Each week in ‘What am I meant to do with my time?‘, Christopher Hocking turns to a famous figure to see if it can tell him how to live a digitally native life in 2013. Today, it’s theologian and Festival of Dangerous Ideas speaker Peter Rollins.
Dear Peter Rollins,
In my youth (haha “youth”; I am 23 and this happened ~ 2 years ago) I spent some time thinking about the existence of God and the death/resurrection/etc of Jesus Chris. It was not really a matter of being at a crossroad RE: faith, more like a flippant “Huh what is that even all about.” I’m the Paulo Cohelo of my generation, no doubt.
So I spent some time talking to a friend about his faith and talking to his pastor, who lent me some books with titles like Faith For The Future and What God Wants To Blog To You and Six Pence None The Richer (not a book but a great s/t to my youth.)
There was a point made in one of them that if you’re not going to have a God, then why are you even bothering to have a sense of morality? If you are throwing God in the trash, then you might as well throw your moral compass in there as well (and probably your [my] laptop.) To truly reject God you have to reject the entire notion that we’re here for anything, that anything means anything and that there are any grand repercussions to anything that we do.
So even though weeks later, when the pastor asked me over a chicken lunch what I thought about the books and I said “Nothing” – that they were stacked underneath Bob Dylan’s Chronices Vol. 1 and Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree because I’d stopped thinking about Christianity and started thinking about, I don’t know, fishing? – I couldn’t say that I was just spitting on kids and pushing over dogs in a frenzy of nihilism. My moral compass was still there next to my fishing rod (it is a metaphorical fishing rod)(it represents searching for ideas)(Cohelo of my generation.)
So now in my later youngmanhood, living a fairly stringent life as a writer and punk, it is sometimes necessary and sometimes fun to take things from the grocery store.
Say hypothetically (hypothetically so that I do not get arrested)(it’s called onus of proof, Wikipedia it) that I paid for a bag of flour ($3.97/2K) and a bottle of milk ($2/2L [Woolworths own brand because I don't care about farmers]) but I take an avocado ($2.56 ea.) and a half dozen eggs ($3) my total is $5.97. The moral math here is that I’ve gotten less than half for free, so somehow that is justified. Justified because I am an Artist and I have Needs.
I mess around for a while getting the bag of flour in next to the eggs. I say, “Thanks” to the girl who is standing nonplussed at the exit. I wonder whether I should have said something more like “So long,” – something kind of enigmatic sounding. Should I pretend that I am from a different country/reality? I wonder why that would make any difference – is shoplifting big in Europe? Is nihilism? I wonder if they’re following me to the exit. I imagine a stern woman laying a hand on my arm, outside the bakery.
Would you mind showing me the contents of your denim jacket?
Yes, very much so.
Nihilism aside I don’t know that I could push over a checkout girl.
But then if my morals are in such a grey area (or a red-and-blue-flashing area) why pay for anything? Somehow I can feel more “OK” if I have paid for some things – but OK by what standard? Definitely not the Woolworths Bible, which I’m sure has mostly pretty grim verses about how shoplifters are bringing down the economy and murdering local business and also not by the regular Bible which says nearly the same thing, probably.
And yet I am not unconflicted by this lifestyle, even though logically I feel it is only practical and victimless. I wouldn’t steal a record or a bottle of wine because they are luxury goods, not necessities, and I feel weird about downloading movies occasionally because I worry for the future of video stores. As an aside, what can we do to help video stores? I am pretty concerned about video stores.
But in saying that, I remember an incident recently where I pocketed a Whittakers Almond bar in a Blockbuster Video, not even out of desire. It’s what Tao Lin would call “shoplifting autopilot”, I guess – you hold the object long enough that your eyes unfocus and the brain lets the hands do whatever. You find yourself at home with a chocolate bar that you don’t even particularly want and that now is just sitting there on the coffee table, a dark pillar of salted cocoa like a fairly low impact Edgar Allen Poe story. The beating of that hideous almond heart.
Without moral culpability, why moral at all? Why not steal and murder and kick over coffee tables in the foyers of hotels? There is that fear of being in Trouble that haunts me – that there are consequences for actions and that I don’t want to end up staring at the sky from inside a tree trunk or re-reading the same story in the newspaper about pushing a boulder up a hill forever. Most of all, I don’t want to be yelled at and feel scared/ashamed.
I guess to throw out morals would be throwing out every other thing with it – sucked out the vacuum and finding yourself motoring through space on an un-piloted planet, with the twist ending being that it is earth all the way down and nothing anywhere else. Why finish this column if tomorrow the world is going to continue being a place of chaos with no concept of Goodness or Evil; where life is the only thing worth living for and no one cares if you drink 6+ beers and fall down on your face in the gutter or not.
I laugh giddily over lunch at the theory of a theoryless world, but it’s actually terrifying. You hold still and imagine you can hear the great, concussive grinding, not of the mechanics of the creator’s chair coming to rescue you, but of the world folding and unfolding in endless unknowability.
Because people are good – they don’t need a book to tell them to.
But why bother? Why does it matter at all?
Because – people shouldn’t do things to hurt other people, and shouldn’t need a
God to tell them so.
But without a God, why does it matter if we hurt people?
Someone somewhere queues up a ballad-y INXS song and a train rushes past outside. Storm clouds gather and the staff are stacking the chairs on the tables.
In sending this letter, I feel trepidation at my parents reading that I once stole a thing – that I would say that I don’t care about farmers so flippantly like that, when I’m sure they raised me better. I was not brought up in a Christian household but I was brought up to care about other people and to generally not behave like a jerk; to think about how other people feel and be careful around coffee tables. I am hesitant to honk my horn at people when they don’t “go” on a green light, because I don’t want to publicly shame them. Recently I beeped someone because they were merging in on me and I felt a deep regret and thought, “I must be pretty stressed out.” Sometimes I am reckless with the feelings of others for example I am bad at keeping in contact with older friends and perhaps don’t think of them as being as “real” as people I see more regularly. I justify it by thinking about how Bob Dylan was with his friends, occasionally completely cutting people out of his life, but the Whittakers bitter dark chocolate irony of it is that he later had a Christian re-awakening and probably regretted the way he treated people e.g. Donovan.
I have found this letter the hardest to write of all the letters to write so far and not because of the deep soul-searching that has gone along with it, but because I have had a lot less to think about on the topic. My letter on health/diet was the same length which implies that these two concerns have about equal weighting. You can’t fire me to Hell I already quit.
Christopher Hocking is an Adelaide writer who has been published on Scum Mag and rejected by McSweeneys, Voiceworks, Stilts, Bumf and more. Over the past week he decided to grow up and start using a WordPress.
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(Top photo by Prairie Kitten)