Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sunday Sermon: I Corinthians 13

My Bishops kindly gave me permission to accept this invitation to preach in the parish of my old Vicar-School pal, Dr. Bob's wife's parish where she is vicar.

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in all of scripture, equal to the 23rd Psalm as a much loved text etched in the memory of Christians. In it we get some of the most beautiful language found anywhere on love. Paul writes: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

The only problem with these words is that they don’t really ring true. The beauty of 1 Corinthians 13 masks a different reality: love is very hard. Who can live up to this? Aren’t we all sometimes impatient, sometimes unkind? Don’t we all have limits to what we can endure? Which of us is perfect in this love?

“Love never fails.” Sadly St. Paul didn’t have the foresight to know that these words of his would become the single most popular scripture reading for a wedding ceremony. Yet in Britain today, some reports indicate that between a third and a half of all marriages end in divorce. Paul writes that love never fails. Why then does it seem as if love fails so often? If the people we love were perfect, we would not have to be “patient”, nor would we have to “bear all things.” And as for changing, the reading suggests that we ourselves might be the ones who must “now change,” rather than those we love. This biblical exhortation calls us to a kind of self-sacrifice that is close to heroism.

When this passage is used at weddings, most people interpret it as setting forth an ideal for love. This is the ideal to which the newly-weds aspire, and the older generations smile because we know that the bliss of the nuptial day will be exchanged for tough times that try patience, kindness, and all the other aspects of love. The wedding party prays that the couple will grow into love that can carry them through life’s difficulties, and this is all to the good. Paul’s point, however, is that, regardless of being a future ideal, only actual love can make the other virtues count. Having love as an ideal, not a reality, is not enough.

The problem is that if we read the passage the wrong way, we misunderstand Paul’s thought. In English we have one word for love and we use it interchangeably: I love my wife, I love chocolate, I love Edinburgh and so on but the new Testament has several and Paul, being a Greek speaker, writes using the word agape: it is a “self-giving love,” routinely shown to be the love God has for us. It is this agape that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It is this self-giving agape love of God that never fails.

Paul calls agape love a “still more excellent way.” And he uses an extreme example: Paul writes that if he understands all mysteries and has faith so as to move mountains, but has not love, he is nothing. If he were to give away everything he owns and even hand over his life, but has not agape love, then he is nothing. Do we think like that?

So what is the difference between this godly love that never fails and the kind of love that results in so many marriages ending in divorce? The difference is that the love that starts with us and goes out to another person is usually conditional. “I love you as I think you are.” Or “I love you as you are now.” Or worse yet, “I love you as I wish you were and hope to change you to be like the ideal of you that I love.”

All of these are examples of love that start with “I.” It’s that “me, me, me” thing so many of us do unconsciously yet Paul tells us that we can infuse our lives with agape, the love that is God’s love for us. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for us, we can then begin to see other people as God sees them. From this experience, we reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

Now I really hate it when someone in a dog-collar starts laying down the rules. I can imagine sitting where you are thinking “Well, it’s alright for him. Don’t these people live in the real world?” In my other life I am a high-school teacher. I deal with the hormonally and linguistically challenged: those otherwise known as teenagers. It is my daily prayer that I might see God in them and, crucially, that they may see Him in me. Believe me it’s a challenge and one I’m not sure I always win. But it helps me to remember that these are beloved of God - argumentative, rude, untidy and sometimes foul-mouthed as they are. If it’s good enough for him then the onus is on me to act likewise however much, instinctively, I may not want to - and believe me that instinct is strong. My other Achilles heel is aggressive beggars: I find them so hard to deal with and when I’m around and about in Leeds City centre it’s as if they can smell me. I feel I sometimes have a neon sign invisible to me but visible to them that flashes “Try this guy!”

God’s agape is not conditional. God’s love for our spouses is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood or anything else so changeable. God’s love for our children does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for our friends does not depend on whether or not they let us down. God’s love for everyone is the same. His love is a lot more dependable than ours even on our best days. God’s love for my pupils doesn’t depend on how well they listen to me or how politely they respond. Unlike my employer I doubt God cares whether they hit their target grade in Religious Studies, and God’s love for the aggressive beggar doesn’t depend on how recently he washed or that he is alcohol and drug dependant or on how many teeth he has.

As we read the list of love’s characteristics, we realize just how countercultural it is. Our society does not encourage us to be patient, or even kind. In fact, it admonishes us to seek our own interests, to look out for Number One. It applauds pomposity and ego-inflation by making icons of film stars, sports heroes and musicians. We then approve of this by unthinkingly paying tribute at their altars. Look at the magazines in the newsagents: O.K., Heat, Now, Grazia – all obsessed with the cult of celebrity.

If we stop for a moment and reflect, we might discover that the people we really admire the most are those who are indeed already patient and kind, not jealous or pompous, not inflated or rude, not quick-tempered or brooding. They are people who genuinely love, people after whom we might want to model ourselves, people who have already discovered Paul’s “more excellent way.”

When Paul talked about the other spiritual gifts, he ranked them. Faith and hope are at the top of the ranking of spiritual gifts along with love, and love is the greatest. Love has a unique place in Christian holiness, as the condition that makes all the other spiritual gifts or virtues worth having. That must have been ground-breaking in Paul’s time and today it is still astonishing!

So how do we achieve this? Clearly not in our own strength: to believe that were possible like some spiritual new year’s resolution would be a huge mistake. It is the Holy Spirit within us which makes this possible – and it may be two steps forward, one step back because the Holy Spirit does not offer perfection as She battles with our selfish natures. Yet in the Holy Spirit God has provided the resource we need to draw ever closer to His image. When we search our souls and find little love for God and neighbours, this means that we must listen to the Spirit within us. When we search our communities and find little love for God and neighbours, this means we must listen to the Spirit among us. The Holy Spirit is the fount of our existence as individuals and communities. That we don’t see this much of the time is because we, not the Spirit, are asleep. So let’s all wake up to the Spirit of love, the power of the creative impulse, the random acts of kindness, the deep-seated sympathy that makes us grieve at the sight of the suffering of others: the Haitis and Gazas; the tsunamis and bombings. We need to be the loving power of God in the world and use it in our own lives to fight and struggle for peace and justice wherever we find them missing. In our own small ways we can bring the agape of God to the situations we encounter and change them.

God’s love pulses the Holy Spirit through our lives like a heart-beat setting the weakest, most flawed and perverse of our inadequate versions of love within the fullness of God’s love. To have even the most pitiful and wretched impulse of love is better than perfect faith, hope, or any other spiritual gift with no love, for it participates in the being of God. This is the love Jesus had when he was dying on the cross and looked out at those who were killing him, those who had mocked him, spat on him, beaten him, humiliated and laughed at him and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” This precarious act of loving, even though it may well not be returned, is part of the agape love of God. So let’s be clear: our expression of God’s agape towards others isn’t about what we can get back or what’s in it for us. It’s not about seeking God’s favour either, because we can’t please God by our own efforts. God has already taken the initiative and given us his favour as a free gift: what we do in response is merely an act of grateful and obedient discipleship.

Do we want to experience that sort of godly love for our friends, our families, our spouses? Then the love we have for them cannot start with “I” and go out to them. The love we have for others must start with God. We need to ask God to give us this gift. We need to pray for God to reveal to us the way God sees the other people in our lives, especially the difficult people we deal with. Seeing another person as God sees them is not always easy, but when we get it right, this love will never fail. This agape love is a gift from God, which is the still more excellent way.



Every Saturday my beloved and I have a routine. We walk to the local shops, sit in a rather nice cafe (we call this our date) and buy odds and ends from the Health-food shop, Pete the greengrocer and Sainsburys.

My beloved puts on layers for a cold walk. This includes a plum coloured chunky knit sleevless top over a long-sleeved T-shirt. She isn't sure about the look.

"It's a bit A-line."

The daughters are quite frank.

"You look like a head-girl in a knitted stab-vest."

How they know that is beyond me. I always thought theirs was a good school.

The weather has been cold and miserable of late and my beloved, striding ahead and wearing that huge hood that reminds me of Kenny in South Park, is wont to chat on the journey. Often the wind is blowing from behind so I generally do not hear her.

"You need a hearing test." she pronounces.

"No. You need a muttering test." I respond.

The conversation is relayed by phone to the Mother-In-Law.

"He says I mutter.......No, of couse I matter. He said mutter. M.U.T.T.E.R.... What do you mean you don't get it? No. I didn't say matter. I don't need my mother to worry about my sense of self-esteem at my age."

Sainsburys is a nightmare because of the self-scanning checkout. We are two mature adults not yet in our dotage, both of whom use I.T. daily in our jobs. The machine required staff intervention FIVE times. On one occasion it was because we had scanned paracetamol. I was sort of waiting for the in-house chaplain to descend on us to ask which of us was suicidal.

"Unauthorised bag in the bagging area."

How dare you? That's my wife.

In the cafe I try to be alluring in a manly sort of way. I wink at her and sort of blow a kiss.

"Are you having a stroke?

Nice to know I've still got it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Life in the Day of.... your friendly neighbourhood Religious Studies teacher.

I've never fully come to terms with being dragged from sleep at 6.20am, particularly during these dark cold mornings. When are they going to make hibernation a National Curriculum option? Even a refreshing mug of tea and the comforting tones of The Today Programme for the ten minutes I remain in bed do not compensate for the shock of being the first one up and of entering a freezing bathroom before the central heating has fully kicked in. Similarly there is something soul destroying about coming downstairs and turning on the lights and radio and drawing the curtains.

I now have less than an hour to empty the dishwasher (which I always do) and the draining rack (which I sometimes forget), eat a bowl of porridge, gather my packed lunch together, retrieve my laptop from daughter 2, shower (lukewarm again, ugh!), shave, dress (which tie? Too many sock choices. Too many odd cufflinks), grab my school bags and school keys, kiss my spouse, exchange some banter about a domestic chore I have not earned full marks on, check this evening's dining arrangements and drive off towards the Knowledge College. I am already frazzled!

Yesterday I arrived in school two hours late due to two breakdowns in the roadworks on the M62. I say roadworks, but in the time honoured British tradition there was no sign of any actual work taking place even though everything was coned off. I began to wonder what I would do if:
a) I ran out of petrol
b) I needed the toilet
Neither option was one which enthused me.

It didn't look good today either thanks to roadworks on the M621 but I arrive at more or less the right time only to discover that a colleague is away ill and that I can't print her work off for some technical reason beyond my limited IT skills to solve.

I turn the heating up in my classroom, light a tea-light for the scented-oil burner, (It is supposed to calm the hormonal teenager if you use lavender. I have run out of lavender and so use lemon. Am I storing up trouble? What does lemon do? Apart from deoderising the room after the Yr 11 class who use my room for registration have left, of course). I make a cup of tea, set out the text and exercise books for the first lesson and write the starter activity and some simple notes on the board.

I head back to the office which I share with assorted colleagues who teach R.S. Geography, Sociology and I.T. and manage to word process and print another ten of the 150 Yr 11 R.S. reports I have to complete by Friday. "Danny is a pain in the bum and it would be better if his presence in my lessons was functional rather than purely decorative " is just one of the many things I don't say.

The printer has burst into life and spewed out my colleague's work and I go in a fruitless search for the supply teacher who is taking her classes. No luck so I decide to leave the work on her classroom desk. As I enter the room there are three girls hunched over a book deep in conversation.

"Sir, Sir, could you help me?"

"If I can."

"It's this Food Technology lesson. I don't know whether to make this flan..." she opens a page at a garish picture of something covered in peach slices "...or this rhubarb creme..." a truly awful picture of something totally inedible "...or this strawberry mousse." The pink suggests something very chemical in terms of food colouring.

"Could you do raspberry instead of strawberry?" I suggest.

"Oh great idea. Thanks Sir."

Glad I could help.

The bell goes for registration. I am not a form tutor and so I go in search of the cover list to see whether I am registering for an absent colleague. No. (Thank you God.) This means that I am on the "Late Door" with the Attendance Officer. I pass the Head of Business studies, an elegant woman who is always stylishly dressed. We exchange some banter about she and I being the only staff to maintain high sartorial standards of dress. I look at my friend who teaches Geography who sort of proves the point.

The "Late Door" is fun today. The 842 has disgorged it's disgruntled load somewhat off the route.

"I got on the wrong 842".

I ponder the philosophy of this. Is there a moral decision in catching the 842?

"The driver didn't know where he was going so he dropped us at Cage St. and we had to walk the rest of the way."

"How sad not to be delivered to the door. When I was your age..."

"Yeah. Cheers Sir. Bye."

The Yr 11 girls synchronised smoking team arrive next. Not a coat between them although one is wearing a glove.

"What use is that?"

"I change hands every five minutes."

Declan arrives. I saw Declan in school fifteen minutes earlier when he wasn't late.

"I had to go to the corner shop and buy a can of coke."

Interesting use of the imperative.

The bell rings again. On my way to lesson 1 I pass a colleague who organises Citizenship days with me.

"Dorothy wants the afternoon put aside for a time capsule. Whole-school but in form groups."

"Gotcha." That's good. I wasn't entirely sure I understood what I had said myself. She probably went straight to the ladies then and wept. I would have.

Today I have four lessons and one marking and preparation period. That's three Yr 10 lessons which means repeat performances (spiritual death by half way through the second) and one Yr 8 to finish the day - in every sense I suspect.

The first class in are lovely and sharp and capable. We look briefly at the book of Job in relation to suffering and I explain that Job nearly didn't make it into the Bible because it's portrayal of God as a capricious and shady character who does deals with Satan isn't quite the image that theists were looking for. They nod sagely. We look at the three solutions Job's comforters offered and note that although Job rejected them many Christians remain influenced by them: suffereing as a test, as a punishment and something which is part of God's plan and which we, as mere mortals, can not hope to understand. Using Haiti as an example we examine each of the three and try to see them from the perspective of a survivor. The solutions get no votes from anyone in the class.

We move on and look at some other Christian explanations: Satan made me do it; Original sin ("Sir, it's a religious myth isn't it - a morality tale?"); the suffering of Jesus and Free Will. The suffering of Jesus is sympathetically considered. "I suppose if I was a survivor and a priest reminded me that Jesus could enter into my suffering because he had suffered, I might find that comforting." I love it when they think out loud. Free Will was the overwhelming winner: "Coz we'd be like robots pre-programmed only to do good so we wouldn't be human. It's a bit risky on God's part though."

The bell goes and they depart. It is my preparation time and I go to the print room to print off those worksheets for my colleague's later lessons. On the way I stop to commiserate with my mate the Singing Caretaker who has just learned that he hasn't made it through to the telivised stages of Britain's got Talent. This is clearly a travesty because Dave is very talanted.

"It's probably because you're too good. They really want people with no talent and no self awareness so that we can all laugh at them. That's how they get the ratings."

I remember that I did not give out my Learner of the Lesson token and so I go in search of Matthew who the computer tells me is now in science. On the third floor. Great. I need oxygen and crampons for that journey. On the way back I become involved in a pincer movement with a Deputy Head and a Behaviour Support Worker as we trap three miscreants who are on the loose and causing havoc on the Maths corridor.

Passing through the staff room I look at my pigeon hole. It is full to overflowing. I ignore it as usual on the basis that if something is important someone will eventually tell me. It's worked for years and makes me think of the waste of paper in all this communication which is clerly pointless.

I notice the grid we are all supposed to fill in nominating those who have been particularly good in our lessons. I nominate Mrs. Atkins, Mrs. Denham and Mrs. Andrew who are the support assistants who regularly work in my classes. They should get a letter home to their mums. I make a mental note to ask them. I'll probably get a memo from a senior colleague about that but it'll be in my pigeon hole and so I'll never know.

I grab a cup of tea and eat a bannana before setting up my room for the second Yr 10 lesson. I write eight more Yr 11 reports: Charlotte. Who is Charlotte? I look up her photo. It was taken two years ago and means nothing to me. Still she must be a well behaved kid for her not to be seared into my subconscious. I retrieve her exercise book. It is exemplary. I look at my seating plan. No wonder she is quiet. She sits next to Vicky/Vicki/Vikki/Viki (always with a heart dotting the Is). She probably can't get a word in edgeways! Oh ... Lottie. Why didn't you say so? Lovely girl.

It is now break time. Jagtar's wife and children are off to India to see his grandma who is quite ill and Jagtar is irritated by his kid's Headteacher who threatens him with "sanctions" for taking them out of school during term time. They are going for a fortnight.

"So you're cooking for yourself?" enquires Caroline who teaches History. In a flash of inspiration I know the answer. Jagtar's mum lives over the road. Italian mothers and sons, Jewish mothers and sons and now Sikh mothers and sons. Its all the same. Jagtar is by no means a traditional or conservative man in terms of religion or culture but, allegedly, he has reached the age of 37 without ever having to iron a shirt. Impressive. Well he can stand his mum down one night and come for his dinner at our house.

The next class is at the door. They are similar to the previous class except that the class is marred by Ryan. We go through the same lesson plan. When we discuss the idea of suffering as a test I pose the question "If you argue that the earthquake wasn't sent by God, how can we still be tested by it?"

Sophie answers "Perhaps it's about how you behave under the circumstances. You know, if you're O.K. but there is moaning from under the ruins of a neighbouring building you've got a choice. You either go and help or you do nothing."

"I'd go and watch T.V" Ryan announces. The others look at him in amazement. The bit about infrastructure didn't sink in.

"You can't." says Jordan, "Your house a pile of ruins."

"I'll go next door."

"You can't." says Sophie. "There's no electricity."


"Because of the earthquake, nob-head. Its knocked your house down too. The whole city. The whole country is in ruins. Did you think it was a localised earthquake that just hit your house?"

"No. My street's fine. What earthquake?" There are audible groans.

The others begin to take notes. Ryan discovers his pen has a spring in it. Half of the pen flies across the room.

"Sir, can I borrow a pen?"


"My pen's broken."

"Use your spare."

"Why would I have a spare pen?"

Simon intervenes: "Ryan you're a pillock." We used to have a political thriller on T.V here called House of Cards. The key protagonist would often say: "You may say that. I couldn't possibly comment." Seems quite appropriate at this point.

The third Yr 10 lesson is of quite a different order. I love this lot but they are much less able and have a much more limited concentration span. Ellie arrives first.

"I just saw Jade in a fight."

"But you didn't get involved. Well done."

Most of the rest of the class clearly did though, as they are late. However, when thay are in and settled they make a start on copying the introduction.

"Do we have to write all that?"

"Yes Tom. All six lines of it."

"All we ever do is write."

"Not true. Last lesson we just talked and read newspaper reports about the earthquake."

"But all we ever so is write."

"Yes. About that...writing is something we do in school. I can't believe you have made it to Yr 10 and not worked that out."

"Sir, you said it was only six lines."

"It is."

"Yeah, it is on the board but the board is longer than my book. In my book it's twelve lines."

"I wondered if you'd spot that. Sucker."

Job proves problematic.

"What do you mean its not a true story? What's the point of a book that's not true?"

We discuss the story of the hare and the tortoise. They seem to understand the idea of a morality tale.

"Is that in Job?"


"I don't get it."

We clear that up. They carry on. We get to Original Sin.

"What do you mean there was no Adam and Eve?"

I explain Religious Myth as a genre.

"Oh right. I often wondered who would have had to have sex with who........."

"O.K. Moving on.."

"So it's not about actually eating the apple then?"

"There was no apple." This causes consternation. We sort it out.

"If I went into the White Rose Centre and stabbed some random people..."

"......Are you going to?"

"No. If I went into the White Rose Centre and stabbed some random people and I said to the judge "The Devil tempted me. He made me do it" would that be a good enough reason?"

"That's depressing that is. Talking about stabbing people." There is general assent:
"Yeah, it is Sir. It's nasty."

"Do you think you may be missing the point?"

Lunch time. Caroline makes me a cup of tea and I eat at my desk as I review a DVD I intend to use with Yr 8 next. I realise I haven't had a pee since eight o'clock. Too late now.

Yr 8 is a small class and of very low ability. I am trying to teach them the basics of Christianity.

The starter activity is to draw a church. The outcome is as I had hoped. Everyone draws a building with a steeple. I introduce the idea of the church as a community of believers. They are sceptical. We talk about what happens in churches. Someone says singing and Johnny bursts into (tuneless) song. When he comes back into the room he is better behaved for all of..oh..three minutes. Eventually someone comments that church is dull and boring. This is the lead in I want for the DVD which is about examples of Fresh Expressions of church. They watch, mesmerised for half an hour as every possible version of "doing church" flashes across the screen. They are particularly taken by "Skateboarding Church" which happens to be the one that especially irritates me.

The lesson and the school day are over.

"I enjoyed that Sir." There is grudging agreement. "Yeah we didn't do much writing. All we ever do is write."

Now, about that pee...

Monday, January 25, 2010

In praise of ........ Marcella Detroit

We have this dreadful programme here called From Pop Star to Opera Star.... Marcella is the only act worth watching. I was amazed!

I could so do without the live audience!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Sir, Sir...but you can't stop an earthquake right?"

Many of my lessons over the last week have included conversations about Haiti and, after my initial surprise over the lack of current affairs knowledge amongst my kids, the levels of understanding and awareness did pick up. It is my constant lament that kids do not watch the news. On balance I should be more sympathetic. Apart from natural disasters, wars and dreadful weather conditions the kids aren't much interested in the finer points of the political process, (British, European or American) or the economy.

It is my task, according to the GCSE syllabus, to examine issues of suffering and evil in relation to the existence of God and one of the best lessons of the week was with my least able class where we just talked, looked at pictures and read newspaper reports. There was a palpable sense of empathy as each new statistic, photograph and personal account was examined. I found that very heartening. A girl in another class did ask why we were giving money abroad in a recession but shut up when I explained that the £38m I was talking about came from public donations. I was also gratified that the kids understood about issues of relative poverty. No matter how poor someone may be judged to be here, there is still a huge and unbridgable gap between British poverty and Haitian popverty - and that was before the earthquake.

One of the themes we pursue in the lessons is that of levels of human responsibility in the face of natural disasters, but both Jane and La Grandmere stole my thunder in their earlier comments. Those kids who assert: "What can you do? It's an earthquake." are those destined to get the D-G grades. The A*-C grades go to those who recognise that while we can not stop the natural disasters we could do something to limit the worst outcomes. So we've had conversations about early warning systems and how they may have helped the victims of earthquake and tsunami; we have looked at the earthquake-proofing of buildings and how poverty gets in the way of managing this effectively. In 2003 there were two earthquakes of similar magnitude. One hit Bam in Iran, killed 40,000 people and destroyed 80% of buildings. The other hit Paso Robles in California, killed 2 people and destroyed 0.01% of buildings. How can the disparity between the two outcomes be accounted for other than by the ability and willingness of the governments concerned to act proactively on behalf of their citizens in an earthquake zone? Now consider that Haiti is the poorest country in the Westen Hemisphere and ......

Well, I know I live in a "socialist" country and all, and I know I must be terribly naive and ideallistic but the moral of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has always struck me as an imperative and not an option. While we live in a culture where someone doesn't want to contribute to another's healthcare, though, we have no chance of ironing out those inequalities.

Why do people choose to live in certain locations in the knowledge that their area is vulnerable to earthquake, volcano, flooding and so on? As one of my kids said "It would be hard to be sympathetic to the population of California when the Big One hits and the whole area slips into the Pacific with huge loss of life. It's a big country. They could live somewhere else." Fair (if somewhat uncompassionate) point. What then, I ask, about the small volcanic island state where there is nowhere else to go? In this day and age with huge, and often unjustified, antagonism towards the asylum seeker and the refugee, and with issues of citizenship and passport rights clouding the issue, I don't see many nations rushing to be that grand-scale Good Samaritan. Quite the opposite: we close our borders and make entry harder. And yet if we do not come to some international consensus on levelling the playing field for the poor nations with all the financial implications for the First World, climate change is going to overtake us as millions of refugees start to move from the areas devastated and made uninhabitable by the "natural" disasters we are so carelessly and selfishly precipitating, while in many cases remaining in denial and actively working against solutions.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A personal favourite...

Written by Victoria Wood. Acted by Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Duncan Preston.

It is very British humour so apologies to the rest of you if you didn't like it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti: why can't we just say "We don't know?"

There has been much analysis of the "Christian perspective" on Haiti and therefore on the wider issue of suffering in the media and on the INTERNET over the last few days. Some of it as we know has been disturbing to many Christians and seems to reveal an understanding of God many are not at all in sympathy with.

I have begun to wonder whether in some quarters there is a knee-jerk reaction to say something, anything, rather than remain silent: perhaps a desire to jump to God's defense in the knowledge that some searching questions will be asked about a terribly difficult and sensitive issue. "Why does God allow suffering?"

To some extent some people may feel pressured to speak and perhaps others think on their feet as they speak. The press can be very assertive, particularly when they sense weakness and all too often silence is interpreted as weakness. What we seem to have had is a number of people speaking before a period of quiet reflection and the theological quality of what they have said has been questionable and therefore picked up by the media for that very reason. Damned if you do and damned if you don't it seems.

In the light of the responses of people like Pat Robertson and Albert Mohler which have been judged by many to have been inadequate or downright insensitive, I am starting to wonder why it isn't alright to say "I'm sorry, I just don't know" as the Archbishop of York did. After all, it isn't as if there is a standard doctrine on suffering and different Christians offer different theologies.

What follows is, therefore, a slightly truncated Yr 10 GCSE module on suffering and Christianity.

It seems that there are three types of suffering in the world:
* Suffering caused by natural disasters
* Suffering caused by evil human actions
* Suffering caused by random events

Christianity has little trouble rationalising suffering caused by evil human actions because it can talk about Free Will. The bottom line is that we all make moral choices and if God were to intervene everytime things got out of hand and a bad moral choice was made there would be no free will and we would be merely robots pre-programmed by God to do his will. No, Free Will is a risky strategy on God's part: a gift that illustrates our true humanity and which we must exercise with the utmost caution.

The other two types of suffering cause Christians immense problems and, as we have seen, cause some to make things worse. There is no recourse to Free Will to explain an earthquake or a heart attack, so what can Christians say? What are the theologies available to us?

The technical term for an explanation that justifies suffering alongside the existence of God is called a Theodicy and the two major ones, the Augustinian and the Irenaen both have major weaknesses.

St. Augustine's Theodicy relies on the doctrine of the Fall. Now I have to express some embarrassment here as I confess that it wasn't until I was preparing this topic for a Philosophy of Religion A Level lesson that I realised that much of the doctrine of the Fall is inferred. We all know the Adam and Eve story. We all know that this is a story about disobedience and the consequences of sin. What I hadn't realised because I was so familiar with the doctrine and had absorbed the teaching over a long period of time, is that the prequel is hardly Biblical and that there is a lot of special pleading about the story of the fall of Lucifer which Augustine pretty well relies on to make his case. (I suppose it's because I studied Milton's Paradise Lost at A Level that I never noticed the absence of this story in scripture.)

In short Augustine sees suffering as a direct consequence of the Fall, both Lucifer's and Adam and Eves's and argues that the fabric of creation was compromised by the sin of their disobedience. That is an essential point because suffering, as we know, can exist without human sin as in this dreadful tragedy in Haiti, but it has to be a consequence of "Original Sin." The fabric of the universe was compromised. This is also essential to argue that God did not create sin or suffering because everything he created was ex nihilo - out of nothing and not ex materia out of something, and there is, therefore, no possibility of God creating evil and/or suffering because what he created out of nothing was therefore effectively created out of himself. Creation had to be perfect for Augustine and sin and suffering are serious inconveniences to that idea. This was the doctrine of the church for hundreds of years. It is what is called a "soul deciding" theodicy. This, I guess, is the theology which motivated Robertson and Mohler.

An older theodicy, and one which is gaining a lot of support of late, is that of St. Irenaeus. He never wrote a systematic theology of suffering and it has been the contributions of more recent theologians such as Hick and Swinburn who built on Irenaeus's ideas which have joined up the dots.

The Irenaen view is very much that humanity was not created perfect and needed to mature spiritually in order to reach the moral image and likeness of God. That can only happen if we face sufficient challenges in our individual and corporate journies along humanity's time line. The world we live in has to be a suitable environment for character building, and that requires suffering. Again, God does not intervene because of Free Will. It is what is called a "soul making" theodicy. This theodicy makes much of the idea of "epistemic distance" between the point of creation and the moment of spiritual maturity: we could not be immediately aware of God's existence and so had to discover it along the way. Our spiritual maturity must be significantly distanced from the creative process. Given that the current theory is that it was 70,000 or so years ago that we start to see evidence of the sort of human creativity which suggests the beginning of awe and wonder in cave paintings, this has become quite an evolutionary theodicy and so is not attractive to those who have a creationist worldview. Its main weakness is that of scale: how much suffering is required for spiritual character-building? There seems to be a disproportionate amount of suffering about to achieve the desired outcome.

Nevertheless there is another important strand of theology here. I have been trying to get my students to understand the problem at the heart of the debate: Christians teach that God is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful. Critics of Christianity counter that you can have any two and suffering makes sense but not all three. ie: God loves us and he knows about suffering but he can't do anything about it, God knows about the suffering and has the power to do something about it but he doesn't care or God loves us and has the power to do something about suffering but he doesn't know about it. Irenaeus seems to deal with this because implicit in his theodicy is the idea of God voluntarily laying aside his omnipotence and not intervening when he could.

I suppose we each of us lean towards one or other of those worldviews but I don't relish the idea of interpreting either to a hungry media pack.

Of course we have the book of Job to muddy the waters. This is not a historical book (although many will insist that it is). It is a morality tale and is a subversive one at that as it alludes to God and Satan wagering on the outcome of Job's suffering: will he remain faithful to God or will he denounce him? Many question its place in the canon of scripture for that reason alone. It offers three solutions to the problem of suffering, all suggested by Job's "comforters". Suffering is a test, suffering is a punishment and suffering is part of God's wider plan which we mere mortals can not hope to understand. None of the solutions show God in a particularly good light which is another black mark against the text.

My own personal problem with these three arises more out of their deployment by the conservative/fundamentalist wing of the church and my suspicion that they are plattitude answers in that context. If you subscribe to a worldview which sees obedience to the letter of scripture as an essential tennet of faith, you aren't going to delve particularly deeply into reading between the lines of what appears clear and obvious on the surface. I struggle with people telling me that Haiti is God's punishment but who can not go the next step in explaining why, or who can not accept an alternative perspective because that challenges their understanding of how God works in the world.

In this context I was much taken with the letter to Pat Robertson from Satan (in reality Lily Coyle of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) which noted certain inconsistencies with the earthquake-as-punishment theory: ... when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth - glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox - that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it - I'm just saying: Not how I roll. Makes perfect sense to me.

Now suffering as a test: I have no problem accepting that our faith in God is tested through suffering. I am just not sure that the randomness and the scale points to a deliberate act of God. What sort of God is this that such Christians believe in? This to me outlines the phenomenon of the "Old Testament Christian", the one who sees God in the way the people of ancient Israel saw God - a God of vengeance and punishment, a God in a perpetual bad mood and a God who comes over as capricious and something of a tribal totem. God hasn't changed but I think our understanding of him has since those days - or should have which brings us back to epistemic distance and the process of spiritual maturity.

Suffering is part of God's wider plan and is therefore beyond our understanding. That, of course, may well be true (who am I to claim to know the mind of God?) but it sounds terribly patronising and I have been patronised by far too many Christians over the years to accept what appears to be an intellectual cop-out. I may not know the purposes of God in suffering but I'm prepared to meet him half way and give it a try. Just a little insight please?

Jesus suffered so we know it is part of the human experience. I am quite sympathetic to that viewpoint and find it comforting to know that Jesus is my fellow sufferer. I'm not sure I would want to try that one out on the citizens of Port au Prince right now though.

In the end it is the non-interventionist view of God that most appeals to me but which goes against much of what I have been taught about the nature of God. Creation is morally neutral: it does not have the capacity to get up one morning and decide "Today I'll do an earthquake." Creation does not have the capacity to make moral choices. One explanation suggests that God has made the universe and leaves it to follow its natural course guided by the laws of nature. Archbishop Sentamu was starting to follow this line of argument on Thursday's Today Programme: the flood which kills some people now fertilises the land for others in the future; the earthquake which kills many now is from the same forces which create the land we and future generations live on. How can God intervene? How would he choose the well-being of one group now over the well-being of the other group in the future? To me this is quite Irenaean and, although I am not entirely happy with it, I'll come down off the fence now and say that despite its problems I am with St. Irenaeus and his theodicy.

However all of this seems totally inadequate as a first response to suffering of this magnitude. If pushed I'll simply say "I'm terribly sorry, I really don't know" and stick with Giles Fraser by acknowledging that despite all the problems there is a gut reaction for God inside me.

However, if you're still interested - seriously interested - in a month or so's time when the heat is off the topic, let's go for a quiet beer and I'll share some of what I understand about the Christian perspective on suffering.

Gold Watch

I've been reminiscing recently on why I've been watching drunk people do naughty stuff for the last decade. I got into the game as a student money earner, it fitted round my studies, it was less work, more money and seemed like more fun than barwork. The money is good, enough to keep me from debt and I'm still at it despite a trip to the southern hemisphere, a graduation and the start of a professional career.
The night job has persisted through all these activities. Now the far side of 30 with a mrs, a car and a real job I'm still doing it in a long black coat on the weekends. The game has changed a massive amount with only one little thing in our favour. The seemingly unaccountable SIA have made their inconsistent civil, not customer, service approach to the licensing bureaucracy both frustrating and pointless. The no-win/no-fee activities of the ambulance chasers have turned the masses into responsibility free walking lawsuits and businesses have responded by just being massively cautious to the extent they stop jobs being done and fun being had. The responsibility free generation has spawned an underclass of drinking chav who fear no one, shout, argue and fight anyone with no sense of control, proportion or sense. The police to me have gradually shifted from practical folk to practical folk with boxes to tick and targets to hit and careers dependent upon these. The days of pills, acid and weed are gone in favour of coke, ket and drink spiking drugs. The students are still drinking though with fees ands loans now the ones with the money to party seem to have daddy's money and not a wide and diverse social mix.
A lot of the initial fun of folding people up and sending them on their way has dissipated. The thrills of confrontations needing skill, wit and teamwork are all still there and provide me with the reasons to keep coming back and getting better at the job, every night, every venue, every person poses a new challenge.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti, mad Christians and the media.

With the sad synchronicity of these things, in the week of the Haitian earthquake some of my students have been looking at suffering as a topic. Some of them were even aware of the Haitian tragedy and some of the conversations in the classroom echoed the sorts of sentiments voiced by Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh (not that my kids will have heard of either of them).

That my students, who are overwhelmingly resistent to religion for themselves, might view Christian attitudes to suffering in this way is disturbing but not entirely surprising given the strange melange of quasi-Christian ideas, new-age and Eastern philosophies and folk religion they have absorbed and which they believe passes for Christian doctrine. (Sir, Sir, My Nanna said that when her budgie died it would go to Heaven and then be reincarnated.) That high profile religious leaders and opinion formers, on the other hand, who have a responsibility lead and inform opinion, espouse these same half-baked ideas and share them with millions is simply unacceptable.

It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, necessary to take into consideration the negative impact of the media in the way that Christianity is reported. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori of the American Episcopal Church delivered a thoughtful and measured response to the earthquake The people of Haiti have suffered a devastating earthquake, and it is already clear that many have died and many more are injured. Even under "normal" circumstances, Haiti struggles to care for her 9 million people. The nation is the poorest in the western hemisphere, and this latest disaster will set back many recent efforts at development. I urge your prayers for those who have died, been injured, and are searching for loved ones -- and I urge your concrete and immediate prayers in the form of contributions to Episcopal Relief and Development, who are already working with the Diocese of Haiti to send aid where it is most needed. This is a simple statement and it goes straight to the heart of the Christian Gospel: action before words. There is no attempt to explain, simply a request to act out of compassion and love. However, it garnered little media attention and was surpassed by the media feeding-frenzy over the comments of Robertson and Limbaugh who tell us that Haiti had a pact with the Devil and not to donate to relief funds because we were already donating to Haiti via our taxes.

You can find similar and worse all over the INTERNET.

No wonder the world thinks Christians are mad but most people are not well enough informed to know that these soundbites do not represent the views of the vast majority of Christian people and the media largely colludes in promoting that ignorance. Now we hear Robertson saying he misheard and thought the discussion was about Hades rather than Haiti. More grist to the media's mill here: as if Robertson would then go on to pontificate about how Hades had sold its soul to the Devil in exchange for getting rid of French colonial rule. It would be laughable if it wasn't so damaging. Limbuagh now says that he didn't suggest to anyone that they should not donate to relief funds. The text of the speeches is in the public domain: I could find Robertson on Youtube and I am quite clear that he understood perfectly what he was saying. So now the media can poke more fun at Christians: they tell lies to get themselves out of the holes they have made through their own ill advised pronouncements, just like the three "evangelists" who spread their homophobic poison around Uganda and now claim that they bear no responsibility for the proposed Ugandan death penalty for homosexual acts.

On BBC Radio4's flagship Today Programme yesterday morning, the Archbishop of York was put under pressure by presenter John Humphreys to endorse the Robertson line. The Archbishop wasn't having any of it but Humphreys wasn't much interested in anything else the Archbishop had to say. Listeners will remember Robertson long after they have forgotten anything John Sentamu had to say on the matter.

On Thought For The Day (The Today Programme again) this morning, the Revd. Dr. Giles Fraser delivered an excellent homily. LISTEN HERE Fraser expressed concern that there is the perception that it is the role of theologians to "get God off the hook." He disagreed. There exists a place within me, deeper than my rational self, that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti, not with clever argument but with prayer. On a very basic level what people find in religion is not so much the answers but a means of responding to and living with life's hardest questions, and this is why a tragedy like this doesn't, on the whole, make believers wake up to the foolishness of their faith. On the contrary it mostly tends to deepen our sense of a need for God.

The problem here is that the BBC Today programme, arguably one of the best news and current affairs programmes in the English speaking world is only heard by a fraction of the British public - and certainly not by my students or most of their parents. In this celebrity obsessed culture priorities are the wrong way round: Celebrity Big Brother, the X Factor are the viewing of choice and pander to the intellectual lowest common denominator. News and current affairs are "boring" and Rupert Murdoch wants to turn British broadcasting into Fox News and further impoverish our ability to hear real news about real people in far away places without editorial or bias. But don't start me off on that one again.

I can challenge my students. With patience on my part and a willingness to engage on theirs I can offer them an alternative perspective that starts with religious views a long way away from that of Robertson and Limbaugh and an understanding, not only of what Christianity actually teaches, but of the fact that most Christians are sane and compassionate individuals who don't go for the easy answer or the plattitude.

My overriding concern is that no-one seems to be doing that for the Robertsons and Limbaughs of this world who have got it so wrong while being in positions of significant influence and that the media prefers their views to that of the Jefferts-Schoris, Sentamus and Frasers of this world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Earthquake in Haiti

The earthquake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.0 and was centered about 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of 5 miles (8 kilometers), the U.S. Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti. In 1946, a magnitude-8.1 quake struck the Dominican Republic and also shook Haiti, producing a tsunami that killed 1,790 people.

Kenson Calixte of Boston spoke to an uncle and cousin in Port-au-Prince shortly after the earthquake by phone. He could hear screaming in the background as his relatives described the frantic scene in the streets. His uncle told him that a small hotel near their home had collapsed, with people inside.

Most of Haiti's 9 million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. In November 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 percent of the buildings were shoddily built and unsafe in normal circumstances.



Pat Robinson speaks and puts his foot in the mouths of all Christians.

Update on previous post: This sort of thing always helps.

"The Island of Hispaniola is one island. It's cut down the middle. On one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island." But, Haiti has to endure hardships due to the God's vengeance for deals with the Devil" (Pat Robertson, American Evangelist) "Haitians have been cursed because they made a "deal" with the Devil to free themselves from the French." He said even after the French were gone, the Island of Haiti has been cursed by "one thing after the other."

Tarred with the same brush because I self-identify as Christian, no-doubt someone will assume that this is also my position without bothering to ask!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snow Joke

Apparently the whole of the nation has ground to a halt with the recent stiff white precipitation. I've still been going to work, still been standing there in the cold and still seeing the horizontally striped and stupid stumble by. It seems most of the sensible folks have stayed away, we've had some very quiet nights inside and some very entertaining nights outside. Watching things in short shorts and shoes they can't walk in on the best of days going arse over tit time and again on the gentle slope covered in hard packed ice and slush. The tell tale marks of salted grit stains on jackets and knees have been all to present. All very entertaining and not one wanna be punter has yet thought it wise to throw snowballs at us. I mainly think this could be luck but a small bit may be the frozen faces of thunder we all seem to have adopted just at the thought of it. The promo staff still find it fun, when they've come back from another fruitless lap of the city centre, to pelt us but we do get our revenge. Like snowballs, it's always best served cold.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sunday Sermon: The Baptism of Jesus.

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

So Christmas is over. I wonder how many of us breathed a slightly guilty sigh of relief! For many, of course, it may be a rather sad time. Gone are the brilliant lights that added warmth and light heartedness to our lives, gone the pleasant aromas of holly and pine, cinnamon and mulled wine (or in my mother's house, gin), gone the greetings of love, peace and joy. It is time to go back to ordinary life, although most of us did that some time back. (I'm always slightly in awe of those with the staying power to see it through to the bitter end.) But we don’t go back the same as we were before. We now have new gifts to enjoy, new clothes to wear. I, for instance, have cornered the market in blue socks. We may have made new relationships or strengthened old ones. We may have made New Year resolutions that call for change. While in some ways today may be an end, it is also a beginning.

Today is also the celebration of the Baptism of Jesus. In some parts of the ancient church this was a time of year when people entered into Jesus’ baptism by being baptized themselves.

Hang on. Aren’t we in Epiphany? Isn’t this the feast of the “Three Wise Men”, the Magi? Well yes, but the well ordered progress of the liturgical year and the lectionary are punctuated by events in which the divine becomes manifest in our midst and they deserve special attention, which if they don’t fall on a Sunday they all too often run the risk of not getting. Today’s gospel is one of those moments and it’s a mini Epiphany within the Season of Epiphany.

Now I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence here but I am reminded of an occasion in the classroom when I was talking about Epiphany and as the lesson was drawing to a close I thought to myself: “That was a pretty good lesson. I’m pleased with that.” So we moved into the plenary and I asked if there were any questions.
“Sir. Sir. What does Epiphany mean?”

According to the dictionary Epiphany is “a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the revealing of Christ to the gentiles as represented by the Magi.” However it is also listed as “a sudden, intuitive insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or spiritual experience.”

So what is this mini Epiphany within the wider Epiphany? Today is the day when we move from one beginning to another as we jump in time from the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, to the baptism of the adult Jesus at the start of his ministry. The Gospel account describes extraordinary occurrences. The heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove; a voice from heaven identifies Jesus as “beloved Son.”

This was the same voice that stilled the unruly waters of chaos referred to in today’s other readings. Out of those primeval waters emerged an ordered universe, one that would produce much life. Out of the waters of the Jordan stepped an unpretentious man who would transform the world.

All the gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the Jordan river. Even his cousin John is shocked that Jesus wants to be baptized by him. Remember too that John’s baptism was “for the repentance of sins.” So we might well wonder why Jesus would submit himself to it unless Jesus’ baptism was for him a kind of ritual entry into his ministry to which God gave divine approval: “I am well pleased.”

The words attributed to God call to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah found in today’s first reading. They not only identify Jesus as the chosen servant of God; they also lay bear the character of his ministry. He will bring justice, but he will accomplish this with gentleness rather than through the strength of arms. He will be particularly sensitive to the weak and vulnerable, and his example will be “a light for the nations” to follow and of course we Christians recognize in this description of the servant the profile of Jesus.

The story also reveals that John knew that he was destined to be the one who goes ahead “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” Both men must have been told they were chosen by God for a specific ministry and these cousins never wavered from their chosen path. John grows up and chooses the difficult way of the desert and an ascetic way of life—he becomes a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus chooses a ministry that thrusts him into the midst of people and their suffering. John’s choice involves enormous humility. He says clearly, “I am not the one you are waiting for, there is one greater than I coming after me.” Jesus’ choice involves servant-hood, a ministry of healing and of teaching, the proclamation of God’s kingdom in the midst of an occupation by the greatest earthly power, the Roman Empire.

John’s life is filled with courage. Some would call it madness, to criticize a king like Herod, but John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, had no choice but to call sin by its name and to stand up to a king and his family, unafraid. He was convinced that sin led to death for the sinner, and he didn’t have much sympathy for those who rejected his call to repentance. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, his ministry is cut short in violent death.

Jesus’ life is supremely courageous in his challenge to both the religious leaders of his own nation and the power of Rome over his people. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was proof enough that he was not afraid of either powerful group. What courage! He starts his public ministry with the symbolic death of baptism by water and ends it with the actual death of his physical body.

John and Jesus: both of their ways lead to violent death at the hands of the political and religious vested interest of the day: one calling for repentance, the other offering a new way to look at God and life.

What does this story say to us? If it is, indeed, a mini Epiphany, “a sudden intuitive insight” as a result of God’s manifestation, what response is required of us?

We too emerged from the waters at the time of our baptism, waters that had been transformed by Jesus. At that time, we were commissioned to continue the ministry that he began.

Jesus’ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism remind us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him. Maybe that's the learning point: it's never too late for any of us to say “yes” to God.

The reading from Acts demonstrates the fruits of that commission. Peter, representative of the entire church, moves out of the safety of the believing community, the Jewish-Christian community, into the unfamiliar realm of the gentiles. He points to Jesus’ baptism and anointing by God as the beginning of the marvellous spread of the Gospel. The baptism of the household of the non-Jewish Cornelius is an example of its universal scope. The Gospel must be preached in every nation. And look around at this congregation as an example of the outcome: British, South African, German, Estonian, New Zealanders, Tanzanian, Latvian, American, Zimbabwean, Finnish and Namibian. But that work is still to be continued in our own families, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed, even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity, but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words “With you I am well pleased.”

As he came forth from the waters of the Jordan, his life took a new direction. As his followers, we emerge from the waters of baptism as new people, who with God’s help are willing to counter the chaos of our world and to take on the commission to share our own Epiphanies.


It continues to snow. I was getting ready for our Saturday routine which involves a treck through Narnia to the shops for local chores.

I dress, I believe, appropriately: old jeans, big boots, T-shirt, checked shirt and chunky cardigan.

"How's this?" I ask my beloved.

"O.K. I suppose, if you like Brokeback Mountain."


(Sadly, the picture is not me.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Talking of Doctrine...... (You weren't? Tough!)

Discuss, showing that you have thought about more than one point of view.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Doctrine and Revelation. (I know: it's not a great title!)

Some weeks ago I joined the other YMC leavers on CME training and it took us back to the reassuring environment of the College of the Resurrection. The section that I particularly enjoyed was, strangely enough, on doctrine. No. Honestly. It was a very well delivered session and very thought provoking. Here is the gist. Those who know me well will see why it energised me:

No religious experience is "pure": it is always laden with interpretation. Doctrine is the doctor's prescription for understanding experience, but if it is removed from human experience it is wrong. Our responsibility, certainly as clergy but also as laity, is to evaluate doctrine and human experience in the light of each other.

Good theology is marked by a searching fidelity to God's revelation in Jesus expressed in scripture and the living tradition of the church. The first responsibility of doctrine, therefore, is to remain faithful to the teaching of Jesus and secondarily to the authority of the church.

We must remember, too, that the tradition of the church should not be static: our theology is dynamic because the church's tradition is dynamic: it develops and grows as our understanding of God develops and grows.

That leaves the intriguing possibility that the church's foundations may not be encompassed within scripture because God's revelation did not stop the moment the canon of scripture was fixed.

God's revelation takes place throughout history by his being active in our midst and this includes in the here and now in the midst of human experiences. This is, of course, personal: God does not communicate things or facts to us about his love - principles and protocols - God communicates through his presence in our lives.

Revelation is Trinitarian: the Word Incarnate draws us to himself by the Holy Spirit who continues to work in our lives. Revelation is, therefore, particularly Christological: the fullest revelation as Christians should argue.

Revelation requires a response. It is an encounter. The response is quite simply faith (or conversion) as we become more and more transformed into the likeness of God- not into the likeness of ancient theological formulae or rules.

God's revelation does something: it is no less than his saving activity in our midst and as such is always interpersonal - it is involved and active rather than passive. This is what makes theology possible - the critical reflection upon God's self-communication to us. No aspect is marginal to us and no age can necessarily claim to have nailed it. There is always more.

Working in education, this struck me very forcefully. I have often mused about the stages of God's revelation and speculated that God reveals as much of himself as each age is capable of understanding and accepting without each subsequent stage being the limit. In the classroom I "reveal" what the kids can cope with at their age: Key Stage 3, GCSE, AS Level and A2. Others take them on to degree level: B.A, M.A and Doctorate. Each stage is not the final revelation - there is more to come.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy new Year

The good folk at the venue last night were drinking, dancing and being merry. Other than a few dropped and broken glasses all was civilised. I has some concerns certain groups were going a bit to heavy and would be unlikely to make the midnight so a couple of harsh looks and some well timed words and they were back on form until auld lang syne. The drunken tomfoolery began after midnight but with most folks happy, well fed and watered it all began to thin out and we didn't have too many issues. A couple of hours after midnight it was time to send the nodding offs home and then we encountered the absence of taxis, the irritating 'waiting for ringback' and the cold snowfilled night which even I felt a bit harsh to send people out into after 5 to 6 hours of expensive merry making. The joys of a ticket only event with a well targeted marketing strategy and a huge barstaff to give speedy, well tipped service. All in all this left very few folks dissatisfied although I've not yet had to get energetic in 2010 so I'm a little disappointed.