seeing things

I wear glasses. They are varifocals – correcting both long and short-sightedness depending on which part of the lens I look through. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my eyes and brain adapted to this (I doubted I would ever get used to such a strange thing but it happened almost instantly).

glassesWhen I am not wearing my glasses some objects will be in soft focus. If you ever see me without my glasses and it looks like I am frowning at you, please don’t be offended it’s just that I am trying to work out who you are.

One of the things that is easy to forget is that each of us sees the world around us, and other people, through our own eyes, but other people see things differently. I am not really talking about literal vision and sight, but the way in which we experience, interpret, filter and infer.

For example, someone who loves fast cars might be really excited to see and hear an Aston Martin roaring up the street. Another person might experience the same event and be concerned about the safety of pedestrians. Someone else might experience the same event and wonder how anyone could afford such a car. Do you see what I mean.

When we forget that we ‘see’ and experience life in a unique fashion that can lead us into difficult and uncomfortable places. By way of an illustration, I sometimes forget that not everyone is into performing magical illusions to the same extent that I am. I might think I am being entertaining and engaging but to someone else I am a bore and tedious. You could replace ‘performing magical illusions’ with almost anything else and it can work out in a similar fashion…

Not everyone enjoys the same TV programmes / films / music / books as you do. And even if they do, they may not enjoy them in the same way.

Not everyone is an interested in crocheting as you are, and may not appreciate how much work went into your full-sized crocheted African Elephant so don’t be too disappointed if they simply say, “Oh, that’s nice.”

Not everyone enjoys sport (watching or playing) and even if they do they may not enjoy the same sport and even if they do they may not support the same team / individual as you do and even if they do they may not agree with your perspective on their performances.

Not everyone understands your interest in Mongolian Tree Frog Worship* or (more conventionally) shares your perspective on Jesus.

So what do we do?

A little self-awareness goes a long way. Be aware how you see things and realise that not everyone has had the same experiences, enjoys the same things and understands life in the same way as you. That’s called individuality.

Recognise that if you only ever mix with and talk with and encounter people who are broadly similar to yourself you are seriously limiting your ability to grow and learn and perhaps also limiting the opportunities for others to learn and grow through you. To realise and embrace that is called diversity.

Recognising that people see and experience things differently, and becoming comfortable with exploring that in conversation with them without fearing that it will contaminate the way that we see and experience things is called dialogue. (If you are tempted to think that you should not be influenced by others see the outcomes of a lack of ‘diversity’ above.) Communication and Community have the same root for a reason!

Now, before you start lobbing virtual stones in my direction for heresy let me be clear: I am not saying that there are no absolutes. I am not saying that I believe that all truth is relative. This is not a bloggage to embrace a pluralistic view of life, the Universe and everything. There clearly are some absolutes. For example: being outside in the rain without an umbrella or a coat means we will get wet; bald-headed people have less hair on their heads that people who are not bald… and so on.

I think I am coming up for some rules of engagement on issues and subjects that some of us believe are absolutes but which are not shared universally, even if we believe that they should be.

Should we share those with others? Absolutely. (pun intended)

Should we try to persuade them? With grace and respect, yes.

Should we force others to believe what we believe? No.

Should we insist that they accommodate our beliefs? Not to the detriment of others.

Should we listen to what others have to say about their perspective on things? Definitely.

Should we be offended if they disagree? No, although they may disagree disagreeably which may cause offence.

Should we be offensive if they disagree? No.

Should we be willing to change our minds? Maybe, but because it feels right to us, not because they tell us to. A closed mind can never be expanded.

Should we be open to learn new things and see things in new ways? Absodefinutely.

These rules of engagement are very much a work in progress. They have come out of the mush that is my brain as I have typed so have not had a lot of thought applied to them. But behind them all is an attempt to acknowledge that part of being in community is to sensitively encourage a creative balance between expressing individuality, embracing diversity, and exploring through dialogue. That is not something to be afraid of because if your truth is true it can survive those things and probably be enhanced by them.

If you have ‘absolutes’ you need to recognise that there may be different grades for you: my convictions about who Jesus of Nazareth is are absolutes that exist at the foundational belief level of who I am and how I see and experience things and shape what I do. I have that in common with a lot of people. But the way I express that through the Christian church of which I am a part differs from the way that others who share that same foundational belief express it in their church. To make non-foundational beliefs more important than they are opens us up to ridicule. And for that purpose I refer you to a joke by Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?”

He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In the book of Proverbs in the Bible we read (chapter 3 from verse 13):

Blessed are those who find wisdom,
    those who gain understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver
    and yields better returns than gold.
15 She is more precious than rubies;
    nothing you desire can compare with her.
16 Long life is in her right hand;
    in her left hand are riches and honour.
17 Her ways are pleasant ways,
    and all her paths are peace.
18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
    those who hold her fast will be blessed.

It’s worth pointing out that in the book of Proverbs ‘wisdom’ is a way of living, relating, understanding and perspective, not mere knowledge. And the writer of Proverbs says that a right perspective on who God is and who we are (aka “the fear of the Lord”) is the beginning of wisdom.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*A fake religion I made up many years ago when I was trying to come up with something obscure as an illustration. I don’t even know if there are any tree frogs in Mongolia.

Ten good reasons not to believe in God

I think it is about time we were honest. So this Baptist Minister is giving you ten good reasons why you should not believe in God* and risking being burnt at the stake or excommunicated. Perhaps your reasons are in here somewhere…

Hand Count 101. It’s old fashioned – believing in God is not really a 21st century thing to do, is it? It’s like believing in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy and we have grown out of it, haven’t we? It’s as old fashioned as breathing.

2. Christians – yes Christians can sometimes be a good reason not to believe in God. They can be annoying. They can be overzealous. They can be hypocritical. And they can do things and say things that hurt us and put us off God. And haven’t Christians been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history – Crusades, Inquisitions…? Surely when you believe in God you become perfect don’t you?

3. Church – it can be a bit, well, churchy. Nobody likes being preached at. And sometimes it comes across as rather traditional and boring while at other times it seems to be trying too hard to be cool (and nobody says ‘cool’ any more). I wonder sometimes whether God doesn’t feel like going to some of our churches either. And while churches do lots of good things (we can’t deny that) so do lots of other charity organisations. Going to church is like looking at a stained glass window, it looks nice but it’s out of date and not very practical.

4. Bad stuff happens – this is surely one of God’s weaknesses (if he exists). How come he lets bad stuff happen? That’s not very nice, warm, loving and fluffy – not the sort of gentle Jesus meek and mild I was told about in Sunday School. God is supposed to be “in light in accessible, hid from our eyes” (as the hymnwriter puts it) – blindingly perfect. What sort of God would give people complete free will and risk them ignoring or hating him and doing bad stuff? What sort of love is that?

5. Bad stuff happens that is not anyone’s fault – you know, earthquakes, famines, tsunamis and the like. You can’t pin that on free will being exercised can you? If there is a God and he made this planet how come he made it with all of this hideousness as well? He can’t exist and if he did he’s some sort of monster. Car manufacturers put safety features in to stop them having accidents so why couldn’t God do the same? Admittedly the cars become less safe and more accident prone when you put a human behind the wheel and they decide not to obey the rules…

6. He’s anonymous – if there’s a God, how come we can’t see him? Why does he have to be silent, invisible and remote? If he was that interested in us surely he would let us know about himself, give us some clues, leave some fingerprints or DNA around the place from which we could at least deduce his existence? Surely he would show us how we can get to know him?

7. Science has disproved him – we humans are clever. We know how so much of this planet works, we have worked out the complicated maths behind so much of the Universe. We know so much of what happened from the fraction of a sliver of a tiny nanosecond after the Big Bang. We know about DNA and how it mutates and changes through the reproductive processes. From the smallest particle to the largest expanse of the Universe we know about it all. Yes, there are some bits that we don’t know yet, but surely it’s only a matter of time before we know how everything works. And ‘how’ is the most important question isn’t it?

8. Aliens – alien life forms disprove God don’t they? The Bible doesn’t mention aliens. What about Roswell, Area 57 and all of the evidence about alien life forms? Ha, God, get out of that one. The evidence for aliens is all around us. Everyone knows that.

9. The Bible is iffy – there are so many discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Bible. It’s been made up by people who wanted to try to explain why things happen – people who didn’t know about science. I’m sure we can all name hundreds.. maybe five… at least one inconsistency in the Bible.

10. If God is so nice, why does he send people to hell? That doesn’t sound very nice does it? Even if we can understand some of the horrible things that happen now, surely God wants everyone to be with him in heaven, so why does he send some people to hell? That’s not nice. If I invite people to a party what sort of host am I if I troll those who don’t want to come?

So let’s stop worrying about God and get on with not believing in him. If we say we don’t believe in him then he won’t exist. Will he?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*This bloggage is incomplete without understanding the irony. Because irony is not obvious in the written word I wonder if some of you missed it or need the irony above explaining a bit, so if you need them here are some further explanations to what I have written above.

1. I imagine you haven’t decided that breathing is unnecessary, so why ignore the possibility that there is someone who is beyond and within time who gives us that breath?

2. Christians are not always the best free samples of Jesus. We are human, we are flawed, we are ‘works in progress’. If God used angels or any beings other than humans to tell others about him it would be very difficult for people not to believe in him because we will have seen the evidence of the supernatural so he takes the risk that Christians will mess things up in order not to compromise the free choice he wants all of us to have. I don’t excuse the hideous things that Christians have done in the name of Jesus, but atheists are no saints: Holocaust, Stalin, Mao…? I am not saying that you can excuse one atrocity if you excuse the other. But let’s not throw stones if we live in glass houses.

3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. And if you want to see the best of a stained glass window you have to go inside the church to experience the light streaming through it – it’s the same with church and being a Christian. You can’t fully experience it looking from the outside. But do you trust your friends who are Christians? And people who are not ‘church’ doing good things doesn’t mean there isn’t a God, it could be evidence of his goodness at work beyond the church.

4. The existence of light mean there is also likely to be shadow? There is a ‘shadow’ to our world. Suffering can have a purpose – pain signals to our brain tell us that there is something wrong or to take our hand out of a fire. Sometimes people’s greed means that others suffer – why are shanty towns built in vulnerable areas: because the rich people have the good land. Sometimes we humans have to take responsibility for our own failings.You can’t give people complete free will without risking that they will ignore you and cause bad stuff to happen. And you can’t give people complete free will without allowing bad stuff to happen because if you intervened they would have no choice but to believe in you. Because if you built a perfect sentient robot with self-awareness and the ability to think for itself you couldn’t make some rules about it having to love you.

5. Yes, there is suffering in the world that makes no sense and has no human cause. But free will (if it is genuinely free) risks rebellion and that rebellion is at large in the world. You can call it evil, the devil or whatever you like, but this world is not as God intended it because it is at odds with him, just as a malfunctioning robot might destroy the environment in which it is based. The robot designer did not intend it to malfunction. And if there is a malevolent force around doesn’t it make sense that it would exist in the shadows of this world and try to point us away from God by making us blame him for the bad stuff that happens? Bad stuff happening is evidence of a malevolent force in the world. Wouldn’t it make sense for a loving God to be trying to sort that out for us?

6. Read one of the gospels and then ask if God is anonymous. And take a look around you. The Universe we inhabit is astonishing isn’t it? Isn’t it possible that it has a Designer? Why is that less plausible than that it happened purely by chance?

7. Science tells us how things happen. It doesn’t tell us why. Science can tell us how God put things together but it can’t say why. It can tell us about the patterns and laws and rules and maths behind everything, but it can’t say why those patterns and laws and rules and maths are so perfectly balanced to allow for this Universe (other than to hypothesise an infinite number of Universes so that this one can exist and sustain life).

8. You can believe in aliens but not in God? The ‘evidence’ for alien life forms is somewhat sketchy at best. And even if they did exist, why does that disprove God? Bearing in mind when the Bible was written, wouldn’t it have rather freaked out those people to have been told about beings on other planets?

9. The manuscripts of the Bible exist in many fragments found in many different places and they are in harmony with each other in 98.5% of the all of the manuscripts. The 1.5% were caused by mistakes in copying (no photocopiers or scanners, it was all hand written); explanations added in the margins and then incorporated; and some words changed to try to make it easier to understand. None of these differences make a difference to any of the major themes of the BIble. Did you know that 24 carat gold is 99.9% pure gold, but 18 carat gold is 75% and 9 carat gold is 38%. The Bible is almost 24 carat gold!

10. I don’t believe that God sends anyone to hell (whatever your view of ‘hell’ is). If he is consistent he will always respect our choices because he respects our free will. He won’t force anyone to be with him who doesn’t want to be with him. ‘Judgment’ (whatever that is) is about God (sadly, perhaps even reluctantly) accepting our decision whether or not we want to be with him. Whatever you think hell may or may not be, it at least is an absence of God: he respects our decision – if we want to be with him we are with him, if we don’t we aren’t. Whatever you choose, he will respect.

You may not believe in God, but he believes in you.

theology from a joke?

Ravenel Bridge CharlestonA while ago the website Ship of Fools ran a competition to find the funniest religious joke. This was the winner, from comedian Emo Philips:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. 

I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.” 

I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” 

He said, “Protestant.” 

I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” 

He said, “Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” 

He said, “Northern Baptist.” 

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” 

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” 

I said, “Me, too!” 

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” 

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

In case you are experiencing deja vu, yes I have mentioned this before on the blog – here. I retold this joke recently to some friends in our church and it got a great response. But subsequent pondering made me wonder why it is that it is so funny. I think that there are several reasons. One is that it draws you in with the ever-deepening coincidence of shared experience. Another is that the shared experience seems to get more and more contrived. A third is the humour of the ridiculousness of how fractured and splintered the church has become – dividing over more and more issues. And then, just when we are wondering how many more coincidences there can be Emo Philips hits us with the unexpected punchline about heresy and his over the top response to it and our laughter reflex is triggered in an explosion of surprise and shock at the outcome and the jettisoning of all that was common.

There are, however, a couple of problems:

The first problem is that while this joke is funny for all those reasons (and many more), having dissected it as I just have may have killed the joke for you.

The second problem is that while this is a funny joke it is rooted in reality. As well as laughing at the joke we should take a good long hard look at ourselves through the lens of the joke. What things divide us from others? Do we spend more time focusing on those things and less focusing on what unites us?

By definition if I believe something to be true I must consider someone who holds a different view to be wrong. They are a heretic. Two contradictory things cannot be simultaneously right. The laws of physics and logic say that they can’t be. And this approach to theology has fractured and splintered churches throughout its history and caused immense hurt.

  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that women should not be in leadership of a church they also believe that those who believe that women should be in leadership are wrong*.
  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that it is right to baptise infants they also believe that those who believe that only those who are believers should be baptised are wrong*.
  • If an understanding of the Bible leads someone to believe that all clergy should be celibate they also believe that those who believe that they do not need to be celibate are wrong*.

*These do not represent my theological understanding. They are being used to illustrate my point. You can interchange them for any issue on which Christians are divided – church structures, sexuality, divorce, euthanasia, and (sadly) much much more. Because we hold a particular view about issues (especially those we hold strongly) by definition we infer that those who hold opposing views must be wrong.

Now I have three more problems, which are probably aspects of one single problem – intolerance of tolerance and tolerance of intolerance.

One is that I don’t accept that because I believe something to be true and there are others who hold a different view it means that I have to brand those who think differently as heretics and get pushed off bridges. I hope I hold my beliefs through considered prayerful study, experience and reflection (for the most part – some may be because I have uncritically adopted someone else’s view because I liked the sound of it and I need to be aware of that). What sort of person am I if I decide that someone else who holds a different view reached through considered prayerful study, experience and reflection must be condemned and I can have nothing to do with them? I could be wrong: even if I don’t think I am I surely have to have sufficient humility to accept that I could be: I have changed my views on theological issues through my life – the ‘previous’ me would regard the ‘current’ me as a heretic!

The second is that I don’t accept that two contradictory positions mean that one must be wrong. Both could be wrong. But what if both are right? Can that be possible? The laws of physics and logic say that it is not. But what if those laws are the wrong ones to be applying here:

God is simultaneously comprehensible and logical (so we can understand him) and beyond human comprehension and understanding.

He has established the laws of physics and logic and all that makes our Universe how it is and at the same time he breaks those laws (we call them miracles).

Jesus was both fully human and fully God – simultaneously.

God is all powerful and yet he chooses to limit his power by giving us free will and the option to choose to go against his will.

If we try to apply physical laws to them something has to give, but with God they are not contradictions they are paradoxes. Somehow God is able to hold in creative tension things that we would see as contradictory. Can’t we seek the grace to do that too?

And that leads me to the third problem. Why do some Christians (who have experienced Grace and Love and seek to follow the most perfect Example of both, Jesus of Nazareth) feel it is necessary to exclude and condemn those who have a different interpretation of the Bible or a different theological view? At this point in discussion with others they often introduce the ‘slippery slope’ – if we say that we accept one thing, where will it end: it’s a slippery slope. So, to be facetious to make the point, if we say that Christians who sincerely hold the view that churches should have only pews when our church only has chairs genuinely are Christians then before we know it won’t we be on a slippery slope that leads towards us saying that all people who sincerely believe something, even those who sincerely hold the view that there is no God, are Christians?

Erm. No. I think that  if there is a genuine slippery slope we can define a point on the slope beyond which we will not slide. It’s very difficult to say that you are a Christian if you don’t believe in God. Ah, you say, but you said we could hold contradictory positions in creative tension.

True, but even God has his limits. He is absolute love, but he is not also absolute hate. (NB The thing the Bible says he hates above all is religious hypocrisy!)

There are limits. And for each of us those limits may be different. But does that mean that we should unleash venomous bile and condemnation on those who believe the limits are in a different place to us? Does that sound like Grace and Love? Perhaps it is easier if we accept that we all exist on slippery slopes and need the grace to accept those who are slipping and sliding around with us. 

I recognise that I could be accused of being inconsistent – I am being less tolerant of those who unleash bile and condemnation. That brings me back to what I have just been saying. There are limits. But surely those limits could be limited to the core of what we believe and surely we should be careful about making that core bigger than Jesus would.

What is the core? The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 

The WCC seeks to be a space “in which [Christians] can reflect, speak, act, worship and work together, challenge and support each other, share and debate with each other. As members of this fellowship, WCC member churches:

  • are called to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship;
  • promote their common witness in work for mission and evangelism;
  • engage in Christian service by serving human need, breaking down barriers between people, seeking justice and peace, and upholding the integrity of creation; and
  • foster renewal in unity, worship, mission and service.”

Sounds like a good place to start.

Be blessed, be a blessing.