The Diseased Imaginings of a Tainted Mind
It’s been a while since I posted a sermon here. That’s predominantly because I’ve moved to delviering sermons from notes.
Unusually last weekend, I felt the need to write out the sermon, as it was going to be a bit complicated to make sure that everything was explained in order.
That means that I have a sermon to post here, hopefully, it’s as well recieved as it was in person.
Adam Dickison said If somebody comes into steal my t.v. should I help them load of the V.C.R. and tv stand too? Maybe give them some cash for gas? I mean is my stuff so important? The gun in connection with protecting my stuff is where I’ve felt out of sync mostly
The more I think about this, the more I feel that it is in this statement that we have found the heart of the matter. It is when a gun is being used to protect the “Bigger Idol” of property.
In his book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Bishop John Shelby Spong outlines many of the problems which he sees in modern-day Christianity. Though I agree with the statement, I’m not sure that I agree with his conclusions. Bishop Spong seems to want to remove the Theistic aspect from Christianity, which while I can see much good in his approach, I think the removal of Theism is currently unnecessary. That said, I very much agree that we should re-examine some of the baggage of Christianity with the full weight of modern theology, and strive to recover and reshape Christianity in a way that not only reflects our modern time, but also the beauty of the message of Christ.
In the book, Bishop Spong argues for the removal of the image of Jesus as a divine rescuer. This “Dead Wood” image, he feels falls too easily from the preachers lips, and has become nothing but empty homily to an assumed Theology of Original Sin which hangs around the neck of Christianity like mill stone, and will eventually drag Christianity down to it’s death.
For an essay that I have to write, I decided that it would be easier to do if I actually had a liturgy from the 4th Century to read from, so that I can make the comparisons. I found that there are many reconstructions, but I wanted one that used the writings of St. Cyril (as these were given to us in class), as well as the writings of St. Ambrose, both of which are freely available online.
I include the result for your comment.
Sometimes I wish I had the answers.
Sometimes I wish there was a way that I could articulate in a way that was fully rational why I believe there is a God. I look around the internet, and it seems to be polarised between Kantian-descended rationalists, who have finally done away with Kant’s need for God to prove a Just universe, and those who have taken Martin Luther’s cry of “Sola Scriptura” as a battle cry, and have simply replaced his bigoted hatred for Jews with one that seems to be aimed at those who wish to be in Single-Sex relationships.
Somewhere in the middle there is the quiet voice of the Moderates. We’re those who are just quietly seeking a way to get our message out that we’re not completely insane. We know that what we believe cannot be proved, and we walk the fine line of Rationality, balancing it with Theology so that we can produce a coherent picture of the world in which we live. We Moderates are not alone. There are many of us who believe that the spiritual side of our life needs nourishing as well. We all seek for ways to do that that feed us. It is a world that no amount of rationalisation is going to get rid of, because people will feel what they feel. Sure you can tell yourself that what your feeling is false, because it has no basis on any provable fact, but then emotions are notorious like that.
I have just returned from a visit to the local Greek Orthodox Church, a visit that was done as part of one of my university courses.
The first thing that struck me about the worship was that it seemed some-how disconnected from the people. The congregation would arrive, chat to each other, wander out again, and the service seemed to continue at the front, with the 3 men chanting apparently to themselves. Then again, it wasn’t just the people who didn’t seem to mind that they were late, the priest arrived while the chanting was in progress.
During the Christianity and Interfaith Dialogue Module that I’m following as part of my course, we are studying Karl Rahner’s idea of being an “unnamed Christian”. This phrase is more commonly though of as the “Anonymous Christian”. This is the notion that so long as you are worshipping God as best you can in your particular religion, then you are an anonymous Christian. The idea behind this is that there is some truth to be found in other religions, but there is a fuller truth to be found in Christianity. What is, however, we remove the Christian arrogance from that notion, and tried looking at it a different way. Could you be an anonymous Muslim?
Originally written: 02.07.2010 while in Lesotho.
I think I should stop reading St. Thomas Aquinus, he’s giving me ideas above my station. The thought was as follows:
Prayer transforms God’s power in potentia into God’s action in the world
This is hardly, I would guess, a new thought, but it is a new one for me. It gives human action a bigger part in prayer, being almost the guiding or directing force. Perhaps prayer acts more as the gate through which God can act? The problem with that is that that implies that God cannot act and requires permission to. My problem here, as always, is the opposite of the problem raised by J.B. Phillips in his book “Your God is too small” in that the Christian God is defined as being so Big. Perhaps, then, the important words are “in potentia”. If God’s purpose is something that is a river, constantly at work in the world, prayer then, as a two-way action, doesn’t simply alter the flow of the river, but makes us aware of the way, speed, and force of the river; making us more aware of the will of God. Of course that reads suspiciously like the near-traditional description of fate, except here the river is not an impersonal force, but that of a loving God. Prayers, then, could be seen as the pebbles dropped into the river, causing ripples. This implies that the more people who pray, or perhaps the stronger that you pray, for a certain thing the more the course of the river is altered. This doesn’t, to me, seem wholly satisfactory, but then I suppose that no analogy can ever be. However, there seems to be some superficial truth in the opening statement.
While thinking about the nature of belief, it occurred to me that most people see the movement of God in their life through a high level of coincidence-type actions. When people see that their life fortuitously comes together, or improves despite some calamity, it is easy to see how this could be the action of a God. Especially when such events seem to occur on a regular basis. These events are then often coupled with a deep feeling of connection to something Other, something outside of the individual, normally something greater than oneself, and a feeling that perhaps one’s life is being guided by a benevolent hand. When times are not going so well, there is a tendency to look to oneself as a source of the problems. IF the problems occur outside of oneself (for example, loosing one’s job during the recession), then there is a tendency, at least in the short term to recite platitudes, like “Everything happens for a reason”, or “God moves in mysterious ways”. The positive is re-enforced, and the negative is often forgotten, or seen in a different light. The negative can also be seen as the action of something outside of oneself, but a force that is in some way evil. Logically, if God is Good, then the negative force cannot (at least in the immediate instance) originate with God, and so such “evil” is then attributed to a personified form of Evil (in much the same way that the Good is attributed to the personified God).
Much of the decision-making that happens in regard to Belief seems (at least to me) to be based on a mix of cognition, self-fulfilling prophecy, and emotion. As humans, we have fallible memories, and it is well documented that our minds have a wonderful ability to forget things that we would rather not remember, and to remember things in a more positive light than they actually were. Anyone who’s had any previous relationships (friends or lovers) need simply to look back on them, and they will find that over time one aspect tends to shine through more fully than any other (be it the positive or the negative aspects of the relationship). Sometimes we might even forget why it was we liked them in the first place, or perhaps, why it was we broke up with them. It is these fallible memories that leads us to remember only those things that match the way we see the world. This human tendency makes it very difficult to attribute experiences contrary to our held stereotyped view of the world properly. An example would be that should we hold a sweeping stereotype like “All Blonds are Dumb”, even if we were to meet an intelligent blond, we would either think they had died their hair, or even if it was proven to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were natural blonds (how that might happen, I’ll leave as an exorcise for the reader) we would simply add this blond as the “exception that proves the rule”. We could meet many intelligent blonds, and still hold the notion that blonds are dumb. A wonderful example of this was done my the Monty Python Team in the life of Brian.
Reg: …. And what have they ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That’s true.
Masked Activist: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes… sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done…
Matthias: And the roads…
Reg: (sharply) Well yes obviously the roads… the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads…
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation…
Other Masked Voices: Medicine… Education… Health…
Reg: Yes… all right, fair enough…
Activist Near Front: And the wine…
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if the Romans left, Reg.
Masked Activist at Back: Public baths!
Stan: And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night now.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only ones who could in a place like this.
(more general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?
I think you get the point. However, a Robot (that is, a high-functioning AI robot) has perfect recall. They are able to remember everything that they have ever done, and every sequence of events that has led to specific outcomes. If we take a robot like Data (from Star Trek: Next Generation) He would also be able to work out the probability of the action that has happened. A robot would not be able to accept the empirical proofs put forward such as “I feel it”, having no emotions (which are prone to be arbitrary). The actions of God in the life of the Robot would need to show actions that border on the far side of probability for the Robot to even begin to contemplate the existence of some form of entity that guides their destiny. They would not be subject to the same problems that fallible humans are. Would the Robots ever come to believe in a God?
I’m not sure if a Robot would ever make the leap to a full-formed God, like, for example, the God of the Christians, because they would be lacking in the emotional attachment such religious structure brings with it. They would have no use for the moral structure, and would have difficulty making a personal connection to a deity like Jesus because these, primarily, are emotional links. However, should the amount of chances in the Robots life actually border on the far edge of probability, if they were able to see that there is an apparent Order in the Chaos of their lives, would they make the logical leap that there was someone aiding their life, guiding it in some way? or simply see that they existed on the far end of the probability curve, and therefore, re-draw the probability curve to one that matches where they are? (this is the kind of math that’s a little beyond me, but it occurs to me that if things are happening on the edges of probability repeatedly, then the math that produced the probability graph is off, and they move to become the “norm”, rather than improbable).
I’m not sure a truly logical brain could actually arrive at the notion of a God, unless, of course, God existed. A mind that remembers everything, that is able to view their life without prejudice of emotion, or self-delusion could only arrive at the notion of a God (here defined, of course, as an unseen entity guiding their life) unless it became truly apparent to them that something was. For Robots, of course, they won’t believe, they will simple accept it as another fact, another variable to add into their equation. They can’t believe; they have no emotions.
The lack of emotion, of course, raises all sorts of other questions. CAn you have a soul without emotion? Can a soul that lives in what is essentially an inanimate object enter heaven? (because belief is cited as a criteron for entering heaven). The reason I’m not contemplating the question of wether or not a Robot can gain a soul is simple; God can choose to give a soul to a Robot, if He wants too.
Recently, I was reading “Stubborn Theological Questions”, by John Macquarrie. An interesting book which I found myself thoroughly disagreeing with. The problem, for me, was the current thrust to “De-Mythologise” Christianity. Denial of things like the Incarnation, and of explaining away Miracles as happenstance, or with other logical answers seems to be the way of the times. This is the process where people seem to be hunting for the true facts behind the Bible stories; that is, those that can be explained only by scientific, archaeological, or historic means. This to me seems to be a little.. odd. Essentially, what these Christian Theologians seem to what to turn Christianity into Christophosofy. A Philosophy that’s based around an eccentric Rabbi from distant Palestine. Okay, so when looked at like that, it’s not a bad philosophy. Love one another, and share the wealth around. Not at all a bad way of living your life. However, the thrust of Christianity also adds the idea of a “God”.
In the modern world, many people feel that it is necessary to prove the existence of God in a scientific way. This is not a new argument (though some people act as though it is), and some of the greatest (and not so great) minds have tried to come up with a suitable answer to the problem. As of yet, we (Christians) have not found one. Though more and more people keep finding that there is something… other in the world that doesn’t fit the rational scientific post-enlightenment mind set. For some, this way of thinking is destructive, and for others it’s liberating. The Post-Modern Philosophy that currently drives our society puts the emphasis on the personal experience. Some theologians would sneer at that as the sin of Subjectivism, but is a world-view where Miracles happened, where God does have a part to play in guiding the world a bad thing?
As with many things, it’s a double-edged sword. There are Christians who would want to hold onto the Bible with both hands and scream “if it’s not in here, it’s not true”, which does the book itself a disservice. The Bible is full of people thinking, and re-envisaging their interactions with God. Becoming or Being a Christian does not mean checking your brains it at the moment the Bible is opened, and never turning them on again. Indeed, the Old Testament is a struggle to do just that, to record the history of a people, and to see how they observed God moving and supporting their small country.
If we are going to believe in a story based on the Miraculous, it seems to me to make more sense that on some level that we must also accept the Miracles, and the idea that Christ, in some way, is the Son of God. To look for miracles in our own lives, and to be willing for the Other to have an impact, and to change the way we view life. To look around us, and to not see nature, but to see Creation. This doesn’t meant to deny the process of nature (such as evolution, the Big Bang and so on, God gave us the ability to think for a reason), but rather to look at the world and to think that, in some way, God had a hand in bringing it about.
If we are to avoid the turning Christianity in to yet another Philosophy, then we need to find a way to deal with the miracles, and with the other super-natural events that are part of the heritage of Christianity (say, perhaps, the miracles of saints), and wrap them into our world view. I can understand that some people might find the concept of the super natural difficult, especially when such events have not managed to produce themselves like dancing dogs for the scientists. Our fear of trying to justify what some people see as “insane thoughts” has meant that we would rather remove anything we can’t justify under the scrutiny of science. Of course, if we spend all our time trying to justify it to the level of science, we will go mad (though, of course, some people think that to believe things that cannot be proved to be true is a form of madness). If we do remove all these things that we cannot prove all we end up with is a Christosophy. A noble way of life, indeed, but it makes the ritual, and the gathering connected with it a little pointless.
The strange things is that as Christianity is busy trying to stand up against science, the selves of the “mind, body and spirit” section are growing. The local Waterstones has gone from one shelf to nearly three. It’s not that people don’t want to believe, from all walks of life, but they want to believe in something that is where they are. That walks with them, and connects to their sense of the other, that explores their own life of Spirituality, where there is an explanation for the way that they find their world.
So, really, what is it we’re afraid of? Being laughed at by scientists? Is that really enough for us to run and hide our belief?
To my mind we must face up to the challenge, and ensure that what we believe is moral, sensible, and well thought out. As an Anglican, the three pillars popularised by Richard Hooker or Reason, Scripture, and Tradition serve as constraints, but also as guidance. We are not to suddenly ignore the world, and to claim (like some fundamental Christians would have us do), that Evolution is an unsubstantiated Myth, and that Dionsaur bones are either faked, left there in the flood, or put there by God to test our faith. I’m suggesting, however, that we walk a fine line between what Science tells us, and what we ourselves discover about the God and the world through our own interaction with it. It is a difficult task. With every line I write, I can hear the voices of scientific disapproval. Of those that say “But you can’t prove any of it, why believe it?”. It’s a difficult place to be. To have science demanding answers that you just can give it, and every bone in your body believing despite yourself. Knowing, almost beyond doubt, that there is something other, that out there, somewhere, there is a God, and that He sent his Son to show us the way back to Him. It’s a lot of big ideas, a lot of ancient thinking that has, on occasion, been a weight that has held down further thinking. We are simple thinkers, trying to find a way forward in a world where Belief of any kind is marginalised, and where believing in God is the path of ridicule. In this world, we must find a new way of thinking, a new way of approaching God that doesn’t leave us thinking that some form of mental trick has been pulled.
The great thinkers of antiquity were all writing in a time where God was almost a Fact. Now we are writing in a time where God seems almost distant, and the Mysteries and Miracles spoken about in the Bible and in the writings about the Celtic saints are considered to be fiction. To keep these elements as part of a theology, then, seems a little insane, but it seems to me that there’s no smoke without fire. All these wonderous things, then, must find a place in theology. All the things that people point at an scream “myth” like it’s a bad thing need to be re-investigated. There is no smoke without fire, and indeed, a lot of the records were written by people who had a lot less knowledge about the world than we do, and yes, perhaps some (or, a lot) can be explained with what we know about modern medicine, but somewhere in those stories, somewhere in all these ideas there is something deeper, something that fires our soul.
AS you can see the entire idea is not exactly a re-envisaging of theology. Perhaps a re-romanticising of Theology, but definitely a Re-Mythologising of Christianity. Anything to avoid it becoming a Christosophy.
So, I was just watching “The Bible: A History” by Ann Widdecome. It wasn’t long before it become obvious that this was a polemic from the slightly fundamental side of Christianity, one that slips a little over that line into Phariseac interpretation of the Bible.
After riduculing Biblical Scholarship, and wrongly citing it as “Secular” (obviously ignoring the fact that the quest for the historical status of the Bible has been done alternatively by believers and non-believers for varying different reasons), she then went to attempt to show Secular Heros, one of whom was Stephen Fry as being unreasonable. The entire program smacked of being very well edited, and the camera spent an innordinant amount of time on Ann.
Her experts were generally people of faith, as opposed to people of faith who had status, by that I mean it was a Rabbi and Priest, but not, say, a Rabi well known for his exegesis of the Bible, and the Priest, though learned, was not one of the many popular ones that would have no-doubt been available for such a program.
My main concern is that damage that such a program does to an already beleaugered Christianity. The entire program, billed as a documentary, rather than as a polemic, would no doubt irritate the “fringe” Christians who watch programs like this and don’t see in it the morality that they follow, that they believe. This then makes them more disenfranchised, and less likely to step foot in church. This, then, lets the conservative gain a bigger hold, and well.. it’s just one big Spiral.
Not all of us want to see things that way. Some of us want to interpret the Old Testament through eyes of love, which understand the context, which want to see that yes, the laws today seem barmy, but frankly, any law laid down that long ago would seem barmy. They are to be stories about how these people understood their world, their place in it, and the their palce in relation to God. They are, if you like, the Myths and Ledgends of Christianity. Perhaps if we were to treat them with the same respenct, reverence, and understanding that we treat other Myths and Ledgends we might have a better understanding of how to read the Old Testament.
Let me unpack that a little. Myths and Ledgends are the stuff of Stories. The stuff that we remember, that influence us in subtle ways, that live with us, and becomes part of our culture. The Stories of Aruthur giving us examples of leadership, being fun to read, watch, retell, reinvent, relive, and at every step a simple moral truth shining through. If you’ve watched and enjoyed the recent BBC Merlin, then you’ll know what I mean.
Ultimately, the Old Testament is full of many layers, those that were there when it was written, those that we have added, and those that appeared in public conciousness which are not always true, or accurate. With a bit of luck, this blog, and the posts on it can do a little something to counter-act it.