The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

Your God is too small

by J. B Phillips [The Epworth Press]
Price: £3.99 - - -

I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

Star Struck

by Dr. David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey [Zondervan]
Price: - - - -

Futility is so last season

Jean-Paul Satre or Radiohead might not have the last word

To the Pond!‘Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.’

 

Andrew Wilson, quoted in Matthew Hosier’s Thinktheology blog Meaning Radiohead. Worryingly, I knew Matthew’s dad.

‘For I’m building a people of power’. Fail.

We may not be cut out for it

Look left, look rightFor I’m building a people of power, I”m making a people of praise, who will move through this land by my Spirit.

Now is the time for us to march across the land.

What were we thinking of in the 1980s? When did the church ‘marching across the land’ end well? What would it even look like, the clatter of zimmer frames, the trundle of wheelchairs, the clergy in nice jumpers, overweight people looking hot and wanting to sit down, the toddlers needing the toilet?

Surely ‘marching across the land’ is not how the Kingdom of God spreads. Here’s how the experts do it:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.1

 

‘Science’ and ‘religion’ were originally names for good personal habits

’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.

According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)

Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).

Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be  ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.

The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.

Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.

 

Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.

The Territories of Science and Religion

by Peter Harrison [University of Chicago Press]
Price: £22.50 - - -

The Kingdom of God as the ‘sphere of God’s goodness’

I enjoyed this quote from Ken Costa

God at Work: Live Each Day with Purpose
When Jesus came to earth, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. The language of kingdoms can sound strange to us, in that it seems to signify territoriality. In the context of work, it may therefore be helpful to see the kingdom of God as “the sphere of God’s goodness” in the world. We are called to advance God’s kingdom, sharing the “sphere of goodness” and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his “sphere of goodness,” or to hinder it–on both a macro and a micro level. Each time we tell the truth, make decisions fairly and with respect for others, or act with integrity, we are advancing this sphere, albeit in small ways.

Ken Costa, God at Work, p 16.

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Healing and technology

Slow healing — part 6

Injured Teddy Bear
Half of all the blindness in the world is caused by cataracts 1

This means presumably that half of the all the blindness Jesus cured was due to cataracts. Some of the rest was due to extreme short or long-sightedness.

These things can now be fixed by technology. Every person who is blind through cataracts or lensing issues can see again: only poverty or waiting lists stand in their way.

Do you have the feeling that having cataracts healed by surgery is somehow not as good as having them healed by direct divine intervention? I do. But I think my feelings are wrong.

The accumulated good deeds of previous generations (in this case, researchers and technologists) ripen the Kingdom of God in the earth. Thanks to those efforts, every leprous person can now be healed by antibiotics, every person blind through cataracts or myopia or presbyopia can be healed by surgery or opticians. I remember sitting in the post-surgery place in our local hospital, after my own cataract op, hearing people around me saying ‘I couldn’t drive– now  I  can!’ ‘I can’t believe how good this is!’

I was seeing the Kingdom come, in the slow, wide way rather than than the instant, limited-issue, demonstration-version way.

I worship the God who stirs the techies to build solutions to improve our lives. Is the gospel foolishness to the geeks? It shouldn’t be.

Do you agree? Is it so simple? What am I missing?

If you’re human, this is for you

Handle with care.

So what makes you different from an animal? And does it matter?

Theologians have the most interesting and radical answer. They tell us of course that we are stamped with ‘imageo dei‘, the image of God. Unlike the animals, humans do faith, hope and love.

Chimpanzees
Fail.

Are we the only ones? We can speculate that intelligent aliens may arise somewhere else in the Universe and also bear the imago dei, and perhaps in different ways. Maybe only together with all of them will the fulness of God be properly expressed.

Either way, if the theologians are right, a lot of us have to think differently. The standard model in most Western heads probably sees humans as bits of grit, epiphenomenal crumbs from creation’s picnic, odd growths on a damp rock. There’s a decent argument for that, when we think of how small we are and what common stuff we’ve been manufactured from.

But there’s also a good argument the other way. In zillions of attempts, evolution has repeatedly invented the eye or the wing, but we only know of one species who even think about bearing the imageo dei: wonderful us. 1

And if we are the Universe’s God-bearers, another good argument follows that we may be what the Universe itself is all about. Small? Doesn’t matter. Mostly water? Matters even less. Thanks to us, the Universe includes beings that are self-aware and can believe and doubt, and love and hate, and dream of eternity.

 

My book More than Bananas is available as a free Kindle and ebook download as well as in paid versions.

 

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.

Here comes the sun

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

SunriseI welcomed the chance recently to dig around and ask the question  “what (actually) is the Kingdom of God?” If you had to answer a quiz about it, what would you say? Here are five things.

  1. It’s wrapped up with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and him sending the Holy Spirit. His death fixed things up between us and God. His resurrection was the first drop of new wine into the old wineskins of the world, and it broke a tomb. His Ascension was his coronation. Sending the Spirit to revolutionize human lives was his first act in office.
  2. It’s now and not yet.  It’s breaking in among but this is just the first installment. The rest is yet to come. So we enjoy peace now which is an appetizer for the peace that will break over the whole world at the end the age.
  3. It’s internal and external. It’s about transformed hearts and revolutionizing society. It weaves together the quietist and the activist strands of the Christian faith.
  4. It grows. Like a mustard seed or yeast, tiny but resolute, it can be poisoned, stamped out, wiped out, set back, but it keeps coming.
  5. It comes in and through weakness. Hence the Beatitudes: ‘Happy are you who are spiritually bankrupt.’