Am enjoying reading the NT transliterated (Greek and English together) on a phone app. My ignorance of Greek is a great help because any dim grasp of a thing feels like a discovery, even if it would be steamrollered flat by a proper scholar.
Here’s one. There is a Greek word which means ‘aspire to’ or ‘make it your ambition to.’ Paul uses it of himself when he says he was ‘making it his ambition’ to spread the gospel. (Romans 15:20).
Then he writes to the Thessalonians, ‘Make it your ambition to…’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and we might expect him to write the same thing. This is what we evangelicals tend to sign up to in our faith, at least notionally, and in our songs, and are certainly urged to do from pulpits.
But what he actually says is ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life’.
The vegans are definitely 1-0 up over the carnivores and it’s well into the second half of the match, so I’m going to have to quote the Guardian at them.
Veganism is rightly touted as a response to industrial farming and butchery. It produces less CO2 as well, at least on its way into the stomach. (I’ve not seen research on what happens within the vegan stomach and beyond but prejudice suggests plenty of CO2 and CH4 emerges from human digesters.)
I did see, however, a contrary article that at least constitutes a brief rude noise in the sonorous vegan sermon. To quote:
Rather than being seduced by exhortations to eat more products made from industrially grown soya, maize and grains, we should be encouraging sustainable forms of meat and dairy production based on traditional rotational systems, permanent pasture and conservation grazing. We should, at the very least, question the ethics of driving up demand for crops that require high inputs of fertiliser, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, while demonising sustainable forms of livestock farming that can restore soils and biodiversity, and sequester carbon.
This is appealingly slow. The writer, who re-wilded her traditional dairy and arable farm, adds:
So there’s a huge responsibility here: unless you’re sourcing your vegan products specifically from organic, “no-dig” systems, you are actively participating in the destruction of soil biota, promoting a system that deprives other species, including small mammals, birds and reptiles, of the conditions for life, and significantly contributing to climate change.
Our ecology evolved with large herbivores – with free-roaming herds of aurochs (the ancestral cow), tarpan (the original horse), elk, bear, bison, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and millions of beavers. They are species whose interactions with the environment sustain and promote life. Using herbivores as part of the farming cycle can go a long way towards making agriculture sustainable.
There’s no question we should all be eating far less meat, and calls for an end to high-carbon, polluting, unethical, intensive forms of grain-fed meat production are commendable. But if your concerns as a vegan are the environment, animal welfare and your own health, then it’s no longer possible to pretend that these are all met simply by giving up meat and dairy. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding the occasional organic, pasture-fed steak to your diet could be the right way to square the circle.
Isabella Tree. (Yes, she really is called that.) Here’s her book, which I have not read.
Now that I’m telling people I’m writing about Slow, I have to keep defining what it is. It’s a metaphor really, the opposite of another metaphor, fast, as in fast food.
In this context it means methodical and single-focussed. When a counsellor sits down with a client, and has booked out the whole morning, she’s going to be slow. That’s all she’s going to do this morning. She isn’t going to let her phone interrupt. She’s put aside her other responsibilities. All she’s going to do is unwrap her client’s soul until both client and counsellor can see the true person. It’s slow because it’s thorough, thoughtful and single-minded. Slow is that habit of doing things well, perhaps from first principles, focussed, practising a craft.
Slow is also patient. Cricket (in its longer forms) is slow because it is a test of routines and patience. Allotment gardening is slow because you have to sow and reap and bury, overseeing life and fruit and death, at the same pace as the seasons. The Christian faith is slow because you hourly walk paths of spiritual discipline that carve out contours in lives and culture and history. Centuries are shaped by the hourly habits of the worshipper.
All of Christian discipleship is slow: healing is slow, holiness is slow, forming a marriage or family or a child is slow. Nurturing a Christian community is slow. Love and faith crystallize into faithfulness in all its splendid forms and are slow.
Learning a skill is slow. Those who have found enduring wealth or fame or celebrity have usually embraced slow: the person who sells out stadiums has learnt her craft and polished her art in clubs and pubs. Flash-in-the-pan wealth or fame, I think, can be instant, up like gunpowder rocket, down like the stick.
Slow glows with divine light. Somebody is lit up by something, and they love it, and work to perfect it, and do it over and over again. There’s a holiness about watching someone, adult or child, quietly doing what they love to do; they have found something, they have connected with a stream that doesn’t stop flowing, whose source is God.
One hundred generations, 4,000 years, stand between us and Abraham, and Genesis 12, and the dawn of recorded history.
Unrecorded history stretches back much further, perhaps 100,000 years or 2,500 generations. Think of daughters turning into mothers and mothers to grandmothers, chubby toddlers growing brittle and wrinkled. It’s happened a hundred times over the span of history. It’s happened perhaps 2,500 times in pre-history, a line of generations stretching around the world.
But weren’t humans few in those first 100,000 years? They were, but when you stack up the millenniums until they are a hundred millenniums tall, these few become a great company. Perhaps for every one person alive today, 14 have already lived and died.
Those of us who live or have lived in history compare with those from prehistory like the chocolate sprinkles compare with the cappucino, or like the slivery Colorado River compares with the Grand Canyon.
Where was God in all those generations? Fourteen human races have come and gone compared with the humans alive today. This is a problem if you believe humans need truth in order to really live, and 14 human races lived and died before truth made its appearance, dimly with Abraham, brightly with Christ.
Where was God in this buried crowd? It is a mystery.
History tells us the One True God haunted the human race, often lodged in the upper mists of high-piled spiritual hierarchies. Occasionally the mists lifted and a culture was lit by a gleam of monotheism.
The Egyptian Pharoah Tutankamen’s less famous father Akhetenan got the Egyptians to worship the one true God for a time (personified as the Sun), but Egypt soon reverted to its old ways. Similar movements may have happened in South American pre-Christian empires – bubbles of monotheism that floated above the turbid waters and then popped.
That was in history, and thus is in a sense knowable. What started, and how many times, among the 2,5000 generations of pre-history? Was it all darkness?
Your runny self becomes hard-boiled. But don’t worry.
Just read a fascinating article about how we all peak earlier than we think…
In a really helpful piece in the Atlantic, Arthur C Brooks talked about the difference between fluid and crystalized intelligence. The fluid sort is flexible and creative, problem-solving and innovative. The crystalized sort is more likely to draw on wisdom and experience from the past – runny versus solid intelligence, if you like.
The runny sort is what many of us use as we progress in our career, trying new approaches, showing flexibility, making creative leaps and discoveries. But our runniness starts to decline as early as our 30s and 40s.
The solid sort builds through life and you don’t lose it until until the very end.
This is why scientists (often post-docs) are young; Supreme Court justices are old.
The significance of significance
Brooks’ deeper point is that if you get your significance from your achievements when your intelligence was running all over the place, you may struggle when you no longer can make the same leaps.
He gives the example of Charles Darwin, who was famous early but rather lost steam in his 50s and didn’t end particularly well. Start-up founders, creatives of all kinds, mathematicians and scientists, lawyers, business people — anyone who’s done well with learning, changing, driving change, beware. You’re seizing up faster than you think.
The remedy to this career disillusion, Brooks claims, is to shift gears and try to exploit all those stores of solid, crystallized intelligence you’ve built up while running around changing the world. Try mentoring or teaching in some sense, resourcing others. Try wisdom rather than innovation. It may mean stepping back from the frontlines of fame and significance but that can only be good.
(The alternative to this, which he doesn’t suggest, is to attend meetings and be the person who says ‘we tried that years ago and it never worked.’)
This is fascinating in several different ways.
We have seasons in our lives; resisting this truth is not a recipe for happiness. We have to shift gears. If our significance comes from our fresh ideas, our flexibility, our creative leaps, watch out.
This is something we instinctively know. Of course old men have a different perspective from young guys. It was always so: the young men of the village play cricket, the old guys nurse their pints of beer and watch. The mistake of us baby boomers is that in our 50s and 60s we think we can still do it on the dancefloor. Perhaps we are fooled by how good health care is now, or perhaps we don’t labour in the body-crushing occupations of our ancestors. Or perhaps no previous generation has been this pampered and this stupid.
For me personally, my fiction-writing self has often felt fear that I won’t be able to be make the creative leaps of the past. That’s actually frightening. On the other hand, to write further books about the same people and in worlds already dreamed up is an enticing prospect, and I observe that many of my favourite writers did exactly that: they were like musicians on tour again, playing the old hits. Meanwhile my non-fiction writing self feels differently. After decades of reading and thinking, I’m getting to lay out the stuff that’s been crystallizing in my heart.
And for all of us, the gear change may involve putting more weight on relationships than our glittering career, stepping back, pushing others forward, finding significance outside a string of achievements: choosing slow.
Pretend that the Universe is the sort of Universe God would have made if he actually existed.
Sometimes it helps to hope something is true even if we can’t prove it.
For example, I often assume the people driving a bus or flying a plane are sober and competent and mean well. It would be too tiresome to have to check every time.
In maths, something called the Riemann Hypothesis is, as yet, unproven. But by assuming the Riemann Hypothesis is true, you can make great mathematical progress. All that progress would be able to be certified as proper maths if someone would only go and prove the Riemann Hypothesis.
The same is true of the whole of science.
The whole of science rests, I suggest, on two unproven assumptions. (I apologize ahead of time to any philosphers reading this. Take it as an indication that your jobs are vital.)
Here they are:
There is such a thing as being. Things ‘are’. Reality is not, at least in the final analysis, a delusion.
This material universe is self-consistent; it obeys physical laws. (If parts of it don’t obey consistent physical laws, such as what a toddler is going to do next, science cannot explore those parts.)
These two are science’s unproven naughty assumptions. Every scientific paper should start with a confession: ‘If the universe is real and obeys laws, which, fair play, we haven’t actually proved, then …’
Which is where theology comes in
The Apostle Paul claims that two facts are obvious about God, but they are widely suppressed. They are:
God’s being means being is. God has a relationship to the Universe similar to the relationship between a playwright and a play. The play’s real existence arises out of the being of the playwright, who is a different order of being. Hamlet (the play) is real because Shakespeare (the playwright) created it out of his own being.
God’s eternal power. The universe is consistent because it is upheld by the continuing command of a consistent, infinitely powerful God.
The world suppresses these obvious facts, Paul insists, because the world does not want to deal with God.
What’s interesting here is that science has to un-suppress these truths in order to progress at all. Science cuts a path through the mystery of the universe because it assumes truths about being and consistency that are coherently rooted God’s Godness. To do good science you have to make assumptions about the Universe which are perfectly in accord with the existence of God. These same assumptions are suppressed when we ask questions like ‘who am I and what am I to do?’ Some people unsuppress truths to do good science while suppressing them when they are asking about their own meaning and purpose. Arguably this approach is at least quixotic and inconsistent, and perhaps lacking coherence and integrity.
Some will disagree. You don’t need to believe in God, they would argue, in order to use science’s naughty assumptions with intellectual integrity. This is true. You could argue, for example, it’s all a mystery that we cannot fathom. Being is. The Universe is orderly. These are brute facts but they cannot be explained.
Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.
Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.
But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.
Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.
But how did he ‘win’?
He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.
Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.
Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.
Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.
The power of non-violence today
I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’
This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.
I like this description of the way an eternal part of us remaining even while the body shuts down. This description is from the book The Orchard of Lost Soulsby Nadifa Mohamed, a beautifully evoked tale about three women of Somalia at the beginning of the civil war in 1988. And like good fiction will, it tells you more about Somalia (and much else) than any number of surveys or reports.
She presses her palms into her eyelids and replaces the torpor of her life with shooting amber stars and exploding electric galaxies. She learnt to do this as an indolent little girl, whiling away dead time by voyaging through the quiet, almost-black world behind her eyes. She has not aged much as a soul, still thinks too much, loses herself to dreams and nightmares, her body hiding — no, trapping — what is real and eternal about her, that pinprick of invisible light in skin, desperate for release into the world, as frantic as a firefly in a child’s jar.
Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls, 2013, p 163-4
The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.
George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:
Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.
George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019
‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.
We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.
The arts are also an asset in mission work:
The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.
The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.
The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.
The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.
The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something greater than our own individual faith.
The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.
The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.
I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray