God of the beginning of the journey

Surely somewhere in there

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?

How careers change after mid-life

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Science’s naughty assumptions

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:

  1. There is such a thing as being. Things ‘are’. Reality is not, at least in the final analysis, a delusion.
  2. 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.

(Except they can.)

The art of fighting for a cause

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.

Interesting.

‘As frantic as a firefly in a child’s jar’

An unaging soul in a decaying body

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 Souls by 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

‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

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.

Slow mission and the arts

Wonderful wastefulness

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

What happens after Islamism

People get fed up of it

In some states of Nigeria, the northern ones, where around the turn of the century they declared shari’a law for Muslims in a dozen provinces a few years ago, they are cutting the numbers of religious police. In Kano province their budget has been cut by a third, and they no longer patrol the (‘Christian’-run) bars and betting shops, hauling off Muslims.

Economist, ‘Nigeria’s vice cops feel squeezed’, April 13 2019

In Saudi Arabia, controversial crown prince has greatly restricted the powers of the religious police, forcing them to work office hours only and only produce written reports rather than taking direct action. One newspaper reported in 2018, ‘many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.’

https://www.straitstimes.com/world/middle-east/saudi-religious-polices-decline-under-spotlight[

In Egypt, the Economistreported in Nov 2017, how a young puritanical preacher in the town of Mansoura used to have a congregation that overflowed the mosque into the nearby street (and that was not unusual). ‘Now he barely half-fills the mosque,’ and complains, ‘we’re in decline.’ This, according to the newspaper, ‘is true in many places in the Arab World’.

The joy of ticking boxes

and outsourcing thought

My maths teacher wife tells me her kids hate nothing more than thinking. She gets protests: ‘Miss, my brain’s going to boil over’, for example. ‘Miss, this is child cruelty, making us think.’

What kids really like, she goes on, is working through a page of exercises and getting a page of ticks for everything they got right. Tick (check) tick tick. Wonderful.

The preference for ticking (checking) boxes instead of thinking obviously starts early and perhaps never leaves us.

As many of us remember, a few years ago the UK parliament, (then in normal times) had an expenses scandal. Some politicians 1, it turned out, had been drinking from a tax-payers’ fountain like camels just returning from the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Very few had broken the law. They had cleared the expenses with the parliamentary authorities. What they had actually done was outsourced their thinking and replaced it with ticking boxes. It wasn’t breaking the rules to get your moat cleaned, or your birdboxes nailed up, or a new kitchen, so, whoopie do. It must be OK.

Fortunately, another much-loved set of people in our society, the journalists, did their thinking for them. It may have ticked the boxes, they pointed out, but was it right? You are the highest court in land – what were doing, outsourcing your integrity?

Politicians are just like us, only blow-up versions of us, so we must do this kind of thing ourselves all the time.

The hidden plague

loneliness

lonely

Fascinating article in about a great source of un-wellness in our society1: loneliness. 

‘In Britain 7.7m people live alone … Seventeen million adults in Britain are unattached. More than 1m older people feel lonely all or most of the time, and most of them do not feel able to admit their loneliness to family and friends. Loneliness is one of the chief reasons people contact the Samaritans, though often callers find it hard to admit it. “People who call us sometimes feel that loneliness is not a good enough reason for calling,” says Nick, a long-term Samaritans volunteer. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed, as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious.” Three out of four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day; only 13% feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness has a detrimental effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Only 22% of us have never felt lonely.’

‘In the autumn last year, the body of 68-year-old Marie Conlon was found in her flat at Larkspur Rise in Belfast. She had been dead for nearly three years. In a statement, her family said they were “shocked and heartbroken” at the death of the “beloved sister”. Call be cruel, but how beloved could she have been if they hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the beginning of 2015? I popped into my local funeral directors to learn how often they were presented with bodies which had lain along in flats until they began to decompose. The lady in charge that day was wary of my questions, and made me promise not to give her name. But yes, she said, this happens quite regularly–bodies lie undiscovered until neighbours complain of a smell.’