This blog has been neglected somewhat in favour of my bible blog, emmock.com where I’ve been struggling with the task of translating St. Paul. Mind you, I was also on holiday, for five days, with my wife and daughter, in Ullapool. Over many years we’ve visted this town, stayed in a variety of holidau cottages, and loved the town, both for its 18th century gentility poised amidst such splendid hills and water, and for its easy access to those waters and those hills. Those who have never seen the hills of Coigach and Assynt will find it impossible to envisgage these extraordinary, individual, separate rock sculptures, strange cliffs and filigrees of sandstone perched on top of the oldest rock in the world, gneiss.image

I’ve climbed most of them, some of them many times, by myself or with my daughter,   relishing the particular architecture of each, the flora and fauna they share and the different human response drawn by each of them from me. The person who trudges up Cul Mor is not the same as the one capering on the pinnacles of Stac Pollaidh.

Stac Pollaidh….yes, when its improbable shape was first glimpsed by us this time, my daughter asked, “D’ you think it looks a bit smaller?” I thought maybe it did, while reflecting that whatever we think, it is getting smaller under the persistent erosion of   frost, snow, wind, rain, sunshine, as well as of the movement of creatures large and small, and the battering of human boots. One day in this world, it will be geological history, worn down to the level of the land. I’m glad I won’t be there.

imageLater I remembered that the first time I climbed it, I was a student, not yet working, unmarried, carelessly strong. I envy that young man the spring in his footsteps, his easy energy. I still share his sense of walking into miracles on every trek. Yet how much arrogant nonsense was in his head that required the erosion of years and experience to reduce to common sense! That recognition of loss of energy and a small gain in wisdom, makes me long to go back, to relive past splendours and excise past follies and crimes, to hear once more that music, to silence that idiot boasting, to be there for the one in need rather than avoiding them.

I realised that not only the mountain changes but also the person looking at it; and that just as surely as the mountain, this person will crumble to nothingness. In the great spaces, with their capacity to clear our minds, time becomes real, the impermanence of the world is evident. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist teacher, reminds us that impermanence is life; nothing can be born, grow and flourish without impermanence. He counsels us to get used to it and enjoy it. That doesn’t sound very Scottish to me; why not get used to it and girn about it? image

One of Scotland’s great poets was born in Assynt and kept coming back to it. Norman McCaig wrote many poems about the hills of Assynt and their creatures including homo sapiens. Here he is, saying succinctly what I’ve been blethering about:

Everything’s different now from what

everything was. Good.

But I like it too when I look

at a thing I’ve known for years

like a landscape, and you, and think

they’re just the same,

they haven’t changed a bit.

I know that’s nonsense.

Do you hear my voice faltering?

Do you see the moistness in my eyes?

Time loves one child – difference,

and kills another – sameness,

and torments us all

who love both.

………………………………

Yes, how does he get the words to march so well together?

imageBut maybe he asssumed that we all love sameness, because change is ultimately destructive. But when I think precisely about my own feelings, I want to say that I am attracted to sameness, but I love change. My Christian tradition tells me that God is the spirit of change, because God is the spirit of life, that in its grace and ruthlessness, continues,  in this world and beyond, the process of God’s evolving creation,  the erosion and rebuilding of all things. That too is something I need to get used to, and girn about.

 

 

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I have another blog at http://www.emmock.com

For many years now I have used it to provide an almost daily comment on some book of the Bible, and have just this week embarked on a reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  Written perhaps around 60 CE, it is Paul’s most deliberate exposition of his message about the one he called Jesus Messiah.

How's My Omnipotence? 1-800-CREATOR

I guess most people, maybe even most Christian believers, will wonder why on earth I spend my time browsing over such an ancient text.  They would doubtless admit its historical importance, bur would not imagine it to have much contemporary relevance. Of course I would defend my habit by asserting that Paul is one of the greatest and certainly one of the most influential thinkers in history, without whom we cannot understand the transformation of Jesus- Judaism from a small sect into a world religion. But in fact I find that Paul’s method of thinking about God and his insights into what is good for human beings are challenging to me here and now.

I could for example take his view of the followers of Jesus not as a new religion but as a new form of humanity, able to live peacefully in multi-racial, multi-national communities, even while being persecuted by a great world empire. But rather than that, I want to pluck a tiny phrase from the first section of his letter to the Romans.

“I am shameless about the Joyful News, since it is the rescuing power of God for everyone who trusts in him, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For the saving justice of God is unveiled in it, from his trust to ours, as the scripture says, “The just will live by trust.” (Translated M Mair 2016)

Paul is writing about the justice of God, which he understands as the principles by which God desires to order the world. This kind of justice, he says, is unveiled in the Joyful News, that is, the Christian story of Jesus – and he adds, lietrally, from trust to trust. He can only mean, I think, from God’s trust in humanity to humanity’s trust in God. Now I am accustomed to thinking of humqn faith or trust in God as the basis of many religions, but the notion of God’s trust in us is more radical, and as far as I know, a specific invention of  Judaism.

imageThe Jewish bible begins with the story of a creator God who makes a universe and creates life in it, including that of creatures made in his/ her own likeness, who will look after it all on his behalf. Instead these human creatures decide to grasp the knowledge of everything and to rule the world on their terms rather than the creator’s, who is left scarmbling to catch up with his rebellious creatures without wiping life out altogether. After repeatd failures, God realises that he cannot command human cooperation in his wish to bless his creation, and that he must therefore ask for it, by starting with just ine family, that of Abraham. In the end of the day this God has to trust human beings to help him bring his creatives project to perfection, meaning that God has more faith in humanity than I do.

This is such an appalling theology that hardly any Church has openly adopted it. It’s doesn’t sound much like what people want from a God. Any respectable God will have a CV full of mighty acts and irresistable projects; he/she will certainly be omnipotent if not omnicompetent; and anyone who refuses obedience better guard their ass when God’s Big Day arrives. That’s what a proper deity does.

The classic texts of Christianity do have some elements of that kind of God, in particular of the notion that one day God will actually exercise his power, but the great  stories of the Bible present an impossible God, who hobnobs with human beings, requires their company and cooperation, and cannot even turn the sending of his Son into a worldly success. This undignified God lurks behind the other more acceptable Gods of the Bible, the sender of the flood, the destroyer of Sodom, the killer of Canaanites, the smiter of Assyrians, the beater of Babylon the Great Whore.

This is the strange God of Genesis and Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, who is so crazy for love of his/ her disobedient creature that he/she perseveres in the face of all the evidence, that he/she puts the divine repuation in jeopardy to keep faith with humanity. This understanding of God is made explicit by Jesus, who lived and died in the responsive trust that human beings may give to this God.

God will not do the bizz on his/ her own. God refuses to be that sort of God but is determined to perfect creation with the help of his creatures. I guess that still leaves it open that human beings may make the big refusal and disappear into the evolutionary dustbin, but if so, my belief is that God will ultimately find a suitable partner.

"Omnipotent?! I thought you said impotent. And you're out of wished, too."

Meanwhile Paul reminds me of God’s trust in me. The only theologian I know who has made much of this theme is Bishop Desmond Tutu. In his book “God has a Dream” he states that “God believes in us” emphasising the dignity and responsibility this gives. He has certainly shown in all his life the confidence that God will not do it on his own and that believers must themselves receive and exercise his/ her justice.  As against all the main iterpretations of it, I think this is what Paul meant by the Biblical phrase, “the just will live by trust.”

So, yes, I find that the understanding of little phrases like Paul’s “from God’s trust to our trust,” easily justifies time spent on bible study.

 

 

 

I listened this morning to the minister for Education, Ms. Greening, defending the Government’s plans to permit a new generation of selective schools in England and Wales. She emphasised that unlike the grammar schools of old these would not be exclusive upper middle class enclaves but would serve bright kids from all classes, thus giving all parents greater choice over the education of their children. For example, if parents wanted to protect their kids from having to mix with poor trash kids, they would no longer have to pay for the privilege, or even pretend to be Christian to get them into Faith Schools, but could choose to enjoy educational apartheid at public expense. image

Well no, Ms Greening did not say that, but she meant it. In education, as in many areas of public policy, GREATER CHOICE is code for favouring the few at the expense of the many, and private purchase over communal provision. The Thatcherite destruction of Council Housing is a case in point. It gave people the choice of owning their former council house, thus putting public assets in private hands, and depriving future generations of working people of decent affordable housing. The privatisation of transport services such as bus and rail was sold to the public as a way of giving them  greater choice, for example the  choice between paying exhorbitant fares for a poor train service or walking to work. Soon I predict, the Government will be encouraging the growth of private hospitals so that patients who are having to wait for rationed NHS treatments will have the choice of paying to skip the queue, while those who can’t afford it will have the choice of dying. We’ve heard of “spoilt for choice” but such measures give “choice for the spoilt.”

Some will point out that the postwar grammar schools did include some working class kids who then did well, but that was against the background of the greatest social equality that Britian has ever enjoyed, whereas now, after Mrs Thatcher got rid of all that equality and its institutions, a neo- thatcherite government is liberating the rich to forget the poor and concentrate on so-called wealth creation. In such a climate new grammar schools will simply become a way of asserting that the poor are thick as well as lazy.

CHOICE is of course a capitalist strategy. If you want people to buy more than they need, you have to offer choice, like the multifarious choices you have to make to keep up with fashion, or the 23 varieties of tomato on sale at your local supermarket. Even if we always buy basic tomatoes, the display tells us that we live in a world economy where exotic choices have become possible for the ordinary person, due to our capitalist market – economy.

All this choosing keeps us buying, which of course supports the economy, but even more imporatntly it keeps us from looking too hard at our masters, like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome. We are given thousands of trivial choices while being deprived of any real choice in how we live and how we are ruled. The rich get richer and the powerful get more powerful than the governments of many small countries.image

If we want some influence over the human response to global warming, we better reject the notion that grammar schools are a worthwhile choice. If our great-grandchildren are suffering the consequences of global warming, survival rather than education may be their first priority. The bible has always pointed out that practical wisdom is worth more than rubies, and that God’s teaching is better than fine gold. Jesus made it clear that human beings have one fundamental choice: to serve either God or Wealth, for they cannot serve both. Only this choice matters, for if we make the wrong decision, no fruitful choices are left.

I find myself at the present time unexpectedly pushed back into regular ministry to three congregations, with all the joys and stresses that entails. One of the latter is a mistaken reaction from people outside the church to my conduct of public ceremonies like funerals or weddings. They mistake my blunt humour for entertainment, and tell me untruthfully that if their minister was like me they’d come to church. I know they are lying even according to their notions of what  coming to church might mean, but my greater concern is with those notions, which imagine Christian faith as a kind of spiritual top-dressing for the lush lawn of their lives. Jesus was brutal towards people who liked his style and insincerely promised to follow him; and doubtless with them in mind, he told his disciples not to “give holy things to dogs or throw pearls to pigs.”image

In many decent people these words evoke a sharp intake of breath. Because they are abusive, judgmental and divisive, some might even say, self-righteous, altogether the opposite of what we might expect from Jesus. For that reason, amongst others, I think they are genuinely the words of Jesus and not of his followers. There is a prejudiced edge to them which chimes with Jesus’ initial insult to a Canaanite woman who came asking help for her sick daughter. ( “It would be wrong to take the childrens’ bread and give it to the dogs”) In that case Jesus learned from the woman to reject prejudice. In this case, I think Jesus may just be using a piece of popular wisdom about giving people gifts that they are not capable of appreciating. The great and terrible truths of faith are not for people made unclean by their own relentless superficiality or selfishness. Or rather, they are for them, but they are not ready to receive them to their benefit. They might even seize upon them without changing their lives while claiming to believe them. That is to say, the evangelical announcement of God’s goodness and the call to turn towards it, are always relevant; but the inner realities of worship, prayer, and scripture are only for those who know how precious they are.

The difficult words also go with Jesus’ command to make no public display of piety, in prayer, or in good deeds. These are only for the eyes of the “Father who sees what is done in secret.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed for his opposition to Hitler, spoke of the need for believers to have a secret discipline, communal and personal routines of relating to God, which, like sex, would be private and not for public consumption. The public expression of their faith, he said, should be simply right action.image

In these recommendations of Bonhoeffer the tradition of Christian monks and hermits is recovered and renewed. He admired their disciplines of prayer, scripture, poverty and obedience, but not their complete withdrawal from the world. The whole point of the discipline for Bonhoeffer was to equip the believer for faithful action in the world and for the world.

But keen eyes will see I have wandered away from the accusation that Jesus was guilty of abusive lanaguage when he labelled people as dogs or pigs. I concede that the words are pretty robust and might not be approved by a modern bishop or church assembly. But Jesus’ language is often marked by vividness, exaggeration and humour. He wants his followers to see the danger of people who are no better equipped to know the value of holy truths than dogs to appreciate sacrificial leftovers or pigs, pearls.

Many are called, he said, but few are chosen. This saying of Jesus relates to an old Jewish story that God offered his Torah to all nations but only the Jews took it up. In the same way Jesus’ mission invited all to receive God’s goodness, but only a few wanted it. Most people have only scorn for  what believers consider as holy or as pearls of wisdom. True religion of any kind is a minority sport.

Mind you, pigs and dogs are my favourite animals.

 

At primary school I learned a song that went, “Trees are green, Trees are brown/ autumn leaves come tumbling down,” but because a girl called Theresa Green lived across the street, I sang the words as printed above, imagining that they paid tribute to the variety of Glasgow Theresas – of which there were many amongst the Roman Catholic population, most of them called after St Theresa of Lisieux, a smaller number if any, after St Teresa of Avila.

And now there’s to be another St. Theresa, the Albanian nun whom all the world knows as Mother Theresa of Calcutta/ Kolkata.

I like saints but I’ve never been able to muster much enthusiasm for Theresa of Lisieux, with her visions of the Virgin, which seem to me to be the worst form of Catholic hysteria. Teresa of Avila is an altogether more interesting person, who established the more rigorous branch of Carmelite nuns, the “shoeless” order, in 16th century Spain, and recorded her spiritual adventures, exploring their meaning in a number of books. She became notorious through her description of an angel thrusting a spear into her heart and arousing in her an agony of pain and pleasure. The depiction of this by Bernini in a famous work called the “Ecstasy of St Teresa” which can only be called orgasmic, established this image of her, rather than of her identity as one of the few female doctors of the Catholic Church. She was part of a movement in European Christianity, which emphasised real experience of God, and suggested disciplines which might lead to such experience. The Ignatian Spritual Exercises, which may have been known by Teresa, are another example of this movement, as indeed in a very different way, is the Lutheran Reformation.

image.jpeg
Bernini, St Teresa

I think that Mother Theresa would have found the experience of her great namesake puzzling, as she was honest enough to acknowledge that when she prayed she experienced nothing but silence: God did not communicate with her. Indeed I think that her experience of the loneliness of prayer led to her closer identification with the Jesus of Gethsemane and the cross, who prayed to be spared suffering, got no reply, and was abandoned in his dying. She believed that in this world human beings experienced God in suffering more truly than in prayer and worship. She was a tough cookie who believed in a tough God who gave his human children a tough time. That’s why people could criticise her for being more concerned with tending the suffering of the poor, than with how it might be prevented. She believed that their suffering was holy.

Although I totally disagree with the practical policy she deduced from her religious experience, I can identify with her honesty about the absence of God. When I pray God does not answer me in any mystical way. I experience nothing analogous to a reply, except the silence, which I imagine says to me, “No, I am not here; and no I can’t arrange the universe to match your prayer for that sick child, except through people, some of whom may be acting out of real goodness and others out of a desire to further their career. Get off your knees and at least make sure you’ve still got a national health service.”

Mère Teresa
tough cookie.

In other words, in my faith, God not only does not become part of human experience, he/she does not act in the world either – which means that those who believe in the God of Jesus have to get on, as he did, with doing what good we can, here and now. Mother Theresa certainly acted as if God were not avaialble, persuading churches and bullying millionaires to support her mission. We cannot step outside of our story about God to meet God, because the story tells us that the One God is beyond our experience and beyond the universe. Because God is not here, our experience of God is not some specially cultivated unworldly reality, but the whole of our experience in the world which tells us that God is not here. Therefore we must be open to the Holy Spirit, namely the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to endure what  cannot be changed and the wisdom to know the difference, along with our fellow beings, as Mother Theresa did, as Jesus did.