s124o00 Somerton Park Sunday 12 25/6/2000
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding." Job 38:4
I must admit that this particular passage of Job is not my favourite piece of scripture. The picture of God sneering at the achievements of humanity is (in my view) neither edifying or gospel. I suspect it is the sort of passage which those who hold to a strident creationist theology would revel in.
However I should add that in my own faith journey, "my" discovery of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Physics 2 at University (many years ago) was one of the factors which lead me away from Science to the study of Theology. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle means that there is a limit to humanity's knowledge. Roughly, the principle states that we can know the precise speed of an object and we can know precisely where an object is, but we can't know both of these things at the same time. In measuring the one, we alter the other.
There is indeed within the Old Testament what might be accurately described as a strain of anti-technological thinking. So the more highly advanced Egyptians in their chariots found that their very technology is their downfall as their chariot wheels get clogged in the mud of the Red Sea. The Israelites on foot escape.
And some of the OT prophetic literature views Israel's 40 years of wanderings in the wilderness, prior to coming into the promised land as the time when the nation was most faithful. So Hosea says: "Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her." (Hosea 2:14). and "It was I who fed you in the wilderness, in the land of drought." (Hosea 13:5).
We have to ask and answer the question: Is the Lord always anti-technology? Is the progress being made in IVF, the communications revolution or genetic engineering against the will of God simply because it is an advance in human knowledge? Is scientific study against the will of God, simply because we would be better spending our time studying the Bible or on our knees?
But those who hold a strident creationist theology I think need to be a little careful in the application of my text for today, for the scientific achievements of humanity are not being derided in the book of Job, but deficient theologies held by the three "friends" of Job, "Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite" (Job 2:11). These three friends defend "orthodoxy" in the face of reality. "Orthodoxy" for them was that God rewarded the religious and denied blessing those who weren't. Real life is rather different.
Again we need to be careful with the application of the theologies of technology behind Exodus, for the Israelites are quite definitely seen as the underdog. A more convincing argument can be made for God helping the helpless. A more certain conclusion regarding technology is that God will defend the helpless regardless of technology. God can thwart technology which oppresses the weak and helpless.
The message of Job is that an orthodox theology which oppresses the victim is similarly overthrown.
And this leads me to wonder about how oppressive others view our Western culture; indeed even Christianity. I was reading a magazine which listed all the ways to stay stressed, one of which suggested avoiding meditation and live by the Protestant work ethic "Protestant or not". :-) Sometimes our theologies oppress even ourselves.
But I was really thinking of the Indigenous people among us. I, with my Anglo-Celtic background, tend to think that everyone in Australia has the same opportunities; certainly that would be what my ideal for our country would be. Yet, just as one example, the prevailing system of land distribution is based on the quarter acre block, with a house and a garden, suits most of us completely. But for the Indigenous among us, it won't suit them at all. Their traditionally lifestyle has been, as I imperfectly understand it, that large tracts of land belong to the tribal group. They live off that land in much the same way as the tribes of Israel did prior to their entry into the promised land. Our system of land distribution, technologically advanced as it is, has the effect of oppressing them - of forcing them to alter their lifestyle. Of course things have changed in recent years and the Indigenous people have gained some land rights.
But it is our very technology which oppresses their culture. There are of course those of Anglo-Celtic background who dream of living off the land, and some who actually manage to do so.
I understand our Prime Ministers reluctance to apologise for past hurts; but I think that there are present and continuing hurts and oppression which need to be acknowledged and addressed.
For it is easy for us, myself as much as anyone else, to assume that as members of the "dominant" culture it will be our culture which will "win out" in the end, and eventually everyone will be happy to live like us. But do we really want this to happen? Hosea's desire to return to the wilderness, where the Israelites would get to know God stripped of their affluent lifestyle, suggests that our affluent lifestyle may also be blinding us to realities beyond our present experience. Our Indigenous neighbours have much to teach us. Indeed from my little reading, they are able to teach us a lot about not owning things, about sharing, interdependence, taking time to smell the roses, taking time to share experiences.
So I do think that there is a point to us saying "sorry" to our aboriginal neighbours - though not for past, completely inappropriate, ways that our "superior" Western Christian attempted to "help" them. We need to apologise that the lifestyle that we find so comfortable and "normal", albeit quite unintentionally, does have the effect of making others feel oppressed and marginalised. Perhaps there is not a lot more we can do about it other than apologise.
I know the real sense of achievement when we as a family managed to begin to purchase our own home through the estate of my late parents. It was a profound relief that this was a home that would be ours and that we would have a roof over our heads when I retire. That feeling is something that those who always have lived in their own home could hardly appreciate. I am not likely to give this up - and indeed it would be exceedingly foolish if I did so. In the "olden days" the Church had property around the Diocese where retired clergy were housed at reduced rental. Those days are long gone.
However I and we cannot demand that others live life as we do, for I am not sure that I want to say that my lifestyle is any better than any other lifestyle. I would not want to claim that my lifestyle makes me happier than others.
The difficulty is that our Christianity is so identified with our Anglo-Celtic background and our Western culture, there are many things which we are going to have to "unlearn" for Christianity to make any sort of impact at all on anyone who does not share our background and culture.
I was once told, how accurate it is I cannot say, that in the "olden days" in a particular region in South Australia, the miners were the methodists, the shop keepers were predominantly Catholics and the landowners were predominantly members of the Church of England. As one acquired wealth and status, one tended to rise up the denominations towards the Anglican Church. I have no doubt that in the past this perception of the Anglican Church was encouraged, rather than discouraged by members of our congregations. But it was hardly evangelical; it was hardly following Jesus.
I simply cannot believe that God and science are diametrically opposed. Science has shown humanity much of the beauty of our universe. But scientific breakthroughs inevitably are mixed blessings, as the range of options and choices which we now have to make are vastly greater. The very success of advances in medical technology pose for us profound questions, as the whole character of society changes when people live longer yet the declining birth rate means there are less to support the aged and the disadvantaged.
But perhaps at a very local level, I wonder if the anxiety of the Indigenous people over projects like the Hindmarsh Island bridge would have happened if we had properly listened to the experiences of our neighbours. If we deny the oppressive influence of our western culture, we will never appreciate the depth of their reaction to it.
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