Life & Faith

The Philosopher’s Faith

John Haldane on virtue, happiness, narcissism, and the possibility of God.

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“Philosophy from its origins has always had its focus on the idea that we investigate thought and the world and so on in order to answer the question: how ought I to live?”

John Haldane is that rare breed, a public intellectual. He’s an academic philosopher who also works hard to introduce philosophical concepts to the rest of us in ways that connect with our lives.

“Anybody who is seriously interested in living their own life well is going to be somebody who is looking for answers to questions and they’re going to talk to others and so on. They’re not going to think that they can just generate that out of themselves - or they ought not to think that.”

Simon Smart grills John on unhappiness and virtue, self-love, what higher education is really for, optimism and pessimism, and whether arguments for the existence of God have any traction. He also asks: what personal reasons do you have for being a Christian? How do you arrive at belief?

“These are different areas or elements within one’s broader view of the world … There is the scientific over here, there’s the philosophical there, there’s the experiential there and so on, and it’s more a matter of kind of going on the Grand Tour, and revisiting and coming to these, and then experiencing them and reflecting on them in the light of what one has previously experienced and reflected upon, and then moving, and then coming back - and so on. So it’s a kind of to-ing and fro-ing between these different areas."

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John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews. He was in Sydney as a guest of the Scots College, to deliver their annual Clark Lecture.

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Sister Act

Life & Faith hears from two young women who’ve made some very counter-cultural choices.

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“Sometimes we’ve been mistaken for many other things. We have a convent in New York City, and one night our Sisters were walking on the streets, back to one of our convents. A group approached them and said, ‘Hey Sisters, what’s the show on Broadway tonight?’ I mean, you see a lot of things in New York, and we’re just part of it. Then we were in Sydney too, a little girl boarded a bus one day when there were a few of us on, and said, ‘Look Mum, all these women are getting married today.’ You know, so it’s a sight unseen.” 

Sister Jean Marie and Sister Mary Grace are Sisters of Life. They’ve taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience – the vows that nuns have taken for centuries – as well as an extra vow, to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life.

Their order is often described as “pro-life”, but Sister Mary Grace says she likes to think of their work as radically “pro-woman”, supporting mothers and pregnant women who feel that their choices are limited by offering them practical help, and unconditional love.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we hear from two young women who’ve made very counter-cultural choices: opting for commitment in an age of keeping your options open; celibacy in an age obsessed with sex and romance; communal living in an age of atomisation and loneliness; a life of prayer in an age that pursues productivity and efficiency. What could lead someone to make that kind of choice?

“Ultimately, what I've discovered in joining the Sisters of Life is that love desires to commit. Just last August I professed my first vows, and that day was like a wedding day for me. It was really an experience of freedom. I think love ultimately desires to give itself away to the beloved, to the other person that is loved.

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What we talk about when we talk about movies

A conversation with film critic CJ Johnson, for anyone who’s ever loved a film.

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CJ Johnson was an only child who grew up watching Bill Collins present the best of Hollywood every Friday and Saturday night on Channel 10, and who calls film his “first real friend”. These days, he’s a film critic, lecturer, and playwright who watches and thinks about movies for a living and reviews them for the ABC, among other places. 

That’s how he met Simon Smart - the two appeared together on an episode of ABC Radio’s Nightlife program one Easter to talk about some of the myriad cinematic versions of the Jesus story. 

"I came to respect that that story, in the New Testament, is a bloody good story - just an outrageously brilliant story. For the first time, I got properly an understanding of why that story is beloved by a certain sizeable chunk of the planet. And it was seeing it told cinematically that got me to that place.” 

In this conversation, CJ and Simon try to get to the bottom of their love of film; touch on classics from Casablanca to Jaws as well as the Marvel phenomenon and 2018’s Mary Magdalene; and talk about how to recognise a good movie when you see one. CJ also tackles the eternal question of whether you have to read the book before watching the film - as well as which kinds of books make the best movies. 

“I see art as something that those of us who don’t go to church have - going to the cinema is my church. … No one can survive on nothing, and art feeds the soul.” 

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Missionary Doctor

What could make someone give up everything to serve some of the world’s poorest women?

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"As a junior doctor I went to Ethiopia to work with my aunt in the desert area, and we were just wandering around the desert with camels, treating people under trees and shrubs and things in 50-degree heat … You’d have to sleep with a guard with a gun because the hyenas get quite close, so every now and then you’d get woken up with a gunshot and this hyena yelping off in the distance. And then a bit later that night a camel was bellowing just a few metres away from my head and gives birth, and I get splattered with all this amniotic fluid."

Andrew Browning has spent more than 17 years in Africa as a missionary doctor. As a medical student, he spent time working with Rwandan refugees fleeing the genocide; as a junior doctor, he joined Catherine Hamlin at the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, dedicating his life to helping women who are suffering from debilitating childbirth injuries. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Andrew explains how he could give up a lucrative, comfortable life as a doctor at home in Australia to help thousands of women halfway round the world. He explains the risks of childbirth in rural places, what a fistula is, and his hope for a future where women don’t have to face this kind of suffering. 

He also talks about the difference between being a missionary doctor or a secular healthcare worker somewhere like Africa - as well as how African and Western people respond differently to illness, suffering, and death. 

"I remember telling people in Australia they’ve got cancer, or 'You’ve got a life-threatening condition’, and the immediate reaction was 'No, no, you’re wrong' or 'Give me a second opinion; that can’t be true’, or they’re angry. Whereas if you do that in Africa it’s much more 'Oh, okay, sure. My time is up.' I mean they’re much more attuned to death and accepting of suffering as part of life, they see it every day … The poor in Africa, the physically poor, people say that they’re spiritually rich, and the materially rich are often spiritually poor - at least in my experience."

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Content warning: This episode contains explicit medical details, as well as descriptions of violence, that you may find distressing and that probably aren’t appropriate for kids. 

Find out more about Andrew's ongoing work to end obstetric fistula globally through the Barbara May Foundation

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This Side of the Wall

Checkpoints, borders, normalcy, and hope: a sketch of daily life in the West Bank. 

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Areej Masoud lives in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. In terms of physical distance, it’s very close to Jerusalem. In terms of social reality, it’s a world away. 

“If I want to go to Jerusalem, I need to get a permit. It’s not like I want to go, and I just start my car and leave. I would have to go through the pedestrian walk, and to do that I need to get a permit. The permit is not like a visa with clear criteria why you get it, why you don’t get it. I would need to go to a military base to request that, and you most probably won’t get it. But if you do, you need to go and wait at the checkpoint … it’s very humiliating.” 

Areej is a Palestinian Christian, which means she belongs to a people who once made up 30 per cent of the population. These days, they make up less than 1 per cent of those living on the West Bank. 

"I always felt jealous of other Christians, where their worst enemy could be their neighbour, or their ex-best friend. I do have an enemy, and that enemy is causing the persecution of myself and my people. Loving my enemy does have a different meaning, and that’s only when I was able to live both of my identities together. When you are not able to live that, like loving your enemy, you can’t consider yourself a Christian.” 

The Arab-Israeli situation is among the world’s most intractable conflicts. It’s enormously complicated, and a minefield of a political issue. 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Simon talks to someone who lives those tensions every day, and tries to navigate them using Jesus’ words about peacemaking and love of enemies as a compass. Areej shares stories of what life is like for her people: Can you be sure water is going to come out of the tap? How do you hold down a job? How do you travel when you’re not allowed near your country’s airport? And why would someone actively choose to live under these kinds of pressures? 

"Hope is something not to be taken for granted: we have to have it each morning. Hope is when you know what your mission is and where you’re heading to and who you are, and what is your community and what they mean to you, and what you mean to them.

It’s like waking up in the morning knowing you are going to have a bad day, but then deciding you are going to have hope, create hope. And if you don't have it that day, you know someone else found it for you and with you, and they will share that with you.” 

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Discomfort Zone: Os Guinness

Os Guinness talks freedom, human rights, and why the 1960s counterculture was the best moment to come of age.

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“In Europe, you could go to any crossroads - we lived in Switzerland then - and there’d be six hitchhikers. One would be reading Nietzsche, one would be reading Siddhartha, one would be reading Robert Heinlein, and one would reading C. S. Lewis, and they’d say ‘hey man, you should read this’, or ‘you should go there’. People were really thinking.” 

Os Guinness is an author and speaker with a keen eye for how culture works. He was born in China during World War II, survived a famine and the Cultural Revolution, and came of age in the midst of the counterculture of the 1960s. “I’m so glad that I’m a child of the 60s”, he tells Simon Smart. “It was wild, but I’m glad it forced me to think through my faith, and to relate my faith to all that was going on.” 

In this episode of Life & Faith, Guinness talks about some of his influences - and most outlandish experiences! - from that time, and the importance of going out beyond your comfort zone. He considers the many meanings of freedom, as well as why free societies are rare - and rarely last. He talks religious freedom and weighs the options: the sacred public square, the naked public square, or the civil public square. 

And in case that’s not enough big ideas packed into a short time, he also canvases the last 3000 years of Western history and tackles the question: are we now living in a post-truth and post-human-rights world? 

“A worldview is like a lens through which we see reality, and we will not only see certain things if the worldview is clear and accurate, there will be things, if it’s not, that we don’t see. Take a simple example: you see a mountain. The Greeks might well have worshipped the mountain. A South African engineer will look at the mountain: can I mine it and make a lot of money out of it? The 19th-century Englishman would have wanted to climb the mountain, because it’s there. … So, you see certain things and you simply don’t see others. Contrast is the mother of clarity.” 

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Os Guinness’ latest book is Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat.

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Homo Divinus

Denis Alexander on whether there’s purpose in biology - and in life.

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“You stand back and look at the narrative as a whole, that to me doesn’t look necessarily without purpose … it’s like a drama - it looks like it’s going somewhere."

Denis Alexander is a molecular biologist, cancer researcher, and one-time Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge. He’s been writing about science and religion for close to half a century. His latest book is called Is There Purpose In Biology?

"As a matter of fact, most evolutionary biologists I think would deny - to a certain degree, at least - the idea that evolution is a theory of chance. … If you live in a planet of light and darkness and so on, you need eyes, so you’ll get them; just wait long enough and they’ll come along. And if you go and live in a cave you’ll lose your eyes and they decay away. ... The whole process is predicated on the ability to adapt to a particular environment, particular ‘ecological niche' as we say in biology."

In this episode of Life & Faith, Denis explains what young earth creationists and the New Atheists agree on, and how the story of evolution maps onto the biblical account of where humans come from and where we’re going. He also covers Adam and Eve, heaven, life on other planets, and where cancer and natural disasters fit into the story.

"Clearly life and death go together; you can’t have life without deathEndFragment … it looks to me like what we have is a sort of package deal - so that all the good stuff and all the 'bad stuff’, stuff we don’t like, just go together. If you have carbon-based life you’re going to get carbon-based death; that’s the way it’s going to go."

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Denis Alexander was in Sydney to deliver the 2018 New College Lectures on the topic “Genetics, God, and the Future of Humanity”. Listen to the full lectures here.

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A writer’s vocation

A conversation with British journalist Christina Patterson, in this cross-over with The Sacred Podcast.

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“I remember at university meeting someone who said to me, ‘Well, the point in life is to get on, isn’t it’. And I was thunderstruck - naively thunderstruck - because it had literally never occurred to me that that was what you were here for. I was absolutely brought up to believe that you were here to serve."

Theos Think Tank in London produces a podcast called The Sacred, which engages people on all points of the faith spectrum in conversation about what counts as “sacred” for them, and how they see the world. In this episode of Life & Faith we bring you a recent interview that Theos Director and podcast host Elizabeth Oldfield had with Christina Patterson.

Christina is a British journalist and author. She was Director of the Poetry Society, and has been a columnist at The Independent as well as writing for The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Spectator, and The Huffington Post.

"I don’t believe in a God. But I do believe that human beings are hard-wired for religious belief and story-telling, and I do believe it’s a very deep instinct in us to want to make sense of things in those ways … so I’m much less intolerant of religion now than I used to be.”

Christina found herself traumatised by her experience of finding - and losing - her faith at a local church in her 20s. Her career in journalism has included writing about that, as well as about politics and books, having cancer (twice), and being single. She talks to Elizabeth about vulnerability, what women journalists are more likely to get asked to write about, and why it’s better to be honest about complexity.

Her book The Art of Not Falling Apart was published in May 2018. Though you’ll find it in the self-help section in bookstores, Christina calls it “an anti-self-help book”, and says she wrote it “to make people who suffer feel less alone”.

 

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Listen to the full interview and check out other episodes of The Sacred.

Learn more about Theos.

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Lifting the lid on Easter

The CPX team talk through fresh angles on the old story as they write for the media this Easter.

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What place - beyond public holidays and Cadbury Creme Eggs - does Easter occupy in our cultural imagination? Doing “public Christianity” means joining up the dots between the Christian story and what life is actually like in the 21st century, and festivals like Christmas and Easter are key moments for this kind of translation work.

In this episode of Life & Faith, members of the CPX team talk through the ideas they’re working on for articles and radio programs this Easter - and in the process, cover the three major phases of Easter.

Justine takes Lent, and talks about distraction and what the ripple effects of giving up Netflix might be for our lives. Simon frets about whether we’re getting worse at friendship across lines of disagreement, and how the death of Jesus on Good Friday challenges our increasingly polarised culture. And Natasha looks to Easter Sunday and what fairies, myths, and the human bent for the supernatural have to do with the resurrection.

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Setting the captives free

Hagar International puts names and faces to the hidden scourge of modern slavery.

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“You are the God who sees me.”

Hagar International is named for one of the first slave women we know about in history. Hagar was a slave to Abraham and Sarah - her story is told in the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran. Founded in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1994, the organisation named after her is dedicated to rescuing those who have been trafficked and abused, and to ending the cycle of modern slavery. It aims to truly see those who are often forgotten by society at large.

“One of the issues in Cambodia is young men being recruited to go and work on fishing boats in Thailand - and these are the very fishing boats that are sometimes stocking our supermarket shelves and providing the fish that we have on our Christmas table each year. These young men are promised much better working conditions than what they find when they get there. Often they don’t dock for many years. They’re never allowed off the boat. They’re forced to keep working even when they’re sick. Sometimes they’re drugged. Unfortunately there have been some extremely sad cases of men just being thrown overboard when they haven’t been able to do the work.”

Jo Pride is the CEO of Hagar in Australia. In this episode of Life & Faith, she tells Simon Smart the stories of Maylis, who at fourteen was offered a job that proved too good to be true, and Sopia, who having been enslaved from the ages of four to twelve, is now a social work graduate, empowering young Cambodian women through education. She explains the importance both of working with survivors of slavery to help them overcome their trauma, and of lobbying for systemic change, such as the Modern Slavery Act passed by the Australian government in late 2018.

“There are some days that I feel extremely sad about human nature and shocked in fact about what humans are capable of. But I think what I find incredibly inspirational is how resilient the human spirit can be and how people ultimately do want to thrive, how they’ll put everything behind rebuilding their lives ... but also the extraordinary commitment of staff that are willing to live in very dangerous situations.”

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Find out more about the work of Hagar at hagar.org.au.

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