Monday, September 29, 2014

Ministering spirits

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels.  Angels are funny things.  They are all over the place in Christian architecture and iconography, and for those in more liturgical traditions they form, in theory at least, part of the context of worship ('with angels and archangels...').  But I am not sure we have much practical use for them.  Indeed, they are something of an embarrassment.  It is just possible to construe worship of God as being compatible with our modern world; after all, God can be re-envisioned fairly easily in ways that fit the post-enlightenment paradigm in which we live.  But to believe in Angels puts you in the same realm as people who believe in the healing power of crystals, and people who take astrology seriously, and whoever it is who reads all those books about near-death experiences.

It's impossible to avoid the fact that one cannot tell the Bible story without angels. The presence of Gabriel at the Annunciation is sufficient to secure their place in the narrative. But other than these 'big events' - with which I suspect we are happy because of long exposure and also the sense that these are dramatic one-offs and therefore not normative - angels mostly appear within those parts of Scripture for which we have least time. The weird bits of the book of Daniel give a portrait of angelic warfare, linked to human prayer, which seems uncomfortably mythological. The various scenes in Revelation featuring angels are often so bizarre as to require explaining (away) in other terms.

All in all, I think for most of us angels are acceptable backdrop, so long as we don't seriously have to believe in them or their activity.

I think we could gain a lot by recovering a genuine, practical faith in the work of angels. For starters, a God who intervenes by the ministry of angels is very clearly not the god of the deists, and so a principal idol is cast down. Moreover, the presence of angels around us signals God's own presence in the mundane details of our lives.

Perhaps the biggest thing for me is that to believe in angels as the Bible portrays them is to believe that we are caught up in a world of spiritual activity - and more specifically spiritual conflict. The Archangel Michael cast down the dragon, who now roams the earth in fury.

Friday, September 26, 2014

What words mean 1: 'Extremism'

'Extremism' is all over the news at the moment, mainly in relation to the activities of the so-called 'Islamic State'.  Sometimes 'extremist' is used with qualifiers - 'Islamist extremists', 'Sunni extremists', 'religious extremists' - but often just by itself 'extremist groups'.

But what does 'extremist' even mean?  It conjures up an Aristotelian view of life in which the mean is the ultimately desirable thing.  For Aristotle (or at least the Aristotle of parts of the Nicomachean Ethics), extremes are in general to be avoided.  For example, on a spectrum of abject cowardice through foolhardy bravery, both extremes are to be avoided; the mean is a cautious bravery.  Is this the sort of thing that people mean when they talk about extremists?  Apparently not.  I don't think that when the BBC writes about Islamist extremists that they mean that one ought to strive for moderate Islamism, or that a Sunni extremist is someone who thinks and acts like a Sunni Muslim more than they ought to.

Can I suggest that what is actually meant by 'extremist' is usually something more like 'someone who doesn't take the blasé, indifferentist approach to questions of reality and life which is preferred within our liberal democracies'.  The average Westerner in the 21st century thinks that ultimate reality is pointless, and therefore holding serious beliefs about ultimate reality is pointless.  Arguing about metaphysics makes no sense.  Believing, on the basis of one's convictions about ultimate reality, that there is a right and a wrong way to live and to order society is just daft - and probably offensive.  Everyone ought to confirm to the bland, beige reality of secular life, and if they do entertain speculations about the true nature of the world and human life, keep it to themselves.

An extremist, then, is just anyone who thinks that things really matter, that there is a higher reality than the economy and a few beers at the weekend.  Western society, as a whole, finds such people intolerable.  People who try to live in a way which is logically and practically consistent with a particular view of ultimate reality are dangerous.

I am very much okay with extremism.  I think a society which cannot contain extremists is already broken.  The problem I have with IS is not that they are extremists (in the sense outlined above), but that the beliefs which they hold and try to live out are wrong, and therefore wicked.

My contention would be that the language of extremism is used to avoid having to ask questions like: 'are their beliefs about ultimate reality true or false?'  This is a question which must be avoided, because it leads to other questions like 'do Islamic beliefs (or some variant or subset of these) about ultimate reality lead, when taken seriously, to IS and its like?'  I don't propose to answer that; only to show that the point of talking about extremism is to put people a priori beyond the pale, so that we don't have to consider their actual beliefs, something that our mushed together Western non-culture will always struggle to do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Keeping quiet

If I had said "I will speak thus", I would have betrayed the generation of your children.

In context, this verse in Psalm 73 is saying something pretty controversial in today's world (and church).  The Psalmist had big doubts about the goodness of God, and he kept them to himself.  And looking back, he is glad he kept them to himself.  His doubts could have damaged other people.

I'm all for honesty, and I'm absolutely committed to the idea that the church is a community which accepts doubters, and doesn't discourage openness about struggles with faith.  But I do wonder whether sometimes 'personal integrity' is viewed as an ultimate good.  I think this, so I have to say it.  I doubt this, so I'd best express that.  This Psalm suggests that sometimes it would be better to have internal anguish rather than cause others to suffer.

I just thought that was interesting in a world where everyone has to 'be themselves', and a church where contradicting centuries of Christian teaching and belief is applauded as heroic so long as you are doing it for the sake of integrity.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

To the preacher

I hope the sermon preparation  has gone well; I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say (although this week it will have to be the recording, as I will be spending this morning teaching eleven year olds from Ruth 3 - awkward).  I just wanted to let you know what I need today.  It's the same as all the other weeks, but I know we're all forgetful and these things easily slip our minds.

I need Jesus.

I need Jesus, not as a slogan or a theological idea, but as himself, in person.  I need the God-man, who walked on the same globe on which I walk, and breathed the same air I breathe.  I need Jesus, not as an untouchable high and exalted deity, but as God-with-us, humbled to the dust - yes, even to the cross.  I need Jesus, not as a model of how to live, but as the giver of life, the conqueror of death, the one who spreads his righteousness over me.

For God's sake, and for mine (and for yours, for you shall be judged for what you say), don't explain the Bible to me.  Don't teach me some lessons.  Don't apply any moral principles.  For God's sake give me Jesus.  It is your sole commission to proclaim him as food for hungry souls, light for those in darkness, healing for the spiritually and physically sick, a Shepherd to those wandering alone, Lord and King to those adrift on a sea of their own contradictory desires.

For God's sake, and for mine, remember that I might die today.  I need comfort for death.  And remember that I might have to live tomorrow.  I need comfort for life.  Nothing can give it but Jesus.

For God's sake, and for mine, if the message you have prepared for this morning is not Jesus - if he is not the heart and soul of it - screw it up now.  Don't worry about preparing something else; there isn't time.  Just stand up and tell us all that Jesus died and rose for us.  Say it like you mean it, and that will be okay for us.

Monday, September 15, 2014

There is another country

I am finding this week rather nerve-wracking.  As someone who has always considered himself British, the prospect of my country being voted out of existence by about 4% of its inhabitants is alarming and depressing.  I still hope it won't happen.  I will be genuinely heartbroken if it does.

But I have been remembering in the last couple of days that this is normal.  It is right that we love the things around us, including the countries into which we find ourselves born; but all such things pass away.  I have been pondering the patriarchs as they are described in Hebrews 11.  They were reminded of the fact that they were strangers and exiles in the earth by their literal wandering; they did not have possession of the homeland they had been promised.  But they could have gone back to the places they had left behind.  They did not do so, because they desired a better country, a heavenly one, a city which God has prepared.  This is what I am preaching to myself, in case things go badly on Thursday: your citizenship never was really here, in this place; your love for this homeland is just an echo of the desire for another, true home; if all this goes, your identity is essentially untouched, because it is in Christ.

After all, if the UK endured to the final day, it would still be shaken and removed in the end, and I look for a Kingdom that cannot be shaken forever.