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.
We Christians, I thought the other day, look at the world through a drinking straw. We search the whole realm of nature for familiar markers of God at work that we can note and approve of: Bible-studying, praying, church-going.
People who encounter us feel this. They feel themselves scrutinized and judged through a drinking straw. We don’t see the totality of them, or care about their world really; we’re only interested in what fits through our drinking straw. Unsurprisingly, they are not attracted.
There’s another way of looking at God’s work: the eyedropper. In this picture, the activity of God is like a drop of ink dripped into a clear liquid. The liquid could be a moment in time, or a human soul, or the whole world, or the whole universe. (The scale doesn’t matter; the principle is the same.) God colours the whole.
This seems to me a more Biblical picture. The Kingdom of God is the mustard seed that takes over the garden, the yeast that ferments all the flour, the feast at the end of the time to which all humanity is invited. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his Son.’
Who are we?
So are we evangelicals drinking-straw servants of an eye-dropper God, the narrowly-focussed in the service of the Wide? It can certainly seem that way. Our services are all about Jesus, our noticeboards are full of people all doing Jesus-themed things. Our Sunday Schools could be site of the old joke, where the new teacher asks the kids ‘what’s got a bushy tail, lives in trees and eats nuts?’ And after a long silence a kid pipes up, ‘I’m pretty sure the right answer is “Jesus” but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’
Drinking straw servants?
Drinking straw servants of an eyedropper God? It’s an easy charge, and I think we are somewhat guilty, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Here’s why. There is a place in love for infatuation. There is a season for a deep, greedy, obsessive searching for and finding God. There’s a time to get the drinking-straw perspective deep into your heart. When you decide to marry someone, you spend time, in love, obsessively rearranging your mental furniture. Perhaps it’s similar when you make Christ your Lord.
But I don’t think we should get stuck here. Oh God, give us breadth. Securely loved, with the basics settled, we are all the better set up to see God’s life dripping everywhere, and to cooperate with it.
My blog’s theme, thought of by someone else and expressed better
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Am enjoying Thomas L Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late which, at root, only tells us the boring story that the world is changing fast and how to adapt to it. What makes Friedman’s book interesting is his observation of how fast it is changing, and the thought that many things (laws, culture, life) have not caught up. Being a three-time Pulitzer prize winner, Friedman has some great examples too. Here’s one.
Lawrence (Larry) Summers, was a treasury official in the US. In 1988 — just 30 years ago — he was campaigning for the ill-fated Michael Dukakis and was picked up at the airport in a car with a phone in it. He was so excited that he used it to phone his wife and tell her.
Just nine years later, as deputy health secretary, Summers visited Cote d’Ivoire to open a village health care project that had been funded by American aid money. The village was remote enough for him to do the last part of the journey by canoe. As he was getting into the canoe for journey home, someone handed him a phone saying ‘Washington has a question for you.’ The world had gone from a carphone being an exotic luxury to a phone in every canoe in just nine years.
Here are some Himalayas: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son. Handel’s Messiah. Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Here are some Alps: Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels: Gilead; Home; Lila.
Here are some Lake District peaks: C S Lewis’ Narnia books.
Then there’s a long plain, and finally a crowd of dumpy little things, masses of them. What the dumpy things lack in altitude (and aptitude), they at least share in attitude with the great peaks. They want to do artistic things with Christian truth. It’s the art of the perfumer, done well or badly.
I don’t think there’s enough of this. Evangelicals–I am one–can be a menace with the gospel, painting it on the side of buses, delivering it without thought of context, speaking without listening or thinking. Nothing subtle, gentle, artistic, beautiful or even fun. (At the worst.)
Just finished the third book in what is probably a trilogy of comic fiction novels. It’s called the Sump of Lost Dreams and will be out soon, joining Paradise and The Wheels of the World, comic fiction, dumpy stuff, fun though. Out soon.
I’m also redoing the covers of the first two titles to match – coming soon:
Cultivating a happy heart is good practice but not easy. Especially in sickness or trouble. I suggest trying (almost) everything. Here’s a partial list. Probably you’ll hit on something that will work eventually.
Remember God has carried you before–squalling, wriggling–through many long nights. I don’t think he’ll drop you now.
Try thanking him for his goodness.
You might want to shout and scream, especially if no-one is about. I’m sorry to say I have sworn at God and banged my fist on the table numerous times. I think it’s OK doing this, not least because you feel a bit silly afterwards. God isn’t that bad and it’s just possible you are having a tantrum.
Think of random good things that will probably come round again. After my coma my limbs didn’t work properly and so sometimes I fell over in the street. Usually it was just me and the dog, and the dog hadn’t read any of the right books and wasn’t much use. One time (I’m not sure I’m remembering this quite right but I’ll carry on) chin on curb, working out how to get up again, and not happy, I recalled how my wife had discussed getting a convertible Mini next time we changed our car. It helped. We never did get the convertible Mini. But the main part of that thought– that one day I would be well again and she and I would buzz around and do stuff– was true and did the trick.
Just decide to endure this time and forget the self-talk. Man up. Most things pass.
Take a holiday from your sorrow. This is easier with longer-lasting things (stress, bereavement) than with the short-term (coughing up blood, say). By this I mean just go away and do something you enjoy. Watch a movie, go to work, go shopping. The pain will be waiting for you when you get back, but you may as well ease your stress levels for a bit.
Remember there are people worse off than you. This is a cliche but done seriously, works sometimes.
Remember all those sick, disabled people who nevertheless achieved great things. Lord Nelson, for example, constantly sick and forever losing bits, but still did stuff. Your illness may have meant cancelling cherished opportunities, but it’s not over for you yet. Not while you have light in your eyes.
I think of some of my relatives. One grandad was gassed when scarcely out of boyhood. His dad was bed-bound with gangrene. Yet they lived good lives. My relatives. The shame of not fighting the demons like they did!
Pray for people. Good in itself, it may also help remind you that not everything is about you and your problems.
Pray for those caring for you. See the lines on their faces. That’s you causing those, in all their love for you. You’re lucky to be loved like that.
Look through the cards and letters you’ve received, if you’ve received any. You matter to these people. They mind about you.
Read some psalms and hang onto whatever you can find there that helps.
Go for walks in your head. One terrible night in hospital I walked round Buttermere (a beautiful patch of water in the English Lake District) in my memory, a walk I know well, trying to make it last as long as possible and to recollect every part.
Eat something, preferably something bad for you. In the Intensive Care ward at Papworth Hospital (a heart hospital) I once had a full English breakfast – the wise hospital itself served it.
Faith, hope, and love, not as abstract principles but invested in God and people you love, really are greater than death and any loss. They can be like turning a boiler on in a freezing house.
Treat yourself. That book you love? Get stuck in. If you’re as sick as you feel, this might be your last chance anyway.
Work, even if only a little. Do what you were made for. Feel the buzz.
Think of your loved ones, stop moping, and fight for the chance to love them again.
Say to yourself, ‘this light and momentary affliction is not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.’ Plenty of other scriptures are in there; find them.
Read or remember some old hymns. Those people had learnt how to turn sorrow into song.
I have been injected with heroin on a couple of occasions. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this, but it came in handy once when they were inserting a catheter into you-know-where.
Here’s a thing. Technology achieves many of the things Jesus came to do.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’[f]
Recovery of sight to the blind? Most blindness today is preventable – by technology. Most blind people today are blind because they are poor, not because they are blind.
Good news to the poor? Set the oppressed free? Some principles that humans have worked out–the rule of law, free trade, mass-production, joint-stock companies– (arguably) seem to lift people out of poverty better than (say) a career in slash-and-burn farming, or a culture of subsistence agriculture.
I believe that the link between ‘democracy’ and ‘people not starving’ has also been well made, even if you can’t necessary decide in that case which is cause and which is effect. But in this analysis ‘democracy’ would be another technology that works to relieve human suffering.
I would say that technology, understood as both gadgets and ideas, has done more to reduce human misery than almost anything else, and that process continues. Soon, for example, old people will get their mobility back once self-driving cars become popular.
What then is the link between the advance of (some aspects) of the Kingdom of the God and the rise of technology? Is it a coincidence that the Bible starts in a garden but ends in a city? Is anyone writing about this stuff? Would love to hear comments.
I 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.
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.