Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Where is God?

When terrible things happen, people ask 'where is God?' - and I find it helpful to take the question extremely literally.  What does the witness of Holy Scripture tell us about the whereabouts of God during a tragedy?

1.  God is in heaven.

When we say that God is in heaven, we affirm that he is absolute king of his creation.  Heaven is the place of sovereignty.  "Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him."  That can be hard to hear in the midst of tragedy, but the alternative is worse: our god is powerless, there was nothing he could do.  When we say God is in heaven, we say that nothing - not even this terrible thing - happened outside of his control.  Nothing shakes his rule.  Now, we can and should qualify this by saying that God rules in various ways, and his will is not fate: he does not bring evil in the same way that he brings good, or will tragedy in the same way that he wills salvation.  But he is in control.  He is in heaven.

2.  God is right here.

God is never a victim, but neither is he a stranger to suffering.  The Son of God became incarnate in order to suffer, and specifically in order to suffer with us and for us.  When events are more than we can understand or bear, we can be sure that the God who in Christ suffered for us on the cross is with us in our sufferings here and now - and not only ours, but the sufferings of the world.  He doesn't miss a single tear or a single injustice.  He is right here.

3.  God is coming.

Crucially, God is on his way.  The witness of Scripture is not to a static God, who remains in heaven, but to a God who comes, who approaches, who draws near to save.  When tragedy comes, we can remember that God is coming to judge the world.  As far as the biblical authors are concerned, that is very good news.  Judgement means the rectifying of everything that is wrong, the final end of suffering and injustice, the wiping away of every tear.  It means salvation, for all those who will lift their heads and look for salvation.  When terrible things happen, we can be sure that it will not always be this way.  He is coming.

Saturday, March 25, 2017


On the feast of the annunciation, I've been reflecting on the incarnation of the Son of God.  In their defence of the genuine divinity and humanity of Christ, the orthodox church fathers used the term Theotokos to describe the virgin Mary - best translated 'God-bearer' (rather than 'Mother of God', which just has uncomfortable resonances with the Father).  Mary is God-bearer because the child in her womb, whilst genuinely and fully human, was also genuinely and fully God.  The eternal Son of God was personally united to the human nature of Jesus Christ, even in the womb; Mary wasn't the bearer of the human being who would be God incarnate, but actually bore in her womb God-in-the-flesh.

Two reflections:

1.  The grace of God is displayed, in that God the Son is willing to take to himself human nature in its most powerless, vulnerable, and dependent state.  To put it bluntly, the eternal Son was a human foetus.  Here is already a prefiguration of his condescension at the cross, when he was given into the hands of sinners, defenceless, and finally entombed.

2.  This is basically where a Christian pro-life commitment flows from.  The incarnate Son did not unite to himself a part of the virgin's body; he united to himself a fully human nature.  The person in the womb was God in the flesh.  That means both that we know when human life 'begins' and has significance, and it means that God cares about this stage of human life, sanctifying it by his presence.  Obviously, this isn't an argument for being pro-life (the argument I would deploy with people who don't accept my theological positions would be simply 'are you sure?  are you sure this isn't a human being?  don't you think you ought to be 100% sure before this becomes okay?') - but it is the underlying rationale for valuing human life in the womb.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Holy love and holy fire

Whilst preparing to preach Leviticus 10 at CCC this past Sunday, I found Karl Barth's comments on the holiness of God particularly helpful.  Barth deals with God's attributes - or as he calls them, God's "perfections" - in the latter part of CD II/1.  He divides them into two sections - the perfections of the divine loving and the perfections of the divine freedom, in line with his basic thesis of the first part of II/1 - that God is the one who loves in freedom.  Within each section, pairs of perfections are offered - holiness is paired with grace.  But Barth is clear that these are not the sorts of things that could be played off each other.  He really believes in the doctrine of divine simplicity; in the end, all the myriad perfections of God are really one.  They are who God is.

So anyway, holiness.

God's love is holy, meaning that "it is characterised by the fact that God, as He seeks and creates fellowship, is always the Lord."  God does not give himself away in his love, he does not make himself subject to the people with whom he seeks and creates fellowship.  He is always God in this relationship.  And what that means is that "He condemns, excludes and annihilates all contradiction and resistance to" his love.  In his genuine love, he is genuinely Lord.  The logic of pairing grace and holiness, then, is that they both "point to the transcendence of God over all that is not Himself."  In both grace and holiness, God is the Lord.

And grace and holiness must be mentioned side by side.  It seems like they are contradictory: "To say grace is to say the forgiveness of sins; to say holiness, judgment upon sins."  But in fact they go together.  "That God is gracious does not mean that He surrenders Himself to the one to whom He is gracious.  He neither compromises with his resistance, nor ignores it, still less calls it good."  In fact, it is only as he draws near in grace that God's holiness is shown and made known.  Holiness in the abstract, which is not the holiness of God's opposition to sin in the very act of his gracious drawing near, is not the holiness the Bible describes.  "Therefore, the one to whom He is gracious comes to experience God's opposition to him."  When God creates fellowship with sinful human beings, they necessarily come to experience his opposition to them as sinners, even as (and only as) they come to see his grace in forgiving sin and creating that fellowship.

A brief aside on what this means for our understanding of Law and Gospel - "In Scripture we do not find the Law alongside the Gospel, but in the Gospel, and therefore the holiness of God is not side by side with but in His grace, and His wrath is not separate from but in His love."

"The holiness of God consists in the unity of His judgment with His grace.  God is holy because His grace judges and His judgment is gracious."  Barth adds, not without reason, "In this sense Jesus Christ Himself is the Holy One of God."  Where do we really see God's holiness?  Isn't it at the cross of Christ, where God judges sin and sinful humanity, and in judging overcomes sinful humanity and makes it fit for fellowship with him?

In Leviticus 10, God's desire to have fellowship with his people is threatened by the carelessness of his priests, who imagine that they can approach God casually, perhaps thinking that the newly en-tabernacled God is tamed and at their beck-and-call.  If this line of thought were followed through, fellowship between God and Israel would be impossible.  God will and must be himself; he will and must be Lord in the fellowship which he creates with Israel.  Therefore, Nadab and Abihu must die.  But this is not opposite to grace.  It is grace.  It is God in his grace creating, maintaining, and defending his fellowship with sinful Israel.

And of course it points forward.  If sinful humanity is to have fellowship with God, the fire of God's holiness must burn away our sinfulness; the fire of his love must oppose and overcome everything in us which is unlovely.  And where did the fire of God's love and holiness burn the brightest, consuming the one acceptable sacrifice?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Which people? Whose will?

52% of the British people voted for Brexit, therefore the will of the British people is Brexit, therefore Brexit must happen.

62% of people in Scotland voted against Brexit, therefore the will of the Scottish people is to remain in the EU, therefore Scotland must not be dragged out of the EU against its will.

Isn't that a bit odd?  The unequivocal will of the British people is Brexit, but the unequivocal will of the people of Scotland, who are a subset of the British people, is no Brexit.  And all this despite the fact that a large minority of the people of Scotland - who, as you'll remember, will not to leave the EU - expressed a desire to leave the EU, and despite the fact that an even larger minority of the British people - who, you'll recall, absolutely will Brexit - voted to remain within the EU.

It would appear that the 48% of British people who voted remain have made no contribution to the will of the British people.  Presumably they all now realise that their individual will has been subsumed, not to say over-ridden, by the will of the people.

Although, if you are in Scotland and you voted to leave, you are presumably fairly conflicted.  When you consider yourself as a person in the UK, you find that your individual will is in line with the collective will; but when you consider yourself as a Scot, you find that your individual will must be sacrificed to the will of the people of Scotland.

And of course the question has now been raised of what happens politically when the will of the people of Scotland, which of course has now over-ridden the wills of all Scottish Brexiteers, comes into conflict with the will of the people of the UK, which has of course subsumed the wills of all British people, and in the case of British people who voted to remain in the EU has over-written them with its larger collective will to leave.  Although, that presumably implies that the collective will of the people of Scotland has also been similarly over-written, except that apparently it hasn't.

All of which is just to say: individual people have a will; collectives do not have a will.  It's a nonsene (as demonstrated above) to try to pretend that we can speak of the will of the British people, as the PM is inclined to do, and it is only slightly less of a nonsense to try to pretend that we can speak of the will of Scotland, as the FM regularly does.

Essentially, we are going to need a better way of making decisions than just counting heads.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Cast me not away from your presence

We've just started preaching through Leviticus at CCC for Lent - last week: many sacrifices, much blood.  Some of the keenest vegetarians in the church were absent, I assume not deliberately.

I take it that the whole of Leviticus is the answer to Exodus 33:1-3.  The setting is the foot of Sinai, after the incident with the golden calf.  Having relented from his initial threat to destroy Israel, God responds to the intercession of Moses by declaring that he will send the people up to Canaan - but he himself will not go with them.  They are just too sinful.  If God were in their midst, he would destroy them.  For Israel, this is a disastrous word, and Moses gets back on his knees: if your presence won't come, don't send us at all!  Better to be without the promised land than to be without God's presence.

So Leviticus is the answer: the formation of a strict world of symbol and sacrifice which is designed to keep Israel God-centred and holy.  The sacrificial system, in particular, is geared towards ensuring that Israel's sin is acknowledged and then (symbolically) dealt with, so that God can be with them without breaking out against them in judgement.

But I guess it's not hard to see how this could be misunderstood.  As soon as the focus stops being on God and his presence, the sacrificial system - with the rest of the Levitical code - could become just a treadmill of self-righteousness.  It becomes about dealing with my guilty conscience, or demonstrating that I am in the right.  Look at all the sacrifices I made!

Reading Jeremiah 7 this morning, I'm struck by another way it could and did go wrong.  When the people forget that God's presence is problematic for them - or rather, when they forget that their sin is problematic in the presence of God! - they assume that the temple-presence of God is just automatic.  They can sin and sin, and it will still be okay because God's temple is right there.  He will surely rescue them, even if they basically ignore him and his word.

Either way, God's presence is not prized.  In the one case, God's presence becomes a theoretical side-issue in a quest for personal righteousness and security; in the other, God's presence becomes a tool to secure a safe and happy life.  In both cases, you imagine people would jump at the chance of going to the promised land without God!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Taking ourselves seriously

I don't manage to read as much philosophy as I would like.  Yesterday I perused a few pages of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, a book I've been reading on and off for a couple of years, and enjoyed it immensely.  It's mostly the continental philosophers I like to read nowadays, and I think that is because continental philosophy hugs the borders of religion pretty closely.  Increasingly I'm struck by the fact that I don't think there can be serious thought which does not interact with questions of ultimate meaning, and that means interacting with God, either as a presence or an absence.

I guess what I mean is this: a lot of what passes for thinking in our contemporary culture is pre-committed to the idea that our thinking just doesn't really matter, because nothing at all matters.  We, as thinking subjects, are not to be taken seriously.  Questions that ought to be big are made small because they are placed within the framework of meaninglessness.  Take the ethical question, for example.  I think we instinctively assume that the question 'What ought we to do?' is a Big Question, perhaps the biggest.  But when it is re-framed within contemporary naturalism, it becomes a small question, which can be answered by reference to nothing greater than my own preferences and a few societal norms.  It becomes almost a triviality.

Now, that isn't to suggest that there can't be any profound thinking that is atheistic.  Consider the way that the ethical question is framed by the existentialists, who accept naturalism but still take human beings as persons with absolute seriousness.  'What ought we to do?' is a Big Question in this framework, and that is why it is laden with so much anguish.  It is, if you like, a Big Question in a small universe, just as on the existentialist view human beings are Significant in a universe of insignificance.  Hence all the angst and stuff.  Now, that is profound thinking, which wrestles seriously with what it might mean to be an actual human being in a universe defined by the absence of God.  Go read some Sartre, or Camus.  Then go read A.C. Grayling, and see what is lost.

From a Christian point of view, I think one of the reasons the Christian message doesn't resonate with many of our contemporaries is that people don't think they are really human.  They don't take themselves seriously as ethical and purposeful beings, because any ethics or purpose they might talk about are squeezed into the framework of naturalism.  The questions only sound big; they are actually insignificant.  Without big questions, the big answers of the Christian story just don't find anything to latch on to.  Perhaps we need to take a big step back, and instead of providing answers we need to point out that if God has been here, in our reality as one of us, then we are actual, real human beings - and that means our big questions are really Big Questions.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017


Whatever you think about the observance of Lent, it is helpful to have some occasion to remember that the good news of Jesus Christ leaves us standing contradicted.  I don't mean that we stand conflicted - though of course we do, each human being divided in innumerable ways against himself, and Christians experiencing the conflict between the old man and the new.  What I mean is that God contradicts us.  The good news of Jesus is also the news that God has spoken against our being and action, revealing it to be utter sin.  And because it is God who speaks, his powerful contradiction actually takes away and lays aside that sinful person, creating in its place the new person who stands in faith in Christ.

To approach it from a slightly different angle, sometimes we can lose the fact that salvation, when it occurs, is totally against the run of play.  It does not follow from anything that has gone before - no human thing, anyway.  None of the events of history led up to or caused Jesus Christ.  When light shines in the darkness, it has not in some way sprung from the darkness itself; someone has intervened.  Perhaps most clearly and decisively, in the death of Christ we see the putting to death of all human possibility.  It is clear that the cross is the end of the story.  That the resurrection follows - that death is contradicted and life brought in in its place - that is miracle.  It is the same in any individual experience.  There may be all sorts of things which in my human experience preceded my coming to faith in Christ, but you could hardly say that they caused it.  When it comes, it is always contradiction - gracious contradiction, but contradiction nonetheless - which sets aside even the apparently positive aspects of my fallen and broken self.

Of course, if you go deeper you'll find that the current was always flowing in this direction.  God does not contradict himself.  From eternity, this has been the destination - the resurrection of Christ, the life of humanity in him, my life (and yours?) caught up with him.  But we need to remember that everything we ever brought to the equation stood opposed to this direction of travel.  We, in so far as we could, contradicted God, and took up the cause of the Serpent ("you will not surely die").  And let's face it, we contradict him still.  A moments reflection shows that my life as a Christian is full of contradictions of the gospel.  My confessed beliefs and my behaviour, and the gap between them - the conflict I mentioned at the beginning - manifest something of that attempted contradiction.  I must be an acrobat, to talk like this and live like that.  Humanly speaking, everything points away from God, away from salvation, away from life.

So I will be remembering, during this Lenten season, that I stand contradicted.  And that is good news.