Archive for October, 2009

Lunchbar: What would Jesus say about the recession?

October 30, 2009

Lunchbar today at Nottingham was on the topic of the current economic situation. For many of us, as our speaker observed, this is not just an academic question but one in which we have a personal stake. Most students are finding it harder to afford things, many of them have parents or relatives who are in difficult circumstances, some students have had to leave university as their parents cannot afford to support them. In addition, it is harder for graduates to find jobs when they leave university. So it’s a big issue.

It’s also hard to guess what God would actually say about the recession in particular, so we have to be careful. But there are some things that the Bible does say about God that might help us see what might be going on. God is completely in control of the economic situation, and has a purpose in it. Isaiah 45:7 reads:

I form the light and create darkness,
       I bring prosperity and create disaster;
       I, the LORD, do all these things.

So the recession isn’t somehow beyond God’s control – but what might God be trying to bring out of it? Without wanting to claim to have the definitive answer to that question, we can perhaps suggest three things that the recession can teach us.

First, the recession opens our eyes to the situation that many people in the world live in all the time. In the West, recessions tend to come and go, and we perhaps have got used to the idea that things tend to improve over the long run, allowing for the occasional blip. But in many parts of the world this just isn’t the case, and there is massive poverty. Compare Britain with Zimbabwe – the British unemployment rate is about 7%; in Zimbabwe it is more like 94%. The average Zimbabwean earns just $0.30 a month, several thousand times less than the average Briton. So perhaps the recession can show us a little bit of what it is like to be poor – as the majority of the people in the world are.

Second, the economic crisis shows us something of what sin is. We see it quite easily in those who are responsible for the economic crisis – those in banking and finance whose greed has led to the current crisis. We rightly feel aggrieved at this, and can see how wrong a lot of the exploitation that has gone on in the financial world is.

 

But as we recognise the sinfulness of the greed and exploitation that has gone on in the financial sector, so we too should take the opportunity afforded us by the recession to recognise that the same disease afflicts us too. Isn’t the reason that we haven’t done exactly what the bankers have done more to do with the fact that we haven’t had the power and opportunity to exploit, rather than us being morally superior? If we’re honest, we can see the potential within ourselves for exploiting others for financial gain, given the chance. So the recession also shows our own sinfulness to us and helps us to realise that we need God to create a clean heart in us and cleanse us from our corruption.

Finally, the recession can teach us that money is not everything, and is a fickle friend. The recession has shown that even those who are wealthy can easily lose their wealth; that money is an insecure source of security. People talk a lot of the comparitive risks of every investment, but even the relatively safe investments can become devalued; and in any case are no insurance against the inevitability of death. If money is not a good source of our ultimate security, then what is? Ultimately, the Christian gospel claims, it can only be found in Christ and in his Kingdom. So the recession could function to turn us to God by showing up the transience and insecurity of what we have been trusting in.

Come, see how he dies…

October 29, 2009

I think we don’t talk enough about the resurrection. I’m not talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, circa 30 AD – though the more we talk about that, the better. I mean we don’t talk enough about the one that’s going to happen – your resurrection and mine. The Nicene Creed has “I believe in the resurrection of the dead”, and we don’t explicitly deny this, but we much prefer to talk about “going to heaven when we die”. The problem is, most people hear that and think of the immortality of the soul. Pictures of people in heaven floating around playing harps on clouds doesn’t help.

heaven

Bad theology

We forget that the Bible doesn’t offer the solution to death of the immortality of the soul, but offers instead the resurrection of the body – at the return of Christ and the renewing of all creation. Daniel 12:1-4 gives voice to this:

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Paul says the same thing in 1Corinthians 15:

the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

This is so different to the idea of the immortality of the soul. Christians should resist the sharp dualism offered by the idea of an immortal soul being released from a mortal body – that’s Platonism, not Christianity!

This affects our view of death, as well. Oscar Cullmann famously presented the difference between the Greek view of death and the immortality of the soul and the Christian view of death and the resurrection of the body by comparing the deaths of Socrates and Jesus.
(Oscar Cullmann, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament” in Krister Stendahl (ed.), Immortality and Resurrection, Death and Resurrection (New York: Macmillan, 1965))

Socrates faces death calmly. For him, it is insignificant because the soul is essentially deathless. Drinking the hemlock only sets him, the real Socrates, free from the prison-house of his body. Death liberates his soul, and he returns to eternity. “The destruction of the body cannot mean the destruction of the soul any more than a musical composition can be destroyed when the instrument is destroyed”.

By contrast, come, see how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane he struggles with his impending fate. He knows that his life can be entrusted to his Father’s faithfulness and love, but death is an all-too-real experience. He is in agony anticipating it. Death means being forsaken by God and being taken away from real, full-blooded existence, at least for a while. Jesus knows he is an embodied being, and that whatever existence there is in the grave, it is radically reduced from the fullness of life God intends for humanity. Death is a horror and a terror, beyond which we can only have hope because of God’s promised recreation: resurrection of the body.

Cullmann’s point should stop us from being careless in the way we express the Christian hope. It is not enough to say “I will go to heaven when I die” – death must be undone and the dead must be raised in new, perfect, incorruptible bodies. Death is ambiguous at best – an enemy which cannot ultimately harm us; inevitable, but not the final word. It will be undone – until then, we can recognize with our Saviour its horror and unnaturalness; in hope because God has promised to resurrect the dead, and God keeps his promises.

Relativism: A “flawed philosophy”

October 28, 2009

Just spotted this from Friday’s Times. Antonia Senior writes:

It’s impossible to be a cultural relativist when faced with daily examples of other cultures getting it wrong. There is no validity in any view of right or wrong expressed by the Taleban. There is no truth in any cultural creed that treats women as inferior, let alone those that mutilate them. There is no cultural excuse for child abuse disguised as exorcism.

Relativism is in retreat, but there is no coherent moral framework taking its place. It helped us move from the certainties of the imperial age into a more tolerant era, but it’s almost impossible to work out what comes next.

I’m in complete agreement that moral relativism is both a) flawed and b) responsible for stifling public debate over moral questions by privatising them. Relativism is, if not ubiquitous, still extremely common as a position among university students and the middle class. But what do we put in place of it? Ms Senior suggests that on (her) atheist presuppositions it’s actually quite hard to test moral propositions and decide what’s right and wrong. She’s on to something here – moral and ethical debate is completely shaped by our wider philosophical and theological presuppositions. Relativism perhaps represents the best of the failed attempts to get around this fact and allow holders of incompatible theologies to share a morality. The fact is that moral truth-claims really hang upon theological truth-claims and any attempt to discuss morality needs to recognise this. Does this mean that morality is even more radically privatised? Not necessarily – rather it means that we must allow the theological dimension to moral discussion to be mentioned (and examined) in public moral debate, and not written off from the start as irrelevant.

Lunchbar: Aren’t all Christians hypocrites?

October 25, 2009

Last Friday’s lunchbar was on the title “Aren’t all Christians hypocrites?”

Sadly it’s not unusual to hear the sentiment expressed, that the behaviour of Jesus’ followers makes it impossible to believe in him. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. We all know times when Christians have publicly fallen into the kind of sin they claim to disapprove of.

Our speaker made several points in response to this objection. Crucially, it is important to recognise up front that Christians historically, and all Christians from time to time, fail to live up to the standards they profess to believe in. The Bible says that looking at someone lustfully is mental adultery; that Christians shouldn’t get drunk; that they should turn the other cheek rather than return insult for insult… and even the most casual of friendships with Christians will show you that Christians often fail to live up to these standards. We don’t want to deny that.

But, a lot of the discussion depends on our definition of hypocrisy. If we define hypocrisy as pretending to be perfect when we’re not – well, no Christian should claim to be perfect this side of heaven. Perhaps we can define it as failing to live up to the standards we espouse. On this definition though, everyone who has ever lived and who ever will live is a hypocrite – we all fail to live up to our own standards of right and wrong – let alone God’s standards. In this sense, Christians are as much hypocrites as anyone else. No Christian should deny that he or she is a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness.

But Christianity offers a solution to the problem posed by our hypocrisy: Jesus Christ. Those who admit their failure and accept his forgiveness and rule over their lives are counted as being right with God, and will be made perfect when he returns to bring all things into submission to God. Not only this, but Jesus Christ himself was no hypocrite. He challenged a hostile crowd to convict him of sin and they were unable to (John 8:46). If someone wants to know what Christianity is about, far better for them to look at Jesus Christ than at his followers’ imperfect and faltering attempts to imitate him. While Christians are called to become like Christ, they can only offer a poor and caricatured image this side of the resurrection. However, we can show Christ to others; commend him and show his hypocrisy-free life in the four gospels. While Christians fail to live up to the standards of morality taught by the Bible, Jesus kept them perfectly on our behalf. It is not enough to reject Christianity on the grounds of the failure of Jesus’ followers to live up to his standards – we must look at Jesus, and at the solution he offers for our hypocrisy: forgiveness, restoration to a right standing before God, guidance and help to become more like him in this life, and the promise of being raised from the dead perfected when Christ returns.

In praise of FlashForward…

October 22, 2009

I’ve got a new favourite TV drama… at least until Spooks Season 8 comes out some time in November. FlashForward has been showing on Five on Monday nights, and watched by me whenever I have 45 minutes online. Fortunately, it’s only just started airing in the USA as well, so I’m not getting massive spoilers all over the internet like I do for House and CSI. FlashForward’s based on a book by Robert J Sawyer, which I haven’t read, but which is apparently quite a lot different to the TV series. In the book, apparently CERN is to blame for what happens (at least, according to one of the weirder things in this week’s Times). In the TV version, the entire population of the world blacks out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds… except they don’t black out, but have visions, apparently of their futures 6 months from now. Obviously mass mayhem from unconscious drivers, pilots, tightrope-walkers etc. ensues (a bit like in the Left Behind series, but slightly more likely to actually happen!) but the real interest lies in how the characters react to having seen their futures.

Seeing the future is a good thing for some of the characters – they see something good and embrace it. Bryce, a doctor, was about to commit suicide when the visions happened – but seeing a normal life six months ahead helped him rediscover a purpose and meaning in his life. One of his patients sees himself as much more confident in the future, giving him confidence to be himself. For these people, knowing the future is good gives them hope. As Bryce puts it, “the future saved me”.

However, for some, the visions are disturbing. Bryce’s colleague Olivia sees herself in an affair with a man who is not her husband; her husband Mark, who works for the FBI, is being hunted by assassins; and his partner Demetri does not have a vision at all – which we learn means he will be dead in 6 months’ time. These characters have varying, but negative reactions to knowing the future. Olivia tries to ignore the visions and suppress them; Demetri becomes depressed and angry, taking a fatalist view; Mark puts his energy into investigating the visions, hoping that by seeing the future he can change the future. In fact, the characters’ beliefs as to whether the future is changeable seems to correlate with whether they liked what they saw in their visions. Mark gives voice to this, comforting his young daughter who seems to have had a disturbing vision, saying that only the good visions are going to come true. It’s a pat, transparent lie, and we see that Mark himself doesn’t entirely believe it.

So far, we haven’t seen whether the future actually can be changed in the Flashforward universe, or not – whether people can alter their futures from what they’ve seen. But the question of predeterminacy is an interesting one with a lot of potential and I’ll be interested to see how they handle it. My guess from some of the things that have happened so far is that it is possible to change the future in the Flashforward universe, but also that a lot of the visions are going to turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies: In Mark’s vision he is disturbed to find himself drinking again after having previously given up alcohol. He keeps this secret from his wife, but it obviously concerns him and may well give him enough stress to turn to drink again.

It’s also interesting that nobody is any less “free” in a volitional sense for having seen the future. People carry on making choices and decisions (and indeed living relatively normal lives!) without being conscious of any kind of compulsion. If there is predeterminism in the Flashforward universe, then it certainly doesn’t rule out “free will”. There is a both-and relationship going on; much as in the Reformed understanding of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. I’m hesitating to draw any more parallels or distinctions just yet, because we haven’t seen how the series develops – and I don’t want to use it as an illustration only to have it backfire on me and make me look like an Open Theist or something! Still, there’s a fair bit of theological content in this series, which is often a good thing.

As for the detail… some of the actual dialogue is on the cringe-worthy side, but I can live with that. I also have to suspend disbelief a little at how quickly people get on with things despite a global catastophe that should properly mess up everything (it’s like they’re all British!). However, the concept of the “flash-forward”s and some of the (theological) issues raised mean I’m hooked and also make it one of the better sci-fi dramas I’ve seen lately. The actual thought-experiment of “what if we saw the future?” is clever and engaging enough to make up for some of the more saccharine moments in the actual execution of the drama. So far… maybe it gets better or worse as the series goes on…

Anyway, it gets a reccommendation from me.

Lunchbar: Has Science Disproved God?

October 16, 2009

Lunchbar today was addressing the question “Has Science Disproved God?”. There were a lot of people at the event, which is great, and some really good questions asked after the talk.

In his talk, the speaker began with the observation that for science to disprove God, there would have to be something within science that was incompatible with belief in God. Some atheists might indeed want to argue for this – for example, this is exactly what Professor Richard Dawkins (Zoology, Oxford) argues in his book The God Delusion. But, in a 1996 survey of several hundred American scientists, researchers discovered that almost 40% believed in the kind of God to whom one could pray and expect to receive an answer, about 15% were agnostic, and 45% expressed disbelief in such a God. Clearly at least four in ten scientists find nothing incompatible between science and belief in God, which significantly undermines Dawkins’ claim.

In addition, Professor Alister McGrath (Theology, Oxford) reportedly asked many of his atheist scientific colleagues why they were atheists, and discovered that their reasons weren’t always or even most frequently related to science. So, again, there does not seem to be anything inherent about science that is incompatible with belief in God.

So why do many people find that science does make it harder to believe in God? There are two main areas:

Questions about Origins – many Christians interpret the Bible’s statements about origins, and in particular, the opening chapters of Genesis, in a way that is incompatible with science. But not all Christians would interpret the Bible this way – and in fact there is nothing “less Christian” about some of the ways of interpreting Genesis which are compatible with the picture of the origins of the world offered us by contemporary science. The Bible’s explanation of origins is not in conflict, but in fact viewed from a different angle – the theological angle rather than the scientific one.

Miracles – many people claim that Science makes it impossible to believe in the kind of miracles found in the Bible, and indeed, integral to orthodox Christian belief. But, if we define a miracle, as most people do, as an act that is inexplicable on natural grounds (i.e. a supernatural act), then to reject the possibility of miracles is already to prejudge the matter of God’s existence. If there is a God, then there is no problem with the idea that he might perform supernatural acts. There is only a problem with belief in miracles if we have already decided that there is no God – so the matter cannot be used to adjudicate the existence of God without our argument becoming being fatally circular.

So neither of these two difficulties presented to Christian belief by science are sufficient to reject belief in God.

Looking at it from another angle, has science done away with the need for God? How satisfying is an entirely and purely scientific understanding of life, the universe and everything? There are four points that can be made to show that a purely scientific understanding of the world as offered by an atheist is deeply unsatisfying:

  1. Naturalistic understandings of origins require just as much faith to believe in as theistic understandings of origins. “God created the universe” and “The universe happened by chance” are both statements of faith, and both unscientific in the sense that neither can be proved by scientific method, but actually belong to the realm of metaphysics.
  2. There are some things in life that science on its own just can’t make sense of. An example of this is altruism – a lot has been written by biologists, psychologists and philosophers to explain the origins of altruism in naturalistic terms, but no satisfying explanation has been offered.
  3. Science is just not a good tool to answer many of the questions we really care about. What can science say about things like love, beauty, meaning… Can science answer the questions, Who am I? What am I here for? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there so much suffering? and, Why does it bother me that there is so much suffering?
  4. Finally, science cannot help us as we confront the inevitable reality of death. Science, particularly medical and pharamaceutical science, can help us postpone the inevitable, but it cannot stop it happening. Science just can’t tell us what (if anything) happens to us after we die – and yet this is something of huge significance to all of us, no matter how much our culture dislikes asking these kinds of questions. This is one reason to take seriously the claims Christians make about Jesus Christ – has he really defeated death, and is there something beyond the grave?

So it seems that science just cannot answer every questionalthough it is a very good tool for discovering a lot of things, on its own science cannot offer a truly satisying or complete answer to everything. This is not to denigrate science, but to make clear that the optimism of the Enlightenment to think that science could eventually tell us everything we wanted to know is severely misplaced.

So science is not incompatible with belief in God, nor has it made belief in God superfluous.

More fun in the Library

October 12, 2009

To continue from last term’s fun

moto_0138

For more irony, this NRSV cover spells the word “Anglicised” with the American spelling:

moto_0140_2

Non-Scriptural language

October 7, 2009

Does it bother you that the word trinity is not found in the Bible? It bothers some people – for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical on the grounds that the word trinity is non-Scriptural. It seems that, during the Arian Controversy, Athanasius had to answer the objection that, in formulating the Nicene Creed, the orthodox bishops had used non-Scriptural language – probably focussing on the use of the word οὐσία (essence, substance, being). Athanasius replies, defending his use of such language at length (De Decretis, 18-24). Both the opponents and supporters of Nicea used non-Scriptural terminology, according to Athanasius, but the language used in the creed was valid because it expressed the truth:

But if someone enquires accurately into the things written and defined by the council, he will find that it completely embraces the sense of the truth, especially if one were to enquire with a love of learning and hear the fitting reason for the use of these words.
De Decretis, 18

Second, Arianism was a subtle heresy which attempted to defend itself from the Scriptures. The Arians and non-Arians would both have assented to the same Scriptural phrases about the Son’s relationship to the Father, but have understood it in different ways. Therefore, Athanasius says, it became necessary to rule out certain false ways of interpreting the Scriptural language, using non-Scriptural terms. But, this language is acceptable because it “gather[s] together the sense of Scripture”:

Nevertheless, let it be known to anyone who wishes to learn, that even if the words are not as such in the Scriptures, yet, as has been said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures and they express this sense and communicate it to those who have ears that are whole and hearken unto piety.
De Decretis, 21.

In this way, while we concede that much of the language used in orthodox definitions of Christology and the Trinity are non-Scriptural or non-biblical (that is, they are not part of the vocabulary of the Bible), they are not for that reason unscriptural or unbiblical. Of course, Christians need to be careful that they find and use appropriate language when trying to “gather up the sense of Scripture”, but they need not feel limited to only using the Biblical vocabulary when doing theology. Such a limitation would also really limit theology to works written in Hebrew or Greek, since all translation involves interpretation to a greater or lesser extent. Non-Scriptural vocabulary often helps explain what the Biblical language means, rule out false interpretations where there is potential ambiguity, and acts as a shorthand for things that are Scriptural.

Should anyone then worry that the word trinity isn’t found in the Bible? No – because it is shorthand for the truth taught in the Bible about God’s identity. The Bible does teach that there is one God; that the Father is God; that the Son is God; that the Holy Spirit is God; and that the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, and that the Son is not the Spirit nor the Father, and that the Spirit is not the Father nor the Son. These seven statements (and the nuances given in Scripture) lead directly to the Trinitarian belief expressed in e.g. the Athanasian Creed, and the word trinity is a useful shorthand for this, and fully commensurate with the sense of Scripture.

The Importance of Being Honest

October 6, 2009

A few things that have happened to me this week have acted to grow in me a conviction that Christians need to be very honest about what they are doing when they invite others to evangelistic events, or talk to others about the gospel.

Yesterday, I came across some people with a stall and some flyers in our Students’ Union building at Nottingham University. I took one of their flyers, which I at first assumed was a flyer for a club night, as it invited me to come and “enjoy the music” and “feel the passion” somewhere on Sunday. Reading a bit closer, I noticed that there was the word “church” as part of their name and web address. It was an advertisement for a new church starting in Nottingham, but apart from the word “church”, there was no religious or Christian content on the flyer at all. No mention of Jesus, God, faith, sermons, the fact that the “music” would be Christian… I felt a bit concerned that all the church in question was claiming to be able to offer was an experience or a concert – not a life-changing message and encounter with the living God.

In addition, we in the CU have been reminded to make it clear that there will be a presentation of the Christian message at evangelistic events we invite people to – not just to advertise the availability of free food or entertainment. This is a perfectly fair point – we do not want to get a reputation for luring people in with food, freebies or fun and then “trap” them in a Christian meeting they do not want to be a part of.  Such tactics seem to fall into the “deceitful and shameful ways” mentioned by Paul in 2Corinthians 4, which he says he and his co-workers have renounced. Instead, says Paul, they “set forth the truth plainly”. An important part of this is because it befits the actual message of the gospel to be communicated plainly and not deviously. The message is one of light, not darkness, and should be communicated openly and without falsification or manipulation.

Lunchbar: Why is there evil in the world?

October 3, 2009

Lunchbar yesterday at Nottingham was on the question of “why is there evil in the world?”

To begin with, our speaker made the observation that this was not only a question which was frequently asked by people now, but also a question which is asked in the Bible itself:

“How long, LORD, must I call for help,
   but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’
   but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
   Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?”
(Habbakuk 1:2-3a)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me,
   so far from the words of my groaning?”

(Psalm 22:1)

It is not a question which is wrong to ask – but we must then be prepared to hear the answer God gives to us. Sometimes the question can be phrased or asked in such a way as to prejudge the answer; more as a means of asserting that God can’t possibly exist, given the existence of evil, than as a means of finding out why God does what He does.

The first point to be made to this kind of way of asking the question is that the existence of evil doesn’t disprove the existence of God. Rather than spending a lot of time on this point, our speaker asked us to look at things from the opposite perspective: if there is no God, then we must take a naturalistic view of the world, within which moral outrage doesn’t make sense. Without saying that atheists are incapable of morality, it is fair to say that in a God-less universe it is hard to find a firm basis for the kind of moral standards we implicitly believe exist when we express outrage at injustice or violence. We sense that there is something absolutely wrong with some of the things that happen that is more fundamental than the fact that we dislike or disapprove of them. “Murder is wrong” is a statement that cannot be reduced down to “I dislike murder”. While not watertight as an argument, perhaps this sense that morality is more than our preferences is a clue or a nudge in the direction of God existing. So the existence of evil is not necessarily an argument about whether God exists or not, but about whether he is just.

The next point to be made is that God will bring judgement upon evil. God hates evil. He will not let it remain forever. There will be justice. As Luke records Paul saying:

“[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”
(Acts 17:31a)

The Christian can know that God will be vindicated and seen to be just because all evil will be judged and dealt with. Everyone who does evil will have their day in the divine courtroom.

So why is justice not done now? Why does God appear to defer his judgement while evil appears to have free reign? A large part of the answer to that question is given by the New Testament’s claim that

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”
(2Peter 3:9)

The problem with evil for us is that none of us are perfect. We might say we want God to act to eradicate all evil in the world right now, but then who among us would survive? We might not all be as bad as we could be, but we are all radically evil and imperfect; we wrong ourselves, and others, and God. So part of the reason why God appears to defer his justice for some future day is to allow us time to repent and be saved. But God will not wait forever – as we have seen, the biblical writers’ answer to the charge that God is not just relies upon the fact that he will judge the world in righteousness at some point in the future. So the existence of evil in the world can and should be a stimulus to take the judgement of God seriously, and to recognise our need to repent. As Luke records:

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’
(Luke 13:1-5)