Jack lives in Christchurch, New Zealand and is a writer.
1. What are your spiritual beliefs?
Is this where I put myself in a box, where others will leave me when they read certain words, terms pre-loaded with all sorts of associations? I’ll keep it wide for a while, like I don’t want to dam the river before it leaves its source. My beliefs concern eternity and immortality, certainly.
I experience temporal life daily and at the age of 65, I am more and more aware of my mortality, the brevity of my tenure in this body. Yet I know that time is never fully understood, even as we experience its nature. I am working at being present to myself and to the world; at being in the moment and exploring silence in meditation, and I am not the best student.
I believe that when I die, I will enter eternity in one form or another; that my consciousness will not simply switch off like a light, as if I never have been – and all my deeds in this world vanish. I don’t believe that any moral evaluation of my behaviour is simply relative to my cultural conditioning and that there is no absolute good, nor evil – nor truth, if it comes to that.
I have seen both my parents die, and loved ones close to me die also. The experience of their deaths is part of what has led me to my beliefs today, but not only that. Death is certainly a shepherd, as the Psalmist has written, but if it doesn’t lead me to pasture, then it is not a good shepherd. Many people see death and believe it is the end. I don’t think so.
If even a man so limited as I am can keep my parents alive in my memory until I die, then there is some form of life after death available in this one – the love of family and friends keeps us alive, even as the details of our presence fade. Sadly, hatred and resentment of the dead confers on them a presence too.
I understand those forces as I was once in their grip; I hated my own father for many years and tried to push him out of my awareness. It is not like that now. I have come to terms with what happened to us: alcoholism and gambling addiction in his life, along with post-traumatic stress disorder post-WW2, and alcoholism and drug addiction in mine.
Coming through these destructive forces, and having just finished a memoir where I look at us both clearly, and find a greater compassion for our lives, I can now say quite calmly, having perhaps established my humanity before my spirituality, that I am a Christian, converted at the age of thirty one, so that means I have been walking this road for just on 34 years.
2. How did you come to have these beliefs?
I have switched questions 2 & 3 around as that makes more sense to me. I guess I knew about Jesus early on. We went to Sunday school when my Dad was still in the Navy in the 1950s but I don’t think he went there. My Mum’s parents had been Salvationists, but my Nanny who lived with us didn’t go to the Sallies. We’re in the mid-50s here. I heard the bible stories as a kid and there was a far greater church-going consensus in New Zealand society back then. We weren’t regulars though, and when we left the city, we stopped going to the local Anglican church.
I got confirmed in my early teens, with the Anglicans, in a country area; I was searching and spiritually hungry. I was becoming aware of the human propensity for evil (reading about Nazi Germany helped me there). I recall clearly John Kennedy’s assassination on November 22nd 1963, three days before my 16th birthday. My teen-faith didn’t survive the world, the flesh and the devil. Hormones, genes and other things were against me then – the booze, the music, and the girls.
The bottle and the spliff eventually got hold of me in a bad way, and relationship breakdowns finished me off. The death of my second partner in a road accident left me feeling bankrupt. I had no answers to death. Within twelve months of her death, I had got on my knees and prayed to Jesus for help.
I don’t really care at this point who believes me, as what happened cannot be proved to another, only accepted as my testimony of experience. I left that room different. I encountered a presence. I felt the forgiveness I had asked for was given. It was like a backpack full of rocks came off my back and the knot of fear in my stomach melted.
I came out of there smiling, and it got better. You can’t manufacture this stuff. Why would I lie? If nothing had happened, that’s what I would be saying – nothing happened. There are countless stories like this that atheists bat away and explain as emotional abreactions, psychological states, cultural conditioning etc. But I was there and I know what happened.
I also know what happened next: I started reading the bible and certain texts began to come to life, as if I had never read the damn thing before. Everything about Jesus, His life and death and teachings took on a new reality. I read it for myself, I didn’t run off to church. I was suspicious of authority, with good reason. I did the hard yards myself.
I started cleaning house, instinctively. I chucked my stash of dope in the fire and got rid of some music that was driving me crazy (like Hawkwind, if you ever have the misfortune to meet them on acid or heavy hash). I took back stuff I had stolen. I wrote letters to people I had ripped off. I went out and got a job. I told others what had happened: some wanted to know more and joined in, most smiled politely and disappeared, branding me a religious nutter.
Well, you shall know them by their fruits: in the next ten years, we began a hippie house church, baptised each other and any willing comers on the beach, in the river. We had bible studies in our homes, shared cars and took our kids away on camps, opened our homes to hitchhikers, gave and saved money, got involved in the local community and did some home schooling. We lived like the early Christians in the Book of Acts: “they were together, sharing with any as each had a need”.
Later in my walk with Jesus, I found AA and straightened out the bent alkie bits that were coming back to bite me on the rare occasions when I drank. I was still a dry drunk. I got clean and sober. I still am today, 24 years on. I don’t read the bible as much as I should these days, but I still read spiritual AA material regularly, daily, and go to meetings, including prison meetings (“I was sick and in prison and you came to me”).
I believe in the god image in each person, and I try to respect it. I do not believe all religions are the same, but I do believe all humans are, in one respect particularly – we all have some fear of death, and deep down, cannot understand why we have to die, when amoebas can have seeming immortality. That’s because life is more than just the body and each of us I believe intuits eternity – we can’t be satisfied with this, outside of meeting our Creator. That’s my experience.
3. How sure are you that those beliefs are true?
I have put my beliefs into practice, if that constitutes surety of truth. I know faith in Jesus has worked for me, the belief that He is the Son of God, that He lived and died in our midst, in historic time, and that He did indeed rise from the dead.
I have an atheist friend who is driven crazy by the fact that I have a doctorate and still believe in “primitive superstitions”– yet he won’t read the New Testament carefully with an open mind to see if it might be true. He reads Lloyd Geering and other critics instead, so gets it all second hand. I bet when he wanted to discover the joy of sex, he didn’t depend on what others told him about it.
I did not become a Christian by reading the Scriptures – I got here through desperation and encounter. That doesn’t mean that I invented what happened to me when I called out to God, nor that my subsequent readings of the Christian gospels all took place in the rosy glow of emotion. I studied the scriptures for myself and read some basic church history.
These days, I am a writer and an historian and I think I can recognise a text for what it is, and when it is written as history (not transcribed oral tradition). The people who wrote the gospels either knew Jesus (Matthew and John) or they talked to those who did and got the stories from them (Mark and Luke).
Anyone that tries to tell me Luke/Acts is a compilation of oral histories written long after Jesus died has a poor grasp about the way history is recorded and what testimony meant in the era the gospels were written. History was history then if there were witnesses – and there were.
I believe that the gospels are the best attested texts from the classical era, and I accept that they tell the truth about Jesus. There are some things that are difficult to square up (the chronology of Jesus going to Egypt in Matthew and the visit of the Magi in Luke), but they are sufficient unto the day.
Absolute certainty (sureness of truth) is probably beyond most humans, as life changes and we are buffeted by circumstances and disappointments. I have times of doubt, more on the lines of, I get jaded and preoccupied by life and don’t give my spiritual side enough food. But I have never lost what I found back then, and my fellowship today is still rich, as I worship in the Tikanga Māori side of the Anglican Church. When I stand in line for communion, I am walking in a 2,000 year old tradition, and the community, which is real, bears me up.
As part of my morning meditations, short or long, I will often recite the Māori text of a verse in the first chapter of John’s Gospel (1:5), “I roto i te pouri te maramatanga e whiti ana; heoi, kihai i mau i te pouri” – the light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not overpowered it”.
That’s what I hope and pray for, that this world’s darkness will not overpower that light I try to walk by.
4. What do you wish you could believe (but don’t)?
I wish I could believe in some form of incremental human perfectibility in this life, but the results over time are not encouraging. I have probably lived in one of the most blessed bubbles of recorded human history, in a material sense: baby boomer, growing up in a stable welfare state, no war or hunger, now retired on a state pension, living very comfortably.
But how many of those born into this world in my birth year could say the same, and how many millions born since 1947 have perished in early childhood through starvation, adulthood through war and disease, or have had their lives warped and cut short through needless poverty?
I wish I could believe that affluence makes people grateful and content, but the artificial stimulation of our desires by global consumer capitalism seems to have the opposite effect: the more we have, the more we want, and the more willing we are to ignore what it costs other people in poorer jurisdictions to provide us with our electronic toys.
5. What do you think it means to believe in something?
There are many ways to answer this I’m sure, but I would split my beliefs into passive and active. Passive beliefs would include what I know about the nature of the world and the universe and take for granted.
For instance, on a phenomenological level, I believe the sun will come up every morning and set and every night; that is, the universe will continue to behave as it has over recorded human time. This is the backdrop, the stage if you will, on which I act out my convictions about reality and ethics.
I may be totally naïve about how long this state of affairs will obtain, but unless I can maintain some state of passive belief in the ground beneath my feet being there in the morning when I stumble out of bed, then the inner stuff, my convictions and aspirations are less likely to be acted upon.
As an example, after experiencing the recent series of earthquakes in Christchurch, I have found I can be worn down by the bodily stress of these frightening phenomena, and my ability to think and reflect soberly is limited by the adrenaline shocks my body has to process. Sheer tiredness can make one’s beliefs a little dormant, so that it is harder to act in concert with them.
However – and this is where active belief comes in – if we have had a certain moral code that shapes our lives over time, when emergencies like this strike, I believe we are more able to stand and not run in the midst of fear; to think and not panic, to look out for others. The citizen with a conscience helps their neighbour, the opportunistic burglar loots his neighbour’s goods.
Thankfully, as most of my life has not been lived in this sort of crisis and its aftermath, active belief is when I have time to think about what I should do in any given situation. For example, I recently bought a new laptop in the US, some $500 cheaper than here in New Zealand.
Bringing it back into the country, I had to sign a declaration at Customs about the value of goods I was bringing in to New Zealand. I could easily have lied and avoided paying GST on top of US sales tax – plus I would have got through Customs a whole lot quicker and not had to run for my domestic connection.
But I hate these tax cheats who take their money offshore, after using all the facilities the mass of taxpayers in the countries where they operate have paid for: roads, railways, power stations, the whole shebang. People that will sue you for “illegal downloading” of their products, or trademark infringements. Like Microsoft.
But if I dodge the taxman, I’m no better; so I paid the GST, and still ended up with a MacBook Pro $300 cheaper. That means I can maintain my conscience, and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, to God what is God’s. What I owe God, I believe – is love, and it is unloving to cheat my fellow citizens, in who His image and likeness lives.
I get really annoyed when men like Owen Glenn make all their money overseas and avoid tax “legitimately”, living in tax havens, then come back here to New Zealand, writing books and telling us how to run the country, dispensing largesse to willing public institutions who style themselves as “the critic and conscience of society”. These are the universities who take money from a man who has successfully avoided being a fully paid up citizen of countries where he made his money.
So unless I paid that customs duty –“faith without works is dead” – then I have no room to criticize him. Am I 100% squeaky clean in all areas of my life then? I doubt it, but when my conscience starts to nag me as it did with this issue, I know God is on my side. “Trust God and clean house” – that’s one of AA’s pithy one-liners.
6. Does this stuff matter to you? Do you think about it much?
Yes, it matters to me in that it is part of my life, my experience and my history as I have outlined above. I would not have taken the time to respond to this questionnaire if it did not.
Let me give one final example. We had a barbeque on Saturday, which meant a long day preparing for the guests, looking after them when they came, and cleaning up after the last one left. We had some great times and good fellowship, but it was exhausting and when evening came, I had run myself down.
But I was happy because I had served them: “I am among you and one who serves”, Jesus said. Humility and service are not sexy topics in today’s news. I am a proud, vain and opinionated man, so it is good for me to carry out the empties and wash down the BBQ the next day.
The next day being Sunday, I went to church: Te Haahi Mihinare, the Anglican Māori church at Phillipstown here in Christchurch where I have been worshipping since 1997. It was a big day for all those who had taken part in the Kura Raumati (Summer School) over the previous week, as many were being ordained.
I used to sneer at this stuff in my “rebel” days: the frocks, the funny hats, the rank and the file, the ceremony. Now, I see it differently: humble people serving their Māori and Pākehā communities in many ways, as hospital chaplains, as friends and carers to the lonely, the marginalized and the elderly. “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these, you have done it to me”, Jesus said.
What I saw – again – was community in action, a realization renewed that church is community and that belief in the deepest Christian sense is never a solo flight. Of course we must have a personal conviction, but this is not to be expressed in solitude (save for those who have a particular calling).
Most Māori still have real, functioning communities and linked relationships that mean – when it comes to the expression of the Christian life – that they, like Samoans and Tongans and most Pasifika peoples, don’t have the hang-ups we Westerners have about the group and belonging to a body of worshippers.
None of this sits well with post-Reformation, post-Renaissance subjectivity – the primacy of the individual intellect and conscience that subjects everything to reason and empirical analysis. Fear of corrupt authoritarian leaders and a high demand for personal privacy make it difficult for many of us to be joiners – it was for me.
“Hell is other people”, said Sartre – he obviously never experienced a hangi with ukuleles. Hell, to me, could just as easily be what he seems to be proposing as heaven: spending eternity alone with the cold accusing chatter of my unredeemed and unrelenting conscience, at war with my overweening pride in the other corner.