Loss, and amazingness

There are also findings

nightfallI watch people getting old and I wonder how they process loss. When people get to their our eighties, it seems to me, if they are lucky enough to have made it that far, they start being dismantled. However proud they once stood, bits start falling off. The networks that have surrounded them unravel. The background noise of the ninth decade is the retreating tide of life:

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

 

I’m quoting of course from Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold and it is (of course) (among other things) a hymn to the courage shown by people who have no faith in God:

the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

My problem with this beautiful poem is that I keep meeting people of whom it is not true.  Some are very elderly, others are younger but being gnawed down by cancer. It is not true for them that the world has ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light.’ And if I can be not true for them, surely it can be not true for me too.

I agree that these people do find themselves ‘on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight’ but that is not their full story. I am obliged to say they are thriving. They are even life-giving, a ‘green old age’, generous despite affliction. I like to be around them. They do know fear and uncertainty, but they also know peace and rest. Perhaps they have what Jesus meant when he promised ‘abundant life.’ They face dismantlement and death and ask them, ‘is that the worst you can do?’ Then it’s OK.

Two eyes are better than one (2)

How science can be earthed by contact with friendly theologians

In a recent post I speculated about ways that grasping truth through science can enforce a kind of rigour onto theologians to make them better theologians. Now the reverse question. What can theology do for science? I think plenty.

1. Monomaniacal materialism is not the answer to everything. Science observes and measures, then theorizes, then measures again. (At least on its best days.) This is fantastic for scoping out the material universe, for understanding how things work and how to fix them, for inventing things, for curing cancer. These things matter a lot. But not only are they not everything, they are not even nearly everything. What does it all mean? Do I have significance? What is love? What is a good life? Science can only scrape away at the patina of these questions. On its own, scientific perspective leaves a hole bigger than the Universe unfilled in our hearts. We need help from elsewhere, stories from outside, revelation from the Unknowable.

2. Skulduggery. Theology joins with post-modernism in pointing out that science will be flawed as long as it is carried out by humans — humans who are all prejudiced, all likely to shut our ears to opposing arguments, inevitable in our misuse of academic power and prestige because we abuse every power and gift of God. Scientists are sinners, like the rest of us, held back from our worst, like the rest of us, only by cultural strictures and the grace of God.

3. Science doesn’t do transcendent. It sort of can’t; science would have to un-science itself to do so. But that leads to a lopsided perspective. Science cannot (by definition I think) see beyond cause and effect to an Uncaused Cause. Quantum physics sometimes talks about the quantum vacuum, an eternal, uncaused thing from which universes spring. But that is striking a match in the darkness and hoping to create a Universe of suns. It is too much to ask, I think, for a mere quantum vacuum to somehow lead to consciousness and love and purpose. Only an Uncreated God, ‘source of all being and life’ as the creed says, can do justice to the Universe that science sees and sees but does not comprehend, that it measures and measures but does not know.

Seasons of the soul

With seasons changing so obviously outside, here’s a good question: does the soul have seasons? I dug out some notes from my friend Susan Sutton who is much better read in this stuff than me.

SeasonWork
WinterPruning, waiting
SpringClearing, cleaning, ploughing, planting
SummerMaintaining. Things are flowing. You know who you are. Not hurried or worried. Life is good
Autumn/FallHarvesting. Busy, fruitful lots to show for your work

 

These can reflect stages in our whole life.

But they can also guide us through loss. A sudden loss of health or a loved one may be like a storm that batters us and takes us in a single day from a harvest season into a bitter winter; but spring returns.

Prayer as resonance

wavesHere’s how prayer works. The overflow from God’s heart spills over into our hearts. The overflow of our hearts pours into his. We are entangled together, God and us, like two quantum particles. What stirs one, stirs the other.

When many people are moved to pray, some great wave of desire is stirring in God’s heart and flowing into many of us.

Or alternatively, something mighty maybe stirring in many hearts and slopping over to God’s heart.

Back and forth the waves flow.

When two or three agree together in prayer it will be done for them. Why? because the act of tuning your hearts so that they resonate together before God necessarily tunes them together into God’s own frequencies.

This has practical uses.

So much of prayer, surely, is scrambling around trying to find out what to believe in for today. Where in the buffeting of desire or longing or fear is the place we can anchor our souls for the day? Tomorrow is another day. But today’s calm place is what resonates with God today and where he wants to lead us today. 

‘Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens’ – discuss

There must be more than this

Our beautiful, warless world, where I could be entranced by the purest mathematics for all eternity.

Any human who arrive here, gazing at our violet landscapes, might well have believed they have entered Heaven.

But what happened in Heaven?

‘What did you do there?’

After a while, didn’t you crave flaws? Love and lust and misunderstandings, and maybe even a little violence to lighten things up? Didn’t light need shade? Didn’t it?’ Matt Haig, The Humans p174

I like that.

I found Matt Haig’s happy book The Humans (about an alien who takes the body of a maths lecturer to stop human progress)  irresistable. Not least because like some other books I know, namely my

Paradise - a divine comedy (Jamie's Myth Book 1)
own, it is set in Cambridge and also in some complete other world.

He uses the alien-being-human trope to explore fun, slanted views on human life, well worth a read. Here’s another:

They have no way of coming to terms with what are, biologically, the two most important things that happen to them –procreation and death … They have lived on this planet for over a hundred thousand generations and yet they still have no idea about who they really are or how they should really live. (p248)

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The need to unknow

Uncertainty and scepticism strengthen faith

The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs‘.

Bible paraphraser J B Philips wrote this in 1961. ‘While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static.

He went on to describe the dangers of not letting your understanding of God grow along with everything else:

It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday School age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life. If, by great effort of will, he does this, he will always be secretly afraid lest some new truth may expose the juvenility of his faith. And it will always be by such an effort that he either worships or serves a God who is really too small to command his adult loyalty and cooperation.

(J B Philips Your God is Too Small, (Collier/Macmillan 1961) p 7).

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I found these references to J B Phillips in David Bradstreet and Steve Rabey’s enjoyable astronomical tour Star Struck (Zondervan 2016), p261.

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Further inconvenient truth

The missionary roots of liberal democracy

Panomara of Central Accra
Accra, Ghana

The most important ingredient in a successful 21st century democracy? Nineteenth century Protestant missionaries.

Sociology scholar Robert Woodberry wrote this:

​’Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.’

This remains true (on Woodberry’s analysis) after correcting for every other explanation you can think of, and he’s done work too to look at whether causation is involved (the one caused the other) or merely correlation.

Robert Woodberry is one of the depressingly-increasing numbers of people of whom I can say, ‘I knew his father’. (Prof Dudley Woodberry at Fuller Seminary taught me Islamics).

Woodberry fils has devoted years to careful data-gathering and analysis and has established a strong correlation between ‘conversionary’ Protestant missionaries and nations’ subsequent trajectories in literacy, poverty, women’s rights, and social capital.

Woodberry’s landmark paper, ‘The missionary roots of liberal democracy’ has won awards and intrigued sceptics:

“[Woodberry] presents a grand and quite ambitious theory of how conversionary Protestants’ contributed to building democratic societies,” says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. “Try as I might to pick holes in it, the theory holds up. [It has] major implications for the global study of Christianity.”

It’s fascinating. Compare Ghana with next-door Togo; Canada with Argentina; and Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary with Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia. You have to read the paper for all the nuances. But still.

  • These quotes are all taken from Andrea Palpant Dilley’s cover story in Christianity Today, January 8 2014. Robert Woodberry has recently made the paper free as a pdf download and you find it here. For a less-gushy perspective on Woodberry see this thoughtful piece.

How the Bible works – Tom Wright

How to get the Bible to work

Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today

Evangelicals believe the Bible’s a kind of tool for day-to-day life and eternal life. But how exactly? At one point Moses asks God about what to with someone gathering sticks on the Sabbath. ‘Stone him to death’ comes the answer. Okay…

Tom Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God is the fun-size version of his much larger The New Testament and the People of God. But most of us won’t eat that rich meal, and provided you can put up with its cut-down, written on a Saturday afternoon, would-love-to-linger-but-must-dash breathlessness, there’s a fully working framework for thinking about the Bible in these sparse pages.

Wright points out, first, that Scripture is a story.  If you don’t think ‘authority’ can be located within ‘story,’ look at the parable of the Good Samaritan. It teaches ‘Love your neighbour’ better than any number of laws, bye-laws, special exceptions and precedents. So scripture exercises its authority largely by setting out a grand narrative and getting us to work out how we fit in it.

Second, it’s a story in several phases. Wright suggest five. His five stages are:

  1. Creation (Genesis 1-2);
  2. Fall (Genesis 3-11)
  3. Preparation for Christ (all the Old Testament from Genesis 12 onwards);
  4. Jesus’ incarnation and what he did next (the gospels)
  5. The working out of New Creation through the life of the Church (Acts onward.)

It assumes a sixth act, the end/beginning of all things, of which Act 5 is just a foreshadowing and catalyst.

Third, it’s a story we are in. And we work out our part of the story by engaging with the earlier chapters.

So, roughly Wright’s framework for understanding and being shaped by the authority of God through scripture is:

  1. Read earlier phases in the light of the final phase
  2. Draw on the whole story as we play our part in progressing the story.

This framework explains a lot: the unity of scripture; and the reason for discarding lots of its commands and emphases, such as the ones about stoning sabbath breakers.

We discard them because we understand them to have had, and have now finished having, their role in their story. Once you’ve dug the foundations, you can stop digging foundations and do the next things. You stop digging not because foundations were a bad idea, but because they have done their proper job of providing the necessary base for the next layer. In that specific example, the total-war mindset to preserve tribal identity in the late bronze age is different from the mindset of living out the good of Christ’s kingdom today, and you can’t simply cut-and-paste from one era to another.

So it isn’t that the Old Testament is ‘somehow about legal stuff’ and the New is ‘somehow about mercy stuff’, but we read and consider different parts depending on where they fit in the overall story.

As Wright puts it himself at one point: one cannot see the Bible ‘in the flat,’ with something being validated or somehow even ennobled just because it is in the Bible …

… But when we approach the question of scripture’s authority … in the light of the whole story and intention of the creator God, dealing with his world step-by-step and eventually dealing decisively with it in and through Jesus Christ, then we discover that the authority of God, as mediated through and in the whole scripture, points to the renewal of creation through Jesus Christ as the key theme of the whole story. (p 194)

and

our task is to discover, through the Spirit and prayer, the appropriate ways of improvising the script between the foundation events and charter [the first phases] … and the complete coming of the Kingdom [the final future phase] …once we grasp this framework, other things begin to fall into place. (p127)

I bought my copy of this book from CLC Cambridge. It’s also available online:

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The ‘consider’ sayings of the New Testament

Getting our head round this lot would change everything

considerJust looked up the ‘consider’ verses in the NT. What a fun study: all about reshaping our thinking by reminding ourselves what’s true, when it doesn’t feel true. Or something.

Mastering this lot would change our whole lives.

Here are some of them:

  • And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin 1
  • So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.2
  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds3
  • But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.4
  • Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.5
  • consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.6

Happy failure

The value of oops and downs

oopsWith the start of a new academic year looming, this is one my better subjects: failure. The kind of failure I’m thinking of is not some kind of accidental slip-up, a bit of inattention.

I mean the failure that comes despite careful planning and good counsel and, if you’re a Christian, diligent prayer. Despite your best efforts, it didn’t work out. However you spin it, it didn’t succeed.

Here are notes I made while reflecting on my failures and disappointments:

  1. We are in process with God, his ways are not ways, and ‘failure’ and ‘success’ look different to him than they do to us.
  2. Failure is a normal part of life.
  3. It is a false spirituality to think that we are immune from failure, and so must re-define it as success.
  4. There are puzzles in this Universe we will never solve.
  5. It’s good to be reminded to put our motivation and trust in God, not in our own success or our own selves.
  6. God’s presence, in the midst of failure or while pursuing an ultimately failed attempt, is an enduring sign of his favour. ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’
  7. There’s a freedom and joy that comes from belonging to the community of the failed, the got-it-wrong.