Monday, May 20, 2019

Whole and Nothing But?

(An insistence on) Absolute honesty can be burdensome and hurtful.

Immediately, you may remember being the recipient of cruel or condemnatory honesty. You may, in turn, have opted not to hurt someone with such honesty. In this post, I am more interested in the other side of the coin: in those times where honesty is demanded by a listener who makes a speaker vulnerable.

People have a right to privacy: to protect their inmost selves from scrutiny. Scrutiny is not neutral: it belongs to a viewer, who by definition interprets. Can you trust the way they will 'interpret', or judge, you? How do you know? If you're unsure, you are wise to hold back.

'Honesty' is often demanded by a person in power. A child gets in serious trouble when his parent / teacher / priest finds out he 'lied'. He can in no way command the same level of accountability from them. There is no equality. We would hope that the parent / teacher / priest were benevolent - but .........

Thirdly....the pursuit of honesty takes place in biased, sometimes hostile, contexts. CCTV cameras everywhere might seem ok to those of us who have 'done nothing wrong'. AKA are 'in the dominant group'. Imagine yourself a Muslim in Trump's America, and new camera installations seem far less objective.

Closer to home, an insistence on more honesty can be a sign that something is wrong in a relationship. Can reveal a current of hatred, objectification or need for control.

Freedom to be honest about our deepest thoughts and feelings can aid well-being. The confessional, for all its pitfalls, recognises this. As does its modern-day equivalent (and its pitfalls): therapy. The aim in these contexts is for honesty to be made safe. (Suggesting that it is not always so.)

Honesty can enable listeners to pin onto you their unrecognised issues and responsiblities; to make of you a scapegoat.

When arrested by the religious authorities, Jesus infuriated them by keeping silence. When quizzed by Pilate, he refused to give straight answers. His refusal to be honest did not make him safe but it gave his death great weight. In refusing to be 'honest', Jesus refused to take responsibility for others' interpretations of his words and actions. They had to own it. And, thus, were shown the deeply uncomfortable way towards discovering the truth about themselves.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Am I Free to Go?

It's almost impossible to tell how much any choice I make is independent and how much it is a response to social pressures and influences.

For example, I choose what to wear in the morning but any 'freedom' in that choice is bound up in a context. And people who lose their grip on dress-code conventions are rarely labelled 'free' - more likely, we think they're nuts!

My dominant context as a child was one that valued - possibly above all else - those who made an independent choice to become a Christian. This choice was called Conversion. I grew up in church communities and, more importantly, non-conformist church communities. These got their sense of identity from being different to more hierarchical (such as Catholic) churches, where parents and priests passed faith on to children and they adopted it. In my place, a verbal explanation of one's independent conversion to the faith was a sign of authentic belonging.

I remember, at the tender age of 5, choosing to follow Jesus. This made sense in my context and was a response to social pressures and influences. I saw that a certain decision would lead to acceptance, belonging and respect. Why would I choose otherwise? There is nothing wrong with this: embracing a supportive culture, a tribe, a place to belong, is good.

That said, it is false to claim that my choice was made 'freely' from external pressure. For me, things go wrong when that argument takes hold. When a particular decision to join the tribe is conflated with a step into ultimate freedom, like taking the red pill, people are later held back from journeying past this point. *

My founding tribe is not the same as yours, no doubt. Some are religious; some are family - 'blood ties'; some are about political or intellectual affiliations; some relate to careers. But I suspect that genuine 'conversion' experiences feel similar regardless of context because they always involve loosening ties with your tribe. They are recognisable because we resist them intensely. A profound change feels like threat. It is not an escape or a refuge; it is more like a death. It involves periods of deep uncertainty and sadness; a sacrifice of safety. Conversions are inexplicable; they necessitate leaving your tribe for the wilderness.

Like Eliot's Magi, I expect my path towards the 'truth' will feature hard and bitter agony. I am also pretty sure that I will always have the option to ignore it. The best tribes will never deny the existence of pathways 'out' or insist that those who wish to travel these are deviant, back-slidden.... or nuts.

* (See Fowler's Stages of Faith for one model explaining what comes next.)

Monday, December 03, 2018

Should I stay or should I go?

When is it better to encourage children to keep going with something hard, as opposed to allowing them to withdraw from the fray?

Parenting in the early years involves making these choices for someone else. "He doesn't want to do swimming / football / beavers / the party. And a) he's free to decide or b) it'll be better for him in the long run if he does."

While responsibility for others clarifies the sensation of struggle in these decisions, it is a struggle we fight always, long and hard, on our own behalf.

Rowan Williams dedicates a chapter of Silence and Honeycakes (about the early Christian desert fathers and mothers) to 'fleeing'. And another to 'staying'. Hermits 'flee' the world and it might be seen as escapism. But Williams talks about the courage and determination it takes to face up to one's terrifying self largely in isolation, without distracting stimulation to sweeten reality.

'Staying' is also part of the deal: a hermit (or monk, nun etc) is committed to one, usually small, place forever or at least the long-term; to living alongside a small set of people, however irritating; to completing the same, simple tasks day after day, without hope of 'success' (or even progress).

This might seem safe and dull. But it can take courage, determination and discipline to stick at something in this way.

I once wondered if people fell into two 'types'. I might have put myself in the 'flee' category. Or, more favourably, described myself as an independent adventurer.

I am learning to see a bit more nuance, more depth. When I'm doing something, be it a relationship, a conversation, a task, I tend to compulsively stick at it until it (or I) is finished. This is my Stay self. It can be very good. But since few things in life really can be 'finished' and some completions leave a bitter taste in the mouth, what better permission to let go of these duties than a brave new world of 'fleedom'  - new job, break-up, new city, etc? Armed with this self-understanding, I'd like to think I'm a bit better at making those choices.

There is no blanket rule of right or wrong in these choices. But getting to know ourselves really well (which in itself is a kind of dogged insistence on staying put) helps us see what's really going on behind our decision making.

And, I expect, a similarly tenacious insistence on paying attention to our children can help parents guide them towards good choices, too.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Gifted children

Sometime between the ages of 10 and 20 (scientifially proven, yep), people lose their ability to receive gifts.

I notice this most starkly in the run-up to Christmas, when the intensity of present-exchange highlights the problem. I could rant ad infinitum right here.... but I can be a bit annyoing when I do that. So, limiting myself to one observation: what is this insistence on everyone in a gift-giving network spending the same amount of cash?! We may as well adorn a turkey with a wreath of tenners and eat one each.

Young children are natural born warning signs for gift-giving gone wrong. They don't play the game with self-absorbed benefactors claiming to 'make sacrifices' for them while actually wanting something in return. They don't sweat about paying us back in kind. And they are visibly wrung out by excess and consumerism.

But they absorb generosity and love unashamedly. They barely even say thanks. What rotters!

Grace is a mysterious thing. Accepting it is all about letting go of the idea that you have the potential to become more deserving of gifts. Again, children show us how to do this: they soak up greedily as much love and attention as we can give them, without for one second thinking they deserve it or that they need to repay it.

I have sat in a lot of churches that tell me I can never be more or less deserving of God's love: that it is a gift. That the sun shines on good and evil alike. And then tell me, in almost the same breath, that my life is only acceptable if I embrace a particular lifestyle; a particular penchant for religious activity; a particular set of beliefs.

Four decades into my life, I am still realising the extent to which I need to ignore this nonsense. No wonder Jesus wanted to hang out with the kids.......

Monday, September 17, 2018

Raising Cain?

Did you hear the one about Mary and Joseph's parenting methods?

Me neither. Funny that.

I mean, if you'd raised someone considered by millions to be the Son of God, wouldn't you expect there to follow efforts to produce a 'how to' guide in your honour? But no. Not much at all, as far as I can decipher.

Alice Miller is also surprised. An influential psychoanalyst and philospher, she describes a society obsessed with original sin and the Eden story, criticising its impact on young lives. She wonders why Christians ponder so long on the character of an inscrutable heavenly father, who places a forbidden tree and a deceitful serpent in his paradise garden, but fail to examine the character of Joseph and the specifics of Jesus' human upbringing.

We can't glean much. But there are hints about Jesus' childhood. Mary considered her son a gift from God and prioritised him from the moment of conception. The child's wellbeing was paramount, with both parents making big life changes in order to accommodate and protect him. As he got older, he had the confidence to disobey and argue his case, without any apparent fear of punishment. As he reached adulthood, his mother accepted his authority, advising friends to go to him with the problems they first brought her way. He turned out pretty well. And the bond between mother and son remained deep and strong: even in the midst of torture, Jesus felt compelled to take care of his mother.

In my experience, the advice circulating on being a good 'Christian' parent doesn't touch on the kinds of things we observe in Jesus' parents.

I wonder, with a few suspicions, why on earth not? But perhaps that is for another post......