Sunday, 27 September 2009
Saturday, 26 September 2009
Monday, 21 September 2009
Friday, 18 September 2009
Monday, 14 September 2009
Saturday, 12 September 2009
And, to be honest, I did 30-odd miles Wednesday so the parts that have closest contact with the saddle were probably a bit on the worn side.
So home. Maybe raised a couple of hundred quid, which is nice, but there weren't many about this year. I know that here in Waendal country we already have one big troll around the countryside every year, but it was a lovely day for seeing these beautiful churches in this wonderful county.
Thursday, 10 September 2009
Tuesday, 8 September 2009
And you're in a country whose gods are everywhere. Their boast is that their gods are bigger than everyone else's. After all, they won. They get to choose the gods - just as their gods chose them. You thought your god was so mighty? Well, go back down to Jerusalem, if they'll let you - and see what's happened to the temple. And the gods of these people are a crazy bunch. In their creation story the mother of the gods got killed by her children, cut up and turned into the earth and the heavens. Mind you - the only story you've got about how the world began involve a man, and woman and a talking snake.
And you sit down and write. And the first thing you write is "In the beginning, God created the earth..." but the word you use for God literally means "Gods". And yet the sense of the passage is clearly in the singular. Maybe you're saying something about the power and majesty of your God - even with all the evidence of his weakness around you.
And you go on - "And God said let there be light. And there was light." And not just the light - the world, the atmosphere, the seas, the animals, and human beings - all on their chosen day, all in their carefully selected order. And the two refrains repeat... "And God said..." "...and it was good".
This is a parody of their creation myth. And it's a challenge to it. This God is not to be compared to the scruffy random gods who create a universe through family squabbles. This is a God who, when he says it - it happens. Who really is in control. This is a God who creates a world that can be trusted to be coherent, consistent, understandable - and above all - good.
This is not a scientific treatise. This is an act of defiance. It's a piece of intellectual, religious and philosophical rebellion. These are words of liberation. It's an act of trust in God who created everything, has power over everything, and holds everything in its place. So surely he's going to pull you through this as well. Who can "sing a song in a strange land"? You can. And you can share it with your friends as you wait out your days in exile. And you can pass it on to your children's children, as age after age they sing the song "How Long, O Lord"?
Around 700 years later, a man called John is looking for the words to express the amazing things that the Church has seen. And he looks at this passage and he sees the creative power of God's word, and he realises. And he writes - "In the beginning... was the Word." And he says - we saw the God who created the heavens and earth. He was here among us.
And 2000 years after that, some people who can't cope with logic and science decide it's God's manual for how to make a world.
But for the rest of us - the story of a God who makes a world that's ordered; that's functional; that's consistent; that's good; that's the story of a faith and a life worth living.
Friday, 4 September 2009
What follows from the belief that God is “maker of heaven and earth”?
If we look at what follows from believing that God is “maker of heaven and earth”, there are a number of things to consider: is what follows conclusions about the nature of God? About the nature of heaven and earth? Or about our own actions? And finally, on what basis are we considering “God”? To answer fully all of this would take a substantial essay. So I will restrict my discussion primarily to what this belief tells us about the nature of God, in the light of God’s self-revelation in the Bible and in the scientifically-understood universe in which we life. I have reflected on this in the light of the Hitch-hiker’s Guide “trilogy”, as Douglas Adams’ view on the nature of “life, the Universe and everything” reflects a profound view of the apparent meaningless of life in this big, doomed Universe.
I will explicitly not discuss the subject of sin as a part of the suffering of the world, nor of judgement in this temporal world or in its eternal consummation. This is not to downplay the depth of sin, or the suffering it causes, or to ignore its place in the Crucifixion. It is rather because of the stand I will take that death and suffering necessarily exist regardless of human sin.
“You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist”, remarks the Guide, “but that’s just peanuts compared to space.” (Adams 1979,p 62). Its size is literally beyond human comprehension – having been in existence for around 15 billion years (O’Murchu 1997, p 93) it is about 150 billion light years across (Whitehouse, 2004). That in itself should give us pause for thought – matter itself can travel no faster than the speed of light, so by “normal” physics the Universe can be no more than 30 billion light years in diameter. In fact, space itself stretches; and this causes the apparent anomaly. If God is maker of heaven than earth, then God is clearly extravagant. In creativity, scale and breadth of vision, clearly God is beyond our imaginations – “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9). In contrast to the Gnostic view (McGrath 2001 p 297-8), God clearly loves “stuff”. After all, there is a stunning amount of it around.
Being amazed at the size of God’s creation is not solely a modern phenomenon – “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers… what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (Ps 8:3-4). Yet in a human mind, the whole universe can be eclipsed by one moment of joy:
“Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad;
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me!
The God who creates the expanse of the sky is clearly also capable of dealing with the detail of human relationships – a reflection of the nature of the Trinity. Going from the very big to the medium-sized, we can consider the fine detail of the Creation - at the quantum level. At this level the rules of physics laid down by Newton – or even by Einstein – are modified in a world of probabilities, uncertainties and wave-forms (Richards & Scott 1976 pp 14-21). At this level, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle sets the limits on what we could ever know, and mysteries are veiled (Polkinghorne 2004 p 76-78). At this level, matter is free from the determinism with which evaluate the universe on the macro scale. The Quantum Theory can be seen as the consequence of God’s self-emptying in setting the universe free – in setting, as it were, every particle in the universe free God has let the universe off the leash – give the whole thing a kind of free-will. This is a universe where God has neither stood back like an absent watchmaker (Dawkins 1986, 4), nor exists “in the gaps”. Rather, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In my opinion the Quantum Theory also undermines the Liberal view that rejected miracles and the Incarnation through a theological appropriation of 19th century determinism – Maurice Wiles’ (1977, 5) rejection of the concept of the Incarnation demurs at the idea that we can accept a concept which “one cannot even spell out in intelligible terms” – but Quantum Theory had already been presenting concepts that could not be spelt out in intelligible terms for 60 years. Likewise Goulder’s (1977 pp 58-60) idea that accepting a miracle gives us a “God of the gaps” is based on an Enlightenment view of a closed universe with immutable laws – rather than one where the “laws of science” are descriptions of what normally happens rather than deterministic. This is not to argue that Quantum Theory “proves” miracles but it is to argue that the Universe is more veiled, more mysterious, than a supposedly “scientific” world-view may realise.
Quantum Theory also appears to give a reflection of the Trinity within the Creation. A particle’s wave function is solved (for the simplest case) assuming that the limits of a particle’s wave function extends to infinity (Richards & Scott 1976 p 20) (and this explains the phenomenon of nuclear fission). So in a sense every particle does indeed pass through every point in space simultaneously (Adams 1979 p 79) (improbable as that may sound). In fact the concept of quantum entanglement confirms that we are far more involved with each other (and the rest of the universe) than anyone may like to think in our individualistic society (Polkinghorne 2004 p 75). Polkinghorne notes how apt this is to concepts of God where the Trinity is described in perichoretic terms. The universe reflects the Creator’s divine perichoresis in its quantum interpenetration.
For all its size and apparent complexity at the cosmic scale, and mystery and unpredictability at the micro level, the equations that describe the universe are remarkably elegant. The 1/r2 law or Schrodinger’s wave equation, for example, are incredibly simple and intellectually satisfying – and the apparent complexity of the universe comes about from the sheer amount of stuff interacting in it, rather than the underlying science itself. The way the world works is not the scientific equivalent of Pratchett’s world rotating on four elephants on the back of a giant turtle (Pratchett 1985 p 11). In other words, we do not need a God of the Gaps – or a bunch of capricious gods sorting out the frayed areas around the world of science. Paul Dirac famously assessed the mathematical underpinnings of modern science on the basis of their “beauty” (McGrath 2004 p 71). The insight of both Einstein and the quantum physicists was that the universe is comprehensible through the human mind (Howse 2008 p 33). There is no particular reason why the universe has to be this way – but the way the universe reflects the Biblical view that the universe reflects the Logos that formed it – “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3).
“In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry, and been widely regarded as a bad move” (Adams 1980, p 9). The universe is full of destruction, the part with which we are most familiar is full of suffering, life ends in pain and despair. Yet human beings grasp to ideas of a good god or gods – or “progress” – in the midst of this. “Human beings hesitate to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own”, (Hardy 1912 p 453), and attempt to excuse God from what goes wrong. A scientific analysis of the situation, but which takes notice of the Biblical accounts, gives an unsettling view – but perhaps a fruitful one.
A simplistic explanation of suffering might begin with the Fall, and explain everything that has gone on since as the consequence of the action of human beings. However that will not fit the facts. Since the moment of creation, the process that has led to our human life on this planet has been predicated on destruction. The carbon, oxygen and nitrogen within our bodies – and, with the exception of hydrogen, the elements that make up the whole physical world – are created in the depths of stars – stars that have since exploded, and whose contents have re-coalesced around our own Sun (Polkinghorne 2004, 69). On our own Earth, volcanoes, lightning and ultraviolet light – all agents of destruction – were responsible for the creation of the organic precursors of life (Attenborough 1979,19). Evolution, far from being an organic version of the 19th century’s love of progress, is in fact blind (Dawkins 1986 p 5), random (Polkinghorne 2004 pp 66-67) and wasteful (Attenborough 1979 p 130).
In creating the heavens and earth, God acts as both Shiva and Brahma – but rarely, it would appear, as Vishnu. There is no balance in a world that is constantly in destructive and creative change. If God is creator, then the blueprint for the universe incorporated destruction, death and suffering from the outset. How can this be squared with a Christian view of God? The traditional problem of theodicy (McGrath 2004, 224-5) is that God cannot be both good and omnipotent in a world of pain and suffering. Yet if creation has these things designed into it, then can God even be good? McGrath concludes that these things will only be comprehensible at the End – but clues to them can be seen in the Cross.
“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.” (Adams , 1984, pp 7-8)
A solution to the problems of “life the universe and everything”, where “no one would have to get nailed to anything” is a constant human dream. In the case of Fenchurch (above), her insight was lost when the world was “unexpectedly demolished to make way for a new hyperspace bypass” – a reflection from Adams, perhaps, that actually the world’s not that easy.
God has created a world where death and destruction are built-in – are in fact the preconditions of life. To say that God has pre-planned destruction can be seen from some perspectives as heresy against the God who has compassion “over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). But it has resonances with Calvin’s doctrine of providence and in the book of Job (Migliore 2004 pp 122-123). But within this view of the universe, maybe God’s behaviour is in a sense excusable only if God suffers alongside the suffering universe.
Wallace (2001 p 223) sees the Spirit as suffering within the suffering world. Wallace’s concern is mostly with the world as it suffers from “ecocide” (ibid, p 210) – but in that the Spirit is involved with Creation, groaning with that Creation in awaiting its restoration (Rom 8:18-27) – we can see the Spirit as taking a part in God’s self-emptying into the universe of pain that God has created. In that the universe is incomparably bigger than the world, and capable of displaying destruction on an immense scale, the suffering with which an indwelling Spirit has solidarity makes the matter of a little local trouble on Earth apparently insignificant. And yet, as noted above, at any moment the cosmically unimportant becomes the most essential matter in the Universe.
Wallace also notes that “death comes from life” (Wallace 2001 p 223). Most specifically, this is seen in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. In the Word become flesh, God enters fully into the life – and death – of the world. It may be useful to see another Biblical image of atonement – one associated with lost sheep, coins and children (Luke 15) - that of finding. God comes to a world which God has allowed to be created in destruction, to persist through death, and to be doomed to futility. In Jesus Christ, God adopts the same cell growth and death, maturing and ageing, to which we are all subject by our inheritance as part of this universe. At the point where he is subject to exhaustion, thirst, and ultimately physical death – sentenced by an oppressive regime – he is at the lowest point of human existence. And this is where he finds us. And from this point on, God lifts the universe up – starting with the Resurrection.
All things come to an end. The Earth itself probably has a few billion years before the Sun finally consumes its last hydrogen supplies and becomes a red giant (Polkinghorne 2004, pp 143-4). Ultimately all things will come to an end – in a “Big Crunch” or in the long slow decay of heat death (Polkinghorne 2004, p 144). If the latter is true, the world truly does end “not with a bang, but a whimper” (Eliot 1925). It is not to Science that we can look for any hope here. Nor indeed to History - the greatest civilisations are a moment in such a timescale. Thus Max Quordlepleen, considering the ultimate “it”, tells his audience - “It really gives one hope for the future of all life-kind. Except, of course… that we know it hasn’t got one!” (Adams 1980, p, 97). Even in our own bodies, the mere act of staying alive sows entropy – “Time’s Arrow” - into the rest of the Universe.
Polkinghorne (2004, p 146)points to the “vertical” dimension of the End. If God is creator of heaven and earth, then the creation “must make sense everlastingly” – his conclusion being that the creation must therefore be redeemed from transience. As Polkinghorne again notes (2004, p 148)., what is remarkable, given modern theology’s rather narrow view on such things, is that Paul was able to see this so clearly – “all things”were reconciled with God on the cross (Col 1:20), and the creation itself looks forward to its freedom from decay (Rom 8:20). It is not merely human beings that will be redeemed – how poverty-stricken could this view be in such a massive universe – but the whole earth, already full of God’s glory (Isa 6:3) will be at peace (Moltmann 1994, vi).
We can read the model for the End of Time into the Bible, in the Little Apocalypse: the darkened sun and moon, the stars fall from heaven, and the “powers of heaven will be shaken” (Matt 24:29) – although I am not suggesting that Jesus thought in terms of heat death! But if God loves the creation he has made, and it has been redeemed on the cross, then when the End comes it is in fact just the Beginning (Eliot 1942, v).
If the earth is to be redeemed, and God loves it, then it matters how we treat it and how we act on it. If every moment is of infinite significance then the here and now are crucial. If the world is burnt up, destroyed and forgotten - or left behind by a liberated soul, then it really does not matter (Moltmann 1996 p xv). But if Christian hope is involved in a world that itself will be renewed, then politics, history, the environment, science all have meaning – the Kingdom of God is not to be confused with an earthly society, but neither is it totally divorced from it. Rather the dawn glow of eternal glory can already be seen illuminating the world as it is today. And in this sense, the mystery of suffering created along with, and programmed into the world, makes some kind of sense. We are not looking forward to the recreation of an originally pristine world. Rather, through the struggles and tears of humanity, heaven, earth and the triune God, we are reaching towards creation’s ultimate destiny (Moltmann 1996, p 264-5). If some could talk of felix culpa – the Happy Sin that gave us a saviour – we can talk about the sufferings that give birth to a new creation. These current days are not the death-pangs of a dying world – rather the birth-pains of the creation as it reaches for its fulfilment (Matt 24:8). In fact it is the temporary nature of the creation as it stands that gives the possibility of the new and completed creation (Moltmann 1996, p 266).
I have discussed the considerations that flow from holding a belief in the good, life-affirming God of the Bible in tension with the observable facts of a universe of decay and destruction – and moreover one that is apparently designed that way. My conclusion is that the sorrows of this world can only be seen in the context of the creation’s ultimate conclusion – the time when God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:4). At that time every human pain, every unfulfilled life, and every planet which evolved life just in time to see its sun go supernova will receive its completion.
In the beginning, God makes all things “good” (Gen 1:4). This never changes, whatever the scars of suffering and sin – but the God who enters rest on the Sabbath is working ceaselessly towards a Sabbath for the earth and for the people of God (Moltmann 1996, p 264; cf Heb 4:9). This will not be “a day of liberation from the earth” (Fellingham 2001) – rather one of liberation for the earth, and for those who rise with it. Then the eternal size of space will not blow the minds of human beings with its horror (Adams 1979, p 64) – rather it will be a creation of infinite size and beauty, reflecting the beauty and goodness of its Creator and illuminated with the light of the Lamb (Rev 21:22).
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time....
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one”
Adams, Douglas 1979 The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. London: Pan Books.
Adams, Douglas 1980. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. London:Pan Books.
Adams, Douglas 1984. So long, and thanks for all the fish. London: Pan Books.
Attenborough, David 1979. Life on Earth. London: Collins / BBC.
Dawkins, Richard 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Eliot, TS 1925. The Hollow Men. At http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/784/. Accessed 1 April 2008.
Eliot, TS 1942. Little Gidding. In: Wain, John (ed) 1986. The Oxford Library of English Poetry. London: Guild Publishing pp 343 - 348.
Fellingham, N 2001. There is a day. In: Songs of Fellowship vol 3 (2003). Eastbourne: Kingsway Music.
Goulder, Michael 1977. Jesus, the Man of Universal Destiny In: Hick, John (ed): The Myth of God Incarnate pp 48-63. London: SCM Press.
Hardy, Thomas 1912. The Return of the Native. Penguin Popular Classics edition, 1994. London: Penguin.
Howse, Christopher 2008. Why the Big Bang is not Creation. In: The Daily Telegraph, Saturday 22 March 2008.
Kantitha, VP 1985. Hinduism. Hove: Wayland.
Leigh Hunt, James Henry. Jenny Kissed Me. In: Wain, John (ed) 1986. The Oxford Library of English Poetry. London: Guild Publishing.
McGrath, Alister E 2001. Christian Theology: An Introduction 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
McGrath, Alister E 2004. The Science of God. London: T&T Clark International.
Migliore, Daniel L 2004. Faith Seeking Understanding 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Miles, Maurice 1977. Christianity without Incarnation? In: Hick, John (ed): The Myth of God Incarnate pp 1-10. London: SCM Press.
Moltmann, Jűrgen 1996. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology. London: SCM.
O’Murchu, Diarmuid 1997. Quantum Theology. New York: Crossroad Publishing.
Polkinghorne, John 2004. Science and the Trinity. London: SPCK.
Pratchett, Terry 1985. The Colour of Magic. Corgi edition. London: Corgi.
Richards, William G and Scott, Peter R 1976. Structure and Spectra of Atoms. London: Wiley and Sons.
Soskice, Janet Martin 2001. The Ends of Man and the Future of God. In: Ward, Graham (ed) 2005: The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology pp 68-78. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Wallace, Mark I. 2001. Earth God: Cultivating the Spirit in an Ecocidal Culture. In: Ward, Graham (ed) 2005: The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology pp 209-228. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Whitehouse, David 2004. Astronomers size up the Universe. Friday, 28 May 2004. BBC Website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3753115.stm. Accessed 21 March 2008.
Bible Quotations are from the Anglicized New Revised Standard Version.
It was just nice to join in the worship. The first hymn was by Keble, which was nice, so I knew the tune and I was vaguely aware of what the hymn was about. I managed to decipher enough of the reading (which they'd conveniently printed out) so that I knew which passage of Romans it was. I'm one of those people who never learnt chapter and verse numbers, and I'm unlikely to start now. After all, they've been added to the text later and therefore, according to the end of Revelation, accursed. (is this right? must check with incumbent...)
It would be untrue to say I didn't understand a word of the sermon. I recognised God, (ponounced "Hodt"), and Hoop (pronounced "hope"). Which, really, is more than you can get out of some sermons that are ostensibly in English.
They only sang two "actual" hymns, but they had sung responses (and lots of candles) which makes them very high church for Dutch Protestants. Despite having Martin Luther and John Calvin in the stained glass...
Oh, and the town is in the area evangelised by an Englishman. St Willibrord. It may not be trendy to say it, but God bless Anglo-Saxon Christianity... brought the Gospel to the Frisians.
And the dutch for chalice, is beker. Just thought I'd mention it.
And I did receive communion (from a shared chalice - less swine flu in Holland). Which was great.
And also - I did sing along with the hymns. Which must have left me sounding, to a Dutch person, like Clouseau or that British postman in 'Allo 'Allo. They've got some really tricky dipthongs have the Dutch.
And just one more thing... I note from the Wiki articles above that three denominations united to form the Protestantse Kerk in Nederland. And due to the resulting splits, that means that three denominations turned into... three different denominations. Ecumenism, doncha love it?