  WSCF has a rich history and heritage within the ecumenical movement and in connection to broader social movements through its mission to bring people around the world together in the ecumenical vision of Christ ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21).  The Australian Student Christian Movement is the Australian affiliate of WSCF, and has only a small presence among university students, but deserves to grow.  The WSCF international network helps Christian students to consider matters of social conscience and justice from Christian faith perspectives. Linking to WSCF is a major focus for ASCM to support the spirit of ecumenism in universities. 

In my role as editor of Jubilee Grapevine, the magazine of the ASCM, I have published some great stories about WSCF, available at https://ascm.org.au/tags/ascm-magazine.   In our last issue, Rev David Gill wrote about his close friendship over decades with Rev Philip Potter, former head of the World Council of Churches. The WCC has a tradition of engaging with WSCF ability to raise important questions for church and society as the ‘church ahead of the church’.  The previous issue of JG includes ASCM conversations with WSCF leaders from Ireland, Lebanon and Italy, and Rev Sandy Yule provided a short history of WSCF from his perspective as general secretary of ASCM in the 1970s.

At the WSCF General Assembly in Berlin this month, I hope to record conversations and share these through this blog and for publication in Jubilee Grapevine.  Please let me know if there is anything you would like me to discuss with WSCF.

In Faith

Robbie Tulip

ASCM  

https://ascm.org.au/tags/ascm-magazine

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Berlin WSCF Blog

I will fly to Berlin on 18 June to attend the General Assembly of the World Student Christian Federation on behalf of the Australian Student Christian Movement. It is an exciting honour to be able to do this. ASCM has been my spiritual home, as I have sought to integrate faith and reason in philosophy and religion. This journey to Berlin represents a sort of pilgrimage, combining my university studies in German philosophy and language with a critical approach to Christianity. Berlin is a place I have wanted to go to all my life (or at least since I was 20). The WSCF assembly runs from 23 to 30 June, so I have a few days in Berlin before it starts, and will then stay there until 8 July, with no commitments as yet. My only plans are to participate as fully as I can in the assembly, and to write a short blog every day, trying to be as honest as I can about what I see and what has brought me to this point in life, across my varied interests.

Christianity is such a vexed and controversial topic. I am a regular churchgoer, and an active participant in a range of church activities, but my approach to faith is primarily philosophical, looking to stringently examine and critique all assumptions against the primary values of logic and evidence. That leads me to the view that the meaning of all faith claims is primarily symbolic, not literal, and that all supernatural language has meaning only in so far as it symbolises natural truth.

At my church, Kippax Uniting Church in Canberra, our minister Karyl Davison yesterday preached on ideas that I felt relate well to this perspective, rejecting the church creeds in favour of the simple creed that God is love, and suggesting we are in the middle of a new reformation of Christianity. Such an approach creates an ethical coherence around faith in Christ, while placing the entirety of traditional theology into doubt. That is a complex perspective that most people find hard to understand, but it is something on which I warmly welcome courteous dialogue.

I hope the WSCF assembly in Berlin will be well placed to build engagement and momentum around such ideas. The long history of WSCF since its foundation in 1895 has centred on the theme of being the church ahead of the church, providing a safe and open space for radical exploration of new ideas against an ethic of humility, intelligence and respect. WSCF now finds itself at a crossroads, with traditional faith in disrepute within progressive communities. Restoring credibility to Christianity requires a systematic approach that finds its grounding in scientific knowledge rather than in traditional belief. This is a paradigm shift that calls for careful and informed conversation, aiming to produce a transformative vision of vital relevance for our world today.

Some big themes where a coherent Christian faith could usefully comment include climate change, the Ukraine war, inequality, social fracturing in the context of social media, and human identity. These are some of the topics I hope to discuss in this blog, while also recording some observations of the events of the assembly.

I plan to circulate this blog publicly at https://rtulip.net/blog/ and https://www.facebook.com/AustralianSCM as well as providing weekly email updates.

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Out of the Depths

Out of the Depths

Robbie Tulip

Kippax Uniting Church

Sunday 6 June 2021

Our readings today are from the Old Testament, from Genesis, Samuel and the Psalms. The theme that brings them together is the fall from grace. 

The fall is a simplified mythological story told to explain why there is evil in the world. We hear in our readings of the expulsion of humanity from paradise, of the fraught decision of ancient Israel to put trust in a king rather than in God, and of the Psalmist’s profound voice of hope from the depths of our anguish that God will forgive our sins.

The Genesis text begins with a remarkably human depiction of God on earth, strolling around in the garden of paradise in the cool of the evening. God is wondering what has happened to Adam and Eve, who are nowhere to be seen.  As we know, they are hiding from God because their mentality has been transformed by eating the forbidden fruit and they are newly ashamed of their nakedness. 

This story imagines the presence of God together with humanity in a world of peace and plenty, a picture of our ancestors in easy communication and dialogue with our divine Creator. That picture of divine harmony, life in a state of grace, then contrasts with the harsh news of the Fall.  God expels Adam and Eve from Paradise for their breach of trust when they ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The surface story of the fall invites us to explore its deeper meaning about the nature of human existence and history. The surface story is entirely symbolic, and its meaning points toward a remarkable match to the real events of big history.  Big history is the emerging approach that places written records in the context of the whole of history, putting traditional stories into the context of archaeological, geological and cosmic time. Biblical interpretation can be placed in the context of the scholarly scientific accounts presented by big history, to see how the stories relate to what accepted research tells us actually happened. 

The fall from grace into corruption is a central idea of the Christian theology of sin. The story of the fall seeks to explain the pervasive depravity of the world, the sense that humanity has lost our connection to God and is on a trajectory toward destruction.  Looking at the Biblical story of the fall against big history, we can compare the mythology of the fall to the slow historic shift over many thousands of years from the nomadic economy of the stone age to the settled agrarian culture of Biblical times. For tens of thousands of years through the ice age, all humanity lived in small clans moving around large areas, hunting for food and gathering wild plants.  However, as population grew, people found that growing crops offered a more secure life, as the romantic image of freedom and abundance in stone age life became impossible. Settling in one place enabled the growth of technology, with major innovations including metal, writing, housing and agriculture. 

Economic progress brought discovery of how to smelt copper and tin, then to combine these metals into bronze alloys, and then to use the higher temperatures needed to make iron tools and weapons.  There is an interesting paradox here.  The technological advances of the Bronze Age and the Iron Age over the millennia before Christ are seen in mythology as bringing a moral decline, a fall from grace.  The widespread myth, originating in India, tells of a descent from an original long golden age through successive morally worse and shorter ages of silver, bronze and iron, characterised by steadily growing ignorance and violence.  This combination of material progress with spiritual decline is a key element of Biblical theology, firstly in the expulsion from paradise and then in the story of God’s anger inspiring the flood, and then in the demand from Israel for a king.  Analysis in terms of big history has also shown a direct correlation between these changes in social organisation and underlying drivers of natural climate change.

The Bible picks up on this mythology in stories such as the murder of the nomadic herder Abel by his brother Cain, the settled tiller of the soil.  These sons of Adam and Eve came into conflict over divine favour. Cain won through violence, reflecting how agriculture created economic power and social hierarchy.  The Bible story can be read as a parable of how progress came at the price of the loss of the freedom enjoyed by the earlier small mobile human clans of the paleolithic period.  The social control required to manage an agricultural economy enabled a larger population, but it also opened the way to methods of slavery and war, with systemic inequality between classes and sexes generating power and wealth by inflicting suffering.  The agricultural diet provided more food but at lower quality, which is why people today see the paleo diet as more healthy. 

These issues around the fall from grace flow through into the story of Samuel and Saul, where Israel faces a political dilemma, whether to maintain its old traditions of rule by men of God or to follow the path of other successful nations and appoint a king to rule over them.  Samuel points out the likely negative effects of this decision – that a king will use absolute power to oppress and enslave and tax the population in arbitrary and unfair ways. But the elders can see the military risks of not having a king.  They see that the unity brought by a rigid social hierarchy will enable defence of the land against invaders, whereas the older informal reliance on the wisdom of initiated elders and social equality lacked the efficiency needed to run a national army.  The elders point out to Samuel that they trust him but not his sons, showing that the old ways of handing on knowledge to govern the society are failing.  The source of power is shifting from the knowledge of the elders to the economy of the king, as metal and writing and agriculture overwhelm the old traditions, and practices with roots in nomadic culture had to be abandoned.

This story of Israel’s demand for a monarchy reflects how the social evolution from nomadic to settled life required a hierarchical state.  This social evolution brought the victory of monotheism over polytheism, as societies organised in larger units, and also the victory of patriarchy over the older morality that recognised greater local autonomy for small clans which had allowed greater equality between men and women.  

There are many stories in the Bible that reflect what we could call the tectonic forces of social evolution.  The story of the fall from grace is the big shift, as the changing economy forced changes in belief and social practice, coming like an earthquake after the plates of the earth had built up enough pressure.  One remarkable example of this shift of thinking is the second set of Ten Commandments issued by God to Moses, described at Exodus 34. The first command is to cut down the Asherah worship poles that communities used to worship the divine feminine.  In early times the God of Israel was known as El, and was married to the goddess Asherah, reflecting a belief in gender equality, or at least female autonomy.  The divorce of Yahweh from Asherah led to this commandment from God to Moses to smash the Asherah religion.  The underlying causes included the pressures of military security, as the people of Israel found that national defence required social unity that was impossible with the older decentralised systems of gender equality.  Like the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the destruction of older religions came like an earthquake for the society of Israel.

The Old Testament and Mosaic Law supported the system of hierarchical patriarchal monotheism that came into power as a direct response to economic and social forces that can be equated with the fall from grace.  As a small nation surrounded by large empires, Israel felt it had no choice but to ensure social unity and political security through shared religion.  This situation brought forth the call of prophets like Samuel that the national unity of Israel required the moral unity that could only come from faith in God. The prophets taught that the only hope for national sovereignty was found in divine sovereignty, and that faith in God would enable friendship between Israel and the great powers based on moral standing and reputation and mutual respect.  The story of the prophets is that the failure of Israel to generate moral unity – a failure caused by the fall from grace – was a major factor in its loss of national political freedom.

The Bible puts all this material into the context of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Second Adam.  As Saint Paul tells us, in a powerful symbolic myth in Romans 5:12, death came through Adam and life and grace came through Christ.  My reading is that this message of redemption through Christ is the central story of human history, but in an entirely symbolic rather than literal meaning.

I mentioned the myth of descent from a golden age. This story appears in the Bible with King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the statue with head of gold and feet of clay explained by the prophet Daniel.  This story of a lost golden age of wisdom and peace originally came from India, with the descent over twelve thousand years from the golden age into an iron age of ignorance and war, followed by ascending bronze and silver ages to a new golden age. 

Christ appears at the low point of this cycle, representing the spirit of eternal truth in the midst of darkness and ignorance. As the spirit of the golden age in the midst of the iron age, Christ shows a path to universal redemption of the world through his willingness to suffer death on the cross.  The resurrection of Christ symbolises how goodness is stronger than evil and love will win over hate.

The Genesis story of the fall ends with God telling Adam and Eve that they must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life and live forever.  The tree of life is a remarkable image appearing at the start of the Bible in Genesis and then not until the final chapter of Revelation.  The tree of life symbolises the state of grace that existed in paradise before the fall, and also the expected future return to a state of grace, with the vision of a time of the healing of the world when God will again be present in the garden of the world, like in Eden. 

As we ask now where our focus should be to somehow restore our lost state of grace, to again become at one with the tree of life, Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew that the key is to treat the least of the world as though they were him.  The moral framework of the Bible cannot be used to validate traditional social hierarchy, with its separation of spirit from nature.  Jesus tells us the return to a state of grace will require an inversion of the prevailing values of the world, placing human dignity and equality at the centre of an ethic of love.  The Bible provides a wonderful and realistic story of planetary hope, explaining the source of our problems and a path to their solution through Jesus Christ.

1 Samuel 8:4-20, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)-
Psalm 130, Genesis 3:8-24

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Cleansing the Temple

Cleansing The Temple

7 March 2021

Kippax Uniting Church

Robbie Tulip

Psalm 19:1-8, John 2: 13-17

Our readings for today are from Psalm 19 and the Gospel of Saint John.  The Psalm explains how the glory of God is revealed in the magnificent order of the visible heavens. The Gospel reading tells of Jesus driving the moneychangers and their animals out of the temple in Jerusalem.  I will use this opportunity to explain how these texts relate to my own theology, which differs quite markedly from conventional approaches.

Before getting into my own interpretation, it is important to reflect on the great power of the Gospel story of the cleansing of the Temple.  The courage and vision of Christ are presented by John at the beginning of Jesus’ public work with a physical attack on the hypocrisy of the established religion of his day.  The underlying message of this dramatic event is that the institution of the temple had lost its way.  Instead of a focus on divine truth, the temple had allowed shallow commercial interests to come to dominate its practice.  Materialistic priorities had crowded out reverence and prayer.  For Jesus, taking a whip to the traders showed his view that salvation comes through an ethical focus on high ideals.  His strategic vision involved a complete reformation of Judaism to put God at the centre. 

The true greatness of Christ emerges in this story of cleansing the temple.  Jesus is the perfect man.  After taking time in the wilderness to fast and contemplate the message of God, Jesus had come to see how the world fails to understand what God demands.  His ministry sought to address the dangerous implications of continuing on this path of easy corruption and delusion.  Jesus understood what had to be done to change the paradigm from the wide and easy path to hell to the narrow and difficult path to heaven.  He explained the transformation needed through brilliant moral stories and actions, and had the integrity to follow through completely on his vision, suffering a cruel execution on the cross.  His message of messianic leadership was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead, demonstrating that goodness is stronger than evil, and that hatred and error can be overcome through the pure love of God.

The Gospels tell a story with a profound ring of truth, providing a way to transform the degraded situation of our world.  Unfortunately, the church today has difficulty getting people to listen to its message.  This situation makes me wonder if the church today is in a similar spiritual mess as the Jerusalem temple that Jesus tore into.  What really worries me is that Christian theology is viewed in the wider world as deeply flawed, with considerable justice. A profound existential conversation about the basis and direction of faith is needed, making sure our faith is grounded in reality rather than fantasy. 

Modern culture has become quite hostile to religion, and instead largely takes its ethical compass from commerce and celebrity, with some recognition of the moral value of science.  We are far from implementing rational scientific ideals throughout society, but it is well worthwhile comparing theology against the modern framework of scientific enlightenment.  Science demands a central focus on evidence and logic, looking at the morality of our beliefs and actions in terms of their results in practice.  When Christians assert that events occurred which science regards as impossible, and can only point to the claims in the Bible for evidence, a barrier of mistrust arises.  Going back to the start of the modern scientific enlightenment, the philosopher Voltaire commented that believing absurdities permits atrocities.  He meant by this that the church of his day had an imaginary fantasy mentality that was closed off to evidence. This attitude of believing things that were absurd resulted in the church ignoring evidence of corruption, hypocrisy and immorality, with severe damage to its reputation.

Scientific criticism of faith has become even more influential today, with the rise of the internet.  Everyone can now check and discuss claims that seem untrue.  The modern trend is to be sceptical of claims that rest on traditional authority.  As we know, the average age of church members is steadily getting older.  Many churches face an inability to win new young members and transmit the faith between generations.  And the parts of the church that do have success with the young are often more sectarian, holding to literal beliefs that are rejected by scientific people.  That is an approach that can only offer short term success. The future renewal of the church has to rest upon a reconciliation of faith and reason. That means the church has to become more open to a discussion about how some core Christian beliefs have a primarily symbolic rather than historical meaning.

My view is that the roots of the moral problem of the church go all the way back to the establishment of Christendom by the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD.  The message of the New Testament is morally sound, but was corrupted when the Emperor Constantine used the Nicene Creed to insist everyone in the empire should hold to the same doctrine.  To end the political struggles caused by theological debate, Rome wanted to replace the early diversity of views with a single unified belief system. That meant that any ideas in conflict with the creed were declared heretical and anathema.  Unfortunately, that caused the rich complexity of the early church to be lost. 

The political victory of Christianity led to the idea of Gospel Truth, the belief that everything in the Bible is undeniably true.  My view is that such literal approaches are incorrect.  The real truth in the Bible is symbolic rather than literal, emerging with the underlying message about the presence of God in the world and how we can connect to God. This message is too important to allow disputes about historical facts to distract us from it. If we take the Bible too literally, Christians accept a lower standard of historical evidence than is generally used, which damages the whole reputation of religion.  Instead, we should accept that the purpose of scripture to deepen our faith in God means scripture should be revered as a sublime poetic work of spiritual imagination.  It really does not matter for Christian faith whether any specific claim in the Bible is historically accurate.  Christ is the mediator between our world and God, and the point of the stories about him is to illustrate the meaning of this profound spiritual connection with the eternal divine truth of our creator. 

The two texts we have today can help us to reconstruct some of that lost complexity of early faith, by exploring how ancient theology was intimately connected to astronomy, a connection that was largely forgotten under Christendom.  The three wise men in the birth story came from Chaldea, a nation with detailed records of stellar observation going back to a thousand years before Christ.  Across Babylonia, Egypt, India and Greece, as well as in Israel, this religious function of astronomy was central.  Watching the stars had the practical importance for the ancients of marking the seasons for agricultural production, defining the calendar.  The stars of the sky were also imagined as symbolising the state of divine grace, while life on earth is by contrast in a state of deluded corruption.

My view is that astronomy strongly informed the underlying rationality of the original Christian theology, and that restoring this original linkage to observation of nature can put faith onto a more compelling and coherent foundation than conventional church dogma.  Psalm 19 says the heavens pour forth speech.  This remarkable image of cosmic order and beauty helps us to see how the eternal power and divine nature of God are manifest in the things he has made, as Saint Paul commented in Romans 1.20.  The orderly stability of the visible heavens was a source of great wonder and awe and reverence for ancient religion.  This sense of astonishment at the scale of the universe has only deepened within modern astronomy, although the religious connection has largely been lost. 

Exploring what Psalm 19 might mean by the speech pouring forth from the heavens, one intriguing possibility is the astronomical movement known as the precession of the equinoxes.  This movement is caused by a slow wobble in the axis of our planet, like we can see in a spinning top. Each wobble of the earth takes nearly 26,000 years, and causes a slow shift of the stars against the seasons.  Ancient astronomers from well before the time of Christ could measure this celestial motion, because every 2000 years the stars that used to rise or set at harvest time now appeared a month later, creating the idea of successive “ages” in history. 

An intriguing question is how much this accurate observation of the slow shift of the heavens influenced religious ideas.  The psychologist Carl Jung observed that the birth of Christ corresponded to the movement of the equinox point into the constellation of Pisces the Fish, suggesting that this slow shift of the stars matches well to Gospel ideas about Jesus as a fisher of men.

Here are some star diagrams (Appended) I have made showing 7000 years in the stars, illustrating how the conventional Biblical timeline of history could have arisen out of astronomical stories.  Beginning in 4004 BC, conventionally imagined as the year of creation of the world by God, we can see here how the equinox point, where the path of the sun crosses the equator each year at Easter, was then in between the constellations of Taurus the Bull and Gemini the twins. 

Moving forward in thousand-year steps, we see the Easter or Passover point in the stars had moved back through Taurus into Aries the Ram.

By the time of Christ, the equinox point was about to enter the constellation of Pisces the Fish. The alpha and omega point of Christianity, the time of Christ, occurred when this X in the sky crossed the line of stars known as the first fish of Pisces, which occurred exactly on 16 September, 21 AD.

This moment created an imaginary shape the same as the Chi Rho Cross, marking a moment of celestial harmony between the stars and the seasons. 

Since then, the equinox has moved through Pisces, and is now nearing Aquarius the Water Bearer, which is why we are now said to be entering the Age of Aquarius.

This is all simple well-known astronomy.  My view is that the authors of the Bible story were well aware of this information, and were part of a tradition that linked their observation of the slow movement of the stars to the ideas of faith. 

John’s account of the cleansing of the temple presents a remarkable example, one of many in the New Testament, that supports this theory.  John tells us that Jesus made a whip of cords and drove the traders out of the temple, together with their sheep and cattle. The original community who developed the ideas in the gospel could readily see that this story was a parable for the astronomical movement of precession of the equinox, which was then moving out of the signs of the sheep and cattle.  Jesus began the new cosmic age of the Fishes, replacing the then ending age of the sheep, the two millennia when Passover occurred with the sun in Aries the Ram, defined in Judaism by the law of Moses, whose covenant had replaced the even earlier age of cattle, when the equinox was in Taurus the Bull. 

Therefore, for Jesus to end the corruption of the temple of God symbolised by trading of sheep and cattle also told a cosmic story of the birth of a new era.  Jesus driving the sheep and cattle out of the temple of God represented the replacement of the old covenants of traditional Judaism by the new covenant of Christ, directly symbolised by the observable movement of the heavens.

My view is that the influence of this way of thinking on Christian origins was immense, but the clash with the simplistic supernatural dogmas of Roman Christianity meant that the role of astronomy in religion was suppressed and then largely forgotten.  The authors of the Nicene Creed did not welcome discussion about how the timing and nature of Christ matched the stars.  The whole Christian view that pagan thought was corrupted by fortune telling meant that such analysis was viewed with hostility. 

Opening this discussion now presents an opportunity for dialogue about the underlying meaning of Christian faith.  The Lord’s Prayer invites us to hope the will of God should be done on earth as it is in heaven.  The grandeur of the slow shift of the equinox explains the parable of speech pouring forth from the heavens, and the removal of the sheep and cattle from the temple is equally a parable for the observed movement of the stars at the time of Christ.  Just as Christ provided the earthly reflection for the heavenly movement of the equinox point into Pisces, so too the Gospel story of the Second Coming of Christ reflects the ancient imagination of the distant future, the time now approaching as the equinox point enters Aquarius, a time when the message of Christ will finally be fully understood and implemented. 

This explanation offers a way to place Christian theology into a scientific framework while retaining and deepening its moral meaning for our world through a vision of transformation and liberation, integrating our fallen situation into the big history governed by the slow sweep of the heavens. This material provides a way to make sense of Biblical theology in a systematic way that coheres fully with modern scientific knowledge.  It invites us to ask who are the moneychangers in our temples today, and how the message of Jesus provides rich parables for the need to renew and reform our thinking to do the will of God, on earth as in heaven.  Amen

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Planet Positions 2021

This excel spreadsheet shows positions of the Sun, Moon, Planets, Eclipses and Lunar Node by Right Ascension for calendar 2021.

Notable visual events include

Mars and Venus are conjunct in the western sky on 12 June.

Jupiter, Saturn and Venus form a wide triple at the end of the year.

Best dates to view Mercury in the evening are late January, mid May and August-September.

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Global Warming and the Bible

Robbie Tulip

Sermon delivered at Kippax Uniting Church, Canberra

6 December 2020

Bible readings:

Mark 1:1-8 – John the Baptist prepares the way for Christ

2 Peter 3:8-15a: The eschaton – fiery end of the world  

The theme for today, the second Sunday of Advent, is love. Love is the binding power that connects our relationships and keeps us together.  The ultimate connection of love is between us and God, a relationship mediated by Jesus Christ.  The saving power of Christ’s love rescues us from our selfish indifference and brings us into right relationship with God, with each other and with the world. 

Love is the highest eternal value, deepening all our personal connections.  The love of Christ creates a path toward honest and open dialogue, helping us to build a life of integrity and respect and care.  Where the trauma of emotional brutality or worse has stunned us into silence, the love of Christ invites us to reveal our vulnerable true self to find the liberating way of grace, so the truth can set us free (John 8:32). 

There is a cosmic dimension to the love of Christ.  Saint Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-20) that Christ is the image of God, connecting and reconciling everything, holding everything together from the beginning of time as the source of order in creation. This high metaphysical vision of the eternal nature of Christ tells a story of how the love of God infuses the whole universe.  The love of God is present on our planet in the story of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh (John 1:14).  The incarnation of Christ brings us the message of God’s deep and abiding love, coming to save the world and not to condemn it. (John 3:17)

Love can be a high-risk endeavour.  The example of Jesus shows the bewildering cruelty that the worldly powers can deliver when confronted by the innocent honesty of pure love.  The death of Christ on the cross shows how the world is ruled by hatred and ignorance, while his resurrection is all about the ultimate redeeming victory of love. 

Hatred can seem so simple and safe and secure for those who are consumed by it.  In reality, hatred is a bleak and degrading emotion, preventing mutual learning and growth. When our ideas of security teach us to be constantly suspicious and untrusting, the idea that we could live through love looks like a dangerous threat.  And yet the message of Christ is that love is the path of salvation.  The real danger comes from the seduction of hatred, which offers the wide and easy path to destruction, while love gives us the hard and narrow path to life (Matt 7:14).

In our first reading today (Mark 1), Saint Mark begins his story of the advent of Christ in the desert, the dry and barren place where Isaiah said the glory of the Lord will be revealed (Isa 40:5).  The glory of Christ had been foretold by Isaiah, and again by the wise desert hermit John the Baptist, whose spiritual focus on the love of God is amplified by a life of extreme simplicity.  John is at the margin of society, excluded from worldly power, indifferent to the values of image and wealth and uncorrupted by the pleasures of desire.  Here we see the paradox of God’s love, made known in a place that the dominant values of the world find forbidding and unlovely. 

In an uncompromising message preparing the way for the coming of Christ, John looks forward to how the love of God in Christ will break through into the world as a universal cosmic power.  The love of God is freely given to all without condition, just as a celebration that we exist, despite our flaws.  And yet Mark tells us that John put conditions on the forgiveness of God. 

John gives a baptism of forgiveness for repentance (1:4).  This means that while God’s love is unconditional, God’s forgiveness of sin is conditional upon our recognition of our wrongdoing.  John’s baptism provides access to the healing grace of God, in return for genuine sorrow and reflection about our mistakes that have made forgiveness necessary. Restorative justice comes through dialogue and understanding about truth and reconciliation. 

John is saying that our salvation, putting us into right relationship with God, requires that we understand what we have done wrong, why it was wrong and what harm our wrongs have caused, and that we feel genuine remorse for our wrong actions and words and thoughts.  Only when we are truly sorry for our mistakes can we commit to a life of repair and restoration, of love grounded in truth.  The forgiveness that comes through repentance gradually opens us up to a deeper understanding of the love of God, working to build expanding islands of grace and creative power amidst the oceans of emptiness in our deluded world.

Opening ourselves to the cosmic love of God in Christ offers a vision of the possible transformation of our world. Jesus offers us a shift from separation and emptiness and delusion toward connection and fullness and love.  Jesus calls us to embark on the slow journey from a state of corruption to a state of grace, as we ask what it would mean for the world to listen to his message. 

Saint Peter’s Second Epistle helps us to think about this need for transformation with his claims that for God a thousand years are as a day (3:8), and the alarming idea that the coming apocalypse will consume the world in fire (3:10).  This idea of a fiery end to our present age is something that rings too true in our current situation of global warming.  Regardless of any views on literal prophecy, as we look at our current fraught world situation we can find a deep relevance in the Biblical teachings.

Peter took his idea that a thousand years are a day for God from Psalm 90:4.  The traditional reading in the early church linked this idea to the seven days of creation in Genesis 1, reflecting the very slow operation of the will of God in the world.  The Church Fathers believed that just as God symbolically rested for a day after six days of work, so too will the world rest and recover for a thousand years under the rule of Christ after six thousand years of toil and fall.  In this Christian scheme of seven thousand years of history, Christ’s first appearance came four thousand years after Adam and Eve, and served to check the destructive direction of the world. 

Saint Augustine warned back in the fifth century AD that it is a mistake to read the seven-day creation story literally. He said in his book The Literal Interpretation of Genesis (2:9) that if anything in the Bible seems to contradict the perceptions of our rational faculties, it just shows we do not properly understand the message of the scriptures.  The wisdom of the early church recognised that many stories in the Bible are parables, whose real meaning is symbolic, presenting ideas about the real world in a poetic way.  Similarly today we know that life on earth began four billion years ago and has evolved by the natural causal processes of evolution.  

My view is that our whole understanding of the scriptures needs to evolve to reconcile our faith with reason, as Augustine recognised in part.  But this process needs to be far more thorough, so that theology can be recognised as a coherent science.  That may mean giving up some cherished and beautiful traditional beliefs, in order to construct a systematic worldview that fully accords with evidence and logic, while holding to the true core of faith. 

Rather than asserting that Biblical events really happened as described, when there is no external historical evidence, it is better to accept that the stories are primarily symbolic.  It does not matter to our faith whether the descriptions are historically accurate or not.  The idea that God intervenes in the world through supernatural miracles is difficult to reconcile with the laws of physics. 

A better approach sees miracles as parables, conveying deep moral wisdom about the nature of the world.  Jesus himself supported that approach.  Immediately after feeding the five thousand, Jesus explained at Matthew 8:12 that no sign will be given from heaven, seemingly asking us to understand the miracle as a parable rather than as a sign from heaven.

The story of the Second Coming can also be read in this symbolic way.  We can leave aside the idea of a miraculous intervention from God to save the world and instead open dialogue to construct our own view of what it would mean for Jesus Christ to rule the world in love.  Such a conversation can help us to see the real meaning of the Bible in its call in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:10) for the will of God to be done on earth as it is in heaven. 

That call looks especially to the Last Judgement in Matthew 25:40 with its clear statement that our salvation depends primarily on doing good works that include the least of the world as though they were Jesus Christ.  At the same time, salvation requires a coherent shared story, seeing an articulate faith as the essential inspiration for encouraging acts of love and mercy.

Peter’s warning about the coming fiery doom and the promise he relates from Christ of a new heaven and new earth (3:13) can serve as a very useful parable for our current planetary predicament, understood as purely scientific messages.  The Bible tells us in Revelation 11:18 that the wrath of God is against those who destroy the earth, indicating that our duty as people of faith is to preserve and enhance our planetary biodiversity.

A recent scientific article, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, explains the choices facing the world are to either make the planet into an unliveable hothouse by continuing with business as usual, or to recognise our global responsibility to restore the stable and fertile climate of the past.  The new idea of the Anthropocene means we have already shifted into a situation where human decisions are decisive for the planetary climate. The choice, in our old religious language, is between heaven and hell, salvation or damnation.  These old religious ideas are now acquiring a very practical scientific meaning as our technological progress constantly increases human power over nature. Our moral sense needs to catch up to understand the destruction we are causing. 

The saving power of Christ came from his explanation of the cultural changes that would be needed for good to triumph over evil and for love to prove stronger than hatred.  In Matthew 24:14, Jesus tells us that this Gospel of the Kingdom will be preached to the whole inhabited earth before the end will come, meaning that the rule of Christ on earth will only be possible once the whole of humanity is connected together.  Then Jesus tells us that all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and will see the Son of Man coming with power and great glory.

The voice of Christ will speak like a sword (Rev 1:16), cutting through our fog to proclaim the clear and simple message of the transformation of the planet, a judgement of mercy to bring the peace of God. As we contemplate the fiery fate that seems in store, the saving love of Christ provides the framework for the existential dialogue needed to address the scale and urgency of climate change as a primary security emergency for the planet.

Seeing the Bible in a modern light requires that we develop what Pope Francis has called an integral ecology, a vision that combines love for humanity with love for the planet.  As we look for a practical redemption by sustaining a liveable planet for our children, we can see that the forgiveness of God demands a practical and thorough repentance.  Christ calls us to express sorrow about what we have done and a commitment to transform our world in love. That means ending the indifference that is seeing climate problems steadily worsen, and approaching our collective problems in a true scientific spirit, grounded in the values of the love of Christ.

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Might SARS‐CoV‐2 Have Arisen via Serial Passage through an Animal Host or Cell Culture?

In their new article, Might SARS‐CoV‐2 Have Arisen via Serial Passage through an Animal Host or Cell Culture?, published with free access in August, K&D Sirotkin explore the suggestion that the COVID 19 virus was accidentally released from a laboratory in Wuhan. The journal is BioEssays, published by Wiley online. The comments below are fully referenced in the article.

The article suggests the novel coronavirus could have come from dual‐use gain‐of‐function research, as the process of viral serial passage mimics a natural zoonotic jump, and offers explanations for SARS‐CoV‐2’s distinctive features, raising ethical questions about the risks of this area of research.

Noting that this virus acts like no microbe humanity has ever seen, the authors contend that the natural origin hypothesis fails to account for its unique genomic characteristics, and ignores the long history of serial passage as a method to manipulate viral genomes by forcing zoonosis between species, with the same signature but shorter time frame compared to natural viral mutation.

The dual‐use gain‐of‐function research tool of serial passage was first applied to an influenza virus in 1977. Then in 1979, a Soviet lab leaked weaponized anthrax through an improperly maintained exhaust filter, but Soviet authorities blamed the deaths on contaminated local meat. This cover-up, with the same reason provided as in Wuhan, withstood inquiries until 1992, when analysis of genetic distance proved the weapons lab was to blame.

In 2011, serial passage between ferrets created viruses that were transmissible by aerosol. One highly virulent strain was said to “make the deadly 1918 pandemic look like a pesky cold.” Since then, gain‐of‐function serial passage through ferrets has increased viral virulence and transmission.

One virulence feature of COVID 19 is a furin cleavage site. In influenza, these come from serial passage in laboratories or farms. They are absent from coronaviruses more than 60% similarity to COVID 19. The artificial generations added by forced serial passage create the artificial appearance of evolutionary distance, as found with SARS‐CoV‐2, which is distant enough from any other virus that it has been placed in its own clade.

Acquisition of the furin cleavage site was one of the key adaptations that enable SARS‐CoV‐2 to efficiently spread. This could have been spliced directly into the novel coronavirus’s backbone in a laboratory using classic recombinant DNA technology, with use of serial passage to remove any sign of direct genetic manipulation. A furin cleavage site introduced to a coronavirus via recombination appeared to increase lethality while also damaging respiratory and urinary systems, paralleling SARS‐CoV‐2 systemic multi-organ symptoms for lungs, the cardiovascular and nervous systems and kidneys.

The University of North Carolina and Wuhan institutions such as the Institute of Virology have researched gain‐of‐function in bat‐borne coronaviruses since 2013, when a coronavirus that targets the ACE2 receptor like SARS‐CoV‐2 was isolated from a wild bat. Another gain‐of‐function experiment reconstructed the SARS coronavirus to impart affinity for ACE2 by isolating a civet progenitor and serially passing it through cell lines. Then a chimeric bat‐borne coronavirus directly manipulated a spike‐protein gene to produce a virulent strain which produced a dire warning from the Pasteur Institute about its trajectory if it escaped.

A private repository has over 1500 strains of largely undisclosed viruses to draw from for experiments. Published work to manipulate bat coronavirus genomes is consistent with the wet‐work that would be needed to engineer this novel coronavirus in a laboratory. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has refused to release the lab notebooks of its researchers, which are expected to be meticulously detailed given the sensitive and delicate work that takes place in such laboratories. These notebooks would likely be enough to exonerate the lab from having any role in the creation of SARS‐CoV‐2.

The SARS‐CoV‐2 could not be intentionally engineered, but it could well be selected for after serial passage through ferrets or cell cultures in a lab, considering that it spreads readily among ferrets and among minks, a closely related subspecies. A viable pathway for its emergence could be infected bats defecating on commercial mink farms in Hubei.

The novel coronavirus appears to be far more adapted to human ACE2 receptors than those found in bats, which is unexpected given that bats are the virus’s assumed source. Surprisingly, the virus was perfectly adapted to infect humans since its first contact with us. It had no apparent need for any adaptive evolution at all, an unexpected finding since viruses are expected to mutate substantially as they acclimate to a new species.

A study of people who live near bat caves found minimal exposure to bat coronaviruses, and no antibodies in Wuhan, casting doubt that SARS‐CoV‐2 was circulating in humans prior to the outbreak, and making a zoonotic jump more unlikely. Natural jumps leave wide serological footprints due to the evolutionary ‘trial‐and‐error’ that must occur before mutations that allow adaptation to a new host species are selected.

Examination of all past gain‐of‐function serial passage research by the scientific community at large could determine what other definitive genomic signatures serial passage leaves besides the creation of furin cleavage sites, in case more of those can be found in this novel coronavirus. For example, SARS‐CoV‐2 appears to cloak the novel coronavirus from white blood cells, as does HIV, and it has a genomic region like bacteria, which may contribute to cytokine storms in adults.

The Sirotkin paper concludes that gain‐of‐function research is troubling, with potential conflict with the Nuremberg Code ban on experiments that could endanger human life unless potential humanitarian benefits significantly outweigh the risks. The Center for Arms Control and Non‐Proliferation has calculated that the odds that any given potential pandemic pathogen might leak from a lab could be better than one in four. The creation of virulent Bird Flu strains using serial passage contributed to the NIH imposing a moratorium on dual‐use gain‐of‐function research from 2014 until 2017, after which it was relaxed to allow study of influenza and coronaviruses. This moratorium was meant to limit “the potential to create, transfer, or use an enhanced potential pandemic pathogen.” The increased pace of research into coronaviruses would have increased the risk of a lab leak. These viruses were pinpointed in 2006 as a viable vector for an HIV vaccine, and research into a pan‐coronavirus vaccine has been ongoing for decades. The fact that gain‐of‐function research creates opportunities for pandemic viruses to leak out of labs calls for a re‐examination of the moratorium against this practice.

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