On what SOFiA is for
Glen Beasley reflects on the relevance of SOFiA in connection with recent – and not so recent – traumatic events on the western Darling Downs.
What we are inviting people to do is to move into a space
that is very difficult and uncomfortable for many.
The commodity we are trying to ‘sell’ is difficult to define,
difficult to express, and equally difficult to measure
in terms of success or failure.
To openly explore issues of purpose, faith and meaning is our stated aim. SOFiA attempts to do this through seminars, the e-Newsletter, the SOFiA online conversation, our local groups and various excursions. Our invitation is for people to engage in critical thinking – to encourage the asking of questions, to unpack ideas, and maybe, in the light of contemporary thought and new scientific insight, challenge orthodoxies which may impoverish rather than enrich our humanity.
Is this enough to justify the existence of SOFiA?
It sounds easy. What we are inviting people to do, however, is to move into a space that is very difficult and uncomfortable for many. It’s a space where we become less certain of anything and previously-held answers concerning ‘what it is to be human’ may no longer be adequate. If we surrender these beliefs, what takes their place? Many people will not thank you for enticing them to come and stand on the edge of that precipice.
So I would make the point that the commodity we are trying to ‘sell’ is difficult to define, difficult to express, and equally difficult to measure in terms of success or failure. Don Cupitt in his book The Meaning of the West says that we should always be re-appraising, re-evaluating, and re-assessing everything. He argues that an openness to criticism and a preparedness to be constantly reforming has set the West apart from the rest of the world.
Western democracies, however, carry within their own ranks what I believe comes close to being the very antithesis of Cupitt’s ideal of open-minded inquiry. The emergence of aspiring Right Wing populist leadership, with its simplistic answers to complex questions, three word slogans, fake news and conspiracy theories, reminds us that there is an enormous gulf between a critical ‘openness’ and what surrounds us at an international, national, and local level.
There seems little doubt that conspiracy theories and the world view that accompanies them were part of the tragedy that unfolded at Wieambilla, southwest of Chinchilla late last year. For a few of us in Chinchilla it was a stark reminder of how close our own local Uniting Church (UC) came to having a similar tragedy.
Within the Chinchilla congregation there has, for as long as I can remember, been a small progressive component. It was out of this background that the ‘Thursday night study group’ was born, almost 50 years ago. What followed was a sometimes difficult but enduring playing out of the UC’s mantra of ‘unity in diversity’. These were early days in the life of what was then a socially aware and progressive all-Australian church prepared to take on difficult issues such as sexuality, gender equality, and matters surrounding First Nations People.
The progressives within the local UC congregation took on various leadership roles, facilitating free and open conversation, often to the discomfort of many in the congregation. An example of this occurred with the first National Sorry Day. I was the local liaison person for the UC Social Responsibility Department and so organised a meeting between the local First Nations People, local churches, and the wider community to see what could be done. As the planning process unfolded, UC support for local participation faded to just one elderly lady and myself – the minister having walked out of the meeting telling us “you’ll just cause a lot of social unrest and I’ll be the one who has to clean it up”.
The meeting did go ahead in the Civic Centre, chaired by the Mayor. It was well attended. We brought in a speaker from Cherbourg and played the ‘Bringing them Home’ video from the Australian Human Rights Commission. The UC Newspaper Journey rang the local minister who by then thought it was safe enough to put his head back up above the parapet and take credit for the success. We did in fact re-run the video instead of the sermon in a later church service for good measure.
About 20 years ago, a situation developed in the local congregation which had all the now familiar elements: allegations of abuse which spread into issues surrounding disaffection, belief systems, conspiracy theories, disruption, threats of violence, firearms, etc. In the early stages the then minister attempted to deal with the situation pastorally, only to have the whole thing blow up in his face with attempts to railroad him out of town. Parishioners took up positions more in line with their factional alliances rather than work constructively towards reconciliation. As the situation deteriorated the police became involved. Presbytery were initially prepared to listen to the local Elders Council, but did nothing (because nice churches don’t have unsavoury issues in their congregations).
After a series of dangerously unpleasant and sometimes bizarre situations, it became apparent how little the medical profession or the police could actually do. Barbara and I had conversations about strategies should we personally receive an unwelcome visit at night. We decided in that eventuality that Barbara would disappear out the back door into the darkness.
Barbara and I, as well as three other families, lived with that situation for years. The situation ended tragically a few years later, but luckily not on a scale that those of us who were involved had feared.
Over that time, the factionalism within the congregation intensified, involving many issues, with conservatives attempting to stymie progressive contributions and initiatives.
Presbytery finally did intervene to resolve this situation. The then Queensland Moderator and the Downs Presbytery Chairman secretly colluded with a conservative faction from within the congregation to stage a ‘coup’. They used a strategy that was immoral, and in fact illegal in terms of UC rules and processes, and dismissed the church leadership from office with no right of appeal.
We strongly protested our dismissal at every level of church governance (Downs Presbytery, Queensland Synod and the National Assembly), only to be met repeatedly with mealy-mouthed, evasive responses. The UC Basis of Union, the Code of Ethics and Ministry Practice, due process, and natural justice were all ignored. The UC had finally been able to get rid of the ‘troublemakers’, and nothing was ever going to get in the way of that outcome.
A story like this has no winners. I tell it only because it illustrates the difficulties we may encounter if we are going to try to engage with people in the area of the quest for purpose, faith, and meaning. If you venture down this lonely road to an uncertain destination, you may well be on your own. It can sometimes be dangerous, and any perceived outcomes may well come at a cost.
I used to think it was worth trying to negotiate the credibility gap and work for change from within the church. I used to think Cupitt was a bit harsh when he said things like, “the church type of Christianity still exists, but it is intellectually null, morally much less Christian than the culture in which it lingers, as a gauche anachronism”. I now agree with Cupitt. I find myself mistrusting institutions.
Yet the challenge is still there. I know that one of my immediate neighbours has a cache of illegal weapons and ammunition buried for when the ‘invasion’ comes. Last week, at night we could see the glow in the night sky from nineteen fires burning in the Wieambilla area – lit by an arsonist. A young volunteer firefighter from my own brigade was injured when he drove into the back of an unlit vehicle on a dusty, smoky back road while in the process of fighting one of the fires. Dysfunction abounds.
Do we in SOFiA have anything to offer?
Cupitt argues that
we ourselves are able to construct a cosmos (a habitual world for ourselves) out of the formless, jostling chaos of raw experience.
Is Cupitt right? If he is, is this the nebulous criterion on which SOFiA’s performance should be judged (if it should be judged at all)? Together, even if at some risk, can we contribute – through promoting a no-holds-barred critical reflection on life and meaning – to the building of a better world?
Disclaimer: views represented in SOFiA articles are entirely the view of the respective authors and in no way represent an official SOFiA position. They are intended to stimulate thought, rather than present a final word on any topic.