Tuesday, January 31, 2017

After the Shared Conversations

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

Commendable goals, in my view.

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

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

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

Monday, January 30, 2017

Demons and Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The new modernism

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Imagining the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 06, 2017

Problems with Van Til

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

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

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

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

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

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

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