Monday, December 15, 2014


You wonder why I don't react
When you point out the idiots who are
My brothers.

"Look at your brothers", you say
"Look at my brothers", my heart says.
"They are idiots", you say.
"They are idiots", my heart says.

I stand with them, ashamed.
They are my humanity.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The beanpole conundrum

Earlier today, I got pinged about what I referred to as the “abyss of popular atheism”. Here's a written response that, I hope, is better articulated than the verbal response that I fumbled through earlier.

Short version: Arguing for popular moralistic atheism is like arguing that your beanpole is more upright than my beanpole in a context where gravity does not exist. Where there is no gravity, there is no “up”, hence the abyss.

Much longer version: I can accept that some beanpoles are more upright than others. I can even accept that my beanpole might be heavily skewed and needs righting. However, I cannot accept your objection to the uprightness or otherwise of my beanpole in a context where gravity does not exist or is absent. If there is no gravity, the whole concept of uprightness is meaningless, and so the proposition that your beanpole is more upright than mine meaningless. In such a context, no beanpole can be more upright than any other beanpole, because there is no “up”.

It's a metaphor, of course, about what we choose to train our lives (bean-plants) on. What I'm trying to say is that the issue of the uprightness, or goodness of one beanpole or another (be it theism, atheism or whatever) only makes sense where gravity exists and is present. By gravity, I am referring to God, or at least a God-pseudonym. By God-pseudonym, I mean something along the lines of the ultimate truth or reality that sustains the cosmos in which we live, or perhaps the purpose and direction of life, the universe and everything.

My problem with popular atheism is that it often holds itself up as more upright than theism. You don't need to go far beyond the book titles from Richard Dawkins, Richard Hitchens, or the juvenile rants of I Love F******g Atheism to get that. This, to me, is utterly inconsistent with the intellectual constraints of atheism proper, but very few atheists seem to have thought it through to its logical conclusions. Or, if they have, they don't see a need to correct their colleagues.

These are not just my opinions. They are expressed by professors of philosophy who are far better informed than I, including Friedrich Nietsche on one side (if I understand him rightly) and the likes of William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga on the other. These guys are not intellectual lightweights, and it is irresponsible for popular atheism to gloss over them as if they had nothing relevant to say.

I'm not saying this because I dislike atheists. I genuinely cannot find a warrant for the moral superiority of anything in an atheistic cosmos. It's the problem of the uprightness of beanpoles where there is no gravity to point us “up”-ward.

Allow me to expand.

What I mean by meaning or morality is something fundamentally different to what I find significant or what I like. I accept that what I like is an expression of my genetic and sociological heritage. However, something that is good or right might well be something that I don't like – it doesn't necessarily map to the boundaries of my preferences and prejudices. So, my preferences and prejudices may need to be aligned to what is good and right, and you can name all manner of issues or scenarios in which this is true. I should align my beanpole to the true "up", not just whatever arbitrary direction your beanpole is pointing in.

Where it gets problematic is in what differentiates good from bad, up from down.

If atheism proper were true, then when we do good, we are only expressing our genetic and social heritage. The “only” part is important, because we cannot invoke a moral plane without crossing over into some kind of spirituality or theism, and that would annoy the hell out of Dawkins, Hitchens and I Love F******g Atheism.

However, it would also mean that when we do bad, we are only expressing our genetic and social heritage.

In other words, there is no difference, other than the differences that we perceive or project onto it.

But that doesn't solve it, because our perceptions are also only the expression of our genetic and social heritage. I like what I like because my genetic and social heritage tells me what I like, even if I get some degree of freedom in the matter (which is not as self-evident as you might suppose). The same goes for our our presuppositions, our prejudices and so on.

If this were the case, and atheism proper gives us no viable alternative, then there is nothing to commend one person's likes or dislikes over another's. We cannot say “you are wrong” because, in actuality, we just don't like what you are doing. Neither can we say “you are wrong” because what you're doing interferes with what we want or like. And, what we like broadens to encompass our self-survival which extends to the survival of our offspring. There's nothing to say that the survival of ourselves, or our offspring, is more morally justified than the survival of someone else and their offspring. In fact, we could even question the assumption that surviving and procreating is an inherently good thing. What I'm trying to say is that there is a very real problem in finding some kind of bedrock or warrant, apart from God, on which to build our moral edifices.

Its a confronting challenge, but who said that the ultimate reality of the situation would conform to our likes and preferences?

If we disabuse ourselves of sentimentality, we find with Nietsche that all objective morality collapses into the void, and we are left with nothing but the will to power. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that just as the moral universe collapses into the void, so the whole universe follows and we are left with nothing. We even find that our existence in the here and now is untenable.

You may counter by saying that that is not our experience. We know we are here. I could respond by saying that our experiences are nothing more than the delusions thrust upon us by our evolutionary heritage, and we actually know nothing at all, not even our own existence. That's what I mean by the abyss of atheism.

Or, I could respond by saying that as we are made in the image of our Creator, we have the capacity to perceive and reflect the ultimate reality that brought the cosmos into being. The difference between the two world-views is as profound as the difference between light and darkness.

Post-script: I sensed some resentment in the query I got earlier. If popular moralistic atheism makes someone happy, why not just leave them be? Why take such offence to it? Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

I think it's ironic that the shonky defences we theists used to put up against the challenges of atheism are now being put up against us.

Bad Sunday, good Sunday

Recently I was in a bad way emotionally. I've had a belly-full of being unemployed, suffering the humiliation of one job rejection after another, being unable to fulfil my hard-wired instincts to be a provider, and fighting off the thought that nobody wants what I have to offer. I was grumpy and depressed.

That same evening, my head had turned 180 degrees. None of my problems had gone away, and I knew I had to face them again the following morning. But, I had a different perspective and the feeling of hope. I actually enjoyed life. Morning-me was a crappy husband and father. Evening-me was a big improvement (still a long way to go, though). All this in the space of 12 hours.

So, what happened?

First, I got myself along to a Sails At Bayside event as a volunteer. It's a charity run under the auspices of the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, and it provides sailing and life-skills experience to disadvantaged people and other groups. That Sunday morning, we were doing some kayaking with a church Sunday school group. When I turned up, I was just expecting to be another pair of hands to shift kayaks and stuff. However, we got to the point where everyone had got onto the water except for a mum with two young boys. She could take one, but needed someone else to take the other, who must have been about five years old. As I was available, I volunteered, so I sat him in the front and paddled from behind. He was terrified to start with, so we took it really slowly and easily. Slowly, he grew in confidence and started to enjoy it, especially as we paddled into the mangroves and talked about the trees that grew under the sea (it was high tide). We even paddled over the top of some of them, and dodged under the branches of others.

We then took a break, and I got talking to Helen, one of the older volunteers. She is a retired Maths Teacher- an intellectual and a Christian. She talked about recent studies that highlighted the damage our culture was doing to people - we tend to evaluate people by their extrinsic value (the value they have because of what they can give us) and, compared to more spiritually aware cultures, we are losing the ability to recognise intrinsic value (the value they have because of who they are). Call it the Consumer-Culture if you like, but it rules, and we let it. Yesterday, I had spent some time on a picnic with some blind people - some of whom also had learning difficulties - whom I knew from Church. These are people with little or no extrinsic value, yet they are of infinite worth because they have an indelible intrinsic value, and it's something we all share. It's something they need to hear, and I need to hear - we have value because we are made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:27) - all of us, including the people I don't necessarily like or admire or find useful. That's where we get our intrinsic value from - every one of us. If, as the secular forces in our culture would have us believe, we reduce ourselves to mere function (what we can offer), we lose the plot. Helen quoted Rene Descartes, who, when asked why as an intellectual, he still believed in God, replied that with God, there is hope, but without him, there is no hope. It's true. It's not a hope that things will miraculously turn out good by the wave of a magic wand, but that our lives have meaning and substance, even when things turn to crap. It's not saying that evil is good, but rather that our suffering, our ephemerality, our mortality has meaning, and it doesn't go unnoticed by a pitilessly indifferent cosmos (see what Richard Dawkins has to say on this - needless to say, I disagree).

After the break, my doughty five-year old came up to me and asked if we could go out on the kayak again. This is the same guy who was almost crying with fear when we first set out. How could I refuse! We had so much fun on the water together.

So, I have to thank the guys at Sails for their ministry (which is just a religious-sounding word for "service"). My five-year old kayaker got a boost, but I think I got the lion's share.

Then, I went church in the evening to play guitar with the music group. Again, we had fun, which even some of my badly misplaced chords could not stop.

Josh Dinale, our Rector, spoke about what it means to put down roots, based on the reflections of Psalm 1 - especially putting down roots into God. You could think of this as a loss of freedom because it means getting fixed in one place, and allowing yourself to become limited. However, it also means that you can grow, become established. It means you can become mature enough not just to withstand life's storms, but to be strong enough and big enough to offer shelter for others, should they want it. It means you can live a life of meaning and weight - true prosperity. Again, this is not meaning and weight that we have because of our extrinsic value (what we have to offer), but because of our intrinsic value - what we have because we bear the image of God (what we are). If you can sort out what you are, you can sort out what you can do.

Then, after the service, I got talking to a couple of people about the ministry and service they are offering to refugees - some of this is just being a friendly neighbour, or helping them understand English, or a rudimentary introduction to the practicalities of living in an unfamiliar country. Some of this is rock-climbing, or doing stuff that creates fun and friendships.

Now, I'm thinking I'd like to get my blind friends and refugees onto the kayaks and catamarans. I've got outside myself, and I prefer it outside. Yes, I'll get a buzz from it but, more importantly, they are worth it.

If you've read this far, thank you for following me as I unload.

That Sunday morning, I felt unwanted by the world. I realise that's harsh on the people who love me, and I apologise to them. However, there are far more people in this world who don't.

We live in a world that thinks God is either irrelevant, or that he is an evil imp that hides around corners ready to trip us up, or that he is an excuse to do bad stuff. That's not the God I believe in, and it hurts me when I get told by self-righteous atheist propaganda that it is. It's not the God my friends believe in. This isn't about God v Evolution (I'm OK with evolutionary processes, incidentally). Or, about feeling OK about the shit-ness of life because everybody's life is shit and they feel OK about it, too (an idiot's philosophy, undergirded by dogma, presumption and acquired tradition, but believed by millions). It's about whether life - my life, your life, the lives of those blind guys, the refugees, a scared 5 year old boy, an intellectual woman, the guys who can sing in church and the guys who can't - whether all these lives have value and meaning.

Yes they do.

Let's go exploring and find out what it is.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Confounded by God and the Trinity? Let the Song of Songs lead the way

I have read plenty of explanations and descriptions of God and the Trinity. It seems to me that many of them are unhelpful because they fail to address either the interactions between us, the world and God, or the different-ness of the Father from the Son from the Holy Spirit. It also seems to me that if we want to understand the meaning of the mystery of life, we need to bring all those concerns to the same place. I have a rudimentary instinct that the answer to all these concerns can be found in a Trinitarian perspective of God, but how do we even begin to understand it?

My suggestion, in this post, is to approach it from a new angle; this time through one of the most enigmatic books of the Bible – the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). This is not about presenting a commentary or an explanation of the book, but about using it to open up these confounding mysteries.

Firstly, what I suggest you do, if you're not already familiar with it, is to read through the Song of Songs in it's entirety. It's only eight chapters, and it won't take long. When you read it, keep in mind that it describes both an earthly scenario (the urgent, sexual tension between the two lovers, witnessed by their friends) and the heavenly reality that this scenario signifies.

Secondly, when you have read the Song of Songs, consider the following
  • Do we see God in the origin, sustenance and validation of the scenario that the two lovers find themselves in? Yes, and in this we see something of God the Father
  • Do we see God in the beloved prince; the one that the lover can tangibly and physically embrace and apprehend? Yes, and in this we see something of God the Son.
  • Do we see God in the urgent, vibrant love that drips from the lovers' hands like myrrh, and fills their every breath with perfume? Yes, and in this we see something of God the Holy Spirit. 
In considering these questions, we might begin to understand the different-ness of God the Father from God the Son from God the Holy Spirit. The illustration does not allow us to think of them as three different “people”, because it is difficult to describe this kind of “Father” and this kind of “Holy Spirit” in the same way that we could describe the “Son”. Further, we would struggle to understand the three as different “faces” or “modes” of the same person. They are different, and an acknowledgement of their different-ness is fundamental to a basic understanding the Trinity.

Nor it is appropriate to think of them in terms of hierarchy. Which one of these three “persons” is in charge? Does the Son direct the Holy Spirit, or is he born along in it? (Incidentally, I generally dislike referring to the Holy Spirit as an “it”, but it's appropriate in this case.) The best we can say is that there is a reciprocation between the Son and the Holy Spirit. But, such a reciprocation can only occur if the Son is not the same “person” as the Holy Spirit. And yet, there are not three “gods”, but One (Deuteronomy 6:4 etc).

These meditations might seem somewhat theoretical and other-worldy, but I think they also open up the mystery of the relationships between us, the world and God. Thus, they become highly relevant and this-worldly.

It seems to me that the most popular understanding of God is that he is some kind of singular entity, closed in on himself, who occasionally invades and interferes with our existence (often to our detriment). Technically and historically, this is the Pythagorean view of God as a monad. By considering God as Trinity, we are presented, instead, with an open, reciprocal union that we are invited to join. The Trinity also provides us with the means to move from the negative descriptions of God to the positive; from descriptions like “closed”, “static”, “detached”, “uncreative”, to “open”, “dynamic”, “engaged”, “creative”. 

Most of all, as the Song of Songs describes, we see love, something that is only possible if the beloved is not the lover. In the Trinity, then, we find the fulfilment of our humanity and the essence of the God whose image we reflect (God is love, 1 John 4:8). That should be no surprise because, if Genesis 1:27 is right in saying that we are made in the image of God, it follows that we are made in the image of the Trinity.


I ought to acknowledge the inspiration for this blog, which came from my recent reading of the Song of Songs, and Boris Bobrinskoy's weighty theological tome The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition. The following extract is Bobrinskoy's reflection on the Song of Songs;

… The Jews view the Song of Songs as the high point of Scripture. In the Introduction to his French Translation of the Song, AndrĂ© Chouraqui emphasises that, for the spiritual masters of Israel, it forms the crown of the Bible, its most necessary book. He quotes Rabbi Akiba as saying, “The world had neither value or meaning before the Song was given to Israel.” Likewise, the Zohar states

(In the song) is to be found that summary of the whole Torah, of the whole work of Creation, of the mystery of the Patriarchs, of the story of the Egyptian exile, and the Exodus therefrom, and of the Song of the Sea. It is the quintessence of the Decalogue, of the Sinaitic covenant, of the significance of Israel's wandering through the desert, until their arrival in the Promised Land and the building of the Temple. It contains the crowning of the Holy Name with love and joy, the prophecy of Israel's exile among the nations, of their redemption, of the resurrection of the dead and of all else until that Day which is 'Sabbath of the Lord.' All that was, and is, and shall be, is contained in it; and, indeed even that which will take place on the 'Seventh Day,' which will be the 'Lord's Sabbath,' is indicated in this song

Tradition tells us that when someone recites a verse from the Song as a profane verse, the Torah complains about it before the Holy One, as of a defilement. For the Kabbalists the Song is a synthesis of the mystery of oneness. It encompasses, at once, a cosmogony and and apocalypse.

The destiny of this theme from the Song, first in the Psalms and the prophets, and then in the New Testament is well known (see Eph 5).

Here, we should specify that the anthropological themes are not used to explain God according to psychological modes proper to us. They are not secondary, archaic, outdated metaphors. On the contrary, by donning works and feelings, God validates them, reveals their true ontology, manifests their infinite source and finality, describes man in his total natural reality, and attracts him to Himself through the alliance and the love in which God and man share the same feelings. The sentiment that best expresses the relation of God and man is that of sharing. In the Hellenistic vocabulary, faith (pistis) means only the faith man has in God. From a Semitic point of view, faith is reciprocal; God loves man first, and believes in him; and man finds the stability of his own faith in a reciprocal faithfulness. The same could be said of the benediction: God blesses, and we return His blessing to Him. It is always a matter of reciprocal knowledge, of a love that is shared.

This endeavour of sharing is, at the same time, unilateral, progressive and reciprocal. Unilateral, because God is first sovereign grace, hesed (mercy), creative paternal love, forgiveness. God has saved us, we who were in sin, and under His anger. These words are to be understood in the strong sense. God has loved us in our sin, like the adulterous wife whom the divine Bridegroom leads out into the desert to meet her once more. Unilateral, the grace of God comes like a refreshing dew, and appeasing breeze, a warming fire, a holiness that sanctifies, a glory that glorifies, a purity that purifies, a justice that justifies, a life that vivifies, a paternity that adopts, a maternity that gives birth and matures – and all this freely, without remuneration, just as a father behaves.

It is a progressive endeavour, because this grace is not poured into inert vessels; it transforms them gradually into itself, into light, fire, breath, it restores human progress.

Finally, it is a reciprocal endeavour, because this transformation of man into the divine life, this establishment of an ontological relation of man to God makes the fulfilment of the human being possible in a free, infinite reciprocity. Man – through the transformation, and not the abolishing of his humanity – becomes spirit, a breath of eternity. Here, the image of love is expressed in the multiple terms of a reciprocity of which the Song of Songs represents the culmination.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Arguing Folk

In defending theism, many theists have said some stupid things. I know. I've done it. I'll probably do it again, despite my best efforts.

Theism's noisiest opponents (Dawkins, Krauss, et al) frequently use this to attack any form of belief in God, or to defend their own belief in no God. It's what I call the Folk Argument. Does it work? My response is a qualified “no”.

Let me illustrate with an example. It seems to me that most people don't understand evolution, particularly when they say things like “I'm evolving into a better person”.

It's a hideous thing to say. If I were a proper atheist, I might even say it's blasphemous. Evolution does not make you (individual you, that is) into anything. What it does do is that if your children are better suited to the environment in which they find themselves, they are more likely to survive and produce more children with their genes. By the time any significant change has happened in the gene pool, you will be long dead.

Then, there's the whole problem of  “better”. What is "better"? Better suited to the environment? But that might mean a radical departure from the values that we hold dear. For instance, it might mean the removal of all inhibitions in killing your neighbour's children. That's a very unpleasant possibility that won't suit our current environment (for which I am very thankful). But, how do we know what possible future environments we might find ourselves in, and what makes these environments better or worse than ours? Why assume that what is “good” today will be “good” tomorrow? Are these future environments "better" because they suit us better? What an ironic inversion of evolutionary theory! 

I digress. My point is that though evolution is not making me (or anyone else) into a better person, many people believe it. It's a folk argument, but does it make evolution untrue? Of course, no.

(Incidentally, the only way you can argue that evolution or circumstance is making you into a better person is by believing that there is a purpose or meaning that has given rise to these processes and circumstances, and as soon as you do that, you assume that there is a God, or at least a God-pseudonym.)

Now, if we shouldn't use the folk-argument against evolution, we also shouldn't use it against theism. It's not an excuse to stop enquiry, but it does clear away much of the clutter. It's also wide-ranging in it's scope. It means that you cannot argue that belief in God is ridiculous because Mrs Smith believes that God always gives her a car-parking space whenever she goes to the shopping mall, and that's a ridiculous thing to believe. You also can't argue the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or the junk-yard of gods (where all the gods go after their respective religions have died out).

In fact, the next time an angry atheist holds forth on the folk-argument, I will be strongly tempted to respond with a folk-argument of my own – that most atheists believe that their criticism of religion serves some sort of meaningful purpose. It doesn't – if proper atheism (as distinct from folk atheism) were true, nothing would have meaning or purpose, including the atheists' dislike of religion. Our perceptions of meaning and purpose would be mere delusions that have been thrust on us randomly by a pitiless and indifferent universe that, frankly, could not care less about what you think, believe or do. The reason I might hold back with this strategy is that I know it is a folk argument.

So, the folk-argument does not settle the issue. It's good rhetoric, but poor logic.

But it does present a dilemma, hence the qualification to my initial “no”. 

The dilemma is this – it's easy to dismiss Mrs Smith's God-of-the-car-park as wishful thinking, or affirmation-bias, pattern-reinforcement or whatever you'd like to call it. But Mrs Smith is not qualitatively different from anyone else in her perceptions, including the finest Oxbridge dons. If Mrs Smith cannot perceive reality, can anyone? I'd like to think that we (that means all of us, including the Mrs Smiths and the finest Oxbridge dons of the world) have the capacity to perceive the reality, even though that capacity is often flawed and is necessarily limited. If we didn't, all our enquiries and all our science are necessarily doomed from the start. We would not be able to perceive anything because our perceptions are irredeemably lost and broken.

To me, this means two things; one is that we can, and should continue to search, and the other is that the ultimate goal of that search is God. Heaven help us find Him.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Start with why

Most people, it seems, approach questions of religion and Christianity from the starting point of their experiences of Church and Christians. It's no surprise, then, that their evaluations vary; some hate it, some love it, and many are somewhere in between, often moving from one position to another. Much depends on how their relationship develops with the people in the Church and its leadership, and their experiences are a common theme in their varied stories of conversion and deconversion.

Personal experience, however important, is not the whole story. Not according to the Judaeo-Christian world-view. There is a reason for everything – a “why” to our experiences, Church, religion and indeed life, death, the universe and everything. Why are these things here, and what possible purpose do they serve? In approaching our questions, we too should start with “why”.

It's a question atheism tries strenuously to avoid for a very simple and profound reason. If there is a fundamental “why”, or a reason for everything then, fundamentally, there must a God or, at the very least, a God-pseudonym. That God may be different than the God of someone else's religion, but that God is still there, and atheism (literally meaning “no-God”) is defeated. The only proper recourse available to the atheist, then, is to say that there is no “why” and everything is meaningless (including the atheist's own outrage at religion, ironically).

Cynics avoid the “why” question because they have failed to find a satisfactory answer. They are right, but only in part. I don't believe that any of us can fully comprehend the answer, which means that we will never be fully satisfied, but this says more about the limits of our comprehension than the “why” that we attempt to comprehend.

Much popular religion answers the “why” with generic response about making us into better people. This, I think, is lazy and narcissistic. It doesn't tell us why being a better person is a good thing (beyond the expedience of avoiding conflict), nor what a “better” person looks like, and it fails to inform you that being a better person only works up to the day when you get Alzheimer's. Indeed, it substitutes the “why” with a “how” or “what”. It also focuses your attention on yourself, as if the only person who needs to be satisfied with the outcomes is you. It tells us nothing about the value of people who are not “better” - the handicapped, the incapable, the failed people in life, the sinners. Furthermore, it assumes that if we are true to ourselves (2), then we would be intrinsically good, but there wasn't a tyrant in history who wasn't true to himself.

I find it tremendously significant that the Bible doesn't start with our experience, and it doesn't even start with the Church. In fact, it starts with “why”.

The opening verse of the first book, Genesis, starts with the reason for the creation of the entire cosmos
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1, NASB). 
The reason that there is a Cosmos is God (3). 

And here we are; by whatever process that got us here. We are here, ultimately, because of God. The rest of the Bible flows from this singular starting point, such that all history, experience, religion, politics, life and death is an outworking of this “why”. Of all God's good creatures, we humans are uniquely made in His image, which is why we search for the “why”.

In opening his Gospel, John echoes the words of Genesis, and expands them using the language of reason. Writing in Greek, he uses the word “logos” for the fundamental reason for everything, which we translate as “Word”. It's not an entirely accurate translation, because we think of words on a page, but John was thinking of the reason, or wisdom that brings these words into being (4). In the same way, the “logos” brings the Cosmos into being, and everything in it, including our experiences, Church, religion etc etc. John puts it like this
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. (John 1:1-4, NASB).
What does this "logos"/“why” look like? Is it something we can comprehend? Do we even have the faculties to comprehend it, or will it always be beyond our reach? Can we see God? John writes that although many tried, none fully succeeded (John 1:18, NASB), despite all the rites, experiences and revelations of the Old Testament, which goes all the way back to the beginning.

John's Gospel provides a revolutionary response to the question that nobody, in my opinion, has bettered. He starts with the abstract question “why” and brings it down to earth, where we can touch it, feel it, hear it, smell it, see it.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NASB).
We might not comprehend all of the “why”, but now we know what it looks like. It is not a set of abstract laws or precepts, nor a system of belief, though it embodies law and belief. It intersects our experiences, but it also stands outside them as an independent entity. It is one thing, but not everything, though it lies beneath, behind and over every thing. It is not a culture, or religion, or a political system, a pattern of rites and rituals, though none of these things have meaning apart from it. It is the person of Jesus Christ, wholly human and, uniquely, wholly God. John tells us that we can see God, and we have seen God, because we have seen Jesus. The author of Hebrews says the same thing (Hebrews 1:1-2), and so does the remainder of the New Testament.

From this starting point, we can begin to answer the “what”. What are our experiences, if they are not our witness of God? What is Church, if it is not the human people who are gathered around the human person of Christ? What is religion, if it is not the marks we make on our lives to signify their meaning? What is politics, if it is not our attempt to create a better environment for our fellow humans, made in His image? What are our lives, if we are not the sons and daughters of God?

We can even begin to move on to the “how”. Critics of Christianity often point to disagreements between Christians, which, shamefully enough, have often triggered violent unrest (the Reformation Wars, for instance). The irony is that Christians and critics alike go to war on things that they believe best answers the “why”; it's just that they have arrived at opposing positions. In these conflicts, one side, or both, may be wrong, but the “why” remains.

We live in a time that strenuously attempts to minimise or avoid the “why”. Our media, for instance, never wants us to venture too near the question – it wants us to remain dumb and compliant to it's insistence that we buy a new car, or a different brand of pizza. Thinking New Atheists tell us it is the wrong question to ask (why?). Critics of Christianity and the Church want us to focus on the disparate outcomes, and give up asking. Popular religion tells us it already has the answer.

John's Gospel tells us that where any of these don't frame the question and the answer to “why” in the human person of Jesus Christ, they miss the mark.

The next time you think about religion, or about any of life's important questions, start with “why”.


1: I borrowed the title from Simon Sinek, his book of the same title and on-line talk. He talks about business leadership, but it's a great question in all contexts, especially in religion.

2: The quote “to thine own self be true”, is not from the Bible (as some assume), but it comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, as Polonius farewells his son Laertes prior to an intelligence-gathering mission. 
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
(Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 7582)
In context, then, Polonius is not talking about using one's internal conscience as a yard-stick to measure the truth of something, which is how we commonly understand it. He is actually advising Laertes to rely on his own material resources and not to get entangled in the business and politics of those on whom he is to observe, evaluate and report back on.

3: Not a semantic trick – God is the reason for Creation, and God gives the reason for the Creation.

4: Demonstrated in Genesis 1 in which God's creative acts are brought about by “... and God said ...” Genesis 1:3 etc.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Between night and day

After yesterday's dark post, I wondered if there could be an Easter Morning response. I thought it might come to me at our Easter service, and it did.

It's the difference between night and day, like nothing has changed but everything has changed. It's the same world and the same me living in it, but now there is the kind of light that no one, not even death, can put out.
Christ is risen.
God raised Him.
There is nothing we can do.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What if Easter Sunday never comes?

Most of the messages I've heard from Christian leaders this Easter relate to the hope that Easter brings. That's OK for them, but for some reason it's not resonating with me this Easter. It feels like they are skipping from A to C without going through B.


How can you appreciate the glory of C without the desolation of B?

As far as the unfolding story of Holy Week goes, we're currently at B, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I wonder how they felt on that first Easter Saturday? They'd just seen their Messiah crucified. What next? They didn't know what tomorrow would bring. Just like us.

It was a Sabbath, a day of rest and worship, yet it must have felt strangely empty and void without the presence of Jesus, in whom they had placed their faith.

If God was going to do something, why the wait? As I mused yesterday, perhaps it was to allow us to come to terms with the consequences of our actions. And they were our actions -  it wasn't Judas who killed Jesus, or the Jews, or the Romans, or the disciples. All of them failed in some way, but they personified our failures - they were our representatives. If we had been there, would things have happened differently? I think not. We would have found ourselves somewhere in the narrative accusing, betraying, abusing, running away or ignoring what was going on.

So, in the spirit of the day after Good Friday and not knowing what Sunday would bring, let me offer the following reflection as a kind of in-the-moment alternative to the affirmative messages of hope you might otherwise hear.
God is dead.
We murdered Him.
There is nothing we can do.

Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday

At our Good Friday morning service, I found myself thinking through the narrative. Can we put out the Light of God? Evidently, yes. What happens when we do? In a word, darkness. Also chaos and death, thuggery and betrayal, undone-ness and lost-ness. In another word, Hell. Will God allow it to remain that way? Sunday hasn't come yet. Time to reflect on the gravity of our murder of God.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why TV makes it so difficult to believe

Don’t grab your tinfoil hat quite yet. This isn’t a conspiracy theory.

However, it does deserve some thought as to why we have turned, in the space of a couple of hundred years, from finding it impossible to not believe to finding it possible to not believe to finding it impossible to believe in God. I blame it on TV.

Of course I would. It’s an easy target. What interests me is not how it does it, but why. Why the hostility toward God? Why does TV routinely trash belief in general, and Christianity in particular?

(I’m not going to presume to answer for other religions, but I’m sure they share much of this experience.)

If you say “so what?” let me ask you to be a little observant this Easter about who gets to say what, and how long they are given to say it. For instance, where I live, we’ve just had the trailers for a mini series of documentaries on the Secret Life of Breasts. I’m sure there’s plenty of good science in there, and most of the population will have their curiosity piqued either by having an interest in owning a pair or by having the chance to look at some.

I might have missed it, but I see nothing in the schedule about the meaning of Easter. Call me a pessimist, but the most I am looking forward to is a grudging acknowledgement that some people think Easter might be important (balanced with some views on why it isn’t) followed by a sound bite talking head with a dog collar. Don’t misunderstand me; I believe the talking head with a dog collar will do a good job with the sound bite that he (or she) has been given, but why limit it to a sound bite? It’s embarrassing. It’s like trying to compress the entire content of John’s Gospel into a Twitter.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that … Oh crap, we’ve run out of characters. Moving on to the football …

The answer to why TV and Christianity don’t mix very well might simply be that they are bitter rivals.

Back in the day before media, the Church was the media. If you wanted to know anything about the world, you went to Church to hear about it. If you were educated enough, you read the repository of writings kept in the Churches. Then came Gutenburg and his repeatable press, so that you didn’t have to go to Church to read the writings, but it still helped because there were Church people on hand to interpret the information. The Church knew this, and trained its people in the interpretation of the information. The good interpreters pointed their flocks down the good paths, and there was a sense that some paths were worth going down, even though they were not the easy paths. The Church was the repository of knowledge, and it interpreted that knowledge for their flocks so that their flocks knew how to live their lives for the better.

TV has moved into that role. TV is now the repository of knowledge and it interprets that knowledge for its consumers so that its consumers consume its products. When it points people down paths, it doesn’t care if they are good or bad paths, as long as they keep buying pizza.

The key thing here is that for TV to assume that role, it had to push aside the Church. Not all of this is good news. Allow me to expand a few thoughts;

  1. TV trades on outrage. Nothing is as effective at getting you back to watch the fight. Pick a side, it doesn’t matter which one, as long as you stay long enough to hear the sponsor’s message. In short, TV is Coliseum 2.0.
  2. TV hates tolerance. See 1. Opposing views are only worth expressing if they generate some camera-friendly conflict in a controlled studio environment.
  3. TV is not answerable to you. You can turn it off, but you’ll have to pay tribute before it will listen to you. Anyway, TV is not interested if you or it is right after the event - why reflect on the past when the ratings have already been compiled? (I have some limited experience here)
  4. TV is your peer group, family and friend. In the light of 3, the relationship can only be described as exploitative. There’s no interaction or negotiation here.
  5. TV is the repository of all knowledge. Except that it isn’t. The key criterion for broadcast is not the quality of the content, but the presentation. It is worth noting that the leading philosophers on TV are, actually, the comedians.
  6. TV personalities are carefully groomed. Understandably, they want to be liked. Understandably, this will get them to subjugate absolutely everything to the need to be liked by the widest possible audience. Virtue is nowhere near as important as image.
  7. TV’s personality cult blocks out the ordinary, little people. If, like me, you are ordinary and little, you’re only chance to get on TV is to be a freak. Ordinary religious people can be freaks, but they are only worth filming when they are being freaks, not ordinary. Ergo, religious people are freaks. Don't become one.
  8. TV doesn’t care how you live your life. Do what you want, as long as you buy pizza. By the way, TV knows that you’ll keep on grazing and browsing as long as it keeps flattering you with the soothing message that you’re doing the right thing. This might seem a contradiction until you realize that by “right” TV means whatever it takes to keep you buying pizza. Morality is banished like the friz under that must-have hair-straightener (postage extra).
  9. TV is obsessed with keeping you. Heaven forbid that it should lose you to a rival, or that you disengage. To this end, TV is full of helpful hints and emotive images to keep you safely in its embrace.

That last point doesn’t just block out potentially competing messages, it denies the very possibility that there might even be competing messages out there. You see, if you knew that there were competing messages out there, you might go to a competing media outlet to find them, and so you would be lost. As the Church is a competing media outlet, this is the greatest sin in the whole of TV-land. It is better to deny the possibility of the competitor, but if that competitor cannot be denied, then it must be belittled, minimized and ignored at all costs. Who told you that that was what the Church did?

And so we come to the impossible-to-believe situation that we find ourselves in. How can we believe in God, when TV assumes a posture of utter indifference to belief in anything but itself?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How to tell if you’re being a troll

Though we’d be embarrassed to admit it, most of us who have a history of posting stuff on forums, blogs and social media have probably engaged in troll-like behaviour to some degree. Admittedly, we may have expressed our inner troll unwittingly, but a troll is a troll, and there’s one in all of us. What’s more, we will never kill it, not in this world at least. However, we might be able to starve it. So, with this in mind, I thought I might offer some diagnostics and remedies about how to deal with your inner troll.


The troll does not consider himself to be a troll.

I say “he” because most the trolls I have encountered are male. Of course, trolls would become extinct without the female of the species, but the females are more likely to be the imagined recipients of the males’ posturings than the ones putting on the display.

Feed the troll

Ignore the possibility that you’re being a troll

Starve the troll

Grow a soul. Reflect on blogs like this. Heck, the fact you’re here at all is a good start.


Trolls treat the truth like an offensive weapon; the more offensive the better.

Trolls are incapable of nuance, and that’s what we need to employ here. The required nuance in this instance is that it’s OK to passionately believe stuff. This also means that it’s OK to passionately reject other stuff. The irony, I think, is that most people don’t see themselves as passionate believers/disbelievers, but that’s because they’ve never been confronted with the stuff that is adamantly opposed to what they believe (until they get on the internet).

This makes us human, but it doesn’t necessarily make us into trolls. What makes us into trolls is the use of truth to cause as much damage to the victim as possible. In other words, the over-arching objective is to prove the troll Right (with a capital "R"). The troll has a pathological disregard for the well-being of his victim and would much rather see him die than repent – in fact, the more prolonged, excruciating and public the victim’s execution, the better.

Feed the troll

Use a frenzied, flailing technique with the sword of truth. When you land a blow on your opponent’s exposed flesh, keep stabbing.

Starve the troll

Use your blade like a surgeon’s knife. Keep the incision small, make sure it’s applied to exactly the right place and allow your patient time to heal.


Trolls brag about their conquests.

We all like to think we have something to say, and when we’ve said something good, we hope people will notice. The road to troll-dom starts with the insistence that people listen to what we say. So, the troll will harangue his victim for an answer and more; he will brag about how good his assessment was to his victim, and to his fellow-trolls, especially if his victim is disinclined to respond in kind. Too often have I read phrases like “they can’t stand the truth” in a context that could only serve to bolster the poster’s feelings of moral superiority. Though it’s true that people avoid shame like the plague, trolls feast on it. Or, rather, trolls feast on the shame they can generate in other people because they have none themselves.

Let me suggest a new word – a “trollbelch”, meaning the kind of sated utterance that follows a well-cooked stew of someone else’s shame, characterized by a self-congratulating assessment on the quality of the meal.

Feed the troll

Seek attention. Insist on getting a response. Tell others about how good you were and how bad your victims were.

Starve the troll

If you get ignored, get over it. Acknowledge the limits of your effectiveness in changing the other person’s posture. Be humble, even to idiots.


Trolls never ask. They are not interested in interaction. They have nothing to learn from this particular situation.

It’s OK to express an opinion, and you may find yourself in the unpopular minority. But it’s wise to try to understand why the other person thinks the way they do and the only way to do that is to ask. Too many times I have seen people tell other people what they are, or what they believe without even the faintest attempt to understand why. Now, the other person may be misguided and mistaken, but they should at least be given the opportunity to tell it in their own words. Trolls put words in their victims’ mouths and would prefer to sustain gross misrepresentations of their victims than attempt to glean anything of value in what they are, do or say. Trolls have expunged themselves of all empathy.

What is more, nothing rouses the troll’s appetite more than the slightest whiff of internal conflict. Trolls expect everyone to comply with an inhuman standard of consistency. All mortals experience internal conflict over something or other. Usually, it’s the conflict between what should be (in principle) and what is (in praxis) and probably the only people who experience complete freedom from it are eminently prequalified for a career in psychotic hermitry.

Feed the troll

Shun all attempts at meaningful exchanges with your victims. Shut your victim out of the discussion at every opportunity. Preempt engagement with belittlement.

Starve the troll

Allow the other person to explain it in the way that he or she sees it. Allow the other person to be conflicted, if that is what they feel on a particular issue. Even though you might be convinced that it's true, don't stoop to calling them stupid. Don't use synonyms for "stupid", either.


This isn't an exhaustive guide to troll-spotting. If you have any sightings you'd like to share, please drop me a line.

Trolls are bullies. I don't like bullies. I hope and pray that I don't act like one.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Bible stuff – correct and inspired interpretations and translations

I like clever. I like to think of myself as a clever person.

Maybe one day I’ll wake up and realize I have been completely stupid. (I’m regularly reminded that I have been partially stupid many times, but being completely stupid all the time would be a revelation.)

Anyhow, part of my being a clever-liking person is my interest in getting a better understanding of the Bible, which means getting to grips with interpretations and translations; in other words, words.

It should be no surprise that I enjoy word games such as Scrabble and Crossword puzzles. The Bible is made up of words, and my clever-liking self enjoys approaching it as if it were the word game to beat all word games. That's not an entirely stupid occupation, because people have said some stupid things in the name of the Bible, usually by saying it says something that is the opposite of what it actually says. So, we need the ammunition to shoot down such stupidities and we get it from wrestling with the many word-puzzles that it confronts us with.

Then, I get reminded that it’s not simply some word game of the sort that you use to while away those idle hours on a long-haul flight. Proper interpretation and translation is not about solving a word-puzzle, but about entering into the story by faith, and living it as a reality.

Today, I was reminded of that by an anonymous correspondent who, when pondering the difficult decision to stay in Egypt where life is becoming increasingly dangerous for Christians, or to immigrate to another safer country, thought of the story of Jesus walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-32 , Mark 6:45-52 , John 6:15-21) and wrote this …

We live in Egypt today with hearts full of peace and joy, realizing that even as we are on that boat, in the middle of the dark night in the middle of the high waves, Jesus will … show up walking on the waves.

(Reported at the end of the article Help the persecuted stay? Or help them move?)

That’s what I call a proper, inspired interpretation of scripture.