Episode #59 Kindness, tribalism, faith, hope: exploring Christianity in the climate crisis with David Blower
Kindness costs nothing and it enhances our lives and those around us. And yet our world is full of random acts of unkindness. How can we change this? How can we extend the boundaries of faith and spirituality to bring the best of ourselves to a world in crisis?
This week, podcaster, musician, writer, theologian – and deep spiritual activist – David Blower talks about Christianity and kindness and the climate crisis.
David is a radical Christian theologian, a musician, a writer, and a podcaster. He is co-host of Nomad podcast which describes itself as ‘Stumbling through the post-Christendom wilderness looking for signs of hope”. His first book Kingdom vs Empire is an explosive manifesto for politicised faith in 21st Century Britain.’
In this deep dive into the nature of faith, we explore spirituality, belief, tribalism – and the narratives we spin ourselves of where we are and where we could be.
Manda: So, David Blower, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. And thank you. And how is lockdown with you wherever you are in the world?
David: Lockdown number three, or four, or whatever it is. It’s getting trying, I think. so I’m in Birmingham, in the U.K. Yeah, I think everyone agrees it’s the most difficult. Everybody’s feeling, well a lot of people are feeling squeezed financially and work wise. The days are short, and they’re sort of trying to embrace the the winter’s hermiting, but also kind of railing against it. And the world’s noisy this time, isn’t it? The first lockdown was kind of everything went quiet and you could hear the birdsong, but we’ve got the lockdown without the peace. So, it’s hard. It’s hard.
Manda: Yes, because it’s not… the novelty has worn off, I think. And people… we haven’t got the peace because it doesn’t feel like a real lockdown. Except it does. A lot of people are out on the roads. Just not us, I think. I was going up the hill every morning and recording. I would I would just take a panning shot video for about 30 seconds of a slow shot of Shropshire Hills and birdsong and sheep and wind, and then put it up on Facebook for people who were, you know, locked down in cities. And I go up the hill and there’s too much traffic noise now, I can’t do it anymore. There’s no point in trying to get beautiful hills when you can’t hear the birds. So it’s a kind of a yeah, it feels like one of those hybrid lockdowns that probably isn’t going to achieve enough, but is just going to upset people and destroy their their lives.
So, anyway, we didn’t get together today to talk totally about lockdown. We got together because you produced a really very inspiring pod boom, which was a concept I hadn’t heard of before actually. So, I learnt about pod booms, but also it was climate change and our responses to it and particularly from a Christian perspective. And I realised that one of the areas that we haven’t gone into an Accidental Gods is the area of where spirituality meets faith, and what these two are, and where they merge and where they separate, and where that takes us in a world where faith is nearly becoming part of the political process, or at least is more obviously becoming part of the political process. So as we kick off, you are one of the host of the Nomad podcast, and I will definitely link to it in the show notes. And I know that quite a lot of people in Accidental Gods are Christian, probably on the Quaker end of Christianity. But but this is one of the things I want to talk about, because I’m not really familiar with the different tribal groupings within Christianity at all. But I have been listening a lot to Nomad in the last week or so. And there was a particular episode which I will also link, with a woman called Elizabeth Oldfield, which seemed to me to move into areas that I do find really interesting: polyvagal theory, our responses to stress, our responses to tribalism, and where the edges that we reach when our belief systems are challenged. And one of the things that you said late in that podcast, and the kind of post-discussion conversation, was why are we not kind to each other all of the time? We know at every level that kindness is something that enhances our own lives, and quite clearly enhances the lives of people around us. And we know this at an intellectual level, and we know it at a deep spiritual level. And yet at the level of actually living, it’s hard. So I wanted to kick off with that. It’s not probably the easiest starting question, but I thought, let’s dive in at the deep end. So what does that bring up for you?
David: Oh, gosh, yeah, I mean, I suppose the thing I become immediately aware of when I asked myself the question, why am I not kind when I’m not kind? Because it costs me nothing. And it makes living more beautiful for me and for whoever I’m around. I become aware of my defensiveness, I suppose. We all pick up practises and rhythms of self-defence. We all feel in some way embattled in the world as individuals, with our own stories and our own traumas and difficulties, but then it also maps out communally, doesn’t it? We sort of we find security in groups, and part of that security is felt by feeling safe from a threat of what’s outside. So, there is this defensive compulsion in us that actually works against our propensity for kindness, I think.
Manda: Yeah. So, it comes back to tribal identity. I was listening to Tristan Harris’s podcast, Our Undivided Attention, at the weekend also. He was speaking to Yuval Noah Harari about the potential for what the next wave of social media could do that would be beneficial or desperately not. And they were centring their conversation around the concept that we have Palaeolithic emotions, mediaeval institutions, and the technology of Gods that is accelerating in ways that we don’t understand. And that the programming of those three, the kind of firmware just doesn’t match anymore, if it ever did. And so I think what I’m hearing from you is that our tribalism, so I’m going to apologise to the listeners, people of the podcast. We do work on a… we do live on a working smallholding, and we have a broken drain. And it sounds to me as if the people fixing the drain may have just arrived. So, I apologise for sounds of drain fixing that may come through in the background, but it’s essential, because there’s quite a lot of water flooding down the field. So tribalism is part of that. It’s part of the firmware of how we evolved over millions of years. As long before we were human, we lived in groups that kept each other safe, and then we became human and we lived in tribes, and living in numbers bigger than the Dunbar number of of about 150 people is a relatively novel innovation in the evolution of our of our human software.
Manda: And so I guess it’s seems to me that if we are going to consciously evolve, which is where I want us to head, and I would like to talk to you about where you think we’re heading, we need to update our software. If we’re going to talk in that kind of a metaphor, we need to change the nature of what it is to be human, and that practising radical acts of random kindness is part of that update. And yet we live in a system where separation, scarcity and powerlessness are baked in as the operating structure of the system. The system wants us to feel alienated, powerless. It wants us to feel afraid if we go back to Plato’s ideal of there being two emotional, states love and fear, the system wants us to feel perpetual fear, in order that we conform. Does that sound reasonable to you as a hypothesis, as a working hypothesis?
David: It does. It makes me think of Thomas Hobbes, the political philosopher from the 1600s, who I guess is theorising at the dawn of the nation state, the dawn of capitalism, as we’ve come to sort of understand it. And his summary of human life was, human life is the war of every man against every man. I suppose there’s the question of interpreting those defensive mechanisms we find ourselves, and taking the further choice to say, well, that, in essence is who we are or who men are, or at least at that time.
So I think we don’t have to make that choice, I suppose. That’s the possibility that we find ourselves with in every moment. We all carry defences, defensive propensities that hamper our ability to be kind. But the question before us is perhaps, and this perhaps comes to one of spiritual belief, I don’t know. Whether or not we want to interpret those propensities and say, well, we are essentially not kind. The essence of what it means to be human is to be at war with whoever is next to you in some way. Even if they’re someone you’re related to or care about, we’re all at war with each other in some way. Do we have to interpret it that way? I suppose we’re facing the question, which, you know, of course, has been faced before, of can we interpret what it means to be human differently and to live out of a better belief of what it means to be human?
Manda: And what if it’s not a belief? What if it… because for me, a belief is something that cannot be demonstrated. That’s what makes it a belief. It’s something that I choose to believe is true without the capacity to back it up. Once we can back it up, it becomes a reality, which for me, and this may be a semantic difference, but I think it’s quite an interesting semantic difference. So, my understanding of human nature prehops: and quite a long way prehops, so let’s say before the Neolithic Revolution, before humanity separated ourselves from the land, we lived in context with the land. We lived as indigenous peoples live now, those who are left, where there was abundance, there was apparently, and I haven’t gone to the primary sources on this, but I’m prepared to believe it, if we look back at early modern humans, we were eating around 2000 calories a day and that was across the tribe. There wasn’t a hierarchy of: the people at the top got the best food and the people at the bottom got the least, and died sooner, and in lesser circumstances. And in a forager hunter society, most of the time is given over to community building, to the things that join us, rather than the things that separate us. And around 10 percent of the time is given to what we would call work.
But the work is integral to the building of community. It’s not something that sets us apart. Where we do find separation is intertribal. So, within the tribe, pretty much there’s very little warfare, one assumes, because social structures diffuse that before we get to there. Between tribes, there is more conflict. But even if we look at the Native American tribes, the whole concept: you would go to war, but you didn’t kill people. You counted coup, as in if you touched the other guy, then he was dead. It was much more like my youthful days of battle re-enactment. You know, I hit you with my sword, You have to lie down. You’re dead. You’re out of the battle. Because if our tribe’s young men kill your tribe’s young men, your tribe is going to die. You know, next winter when there are no hunters left, you’re finished. And that’s actually not in the end in anybody’s interest, because our young men in the end want to couple with your young women, because otherwise we’re getting to inbreeding within three generations, it’s going to wipe us out, too. So, the idea of us being at war perpetually seems to me within evolutionary time scales quite a modern one.
And it’s predicated on the concept of scarcity, and that we need to fight over scarce resources and that the concept of scarce resources is a fantasy that arises in a circular way from our concept of having to constantly defend things. And if we could step aside from that, if we could understand that there is enough food on the planet to feed everybody, it’s just that we choose not to distribute it very well. There is enough energy from the sun to power everything we could ever want, and we wouldn’t need fossil fuels. It’s just that the hierarchy pushes us into the fossil fuels. So, in terms of spirituality, in terms of belief systems, because where I’m heading for in all of this is that Christianity has been teaching love thy neighbour, insofar as I understand it, for 2000 years. It just that the message hasn’t quite hit home yet. How do we upgrade our operating system in a way that doesn’t feel as if being kind is inherently going to leave us exposed to the people who are not kind. Because I think that’s the kind of flaw in the system. It’s it doesn’t work if we think that being kind is going to lead to us and our families being annihilated.
David: Yeah, that’s a huge question. I mean, the way I see that question is almost how much failure and chaos do our own structures have to lead us through before we’re willing to let go of them? It’s that defensive scarcity mindset that means that we cling on desperately to the structures that proclaim a sort of saving power over our lives. And however, demonstrably destructive they are to our lives and to the lives of others, and to the more than human world, we find it very difficult to let go of the structures that are the ones that we know. It seems to me that in history, a rebirth comes with much travail and loss and foolishness, in human history, certainly.
Manda: Can you say more about that?
David: So, I mean, I have worked in the realm of biblical theology for a very long time. And one of the ways of looking at the narrative of the different stories and times that the Bible tells. I mean, the books that we have as the Bible are probably written over, you know, within the course of a thousand years. But the story they tell tells a sort of a history reaching back into mythology, that sort of tells the story of a longer time than that. But a great deal of the Hebrew Bible is centred on this event that happens in 586, when the Babylonians come. And they march to Jerusalem and they go to war against the city, and the city kind of tries to hold up and weather the storm. But eventually it’s a catastrophe. And the city of Jerusalem is sacked by the Babylonians, and the people are taken away into exile. When this happens, the people kind of reach back into their story, and into the voices of the prophets who spoke to them. And they begin to understand and interpret what has happened to them as this catastrophe that happened because they couldn’t let go of the systems and structures of power that they were kind of addicted to. One thing is that in the law of Moses, the Hebrews were told it’s not really good to have a king, don’t have a king. A king just will tax you and take your young men to war, and take your daughters for his harem, and so on. It’s not good to have a king. But the people want a king because you know, the other nations all have kings, and they don’t feel secure,
Manda: Everyone else has a king, so we want one too.
David: That’s right. That’s right. It’s the way that is demonstrated by the world around them that you get safe and secure and powerful. You want power to survive in the world. That’s your defence imperative. And so, they build this kingdom. And the kingdom, you know, has a certain grandeur, and brings about trade and these sorts of things, and then also brings about all sorts of political intrigue and war and greed and division within, you know, amongst the people and different classes emerging, slave labour classes and powerful wealthy classes. And all this becomes tied with sort of spiritual beliefs that are about bargaining and gaining your place in the world that way.
And ultimately, their understanding is that the reason it all collapsed is because we wouldn’t let go of the systems and structures that were about defending ourselves because we didn’t believe in the abundance of the Maker who cares for everything that’s made. And ultimately, those sorts of defensive propensities are self-defeating. So, Jerusalem collapses to the Babylonians and they go into exile. And there’s this time of contrition where they regather and reimagine what they believe, and how they might live and act and believe and so on, more beautifully, and more kindly perhaps.
Manda: Yeah. Yeah. And believing in the abundance of the Maker, which is quite an interesting concept, I, have a frame that says we can’t have genuine abundance unless we become an integral part of the web of life, and that that’s almost antithetical to an agrarian lifestyle, because the nature of agronomy is ownership of land. There is a finite amount of land, that’s the nature of land. In the end, only a certain number of people can own bits of it. And then there will be people who don’t have bits of it. And it’s quite hard, I think, to hold that essence of abundance within a frame in which some people have land, and some people don’t. And I speak as someone, you know, we were talking before the podcast, I live on a smallholding. And we endeavour to treat the land here as a sacred, autonomous being. But still, I watch my blood pressure do strange things when it snows, and half the village comes and toboggans on the hill while the ponies are there. And I’m thinking, okay, you could come and ask, and I would move the ponies. It’s interesting. So, but still, let’s go back to: they couldn’t let go the systems they were addicted to. And we now are in a similar state where the systems to which we are addicted are destroying the planet. And even those of us who know that, and we’re not destroying the planet. Gaia, the planet will continue for as long as entropy allows. But we are within the sixth mass extinction. We are destroying other species at a rate that has never previously been done by one species. Before, when we had mass species extinctions, it was because a comet four miles across hit the planet and caused the effect equivalent to a nuclear winter for, you know, a millennium, that kind of thing. Big, big geological events that caused massive destruction also caused mass extinction events. Now, one little hairless biped is causing the mass extinction event. And yet we’re still clinging onto the systems that are known. Do you think we’re clinging onto them because we know them? It can’t be because we like them. Is it because we can’t envisage something different?
David: Oh, good question. So many reasons, I think. I suppose if we look ourselves as individuals, and we try to recover from damaged and defensive behaviours that we may have picked up in our lives, we tend to find that it’s a struggle-some and painful journey, letting go of those behaviours, because they make us feel safe. And we tend to let go of them after they’ve caused us considerable loss. Often, it’s the loss that wakes us up to it.
Manda: OK, so we lose Jerusalem, and are dragged off into slavery by the Babylonians, and you realise that maybe what you were doing wasn’t the brightest move in the world.
David: Yeah, I mean, the dynamic we have now is that the part of the human population of the planet who are responsible for the greatest negative impact on our ability to live on the planet long term, it’s the part of the human population that’s not really feeling the effects. And so, I suppose this is where, you know, one way or another, by one name or another, it’s kind of a time of the prophets, isn’t it? Who speaks truth to power and privilege in such a way that in a way that does more than just accuse and shame. How do we do that in a way that actually enables the, you know, the miracle of relinquishment to happen? It feels like a miracle for power to relinquish power, in order to recognise that in ultimately its own good, in the depths of things, is tied to the good of everything. That’s a difficult, painful struggle. And that’s the struggle we’re in one way or another.
Manda: Yeah. And so, it seems to me that a lot of this is down to the stories that we tell ourselves. And we have so many different stories. And that my observation at this moment, the people who have the power are the people who have the money, because we haven’t managed to uncouple those two. And that the people who have the money listen to a different set of stories than perhaps you and I listen to. And in their stories, having power and having money puts you in an invulnerable place, and the more money you have, and the more power you have, the less vulnerable you become. And the problem with that is that you always need a little bit more money than you have just now, however much you have, because you still actually feel vulnerable. How do we change the nature of the stories in time? Because it seems to me that we are very time-limited now.
David: My goodness, I don’t know. I don’t know if I know that really. I have a strong belief that ultimately change has to somehow come from below. I take hope in the notion that the right stories come up from the roots, that they come up from where people feel the pain. And the task of listening deeply, and doing everything we can to amplify those stories, and those voices, and those experiences is a long, slow task of letting the yeast, that yeast, work through the dough. Obviously in terms of stories, part of the challenge is that the stories that the powerful not only listen to, but create for their own benefit, or perhaps for our own benefit. Those stories have a power even on those who don’t experience the benefit of those stories. Those stories are used as kind of propaganda. So, there is absolutely a battle of stories at work. What’s the best way of participating in that kindly? One thing that feels hugely important to me at the moment is, is that task of listening deeply to the stories of people unlike ourselves.
Manda: Yes. So, there’s two separate ways that we could go with this. And I would like, if we can, to head down both. The first is: what is the role of spirituality in this? Every spiritual path teaches us that compassion is the core of spirituality, and that listening really deeply is one of the key foundations of compassion. So definitely that. But I am watching and listening to a degree of fracturing that is beyond what I had understood, that families and friendships are falling apart because the polarities are so wide. And the level of fear is so great, on both sides, I think, and people are not listening. Somebody posted a very long thread on Twitter last night of a friend that she had in childhood. They had grown up together. They’d gone to church with each other’s families. They were very bonded. They’d gone to nursing school together. Then one party had moved to California, the other one is still in the Midwest, and gradually moved apart. And then the person posting had watched the nature of the Facebook posts of her friend gradually changing, and then changing very rapidly, to the point where it was impossible anymore to hold a conversation. And her friend then blocked her completely, when she queried a fact that wasn’t a fact. And the tendency now to just cut off the conversation because our triggered points are so raw, and so sensitive, and so huge, that listening becomes impossible. How do we cross that divide? That’s one question. And then I lean back on a degree of spirituality that… and I guess a faith-based essence that says: there has to be a way forward, therefore we can find it. But let’s do that second. Let’s talk about how would we cross the tribal divide that seems to be assailing particularly the global north. And we are the people who are going to have to make the changes fastest, if we’re going to manage climate change. How can we reach across the divides now?
David: Yeah, your questions are all too good. I don’t know if I know what the answers are to them. I remember an interview we did on a Nomad podcast with someone called Elaine Heath, who has done more than many people to sort of hold hands with different tribes within the Christian tradition, and remain in conversation across boundaries of difference. And I asked her a similar question, and she surprised me by saying that she didn’t know if we would be able to. She thought that, you know, possibly the rebirth into an alternative future, sometimes it doesn’t happen by being able to bridge all the divides. Sometimes it happens because collapse is allowed to happen, or collapse does happen. Self-defeating structures and systems and beliefs play out. There’s always choice, isn’t there, where everyone has a choice about where they stand, and what they put their hope and their trust in. But people don’t always choose to bridge divides. People don’t always choose to accept those who attempt to bridge divides. Sometimes self-defeating and damaging systems, structures, beliefs just play out. And to some degree, when there’s a paradigm shift, I think that always happens. You know, there’s always some degree of collapse. I think embracing a historical, you know, process of rebirth, part of it involves coming to terms with the collapse that’s involved in that and coming to terms with the letting go that is involved. We can’t neatly control that process. That process is something that we surrender to to some degree and, you know, try and operate as kindly and wisely and bravely and radically as we can. But I don’t think we can always bridge the divide. And I think to my mind, it’s always the way that in moments of change and collapse and paradigm shift, a sort of hyper-tribalising happens as people divide, because people want to survive, and people are afraid, and people are afraid of what the change will bring. Or the inability to change will bring.
People strongly polarise over what the way forward could look like, you know, in the first century you have Pharisees and Sadducees and zealots and Essenes. You have these different groups who all kind of are in this, you know, sometimes healthy debate, sometimes antagonistic ruckus, about what’s going to happen. And that dialogue or antagonism plays out as the change plays out. That’s a hard thing to weather. I think I’m trying to understand how to live well in that process. And to speak personally, I, like many other people, I’m in a place where personal relationships are polarising and dividing. I feel much more in tune with lots of people outside the Christian tribe than with the tribe within my tribe that consider me their enemy. It’s a time when the furs are flying.
Manda: Can you say a bit more about that? Because this is an area I genuinely know nothing about and it’s clearly huge. I’ve kind of picked up edges of it listening to the podcast. And this may be a huge rabbit hole, but it seems it’s quite relevant, given that that seems to be being played out with machine guns in the US, in that the polarisation that to a degree, and to some extent, those participating in the insurrection were coming from an aspect of Christianity. And yet my friends who stand in another place in Christianity were looking on appalled. And so it’s as if that schism is being painted across the news screens, whereas in the UK it’s pretty much under the radar as far as the rest of us go. Does that make sense as a question?
David: It does, yeah. And I think the first thing to point out is, it’s the obvious thing. For me, growing up, I was told in Judaism they believe this. In Islam, they believe that. And there’s obviously the journey of getting to know Muslims, or Jewish people, and listening and learning, and asking questions, and saying things, and realising, oh, no. Some adherents of Judaism believe this, and other adherents of Judaism believe that. Some believe this thing. Some believe the opposite thing. Some Muslims do this, others do it that way. It’s when we’re the outsider, we tend to think of a tribe as all being alike, don’t we? But the more we get to know it, the more we realise, oh, there’s all this complexity. And often it’s within a tribe that the deepest antagonisms can take root, because the person who you feel threatened by who’s within your tribe is more frightening to you than the person you feel threatened by outside of it. I mean to speak of – what does the word Christianity mean today when you compare somebody like Pope Francis with somebody like Donald Trump?
Manda: To pick a name out of a hat at random!
David: Yeah. How do we interpret the sort of storming of Washington DC by pro Trump supporters and people losing their lives in what looks almost like an attempted coup or something. Our podcast, Nomads, American listeners have been sort of coming in in numbers over the last four years, because American evangelicalism is, you know, that’s a big tribe. And a lot of young people are, you know, growing up in white evangelical families, and they’re encountering a sense of belonging, and something very compelling about Jesus. And then they find that there’s almost an across the board obligation to vote for somebody like Donald Trump. For a lot of people, that’s been a deal breaker. And events like this, I guess, take the mask off of a religious tribe. You find that the Christian tribe in that corner is associated with sort of raw power, xenophobia, very thinly veiled white supremacy. That’s created a crisis point for a lot of American evangelicals. And then obviously a lot of American evangelicals have rushed the other way and become the most vocal supporters of that kind of power. It’s always dangerous to compare anything to the 1930s in Germany…
Manda: But the temptation is huge.
David: Well, looking from the perspective of the Christians of Protestant Christianity, the 1930s in Germany were a threshold, because you know, Germany is the hub of Protestantism and Protestant theology has been for over four or 500 years, since Martin Luther began the Reformation, and then what does it mean when, you know, the Protestant churches in Germany, excepting a very few examples, when all these Protestant churches get behind a leader like Hitler? After that, Protestant theology has been limping since then. It’s sort of, you know, it’s had to come to terms with how could Protestant theology have led to that kind of political energy, that kind of passivity, or quietism, or support even for something so diabolical? So the comparison I want to make is that one, this is one of those moments where in that part of, you know, American Christianity, people are having to ask really where their allegiances lie, and what it means to be someone who follows Jesus. But, you know, within the Christian tribe, there’s so much difference, and so much complexity and that, you know, I think British evangelicalism, for example, is really politically quietist. My experience of evangelicals in this country is that very few are kind of supportive of Donald Trump or that kind of politics. The vast majority are appalled by it. But there’s a quietism there that also has questions to answer.
Manda: What does quietism mean in this context?
David: Quietism, religious quietism would be to say that one holds one’s religious belief as a as a private matter.
Manda: Ok, so essentially apolitical.
David: Yeah, that’s it. You don’t talk about politics, which is something that really came with Protestantism and the birth of the nation state. Religion, you know, they didn’t want the religion of the Holy Roman Empire that they knew before where there was all this power and money going on. So the state didn’t want religious people meddling with it. So religion was, became a very private matter. And a good Christian was a quietist, you know, someone who didn’t stick their nose into political matters. And at times, when you look at when you look at what’s happened in Washington, D.C., that sounds like a good idea. Other times, that’s a problem. In Germany in the 1930s, quietism was the issue: that people were not brave enough to speak out and say, well, actually, my spiritual beliefs compel me to refuse to go along with this kind of political power.
Manda: Right. So, again, many rabbit holes that we could follow. I’d like to take us into, in the direction of spirituality, and what spirituality is. Because you said if a Christian is what it means to be someone who follows Jesus, and I’ve been reading quite a lot of Cynthia Bourgeault, is that how you pronounce it?
David: I say Bourgeault, but I don’t… I might be saying it wrong.
Manda: Much more likely, that sounds much more French. Anyway, reading her, and the part that I’m at the moment is pretty much delving deep into Gurdjieff, which is kind of interesting. Because if we look into the heart of all of the spiritual paths, and I would make a distinction between a religion and a spiritual path, religion seems to me a political concept designed to control people, that sometimes use spiritual messages as part of their ethos. And a spiritual path is one where the person following that path is on an individual journey to connect more fully with whatever we call the All That Is. And I would love to head into the distinction between Gods, deities, and the All That Is at some point, but that might be a whole other podcast. But given we are where we are, where the politics of religiosity is becoming increasingly violent, certainly in the US. And my observation is that when America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. But also just at the moment, whatever Trump does, Johnson will follow. And therefore, we may well see something similar over here. And we’re definitely seeing it in other parts of the world.
If it is the case that it’s possible for a single human being to connect more fully with the All That Is, let’s take that as a given premise that this is the case, unless you want to suggest that it’s not, which I would doubt. And that the nature of the All That Is, the ground swell of the heart-mind of the universe is undivided, undiluted, raw, boundless compassion. And in the process of connecting with the All That Is, an individual can become more of a lens, or a doorway, or a portal, or a vehicle to bring that raw, undiluted compassion into the world. Then, we are heading for a question in this, it seems to me that our job as spiritual beings is to be that portal. So that’s my first question, would you agree with that? Second, does it matter how that is mediated? And then third, this is a whole separate, so let’s get to this last. Is it the case that there is an actual active agency working against that? So, let’s start with, am I right that this is the job of the individual? And does it matter how we frame our connexion with the All That Is?
David: Hmm. I think I do agree, although agreement sounds like too small a word, because that was well, that was too beautiful. And I mean, you get to the realm where we’re talking about things that can only be described in poetry and not in precise descriptions. Where we’re reaching towards describing something very beautiful and beyond the realm of words, down into the into the roots of our being, in our guts and, you know, below our feet, and into the earth. But I think you put it very beautifully, and I think in my own language, I would say much the same thing. A phrase that comes up often in the New Testament, it’s just two words, ‘pan ta’ in Greek, ‘all things’. And that the process of history is the reconciliation of all things, and that our task is to be participants in that reconciliation.
Manda: So can you say a little bit more about the nature of ‘all things’? Is it coterminous with what I would call the All That Is?
David: Almost, although I think in Christian theology it would be framed, and in Jewish theology, be framed a little bit differently. There’s a Jewish mystical belief of Tzimtzum: in order to create something that is not God, Gods withdraws God’s self and makes space for something other than God’s self. This capacity for love is possible by making space for something other than oneself. And then you have ‘all things’. So in the New Testament, that phrase, ‘all things’ tends to regard all that the Creator has made. And, you know, the Creator’s relationship to ‘all things’ is one of total love. Julian of Norwich, this is a mediaeval mystic, so we’re going into another lens here, says simply that God made all things, that God keeps and sustains all things. ‘All things’ continues because of God’s love. And ‘all things’ shall always be, because God loves all things. So there’s this relationship between the Maker and the ‘all things’ that are made in sort of New Testament language, the process of history and of time is the process of redemption, and of the reconciliation of all things. I mean, I guess for one thing that suggests that there’s this brokenness, this hurt, that human history becomes aware of, and is perhaps kind of responsible for in some way. The developing language suggests this sort of almost seamless integration of God and ‘all things’. It says eventually God becomes ‘all in all’. So there’s this sort of narrative to it, and this complexity of loving relationship between the Maker and the ‘all things’ that is made.
Manda: It feels, so can we explore this a little bit more deeply? Because I have a part of my framing, which I am about to dismantle, I think, is that one of the things the Ibrahamic God did that was immensely clever was to conflate itself with the All That Is. But if I have heard you correctly, and I absolutely stand to be corrected, in my world, the All That Is is all. There is no capacity of the All That Is to withdraw, because that wouldn’t even create a vacuum. Even the vacuum has the All That Is, that there is no boundary possible that the All That Is can create within itself. So, in my head is falling over the concept of a God that I thought was, had mapped itself onto the All That Is creating there being a conceptual space within which that God does not exist. So maybe I am moving into the area of Christian Animism, which is not part of Christian teaching. So, am I hearing you, that in Christian teaching there are places where God is not?
David: No, I don’t know if I’d put it like that. I think in Christian theology, God is understood to be present to all things at all times, that there’s nowhere that God is not. And yet, in order for God to have loving relationship with creation, creation is designated as other from God without God being absent for it. So, to mention Tzimtzum, this is a Jewish mystical belief, it’s kind of post biblical entirely in keeping with Christian theology I think, there’s this relationality between God and all things. I mean, I guess this is the way that the phrase ‘all things’ tends to be used in the New Testament. We could include God in ‘all things’ if we were using the phrase differently. But yes, there has to be this relationship of loving otherness, I suppose.
Manda: Why does there have to be otherness for there to be loving?
David: Well, perhaps there doesn’t, I don’t know. Again, in Christian theology, and then and this is sort of going into how Christians elaborated things after the time of Jesus, where you get kind of Trinity type ideas, then you get notions that, well, God is in relationship with God’s self. God, you know, is kind of multiple persons in loving relationship between that, you know, those three persons. So, we might say in that respect, there doesn’t have to be otherness for love. Or we might say that otherness is included in the oneness, that there’s a multiplicity of persons. So, I suppose for love to be, there has to be the subject of one’s love in some way, whether within oneself or without.
Manda: Do you think, oh OK, I can feel this getting to be a rabbit hole that possibly I am the only person who would be interested in, and the listeners might not. But let’s go one step down. Are you familiar with the Buddhist concept of the jhanas?
David: No, no.
Manda: I don’t know the history of this. Perhaps somebody Buddhist will write in and tell me. But essentially, beyond the point of access concentration, when we can focus our awareness on a single event or a single sensation, there is then an encouragement to move into this cycle of what are called the jhanas. And I don’t even know what language that is. I’m woefully ignorant. But, there’s a cycle of four. First we let go the object, then we let go the subject, then we let go of the subject/object duality, and then we let go of the frame within which that subject/object to duality existed. And I need to say thank you to Jeremy, who may be listening. He is probably our last remaining listener, and he and I spoke about this last week, which is why it’s fresh in my mind. But it is something that I’m deeply exploring at the moment, as part of the Accidental Gods. And my experience is that at the point when all of those have been let go of, the ultimate experience is one of absolutely nondual immersion in an awareness that the word compassion does not honour fully, but is the only one that I have that even comes close and begins to encompass it. And that perhaps part of the trauma of our age lies in our expectation, belief, frame, experience that this duality needs to exist. And I am not endeavouring to take apart the entirety of Christian theology, I had a belief that Christian mystics moved into a non-dual place also.
David: Oh, I think you’re right. Yeah, I think that Christian Mystics did. I mean, Cynthia Bourgeault talks about that when she talks about centring prayer, doesn’t she? And Julian of Norwich will say the same thing, that at the end of ‘all things’ is like, total unity. And I suppose, I think that’s what’s been reached towards with the language of the New Testament, that God finally is ‘all in all’. I think that the total togetherness, that seamlessness, that lack of duality is part of what that language is reaching towards. So, yeah, I mean, that’s resonant to me. And I think the biblical theology or messianic kind of imagination would describe that as a process, as indeed the process of everything, that everything is journeying towards that total togetherness.
Manda: Ok, alrighty. I think there’s a lot deeper we could go, but I can feel that we would be losing people. So, let’s take a step back, and stand on the boundary between… let’s assume that whatever spiritual path we follow, we are heading for union with compassion. Is that is that a fair starting point?
David: Hmm, absolutely,
And that if we can be the vehicle for that in the world, then that is heading towards one of the highest expressions of our spiritual agency. So I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago with Alnoor Ladha, who was brought up in a Sufi home, and he wrote a paper called Seeing Wetiko. And Wetiko is a concept from native North America. And it was a kind of a myth rather than an experience, but the myth said that if people got trapped away from the rest of the tribe, you know, in really, really bad weather or something, and one or more of those individuals resorted to cannibalism and then returned to the tribe, they would be infected with the Wetiko. And the Wetiko had two functions. It made them cold hearted, so, lacking in empathy. And the second impact was that they wanted more human flesh, that unless the tribe really came together and held these people very carefully, they would continue to consume other people. And the Wetiko was was like a virus in that it spread, that then that nature would spread to others in the tribe who hadn’t been caught away, and their only survival was in eating other people. And it was a concept rather than an experience. And it wasn’t spoken of much. It was it was there in the shadows, in the background, until the white Western colonialists arrived. And then across North America was this oh, my goodness, this entire culture is Wetiko. And my observation from the outside, as someone who believes that the Gods of the Land are old, and wise, and have helped to guide the people. And my question has always been, why did you let that happen? Why? Why in Britain, why in all of the other lands, all of the indigenous places, everywhere is indigenous to begin with. But why Australia, Africa, the Americas, everywhere this Wetiko arrives, and destroys the land and the people? And my question always for my Gods is, why did you let that happen? And, but listening to the Wetiko story from Alnoor, we began to explore… and I don’t know that there’s an answer to this, but it’s a question that I hold, is does the Wetiko have its own agency? And this is getting to the question of is there good and evil? And yes, it runs down the centre of every human heart. And yes, each of us can step into that place where the battling, the trumpets or the being the trumpets, the standing on one side or other of an argument, feels alive! It arouses my whole warrior self. And yet, that isn’t the fullest expression of my spiritual being, by any stretch. And so I wondered how you feel about that? Where your conversations of good versus evil… does that sense of Wetiko, or whatever we call it, having its own agency resonate with you? And then if it is ascending in the way that it feels to me like it’s ascending, what, as spiritual beings, what is our response to that?
David: Hmm, beautiful question. The first thing I’d like to say, because you’ve alluded to Native American beliefs a few times, I think that’s so important. I’ve been reading a brilliant book called From the Heart, which is compiled by Lee Miller, which compiles Native American voices over a long period of time and over different geographical areas, North America, South America, over the last 500 years. And it’s the most extraordinary mirror of whiteness and of European civilisation, and its underpinning beliefs, conceits, imaginations, its relationship or non-relation to the ‘all things’. And I think there’s something extraordinary about having that window from relatively recent history, that mirror held up by people who lived in equilibrium as part of the world around them, and not as conquerors of the world around them. That, for me, is most powerful. Well, to understand the conceits of my own inherited stories and identities. It’s interesting to see how peoples in entirely different places recognise the tendency of, I don’t know, of what kind of what can happen. It’s something maybe we would call mimetic theory. Anthropologists will call this memetic theory, this idea of a kind of behaviour, perhaps a violent, grasping behaviour that almost has a sort of viral character or characteristics.
Manda: That’s exactly the paper that Alnoor wrote. He was he was saying, this is a meme, and let’s look at the names of neoliberal predatory capitalism.
David: Hmm. In New Testament theology, we might call it… I mean, of course, in Christian theology, you’ve got that the much-abused concept of sin. I guess all peoples have their way of trying to understand why we do things that are destructive to life rather than part of its abundance. I guess we could call it ‘evil’. We could use all kinds of language for it. But I think essentially, we’re trying to describe the phenomenon of where destructive behaviour seems to have a momentum of its own, beyond our individual will.
Manda: Yes. And I still fall back on my inherent belief that spiritual agencies are there to help, and they are offering help, and that they wouldn’t be offering help if there were not hope. And so within your spiritual world, where are you seeing the hope?
David: I would say I feel oddly hopeful. What a lot of people said about Everybody Now, the pod boom we made, was a sort of surprise that you would find real hope in the depths of real grief, because it’s a sort of… it really sits in the dark places, and the pain is very, very deep, and the grief. And I think people think of grief and hope as like a balance. If you have too much grief, then the hope dwindles. I don’t think it’s like that. I think, you know, grieving is facing what is, and the more we face what is, the more hopeful the situation becomes. The extraordinary fraughtness of this time, I do see it as a process of rebirth, in a way that makes me genuinely hopeful. To me, this isn’t a sign that everything is going to pot. This is a sign that a paradigm is dying, and it doesn’t want to die. And it’s freaking out, because it sees that it has no road into the future, and it’s desperately trying to find one where there just isn’t one. So, I see these as the, you know, the dreadful, ugly death pangs of something that is passing, because it cannot, it’s an unsustainable economic, spiritual, social imagination. I also take hope in an emerging space for conversation and collaboration and coworking, that I think is emerging. People are listening to each other across religious boundaries and spiritual boundaries.
I kind of want to redeem the word tribalism a little bit. We’ve talked a little bit about the kind of tribalism that’s formed in otherness to another tribe to make ourselves feel safe, and to thrash things out. We’ve also had windows into what tribal peoples in other places and other times have shown us, what treasure and wisdom they have to give us if we’ve got ears to listen to it. I don’t think tribalism has to be destructive. I think there can be tribes for the world, and I think there can be tribes for other tribes. I think I see a new kind of tribalising of people gathering around their stories, and redeeming them, and listening to the stories of other tribes, in collaborative ways that I think is hopeful, and is perhaps a sign of people working together, forming new images of how life can be done and look outside of what is handed down by the political process that’s held all the power, that we’ve deferred all the power to for a very long time. So these are the things that give me hope.
Manda: Yay. That feels like a pretty good place to stop, David Blower, thank you so much for coming onto the Accidental Gods podcast.
David: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Manda. I’ve loved this conversation.
Manda: So that’s it for another week. Huge thanks to David for the compassion and the depth of his wisdom and his thinking. I am going to repost his climate change pod boom as a bonus to this episode. So, it should load up pretty much at the same time you got this, and I really encourage you to listen to it. There’s a hugely broad range of deep, thoughtful spiritual insight into where we’re heading. It is a paean to grief, but it’s also a kindling of hope in a world where that might seem in short supply. I also encourage you wholeheartedly to listen to Nomad. It’s a lovely podcast, and I will put links to that in the show notes, too. And you really want to listen to David’s music. If you know me at all, you will know I don’t really do music, except live, and even then, only in ceremony. But I did listen to some of his album called We Really Existed and We Really Did This. And it’s beautiful, and I really do recommend it. I will put a link to that in the show notes as well. It’s on his website, so head for that and then head to the place where you can buy stuff and buy it. That apart, we will be back next week with another conversation.
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