Monday, 27 January 2014

I believe in a thing called love

'Love' said one boy to another 'is a very real and powerful emotion, it drives people to do all sorts of crazy things.'

'it's a delusion.' replied the other 'there's no such thing as love. It's simply an imbalance of hormones. I don't believe in love.'

'But I've seen it. I know people who've been affected by it, who sing songs about it, who make radical life changes to get it. It's real, how can you say 'I don't believe in it?''

'I only believe in things I can see.'

'You can see love. Just go to the next school disco.'

'That's not love, that's adolescence. It's called the development of our need to reproduce and secure an evolutionary future. It's called insecurity needing to find security or lust needing to find an finishing point, it's not romantic, it's not noble, it's not love.'

'ok, perhaps the school disco isn't the best place to start. What about an older more, well, balanced couple? Look at the village tea rooms on Saturday, see the old couples who've been together for decades still laughing at each others jokes, still finding one another attractive, still being committed to one another, still very much in love with one another. You can't say that's not love in action.'

'I don't deny the power of the chemical imbalance you call love. Let's be honest though, for most people love is only an idea or an ideal. The reality is that half those old couples are putting on a show. Most aren't long term life partners, most are probably in their second or third marriages. Anyway that's not love that's compromise for the sake of an easy life. Some where along the line someone had to give up a part of themselves, to stop being true to themselves. They found themselves too far in, they had to stick it out. Most people who've been together as long as some of those old folks pretend like they're in love when they're just comfortable, conforming to how society expects people in their situation to behave.'

'But that's my point. You call it compromise, I call it love. When someone voluntarily without exaction gives a part of themselves to another, that's love!'

'I'm confused. Why do you insist on naming something love that's clearly only genetic propagation. Of course people do silly things like sacrifice for another, we all do; we all are hardwired to do whatever we can to secure a future for our genes. It's an instinct, you can't control it, it's just nature taking its course. You're a slave to an outdated ideal. Call it love if you like but it's only chemical imbalance and evolution in action.'

'what about when people act in a self-sacrificial loving way for someone who's not of their tribe or cast or creed? What then? My genes don't benefit one bit from that.'

'empathy is a very powerful emotion. We see ourselves in others, in their time of need and we're driven to help them as a result. We're not helping others out of a self-forgetful martyr love, we're doing it because we would want someone to do the same for us. Also we're all wired to behave in ways that further the cause of our species, but that doesn't make it love.'

'I've never experienced love so I can't comment but I did have a crush on that girl from maths. I've never experienced anything else like it, it was amazing!'

'I'd never deny the power of those feelings, I just don't think we need to go around calling it love. See it for what it is, nature taking it's cause. See it for what it is and don't get all soppy about it. Love? Such a ridiculous idea.'

'that doesn't sound very romantic...'


'...but I've seen it in action, I've heard the enthusiasm and excitement with which people talk about love. How can you not believe in it?'

'I only believe what I can see with my eyes. I can't see love. I can see chemical alterations in response to objects of attraction, but that's all it is. It isn't love.'

'but we're not only body and brains. We're immaterial, soulish and spiritual as well. No one lives their lives like Spok, we're made to feel things deeply. It's what makes us human, it's what sets us apart. Love, beauty, logic, morality - human things.'

'don't be ridiculous. We're machines. When we're switched off we cease to function, that's all and there's definitely no Love with a capital 'L' to receive us. There's no heaven, no hell, there's just nothing.'

'what about the experience of others, of countless men and women, their insights, their longings, their poetry and beauty and encounters with Love? What about experience. I'm not only intellect...'

'not even by the sounds of things,'

'...I'm emotional, I'm social. I gather my data form the world not only from my eyes but from my gut, my heart, my deep instincts. I can trust those things, that compass to set me on a path to a much more holistic experience of life than the kind of things you're describing.'

'delusion. Chemical and genetic confusion, that's all.'

'I guess you have to experience some things to understand them don't you?'

'I guess so. But if our experience seems to take us away from repeatable experiments conducted in laboratories then I don't think it should be trusted. Only believe what you can see with your eyes, that's what I say.'

'Right. How do I know that's true?'

'Because I'm not trusting anything other than what I can repeatedly present to your eyes.'

'I've seen people respond to love. I've seen the affect it has on people. Why don't you believe that?'

'Exactly, you said it yourself. You've seen the effect it has. You've seen how biology affects emotion  affects behaviour - THAT ISN'T LOVE.'

'This idea of yours, this philosophy, that I should only trust repeatable sciences, can I see that idea?'

'No, it's a concept. It's my mind's deductions. It's not a material thing.'

'oh. What about things that are beautiful in this world. Why do call it beauty? Why are some things aesthetically and soulfully pleasing?'

'beauty... it's got something to do with... things just look nice, colour is pleasing. Besides I'm sure you've noticed how the prettier people seem to score more often at the discos. We appreciate beauty because we recognise in it an increased chance of reproduction,'

'are you saying you think you want to make love to a sunset? Beauty, art, delight it touches a deep part of us. Heroism, story, wonder all valuable and tangible human experiences, none laboratory experiment-able.'

'You'll always find something to fill the gaps in your knowledge won't you. You clearly want to believe in love and so you'll interpret things to fit with that idea.'

'perhaps. But then I didn't want to believe in love. I've seen the damage it can do, I've met people who've been damaged by it. I'd rather love didn't exist. I'd rather just live and die by my urges, that's easier surely.'

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

So. How would I answer it?

Off the bat without giving it much research, these are my thoughts on 3 passages in the OT raised by a friend who had a problem with them. They that seem to present God as approving of violence and brutality to other people. I don't pretend that this is the right answer, but it's where I'm at before I go ahead and look into it further:

First before we get into it, let's be honest. We all have presuppositions. For my friend when he reads passages in the Bible like the ones I'll quote he has prior commitments to his interpretation. His presuppositions probably go something like this - there is no god and religion is an evil that is used to justify all sorts of heinous crimes. This affects the way he reads these passages. He's looking for a fight and gets one. He's also unlikely to give the Bible much sympathy within it's historical setting. He is unlikely to take into consideration the fact that the Bible is an ancient text written by over 30 authors across a period of several thousands of years of human history to a culture and world that is very different from our own. He is likely to write it off because he won't take time to think through the cultural and historical differences between him and the text. People wouldn't do this with Homer or Shakespeare, but they do it with the Bible. 'After all,' people often think 'isn't the Bible just a collection of truisms I can stick on my fridge?'

I have a predisposition to believe a few things too however and they affect I read things. I need to think through my beliefs then in light of things that challenge them as everyone else does.

The prior convictions I hold before I come to sections in the Bible I struggle with are to do with nature and existence of God. I believe God exists for three main reasons: complex universe points to design, empty tomb points to Jesus as God, existence of moral law points to law giver.

I hold several basic beliefs about this God:

  • God is loving (based on Jesus and many many OT passages)
  • God is good  (based on Jesus and many many OT passages)
  • God is holy (based on Jesus and many many OT passages)

I take these contentions about God into my reading of difficult texts. On top of these  (and really because of these) I also belief the following:

  • The Bible when correctly understood is all true - because Jesus trusted it and he is God
  • The Bible is a story - I can't take lift a text from one part of scripture and directly import it to my life without due consideration 
  • Not all of the Bible is directly instructive - just because something happens in the Bible, doesn't mean God approves eg polygamy despite Eden's orginal mandate of one man and one woman
  • The Bible is written from within and to specific cultural and historical settings - in order to fully understand a passage I need to be willing to ask questions about historical context
All of that motivates me when I approach a passage like the ones quoted by my friend, written below:

Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us. 
He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
(Psalms 137:8-9)

Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.
But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
(1 Samuel 15:3)

The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God.
They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant
women ripped open.
(Hosea 13:16)

Let's take them each in turn.

Psalm 137.

This is a beautifully emotive poem (and a popular song by Boney M about the rivers of Babylon). Within the narrative of the Bible as a whole you really feel it's force when you read it. Historically what's happened is that a nation (the Israelites) have been driven from their home land, a land that has been destroyed and laid to waste. They have been carried off as prisoners to a foreign land where tormentors have mocked and abused them. Their captors have slaughtered their families, raped their women and left their corpses to rot in the sun.

The writer of this song (alas it wasn't Boney M) is expressing in prayer their remorse and desire for justice to be done. They are praying that what has been done to them would be done to their captors. They're singing that 'whoever exacts this justice will be happy!' Anyone who has ever been severely mistreated can in part relate to this emotion. This is not God saying 'yes the baby killers will be blessed!' This is a grieving, agonising victim praying and demanding 'let justice be done!' If anything, this gives us permission to bring our honest pain to God in prayer. Since it's not a prescriptive passage (thou shalt kill babies) but a descriptive (this man prayed for justice to be done) I don't think it's a problem. It's poetry and raw emotion, not a command.

1 Samuel 15:3 & Hosea 13

These two are more challenging, I agree. Brutal and horrendous. Before answering our concerns about what it says about a loving God let me start by saying this. The Bible is written into culturally and historically specific settings, and (again) just because God tells one group of people in one part of the story to do one thing does not mean that it's a blanket command for everyone else who reads it.

Let me quickly say this about the Hosea passage my friend quoted. It is a description of what will happen to a people under judgement. It is brutal, but again it is not a prescriptive 'you should do this as well' passage. Also it comes after decades (centuries even?) of God warning, forgiving and receiving back this wayward people who've abandoned trust in him for trust in themselves, their resources and other demon-gods of the day.

A few things to say about war and brutality in the Bible:

  1. The Bible begins with peace and wholeness in Eden.
  2. After sin enters the world, murder, war, racism and disasters follow.
  3. The story of the Bible is a gradual moving away from violence back towards peace.
  4. God makes covenants through this story with his chosen people and charges them to be the light of peace and humanity in a dark, evil and perverse world.
  5. The covenants God makes with his people move this story on.
  6. Jesus is the final covenant in which he proclaims again an Edenic ideal of enemy-love and cheek-turning forgiveness.

Reading the first few books of the Old Testament we see that God determined that for that period of history the strip of land  known as the the fertile crescent (where all the nations of the world lived and needed to pass through regularly) would be the place on earth that he would 'dwell'. He chose a people to inhabit that land and desired that that people would live radically differently from the other nations of the world. His desire was that they would embody in a counter cultural way the Edenic ideal of peace and wholeness. The commands of separation that God gives his people in the books of the law (Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) reveal this and teach us about God's holiness.

Holiness is a massive Bible idea.
God is not like anything else in the created universe, that's an essential premise to understanding the Bible correctly. The idea of the eternal, holy, pre-existent Yahweh revealed to Moses at the burning bush was not one that any civilisation had conceived of before and other than by God revealing it we wouldn't create the idea either. Harry Potter could not know anything about J.K. Rowling unless she revealed herself to him in one of the books and it's the same with us and God. God's holiness is terrifying to unholy (which is what we are post Eden) created creatures such as us. It is unlike anything else. Men do not create holy gods. You might want to argue 'yes they do, power hungry men create sacred things to scare people into behaving properly!' To which I would say that in the Old Testament (and New) it is the people in power who seem to suffer most at the hands of this holy God. He is not a puppet used by corrupt leaders. Holiness has the 'otherness' of fire to our skin. As unholy beings we cannot venture near God. That's the God revealed in the Bible.

As creator and holy I also believe that God is well within his rights to do with us whatever he pleases. The clay cannot say to the potter 'what right have you to make me into this' and neither can we to God. This is underlying conviction based on what I said at the start about why I believe in God.

Can I end by saying this. Several centuries before this God told Moses in the book of Exodus that he would blot out the Amalekites from the Earth (if God is God and man has rebelled against him, surely he has that right). Centuries passed since that statement and knowing God (as we do from the rest of the OT) he would have forgiven them had they repented and returned to him (ala the Assyrians in Jonah). They hadn't and now, after centuries of waiting God orders their deaths.

God alone has the right to judge and take life. It is not unlawful killing if it is carried out by the creator. All of this sticks in the mouth of 'enlightened' secular westerners as it presupposes a lot about God, but there we go.

We come down to this. If there is no God then my friend is right this is an awful killing of innocent people. If God is God and has the rights to be God and judge the world (which the Bible says he will one day fully do), then he has the right to do so and who am I to speak against him?

To quoted Lucy and the Beavers in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”
“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
God isn't safe but he is good. How do I know? The list is endless but here's my highlights:

  • Creation
  • Call
  • Cross
  • Forgiveness
  • Faithfulness
  • Future hope


Friday, 10 January 2014

Beautiful Things

I'm free!
I'm healed!
I'm whole!
I've forgiven and the weight has lifted!

Having just returned from a fantastic week of training I was in the kitchen reflecting on all this and wondering why it is that freed from sin people often fall back into sin or happy, whole people fall back into despair and despondency when I was reminded of my back garden.

I like gardening. I never thought I would but when we bought our first house I caught the bug. There's little else in life you can spend so little time working on but get such huge satisfaction from. It's amazing. I can spend 15 minutes with my fingers in the dirt pulling up weeds and trimming bushes, stand back and feel a rush of satisfaction - yes I just used the word rush about gardening.

After a good days gardening, beauty and order has been brought to the garden - job done. For days afterwards I'll come down to breakfast, put the kettle on and just stand and stare out into the garden. The frustrating thing about gardening though is that it only stays beautiful for a while. Before long plants have grown, weeds have returned, storms have wreaked havoc and the garden needs gardening again.

Here's an equation: 
Beautiful things + cursed creation = loss of beauty
It's the same with life, and we miss it at our peril. Beautiful things, whole things, neat and orderly things in a cursed, corrupt & fallen earth don't stay beautiful for long.

'Why,' my cynical brain asks, 'when I was healed has my ailment returned?'
'Why, when I was free am I enslaved again?'

Those thoughts often try to point me towards doubt and away from trust. Things 'wear off' I tell myself, 'reality' kicks back in I remind myself. Perhaps God didn't really do anything in my life... Perhaps there isn't a God after all - or so the cycle can go.

Maybe those accusations are valid. Maybe my own inability to stay free or stay whole is a sign that we've all been lied to, that Jesus is still in the grave, maybe. Or maybe just maybe, the Christian life operates according to the same patterns and principles as everything else in this world. Maybe, we're not exempt from life. Stagnant stationary things rust and corrupt as much as moving, growing organisms. Beauty fades and chaos returns unless we continue to lean into and look to the creative creator who brings life out of death and beauty out of pain. It's what God did at Creation when he gathered the formless and void universe and began to shape it and it's what God is constantly doing by upholding and sustaining all things to ensure that they keep their order and beauty.

In our lives let's not overlook this valuable principle. Let's ensure that we tend the gardens of our lives and not become surprised at the presence of chaos when we don't.