‘Science’ and ‘religion’ were originally names for good personal habits

The Territories of Science and Religion
’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.

According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)

Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).

Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be  ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.

The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.

Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.

 

Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.

The Territories of Science and Religion

by Peter Harrison [University of Chicago Press]
Price: £22.50 - - -

The Kingdom of God as the ‘sphere of God’s goodness’

I enjoyed this quote from Ken Costa

God at Work: Living Every Day with Purpose
When Jesus came to earth, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. The language of kingdoms can sound strange to us, in that it seems to signify territoriality. In the context of work, it may therefore be helpful to see the kingdom of God as “the sphere of God’s goodness” in the world. We are called to advance God’s kingdom, sharing the “sphere of goodness” and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his “sphere of goodness,” or to hinder it–on both a macro and a micro level. Each time we tell the truth, make decisions fairly and with respect for others, or act with integrity, we are advancing this sphere, albeit in small ways.

Ken Costa, God at Work, p 16.

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

If you’re human, this is for you

Handle with care.

So what makes you different from an animal? And does it matter?

Theologians have the most interesting and radical answer. They tell us of course that we are stamped with ‘imageo dei‘, the image of God. Unlike the animals, humans do faith, hope and love.

Chimpanzees
Fail.

Are we the only ones? We can speculate that intelligent aliens may arise somewhere else in the Universe and also bear the imago dei, and perhaps in different ways. Maybe only together with all of them will the fulness of God be properly expressed.

Either way, if the theologians are right, a lot of us have to think differently. The standard model in most Western heads probably sees humans as bits of grit, epiphenomenal crumbs from creation’s picnic, odd growths on a damp rock. There’s a decent argument for that, when we think of how small we are and what common stuff we’ve been manufactured from.

But there’s also a good argument the other way. In zillions of attempts, evolution has repeatedly invented the eye or the wing, but we only know of one species who even think about bearing the imageo dei: wonderful us. 1

And if we are the Universe’s God-bearers, another good argument follows that we may be what the Universe itself is all about. Small? Doesn’t matter. Mostly water? Matters even less. Thanks to us, the Universe includes beings that are self-aware and can believe and doubt, and love and hate, and dream of eternity.

 

My book More than Bananas is available as a free Kindle and ebook download as well as in paid versions.

 

A new introduction to the Christian faith

The Puzzle of ChristianityThe Puzzle of Christianity by Peter Vardy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apart from the title — which more to do with the author’s brand than what’s actually inside the book — this is a clear, illuminating, irenic introduction to the Christian faith. It steers admirably away from a sectarian party line and respects critical scholarship while also realizing that critical scholarship can itself be criticized and is anyway often a long way from the lives and preoccupations of actual Christians.

Many opponents of Christianity prefer to criticize straw men (?persons) rather than the real thing, which is usually better thought out, more nuanced, more aware of its own failings and rather harder to dismiss with a single rhetorical swipe. Vardy’s picture includes the warts, but I think it’s a fair and deeply attractive portrait of the past and present of Christianity.

In our (Anglican) church we are seeing a number of Chinese academics adopt the Christian faith; this text will serve very well as a fine, just, heart-warming introduction to the wider context of what they are getting themselves into.

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In praise of dogged

We all know people like this: unfailingly courteous. Hard-working. Persistently kind. Steady. Thorough. They are like pillars who hold up the organizations we work in.

Somewhere else in the building is the rodent scurrying of chatter, gossip, five-year-plans, radical upheaval, ambition, people making their mark, all passing by with the lifespan of hamsters while the pillars go on holding up the roof.

Our labrador Mabel, who died recently after 14 wonderfully dogged years just being a dog.

(I saw a quote: ‘Reform! Reform! Aren’t things bad enough already?’)

The odd thing about the steady people is that they don’t feel they’ve achieved anything. All they did was go to work, raise their families, pay their bills; nothing spectacular or charismatic or epoch-making or history-shaping or world-changing.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. George Elliot, Middlemarch (with which the book ends).

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.

Here comes the sun

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

SunriseI welcomed the chance recently to dig around and ask the question  “what (actually) is the Kingdom of God?” If you had to answer a quiz about it, what would you say? Here are five things.

  1. It’s wrapped up with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and him sending the Holy Spirit. His death fixed things up between us and God. His resurrection was the first drop of new wine into the old wineskins of the world, and it broke a tomb. His Ascension was his coronation. Sending the Spirit to revolutionize human lives was his first act in office.
  2. It’s now and not yet.  It’s breaking in among but this is just the first installment. The rest is yet to come. So we enjoy peace now which is an appetizer for the peace that will break over the whole world at the end the age.
  3. It’s internal and external. It’s about transformed hearts and revolutionizing society. It weaves together the quietist and the activist strands of the Christian faith.
  4. It grows. Like a mustard seed or yeast, tiny but resolute, it can be poisoned, stamped out, wiped out, set back, but it keeps coming.
  5. It comes in and through weakness. Hence the Beatitudes: ‘Happy are you who are spiritually bankrupt.’

Slow Mission book review: C S Lewis, by Alistair McGrath

I wanted to write a detached, cool-headed evaluation of this book and even had thought of some suitably ironic ways of describing it: ‘ostrich prose’, for example (covering a lot of ground with great enthusiasm but never quite taking off). 

Unfortunately, I can’t do it. I shamelessly and unapologetically absolutely loved this book. I have to confess some shared interests. Alister McGrath is a former professor at my old college. He’s a scientist and atheist who turned to Christ. In some of his other writings, he has discovered the loveable pinata-like qualities of Professor Dawkins. So I was predisposed to like this book and therefore quite determined not to.

I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece or not but I found it an entirely satisfying retelling and re-evaluation of the man that I will treasure for a long time. They even got A N Wilson, big-beast among Lewis biographers and newly -returned-to-the-faith-Christian, to say something mildly pleasant about McGrath’s work. So, perhaps, it must be good. It’s not just me. Generally I prefer reading Lewis to reading books about Lewis but this is the business.

‘They did not wait for his plans to unfold’

Bad, very bad.

CIMG2561.JPG

Psalm 106: vv 12-13:

‘Then they believed his promises

and sang his praise

‘But they soon forgot what he had done

And did not wait for his plans to unfold.’
Enough said.