27 June 2017

Living under the influence

For a couple of weeks, I’ve talked about how our beliefs form (see A brief history of continual change and Fixed and Flexible Thinking). So how do you decide what your non-negotiable beliefs are? How do you form the doctrines and opinions of your life? Our beliefs never form in a vacuum. We are all ‘living under the influence’ of other voices. Here are three loud ones:

1. Your Worldview — Spiritual or Secular
Your worldview will fundamentally shape your beliefs. A purely Secular worldview is shaped by the assertion that there is no God and the material world is the only reality. In this view, morality is shaped by reason, and people can be fulfilled in life by meeting their material needs.

A Christian worldview sees life as much more than the material. It will regard the bible as, at a minimum, instructive in many matters and prescriptive in some. It will anticipate that we can relate with God through prayer, be shaped in our values, and be guided by God in all the decisions of life.

2. Your Backgrounds and Biases
Our beliefs are fundamentally shaped, for better or worse, by our interactions with significant others in our lives. From the influence of our parents or peers, to the influence of the radio program we always listen to; we are living under the influence of other people. These people write part of our story and shape our core convictions.

Our background experiences eventually form biases in our thinking. I remember as a youngster being taught lawn bowls by my late grandmother, Ruby. I couldn’t understand why that ball kept rolling to the same corner of the green ‘til she described what a bias was. The ball is weighted on one side so that every time you roll it, it will curve the same way. Similarly, our biases cause us to lean in a direction, and gravitate toward the same conclusions, unfortunately blinkering us from the alternative view. We all have biases. Can you think what some of yours might be?

3. Your Proximity — Distant or Close, Abstract or Personal
When we are personally involved, we understand at a different level. In 1989 there was an earthquake in Newcastle. If you were in Sydney it was an odd momentary rumble, but if you were in Newcastle the experience was vastly different. For some, the ‘issue’ seems right under them and it's an intense experience, and for others the issue seems distant and almost a non-event.

A lack of personal experience creates beliefs built around the abstract, but personal experience produces another kind of truth. I’m speaking of experiences such as surviving cancer; having a son who is gay; being a refugee; losing a daughter from suicide; having a child with an addiction; living with a spouse with mental illness etc. Our opinions are always shaped by our experiences, and when we believe only from the abstract, we often dehumanize the person behind the issue and save ourselves from needing to show compassion or empathy.

And that last sentence is really what sparked much of my writing on beliefs lately. I am increasingly noticing in the Church, politics, the media (and social media) what appears to be the flourishing of lop-sided, ardent viewpoints and fierce reactions on a whole range of current issues. I’m equally disturbed by secular, Christian, Islamic, conservative and liberal voices that zealously defend their blinkered views, expressed dogmatically, thin on empathy, bereft of grace. There seems to be a collective forgetting that we are not ever really just talking about ideas, but real people who equally have a back story to their beliefs.

We do need to have firm beliefs that can be freely and clearly expressed. But for goodness sake, may we also know why we believe them and acknowledge that we are all seriously ‘under the influence.’ Perhaps we are an echo of our favourite radio shock-jock, a product of our parents or world view, or an extension of our limited experiences.

And if we have come that far as to honestly understand ourselves and the people on the other side of the issue, then our final task is to express it in a way that doesn’t forget to honour, and creates a conversation rather than shuts one down. That’s my hope anyway.

If nothing else, I’m just reminding myself here that this is how Jesus lived and I’d do well to take his lead.

What do you think? Why?

19 June 2017

Life in an age of information overload

I got a letter the other day announcing the NBN has come to my street and for a fleeting moment I felt like I'd won the lottery (or at least a meat raffle). Even though I'm definitely a social media introvert, the internet has clearly reshaped my life and I suspect yours too. For example, did you grow up with a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica? We had a set proudly displayed on bowing bookshelves groaning under the  the weight of all that glossy paper. Sadly, Encyclopaedia Britannica stopped publishing in 2012 after 244 years! It wasn't that people stopped wanting information, but now we want it all, anywhere and immediately.

The Internet is arguably the most significant social and technological innovation of our time. It is equivalent to the invention of the Gutenberg press of the 15century (apparently the Chinese invented it 200 years earlier), and the Roman road of the first century.

But here is my concern. In a recent Australian study by the RUOK foundation it was found that Australians spent an average of 46 hours a week in their downtime (i.e. not at work) looking at a screen, but just six hours with family and friends. Half of respondents spent two hours or less, which equates to eight times as many hours per week looking at screens and plugged into the net than with loved ones.

Is it just me or do you see a problem here too? Screens join us on the toilet (ok that was a confession), and for some, walking the dog, riding the train, at our kid’s sport or even around the dinner table. It's like we've become a nation of tech zombies, fascinated with our little screens, convinced we are somehow more connected, informed and better off.  Are we really?

And do I also need a high tech watch  to broadcast even more trivial information which further distracts me from my 'Face time' with those I love? Do we really want to give more attention to our screens than our loved ones? And what are we modelling for our children?

I'm writing this partly because this is me! And yes, I do see the irony in writing this admonition on one of those screens, knowing you will read it on one of those screens.

But every so often we all need to step back, look at or behaviours and gain a fresh perspective on how we use our time and our technology, especially when around people...which is just about everywhere. 

You may recall last year, one of Elon Musk's rockets blew up on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral.    No one was hurt but it did destroy a satellite commissioned by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to connect millions of sub-Saharan Africans to the Internet. After all, they need Facebook too! I'm all for Africa having the Internet. But if they end up spending 46 hours a week on Facebook, downloading the ills of western culture and other useless information, I fear that for many, the great blessing of a Mark Zuckerberg satellite hovering over their heads could become a slow, irreversible social and cultural tragedy. 

What do you think?
Maybe its time to close the lid, turn off the phone and go find someone to talk to?

Here is how I'm praying about this. Maybe you'd like to join me:

Jesus, thank you that I'm alive today in the 21st Century! You've placed before me a world of immense opportunity and resources that can be used for great good. Amid all the distractions, help me to keep my focus on you. And give me the heart to make an even greater investment of my attention and time into the people you ask me to walk with.

11 June 2017

One Love. Which Love?

I sat up in bed the other night and watched the whole three hour long 'One Love Manchester’ concert. It was a heartfelt response to the terror attack at the Ariana Grande concert a fortnight earlier. For me, the wonderful irony of this star-studded event was that 50,000 tear-stained faces gathered together in a collective expression of their own, new kind of faith (faith in love, faith in god and some kind of redemption), to stand in defiance of terrorists motivated by a perversion of an old kind of faith.

From Coldplay singing songs about broken longing and rescue (Fix You) to Robby Williams breaking down as he looks to heaven singing about angels, to the Black Eyed Peas singing 'father, father, father help us we need some guidance from above' (Where is the love). This was an event dripping with longing for something that transcends our pain and helplessness. I find funerals often carry that same atmosphere of tempered invincibility and tentative hope.

So as much as we love to hate religion these days, in the face of grave injustice and loss, people rarely turn to atheism for inspiration and hope. No, we are strangely drawn back to that transcendent itch, that whisper under all our angst and bravado for something beyond us, perhaps even someone to call God.

But who or what is that anymore?

It felt like there was a grasping for language to put around this longing — Justin Bieber calling the masses to keep chanting ‘love’, then Katy Perry pleading with them to look at each other and say ‘I love you’. And in all the talk about love, no one was really saying what love is or where it comes from. Did the ecstatic crowd think they were feeling the love when Bieber took the stage?

One love! Which love?

If only they had rolled out Foreigner to sing their 1984 classic ‘I want to know what love is,’ perhaps we could have had a moment of clarity! How do we know what love is? As I watched this quasi-worship service, I dreamt “If only Bono would come out on stage now and say: ‘People, all this talk of love – let me tell you that real love’s source is God and he perfectly and personally reveals it in Jesus.’” Alas, even Bono let me down.

Just a few days after the Manchester attack, Australian Nurse Kirsty Boden was killed after running into the storm of suffering to help the wounded on London Bridge.  Now that is love.

But in this age of awkward hesitancy to hang our spiritual hat on anything old or orthodox, the greatest, most inspiring modern stories of love still point us back to that world shaping love story of Jesus, God in in the flesh, stepping into our brokenness, running into the storm of our suffering and loving us to the point of the ultimate sacrifice. In death, defining what love is, and then in resurrection, revealing the extent of his power to overcome and redeem even the worst of what this world can do.

And even though a growing portion of Australian society doesn’t want to be identified with religious faith, I just wonder if intrinsically we already know that love is more than emotion or sentiment or biological response. No, the One Love that serves, sacrifices and even dies in another's place, that love is divine . . . and Jesus perfectly defines it.

05 June 2017

Fixed and Flexible Thinking

Last week I wrote of how changes in thinking can feel like an earthquake. Competing ideas rub against each other creating friction and movement, and like an earthquake, this can be destructive or constructive.

Today, many people who align their lives with biblical values experience the growing tension between their established orthodoxy and society’s general disregard of it. There was a time when Australian society was largely Christian in its worldview. Those days have long gone.

So how is anyone to know which challenges to their thinking are destructive and which are constructive? As a Christian, what change is faithful to the gospel, what is neutral and what change undermines the gospel? What should I hold firmly to, and to what should I hold loosely? Or perhaps a more basic question - do you think that what you believe really matters anyway? 

If you answered yes, then do all beliefs have the same weight? I'd have to say NO. There certainly are some beliefs I am totally fixed on, but others,  maybe not. But which is which?

I found Roger Olsen’s book, Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity in Diversity to be quite helpful in thinking through this question. Olsen distinguishes between three orders or levels of Christian truth; dogma, doctrine and opinion. 
Olsen defines dogma as 'truths essential to Christianity itself; to deny them is to follow something other than Jesus.' Christian identity is at stake. Dogma is expressed in the foundation Paul laid in Corinth to keep Jews and Gentiles with all their differences together: 'Jesus Christ, his living, dying, rising, ascending, coming again.' 

Olsen defines doctrine as a 'secondary category of teachings central to a particular tradition of Christians.' These can include some very significant matters that define entire traditions such as predestination or free will; how we understand the saving work of Jesus; the nature of church and the work of the Holy Spirit. 
Lastly, Olsen defines opinion as 'matters of a speculative nature about which there is no consensus in the church.' These are matters where scholarly, Bible-believing Christians read the same passages and come to different conclusions. For example women in leadership or current issues around sexuality and same sex marriage.

But even my examples are a problem because one person’s opinion is another’s doctrine, is another’s dogma. Who is to decide?

From our own perspective, we see our dogmas and doctrines as fixed and any challenge or suggestion of change can create anxiety or tension. We can't imagine how someone doesn't passionately believe what we believe!

If our beliefs are fixed, we are prone to disengage from divergent thoughts and label them liberal, unbiblical or heretical. Yet I wonder how often we stop and genuinely listen to those views before we cast judgement? I wonder how often we invest the time and energy necessary to personally understand those who think differently? It seems easier to make a new denomination (or find a new church) than live in tension together. And that's the really unfortunate part.

I’ll bet that many of us will reach different conclusions on a whole array of 'opinions' and maybe even one or two 'doctrines.' The great challenge always before us is loving when we disagree and choosing the bond of unity without demanding the bond of uniformity.

We will disagree. But can we stay in relationship even in our disagreement? Now that is the supreme challenge! If we can, we reveal a truth greater than our arguments and a maturity rarely seen in the world today.