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.

Belonging, that life and death thing

all contributions greatly received

TogetherI am trying to learn about some stuff in preparation for a book I might try to  write one day. It goes like this. My book ‘More than Bananas’ tried to show how the gospel is compatible with the world that science describes – physical reality.

Now I’m trying to think about how the gospel can be a good fit with our emotional landscape – ’emotional reality.’

In this, the idea of ‘belonging’ is so haunting and interesting.

  1. Belonging before believing

First:I think I have seen men join our church men’s breakfast group just because they had an overwhelming desire to belong to it. They just wanted to be a part of it. The things we evangelicals worry about (belief, truth, discipleship) came along later.  This is not what our evangelical procedures lead us to expect.

(What’s supposed to happen, according to some orthodoxy that I have yet to find written down, is that people hear the good news that God loves them, put their faith in Jesus, and then sign up.

What actually seems to happen is that some people see something, want it, join it, and then figure out what ‘it’ is.  They are basically the only people who have joined our group over the years. )

2. Dying unwanted

Second: I think I have seen people  die because they don’t belong and nobody wants them, and they don’t seem to be any use any more. They just shut down. Earlier than they need to. Not belonging sets off a kind of self-destruct routine. One old colleague of mine, alone, no-longer needed at work, and not endowed with close friends or family, went into hospital with something not very serious, and just died. Interesting.

3. A root of crime

Third: I work a bit with young people involved in crime. Everyone knows these youth share a lot in common, for example: low educational achievement, poverty, broken homes, ADHD. But now I think about it, isolation, unwantedness, not belonging, is central to these kids’ experience. Nobody loves them. Some were chucked out of their mum’s home at age 16, no longer welcome. Others have lost the last stable person in their life, a grandad say, and fallen off the edge.

4. A source of healing

Fourth: when I was ill and at my most totally infirm and paralyzed, the fact I was loved and mattered to people was the most astonishing tonic. I belonged; I mended.

5. The state doesn’t offer ‘belonging’

Fifth, our country will, with a bit of duct tape, and on a good day, provide an abandoned 16-year-old with shelter, a little cash, some help with jobs and education, and free health care. It will do the same for mentally ill person or the old  (in fairness, the government also pays for initiatives like a day centre, such as the one our church runs).  But belonging to someone?  Mattering to someone? Much more complex.

Preliminary conclusion: not belonging/not being loved is more dangerous than the most aggressive cancer. Belonging is better for you than a superfood salad.

Love to hear comments. Sorry if all this is obvious to you.

The end of a claustrophobic life

I read a wonderful description of middle-age angst the other day, written by a 41-year-old. He called it:

‘a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear.’ 1.

The best thing was remembering feeling exactly that–perhaps when I was in my forties too– but not now feeling it anymore.

What changed?

For me it was a years of ill-health and disappointment. My heart stopped in 2011, though happily they managed to re-start and fix it. Then in 2013 I spent a month in a coma and the following couple of years in and out of wheelchairs.

At work, from 2008 onwards  I had ten years of painful transition from a publishing contract to a self-publishing life. 2 I sell fewer books but now I write and teach things that refresh and renew my spirit (occasionally, they help other people too).

In that desert time I think I found three things that really mattered: worship, relationships, and vocation.  Add in a couple of others (recovered health, financial security, kids doing great) and I have been able to make the following Bible text my screensaver:

In my distress I cried out to the Lord

The Lord answered me and put me in a wide open place

Worship, relationship, vocation; not claustrophobia, a wide open space.

It feels like a discovery.

Slow healing (10): the need to respond inappropriately

Thanksgiving anyway

roterschirm3Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1: 2-4).

It sounds impossible, or at least inappropriate. In the midst of suffering, James tells us to ‘rejoice’, to give thanks, to worship. Do we thank God for the suffering? No. Do we thank God that the suffering is making us a better person? No, I don’t think so.

Instead, in the middle of things–I think it means–we turn to God and thank and worship him for who he is.

He hasn’t stopped being kind, reliable, powerful, purposeful, true. Despite our personal eclipse, the sun still shines. That exercise shapes us in good ways and helps put us on top of our troubles rather than them being on top of us.

Best of all about this verse for me is the phrase ‘of many kinds’. James is telling us how to process trouble and sorrow of every kind whether it’s the small frustration of missing the post with a birthday card or the unhealed pain of a loved one lost.

(Originally written for a series of Lent devotions whose title I have forgotten)

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. 

How the Bible works – Tom Wright

How to get the Bible to work

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:

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.

‘Just mercy’

American gulag.

Which country currently has locked 2.3m people in its prisons? Which country has jailed nearly 3,000 children for life with no possibility of parole? Can’t be North Korea (country isn’t big enough). Isn’t China. Stalin is dead so it’s not Russia either.

Welcome to the USA, home to between a quarter and a third of all the world’s jailed, the exceptional nation.

Bryan Stephenson is an African-American lawyer who set up a practice to offer legal support to death-row prisoners and to children who were jailed for life.

He worked in Monroe County, home of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. In a great irony, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is celebrated widely in Monroe County, but does not seem to have made much difference to the courts, where African-Americans, especially poor ones, face a fierce fight to get justice.

It’s an astonishing book – both for the stories it tells, and its glimpses of grace. I cut and pasted a few bits below.

No HIstorical parallel

‘When I first went to death row in December 1983, America was in the early stages of a radical transformation that would turn us into an unprecedentedly harsh and punitive nation and result in mass imprisonment that has no historical parallel. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole … one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.’ (pp 14-15)

Youth justice

‘Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.’ (p 15)

Further consequences of mass incarceration

We ban poor women and, inevitably, their children from receiving food stamps and public housing if they have prior drug convictions … Some states permanently strip people with criminal convictions of the right to vote; as a result in several Southern states disenfranchisement among African American men has reached levels unseen since before the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. (p16)

A principle

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. (p 17-18)

Alabama’s racist constitution

‘The legislature shall never pass any law to authorise or legalise any marriage between any white person and a Negro or descendant of a Negro.’ (Section 102 of the Alabama constitution.) This was only voted down in a statewide ballot in 2000AD; still, 41% of voters opposed it. (It had been unenforceable since a Supreme Court ruling in 1967)

Redemption and mercy

I have discovered, deep in the heart of many condemned and incarcerated prisoners, the scattered traces of hope and humanity–seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.’ (p17)

‘The true measure of [our society’s character] is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community … Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive … The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and–perhaps–we all need some measure of unmerited grace.’ (p18)

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Complain a lot, but praise a little too

The rights of God’s children

88960025When we’re trying not to be beaten senseless by our own thoughts, I like the way the Psalms do it.

Roughly:

  1. Complain all you like but always praise some.
  2. Sometimes just praise.

This is great! And it’s in the Bible:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 NIVUK)

But then you have to praise.

It’s like when two of you have had a row, but one of you decides to say a slightly kind thing. Just that slightly kind thing can start to dismantle the situation. Before long you’re friends again. In the same way, a little willingness to praise starts to cap the gush of self-pity.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6 NIVUK)