Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Extremism

Here is the definition of extremism drawn up by Her Majesty's Government, with the aim of forcing schools to recognise and report extremist influences on children:

Extremism is "vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs".

Here are a few quick comments on some words and phrases which I'd like to see nailed down a bit more firmly (on the assumption that we can't just ditch the whole thing, which would be my preferred option!):

British - who is "in" and who is "out" when we use this word?  Given that the British isles are home to a multiplicity of cultures, both ancient and more recent arrivals, can any sensible definition be placed on this?

values - this is a slippery word.  Does it just mean "things that I or we consider valuable/important", or does it imply some relation to a wider 'value system' and narrative?

including - in this context, that has to mean 'including, but not limited to', which raises huge issues about what else might count as a 'fundamental British value'.

rule of law - this could so easily be used to quash legitimate protest against specific laws that it's terrifying.

individual liberty - just ironic, considering how utterly contrary to individual liberty this whole process is.

respect and tolerance - these words both need serious definition.  Will we still be able to criticise other worldviews?  Are atheists to be required to 'respect' my worldview even though they are convinced it is delusional?  Am I to be required to 'respect' theirs even though I think it is demonic?  And as for tolerance - I can tolerate lots of things whilst believing them to be desperately wrong; but only if tolerance is understood to mean basically 'put up with'.  I would like some assurance that I am not going to be required to celebrate what I am convinced are erroneous and deathly views.

All in all, this particular venture into establishing a category of thought crime strikes me as dangerous, poorly thought through, and socially destructive.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Seriously, though...

On Sunday after church I was discussing with a couple of guys what might be wrong with our churches.  (This wasn't a reflection on the service in which we'd just been participants; I hope not, as I was the preacher).  The thing that sprang to my mind was just this: we're not very serious.  We don't take things very seriously at all.

To a certain extent, as one of my friends pointed out, this is just because we live in an informal culture, and it is hard to be informal and serious.  I think there is a lot of truth in that.  After all, when we want to do really serious things in life - I have in mind the big occasions, like getting married, or burying someone - we still reach for formality.  It wouldn't seem right to mark those huge things with an informal tone.  Seriousness does demand a certain level of formality.  Isn't it a shame we don't consider meeting with God's people for worship to be serious in this way?

I wonder though - if we don't know how to be informal and serious, perhaps it is a bigger problem that we don't know how to be joyful and serious.  In fact, there is no 'perhaps' about it: this is a bigger problem.  Informality is a cultural preference; joy is a gospel command.  It is interesting that as I was thinking about this I had an encounter with Father Christmas - not in the flesh, which would be odd and also unseasonal, but in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I'm currently reading with the boy.  Here's Lewis:

"Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly.  But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn't find it quite like that.  He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still.  They felt very glad, but also solemn."

And this bit:

"Lucy felt running through her that deep shiver of gladness which you only get if you are being solemn and still."

Perhaps there is something we could learn from Santa...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Aiding and Abetting

Today I've been thinking about the Homoiousians.  I imagine you think about them from time to time as well, but just in case they've not been at the forefront of your mind recently, let me remind you who they were.  The Homoiousians were the moderate party in the fourth century debates about the person of Christ.  They positioned themselves between the Homoousians on the one hand (note the lack of 'i' - homo rather than homoi) and the Arians on the other.  To boil it right down, whilst the Homoousians said that God the Son was of one being with the Father, and the Arians said that God the Son was unlike the Father, the Homoiousians said that the Son was similar to or like the Father in his essence and attributes.

As we all know (right?), the Homoousians ultimately won the day; the Gospel story required the relationship between Father and Son which they championed.  Arianism has been denounced as heresy by all branches of the Christian church.

But my thinking today has not really about the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of yesteryear.  Rather I've been thinking about the role played by the 'moderates', the Homoiousians, in all this debate.  They were a varied bunch.  Some were very slippery characters; they had Arian sympathies, but lacked the courage of their convictions.  Others were simply concerned for the unity of the church; they wanted to try to acommodate the views of as many as possible (whilst ruling out the extremes of Arianism).  Others just felt that it wasn't as important as everyone was making out; they just wanted to preach the gospel without getting mixed up in this abstract argument.

History has not judged their efforts kindly, nor should it.  Whatever the motives, good or bad, the attempt to moderate and compromise and hold people together led to the Homoiousians advocating, or at least tolerating, heretical doctrine.  They did not, in the final analysis, speak the truth about God.  Had they been allowed to triumph, the Gospel would have disappeared.  In the end, whatever they hoped to achieve, they were in fact aiding and abetting the enemy.

I've been thinking about Homoiousians as I reflect on the role some people I respect very much are playing in the big debates in the church today - especially around gender and sexuality.  I worry that in trying to be gentle, kind, moderate...  they're running the danger of being on the wrong side.  When it comes down to it, on this and all issues, we have to listen and speak.  If God said nothing on the subject, we'd jolly well better shut up.  But if he spoke, we'd better hear what he says and articulate it clearly.  No messing around.  No fudging, no hedging, no softening the edges.  Rather, gentleness with clarity.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Why I am so immoral

Everybody knows that it is good to have a strong sense of ethics.  A strong moral code.  On the other hand, it is not generally considered good to be strongly committed to ethical positions which contradict the majority view.  To a large extent we have democratised ethics, such that in most situations what is 'good' is defined by the majority opinion.  It is interesting to see how things which were 'evil' a generation ago are now 'good'.  I am not sure if many people realise we are constructing morality as we go along in this way; I suspect there is a widespread but rather naive belief that we are discovering that our forebears were wrong.  It is not clear to me what new information we have to overturn their conclusions.

But I am not much interested in strong moral codes, whether fashionable or not.

Whilst Holy Scripture contains a number of moral codes itself - Ten Commandments, anybody? - I do not think that morality in this sense is very important in the Bible.  It is certainly true that Scripture encourages us to think wisely, and to work out in practice what it means to do the good.  This may well result in the drawing up of private or public ethical codes, and that is fine and at least potentially good.

But the main thing is not ethical codes.

There is a difference between a person trying to live by the rules - whether their own set, or society's set, or even a Biblical set - and a person trying to live responsibly.  By responsibly I mean at least two things: living in response to another Person - God - as he takes action in the world and particularly (in this connection) as he commands; and living in the knowledge that one will be held accountable by another Person - God - who will ultimately weigh what one has done.

It is less about a good moral code, and more about a righteous God.

This way of life is so much more weighty.  Things really count here.  I must listen, and obey - and this is always a personal interaction.  Though it might mean searching through books and thinking hard, at the end of the day it is about receiving the command of God, which can never really be reduced to an ethical theory.  Whoever came up with the phrase 'divine command theory' had presumably no acquaintance with actual divine commands.  And having received a command, one must follow it, knowing that one will give account.

This way of life is also more difficult.  Codes of ethics are always subject to revision, and no matter how strict they are can usually in time accommodate themselves to shifts in fashion.  The God who does not change, though his commands are always new and personal, will always be who has been.  It is listening to him that leaves Christians out of step - on life issues, on sexual ethics, on a host of issues.

And in a world where ethics is defined by fashion, to listen to the commands may also make us immoral.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Why I am so stupid

There is no getting around the fact that we Christians believe all manner of stupid things.  Here is a sample of really dumb things that I believe to be absolutely true:  I believe that as I type this I may well be observed by invisible spiritual beings, some good and some evil; I believe that the world outside me exists purely for the sake of one Man; I believe that the death of one Person has completely changed the situation of every single person who has ever existed; I believe that a dead Man came back to life on the third day; I believe that the most glorious thing that can happen to a person is to die because of their faith.  And when I say 'believe', don't hear that as some sort of religious word.  I mean that I believe these things in much the same way that I believe that my laptop is in front of me as I type.

These things are stupid things to believe.

They are not stupid beliefs in and of themselves.  Only internally contradictory beliefs would be stupid in isolation.  They are dumb beliefs because they are impossible to fit within the frame of reference which we use to describe reality.  They are stupid because they are contradicted by the most fundamental axioms which we have adopted as arbiters of truth.  In particular, they are dumb because they are manifestly not derived from my experience or from any empirical judgement.  They are stupid, actually, because they could only work in our frame of reference as 'values', as myths which are in some sense true for me but certainly do not make any claim to actual, real-world truthfulness.

I believe all these stupid things.

I believe them because I have come to think that our frame of reference is all wrong.  I believe them because I think they reflect a higher frame of reference: the truth of the Creator.  These foolish beliefs are his folly, not mine. And his folly is wiser than my wisdom.

There is just one thing I am determined to do: to keep being stupid.  The danger is that I take these beliefs, see the profundity of them, glimpse something of God's wisdom - and adopt a position of superiority.  If I do this, I deny the very reality of the beliefs I profess; shape them into something strong and praise-worthy.

No, I will just carry on being dumb.  Nothing much ever depended on my cleverness anyway.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why the Trinity?

You could be forgiven for thinking that the doctrine of the Trinity is essentially a grand bit of metaphysics - beautiful, but somewhat abstract and esoteric.

It isn't.

The doctrine of the Trinity is quite simply the only way to make sense of the story, and that in two different ways.  

On the one hand, the doctrine is the only way to make sense of the Biblical story, the gospel story.  When Jesus talks to his Father, and promises his followers that he will send the Spirit from the Father, and when he says that seeing him is seeing the Father, or that the presence of the Spirit is his own presence...  How can we make sense of that without the Trinity?

On the other hand, the doctrine is the only way to make sense of my personal story as a Christian, my everyday story.  When I pray, I speak to the Father in Jesus' name - and at the same time, I am aware that I would not, left to myself, pray at all; it is only the presence of Another within me that motivates and empowers me...  How can I make sense of myself without the Trinity?

The doctrine of the Trinity is just the only way of describing the actor(s) in this drama which makes sense of what they actually do.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Living Philosophically

I recently read A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry, and I would recommend that anyone interested in philosophy, or indeed Western culture more broadly, take a look.  The book is subtitled A philosophical guide to living - and that is what it aims to be.  By taking us on a walk-through of the history of philosophy, Prof Ferry tries to show how philosophy ought to have an impact on our daily lives.

You can cut this book two ways - diachronic and synchronic, if you like.  Structurally, it is a history, and takes us from ancient philosophy (especially the Stoics) through Christendom to the Enlightenment, then beyond into post-modernism and then the contemporary philosophical scene.  The book is driven forward by the repeated question of why people abandoned the thought of one epoch in favour of the next.  But then within each chapter the period in question is dealt with in terms of three areas of thought: theory (what is the universe like?), ethics (what ought we to do?), and soteriology (what is it all about and how we will cope with our own role and finitude?)  It is this last question which places Ferry firmly within the Continental tradition, and which makes him interesting.  He is not content that philosophy analyse the human condition; he wants it to provide hope and meaning.  For that reason, he quite sensibly places philosophy on the same plane as religion.  They are meant to do the same thing.

As a Christian reader, I'm fascinated and frustrated by Ferry's interaction with Christian thought.  He understands aspects of the gospel very clearly, but misses other things.  I suspect that the problem comes from treating the gospel as if it were a philosophy rather than a history.  What he does understand is that in contrast to philosophy Christianity is about humility: the humility of God who becomes incarnate, and the humility of the believer who finds truth, ethics, and salvation in accepting the word of another rather than thinking himself out of the problem.  In the end, Ferry thinks Christianity is too good to be true, offering as it does real life after death; for him, there is no such salvation, and philosophy should occupy itself with questions of how to face the inevitability and finality of death.

In other words, philosophy seeks to find salvation from the fear of death; Christianity offers salvation from death itself.  Ferry would of course prefer the latter - but the former is all he thinks we can realistically expect, and in the end the prescription to overcome the fear of death is disappointing: just a radical emphasis on the present, with the prospect of death spurring us on to do now what we will not be able to do later.

By emphasising the element of philosophy which contemporary thought (at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) most neglects - soteriology and the question of human meaning - Ferry inadvertently highlights that philosophy is unable to answer the ultimate questions.  By taking us through the history of philosophy, he shows that fashions of thought have changed over time - philosophy is a ship at sea, blown this way and that by various winds of doctrine.  The story is fascinating, but the conclusion is strangely hollow.