Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Balanced View

If you were reading this blog earlier in the month (in the post Nothing New), you will no doubt already have gathered what my opinion is with regard to Professor Stephen Hawking's new comments about the dawn of the universe, principally his fresh assertion that God is not required in the genesis of creation.

However, yesterday the Independent contained a fascinating interview with the president of the Royal Society, Baron Rees of Ludlow. In it he criticises the one dimensional nature of Hawking's conclusions... specifically from the angle that it lacks a basic understanding of theology or philosophy.

There are a couple of points I wish to raise in turn, based on his comments. 

The first is to highlight the fact that The Independent does crank up the rhetoric by suggesting he was being scathing, whereas actually Rees is saying he knows Hawking well... and therefore in my opinion, it's unlikely he was resorting to a personal attack.

Secondly (and this is a big one), in this interview at least... he doesn't betray his own personal bias on the God issue. Further research yielded that he has described himself in several different ways... principally as a regular church-going atheist; he once clarified this in an interview with BBC Radio 3:

"I would say I don't believe any religious dogma in that if science teaches me anything, it teaches me that even simple things, like a hydrogen atom, are pretty hard to understand. And therefore I become rather sceptical of anyone who claims to have more than a very incomplete, metaphorical understanding of any deep aspects of reality. So I'm sceptical of anyone who claims confidently to believe any dogma. But nonetheless I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe, and even more of human life and therefore participate in religious services. And of course those I participate in are as it were, the 'customs of my tribe', which happens to be the Church of England."

One might argue that there is little difference here to Professor Richard Dawkins' idea of "Cultural Christianity" (the idea that worship itself is meaningless, but the rituals, traditions and theatrics are endearing and harmless fun). I've been critical of this notion before but I have to say that in Baron Rees case, I don't think it applies. He strikes me as the kind of person who likes to explore theories and mysteries and doesn't take kindly to the suggestion that you should believe anything wholesale whether that be a belief in God or a position of utter godlessness. His real issue is clearly dogma and the idea of the monopoly on truth. He clearly knows his stuff and must be fairly well versed in theology and philosophy... else he'd look pretty foolish for implying Hawking isn't.

Essentially, Rees comes across as a man who has a thirst for knowledge in whatever shape it comes; a person who has a constantly evolving view of the universe based on what he learns/observes in the world around him.

Where am I going with this? Well I believe the reason Rees doesn't raise his personal beliefs in the interview... are because they aren't pertinent to his point. If he invoked his personal views, he'd be endorsing one camp over the other... and that's something in his professionalism, he won't do.

My third point is why I believe he did this. A key theme in the interview is about how science and faith do not need to be opposing forces... a view I am 100% in agreement with him on. There are many scientists (particularly in the field of astrophysics and genetics), who choose to see God in the detail... and they should be no less worthy of respect as the more secular minded. Are their doctorates and scholarships any less valid? No, of course not... only a fool would assume the "believer" label renders someone stupid by default.

I have no doubt that Professor Dawkins will respond within days in The Guardian, attacking the Rees interview... lets not forget that he condemned Rees as a "compliant Quisling" for making similar remarks before. I find this remarkably rude and uncivilised behaviour. Dawkins would be a fool to retort really, his increasingly derogatory and irrational outbursts show him up for what he really is... a bigot. A highly intellectual bigot, but a bigot nonetheless.

If Dawkins and other like-minded individuals (in both camps), were to take an attitude more akin to Baron Rees, the Earth would be a better place.  I say this not just because we'd be getting along better as a species and civilization... but also because butting heads over the issues of creationism (in its diverse forms) and evolution needlessly expends a lot of energy and intelligent thought which could be better spent elsewhere.

Baron Rees has a belief and a pessimism. His belief is that humanity has within it's means the ability to develop technologically and culturally in a manner that will preserve and prove beneficial to this humble yet beautiful rock we call home. His pessimism is that we also have the selfishness, thoughtlessness and greed to do it great harm (in fact he has placed a bet that sometime within the next twenty years, a million people will die as a result of a major, man-made, biological catastrophe. It's a chilling thought... and something he actually doesn't want to win.

In conclusion then, there are a number of paths ahead of us. We can carry on bickering like school children... about who is best or who is right. We can put all our differing views in the blender and say nobody is right and nobody is wrong... but that doesn't seem very respectful to anyone... does it? Or maybe, just maybe we can learn to accept the differences we share with one another and take comfort and encouragement in the common ground... where all of us work to better humanity together through technology, scholarship, philanthropy, or apart through theology and theory. If we truly have the best intentions of the children of tomorrow at heart, then should let our successors hear what we have to say when we are united and when we are peaceably at odds... and draw their own conclusions

I think that despite whatever differences we have, that is something both Baron Rees and I would both agree on...

What about you?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Hippocratic Prayer?

Recently I've been contemplating the need for Christians to be more responsible in their handling of others, especially in matters that are deeply personal. I have in the past been the recipient of well meaning intentions that have had detrimental effects on me and it has occurred to me that too often we find a solution to a problem that seems to work for the many... and mistakenly assume that it is a panacea.

We must remember that every one of us is individual... what works for 90% of people may not be beneficial for the remnant.

If we take medicine for example.... even something as wonderful as penicillin has it's limitations, for those who are allergic it is not a wonder drug... it is a potential death sentence (I say this secure in the knowledge that I am among that minority).

Whilst watching elements of Pope Benedict XVI's state visit to Britain, I caught with interest something a commentator said with regard to Cardinal Henry Newman. It was said that Newman was a strong advocate of the idea that you could not truly help  a person unless you took the time to know them. In this matter I agree with Newman (the irony is not lost on me). Sometimes a person's needs are obvious... on other occasions there are hidden factors influencing those needs. If we spiritually "dish out the pills" without knowing our "patient", we run the risk of harming them and even vicariously, those they know, in a variety of ways.

While pondering these things my mind wandered onto ideas in culture (both factual and fictional), where a doctrine has been established whereby those who adhere to it, pledge to a pattern of behaviours that protects the people with whom they come into contact.

The three immediate examples that occurred to me were Asimov's three laws, the Star Trek prime directive and the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors. It's the latter of these three that I decided to focus on. The oath was originally set down approximately 2,400 years ago in classical Greece. In its original format it invoked the names of various Greek gods, but over time it has been adapted to suit the needs of various Western cultures that have inherited Greek ethics.
A representation of the Hippocratic Oath in the shape of the cross.

In more recent history, a motion has apparently been put forward suggesting that  code in the same spirit as the Hippocratic Oath be set up for those who work in the area of scientific research.

So this left me wondering if perhaps I could adapt the oath for a more spiritual context. Obviously the New Testament frowns upon the idea of taking oaths... but that didn't stop me thinking that perhaps the oath could instead be set down instead in the form of a prayer. So after some deliberation and wrangling I came up with an initial draft prayer:

Father God, I ask by your grace and the Holy Spirit's power for the strength to fulfil this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won spiritual gains of those brothers and sisters of the faith in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such wisdom that you have blessed me with, with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of others, all measures [that] are required through prayer, scripture and counselling, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is divine grace in fellowship as well as the call to righteousness, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may sometimes outweigh the need for discipline or the words of rebuke.

I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call on the prayers or assistance of other members of the Church, when the skills or wisdom of another are needed for the restoration/reconciliation of those you call me to help.

I will respect the privacy, rights, individuality and personal needs of those who confide in me, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me by your grace and power to be help to save or preserve life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to damage or destroy a life through my own fallen nature; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty and need of divine grace. Above all, I must not play at being God, for you alone are God.

I will remember that I do not treat a statistic in society, or sin itself, but human beings broken by sin, whose problems be they physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for them as an ambassador of your Son.

I will prevent myself and others falling into sin whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure; always remembering however, that God's grace is sufficient in all our weaknesses and is able to save us whenever we stumble.

I will remember that I remain a member of Christ's body, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those who appear sound of mind, body and soul as well as the broken and crushed in spirit.

Lord, help me to maintain this covenant, that I may enjoy life and art, be respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter, that I served you and was an inspiration to others. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I experience the joy of teaching, encouraging, healing and restoring those who seek my help for as long as it pleases you to enable me to do so.

I ask this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ.


I know it is fairly long... but I wanted to capture each element of the oath and ascribe it to a different aspect of the Christian walk. I'd be grateful for additional input on this. Is there anything in there that seems a little theologically out of step or perhaps too strongly worded or irrelevant. If you have any suggestions or alternatives, I'd be very interested to hear them.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Inferno Cometh

I started writing this prior to the announcement of Terry Jones cancelling the intended burning of the Koran, however because the contributing factors are still very much live, I decided to continue...

I have to write this post.... I simply have to.

As a Christian, I cannot in all good conscience just sit back and remain silent as one man threatens to plunge the entire world into chaos... branding his warped world view and sense of reality upon us - most especially other Christians. All this for the sake of ego and arguably... the profits associated with a lucrative book deal. You may be forgiven for thinking I am ranting about Tony Blair again... on this occasion I have turned my gaze upon "Pastor" Terry Jones.
"Pastor" Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran
I cannot convey in enough words how much I am repulsed by and disagree with this man and how abhorrent I find his intended course of action. The idea of  publicly burning the Koran needlessly invites hostility, distrust, and mutual pain.

Frankly, it is INSANE.

There is nothing... NOTHING in the teachings of Christ, or the fruit of the Holy Spirit that comes anywhere near endorsing Jones' gimmicky ploy. I don't want to be associated with it by virtue of sharing the same faith. I find such a view to be irreconcilable with the character of God... and the very thought of pursuing such a course of action should in my opinion be recognised as a path of... or at least a path to... apostasy.

It is not enough for me to remain silent on the topic at hand. Yes I am aware that speaking out and moving Jones into the spotlight gives him exactly the platform he craves... but if I stand by and let this man proclaim that the message of Christianity is one of hatred and fear... then by my conspiracy of silence... I passively deny Christ.

Jones stumbles at the first hurdle because he breaks what Jesus summarised as the second greatest commandment:

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Matthew 22:34-40
You might ask... is a Muslim really my neighbour? However Jesus doesn't let you get off that one easily at all, I don't believe he even gives you an option. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus uses the most apostate person to illustrate the compassion and mercy that is displayed in true neighbourliness. Furthermore, he went on to state that we should be treating our enemies with love as well. In fact, the epistle of James criticises the bi-polar attitude with which we use our tongue... praising God in heaven.... but cursing men who are made in his very image. If we try to express love for our heavenly Father whilst simultaneously bearing malice to our fellow humans we are hypocritical and we are false.

Even the Old Testament was pretty clear on how we treat people who do not fit into our personal collectives:

"Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt."
Exodus 22:21
Obviously we are not talking about little green men here... the Law here is referring to foreign influences in our society. Those of us who are Christians need to pay special attention to that. We should know exactly what it feels like to be aliens because if we are walking by faith and are no longer conforming to the pattern of the World, we are aliens and foreigners.

The early Church was utilising similarities in the cultures it encountered as an introduction to the Gospel message. The chief example is of this is the experience of Paul in Athens. You can find the account in Acts 17. Paul found the common ground and used it as a hook for explaining the Gospel. He was not aggressive, his motivation came from love, not fear.

I have more to say on the topic of Christianity in the face of other cultures... but I want to save that for another post.

I want to move on now and look at the "freedom of speech" angle.
I agree completely with the idea that we should have the freedom to speak out and say what we wish... especially when it is something that has been placed on our heart. However, all freedom comes with the attached price tag of responsibility. For Adam and Eve, freedom came with the responsibility of not eating one tree's fruit (that worked out well... didn't it); for Christians today, our freedom from sin and death comes with the responsibility of living our lives in a manner that is pleasing to God. Similarly I would argue that the responsibility attached to our freedom of speech, is choosing our words and actions wisely, understanding that there are consequences attached to those same words and actions... and accepting those consequences should they come to pass.

There would have been an awfully steep price tag had Pastor Jones pressed forward with his burning of the Koran... and the worst part of it is, it would not necessarily have been anyone close to him who ultimately paid that price. To act in the light of this would have been selfish, callous, reckless and utterly irresponsible.

I know many Americans see the burning of flags as sacrilegious, I don't know if that's particularly an American mindset or not... but I for one as a Briton find the idea of book burning (even books you don't like or agree with), far more disturbing and reprehensible. A flag at it's best, even when it represents the ideals and standards of a nation... is just a glorified piece of cloth. Books on the other hand represent thought, imagination, and the propagation of the like; they reflect the importance of human learning.

Travel through time to a distant post apocalyptic world... and waving a flag of a long forgotten nation will yield you precious little... if anything at all. Conversely, a book gives you the tools to help rebuild a broken civilisation.

I find it highly disturbing that there are Americans out there who will sanction a book burning of any kind... especially when we have not even passed out of the living memory of the last "book burning society", and we all know where that led to.
Are those who sanction the burning of the Koran,
enthralled by a similar fanaticism to that of the Nazis?

So what are we saying? Is it okay to burn books simply because we aren't the Nazis and we could never be like that? That's a foolish notion if ever I heard one. Prejudice isn't picky who it gets into bed with... it would be arrogant beyond belief to assume that because our ideals and those we view as "enemies" are different, we are somehow morally superior and immune to the pull of evil.


The road to the Abyss is not often taken in giant athletic strides... it is more frequently stumbled into with a slow, plodding sleepwalk of ignorance. If you are not careful... when you awaken, you may wonder where all your old ethnic friends have gone... oblivious to the part your lack of vigilance played in their disappearance.

I want to finish this little tirade with one thought, one positive conclusion. In all things, we should flee from fear and embrace love... for this is what God called us to. The Bible teaches us that if we are dominated  and motivated by fear, we are not complete in love... for God's perfect love drives out fear. Fear will try and seduce us with many things... and even justify them... but if we can only look beyond that and treat one another with love (even when it seems to be to our detriment), let love be our one, sole motivating factor... we would be living lives that thoroughly please God.... and bring light to a world in darkness that hungers so desperately after it.

Even when it fails to see it... especially when it fails to see it.

Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Nothing New

No... this isn't me being self critical about the fact that I have taken such a long sojourn from blogging, I am merely posting my reaction to a recent headline in the times and one of the major stories that ran on the BBC website in the week.

I am referring to the news that Professor Stephen Hawking has suggested that the existence of the law of gravity negates the need for a creator. The media jumped on this like a hot potato and made it much more of a story than it actually was. It certainly wasn't front page news. With all that's going on in the world today, the only way you could justify making this your lead story is if you wanted to get a huge ladle and stir up the old controversies that provoke believers and secularists onto taking a path of mutually assured destruction.

In his previous book, Hawking seemed to acknowledge the existence of God (although I believe that he was more using the existence of God as analogy), and he came in for a lot of unfair criticism for doing so. I believe therefore that Hawking worded the statement in his book quite carefully. His opinion states that the mechanisms that are in place in the laws of physics are sufficient for the creation of the universe to come about in themselves and that therefore there is no need of a divine being to bring it about. For some, it may seem to be saying "there is no God". and I will concede that it skirts pretty close to saying that... but it is not saying that, it merely gravitates around a position that implies it.

It seems to me that every now and then, secularists have a compulsively paranoid need to raise up champions who can smite down the very idea of God. The way they invoke the names of Darwin, Hawking and Dawkins... it's practically akin to hagiophilia.

The apostle Paul whilst writing to his protege and spiritual son Timothy, recorded the following words:

"For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths."
 2 Timothy 4:3-4

This is what I believe lies at the heart of many anti God movements. People don't want to admit to having any need of God... whether that is spiritual, mental, emotional or physical because admitting you needs something implies that you are dependent upon it. Our rebellious nature does not like contending with the idea that we are accountable to God because it means we are no longer at the centre of our own private universe. This is the itch that Paul speaks of. By choosing to amass an armada of intellectuals to speak out against against our need of God, we can soothe it for a time.... or pretend it's not there.

But still the itch remains.

That's all very well and good me saying that... but I haven't even responded to the other camps argument, have I? So what do I as a Christian, make of Hawking's statement?

I believe his assertion that laws such as gravity negate the need for God, is seriously and fundamentally flawed; if we remove God from the picture we are still left to answer question of what laid the foundations for the laws of physics to come about. No doubt the secularist argument would be for a precursor state that triggered the basic laws of the universe to begin to click. This doesn't add up for me at all.

When you speak to me of the laws of physics, or mathematics, or genetics... I understand them best in terms of them being languages and statutes. I don't believe you can have a law or a language without intelligence being behind them.

The difference between God and gravity is that gravity is a mechanism we can to a degree understand. God by his very nature exceeds our understanding and imagination of what is possible, and rather conveniently because of his nature doesn't require a catalyst to exist.

Of course, I appreciate that is a trump card that is played by many believers just to end debate (I suppose if used in a clich
éd way without further explanation, it can become the Creationist equivalent of Godwin's Law).

In my view, whether or not you believe in God doesn't remove anything from the fact that Hawking's statement is deeply flawed.

We exist in a state whereby everything has a beginning and end... a world that is based on cause and effect and opposing forces. As it is the only state we have experienced it is understandably hard for us to imagine an existence that is not reliant on those rules.

The question I ask you to consider is whether or not the view of a universe without God  is seriously compromised by it's convoluted nature? The more you choose to accept that view, the further you have to keep going back finding elaborate theories that explain how x started and y came about.

When we are talking about a state of the universe that we have absolutely no real understanding of (because we have not been outside the goldfish bowl of our own existent state), is it not more logical to conclude that God is there... and because his nature is as vastly beyond our imagination as the deepest origins of the universe (I would argue more so), that the cycle of cause and effect, life and death and linear existence are not something he is subject to?

I'd just like to finish with a clip from the end of the Babylon 5 episode "Mind War". In this crucial scene, Ambassador G'Kar explains to Catherine Sakai that there are some things in the universe that are beyond our understanding... and that while it is in some ways terrifying, it is also reassuring to him:

For me the wonderfully reassuring thing about God, is that although we are like ants to him, he does  notice us, does understand us and longs for us to communicate with him:

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."
Luke 12:6-7

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