Monday, April 26, 2010

On Agnostic Christianity

The duck pond is being born again

For whatever reason, some questions seem too personal to ask, too private to be answered. Simple questions arising from idle curiosity, sometimes, like, “Did your girlfriend dump you or was it the other way ‘round?” or “Did you have a shower this morning?” or “How much money did you give to charity last year?” (I just answered this last one on my income tax form yesterday; I’m actually sure the Canadian Revenue Agency’s curiosity is not idle though.)

Or the question I’ve been asked several times in public places like airports or on busses: “Are you a born-again Christian?” Well I know these people are well-meaning enough; I remember how after my one and only “born-again” experience as a 12 year-old, the adults who declared me to be “born-again” impressed on me the duty to witness, to convince others to be “born-again.”

My first impulse, however, to being accosted so intimately by a stranger is to ask, “As opposed to what, a born-only-once Christian?” But that would be sarcastic. So I just say, “Yes, I am,” and he smiles and says, “Well praise the Lord,” and wanders off, and I wonder how one can be burdened for a another person’s soul without being the least bit interested in the person.

Most Christians, I think, would be better labelled agnostic Christians as opposed to born-again. The term exists although it’s seldom heard where I live. It means that although these Christians try to follow the pattern set by Christ and assume that he represents the Creator of all things somehow, they acknowledge that there is much about this that is unknown, and equally much that is unknowable. Agnostic Christians, therefore, have a very short creed:

· There exists a Creator who is the source for the universe and everything in it.
· Jesus Christ, is an important gateway to a relationship with the Creator.
· A cloud of witnesses and our experience of life on earth teach us that love, compassion and generosity are central to God’s will, a tenet reinforced by the record of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels.
· It is right that we should pay homage to the Creator who gave us this brief moment of life and whose will it appears to be that we should preserve and enjoy the fruits of creation.

I’ve restated these tenets somewhat, of course.

Although less “evangelical” than the “born-agains” generally, Christians who acknowledge that much is unknowable are more likely to approach others as people rather than as projects. Agnostic Christians don’t presume to know the workings of the Creator in the big picture, nor in the microcosm of another person’s soul. They’re more apt to approach strangers on the “compassion and generosity” level, anticipating that the one who made the universe is the only one who can create newness and life.

What do you say when asked if you’ve been born again? Maybe you’re one of those who have drifted so far from the Creator that the metaphor fits. Most likely not. Try saying, “I’m not sure, but I’m definitely on the Creator’s side!” You probably can’t KNOW much more than that in any case.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Food, glorious food

Sunday morning. I’m writing between bites of toast and jam. I could choose to eat a whole loaf of bread if I wanted and no one would suffer as a result. The fridge is full of eggs, cheese, butter, milk and the freezer half-full of meat. There are five cans of Stella Artois Belgian beer in the downstairs fridge (I drank one watching TV last night, I could have had up to 6 if I’d wanted to).

Food surplus. Store shelves brimming with cheap food. A surplus that can be fully accessed by anyone for about one-tenth of an average North American or European income.

In A history of the World in 6 Glasses, Tom Standage traces the development of the beverages we have come to take for granted. Beer, for instance, was the first ubiquitous drink after water and likely developed as a result of the storing of grain and the subsequent accidents occurring when moisture caused the grain to ferment. The book goes on to trace the history of wine, spirits, tea, coffee and Coca-Cola. It’s a fascinating read.

Standage attributes the rise of Western civilization (a word that in its original forms meant “citifying”) to food surpluses. As I understand this viewpoint, cultures in which every able-bodied person was obliged to struggle with the task of growing or finding meagre sustenance were not only malnourished in many cases (with the concomitant effects on brain function, I suppose) but hadn’t the option of pursuing knowledge, invention, art, music, etc. They simply didn’t have the time. Surplus food results in surplus time and energy. Some of that time can be spent foraging in the world of ideas, scientific exploration, world travel or (as I did for a few hours last night, to my horror) staring at a technology that lets me watch other people play a game. It can also be spent gambling, dissipating, sleeping, reading, building and improving, philandering, doing art, whatever.

Agnes is reading Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons, a documentary on life in Burma/Myanmar. She asked a rhetorical question over dinner yesterday (as we were enjoying barbequed steak, baked potato and a salad) about why some people have so much (we) and others have been dealt virtually nothing (Burmese poor). The only response I could think of was to bring up Standage’s “food surplus” theorizing.

I teach ESL to two Karen refugees once a week. We have a great time. One of them was an elephant handler back in Burma until conflict drove many of the dissident Karen people to refugee camps in Thailand, and fate happily dealt two families an opportunity to come to Rosthern two years ago. They are learning, among other things, how one lives in a culture that enjoys surplus food. The elephant handler has a job in a pet food factory just out of town. The other gentleman works at picking up recyclables and garbage (surplus and redundant materials) on the streets of town.

Some random Sunday morning musings. There have to be millions more words on the subjects of civilization, food, privilege, etc., I invite you to write them down and share them. I’m going up to get a second cup of coffee, maybe another piece of toast, although I’ve been putting on a few pounds lately.