Monday, 9 January 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

Speaking of the Fall, my relaxing holiday reading this Saturnalia, has been AJ Mackinnon's lovely travel story The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow.  Mackinnon tells the story of his journey through the waterways of Europe, from Wales to the Black Sea, in a 10 ft sailing dinghy.  It's glorious fun, with the odd hair-raising incident to keep the adrenaline going.  Like to try crossing the English Channel in a dinghy?  Without any larger craft accompanying?  Like to be accosted by pirates in remote Bulgaria?  Like to be stuck in Serbia as NATO is about to begin bombing?

Apart from the comedy and high farce, one of his most persistent themes is the kindness of strangers.  Just when he is about to despair, his boat is ready to fall to pieces, he is starving and out of cash in a Visa-less country, or some other disaster strikes, some complete stranger steps up with carpentry tools and expertise, good home cooked food, a towrope, a place of shelter, a kind word or gesture.  Across the length and breadth of Europe, pirates and Milosevic notwithstanding, kindness far outweighs cruelty or indifference.

Meanwhile, in a different kind of fall, my cousin and fellow blogger Roo had a mountain biking accident on New Year's Eve.  No permanent damage but a painful injury meant his son had to call the ambulance and they had to retrieve him from bushland.  Exploiting the privileges of confirmation bias to the full he says:  "People were so wonderful, generous and helpful. Sorry, my Christian brethren, but I don't think humans are 'fallen' at all."

So twice proves it, and it led my thoughts to Creation Spirituality and a book I read years ago by one of the founders of the CS movement, Matthew Fox, called On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear.  Despite its unblievably kitschy title and equally kitschy 1970s cover, this is actually a brilliant book which has had a huge influence on me over the past 20 years.

Fox's basic idea is that creation represents the "original blessing".  He opposes to the life-denying tendencies of traditional theology, influenced by the neo-Platonists and passed to us via Augustine and the likes of Thomas a Kempis, a life-affirming, joyous spirituality based on appreciating and enjoying God's gift of creation, and working fervently to preserve its goodness in all its forms.

For we have numerous instances in Western spiritualities of life-denying rather than a life-affirming spirituality....  Repression, not expression; guilt, not pleasure; heaven, not this life; sentimentality, not justice; mortification, not developing of talents: these are the earmarks of what Western spirituality has for the most part done with the thought of Plato and the neo-Platonists (who always preferred a different world to this one); of Augustine (who...dichotomised the body and soul, man and woman, creation and grace and founded Chrisitan faith on belief in the Fall rather than in creation)....  (These spiritualities) can lead to life-denial and deep human pessimism.  Yet they have invariably been the more popular and influential spirituality in Christianity.

By contrast, Fox has spent his life trying to build an alternative kind of spirituality.  He works towards a "creation-centred, that is, a life-affirming spirituality", knowing "how to enjoy life without feeling guilty", while at the same time "preparing to 'stick out his chin' for justice's sake - that is to share life whatever the personal cost.  This tension is the substratum on which an adult, creation-centred spirituality is based.  It is the spirituality that Jesus practiced...."

Fox doesn't deny the Fall, in that he recognises that things in the world are not as they should be.  There are still pirates, NATO still drops bombs, people like Milosevic still get to ruin countries.  He emphasises the prophetic tradition which calls for justice and opposes oppression.  Yet he doesn't believe the presence of evil in the world negates the basic goodness of God's creation, the value of this life or the image of God which each of us carries.  We can be kind to stangers - indeed, we often are - because that is how God made us, and that is how God is. 

1 comment:

Sammy said...

I never really bought into the idea that humans had "fallen" and were now tainted with original sin. When I read Genesis, I do not see a story of the first humans making a terrible mistake. Instead, I see the story of how humans became human (metaphorically anyway). In Genesis, once Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree of knowledge, two things happen: they now understand the difference between good and evil and they become aware that they are mortal.

Yet those are the very qualities that distinguish us from other animals! Instead of living based solely on instinct, we now must make moral decisions. Our lives could now become about more than just eating, reproducing, and surviving.

Also, we became conscious, perceptive of our own existence. We realized that we were both a part of nature yet, at the same time, distinct from it. With this consciousness, we became capable of abstract thought, including the ability to contemplate the future. Yes, this meant we gained knowledge of our own mortality, which is not always pleasant. But we also gained philosophy, art, music, mathematics, complex languages, and science.

If humans had never "eaten from the tree of knowledge", we wouldn't be human. Would you really trade your consciousness and your sense of right and wrong just to live in Eden? I know I wouldn't.