This is the best time of year to experience ‘Peak Bookshop’. All the titles for Christmas shopping will be in. (Or should be.)
Sort your way past the:
Celebrity puff pieces
Old horses being flogged (regular bestsellers hatching another well-timed Christmas hardback)
… and find the stuff that makes bookshops great. That makes bookshops still great despite being gutted and filleted by Amazon: a curated collection of original, brilliant, beyond-our-experience insight. Storytelling round a global campfire. Human minds on sale, packaged for easy consumption. The best thinking, expressed in the best ways, all ready for us to engage with, dream with, laugh with, lose ourselves in, ponder, be shaped by.
The only way we can know about God is if he tells us. We can’t leave the Universe, look at him, and come back, because we remain part of the Universe. Where we go, it goes. But God is outside the Universe.
So we won’t know anything about God without a revelation from God.
That means listening to someone who thinks they have a revelation from God.
And that is, as I said in the title, like offering our email addresses to spammers. The world is full of people who think God is speaking to them. A lot of them are kooks.
What do we do?
As I wrote in my book More than Bananas, I think the only tool in our box is our total human response. So this must involve:
What the community around us thinks
What the community who believe in revelation is like
A certain element of risk
(Note: More than Bananas is currently available as a free download as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to my other writing.)
The people I know who are outside of the Christian faith would not respond too well to Bible verses like this:
But you were once darkness — now you are light in the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8)
I see their point. I would rather call my neighbours and colleagues funny, courageous, kind, hospitable, warm-hearted. And so on. Rather than, you know, ‘darkness.’
Of course the Apostle Paul (for it is he) is writing at this point not to outsiders to the faith, but to insiders, and surely he is encouraging them in their self doubt, and reminding them of God’s kindness. He uses a different language when he is stirring people to follow Christ in the first place.
But it raises the question: what are we actually talking about here? Is faith a thing? Or is it just a religious rebranding of an unchanged heart?
I think it’s a bit like re-purposing a good, old, disused building or taking on a neglected allotment (an allotment in the UK is a patch of land that you can rent cheaply to grow vegetables). An old allotment actually may contain all kinds of treasures, fruit trees, brambles, an asparagus patch. But it is overgrown.
A new owner comes. The bindweed and the ground elder don’t vanish overnight. Both before the change and afterwards, the allotment is a mix of good crop and weeds. But after the new owner comes, it has new direction, new planting, new purpose, intentional ground clearing, a new direction and a new destiny. And it’s still easily neglected, plagued with slugs, not necessarily all that fruitful.
What came before wasn’t worthless. It contained real treasure. Yet the upheaval and change is real too. Darkness and light.
/Around 2008 an atheist SF writer named John C Wright prayed this:
Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”
The collapse of civilisation is, on current evidence, greatly exaggerated.
In the UK, teenagers are sobering up, youth courts are closing, fewer children are getting pregnant, crime is falling. Establishment hypocrisy and bullying (some of it ascribed to the church) is being exposed. Casual racism and discrimination are being challenged and people who were formerly above the law now seem to be being thrown in jail. And unlike my dad or my grandad, neither my son nor I have been obliged to serve the country as a soldier and, like them be shot at, shelled or gassed.
It may not last. But across the world (hard though it may be to believe), a smaller proportion of humanity is being killed by conflict, childbirth, childhood diseases, or mosquitos than in any human memory, living or collective.
An inconvenient grace
This is awkward in some church circles, especially in Europe and the West, where a story of national decline is as familiar as the story of Noah’s Ark:
Fewer people have a Christian outlook
God-centred morality is being replaced by harm-centred morality
National law is diverging from Biblical reference points.
The losses of living faith are I think real–witness the hulking, empty churches that surround us and once did buzz with people at least some of whom actually believed. But these losses of faith have happened in the middle of rising prosperity and health.
What then has been lost? May I suggest (among many things too complicated for me to understand) it is the shelter from the storm?
It’s what happens the typhoon hits. In my observation people who don’t know Jesus don’t do too well when crises and losses come. It’s like they haven’t anywhere to go, no one to lean into when great sorrow pours down from the sky or erupts within bodies or families.
This is so massively, incomparably different for those of us in churches and with faith in Jesus. We are just as angry, just as confused, just as wretched, but unjustly held and undeservedly loved. And superrationally happy.
That’s the loss.
The arms of love that comfort me would all mankind embrace.
Paradox can be a happy place, and leaving it for a simpler place just leads to trouble, I think.
Paradoxes are like the edges of our known world. We sail out to them. But however far we continue to sail, we realise we aren’t getting any further.
Is it true that in all the big questions, if you keep asking long enough, you reach paradox? Suffering and a God of love. Free choice and fate. Healing and sickness. Success and failure. Knowing things and not knowing things. Death and life or judgement and mercy. How can they both exist together? What happens at the place they meet?
This is the place of paradox, where we stand in the cross-winds. Or perhaps the cross-hairs. Or perhaps just in the shadow of the cross itself, where Christ resolved paradoxes by becoming one.
I think the place of paradox is a bleak, empty place, or a full, contented one, depending on whether we stand and complain, or fall and worship.
Was phoned up by Ipsos Mori last night and asked about the referendum, and then other stuff.
Some of the questions seemed like they would yield decent data: ‘eg: which way are you planning to vote?’.
But not so many. ‘On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to vote?’ I have voted at every opportunity since May 1979. Except in May 2013, when I was in a medically induced coma. (And the years I lived in other countries.) Is that a ’10’ then? There is still a week to go. I may fall ill, be hit by an asteroid or emigrate. Perhaps a 9? Or an 8? Or a 7?
Some questions can surely only yield false, pseudo-findings. ‘Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the current government?’ Do I only have two options? They are pretty good on not launching nuclear weapons. They have not reintroduced the rack. I expect they will leave office when voted out. They do not shoot dissidents. This is all good.
On the other hand, they tried to pay for tax breaks for the better-off by equivalent cuts to benefits for the poor which are already set at subsistence levels. This I find less than wholly pleasing.
Or again, what do I think of a certain political leader? My first, true answer, before being moderated by Christian principles, was that I was delighted with him. He has led his party into a wretched state of political self-harm. It’s a joy to behold. Here’s a civil war you can actually buy popcorn for and settle back and enjoy. I am not sure, however, that was the answer sought.
Not sure we should entirely trust the polls.
Update June 16: here’s the poll of which I was one of the 1,200 participants, wrapped in the Standard’s spin. Depressing. Questions that extinguish even the faintest possibility of light by demanding binary answers to complex questions — trumping truth, if you will, rather than finding it. For example: do I believe the Treasury forecasts? When has the Treasury got an economic forecast right in the last 1000 years? So are they lying, then? They are playing games. ‘Answer a fool according to his folly and you will be like him yourself.’ I wish it were over.
I don’t think the average fish can get its head around the idea of dry land.
Perhaps a really creative fish could picture it, but it would face all kinds of scepticism from other fish. How do you swim without water? Wouldn’t the world be two-dimensional, spread on the sea-bed? How can there be room for everything? It’s a wreck.
Nor can science help. How can you do experiments to confirm or deny the presence of a world beyond the sea? Even if fish go there (a big if), they never come back.
The best schools of fish might conclude the whole ‘dry-land delusion’ is a theory, of no practical use, and best ignored. They would, in short, fillet the argument.
Send in the marine (biologist)s
Since the fish can’t figure out dry land for themselves, the only way they can be educated is if we land mammals take the initiative and send someone to tell them. Without revelation from outside, the fish are like the proverbial sailors of the ship carrying red paint that collided with the ship carrying blue paint: marooned.
So, you say, send a marine biologist to tell the fish about the world outside the sea. But would they believe her? Maybe not. Because to get to talk to the fish you have to become so like a fish that they think you are a fish. And who would believe what a raving fish told them?
Not only that, but I have it on good authority that the sea is full of all kinds of voluble fish who speculate widely about a life beyond the sea. Many of them are unreliable witnesses—fishy, in fact—and they contradict each other all the time.
The conclusion of reasonable people? Stick with what you can see, feel and measure. Truth can’t come from anywhere else.
One is from philosophy, one from theology. Each is an antidote to the popular idea that we humans are just annoying and insignificant growths on a small and remote rock.
Look at the people on the bus around you. Tattooed? Blue-rinsed? Unsavoury politics? Also precious. Cosmically significant. No, really.
Then look at your church if you attend one. Comically insignificant or cosmically significant? Or both? Read on.
Philosphy and science
The existence of mind in some organism on the planet is surely a fact of fundamental significance. Through conscious beings the universe has generated self-awareness … This can be no byproduct of mindless, purposeless forces. We are truly meant to be here. Paul Davies 1
This says: through the people on the bus around (and others) the soulless, material Universe has developed, or been given, a soul. Quite cool.
Theology and mission
[History] has its action in the eternal being of the Triune God before the creation; it has its goal in the final unity of the whole creation in Christ; and meanwhile the secret of this cosmic plan, the foretaste of its completion, has been entrusted to these little communities of marginal people scattered through the towns and cities of Asia Minor. Lesslie Newbigin 2
And this says: The little Christian communities of the world, a couple of million of them, a speckling in the human species, are somehow the link between Creation and re-Creation. We carry in us the first streaks of eternity’s dawn. In the midst of all our poverty.