Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Interview with Ruth Pollard: New Spirituality, Feminine Spirituality, Animal Rights

Ruth Pollard is a solicitor who specializes in the area of succession law. Ruth has a Bachelor of Laws degree from Sydney University and is an honorary member of Young Lawyers Animal Rights Committee. In the 1980s she served as secretary and member of the Sydney University Law Society and was a convenor of the Sir Philip Street Lecture Series. Ruth and her husband Philip Johnson are the adoptive parents of currently 5 animals, 3 dogs and 2 cats. In 2005 Ruth and Philip undertook the first Animal Law Course to be offered at an Australian university, a result of which they have both stepped up their activities in support of a theological understanding of animal rights. Ruth has joined her husband Philip in evangelistic outreach at the Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney. She is active in environmental issues, animal rights and welfare problems in Australia. Ruth contributed the chapter “Jesus Among the Alternative Healers: Sacred Oils, Aromatherapists, and the Gospel” in the book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel, 2004) and the chapter “The Crazy Hitchhiker’s Guide to Reality” in Australian Stories for the Soul (Strand, 2001). She has co-written an essay “Animals Matter to God” that appears in volume 2 (2005) of Sacred Tribes Journal. (Photo: Ruth Pollard and Philip Johnson at Sydney's Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney in 2003.)

Morehead's Musings: Ruth, thank you for making some time in your schedule as a solicitor in order to answer some questions. Can you tell me a little about your background?

Ruth Pollard: Ah, John I can see you have done your research in that you correctly refer to me as a solicitor and not a lawyer. I understand that in America if one was to use the term “solicitor” it would conjure up images of prostitutes and salespeople. Although the word “lawyer” refers to both a solicitor and a barrister it has not, until recently, been a term used in Australia. The legal profession in Australia has historically been divided. A solicitor advises clients, transacts their legal affairs and prepares their cases for court. A solicitor does have a right of appearance before the courts but usually instructs a barrister who is a specialist advocate. I specialize in succession law and a large part of my work involves litigation and I often appear in the Supreme Court of NSW in small or preliminary hearings but prefer to brief a barrister for the final hearing because of the barrister’s expert knowledge of evidence and procedure. My work also takes me into specific problems affecting elderly people who need their legal affairs managed especially when they are physically and mentally vulnerable.

Why did I study law? I am very sorry to say that originally it was not out of any desire to right the wrongs of society or defend the weak and defenceless. I did so because my teachers recommended it and my brother, a professor of medicine, advised me to enter a profession which promised a paid career at the end. However along the way I did develop a concern for those without a voice to defend themselves, the weak and powerless, and that includes the animals with whom we share the planet and that are often abused and treated so horrifically by people. I am now pleased that I studied law and can use it to help both people and animals.

Although my parents were Christian I did not become a Christian until I was in my 20’s. My parents regularly took me to Christian meetings. In my early adult life I felt it was difficult to make any meaning out of life as the preaching did not make any sense. I had read some devotional books that Brethren typically read like Watchman Nee’s books but it did not help me. The preaching was frequently all about current events and prophecies about the Antichrist. Sadly the teaching about leading a godly life was very legalistic. What made matters worse was that several of the people at the assembly led hypocritical lives – preaching against sexual immorality while privately engaging in extra-marital affairs. So I felt that they were inconsistent and I found myself caught in an impossible inner struggle about obeying God and believing what was preached. It left me with an unbalanced portrait of God as an angry judge and gave me a lot of unnecessary fears about life that triggered off in me some extreme episodes of depression. What I was offered as the Christian way was a distorted message that simply aggravated a pre-existing mental health problem that I had (but at that time did not have it diagnosed). So I found temporary relief in reading the works of existentialists like Sartre and Camus, and philosophers like Spinoza and Nietzsche. I also read some of the Christian existentialists such as Kierkegaard and the British theologian John Macquarrie.

When I finally came to faith and repentance it was through the caring love and example of a few people who were close to me. I read about Martin Luther and the Reformation, and books by J. I. Packer, John Stott, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Gavin Reed, and Gordon MacDonald. I then affiliated with the Sydney Anglicans who are quite well known both in Australia and in the worldwide Anglican communion as very robust evangelicals following in the Puritan tradition. For several years I attended the same congregation where many of the current leaders of the Sydney Anglican diocese were members, including the present Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen, and his brother Phillip Jensen. I found some valuable doctrinal stability there that had been lacking in my Brethren background. I was taught some very basic things in witnessing and answering a few apologetics questions about the trustworthiness of the Bible. I also took up some elementary study in theology at a certificate level through their famous evangelical college in Sydney: Moore Theological College. I also met some very kind and loving people at this church, but there was so much of an emphasis on personal evangelism that other areas of the Christian life were sometimes under-emphasised. So the congregation was not strong in the area of practical counselling about real-life problems. It was not until I married that I was able to come to grips with some personal practical life issues that had been lacking in my church experiences among the Brethren and the Anglicans.

I also helped out as a volunteer in a combined churches “drop-in” centre that drew in all kinds of people like drug-addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, transvestites, and street kids. After I graduated from University I lived in Melbourne where I initially started working in World Vision. Sometime later I formally began my career in the legal profession in Melbourne and then continued on as a solicitor when I moved back to Sydney. When I married Philip we attended his local Presbyterian Church.

MM: How did you become aware of alternative spiritualities in Australia?

Ruth Pollard: I became aware of different facets of it as a child because they were part and parcel of the place where I grew up. I was raised in the eastern suburbs of Sydney not too far from our famous surfing spot Bondi Beach. Let me digress a little and fill in some background. That part of Sydney where I was born had had a very “Bohemian” sub-culture emerge in the early 20th century. There were poets, artists, actors, and musicians who pursued lifestyles that were very different from the accepted social norms of the churches. In the 1880s Sydney had a surge of popular interest in things like spiritualist séances, Mary Baker Eddy’s teachings on healing, and Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, and in many ways these things laid the foundation for the New Age in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the Theosophical Society had a small membership its influence in Sydney was quite widespread, and they operated until 1937 a commercial radio station known as 2GB (the GB standing for the Renaissance esoteric thinker Giordano Bruno). Even in my childhood days this radio station used to have Sunday broadcasts where followers of Swedenborg’s New Church would explain his visionary teachings.

In 1914 the American architect Walter Burley Griffin won the design competition for the creation of Australia’s capital city Canberra, and he moved to Australia to supervise the project. Griffin had been interested in the teachings of Swedenborg, Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant and Rudolf Steiner. His architectural plans for Canberra were premised on the principles of sacred geometry of Greco-Roman times, on the esoteric theories of geomancy (“earth magic”), and also on the Chinese folk beliefs of Feng Shui. So his designs of Canberra’s roads, buildings and monuments reflected an amalgam of ideas that he learned from Theosophy and Rudolf Steiner’s books. Griffin also designed a prominent Sydney suburb known as Castlecrag based on these same principles. He and his wife lived in Castlecrag for several years, and due to their notoriety they attracted in a rather Bohemian crowd of neighbours many of whom were into spiritualism, Theosophy, and Rudolf Steiner. In many ways Griffin had high hopes that as a frontier nation Australia would become the centre of a utopian esoteric society. It would be a beacon to other nations. He left Australia quite disappointed and lived in India in his declining years.

Another notorious character who lived in Sydney from 1914 onwards was Charles Webster Leadbeater. He was the first bishop of the theosophically-inspired Liberal Catholic Church in Australia. He also established the first Co-Masonic Lodge in Sydney (Co-Masonry is a Theosophical version of Freemasonry designed for men and women as equal members). As one Australian scholar Greg Tillett has pointed out, Leadbeater is the true intellectual progenitor of many current New Age ideas about chakras, auras, out-of-body experiences, karma and reincarnation. Most of Leadbeater’s ideas are found in all the pop New Age books today on those topics.

Leadbeater was also responsible for proclaiming that a young Indian man, known to us today as the mystic philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurti, was the foretold promised World Teacher. In a northern Sydney beachside suburb known as Balmoral, Leadbeater and his friends arranged for the building of a large amphitheatre in the 1920s which was to be the place where Krishnamurti as the World Teacher would fulfil the “second advent of Christ”. Krishnamurti would walk on the water and stroll up to the amphitheatre as the divine light coming from the East through Sydney harbour.

In a suburb ten minutes away from where I grew up there was also another extraordinary and controversial mystic artist and poet, Rosaleen Norton. In the mid-20th century she became known in Sydney as the “Kings Cross Witch” because of her occult interests, her visionary art of satyrs, and she deliberately cultivated a public persona that made people immediately think she must be a witch. So much of this activity spanned the years in which my parents’ generation flourished. So the parents of the kids that I went to school with were very familiar with these things.

As my parents participated in the Brethren assemblies they were taught to shun “worldly” and “ungodly” things and so all that “occult” stuff was forbidden. While my mother was a fervent Christian – and as a child I was often embarrassed that she would start bearing witness about Christ to total strangers – she did embrace some counter-cultural practices decades before the hippies of the 1960s made them fashionable. She was the first “Greenie” I ever encountered in that she recycled things, refused to use detergents and household chemical products, and rejected plastics. She was also very keen on using all kinds of naturopathic remedies as cures for illnesses. So my siblings and I were often dragged off to dusty, out-of-the-way alternate pharmacies (in the US a pharmacy is a “drug-store”), hidden in obscure buildings in the city’s centre, and being compelled to swallow all kinds of dreadful tasting peculiar concoctions!

In my early childhood I had school friends who were involved in séances, Ouija boards, and my piano teacher was a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy. Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s as I was growing a bit older the whole hippie era began around the same time as Haight-Asbury formed in San Francisco. Not far from my home a local community market was started and it hosted all kinds of counter-cultural stalls. Now my home-life was shaped by strong Christian values and so I was something of an “outsider” looking in on what my friends and neighbours were into. The influence of the Brethren teaching about Bible prophecy and the “Last Days” made it quite clear Christians were forbidden to follow those beliefs and practices that are now known as “New Age” and “Pagan”.

MM: How did you become involved in studying and engaging alternative spiritualities in Australia?

Ruth Pollard: My first ministry experience of a New Age gathering was the November 1995 Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney and I was involved until November 2004. This was not long after I married Philip. He had helped co-found a Christian booth in that festival in 1991 known as The Community of Hope. When I came along I added a badly needed feminine touch to the design and aesthetics of the booth. This “touch” was important not just because of mere appearances but also because lots of women were visiting the festival. The booth needed the right kind of visual effects that would grab the attention of women. The festival became so popular that it went from being an annual event up to 1996 and then in 1997 became a twice-a-year gathering packing in anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 visitors. In recent years it has declined because New Age became mainstream in Australia in the 1990s and much of its ideas and tools are commercially accessible in bookshops and shopping malls. I should also just say that while New Age is used as a descriptive term it is no longer really used by those who embrace its spirituality.

We also helped other churches sponsor their own booths in rural areas of NSW with similar kinds of festivals, and I assisted Philip in teaching seminars on alternative spiritualities to church groups and para-church ministries. I also kept up with these new spiritual trends by taking some continuing education courses at the University of Sydney concerning the esoteric and magical traditions, and on the religious symbolism and folklore associated with the undead (vampires, monsters and gothic literature). Philip and I often joke about a few aging rock stars who by their drug and alcohol addictions seem “preserved” and appear to have attained that fleshly immortality that Dracula desired!

Another activity that brought us into contact with Neo-Pagans was participating in the Winter Magic Festival held in the Blue Mountains of NSW, which coincides with Australia’s winter solstice. We also visited some of the Magic Happens Festivals that some Wiccans and Neo-Pagans started as a less commercial alternative to the Mind Body Spirit festivals and caught up with Pagans we had met at other events. We have also attended some publicly performed demonstrations of Pagan rituals run by the network known as PAN (Pagan Alliance Network), and through these events (and others like Pagans at the Pub) have become acquainted with people who follow a nature based spirituality.

I should also tell you about our honeymoon. Philip and I holidayed in Byron Bay, Australia’s alternate spirituality capital, on the beautiful northern NSW coast. Most people go there to surf, shop, party hard, and try out whatever is on offer in the way of spiritual experiences. I found myself accompanying Philip to literally every new age bookshop and retreat centre, new religious communes, the Hare Krishna farm, Mullumbimby’s famous Crystal Castle, and over to Nimbin the centre of Neo-Pagan and countercultural lifestyles. We were in a video store and noticed that a documentary on Neo-Pagans called “Going Tribal” was playing and Philip recognised it. As we chatted about it the young woman behind the counter said, “my boyfriend made that film.” Ten minutes later we were off to her boyfriend’s place to buy the video, and as it turned out we also ended up with three other new age videos too.

I recall that in Byron Bay we met in a car-park a guy sitting in a mini-bus which had painted on its doors the name of a Christian church and we said “hi” thinking he was a fellow Christian. He was quite eccentric looking and did not seem to be immediately aware of us even though we spoke to him. He finally tweaked to what we were saying as if he was having a drug free moment of lucidity and told us he had bought the bus but had yet to paint over the church’s name. We realised that he was a bit high on drugs and he seemed a bit uncertain as to whether he was actually on this planet. But he was rather typical of the interesting people who inhabit the area.

In 1997 we spent a week in Bellingen on the mid NSW north coast. It is smaller but similar to Nimbin. We discovered a thriving neo-pagan and wiccan community there. We also met a lovely and charming Anglican minister and his wife and spent time talking about the challenges of the culture. On the strength of that meeting Philip was later invited to address the combined churches of the town about ministry and alternative spirituality. We have also revisited the Nimbin/Byron Bay region on two other occasions. I have also had the opportunity of sometimes sitting in on Philip’s lectures in different Bible colleges when he has been teaching courses on new religions. In the mid 1990s I also became more aware of the diffuse influence of these spiritualities on popular culture as they were popping up in TV series like Star Trek and The X-Files, and in movies like The Matrix.

MM: You've mentioned that you were involved in Mind Body Spirit Festivals in Sydney. Can you give me your impressions about your experiences there?

Ruth Pollard: I must admit that my personality, interests, and legal training just do not make me feel drawn to many of the things that you find in the alternate spiritualities. So participating in these events put me in contact with people who had very different ideas and interests to mine.

I guess I was initially amused to find that so many of my work colleagues were wandering around the exhibition! Here were my legal and clerical work-mates – people trained to deal with facts, figures and interpreting evidence – in a lifestyle and spirituality gathering that was so different from the workplace! I also discovered that one of the key personnel in the company that ran the whole festival was someone I had gone through school with. What I realised is that for the people I already knew they were not happy with life just being defined by what they did at work and that they knew something important was missing in their experiences.

The most obvious thing is there were so many women at the festival. They were from all walks of life but the majority of them were under the age of 40. They did not fit the kind of preconceived picture you might have of hippies on drugs or ghoulish individuals wearing black hooded robes. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and the warm atmosphere generated by the exhibitors. There were some genuinely kind and friendly people there. I met a woman who was a Pagan exhibitor and she hailed from the Byron Bay region where we’d had our honeymoon. She was a very genuine and lovely person. It was rare to encounter someone who was angry or cranky about talking to a Christian in the festival.

At the Community of Hope booth I talked with many people about their spiritual interests and about my faith. One of the striking things was that there was an earnestness on the part of so many of them. They really desired to find deep and lasting spiritual experiences and values to live by. They were asking a lot of very significant questions about the meaning of life and the search for truth. I found that it was very easy to listen to them and that they were almost always willing to listen to what my spiritual life and beliefs and practices were about. So it was easy to have profound conversations on some major questions about meaning, and quite a few of those questions touching on the heart of Christianity. In many ways there were lots of people looking around for a practical spirituality that related God to their daily experiences at work and home and school.

I found that there were two general kinds of people: those who came to the festival and had no childhood background in the church, and those who did have some past involvement in a church but had walked away from it. Those who walked away did not fit the typical church profile of godless “apostates” and “back-sliders”. There were all kinds of reasons why these people had given up on the church. Some had had truly abusive experiences at the hands of Christian families or from priests and pastors. Some had had serious questions about the Bible and faith – the kinds of topics that we would classify as apologetics questions – but had been rebuffed at church for daring to even ask. Others found that their personal development was stunted by an infantile faith that was hindering their maturity and they moved away from the church to explore deeper questions of life. So it is unhelpful to stereotype these people as though they won’t face the truth and are just spiritually blind. I met several people who had had dysfunctional church experiences. They could not see any connection between what happened in church on a Sunday and what happened Monday to Saturday with the business of living in the here and now. So I found their stories very sobering and it was challenging to listen to them, and where possible to talk about the kinds of things that had disturbed them about church. The fascinating thing was that by being willing to acknowledge that church is not always a wonderful place and that Christians do some awful things, these individuals were then much more willing to talk because I had genuinely listened to them without judging them and I was not dismissing their stories.

The interesting thing that struck me was that people were not necessarily closed off from hearing about Jesus of Nazareth. I remember how we had visitors lined up to sit down and talk to us about the gospel. Imagine that – people lining up to listen to the good news being presented in words, actions and in symbols that they could understand. For some of them this was a story they had not heard before, while for others it was a reminder of something that they had been exposed to. It was very rare to see people react nastily to our outline of the gospel which covered all of the basic biblical points on the creation, fall, incarnation of Christ, atonement, repentance, judgment, and resurrection. I handed on copies of the New Testament to people who said they needed to discover more about Jesus. I learned that it was important to be genuine, respectful, to listen and to understand before I said anything about my life and faith in Christ.

Lastly, I must say that after the year 2000 I felt that the festival was turning into a very commercial event – people buying herbs, having a free back massage, purchasing CDs, incense sticks, dream-catchers, and other trinkets. The earlier years witnessed a lot of very serious seekers and some sincere exhibitors but in the final years that we were involved the visitors’ demographics had shifted away from serious seekers over to browse shoppers who were looking for fun and amusements.

MM: Could you tell me a little more about the extent that women involved in such expressions of spirituality, and how was your involvement as a woman important to engaging those following such spiritual pathways at the festival?

Ruth Pollard: The statistics collected by the festival organisers indicated that around 80% of visitors were female with 60% of visitors aged between 20 and 40. The people running booths, especially the psychic-tarot readers were mostly females, and the same thing was mirrored on the public performance stage where every half hour a new performance occurred that was led by female presenters. These were ordinary middle-class women whom you would meet at the supermarket, at work, at mother’s groups, in arts and crafts shops, coffee houses, and the cinema.

I recognised that this was a substantial group of women who were either unfamiliar with Christianity or had become disenchanted and disconnected from the church. So I felt that it was important for myself and for other Christian women to be actively involved in conversations with visitors and exhibitors. One of the oddities for Philip was that he had no trouble in having lots of males volunteer, especially theological students at the colleges where he lectured. The real imbalance was there were very few Christian women as volunteers and it was a problem that persisted right up until the last time we had a booth there. I found that some Christian women were reluctant to volunteer because they had listened to pastors who taught about New Age as a bogeyman where everything is tainted by demons. We did manage to have three or four regular female volunteers who took the festival on with great relish. You know the interesting thing is that for these regular Christian volunteers the festival ministry was the most exciting thing on the calendar for them – in other words what was happening at their local churches was usually not encouraging them into actively reaching their local community. So the festival became an outlet for them to exercise their gifts for Christ.

MM: Why do you think women are attracted to such alternative spiritualities such as the New Spirituality and Wicca, and what might this say back to the church's shortcomings in addressing certain areas?

Ruth Pollard: I guess that one could come up with any number of biographical and sociological reasons to account for these trends. Some find it very calming in the middle of a hectic life particularly those who experiment with Buddhist forms of meditation. One obvious point is that these spiritualities have a tangible feminine touch to them. In New Age a woman is able to express her creativity, use her intuitive abilities and relate to images, colours, clothes, symbols, and myths that are in tune with female needs. There is a strong emphasis on being in tune with your emotions and your health. New Age events provide women with forums in which they can converse with one another as equals and without feeling they are being judged as “the weaker sex”. Of course I don’t think that there are very many women left who would even tolerate being spoken of as the “weaker sex” (except perhaps in some ultra-conservative church contexts). Most of the women who go to these events have been born since the 1960s who have careers and raise children, have lived through the women’s liberation movement, and so are keenly aware of speaking up against discriminatory and sexist behaviour. Some Witches like Starhawk have emerged as influential voices on feminist issues, ecology, and politics. This has continued on in part from the 1970s feminist debates about the role of women in society and politics. Many of the early feminist debates were so concentrated on criticising patriarchy and sexist attitudes that the spiritual life of a woman was sidelined. I think that the younger generations of women are beginning to explore questions that the “first wave” of women’s liberation ignored. So here I see Wicca and Witchcraft coming into its own as one of various options that women can examine about self-development and spiritual meaning.

There is a strong relational element in the alternate spiritualities. If a woman has a problem she wants to talk about it with someone who is wise and patient and who can empathise. It is important for a woman to be understood as much as she needs to be loved, and a lot of this goes to matters of the heart. While women have the same capacities to think and analyse as men do, women also respond very strongly through their feelings. So if there are spiritual pathways that are in tune with these things then women will find them very appealing. Another aspect of this is that both New Age and Wicca place some emphasis on gaining control over one’s life and destiny, and for women who feel disempowered in their relationships the idea of gaining control could be appealing. My feeling though is that gaining control is something that both women and men find appealing and so it is not a peculiar feature of women’s interests. I feel that some women also turn to these pathways because of their experiences of abuse and maltreatment. When we visited Bellingen in 1997 we found that there was a Wiccan group whose membership was exclusively made up of women who had come from abusive relationships and several of them had entered into lesbian relationships.

Wicca has the imagery of the Goddess that celebrates being a female. In a coven a woman is elected as the High Priestess. This spirituality also tends to use maternal images that celebrate women’s creative skills and fertility. Some Wiccan books discuss sexuality in terms that speaks of partnership and fertile power in giving birth to life. So women will feel drawn to a spiritual practice that celebrates nature, celebrates the human body and positively affirms us. A few Wiccan books even confront the social stigmas and dismissive or derogatory male humour about menstruation. Instead of it being represented as something shameful, Wicca makes it a positive rite of passage for a young woman who later becomes a mother and then after menopause is the old wise woman. While I find the Wiccan rituals associated with menstruation very bizarre, and some of my non-Christian colleagues also think the same way, I can appreciate how some women would find it empowering.

As for the question what do these spiritual movements reflect back at the church, again there are many things I could point out. I believe that Christians generally, and leaders in particular, have to be willing to listen and discover first-hand how the church is perceived by outsiders and ex-members. For some women the church is seen as a patriarchal institution that is remote from ordinary problems of life and it does not offer any sort of community experience. Those women who have opted out of the church seem to perceive Christianity as believing in a God who is a male figure. By way of contrast the opportunities for belonging in a community and being affirmed as females is available in alternate spiritualities. Christians need to be reminded that the Bible does not present God literally as a male figure. The language used is figurative and anthropomorphic, and all sorts of analogies are used some of which are masculine while others are feminine. So when Jesus speaks about acting as a mother hen gathering in her offspring we are offered a feminine analogy for God’s care for us. So when pastors teach from the Scriptures about God they need to bring in some balance about both the masculine and feminine similes and metaphors. However, I do not believe that the Bible is saying that God is either a male or a female. The creation story in Genesis does say that human beings both female and male were made in God’s image and likeness.

I think that the alternate spiritualities also open up a whole new horizon where Christian women can have effective and caring ministries. The alternate spiritualities attract lots of women and they are hardly going to listen to a lot of men telling them that they must go to church or conform to a patriarchal view of women’s social roles. As I said before about what happened in the Community of Hope booth, it was easy to enlist male volunteers but much more difficult finding Christian women to help out. Christian women need to be affirmed and encouraged to use their gifts in service for Christ and to be shown avenues where they can step out with genuine practical support to exercise ministries. We need more than just slogans saying “women are welcome at church”. I also feel that so much of the internal debates about ordaining women misses the bigger cultural and theological problems. A pulpit ministry is a limited avenue that only a few individuals can ever take up whether you are a man or a woman. Surely the real question is not about leadership and authority but rather about the priesthood of all believers. Why are we so distracted by questions of power and church structures?

At the Mind Body Spirit festival I met a number of practicing Catholics and Protestants who had no intentions of giving up their faith but were looking for resources to help them in life. Their needs were being missed at the local church and they could not find practical help from what was for sale at the Christian bookshop. They could see how non-Christians were being helped by various things on offer in New Age and figured that they could find the right help there. The small group meetings in Pagan and Wiccan circles offers an experience of feeling you belong that is very hard to experience in a mega-church of several thousand people. A big sized congregation does not always mean the place is really enabling people to grow and have their needs met. I think that there are some big gaps between what happens on a Sunday and the rest of the week. I think that in some ways the alternate spiritualities show us a mirror image reflection of some practical and experiential things that are absent from our modern churches. Yet I see that the Bible does address a lot of these practical and experiential matters, and there are rich resources in the heritage of the church that have been forgotten. It is not good enough for evangelicals to pull apart all of the errors in belief of another group. Evangelicals have to honestly face the shortcomings of their own churches, their doctrines, their practices and their relationships. It is easy to blame everything on Bishop Spong, Richard Dawkins and all the false “isms”, and it is also very tempting and convenient to overlook how we Christians may be a big part of the problem ourselves.

Christians also need to recover the art of genuinely listening and of discovering ways of expressing their spiritual lives in meaningful relationships. For example, a work colleague of mine who attended the Mind Body Spirit festival fairly regularly had grown up in an evangelical congregation. However she and four of her siblings all gave up on it while her parents stayed with the church. Most of them are involved in New Age activities, with some of them having their livelihood based on New Age practices. All of her sisters left the church finding it a place where women were treated as second-class citizens, and what was taught had very little connection with practical matters on how to live and how to relate. While I won’t go into her private details here, I can confirm that in her situation her decision to move out of the church had a lot to do with unanswered questions and that those who were in leadership at that congregation really did not take her questions seriously. She lost heart and any sense of belonging. She drifted away from the church and began exploring her questions in new avenues and discovered that New Age had a lot to offer.

MM: You wrote a chapter for Encountering New Religious Movements on aromatherapies. How did you come to be interested in this aspect of the New Spirituality, and what types of things did you touch on in this chapter?

Ruth Pollard: I joined in that book project because Philip asked me if I would help out. He felt that the list of contributors was typically lopsided with male authors and that some female perspectives needed to be heard. A few years before this Philip had written a very short article on aromatherapy for an Australian Presbyterian magazine and he thought that there was a genuine need to have this topic looked at in much more detail. So I interviewed some practitioners, and visited a Natural Therapies college in Sydney where aromatherapy was a part of the curriculum. I began reading publications by people who linked aromatherapy to their particular spiritual beliefs, and I discovered several essays published in mainstream medical journals where some claims about aromatherapy had been carefully tested. I found some extravagant and untested claims made in alternate spiritual texts. However, there was also a body of reputable medical evidence to show that the use of oils and essences had some benefit in the overall treatment of patients. For example there are antiseptic properties in tea-tree oil that are undeniably beneficial in treating some infectious wounds. There were a number of clinically-controlled tests undertaken on the use of aromatherapy with dementia patients, and the results were very positive. As a solicitor I found myself gathering in the evidence, probing it, and weighing it up to reach a verdict. So while aromatherapy is not a medical panacea, there is clinical evidence to show that it does have a part to play in mainstream medicine. I also looked at the theology of healing and biblical passages that specifically mentioned the use of oils and essences (like myrrh and frankincense) and read books by Christians and sceptics that were critical of new age healing.

In the chapter I argued that aromatherapy was a significant example of the complementary healing therapies that consumers are relying on. I briefly explained some of its historical background, the principal ways in which it is applied, and outlined the main metaphysical beliefs that alternate spiritual practitioners link in to aromatherapy. I pointed out that some of the metaphysical claims made by alternate spiritual writers were in conflict with a Christian understanding of the cosmos. I summarised some of the verified clinical results in medicine. Then I turned to questions of theology. I noted how the symbolism and ceremonies associated with oil were important throughout the Old Testament: such as the anointing of the utensils in the Temple, on food offerings, and the anointing of the kings of Israel. Oils and essences like myrrh and frankincense figured in the life and ministry of Jesus with the Magi’s gifts at his birth and the woman at Bethany who anointed Jesus before his death. The important theological points I discussed were that oil symbolism was directly associated with the Holy Spirit and gospel proclamation (Isaiah 61:1-3 and Luke 4:18-23). This provides a valuable backdrop for looking at aromatherapy through our theology of the Spirit of God and our theology of the creation. On God’s Spirit at work in the creation we tend to forget about the Old Testament’s theology that emphasises the presence of the Spirit throughout the whole earth. I drew attention to some points made by the theologian B. B. Warfield on the Old Testament’s view of God’s Spirit that helped me better grapple with how Christians can use aromatherapy to God’s glory.

Lastly, I looked at various evangelical arguments that could be used to oppose aromatherapy particularly those arguments that say “touch not” simply because some practitioners hold to an occult view of reality. I found that kind of objection was unconvincing on biblical and theological grounds, and reminded readers that some of the early Protestant Reformers wholeheartedly used herbs and oils for promoting health and well-being. So instead of disconnecting ourselves from aromatherapy, Christians have strong scriptural, theological, and historical reasons for framing it in ways that gives God the glory.

MM: Not long ago you took a university course on animal rights with your husband, Philip Johnson. Can you give me your impressions of this course, and how do you see Christian involvement lacking in this issue, and other issues related to nature and the environment?

Ruth Pollard: Yes, it was in February 2005 that we enrolled in an post-graduate course on animal law at the University of NSW. It was the first time this subject was taught in any law faculty in an Australian university. We were part of a class of some 20 students, several of whom were working in the legal profession. All but two of the students were women. The lecturer Geoff Bloom is a lovely sensitive man from a Jewish but non-theistic background. He had been personally challenged in his understanding about animals through the writings of the Australian ethicist Peter Singer (who now teaches at Harvard University). I think that more of us are going to find ourselves confronted by animal issues. The legal status of animals and our ethics associated with the treatment, use and ownership of agricultural, domestic and wild animals will emerge as one of the major global debates of this century. While most of us have some passing awareness of various wild animal species being endangered by extinction, very few of us would spare a thought for what happens to animals in industrial experiments, intensive farming practices, and the problem of human violence and cruelty toward domestic pets. I believe that most people would be deeply upset if they were confronted with unedited film footage of how animals are used to test household chemicals, the conditions in which poultry, pigs, sheep and cattle exist in large industrialised farms, and the manner in which they are transported to abattoirs. It will also emerge as part of a wider religious challenge for the church. Neo-Pagans and Wiccans, for example, are important players on both environmental and animal issues. Western Buddhists are also participating in some of the ethical debates. So Christians need to think about these matters in their theology and ethics.

There are a few impressions that made their mark on me. It was amazing to see how animals are classified under the law as mere objects of property. Unlike a specific field of clearly defined legal subjects like “constitutional law, “tax law”, “family law” and “criminal law”, the laws concerning animals in Australia, the USA and most industrialised countries are scattered throughout many different areas of the law that covers property, agriculture, industry and veterinary science. Laws governing an organisation like the RSPCA (in the USA you have the SPCA) cover a very narrow range of things and very limited forms of protection against cruelty.. For example in Australia the RSPCA can only intervene in a narrow band of areas where cruelty to animals occurs (and it excludes intensive farming practices where animals live in very poor conditions). Also the law for the RSPCA is restricted by the vague language that it is to prevent “unnecessary suffering”, which means that there are legally acceptable and protected forms of “suffering”. However, there are not a lot of existing laws in Australia about animals, and only a small number of legal cases that one can study. We did look at some international law and there is quite a bit more progressive work in Europe some of which seems to reflect their experiences of the Nazi holocaust. In the USA animal law is taught in dozens of universities and there has been much more active work taking place in debates and in a few court cases.

The course took us into philosophical and ethical questions as much as it covered specific legal problems. It was here that most of the law students struggled with the concepts and arguments of the philosophers and ethicists and the legal theories of rights. These days very few law students study jurisprudence (the science of law) and the history of law, and so many of them do not understand or realise how much of British, American and Australian law has been influenced by biblical and Christian thought. I think Philip was appalled to see post-graduate law students being unfamiliar with these details, and given his penchant for reading so much! A lot of the literature that we had to read about animal rights is written by lawyers and philosophers who see the problem of animal suffering and the call for legal rights for animals as comparable to the anti-slavery debates of the 19th century. Most of them are non-Christians and who argue that at the heart of the problem is an ideology based on the Book of Genesis’ “dominion” mandate to subdue the earth. They interpret this to mean that humans are authorised by God to exploit, consume and destroy the natural world and use animals in any way that suits us. So there is a very strong anti-Christian bias in the literature, and occasionally this results in straw-man pictures and mistaken views of the Bible and theology. I admit that there have been Christians who have been guilty of those attitudes and practices but contemporary biblical scholarship and theologians alike have shown that the “mandate” is not about humans controlling things for their own ends. We are called to be wise stewards who act as servants in the creation. A few animal rights writers also present a very selective and distorted reading of history so that the positive contributions of Christians in protecting animals and promoting their well-being is not always acknowledged or respected. For example some of the key advocates for abolishing cruel practices toward animals were Christians like Lord Erskine, Arthur Broome, William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Many of these people were also prominent in the cause for the abolition of human slavery.

So Philip and I found it fascinating to see the bias and it goaded us into examining the problem of animals from a theological and Christian legal perspective. We both wrote essays that challenged the anti-theist bias and offered a theological and legal model for addressing some of the problems about legal rights for animals. In my essay I looked at developing a model based on the legal concept of guardianship – humans have responsibilities to act on behalf of animals in a manner parallel to that of a guardian appointed to look after the affairs of a child or of an adult who is legally incapable. The idea of guardianship in the law has been influenced by Biblical ideas and I was able to argue that the creation mandate in Genesis is about stewardship and guardianship. The two essays that we submitted (which have been combined in our joint article in Sacred Tribes) were given very high grades and Geoff Bloom acknowledged that some of his preconceptions about theological attitudes toward animals had been challenged. On the strength of our friendly contact Geoff later recommended that a radio journalist contact Philip for an interview on theology and animal rights.

I feel that as the debates about animal liberation and animal rights are dominated by people who hold to strong anti-theist views, it is important for Christians to enter into these debates in creative, respectful ways. We should of course offer an apologetic reply to redress the historical omissions and to clarify the positive biblical and theological teachings about how we relate to animals. Yet I do not see that as the primary point because it is not so much about winning an argument to show that anti-theist views are misleading or mistaken. Rather our concern should be to act positively and obediently toward Christ by gaining a biblically and theologically informed understanding about animals, their place in God’s creation, realising that animals ultimately belong to God, and that we are appointed to act as caring guardians on behalf of God. To do this means we need to reread the Bible and to start reflecting theologically. We seem to be interested in exploiting natural resources and animals without a lot of due reflection on what the Genesis narratives are saying. We seem to forget what the prophets foreshadowed about animals in the new heaven and new earth, and that according to the Psalms the animals praise God too. We also have the challenge of people in alternate spiritualities who participate in these causes and rarely do they encounter any robust Christian views on these matters.

If we go beyond even just the specific topic of animals, we need to see that our theology of the creation has been badly neglected. We are now living in a time when diminishing natural resources, pollution and the science about global warming are of major concern because these matters affect the whole planet. Our neglect of these matters has goaded others to fill up the vacuum created by our absence. The whole creation belongs to God and we will have to render an account to God for what we have done and are doing to his creation. God is not going to throw into a rubbish dump the creation that He made and loves. The prophet Isaiah and the Book of Revelation point us to a renewed and fulfilled creation, but that future eventuality does not mean we are meant to act as passive observers. We are called to be wise and active stewards. If we do not work on our theology and our ethics then we Christians deserve to be judged by God. We should also be asking ourselves why we have been so slow to act when non-Christians have often been the pioneers and prime movers on environmental questions. We should also be asking why is it that Neo-Pagans and Wiccans seem to care for more the earth than Christians appear to be. I don’t think it is satisfactory for Christians to conclude that what Pagans are doing about the environment is just explained by “false dogma” or “idolatry”. That is too simplistic a view that ignores context and motive, and it also allows us to conveniently dodge owning up to our own neglectful habits. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we are the ones who are guilty of idolatry in the way we treat God’s creation. I don’t believe that Western Christians can justify from the Bible that it is ethical and theologically good to embrace a middle-class materialist, wasteful throwaway, consumer lifestyle.

MM: What does the future hold for you in terms of various projects?

Ruth Pollard: I am right now fairly busy, as my work is taking priority at the moment. I am involved in a number of new and exciting projects and research related to new succession laws and elder law . However I am continuing as time permits in my concerns about God’s creation and animals by talking to people, writing to politicians, and attending seminars where solicitors discuss animal issues. I may be a Baby Boomer who is inching towards middle age but I have been made a member of the Young Lawyers Animal Rights Committee due to my interest. I have been following the recent media interest in Richard Dawkins books and his documentary film “The Root of All Evil”, and am currently reading Alister McGrath’s book Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.

MM: Rutha, thanks again for making time to share with us.

8 comments:

philjohnson said...

Thanks John for asking Ruth these questions. I hope it helps stimulate some thinking, some reflection, some positive discussion, and some tangible practical action on the various things talked about here.

Sally said...

another great interview

Matt Stone said...

Ive linked this at http://mattstone.blogs.com. Great to see Ruth's story out there. There was even a few new things for me.

Lainie Petersen said...

Much appreciated, John. I particularly appreciate that you interviewed a woman from a country other than the United States. It is important to bring multiple perspectives to the table when discussing new religious movements and even more important to remember that the US is not the center of the universe!

Bob said...

John, thanks for letting Ruth speak and for your good transcription. I enjoyed getting to know her through the interview. She probably lives very near me on Sydney's North Shore, and one day maybe we will catch up.

all the best
bob

philjohnson said...

Actually Bob Ruth and I live on the southern side of the city not too far from the mouth of the Georges River.

And you may have been introduced to Ruth at a CWI meeting at Chatswood Presbyterian where I spoke on Jews and the New Spiritualities, and Peter Barnes talked about the Trinity.

Anonymous said...

Pariah Morehead-

I'm not gonna wait for you to post on The Local Church issue, so I'll fire this off now:

Any comments on the Supreme Court throwing out yours and other's amicus curae in defence of the Local Church CULT?

John W. Morehead said...

I was wondering how long it would take for someone from the counter-cult community to post a comment like this.

My response to your question would be that I hope the legal actions of the Local Church in response to Ankerberg and Weldon's use of the concept and term "cult" would give those in "counter-cult" ministry pause for re-assessing how this term is used, and especially the pejorative connotations associated with it. I would also hope that this issue might give folks such as yourself reason to reconsider their posture and tone relative to new religions. The one you exhibit in your post and question is less than inviting for evangelicals, let alone those in new religions. If you really want to make a positive impact in this field I'd suggest some critical self-reflection. If not, continue as you are.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond.