Monday, 24 July 2017

When Faith Isn't the Opposite of Doubt

There is an opposite to doubt that isn't faith but rather is humility. When we experience life's cruelty (as we all will at some stage or another) faith isn't an option within easy reach of most people. It's hard to 'keep faith' and remain optimistic when everything seems so chaotic and meaningless. At those times a response that many believing people are tempted by is doubt. For many the issue of suffering is the conclusive objection to faith in a good God and one that gives people permission to not just disbelieve but to disbelieve very loudly and stridently. This is a response to pain that I'm fairly familiar with myself. It seems only too natural and reasonable to avert my gaze from God in the face of pain, to decide to stop myself from going to a god at all. However that seems to me to be the least reasonable way to behave since it's when life is difficult and confusing and full of pain that I need God the most. When there are crocodiles circling below, sawing off the branch you're sitting on won't help!

It hasn't always been the case that we believed suffering to lead neatly and logically to atheism. One of the oldest works of literature to deal with this issue, is the Bible's book of Job and it doesn't suggest this as even one of it's possible conclusions. Why not? Why do we (do I) seem to process pain so differently to those who've gone before us? Why do we in the modern west seem to draw such a straight line to atheism when those in many of the other parts of the world don't? (I'm reminded of an anecdotal insight a speaker once shared when he explained that even though he'd travelled to and spoken with people from many of the world's poorest areas it was only in the West that his objectors would raise the issue of suffering and God's existence as reason for non-belief in Christianity.)

One reason that so many of us are so tempted by doubt and atheism is because we live in the first human society that has very good reason to believe it knows everything there is to know about the world. Our confidence in our own abilities is at an all time high, and why wouldn't it be - we have google!
But there is an opposite to doubt that isn't faith, but rather is humility and sometimes that's all that's needed. To stare at and engage with the real hurt and heartbreak in the world one can say 'Surely there isn't a God who cares about us!' but one could also choose instead to say 'I don't know why this is happening, or why any of this has happened, but that doesn't mean that there isn't an explanation out there that will satisfy me in the end.' That is an option open to us. 

I'm reminded of Cotton Mather, one of the early leaders and founders of Harvard University. A Christian and a pastor he was a man, like many men of his age (18th C), who was well acquainted with grief. Of his fifteen children only two outlived him. That bears repeating. Of his fifteen children, only two outlived him. Oh the heartbreak he must have experienced. I can't begin to fathom the pain he, and many others like him, had to endure. And yet he was a devout, faithful, passionate and strident believer in the goodness and love of God. He was also one of the early pioneers of modern science and medicine, a prolific reader and a hungry mind. He was hardly naive and ill-informed and yet, despite all he suffered, he chose faith and belief instead of doubt. Why? How? Humility; he understood enough of the world to know that he didn't understand it all, nor would he ever understand it all. He understood enough of God to know that he could be trusted and loved, even though he knew he'd never know the reason 'why?' to all the pain he'd had to endure. 

There are choices we can make in calamity and despair. As well as anger and vehemence at the universe and God, we can also choose humilty and honesty. We can choose to hold onto a belief that our pain is not and will not be wasted. By acknowledging our own finitude we can choose to believe that life isn't meaningless. By allowing the possibility to exist that there are things beyond even google's ability to understand we can endure without losing hope, we can grieve without giving up joy and we can continue to live with a belief in life's purpose. We can hold on to the very things we need most to get through the storm we find ourselves in. For that reason and many others recent thinkers have pointed out that our modern secularism is the poorest worldview there is for equipping people to endure suffering, and as Buddhism teaches 'life is suffering' - making our vulnerability to it a very big problem.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Awe and Friendship

I have noticed that there is a difference between being amazed and in awe of God and actually getting to know him.

It's not that awe and wonder is an emotionless experience because it isn't. I read or I think or I hear, and I exult. And the exulting is good for something. It causes me to want to submit to God more, to distrust sins advances more and it enables me to hold my head up higher in a secular society. There are times when I'm so pumped on wonder and so convinced about God's goodness and intellectual viability that I could look a mouth-frothing neo-atheist in the eye and lovingly remind him 'Jesus loves you.'

There is great joy and confidence in exulting in God, but that doesn't necessarily lead to deeper levels of actual friendship, emanating out in actual conversation in the form of actual prayer.

Take an example from just the other day. I dropped Amy off at the dentists and I could tell she was feeling anxious about the trip, that she was in pain caused by her tooth. I could tell - because she told me. As I sat there and heard her hesitations about the dentist, and as she explained the pain she was feeling I thought to myself 'I should pray for her.' But my very next thought was 'nah, it probably wouldn't do anything. Besides, I'm on an errand and can't be bothered to bother her with prayer.' and so instead of praying I grimaced (my facial recognition that empathy was appropriate) and then waved her goodbye safe in the knowledge that 'the dentist will sort it out.'

That story isn't meant to only illustrate my ineptitude as a pastor-husband (although it does that), but to point out this awareness that awe and wonder doesn't by necessity, deepen friendship. That morning I'd reflected on scripture, I'd had my soul stirred by some book I'd been reading, the electrical storm in my mind had crackled and fizzed at God's glory. I wasn't feeling doubtful or dead to God generally, but then neither was I willing to engage emotionally with him.

Friendship with God, for me, looks like walking in the hills by my house and talking to him. It looks like breathing out (involuntarily) statements of appreciation and gratitude toward him. Friendship with God looks like emotionally investing in our relationship, it looks like bringing him to bear on my moment-to-moment existence. Intimacy with him is life-giving, joy-full and optimistic. It's full of all the feelings of enthusiasm and madness that normal human intimacy involves. I can sit and discuss the stars with him, pour out my incomprehension at his apparent indifference to my sister's plight or my own self-centredness. Friendship with him means being aware of his company and being ready in a moment to respond to his promptings or involve him in a situation. Friendship with him is different from awe at him.

It's one thing for my mind to glory in him, it's another for my life to involve him.

I love exulting in him and learning more about him and his world. I am richer intellectually and emotionally and I am more robust spiritually because I have had my mind filled by him and by thoughts of his world that have done me good. But that is not the same as closeness and inter connectedness with him.

Both are good but there's only one that Jesus prayed for us to experience (see John 17).

So embrace a intellectually full Christian life, take heed of C.S. Lewis' advice that immaturity/weak faith for the Christian is the result of not thinking deeply enough. But see it as a doorway toward deeper levels of friendship and closer moments of acquaintance with the God who made you for himself.

Reading and reflecting and listening and exulting can bring joy for the moment and strength for the duration but only the slow drawn out process of living with God can bring you what your soul needs most of all.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Kissing or microbe exchange?

The Bible is honest about the nature of reality and about the nature of faith. It doesn't hide the tension that exists between faith and doubt. In doing so it acknowledges that miraculous moments can also just as easily be explained rationally, if one would prefer. When I look at circumstances and coincidences I often wonder, 'was that God or was that me?'. I want to be sure that it was God who answered my prayer and not just capricious chance. But then maybe I needn't force a distinction between the two. 

Events can have a physical and a personal explanation. Or, one friend of mine puts it, we don't have to choose between kissing and microbe exchange.

When someone brings an insight into my life and prefaces it with the words 'I believe God might be saying...' I wrestle with the question 'was that God? Or were they just good at reading my mood?' Did God just speak to me or did the extra dairy they ate make them a little bit more creative?

Do I need to choose between 'natural' or 'supernatural'? Between 'God' or 'man'. Why can't it be both? Take the creation of the universe for example. It is often presented as either 1) natural forces at work, something came exist where previously there was nothing = Big Bang or 2) God did it.

But then it needn't be either, or; it can be both.

Did the universe come about through natural means following a Big Bang? Yes. Did God create it? Yes.
Did God speak to me through a friend's encouragement? yes. Did that person read my mood and speak into it? yes.

Jesus is a man who divides opinion. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the time that Jesus's ability to heal the sick wasn't always well received. Some people celebrated his ability to heal (not least the sick people being healed!) whereas some accused him of 'being in league with the Devil.' (note the honesty of the Bible in recording this, it needn't have done so). 

Christopher Hitchens was a man who, until his death, was a prominent figure in the new atheist movement. He was known for his lively writing style, his pithy put-downs and his unashamed slamming of religious belief, he wasn't a fan of faith. His brother Peter Hitchens is a British columnist and an active member of the Church of England. He is a former atheist and now 'fan' of faith, specifically, Jesus. Two people, one family, opposite views on the world. One of the cleverest men alive, Stephen Hawking is an atheist. One of the cleverest men alive, Alvin Plantinga is a theist. Many of the world's leading scientists are atheists, some are Christians. Many influential cultural and political leaders are atheists, many more are theists in one form or another.

The line between faith and unbelief or Christianity and atheism isn't as clear or distinct as we think.

After Jesus' resurrection but before his ascension he appeared to his followers on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew's account records what happened like this: When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.

On the day of Pentecost in 33AD God breaks into a prayer meeting with dramatic effect. The Holy Spirit filled the room and empowered the disciples to be effective witnesses for Christ. Peter stands up to address the crowd and preaches about Jesus. Many in the crowd are convinced and turn to follow Jesus, some simply mock him and say 'he's drunk on fresh wine!'

There is something else at work it seems in the interpreting of events. Some people, it seems, are willing to believe that an event is from God whereas others are not. It isn't down to intelligence and it isn't always down to upbringing or parenting. In our read of the world there are conflicting desires. There is our pride and independence, the desire for others to think and speak well of us. Then there is our desire for meaning and purpose, an innate sentimentalism and bias toward supernaturalisms. Our own will and our own willingness. 

At work within our interpretation of facts there is the difference between 'can I' and 'must I'If I want something to be true I'll ask the 'can I' question, 'Can I believe in a personal loving God? Could one exist?' answer: yes. But if I don't want God to be there I ask the 'must I' variety; 'must I believe in God? Do I have to acknowledge his being there?' answer: no.

That can either make you a relativist, throw your arms up in the air and say 'what's the point in considering it then?' or (and this would be my suggestion) it can make us a little more humble and open-minded, a little more patient with the ideas of others. It should also make us a little more skeptical of our own emotional agendas. The chances are that if I want something to be true (or not true), then I'll find plenty of solid 'reason' to back up and support my belief.

Since events can have a physical and a personal explanation for them, why not make room for and allow both explanations? Don't deny the presence of doubt in the life of faith, but don't herald the redundancy of faith in the world of reason.

Let's opt to live in a world of both, and. Call it 'microbe exchange' if you like, but I'll stick with 'kissing'.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

the problem with narcissism

is that you can't see the beauty in front of you and all around you.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017


I am intrigued by the significance of significance. Many of us seem to be engaged in an all consuming, never-ending search for satisfaction in this area. We want to believe that we matter; we need to believe it.

Personally it surprises me how much of my inner life has to do with the pursuit of feeling worthwhile and valuable. It's as though somewhere along the line my will made a secret pact with my emotions to work together to manipulate and manoeuvre every thing I do to basically be about serving that end.

I watched The Truman Show when I was a teenager and was convinced for a while that it was true of my life. I stared into a marble once at home saying 'hello!' to the people behind the camera. It didn't seem much of a leap for me to believe that I was the centre of the world's attention, that the world basically exists to watch me and make me a star. Urgh I cringe even to write those words, but if I'm honest I can still see those same sentiments lurking.

I blame my parents. No wait, I blame their parents; I mean if they hadn't unleashed on all these baby boomers a newfound sense of 'life is short, so go remake it in your image' then I wouldn't be so downright self obsessed and consumed by ideas of personal grandeur.

Here's my theory, and actually I blame Hitler - that's how to really win an argument: My grandparents' generation, traumatised by the brutality of the second World War, commodified sex by inventing the contraceptive pill and released on their children an attitude of Total Consumerism in a way never before seen. Nothing was going to stop them from grabbing life and running with it. Their experience could be remade in their image.

The values unleashed (literally removed from a leash) by my grandparents are only now starting to find their fruition in my generation. And what does all of this amount to, our obsession for experience and consumption? Significance, a life-consuming craving for it.

That's my theory, except that it's flawed. 

I can't blame Hitler for my approval addiction. This goes way beyond him. Presently we're getting used to a slightly more unbridled (unhinged?) version of something that's always been there. A desire for legacy and significance is what drove Achilles to fight in a battle he knew he'd die in after all.

Perhaps there's some evolutionary hardwiring at work; yes that's how we explain everything now isn't it - evolution is our grand guiding philosophy. It's my DNA, my selfish genes drive me to it - ironically even my jeans are selfish since I don't know how ethically they've been made. What I mistake as a search for significance is really an inner drive to procreate, continue my line and enhance the wellbeing of my tribe. The trouble is I've produced three children, have a good reputation in my community, have the respect of my wife and friends and am materially and physically well-off. I am ludicrously rich by globals standards and have very little real need in my life. And yet it still isn't enough. My mind still 'relaxes' by comparing my status with that of my peers, my mind is forever trying to convince me (or have me believe) that the grass is much greener in some other field, some other town, some other job, some other choice or cause and effect outcome. I must be the centre of the universe, I must be significant. I am forever restless until I arrive at being eternally recognised as significant.

I am surprised by how moveable the goalposts of significance are in my life. I had an idea when I was a teenager of what a significant life involved, it became the quest of my subconsciousness to attain it. Back then it was some talent I simply had to master in order to matter, and then (when I realised my own mediocrity) it was a job I simply had to have. After that it became about having a reputation, that people spoke well of me. Then (when I realised how dissatisfying that is - because who's ever around to hear people say nice things about you? I mean there's nothing fulfilling in not overhearing a conversation) it then became about something else... All of it, always searching for significance and never quite reaching it.

You know that feeling of holding a plastic ball under water? It's like that. The ball is fighting to find its proper balance, to rest on the surface of the water. Life is like that, always fighting to find rest in the form of significance and purpose and peace with the world whilst being in the world.

I've found one particular ancient writer's words make sense of this best:
You have formed us for yourselves and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.
And that is the real quest going on.