Victor MacGill Chaos and Complexity
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A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

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My first book..

When the Dragon Stirs

Healing our Wounded Lives through Fairy Stories, myths and Legends

When the Dragon Stirs Book Cover

The Dragon

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My next book...
Gonna Lay Down my Sword
and Shield

A Complexity Perspective on Human Evolution from our Violent Past to a Compassionate Future

Mandelbrot Set

Articles by Victor

Mandelbrot Set   Fairy Stories
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Mandelbrot Set  Spirituality
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Culture and Spirituality

A talk given at the Dunedin Spiritualist Church in March 2005

Culture and Spirituality are intertwined. If a culture changes, the way the people see their world changes, and therefore, the way they express their spirituality will also change. So, if we look at how and why culture changes, we can gain a better understanding of how the expression of our spirituality changes over time.

Culture is influenced by things like geography, climate, population, resources, history and technology. From these core factors, other factors emerge, such as language, worldview, social structure, economics, education etc.

We have very good examples right here in New Zealand of how these factors interact to influence the culture and thus spiritual expression of different societies.

The Moriori people of the Chattam Islands originally descended from the same Polynesian people as the Maori on the mainland. It is not as though one was more intelligent than other, but they developed very different cultures.

The Moriori had a peaceful culture with no weapons of war, while the Maori on the mainland developed into an often extremely violent warrior based culture. It might seem logical to assume that the Moriori had a superior, more spiritual culture. When we examine, it not that straight forward.,

 The Chattam Islands are not a very hospitable place. There is only a small isolated area of land with a difficult climate, which could only sustain a small population. Everybody was involved in gaining enough food to survive and the population was small enough for everyone to know each other personally. There was no such thing as a stranger. This made resolving conflict much easier and everyone knew that if any disagreements were to get out of hand the very survival of the whole population was in question. A peaceful society was not only advantageous, it was the only way they could survive.

So, now what about the Maori on the mainland. In comparison, they had large areas of land available and a much better climate, particularly in the north. Naturally, the population grew faster. Crops grew much better and could be easily grown on a large scale. Although some Maori were migratory, such as in the colder south, generally, the people settled in permanent villages with much larger buildings, gardens, fences etc.. Since possessions did not need to be carried around, people collected more possessions and they became more complex and elaborate. A greater level of organisation and structure was needed to control this more complex society.

Land, possessions, and tribal members now needed to be protected, because conquering, stealing or destroying them became worthwhile. Extra food producing capabilities meant people had free time to develop specialised roles as warriors, chiefs, spiritual advisors etc. With roles came social hierarchies, where some people were seen to have more mana than others, with the rangatira or chief at the top and the taurekareka or the slave, captured in battle, at the bottom. Naturally with the need for protection, this society developed a warrior-based mythology and spirituality. This was more complex than that needed by the Chattam Islanders. As well a belief in one god, the Maori believed in a pantheon of gods, like the Greeks, and each tribe often had their own god or gods, which helped mark their individual identity.

Strangers now existed who represented a very real potential threat. The rule became protect your own, distrust and even kill outsiders if they are seen as a threat. Any tribe that did not use slaves was at a disadvantage compared to its neighbours and was likely to be conquered. It was not only survival of the fittest, but also survival of the strongest and meanest.

So, from the same stock of Polynesian people we find a more primitive peace-loving culture and spirituality, and a more advanced violent culture with a warrior spirituality, We see, then that the expression of spirituality has more to do with the environment than the innate nature of the people.

Now let's have a look at what was happening in England in the time of Elizabeth 1st. We had a much larger population and more developed technology. It was far too big to be run by a series of local chiefs. Most people were still illiterate and not capable of making decisions about the nation as we are today when we go to vote. Communications were slow and poor. The only way the society could be effective and compete economically and militarily with neighbouring nations was to have a king or queen who called upon a small group of advisers to help them make decisions on behalf of all the people. Democracy was just not an option. It would have been just too slow and cumbersome.

The large population, who were mainly strangers to each others, needed something to unite them. Part of this was achieved by seeing themselves as fellow Englishmen and women, but they also a shared belief system. Not a god for each tribe, but one God for all. This common link was provided by Christianity. In order that this one religion did not split into many different religions, church services were created with strict unchangeable formats, Everybody said the same words and same prayers all the same time. The split between Catholic and Anglican faiths unfortunately meant religion turned out to be a cause to divide the country rather than unify it.

Looking at Elizabethan England then, we see once more that the culture, determined by a number of environmental factors, affects the nature of the spiritual view of the world.

Slavery ended in England about 1790. Why did it happen then and not 1590 or 1290 or 2090. Certainly the spiritual conviction, passion and drive of people like William Wilberforce were critical, but I think the fact that the industrial revolution beginning around 1750 was the key cause. It was only when there was a viable alternative in the form of machinery that could produce goods cheaper and more efficiently than slaves did the groundswell of public support allow the abolition of slavery. The rise of the women’s movement was, I think the same. The timing had more to do with the new vacuum cleaners, fridges, and washing machines than moral or spiritual ideas of equality.

So, how can we use these understandings to gain insight into our world today and to the development of Spiritualism? Spiritualism began in 1848 in America and quickly spread to Britain.

Mainstream Christian churches were very powerful around those times. It was normally expected that everyone would regularly attend a church. Any new religion needed to be seen as quite similar to the mainstream churches to be taken seriously. The original wording of the seven principles reflects the language and values and the male dominated culture of the time.

Although the mainstream churches were strong, they were already clearly in decline, opening a space for new philosophies to grow and develop.

As the mainstream churches were declining, science was growing. Spiritualism embraced science as a way to prove life after death. Spiritualists took every opportunity to publicly prove life after death to unconvinced audiences.

Increased technology and travel meant ideas outside Christianity were just beginning to become known. Travellers to distant lands came back with stories of buddhism, daoism, ethnic mythologies etc. Theosophy which began around the same time as Spiritualism was heavily influenced by Eastern ideas.

In spite of the patriarchal sound of the original principles, women were very strong in the original movement.  Movements such as Spiritualism and Theosophy were two of the few places women could gain any prominence. There was little for women in those days besides teaching, nursing, nannying or being a housewife.

Democracy was not at all as we know it. Voting was based on land ownership. The unity of creation did not mean the same to the people of the 1850’ as it does to us today, when we have a more equal view of ourselves.

Today each of those factors changing the culture in the 1850’s has changed significantly and so the expression of spirituality within the Spiritualist church as in all society today has changed almost unrecognisably.

Mainstream churches have continued their steady decline. People no longer automatically see the churches as a part of their lives and there is no longer a need for the Spiritualist Church to be seen to be similar to mainstream churches to be acceptable. The modern version of the seven principles can safely be restated in contemporary wording and are in fact more aproachable to the people of today.

Science has continued to grow in importance in our world, but there has been a backlash against science because of the ecological damage that has been done through the misuse of science and how it has distanced us from our natural world.

Although not perfect by any means, women live in a level of equality unimaginable to the first Spiritualists. We understand ourselves as equal partners in all of creation in a more whole way than in the 1850s. There is an even greater range of spiritual ideas available to us to use to further develop Spiritualism in our own age. Now we see ourselves more as individuals and need to have the liberty to interpret God and the world about us in our own way, rather than blindly following one accepted interpretation.

As you would expect some spiritualist churches have been more eager than others to embrace changes to bring the expression of spirituality more in line with the culture of the day, while others want to hold on to the ways of the past.

Generally, however, the church is more equal and democratic, and more open to new ideas. New Age ideas have been a major influence on Spiritualist ideas and have helped it find a niche in the spiritual market place with so many other spiritual movements available to us today.

New Age ideas have returned us to nature and holism and linked us back into traditional cultures and their wisdom. With New Age however, also come two trends, which we should treat with caution. Both these developed from the tendency to demonise that which we replace. New Age developed in part anyway as a reaction to the strict hierarchies of the past and the sterile and isolating world of science. New Age has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Its desire to be free and unrestricted has created a backlash against discipline and efficient hierarchical structures; it focuses on everyone getting a say and emotions have become more important than reason and intellect- and often common sense. We need to find a balance or risk being labelled as flaky, dreamy and impractical.

The backlash against science, because of how it has damaged our environment, has led to the abandonment of good objective investigation. New Age therapies and philosophies tend to be judged in how they feel rather than how true or effective they prove to be when examined rationally. The reputation of the guru, spirit guide, or inspirational speaker is often more important that common sense evaluation of what is being proposed.

Our world is not about to stop changing. Technology and science will continue to change our lives, ecological disaster may well prove to an enormous challenge confronting our whole existence, the movement towards democracy and equality will continue, we will be bombarded by more and more philosophies, therapies and ideas from all over the world. As our world changes as we move into the future, so too will the shape of the Spiritualism and the way it expresses the spirituality of its members. One thing is sure, we cannot go back. Yesterday’s solutions will not solve today’s problems, and certainly will not solve tomorrow’s problems. We can only hope that as we grow and evolve our spiritual expression, we also move closer and closer to the reality of expressing the great spirit that dwells within each and every one of us.

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