Monday 30 March 2015

Growing in Faith vs Dramatic Gestures

This is a follow-up from Heather's two posts about retirement savings:  should we prudently save for our retirement or generously give to today's needs and trust God to look after us down the road.

Giving away our retirement savings would be a bold statement, but requires little faith for the present day.  How can it grow on experiences of God's provision when we have arranged not to need His help until we turn 65?

I was struck by this question a few weeks back, as we yet again tossed around our questions.

I can't remember if it was before or after the 150th anniversary celebrations for my parents' mission organisation, whose founder's belief that "God's work... will not lack God's supply" was affirmed by stories of those still present as well as from history books.  Those stories were of people daring to act as God led them, facing pressing need, and being encouraged by timely provision of those needs.

So I think that we'll keep putting the savings aside for now, and fund our giving from today's grocery money.  Then we can see God at work today, and see where things go.  We won't need to reach for the piggy bank unless there's something pretty exciting afoot, at which point our questions would look very different.

Neighbours Day 2015

I'm too tired to write much, but here's some pics from Neighbours Day yesterday.

The set-up

Play-doh tent.  The girl at the front right is Libby, who I first met at Neighbours Day 4 years ago aged 14 months - now she's starting school and her mum and I are good friends :-)

Martin with Kathy, whose lawn hosts the bouncy castle etc.  The lady next to me is called Becca - she stayed with Martin and his family in Thailand 25 years ago.  We met her at Neighbours Day last year, when she figured out that connection :-)

Allen, who I've met a few times but had a really good talk to this time, and Peter (with the rabbit), who's Becca's husband.

Bouncy castle - popular as ever :-)

The woman standing is Sue, prime organiser of the event.

Friday 27 March 2015

Easter egg day 2015

In what is becoming an annual tradition, yesterday Anna came over for the day and we made Easter eggs :-)  We do this because we love Easter eggs, but don't want to get them at the expense of the children who get beaten up on cocoa plantations and the adults who are also enslaved there.  No one in New Zealand makes fair trade Easter eggs (except plain hollow chocolate ones), so we make our own.  We do milk chocolate marshmallow eggs, milk chocolate 'creme eggs' and dark chocolate peppermint 'creme eggs'.

Anna working hard

The first completed 'creme eggs' (mould in background)

It takes A LOT of chocolate - we used around 1.25kg to make nearly 100 eggs!

Me coating marshmallow inners with chocolate (in the background you can see cake tins weighing down other marshmallow eggs as they bond together).
Completed marshmallow eggs - in egg cartons, of course :-)

Wednesday 25 March 2015

A long-lost essay

In 2003, when I first got sick, I was at the beginning of a PhD in Green Chemistry at Carnegie Melon University in the US.  As part of this, I had to write an essay responding to a book arguing that humanity needed new ethics to deal with the new challenges posed by modern scientific developments.  I had long regretted that I didn't have a copy of this essay, so I was delighted to find it when we were clearing out our upstairs desk a few weeks ago.  I've reproduced it below, followed by a few comments.

Celebrating the goodness of God’s bounty: A Christian vision for the use of technology in the modern world

Les grandes personnes... ne vous questionnent jamais sur l’essentiel.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In the opening chapter of The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age Hans Jonas presents a case for the need to develop new ethics in order to deal with the new challenges presented by recent advances in technological capability.  However, whilst I agree that recent technological advances have had unforeseen consequences that have necessitated the posing of searching questions, I do not agree that all of the old ethical systems are inadequate to the task. I will thus present a summary of Jonas’ central arguments, followed by a brief discussion of these arguments from within the ethical framework of the Christian religious tradition.

Jonas begins his argument by analyzing the ethical systems of past eras. He sees in them a common theme of the constancy of nature: we can pit ourselves against nature and win temporary victories, or we can build for ourselves enclaves from nature in the form of cities, but these activities are played out against a backdrop of frail humanity contending with changeless nature. Nature is beyond our power to injure her, so our ethics need only consider intrahuman relationships, not our relationship to the natural world.

Secondly, the sphere of human influence in former times was narrowly circumscribed in time and space. This meant that it was possible to fully know the consequences of one’s actions and hence to accurately assess their morality. The merit of an action was assessed based on its immediate consequences. Even when people were making plans on behalf of future generations, the assumption remained that what was good for today would be good for tomorrow, and no one considered the possibility that the present could profoundly alter, let alone destroy, the future.

These points are illustrated by examples drawn primarily from Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment, with the assumption that they are common to all known ethical systems.

Finally, Jonas contends that the world has now changed. We can no longer assert that nature is constant – our sphere of influence extends to the whole world, nature is clearly vulnerable to our actions, and even the future is no longer safe from us. Moreover, as seen in advances in the fields of genetics, psychoactive medication and medicine in general, we now have an unprecedented ability to alter our own nature, yet no guiding principles by which to assess how this new power should be used.

Jonas concludes with the observations that these changes have given rise to a need for new ethics and new politics, and hints that the questions are metaphysical in nature and can possibly only be answered by religion.

I would strongly agree that the metaphysical nature of the questions raised should lead one to turn to religion, and I contend that the Christian religion can rise to this challenge.  Greek philosophy, which so profoundly influenced the western Enlightenment, looks only to humanity for answers and hence is by its very nature anthropocentric and strictly bounded in time and space, yet the Judeo-Christian tradition is wholistic and long-sighted.  What is needed in this post-modem, technology-rich age is not a new ethical system, but rather a fresh look at a centuries-old tradition of universal relevance.

Let us begin with a brief consideration of the central commandments of the Christian tradition, as recorded in Mark 12:29-31:
“The most important one... is this: . .. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Elsewhere, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), Jesus made it clear that the term ‘neighbour’ encompassed people who lived geographically distant, with whom one would normally have no contact and whom one despised. It did not merely refer to those who lived next door. It would seem logical in our current context to consider those in distant countries and those yet unborn as our neighbours in this Biblical sense.

Jesus commands his followers to treat all people with love: and Christian love, as is illustrated throughout the Bible, is primarily defined as seeking others’ highest good.  This is a principle adequate to the task of guiding the development of current and future technologies. Active areas of research should be chosen on what is most likely to lead to the greater good of all humanity, not on their intellectual curiosity value alone.

Of course, a researcher can never know in advance the results of their research, or to which unexpected applications their findings may be put. However, as Dürrenmatt famously explored in his play Die Physiker, to respond by assuming that we can work in a moral vacuum is madness. At the very least, we must continuously assess whether we are seeking to answer important questions, as defined within the paradigm of loving our neighbours as ourselves.

This leads to another important requirement for us as scientists:
What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

As scientists, we must be aware of our limitations. We have great power, but not ultimate power. We cannot create something from nothing, so we must be cautious of irreversibly altering our world.  Justice will lead us to consider the needs of all of humanity in our developments. Mercy will lead us in the West to consider the problems of Third World food security as we make advances in the agricultural sciences; the continuing epidemics of malaria in the tropics and polio and even bubonic plague in South America as we make advances in the pharmaceutical sciences and so on. And in all this we must also understand that we cannot fully know the consequences of our actions and hence neglect humility at our peril.

So far this discussion has centered on the way in which we use technology to treat our neighbours. Yet the Biblical tradition also guides our understanding of the natural world.  The key to that understanding is to be found in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.  Here it is affirmed that all of nature, including ourselves, is God’s creation. We are part of the same system as the animals and the trees and even the air and the water. The Christian tradition does not support Aristotle’s dichotomy between the baseness of nature and the superiority of man, and hence cannot see oil reserves or the genetic code of a cotton plant merely as resources at our disposal. Nature, in the Christian tradition, is to be treated with respect. St. Francis of Assisi captured this eloquently when he spoke of the birds as our ‘brothers’.

Yet Christianity does not concur with the Gaia mentality that contends that all is one and there is no distinction between us and the world around us. We have been placed above the rest of the natural order, to steward it and guide it, and to use its bounty for our good.  Thus Christianity affirms the use of technology.  It is not without significance that, whilst the Biblical story begins in a garden, it concludes with a vision of the kingdom of heaven as a city and speaks of the renewing of Jerusalem, the central city in the Biblical histories.  A city, as Jonas points out frequently in his book, is a human construct – the product of technology.  The pinnacle of human achievement is thus seen in human creativity – not merely in returning to a nineteenth century romanticized conception of nature.

Thus we are free to use the bounty of the natural world to create the products that we need, but we are not free to use this bounty wastefully or for ignoble ends, and we must not forget that nature itself has intrinsic worth. With this in mind, it seems wrong to burn highly precious non-renewable oil for transport when the sun provides us with ample energy, yet it seems entirely appropriate to use this same oil conservatively in closed-1oop systems where its unique properties are required. The “Cradle to Cradle” approach expounded by McDonough and Braungart explores this concept in some detail.

Yet Christianity also calls us beyond the narrow questions of whether an action is morally appropriate to larger questions of purpose and attitude. Beyond the question of “How can we sustain our current lifestyle without destroying the world for future generations?” to questions of “What kind of a world do we want to live in?” The Christian faith sees people as individuals within communities, and hence would call us to favour technological developments that support this reality. The assumption that a bigger house is a better house, for example, runs counter to the principle of fostering community, so finding ways to enable us all to live in big houses is inappropriate. We need to find new and creative ways to live, and technology has a key role to play in making this possible.

In all things we need to seek to make a positive difference: to move beyond the Hippocratic principle of ‘first do no harm’ to an affirming ‘first seek to do good’. Pushing the boundaries of the possible, in and of itself, is not adequate justification for doing something. Yet a realistic hope that a line of enquiry will lead to the possibility of a richer life, a more respectful use of natural resources, or a lessening of the distance between people either now or in the year 2500 should be justification enough.

We must not merely ask, with Jonas, what force shall represent the future in the present, but rather celebrate the goodness of the world that God has given to us and seek to live responsibly, lovingly and joyously in it: for our own sake, for the sake of the natural world, and for the sake of the generations yet unborn.

I'm pleased to have found it again!

They say that you develop most of your core values in your twenties.  I was a bit chagrined to find that this may well hold true for me.  I wrote this aged 26.  I'm 38 now and, while I'm living out these values in a different sphere these days, and while I probably have a better appreciation of the difficulty of getting this perspective widely accepted, on the whole, what I wrote then is what I think now...  In some ways that consistency is pleasing, but in other ways it'd be nice to think I'd learned more in the intervening years!

It was startling to see myself writing in such academic terms.  I was clearly heading towards being an 'intellectual' back then, with academic-style arguments and wide-ranging references.  It's sad to think that I don't have the mental acuity to write like that any more, or the mental energy to continue gathering such broad knowledge.  I'm not unhappy with who I am these days, but it's a bit sad to consider who I could have become if I hadn't got sick.

Part of the comment my lecturer, himself a Christian, made in his response to my essay was:
Unfortunately, the Christian institutions seem inadequate for steering even devout Christians effectively towards the questions you raise.  I agree with you that the case is there for the Judeo-Christian platform to support a redirecting of our civilisation's posture toward sustainability.  But the case must be analysed deeply and laid out convincingly, illuminating in the process at least as many of the challenges as Jonas' secular reasoning has highlighted.  And then it must prevail against the common prejudices of modern Christian institutions against all new thought – the veto of Clericism.
I see working towards that to be one of the main things I give my energy to these days: arguing and demonstrating that a concern for sustainability comes out of the Christian gospel, and persuading members of the church that we must live differently in order to truly love our neighbours.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Retirement savings, part two

This is a follow-up to a previous post, in which I was wondering whether we should give away the money we had intended to save for our retirement, rather than keep it.

The more I have been thinking about whether we should give our money away, rather than save for our retirement, the more Biblical passages come to mind in support of the idea.

I think about the man who built bigger barns and then died before he could use the produce in them (Luke 12:13-21): are we, like him, storing up treasure for ourselves rather than being rich towards God?

Then last week I came across Proverbs 30:7-9:
Two things I ask of you;
    do not deny them to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or I shall be poor, and steal,
    and profane the name of my God.
I felt convicted by it as I know that our wealth makes our need to depend on God less obvious to us.  We depend on our resources instead, and in practise then often live as if He doesn't exist.

Last week I also read Matthew 6:25-34, where Jesus says:
do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
What is retirement saving if it isn't worrying about what we will eat, drink and wear in the future?  And doesn't holding those resources for the future prevent us from using them to strive for the kind of world God wants in the present?

In addition, when Martin and I read Luke a couple of years back, we were both struck by how dismissive it is of money.  I'd always been puzzled by the passage where Jesus says to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to give to God what is God's (Luke 20:20-26).  However, when we read it after reading all the rest of Luke that comes before it, it seemed obvious: Jesus is saying 'if Caesar wants money - give it to him!'.  Money is of very little importance, so why fuss if Caesar wants it?  I blogged about it at the time, here.  Since then, I've wondered a bit about our careful budgeting.  By really planning how we spend our money, we've been able to live frugally and give a fair bit away - but it also means that we think a lot about money, and I've wondered whether that means we're giving it too much importance.  I've now started to wonder whether carefully saving for retirement is also giving money undue importance.

Lastly, throughout the Old Testament, one of the main things the Israelites do that makes God angry is turning to things other than Himself for security: foreign gods/idols, their own military strength, alliances with stronger nations or whatever.  This has long given both Martin and myself pause when it comes to insurance.  It seems only sensible to have it (especially with my medical situation), but in so doing we are turning to something other than God for our security.  Now I'm wondering about whether it's appropriate for us to save for retirement, as well.  After all, that's turning to our own efforts to ensure our security, rather than depending on God.

So, that's 'the case for'.  What about the case against?

The first thing I thought of was the phrase "be wise as serpents but innocent as doves".  Surely what we're thinking of isn't wise?  But, when I looked it up, it turned out that Jesus said it when he was talking to the disciples about how to respond to persecution: that didn't seem very relevant.

One that seemed to have a bit more weight was the description of a 'capable wife' in Proverbs 31.  In verse 25 it says that she's such a successful merchant that she 'laughs at the time to come'.  She's clearly stashed resources aside for the future, and she seems to described as someone to be admired, so doing so can't always be bad.

Another passage that gives me pause is Luke 4:9-12.  When Jesus is being tested by the devil in the dessert, he tells Jesus to throw himself off a high tower: he'd be OK because God would rescue him.  Jesus responds by saying that you shouldn't put God to the test.  The text he quotes, Deuteronomy 6:16, doesn't really seem to be about forcing God to rescue you (it's more about forcing God to get angry by disobeying Him) but the way Jesus uses it does give me some caution about deliberately putting myself/ourselves in a position where we are relying on God in a way that we wouldn't otherwise have had to.  That doesn't totally put me off the idea, though: it just means that we need to do it whilst accepting that we may end up very poor indeed in old age, rather than do it assuming God will sort us out.

The more I think about this, the more it just feels like the right thing to do.  It feels very wrong, in that it's so clearly irresponsible, but it feels like what we should do all the same.  This internal conviction seems to be confirmed by what I read in the Bible.

It also feels very scary.  This has revealed to me that I don't really believe in my gut that God will provide for us.  I think that that's partly a healthy reaction against the 'prosperity gospel', but mostly a simple lack of faith.  I personally know people who have stepped away from cultural norms and impoverished themselves who have then miraculously been provided for, but it still feels impossible to me that this would happen to us.  Since I realised this, I have been praying for an increase of faith!  After all, God 'owns the cattle on a thousand hills' - he has unimaginable unlimited resources, so He is certainly capable of caring for us....  That doesn't mean He will - Christians starve to death every day, after all - but it does mean that He could.