Phosphorescence – Missing the Light
Julia Baird’s latest book is beautifully written, deeply personal, and at times incredibly moving and stimulating. The subtitle of the book is intriguing – ‘On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark”. Does that not sound like a perfect title for today’s world?
The book is largely a collection of essays (some previously published) which reflect Julia’s search for light and meaning – a search that many people can identify with – a search for “the kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens” (p10). It is a search for “the light within”.
It is also a deeply personal book – clearly for Julia – but also for me, as a reader. I found myself identifying with much of what she says. The recovery of a sense of wonder after serious illness; a love for New York and Central Park, Sydney and the sea; love of family; appreciation of history; dislike of oppressive religion and of the body shaming culture of Instagram. I think I particularly resonated with her experience of hospital and could totally identify with this sentiment: “I grew intensely attached to the nurses, grateful for their kindness, and lay wondering if there was a more important job. I also grew attached to my surgeons…” (p231).
Julia gives us some cracking quotes. I think my favourite is also on the subject of health – from John Donne – “Variable, and therefore miserable condition of man!… We study health, and we deliberate upon our meats, and drink, and air, and exercises, and we hew, and we polish every stone that goes to that building; and so our health is a long and a regular work; but in a minute a cannon batters all.” (p234)
All of this is magnified by her writing that is at times beautiful and poetic. She describes the human condition as “those millions of us with cracked hearts, battered bodies, blackened brains” (p12). She movingly tells us of our need for awe – “Awe makes a stop and stare. Being awestruck dwarfs us, humble task, makes us aware we are part of the universe unfathomably greater than ourselves; it even, social scientists say, makes us kinder and more aware of the needs of the community around us.” (p16)
Her writing about the beauties and benefits of nature is reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Three of my favourite quotes:
“The sheer sight of green– plants, leaves, trees, views from windows – can make us happier and healthier.” (p18)
“Several of my Bold and Beautiful friends have stopped taking antidepressants: they call the ocean ‘vitamin sea’.” (p24)
“In short: when we are exposed to sunlight, trees, water or even just a view of green leaves, we become happier, healthier and stronger. People living in green spaces have more energy and a stronger sense of purpose, and being able to see green spaces from your home is associated with reduced cravings for alcohol, cigarettes and harmful foods.” (p35)
In her search for light what does she find? Are we enlightened? Her solution is in nature (especially swimming in the sea), in family and in good friends. “Social connection and relationships are the single greatest predictor of health and happiness throughout your life.” (p27)
She emphasizes the value of silence - “In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believe that noise was used as a weapon by Satan, who was bent on preventing human beings from being alone with God, or fully with each other, alert and listening.” (p64)
There are so many good and refreshing things about Phosphorescence, but in the end it is a frustrating book, because it leaves out the one thing that would bring light. It’s like being shown a room full of good things – only to find that the door to that room is locked.
Julia’s biggest mistake is to think that the light is within us. “What has fascinated and sustained me over these last few years has been the notion that we have the ability to find, nurture and carry our own, inner, living light" (p12). But what if the light within is darkness? What if darkness is our only friend? What if, when we look inside, instead of finding goodness and illumination, we find evil and darkness? Julia’s teaching that we all have our own light, by which we can live is not an encouraging message. It is depressing and debilitating. If I am relying on my own inner light for salvation, I am in deep trouble.
The problem is made worse when Julia moves from the beauty of the natural world, to a fantasy world which she has created. What do I mean by that? Let’s look at some examples. Although at times she has great self-awareness at other times she seems totally blind to the inherent self-contradictions she espouses.
Julia is a historian. As such she should know that it is never good history to write it according to one’s ideology. She argues that history was written by the few for the few. And then gives us the usual suspects of those who are ‘left out’. For example, the LGBTQI community - but she missies out the other 20 of the 26 letters in the progressive sexuality rainbow. Why? She also seems unaware that she writes history as one of the powerful; she broadcasts for the ABC and writes for the Sydney Morning Herald. Is she not the ‘powerful’ and does she not leave out what does not suit her ideology? It seems strange to me that someone with such power and influence complains of her lack of power and influence – it’s a bit like Bill Gates claiming poverty!
When the powerful write history they should at least be fair to those with whom they disagree. Julia clearly has a bee in her bonnet about women’s ordination – a movement she was deeply and unsuccessfully involved in. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, it is not quite as black and white as she makes out. “I was trying to challenge the Sydney Anglican Church’s of oppression of women, a church I began attending with my family when I was 10. This was a church that still told women to be silent, to not speak when men were present, to submit to male authority.” (p92). Did Sydney Anglicans really tell women to be silent when men were present? Not in any of the Sydney Anglican churches I have been in. At best that is an exaggeration and caricature. Although I have come across misogyny in the church (as I have in the media and academia!). As is the notion that ‘freeing ‘ women to be priests is equivalent to the ending of the slave trade!
Freedom is a great thing. But what is it? On the one hand whilst Julia claims liberation is in finding ourselves, she also claims that it is found in forgetting ourselves - “in the heaving, grinning masses of people dancing on pavilion floors, wearing beautiful, eye bogglingly creative costumes, in all the sweat and delirium and joy, it did not matter who we were or where we came from or what we thought. It was delight.” (p180). But is that freedom? How many have found that the ecstasy of the evening leads to the chains of the morning? Is it really the case that we create those ‘eye bogglingly creative costumes’ and don’t care who we are or who sees them?
Julia wisely observes: “Much as we might like to fancy ourselves freethinkers, all of us carry our past in our opinions: the parents, suburbs and schools that spawned us; the lessons we were taught that confirmed our conventionality or sparked rebellion. We need to know how much we do not know.” (p264) But then forgets to apply her own observation.
She tells us that “My problem with many church leaders is that they often exclude and judge,” (p250), whilst cheerfully going on to exclude those who don’t share her point of view. Meanwhile she happily works for an organization that is more than happy to exclude those who don’t share their ‘progressive’ values.
Likewise when Julia states, “My own faith is stubbornly cheerful and enduring. I can’t quite explain why, but it’s untroubled by dogma” (p249), she seems blissfully unaware that her book is shot through with dogma. If you don’t accept SSM, or the equality of all religions, or the ‘light within’, or women priests, or climate change, then you are out. You don’t agree with the dogma… and so you are excluded as being unfit for contemporary society.
In the same way Julia declares: “I am deeply uncomfortable with preachiness” (p244), in a book which is full of preachiness. The converted will love it; those of us who are disbelievers in some of her doctrines have our doubts.
I don’t have a problem with dogma – as long as it’s right. Julia has a problem with dogma, mainly because she does not recognize it. If it’s not her belief, it’s dogma and therefore bad. If it is her belief it’s obvious, liberating, natural and therefore clearly not dogma. At least that is what she dogmatically believes!
Take this example.
“My faith continues to exist because I have an understanding of humanity as screwed up, of male lead institutions as narrow – blinded by misogyny and sometimes very dangerous to the vulnerable – and a sense of God as large, expansive, forgiving, infinite, and both incomprehensible and intimate.” (p25). I count at least ten doctrines/dogmas within that one sentence – most of which I largely agree with. But to claim that they are not dogma is to make a nonsense of logic, language and meaning.
"Some live quite contentedly with a patchwork of doubt: it is not always torment. Who can possibly hope to understand everything, and to have exhaustively researched all areas of uncertainty? How can we jam the infinite and contain it in our tiny brains? This is why there can be so much comfort in mystery.” (p.263)
“The stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Bertrand Russell (p263).
The problem with the Russell citation is that Phosphorescence is full of things that Julia is sure about. There is no doubt on her fundamentals… or at least, that does not appear to be the case in the writing.
The problem is also that Julia confuses faith with knowing everything. We have faith in Christ – not because we understand everything, but precisely because we do not. It reminds me of a poster I once saw in a hippie flat: “all I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen”. This ‘comfort in mystery’ sounds really cool – but when combined with the dogmatic ‘I don’t believe in dogma’ it ends up just being a vehicle for a narcissistic self-obsession where the whole world is determined by our limited experience of reality and our own light within. There are things that are true – outwith of our experience and our direct knowledge. There are things that need to be revealed to us. The reality of mystery is far too often used as an illogical excuse to avoid the reality of God’s self revelation to us.
“The Church needs to return to its core business: preaching and practicing a gospel of love. When we are absorbed only with morality debates, we forget what a close community church can be, and what comfort it can provide." (p255). Totally agree. But what is the ‘Gospel of love’? Again, ironically, Julia’s book is full of morality and moralism. In fact, it would be hard to get a better example of what we call moralistic therapeutic deism.
It’s not that I disagree about the need to love and care for the poor, the marginalized, etc. But I want to know where that love comes from. Given that the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, its clear where the problem lies. Who is going to fix our broken, sinful hearts and minds? Not moralistic religion, not political ideologies, not any amount of ‘inner light’. We need a Saviour. That’s what the Gospel is – Good News about Jesus. The community of the Church is caused by that. I’m reminded of the man who told me “Dave, I love everything you’ve got in this church…its superb. But I hate what you teach. Can’t you just have it without Jesus?!” Jesus is the only reason we can have that community. Julia is seeking to put the cart before the horse.
Her Jesus is her own personal Jesus. One crafted in her image who neatly fits every social doctrine and prejudice she holds. “At the heart of the Christian story is a baby – God as a naked, poor, newborn refugee; God as utter absence of power. Not a bearded patriarch obsessed with doctrine and church law, but the kid who grew up to teach in parables, then a young revolutionary who was killed for sedition. Who told people to love, to train their hearts to be kind, to let their life be their witness.” (p266). At best, those are a series of meaningless clichés and caricatures. The notion that anyone reading the New Testament can conceive of Christ as being an ‘utter absence of power’ is so absurd that even Foucault would blanche at its ludicrousness. Christ is ‘the power of God’. He will ‘come in power’. ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’. ‘You will see the Son of Man come in power with his holy angels’ - and a hundred other similar sayings in the New Testament – as any examination will show. Sadly, when you are dealing with emotion and sound bites, examination is the last thing that will happen. It just feels right.
“After all, faith and power rarely mix well. Jesus did not come to earth and tell church leaders to amass large followings, obtain corporate sponsorship and political influence; instead he called those who parroted laws without practicing love vipers and hypocrites.” Yes – Julia is right about faith and political power. They rarely mix well. But it’s largely not the Church that has political power in Australia today. The companies for which Julia works have far more political power. Is she saying that her faith does not mix well in the powerful corridors of the ABC, Sydney Morning Herald or Academia? Yes – there are professing Christians and churches who go against Christ and do not live a life worthy of Him. But is Julia judging? Is she suggesting that her powerful institutions are blameless and pure?
As already indicated, there were so many things about this book I loved – and Julia Baird sounds to me to be a fascinating, stimulating, vulnerable, confused and fine person. I would love to meet her. But it is precisely because she comes across as so likeable that I found Phosphorescence so frustrating. She gets so close and yet she is so far. I remember Russell Brand when he was being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman astonishingly declaring that he believed in God and when asked why, replying “why chase shadows when you can go to the source of light itself”? Julia’s book is all about chasing shadows – not getting to the Source of Light. How I long for Him, for me, as well as for her.
“With every day we walk on this earth, we must try to understand better, and act to ensure that every person can feel fully human, equal and free.” (p274)
We will not be fully human, equal and free, without coming to know Christ. He became human to save humans. It is in Christ that there is neither male nor female, slave nor free person. It is Christ who said “know the truth and the truth will make you free… I am the truth”. If you look for the light within you will enter a world of delusion or descend down the helter skelter of darkness. If you look up – you will be able to see, along with John Newton: “I was blind but now I see. Amazing grace!”