The nifty bit of abuse in my title comes from a Christmas song by Sydney Carter who imagines Mary and Joseph “knocking on the window on a Christmas Day” and getting the answer:
“No we haven’t got a manger, no we haven’t got a stable
We are Christian men and women, always willing never able”
It’s unfair of course, but it is does sum up a lot of Christain hand-wringing at the state of the world, while the churches, bible bloggers included, offer diddly squat to make it better. The U.K. church’s response to the Brexit referendum may be a case in point. They have made justifiable criticism of the mean -mindedness and outright racism of some of the debate; they have worried about the effect of the U.K. Exit on European peace; they have protested that God is concerned with people rather than boundaries, and especially with people who have no countries and no homes.
So let me suggest two practical responses that any church can take.
It can help identify usable dwellings within its own parish that might, with Government help, house refugees, and it can publicly commit itself to welcoming refugees and helping them settle over years rather than months. It can notify its local council and the Scottish Government of its desire to help in this way. This is a practical response to the fact that Brexit will make it harder for refugees to come here. Churches in Scotland will find that some German churches already have experience of what can be done
It can work to establish a twinning arrangement with at least one church in the EU. Most denominations want their churches to do this kind of thing through their bureaucracies, which like to keep power in their own hands. Individual congregations should assert their independence and competence to make contacts and pursue friendships with congregations in Europe. Such linkages have four purposes at least: a) to celebrate our common faith and mission in Europe. b) To share information about worship, education, pastoral care, and outreach which can enhance the life of both partners. c) to encourage mutual visits that build personal friendships. d) to make real especially to younger people our belonging together across boundaries. The reality of a European union is not totally dependent on what nation states and their governments decide to do, but upon the determination of citizens to build cross-border institutions and personal ties. Perhaps we should always have started to build Europe from the bottom up rather than the top down.
These responses are far from being the only right ones, but they tackle real problems which are exacerbated by Brexit; the plight of refugees and the increase in nationalistic hatred of foreigners throughout Europe. They also hold out a chance for churches to take the lead in a social issue rather than being dragged kicking and screaming in the wake of change.
These initiatives would also be fun, because they involve contact with other human beings. Boredom comes from exclusivity and closed doors; fun, excitement, hope and pleasure come from openness. When Jesus spoke about himself, he did not say, “I am the Wall” (like Mr. Trump); he did say, “I am the Door.”
Its only four hours since it became clear that the UK as a whole had voted to leave the EU, and only some minutes since the Prime Minister announced that he would stand down in the autumn. Too soon, therefore, for any disciplined reflection on this result, except to record how proud I am of Scotland and my fellow citizens, that we have shown our acceptance of inter-national cooperation and our rejection of racism, by voting 62% to remain. Of course we never saw ourselves as masters of the world, as the English did – even if we shared their imperialism, we were in fact their first colony- nor do we have the levels of immigration experienced in certain parts of England. Still, we have clearly shown our different political values in this vote and I hope they will guide our future.
I promised to devote this blog to a consideration of what theologians call eschatology, that is, thinking about the end times. The classic Christian doctrine is that in the end time, Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead; that God will create new heavens and a new earth; and that God’s people will share the divine life forever and ever. I guess that very few of the believing people in the churches I serve either know or believe this teaching, but believe rather in individual judgement and reward at the end of their own individual time. Few believers now hold to the concept of a future general resurrection and universal judgement with the possibility of heaven or hell. The eschatology of the faithful has been privatised.
Of course any just judgement has to be personal. I wrote in my bible blog yesterday (emmock .com) that I see the final judgement of Jesus as happening in a time aslant historical time but impinging on it, so that every day is judgement day, every day people are welcomed into the light of God’s love or left in the darkness they have chosen. When I call God “the beyond in the midst”, I mean that God’s goodness (Jesus/ heaven) is available to me here and now, where I may choose it( life) or spurn it (death). Of course there is a sense in which evil people do not choose death; they choose wealth, power, violence, lies, lust and so on, but they are always aware that these goods are devoid of life. They are choosing the death of their humanity and in their own end time they get what they wanted. Good people may be afflicted by evil or tempted by it, but they know that it offers no life, and therefore choose to reach out towards a goodness, which in their end time reaches out to them and gives them life.
But that is a personal vision. What about the world in which we live? What about the countless people who never had a chance to be persons because of oppression and deprivation? What about the ecosystem of the earth and our fellow creatures? What about the universe and its evolution, including perhaps forms of life of which we at present know nothing?
The bible offers visions of the end which are broader and deeper in their scope than individual salvation, and which give content to the believer’s prayer, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”. In this blog I’ll use just one of these, leaving other vision for subsequent blogs. Here it is:
The Peaceful Kingdom Isaiah 11: 1-9
11 A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf also shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
This dates from the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah 715-687 BCE, and comes from the pen of the first prophet Isaiah, who communicated to the rulers of his people what he believed to be God’s message, in vivid diatribes and visions. He was open to the politics of his nation and area, capable of assessing these out of a profound grasp of his religious tradition, and of expressing his assessments in language of beauty, precision and wit.
Here, towards the end of his life, he provides a vision of how his God will fulfil his promise to the great King David, that his dynasty will last and will be fruitful. In this vision Isaiah was looking I think into later, if not the last, times.
The instrument of God’s transformation will be a politician! In this case, a king of the Davidic dynasty, who will bring God’s rule to the people. He will not be a superman, but rather a man inspired by the fear of God, and moulded by God’s spirit. The qualities which are developed in him are not supernatural, but human: wisdom, understanding, counsel and might. This ruler sets aside propaganda and makes judgement in favour of the poor and the humble of the land. His harshness towards the wicked is shown by the force and accuracy of his words. His whole character is bound together by goodness and faithfulness. This description is given by a man who knew kings and their frailties yet trusted that God’s purpose would be achieved through a human ruler, by human means.
But then the vision makes an extraordinary leap. The establishment of social justice will lead to a paradisal peace in which all enmity will be abolished between predators and prey, and between animals and human beings. The reconciliation of animals with each other is twice emphasised by their gentleness to children. It is a vision that still brings a catch to the voice almost three thousands years after its composition. The abolition of the need to kill in order to eat does away with the most fundamental of all types of violence and convinces the reader that it is not necessary.
The summing up emphasises this possibility:
they will not hurt or destroy – that’s the result, and it is achieved by the universal knowledge of God:
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea-
-that’s the means: the prophet declares that the impossible possibility of peace will come through human knowledge and action that is rooted in the creative impulse of God.
I’ll conclude with some brief points about this text.
It is set in this world of human beings and other creatures
It is set in history yet transcends it.
The events are encompassed by God’s presence but they are brought about by human action.
Government, in this case by a King, is envisaged as necessary for justice.
The opposition will be destroyed by the truth and wisdom of the ruler’s judgements.
The Government is inspired by the character of God to dismiss lies and attend to the needs of the poor and the gentle.
The life of the ruler is bound to the life of God.
The ecosystem is returned to the state described in the vision of Genesis, in which there is no predation amongst creatures, no enmity between humanity and animals.
Human justice is the precondition for this transformation, but does not define its scope. The just society flowers into the garden of Eden.
This vision of the last times finds its imagery in a story of the first times, completing the arc of creation
We should note that all species including humanity are what they are because of predation, amongst other factors. Does this invalidate the vision? I think not, as Isaiah knew he was appealing from the real condition of the world to God’s original intention for it. This is the way he marks the transcendent nature of his vision.
All of these points deserve incorporation into Christian teaching about the end time.
The image of Nigel Farage the UKIP leader unveiling a poster at the weekend is unintentionally comic as well as racist. A small, slightly apologetic, sad man (what we would describe in Scotland as a “wee bachul”) stands in front of a picture of hundreds of vibrant human beings about to burst into a Greek field. He is telling us that this will destroy life as we know it. This swarming mass of needy people in Greece will trample the Union Jack, abolish private education, occupy our parking places with their camels, close our ale houses, defeat us at football, force our men and possibly our women to grow beards, and deliver the editor of the Daily Mail to be martyred by crazed ayatollahs.
The end of the world will arrive if we don’t vote leave on Thursday.
On the other hand, a responsible man in a suit with a very red face – can he really be our PM? – assures us that on the contrary, all the rich humanitarian policies of his government- constant reductions in welfare benefits, cutting down on the huge numbers of costly people with disabilities and throwing alylum seekers into detention centres – these shining examples of social justice will be no more, unless we vote remain on Thursday. If we vote leave, the floodgates will be open for hordes of slimy alien creatures, led out of the sewers by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, to terrify the nation in a feeding frenzy of right wing ruthlessness. Most of these treacherous creatures will be indentifiable as Tory MPs and colleagues of the honourable PM.
If we do vote leave on Thusday, the end of the world will arrive.
I have always been attracted to the apocalyptic utterances of end of the world prophets. I loved the dismal street preacher of my youth, who would stand in Sauchiehall Street on a wet November afternoon giving the punters the glad news that the end of the world was nigh. Most of his damp audience looked as if they would consider this outcome a blessed release. I particularly liked the transatlantic group who knew that the world would end at midnight on 31st January 1983, at which hour they gathered on Mont Blanc, as instructed by their prophet. By breakfast time on 1/1/1984 scores of bedraggled creatures were back at ground level, lamenting the fact that they would now have to pay their hotel bills.
Given the poor record of all such prophecies, you might think that even the loopiest orators would avoid them. But no, all we need is a political, moral, religious or ecological crisis, like for example the possibility of Turkey joining the EU in 50 years time, for the manic street preachers to grab their placards and point to Armageddon.
Jesus entrusted his followers with the task of announcing the arrival of God’s Rule, which some saw as an apocalyptic event, but He saw as the robust communication of God’s goodness here and now. Knowing however that there were plenty loopy prophets around, he counselled them to pay no attention to the voices saying, Tomorrow in Jerusalem, or Next Week in Damascus, and to continue abolishing poverty, healing the sick, welcoming the outcast, and staying hungry for justice.
I hope the UK votes to remain in the EU, for, degraded as it is, it remains a reminder of a generous vision and a stimulus to a fraternity that might lead to greater liberty and equality. Political choice is often a matter of achieving small gains or preventing small losses.
But if it votes to leave I shall not be closing down my blog and getting my climbing boots on for the ascent of Mont Blanc. Like the 8-05 Scotrail from Dundee to Glaagow, the end of the world will have been postponed again.
The murder of Jo Cox MP by a man shouting, “Britain first!” has caused public horror and the temporary abandonment of the ritual exchange of lies and insults which has taken the place of rational debate about membership of the EU. Suddenly even the worst offenders, most of whom are well-known public figures, are seen with solemn faces, deploring violence and urging more protection for MPs. Doubtless the public will regard their solemnity with the same scepticism as their rabid splutterings.
My particular concern is that the BBC whose newscasts have for weeks given publicity to intemperate allegations and slurs, whose presenters have given airtime to routine lying and called it balance, now has the impertinence to put on black ties and ask if there’s something disrespectful about the way we treat our politicians. Indeed, responding to the terrible death of a young woman with hours of vapid discussion may be another kind of disrespect. The very news engine which has gorged on political abuse is now chewing its way through the tragedy of a human death.
The atmosphere in which we currently do our poiitics is seriously polluted, and therefore dangerous, even if, as it may turn out, it had little to do with the murder of Jo Cox.
I immediately think of two classic Christian texts.
The first is the sermon on the mount in which Jesus quotes the commandment against killing and goes on to to forbid violent and denigratory speech against another person. I have to admit that I have not often preached on this text, perhaps because churches have their own internal arguments which do not always avoid harsh words. I may have been guilty myself of words designed to demolish rather than to refute. Like all teachings of Jesus, the link he makes between violent action and violent words is wise and radical. The mental and emotional disposition in which we dismiss others as worthless is violent even if we manage to restrain ourselves from anything worse than words. Clearly if we permit violent public discourse we encourage acts of violence. More positively, if we encourage peaceful public discourse, we discourage acts of violence.
The second is Simone Weil ‘s book, “The Need for Roots” written during the Second World War. In it she lays down what she calls “needs of the soul” the most sacred of which, she says, is truth. Human beings in society need truth and suffer from lies. She writes this sentence: “We all know that when journalism becomes indistinguishable from organised lying, it constitutes a crime.” She goes on to ask why it is not punished, and seriously proposes making it a crime to publish lies. She knew that this would lead to howls of democratic rage from the habitual liars, but suggested a special sort of independent judiciary to deal with such cases. Perhaps we need to recognise that public lying is a crime and the mother of crimes, and that a press free of political control need not be free of all control.
These issues have been of concern to me for some years, but may be of greater public concern in the wake of public savagery.
(Jesus (J)is praying alone, watched by an armed JewIsh Jihadi (JJ))
JJ. Jesus of Nazareth, I hope you are praying for yourself!
J. Why, brother?
JJ. Because I’m here to kill you in God’s name, for having given comfort to a Roman, and for having committed abomination.
J. I plead guilty to the comfort, but I need informed about the abomination.
JJ. “If a man lie with another man as with a woman, they have committed abomination.”
J. I know such men, but I’m not one of them. Why do you think I am?
JJ. You pretend to be a Rabbi, but you’re not married, and you teach that men may keep away from women for the sake of God’s kingdom. You live with a group of men, whom you have instructed to love each other.
J. And you, brother, and your fellow soldiers, have you not renounced marriage and family for the sake of holy war? I and my friends are also engaged in holy war, although not against flesh and blood.
JJ. If you swear that this is true, I will spare you.
J. There’s no need for swearing. Yes and no are enough. I’ve said it is so.
JJ. Very well, God be with you….
J. Perhaps we can talk, if you have time for anything but killing…
JJ. Don’t laugh at me, Jesus…
J. What gives you the right to kill in God’s name?
JJ. The right of holy war against the Gentiles who have stolen our land!
J. And the killing of men who lie with men?
JJ. As it is written in the Torah, they shall be killed and their blood shall be on their own heads. Leviticus chapter 20. Surely we must obey the Torah!
J. We have to do something much harder: we have to obey the God of the Torah.
JJ. How can there be a difference?
J. This teaching makes two mistakes. The first is that men lying with men is contrary to God’s creation and therefore abominable. But the truth is that these men were created with this desire; they do not choose it. If you know any, you’ll know that this is the truth. And if God created them, they are also God’s children and precious to him.
JJ. You dare to speak for God against his Torah?
J. Yes. And the second mistake is that God needs our protection, so we must kill those who commit what we call abomination or indeed those who conquer our land. If God needs protected from his creatures, he’s not much of a God.
JJ. How can a true Rabbi show such disrespect for our God?
J. For all your weapons you’re just a child, brother. You need to grow and learn from our father Abraham who was strong enough to argue with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Father doesn’t want scared wee kids who hide behind the Torah, but grown up sons and daughters who love him with all their heart and soul and MIND and strength.
JJ. But this is worse blasphemy than lying with men! It mixes the thoughts of human beings with the Word of God!
J. Do you know of any word of God that did not come through the thoughts of human beings?
JJ. But then there will be no certainty in our faith, no absolute authority!
J. The Torah and the prophets are a human witness to God. They are only God’s Word if we treat them as human and sometimes mistaken.
JJ. And you think that’s enough?
J. No of course it’s not enough, child! Once the Torah points us to God, we are to love Him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves. And part of that is going in secret to fall on our knees and pray, as I was doing when you interrupted me.
JJ. Jesus of Nazareth you are a greater danger to God and our people than I could ever have imagined. As a soldier of God I must kill you! God is great!
J. Amen! And because God is great, I’m going to get to my feet and walk past you, and you will not hurt me, because you already think I may be right. If you grow into a new faith, you’ll find me again, and I’ll welcome you. Peace be with you.
(The armed Jihadi stands still as Jesus leaves.)
*jesus and mo, as above, is the most intelligent commentary on contemporary religion available. Just google Jesus and mo.
If there’s a minister in Scotland who is forever applying for the role of Old Testament prophet it’s the Rev. David (Elijah) Robertson of the Dundee Free Church of Scotland, and there are few areas of Scottish life untouched by his vigorous denunciations. In some instances his well-argued polemics have been a welcome antidote to liberal platitudes, in others more an expression of theological prejudice. Just this morning I see that David (Elijah) is at it again, this time as a spokesperson for the “SNP for Leave” campaign, on the subject of the forthcoming referendum, in an essay in the Sunday Herald. His argument is:
The true sovereign of the world is God and therefore under God, all people share equally the right to determine their own affairs.
In the case of Scotland that derived sovereignity should belong to the Scottish people and their chosen government.
Sharing that sovereignity with the Europeqn Union is a diminution not only of sovereignity but also and more importantly of democracy, because the effective rulers of the EU, the commissioners, are not elected but appointed.
An independent Scotland would have more power as part of an “interdependent UK.” than as part of the EU.
Most people will notice some strange things here. At present, the Scottish people, in a referendum, has chosen to be governed within the UK. If that’s their use of their God -given right, then presumably God gives it his tentative approval, however much Rev David (Elijah) may disapprove. In fact the whole article suffers from the ambiguity as to whether it is arguing against a future independent Scotland or Scotland now as part of the U.K., remaining in the EU.
The point about the lack of full democracy in the EU has been made by many others, but it cannot be honest to ignore altogether the EU Parliament and its elected representatives including those from Scotland. An argument that pretends the EU is simply non-democratic is inaccurate.
In fact we must contrast the existence of an EU Parliament with the utter lack of any institutions that might allow an independent Scotland to have influence in an “interdependent” UK. Indeed this “interdependence” is a prophetic vision which must be God-given as there is no earthly evidence for it at all.
These elements are curious. There are also some good elements, such as a genuine concern for grass- roots democracy, for the Scottish fishing industry, and distinctively Scottish social justice proposals, like banning tax- avoiding companies from bidding for public contracts.
But as a fellow theologian I find myself suprised by the absence of any genuine biblical perspective. I imagine David (Elijah) will have one which he has chosen not to use when arguing a secular issue, but its absence permits him to be more positive about nation states, such as Scotland, than the Bible is. The desire of the confederation of tribes called Israel to become a nation state and be governed by an elected monarch is viewed by the biblical prophets as rebellion against God. The people are warned that their new King/ government will rip them off and lead them into dynastic war. And even after the successful reign of King David, his successors are judged by whether they worshipped God or idols, and gave justice to the widow and the orphan, that is, to those who had no social power. The best that the Old Testament expects of the nation state and its rulers is that they are not idolatrous and protect the weak and powerless! That’s it.
The New Testament is no more positive about the nation state. Jesus announced a Rule of God which had no place for either the rule of Rome or of Israel/Judah, nor did he propose a caliphate or theocracy that would implement God’s Rule. He expected that God’s Rule could be exercised in communities of those who accepted it, underneath, within, and alongside the nation state or empire. The only teaching we have from Jesus that is directed at “nations” is in Matthew 25 where the nations are gathered before the true king and judged as to how they have treated the hungry, the thirsty, the immigrant, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, with whom the true king is identified. This goes further than the Old Testament, but does not expect more of the nation state than basic social justice and care.
I make this point to suggest that Christian people ought not to assume that the nation state itself is a boon to humanity. It tends towards unrestrained competition with other states which is ultimately resolved in war. This pessimistic realism about states is characteristic of the biblical tradition and of the best Christian political writing. From this perspective we cannot assume that an independent nation is always desirable or that full sovereignity is always better than international association. With this in mind we might see the founders of the EU as looking at the history of their nation states in two world wars, and recognising that their full sovereignity had become demonic and required restraint; and that their mutual ignorance had issued in bigoted hatred of neighbouring peoples. Shared sovereignity could accustom legislatures to decisions made for the good of neighbouring nations as well as their own; and the freedom of people to learn work and play in other nations could foster transnational community. These, as well as free trade, were the hopes of those who founded what has become the EU. From a biblical perspective they could be seen as ways of undermining the self- idolatry of nation states.
But perhaps David ( Elijah) has thought of all this and dismissed it, either because he thinks that the EU Is seriously oppressive or that the Scottish nation is especially just, or would be, if only it could free itself from Brussels. He would have to justify either of these positions by more coherent argument than he has provided.
Although I am not a prophet, I do judge politics from a biblical perspective, which leads me to ask the following questions about the referendum:
Which choice is more likely to restrain our government’s and neighbouring governments’ worship of their own powers?
Which choice is more likely to provide justice for the poor, the migrant and the orphan in Scotland and Europe?
These criteria do not make for easy answers. For example, the poor of the UK are the most adversely affected by immigration, but they lead me, on balance, to vote to remain in the EU, which puts me at odds with D (E) our national prophet. But they led me to vote the same way as he did in the last referendum, so maybe there’s hope for me yet.
I’m tempted to call it a bad week, because it included the severe illness of two members of my family, but better reflection urges me to all it simply strenuous as it gave me the opportunity to care, if I was prepared to make the effort. The interval of a week becomes more significant to people at times of pleasure like holidays or times of pain like illness. The seven days of the week seem to have no seasonal or cosmological significance beyond their derivation from the cycle of the moon, although the number 7 has gathered to itself a range of meanings in many cultures and religions, such as its use as a marker of perfection in The Judaeo – Christian tradition, as in the 7 days of the creation of the world. In my case this week, it simply serves to mark off one period of time in the hope that the next one will be happier.
The invention of the seven days of creation in Genesis is paralleled by the frequent use of the week by scientists to help lay people imagine the main events in the evolution of the earth, from its fiery birth 4,500 million years ago. If the earth was born on Monday, they say, then the first evidence of life, that of bacteria, comes late on Monday evening, and until now all the evidence pointed to Thursday as the earliest evidence of the eukaryotic cell which is the basis of all multicellular life. Plants and animals do not appear until Sunday and human beings late in the last hour of Sunday. This timetable is a little different from the one in Genesis, but the latter of course is for the universe and not just the earth.
Recently scientists have been puzzled by examination of a a fossil found in China which is 1,500 million years old and multicellular, whose existence is ruled out by the usual timetable. This is leading some investigators to revise the existing timetable and to tell a different story of the evolution of life. New facts have emerged which appear to challenge the existing story, which must therefore be re-examined and perhaps altered.
That’s different of course from the Genesis story which is part of a bigger narrative of the adventures of God and his human beings, written at a particular time, and valuable not only for its content, but for its example of using the best science available to imagine the relationship of humanity to the source of life. I don’t want to change the Genesis story but to use it as a model for the new story I want to tell, in the light of the new evidence that any week may bring.
In the instance of this last week of my life, I want to revise or at least tweak the story I tell about living to include a bigger place for the phenomenon of the human love which brings joy and makes us suffer. If I did not love my brother and my daughter, their illnesses would bring me no pain. I might still have goodwill towards them and hope for their full recovery, but I would not have this nagging unease that has been with me all the time, and this terrible vertiginous feeling that the solid earth is dropping away from my feet.What is this love? Evolutionary biologists point out that the apes from which we are descended live in family groups and have developed a multitude of subtle behaviours which express their care of the family group as the primary means of their survival as a species. In the case of human children, who start out even more helpless than most animals; and of the human individual who is in himself not well-built to survive predation, scientists would argue that parental and sibling love are hard-wired into our genetic inheritance, for survival.
I have a lot of respect for this evolutionary argument, but I can see its weak point: that if this love is hard-wired, that is, simply determined by our genes, why does it appear to fail so often, in parents who do not love and do not care for their children, and in siblings who are perpetually at odds with each other? Evolutionary psychologists tell us that genetic factors only make behaviours likely, and that useful behaviours have to inculcated by upbringing and education. The capacity of children to love in their turn is determined by the love given by their parents and shared with their siblings. Again I want to agree with this argument. But of course it leaves the same gap as the previous one: if our genes make parental love likely to be given and passed on, how and why did any parents fail to give it? We seem to need some notion of original sin.
I am no expert, so I can only guess at answers.
Most scientists are agreed that whereas in animals species, successful adaptation to environment takes place at a genetic level, in human beings it takes place at a cultural level, because we are conscious of ourselves and our environment and can decide to adapt or to make our environment adapt to us. We are engaged in conscious learning and in making choices. Our capacity to adapt our environment is the source of our success and failure as a species, because we can make positive adaptations, like traditional farming, and negative adaptations like agribusinesses that destroy the resources on which they are dependent. This also true of our life as a species, where we can choose to cherish each other’s lives as the best way of securing our own flourishing, or we can choose to dominate or exterminate each other to secure that end. Our delight in our own capacities often leads us to destroy other lives.
In this perilous situation, love comes to our rescue. It is given to us as a gift from our generic inheritance, re-inforced by our nurture, if we are lucky. It does not compel us, because we can neglect its prompting; and it does prompt, not as a moral injunction but as a fundamental experience. We do not so much decide to love our children and siblings, as find that we do so, because we have already experienced the love of our own parents and siblings. Even those of us who have been deprived of that parental love, may find that a subsequent experience of love opens us to giving it in turn. It somehow feels right, it is the proper care of flesh and blood.
But it does not compel. We can choose to neglect it, by resolutely acting only for our separate selves, for what we regard as our own welfare; and we can refuse to receive it, except as a contribution to our own welfare. When we receive it however, we are prompted to something beyond familial love, for we recognise this flesh and blood caring as something we can extend to others who are not of our family. Friendship often teaches us this. Then we recognise that it can be extended even to people who are not our friends but who belong to the same residential or voluntary community. Ultimately we may realise that it can be extended to all members of our ecosystem, because it values each life for itself and for its contribution to the whole. These recognitions may occur naturally, but they are also the aim of the great religions of the world, which provide training in enlightenment to open believers to every other being and to the whole of being.
Because love originates in the primary experience of family life we know that it will always be a source of joy and sorrow: sometimes we celebrate together, other times we weep by a bedside. Because love is so adapted to our needs we can say that in the imagined week of evolution, it originated on late on the Monday, with the first unicellular creatures and grew until it touched the strange life-forms that thought they could control their environment. But I would want to say that it was present before the Monday and after the Sunday, and continues to be the beyond in our midst.
I notice in today’s news that Catholic, Orthodox and Armenian churches who compete with each other for the pilgrim trade to the Israel/ Palestine, have managed to reach agreement on upgrading the burial place of Jesus. The site itself of course is pure tourist trade invention from more than a thousand years ago, and the very thought of pilgrimages to Jesus’ grave would have revolted the first believers who passed on to all holy tourists the question, “Why look for the living amongst the dead?”
But it’s entirely typical of the churches that rather than obeying the commands of Jesus, which to be sure, can be a little troublesome, they will put resources into tarting up his tomb. My own experience however leads me to wonder if these churches are not seriously underestimating the extent of their task, as it seems clear that the world church in most of its parts is the burial place of Jesus.
I freely confess that this judgement arises from my conviction that genuine faith comes from discipleship of the Jesus of the gospels. I have no quarrel at all with the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is utterly devoid of substance in the absence of the life and teaching of Jesus. Let my readers ask themselves if in any church known to them, a fresh and lively memory of the man Jesus is fostered, and a practical obedience to his teaching and example made a first priority in congregational life.
In many liberal churches Jesus has become a good chap associated with decent liberal attitudes. In many evangelical churches, he is just a name for God’s forgiveness of me and my hope of heaven. In many Free Churches he is an excuse for denouncing everything liberal and secular. In the Catholic Church he is a justification for an exclusively male clergy. In Episcopal Churches he is the tiny foundation for a splendid architecture of rituals. In most Orthodox churches he is a figurehead of the fight against Islam, socialism, modernism, historical truth and anything that stands in the way of a militant authoritarian revival.
Well, yes, I am joking. There are many genuine believers everywhere, but I don’t think many churches are providing them with a nourishing vision of Jesus. We say he is the Word made flesh, but most mainstream theologies have made him word again, forgetting the man Jesus, while appreciating that he has accomplished a useful salvation for human beings through his death and resurrection, or for some denominations, through the gift of the Spirit which he brokered. If you ask outsiders, “what are churches about?” how many would reply, “They are people who follow the teachings of Jesus.” ?
There’s a reason for this. Jesus is a bit tricky to be honest. He’s impertinent enough to enquire about my sexual morality, my wealth, my treatment of the poor, my capacity to forgive, and so on, things that are nobody’s business but my own, so he’s a complete disaster if the church wants to be popular. All the more reason then to use his name, and his rather helpful death and promising resurrection, and to bury the rest of his life and teaching. Any good PR person would agree.
There has always been a problem about the life of Jesus. Doubtless the first Christian communities were provided with memories of Jesus by disciples who had been with him. Nevertheless we can see from Paul’s letters that he did not teach the story of Jesus’ life, nor did he expect his converts to follow his earthly way, but rather to make his descent into this world a model for their own humility and service. For them too, the Spirit would have been a more immediate experience than Jesus.
It is my conviction that the Gospels were written to balance this kind of spirituality with the memory of Jesus, so that every generation of believers could be faced afresh with his character, actions and teachings. The gospel writers were in no way denying the salvation of men and women through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, but they wanted to flesh out the nature of “being saved” and of life in the Spirit, by providing vivid stories of Jesus himself. His actions were not to be imitated slavishly but meant to inspire actions of equivalent goodness; his commands were not to be taken as a new Torah but they were meant to be obeyed; his wisdom was not considered to be the finished truth, but to lead disciples into deeper revelation. They were saying, “Here is Jesus the Word of God. Let us take God at his Word, and build our communal life on our memory of what he was, for it will unite us with what he is now and forever.”
Even the poorest church ought to provide within their buildings their own presentation of Jesus’ life, and death, resurrection, with a clear statement of his basic teachings. This might be done through the visual arts, or cartoon, video or film, backed up by the best and most interesting books about Jesus, for all ages. Education departments of mainstream churches ought to be providing materials that can be used in this way, showing the facts about Jesus without distortion or disabling piety. The “Jesus corner”, of a church building ought to be open to its members and to non-members as often as possible during the week, and should have space for study, creative response, prayer and meditation.
Such a display would only be a symbol of the church’s trust in Jesus, and an expression of it. If that commitment was lacking the display would fall into disuse.
Jesus is the church’s best bet. I have never met anyone, of any religion or of no religion who, faced with the facts of Jesus and his teaching, found him boring. Some disagreed with some of his teaching, but few were unmoved by the man’s wisdom, courage and compassion. Unfortunately the church is not so well thought of. So it would be the merest common sense for it to put the gospel Jesus at the centre of its communal life and public communication.
In my last blog I proposed the strange image of the universe and all its living beings as a foetus in the womb of God, growing towards the perfect creation he/she expects.
A probable reaction to this bizarre image, is to ask why on earth anyone should imagine it far less believe it.
This blog attempts to answer that question with a history of my own discipleship of Jesus of Nazareth. That means the reader should beware. Few people can write about themselves without lying and I am probably not one of them. I hope I will not lie consciously but there are doubtless still areas of my life in which I am self-deceived.
When I look back on myself as a young man, I cringe. I had the advantages of a stable upbringing, a reasonable education, a loving partner and a calling that gave scope to some of my abilities, and I identified myself as a disciple of Jesus, yet I continually made an arse of it. I use this coarse expression not only because I remain a coarse person, but also because it expresses my impatience at the blind immaturity of my treatment of others, my frequent posturing, my persistent selfishness. My self-knowledge was scanty enough to let me see myself as an existential hero, while desperately covering up my very ordinary faults. My huge attention to myself and my needs, got in the way of my attention to my wife, my daughter, my friends and the people I was employed to care for.
At some level I knew that what I was actually doing was far from true discipleship, and I chose to disguise this fact by changing my calling from minister to community worker, enabling me to confer upon myself the glamour of worker priest or Christian radical like the Berrigans in the USA. This at least had the beneficial effect of proving that I was not well- equipped to be a good community worker and that any success I had achieved in this line in the past had in fact been due to the wisdom and support of the members of my church. It also exposed me to the company of decent people from a great variety of social and religious traditions who were well-equipped to care for others in ways that made a difference. In particular I was challenged by men and women influenced by the Englsih socialist tradition, who had a greater respect for equality than I had. This led me into a fruitful kind of self-examination which took me back towards my Christian discipleship with a new readiness to be taught by Jesus.
It would be nice to record this increased self-awareness as a true conversion, but honesty compels me to note that it was very partial, not least because it took me back into the ministry of the church, with all the scope for arrogance and self-deception it provides. I was perhaps more aware of the goodness of others than formerly and therefore more appreciative of the rich humanity of the congregation I served, and able to learn from them. I was also more appreciative of colleagues with their special gifts. But I was still driven by the imperative of hiding my real self some distance below layer upon layer of public persona. It did not help that many others, deceived by my deception, treated me as if I were indeed my persona.
In that context, my genuine attempts to be a disciple of Jesus resulted in repeated, often clumsy attempts to identify with people in need or suffering injustice. These were not however without value, for me at any rate, as they reminded me of the courage, endurance, creativity and humour of people who had been given fewer advantages than me. They helped me put my arrogant follies in truer perspective.
Over the course of further ministries in two very different parishes, and involvement in the lives of some wonderful people, I began to recognise in myself a beneficial process which has continued ever since, which I can best describe as a hollowing out of my ego. This process is twofold: on the one hand it punctures my self deceptions by bringing them up against the hard rock of reality, exposing my failures as a disciple of Jesus, as a citizen and as a human being; on the other hand it pushes me to learn from the goodness of others. I did not ask for the process in my life and there are times when I try to ignore it. It has come about through my continuing desire to be a disciple of Jesus, from whom I have never wavered in my allegiance however many times I have ignored his teaching and example.
Am I in control of this process? Clearly I contribute to it, but I am sure I don’t control it. Who then controls it?
I found the key to answering this question in a strand of my experience which has been with me since childhood, but has often been disregarded by me: my experience of the natural world. I have always needed to spend time alone in whatever natural environments I could find, from city parks to remote mountains. Over time I’ve learned more about their flora and fauna, and owe a great deal to those who have informed me about them, especially the books which have been with me since the days of the “Observer Guides”.
My discovery was that my egocentricity dropped away when I was alone in a natural environment. Taking a holiday how ever brief from society was also taking a holiday from arrogance, which was and is still a blessing, the freedom not to be a competitive self but to be a member along with other creatures of a web of life. This was not at all the experience of an elated moment, but rather of being an ordinary creature, that is, of being created, along with other living things and therefore being in development. I want to emphasise the ordinariness of this experience which is characterised by ease, sobriety and trust.
It took me a long time to realise that my experience of Jesus is similar. When I say “experience of Jesus” I am not referring to anything mystical, or ultra- emotional or profound like that of a terrifying and fascinating holiness, but rather of Jesus present in the reading of the Gospels, or the usual worship of the church, or the bread and wine of Communion. In his company I am at ease because he welcomed sinners without fuss; his companionship is sober because he has things he wants me to do and we both know my weaknesses; and I trust him because he trusts me. In his presence also I know I am being created, that I am not yet complete. And the life into which he persuades me is a life shared with the other creatures of my time and place. I guess this is what it means to be “born again,” although none of this feels at all religious, for which reason I have always found it difficult to relate to religious Christians.
These are some of the facts of discipleship on which my theology of the pregnant God depends and which give me confidence to include my small experience of development within a universal process of evolution which I trust is guided by the wisdom of God.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Paul decided to mix it with the intellectuals of Athens, by preaching to them on the Areopagus, basing his pitch on the fact that he had seen in the city an altar “to the Unknown God.” With some irony he commended them for their search for God and spoke of the God revealed in the gospel, who was not not in need of human help because He had created all things, and was not far away from anyone, for, as Paul had read in a Greek poem, ” in him we live and move and have our being.” The sermon, which led on to a mention of the risen Jesus, went down like a lead balloon, but I have always found Paul’s quotation very helpful, as a way of imagining God.
Many modern theologians have written of God’s presence in the world by distinguishing between pantheism, which means that God is everything, and panentheism which means that God is in everything. They say that pantheism is not Christian at all, whereas panentheism can be a helpful way of imagining the God of Jesus.
At first sight this may seem an attractive notion, with possible links to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, but I have become wary of it, as it ultimately rests on a magical view of the world. For what is this presence of God in all things? My guess is that most people think of it a a kind of supernatural gloop circulating in all objects and creatures, or as a kind of aura shining out of them. Neither of these appeals to me, as there is no scientific evidence of them, and anyway I like the universe the way it is, cleared of gods and goddesses and all kinds of superstitious gobbledygook. So although the concept of panentheism may be convenient to theologians, I want them to discard it.
But how then can we imagine the companionable and energising presence of God within our ecosystem, our web of life? Or within ourselves?
This where I go back to St Paul’s quotation from an anonymous Greek poet:
“In him/ her we live and move and have our being.”
The first statement about God’s presence is not that God is in everything but that everything is “in God.”
Bible readers however will rightly say that this is not the picture given in the Bible, which shows God creating a universe separate from himself, into which he sometimes descends for a particular purpose, from his detached dwelling in “heaven.” Moreover the freedom of the universe and the free-will of human beings depends on some real separation from God.
The challenge to the notion of everything being “in God” from the biblical tradition is therefore twofold:
Can it be reconciled with the Bible?
Can it account for the separateness of the universe and God?
I suggest that the chaos envisaged in the bible creation story is within God rather than outside him. God makes space for his/her creation within herself. The repeated “let there be” represents God getting out of the road of what he is actively creating, which occupies a privileged position within God’s self, where every being is given the freedom to be its true self, which is also what God wants it to be. No wonder then, that all created things are described as “very good” for they are made in the goodness of God.
Of course as the Bible admits, this is not the universe we know, where so many things are not very good. But at what time does this perfect creation exist? The Bible seems to suggest before history, “in the beginning.” I suggest that the right answer is “before, during and after our history.” In other words the very good universe is what God is making rather than something completed. Until perfection comes, God is forever in the beginning.
But does image of the “universe in God” do justice to the freedom which physicists tell us exists right down to the the smallest particles of matter whose behaviour cannot be fully predicted? I think so, if we imagine God’s making space for the universe as including his/her refusal to intervene in it by force. The Bible notes in the story of Noah that God is tempted to do so, and sends the Great Flood, which however fails to do the trick as Noah turns out to be just as sinful as the humans that were wiped out. The upshot is that God decides to intervene only by persuasion, as in the story of Abraham and his descendants. The Bible tells us that God will maintain his distance, allowing the natural evolution of his creation to continue. But he/ she will not stop creating perfection-by persuasion. This guarantees the freedom of all ecosystems and the free will of human beings to be persuaded by God or not to be.
In my imagination I extend these concepts of freedom and persuasion to include the whole process of evolution from the Big Bang onwards. The matter of the universe is free to develop according to its own internal logic but that logic itself is created by God and influenced by God’s persuasion.
Is there a vivid image which can help us explore the “being in God” of the universe? St Paul offered his Roman readers the image of the universe as the pregnant bride of God giving birth to his children. A bold image indeed. But I would adopt an even bolder image from the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 42, in which God says:
“For a long time I have held my peace,
I have been silent, restrained myself.
Now I will shriek like a woman in labor,
panting and gasping for air.”
The picture is of God in labour with the future of her creation.
This encourages me to imagine the universe as the foetus in the womb of God. A pregnant woman does not interfere with the growth of her child in the womb; it is separate from her and yet within her, sharing her life and the “persuasion” to develop which her body provides. Even before its birth, it is surrounded by her love.
This is my image of the universe in God. It is not within God as a static thing, but as a developing life, moving towards the birth that God has planned. I will explore the implications of this concept in my next blog.