Category Archives: faith

Friday intellectual spot 6: Alan Wolfe on liberalism and New Scientist on religion

Again I have picked two that appeal to me from the past week on Arts & Letters Daily.

K Anthony Appiah reviews Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism on Slate.

Alan Wolfe is the sort of social theorist who would rather be plausible than provocative. Eschewing the lunacies of the left and the right—avoiding even their slighter sillinesses—he hews to a sensible, if unexciting, center. We must be robust—even militarily robust—against genocide everywhere, but recognize the limits of our armies as instruments of democratization overseas. We can encourage religious engagement in the public square but insist on freedom from religious imposition and the widest workable range of religious expression. Let us also welcome immigrants in a spirit of openness while accepting that we cannot absorb all who want to come and asking those who do come to open themselves to us. Wherever there is a reasonable middle ground—as here, between nativism and multiculturalism—he finds it unerringly. And, despite the Polonius-like platitudinousness of my simplifying summaries, he is attentive to the complexities of actually bringing these thoughts to practical life. If professor Wolfe had a coat of arms, its motto would be "On the one hand, on the other." And though he may have only two hands, they are permanently occupied: He has many balls in the air. He is, as my British uncles might have put it, impeccably sound. If liberalism were just a temperament, we could agree that he has it in spades.

But, as he argues himself in this engaging new book, The Future of Liberalism, liberalism is more than a temperament; it is also a political tradition with substantive commitments—a body of ideas—and it has, as well, a dedication to fair procedures, impartially administered, legitimated by the consent of the people. Temperament, substance, procedure can all be liberal, and understanding liberalism requires a grasp of all three and of the connections among them. Wolfe’s distinctive claim, however, is that the key to liberalism is a set of dispositions, or habits of mind—seven of them, in fact, each of which gets its own chapter.

Four of these dispositions will be quite familiar: "a sympathy for equality," "an inclination to deliberate," "a commitment to tolerance," and "an appreciation of openness." We’re used to the portrayal: liberals as talky, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarians. It’s not surprising, then, that these types are at home in the garrulous world of the academy—or that bossy preachers, convinced they have the one true story, do not care for them much. But Wolfe’s sketch of the liberal adds three unfamiliar elements to the picture: "a disposition to grow," "a preference for realism," and "a taste for governance."…

In New Scientist (4 February) Michael Brooks explored Born believers: How your brain creates God. I found this fascinating; looked at another way it may have also been called “Why it’s hard to be an atheist.”

WHILE many institutions collapsed during the Great Depression that began in 1929, one kind did rather well. During this leanest of times, the strictest, most authoritarian churches saw a surge in attendance.

This anomaly was documented in the early 1970s, but only now is science beginning to tell us why. It turns out that human beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Religious ideas are common to all cultures: like language and music, they seem to be part of what it is to be human. Until recently, science has largely shied away from asking why. "It’s not that religion is not important," says Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, "it’s that the taboo nature of the topic has meant there has been little progress."

The origin of religious belief is something of a mystery, but in recent years scientists have started to make suggestions. One leading idea is that religion is an evolutionary adaptation that makes people more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation. In this view, shared religious belief helped our ancestors form tightly knit groups that cooperated in hunting, foraging and childcare, enabling these groups to outcompete others. In this way, the theory goes, religion was selected for by evolution, and eventually permeated every human society (New Scientist, 28 January 2006, p 30)

The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn’t wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. "I don’t think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.

An alternative being put forward by Atran and others is that religion emerges as a natural by-product of the way the human mind works…

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Posted by on February 20, 2009 in faith, intellectual spot, magazines, politics, religion, web stuff


If there’s a catastrophe anywhere the Jihadists have done it…

So clever! Why, you’d wonder if we could ever win against such a cunning and resourceful opponent.

I mention this because it is surprising how much internet space is being devoted to this pet theory, aided and abetted by some who should know better. The whole thing is best put in perspective by Anorak, a satirical site, which is actually telling the unvarnished truth about what some have been saying. See Australia Fire: Warmists, Jihadists, Terrorists, Arsonist, Religionists And Opportunists.

No matter, of course, that the police disagree.

…"None at all, absolutely nothing, zero," Superintendent Ross McNeill told AFP.

"We usually rank possibilities on a scale of 0 to 10 – this would be on a negative scale," he said.

McNeill said he was aware of last year’s report, which said US intelligence channels had identified a website calling on Muslims in Australia, the US, Europe and Russia to "start forest fires"…

What would the police know? After all, bloggers are much better informed…

So far no-one seems to want to credit the Jihadists with the Queensland floods.


I mention this because I have been engaging in dialogue (if that is the right word) with another blogger whose post popped up in the list. See my comment here.


Hat tip to Bruce for this.

Irfan Yusuf posted COMEDY: Herald-Sun writer exposes marsupial jihad… on his main blog (not the one I have in my Google Reader) yesterday. He quotes, and I quote in turn, some apposite responses.

This is an unnecessary and dangerously incendiary article. How stupid and pointless to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment at a time when emotions are running high and there’s so much good will and community support to be celebrated.
Posted by: Deborah Bartlett Pitt
9:53am today

Don’t fall for this people. The general Muslim community want nothing to do with these lunatics. As arsonists walk amongst our community, idiots walk amongst theirs.
Posted by: CFA Volunteer
12:05am today

It is very likely, no doubt, that certain “jihadist” web sites may have “rejoiced” in the tragedy. That of course is sick, but on the other hand is rather analogous – very analogous – to the “it’s God’s judgement” school of thought some Christians have been foolish and tasteless enough to embrace. The “jihadist” rejoicing, however, in no way proves cause – which would in fact be post hoc reasoning.

As for Sheikh Haron, I suspect this nasty piece of work is heavily into self-aggrandisement. I’ve downloaded and read his “claim of responsibility” addressed to Kevin Rudd. If, that is, we believe he is real. Austrolabe makes a good case for his being a fake. Some in the comments question his mental health. Austrolabe is a Muslim site.

Enough said! That last comment cited by  Irfan, and his whole post, pretty much nails it – not to mention the assessment of the police.

Not unrelated, see Legal Eagle in a top post reminding us of the obvious: we have a legal system in this country, not lynch law. See Publication with prejudice.

…Our legal system works on the basis that this guy is innocent until proven guilty. That’s a fundamental retributive principle: we can’t punish someone unless we know beyond reasonable doubt that he deserves to be punished. We have to have a trial presenting all the relevant evidence before we judge him. We can’t just say, “He was a kooky scrap metal guy who was always lighting fires in the backyard, so he must have done it.”

By assuming this guy’s guilt without knowing all the evidence, the vigilante groups may have exactly the opposite effect from what they want. They may cause his trial to be derailed, as the defence barristers will be able to argue that he has been unfairly prejudiced before the trial even began. Do they really want to make it very difficult to prosecute this guy? Seems to me that they need to calm down and think logically and carefully about it. The same goes for the media: they need to be responsible in the way they report information about the accused.


I do think that vigilante group perpetrators should be charged with contempt of court if possible. Their behaviour is highly irresponsible, and an example needs to be made.

If ever we forget such principles we’re sunk!

Related: Four Corners: Two Days in Hell (my next post). For all posts on this topic on this blog see bushfires.

Update 18 February

I have decided to link directly to the post and thread which triggered this post. It has been at least reasonably civil, but I have reservations about our national tragedy being hijacked, in a way, to feed a particular interpretation of world events, especially given the evidence for that is so thin. Speculation is OK, I guess, and people will believe what they will. But in this case it really is a distraction. I doubt very much it will figure in the police investigations, our own national security assessments, or the Royal Commission.

You can read the post and thread and make up your own minds. The blogger concerned comes from North Carolina; he also participates in an interesting thing I hadn’t seen before called Where I Stand.  I even agree with some of the opinions expressed there, but would like this one to be wrong: The Left and Right will not find a way to live with each other in a civilized manner. What do you think?

There is to be a National Day of Mourning on Sunday 22 February.

Some of you will like this sermon by Dave Groenenboom; it’s a matter of your perspective, I guess, but I offer it as a contribution. I won’t analyse it or critique it; I do admire its spirit.



Last night I was 15 again…

On Compass last night was a documentary that really took me back: Billy Graham Down Under. Radio National also covered it.


1959 Billy Graham Crusade gathering at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

Source — Australian heritage photographic library.

I wasn’t there, but did go to the Sydney meetings with Sutherland Presbyterian Fellowship – even if the minister expressed a few doubts about the phenomenon, though he broadly supported it. I also went independently with some school friends, including one Jew, being 15 at the time.

From Compass, where the transcript has now appeared:

143 thousand people had crammed into the MCG and another 4,000 stood outside listening to hastily rigged up speakers. They had come from all over the state and they wanted to be part of the action.
Judith Smart – Historian
I was eight at the time. I was a member of the Malvern Baptist Sunday School. The Baptists were very evangelical and they decided that they should take all the Sunday School to the Billy Graham crusade.  We weren’t close enough to actually see Billy Graham but his speech was quite astonishing.

No, I didn’t go forward when the call came. I had already done that at a Fellowship Camp at Otford a month or two earlier. Oh, and in Sydney I was close enough to see the man quite close, comparatively speaking, in at least one of the meetings.

It was all rather amazing. Sydney had never seen such crowds, particularly for a religious gathering. On the last day the overflow filled the stadium next door as well as the SCG itself.

One of my teachers did mutter something about Nuremberg rallies, I recall. We thought that quite out of place at the time.

My trip back to 1959 did produce a Ninglun’s Specials entry: Memorabilia 15: 1959 — or thereabouts where you will find some quite wonderful super-8 footage of Sydney in that period. Not mine; a YouTube member posted it.

Much water has gone under the Harbour Bridge since then!


Instead of the Friday poem: Dorothy McRae-McMahon

sun23002a From the liturgy prepared by Dorothy (right) in the past week.

Let us go from here

As the bush springs green again,

restoring its beauty to us as a gift,

as the seeds are broken open by the fire

for the beginning of new life,

and as we bring together all that is among us

for the future in this place:

Let us go from here,

stronger than when we came,

holding on to those who have lost the most,

ready for all that is to come

and walking firmly into a new day.

Let us go in courage, hope and peace,

surrounded by the love of God.

photo by Neil 23 Nov 2008 at South Sydney Uniting Church



Church of the holy bicycles…

Bicycles: one of three things Alison Clark notes about South Sydney Uniting Church in the latest print edition of Insights. The other two were: interesting assortment of pets (animals welcome) and “interesting assortment of people – diverse and colourful.”

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In the online edition, the Moderator, who visited last year, noted:

So where have I experienced these shoots of hope in our church?

These are some:

  • South Sydney Congregation is certainly an example of a congregation responding to the call to be inclusive — small but growing with a strong sense of community and connection to the community around — authentic and vibrant.
  • Peteli stepping out in faith, growing a congregation with strong Tongan foundations but doing something new in the Australian context.
  • Auburn Uniting Church through adversity (the burning down of their hall at time of the Cronulla riots) strengthening multicultural and interfaith relationships in a hugely diverse community….

08feb 001



Friday intellectual spot 4: Jerry A. Coyne

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. His new book, Why Evolution Is True, has just been published by Viking. That information comes from The New Republic, which has just published a review essay by Coyne: Seeing and Believing. He reviews two books — Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. Again I owe Arts & Letters Daily.

How opportune too after my previous post!

… Together, Saving Darwin and Only a Theory provide an edifying summary of the tenets and the flaws of modern creationism, the former dealing mainly with its history and the latter with its specious claims. If these books stopped there, they would raise a valuable alarm about the dangers facing American science and culture. But in the end their sincere but tortuous efforts to find the hand of God in evolution lead them to solutions that are barely distinguishable from the creationism that they deplore….

…the most important conflict–the one ignored by Giberson and Miller–is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science–every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe. Now I am not claiming that all faith is incompatible with science and secular reason–only those faiths whose claims about the nature of the universe flatly contradict scientific observations. Pantheism and some forms of Buddhism seem to pass the test. But the vast majority of the faithful–those 90 percent of Americans who believe in a personal God, most Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, and adherents to hundreds of other faiths–fall into the "incompatible" category.

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a "middlebrow" book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

Statistics support this incompatibility. For example, among those thirty-four countries surveyed, we see a statistically strong negative relationship between the degree of faith and the acceptance of evolution. Countries such as Denmark, France, Japan and the United Kingdom have a high acceptance of Darwinism and low belief in God, while the situation is reversed in countries like Bulgaria, Latvia, Turkey, and the United States. And within America, scientists as a group are considerably less religious than non-scientists. This is not say that such statistics can determine the outcome of a philosophical debate. Nor does it matter whether these statistics mean that accepting science erodes religious faith, or that having faith erodes acceptance of science. (Both processes must surely occur.) What they do show, though, is that people have trouble accepting both at the same time. And given the substance of these respective worldviews, this is no surprise.

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith. Now Darwin Year is upon us, and we can expect more books like those by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

That is just an extract from a long article. Do take the trouble to read it all.

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Posted by on January 30, 2009 in faith, faith and philosophy, intellectual spot


I’m not an atheist but…

… David Attenborough is on the side of the angels here.

Sir David Attenborough receives hate mail over his belief in evolution, the British broadcaster and naturalist has revealed.

Sir David is preparing for more letters telling him to "burn in hell" when his latest television show, a documentary on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, is aired in the UK on Sunday.

"They tell me to burn in hell and good riddance," Sir David told Radio Times magazine.

The popular 82-year-old said people often asked him why he did not "give credit" in his programs to God for creating the natural world.

"They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds," Sir David said.

"I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in East Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball.

"The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."…

He also declared it as "terrible, terrible" that some British state schools can teach children that creationism and evolution are equal alternative view points.

"It’s like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five," Sir David said.

"Darwin revolutionised the way we see the world fundamentally, but his basic proposition is still not taken on board by a lot of people."

However, Sir David acknowledged "it would be a very bold scientist, and certainly not me, who believes it’s the be all and end all"…

God is not served through sentimental pap, simplistic answers, and lies, which is what some serve up. Faith acknowledges Attenborough’s challenge. It does not necessarily have any easy answers. Why should it?

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Posted by on January 29, 2009 in challenge, faith, faith and philosophy


Irfan Yusuf and the ranting nut-jobs

Very relevant as a case in point to a stream of thought coming from Jim Belshaw lately – see Culture, Groups and Public Policy – 1 and Culture, Groups and Public Policy – 2 – is Irfan Yusuf’s latest post HUMOUR: A joyous rant from Daniel Pipes’ website.  Jim said, among other things:

The starting point in these (anthropological and sociological) studies lies in the separation of the observer and the observed. The group under study – town, village, tribe, club – is recognised as distinct. The aim is to understand its structure and behaviour.

I make this point because a lot of the political and social commentary that I read starts from one set of group assumptions and realities (the commentator’s) that are then applied to and used to interpret or critique the behaviour of another group or groups with its (their) own sets of assumptions and realities.

He applies that to one particular issue here:

At the end of my first post in this muse, I suggested that President Bush’s policies in the "War on Terror" helped create the very thing that it was intended to destroy. I also suggested that the knowledge was available to pin-point some of the potential errors in advance. It simply wasn’t applied.

Part of the reason for this lies in the nature of groups and group dynamics. The internal world of the group is just too powerful. It dominates to the exclusion of other views.

Particular problems arise when, as in the Bush case, a gap appears between the internal reality of the group and the external world.

That I strongly agree with. In Irfan’s post the group-think is that of the anti-Islamist brigade, one minor exemplar of which is this “interpretation” of Irfan Yusuf, which bears no resemblance at all to the actual Irfan any of us can read for ourselves but rather shows the refracting lens through which the commentator passes all information:

Self promoting Stealth Jihadists under the guise of so called Multiculturalism and pseudo/-mock journalism….This post is one of a planned number, which is going to focus on the stealth Jihadists amongst us. I intend to expose such smooth slick snakeoil merchants.

Radical Islamist Lawyer Irfan Yusuf….

Say what???  “Radical atheist Pope Benedict XVI” is only slightly more far-fetched!

But Irfan retains a sense of humour, beginning his post with this:

Obama secrets

Memo for 2009 and beyond: ignore a hatemonger today! 

I do hope that with the defeat of the mindset of Bush, Cheney and company some of this sickness of the spirit will recede too.


Bishop Robinson’s “lost prayer”

Totally flying in the face of many people’s stereotyping, evangelical sites God’s Politics and Christianity Today have given due respect to the inauguration prayer of gay bishop Gene Robinson. The two God’s Politics references are Bishop Robinson’s Lost Prayer at the Inaugural Kick-off and More About Bishop Robinson’s Lost Inaugural Prayer. This is the prayer:

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears — tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless this nation with anger — anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort — at the easy, simplistic answers we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience — and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility — open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance — replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

And bless us with compassion and generosity — remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, inspire him with President Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for all people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain.

Give him stirring words — we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand — that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity, and peace.


It’s a beautiful prayer.

Powerful and inclusive. At once humble and bold.

Religion in the USA – as in most places – is rather more nuanced and interesting than many pundits and bloggers would credit.


Sydney’s Wayside Chapel, King’s Cross

I went there earlier this year to take some pictures for The South Sydney Herald. As it happens, the pics haven’t been used, but I was glad to have had the assignment. I don’t have all that much direct experience of The Wayside Chapel, a sometimes contentious part of The Uniting Church, but one of my South Sydney colleagues, Blair, is a regular volunteer there. Just about everyone in Sydney knows of its work.

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The Wayside Chapel: photo by Neil

The pastor, Graham Long, has lately appeared from time to time in the press as David Hicks’s mentor/counsellor. There is a South Australian connection, which emerges in a good profile feature in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Let he who has not sinned ….

Long, 57, has been in charge of the Wayside Chapel in Hughes Street, Potts Point for four years, though he was only confirmed as a Uniting Church pastor this month. He is the third controversial man to lead the Wayside Chapel in the past 44 years. Noffs was a charismatic pioneer, whose influence and innovations were felt worldwide. Ray Richmond served for 13 years and opened Sydney’s first illegal drug injecting room, leading to a criminal charge that was later dropped.

An avuncular, bearded figure with a raucous and ready laugh, Long might appear a safer choice: a less heroic but more practical administrator capable of steering the organisation from near insolvency to financial health, and supervising the $7 million redevelopment of the ramshackle premises. Fortunately it is a dry day: water apparently pours through his ceiling whenever it rains…

"I’m not Ted Noffs and I can’t be Ted Noffs," he told the board. "If you’re not ready for a change, I’m the wrong bloke."

There was the added complication of religious politics. Though the chapel was originally set up by Methodists, it now comes under the Uniting Church of Australia. To be accepted as pastor, Long had to go through the Uniting Church’s vigorous training procedure – which could not start until his suspension from Churches of Christ had expired.

Fortunately, "the Wayside board couldn’t give a flying fruit about these distinctions". He was appointed general manager and licensed to perform normal pastoral duties – baptisms, funerals, marriages and so on – until he finally qualified.

The challenge surprised him. The organisation was barely financial and the three separate buildings that make up the Wayside Chapel were a health and safety minefield. Two-thirds is beyond renovation, and must be pulled down. The board obtained planning approval for a $7 million rebuild, and launched a public appeal just before the world went into financial meltdown. So far $1.4 million has been pledged.

"This financial crisis has been a crisis for us too," Long acknowledges. "But from a turnover of $300,000 a year when I joined, we’re now at $1.8 million a year."

Most of that money is self-generated. "Ted’s vision – and it’s the same with us today – is that we don’t want to be seen as a soup kitchen. We are something which helps the community behave like a community. We want the poor to know that we exist only because of the generosity of the rich. And the rich to know that the poor are their brothers and sisters.”

Long fostered corporate ties, got celebrities to serve as chapel ambassadors, recently adapted a suite of small rooms for the recreation of under 25s – "the only drugs-free, supervised space for young people in Kings Cross" – and converted to reality the idea of three homeless young men for Food For Thought, a regular celebrity-speaking session where a changing roster of street kids prepares the food.

But at the heart is the Wayside Chapel itself. "We try to keep the chapel as a quiet, safe, sacred space. Lots of people just come here to sit and think," Long says. "Everyone falls over at some point, and everyone needs help getting back up again."

And another religion/community matter

Also in today’s Herald: Don’t force us into ghettoes: Trad.

LOCAL councils around Australia have been warned they risk imposing a "ghetto mentality" on the Islamic community if they continue to oppose religious projects such as the controversial proposals to build Islamic schools at Camden and Bass Hill.

The warning was issued yesterday by the founder of the Islamic Friendship Society, Keysar Trad, as he opened a prayer centre at St Marys.

Mr Trad said the centre, which took 3½ years to be approved by Penrith City Council, will participate in a number of multi-faith and community events, such as Clean Up Australia Day.

Asked about recent controversies surrounding other developments – such as a proposal for a Muslim school at Camden and a stalled project by sportsmen Anthony Mundine and Hazem El Masri to convert a church into a mosque in Canterbury – he said their rejection would hurt his community….

I’m not always a fan, I have to say, but this piece is worth thinking carefully about.

Using the example of an attempt by Mr El Masri, a prominent Canterbury Bulldogs footballer, to convert a church in Ludgate Street, Roselands, he said some councils and residents were focusing on trivial planning issues to sink projects that would have an otherwise broad appeal.

"Generally, when you think of Hazem El Masri, if he was establishing a youth centre, most people would want to send their kids there regardless of their religion because he’s a sporting hero who could teach their children discipline and help them have sporting success," Mr Trad said.

"But it seems in that area, the conjunction of his name with the word Muslim has created a situation where council took objection to something that relates to that centre. We don’t do those things to our sporting heroes in Australia; in Australia our sporting heroes are good role models, they deserve to continue to have our respect."

The Mayor of Penrith, Jim Aitken, said there was no community objection to the new prayer centre at St Marys but said planning regulations are not the only reason some developments are delayed.

"The issues are the same in any area. Some people will be against other religions coming into our society, and other people just don’t care," he said. "You just have to keep explaining to everyone what’s going so they understand."

The vice-president of the new prayer centre, Mohammad Ruhulamin, said there would be an emphasis on hosting events that involved people outside the Muslim faith.

"If our people want to be part of the community, the community must be accessible to us," he said. "It will take some time to build relationships with people. It will not be easy."

Rather than my commenting further, I recommend you use the Islam category tag to see what I have already said. This is the 136th post so tagged!


South Sydney Christmas

Just a minute of music from the beginning of this morning’s service at South Sydney Uniting Church. You probably know the tune…



From left field, off the wall, and similar Christmas musings 2

In From left field, off the wall, and similar Christmas musings 1 I promised:

In the second in this series I ask: Does the usual Christmas Nativity Scene have authenticity? I answer: No. Did you know that Jesus may well have not been born in Bethlehem?  Did you know that what we accept, or have come to depict, as the Nativity is an amalgam of several contradictory stories? Did you know that the earliest gospels say nothing at all about the birth of Jesus?

For many none of this will be news; for others it may be disturbing. Wait and see.

So here we are, and for a full account of these matters see Bishop Spong: A Religious Santa Claus Tale. Not that Bishop Spong is the only church figure to say things like this, and he is certainly far from the first. You see the trouble with fundamentalists is that they don’t read their Bibles carefully enough.

Isaiah 7 almost certainly does not refer to Jesus, even though the appropriation of two verses in that chapter has become so embedded, thanks to Matthew’s very dubious use of a Greek translation of the Hebrew original, that many Christians find that unthinkable. However, if you read the chapter properly – that is you read it all, in context, in a good translation — you will see that it does not mention virgins anywhere, and that the birth it is talking about is very much a symbolic lesson for the times in which the text is set – a particular political situation around 800 years before Jesus was born.

The earliest Christian texts tell us nothing about the birth of Jesus, or nothing supernatural. Those are certain letters of Paul, as Spong says:

Paul, who is the first author of a book in the New Testament (he wrote between 50 and 64 C.E.), appears to have no knowledge of anything being unusual about Jesus’ birth. All Paul says is that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law" (Galatians 4:4) and "according to the flesh" he was "descended from the House of David" (Romans 1:3). Paul never mentions the names of Mary or Joseph. The only reference he makes to a member of the family of Jesus was to James, whom he called "the Lord’s brother," and with whom he did not get along very well (Galatians 1).

The earliest gospel in the Canon is Mark, which has no birth narrative. Neither does the Gospel of Thomas, which many scholars date back to around the same time the other Canonical gospels were being written. Thomas has no narrative at all to speak of, and in that respect probably reflects (though the Thomas we now have is not a primary version) what the first gospel stories were actually like.

Matthew and Luke, writing at least 40 years after the death of Jesus, have independent and contradictory stories about the birth of Jesus, Luke’s chronology, despite his being the more polished and careful as a writer of the two, being very doubtful. It may even be that Jesus was actually born in Nazareth in Galilee, where, it is reasonably certain, he spent most of his life. Matthew goes to extraordinary lengths with a tale which, like so much in Matthew, deliberately parallels the lives of Moses and Jesus in order to explain how Jesus ended up in Nazareth. Reading Matthew alone you would think Joseph and Mary had always lived in Bethlehem. Luke, on the other hand, probably correctly notes that they were from Nazareth, but then gets them to Bethlehem via the plot device of a census, which appears, if at all, to have happened some ten years or so after Jesus was born, which was not on the 25th December in a year no later then 4BC, when King Herod died. One story has wise men from the east visiting Mary in her house; the other has shepherds visiting a stable. The two events, if either is really an event, may have happened several years apart. The ox and ass came in later through creative embroidering and do not appear in the gospels themselves.

John, writing towards the end of the first century, begins with a philosophical poem rather than a story.

All the gospels really start with John the Baptizer, and the first public appearances of Jesus. And so on. All this is really well known.

So what do we celebrate at Christmas? The idea that “God is with us” – however you understand that. Tikno in Indonesia captures this well enough in his recent comment:

Before, when the bell is ringing, Jesus has came in simplicity.
Now, when the bell is ringing, let go holiday.

One remembers also the best that has been inspired by the name of Jesus. An obituary in today’s Sydney Morning Herald is not a bad example:

…Sister Veronica, raised in Quirindi, just south of Tamworth, was a pioneer of Aboriginal education. Entering the Josephites, the order founded by Blessed Mary MacKillop, just before her 18th birthday, she took her vows three years later.

She had chosen an order that had as its mission an energetic engagement with the community. She taught at Annandale, Port Kembla, Revesby, Walgett, the Central Coast and Hunters Hill, where she was headmistress of St John’s Preparatory School.

In 1974, she arrived at an Aboriginal mission in Kununurra to run the local school. Expecting a class of 60, she was greeted by 135 children. "From that first surprise blossomed her partnership with Aboriginal people and the evolving of what became known as two-way education," said a fellow Josephite, Sister Maria Casey.

Sister Veronica was an early exponent of what was then a radical educational theory: teaching the regular curriculum of maths and English alongside the local language, culture and history. For the first time, the local Kija language would be written, as well as spoken.

Later she moved to Warnum, one of the most isolated pockets of the Kimberley. She and the other sisters working there lived rough for several years, in the soaring temperatures of north-western Australia, before their house was built. But the hardship forged a bond with the women of Warnum, who accepted her as kin, even giving her a "skin name".

Sister Veronica became deft at handling the often delicate politics of the church, the education system and the indigenous communities. Measured in her approach to people and problems, she never gave the appearance of frustration or anxiety.

Her knowledge of indigenous women was captured in her master’s thesis, Aboriginal Women In The Face Of Change, and her book, From Digging Sticks To Writing Sticks

There is of course much one would rather forget, but let us set aside Christmas for focusing on the good that has been and can be.

Finally, look at a post by Postkiwi Duncan Macleod, a Uniting Church minister in Queensland: Gustav Niebuhr on Interfaith Conversation.

Gustav Niebuhr’s writings include the book “Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America” and articles for “The New York Times Magazine”, “The Christian Century” and “The Buddhist Review”. He is associate professor of religion the media at Syracuse University in New York State. Gustav is the grandson of Reinhold Niebuhr, and grandnephew of Helmut Reinhold Niebuhr…

Gustav talks about being inspired to write his book, “Beyond Tolerance”, by his experience at the New York Times in the late 1990s writing about religious conflict in which he encountered people who were engaged in inter-faith dialogue and projects. His interest in the topic was spurred into action when he found people of faith who deliberately reached out to the Muslim community in the wake of 9/11.

Michael Pappas in his interview suggests that crisis might be what is required to stimulate the building of inter-faith relationships. Niebuhr points out that relationships are built over time in response to a growing awareness of pluralism. He refers to the changes that have happened in the United States since the immigration laws were overhauled in 1965.

I found it interesting the idea the most effective relationship building is done not by intellectual dialogue (usually carried out by academics) but through shared projects. Niebuhr refers to the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, founded by Eboo Patel, as a great example of how that might happen. Niebuhr talks about using humour, interviews and stories to break down stereotypes.

Much better than being “right” don’t you think?

Update: a sad note

Being a Protestant, I am not affected directly by anything the Pope might say, but it is always heartening when he says something useful, as he does at times. However, it is very sad when he says something as backward-looking, indeed quite silly, as the hyperbolic pronouncement that has just come out on the subject of gays, lesbians and transexuals. The Wild Reed will be very disappointed I should think, though not surprised.


I was born and raised in rural Australia but am now living in the US where I serve as the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) and the editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice. I established The Wild Reed as a sign of solidarity with all who are dedicated to living lives of integration and wholeness – though, in particular, with gay people seeking to be true to both the gift of their sexuality and their Catholic faith.The Wild Reed simply invites people to observe and reflect upon one man’s progressive, gay, Catholic perspective on faith, sexuality, politics, and culture.

My old internet friend, the late Father Ken Sinclair, must be spinning in his grave. Ken co-wrote this major study: Consequences of Decriminalization of Homosexuality: A Study of Two Australian States.

A comparison between homosexual males in two Australian states. Victoria (prior to decriminalization of homosexuality) and South Australia (eight years after decriminalization), indicated that the consequences of decriminalization did not include an increase in the negative aspects of homosexuality, such as public solicitation or sexually transmitted disease. Findings suggest that as a consequence of decriminalization, the psychological adjustment of homosexual men will increase and sexually transmitted diseases and public solicitation will decrease. These data are tentatively interpreted as indicating that there are few if any negative consequences of decriminalizing homosexuality, and a number of positive consequences.

Indeed many Catholics I know will be saddened. Will they take notice? Of course not…


From left field, off the wall, and similar Christmas musings 1

Let me remind you of my Christmas poem selection #4 from last year.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

The other night I was listening to ABC Radio National, which at this time of year broadcasts New Dimensions, a US-based program of left-field alternative and often New Age views which range from the flaky to the genuinely thought-provoking. The particular episode was devoted to Aftab Omer. According to New Dimensions:

Omer is a truly a global citizen. He was born in Pakistan and has lived in Turkey, India, Hawaii and now lives in Northern California. His research and life experience has led him to study how we need to move from dysfunctional conflicts to creative conflicts. The problem of our global cultural crisis is not conflict, rather how we handle those conflicts. He says, "We are surrounded by people who perceive differently than us. As long as we’re locked into our personal perceptions and cannot broaden out into different perspectives we will be struggling with dysfunctional conflicts rather than creative conflicts." He suggests that the global challenges of diversity, conflict, and chaos can be met through actively engaging these differences and perspectives with openness, fierceness, and curiosity. He shares with us the idea that peace is not sustained though avoidance of conflict, but is sustained through finding ways to engage in creative conflict.

His is a quite different analysis of the problems we face, and I think it deserves thought. There is a downloadable free lecture available (signing up is easy) from Glasgow Caledonian University:

In a city which prides itself on friendliness and yet has inequalities in health which persist despite our best attempts to tackle them, questions about our relationships to others are of key significance. This issue of otherness is ancient and contemporary, local as well as global, and of significance both in everyday life and periods of cultural crisis. In this lecture, Aftab Omer will consider how to develop core principles and practices that are responsive to the challenges of otherness both within the city and beyond. The diversity we see in the human race is often treated as a problem rather than an asset. For example, we see this in various forms of social oppression such as inequality, racism and cultural trauma. Omer argues that responding effectively to the fragmentation that characterises this global cultural crisis, calls for leadership that practices a profound engagement with all that is other. Such a perspective will raise important insights and questions about how people, organisations and cultures relate to each other, with important consequences for the pursuit of wellbeing.

In the progressive US Jewish magazine Tikkun a recent article refers to Omer’s work: Awakening Our Faith in the Future: Obama’s Renewal of Our Liberal Identity by Peter Dunlap.

With an Obama presidency, liberals like me can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Well, yes, but maybe no. Certainly when our candidates win locally or nationally we feel pride, relief, and hope. Yet, what have we really gotten with an Obama administration? As the Clinton administration demonstrated, it takes more than winning an election to move the country, especially if it seems that winning required a turn to the right.

Many people feared Obama’s post-convention lean to the right. George Lakoff may have articulated this fear best when he said Obama’s pull to the right would legitimize the conservatives’ positions and perhaps even help make their candidates more appealing. After all, “if Obama espouses conservative positions, then why not simply vote for the real thing?” Well, Obama took that risk and has been elected on centrist political themes without a clear liberal/progressive mandate. Where does that leave the Left? Where does that leave issues of universal health care, offshore oil drilling, corporate accountability? While I’m certain that Obama would do the right thing if he thought he could, his turn to the right tells me he isn’t so confident. He may know the way, but will he turn this country toward its moral destiny? Will he lead us toward a future that repudiates and pursues reparation for our past militarism? Will we develop alternative fuels and overcome our oil addiction? Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that, like before, the opportunity does not lie so much with Obama as it does with us.

How many times have we heard that one—that the answer lies with us? How about the idea that the answer lies within? Does that sound true but unhelpful, because you feel you don’t know how to turn inner change into political change, or your own concerns into community engagement? Gandhi’s invitation for us to become the change we wish to see in the world risks becoming a painful cliché because it does not come with instructions. Without some sense of direction, it’s too easy to infuse Obama with too much responsibility for the hopes he has released in us. He released the hope. We need to embody it, but how?…

If we assert our political agenda in the overly rationalized manner adopted by many liberals and progressives, we will not have learned from Obama’s example. Obama’s evocation of hope reflects his own transformation of that traditional liberal identity; it is this transformation that’s worthy of following, not his (necessarily?) centrist stance on issues. We can follow him toward the realization of a new liberal political identity, one based on his mastery of leadership capacities and our own manifestation of other emergent leadership capacities that even he has not yet embodied.

While we can learn from Obama’s new liberal identity, there are many cultural leaders currently articulating and embodying other leadership capacities that will be essential for the future of liberalism and the progressive movement. My own understanding of the emergence of such capacities comes from the work of Aftab Omer, founder of the Institute of Imaginal Studies. I discuss the contributions of Omer, Lakoff, Michael Lerner, and other emergent progressive cultural leaders in my book Awakening Our Faith in the Future: The Advent of Psychological Liberalism

Faith, by way of contrast with both fanaticism and fundamentalism, is the capacity to embrace and confront uncertainty; words to that effect (I paraphrase) in Omer’s New Dimensions interview resonated with me. Dunlap continues:

For Obama, religion cannot be reduced to a right-wing fundamentalism that identifies abortion and same-sex partners as immoral. Obama believes that America’s religious tendency speaks to a hunger that “goes beyond any particular issue or cause.” Describing his own experience with this hunger, Obama testifies that, without faith, something is missing in our lives. He understands that people “want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They’re looking to relieve a chronic loneliness.”

During his time as a community organizer, Obama confronted his own “spiritual dilemma” through which he discovered that he had kept a part of himself “removed, detached,” leaving him as an “observer” in the midst of the many people of faith he worked with. He said he learned that “without a vessel for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.” Through his community service work, he confronted his own religious alienation and resolved this dilemma by joining a faith community.

Obama’s story shows us one path to reconciling our prejudices against religion with our liberal values and politics. His integration of these enable him to speak with a moral authority that is missing from both traditional religious speaking not rooted in egalitarian values and traditional liberal speaking not rooted in a faith community.

In The Boston Globe (referred from The Arts & Letter Daily today) is another article which appeals to me: Read the rest of this entry »


Camden on the Gold Coast?

I promoted Muslim Schooling on Gold Coast by Postkiwi Duncan Macleod on Neil’s Shared Items yesterday, but it is worth a post here too.

The Gold Coast where I live has hit the news headlines this last week as a group of Christians petitioned, and protested against the establishment of a Muslim school in Carrara. Australian International Islamic College, based in Durack, Brisbane, is proposing to build the Gold Coast’s first Muslim school right next door to the Dream Centre, a large AOG church.

Tony Doherty, a minister with the Dream Centre, is coordinating the Concerned Carrara Residents Group, mobilizing the local residents against the proposed school. The group’s expressed concerns are about the increase in traffic, reduced security, the disturbance of the peace (look how upset the group is and the school hasn’t started yet), a lack of community cohesion relating to the long standing churches and social clubs in the area, a concern that a separated Muslim community would take over the area, and the loss in property values.

It’s obvious that this protest is based on a concern about the school being Islamic. There’s a major school just down the road run by an interdenominational group of Christians that would have ten times the amount of traffic.

One of the comments from the Church is that it doesn’t make sense to have a Muslim community next to a Christian community. Where else would you place them if you wanted them to live harmoniously within the wider community?…

My emphasis. It all has a familiar ring, hasn’t it? Duncan, a Uniting Church minister, continues:

I think it’s time to affirm what being Australian means. We live in a secular society, in which people of all walks of life can have access to education and employment, no matter what their creed. That includes access to State schools, as well as the right to provide faith-based education that fits with the State’s syllabus…

Let’s keep our eyes on this one.

Speaking of Uniting Church, it is hardly a secret that The South Sydney Herald is a community project of South Sydney Uniting Church. I was interested to note, when I attended the end-of-year party, that those involved testify to its inclusiveness, however, ranging from Andrew (editor and minister) through a group including older leftie/anarchist activists, young bright journalism types, including one Liberal Party member, artists, atheists, gay lesbian and transgender, and just lately as a guest contributor Brendan Nelson! The Paper, as those involved call it, has developed quite a lot this year and really is appreciated in the local area – that is Newton, Redfern, Chippendale, Rosebery, Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Kings Cross. They have broken some important stories during the year and been quite a little ginger group all round. They also do much to give voice to local performers and artists, the local Indigenous community, and quite a few others.


While not directly related to the subject of Duncan’s post, OPINION: Second Column in Crescent Times … by eminently sane Australian Muslim lawyer Irfan Yusuf is a good companion piece.

So here’s my solution to prejudice – prove the agents of prejudice wrong. Yes, Muslims have a soft spot for the Palestinians (as indeed do many Jews, especially in Israel). But that doesn’t mean we should assume all Jews have an anti-Muslim agenda. We should leave this kind of simplistic logic to simpletons who attend Republican Party rallies or who seek to take over the NSW Liberals.

That means we should build networks with like-minded people. And under no circumstances should we tolerate any group in society to be marginalised.


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