Posts Tagged religion

Queer worship in Cape Town


It is a sad fact that homosexuals do not feel welcome in most churches. But it is encouraging to know that Christians have been at the forefront of the marriage inequality movement for a long time. The Metropolitan Community Church, for instance, was founded as early as 1968 and has been campaigning for marriage equality ever since. It has also no doubt contributed to the emerging “queer theology” that seeks to legitimise their stance.  I attended a service of the Good Hope MCC in Cape Town last Sunday. It was Freedom Day, the birthday of SA’s democracy.

The Good Hope MCC meets in a historical Church building on Green Market Square in Cape Town and they hung a huge yellow banner declaring that all “queers” are welcome. The pastor was a slight woman who not only preached, but also sang while playing the guitar, straight from the pulpit. The toilets were designated unisex. I have the memory of there being rainbow decorations everywhere, but this may be more of an impression than actual fact. The message, in any case, was very clear: you are welcome.

But it was also very clear that this message was not directed toward me. I’m a heterosexual male, perfectly welcome in a traditional church. No, this message was directed to the LGBT community.  Indeed, I felt like possibly only one of two heterosexuals there (the other being a friend I had brought along). This was also an impression, not an established fact. The MCC church is there for LGBT people. Every announcement and virtually every statement made was geared toward them.

And why should the MCC not focus on LGBT? In virtually every other church they are either not mentioned at all, or they are informed that they are living in sin. The plight of LGBT people in the new South Africa is still acute. There are, for instance, Lesbians being murdered or correctively raped in some communities.  Would other churches take as active a stance to stop this?

The Good Hope MCC church is perhaps the only place that LGBT people in Cape Town can connect with a community of believers without judgement. And they do so alone. Shouldn’t heterosexuals and LGBT people be able to worship together? Is it not deplorable that in 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, the church is in a kind of apartheid, heterosexuals here, LGBT people there? Perhaps, in another twenty years, it will seem simply absurd.

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Fundamental Atheism on the internet

I recently “liked” a group called Anti-Theists. Pro Active Atheists. Opposing Religious Harm. on Facebook, and also one called Atheist Uprising. I “liked” them not because I am an atheist (I am a Christian), but because I like to hear what atheists, particularly the passionate ones, have to say. These facebook groups use memes (and, to a lesser degree, links to articles, and Youtube videos) in order spread their message.

I have always enjoyed interacting with atheists (I have many friends who are atheists or agnostic), but this is the first time I’ve actively sought out Atheist opinions on social media and allowed them to flood my news feed. Being constantly confronted by anti-theists isn’t always easy, because it forces you to confront your beliefs. But it is important. The more I see the more I realise that fundamental atheism, the atheism that deliberately opposes all forms of religion, is really just a religion itself, with all the attendant harm and nobility. I want to illustrate a bit of this by having a brief look at some of the memes that show up. (I will, of course, be cherry-picking the ones that suit me. Go have a look at the Facebook pages if you think I am not giving a fair account).

Read the rest of this entry »

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Faithful to science


A gripe of many atheists is the strange ability of believers to affirm science in some areas (they believe in the principles that led to combustion engines) but to blindly deny it in others (notably: evolutionary theory). This has to stop. If Christians are ever to convince the thoughtful scientific atheists out there, they will need to start treating science with the respect it deserves. Two things have recently underscored this for me. Read the rest of this entry »

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The God in our language

Do you listen to the things you say? I listen to what people say and their words do not always reflect their beliefs. Atheists call upon God and Christians who otherwise profess things to be the will of God blame things on luck or coincidence when it is convenient.

Admittedly, it’s often hardly their fault. Our language has evolved this way. It’s hard to make utterances completely congruent with your beliefs – in fact people might think you’re a little strange. If your friend is about to write a big exam, do you say

a)      Good luck,

b)      May the will of God let you succeed, or

c)       Your hard work will pay off

Everyone says a) at least some of the time, even if their beliefs are more consistent with b) or c). “Good luck” is just something one says. In some sense it’s lost its meaning. No one thinks they can control whimsical chance. If you’re a Christian, perhaps the best thing to say is “God speed”, which literally means “let God prosper you”, but this now has connotations of impending doom (thanks, probably, to movies and the US military) and so your friend may lose heart entirely.

When you narrowly avoid disaster, do you say

a)      Thank God,

b)      Thank goodness,

c)       I was lucky, or

d)      It was God’s will

At different points you may find yourself saying more one of the above.  Even Atheists like to say
“Thank God” and they don’t seem to see the irony. I think you should only thank God if you really mean to thank God. But then, should we avoid thanking goodness? I think the world is random (designed that way) and so I see no problem in blaming things on luck – as long as by luck you mean probability or chance.

When something upsets you, do you say

a)      f***

b)      Jesus Christ

c)       Mary mother of God

d)      Darn

e)      Shit

I say “flip”. It’s less coarse than any of the above, but its purpose is pretty much the same: A thoughtless word expressed in anger.  Why do we want to be profane when things go wrong? Perhaps we want blame the God whose name we invoke, even if we foreswear His existence.  Perhaps we want to punish the universe for our predicament (as if it cares). Perhaps we don’t think at all.

There is a particular usage of words that some Christians like and which I avoid. They may say things such as

a)      I felt God say to me…

b)      The spirit moved me…

c)       I had a calling…

d)      I just felt something…

d) is probably the most honest. There is probably nothing wrong with a) to c), but unless you make it clear that you’re just interpreting your circumstances, your thoughts, your dreams, or your feelings, you can mislead people.

When someone sneezes, do you say “bless you?”
Are lovers fated to be together?
When you meet someone in an unexpected place, is it a coincidence?
Is getting that promotion an answer to your prayers or did you deserve it?
Is it a miracle or an as yet unexplained mystery?

Our language betrays us.  In some sense, as Christians, God is alive in our language, in how we interpret the world. A cynic might say God only exists in our language. When I say something is a miracle, I acknowledge God’s power over reality. But does that mean I should pepper my language with references to God? If God wills I will go to such and such a place and make money…

I think we should practice make our language consistent with what we really mean in every circumstance. Atheists should not thank God. If I think something is a coincidence or just pure luck I shall call it that.  Leave it to someone else to say it is the will of God, if that is what they mean.

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Pro-life? Have you been asking the right question?

I think that often, in the pro-choice vs pro-life debate people ask the wrong question. The question we should ask is not “Is abortion right or wrong?” The answer to this question is of course of great personal relevance and it is a very important question, but like the question of whether there is a God, I believe it is one that must be left to individuals to answer for themselves.

Whether abortion is right or wrong is a hard question and it ultimately involves drawing an indistinct and necessarily arbitrary line between what is considered sacred human life and what is not. The Catholic church, banning contraception, draws the line at one extreme. There are even people who advocate killing babies that have already been born can be justified (see here), who take the other extreme. The point is that the answer to this question depends on your personal ethical, moral, and religious convictions and that there is good, well-reasoned (even if not unassailable) justification for many viewpoints.

So instead of asking a hard question, let us ask an easier one: “Should the government be allowed to decide whether abortion is right or wrong?” If you accept that the government should be secular, that is that it should not support any one religious view over others, then you might agree with me that the answer is no. Both secularists (often pro-choice) and Catholics (notably pro-life) should be able to live in accordance with their views.

Because the question is so hard and because each individual abortion case is different, legislation is going to be a blunt and unwieldy tool. If you forbid abortion entirely, you also forbid abortion where it would save the mother’s life. As soon as you start making exceptions, you create grey areas, uncertainty. You cannot possibly account for the myriad of circumstances which people may face. There will be unintended consequences such as illegal abortion clinics (yes, this is in fact inevitable) where safety standards cannot be enforced. And you deny people the right to make a very important and difficult choice.

Like free market economists, I believe better outcomes can be attained by giving people as much freedom as possible, only intervening when the market or, in this case social norms and structures, clearly fail. This is why making murder illegal is necessary. The consequences of not doing so may be total anarchy, an inability for society to function because no one feels safe. This is not the case with abortion. Nor is it the case with assisted suicide, to which I think the same principles should be applied. The ones best placed to make the decision are the ones closest to it: they are emotionally invested, they have the most information and their futures depend on it.

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Praying in a Church

In February a Russian punk band called Pussy Riot got into a Cathedral in Moscow and performed a punk song , actually a prayer to the Virgin Mary, called “Our Lady, chase Putin out.” (Read about it here and here).  I understand it was somewhat lewd and it was sung in a holy area where only priests were meant to go. It probably startled the priests, infuriated them. But they deserved to be startled. And so does Russia, where Putin’s reign is, by all accounts, tyrannical, and where the church is doing nothing but help it along. In my opinion Pussy Riot had entered a place long defiled and prayed publicly the prayer the church should be constantly praying all through Putin’s reign.

Three of the band’s members are on trial, with little hope, it seems of it being fair. They could face seven years in prison. Putin’s grip on the country is still strong. It may be a long time before their prayer is heard.

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The church in the red light district

(The following is based on an article I wrote for ISN Insiders magazine entitled “Meeting God in Amsterdam”. If you have already read this article, you may wish to only read the poem)

I often visit the red light district, in Amsterdam’s city centre. Here I walk past windows luridly lit with red lights, where prostitutes display themselves. A man (who appears to be acting as a pimp) yells “girls, sex for free”. Across the street a “coffee shop” sells cannabis to curious tourists. Just across from another such shop, and right in front of a row of red-lit windows, is my destination, “De Oude Kerk”, the oldest church in Amsterdam.

Visiting De Oude Kerk is a deeply spiritual experience. I am a Christian, brought up as such in a conservative Afrikaans home in South Africa. Faced with the almost laughable contrast of the beautiful church (which still has services every Sunday) and its debauched surroundings, I cannot but contemplate the nature of humanity, and of faith. Such contemplation has been the hallmark of my experience in Amsterdam.

The Netherlands is very secular with a declining religious population. One reads in the newspapers of Churches being sold and used for other purposes because they no longer have congregations. I do not think any Christian can hear this and visit De Oude Kerk without mourning. The Good News should be spreading, not retreating. In fact, not long after first visiting De Oude Kerk I wrote a poem about it.

how can you invite me?
	     when I stand in front of those walls
(you see them, you must, through the lurid glass)
	     that for 700 years
	     have condemned it

   that should condemn it still
	      oh dear God, are you still there?
	      do you laugh at the old church coffee shop’s
the church that is the neighbour of prostitutes
		       and dopers
	   calling by its very presence them

                                    to enter

	and so many do, and look and gawp and awe and marvel
			         but look not on God

God is the juggler in the plein
	     a few coins in his hat
		           and no hearts

The feelings of this poem are true. I do not think they are wrong. But they are not the whole story either. It is tempting to dismiss Amsterdam as an immoral city, now Godless. This would be a mistake. Amsterdam is no more immoral than any other major city. It is just more open. Underlying Dutch culture seems to be the belief that people should have the freedom to make decisions about religion, lifestyle, sex, orientation, and so on. There is no judgement here.

The red light district and the coffee shops are a testament to this attitude. But so is the church right in its heart and other Christian organisations that have placed themselves there. In many areas of the city you can see Muslim women wearing their Hijabs. I am glad to be in a country where people are free to express their deepest beliefs, free to explore, free both to find and to reject God. (It is worrisome to me that an anti-immigration and anti-Islam political movement has recently gained some footing, polluting this atmosphere).

Amsterdam is not a Godless city. God is present in the passionate community of Christians that still live here (the Christians I have met have been very passionate). He is present in the many beautiful churches that abound in the city. He is present in me.

Amsterdam is definitely a place to grow spiritually. There are enough English-speaking Christian denominations that any Christian can find a home. However, in this cosmopolitan city you can  easily surround yourself with people with viewpoints that differ radically from your own. Be willing to listen. Your preconceived notions will be challenged – do not hold to them too tightly. You may hear about the differences in the practice of Islam in Iran and in other Arab countries. You may speak to vegans and reconsider what you eat. You are certain to meet plenty of atheists.

Like me, you may well often find yourself the only Christian in a group of students, many of whom are curious to hear about your faith. When you have to explain your beliefs to others, it is no longer possible to take them for granted. You may find yourself meeting God anew, or even for the first time.

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