Thursday, February 23, 2017

Forgiveness of sins

It's amazing the capacity we have to forget stuff, including for Christians the absolutely central stuff of our faith.  I don't mean that things are completely expunged from the memory.  I just mean those times when for a long stretch the stuff that we know lies dormant and dusty in the mind.  It is a curse, this forgetfulness, requiring us to constantly discipline our memories.  But in a weird way, out of the curse of forgetfulness comes the blessing of remembering.  Because the truth has lain there hidden by all the day to day junk and precious treasure of life, when we see it again it is almost like the first time - but better than the first time, because it comes with that joyful sense of recollection: 'I remember this!'

Take, for example, the forgiveness of sins.

I bet you have from time to time been functionally forgetful of the fact that God in Christ forgives sins.  In my experience this sometimes happens when I go for a period without being conscious of any great transgression.  Without really thinking about it, the forgiveness of sins gets shoved into the mental attic, to be retrieved when needed.

And then, one morning, maybe I'm reading the Bible, or maybe I'm praying, or maybe I'm just reflecting on the past week, and suddenly, BAM!  The forgiveness of sins.  God my Father, in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, shows his great love to me by wiping out the record of my wrong, by looking at me as someone who is eternally separated from my own sin and therefore eternally welcomed by him as a son along with his Son, and a co-heir with him of the eternal kingdom.

He forgives our sins!

And suddenly I'm conscious that sin is the one word which accurately describes so much of my life and my character.  The forbidden and unwise done, the commanded and beneficial undone, self put before others, even the occasional appearance of selflessness shot through with concern for image.

And just like the first time, I am amazed that all of this is forgiven.  But unlike the first time, I remember that this is how God my Father has treated me again and again, bringing me to this point of turning my back on the me that he has also turned his back on, and embracing the me he calls me and allows me to be.  Sin really forgiven.

I'm almost glad I forgot it, for the sheer joy of remembering.  O felix culpa..?  But mostly just thank you.  Thank you, my great and good God, for remembering and reminding me.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Why argue about sex?

This is a post for people who don't understand why Christians are always arguing about sexuality.  To be honest, we're not always arguing about it - I devote a fairly small amount of my time to arguing in general, only a small chunk of that to arguing with other Christians, and a relatively ickle proportion of that arguing about sexuality - but it does get reported a lot, and not just in the fake news.  I want to explain to people who don't know Christianity from the inside why it is that we Christians are having an argument over something that most people think is a matter entirely for individual consciences, where it isn't so blindingly obvious that anyone ought to see it.  I'm not going to particularly argue for a position.  This is just an introduction to why we feel the need to take up a position in the first place.  It may be patronising, in which case my apologies.  It's just some stuff that to me seems to get missed in the translation of inter-Christian arguments into the secular press.

So here goes.

First thing to note is that Christians believe that everything has meaning.  This is based on the notion that ultimate reality is personal (God), and that every part of contingent reality (i.e. everything else) stands in some sort of relationship to that ultimate reality, and that relationship defines what this particular part of contingent reality is all about.  This is very different from a view of reality as ultimately meaningless.  Meaningless is what everything ultimately is if, at bottom, there is no personality.  There are two ways of thinking about an ultimately meaningless reality - the optimistic way and the pessimistic way.  If you take the optimistic route, you will think that the ultimately meaningless reality is like a blank canvas, onto which we can project whatever meanings we like; we are meaning makers.  If you go down the pessimistic road, well, meaningless is meaningless.  Perhaps the best we can do is live with some sort of authenticity, but even that is, at the end of the day, without meaning.  We are lost, accidentally endowed with a desire for meaning and incapable of genuinely finding or making anyway.

If everything is ultimately meaningless, whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to make some sort of meaning within that, it is obviously a waste of time to argue about what things mean.  Either it's like arguing about which flavour of ice cream is best - it's clearly a personal choice - or it's like arguing about whether cheese is snurg - it's total nonsense.  But if reality is at bottom personal, and if contingent reality therefore has meaning, it may be possible to find meaning in each part of contingent reality - by which I don't mean some variation on the optimistic view above, where I project meaning into something, but something more like digging for gold: there might actually be meaning in there, and I might find it.  And in that case we can have a genuine conversation about what it is that we've found: we could argue about what something means, and it wouldn't be obviously nonsense.

Second thing is that Christians believe in revelation.  In the Christian context, that means one particular thing (and lots of other things which depend in one way or another on that one thing).  It means that we believe that the ultimate reality - the personality at the bottom of it all, by relationship to whom the meaning of everything else is defined - this ultimate reality has appeared within contingent reality.  This has a pretty substantial effect on the quest for meaning.  If it's true that the meaning of contingent reality comes from its relationship to ultimate reality - well, that might mean that everything has meaning, but it wouldn't necessarily mean that we could discover what that meaning was.  In fact, it seems unlikely that we would discover it.  The sort of ultimate reality we're talking about it transcendent, which is to say that although it undergirds all of contingent reality, it does not appear in the way that contingent reality does.  If you catalogued everything in the universe, ultimate reality wouldn't appear in the catalogue, because it is what stands behind and beneath everything else.

But the claim is that ultimate reality has appeared in the midst of contingent reality, and in fact has appeared as contingent reality in some sense.  Of course, what Christians are referring to is the incarnation, the idea that the God who stands behind everything became a human being - became the Jewish carpenter and itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth - and lived and died in our world, in our history, at a point on a normal map that I could point to right now.  If that is true - and that of course is a huge if  - then the story of Jesus of Nazareth is the centre point around which everything else revolves.  If everything in contingent reality derives its meaning from its relationship to ultimate reality, and if ultimate reality is revealed in the life story of Jesus of Nazareth, then the meaning of everything in contingent reality can be seen in its relation to this life story.  That is a great big claim, but for the Christian it means that the question of what everything means is not a vague philosophical one, but a concrete and yet very personal question about what this particular chunk of contingent reality has to do with Jesus.  That is something about which we could argue, you see, because there is an answer, and the answer is not in principle hidden away.

Thirdly and finally, what does this have to do with sexuality?  Well, in the general sense, obviously human sexuality is an aspect of contingent reality, and so we can ask what it means, and we can try to work out the connection between it and the life of Jesus, just as we can for every single 'thing' in the universe.  But there is something more specific than that.  We've already said that the Christian thinks that reality is ultimately personal, and indeed relational.  That makes human beings uniquely important - apart from angels and demons (which are a complex part of the Christian view of the world) we are as far as we know the only contingent personalities in existence.  And it makes the relational aspect of human beings particularly significant.  We could view the fact that ultimate reality became human in Jesus as the confirmation of this particular importance and significance.  But sexuality lies very near to the heart of who we are as relational persons.  Which should lead us to expect that when we are talking about sexuality, we are talking about something that is absolutely charged with meaning.

That is what we are arguing about, and that is why the arguments are heated.  For Christians, sexuality has meaning, and its meaning stands in close relation to ultimate meaning.  The Bible - which for Christians is the first and authoritative record of God's communication to the word, and therefore the means of his communication to the word in the present - suggests that human marriage, particularly in its sexual component, is a picture of the ultimate story of reality; the story of God's coming into the world in Jesus to unite humanity to himself in loving relationship.  So the nature of our understanding of sexuality is closely related to our understanding of God.  There is meaning, really important meaning, in there.  So we discuss it.

There's rather more to say than that, and of course I take a definite view of where the discussions (or perhaps better, arguments) ought to end up.  But I hope that helps to explain why we're having the discussion in the first place.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Epistemic attitudes

We recognise that our ability to know is entirely gift, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with gratitude.  That we have faculties directed toward knowing; that there is a world out there which can be known; that there is sufficient correspondence between these two such that we can fairly reliably know things - this is all God's grace in creation.  That this situation is maintained minute to minute is God's sustaining grace.  And given our finitude and capacity for error, any one particular instance of knowing is God's providential grace.  Knowing should be accompanied by deep gratitude.

We recognise that our ability to know is limited by both our finitude and our sin, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with humility.  Perhaps we put this epistemic virtue into effect most clearly when someone disagrees with us.  What we thought we knew is called in question by another knower, and we recognise that we could indeed be wrong.  This attitude flows ultimately from the existence of God, the great Knower, who alone sees things as they truly are.  In his presence, our knowing must be accompanied with humility.

We recognise that to know is a joyful task given by God, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with seriousness.  If God has given us a world to know and the faculties to know it, we must not approach knowledge flippantly or lightly.  It is good to know, and we take our good gifts for granted and act presumptuously if we do not put significant effort into knowing.  This will include working hard to correct our mistakes, to hear the perspectives of others, etc.  Recognising that we are called by God to know, our knowing must be accompanied by seriousness.

We recognise that our knowledge is always constrained by our position in time, and therefore approach the task of knowing with openness to change.  Our knowing is eschatologically oriented.  That is to say, only God knows what things will be, and that means that only God really knows what things are now.  Our knowledge must always be open-ended; we can't ever think we have said the final word on any subject.  The final word always belongs to God himself.  Awaiting that word, our knowing will always be accompanied by a sense of openness.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

This will not stand

It matters how we engage with current affairs.  I'll be honest and say that I'm finding it all rather tricky right now.  I sort of miss the days when all we had to deal with was the news, rather than the constant online cocktail of news, informed opinion, less informed opinion, and social media displays of anger and hate on all sides.  I'm going to need to restrict my diet of internet, because honestly it's making me sick to my soul.

But the thing which distresses me most is that I see very little difference between the responses of Christians and others.  It's all anger and despair.  Now, Holy Scripture gives us some precedent for expressing anger and despair about the situation of the world.  I note, though, that the anger and despair in Scripture is mostly directed toward God himself.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think God would rather have us hurl abuse and accusations at him than at the people with whom we disagree.

What I miss at the moment is evidence that we're paying attention to another stream of the Biblical witness which is an essential complement to the anger and despair: a calm, straightforward trust in the sovereignty of God and the truth of the gospel.

Of course we need both the sovereignty of God and the truth of the gospel.  A sovereign God who is not the God and Father of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is of small comfort to us - he could have any plans, any goals, and who knows how many of us he'd throw under the bus to achieve them.  But if the God of the gospel, the God of Calvary and the empty tomb - if that God is sovereign, there must be some comfort.  He has told us what he is up to, and it is salvation and hope and life.  He threw himself under the bus, as it were, to secure it.  He isn't backing down now.

There is something absolutely right about the instinct to protest manifest evils - to cry out 'this will not stand!'  But it matters whether that proceeds from the starting point of a certain knowledge that, no, it will not stand - because the only place that evil ultimately has left is captive in the train of the glorified Christ.  To put it another way, is your protest a witness to the gospel?  And would this be clear to anyone glancing through your Facebook feed?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

After the Shared Conversations

It may not have escaped your notice that the Church of England has been holding what it has called Shared Conversations about human sexuality, and particularly same-sex marriage, over the last couple of years.  Of course, it may have escaped your notice, and that's fine too.  The report of the bishops commissioned to close the process has now been published, and it essentially represents two things: a maintenance of the doctrinal status quo, alongside an attempt to create a more open and welcoming atmosphere for people who identify as gay or lesbian.

Commendable goals, in my view.

And yet I have a big problem with this report, and it goes beyond the immediate issue and to the heart (I think) of Anglican polity.  There is a lot of talk in the report about disagreeing well, and about seeking to maintain unity, and it all sounds jolly noble (and no doubt actually is noble, at least in intention).  But there is not a lot of 'thus says the Lord'.  And that really matters.  Because if we cannot preface what we have to say on this issue - and so many others - with a Dominus dixit, do we have any right to call people to listen?  In short, what authority do the bishops of the Church of England, or indeed anybody else, have to regulate people's sexual conduct?

For as long as the impression given is simply that it's best for the unity of the church if we don't accept gay marriage, or that there just isn't the appetite for change at the moment, or any number of more or less sincere and more or less pertinent and powerful reasons to maintain the status quo, Christians in favour of gay marriage will be appalled, because it is appalling to lay burdens and laws that come so close to the heart of people's own existence and identity for any of those reasons.  It is only if we can say with authority that this is God's law - flowing from his gospel - that we can make any such pronouncement.  Because it's only the law that comes from the gospel that brings freedom.

So, anyway, I guess I'm not an Anglican.  But we probably all knew that already.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Demons and Disease

Some notes I pulled together whilst preparing to preach Luke 8:26-56 at CCC yesterday. The bottom line I arrived at was that, in our theological circles, an undisciplined supernaturalism is probably not the main problem; an incipient rationalism is more threatening. We (I!) need to ask for and expect more from God.

The whole Bible gives us a picture of (usually) unseen spiritual powers at work throughout the world, some representing God and working to advance his will, others opposing God. The ‘good’ spirits are generally referred to as angels, and the ‘evil’ spirits are demons. A development through the Bible is that Satan or the Devil is increasingly regarded as the ‘leader’ of the demons. Sometimes pagan gods are called demons in the Old Testament, and the New Testament picks this up in its assumption that demons stand behind the idols of the ancient world.

In the twenty-first century West, there is a tendency not to talk about angels or demons very much, even within the church. That is mainly because our culture is materialistic and naturalistic – that is, what we can see is all there is, and what happens can be fully explained by natural causes. In Christian circles, of course, there is at least a theoretical knowledge that this isn’t so – God is a spiritual being who interacts with the world! But we have absorbed enough from our culture to feel uncomfortable with the idea of angels and demons active around us. It all sounds a bit fairy-tale, and we worry that we won’t be taken seriously.

There’s another reason to feel awkward about talking about demons especially. Increasingly we are becoming aware that in different cultures – and in segments of our own – people who are accused of being demon possessed are abused and mistreated. There have been several horrific stories involving children. Certainly we don’t want to be implicated in things like that. 

A few things to say about the Bible’s teaching on demons:

1. Demons are real and powerful. You can’t read the Bible and avoid the reality of evil spiritual forces.

2. Demons are fallen creatures. The spiritual forces of evil – and even Satan himself – are God’s creatures, albeit fallen and horribly twisted. We must say that they were created good, because God does not create anything evil. We can also say that because they are creatures they are not in any sense equal with God.

3. Demons are against humanity. When we see demonic activity in the Bible, it is always geared towards enslaving and dehumanising God’s human creations. The Bible says nothing about human beings colluding with demons; when Jesus casts out demons from people, the people themselves are always seen as victims.

4. Demons are powerless before Jesus. In the storyline of the Bible, by far the most demonic activity is clustered around Jesus. It makes sense that the evil spirits would want to oppose Jesus. But in story after story, Jesus drives out demons with just a word. They can’t stand up to him. Nor can they stand up to his disciples, when they are acting in dependence and faith.

Practically, there are a few helpful things we can say:

1. When we see evil in the world, we should acknowledge that there is a spiritual dimension to that evil. We don’t need to leap too quickly to demons (human beings have a spiritual dimension, and are quite capable of doing plenty of their own evil), but nor do we need to rule them out. They are part of reality.

2. We don’t need to become too interested in demons, either to fear them or to hunt them down. We are not encouraged to engage with demons, but to preach the good news of Jesus – and it is that good news which defeats the demons anyway.

3. If we do suspect we have encountered demonic activity, the thing to do is trust and pray. Jesus is victorious.

The reasons we avoid talking about angels and demons are broadly the same as the reasons we don’t talk much about miraculous healing: we have taken in a big dose of materialism and naturalism from the surrounding culture, and we have seen Christian talk about miraculous healing being horribly abused (for example, by faith healers who make a great deal of money out of sick people, or in churches where people’s expectations of healing have been cruelly raised only to be dashed). But the New Testament is full of healings. What do we do with that?

A few thoughts:

1. Even in the NT, not everyone is healed. In a sense, that’s obvious: Jesus was only in one place, and for every person in Galilee who got healed, there were thousands in the world who stayed sick or died. But even around Jesus, not everyone was healed. And even the Apostle Paul was not healed of bodily ailments.

2. Although sometimes in the NT healing is a response to faith, sometimes there is no mention at all of faith, and the initiative seems to come completely from Jesus or the apostles. It is true that Jesus could not do many miracles where he met with determined unbelief, but it is also true that genuine faith does not always receive healing in the Bible.

3. The best way to see the healings in the Bible – and sometimes this is made explicit – is that they are signs. When Jesus heals someone from physical illness, it is a sign of the resurrection. Even when people like Lazarus were raised from the dead, they would die again; but their raising was a sign of the raising up at the last day which Jesus would bring about through the power of his own resurrection.

4. Because the message of the resurrection is true, and because the Lord Jesus still graciously gives us signs of that truth in the present age, we should not hesitate to pray for healing, with faith that God is able to do this, and the knowledge that it is ‘the sort of thing’ that God does.

5. When people are healed miraculously, we should praise God – this is all his grace – and we should receive the mercy of healing as a sign of God’s greater mercy in offering eternal life through his Son. When people are not healed miraculously, we should still look to the greater mercy: God offers eternal life with him, next to which physical healing is a small thing.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The new modernism

It has been interesting to see the backlash against the Trump administrations presentation of 'alternative facts'.  Given the obviously propagandistic use of such 'facts', it is not at all surprising that people have been unhappy.  But the reaction has gone beyond this, to an outright repudiation of the postmodern project, and an assertion of some pretty old school values: truth is truth, and is clearly perceived.  Or as someone else has put it:
For those of us - say, orthodox Christians - who have been upholding the objectivity of truth for a long time, this is fairly ironic.  But it's not something I think we ought to be particularly cheering for.  Instead, I think this may be the time to spring to the defence of the genuine and valuable insights of postmodern epistemology.

For starters, we need to recognise that the current trend in liberal thinkers particularly is not in any sense a move in the direction of a Christian epistemology.  Rather, the move is back to an Enlightenment view of truth, which could basically be summarised like this: truth is available to anyone who makes right use of their reason and who is educated in the basic uninterpreted facts of the world.  This is the very foundation of the Enlightenment project: that we have access to the truth, and that the access which everyone has is basically the same.  This is the liberation which the Enlightenment declares from all mere authority: we don't need anyone to tell us the truth, because we can work it out for ourselves.  This is a million miles away from a Christian epistemology which recognises the fallen state of humanity, and the inherent limitations of the creature, and which looks to divine revelation for the ultimate truth.  Let's not get too excited about the apparent resurrection of objective truth: it's actually just Zombie Kant, staggering from his grave to once again trouble the world.

Then again, it is useful to realise that postmodern thinkers helpfully underlined the fact that we human beings have no access to uninterpreted facts.  Every 'fact' is part of a story, and carries different force if transplanted into a different story.  Seeing the world (as even Kant saw, if he didn't quite follow through on the insight) is an active thing, not a mere passive receptivity.  We Christians ought to hold on to this as both an essential part of epistemic humility, and as an apologetic.  Just because liberal thinkers seem to be suddenly convinced (in theory; in practice they have been convinced of this for many years) that their view of the world is the view of the world, self-evident to anyone who just thinks straight, we must point out that no view of the world except God's own view is straightforwardly true in that way.

The question to be asking of the new modernists is: what possible justification do you have for thinking that your view of the world is the right one?  What reason do you have to believe that you have access to objective, uninterpreted truth?  In other words: justify your belief.  And I will wager whatever you choose that this cannot be done without a leap of blind faith.  And perhaps a follow up question, which has a more positive spin: like you, I want to contest the anti-truth stance of the Trumps of this world.  May I not humbly suggest that this is the cause of God, and must be fought under his banner or not at all?