What has religion ever done for me?

There is an increasingly loud voice of secularism in the West which rejects all religion as at best, irrelevant and at worst, dangerously intolerant extremism.

Certainly, Stephen Hawking, the physicist famous for his insights and intellect who passed away this month, thought God was an invention we no longer needed. Rightly influential as a scientist and writer, Hawking was also well known for rejecting the idea of a personal or creator God:  “Before we understood science, it [was] natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation,” he said.

Hawking reasoned that man had to invent God because we needed to understand the world. But now we can rely on human reason and science.

Am I then a fool for loving the revelations of science whilst also believing that everything cannot be understood by the power of reason?

What has religion done for me?

  • A tenet of humanism is that we are making progress as a civilisation:[1] religion holds us back because of superstition but humans who trust in scientific fact will continue to move forward to greater enlightened thinking.

But human experience repudiates this idea. Our cleverness does not make us morally better with the passing of time. We make strides forward in some ways eg we no longer accept child labour in the west but sink into ‘mediaeval’ behaviour when we allow global trade in children’s lives for labour or sex; when we allow guns to be put in the hands of child soldiers or when we turn a blind eye to rich men abusing younger female staff.

How do we account for such actions if we accept no moral compass beyond our own individual benefit?

If we have a moral standard beyond our own, we have a universal and eternal standard of rightness that holds us to account – that allows us to praise good and condemn trespasses in individuals and as a society. I don’t have to kid myself that we are constantly improving – I can work for justice and right whilst also knowing that those things  are imperfect because only God is perfect.

  • Many people, not just Christians, accept that materialism and individualism are empty replacements for religion, but they are not sure how to address the mess. Does it lie in mindfulness?

Meditation and other forms of slowing down are good ways to stop our bodies and minds from overload but I have issues with finding the solutions to my problems purely in my own resources.

But believing in God gives me a sense of purpose, comfort and balance that is in my heart and mind but also beyond me. God helps me see my life and the state of the world through a bigger lens.

  • Science invites us to measure things and downplays things that can’t be empirically proved but how can we measure the efficacy of prayer? or totally understand why music can calm the agitations of a person with dementia?

I’m OK with some mystery in life, with not being able to understand everything. I don’t think it is laziness, just a sense that we cannot know or control everything, and that if humans did, that might be very dangerous.

Science is grappling with this dilemma now as artificial intelligence gets more ‘intelligent’. Where do morality and goodness fit into the programming of a robot? And if we teach morality to a robot, whose morality is it – a PhD nerd’s in silicon valley?

God’s values put human life above all else, say we should love our neighbours as ourselves, remind us we are NOT the most important thing in the world, and puts sacrificial love as the highest value.

  • Believing in God does not make me stupid or superstitious. It helps me to appreciate that I am wonderfully made but also makes me humble when I realise how much God has done to create relationship with me.

In one of my favourite films, Blade Runner, a key question is What makes us human? The simple answer is a very Biblical concept: that love and freedom make us human. Can we experience those without God? Of course. But understanding God is the only way to truly appreciate my ‘spiritual’ humanity and my place in a mysteriously wonderful yet perplexing world.

 

 

[1] Steven Pinker says in his new book Enlightenment Now, that the ending of the slave trade coincided with the Enlightenment. But he fails to acknowledge that leaders of the anti-slavery movement in the UK and USA were Christian Quakers and groups like the Clapham sect who were motivated by faith.

 

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Freedom to speak differently about gender inequality

Women in leadership in the workplace is a big issue – the gender pay gap, and women in leadership on Boards, in the Church and as CEOs are often news items. And the news is not good.

It is a minefield of dispute, on which the Church is rather quiet (probably because they still find the idea of women leaders a challenge).

There is a line in the Bible that says, “Trust in God. Don’t lean on your own understanding.”

Apparently ancient rulers used to appear in public leaning on trusted friends and ministers, not as sign of weakness, but to show that they were able to rely on trusted advice, acknowledging the wisdom of others.

It’s a great image of good leadership – relying on your team, taking advice, confident of your position yet avoiding hubris.

And it’s a surprisingly gender neutral picture too: even though I think we would envisaging an ancient ruler as a man, the concepts of teamwork and relying on the strength of others could apply equally to males or females.

‘Lean’ has also been given a modern twist when a few years ago Sheryl Sandberg used the phrase Lean In as the title of her book, in which she described how women needed to have ambition – to lean in and strive – if they wanted to succeed. And she should know, she is the COO of Facebook.

When women lead, should we do it differently? Or should we as Sandberg asserts, learn to lead more like men – to succeed on their terms (I am guilty here of over simplifying her argument but she does give lots of advice on how to overcome the disadvantages women face as a result of being female).

What could be a different understanding on these issues?

First of all, the pay gap. It’s pretty well established that men get paid more than women for doing exactly the same job. This is unjust. Full stop. High profile cases in the media and the film industry attest to inequality.

The World Economic Forum announced in November that it could take 218 years to bridge the gender pay gap.

1200 companies in the UK must now produce statistics on equal pay – and the first reports are not good. 74% of the firms pay men more than women and more men are in higher paid jobs eg CEOs or pilots or finance advisors vs administrators, cabin staff or bank tellers.

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This can be a crude measure – it looks at average wages for men and women in an organisation rather than like-for-like comparisons. This is an important distinction because there are many reasons for lower pay and we need to dig a bit deeper to make sure we tackle real gender unfairness in all its forms – rather than noting that cabin crew (mainly female) earn less than the pilot (mainly male) we need to see how we can change job expectations and opportunities. Easyjet has a great program to double its number of women pilots (from an appallingly low 6% to 12%).

Another limitation of the response to pay is that Western feminists tend to be urban and middle class, so the talk about pay disparity is about professionals. In my discussions with women in non-western contexts, talk about pay and access to household income is much more basic. I would love to see us standing in solidarity for women in factories in Bangladesh or women in villages in Zimbabwe who want enough money from their husbands to get a bus to the health clinic.

And in Australia when I played a small part in a campaign to get fair pay for women piece workers (paid for each piece of clothing they produced at home), it was interesting that unions were not really interested – the women were migrants with only a basic grasp of English and the union leaders were old school males. It is women like this who need pay justice as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, let’s look at women in leadership. We should encourage talented and capable women to lead. We should have special programs that overcome women’s lack of confidence. And we need to accept biology.

Some women want to work part-time or take time out as mothers or carers, putting career aspirations on hold.

We need to make it for easier for women to take up their careers again in their 40s or beyond, or to see ‘careers’ very differently. More men should be encouraged to make similar decisions without the stigma of being seen as lacking ambition.

 

It is NOT right to discriminate against women who have babies – and it is not right to look down on any woman or man who wants to work part-time so they have time for parenting as well. Part-time workers (who may want time for study, parenting, mental health, caring for aged parents…. the list goes on) are still seen as lacking dedication or commitment so talking about flexible working is vitally important.

Lastly, we need to look at the type of leadership we want. It’s not just numbers – we need to make sure that we encourage and appreciate women’s leadership styles.

This may be dangerous territory for me to enter because anyone who makes a comment about women being different to men can be accused of being sexist. But is it sexist to celebrate that women are more collaborative? Have stronger emotional intelligence and can articulate their feelings? Some of these behaviours may be nature and some nurture but we do need to appreciate the differences between men and women and recognise that when men and women share leadership, it creates healthy balance.

Such a recognition also frees men from the tyranny of having to be Alpha males. ‘Leaning’ is just as important for men as it is women – leaning on God’s understanding of issues, being a leader who is confident enough to ask questions of others and listen to their wisdom.

What would you like to see? Leave a comment or a story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Facebook life

My Facebook life is not me, it’s a better version of me. Even though I try not to post only about sunsets, talented children and victorious Bible verses, it is inevitable that my life on Facebook has fewer cracks and less boredom than my real life.

So I come to my recent family holiday – we all went skiing and I was sooo keen for the family to be close and happy in the snow. Maybe I was bound to be disappointed by the ordinary awkwardness that happens when adult children and partners get together in a small chalet, with a couple of young grandchildren thrown in.

4b2aa8c1-6e2d-4500-8358-4705716c1235In the end I posted only one image on Facebook – my daughter and son, who are elegant and accomplished skiers, in the sunny brightness of a gorgeous mountain backdrop. It summed up my love for them I guess, and all my memories of our early skiing trips in Australia on the cheap, in borrowed clothes on dodgy cross-country skis. That is where we learned to enjoy the cold, clean whiteness in rather wet conditions, with freezing hands, on home-made runs through the gum trees.

The photo of them as adults so poised on the slopes, is also a reminder for me of friends we skied with, of winter puddings, building igloos and snowball fights. Of the sublime quietness of skiing away from noisy resorts.

On Instagram, I concentrated on the snow, the sunshine and the natural grandeur – it was easy to see God in the beauty of the Alps.

Do I risk making my online life seem sunny and positive all the time?

Last year, a study found that platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat have a negative effect because they can exacerbate young people’s body image worries, and worsen sleep problems and feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness. Of course, we cannot just blame social media for these things but there is no doubt that constant access to unrealistically beautiful and positive images makes our own lives seem mundane and therefore inadequate.

It’s ironic that ‘social’ media, designed to connect us and “make the world more open” can actually make us feel alone.

But remember that Facebook quickly became a tool to judge fellow Harvard students especially girls.

The other extreme on social media, once we pass teenage years, is to make our online lives appear messy and unorganised – the slummy mummy approach. This is funny and comforting for a while but not totally satisfying as we know that the writers are NOT as useless as they proclaim. Their life of mess is as curated as Tracy Emin’s famous artwork, “My Bed”.

And of course, image driven social media is not good at conveying our intellectual lives. It basks in sound bites and platitudes, not considered opinion. People ‘like’ or hate too easily without even reading the full article or considering the complexities of life.

Several people I follow on Twitter and Facebook face regular vilification because their ‘friends’ are simply too lazy to read posts to the end or seem incapable of understanding nuance or humour. (Thanks Michael Frost, Ben Thurley, Bev Murrill and Lee Grady for continuing to be polite in the face of all that!)

It seems to me that most of us live somewhere in the middle of the good, the bad and the ugly. We all need to be more conscious that the holiday images, the parties and the smiling faces are not 24/7 life; they are curated.

Last year I posted a lot about the women I work with, about causes I think are important and about justice, as well as family. Those posts are my attempts to be more real and to have a Facebook life that is not just fifty shades of happy.

I may appear more justice oriented (and socially conscious) than I actually am (!) but I am trying to faithfully capture the images, ideas and people who are in my life, not just the celebration moments.

So for the sake of truth, let me tell you my skiing holiday was lovely but not without tensions and the odd argument. We drank prosecco not champagne, and I am still just an intermediate skier. It was not the Waltons* but it was not Home Alone either.

It was ordinary, wonderful life.

 

 

 

*you have to be a child of the 70s for that to make sense

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year, new me. Really?

Goodness, I could feel totally inadequate if I tried to follow all the New Year’s advice on looking younger, stronger, slimmer and happier (as well as better paid).

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Fitness and fashion liftouts and online lifestyle advice tell me to combat the stress and guilt of overindulgence at Christmas and new year by cultivating mindfulness and doing a bit of meditation as well.

 

Belief in our own powers to change our lives for the better is where we need to be.

Belief in God is seen as old fashioned and frankly superstitious in our very secular age. We have outgrown the need for religion but belief in ME is considered sophisticated and intelligent. We don’t pray but we find truth within ourselves, which is sort of like saying that we are gods.

Except….. belief in our own powers to live a good life did not achieve much in 2017 or 16. I still lose my temper and eat too much. And really, is life all about me? When did self sacrifice and patient contentment get thrown away!

Our desire for happiness versus uncertainty about how to get it, are not new to the 21st century. In biblical times, Paul visited Athens, the centre of philosophical thought and wisdom at the time. He saw all sorts of gods being worshipped and he spoke with agnostic philosophers too (see Acts Chapter 18). Some of them were Epicureans, named after Epicurus, who taught that happiness should be the main goal in life. Others were Stoics, who followed a teacher called Zeno, who taught that self-control was the answer and that we should follow our conscience. But more than anything, the people of Athens loved to hear and talk about anything new.

Sounds a little bit like our times – seeking happiness and wellness over here with a trip to the spa while others worship the self control needed for killer abs or a 3 hour time in the marathon. Interestingly, the response to Paul telling the people about the new God, Jesus, was also very modern: some laughed, some believed, some wanted to keep discussing.

An obvious problem with following after my own happiness is what do I do if your ‘happiness’ collides with mine or if my conscience conveniently recommends what is best for me over and above what is best for you?

These are serious and weighty questions for the new year and somehow relying on wellness or secular wisdom does not fill me with hope.

Russell Brand is not someone I would normally go to for life advice, but he is no longer a wild drug addict since he went into recovery fifteen years ago. He says in his new book, Addictions, that we need to look to God, or a higher power (as the AA’s 12 step program names it). In the past, Brand has been a poster boy for secular humanism, but interviewed recently, Brand said, “I think we’ve been tricked into not believing in God. Life is now measured out, to paraphrase TS Eliot, in coffee spoons. This is it. Are you waiting for a damascene conversion? Not to a faith but to become yourself?”

We have rushed to dismiss religion because we see its excesses and mistakes. But I still admire the discoveries of science despite the errors and fraudulent experiments of some scientists; and I still admire democracy despite the election results that have given us Donald Trump or Jacob Zuma. God is still God, even when some people do awful things in his name. So Brand may be right when he says we have been tricked into converting away from God to a much smaller and defective god – ourselves.

I want to be the best-self I can be in 2018, but by my-self I cannot have all the answers. The Greeks in Athens who asked Paul about ‘God’ could also see that man-made guidelines to self-fulfilment through happiness or self-denial were not quite the real deal. I think God is and he has promised total transformation in mind, spirit and body!

 

 

 

 

 

The power of a touch

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a
listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all
of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo F. Buscaglia

Touching is out of fashion. It is seen as predatory. No-one seems to know what is acceptable so there is a blanket ban.

And I understand. I’ve had lots of times when men (especially older men) have felt it’s OK to kiss or touch me and it has felt creepy.

Friends of mine who are in the last phase of becoming foster parents have been told that they should not cuddle any child in their care in bed. And we can see why the rule has come about. But it means they have decided they can’t cuddle their own children in bed because they don’t want to make anyone feel left out. The weekend ritual of hugs in mum and dad’s bed is abandoned.

Teachers and carers are also scared to touch.

Can’t we redeem tender touch as a wonderfully positive experience? There is a big difference between inappropriate touching and touching that is caring and comforting. And by rejecting the latter because of some destructive actions, we are missing out.

Sometimes touch ‘speaks’ human kindness more than any words. Tender touch creates emotional empathy and closeness. Studies show that those who are physically touched on a regular basis experience higher levels of the hormone oxytocin. According to the National Institutes of Health, oxytocin lowers stress hormone levels and, by doing so, plays a part in lowering blood pressure, maintaining good moods and increasing pain tolerances. Maybe doctors should prescribe hugs instead of pills.

Old people suffer from touch deprivation. They may be ‘handled’ by carers – prodded, propped and wiped – but touches of affection are rare. Hugs, holding hands and back rubs have the potential to ease their minds and make them feel less isolated.

Disabled people need touch. They may not be confident about expressing affection with words and we may feel awkward, but stroking, hand-holding, dancing can all decrease stress and increase our physical health too.

Children, especially hurting, vulnerable or angry children need touch. It is such an obvious point – baby massages, tickles, strokes, cuddles all mean love.

Researchers in Sweden have identified c-tactile (CT) afferents which apparently register more than just the physical / sensory aspect of touch – they register the emotion as well. Our forearms and back are especially sensitive to CT and they are 2 places where it is natural to give a caring caress. It seems God made us for intimacy on all levels.

Sometimes touch is a little flirtatious and that can be OK too. If it’s healthy and mutual it can be fun. If the person receiving the attention thinks it’s unwanted or is uncomfortable then the behaviour should stop, but it does not necessarily mean that it is predatory behaviour.

Does that make me sound somehow accepting of harassment? No. But I hope we can all use common sense when we decide what is good or evil.

I need touch and here are some of my favourite touching moments:

* a little child’s hand nestles into mine when we cross the road or he is balancing along a wall

* my grown children give me a generous long hug

* my husband gently kisses the back of my neck

* family ‘group hugs’ (it’s a line from Aladdin)

* the sensuous relaxation of a head massage when I have my hair cut

* holding my mum’s elbow to give a little bit of extra support tells her she is loved

* kissing away children’s tears, tasting the saltiness and feeling the heaving heart grow quiet.

They are all touch moments that make me smile and let me know I am connected to the people in my world.

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So this Christmas caress, stroke, dance, hold hands, wrestle and enjoy an oxytocin moment!

Happy Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crime or culture

The stories pouring out about sexual exploitation and inappropriate behaviour among politicians in the UK, Hollywood directors and in the ordinary experience of women leaves lots of us stunned but not surprised.

The UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned a week ago, admitting his behaviour had “fallen short” of the standards expected of him. At least forty other MPs are suspected of (unnamed) offences. And then across the Atlantic there is the sleaze of young actresses touched, insulted or assaulted by older men with the power to give or withhold a big break.

So little changes. Power leads to a warped sense of entitlement and wrong sexual behaviour towards women, girls and boys.

Some of it is crude and pathetic – a hangover of some 1970s sexist stand-up comedy routine. It used to be excused – ‘boys will be boys’, ‘can’t you take a joke?’, ‘she’s frigid’.

But the #metoo deluge of stories show how commonplace it is for women to be demeaned, patronised and propositioned.

I must admit that I am reluctant to bring up these issues too often because some people roll their eyes – feminists making a fuss again.

And maybe that’s because the instances of tawdry stupidity have been rolled in with much more serious abuse and it leaves some good people feeling confused. Media treatment favours shock exposé over facts and that does not help either.

But if our hearts feel wearied by daily revelations of immoral or criminal sexism, we still need to talk about the need for change. Statistics about the abuse of women and girls have never seemed so plausible – the stories keep coming because the abuse is around us at work, at college, at home and in the church.

Will the media outrage just fade away until the next crisis? Like the furore that surrounded Donald Trump’s boast a year about grabbing “pussy”?

Inevitably, Weinstein’s villainy will become old news, but we must learn some ways of making our girls safer and stronger.

Criminal activity cannot be ignored by the police or bosses. Victims stay silent because they know their stories will be ignored or their veracity brought into question. We need to protect and affirm people who are brave enough to speak up.

Organisations need to have clear guidelines about conduct – not so that a bit of lewd joking becomes criminal but so that it’s clear that such behaviour cannot always be patiently smiled away.

Parents need to keep talking to their sons and daughters about healthy respect for each other and talk about the risks of a Tinder view of life  – which reduces relationships to a pick up line.

We need some sensitivity – we cannot on the left hand use moral anger to blame all men, or on the right hand, tell women they just need to toughen up.

And maybe we need to mention the M word – morality. Behaviour that exploits or demeans is unacceptable. Not because we live in 2017 and are better people that our grandparents who laughed at Benny Hill (we are clearly not!), but because exploitation breaks healthy and the honest relationships between men and women that God intends.

 

 

 

 

Archibald musings

Last time I was in Sydney, the Archibald Portrait Prize exhibition was on. It’s a hugely popular show because of the celebrity subjects as much as the art itself. The critics choose a prize but so do the workers in the packing room and the general public also choose their favourite.

Two paintings of women won prizes this year: the packers chose a portrait of a well known female TV journalist as their favourite, and the critics also chose a painting of a woman.

What is about a portrait that continues to draw us even when selfies and Instagram snaps seem to replace the need for paint. The answer of course is that art is exploring more than outward show – it is looking inside and captures a person’s heart, maybe in a way that does not flatter! And probably in a way that surprises the sitter. One young painter described it in her notes as,  ‘Painting enables me to [explore] the external, diffused intimately through my internal self, into paint.’

I was struck this year by the number of women artists (just shy of 50%) as well as subjects. Some of their works were small, easy to miss, intimate self portraits trying to capture the internal self in the outward appearance.

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There was a painting of a woman 102 years old that struck me. Andrew Lloyd Greensmith’s portrait of Eileen Kramer was beautiful. The artist says of his subject, ‘Eileen embodies beauty as that intangible thing which cannot be fixed on the surface nor defeated by the wear and tear of age.’

I was glad to be reminded in all these portraits that beauty is not confined to youthful stereotypes and the unobtrusive work sings just as much as the bold.

 

 

Away from the buzz of the Archibald in the peace of the main galleries was a Grace Cossington-Smith self-portrait. She looks unassuming – spinsterish is probably how she might have been described in the 30s when she was painting. She was indeed single and stayed living at the family home all her life, free to paint because her father believed in her talent.

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Cossington-Smith was in fact fiercely ambitious as well as talented and had the good fortune to be painting between the wars when women were given space to shine. She captured suburban scenes outside her bedroom window and grand spaces like the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She is recognised now as a leading Australian artist who pioneered modernism but during her lifetime was largely unrecognised.

 

 

 

Other women saw their talent subsumed by their lovers or were allowed to be muses – inspiring talent in men – rather than showing off their own gifts. Alongside the Cossington-Smith self-portrait is one by Stella Bowen, partner of Ford Maddox Ford. Her work bought inconsistent success, overshadowed perhaps by the crowd of famous people in her circle.

Only eight women have won the Archibald Prize in its 96-year history.

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A collective of women artists in the US, called Guerilla Girls, caustically comment on this inequality in their work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. The ‘advantages’ include working without the pressure of success and having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs. Ouch!

Are things changing? I am hopeful that as in all fields of endeavour, women are no longer just the muse, or the assistant to genius, but the creators, the recognised experts and the prize winners.

 

 

And of course, that is as it should be – God’s creativity knows no bounds of gender.