How set theory could help the theologians

Christmas Minature Tea Set
Your great aunt demonstrates her understanding of set theory. Thanks to ‘turtlemom4bacon’ for making this photo Creative Commons on flickr.com

 

The great missiologist Paul Hiebert thought of this first and taught me it. He even wrote a paper on it. 1 So I’m just reproducing his ideas really.

Theologians do get into a pickle when trying to describe conversion, the way by which a person turns to Christ.

They get even more confused when they try to apply their theories to people who are other than sentient adults – unborn babies, children, those with severe learning difficulties, for example.

As Paul Hiebert pointed out, an understanding of set theory could help.

A ‘set’ is a collection of things: a tea-set, for example, is a collection of things you need to serve tea.

The set of all Christians

What does the ‘set’ of all Christians look like? Your average theologian will probably reach for the  ‘bounded’ set, which means:

Everything that is within this walls (that I define) is in the set. And everything outside the walls, isn’t.

How do you define the walls? Here are some ideas:

  • All the baptized
  • All who profess faith
  • All who (as I was once asked on the streets in Cambridge when I claimed to be already a Christian) ‘have been baptized as an adult and baptized in the Spirit and speaking in tongues as an initial evidence’ (I won’t say whether I passed or not).

The problem is that none of the walls work when faced with the Biblical evidences of God’s grace.

This may be because the ‘set’ of the Christians is not a bounded set.

The centred set

Let’s suggest another type of set: the ‘centred set’. Members of the set are not defined by the boundaries around them, but by their relationship to the centre, which is Christ. If you’re heading toward to the centre, you’re in the set.

If not, you’re not.

This means:

  • People a very long way away, but following a sniff of grace are in the set.
  • People who look really near (like the religious) but are not oriented to the centre at all, are not in the set.

This (it seems to me) fits much better with the Biblical data. I leave proving this as an ‘exercise for the reader’.

I talked about  some of this in my book More than Bananas, which you are invited to download for free from Internet bookshops:

 

More than Bananas: How the Christian faith works for me and the whole Universe

by Glenn Myers [Fizz Books Ltd]
Rank/Rating: 2412733/-
Price: -

‘Pruning’ = slowing

This blog argues the virtues of slowing down, and it tries to frame the argument as part of Christian discipleship.

How to square the two? The Apostle Paul, for example, did not appear to slow down in later life, take it easy, pick up a hobby or two. A busy friend of mine grumbled that his (retired) wife wanted him to ‘go to garden centres in the afternoons’. He would rather be pressing on with work.

Yet there is a Biblical metaphor for slowing down: it’s called ‘pruning’ and makes its appearance as those familiar with the Bible will know, in John chapter 15. It makes sense as slowing down. My apple tree is in full blossom at the moment. If the bees get busy, soon it will sprout loads of fruit, baby apples. Some will fall off of their own accord. But some I ought to take off. I remove some fruit to make the best fruit. I cut down its fruitful options to make it put its strength into just making good fruit.

My tomatoes at the moment are hopeful little seedlings poking out of a flower pot. When they are bigger, I will pinch off the top so they stop growing. I will nip out some of their fruitful options. They won’t reach the sky. But they will make good tomatoes.

I wrote to a friend the other day about the joys of the third age: house paid for, kids flown, perhaps free to choose your fruiful work for now–at least until or unless other circumstances overtake you.

I think God kept pruning the Apostle Paul and slowing him down by throwing him in jail. This is best avoided. Cut down, slow down, fill your best fruit.

My new book

And a free copy for you

My other site (glennmyers.info) is mostly about my comic fiction. Here’s where I try to do what slowmission.com only talks about: writing books about big stuff using a genre I love.

Red letter day for me, then: a new title coming out on May 10th.

Here’s the announcement:

After many metal-bashing months in the factory

It’s done

The Sump of Lost Dreams 

is the third book in my comic fiction series that began with
Paradise
and continued with
The Wheels of the World

each uses comedy, fantasy and storytelling to say things about Life, the Universe and Everything
  • Published on May 10th, price £1.99 as a download or £8.99 for the paperback
  • There’s even a helpful prologue for those who may have slightly forgotten what is going on

I’d like to offer slowmission.com readers a free download of this title.  Just go here:

The Sump of Lost Dreams
  • If you can review the book on Amazon or similar — wonderful
  • Offer ends May 10th — when the book is published
  • The first book in the series is permanently free on Amazon and iBooks and all good internet bookstores.

Maths, a bit like God

As easy as

Happy Pi Day
Bernard Goldbach on Flickr. Creative commons

Philosophy students please look away now.

Eternal, unchanging, omnipresent? That’s true of maths as well as of God.

Do you need a Universe for maths to exist in? I don’t think so. Do you need a moment for maths to exist in? Er, don’t think so either. Time can flicker away, stop, start, accelerate, slow down, be intermittent, go backwards and maths would continue its brute existence.

All you need for maths to exist is a single idea, ‘logic’. Once you have the idea of logic, all possible maths is both inevitable and necessary. I don’t think, for example, you need beings to think mathematical thoughts, or a Universe to write them down in. Every number, every infinity, every theorem, every possible consequence of every possible set of axioms must eternally exist in its complete perfection quite apart from this universe of time and space.

Nothing exists before Maths, and nothing can exist that is in some sense post-Maths, because Maths is a different order of a thing than Creation or Time.  Maths does not create itself, slowly building itself, like Creation might. In its unchanging totality Maths cannot not exist, and it cannot not exist regardless of whether it is being observed, or whether there is or isn’t a universe.

So maths is eternal, unchanging, omnipresent and necessary.

The ontological ‘proof’ of the existence of God is a cousin to this proof in that it also talks about God being necessary. Most days, when I try, I do not understand the Ontological Argument. Occasionally I think I get an understanding glimpse of it, but then the clouds roll over again.

But that fact that I know of something that is infinite, eternal, unchanging, perfect, complete, omnipresent and necessary–Maths–makes me think that ‘proofs’ like the Ontological Argument may (as apparently even Bertrand Russell admitted) ‘have some legs’.

(If you want to wade into the Ontological Argument, try here.)

The art of the perfumer

A draft of the new cover

Here are some Himalayas: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. Handel’s Messiah. Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Here are some Alps: Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels: Gilead; Home; Lila.

Here are some Lake District peaks: C S Lewis’ Narnia books.

Then there’s a long plain, and finally a crowd of dumpy little things, masses of them. What the dumpy things lack in altitude (and aptitude), they at least share in attitude with the great peaks. They want to do artistic things with Christian truth. It’s the art of the perfumer, done well or badly.

I don’t think there’s enough of this. Evangelicals–I am one–can be a menace with the gospel, painting it on the side of buses, delivering it without thought of context, speaking without listening or thinking.  Nothing subtle, gentle, artistic, beautiful or even fun. (At the worst.)

Just finished the third book in what is probably a trilogy of comic fiction novels. It’s called the Sump of Lost Dreams and will be out soon, joining Paradise and The Wheels of the World, comic fiction, dumpy stuff, fun though. Out soon.

I’m also redoing the covers of the first two titles to match – coming soon:

Share the gospel or preach good principles?

A randomised trial of religion has surprising results

Fascinating experiment in the Philippines. International Care Ministries (a Christian charity) helps the Philippines’ poorest people with a training course that contains anumber of modules. Some just explain the gospel. Others teach things like financial planning or health. The charity can deliver all the modules, or just some.

So they tried just the gospel portions on one large group of villages. They tried just the life-skills module on another group. Still another group got the full course. And for a control, they looked at villages where they did nothing. It was (reports the Economist, ‘a randomised controlled trial of religion’) 1

The group who got the gospel (6000 households, a large sample) became more religious, a bit gloomier about their prospects, and their incomes ‘had increased by 9.2% compared with the others. ‘

As the Economist points out, ‘For now, anyone recalling nudges from grandma urging wakefulness through tedious sermons should consider that she may have been right.’

Questions to ask when you are sick

Not necessarily the obvious ones

[Minifig 113/365] Trip(They also apply to many kinds of difficulties.)

The obvious questions are these:

  1. What’s wrong?
  2. How can it be fixed?
  3. When will it go away so that I can have my life back?

You’d be mad not to ask these questions.

But there’s an extra sheet of questions we can ask, and that perhaps we don’t want to ask. Sometimes we’re forced to ask them, but maybe it’s good to ask them  anyway.

  1. God, where are you in this?
  2. What should I do with my limitedness and my brokenness? Fix it? Or offer it to you in worship?
  3. Do I surrender (not to it, the problem, but to you, my Lover)?
  4. Do I mind not understanding?
  5. Where do we go from here, you and I?

Competence testing for theology scholars

Only let them loose if they’ve proved themselves

Theology scholars like to write ‘Introductions’ to things, and they like to talk about the ‘Problem’ of other things, such as the Problem of Evil or the Problem of God. They do not usually write on anything useful or testable like the Problem of Trapped Wind. Even though, you would think, it would be a good exercise to start on something smaller before reaching out straight for the Transcendent.

How are these people appointed? It turns out that theologians appoint each other. In effect, they mark their own homework. This is convenient for them because words/pontificating/opinions (NB: exactly what I am doing here) comes cheap, whereas facts come expensive and the budgets of theology departments do not generally run to them.

I have a particular problem with Introductions. An Introduction, for example to a book of the Bible, is a long compilation of what earlier theologians have said about that same book, selected according to the prejudices of the current writer. Introductions usually include a discussion of authorship. And Introduction-writers will exercise themselves with things like The Problem Of Isaiah (how many people wrote it); or the Problem of John (that the writer of the book of Revelation, called John in the book itself, is a different person from the author of the Book of John, whose never calls himself John in the book, but implies that he is.) With us so far?

We can cut through this. No theologian should be allowed to opine on the authorship of books of the New Testament without first being tested. This is easily arranged. Give them some books in various genres, written by livibg authors, and get them to theorize who wrote what. If you pass you, you get the job, if you fail, out you go, you charleton, to the World, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth and the need to work for a living.

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.

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.