Two very big ideas

About what this Universe is for

street people
RomKa GG@flickr

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 Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World
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

The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of 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.

 

The five reasons we hurt ourselves (and others)

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity
Five habits of the heart cause untold destruction and self-destruction.

Stephen Pinker’s wonderfully stimulating book The better angels of our nature calls them our ‘inner demons’:

‘A small number of quirks in our cognitive and emotional makeup give rise to a substantial proportion of avoidable human misery.’ 1. Humanists see them as products of evolution; Christians, as aspects of fallenness.

Below I have compared these Five Deadly Quirks with the Beatitudes, as taught by Christ. It’s interesting how directly Jesus addresses them; how prevalent they are; and how vital to fight them.

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‘A colourful life is an act of worship’

A colourful life is an act of worship. Discuss.

Frosty autumn leavesI found myself wondering the other day why God made a colourful Universe rather than making do with black-and-white one, which would be much cheaper and more functional.

For example, making new humans out of pre-existing humans could be vastly streamlined. All you really need do is zip together together two zygotes. How hard is that? A bit of gene-splicing in a test-tube. You could dispense with massive inefficiencies: coyness, vulnerability, dating, conversations, misunderstandings, flowers, meals, presents, inflated wedding costs, awkward honeymoons and much else. Yet God seems stubbornly set in his massively inefficient ways.

He has, it seems, chosen a slow and colourful (to say the least) option for human reproduction, despite a simple fix being available given a decent lab and the political will.

Then I thought of how many criticisms of the Christian faith, and especially of us evangelicals, really boil down to aesthetics. Think of Christians in literature: sour-faced, pleasure-hating, ugly, dull, unimaginative, hard and humourless.

There are reasons. A self-indulgent pursuit of ornateness and fussiness can be a form of greed, a worship of idols. We don’t want that.

But colour can also be a sign of love and joy, even a mark of the Holy Spirit. And God is the prime culprit when it comes to littering creation with needless beauty.

Next time I tread on a leaf which has been bronzed by a season in the sun, piped with frost, blown carelessly from a heap, ridiculously lovely, satisfyingly crunchy, yet which is is basically a unit for converting photons into fructose, I ought to remember.

 

On editing the bad writing of good people

In search of a word as good as ‘lunch’.

Word

I used to work as an editor on a Christian magazine and I remember writing this:

On my desk I have words cemented together in monster monologues like communist-era apartment blocks, flat and impenetrable, not for humans. I have ugly words (maximised) and phrases that should never have been born (first and foremost) crawling out of my piled-up papers like cockroaches.

It’s grim.

I never seem to meet the subtle, the pert, the playful, the resonant-with-life words. (Lunch. Hug. Wry. Fragrant. Squidgy.)  Instead, alarmingly, the banal presses in, all around. “To me,” writes one earnest contributor, “Life is a journey.” Perhaps this will be helpful to your readers.

Help.

The case for beguiling

Some of us need waking gently

A November 2015 survey asked British people for their response to being at the receiving end of a conversation about Jesus from a practising Christian.

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As well as leading us to a grudging admiration for the independence of thought and scepticism of the average Brit, what else can this teach us?

Perhaps the need to be beguiling, not direct, to give people a sniff, not a verse, to bide our time. Some of us take a long time to be woken in the mornings. 

wakeup

Vocation: what to do when you have no time or are in a job you hate

UphillVocation is about ‘where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.’1

It can seem like a luxury if you don’t have a minute to spare in the day. If you’re tired all the time. Or if you’re holding down job(s) just to pay the bills.

Vocation isn’t a luxury.

Especially if you’re tired, stressed, or overworked, it’s an essential. It’s daily bread for  your soul.

What is vocation for you? What satisfies your heart? Painting? Hospitality? Intercessory prayer? Helping others? Seeing kids grow? Reading? Dance?

Find some time just for this. It might be only half an hour an month. It might mean going to bed late or setting the alarm early. You can manage that once a month.

I am in the happy position of having nearly died (three times). I have had my heart restarted after it stopped. I have spent a month in a coma. I’ve actually forgotten how many times I’ve been carried in an ambulance with the blue lights flashing.

One thing I learnt was this. Don’t die with your music still inside you. Do something about it, however small.

If you’re coming at this article from the background of a Christian faith, understand that your vocation is the best thing you can do for the Kingdom of God. It’s the best way of serving God and neighbour. Vocation, in these terms, has an audience of just One: the lover of your soul. Do it for him.

If that isn’t your background, pursue your deepest love anyway. Do it this month. Start somewhere. You will find you are not so stressed, not so overworked in the rest of your time. And you know that seasons change, kids grow up, the mortgage gets paid, space opens. Don’t miss the moments you can  prise out, like diamonds, from a barren-feeling life.

A slight problem with science

What science is good at. And what science isn’t good at. According to @rabbisacks

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization….But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every(one) should ask at some time in his or her life: “Who am I? Why am I here? How then should I live?”.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Not in God’s Name.

 

(Actually this is not a problem with science; just a necessary limitation worth recognizing)

Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence

by Jonathan Sacks [Hodder & Stoughton]
Price: £14.99 - - -

Three annoying habits of Christians (and how to cultivate them)

annoyedThe Christian faith triggers a number of  reactions among which are:

‘Not really sure’

‘Not for me’

‘Not today’

Or

‘I’d rather put my head in a food mixer.’

Some of this might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, on genuinely irritating habits of Christians such as:

  • Reactionary politics
  • Believing conspiracy theories
  • The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials
  • Over-prolonged eye-contact
  • Invading my personal space
  • Excessive empathy
  • Puppyish enthusiasm

and

  • Always wanting me to go on courses

I do believe, however, that some irritating habits I see in some of my fellow Christians are worth nurturing. Here are three. If only I could:

Grace. Refusing to speak ill of people. Introducing a positive note in the office just when morale is at its most deliciously dismal. Not bearing grudges or engaging in satisfying acts of minor malice or revenge. Doing the coffee cups. Not assassinating people behind their backs. Buying the biscuits.

Certainty. ‘I have become one of those annoying people who is sure God loves him. Goodness and mercy will follow me all my days. God will not stop doing good to me. My death will see my longings fulfilled, my tears wiped away and possibly my nose blown. I know I deserve none of this and I agree you are as good a person as me. Sorry if you find that irritating in some way.’

A light touch. Aw, I wish I had this. And I wish the millions of people banging away on keyboards in their bedrooms had this. God save us from point-by-point refutations.

Satire should, like a polished razor keen

Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen

(Mary Wortley Montague, quoted in Stephen Pinker p 766.)

How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 1)

Overgrown graveyard 3

I asked my former church leader, Canon Stephen Leeke, this question:

‘I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?’

Stephen kindly responded.

As an Anglican minister I have conducted many funerals and since I retired I seem to be doing more! Many of them were for people who were not committed Christians. The Church of England funeral service is a great asset and has been carefully worded with some very useful features.

My principles:

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
  • The deceased and his or her opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
  • Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
  • Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.

All human life is precious and God loves us all

This is one of the things a funeral service is saying implicitly. And it needs to be said. If I refuse to officiate because the deceased was not a ‘Christian’ (by my reckoning), what am I saying about God? He only loves the faithful? – He doesn’t. I am only interested in those who have joined up? – I ain’t! 

I was asked to preside at the funeral for one of my school teachers whom I hated. In preparing for the event I found that his children had a similar emotion! They said to me, ‘We don’t know what you are going to say.’ I said that I would not lie and nor would anyone know my opinion of him. I spoke about his good points and his achievements, balanced by the fact that not everyone liked him and he was far from perfect. The congregation thanked me afterwards for painting a true picture of the man they knew and mourned even though he was problematic. I was acutely aware that I am far from perfect too and that I am not the one who has to judge.

I am not the judge and God knows the thoughts of our hearts

It is given for man once to live and then comes judgement. Some people wouldn’t mention that word at a funeral but I am grateful that the CofE service does.

So suppose everyone says he was an atheist, but was he? And was he at the time of his death? I have known people come to a living faith in Christ hours before their death. And others who have said ‘Amen’ to prayers they heard when in a coma. So who is to tell what the dead person believed (or even what they wanted?) I just don’t know, so I rarely ask the family what the deceased believed or whether he was a churchgoer (does that guarantee a ticket?). But I have discovered that the Funeral Director often asks whether they want a ‘religious’ funeral or a non religious one! Relatives can demur at asking for ‘religious one’. It sounds a bit off-putting. But if they nevertheless still ‘want the vicar to do it,’ fine. Where there is faith there is hope.

The day the stars fell from the sky

Ice on roofWhen ice melts off a roof, you hear dripping and thawing for some time. Then, occasionally, a whole chunk falls off. I think I have lived through such a change in the UK. Census returns show it:

UK Census 2001 Christian: 71.7% No religion: 14:8%

UK Census 2011 Christian: 59.3% No religion: 25.1%

A piece of ice fell off the roof. When I was growing up, we theoretically believed in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

School worship was vaguely Christian.

National celebrations like Armistice Day saw the country getting its Christian hardware out.

It was a staple of farce that the moment something immoral was happening in your house, the Vicar would call, and you were bothered.

In fairness it was all ripe for collapse, because not too many people believed in it really, though some did.

What has happened since has been:

  • The incineration of millions of old nominal Christians (after they died).
  • Their replacement by millions of younger people not brought up in Christian traditions
  • A new widely accepted story about what we believe.

The new normal

I blame the BBC for this latter point, though really our national broadcaster only reflects back to us our own thoughts. What is the new normal? All religions are treated equal and thereby categorized and thereby diminished. The BBC looks down on them all and ‘caters’ for them all, while believing in none of them.

The position from which it looks down is not defined, but is assumed to be somewhere liberal, reasonable, empirical, scientific:  a totally superior vantage point to where the poor saps who still follow ‘a religion’ lurk. Christians may prefer Fair Isle jumpers and fair trade coffee to beards and burkhas but really. All religions are the same and don’t lead anywhere. Though of course one must give them the utmost respect.

Ursa MajorThe Christian faith was like the constellation Ursa Major in the Northern hemisphere: always there, always indicating true north, always pointed out to children, always called the wrong thing, but everyone recognised it.

Now the stars have fallen from the sky.

Millions of thoughts flow from this, which might occupy other blogs. One is worth thinking about in passing.

It is a loss. Since the Emperor Constantine the European peoples bought into a project to unite every aspect of their lives– science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, birth, marriage, death–under the Lordship of Christ.However well or badly that worked out, we agreed on where the pole star was. Now it’s gone.

Interesting. Thoughts, anyone?