Thursday, February 23, 2017

Forgiveness of sins

It's amazing the capacity we have to forget stuff, including for Christians the absolutely central stuff of our faith.  I don't mean that things are completely expunged from the memory.  I just mean those times when for a long stretch the stuff that we know lies dormant and dusty in the mind.  It is a curse, this forgetfulness, requiring us to constantly discipline our memories.  But in a weird way, out of the curse of forgetfulness comes the blessing of remembering.  Because the truth has lain there hidden by all the day to day junk and precious treasure of life, when we see it again it is almost like the first time - but better than the first time, because it comes with that joyful sense of recollection: 'I remember this!'

Take, for example, the forgiveness of sins.

I bet you have from time to time been functionally forgetful of the fact that God in Christ forgives sins.  In my experience this sometimes happens when I go for a period without being conscious of any great transgression.  Without really thinking about it, the forgiveness of sins gets shoved into the mental attic, to be retrieved when needed.

And then, one morning, maybe I'm reading the Bible, or maybe I'm praying, or maybe I'm just reflecting on the past week, and suddenly, BAM!  The forgiveness of sins.  God my Father, in and through the Lord Jesus Christ, shows his great love to me by wiping out the record of my wrong, by looking at me as someone who is eternally separated from my own sin and therefore eternally welcomed by him as a son along with his Son, and a co-heir with him of the eternal kingdom.

He forgives our sins!

And suddenly I'm conscious that sin is the one word which accurately describes so much of my life and my character.  The forbidden and unwise done, the commanded and beneficial undone, self put before others, even the occasional appearance of selflessness shot through with concern for image.

And just like the first time, I am amazed that all of this is forgiven.  But unlike the first time, I remember that this is how God my Father has treated me again and again, bringing me to this point of turning my back on the me that he has also turned his back on, and embracing the me he calls me and allows me to be.  Sin really forgiven.

I'm almost glad I forgot it, for the sheer joy of remembering.  O felix culpa..?  But mostly just thank you.  Thank you, my great and good God, for remembering and reminding me.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Why argue about sex?

This is a post for people who don't understand why Christians are always arguing about sexuality.  To be honest, we're not always arguing about it - I devote a fairly small amount of my time to arguing in general, only a small chunk of that to arguing with other Christians, and a relatively ickle proportion of that arguing about sexuality - but it does get reported a lot, and not just in the fake news.  I want to explain to people who don't know Christianity from the inside why it is that we Christians are having an argument over something that most people think is a matter entirely for individual consciences, where it isn't so blindingly obvious that anyone ought to see it.  I'm not going to particularly argue for a position.  This is just an introduction to why we feel the need to take up a position in the first place.  It may be patronising, in which case my apologies.  It's just some stuff that to me seems to get missed in the translation of inter-Christian arguments into the secular press.

So here goes.

First thing to note is that Christians believe that everything has meaning.  This is based on the notion that ultimate reality is personal (God), and that every part of contingent reality (i.e. everything else) stands in some sort of relationship to that ultimate reality, and that relationship defines what this particular part of contingent reality is all about.  This is very different from a view of reality as ultimately meaningless.  Meaningless is what everything ultimately is if, at bottom, there is no personality.  There are two ways of thinking about an ultimately meaningless reality - the optimistic way and the pessimistic way.  If you take the optimistic route, you will think that the ultimately meaningless reality is like a blank canvas, onto which we can project whatever meanings we like; we are meaning makers.  If you go down the pessimistic road, well, meaningless is meaningless.  Perhaps the best we can do is live with some sort of authenticity, but even that is, at the end of the day, without meaning.  We are lost, accidentally endowed with a desire for meaning and incapable of genuinely finding or making anyway.

If everything is ultimately meaningless, whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to make some sort of meaning within that, it is obviously a waste of time to argue about what things mean.  Either it's like arguing about which flavour of ice cream is best - it's clearly a personal choice - or it's like arguing about whether cheese is snurg - it's total nonsense.  But if reality is at bottom personal, and if contingent reality therefore has meaning, it may be possible to find meaning in each part of contingent reality - by which I don't mean some variation on the optimistic view above, where I project meaning into something, but something more like digging for gold: there might actually be meaning in there, and I might find it.  And in that case we can have a genuine conversation about what it is that we've found: we could argue about what something means, and it wouldn't be obviously nonsense.

Second thing is that Christians believe in revelation.  In the Christian context, that means one particular thing (and lots of other things which depend in one way or another on that one thing).  It means that we believe that the ultimate reality - the personality at the bottom of it all, by relationship to whom the meaning of everything else is defined - this ultimate reality has appeared within contingent reality.  This has a pretty substantial effect on the quest for meaning.  If it's true that the meaning of contingent reality comes from its relationship to ultimate reality - well, that might mean that everything has meaning, but it wouldn't necessarily mean that we could discover what that meaning was.  In fact, it seems unlikely that we would discover it.  The sort of ultimate reality we're talking about it transcendent, which is to say that although it undergirds all of contingent reality, it does not appear in the way that contingent reality does.  If you catalogued everything in the universe, ultimate reality wouldn't appear in the catalogue, because it is what stands behind and beneath everything else.

But the claim is that ultimate reality has appeared in the midst of contingent reality, and in fact has appeared as contingent reality in some sense.  Of course, what Christians are referring to is the incarnation, the idea that the God who stands behind everything became a human being - became the Jewish carpenter and itinerant preacher Jesus of Nazareth - and lived and died in our world, in our history, at a point on a normal map that I could point to right now.  If that is true - and that of course is a huge if  - then the story of Jesus of Nazareth is the centre point around which everything else revolves.  If everything in contingent reality derives its meaning from its relationship to ultimate reality, and if ultimate reality is revealed in the life story of Jesus of Nazareth, then the meaning of everything in contingent reality can be seen in its relation to this life story.  That is a great big claim, but for the Christian it means that the question of what everything means is not a vague philosophical one, but a concrete and yet very personal question about what this particular chunk of contingent reality has to do with Jesus.  That is something about which we could argue, you see, because there is an answer, and the answer is not in principle hidden away.

Thirdly and finally, what does this have to do with sexuality?  Well, in the general sense, obviously human sexuality is an aspect of contingent reality, and so we can ask what it means, and we can try to work out the connection between it and the life of Jesus, just as we can for every single 'thing' in the universe.  But there is something more specific than that.  We've already said that the Christian thinks that reality is ultimately personal, and indeed relational.  That makes human beings uniquely important - apart from angels and demons (which are a complex part of the Christian view of the world) we are as far as we know the only contingent personalities in existence.  And it makes the relational aspect of human beings particularly significant.  We could view the fact that ultimate reality became human in Jesus as the confirmation of this particular importance and significance.  But sexuality lies very near to the heart of who we are as relational persons.  Which should lead us to expect that when we are talking about sexuality, we are talking about something that is absolutely charged with meaning.

That is what we are arguing about, and that is why the arguments are heated.  For Christians, sexuality has meaning, and its meaning stands in close relation to ultimate meaning.  The Bible - which for Christians is the first and authoritative record of God's communication to the word, and therefore the means of his communication to the word in the present - suggests that human marriage, particularly in its sexual component, is a picture of the ultimate story of reality; the story of God's coming into the world in Jesus to unite humanity to himself in loving relationship.  So the nature of our understanding of sexuality is closely related to our understanding of God.  There is meaning, really important meaning, in there.  So we discuss it.

There's rather more to say than that, and of course I take a definite view of where the discussions (or perhaps better, arguments) ought to end up.  But I hope that helps to explain why we're having the discussion in the first place.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Epistemic attitudes

We recognise that our ability to know is entirely gift, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with gratitude.  That we have faculties directed toward knowing; that there is a world out there which can be known; that there is sufficient correspondence between these two such that we can fairly reliably know things - this is all God's grace in creation.  That this situation is maintained minute to minute is God's sustaining grace.  And given our finitude and capacity for error, any one particular instance of knowing is God's providential grace.  Knowing should be accompanied by deep gratitude.

We recognise that our ability to know is limited by both our finitude and our sin, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with humility.  Perhaps we put this epistemic virtue into effect most clearly when someone disagrees with us.  What we thought we knew is called in question by another knower, and we recognise that we could indeed be wrong.  This attitude flows ultimately from the existence of God, the great Knower, who alone sees things as they truly are.  In his presence, our knowing must be accompanied with humility.

We recognise that to know is a joyful task given by God, and therefore approach the task of knowledge with seriousness.  If God has given us a world to know and the faculties to know it, we must not approach knowledge flippantly or lightly.  It is good to know, and we take our good gifts for granted and act presumptuously if we do not put significant effort into knowing.  This will include working hard to correct our mistakes, to hear the perspectives of others, etc.  Recognising that we are called by God to know, our knowing must be accompanied by seriousness.

We recognise that our knowledge is always constrained by our position in time, and therefore approach the task of knowing with openness to change.  Our knowing is eschatologically oriented.  That is to say, only God knows what things will be, and that means that only God really knows what things are now.  Our knowledge must always be open-ended; we can't ever think we have said the final word on any subject.  The final word always belongs to God himself.  Awaiting that word, our knowing will always be accompanied by a sense of openness.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

This will not stand

It matters how we engage with current affairs.  I'll be honest and say that I'm finding it all rather tricky right now.  I sort of miss the days when all we had to deal with was the news, rather than the constant online cocktail of news, informed opinion, less informed opinion, and social media displays of anger and hate on all sides.  I'm going to need to restrict my diet of internet, because honestly it's making me sick to my soul.

But the thing which distresses me most is that I see very little difference between the responses of Christians and others.  It's all anger and despair.  Now, Holy Scripture gives us some precedent for expressing anger and despair about the situation of the world.  I note, though, that the anger and despair in Scripture is mostly directed toward God himself.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think God would rather have us hurl abuse and accusations at him than at the people with whom we disagree.

What I miss at the moment is evidence that we're paying attention to another stream of the Biblical witness which is an essential complement to the anger and despair: a calm, straightforward trust in the sovereignty of God and the truth of the gospel.

Of course we need both the sovereignty of God and the truth of the gospel.  A sovereign God who is not the God and Father of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is of small comfort to us - he could have any plans, any goals, and who knows how many of us he'd throw under the bus to achieve them.  But if the God of the gospel, the God of Calvary and the empty tomb - if that God is sovereign, there must be some comfort.  He has told us what he is up to, and it is salvation and hope and life.  He threw himself under the bus, as it were, to secure it.  He isn't backing down now.

There is something absolutely right about the instinct to protest manifest evils - to cry out 'this will not stand!'  But it matters whether that proceeds from the starting point of a certain knowledge that, no, it will not stand - because the only place that evil ultimately has left is captive in the train of the glorified Christ.  To put it another way, is your protest a witness to the gospel?  And would this be clear to anyone glancing through your Facebook feed?