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
For Tolkein, myth was a fragment of a truth, and a pointer to God. (The quote also shows him to be no fan of modern technology.)
“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”2
’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.
‘… It was if my life had shares and God wanted 100 percent control of it. A divine tug-of-war ensued. Why would God want all of me? Could there be a joint venture? Could I carve out a special deal to suit me? What about a partnership? Was 50/50 not a good arrangement. It became clear that true freedom was to be found in full surrender to the love of God. It did not come to me easily, nor at once. I got there in stages. I recall praying that God would take 51 percent of my life–control but not whole ownership. I remember the churning an d the heated deliberation within myself as this plan did not seem to achieve the desired objective. I saw then, and recognize now more fully, the arrogance of negotiating with God and the foolishness in believing I had anything to offer God. I recall praying: “Lord have all of me. Only don’t abandon me.” In that moment, I realized that the God who loved the entire world also loved mean and would stay faithful to me, even when I was not faithful to him, as has sadly often been the case.
‘What struck me at once was the immediate change in every area of my life…’
Ken Costa, banker, in his helpful book God at Work.
We all know people like this: unfailingly courteous. Hard-working. Persistently kind. Steady. Thorough. They are like pillars who hold up the organizations we work in.
Somewhere else in the building is the rodent scurrying of chatter, gossip, five-year-plans, radical upheaval, ambition, people making their mark, all passing by with the lifespan of hamsters while the pillars go on holding up the roof.
(I saw a quote: ‘Reform! Reform! Aren’t things bad enough already?’)
The odd thing about the steady people is that they don’t feel they’ve achieved anything. All they did was go to work, raise their families, pay their bills; nothing spectacular or charismatic or epoch-making or history-shaping or world-changing.
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. George Elliot, Middlemarch (with which the book ends).
A place where God is ‘forming a family out of strangers’ … all over the place
Lovely piece from 24-7 prayer founder Pete Grieg in the current Premier Christianity magazine, about stirrings of new life in the church in the UK.
Dynamic new churches are being planted in many traditions. The Methodists have partnered with the Pioneer Network to renew dwindling congregations and repopulate empty buildings. Vineyard churches are multiplying fast. Anglicans are replanting vibrant congregations in depleted parishes. The bishop in my own diocese just announced plans to establish 100 new worshipping communities in the next ten years (this would have been unthinkable five years ago).
The Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) has planted 720 churches in 20 years from Newport in South Wales to Southend-on-Sea, and they regularly gather 40,000 people to pray all night at London’s Excel Centre.
We fed 100,000 hungry families in the UK last year and provided the biggest network of debt counsellors by far. We run thousands of schools, clubs and hospices, more than 50 per cent of all toddler and parent groups, and the majority of the nation’s extracurricular youth work.
With such a track record, perhaps we should walk a little taller through the corridors of power. As the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “The most interesting, creative and political solution we Christians have to offer our troubled society…is the church. We serve the world by showing it something it is not, namely, a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.”
Prayer is at the heart of it. Pete points out:
It wasn’t so long ago that you had to go to Buenos Aires or South Korea to witness such things. These days you can stumble upon all-night prayer in Burton-On-Trent, Biggleswade, Bangor, Biggar, or Bournemouth.
I am reading a book whose title I just couldn’t resist: Chasing Slow by the blogger and interiors-stylist Erin Loechner. It’s gorgeously designed book and often beautifully written and due to be released in February. (I’m seeing an advanced review copy.) At one point she writes something like this:
What I said:
I hate my job
I hate Los Angeles
I hate this house
What I meant:
Are we going to be OK here?
I quoted this to my wife and we had the following conversation:
Me: How is anybody supposed to understand that?
Cordelia: How can anybody not understand that?
Me: If she’s worried about whether or not they’re going to be OK, wouldn’t it be better to say something like, I don’t know, just to pluck a random example out of the air, ‘Are we going to be OK?’ I mean, wouldn’t that be a bit clearer?
Me: (continued, expanding on the theme as, on rare occasions, I have been known to do) Her poor husband is probably already scanning the jobs pages, or the house listings. On the grounds that she’s just said she hates her current ones.
Cordelia (sighing) : Because it’s a kind of dance.
Me: What is?
I’ve been married for 27 years. I’m never going to get this.
The case for being on the back row, third from the left
‘Though famous speakers and evangelists today can reach thousands of people with one telecast, discipleship is done one relationship at a time by those we will never read about. Their legacy is seen in the lives of those they touched. Perhaps I will never find the spotlight. But my value to the kingdom of God is not determined by my ability to attract or hold the spotlight. Instead, it is determined by my willingness to listen, learn, and be used by Jesus, whenever and however he desires.’
(Losers Like Us: Redefining Discipleship after Epic Failure
By Daniel Hochhalter)
I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Cowpland for (reading this book and) digging out this quote.
Netflix’s software engineers put into Netflix a program called the ‘chaos monkey.’ Its job is to go through Netflix’s servers, randomly wreaking havoc.
Why do they do this? Because they wanted to be ‘constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure.‘ Chaos monkey taught them to build programmes that continue to work with bad stuff happening all around. The random, mindless destructivity leads to better systems.
As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
Evil is God’s chaos monkey, and the world is better for it.