Researchers at Oxford University did an experiment with communal dancing.
They gathered a group of strangers and taught them different dance moves. Then they put four of these strangers together and gave each person headphones. So any given foursome could have:
Same dance moves, different music
Same music, different dance moves
Same music, same dance moves.
After the dance floor experience, they tested their pain threshold by tightening a blood-pressure cuff on each of them.
It turned out that the synchronized dancers (hearing the same music and doing the same moves), had a much higher pain threshold than the others. 1
Why is this? Perhaps we have become wired to be rewarded when we work alongside other people toward a greater end. There’s a health-giving benefit to being a harmonious part of a team effort. Most of us have felt this at one time or another, the sense of wellness from a team of people achieving something together by each doing our bit.
This is a short extract from a longer article that got the original author into hot water.
I recommend it as a long read.
Like hot water, it stings a bit but it’s really good once you’ve climbed in. Super article that (arguably) upsets all the right people.
The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships …Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.
Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.
I see a clamour all around me; the need to justify our existence. The writer and playwright Alan Bennett captured it perfectly. He talked of one of his relatives who said this as they drove in the car:
‘Do you see that gasworks over there? That’s the second biggest gasworks in Europe. And I know the manager.’
Or I remember interviewing someone once, a salesperson, I forget about what, but I noticed his office wall covered with meaningless plaques about his achievements. Sad that his company felt the need to trade in these things; sadder that he displayed them.
If you are a normal healthy adult it is of course good and necessary to be productive. One of the reasons people fear retirement is because all that valid affirmation of their identity is taken away, replaced with the three simple letters ‘OAP’. This is perhaps why, for example in places like the BBC, old people hang onto their jobs, long after the spark of talent that got them the job in the first place has turned to smoke.
I think it is an art and a skill to learn how to be content with whatever prestige or affirmation the world has dealt you. In my case, none. So worth learning though. After living through days when I needed a mechanical hoist to drop me onto a toilet, I have to confess to frequent moments of upwelling delight in enjoying the simple things of life like family and friends and food and fellowship and worship; and as for using my own spark of talent, writing (in my own eyes at least) beautifully; and doing all this before and for God.
In my former life, before I was sick, I viewed the simple things merely as a platform to higher and greater achievements. Five years after serious illness, I return to this place and see it for the first time as the true location of happiness and worth.
Congratulations to writer Michele Guinness, whom I have not met or even read very much. Her story Chosen of being a Jewish person and meeting Christians (and eventually becoming one herself) has not been out of print in 35 years and is being re-issued by Lion in a new edition in October.
She still has loads to teach us, not least about eating. This is from an article in Together, magazine for Christian retailers, July/August 2018:
‘My first visit to a church was a shock to the system – so gloomy and dull. The congregation chanted “and make thy chosen people joyful” as if they were at a funeral … A greater understanding of Jesus’ worldview is liberating. It brings colour and richness, significance and celebration, wonder and joy to the Christian faith.
When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on Christians … I think it is more relevant than ever to encourage families to invite in the neighbours, single friends and children of all ages to celebrate at home together with story-telling and symbol, food and worship around the table.
Highlighted below is her book about celebrations, The Heavenly Party.
Just started Justin Welby’s new book ‘Reimagining Britain’. The introduction is intriguing:
‘British Values’: have come to mean ‘democcracy, the rule of law and respect for other’.
As a phrase they strike the wrong note somehow
These values are necessary (obviously) but not sufficient for the task of ‘re-imagining Britain’
‘I suspect, and argue here that there are values that come out of our common European history and Christian heritage, which have been tweaked and adapted in each country and culture.’
Given the amount being written these days, and the great rumble of the Brexquake shattering everything around us (my phrase), ‘this really is one of those rare moments when we have both the risk and the opportunity of rethinking what we should do and be as a country.’
A rare moment to change direction, by redigging some old wells. Super stuff. This is slow mission. Bring it on. Looking forward to the rest of the book and hoping to blog further about it.
I bought this book, counter-intuitively, by walking into Waterstones and handing over my credit card – full-price, hardback, from a high street store that pays UK tax. Then I went to a coffee shop to blog about it. Life is deeply, wonderfully good that I get to do these things.
But here’s a reference for those of us, me at the top of the list, who also happen to appreciate Amazon:
That brilliant and entertaining atheist Steven Pinker has defined ‘the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.’ 1
That might need a bit of explaining, not least to me. Entropy is, crudely, the measure of disorder in the universe. A low-entropy state is an ordered state; high entropy is a disordered one. Because disorder is much more likely than order, disorder (high entropy) tends to be what everything leads to.
So you have a cold gas tank next to a hot gas tank. Open a valve between the two, and soon the temperatures of the two tanks will be the same. This is because there are many more ways for molecules to mix randomly than there are for all the hot molecules to be in one place and all the cold ones in another. (This tendency for entropy to increase over time is the well known Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Or consider all the molecules in your body. To get them all working together in some vast machine, called you, is hugely rare compared with all the possible way of arranging those molecules that do not result in a living you. This is one of the reasons we spend much, much longer being a corpse than we do being a living body; it’s just so much easier for all the molecules.
The only way to keep entropy low in this system– to keep your molecules in order — is to take energy from elsewhere, for example by eating a bag of french fries. So you can artificially maintain a local low-entropy state (your life and existence) by adding energy from the outside (eating french fries).
A fridge works the same way. It keeps at a low temperature, compared with the rest of your kitchen, by taking energy from the grid and pumping heat out of the fridge into the kitchen. It’s a local low-entropy system. Your freezer compartment, more so. You and your fridge/freezer, therefore, thermodynamically speaking, are brother and sister.
Hence Pinker’s statement that the purpose of existence is to keep entropy locally as low as possible. So we feed babies, we heal sicknesses, we clean up mess, we order information pleasingly. Our whole life is about borrowing energy from elsewhere to keep our low-entropy show, otherwise known as human life and culture, on the road.
Because the Second Law always wins, this is a battle we must eventually lose — as individuals, as a species, as a planet, as a galaxy and maybe as a whole Universe.
Rereading the Kingdom of God in entropy terms, possibly.
Now we depart from Pinker. Its interesting–at least to me– to re-read the Kingdom of God in terms of entropy.
When Jesus walked on earth, he clearly went round reducing entropy wherever he went: healing the blind, curing lepers, stilling storms (does that reduce entropy? I hope so), raising the dead and so on.
There are several interesting thoughts that arise from this, none of which I am qualified to follow up.
It is a mystery of physics why the Universe started in a low-entropy state. It is much more overwhelmingly likely (you would think not knowing any better) to start in a high entropy disordered state, if only because there are just so hugely many more disordered states out there than ordered ones. (Just like Tolstoy said: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way; so many options.) Of course we don’t really know if some as-yet-unguessed physics made a low entropy beginning inevitable, but at the moment, it isn’t obvious. A low entropy beginning to the Universe is easy to explain theologically (though not cosmologically): God likes to start a new story on a fresh sheet of paper.
Jesus evidently didn’t borrow energy from elsewhere when he went about decreasing entropy. At least we don’t read of it. He stills the storm in Galilee, but it didn’t get colder in Samaria. He feeds 5000, but not by sucking energy from elsewhere in the Universe, which is the kind of thing farmers do when they feed 5000 people – they take energy from the sun and grow crops. Jesus lowered entropy without borrowing energy from elsewhere
That leads us to a thermodynamic definition of a miracle: ‘an inexplicable local lowering of entropy’. This kind of thing is impossible for us creatures, but is easy if you are God, who, it is claimed, created the whole show and holds it all up with the word of his power.
Hence, the ability to decrease entropy without borrowing from elsewhere is a good thermodynamic definition of divinity.
The new heavens and the new earth also seem not to be bound by the Second Law. Paul talks of a day when ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21).
So the final state of the Universe is a lower entropy state than now, not, as we would expect from the Second Law, a higher one. It is brought into order in Christ, not decaying into heat death. Paul talks in Ephesians 1 about ‘ … when the times reach their fulfillment—[God brings] unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.’ (Ephesians 1:9-10)
The Bible describes a universe starting in a low-entropy state and finishing in a low-entropy state, with all the business of the Second Law being merely a wrinkle in eternity due somehow to the rebellion of humans.
This (maybe) helps us put miracles onto a more coherent footing. They are not merely impulsive acts by a God whom (I like to think) occasionally lets his heart rule his head. They are the outliers of a low-entropy eternity breaking into our increasing-entropy, jumbled universe, the first rolling pebbles of the avalanche.
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. John 3:1-2 NIV.
Regular readers will know that I am weary and wary of approaches to the Christian faith that come out of a business-speak textbook:
I wonder instead how much real work for the Kingdom, and better work, is done in coffee shops or over lunches.
It’s an approach with form. Remember Acts 2, ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts‘ (v 46). No sooner was the Holy Spirit poured out than the church lunch became a thing.
Less well known is how good this is for our well-being. Newspaper reports recently cited an Oxford University study that found ‘the more people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied about their lives’, and that the only two factors that really mattered in long-term survival after a heart attack were (a) giving up smoking and (b) having friends. 1
So let us march to the New Jerusalem, stopping frequently for lunch.
Running time backwards is theologically illuminating
I have occasionally accused theologians of lacking the imagination of theoretical physicists.1
Take, for example, the idea of running time backwards. Some physical theories and processes have no problem with this. For example, a gamma ray decays into a positron and electron. A positron and and electron combine to become a gamma ray. This process can happen whether time is going backwards or forwards. 2
Other physical processes only work in one direction, from the present to the future. Put a tank of hot air next to a tank of cold air and open a valve between them, and they will equalize their temperatures irreversibly; you can’t go back; this process only happens when time is moving forward.
In physics, the reversible, timeless things are often quantum-sized. The irreversible, time-bound things are bigger and more in the general category that might be called ’emergent’, which is about the behaviour of lots of things together.
So: in physics, for some processes, the flow of time doesn’t matter. For other processes, it does. Let’s call the first processes ‘timeless’ or ‘eternal’. Then hand over to the theologians.
Send in the beards
Theological processes can also be divided into the timeless and the time-bound. As subjects of these processes, we get to enjoy both.
A life-changing encounter with God is eternal. That is why the apostle Paul can look both forward and back in time and see the same thing, as he does in the book of Ephesians: ‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight‘ and then he talks about how God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace. 3
Christ’s sacrifice for sin is eternal. John’s picture of the Lamb is ‘the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.’ (Rev 13:8) the Lamb who has ‘just been slain’ (implied in Rev 5:8) and eternally bearing the scars of his slaying when he showed his disciples his wounds.
Perhaps ‘Paradise’ is eternal. The Fall story is about Adam and Eve evicted from where they could live forever, into a realm of time and death. But on the cross Jesus promises the thief that that very day he will enter a Paradise that evidently still exists.4
This creation, and its story, is time-bound, a long evolution.
The formation and growth of the church is time-bound.
History is (of course) time-bound
All of these, note, are emergent things, the sum of many things acting together.
This is wonderful. We find there is, in time, everything to play for; but at the same time, in eternity, everything is settled.
I feel the need for John Milton at this point:
Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy Plummets pace;
And glut thy self with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And meerly mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when as each thing bad thou hast entomb’d,
And last of all, thy greedy self consum’d,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine,
With Truth, and Peace, and Love shall ever shine
About the supreme Throne
Of him, t’whose happy-making sight alone,
When once our heav’nly-guided soul shall clime,
Then all this Earthy grosnes quit,
Attir’d with Stars, we shall for ever sit,
Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee O Time.
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.
Thomas L Friedman’s stimulating book ‘Thank you for being late’ reminds us that the Holocene era, an era of unusual stability, has lasted just the last 11,500 years or roughly the same time we’ve had farms and civilisation.
Can we ourselves disturb this happy Holocene stability? It seems we can. Friedman summarizes eight different ways we may be inducing planetary organ failure, based on work by Rockstrom, Steffen and others in Science on Feb 13 2015:
Climate church – already reached Holocene-rocking levels (they claim)
Loss of biodiversity -ditto
Deforestation – ditto
Then he lists four more that his source considers within safe levels, but only just:
Atmospheric aerosol loading (diesel particulates and whatnot)
Introduction of novel entities (plastics, nuclear waste etc)
Finally one example of where we did breach safe levels but are now retreating back to safety: stratospheric ozone.
A useful summary, then, of the big main environmental issues. Human civilisation has only thrived in the Holocene bubble. Will we pop it, a DIY apocalypse? Or will we seek God for our ‘daily bread’ and manage to preserve our species and our planet for further adventures?