My spanish language science feed, which I use to improve my Spanish rather than my science, gave me this week the intriguing headline, “DNA Sequencing contradicts God.” When I investigated, I found that archeologists who had managed to sequence the full genome of Canaanite bodies from Sidon around 1500 BCE, showed that they were the direct ancestors of the present day population of Lebanon. Which makes good sense, except the bible tells us that Joshua, acting on the explicit instructions of God, exterminated the “Canaanites” completely around maybe 1400BCE.

Now good Biblical scholars had already noted their suspicion that the Joshua story is a load of unhistorical mince provided by much later writers for propaganda reasons. On the other hand Richard Dawkins -whom God preserve- had quite correctly seen the story as evidence that the God of this part of the bible, was a prejudiced thug and ethnic cleanser, no better than Hitler or Ratco Mladic.

The reaction of church authorities to the new discovery is instructive. Catholic commentators have noted that it confirms the suspicions of their scholars, proving that the holy scriptures are best left in the hands of experts. Orthodox commentators have said nothing since their support of Orthodox Serbians makes ethnic cleansing a tricky topic; while fundamentalist sources in the USA have hailed the discovery as proof that atheist accusations from such as Dawkins are now disproved and the reputation of God restored. Of course, they don’t deny that God issued the instruction to smite the evil Canaanites, but he was using the language of vivid exaggeration characteristic of the semitic people, which Joshua naturally understood, so he was pretty relaxed about leaving the odd pregant woman or child alive, as he brought shock and awe to Canaan.

It’s hard not to feel that the scientific community comes out of this a lot better than the defenders of the faith. They have come up with useful evidence, while church representatives have responded with flapdoodle and bunkum, which only adds to the prevailing conviction in many countries that faith rots your brains and is harmful to your children even if they escape some of the nastier predilections of the clergy.

The issue is not trivial: the books of Joshua and Deuteronomy announce a divine sentence of death on a whole population. Can anyone who supports the doctrine that this same bible is the word of God, be accepted as a decent citizen of any modern society? Should anyone who believes such things ever be employed in positions of responsibility for others? Or should they rather, be offered to the kind of aversion therapy which they have in the past offered to LGBTTrans persons?

The issue of the accepting the Hebrew Bible as Holy Scripture goes back to the early church, which naturally enough wanted to maintain continuity with its Jewish origins, more particularly with its origin in Jesus of Nazareth, whose life, death and resurrection they saw prophesied in these same scriptures. In the third century, one Marcion described the God of the Hebrew Bible as an inferior deity to the God of Jesus and recommended getting rid of it and any other writings that didn’t match his view of true spirituality. The church, spotting Marcion’s dislike for all things material, rejected his teaching, but as time went on emphasised to the faithful the doctrines of the church rather than the contents of the Bible.

When Martin Luther, however wanted to challenge the certainty of the church’s teaching, he did so in the name of a superior certainty, the written word of the scripture, which could now, with translations into vernacular languages and the new invention of printing, be made available to all believers. The believer’s assuarnce of salvation, formerly offered by the authority of the church could now be found in the preaching of the true gospel authenticated by scripture.

Except of course that in a short time it became evident that different preachers offered a different gospel because they interpreted the scriptures in different ways. That dilemma has remained for mainstream reformed churches ever since, who have tended to say, “Scripture is completely authoritative, but the church tells you how to interpret it.”  This also, in effect, the modern position of the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand fundamentalists have objected to this by holding every word of scripture ( in English!) to be spoken by God, and on the other, radicals and Quakers have rejected the whole idea of scripture as fettering the free movement of the divine spirit.

For myself, I treat the Bible as a unique source for understanding the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, subordinating the Old Testament to the New, so that the former is only interpreted in the light of the latter. It is a human book with human authors and human all too human faults and errors, but when it is read in the community of believers with the inspiration of God’s spirit, it can provide genuine illumination. So with regard to the ethnic cleansing in Joshua and Deuteronomy I am happy to say, in Christ, “This is mince; it is wrong and evil.”

But if the scriptures contain evil, and are often defended by flapdoodle and bunkum, would it not be better to follow then Quakers and reject Scripture altogether. For if the Scripture does not give certainty, what use is it? My answer is that we have to abandon the demand for certainty: no certainty is available to human beings, only greater of lesser degrees of probability, established by looking at all the evidence. My own daily encounters with Scripture, many of which are recorded in my blog http://emmock.com express my sense of how I can understand and be true to the Christian tradition of divine love, revealed by Jesus, but I know that my understanding and practice are both provisional. They await challenge and correction. Nevertheless, I have benefitted hugely from my reading of Scripture; my life would be the poorer without it. The nourishment I have received from them is better than certainty.

By banishing these two imposters, Messrs Flapdoodle and Bunkum and all their disabling certainties, I can welcome the DNA analysis of the Canaanite genome as a contribution to the understanding of Scripture.

* mince, noun, Scottish vernacular; nonsense, possibly related to the insult, “thick as mince,” = lacking in intellectual acuity

 

IMG_0484I have been reading a very remarkable book “Fall down seven times and get up eight,” by Naoki Higashida translated by David Mitchell and his wife K. A. Yoshida. Naoki is what we have called “autistic” or what he calls “neuro-atypical.” In this book, which was serialised last week on  BBC Radio 4, he gives glimpses of what this difference means. For example, here is his outline of his thought process when his mother hears rain and rushes out to save her washing which is on the line:

1) A million pitter-patter-pitter-patter sounds. 2) I wonder, What could that noise be? 3) Mum cries, ‘It’s raining!’ Then the noise must be rain. 4) So I look out of the window … 5) … and watch the rain, mesmerised; yet as I watch now, I hear nothing; it’s like a close-up scene of rain in a silent movie. 6) Only now does the sound of the rain start to register. 7) I seek to connect the concept ‘rain’ to its sound; I search for common aspects between all the downpours in my memory and the rain now hammering down outside. 8) Upon finding common aspects, I feel relief and reassurance. 9) I wonder, How come it’s raining now? It was clear earlier. 10) Up to this point, my mother hadn’t crossed my mind. Now she comes downstairs, saying, ‘That shower was on us all of a sudden, wasn’t it?’ 11) I recall Mum running to the balcony to save the laundry. 12) How could she realise so quickly that it was raining?”

Naoki has no wired -up way of connecting the sound with the rain that produces it or of connecting rain with clothes getting wet. But he is not stupid. He can write a beautifully expressed sentence describing his dilemma.IMG_0485

If he experiences disconnection between sound and concept, he also finds huge gaps between his inner desires, wishes, recognitions, feelinsgs and any words he might us to express these. He describes how much he wants to thank someone for being good to him, and after great effort he says, “Have a nice day,” because that’s the last utterance he associates with gratitude.

I find his account of neuro -atypical life both terrifying and strangely familiar, for I have felt the perceptual gaps he exposes, although I have learned acceptable ways of bridgeing them. Sometimes I have loitered near the quicksands of naked experience before scuttling back to the safe shores of communal thinking. He is the foreigner who reminds me what is fundamentally human in my way of living.

I can barely imagine the terror of being neuro-atypical, the loneliness, the bewilderment, the powerlessness, yet I can relate to this young man’s story especially when it speaks about those moments when personal experience is at odds with what society expects. How much of myself have I surrendered in accomodating my thinking to the expectations of others?

The drawbacks of being neuro-atypical are clearly set out in this book without anger or blame. Neuro-typical readers are also introduced to everything positive in a life that initially seems alien. Naoki’s moments of pleasure, his recognition of relevant support, his delight in his own discovered gifts, are offered as gifts to the reader. How on earth has Naoki managed in the midst of so much pain, to be a grateful person? His explanation is revelatory:

“Try imagining you’re resident in a foreign country where you’re wholly ignorant of the language, but a person there is taking excellent care of you. Then, one day, along comes an interpreter who offers you a strictly limited period of time in which he or she will translate anything you wish to say. How would you use that opportunity? Would you really want to spend it mouthing off about the miseries you endure thanks to your feeble grasp of the language? Maybe many topics would spring to mind, but if you’re with someone you respect, I think the chances are high that, first and foremost, you’d want to express your appreciation.”IMG_0486

In response to this, I am Naoki, I am the neuro-atypical person, I am the one moving in worlds not fully realised, yet experiencing the blessed goodness and care of others. I am the one who lacks all knowledge of appropriate speech yet deeply desires to say, thank you. To whom? To the good people who have affirmed me and sustained me, yes; but beyond them to the One who put me here with all my inadequacies, to learn to be proud of what I am and can become.

I am very grateful to my brother, Naoki, for a painstaking account of his own life that helps me make sense of my own.

* Fall down seven times and get up eight” by  Naoki Higashida, Amazon Kindle.

 

 

 

 

Over the years I have occasionally come across mention of the VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT, which has just been published by Yale at 35$. It has been dated to the 15th century and is a vellum scroll containing what appear to be words, written in an unknown but elegant script, together with illustrations that are recognisable, as plants, insects, geometrical shapes, buildings and most famously, naked women bathing together. The text has been as scientifically analysed as possible and is said to possess many of the characteristics of written language, for example in respect of the frequency of recurrence of certain word-forms. The manuscript has been intensively, almost compulsively studied by cryptologists, linguists, mathematicians and specialists in forms of magic/ religion/ philosophy and hocus-pocus, all without result. Its earliest known possessor declared it to be the work of the medieval magus, Roger Bacon, but of this there is no other evidence.

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I confess to finding its mystery interesting, and have even taken a look at it – you can find a pdf version online- in the vague hope that I might instantly recognise the language as one of my childhood linguistic codes of speaking backwards or infiltrating ordinary words with those of “All things bright and beautiful” used in strict order. This discovery would a) reveal the eminent scholars as idiots and b) me as a genius. Sadly this is not the case. Those who look at it however, will not easily forget it, because it appears so friendly, so to speak, so open to interpretation, so encouraging to the reader, while remaining utterly incomprehensible, like the humanoid child who emerges from the alien spaceship smiling affably and speaking a language which remains utterly beyond interpretation.

I have sometimes suspected that my liking for this mystery sheds a dubious light on my liking for the Bible, which some have seen as an utterance of God that defies human minds, unless one possesses the key to its interpretation. Can it be that my persistent and obsessive attempts to decode the scriptures arise from a conviction that no wholly persuasive interpretation has ever been made? That the Bible is an even more alluring mystery than the Voynich MS because it pretends to be accessible, written in human languages that can be translated, while being cunningly designed to baffle us? No, I don’t think so, because I see the Bible as a collection of great literature, which like all great literature demands to be interpreted and re-interpreted by every generation and ultimately by every reader, so that every honest reading adds something valuable to its meanings. Of course, there is no final interpretation of the Bible any more than there is a final intepretation of King Lear or The Magic Flute. They avoid finality because they are alive.

No, it’s not my interpretation of the Bible that reminds me of the Voynich MS. But I remain convinced that its incomprehensibility is linked to something more fundamental in my life. And that phrase turns out to be my clue. Yes, it’s my life, the fundamental fact of my life in this universe, that’s like the Voynich MS. It’s as if the events of my life, all of them, the people who have shared them, the space/time in which they have happened and all the multitudinous existences of which I have been aware, all of it, although my culture tells me I can understand it, is written in a script composed of galaxies and particles, in a language of universal energy, expressing a truth which is forever beyond me.

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And yet, like the manuscript, it seems friendly, inviting my engagement with it, my cooperation in creating new interpretations, my appreciation of its endless wonders, my love for all the other characters in its unending story. Some will feel that I am exaggerating human ignorance but when I listen to Brian Cox telling us that our best cosmology accounts for maybe 5% of universal matter, or when I ask how my wife has been good to me for 50 years, I am sure of at least my ignorance, as I walk (happily) in worlds I do not know.

Yes, it’s better than Dan Brown.

 

On Friday the Chinese authorities announced the death of Liu Xiaobo, from advanced liver cancer which had not been properly treated during his incarceration for his part in Charter 88, a movement which agitated peacefully for democratic politics amd human rights in China. Even in his last weeks of life the Chinese government refused to allow him to leave China, and even now it keeps his widow, who has committed no crime, under house arrest, although her mental and physical health is very fragile. All this is a great tribute to the power of Liu’s protest, and a complete confession of the fear that a regime, replete with every instrument of tyranny, feels in the face of one man’s integrity.IMG_0469

It is hard indeed, in response to this crime, not to lapse into hatred of the Chinese regime and those, including many of our senior UK politicians, who have kow-towed to it in hope of preferential trade agreements. But Liu had denied himself the right to hate his oppressors, while declaring his trust in the efficacy of justice and love:

“Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.”

This kind of faith makes him a much more troubling person than most agitators for justice, none of whom are negligible, but very few of whom have renounced hatred and violence as thoroughly as Liu. The whole course of his life places him alongside such mighty figures as Gandhi and Luther King. He was a successful literary person lecturing abroad, when in 1989 he heard of the protest which would culminate in Tiannanmen Square, and decided to return to China to support it. His insistence that the protesters should remain  non-violent and his negotiation with the authorities on their behalf are credited with saving many lives at the time. He was arrested and jailed, but having admitted his fault, released. For ever after he regretted this admission, as an insult to the souls of those who had died. His later involvement with Charter 88 was uncompromising and led to his conviction for “Trying to destroy the Chinese State” and the eleven years of imprisonmemt which led to his death. The words which I quote in this blog come from the declaration he made at his trial.

One of his remarakable strengths was his ability to see goodness wherever it existed, even for example, in Chinese prison functionaries:

“In 1996, I spent time at the old Beikan (located at Banbuqiao). Compared to the old Beikan of more than a decade ago, the present Beikan is a huge improvement, both in terms of the “hard­ware” ‑ the facilities ‑ and the “software” ‑ the management. I’ve had close contact with correctional officer Liu Zheng, who has been in charge of me in my cell, and his respect and care for detainees could be seen in every detail of his work, permeating his every word and deed, and giving one a warm feeling. It was perhaps my good fortune to have gotten to know this sincere, honest, conscien­tious, and kind correctional officer during my time at Beikan.”

This magnanimity is a very rare quality which fed his resilience and his hope that what he was doing was not a useless extravagance, but a dutiful contribution to the welfare of his fellow citizens. He did not see himself as a hero, but as a human being committed to private and public values which are for the good of all:

“It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become.a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme. I also hope that this sort of progress can be reflected in this trial as I await the impartial ruling of the collegial bench ‑ a ruling that will withstand the test of history.”Liu Xiaobo

He was also a private person, a lover of literature, a poet and essayist, known for the boldness,  elegance and wit of his writing. He acknowledged openly that he had made a mess of his first marriage, but his second, to Liu Xia, now his widow, brought him great joy, which he expressed in his declaration to the court that would separate their lives:

“If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness, whipped by fierce wind and torrential rain, so cold that no one dares touch me. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.”

IMG_0471These words show a loving heart that will arouse affection for their speaker in all who read them over the years, and scorn for the regime which has silenecd him.

It is sometimes the case that the suffering and death of great witnesses to goodness, arouse in Christian believers a comparison with the passion of Jesus, usually as a way of dignifying the former. So we call Gandhi or Luther King “Christlike.” For me the comparison works the other way round: Gandhi, Luther King and now Liu Xiaobo help me to understand Jesus better.

Like Liu, Jesus brought a message which was utterly unacceptable to the ruling elite of his own people, but he delivered it, as Liu did, with warmth, humour, and devastating bluntness. Like Liu he was repeatedly warned as to where his behaviour would lead him but chose nevertheless, with a discipline that liberated him to be joyful, to risk the consequences. In his arrest, trials and pain he remained, as Liu did, appreciative of human goodness. They had no enemies and no hatred but rather a trust in things invisible to their opponents, humanity and justice for Liu, God’s Rule for Jesus. Their opponents imagined that they had silenced them and are mistaken.

St Paul wrote of those who by their lives “filled up the sufferings of Messiah Jesus;” this very great Chinese man is one of them, I think.

I ‘ve been reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist teacher of Plum Village in France, where he his presently recovering from a serious stroke. Like all great teachers in modern times, he has become an industry, because his books sell so well. Something of his love and peacefulness, as well as his wisdom is transmitted by his writings, although the books tend to include the same teachings in only slightly different contexts. Maybe this is no bad thing, as it allows the reader to grapple with his central concerns.IMG_0465

The volume I’m reading explores the notion of Jesus and Buddha as spiritual brothers, commending aspects of both faiths to Buddhists and Christians. As always when reading Thich Nhat Hanh I find myself gaining a great deal from his Buddhist insights, but not as much from his reflections on Jesus. Perhaps this is because I am unwilling to change my own image of Jesus. After all this book is happy enough to include the great Buddhist teaching, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” a radical injunction which is meant to stop people getting stuck with their own image of the the great teacher. We are not to let the Buddha get in the way of ultimate truth. Can I apply that teaching to Jesus?

Perhaps not in quite the same way. The difference may be that Jesus allowed his earthly life to run out into failure, into a historical atrocity which he did little to prevent. He took the ordinary human risks of challenging the orthodoxies of his people, and they met him on the road and killed him. St. Paul interpreted his whole life as a process of self-emptying in order that God’s love for his creatures could become visible. The historical Buddha inasmuch as we can know him, also seems to have emptied himself, but the reality of his earthly life has been lost in the various philosophical myths of Buddhist tradition. Some would doubtless make the same criticism of the story of Jesus, but in fact Christian theology has explored that issue for 200 years now, and become good at separating what is historical from the faith of the church without rejecting either. Some of what Christians know about Jesus is blunt fact, which cannot be changed or circumvented.

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Jesus man of sorrows – Ensor

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that he does not like the image of Jesus on the cross. I too have reservations about what I as a protestant Christian, identify as Roman Catholic piety, with its crucifixes and carrying of crosses. After all, we believe in Jesus’ resurrection. But given that his execution  by the Roman punishment of crucifixion, as a failed Jewish messiah, is one of the best supported historical facts of the Christian tradition, I can’t imagine any genuine form of Christian faith that did not see it as fundamental.

Buddhism begins and ends with the issue of suffering as recognised by the Buddha as THE problem of being alive. His “noble path” is designed to lead its practitioners from suffering to liberation. All schools of Buddhism agree on this aim, although they disagree about the best methods of achieving it. So I can see that the image of Jesus on the cross may be offensive to a true Buddhist, if it encourages believers to get stuck just at the point from which they should be moving on. Now there is a Christian piety which describes Jesus desiring crucifixion as a sacrifice which would allow God’s wrath to be appeased and forgiveness offered to humanity. Indeed it’s easy to misread the Gospel of John is this way. A better line of interpretation is to see that the way of Jesus, his expression of God’s love in word and action, always puts its followers at risk, as it is unlikely to be popular anywhere. Jesus did not desire his torture and death but rather the open communication of God’s goodness; his execution is the cost of his uncompromising desire, not an end in iteself. Yes, his dying can be seen as sacrificial, but it is a pouring out of life for the sake of his mission, of which his resurrection is the sign of God’s approval.

For St Paul,  self-emptying is an existential commitment to God’s goodness, not an intellectual practice as it has become in some forms of Buddhism. I do not think this is true of Thich Nhat Hanh, who has throughout his life poured out himself for the benefit of others, with great courage and compassion. But I think he resents the stubborn fact of Jesus’ suffering, which Christians will not leave behind: the risen body of Jesus still bears the wounds of his execution. They do not want to leave it behind because for them it signals God’s presence in the suffering of his creatures, not just as an act of sympathy but as a way by which they may share his eternal life. And yes, in heaven , the tears are all wiped away, but they are not dismissed as unreal.

IMG_0464Buddhism is a profound revelation of wisdom, but it has become the ideal religion for busy capitalists, who benefit from its mindfulness training and meditation while neglecting its teachings on compassion. Its denial of a “real self” fits well with capitalism’s denial of meaningful life to both its devotees and its victims. Thich Nhat Hanh has throughout his pilgrimage shown his own commitment to the fruitful life of all creatures, including the victims of war and oppression. I think there is an issue to do with the intersection of fact and faith, history and mystery, which demands his further consideration.

But this is an impertinent suggestion for me to make to one whose life is more Christlike than mine, and perhaps than his own comments about Christ.

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Göbekli Tepe

One of my disciplines for maintaining my not very great knowledge of the Spanish language is reading the newspaper El Pais, and especially its weekly scientific bulletin. This week I read about archeological excavations at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, where some 20 yeqrs ago an ancient “temple” was uncovered. It has been dated to around 12,000 years ago, before any known farming culture and before the urban settlements which farming made possible. It belongs to a palaeolithic culture which was perhqps on the cusp of transformation from a purely hunter – gatherer mode of living to one involving settlement. Göbekli was probably not a real temple and certainly not part of a city, but rather a sacred site, where religious rituals and communal gathering took place; where also it was possible for strangers to meet in peace and exchange useful information as well as goods. It was therefore the prototype not only of the temple, but also of the market and the city. Doubtless those who used it thought it full of promise for the future of human beings. It was abandoned maybe 2500 years later, by which time proto urban civilisations were developing in the Fertile Crescent, dependent on settled agriculture which produced a food surplus and made possible the division of labour, including the  existence of a bureaucracy and priesthood.

In the same science bulletin I also read a report of the World Health Organisation which predicted that within 25 years three quarters of humanity would live in cities if present trends continue. They also made the critical judgement that present day cities are not designed for people but for cars, creating conditions which are very bad for the health of human beings, and most living things: serious and increasing air pollution, lack of living and green space, lethal traffic speeds, damaging excesses of light and noise. From the initial division of labour in cities which may have been liberating, there has developed an extraordinary division of social class and wealth, whereby some of the richest people in the world live cheek by jowel with some of the poorest. Such conditions constitute a crime in themselves and are the mother of crimes. The WHO report simply records the facts and their present consequences, while looking with horror at the probable future. The dream of human richness which may have animated the creators of Göbekli Tepe has become a nightmare.

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Paris air pollution

The biblical book of The Revelation pictures this nightmare city as Babylon, the Great Whore that attracts the allegiance of rulers and merchants the world over, and trades in human lives. The prophet John foresees the punishment and destruction of the Great City while those who have been victims of its violence sing, “Alleluia, and the smoke of its burning goes up forever!”

Nevertheless, when the prophet finally writes about the dwelling place of God and God’s people, he chooses the image of a city – “And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.” The city is a place of order and equality, even its throne is occupied by a Lamb. The water of life is freely available to all, the leaves of its trees heal the wounds of the nations, and God himself performs the motherly duty of wiping tears from the eyes of those who weep. It is a carefully formed image of the common life of God and humanity, but it is the fruit of the sacrifice of Jesus and his followers who refused to give their allegiance to  Babylon, and suffered the consequences.

For the writer of The Revelation, the city could be an image of evil, but could still also be an image of perfection.

IMG_0457Is this still the case today or should we admit that there has never been a city whose benefits outweighed its appalling injustice and that there never will be; that even God cannot bring together hundreds of thousands or millions of human beings without also bringing injustice and squalor. Should we admit that the human dream expressed in the creation of cities is a busted flush, an idol that has presided over oppression and bloodshed for 10,000 years, which cannot be cleansed even by the blood of the Lamb?

It’s a bad thought, since almost all the glories of human thought and art have been produced in cities. Against that evidence I can only set my argument above and two small examples of something different.

1. Wendell Berry the American ecologist, philosopher and poet, has argued over many years for the small, family farm as an ideal form of human cooperation with others people and with nature. He is convinced that the sheer difference of scale imposed by urban dwelling means neglect of the particularity of people and nature. Only a precise and modest knowledge of living creatures can lead to the kind of mutual care which is our salvation.

2. In the Gospel story of the Feeding of the 5000, Jesus is faced by an urban sized crowd which looks to him for leadership. Before he feeds them he makes them sit down on the “green grass” in “groups of ten and fifty.” Doubtless the writer saw in this a prophecy of the small communities of the Christian churches, scattered throughout  the territory of the Great City, Rome. Perhaps he wanted to show Jesus insisting on face to face community as the right unit of God’s justice and sharing.

The WHO report argues that the future of cities is an urgent issue for societal planning. I think it’s also an issue for Christian theology.

IMG_0451Psalm 139World English Bible (WEB)

This is the fiftieth anniversary of my licensing as a preacher by the Presbytery of Glasgow.

For the Chief Musician. A Psalm by David. 139

1 Lord, you have searched me,
and you know me.
2 You know my sitting down and my rising up.
You perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my journeying and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 For there is not a word on my tongue,
but, see Lord, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in behind and before.
You have laid your hand on me.
6 This knowledge is beyond me.
It’s lofty.
I can’t attain it.
7 Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or where could I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, you are there.
If I lie down with the dead, see, you are there!
9 If I take the wings of the dawn,
and land in the westermost parts of the sea;
10 Even there your hand will lead me,
and your right hand will hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me;
the light around me will be night”;
12 even the darkness doesn’t hide from you,
but the night shines as the day,
For the darkness is like light to you.
13 You formed my inmost being.
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I will give thanks to you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Your works are wonderful.
My soul knows that very well.
15 My bones were not hidden from you,
when I was made in secret,
woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my body.
In your book they were all written,
the days that were ordained for me,
when as yet there were none of them.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is their sum!
18 If I would count them, they are more in number than the sand.
When I finish, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would kill the wicked.
Get away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
20 For they speak against you wickedly.
Your enemies take your name in vain.
21 Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you?
Am I not grieved with those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred.
They have become my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart.
Try me, and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any path of evil in me,
and lead me in the everlasting way.

In fifty years of ministry I have created some wrong, some small good, and lots of struggling from day to day just doing the job. I have met many remarkable people who didn’t know how remarkable they were and who treated me with great kindness. I have met many troubled people who in the courtesy of their pain permitted me to try to help them. I have also met some for whom God’s grace was the dream-topping on their self-esteem. Overall, however, the church has been better for me than I have been for it.IMG_0452

I set out with a commitment to the gospel of God’s love which has remained with me throughout many changes in my understanding of theological truth, because my own childhood faith was formed by the announcement of that love. It has remained for me the one hiding place from guilt and shame and the familiar locus of repeated fresh starts. It tells me that I am fearfully and wonderfully made and that my life may be encompassed by a knowledge  beyond my understanding. There is a rescuing humour in this faith because althought it insists that I should examine myself and know myself as well as I can, it tells me that such knowledege is partial at best; that only One who is uttterly beyond me has a clear understanding of who I am.

So far, so traditional, I guess. Where my faith is not traditional at all is in my present understanding of the first principle of theology: all Gods are invented by human beings. This is a disgraceful reversal of the tradition Judaeo-Christian theology that all human beings ar invented by God. I mean no more than what is obvious, that all words about God, together with all images, ritual actions and sacred sites, are just as much the produce of human beings as our words and images of heroes. The holy books are the edited record of human beings inventing and re-inventing their gods. Ancient traditions are on the whole not ditched but preserved and re-interpreted in the light of the experiences of the believing community. When a tradition ceases to be edited in this way, it is moribund and will die.

I am not suggesting that this invention of God is proof that  God does not exist. Human beings have also invented motor cars and E =mc2 and they exist. I think “God” is more like the equation than the motor car which is a simply an object constructed by human beings. Clearly the equation can also be seen as an object; but it is also a symbol pointing  to a process which takes place in the universe. At present we consider it an accurate symbol, but it is in principle subject to revision as better evidence becomes available. Am I then saying that “God” is a symbol of some universal process? No, although I think perhaps some historical gods may have been such. The beautiful invocation to Venus at the start of “On the nature of things”, by the Latin poet Lucretius, symbolises her as the universal process of reproduction. But the “God” invented by the Judaeo- Christian tradition, is a symbol of one who is not the universe, but its creator; not a process within the universe but beyond all worlds.

We have some idea of the evidence for Einstein’s equation; what is the evidence for the invention of God? The evidence suggested by the tradition is the universe itself and especially human life within it. God is not the world but is invented as part of human response to the world. People who hold to the invention add their own experience to its story, so that God is not only the God of Abraham but also the God of Isaac, Jacob,  Moses, David, Amos, Isaiah, Jonah and Jesus. For Christian believers like me of course, Jesus is also a member of the Trinity, but he is still a man who invents God; perhaps no one has ever imagined God as fully and radically as Jesus.

Having said all this, I also say that I identify with the words of the psalm which picture God as the one who invented me in my mother’s womb, and who has overseen the course of my life. How can someone invented by me and my tradition oversee my life? Some will answer that the story has become separate from its inventors and influences human thought and life by its imaginative power. Others like me, will say that the best and deepest stories make contact with levels of truth which cannot be accessed any other way, and thereby persuade people to live by them. For me, that has meant that although I have to take responsibility for my God and my Bible as human inventions – and therefore liable to error and correction- I have so entered into their story over the years, that I have become able to put my trust in one who takes responsibility for me.

IMG_0450“I am fearfully and wonderfully made…..”

“My bones were not hidden from you/ when I was made in secret…”

The psalmist has been there before me and has expressed my trust in better words than mine.

The truth of God, I suggest, is always a mixture of human invention and divine revelation, as can be seen for example in the stories of the resurrection: on the one hand, disciples struggle to invent a new understanding of Jesus as alive; on the other,  the crucified  Jesus persuades them to trust their hopes and risk following Him.

My ministry has been to support Christian communities in living this trust and expressing it in worship. Or, to put it the other way round, to receive God’s love in worship and to obey it in everyday living. I can only say that for me it has been a journey into a reality I have not invented and into a love I have not deserved. There are still paths of evil in me, but I trust that along with my brothers and sisters, I am being led in the everlasting way.