What to do when you find yourself on a ‘darkling plain’

Don’t panic. Examine the rogue data

In a previous post I looked at Matthew Arnold’s wonderful poem Dover Beach– the best atheist hymn I can currently think of:

the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

And I pointed out that I know of people of whom it is not true. Their pain and loss is suffused with a joy and life that is quite umistakeable to anyone who talks with them.

This is so important. These are rogue data-points that do not fit on Matthew Arnold’s dismal curve. They are also like stars in the universe, holding out the word of life. Anyone who is interested in facts and evidence, and especially atheists, ought to make a point of meeting up with them. They are often conveniently found in churches. If you’re concerned with truth, interrogate the data that doesn’t fit your hypothesis; especially, I might note, if your hypothesis is about life and death and meaning. You might find, if you are a north-facing atheist, as it were, that our human home also has a south side, and the sun is blazing.

Loss, and amazingness

There are also findings

nightfallI watch people getting old and I wonder how they process loss. When people get to their our eighties, it seems to me, if they are lucky enough to have made it that far, they start being dismantled. However proud they once stood, bits start falling off. The networks that have surrounded them unravel. The background noise of the ninth decade is the retreating tide of life:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.


I’m quoting of course from Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold and it is (of course) (among other things) a hymn to the courage shown by people who have no faith in God:

the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

My problem with this beautiful poem is that I keep meeting people of whom it is not true.  Some are very elderly, others are younger but being gnawed down by cancer. It is not true for them that the world has ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light.’ And if I can be not true for them, surely it can be not true for me too.

I agree that these people do find themselves ‘on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight’ but that is not their full story. I am obliged to say they are thriving. They are even life-giving, a ‘green old age’, generous despite affliction. I like to be around them. They do know fear and uncertainty, but they also know peace and rest. Perhaps they have what Jesus meant when he promised ‘abundant life.’ They face dismantlement and death and ask them, ‘is that the worst you can do?’ Then it’s OK.

Two eyes are better than one (2)

How science can be earthed by contact with friendly theologians

In a recent post I speculated about ways that grasping truth through science can enforce a kind of rigour onto theologians to make them better theologians. Now the reverse question. What can theology do for science? I think plenty.

1. Monomaniacal materialism is not the answer to everything. Science observes and measures, then theorizes, then measures again. (At least on its best days.) This is fantastic for scoping out the material universe, for understanding how things work and how to fix them, for inventing things, for curing cancer. These things matter a lot. But not only are they not everything, they are not even nearly everything. What does it all mean? Do I have significance? What is love? What is a good life? Science can only scrape away at the patina of these questions. On its own, scientific perspective leaves a hole bigger than the Universe unfilled in our hearts. We need help from elsewhere, stories from outside, revelation from the Unknowable.

2. Skulduggery. Theology joins with post-modernism in pointing out that science will be flawed as long as it is carried out by humans — humans who are all prejudiced, all likely to shut our ears to opposing arguments, inevitable in our misuse of academic power and prestige because we abuse every power and gift of God. Scientists are sinners, like the rest of us, held back from our worst, like the rest of us, only by cultural strictures and the grace of God.

3. Science doesn’t do transcendent. It sort of can’t; science would have to un-science itself to do so. But that leads to a lopsided perspective. Science cannot (by definition I think) see beyond cause and effect to an Uncaused Cause. Quantum physics sometimes talks about the quantum vacuum, an eternal, uncaused thing from which universes spring. But that is striking a match in the darkness and hoping to create a Universe of suns. It is too much to ask, I think, for a mere quantum vacuum to somehow lead to consciousness and love and purpose. Only an Uncreated God, ‘source of all being and life’ as the creed says, can do justice to the Universe that science sees and sees but does not comprehend, that it measures and measures but does not know.

Two eyes are better than one (1)

Science and theology both explore different slices of truth. Putting them together yields a more nutritious sandwich.

heart is in my hands

Put them together for a surprising result

We’re still looking out over the ocean of truth, all undiscovered around us. But hand in hand, science and theology help humans see better. Here are some ways science can prod theology out of stagnation and torpor (which can be true when people endlessly recycle old theological models instead of thinking) and make it (or arguably keep it), fit, lean, hungry and relevant.

  1. Origins. Scientific discoveries about the origin of the universe oblige us to re-read and re-think the first 10 chapters or so of Genesis. These Biblical accounts of the origin of language, or of human families, of history and pre-history, contradict the story told by those who’ve dug up the past and thought about it. The best theology does not fear this, but looks to the early chapters of Genesis to do something else, to teach theology through story, to reveal ‘who we are and what we are to do’.
  2. Creation by delegation. Evolutionary theory points to a mustard-seed Creator, who sets up small things brimming with potential and superintends their development through a billion creative steps. This was so of life, of the Universe, of the Kingdom of God and of everything. This is fantastic. For one thing, it gives significance and meaning to every single human action – each of our acts can be preparatory for the Kingdom of God. For another, it makes us ask, what is the connection between human development and New Creation? I have no idea, but it is fun to explore.
  3. The people history never saw. Ancient anthropology tell us most humans died long before Jesus lived or even Abraham was born. They have not known the story we have all heard — told again this Christmas. What does this mean? What does it say about the nearness, or otherwise, of God to those who have not known the Word incarnate? This is a big question, one I puzzle over.
  4. What is the Universe? The Bible is a universal book. But back in the the Bible’s day, the visible Universe was the Earth plus fairy lights. What part of the Christian revelation refers to the world, and which to the entire cosmos? What does ”the end of the world’ mean? Astronomy predicts this (for earth) just as much as the Bible does (but perhaps on a different scale); what happens to the rest of the cosmos?
  5. And on…
  6. For more stuff like this:

Belonging, that life and death thing

all contributions greatly received

TogetherI am trying to learn about some stuff in preparation for a book I might try to  write one day. It goes like this. My book ‘More than Bananas’ tried to show how the gospel is compatible with the world that science describes – physical reality.

Now I’m trying to think about how the gospel can be a good fit with our emotional landscape – ’emotional reality.’

In this, the idea of ‘belonging’ is so haunting and interesting.

  1. Belonging before believing

First:I think I have seen men join our church men’s breakfast group just because they had an overwhelming desire to belong to it. They just wanted to be a part of it. The things we evangelicals worry about (belief, truth, discipleship) came along later.  This is not what our evangelical procedures lead us to expect.

(What’s supposed to happen, according to some orthodoxy that I have yet to find written down, is that people hear the good news that God loves them, put their faith in Jesus, and then sign up.

What actually seems to happen is that some people see something, want it, join it, and then figure out what ‘it’ is.  They are basically the only people who have joined our group over the years. )

2. Dying unwanted

Second: I think I have seen people  die because they don’t belong and nobody wants them, and they don’t seem to be any use any more. They just shut down. Earlier than they need to. Not belonging sets off a kind of self-destruct routine. One old colleague of mine, alone, no-longer needed at work, and not endowed with close friends or family, went into hospital with something not very serious, and just died. Interesting.

3. A root of crime

Third: I work a bit with young people involved in crime. Everyone knows these youth share a lot in common, for example: low educational achievement, poverty, broken homes, ADHD. But now I think about it, isolation, unwantedness, not belonging, is central to these kids’ experience. Nobody loves them. Some were chucked out of their mum’s home at age 16, no longer welcome. Others have lost the last stable person in their life, a grandad say, and fallen off the edge.

4. A source of healing

Fourth: when I was ill and at my most totally infirm and paralyzed, the fact I was loved and mattered to people was the most astonishing tonic. I belonged; I mended.

5. The state doesn’t offer ‘belonging’

Fifth, our country will, with a bit of duct tape, and on a good day, provide an abandoned 16-year-old with shelter, a little cash, some help with jobs and education, and free health care. It will do the same for mentally ill person or the old  (in fairness, the government also pays for initiatives like a day centre, such as the one our church runs).  But belonging to someone?  Mattering to someone? Much more complex.

Preliminary conclusion: not belonging/not being loved is more dangerous than the most aggressive cancer. Belonging is better for you than a superfood salad.

Love to hear comments. Sorry if all this is obvious to you.

by - [-]
Price: £6.99 - - -

How we need infinity to make the sums come out right

Life seemed so simple

Our local flock of free-range turkeys have left the farm for their one-way trip to the dinner table.

It will come as a shock to them. Perhaps they thought they’d understood life well, with its regular rhythms of sleeping, running about, gobbling and eating.

Their mistake was that they didn’t know they were created by and for someone, namely the Christmas consumer. Perhaps, for the turkeys, this was a good thing.

It’s not a good thing for us, though, and I think this is where the purely material life falls over. All may seem fine. But then something big intrudes: love, death, the quest for meaning.

I’ve seen this too many times, thriving, self-sufficient people laid low. What worked for them everyday, the life they’d figured out, suddenly didn’t work any more. They’d missed the truth that they were made by and for someone. They didn’t include God or eternity in their calculations; they found they were were talking turkey all along.

The end of a claustrophobic life

I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

When physicists get out the duct tape

Mathematical fumblings behind the campus bikeshed

IMG_3071The great physicist Roger Penrose has written:

‘…The standard model is clearly not the “ultimate answer”, with regard to particle physics, because it contains many unexplained features and “ragged edges”, despite its undoubted success. It involves about 17 unexplained parameters that simply need to be taken from observation.’ 3

Then he talks about quantum field theory and the frequent need to ‘renormalize’ equations. ‘Renormalizing’ means, for example, when the maths yields an infinite negative mass or an infinite negative charge, arbitrarily to add infinite mass or infinite charge so that the problem goes away and you get values that meet experiments. Or to put it another way, the ‘twin criteria of agreement with observation’ and ‘mathematical consistency’ are ‘incompletely fufilled’ (p665) and ‘there is no accepted way of obtaining finite answers without such an “infinite rescaling” procedure applied not necessarily only to charge, or to mass, but to other quantities also’ (p678).

Physicists, possibly, can get away with much in the murky cellars of mathematics because the rest of us are ill-equipped to go down and supervise.

“What are you doing down there?’ we call.

‘Oh, I’m just renormalizing,’ they reply, amid the clink of bottles.

Those of us who are not unsupervised quantum physicists still live under tiresome restrictions: at GCSE, we can’t arbitrarily add numbers to make our equations come out right. In the bank, we find opposition to us renormalizing our overdrafts by suggesing the bank adds an infinite amount of positive-but-theoretical money. So tiresome!

Yet this is not to throw stones at physicists, who in my view have by their mathematical fluency made much more progress on paradoxical issues than (say) theologians (who are usually just restricted to human languages).

But it is to say that physics isn’t quite the purring engine, not quite the lonely pinnacle of rarefied human thought, that we might like to think.

And so, for example, when New Atheists claim that Quantum Field Theory and its like does away with the need for a Creator, since everything just pops spontaneously out of a quantum vacuum, we should remember these arguments are held together, at a fundamental level, by duct tape.

Quotes are from Roger Penrose’s magnificent The Road to Reality, which has sadly reminded me what three years of undergraduate study proved: in physics, I can hum the tunes but can’t do the lyrics.

Slow healing (10): the need to respond inappropriately

Thanksgiving anyway

roterschirm3Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1: 2-4).

It sounds impossible, or at least inappropriate. In the midst of suffering, James tells us to ‘rejoice’, to give thanks, to worship. Do we thank God for the suffering? No. Do we thank God that the suffering is making us a better person? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, in the middle of things–I think it means–we turn to God and thank and worship him for who he is.

He hasn’t stopped being kind, reliable, powerful, purposeful, true. Despite our personal eclipse, the sun still shines. That exercise shapes us in good ways and helps put us on top of our troubles rather than them being on top of us.

Best of all about this verse for me is the phrase ‘of many kinds’. James is telling us how to process trouble and sorrow of every kind whether it’s the small frustration of missing the post with a birthday card or the unhealed pain of a loved one lost.

(Originally written for a series of Lent devotions whose title I have forgotten)

Seasons of the soul

With seasons changing so obviously outside, here’s a good question: does the soul have seasons? I dug out some notes from my friend Susan Sutton who is much better read in this stuff than me.

WinterPruning, waiting
SpringClearing, cleaning, ploughing, planting
SummerMaintaining. Things are flowing. You know who you are. Not hurried or worried. Life is good
Autumn/FallHarvesting. Busy, fruitful lots to show for your work


These can reflect stages in our whole life.

But they can also guide us through loss. A sudden loss of health or a loved one may be like a storm that batters us and takes us in a single day from a harvest season into a bitter winter; but spring returns.