Apr 6 2020

What use are writers in a global pandemic?


If you were filling a spaceship with people who could found a human colony far from Earth, you would definitely pick my siblings. My family is jam-packed with health and education professionals.

And then there is me, the writer.

When I think of my sisters and brother on the frontline of the coronavirus, saving lives, I feel like I am seven years old all over again, trying to be helpful, but really just getting in the way. Because what use is a writer in a global pandemic?

The answer: perhaps not as immediately and conspicuously useful as a N-95 mask, but nevertheless crucial both during and beyond the crisis. Humans don’t tell stories just to make ourselves feel better. We don’t manufacture meaning purely to numb ourselves to existential terror. Stories are a core survival strategy of our species.

Martin Seligman, founder of the scholarly field of positive psychology, argues in his memoir that humans should really be called Homo prospectus, because we ‘metabolise the past and present to create the future.’[1] Seligman does not mean this in a fanciful way: he means it in a neurologically correlated, scientifically proven way. Humans narrate and re-narrate their past, and perceive present circumstances, through the lens of envisioned futures. Seligman dubs this brain process ‘the hope circuit’, which activates parts of the brain engaged with imagination, storytelling, empathy, and future orientation.

When we are unable to formulate stories which make sense of our past and present in light of our hoped-for future, we begin to lose hope: not only figuratively, but physically, at the level of our neurology. In order for the story-telling part of our brain to activate, we need what evolutionary biologist Gordon Burghardt calls a ‘relaxed field’ – a period in which playful imagination is possible because survival is, at least temporarily, guaranteed. In this state of relative peace, the brain can ‘rest’.[2]

MRI studies have shown that when the brain is in rest mode, the parts of the brain associated with storytelling and imagination are active.[3] In other words, we are daydreaming. When we look like we are doing nothing at all, our minds are busy with our most critical, defining survival adaptation: the ability to imagine the future.

But if we are constantly ‘on,’ we don’t get this much-needed time for our minds to work out what is going on. When we are in survival mode, adrenaline is our perennial companion. We are hyper-alert, on edge, like WW2 pilots high on amphetamines. Our brains are too activated to allow for the necessary narrativising which we need.

This, I believe, is the crux of my current hyper-levels of anxiety. I don’t have a story to tell myself about how this is going to end. I have no previous stories to guide me. About two weeks ago, as I entered self-isolation, I wrote,

I feel as though I am the cursor blinking on the blank page. I have no stories to tell me how this is going to end. The landscape is unfolding around me and like an early colonialist I don’t know how to draw the trees except with reference to the ones I remember from home. (Home itself, gone forever.)

Instead of ‘self-isolation,’ the Irish are calling the present requirement for quarantining oneself ‘cocooning.’[4] With one word, the Irish are telling a different story. Instead of wandering the empty and chaotic universe as exiles cast out from meaning as we are doing in my country, Irish people are right now wrapping themselves in cosy blankets of good faith and warming their hands at the hearthstone of shared experience.

All of this to say: stories change lives. Just thinking the word ‘cocoon’ makes my heart rate return to normal. Imagine how we would feel if we storied this period of our human experience through the lens of terror and wonder; dread and awe; despair and hope.

It’s paralysing to think that the human species might actually face extinction in our life time. But even if this is true, I can control my own orientation towards the past, present and future. I can decide to live in the long arc of history, beyond even the span of human existence, in what Jesuit priest Richard Rohr calls ‘deep time,’ what the Gay’wu group of women from North East Arnhem Land might call ‘the Dreaming,’ and Kabbalists might describe as the unfolding universe.[5] We can decide to live as though life is precious and meaningful – our own lives, as well as the phenomenon of life itself.

Rainer Maria Rilke, writing from a place of pervasive despair between the two world wars, ultimately determined that the poet’s role is to ‘praise’: both the unknowable and the knowable, both heaven and hell, both terror and rapture, and everything in between.

Oh, say, poet, what you do?

– I praise.


But what about the deadly and monstrous?

How do you keep going, how do you take it all in?

– I praise.


But the nameless and unnamed,

how do you keep calling out to them, poet?

– I praise.


Where does it come from, your claim to be real

in every guise and each mask?

– I praise.


And that the stillness and turbulence

know you like star and storm?

– Because I praise.[6]


I don’t know if life is actually meaningful. I am just a writer, seeking to live a life of meaning in the midst of a pandemic, trying not to let despair engulf me from one day to the next. Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg wrote that

It is hard to realise that this [earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realise that the present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.[7]

I took this same attitude for much of my adult life, not wanting to be seen as a fool for believing that life could be meaningful. But what Weinberg does not realise is that hope is a reasonable choice. Even the kingpin of atheists, Richard Dawkins,[8] acknowledges the logic that, if we live on a planet which is ‘friendly’ to life, then we also live in a cosmos which is ‘friendly’ to life. If it is reasonable to accept the possibility that the universe is chaotic and empty of meaning, it is also reasonable to acknowledge that the universe may have an orientation, a tendency, towards life.

We cannot know if this is true. Neurologically speaking, hope is very clearly a choice.

Seligman’s international reputation was initially launched by his research into learned helplessness. Many years later, Seligman modelled the best type of academic behaviour when he applauded scientist Steven Maier for disproving Seligman’s theory. Maier found that animals did not ‘learn’ helplessness. Instead, Maier and his team found that helplessness was actually the default reaction to unavoidable suffering. Animals whose actions averted the electric shock actually learned that they could change the future. The ‘hope circuit’ in the brain was activated when this occurred.[9]

Neurologically speaking, if we decide to live as though what we do matters: what we do matters. Once we choose hope, we activate the parts of our brain which make sense of our lives and motivate behaviours which will continue to create meaning.

Does this mean that life would be meaningless if we did not choose to make it meaningful, therefore demonstrating that life is actually meaningless (my brain is a fun place to hang out)? Gautama Buddha rather skillfully avoided a similar question when a student asked him about what happens to souls after death. Buddha is reported to have answered,

… it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair…I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, or to tranquillity and nirvana. And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.[10]

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, addressed himself more directly to the question, arguing that the ‘will to meaning’ is an intrinsic trait of being human. He described modern humans’ existential vacuum in the aftermath of WW1 and WW2. Based on his observations in Auschwitz of how people’s survival sometimes seemed to turn on their ability to cling to meaning, Frankl explained that humans find meaning through acts of creation, a mindful and lively engagement with immediate experience, and one’s attitude towards life.[11]

Even at the brink of death, a person can find meaning in their lives. Six days before his death, the poet William Butler Yeats wrote,

I know for certain that my time will not be long…I am happy and I think full of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put it all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life.[12]

Literature provides rich examples of how humans make meaning right up until death. Leo Tolstoy’s classic character, Ivan Ilyich, the protagonist of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, lies on his deathbed in what can only be described as total and abject disgust with the meaninglessness of his life. But then, just before he dies, he realises that ‘…this could still be rectified,’ by being of service to his family, in the only way remaining available to him still: by relieving them of their pain.

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away […] he must act so as not to hurt them [his family], release them and free himself from these sufferings.

“How good and how simple!” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it.

“Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”


What is the meaning of life, when potentially all of human life can be snuffed out by a pandemic – perhaps not this one, but the next, or the one after that? Buddha, Tolstoy, Frankl, Rilke, and even Seligman would tell us that we are asking the wrong question. As he draws to the end of his memoir, Seligman writes,

The human mental apparatus has evolved to solve survival and reproduction problems. It has not evolved to know the truth or to perceive ultimate reality. Human beings can know about only the tiniest edge of what is true.[13]

Whenever I lose myself in ruminations about the ‘point’ of life in the face of a pandemic, or a bushfire, or a flood, or a death in the family, I eventually find myself here, at this point: when I begin to ask myself what the point of it all is, it doesn’t mean that there is no meaning. It is actually a neurological cue that I need to get up and move my body to break down some of the cortisol and run off some of the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. I need to absorb myself in the forest and trigger the release of prolactin and oxytocin with dance, or music, or baking, or any form of creativity. I need to go out and be of intentional service: I need to help someone, even if my assistance is simply a text message, a wave, or a story. In service, I discover that meaning is actually something which unfolds, evanesces, transforms, and subsides, over and over again, rather than a set of facts to be discovered.

My siblings are doctors, nurses, teachers, hospital administrators.

I am a storyteller.

So I will tell you a story.

There was a plague. People didn’t think it could happen, because it didn’t fit with their story of being too busy to get sick. Thanks to globalisation, millions of people had the opportunity to watch a video of a man named Bill Gates explaining, in some detail, how a pandemic would happen. Thanks to globalisation, five years after Bill’s video, the COVID-19 virus spread around the world.

People responded according to the stories they told themselves. Some people got scared and bought a lot of toilet paper, whilst others entered into denial, insisting on visiting restaurants and shaking hands as if the virus was some sort of political ploy rather than a molecular reality. Lots of those people got very, very sick. Then they passed it on to others, who got sick and passed it on to others. That’s how a pandemic works. It’s all in the video.

The moral of the story? Here are mine:

 – Bad things happen to good people.

 – We know death is coming for us all. We just forget.

 – Community at a time like this is a verb, rather than a gathering.

 – Meaning is what happens when we help each other.


There are many stories unfolding in my brain. The one I choose to tell is this.











[1] M. Seligman (2018) The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Sydney: Penguin Random House, 351.

[2] G. Burghardt (2005) The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 81.

[3] C. Whitehead (2008) “The neural correlates of work and play: what brain imaging research and animal cartoons can tell us about social displays, self-consciousness and the evolution of the human brain,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 15(10-11): 93-121.

[4] S. Bowers (2020) ‘Cocooning Q&A: How does it work? Who must do it?’ The Irish Times 29/03/2020.

[5] R. Rohr (2011) Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, London: SPCK; Gay’wu Group of Women (2019) Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin; D. Cooper (1997) God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, New York: Riverhead Books.

[6] Untitled poem written as a dedication to Leonie Zacharias, in Rilke (1976 [1921]), Saemtliche Werke Vol. 3, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 246.

[7] S. Weinberg (1993 [1977]) The First Three Minutes, New York: Basic Books, 154.

[8] R. Dawkins (2006) The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 162, 169-170.

[9] M. Seligman (2018) The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Sydney: Penguin Random House, 370-376.

[10] From Majjhima Nikaya, Sutra 63, as cited in P. Novak (2003) Buddhism, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 27.

[11] V. Frankl (1992 [1959]) Man’s Search for Meaning: an introduction to logotherapy, trans. by I. Lasch, Boston: Beacon Press.

[12] R. Ellmann (1948) Yeats: The Man and the Masks, New York: Macmillan, 285.

[13] M. Seligman (2018) The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism, Sydney: Penguin Random House, 386.

Dec 9 2019

Hope: Living As Though Life Matters


If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us. We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.

– John O’Donohue[1]


Something is missing

I am married to a good man. I have a beautiful eight-year old daughter. I have loyal and caring friends. In Bertrand Russell’s estimation I have won the conquest of happiness. I have something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.

And yet.


Something is missing. A small but insistent ache pulses with the metronomic quality of a black hole, invisible and impossibly distant, yet vibrating deep inside the very core of my being.

This yearning. This eternal lack.

The story of the Jewish people is one of exile and return. For Muslims, a story of forgetting and remembrance. The Christian prodigal child comes home to the embrace of a loving father. Buddhists turn their faces towards the light of awareness.

Always, this sense of homecoming. Always, this sense of returning to God.

Each of these stories holds forth the possibility of escape from the unremitting cycle of longing. Jesus died but rose back to life. Siddhartha Gautama broke the chains of samsara. Mohammed returned to the bosom of a loving Allah. Jews await the promised Messiah. Taoists live in a benevolent universe which flows through them. Each of these grand narratives presents a chance to be free of the yoke of need. Each of these stories is a story of hope. They give meaning to the search, they are oases in the desert through which we wander, firesides by which we can warm our hands before we return to the bitterness of the long, dark night.

But the loneliness always returns until we can no longer stand it. That is when we come together in community and sit in circle, or in church, or in temple, or in mosque, and we express our bewilderment. We grasp at what hope we can coax out of these stories. We pray that our yearning will one day be satisfied. We plead for succour, for respite from unrelenting not-knowing. We can never know if there is meaning. The never-knowing is itself the yearning. We wish to let go of our doubts and simply know what we are here for, and what we are in for. But we know that we can never know.

This never-knowing can send a person mad with longing.

Yet there is one thing we know. We try to argue this knowledge away through mis-applied reason and mis-understood science. We doubt this knowledge because we doubt our capacity to know anything. Yet the knowledge remains, deep in our imaginative core. We know in our bones and our souls that we are here to create.

We cry rivers into being with our unassuageable grief, we shatter islands into existence with our unbounded joy.

The Yolnu women of north-east Australia sing milkarri to bring the world constantly into being.[2] Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists, raise the sparks of consciousness in a constant act of co-creating the universe.[3] Buddhists set an intention for every meditation session, praying for the enlightenment of all beings. Christians offer up their suffering for the glory of God. We weave these spells around ourselves, wreathing ourselves in power. We accept our role in the constant unfolding of the universe and our impact on the type of universe in which we live. We take responsibility as co-creator beings, and we delight in the divine dance.


Losing hope

When we lose our faith, we also, more fundamentally, lose our hope. We become angry at ourselves for being fools to have believed that life might have meaning. We slam shut our open hearts. If someone suggests that there might be more to life than what is visible and tangible, we jeer at them or we steer clear of them because they remind us of our own stupidity, which is what we now call our longing.

As a result, we lose our spiritual literacy. We can no longer distinguish between dogma and kindness. We treat all expressions of spirituality as undifferentiated, new age, namby-pamby, unscientific codswallop.

We do this out of fear and love: we do not want to be hurt again. But in doing so, we weaken our capacity to experience the sacred in everyday life. We forget. We misinterpret our longing as desire for things, people, status. We believe we can allay our yearning through the accumulation of material wealth. We are wrong.

This is a yearning that can never be filled. This yearning is part of us. It is the fertile ground of human creativity. The only thing that can satiate, at least temporarily, this yearning, is creation. After an act of creation we can rest, replete with life force. Eventually we feel the itch and we must create again.

This is the human cycle.

When we mistake our need to create for a desire to consume, we begin to devour the world.

Bereft of hope, we live as if there is no tomorrow. We do not care about the unborn, and we believe our ancestors to be no more than ash and bone. We cut down trees as if their sorrow is not ours. We burn the remains of creatures who lived hundreds of millions of years ago, not in a ritual act of reverence but to power electricity stations. We are reckless with nature because we believe there is no life but this life, and to behave ethically is to be a fool.

In this atmosphere of hedonic despair, to care for the planet is an act of defiance. To care for our souls is a declaration of hope.


The first time I lost hope I was seven years old. My sister Allison began complaining of headaches and a sore left arm. Allison was admitted to the local Catholic hospital which was run by the Sisters of Mercy. She was given a year to live. We prayed with the nuns, and my sister survived.

I was jubilant. I thought everything would go back to the way things were.

But Allison would never be the same. She could no longer use her left arm or leg; her short term memory had evaporated; she could not complete her schooling because she was unable to concentrate for long periods. She began talking to herself. She sometimes wet herself, her bladder control compromised by the shunts draining fluid from her brain.

Throughout our adolescence Allison clung to the belief that God had a plan for her. I tried to match her faith, but sometimes, as I lay in bed in our shared room and listened to her cry herself to sleep, I wondered. If God were capable of healing, why only partially heal my sister? If God were capable of meaning, why let my sister survive, only to deteriorate excruciatingly slowly but inexorably into early onset dementia, epilepsy, psychosis, dysphagia? If God were capable of love, why do this to us?

In my twenties I travelled to Nepal and India. Losing hope had made me existentially lonely. I read Sartre, which did not help. I explored Tibetan Buddhism, which did. I began to view longing as the root of my suffering. I practised meditation to loosen longing’s embrace of my soul.

For the next twenty years I protected myself from hope using a combination of Buddhism, science, Stoic philosophy and reason. I began to think that human life was no more than a statistically improbable anomaly in a cold, unfeeling universe. I read Montaigne. I dog-eared Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The most I now hoped for was to escape my own illusions.


Finding hope

And then Allison died.

Which you might think would push me further into atheism, cynicism, nihilism (all the isms). But something in me eased with my sister’s death. Her funeral was attended by hundreds of people whom I had not seen since childhood. Her funeral was an act of communal poetry. My sister had loved and been loved.

I wanted that for others. I began offering funeral services for people from low-income backgrounds. I applied and was accepted into a Masters of Theology at The New Seminary in New York, USA. The Masters was also an ordination program: I would be an interfaith minister. “Interfaith” essentially means “spiritual but not religious”. There is no interfaith church or religion. The Seminary enrols about ten to fifteen people per year from all over the world, who gather around a shared question, a concentrated longing: how to be of spiritual service in a secular world.

I still did not feel that life was fundamentally hopeful. I simply wanted to it to be less painful for people like me, who ached for meaning but could not find it in religion.

Perhaps insight was a result of extended periods of contemplation, reading and reflection required by the Masters. Perhaps it was simply the passage of time after Allison’s funeral, allowing me to heal from years of unresolved grief.

In 2017 I was curled up in an armchair with my notebook and the Tao Te Ching, the sacred text of Taoism written by the legendary Chinese mystic Lao Tzu. I was preparing a class assignment which involved reflecting on passages from the text. I read:

There is the globe,

The foundation of my bodily existence.

It wears me out with work and duties,

It gives me rest in old age,

It gives me peace in death.

For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life

Will also give me what I need in death.

For twenty years I had judged it unreasonable to believe that the universe had any moral orientation. But now, in this moment, reading this passage, it struck me that my logic was incomplete. If we have everything we need to live despite the statistical improbability of life, I now supposed, then perhaps it is a reasonable assumption that the universe is benevolent.

Benevolent comes from the Latin: bene (well) and velle (to wish). I did not suddenly believe that the universe is intrinsically “good”. But I began to allow for the possibility that the universe may be predisposed to wish me, and all of us, well. I admitted the possibility that kindness may underpin life rather than a cosmic act of trickery. African American mystic Howard Thurman wrote of the possibility that benevolence underpins the universe:

There is something present in the spirit of man that knows that the dualism, however apparently binding, runs out, exhausts itself, and leaves a core of assurance that the ultimate destiny of man is good. This becomes the raw material of all hope.[4]

Rabbi Abraham Heschel described the choice of hope this way:

We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society. We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout. For the darkness is neither final nor complete. Our power is first in waiting for the end of the darkness, for the defeat of evil; and our power is also in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance. We are called to…defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: Let there be light. And there will be light.[5]

I put it like this:

Take comfort. Know that you are beloved.


Surrendering to hope

Relief is the fundamental sensation which accompanies the first acceptance of hope. To surrender; to lay down your burdens and rest, giving up control, the need for certainty. The masks we wear in everyday life are props for convincing ourselves and others that we know what we are doing. When we rest in hope, we give up our masks; we exhale the strain of holding it all together; we allow ourselves to spread out. We let our bellies take up all the space they need. Something remarkable happens when we soften our bellies. It becomes easier to stand up straight and thus look each other in the eye. Corners of mouths turn naturally upwards when bellies are soft.

Softening the belly is a revolutionary act in our era of masking our true bodies and, ergo, our true selves. When you let your belly expand to its natural proportions, you take up your space in the world. You step into your fullness, literally and spiritually. You feel yourself breathe and being breathed. It is a magical, liberating moment when you feel your rightness as you are.


Embracing mystery

If we allow ourselves to hope that life can be meaningful without God, then we step into the possibility of mystery. Faith is not a stance; it is an attitude of hopefulness in the face of unmediated reality. Faith is a way of approaching life with wonder, respect and openness to mystery. If I approach life with an attitude of faith, I trust that there is meaning to my existence; that there is purpose and value to my existence.

I have always been a black and white thinker: I studied law at university for three years and was so alarmingly good at it, with its rules and formulae, that I quit. I did not want to spend my life seeing people as pieces in a legalistic puzzle, rather than as humans to be encountered and seen. I admit that I have a fondness for spreadsheets and statistics, but nowadays I seek to open my mind to mystery: the possibility of different ways of ‘knowing’; and even that there may be ways of being which have nothing to do with knowing.

Psychologists Jospeh Luft and Harrington Ingham[6] developed the four quadrants of knowability: the known known, the unknown known, the known unknown and the unknown unknown. Mystery resides in the unknown unknown – our Newtonian logic tells us that if we can know some things, then there must also be some things we cannot know. Perhaps the universe is an ever-multiplying question, rather than an answer waiting to be found. Perhaps trying to understand how the world works is not the best use of our energies. Simply living, being and doing might be more useful. There might be questions we are asking with our bodies and our souls and which we are getting answers to all of the time, but it is not always about the answer. Sometimes it is about being awake. When students asked him about what happens to souls after death, Gautama Buddha is reported to have answered,

… it is not on the view that the world is eternal, that it is finite, that body and soul are distinct, or that the Buddha exists after death, that a religious life depends. Whether these views or their opposites are held, there is still rebirth, there is old age, there is death, and grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow, and despair…I have not spoken to these views because they do not conduce to absence of passion, or to tranquility and nirvana. And what have I explained? Suffering have I explained, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering have I explained. For this is useful.

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote that “one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time.”[7] Humans stay sane by flowing in and out of mystery. We operate dually in what psychologist Abraham Maslow described as “D-cognition” and “B-cognition”.[8] D-cognition is a deficit cognition: a mode of being in the world which is about survival and scarcity, in which we don our social masks and get to work with the serious business of life. B-cognition is being cognition: a state of being which is outside of clock time, in which all is connected and the awareness of this is central, without being possessive or insistent. This mode of being is what Jesuit priest and philosopher Richard Rohr would call deep time,[9] and which First Nations Australians might recognise as The Dreaming,[10] or which Kabbalists might describe as humans raising the sparks of consciousness as we co-create the unfolding universe. It is the playful, generative space in which people give-and-receive without debt or loss; in which gratitude is expressed not through repayment but through celebration and co-creation.


To be beloved is to have a home

I have moved 17 times in the last 20 years. Each time I felt unmoored, as if I might capsize in an overwhelming tide of un-belonging. A similarly nomadic friend showed me a tiny pencil drawing she had made of a house. She kept the scrap of paper inside her wallet so that she always carried her home with her wherever she went. At a farewell for a housemate planning to move overseas for a big promotion, my housemate confessed in a quiet moment that he would like, more than anything else, for all of his friends to simply move back home.

A feeling of homelessness is the remembrance that we are ultimately separate from each other and the earth we walk on. Our longing for deep and abiding connection can only ever be fleetingly and partially satisfied. We can never be fully absorbed into our surrounds until we die and our bodies rot into the hubris.

We can follow this knowledge into despair or awareness. We can understand that the earth is scorched, that the heavens have been breached, that the heart is always broken. But we can also acknowledge mystery and the possibility that the universe is benevolent. We do not pretend that life is anything other than what it is: uncertain, unfair, unsafe. At the same time we see what life may be: possible, real, meaningful.

If we live as though we are beloved, then we live arms wide open, ready to embrace the world. Being beloved cannot be an individual experience because love, by its nature, must be infinite. Even if we are jealous with our love, love itself is not constrained by anything we can put in its way. Being beloved involves an openness to others. Love is the logical consequence of hope.


To love is to be kind

Love is kindness. Without kindness, love is just an expression of ego, a bird fluttering inside the cage of your breast. To love is to be kind. If you are not kind to someone you profess to love, then you do not love them. You are using them as a prop in your own desperation to be seen.

Love is something we do, not something we feel. What we feel is affection, fondness, attachment. When we get up in the night to tend to a crying baby, we feel grumpy, tired, irritated; we do not feel loving; yet this is when love is alive and crackling with the energy of enactment.

Love is first and foremost a verb. I become frustrated when I hear the word love used to describe how someone feels about another. Love is not the sensation of attachment; attachment is the sensation of attachment. Love is a commitment to behave well towards someone, no matter what. About two months after I gave birth to my daughter Ellie, I wrote this:

I do not love my baby. I feel a deep, physical anxiety if she is not in physical contact with me, reflected in my blood pressure which only returns to normal when she is pressed to my skin.

Love hasn’t gushed through me like a flood of positive emotion. Maybe, because I had an emergency C-section, I didn’t get the love hormones, so I feel the actual full horror of giving birth to a human being and having the responsibility for her life on a minute-to-minute basis. Maybe I have to recover from the shock of having a baby before I can feel anything other than desperate.

Maybe this is just how it works for some women. Maybe love is a journey. Maybe love is the fact that when she cries, I will answer.


Love is not a sensation but a promise and then delivering on that promise every day. If a man hits his wife and later apologises, saying that he loves her, he is lying. Love is enacted kindness.

Love is a decision to care. When you love, you take on the responsibility of caring about what happens to other people. We expend so much energy avoiding that responsibility. I avert my eyes from beggars at the train station; I do not watch the nightly news. I flee from the sensation of existential helplessness, because I do not know the answer to the question, What can I do about all the world’s misery?

We do not always do our best for other people, but when we love, we commit to trying. We acknowledge our limitations. We enter a space of productive discomfort, in which we open ourselves to the accusation of the Other: the refugees, the global south, people impoverished by the systems which allow us to lead lives of relative wealth and safety.

In this space of openness we listen. We do not seek to defend ourselves. We do not make our case. We simply attend. And then we act.


To love is to attend

According to anthropologists, it is not our opposable thumbs or our ability to walk upright which are the critical differentiators of our species from other primates.[11] Humans are the only creatures on earth who can keep in time with each other. If I started clapping, you could pick up the beat and clap in time with me. This simple ability singles out homo sapiens from all other species.

The ability to keep in time is a revolution of shared intention and attention. Humans can work together with a single focus. That focus might be a dance, a song, a drumming. That’s where it begins. When you are at a live music concert, the rhythm section cascades through your bloodstream, shaking you loose of your self and into the primal stream of call and response. You feel a surge of something necessary. You begin to move. Involuntary, automatic toe tapping is something only humans do.

Paying attention involves drawing one’s breath and stopping still. We connect with what Jungian James Hillman called the ensouled world[12]. Attention does not pass from me to the thing I am paying attention to; attention opens a space in which, as mystic phenomenologist Martin Buber wrote, “I and It” become “I and Thou”.[13] Mystic Simone Weil wrote that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love”[14].


To love is to act

The ability to keep in time has allowed humans to build the gardens of Babylon, to wage nuclear war, to rid the world of smallpox. We are capable of so much horror, and so much delight. I am often overwhelmed by the magnitude of human suffering. What can I do about the mass extinction of species caused by our destruction of nature? What can I do?

Choosing hope is opening ourselves up to responsibility. Upanishads scholar Eknath Easwaran observes, “When we encounter this daring vision of reality, we want to know what to do.”[15]

We have choices. We are not helpless. We make donations, ethical investments, change our buying habits. We protest. We do not give in. We live as if there is hope.

At the same time, we do not live lives of impoverished earnestness. We do not allow our horror at what we have been complicit in push us into a state of self-righteous judgment or dogmatic austerity. To accept responsibility is not to deny ourselves the opportunity for joy. We can be ethical without being stingy with delight. But it is not delight born from consumption; it is the joy of transgression and reclamation. We engage in what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “acts of resistance” to the consumerist, materialist, soul-destroying substitutes for longing. We paste poetry on bus shelters; we plant community gardens in abandoned lots. We read books for joy rather than edification; we dance to the muzak of the shopping mall. We engage in unproductive delight. We acknowledge our helplessness and we continue with our acts of revolt regardless.

We do not avoid the creative tension between what who we are and who we want to be, the lives we live and the lives we want to live, the love we feel and the love we enact. According to Celtic poet John O’Donohue, a profoundly human creativity emerges in the clash between longing and belonging. We step into the arena; we allow ourselves to be smashed to pieces between our homelessness and our yearning for home. Sparks fly. A new energy emerges. The joyous excess and the grieving depths – we are carved out, wrung dry, taken home and spat back out like Odysseus, compelled to wander even when the Trojan war is over.

The eternal return is the state of being human. It is vital and miraculous and necessary to the essential nature of creation and creativity. The authors of the sacred Vedantic text, the Chandogya Upanishad, put it like this:

Speech and breath, Sama and Rig, are couples, and in the imperishable O M they come together to fulfil each other’s desire. For those who, knowing this, meditate on the imperishable O M, all desires are fulfilled. With the word O M we say, “I agree,” and fulfil desires.

Our creativity informs the fabric of the universe we live in. This is the root of our ethical responsibility to create kindly. Which is what it means to love.

To love is to live ethically and hopefully. Love is enacted kindness.

When we love, attention is not a scarce resource to be vied for, but a shared, respectful attitude towards reality and each other. We come into being only ever in relation to each other. French philosopher Jean Luc-Marion describes love as a “constant enactment” which is never complete, through which we are “made and remade”.

Love is characterised by generosity.

[T]he lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other: neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world. For the one and the other, love would be revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world.[16]

There are lesser forms of attachment: romantic “love”, which is an infantile sense of devotion and demand, in which you exist for the other, or assume that they exist for you. There is narcissistic “love,” in which you care for a child for show, or as an extension of yourself, but there is not much fuel in that. You’ll wear yourself out in no time. That kind of love is exhausting.

We enact love, we take loving action, we love.


The problem with religion is grammar

The fundamental problem with almost all religions is that they treat spirituality as a noun. That’s right, you heard it hear first: the problem with religion is grammar. Love, faith and hope are treated as states which we can either spontaneously enter into via affect, or we can “achieve”. But love and hope are actually doing words. You don’t “feel” love. What you feel is attachment, fondness, affection. You enact love: you go to the shops alone for the first time since you gave birth, and you don’t listen to the voice which whispers, Just keep walking. You return: you always choose to return. Hope is when you live as if you can make a difference; as if change is possible. Hope and love are practices. According to the Kabbalists, a group of Jewish mystics, even the word “God” is a verb, an eternal unfolding: “god-ing” is the constant creation process which humans participate in. Kabbalists believe that we co-create the universe.

Jesuit priest Richard Rohr writes that “true religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participatingin something very good.”[17] Faith is not a stance; it is an attitude of hopefulness in the face of unmediated reality. Faith is a decision to approach life with wonder and openness to mystery. Faith, like hope, is living as though life might be meaningful. Faith is a practice: it is no good to believe that mystery is possible, and that life might be meaningful, if we do not live as though it is.

My brothers [and sisters], what good is it for someone to say that she has faith if her actions do not prove it?…as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without actions is dead.’[18]


Hope: Living As Though Life Matters

A Guide to Living a Spiritual and Meaningful Life Without Religion or God

I am writing a book for anyone who, like me, feels like something is missing. It will be a practical guide on how to live with this sensation; on how to choose and enact a life of hope without God.

In the book, I will set out how we can develop a spiritual way of being in the world which is co-created rather than imposed; which is a generative, liberating and creative experience rather than one of stagnation and constraint. I will explore practices which can help us live hopefully, co-creating meaningfulness and joyousness in an intimate relation with ourselves and our world. These include practices of personal prayer, reflection and meditation, as well as communal acts of poetry which support us in our never-ending quest to come home to our own longing.

My hope is that this book will encourage you to experiment with reclaiming spirituality, and help you to find a way, in your own life and community, to live a life of hope without God.



And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.


– Raymond Carver[19]









[1] J. O’Donohue (1997) Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, New York:  HarperCollins, xvi.

[2] Gay’wu Group of Women (2019) Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

[3] D. Cooper (1997) God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, New York: Riverhead Books.

[4] H. Thurman (1975) Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Richmond, In.: Friends United Press, 60.

[5] J. Merkle (1985) The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, New York: Macmillan, 217.

[6] I. Emiliano (2015). Heuristic Reasoning: Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 1-2.

[7] R. Bellah (2011) Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Cambridge, Mass.” Belknap Press, 3.

[8] Bellah (2011), Religion in Human Evolution, 5.

[9] R. Rohr (2012) Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, SPCK: London.

[10] Gay’wu Group of Women (2019) Songspirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

[11] S. Brown & L. Parsons (2008) “The neuroscience of dance,” Scientific American 299(1).

[12] J. Hillman (1983) Interviews, New York: Harper and Row, 55.

[13] M. Buber (2010) I and Thou, trans. by R. Smith, Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing.

[14] S. Weil (1987) Gravity and Grace, London: ARK Paperbacks, 105.

[15] E. Easwaran (2007) The Upanishads, trans. by E. Easwaran, New York: The Blue Mountain Centre for Meditation, 97.

[16] S. de Beauvoir (1984): 679.

[17] R. Rohr (2012) Falling Upwards, x.

[18] The Gospel According to James 2:14-26 as cited in H. Taussig (ed) (2013) A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing.

[19] R. Carver (1989) “Late Fragment,” A New Path to the Waterfall, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Mar 10 2018

My first funeral

73506494-3942-49B9-BDF6-50123597285EI conducted my first funeral this week. Conducted? Officiated? Celebrated? None of those verbs quite fit what it felt like, which was more in the realm of Journeyed, or Travelled With.

It was almost the end of the working day when the phone rang. I contemplated not answering, thinking longingly of the couch, when I saw who was calling and picked up as quickly as an iPhone interface will allow.

‘Can you do a funeral in three days?’ It was the funeral director who had become my informal mentor over the last few months.

‘Yes,’ I answered without checking my groaning calendar. Because this was the call I had been waiting for. The call to see if the other call from that more insistent, somewhere-in-my-head/chest voice, was legit.

After I hung up, I went to see Yen, who was doing homework with Ellie. ‘I’ve got my first funeral in three days,’ I said, leaning casually against the doorframe.

‘Congratulations!’ He exclaimed because he knew that I was not nonchalant, not at all; that I had been waiting for and fearing and wanting this moment ever since I started on the interfaith path, this time last year, or probably well before that (on the inside where it counts).  I let the smile spread across my face.

Later, he told me, ‘I haven’t seen you this excited in ages. You’re a bit weird, you know that? But I love you.’ Which pretty much sums up our marriage, in both directions :0)

I called the bereaved family straight away. I didn’t want to lose my nerve. We made a plan for me to come over to talk through what they had in mind.

The next day I baked ANZAC biscuits and put them in an old ice-cream container marked ‘lamb stew’ from the last time Yen and I tried to be organised with the week’s dinners. I donned: a work dress which was patterned with splashes of black, grey and white; sandals; a simple necklace; and just the wedding ring (thinking, I want to present as normal and relatable but not overly showy. Not that an engagement ring is showy. But still. Better to put people at their ease. That’s why the Japanese bow. Totally works.) Forty minutes later and I was at the address I had been given, being greeted by the family.

The day after that, I wrote up my notes. The family wanted to do the eulogy, so there was little for me to say, but I wanted to get what I was going to say right. It was going to be a small funeral, which would be a good entree into the art of funeral celebrancy for me; but at the same time intimidating because of the intimacy. Are those two words etymologically related? It would make sense.

Sleep, not so much. Then, the day.

I dropped Ellie at school, and drove down to the funeral home. As I also volunteer there, I had agreed to help prepare the deceased beforehand. My first glimpse of the deceased was a shock; until that moment I had only ever seen the bodies of people I had known alive. But when the funeral director turned to do something else, I placed my sanitary, gloved hand on the deceased’s hand and whispered, ‘Everything’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.’ Because once I saw the deceased’s face, I no longer saw the ‘deceased.’ I just saw a person who was alone. Even if I don’t know what it is like to be dead, I know what it is like to be alone.

The room looked lovely and I quickly cleansed it with the Tibetan singing bowl which the funeral director kept on the mantel for just this purpose. The family and friends arrived and we started the entrance music chosen by the family. After the song finished, I began.

A family member did the eulogy, and it was beautiful and heartfelt and the family member broke down in tears towards the end. I whispered to the family member, ‘That was beautiful.’ Then I stood next to the deceased and thanked the family member for the tribute, and it felt right to be silent and look at the light brown, oak box which the funeral director had polished to a sheen. Then it was time for music, reflection and final farewells. I asked a family member to blow out the candle which we had lit earlier and had placed on the coffin. We let the music fade and I gave directions for going to share a cuppa afterwards, at the family’s place. There was a slight tech hitch getting the final song back on, but every one was very understanding.

The song ended and before I could say another word, I was engulfed in an embrace by the chief mourner. ‘Thank you Jackie,’ the family member said. ‘My pleasure,’ I replied, because it is important to accept thanks when they are offered. I couldn’t help adding. ‘Thank you.’

I ushered everyone out so the chief mourner could have a moment alone. People were gathering coats, umbrellas, getting into cars. ‘I hope I never see you again,’ one of the family members laughingly but feelingly said to me as I let them out the front door. ‘That’s an entirely reasonable sentiment,’ I answered.

My grandfather’s stated profession on his marriage certificate was ‘journeyman printer.’ When I was a kid I used to try and picture what that meant – did he travel from town to town, offering to publish stories that needed to be in print for the world to be more complete? Now I am reminded of his profession because I think, journeywoman is a good name for what I do.

Fellow journeywoman. Guide into and through the darkness. We came out the other side, together, me and the mourners.

That night, as I lay in bed, the sense of being carried up and over a wave was the closest I could get to describing the journey I had been on that day. Except I hadn’t been on the journey, exactly; it was more that I had been facilitating the wave, watching it curl, making sure it broke at just the right time, not swamping anyone in the undertow, not breaking so soon as to leave a vague sense of disappointment and incompleteness in the swimmers.

Later that night a sense of incredible euphoria came walking across my bones. ‘It’s time to go,’ I told it, and then it was gone. I had felt something similar after my sister died. I don’t know if it is a physical manifestation of my own transition from dark to light, death to the days that are not death; mostly it felt like the vestiges of some other energy accepting that my body is not a boat to carry them forth on this particular ocean any more. I got the sense that they knew that anyhow. They just thought they might try it on.

Whether it is superstition or a personal letting go or the energy signature of a departing soul, I think I will introduce a sage stick to my own re-entry into daily life, after ceremonies.

And there it is. After ceremonies. Implying that I am ready for the next one, and the one after that, by the grace of grace. I am in this now. And there is nowhere else I would rather be.


Note: I have de-identified names, places and dates for privacy purposes.

Feb 20 2018

Still showing up – surely that counts

“Honour thy father and thy mother”

For my interfaith homework, I am reflecting on a chapter of the book, The Ten Challenges: Spiritual Lessons from the Ten Commandments, by Leonard Felder. So far I have got a lot out of reading this book. It has helped me to integrate the peace and contemplativeness of the Sabbath into my hectic life; it has helped me to challenge the childish version of God I had rebelled against and come up with a more mature version of the Divine that I can work with as an adult. I am up to chapter 5: how to honour a parent even if there is tension between you and the parent. Felder recommends the following steps:

  1. Decide whether or not to forgive
  2. Learn to create healthy and respectful boundaries
  3. Uncover the best ways to help your parents as they grow older or decline in health

Step 3 includes the following keys:

  • Overcome the fear of asking for help and make sure you get as much information and guidance as your parent’s situation requires
  • View yourself as a caregiving manager who is making sure to delegate most of the tasks to people you trust
  • Overcome guilt feelings and find a way to stay healthy yourself

In this way, Felder suggests that managing the care of a parent may even become an opportunity for closeness and heartfelt connection, instead of being stressed out by the demands of care.

I found this chapter a little bit superficial, to be honest. A bit like a chapter written by someone who has never been abused by their parents 😉

I have had serious issues with my parents, but on a spectrum there are people with far worse experiences than I. Although my issues are comparatively minor, I have spent many, many years working through these issues, doing the hard work, and I have arrived at a position where I have boundaries, I have worked out how to move on and not be a victim any more. For me, this means living in a different state to my mother, visiting only for short periods (2.5 days max), and only a few times per year. I only call my mother every few weeks now – when it was once a week, she would start to take me for granted, whereas now she is pleased to hear from me and even sometimes asks me about myself and my own interests.

I have forgiven my father after many years of being angry. Interestingly, the process which allowed me to forgive my father actually made me more angry with my mother, whom I had thought I had forgiven. But the process allowed me to see just how awful she had been to me. So now, have I forgiven my mother? Not really; or perhaps I have forgiven but not forgotten, as Felder suggests. I am not angry with her, but I know what she has done, so I keep my distance. I used to be able to be more emotionally close to her, before I remembered how horrible she had been to me and how little I could trust her with emotional closeness. And also, it’s not really my job to love her. I mean, I do love her, but it’s not my responsibility to be there for her emotionally, I don’t think. I don’t owe her love. That’s the trick with the ‘honour your mother and father.’ I do – I send money, and I call and visit – but I do not put my heart out there any more.

It’s sad, but when I am too emotionally available she tends to take advantage. So I have made boundaries. Perhaps they are too strict, as she is getting ever older and changing perhaps? Is she changing? It’s hard to know for sure.

When I visit her, I sit and we watch TV together, and that’s a lovely feeling of closeness and cosiness. She likes it too. Perhaps next time I visit, I will stay overnight with her one night. She would like that. She is lonely. Then I start to think I need to do it more and so on, but really, the sad thing is that I know my boundaries and I know I can’t overstep them or it starts to take a toll on me. I grieve the relationship we will never have. What relationship can we have when I am always on my guard? Well, I suppose that is the relationship we can have: me on my guard, but still there. Still showing up. That’s not so bad.

Mum and Jackie 030617

Mum and me, June 2017. Showing up AND eating noodles.

Reference: Felder, Leonard. (1997). The Ten Challenges: Spiritual Lessons from the Ten Commandments. Three Rivers Press: New York.

Dec 20 2017

My Crib Notes on Confucianism

843D029A-3D1A-42F2-9A04-3F082D8FD8D6The goal of the Confucian project is to become fully human. Kung Fu-tzu (Confucius) understood the self as a “node” rather than an entity, a “meeting place where lives converge.” (Smith, 1991).

This resonates with my theories of the gift circle. In my PhD dissertation (when I eventually write it….) I argue that the Western concept that all possessions can be alienated from oneself is based on a system of property rights, rather than the way people really interact.

There are parts of ourselves, embodied sometimes in objects, which are sacred, which are “kept-whilst-given,” which cannot be alienated. When they are given, they simply enchain us one to another ever more strongly.

So when I read that the goal of the Confucian project is to continuously understand the self as a “node” rather than an entity, a “meeting place where lives converge,” I saw that my feeling about the way people exist in relation to each other may have very old, Chinese roots. Perhaps my mother’s sub-conscious influence, through her emphasis on family, selflessness and generosity to others? Although, like China, my mother sometimes interpreted these values in sinister ways, emphasising respect for her as a parent without earning this respect. But the fundamental principles were there, and I think they continue to inform the way I see the world as a system of relationships in which people expand when they are filled with love and contract when they are filled with hate. A little Mohism (which is also quite a lot like Christology), a little Confucianism, and you get my gift theory of human relations ;-).

I have copied below some of the Confucian sayings from the Analects which resonated with me. They are largely all about learning, the importance of humility and keeping an open mind. These passages also reminded me of Duane Bidwell’s advice to spiritual counselors to take a position of “not knowing” when engaging in spiritual direction. This is an attitude of open-minded curiosity, a respect for the other and a fundamental acceptance of the unknowability of God and the ways in which others experience God, leading to a permanent sense of learning throughout life (Bidwell, 2004).

‘I will not grieve that men do not know me; I will grieve that I do not know men.’ (The Analects 1:16) This is a good example of Kung Fu-tzu’s humility and openness always to learning.

‘Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.’ (The Analects 2:15). This saying felt very apposite in the current political times.

‘When you see a man of worth, think how to rise to his level. When you see an unworthy man, then look within and examine yourself.’ (The Analects 4:17). Another reminder to be humble and always learning rather than judging.

‘If a man does not ask himself, “What am I to make of this? What am I to make of that?” – there is nothing whatever I can make of him.’ (Analects 15:15). I like the pithiness of this saying, and how it sums up in a humorous way the importance of always having an open mind.

‘The wise man does not appreciate a man because of what he says; nor does he depreciate what he says because of the man.’ (Analects 15:22). This saying reminds me not to “talk down” to people but to relate to people at the level of respect or “jen.”

‘When Tzu Kung asked what were the essentials of government, the Master replied, “Sufficient food, sufficient forces, and the confidence of the people.” “Suppose, rejoined Tzu Kung, “I were compelled to dispense with one, which of these should I forgo first?” “Forgo the forces,” was the reply. Suppose, said Tzu Kung, “I were compelled to eliminate another, which of the other two should I forgo first?” “The food,” was the reply, “for from of old death has been the lot of all men, but a people without faith cannot stand.’ (Analects 12:7).

‘The wise man is intelligently, not blindly, loyal.’ (Analects 15:36). There are several passages I came across in the Analects in which Kung Fu-tzu is quoted as reminding his disciples that you cannot blindly follow a master; that the virtue of loyalty is not a virtue if it is not also accompanied with constant thought and examination.

‘Love of kindness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by foolishness. Love of knowledge, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by loose speculation. Love of honesty, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by harmful candour. Love of straightforwardness, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by misdirected judgment. Love of daring, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by insubordination. And love for strength of character, without a love to learn, finds itself obscured by intractability.’ (Analects 17:8). This to me is a brilliant summation of the importance of always thinking, questioning and learning and avoiding dogmatic and definitive stances about anything at all. If you consider each of these imbalances which Kung Fu-tzu refers to, you can see probably 99% of the themes of fiction: the hero who has to learn to temper her willfulness with thoughtfulness; the hero who is honest out of ego instead of wisdom; the hero who is kind without thought to practicalities or reality.

‘He who does not know the force of words, cannot know men.’ (Analects 20:3). There is an earlier passage in the Analects in which Kung Fu-tzu wishes he did not have to speak, and instead he attempts to play music for someone who has come to seek his counsel. But most of the time, Kung Fu-tzu seems to accept and promote the importance of clear language and words. This saying is the last line of the Analects, and I thought it pretty much sums up the role of the teacher which Kung Fu-tzu first and foremost embodied.
Who was Confucius?

Kung Fu-tzu was born around 551 BC in Lu, which is now the Shantung province of China. He was from humble circumstances, brought up by his widowed mother (his father died when he was three years old).

After holding a few minor bureaucratic positions he set himself up as a tutor and attracted a loyal following of “disciples.” According to Huston Smith’s history of Confucianism, Kung Fu-tzu wanted to hold public office in order to reorder society, but rulers of the Chinese principalities were too wary of Kung Fu-tzu’s candour to appoint him. The ruler of his home state eventually felt compelled to give Kung Fu-tzu an honorary position, but once Kung Fu-tzu realised the hollowness of the appointment he resigned (Smith, 1991).

At the age of fifty, Kung Fu-tzu began to travel from state to state, offering unsolicited advice to rulers on how to govern better and seeking an official post from which to implement his principles. But it was never forthcoming and Kung Fu-tzu and his core of faithful disciples spent those years mocked by holy men and peasants alike.

Eventually there was a change in administration in his home state and he was invited to return. By then, Kung Fu-tzu was too old for office so he spent the last five years of his life teaching and editing the classics. At the age of 72 he died.

Huston Smith explains that Kung Fu-tzu was a failure as a politician, but was undoubtedly one of the finest teachers the world has known. He had an informal, Socratic method of teaching, conversing with his students, posing questions, citing texts. He never considered himself the “expert,” but instead behaved as a “fellow traveller,” always humble about how far he had himself progressed on the path of fully realising his humanity. He was known to be unwavering in his core values but tempered this with a sense of humour and realism.

After his death, Kung Fu-tzu’s influence increased. Huston Smith describes the historical context in which Kung Fu-tzu’s teachings gained influence. By Kung Fu-tzu’s time, the almost continuous warfare of the era (known as the Period of the Warring States) had degenerated from its erstwhile chivalrous rules of conduct to sheer brutality. Entire populations were mass executed. The social threads of custom were being destroyed by this barbarism, threatening anarchy.

Like Jesus of Nazareth, Kung Fu-tzu had a relatively unremarkable career when alive but upon his death, his messengers were effective and his ideas came at the right time. As a result of his teaching, a class of scholars arose in China. In 130 BC Confucian texts were made the basic education for government officials right up until 1905 AD. His teachings helped to cement the emphasis on family, society and community over individual; reverence for age, and a preference for the middle way of negotiation rather than the adversarial system of the West. The emphasis on wen can be seen in the contemporary Chinese government’s policy of “soft power.”

Unlike other major civilisations such as India or Europe, China did not require a person to be one religion or another. A Chinese person was Confucian in ethics and public life, Taoist in private life, Buddhist at the time of death, and engaged in shamanistic folk religion throughout. (Smith, 1991).

Realism and Mohism

Three main schools of thought can be discerned as responses to China’s Period of the Warring States:
• Realism
• Mohism
• Confucianism

This was the dominant approach at the time of Kung Fu-tzu. The way to deal with humans was through a system of penalties and rewards. Similar to Hobbes’ conception of humanity, Realists acknowledged that ultimately, force was required to restrain humans from being completely selfish. They reasoned that a state needed a large and effective militia, clear laws and serious penalties for violations. Han Fei-tzu was one of the leading proponents of Realism and explained that laws had to be very clearly spelt out and penalties had to be heavy.

Realists believed that humans were ultimately greedy, selfish beings and that goodness had to be forced upon them. They also believed that most humans were too short-sighted to accept present sacrifices for long-term gain and that rulers had to force such policies upon them. Realists did not deny that noble sentiments existed, but argued that these would not be sufficient to keep people in check.

A realist of the fifth and sixth centuries BC was the prototypical, hard-headed Chinese mother (for those of you who have one, you know what I mean ;-). Life is hard. Deal with it.

At the same time as the realists dominated policy making, Mo Tzu (or Mo Ti) proposed that universal love (chien ai) was the solution rather than force.

“Mutual attacks among states, mutual usurpation among houses, mutual injuries among individuals, these are [among’ the major calamities in the world. But whence do these calamities arise? They arise out of want of mutual love….individuals have learned only to love themselves and not others. Therefore they do not scruple about injuring others…How can we have the condition altered? It is to be altered by the eay of universal love and mutual aid.” (Yi-pao, 1929).

Mo Tzu believed that Shang Ti (a personal god) and Heaven “loves the whole world universally. Everything is prepared for the good of human beings.” (Yi-pao, 1929: 145).

My Background Notes on Confucianism

Kung Fu-tzu rejected the Realist approach because it was too much outside of people’s ordinary lives and could not inspire people’s day to day ways of behaving in relation to others. The Realist approach could not inspire intrinsic motivation and purpose in people. At the same time, he thought that the Mohists were too utopian. The Realists thought that governments could enforce peace, whilst the Mohists thought that personal commitment could bring about peace. Both approaches were unrealistic.

For Kung Fu-tzu, tradition was the key. Tradition shaped people’s attitudes, ethics and actions. Kung Fu-tzu saw tradition as a powerful means of improving contemporary behaviour by harking back to the norms of the “Age of Grand Harmony.” This was a period in China’s past when China was passing from the second millennium BC into the first millennium BC, and the Chou Dynasty was at its peak. Kung Fu-tzu may have romanticised this era as a time when the Chinese were still community members before they were individuals. To apply this to his era in the sixth century BC, Kung Fu-tzu realised that he would have to create deliberate tradition supported by conscious and purposeful attention.

Kung Fu-tzu wanted a society which embodied the following five principles:
• Jen
• Chun tzu
• Li
• Te
• Wen

This refers to the relationship between two people which is based on a feeling of humanity, respect and a sense of the dignity of human life. This leads to generosity and good faith. In public life it leads to conscientiousness, and in private life it leads to politeness, considerateness and empathy.

Chun tzu
This is the mature person, the person who is fully grounded about herself and at home in the universe. As a result, she can be a good hostess: graceful, confident, authentic and gracious. This is the “gentleman” or “gentlewoman.”

This has two meanings: propriety, or the right way of behaving; and ritual; or rites which systematize social life.

Li as propriety
Kung Fu-tzu focused on five main arenas for right behaviour: The Rectification of Names, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Five Constant Relationships, Regard for the Family and Age.

The Rectification of Names refers to making sure that everyone has a shared, right understanding of what words mean. In this way, everyone can be of shared meanings.

The Doctrine of the Mean is the “way that is constantly in the middle” between unrealistic extremes. It refers to the Confucian value of moderation in all things.

The Five Constant Relationships are the relationships between:
• Parent-child
• Husband-wife
• Elder sibling-junior sibling
• Elder friend-junior friend
• Ruler-subject

Kung Fu-tzu described how each role should be fulfilled.

“Parents should be loving, children reverential; elder siblings gentle, younger siblings respectful; husbands good, wives “listening”; elder friends considerate, younger friends deferential; rulers benevolent, subjects loyal.” (Smith, 1991).

Regard for Family and Age
Kung Fu-tzu was building on the Chinese belief that the family is the basic unit of society. Respect for parents could also be extrapolated to respect for elders generally.

Li as rites
Kung Fu-tzu also understood the importance of rites and rituals as means of routinizing and embedding the mores of a society at the individual, family and social level. Rites included public rites such as the way the Emperor would three times a year answer to Heaven, and private rites about how you serve tea to a visitor.

This translates as “power,” but for Kung Fu-tzu it refers primarily to a ruler’s “power of moral example.” (Smith, 1991). If the ruler is a good, righteous person, then this will seep down to local leaders and the wider populous. If people can trust and admire their leader, this leads to the “morale without which nations cannot survive.” (Smith, 1991). Such rulers must not have personal ambitions or be led by their ego, but must want to rule because they have good values. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.”

This refers to the “arts of peace” – music, poetry, art and culture, as opposed to the “arts of war.” Kung Fu-tzu valued the arts because of art’s power to easily inspire people to be good. He also believed that the nation with the greatest culture would ultimately win hearts and minds.

The Goal of a Confucian Life

For Kung Fu-tzu, the individual’s purpose in life was the become ever more fully human in the context of the social group. There is no “self,” just a centre of relationships constructed through interactions with others (Smith, 1991). “Confucius saw the human self as a node, not an entity; it is a meeting place where lives converge.” (Smith, 1991).

A person becomes a “chun tzu,” a mature or fully realised human being, by infinitely expanding her empathy/sympathy, or “heart-mind,” hsin. As this expands from oneself, to include the family, community, nation, and eventually all of humanity. This shift of one’s empathy from self to family,

“transcends selfishness. The move from family to community transcends nepotism. The move from community to nation overcomes parochialism, and the move to all humanity counters chauvinistic nationalism.” (Smith, 1991).

One could add that the move beyond humanity to encompass Heaven also transcends the finite with the infinite nature of being. At the same time, the self grows deeper and richer through reflection and self-examination in this ever-broadening idea of self-in-society.

The Religious Context of Confucianism

At the time of Kung Fu-tzu, Chinese generally believed that they lived in a continuum of Heaven and Earth. The people who made up Heaven were the ancestors (ti) and they were ruled over by a supreme ancestor (Shang Ti). Heaven was far more important. Earth spoke to Heaven through sacrifices, sharing their goods with the ancestors through sacrificial fires. The ruler of China was thought of as the Son of Heaven, and oversaw the nation’s sacrifices to the ancestors.

Heaven spoke to Earth through signs and omens such as the weather, the stars, animals or bodily expressions such as rashes, twitches, stumbling, buzzing in the ears. People could also use divination techniques to seek out the ancestors’ advice.

Kung Fu-tzu taught a largely pragmatic approach towards this cosmology. He did not engage in discussions about Heaven and Earth, but simply advised people to accept that they did not know many things that were beyond Earth’s understanding. He encouraged people to look after the living first and foremost whilst still respecting and revering the dead.


Confucius. (1995). The Analects: Dover Thrift Editions. Dover Publications: New York.
Bidwell, Duane. (2004). Short-Term Spiritual Guidance. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.
Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Out Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: Epub.
Yi-pao Mei. (1929). Motse, the Neglected Rival of Confucius. Reprint. Hyperion Press: Westport CT, 1973.
Tu Wei-ming. “Confucianism.” Our Religions. Ed. By Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: EPub.

Dec 20 2017

My Crib Notes on Islam

F9B1823B-0BD2-4C07-B93C-65F4D2AC3C8AReflections on Islam and the Koran

la ilaha illa’Llah
“There is no god but God”

Background of Islam

The word “Islam” is derived from the root s-l-m. which means “peace” or “surrender”: “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.” “Allah” comes from joining al (the) with Ilah (God).

According to tradition, the Arab Muslims descended from Ishmael, who was Abraham’s son by Hagar, his second wife. Abraham’s first wife, Sarah, also bore a son and demanded that Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael. They left Palestine and settled in Mecca.

Muhammad was born into the leading tribe of Mecca, the Koreish, around 570 AD. He is known as “The Seal of the Prophets” – the final authentic prophet. He grew up during a time of tribal turmoil.

Muhammad’s childhood was characterised by loss. His father died not long before he was born, and his mother passed away when he was six years old. His grandfather took over his care but died when he was eight years old. Muhammad then went to live with his uncle, whose family received him with warmth and love. Muhammad worked for his uncle as a shepherd.

Muhammad entered the caravan business and at the age of 25 he went to work for a wealthy widow, Khadija. Although she was 15 years older than him, they fell in love and married. Over the next 15 years Khadija supported Muhammad emotionally and financially as he began to take frequent retreats in a cave on Mount Hira on the outskirts of Mecca. He pondered good and evil and was unable to come to terms with the violence of his contemporaries. Muhammad did not take another wife as long as Khadija was alive.

At the time, the people of Mecca worshipped a variety of gods including Allah. Muhammad was one of the hanifs who exclusively worshipped Allah. Then around 610 AD on what is now known as The Night of Power, “the Book was opened to a ready soul.” (Le Gai Eaton, 1985: 103). Muhammad, at the age of about 40 years, received a visitation from an angel who told him that he was to be a proclaimer of God. Muhammad returned to his wife in a terror. He told her what had happened and she believed him, telling him that he would be the Prophet of his people.

After the Night of Power, Muhammad’s first “converts” were his wife Khadija, his good friend Abu Bakr, and his cousin ‘Ali. Gradually the circle expanded, which brought the pressure of the tribal rulers against him because he was preaching a wholesale revolution to their way of life. Muhammad’s teachings included the destruction of the idols which the tribal rulers used as the spiritual seat of their power: Mecca garnered significant revenue from pilgrimages made to its 360 shrines (one for every day of the lunar calendar). Muhammad also taught fraternal equality, challenging the class hierarchy of Mecca.

The Meccan rulers ridiculed the Muslims, then began to stone them, jail them, or starve them out through sanctions. As with early Christians, persecution only made the Muslims more determined. After three years of this, Muhammad had only managed to gather about 40 followers. But slow and steady wins the race. After ten years, several hundred families acknowledge him as the Prophet.

The Meccan rulers decided to assassinate Muhammad. But a delegation from the city Yathrib (later renamed “the city of the Prophet,” Medina) invited him to migrate there and become their ruler. Yathrib was riven with internal strife and needed a strong leader with no conflicting loyalties. Muhammad’s message had reached Yathrib and gained ground there.

Muhammad accepted the invitation and set out in June 622 AD. 70 families preceded him. When the MEccan rulers discovered what was happening, they tries to stop them, but Muhammad and his friend Abu Bakr hid en route to Yathrib while Meccan militants scoured the countryside for him. After three days, they managed to obtain two camels and use the back routes to reach Yathrib.

The date of his move to Medina, known as the Hijrah, represents the start of the Islamic calendar. Muhammad became the administrator of Medina: judge, military leader, policy maker and Prophet of God.

Muhammad became the public administrator: a “masterful politician; the prophet was transformed into statesmen.” (Smith). He continued to live in a modest way, setting the example for the city. It appears the Muhammad blended justice and mercy and this is palpable in the Koranic teachings about punishments for crimes to be tempered with compassion. During his management of the city, Muhammad managed to overcome the tribal conflicts (including with the Jewish tribes of the city) and unite the city into an orderly confederation. He appears to have been a great leader: someone who captured the hearts and minds of his followers, and used his power for good.

The Meccan tribes attacked Medina a number of times, but the Medina Muslims consistently won against Meccan armies which outnumbered the Muslims. When reading the Koran, you can see the passages which are to do with the just war against the Meccans, exhorting the Muslims to fight the Meccans but within the rules of a humane warfare.

Other tribes of Arabia began to pay allegiance to Muhammad until eventually the Meccan tribes also followed suit after a final failed attempt to take Medina. In 630 AD, Muhammad marched into Mecca in triumph and forgiveness. After this, the Prophet Islamised the north. Ten years later he returned to Mecca to make the hajj. He returned to Medina, fell ill and died in 632 AD.

The Koran

The word al-qur’an means a recitation. Thus the Qu’ran or Koran is the book which contains Muhammad’s revelations from Allah. It contains 114 chapters or surahs which, after the first surah, are ordered by decreasing length.

Muhammad received the Koran over 23 years. He would enter a trance-like state whilst his followers would transcribe or memorise his words. The Koran covers ethical, legal teachings, spiritual insights.

Similar to Christianity, compassion and love are the core teachings of Islam. Muhammad however had a longer life than Christ and more opportunity to articulate and apply his revelations to real world situations. According to Smith, “If Jesus had had a longer career, or if the Jews had not been so socially powerless at the time, Jesus might have systematised his teaching more.” (Smith). The Koran is the key Islamic text accompanied by the hadith which are texts describing Muhammad’s actions.

According to Huston Smith, Muslims tend to read the Koran as literally the words of God. To them the earthly Koran is the “instantiation, in letters and sounds, of the Koran’s limitless essence in its Uncreated Form….The created Koran is the formal crystallisation of the infinite reality of the Uncreated Koran.” (Smith).

That said, there is a strong Koranic scholarship tradition focused on interpreting the language and grammar of the Koran and its sacred history. There is also a tradition amongst Sufis and Shi’ites of examining the esoteric meaning of the Koran: its inner reality.

The Koran and Other Holy Books
The Koran includes the Old and New Testaments and represents their culmination. Thus Jews and Christians are included with Muslims as “People of the Book,” and it is implied that people of other faiths in the one true God would also be included (“To every people we have sent a messenger…” Koran 10:47). However the Koran is free from corruption which the other Testaments are susceptible to.

The Sonoral Tradition of Islam
It’s important to note that Islam was firstly a “sonoral” revelation: Muhammad “heard” the Word of God and then spoke it to his followers. Muhammad was “unlettered,” which if literally true as well as metaphorically, is interesting. Think of the Indigenous religions in pre-literate Australia and America, where shared spirituality occurred through speech, rhythm and ritual. Reading the Koran in translation does not have the same spiritual impact as listening to it recited or reciting it oneself. The pauses and intonations are all based on traditions going back to the Prophet (Nasr).

Muslims responded to this sonoral nature of the Koran by developing the art of calligraphy and Islamic architecture, in which spaces are designed to reverberate the recitation of the Koran (Nasr).

Treatment of Women
Something I find of particular interest about the Koran is its prescriptions for the treatment of women. Before Islam, women in Arabia were treated as property. Daughters had no inheritance rights and were sometimes killed in infancy.

In this historical context, the Koran revolutionised the way women were treated. For example the Koran:
• forbade infanticide
• required daughters to be included in inheritance to half the portion of sons
• sanctified marriage
• required that women give free consent to a marriage
• allowed women to instigate divorce and required their husbands to give them their marriage portion if a divorce ensued
• exhorted men with more than one wife to treat all with equal respect, love and esteem

The Koran advised women to “draw their cloaks closely round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed.” (33:59). Again historical context is important here: Muhammad lived at a time of banditry and violence. In this light, veiling is a kind of avuncular, prudent piece of advice.

The Koran sets out pretty severe punishments for moral offences. However when you read the Koran, you notice how Muhammad has set out the worst case scenario punishment almost immediately followed by exceptions, exemptions, and exhortations towards mercy and care in judgment.

Religious Tolerance
Muhammad decreed that the Jews of Medina would be permitted to practice their religion freely. He extended this freedom of religion to all who worshipped one God.

Theological Concepts
The basic theological concepts of Islam are the same as those of Judaism and Christianity. There is an ultimate, immaterial and invisible God who made the heavens and earth. Muslims experience a kind of holy fear of God: awe at the “magnitude of the consequences that follow from being on the right or wrong side of an uncompromisingly moral universe.” (Smith). Muslims believe in the idea of heaven and hell, but also a compassionate God whom a Muslim can access ay any moment for strength and guidance. There will be a Day of Judgment at which time the good and the bad will be divided between heaven and hell.

Gratitude and Surrender
Islam does not have a concept of original sin and fall from grace, but it does have the concept of ghaflah, which means “forgetting.” Humans sometimes forget their divine origin, but their fundamental nature is good. We have two obligations to God: gratitude and surrender.

According to Smith, the word infidel is more about someone who lacks thankfulness than someone who does not believe in God. The more gratitude one feels, the less greedy and grasping one is.

Surrender is a common core of religion and spiritual experience. According to William James,

When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed into our only permanent positions of repose….In the religious life…surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary. (James, 1961).

The centrality of the individual
As with Christianity and Judaism, the individual self is the arena for spiritual fulfilment and spiritual realisation. “All life is individual; there is no such thing as universal life. God Himself is an individual; He is the most unique individual.” (Iqbal, 1920). This creates individual moral responsibility for actions and eternal damnation or salvation. Muhammad provided evocative imagery of heaven and hell, intended to jolt people out of ghaflah and into action.

The Five Pillars of Islam

The Koran exhorts people to walk the straight path, “The path of those on whom Thou [Allah] hast poured forth Thy grace.” (Koran opening surah). The Koran includes five key social teachings, or pillars, as to how to walk this path.

1. Creed, Shahadah
“There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The Koran requires a Muslim to say the Shahadah once in her life “correctly, thoughtfully, aloud, with full understanding and heartfelt conviction.” (Smith).

2. Constancy in prayer
Muslims are asked to be constant in prayer as a way to keep their lives in perspective (Smith). Muhammad sets out that Muslims should pray five times a day: on rising, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and before retiring. Muslims can pray anywhere, but preferably in a mosque on Friday at noon and any other time when it is possible.

First of all, the Muslim washes to symbolically purify the body and soul. Standing upright, the person then prostrates herself with forehead pressed to the floor. According to Smith, this has two levels of symbolism: the body is ready to reborn, and at the same time crouched as small as possible, representing the human nothingness in the face of God. Prayers centres around praise, gratitude and supplication.

3. Charity
Muhammad, via the Koran, introduced a graduated tax to support the needy: those in immediate need, slaves purchasing their freedom, debtors unable to pay their bills, strangers and wayfarers, and those who collect and distribute alms. The Koran specifies 2.5% of income and assets. Poor people do not have to five anything, but those in the middle and upper tiers should annually disburse a fortieth of the value of their possessions and income.

4. Observance of Ramadan

This is the holy month of Islam: the month in which Muhammad received his initial revelation and then ten years later, migrated from Mecca to Medina. Muslims who are physically able to, are required to fast during Ramadan from dawn to sundown. After sundown, they are allowed to eat and drink in moderation. Ramadan follows the lunar calendar. The aim of Ramadan is to encourage contemplation, self-discipline and compassion for the needy.

5. Pilgrimage

Once during a Muslim’s life, if she is physically and financially able to, she should travel to Mecca.

The Major Groups of Islam

Almost 88% of Muslims are Sunnis. This term comes from ahl al-sunnah wa’ljama’ah, followers of the sunnah of the Prophet and the majority (Nasr).

The Shi’ites and Sunnis emerged as separate groups upon the death of Muhammad.

The Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend, to be the Prophet’s successor. They thought that the caliph should protect the Divine Law, act as judge, and rule the community as a public administrator. The Sunnis were in the majority (and still are).

The Shi’ites believed that the caliph should be a person who also be able to interpret the Koran and the Law, because he received the inner spiritual power of the Prophet. Therefore he should be chosen by God and the Prophet, and not by the community. The Shi’ites named this person an imam, which in this context means the person who carries the “Prophetic Light.” After Muhammad died, the Shi’ites believed that the imam was ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib, whom they believed the Prophet chose before he died. Shi’ite imams are all descended from ‘Ali and Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet.

Shi’ites get their name from being shi’it ‘Ali- partisans of ‘Ali. They are divided into:
• Twelve-Imam Shi’ites
• Ismailis
• Zaydis

Kharijites oppose the claim of both All and Mu’awiyyah to the caliphate. They are small in number and mostly confined to Oman and southern Algeria.

There are sects and splinter groups which derive historically from Islam, including the Baha’is, the Druze of Lebanon, and the ‘Alaw?s of Syria.

My Reflections on Islam

The first thing that struck me as I read the Koran was what a kind, fair man Mohammed must have been. The rules he suggests in answers to questions seem extremely reasonable for a man of his time in history. In particular I was struck by his fairness towards women. For example, he requires a relatively fair outcome for widows or divorcees – a far cry from what the women of the times would have been accustomed to.

Smith observed that Mohammed became a legislator and administrator, and as a result his book goes much further than Jesus Christ’s gospels. Christ died before he could articulate his principles as applied rules in a government context. But Mohammed was appointed the administrator of Medina, and had to govern.

As a result his holy book reads in part like a list of rulings upon real life concerns, in addition to core principles and exhortations to remain true to a monotheistic religion and Allah. References to holy war against the infidels are thoroughly contextualised by the threats from tribal warlords and the precariousness of Mohammed’s attempt at a society built on the rule of law rather than the whims of men.

I like Muhammad as I come to know him through his book. He seems to me that he was a good guy.

It seems to me that Islam is an intensely aural tradition in the way that Judaism is an intensely written tradition and Taoism and Australian Indigenous spirituality are intensely physically experienced traditions. Huston Smith emphasises that the Koran should be heard in Arabic to be experienced, and the Sufi teachers also emphasise this. No doubt there is a physical aspect to the frequencies of the chants and prayers, similar to the Buddhist chants which stimulate a certain neurochemical response in the listener and participant.

I have taken to chanting the beautiful phrase in my head: la ilaha illa’Llah. Saying it over and over, the sonorality of the phrase – it is primal and sacred.

I also listened to the South Sudanese Sheikh Al Zain chanting the Al Baqarah, recommended by the New Seminary Sufism teacher. This is beautiful and brings home the sound aspect of Islam. It reminds me of how important sound is in this religion and also in connecting with people in the future of my ministry. I went to see a concert by a Zen Buddhist shakuhachi player and again was reminded of how spiritual and sacred sound can transport in a way that thousands of words sometimes cannot.

The Sufi mystic approach to connecting with the Unnameable resonates with me. I too have always believed that eternity can be experienced now; infinity in the present moment. I have not had the opportunity to participate in whirling as practised by the Turkish Sufis, but I can imagine that this physical act would induce a kind of embodied ecstasy, as close as you can get to transcending the body by being completely in the body.

I also like the regular daily prayer cycle of Islam, and the annual fast. The daily cycle of prayer keeps the Divine Mystery at hand, reminding you of the spiritual space in which you live. Christianity used to follow this kind of cycle too, but it has been forgotten by all but the monastics.

I like the annual fast as a kind of communal experience. In Christian society we have Easter but have let Lent go. But it seems to me that an experience of self-sacrifice is an important one to remind yourself of sacrifice in general; humility, and the people who have come before you, and your place in a long line of humanity.

I visited a mosque in India many years ago and was struck by the coming and going. People came, prayed, read, even had a quiet chat on the outskirts of the temple. Also I was struck by how utterly beautiful it was – the lack of human imagery and the use of patterns and designs, numbers (crossing over with the Judaic tradition of Kabbalah – so many crossovers!) The place was literally and metaphorically a cool, white oasis in a sea of red dirt. I had to cover my head to enter and frankly being inside I was glad I did. In such a place you want to make a gesture of some kind to lower your eyes and acknowledge your part in something so divine as human communion.

The same thing happens at my local Hindu temple, which I visit fairly often, as it is not far away and they make delicious masala dosa :-).There too, you can come and go, socialise, chat in the outer courtyards; get something to eat, share food; make an offering and have a prayer said on your behalf, and of course pray or meditate. The doors are open.

The first few times I felt like a tourist, but the most recent time I swallowed my shyness, approached a volunteer and asked how to make an offering to show appropriate respect. I bought a ghee candle for $5 and took it to the fellow making offering prayers at the shrine of Vishnu. After he chanted a prayer and lighting our candle, he marked me, my daughter and my husband with grey powder. We sat and said a quiet prayer of gratitude. We felt part of the place instead of intruders. We left the powder on all day, left it to wear itself off with the passage of time.

Footnote about Taoism:

A thought that has come to me about the Tao since I did my homework on that topic: I really like the idea present in the Tao that something comes after death. If we are so well taken care of in life, it seems reasonable that will continue in some way after death. This does not make me believe in an afterlife, but it does reassure me that there is something other than meaninglessness to life. I am reading a book called Other Minds at the moment, all about the evolution of life and consciousness in octopuses and how they are as close as we might ever come to meeting a sentient “alien.” It gets me thinking about the nature of life, which a scientist at MIT (I can’t remember his name!) recently modelled as a logical outcome of chaos. Life seems to be an energy, and that is what is the divine mystery.


Charles Le Gai Eaton. (1985). Islam and the Destiny of Man. (Albany: State University of New York Press).
Huston Smith. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: New York.
William James. (1961). The Varieties of Religious Experience. (New York: Macmillan).
Sir Muhammad Iqbal. (1920). The Secrets of the Self. Reprint (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, 1979).
Seyyed Hossein Nasr. (1993). “Islam.” Our Religions. Ed. Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: New York.

Dec 20 2017

My Crib Notes on Judaism


Anokhee Yud-Hei-Vov-Hei, Eloheykha, Asheyr hohtseitikha mei-eretz mitzrayim, me-beit avadeem.

“I am the mysterious and unknowable name of God (the one who is and will always be your God), who [can] bring[s] you out of a narrow way of seeing things, out of your enslavement and worries.” (Felder, 1997: 17).
Judaism seems to be to be an intensely intellectual, oral and written tradition. This could be the influence of the rabbis which dates back to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Rabbis will argue over the meaning of the most minor seeming preposition. This may look like pedantry, but what I like about this: the scholars constantly contextualize and include not just authorial, but editorial intent in their dissection of their holy books.

The idea that someone not only wrote these scriptures, but combined them in a particular order, in a particular way, to tell a particular story: this is sophisticated literary interpretation at work! It is a nod of respect towards the editor, not just the writer. Maybe it’s my experience of attempting to write fiction; but as Phillip Pullman once said, once you start thinking about structure – that’s when you’re a writer. The rabbis uncover the storytelling art and interrogate it, not to debunk scriptural “truths” as is sometimes the rather narrow intent of biblical skeptics; but to better understand meaning. Rabbinic Jews are meaning makers of the first order.

In Islam, there are also studies of the Koran and the hadith; in Christianity there are innumerable discourses on the gospels of Christ. I think these traditions may be influenced by the rabbinical tradition; and this is itself a partial product of ancient Greek influence of discourse and reason.

A digression: but what made the Greeks explode into intellectual fireworks at the time of Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and later Socrates and Plato? According to the top notch scholar Edith Hamilton, it was an innate quality of intellectual curiosity and play. The Greek god Dionysus was a playful god. Theatres were established as the arenas in which to worship him, giving rise to art, poetry, comedy and tragedy. What kind of a people invent a god of wine? People who understand that life is short, and that one need not enjoy it like a brute, but like a mensch.
Background to Judaism

“What lifted the Jews from obscurity to permanent religious greatness was their passion for meaning.” (Smith, 1991).

Like Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a monotheistic religion. Its core book, the Torah, is acknowledged by Christians and Moslems as holy (in Islam known as the Tawrat, in Christianity as part of the Old Testament). Again like the other Abrahamic religions, God is unique, transcendent, and wholly other from nature. Judaism elevates Moses as unique among prophets, and in this it differs from Christianity, which deifies Christ, and Islam, which recognizes a series of prophets including Moses and Christ culminating in Muhammad, who is thought of by Muslims as the last of the prophets.

According to commentators, Judaism is an orthopraxis, identifiable by what Jews do more than what they believe (Smith, 1991). Smith explains that the West, influenced by Greek thought, emphasizes theology and creed, whilst the East emphasizes ritual and narrative. Judaism echoes the Eastern approach to spirituality as practices rather than just beliefs.

Jewish ritual sanctifies all aspects of human life as it reflects God’s glory. Practices cover food preparation, what people should eat and drink, and when. The Sabbath is a day consecrated to reflection and community. These rituals constantly remind Jews of their connection to history, drawing spiritual strength and energy from times in history when God’s direct interventions for the survival of the Jewish people were knowable.

“Ritual, with its prepared score to orchestrate the occasion, channels our actions and feelings at a time when solitude would be unbearable.” (Smith, 1991).

The Holy Books

Judaism’s core books include:
• The Tanakh
• The Talmud

The Tanakh refers to what the Christians know as the Old Testament:
• The first section: the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch
• The second section: the Nevi’im (the Books of the Prophets)
• Section three: Ketuvim (Writings including poetic books and accounts of later historical events)

These three sections of the Tanakh were passed on from generation to generation and accompanied by an oral tradition known as the Oral Torah.

The Torah is the Jewish Law, comprising the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Talmud includes the Mishnah and the Gemara.The Mishnah sets out rabbinic teachings about the Jewish law. The Gemara mostly comprises rabbinical reflections and interpretations of the Mishnah.
The Exodus

The Exodus describes the turning point in Jewish history in which the Jewish people became a people. It is a gripping account of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. At the time, the Jews were not much more than a loosely connected group of people, enslaved to the Egyptian rulers. With such odds, the Jews should not have survived. Yet they did: the eluded capture and established their own territory.

Through the lens of this miracle, the Jews re-evaluated their past as a series of events in which God had intervened to help them survive. Everything that had happened suddenly took on fresh meaning. God had been gradually guiding events until the Jews could found their own nation. The Exodus from Egypt was God’s direct revelation to the Jews that He existed, that He was powerful enough to overcome the Egyptians, and He loved and cared for the Jews.

The Jews’ God, Yahweh, had revealed Himself to the Jews through an active event in history. Unlike the animist gods of nature whom people worshipped at the time, Yahweh was an actor in human life. The Jews, instead of praising and offering sacrifices to the forces of nature, began to focus on how to please Yahweh and do His will.

During the Jews’ long trek through the desert away from Egypt, Moses took time out to consult with Yahweh at the top of Mount Sinai. He came back with the Ten Commandments which became the contract or promise between Yahweh and His people: if the Jews honoured God’s Law, God would take care of the Jews.

The Chosen People

There is much rabbinical and scholarly debate about why the Jews consider themselves to be “chosen” by God and what it means to be “chosen.” Smith offers a compelling rationale. The Jews were saved, against all explicable odds, from slavery in Egypt. This experience would leave an indelible impression and require immediate and wholesale transformative thinking to understand. How did the Jews make sense of their salvation? They were chosen by God.

But being chosen is not all sunshine and lollipops. The Jews had to take on the higher moral responsibilities owed to their God than other gods demanded. As Smith reminds us,

“From beginning to end – this is the point that lies at the heart of the matter – the story of the Jews is unique. According to expectations they should have not escaped from Pharaoh in the first place….The prophetic protest against social injustice is universally conceded to be ‘without close parallel in the ancient world.’” (Smith, 1993).

I want to tentatively build on Smith’s thesis that the Jews’ escape from Egypt was the defining event that created a people with an identity and shared faith. Smith offers a very believable explanation of why the Jews turned to God after the miracle of their escape. I think their religion became moral and thus created the conditions for a working society because they had been slaves.

In Exodus, it is stated that the Jews left with a good sized proportion of the Egyptians wealth. But they had no landed wealth, no gentry, no upper crust, no powerful few with a military to enforce their property rights. What did they have? They had a shared story of God choosing them and loving them enough to save them from the Egyptians. They had crossed the Red Sea, a feat which they still regarded with awed disbelief, for how on earth had they pulled that off, if not by divine intervention? They had survived weeks and months in the desert, seeming to find water and food just before starvation and dehydration started killing them off.

The Role of Moses

And they had Moses. Moses must have been a great tactician to get the Jews out of Egypt alive. When I think of Moses (and for that matter, Muhammad and Christ),I think, what an extraordinary response to extraordinary circumstances, by an extraordinary human. And from these three seeds arise a lasting religion which shapes the world.

Moses grew up as a ward of the royal Egyptian family, but is said to have been a Jewish babe, abandoned and then found and raised by an Egyptian princess. But like Gautama Buddha and Che Guevara, when he was an adult and saw firsthand the way human beings were being treated as slaves, he responded by up-ending his life of comfort to rescue the oppressed.

And much ingratitude he got for it, in the months and years that followed as the Jews wandered the desert. Eventually his father-in-law, Jethro, travelled to visit Moses and his motley crew, and saw that Moses was taking too much on himself. Jethro advised Moses to appoint judges as his representatives, and Moses did so, appointing them as leaders of “thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18: 24). And so Moses created a social infrastructure for regulation and maintaining order.

Once Moses had done this he finally had a chance to climb Mount Sinai for some reflective time out. Whilst on the mountain, Moses experienced a series of revelations of the Law, including the Ten Commandments. He returned to the desert and shared these with the people, then returned to the mountain for further instruction.

It had been three months since the escape from Egypt and people were starting to wonder if they had made the right choice. When he came back again, the people had started worshipping a golden bull and Moses threw the tablets with the Law inscriptions and broke them.

I can only imagine that this incident of the golden bull describes the fickleness of ordinary folk. But Moses appears to have been a social genius, because he created the Law (or received it from God) and a whole suite of prescribed rituals and rules which succeeded in keeping the Jewish people united despite the desperate living conditions of the desert. The story of their salvation would have been a great asset in preventing the entire populous from disintegrating into factions following various gods.

After he had dealt with the bull situation, Moses went back up the mountain, cooled down and returned with a fresh set of tablets and a renewed covenant with God on behalf of the people.

The Book of Numbers tells the story of the approximately forty years that the Jews spent nationless in the desert until they settled Canaan. Moses took a census of the Jews at Mount Sinai, and then again at Moab, east of Jordan, about a generation later. What a genius idea, to take a census! It would have allowed Moses and his administrators, the “judges” appointed on his father-in-law’s advice, to keep track of the Jewish population: the people’s crimes and misdemeanours, sacrifices, contributions to the Lord, births, deaths and marriages, taxes and offerings.

Moses died before the Jews invaded and took Canaan for their own. He had got them thus far, but no farther. The Jews conquered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, who had been a trusted assistant to Moses. They settled the Land of Israel before 1000 BC and lived there for the next 500 years.

Exile and Return

Jacob Neusner describes the origins of Judaism (as opposed to the Jewish people) as the “exile and return” which took place in 586-500 BC. In 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, taking the craftsmen, politicians and artisans with them back to Babylon. The Babylonians colonised Israel and brought a mix of other peoples, who then mixed with those Jews who had not been taken.

Towards 500 BC, the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persian emperor Cyrus sought to win the loyalty of the diverse populations in the Babylonian empire by returning their homelands to them. The Jews were permitted to return to Israel. A small number did so and rebuilt the Temple. During the Babylonian years, rabbis studies and eventually compiled the Tanakh. Then in 450 BC, the Persians allowed Nehemiah and Ezra (both public officials) to go to Jerusalem and set up a Jewish government for the region.

Thus the scriptures constructed the historical narrative of the Jewish people. They were exiled, they escaped or returned; they sinned, were punished and were reconciled with God. This story of Judaism and Jews relationship with God persisted partly because the historical events kept reinforcing it.

The Land of Israel was constantly under threat, absorbed and re-constituted, and the story of Jews’ salvation by God is repeated. Around 320 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Middle Easy and incorporated Israel into the Greek empire. In 160 BC the Jews found themselves yet again fighting for independence, this time from Maccabee rule.

The Role of Rabbis

The Torah sets out in great detail the role of priests in offerings and rituals. However by the time of Christ, as in many institutionalized religions, priests were often corrupt and rules were just as often used to exclude people from power rather than unite a struggling people in the desert. Christ’s work was largely in response to the injustices of the priests and their complicity in the Roman subjugation of the Jews (that is for another chapter!).

After Christ’s death, the Jews made a number of desperate attempts to wrestle power back from the Romans and briefly managed it. But in 70 AD, the Romans took it all back by force. They destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and this led to a shift from the sacrificial rites of the Temple to the study of the Torah and the oral recitative tradition in synagogues and rabbinical academies.

The rabbis became the glue which held Judaism together, and synagogues were no longer just centres of study but also worship and community. Rabbinic Judaism is a deeply intellectual pursuit, interpreting the Torah for insight and revelation.


Edith Hamilton. (1942). Greek Mythology. Reprinted in 1998 by Back Bay Books.

Huston Smith. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: New York.

Jacob Neusner. (1993). “Judaism.” Our Religions. Ed. Arvind Sharma. HarperCollins: New York.

Dec 20 2017

Merry Christmas and a brief history of Jesus

316E1438-A1FD-498E-8DAC-72783F23462AI think most Christians understand that Jesus was not actually born on 25 December in the Year 1 AD. Like the Queen’s Birthday, Christmas Day is a symbolic date rather than a literal one.

Christmas is thought to originate as a festive season from a number of converging festivals, including:

  • Saturnalia – the Roman celebration of Saturn, characterised by holidays and bosses being nice to slaves
  • Modraniht and Yule – the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples’ festival of gift giving and cook-ups to get them through the long dark winter, and their celebration of Modraniht, celebrating female deities Matres and Matronae (and isn’t that an interesting connection with the (virgin) birth of Christ? But that is a topic for another blog post!)
  • Winter Solstice – similar to Yule, a time to celebrate the half way point of winter in Europe
  • Chanukah – the Jewish festival to mark the historical re-dedication of the Temple in the second century BC

Historians estimate that Jesus was actually born around 4 BC in the rural province of Galilee. He was born at the same time as “King of the Jews” Herod the Great died at the age of seventy.

Herod was the client-king who ruled Judea under Roman aegis. In 37 BC, Herod had re-taken Jerusalem on behalf of Rome from Antigonus and his Parthian allies. Rome named him “King of the Jews” as a reward for his loyalty.
Herod’s rule was marked by excess and ruthlessness. Herod replaced the Temple priests with his own supporters and massacred anyone who hinted at rebellion. According to Roman historian Josephus, at the time there were an estimated 24 Jewish sects in and around Jerusalem. Three main sects dominated:

  • The Sadducees, who made up the wealthier class of landholding Jews, and generally collaborated with the Romans and accepted the state of affairs
  • The Essenes, a largely priestly movement that withdrew into communes on the Qumran hilltop in the Dead Sea valley
  • The Pharisees, mostly lower and middle class rabbis and scholars who tried to assiduously uphold the Law of Moses as set out in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Torah and the Bible)

The fourth segment of the population is known as the Zealots, and covers the various resistance movements which were eventually crushed in 60-70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Temple and massacred Jewish rebels.
I hypothesise that there was probably a fifth group, making up most of the common peasantry: those who kept their heads down, paid their taxes, did the rituals they were supposed to do as “good Jews,” and generally tried to get by.
Herod imposed severe taxes to pay for major infrastructure projects including Hellenistic and Roman institutions such as gymnasia, baths and amphitheatres. At the same time he commenced a massive project to rebuild and expand the Temple of Jerusalem.
After Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC, there was a period of bloodshed and chaos as Jews rebelled against their new rulers from Rome. Upon Herod’s death, Caesar Augustus split his empire amongst his three sons. He gave Judea, Samaria and Idumea to Archelaus; Galilee and Peraea to Herod Antipas; and Gaulanitis and the lands north-east of the Sea of Galilee to Philip. In response, the people rioted. Caesar Augustus sent in Roman troops to end the uprising. By 6 BC, he had placed Jerusalem under a Roman governor and Judea became a province ruled directly by Rome. Jesus would have been a two-year old toddler at the time.
The historical context of the Gospels
The Gospels represent a combination of memory and testimony. There are four Gospels included in the Christian Bible, and they include a collection of stories about the words and deeds of Jesus. Most of the Gospels say little about Jesus’ childhood and youth, and are largely concerned with his actions as an adult in the few short years before his execution. The Gospel of Luke includes a birth story which places Jesus in Bethlehem for his birth.  This is unlikely to have been historically accurate – there was no Census at the time the writers of the Gospel of Luke described, and when Rome did conduct censuses, it did so based on place of residence rather than place of birth.

Reza Aslan (2013) explains that this story (and several others in the Gospels) were intended as a “revealed truth” rather than an “historical fact;” a way to express that Jesus was the prophesied messiah. Aslan reminds us that the Gospels were not intended as historical record but as stories which represented spiritual truth. Like any tales of gods and heroes, the details are not expected to be factual but the underlying message is true.

Similarly, the story of Herod’s massacre of the Jewish firstborn sons which forced Jesus and his family into exile in Egypt is probably not historically accurate: there is no other record of such an event in the historical annals. But the Gospel writers of Matthew’s Gospel, like the writers of Luke’s Gospel, were saying that Jesus was the messiah as prophesied who would come out of Egypt. The story of Jesus’ resurrection and the virgin birth are possibly (probably) also stories of spiritual truth rather than factual events.

Jesus’ teachings

Jesus taught compassion. He reminded the Jews that God loved them. He gently but firmly opposed the Pharisee emphasis on the rituals of the Temple because he saw in this emphasis a literal rather than spiritual alignment with God’s will, and one which was adding to the financial burden and oppression of the common people. His views were a challenge to the Jewish priests’ power base and eventually led to Jesus’ arrest and execution.

800 odd years later, Muhammad almost attracted the same fate. He taught egalitarianism and compassion and he too angered the powerful Arab tribal leaders, who garnered considerable income from the 300 plus shrines which people paid tribute to in Mecca. The Meccans hunted and tried to assassinate Muhammad, but unlike Jesus, he managed to escape through the desert to Yathrib (later renamed Medina, the City of the Prophet).

Jesus was also a miracle worker, or what we might call these days a faith healer. At the time of Jesus, it was not unknown for men to enter this magical profession, travelling from village to village and conducting wonders. I don’t know if he really had magical powers; but I do know that the placebo effect is a scientifically proven phenomenon, and I can imagine a world in which placebo plus (let’s call it) the energy field of an extremely calm and enlightened person like Jesus could lead to a healing experience.

Jesus’ ministry
There is not a lot known about Jesus in the years between his childhood and when he burst upon the miracle working circuit when he was nearing the age of 30. We can assume that he was not literate, given hardly anyone was, but that he was a deep thinker and influenced by his cousin John the Baptist and other evangelical revolutionary teachers of the times.

As an adult, Jesus went with some of his mates to see John the Baptist. There it appears he had a transcendent experience of revelation; when he emerged from the Jordan River, he did not return to his carpentry business in Nazareth but went on the road, preaching and working wonders. Friends of friends, cousins of friends, friends of cousins started to follow him and he gradually developed a sizable following which included a number of wealthy benefactors who probably secretly subsidized their itinerant life. At no time was Jesus wealthy, and it appears he lived in the present, allowing others to deal with the alms which would pay for his and his followers’ work.

Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand and this got the attention of the Roman authorities, as it sounded like a clarion call to revolution. Gospel writers later placed a determinedly spiritual, lofty interpretation on these words, but at the time of Jesus, the Kingdom of God meant a free Zionist state and the end of Roman rule.

There were a number of “false messiahs” at the time of Jesus, pandering to the Jews’ desperation for hope, for relief from the yoke of Roman oppression, but Jesus never called himself the messiah. He always reminded people that they were the ones calling him that. He called God “my father,” his way of describing a supremely and primarily personal relationship which all Jews could entertain with God, rather than going through the priestly sacrifice (and cost) of the Temple powerbrokers.

My reflections on Christianity

Reading the gospels, it is pretty evident that Jesus was a great man. He was a clear thinker and saw through the bullshit of the Temple priests and power brokers, and for an unlettered man he seemed to have an instinctive relationship with the Torah. He was also a great orator, drawing crowds to listen to him wherever he travelled. And he seems to have exuded otherworldly calm, peace, wisdom and compassion: when you read the gospels, you are fairly lulled into a meditative state by the simple, plainly spoken words of a man who spoke his truth quietly but clearly. He was unruffled by the intellectual snares of the Pharisees and the Saduccees; he responded to the desperation of the common people with love and a empathy which had become rare in such an era of fear and scarcity. How an illiterate man, quite possibly the illegitimate child of a teenage girl, could emerge from his circumstances and speak of love and truth with such deep certainty was indeed a miracle.
Jesus the man

Jesus was, importantly, a man. The gospels report his cry of doubt just before he died: ‘My god, my god, why have you abandoned me?’ The gospels also give him other final words, including, ‘It is finished.’ Neither of these phrases appears to be designed to strike hope into the heart of a Christian. But they do show that Jesus was a human, and as doubtful of his fate as we all would be if we were facing the spectacular demise of all our dreams and certainties. It’s my favourite part of the gospel. I always was a morbid Christian, preferring Good Friday’s veneration services to Easter Saturday’s resurrection celebrations.

The resurrection

The resurrection. Some believe it literally, others believe it figuratively; either way, it is a symbol of hope and redemption. Jesus was a human, and died in the worst possible way. But God loved him and God saved him from death, raising him up three days after his death.
In the resurrected Jesus’ stories, the character of Jesus had a levity that he never displayed during his mortal life. Resurrected Jesus plays a little trick on doubting Thomas, telling him to poke the holes in Jesus’ hands. Resurrected Jesus pops up, appearing to the faithful as they go about their business with what I can only imagine as a smile of delight on his face. This may all be my fantasy of course. But the risen Jesus strikes me as a guy with no more troubles; a guy who, despite his doubt, was saved. And here is our hope. If Jesus could doubt right at the end of his life and still be resurrected, then so can we.

I find many of the Christian explanations of why Jesus had to die to be rather convoluted. Jesus had to die as the sacrificial lamb for our sins? I don’t think God is either that metaphorical or that literal. That said, the poetry of the Christian faith is to die for (sorry, puns, sorry). The Christian story is the most romantic one I know: a man who preached loving kindness, who refused to save himself, who forgave his betrayers and killers, who was ultimately killed in the most horrific way; this is the guy we call our saviour. This – loser. This – failed messiah. This guy is our hope. What better poetry than this? What more profound message than to lead a poetic life?

If the early Christians hadn’t raised Jesus from the dead, literally or metaphorically, I don’t think Christianity would have been quite so successful. People like a happy ending. A priest friend of mine once explained to me that the key characteristic of being a Christian is to believe that there is hope. If that is the case, I am still a Christian.


Some of my favourite passages from the Christian Bible
James 2: 14-26
My brothers, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it?….as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without actions is dead.
I like James’ practical, applied version of Christianity. S/he provides really sound, practical advice about how to live in the world as a Christian. The idea of faith as a lived and acted experience really resonates with me. When I think about love, I think of it as a doing word: a conscious and daily decision to act in a particular way towards people. The same goes for faith: it’s an act in the world which is constantly creating and created.

James 4: 1-10
Where do all the fights and quarrels among you come from? They come from your desires for pleasure, which are constantly fighting within you. You want things, but you cannot have them, so you are ready to kill; you strongly desire things, but you cannot get them, so then you quarrel and fight.
This is also very practical and reminds me of the Buddhist wisdom that the core of human suffering comes from the constant push and pull between desire and aversion, both sides of the same coin of samsara.

1 John 4:7-8
Dear friends, let us love one another, because love comes from God. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

The radical emphasis on God as love is what really sets Christianity apart for me. A benevolent universe, love as the fundamental creative energy.

1 Corinthians 13
I may be able to speak the languages of men and even of angels, but if I have no love, my speech is no more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell. I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains – but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give up my body to be burnt – but if I have no love, this does me no good.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail.

Love is eternal. There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.

When I was a child, my speech, feelings and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am a [wo]man, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete – as complete as God’s knowledge of me.

Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.

I didn’t want to include this passage, but I had to. It is so clichéd to read this passage out at a wedding and yet I had to have it at mine, read by my dear sister who has since passed away. This passage is pure poetry. The rhythm and repetition has inspired orators throughout history. I love that the use of language and music (which is poetry) taps into something deeply human – like the vibrations of a chant or the harmonics of a hymn. And of course I love the message, which reminds us of the ineffability and unknowability of God except through love.
Aslan, Reza. (2013). Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Out Great Wisdom Traditions. HarperCollins: Epub.

Dec 14 2017

White people don’t fart*

*Caveat: Some of my best friends are white people, and they definitely fart. This post is not about them. It is about those who do not fart. And when I say “do not fart,” I mean, of course, “Do behave in a racist fashion which implies that only people of colour fart. Or eat smelly food. Or take our jobs. Or kill people.”

I don’t know if I will post this blog. I feel kind of embarrassed just writing about the R word. I am not a victim; I have not been disadvantaged by my race.

Have I?

The thing is, a few experiences have been adding up lately and I don’t think they quite mean what I had always assumed.

I have had a few experiences lately which have left me no other word to explain them but with the R word.

I am writing about this because of a recent incident of overt racism in a professional context, which is not where you expect to encounter it. I had met this particular person, let’s call them X, a number of times and each time noticed that X didn’t seem to particularly like me. I assumed that X was shy, or nervous, or territorial, or perhaps just tired. But then we had a work meeting about a project and my husband was with me because we work together, and perhaps it was the sight of two Asians which was just too much for X. Certain words exploded out of her mouth as if she could not keep a lid on them, and when I heard them (and I don’t plan on sharing particulars as I don’t want a suit for libel), I laughed awkwardly because surely this wasn’t happening? But X did not laugh, and then went on to say several other things about groups of people who are of a similar skin colour to me (i.e. not quite white/right). So I stopped laughing.

The meeting proceeded, because what can you say to someone in power who says things like that?

Afterwards I processed what had happened. I reflected on my past exchanges with X; the physically drawing back, the not meeting my eye, the talking to my colleagues rather than me.

‘Ahah! That’s why X doesn’t like me!’ I cried to my husband. ‘Not because she is threatened by me (how cutely naive!), but because she is physically repulsed by me!’

It’s a very strange experience, to physically, viscerally repulse someone purely because of what you look like. This is what racism is: when someone doesn’t want to look at you, touch you, even smell you, because your body is slightly different to theirs around the eyes, and in the amount of melanin in your skin. That is enough to make someone recoil from your touch. It may as well have been you who let the fart rip in the lift on the way to the meeting. You would have been blamed anyway because white people don’t fart.

All my life I have been taught that if I behave properly and nicely, most rational people will respond accordingly. I was not told that sometimes, people will barely be able to look me in the eye because of the colour and shape of mine.

So when this does happen to me, as it has happened a number of times in my life and (sadly) more so in the last few years, my reaction is generally disbelief in the simple irrationality of it. Could an intelligent person really not like me because of what I look like?

Because racists aren’t always stupid or ignorant. However, they are always, always lazy. It is lazy to not fight the deep tribal urge to dislike what is different. It is lazy to not put yourself in someone else’s shoes or to not pull yourself up when you hear what your brain is saying on autopilot when you spot someone browner/yellower than you.

I too have been guilty of the visceral swerve. My Chinese mother raised me to distrust and dislike Chinese men (this type of internal racism is not uncommon). When I met and married my ABC, I had to overcome all my childhood-learned dogma. But I did, because I am not lazy (and he is super hot). And thank the gods, I was smart enough to recognise the man of my dreams, even if he looked like the type my mother and the rest of society had overtly and covertly warned me away from.

My experiences of racism seem trivial compared to the stuff many thousands of people put up with on a daily basis. Before I married my ABC, I experienced some mild racism – the occasional name-calling; one memorable egging (but to be honest, that could have simply been a random act of teenage-ness). However, since I married my ABC, I have become a secondary target for the racism which has dogged him his whole life and have come to understand that sometimes, people hate you for No Good Reason.

With him, my Eurasian-ness is no longer mistaken for whiteness and is instead fully absorbed into his Chinese skin, even though he was born in Wollongong and I in Brisbane. People think we are siblings because what Asian man can have a sexual identity? People think I can’t speak English because I am walking next to a University of Sydney LLB graduate who happens to look Chinese. People think my food smells weird and nasty because I am eating delicious cold rolls on the train and sitting with my Asian husband so therefore we are stinky and nasty (who could possibly think plum sauce is stinky?! Lazy racist people with no taste, that’s who).

The professional incident I mentioned above made me laugh, then made me feel unsafe because it made me wonder how many other people might be going around, hating me because of how I look. And then that just made me feel sad.

So I am writing this to stop feeling sad. I want to believe that each time the pendulum swings, it swings further in my direction. Right now it seems rather far off in the distance, and here I am, waving at it to come on over.

What would I say to all the racist people who make me feel unsafe because they feel unsafe because of people like me? I guess I would say this: Get you DNA checked. You’re probably just as yellow / brown / black / other as the rest of us, underneath your burnt red skin.

Oct 13 2017

My Crib Notes on Taoism

1200px-Yin_yang.svgThere is a being, wonderful, perfect;

It existed before heaven and earth.

How quiet it is!

How spiritual it is!

It stands alone and it does not change.

It moves around and around, but does not on this account suffer.

All life comes from it.

It wraps everything with its love as in a garment, and

Yet it claims no honour, it does not demand to

Be Lord.

I do not know its name, and so I call it Tao,

The Way,

And I rejoice in its power. (Tao Te Ching)

What is Tao?

According to Huston Smith, author of the excellent book, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions,Tao has three meanings.

Tao is the way of ultimate reality. According to Huston Smith, ‘This Tao cannot be perceived or even clearly conceived, for it is too vast for human rationality to fathom.’ (Smith, 1998).

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” (Tao Te Ching). The author/s of the Tao Te Ching recur to this theme: the ineffable, the transcendent, the primary mystery, “the mystery of all mysteries (Smith, 1998).

Tao is also immanent: it is the way of the universe, the “norm, the rhythm, the driving owner in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life. Behind, but also in the midst of all life, for when Tao enters this second mode it assumes flesh and informs all things.” (Smith, 1998). It is also benign; infinitely generous, open and flowing.

According to Huston Smith, “Charles Darwin’s colleague, George Romanes, could have been speaking of it [Tao] when he referred to the ‘integrating principle of the whole – the Spirit, as it were, of the universe – instinct without contrivance, which flows with purpose.’”

Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe…” (Smith, 1998).

Three Forms of Taoism

In China, three forms of Taoism have arisen:

  • Philosophical Taoism
  • Religious Taoism (Popular Taoism)
  • Active Taoism (Smith calls these the “Vitalising Taoisms”)

Philosophical Taoism is not organised as a religion, but essentially is “an attitude towards life” (Smith, 1998). The core principle is that humans should live in a way that conserves life’s vitality by not wasting it through friction and conflict. The concept of wu wei, literally “inaction,” in Taoism means “pure effectiveness” or “creative quietude” (Smith, 1998). Friction is minimalised. The aim is that we align our daily lives with the Tao, “to ride its boundless tide and delight in its flow.”

Creative quietude unites supreme activity with supreme relaxation. The ego yields to the Tao. According to Smith, this is the opposite of Confucianism. “Confucius turned every effort to building a pattern of ideal responses that might be consciously imitated. Taoism’s approach is the opposite – to get the foundations of the self in tune with Tao and let behaviour flow spontaneously. Action follows being; new action will follow new being, wiser, stronger being.”

Taoists reject competition and self-assertiveness, instead promoting humility and disinterest in worldly ambitions. Taoists extend this to nature; humans should not be aggressive towards each other or nature, seeking attunement with nature rather than dominance.

Taoists also adopted the Chinese yin/yang symbol which describes relativity and balance, in which supposed opposites are just phases in an endless cycle in which each eternally turns into its opposite and vice versa. Life does not follow a linear vector, but “bends back upon itself to come full circle to the realisation that all is one and all is well.” (Smith, 1998). Taoists even see good and evil as relative: “He who feels punctured must once have been a bubble.” (Tao Te Ching).

Life and death as complementary cycles in the Tao.

There is the globe,

The foundation of my bodily existence.

It wears me out with work and duties,

It gives me rest in old age,

It gives me peace in death.

For the one who supplied me with what I needed in life

Will also give me what I need in death. (Tao Te Ching)

Active Taoists aim to increase the amount of Tao that they can access. They talk about ch’i, which literally means breath but refers to the power of the Tao that practitioners experience flowing through them or being blocked. Practitioners aim to further the flow of ch’i.

Active Taoists work with matter, movement and mind. Practices have arisen such as acupuncture, meditation, Chinese medicinal herbs, and t’ai chi chuan. This last united yin yang philosophy, martial art and meditation to draw ch’i from the cosmos and remove internal blocks to the flow of ch’i.

Taoists meditators attempt to empty the mind so that the Tao can enter the self. Physical postures and mental techniques are not dissimilar to those of the Hindu raja yoga. In China, Taoists wanted to focus the ch’i they gathered through meditation and yoga, and transmit it psychically to the community.Meditators aim to cleanse and purify their minds and bodies of emotional disturbances and desires in order to reach the mind’s original purity and stillness. They aim in this way to realise the Tao, the ultimate truth. This would be experienced as a sense of joy: everything falling into place.

Religious Taoists built on China’s folk religious practices and Buddhist influences. The Tao Chiao, “Church Taoism” or “Taoist Teachings,” emerged in the second century AD, with Lao Tzu as one of the three originating deities from whom sprung sacred texts which outline rituals for channeling the life force in ways which could be called “magical.”

My Reflections on the Tao

The Tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal Name. (Tao Te Ching)

When I first read these words, they came home to me, they resonated with me.

‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.’ I really like how the Tao Te Ching, right up front, acknowledges the unnameability of spirit. The writer gets to the heart of what it means to be talking about something that is beyond and within, that escapes language because it came before language.

It reminds me of the Huston Smith chapter about the indigenous spiritualities of the First Peoples. Smith talks about how significant it is that in, for example, Aboriginal Australian culture, spirituality was experienced in a non-written way. This intrigued me – how would we see the world if we did not write the words down? Then I reflected upon how different this is to the Christian new testament: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and Christ is the Word made flesh.’

There was something formless and perfect

Before the universe was born.

It is serene. Empty.

Solitary. Unchanging.

Infinite. Eternally present.

It is the mother of the universe.

For lack of a better name,

I call it the Tao. (Tao Te Ching)

But back to the Tao Te Ching, which strips things right back to their inner nature. When you do this with the universe itself, what do you have left? Nothing. Literally, no thing. So how do you talk about it? ‘For lack of a better name, I call it the Tao.’

I love this line. It is so direct, and I really like how it has been written in the first person voice, which is really different to say, the Christian bible or the Quran, which are written from a third person narrative voice which gives it an aura of authority, you know, the objective voice of history. In this passage from the Tao Te Ching, the use of first person really brings it home that this is just a regular human being writing these words, doing her best to communicate something which it is impossible to communicate. The basic humour of that is something which I think really colours Taoism, with its crazy riddles and joking monks. There is something earthy about it which really resonates with me, and also something which reminds me of my Chinese ancestry – there is a matter of fact-ness, a down to earthiness, a laughing pragmatism about the Taoist way of relating to the world which I just love.

I think I also see in this use of first person the importance of developing my own personal voice and narrative when it comes to interfaith ministry. It is a profoundly uncomfortable act for me as a female, and an Australian with our deeply culturally ingrained British reserve, to talk about myself. But I am coming around to seeing how useful it will be to find a way to speak in the first person, as the author of the Tao Te Ching did.


The Tao gives birth to all beings,

Nourishes them, maintains them,

Cares for them, comforts them, protects them,

Takes them back to itself,

Creating without possessing,

Acting without expecting,

Guiding without interfering.

That is why love of the Tao

Is in the very nature of things.

I love this passage because when I read it, to me it sounded like an excellent set of directions for how to parent – to be like the Tao – and quite possibly, I imagine, how to minister. ‘Create without possessing, act without expecting, guide without interfering.’ That is the best way to parent a child, and I can see myself coming back to this as a guide to how to be an interfaith minister.


Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Huston Smith. The World’s Religions. (1998).