Walking in Kingdom foothills

Without knowing it

I see this a lot.

I think Paul saw it too, when he wrote about ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature (or naturally) what the law requires…’ 1.

These are people who do things because they are good or beautiful in themselves. Characteristically, staff in the UK’s national health service, in my experience, and teachers, and people in other areas of public service, do what they do to serve others rather than to gain prestige. Not all of course; but some.

The other day I heard of a property developer who, if he was deciding where to spend money, invested in good materials, high ceilings and big windows. Other housebuilders prefer fancy kitchens and bathrooms in what are otherwise cramped and mean buildings. Fancy kitchens might generate a quick sale; but the other developer is focussing resource on a home whose light and space will be delightful for generations.

It isn’t true of everyone, and all of us can be be public-spirited in one breath and mean or malicious in the next. But still. I meet a lot of people who are committed to public service, quietly doing their job with love and devotion, but they don’t share my faith or at least don’t speak ‘Christian’ the way I do. They have come to do what they do by some other route: personal choice, or nature, or instinct, or following the culture they learnt.

I like to think they are walking in the foothills of the Kingdom of God. They might not call it that, or recognize it as that, or even associate with that thought, but they feel the goodness in their bones.

Image by LadyLioness from Pixabay

God of the beginning of the journey

Surely somewhere in there

One hundred generations, 4,000 years, stand between us and Abraham, and Genesis 12, and the dawn of recorded history.

Unrecorded history stretches back much further, perhaps 100,000 years or 2,500 generations. Think of daughters turning into mothers and mothers to grandmothers, chubby toddlers growing brittle and wrinkled. It’s happened a hundred times over the span of history. It’s happened perhaps 2,500 times in pre-history, a line of generations stretching around the world.

But weren’t humans few in those first 100,000 years? They were, but when you stack up the millenniums until they are a hundred millenniums tall, these few become a great company. Perhaps for every one person alive today, 14 have already lived and died.

Those of us who live or have lived in history compare with those from prehistory like the chocolate sprinkles compare with the cappucino, or like the slivery Colorado River compares with the Grand Canyon.

Where was God in all those generations? Fourteen human races have come and gone compared with the humans alive today. This is a problem if you believe humans need truth in order to really live, and 14 human races lived and died before truth made its appearance, dimly with Abraham, brightly with Christ.

Where was God in this buried crowd? It is a mystery.

History tells us the One True God haunted the human race, often lodged in the upper mists of high-piled spiritual hierarchies. Occasionally the mists lifted and a culture was lit by a gleam of monotheism.

The Egyptian Pharoah Tutankamen’s less famous father Akhetenan got the Egyptians to worship the one true God for a time (personified as the Sun), but Egypt soon reverted to its old ways. Similar movements may have happened in South American pre-Christian empires – bubbles of monotheism that floated above the turbid waters and then popped.

That was in history, and thus is in a sense knowable. What started, and how many times, among the 2,5000 generations of pre-history? Was it all darkness?

The trouble with truth

We might need to drizzle humility over our convictions

Start with the Reformation. You have printed Bibles around the place. You have corruption in the Church. So you start saying:

The Bible is truth!

This gives you a lever to overthrow the old idea, which was perhaps even often unstated: tradition is truth. A new truth-claim lets you unsettle the old world.

After that initial crowbar job, other things pile in with their claims. Hence:

That which is discovered by reason is truth.

Or:

That which is established by the Scientific Method is truth.

And

Establish all the facts and you establish the truth!

And because humans are complicated and clever:

All claimed ‘truth’ is just a way of bullying people and all claims to truth are simplistic and over-ambitious.

And

The truth we believe is a construct inside our head. The objective truth outside our head is the only truth but it is forever unknowable since we can only know what has made its way into our head, and that which has found its way inside our head is only a tiny unrepresentative subset of the ‘real’ truth outside.

Or what about

Truth is actually found in music or art or poetry, a chimeral thing that we occasionally encounter, but never grasp, and obviously beyond words.

Worse, I can’t think of a reliable way of judging between all these competing claims. How can you test the truth of truth? Though there are workarounds. For example, I prefer my Ryanair pilot to believe her flight instruments rather than her inner aesthetic sense. And if the air traffic controller said she was coming in too low, I would rather she believed him than accused him of abusing power for his own sexist reasons.

Where this gets us

I don’t know where this gets us, but I do think those who slickly think they have this whole Truth business nailed — the sort of people who say, ‘I’ll deal with your questions, just give me a moment’ — might be missing something.

How to do controversy

Remember not to shout

Am enjoying Roy Jenkins’ biography of William Gladstone, which is a happy distraction from reading the current news. Jenkins was hampered by his lack of sympathy for Gladstone’s faith, but it’s a good read. I was struck by a speech Gladstone made at Glasgow University. Four guides to follow in controversy:

  • Truth
  • Charity
  • Diligence
  • Reverence

We could do worse.

Cathedral faith

Look beyond the fundraising

My old publisher started his life in a Brethren assembly but ended his days worshipping in a cathedral. The gathering of disciples in a simple room is so New Testament. Why move?

He isn’t here for me to ask. But I too am drawn to the old buildings – I think for these reasons.

  1. Permanent. Cathedrals were built to stand forever, through all time and times, like the Church does.
  2. Humbling. Still so today, they must have been extraordinary as they towered over thatch-and-plaster muddy villages.
  3. Universal. They welcomed and sheltered a whole community. (Admittedly this didn’t stretch to outsiders, such as the Jews.)
  4. Filled with beauty and music. Like heaven and earth itself.
  5. Reminding us of heaven. Just look up, and see stained-glass accounts of God and his saints.
  6. Watered by a stream of liturgy. Ancient, comprehensive, slowly flowing, varying but never changing completely, all the generations take turns to swim in it. Through it habits form (in theory) and cultures are shaped; by it we take our part in the unending flow of praise to God. Babies enter the cathedral, corpses exit it, the flow of worship goes on.
  7. Corporate rather than individual. Admittedly, bishops or Queens or crusaders get special tombs ; but for most cathedral worshippers, their main identity is in being part of the mass of humanity; without individual lives, there is no crowded heaven.

Image by Diego Echeverry from Pixabay

How careers change after mid-life

Your runny self becomes hard-boiled. But don’t worry.

Just read a fascinating article about how we all peak earlier than we think…

In a really helpful piece in the Atlantic, Arthur C Brooks talked about the difference between fluid and crystalized intelligence. The fluid sort is flexible and creative, problem-solving and innovative. The crystalized sort is more likely to draw on wisdom and experience from the past – runny versus solid intelligence, if you like.

The runny sort is what many of us use as we progress in our career, trying new approaches, showing flexibility, making creative leaps and discoveries. But our runniness starts to decline as early as our 30s and 40s.

The solid sort builds through life and you don’t lose it until until the very end.

This is why scientists (often post-docs) are young; Supreme Court justices are old.

The significance of significance

Brooks’ deeper point is that if you get your significance from your achievements when your intelligence was running all over the place, you may struggle when you no longer can make the same leaps.

He gives the example of Charles Darwin, who was famous early but rather lost steam in his 50s and didn’t end particularly well. Start-up founders, creatives of all kinds, mathematicians and scientists, lawyers, business people — anyone who’s done well with learning, changing, driving change, beware. You’re seizing up faster than you think.

The remedy to this career disillusion, Brooks claims, is to shift gears and try to exploit all those stores of solid, crystallized intelligence you’ve built up while running around changing the world. Try mentoring or teaching in some sense, resourcing others. Try wisdom rather than innovation. It may mean stepping back from the frontlines of fame and significance but that can only be good.

(The alternative to this, which he doesn’t suggest, is to attend meetings and be the person who says ‘we tried that years ago and it never worked.’)

This is fascinating in several different ways.

  1. We have seasons in our lives; resisting this truth is not a recipe for happiness. We have to shift gears. If our significance comes from our fresh ideas, our flexibility, our creative leaps, watch out.
  2. This is something we instinctively know. Of course old men have a different perspective from young guys. It was always so: the young men of the village play cricket, the old guys nurse their pints of beer and watch. The mistake of us baby boomers is that in our 50s and 60s we think we can still do it on the dancefloor. Perhaps we are fooled by how good health care is now, or perhaps we don’t labour in the body-crushing occupations of our ancestors. Or perhaps no previous generation has been this pampered and this stupid.
  3. For me personally, my fiction-writing self has often felt fear that I won’t be able to be make the creative leaps of the past. That’s actually frightening. On the other hand, to write further books about the same people and in worlds already dreamed up is an enticing prospect, and I observe that many of my favourite writers did exactly that: they were like musicians on tour again, playing the old hits. Meanwhile my non-fiction writing self feels differently. After decades of reading and thinking, I’m getting to lay out the stuff that’s been crystallizing in my heart.
  4. And for all of us, the gear change may involve putting more weight on relationships than our glittering career, stepping back, pushing others forward, finding significance outside a string of achievements: choosing slow.

How not to pray for someone with cancer

Don’t pray for a future healing. Find today’s grace.

Don’t pray for instant total healing.

Well, do if you must, but it may be that you are really responding to your own rage and pain rather than listening to God. The Psalms do this a lot.

But consider the poor schmuck you are praying for: there might be a better way.

First, remember the context. Suffering is everywhere. Cancer is everywhere. Our seemingly–lonesome path has already been worn down by millions of heavy footsteps and many others are queuing behind us. This can help us past our self-obsession. And we can learn to look with fresh eyes on the human species. So much struggle. And what a brave lot we all are.

Second, reflect that even complete healing (whatever that is) is just part of wider and slower package that includes elements of rehabilitation, reflection and repentance. God continues tenderly to love and form us. Our cancer is not separate from our disciple’s walk or our life’s work of glorifying God. It’s just another thing.

Third, think about the Kingdom and the gospels: ‘People would … beg [Jesus] to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well.’ 1 Remember the ‘all’. We are members of the all.

Just praying ‘God somehow take all this away,’ is entirely understandable. But, given everything, it is an ill-considered and unhelpful place for your prayers or your church’s prayers to land. Don’t focus your hopes on an encounter in the misty future that will make everything all right again.

Touch the edge of the cloak today. Pray for grace for today, for healing today. Pray for God’s help today: the fear and anxiety to be replaced with peace. The pain soothed. The stresses on everyone eased. A good night, rather than a dark one. Pray prayers of thanksgiving for the goodness of God and for the worth and value of the person being prayed for.

We are on very solid ground praying for peace today, dumping our worries and fears today, praying for good communication with each other today and finding ways to thank God and esteem each other’s love today. Find today’s grace.

Touch the cloak again tomorrow. Some of the tomorrows may include further investigations or treatment. Pray about those. Some of those days may include miraculous tumour-shrinkage or joyous remission. Wonderful. Keep pressing on with the rehab, the reflection, the repentance.

Mistaking the peace for the promise

A final thought, sometimes missed: it’s possible to mistake God’s peace for God’s promise. Especially when you’re desperate. When you just want horrible news to unhappen, and you pray and find peace, you can think God has said something when he hasn’t. He may indeed have something to say on the matter but that isn’t it and then wasn’t the time. What does the peace mean, then? It means he’s here, like always.

Science’s naughty assumptions

Pretend that the Universe is the sort of Universe God would have made if he actually existed.

Sometimes it helps to hope something is true even if we can’t prove it.

For example, I often assume the people driving a bus or flying a plane are sober and competent and mean well. It would be too tiresome to have to check every time.

In maths, something called the Riemann Hypothesis is, as yet, unproven. But by assuming the Riemann Hypothesis is true, you can make great mathematical progress. All that progress would be able to be certified as proper maths if someone would only go and prove the Riemann Hypothesis.

The same is true of the whole of science.

The whole of science rests, I suggest, on two unproven assumptions. (I apologize ahead of time to any philosphers reading this. Take it as an indication that your jobs are vital.)

Here they are:

  1. There is such a thing as being. Things ‘are’. Reality is not, at least in the final analysis, a delusion.
  2. This material universe is self-consistent; it obeys physical laws. (If parts of it don’t obey consistent physical laws, such as what a toddler is going to do next, science cannot explore those parts.)

These two are science’s unproven naughty assumptions. Every scientific paper should start with a confession: ‘If the universe is real and obeys laws, which, fair play, we haven’t actually proved, then …’

Which is where theology comes in

The Apostle Paul claims that two facts are obvious about God, but they are widely suppressed. They are:

God’s being means being is. God has a relationship to the Universe similar to the relationship between a playwright and a play. The play’s real existence arises out of the being of the playwright, who is a different order of being. Hamlet (the play) is real because Shakespeare (the playwright) created it out of his own being.

God’s eternal power. The universe is consistent because it is upheld by the continuing command of a consistent, infinitely powerful God.

The world suppresses these obvious facts, Paul insists, because the world does not want to deal with God.

What’s interesting here is that science has to un-suppress these truths in order to progress at all. Science cuts a path through the mystery of the universe because it assumes truths about being and consistency that are coherently rooted God’s Godness. To do good science you have to make assumptions about the Universe which are perfectly in accord with the existence of God. These same assumptions are suppressed when we ask questions like ‘who am I and what am I to do?’ Some people unsuppress truths to do good science while suppressing them when they are asking about their own meaning and purpose. Arguably this approach is at least quixotic and inconsistent, and perhaps lacking coherence and integrity.

Some will disagree. You don’t need to believe in God, they would argue, in order to use science’s naughty assumptions with intellectual integrity. This is true. You could argue, for example, it’s all a mystery that we cannot fathom. Being is. The Universe is orderly. These are brute facts but they cannot be explained.

(Except they can.)

The revolutionary effects of non-violence

It really works

I’m enjoying thinking about non-violence and radical submission.

Following Jesus’ example on non-violence and foot-washing, the principle of radical submission became embedded in Christian ethics.

Slaves were told to be excellent slaves, even if they served less-than-excellent masters. Enemies were to be fed and watered. Women, newly freed from oppression by the gospel, were told to fit voluntarily within the old patriarchal structures. They undermined it totally, throwing men completely off balance, by being unusually sweet and nice. Rulers were smilingly obeyed. Taxes were stumped up. Early on in the piece, a Roman governor (from memory, the younger Pliny) complained that the Christians treated the pagan dead with more kindness than the pagan living were managing to do.

When you treat an oppressor thoughtfully, charitably, kindly and well, you weaponize shame. ‘I’m giving you a chance to disgrace yourself,’ we say. ‘Don’t miss the opportunity.’

And even if that particular enemy is immunized against shame, his mother won’t be, his children won’t be, his support network won’t be. The more he shames himself by being cruel and sneaky to the kind, the more his authority shrivels away.

This has such powerful resonances for today. Hong Kong residents gather in their tens of thousands singing Christian worship songs (for example). This is much harder for the authorities to deal with than (for example) violent lawlessness. They have a playbook for violent lawlessness. They are rather less certain how to crack down on a church picnic.

It’s easy to say

Of course this is easy to say. Much, much harder to live out. Look at Zimbabwe, looted and ransacked by its leaders, peacefully opposed, but generations of suffering has not yet brought the needed change.

Look at the rise of autocracy and populism around the world. Yet, still, we have to insist that peacemaking and radical submission and love are the marker posts on the true path to transformation.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. Psalm 37:10-11


	

The art of fighting for a cause

Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.

Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.

But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.

Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.

But how did he ‘win’?

He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.

Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.

Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.

Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.

The power of non-violence today

I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’

This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.

Interesting.