by Kirsten Macdonald
For those of you that have followed Ponderings over the last few years, you will know that my preoccupation with faith and the existential self-has been a big part of my life.
It has been this dance that has grown into a study of religion and anthropology. I have often shied away from discussing it in more detail in this space because beliefs are so very personal and I don’t want ever to alienate my beautiful tribe of Ponderers. But a certain person came up on my radar that beckoned a bit more, capturing and challenging the hearts of Australia. But I will get to him shortly. Shall we bravely ponder?
In these years of seeking and learning, something has struck me, again and again, and that is how many of the world religions have the same stories, themes and metaphors. Many of them involved in spiritual awakenings and happenings outside of themselves, across the globe, across thousands of years are similar.
Stories of angels, burning bushes, wearied souls seeking solace in abandoned places to have spiritual epiphanies, there are countless stories etched into our history.
The genesis of many organised religions share core sentiments of a similar ilk. Houston we have a problem. We argue over the right and wrong of it all. Yet it is marinated in the same concepts. Literally.
Many women and men have spent decades studying the human condition, theology, the aesthetics of human goodness and not- so- goodness. They are often experts in tour spiritual pedagogical journey. Codexes have been discovered, deciphered, and challenges made.
But what about the others? What about the leaders that have a calling to help humanity that is nothing short of inspiring?
The leaders that are not afraid to remind us of our ethics and morals as human beings on this planet? The moral compass bearers that are separate from state and carry the mantle, asking the ‘bigger’ questions about the condition of Humanity? Many of these women and men have spent decades studying the human condition, theology, the aesthetics of human goodness and not- so- goodness. They are often experts in the species we call human’s spiritual evolvement, going back thousands of years. They have that calling.
I first saw Father Rod Bower from the Gosford Anglican Church on Facebook, doing a live church sermon, and I was nothing short of captivated.
This enigmatic man was calling for humility, calling for the fundamental rights of human beings to be respected. In Australia, we are quite fervent in our differing beliefs about “boat people” and refugees. The key piece of information people need to remember is according to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, our measuring stick on Planet Earth, every human has basic needs, if you don’t meet them, you are in significant strife with the UN and in danger of moral corruption in the worst possible way. Something that Fr. Rod Bower is reminding us about recently, just this week he chained himself to our Prime Minister’s Front Gates in protest against current government actions with The Manus Men.
His flair for troublemaking is exemplary- the Gosford church sign out front takes the traditional messages of faith and turns them on their head. The original one that tickled the Nation’s fancy: Dear Christians, People Are Gay, Get Over It, Love God.
On another particular live stream Fr. Rodd spoke about getting the basics right. If we get the basics right like hospitality and kindness, the rest of human decency will flow and be activated. Like a true scientist, he was unpacking the ideology and examining the pieces. This was not fodder being jammed down one’s mortal throat for salvation, but something more.
It was when an atheist friend and I were discussing this clergyman going viral on Facebook that my friend turned to me and said- that guy makes me want to go to church, he makes me curious. It was at that moment I knew I had to chat with this man. So I traveled up to Gosford to meet with Fr. Rod on a lovely NSW sunny day and what transpired was hours of laughter, thought-provoking and interesting conversation, that I have put together in a 4 part series. I hope you enjoy it. It isn’t always as expected, and it verged on curious.
Kirsten: Father Rod, one thing that has me intrigued is how you contextualize and present your message. You’re a storyteller and a brilliant theologist. I’ve had 3 atheist friends see your stuff on Facebook and have said, ‘that guy would make me want to go to the Church.’
Fr. Rodd: (smiling) We have a lot of atheist followers; or so-called atheists.
Kirsten: The moment you have someone in opposition to your beliefs asking “what has this person got to say?” is a pretty cool moment to have. Have you had non-believers that have become curious about what you teach?
Fr. Rodd: (nodding) I mean we’ve 50,000 or something followers on Facebook. I’d say a good half of them would be, probably more than half would be very least agnostic. There are a couple of very committed atheists who comment regularly. It’s terrific.
I recently spoke at the Atheist and Humanist society at the University of New South Wales. I’m fascinated by atheism. In that, the God that atheists ‘generally speaking’ -have rejected is the same God I reject. I don’t have that God either.
Kirsten: Agreed! (I’m now grinning ear to ear because this conversation is getting awesome).
Fr Rodd: And that’s the version of God that everyone should reject. It’s variations on Zeus, it really is. The idea of God sitting on the Mount, manipulating the affairs of humanity, and most theists believe in that. It’s a concept that’s been justifiably ridiculed. As it should be.
Fr Rodd: It’s a far more sophisticated concept. I just get frustrated with the superficial; I’m not saying atheists are superficial, but there’s a superficial atheism that is Dawkins’s atheism. It just sets up this straw man and knocks it down, and that shouldn’t be atheism.
Kirsten: Absolutely. I get incredibly excited about current science, and it seems, the more science progresses, the more it seems to prove the source of a divine architect. Or I love it when I read that Einstein and C.S Lewis started out trying to disprove the existence of a “designer” or an “architect” and could not. It hasn’t been done. Just because we don’t have the answers, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Fr. Rodd: Well I’m utterly fascinated by quantum physics.
Kirsten: Me too! (this is the bit where I have to restrain my excitement for the ME TOO moment lol)
Fr. Rodd: Because I think it is where theology and science come together, and it’s where science is almost forced to start to borrow theological language. I mean the big bang theory was first postulated by a Belgian Catholic priest, Father Georges Lemaitre and it almost required the mind of a theologian to come up with that. So that’s where I’ve been fascinated.
Kirsten: I can’t get my head around the fact that so many people do not realize that much of science was born in the church. The separation of science and theology intrigues me. The origins of science began within the Church. It was a man looking at the stars asking ‘where is God?’ that started this journey.
Fr. Rodd: Yeah. All the great universities started as theological colleges essentially.
Kirsten: So, tell me, how did you go with the Humanist Society?
Fr. Rodd: We had a ball!
Kirsten: Do you get thrown some curve balls?
Fr. Rodd: Well, not really because I’ve thought a lot about that kind of stuff. I sowed the seeds of doubt in the atheism. (smiling)
Kirsten: (Laughs) that is brilliant. What fun. You had answers Father Rodd! You went in prepared lol.
Fr. Rodd: Once you get beyond the superficial atheism and join them in rejecting this, there are other concepts.
Kirsten: What are you reading at the moment?
Fr. Rodd: I’m actually reading a book, by Simon Longstaff from the Ethics Center. It’s just little vignettes on ethics.
Kirsten: So, I take it that you like moral philosophy?
Fr. Rodd: I do like moral philosophy. I think part of the passion I have around some of the social issues, refugees, and climate change come from that passion for social ethics—how do we best live together as human beings?
Part Two of our Conversation Next Week: Lucifer, Game of Thrones and Why First Century Jews got it right. Oh and Dutton, we can’t forget him.
For those who would like to assist in Fr. Rod’s current quest to help go to: https://www.asrc.org.au/
The final part of my interview with Fr. Rod Bower, we talk heaven, kingdoms, Shakespeare and prophetic wisdom.
Kirsten: So Father Rod, heaven. What is is all about?
Fr. Rod: We get obsessed with the how do we get to heaven thing? It’s become a Christian obsession!
Ultimately Jesus was only essentially concerned with one thing. That’s what he called, ‘Kingdom’. The Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven depending on which gospel you read, and that has nothing to do with the afterlife at all. People make that mistake. He’s a first century Jew; he doesn’t care about the afterlife and what comes with it. We have a system on how to get to Heaven and such, but they don’t.
Kirsten: So, it wasn’t relevant at that time at all.
Fr Rod: It’s become a Christian obsession. It certainly wasn’t in the first century Jew or even possibly the modern Jew. First century Jews had this concept of time, which was the current time we are in, and the time that is to come. And for them, that was one of the post-Messianic time. They were very caught up in the Messianic stuff. So, the world has a future of being that is different to what it is now, and that is in part only brought about by living it and saying, ‘the kingdom of heaven is here.’ It’s kind of almost here, and you can reach out and touch it, it’s kind of here, but it isn’t yet. So for me, part of that manifestation of the Kingdom is the social ethic stuff and how do we do things? And that’s the big question he’s asking.
Fr. Rod: I’m quite orthodox. I mean what I find with the conservatives who try to drag me down from time to time, is that they have an idea that there’s an orthodox theological line in the sand, you’ve crossed that, and therefore you’re a heretic. Many don’t have a deep questioning of what that particular doctrine REALLY looks like, where it came from, why do we have it, what did that mean in the 3rd century?
Kirsten: The cultural context of the Bible is interesting, do you find that people tend to generalize in ways that has nothing to do with today?
Fr. Rod: Oh yes. Take the sexuality debate; it’s a classic example. The modern Bible translates a word as homosexual. It’s not; you can’t translate that word like that. The whole concept doesn’t exist in the first century. And so people are thumping and turning up on your doorstep with their Bibles open to 1 Corinthians or whatever text they’ve found, and they’ll point and say, look it says ‘Homosexuals.’ And I say, No, it doesn’t!
Kirsten: Yes, it’s fascinating that people can take ancient text and wrap their agenda up within it. We’re such complex psychological creatures with so many different layers and levels; it’s a narrative between the line of virtue and excess, I suppose? Jesus was by all accounts a disruptor that challenged the status quo at the time, by asking those questions. I come from a bit of both Anglican-Lutheran hybrid, and in my experience, the Anglican Church can be very stoic and stiff upper lip, in many ways, and we haven’t always seen eye to eye, lol. You come across as an incredibly warm and engaging person and very progressive. Has this always been a part you or is that something that’s evolved through your career? How have the heck did you get away with it?
Fr. Rod: My parents were graziers from country NSW in the Hunter Valley and so I grew up with a very conservative, nominally Christian Country Party environment, and indeed I was very politically conservative for a long time. I know that Tony Abbott referred to me as left wing, as he was wheeled out to counteract what I said about Mr. Dutton. But I certainly would reject that. I certainly am not a left wing. I’m a centrist. I grew up with very conservative beliefs. I remember there was a rejoicing in my family in 1975 when Whitlam was sacked. My father said, ‘if he hadn’t been sacked, the communists would come and take everything and blood would flow in the gutters.’
(Laughs) But I grew up in the Fraser Liberal years, and I became more aware of a centrist conservatism when I was in my early twenties.
Kirsten: Oh wow, that’s very passionate conservatism. So how would you describe yourself now?
Fr. Rod: I’m a fiscal conservative and a social progressive in that sense. My passion for marriage equality is not at all a progressive thing; it’s a very conservative thing.
I think marriage is important.
Kirsten: I have noticed that the message you’ve put across to people is to remember the very fundamentals of Christianity and if you do this, you’ve got the rest sorted out. It looks after itself, doesn’t it? Hospitality and kindness and you know…
Fr. Rod: Justice!
Fr. Rod: Yeah, I have a very conservative view of marriage. I think it’s important; it’s one of the cornerstones of our society. And therefore, it ought to be available to any two adults who want to form a life together because I think it’s good for society.
Kirsten: I know for many leaders in the church you are held to account by your parish, you can’t just suddenly start jumping around changing things up. The church can be very staunch and unchanging and “color within the lines” so to speak in practice. So you must have a wonderful balance of respect from supporters within the Church community for you to be able to live-stream and be the way you are out there in social media- would you say this is true?
Fr. Rod: It’s been a very long evolution, and then you need a long period of creating trust and evolving together in mutual respect, to a point where the congregation can do what we are doing.
Kirsten: When they go, he’s got this?
Fr. Rod: Yes, but we’ve had a small number of people leave. Over the last 4-5 years, as we become much more vocal on social issues, although we have had many more come. The congregation has grown substantially.
So I have a congregation that doesn’t blindly follow what I say. They will question, and they will challenge, and they will say, ‘come on, maybe that wasn’t such a great idea.’
Kirsten: Wow, so this means they’re really invested in the Church. That’s wonderful. There’s a relationship there.
Kirsten: So when was the first time you decided to put a sign out the front?
Fr. Rod: June 2013, Dear Christians People Are Gay, Get Over It, Love God.
It went viral and gave us a platform. Our facebook went from 150 to 3000 likes, and we thought that was a lot then! We have weeks of 2 million hits now.
Kirsten: This is both extraordinary and wonderful what made you decide to put that up?
Fr. Rod: It was a specific event, I encountered a gay man and went to give him the last rights. The idea that the family was afraid that I would judge this man, so disturbed me. Their fear of my judgment. I felt I needed to say something about that. It was a watershed moment, and it was a profound moment. It went crazy, and it hasn’t really stopped being crazy.
Kirsten: Your brave move to disrupt and create waves… it takes courage to do that. I am in awe of your bravery, within your backyard and the greater community. It reminds me a little of someone…
Fr. Rod: Well, you know it’s the prophetic voice. A prophetic voice is a disruptive voice. Traditionally in the 8th century, prophets, they were social commentators, they came into town they looked around and said if you keep going down this track, this is where you are going to end up. So it is a disruptive kind of ministry.
For example with refugees, if you keep treating them like this you re going to damage your corporate soul. You can’t do that; you just can’t.
There are three aspects to that kind of prophetic ministry.
1) You have to be prepared to live on the edges of your community, and I do, I live on the edge of the church.
2) You have to be really clear. You can’t prevaricate. You are not the academic that sees both sides of the argument, that’s a different kind of ministry. You have to be entirely clear on what you are saying.
3) You need to be prepared to be outrageous to be heard, and stand out. But it’s not about standing out for yourself. If you do that, you will come crashing down very quickly. The only reason you want to stand out is for the sake of what you are saying.
Kirsten: I think it is so important for religious leaders to do this, as it may encourage other people in positions of power to speak out. Right throughout history, religious leaders have been the social commentators of moral guidance don’t you think?
Fr. Rod: Absolutely. Look right back, to the civil rights movement, Martin Lither King was a, Christian minister, South Africa has Desmond Tutu, an Anglican bishop, Oscar Romaro Maro, Gandhi… Go back into the anti-slavery movement that came with John Newton’s journey with Amazing Grace, he was an Anglican Priest, there are SO many. St Francis is another, hey even the boss himself! There’s a long tradition of the meddlesome clergy. I love a bit of Shakespearian reference. Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?
Kirsten: And that dear Ponderers, is how I made a new friend and a new found respect for leaders with beliefs who are brave enough to speak out about moral imbalances and injustice. For it is this attitude and dedication to truth that keeps the balance, provides safety and clears the dark corners from shadows. You see I have come to believe that any areas in this world where power exists has the potential for personal shadows to invade and commit acts that are wrong. When light-bearers speak out and bring the glow to those shadows, goodness has a chance to prosper. Any organization where power exists, be it economic, personal, sexual or cultural there needs to be a leader of light to keep the moral compass firmly in position and help keep people safe.