Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Imagining the world

In those simple times there was a great wonder and mystery in life.  Man walked in fear and solemnity, with Heaven very close above his head, and Hell beneath his very feet.  God's visible hand was everywhere, in the rainbow and the comet, in the thunder and the wind.  The Devil, too, raged openly upon the earth; he skulked behind the hedgerows in the gloaming; he laughed loudly in the night-time; he clawed the dying sinner, pounced on the unbaptised babe, and twisted the limbs of the epileptic.  A foul fiend slunk ever by a man's side and whispered villanies in his ear, while above him there hovered an angel of grace who pointed to the steep and narrow track.  How could one doubt these things, when Pope and priest and scholar and king were all united in believing them, with no single voice of question in the whole world?

Every book read, every picture seen, every tale heard from nurse or mother, all taught the same lesson.  And as a man travelled through the world his faith would grow the firmer, for go where he would there were the endless shrines of the saints, each with its holy relic in the centre, and around it the tradition of incessant miracles, with stacks of deserted crutches and silver votive hearts to prove them.  At every turn he was made to feel how thin was the veil, and how easily rent, which screened him from the awful denizens of the unseen world.

Thus Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his mediaeval novel Sir Nigel (which, incidentally, with its sequel The White Company, is the best stuff Conan Doyle ever wrote).

This passage has been in my mind over the weekend, having spent last week studying under Ted Turnau and thinking about (amongst other things) the way in which we all use imagination to construct our worlds.  Conan Doyle's portrait of the middle ages may not be entirely accurate - it's a novel, after all - but within the world of the novel it is because Nigel Loring sees the world in this way that he acts as he does.  It is why he travels to France, and it is why he stops on the way to pray at the shrine of St Catherine.  He lives in a world that is shot through with the supernatural.

There is, of course, something slightly patronising about Conan Doyle's description.  Those were 'simple times', people were naive, there was an unquestioning acceptance of the worldview presented by religious and secular authorities.  But he does get something right.  This is the way the world is for Nigel Loring and his contemporaries.  We tend to think that there is a world of brute fact, over which people (if they are foolish or religious or both) place an imaginative layer of interpretation.  We also like to think that we here in the West in the 21st century have dispensed with such things and 'see the world as it really is'.  But nobody just sees the world: we see the world as this particular world, shaped by our culture, our personalities, our beliefs.  And that is the way the world is for us.  Note how Conan Doyle points out that experience within the world reinforces this seeing of the world - if, of course, your way of viewing the world is backed up by the cultural atmosphere and authorities and architecture.

This is not to imply some sort of worldview relativism - there are more and less true ways of seeing the world.  It is simply to point out that 'seeing the world' is an active thing as much as a passive thing.  When we 'see' the world, we do not merely receive perceptions, but we shape those perceptions together into an imaginative landscape which we call reality..

For Christians in the post-Christian West, one big question surely has to be: how can we 'see the world' Christianly, when the consensus of the culture is against us?  How can we train our imaginations to see the world as Jesus sees it?

Friday, January 06, 2017

Problems with Van Til

I'm having to read a bit of Van Til, the Dutch-American Reformed apologist, and although I don't have the time (or, frankly, inclination) to enter into a proper detailed analysis of what I'm reading, here are a few thoughts which may or may not be of interest to someone.  Some of this would certainly apply to some other apologists I've read.

1.  Too much system, not enough story.  For Van Til, the history of Christ is part of the Christian theistic system.  I wonder whether the strong Calvinist emphasis on the priority of eternity over time (and note that in some form or other I would certainly want to endorse that priority!) means that there just isn't really space for narrative here?  All of history is implicitly just the outplaying of the pre-established system...  Anyway, the upshot is that we end up arguing over systems, and not reporting news.

2.  Too many straight lines, not enough cross.  I think that Van Til thinks that that if we just start in the right place, we can proceed by an orderly rational process to correct conclusions.  I'm not sure what the epistemological significance of the cross is for him.  If the height of God's self-revelation is the death of his Son, can we reliably draw any straight lines in our thinking?  The cross doesn't just contradict the world's wisdom. leaving thinking that is committed to the 'Christian theistic system' untouched and able to go on its merry way; it is a call for the constant crucifixion of all our systems.

3.  Too much fight, not enough victory.  I think related to the system/story thing.  Van Til talks a lot about the encounter between the Christian and non-Christian worldviews as a struggle of life and death, as a war without compromise.  I suppose if you have two static systems of thought, that might be so.  But we don't have a system of thought, we have a story, and the story is of God's victory over everything that opposes him.  It's as that story makes itself true in the experience of an individual that people will turn.

4.  Too much presupposing, not enough surprise.  Connected to the straight lines thing, I don't quite see how you can read the Bible and not see that God's salvation plan is a surprise!  It doesn't need people to first accept any set of presuppositions; the resurrection of Jesus bursts onto the scene and carries with it the power to communicate despite people's different intellectual starting points.

5.  Too much submission, not enough salvation.  I believe in the Lordship of Christ, but Van Til stresses submission to his Lordship as the first implicit step in thinking in any way that might qualify as rational.  To be honest, at points he sounds more Islamic than Christian - all about submission rather than salvation, Lordship rather than love.

I suppose I was never going to enjoy reading someone who once published a book called Christianity and Barthianism.  But at least now I've clarified for myself why I think he's so jolly awful.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Post-truth: a post-script to 2016

1.  There are no facts that are not embedded in, and dependent upon, wider stories.  It is not that isolated facts don't communicate the whole truth; it is that they communicate literally nothing.  If they seem to communicate, it is only because they carry with them unnoticed shreds of story, or because they are already a part of a story you know and believe in.

2.  In a culture where each person is encouraged to see their life as their own personal story, to be written as they choose, an overarching narrative that goes beyond 'everyone can be who they want to be' is impossible.

3.  That each person can be whoever and whatever they want to be is the lying story which we incorporate into all our children's films, presumably because we can't think of anything better to say.  But adults who still believe this story are surely to be pitied.

4.  In fact, this story is no story at all.  A story adds meaning, but this story negates meaning.  Within it there are no characters, because there is not even a shared world.  It is in principle impossible for us to interact with each other, because we are not characters but authors, writing private stories.

5.  Two things prevent us from actually living in this absurd state: the physical world, which is a given we can't easily deny (hence natural scientists are anchored, and tend to think post-modernity is nonsense, albeit often collapsing into a naive realism); and our own sense that we are not actually in control (reinforced by things that happen within our lives).

6.  Still, given we've spent the best part of two centuries as a culture arguing that there is no truth beyond my own personal sense of what is coherent with my life story as I like to tell it, it's a little bit rich for us complain about living in a post-truth world.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Story

We are about to tell the story again.  You know, the story of The Girl Who Met an Angel.  The tale of The Shepherds and the Sky-full of Song.  The Little Donkey Story.  The Princely Presents.

Every year we tell the story.  For most of us, whether consciously or not, this story has been a big part of our story.  For some of us it is at the heart of our story; it would be one of the first stories we told to explain who we are.  For others it is background, barely noticed cultural wallpaper, a childhood memory.  But the story is still there.

Some of us will fret over the story telling.  For some the telling itself is a problem: the spreading of a dangerous myth.  Others will ask the truth question: how much of this story is real?  Could we draw a line on a map from where we are now to the place this story happened?  Can we count the years since the angels sang?  Is it a true story?  For others that question is answered, one way or another.  For some of those the story has become a collection of facts, something to get right at all costs (it doesn't actually say anything about a stable, you know...)  For some, the lack of truth makes the story safe, something that happened in fairyland, a children's tale that doesn't touch us.

One way or another, we all ask how to fit this story into our stories (or how to keep it out).

But what if this story really is The Story?  What if it doesn't want to be fitted into our stories?  What if we are just supporting characters in The Story That Contains All The Stories?

What if the song the angels sang in the sky above Bethlehem was the exact same song they sang when the first stars twinkled into existence - just another verse?  What if they are still singing that song now, and will sing it when the Bethlehem-Baby comes as Judge of All?  What if The Story stretched from the past when there was only the Three, and into the future when the One will be all in all?  What if The Story reaches highest heaven and deepest hell, and the manger is the centre of it all?

We are about to tell The Story again.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Advent IV: The Blessed Virgin

That Christ was born of a virgin means the complete contradiction of all human possibility.


It is not as if God could not have brought his Son into the world in another way.  We need to remember that Jesus was truly and fully human, and there is no obvious reason why he could not have been born in the usual manner, with a human biological father.  But the exclusion of human initiative and activity at precisely this point underlines what is happening here: God himself is taking the initiative, God himself is coming to save.

We need to see clearly that the role of the virgin Mary is not to be the height of humanity, the chosen product of human history, prepared by grace and made ready (or perhaps even worthy!) to be the Mother of God.  Far from it.  That she is the Mother of God is the accomplishment of divine fiat.  Not even her faith and acquiescence represents a cooperation with God.  The angel, after all, doesn't come with an offer which she can accept or refuse, but with an announcement: this is happening!  Mary's own 'fiat' is to her credit, but it is only an echo of the divine.  All is grace.

When Christ returns, and rights all wrongs, and ushers in eternal life - well, that too will be a one-sidedly divine accomplishment.  All our working and watching and praying will not bring in the new age.  At best, all of those things are just our own echo of the divine 'fiat', our acknowledgement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all is done.  Like the blessed virgin after the annunciation but before the birth in Bethlehem, we have heard God say that it will be, and we have said in response: so be it.

And after that, the wait.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Comfort ye my people

One of those mornings when the lectionary readings just line up rather nicely.  From Isaiah 51:
“I, I am he who comforts you;
who are you that you are afraid of man who dies,
of the son of man who is made like grass?"
 And from 2 Thessalonians 2:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
Note that it is God himself, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives objective comfort - the eternal comfort that comes from having hope.  And it is to God himself, with and through the Lord Jesus Christ, that Paul turns to ask that the Thessalonian Christians might have that comfort as a present, subjective reality.  (And implicitly Isaiah's preaching is doing the same: since it is God who comforts Israel [objectively], let Israel be comforted by God [subjectively]).

Comfort is a very Advent-y word.  It carries with it the sense that there is darkness and grief - it isn't joy or celebration, it's the arm around the shoulders when things are tough.  It's someone walking alongside you through the hard times.  That God does this, both by giving us objective reason to be comforted and by subjectively comforting our hearts - that is glorious.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Who is a God like you?

I preached the last two chapters of Micah at Cowley Church Community yesterday.  A lot of the material was familiar to us from the last couple of weeks - Judah's sin, God's judgement.  But there were two main new things.  One is in Micah 6:6-8:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
This passage follows on from a plea from God, who recounts his history with Israel, and asks plaintively how he has burdened them that they should turn against him?  Judah's response should not be read as a genuine groping after some way to atone for sin and restore relationship with God.  It is rather an attempt to buy God off.  What can I give you so that you will leave me alone?  But God will not leave Judah alone; not for anything.  There is no offering they could give that would divert his attention from them, precisely because they are loved.  God will have their hearts and lives, entire and complete.  He will have them walk with him.  His determination to bestow his love on his people is what leads to his judgement on their sin!

Question: how do I try to buy God off?  What activities or things do I offer him, whilst still really desiring to maintain some little sphere of my own, independent of his love?

 The second really new thing is in Micah 7:8-9.  The previous chapters have shown that after judgement Judah will be restored.  But here is the dramatic revelation that God himself will turn from being their judge to being their advocate:
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be my light.
Because I have sinned against him,
I will bear the Lord’s wrath,
until he pleads my case
and upholds my cause.
Micah does not minimise either the horror of the judgement on Judah, or the extent to which it is well deserved.  But he looks beyond it, to the mercy of God which is sure to come.  And that leads to praise!
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry for ever
but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
you will tread our sins underfoot
and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
Who is a God like this?  Who turns in mercy to his sinful, rebellious people?  A God who delights, not in judgement, but in mercy?

And then from the perspective of the New Testament: who is a God like this, who not only lifts us when we have fallen, not only gives us light when we sit in darkness, not only pleads for us after we have borne the wrath of the Lord - but actually comes down to us in our fallen state, actually sits in the darkness of the fallen world and finally the darkness of the tomb, actually bears the weight of his own wrath against sin in our place?  Who is a God like this?  Is there any but Jesus?

Question: does the God I worship and live for and preach look like this?  If so, why don't I worship him more joyfully, live for him more wholeheartedly, preach him more passionately?