Friday 7 August 2015

Reasons for believing (3)

I believe in God because Jesus is His Son

I am convinced that the character of Jesus is not fictional. There is no-one anywhere in literature who even begins to compare with him.

It is very difficult even for a Shakespeare or a Tolstoy to create a good character who is not bland. This is because we find it hard to conceive of goodness except as an absence of character flaws – but these same flaws are what make people interesting to us and enable us to identify with them. But Jesus is someone who is good all the way through, and yet the most disturbing, commanding, inspiring and magnetic person in all human writing. Bland? Jesus?

One very unusual feature of Jesus' character is the way he unites in himself traits that to us seem opposites. What I mean is this. A visionary person may not always be the most practical, down to earth person you could meet, whereas that same hands-on person may be contemptuous of those whose heads are in the clouds. A man on a mission may find it hard to be a people-centred person, whereas a compassionate and understanding person will find it too challenging to push on with their goals in the face of opposition from others. A highly charismatic leader will find it difficult to get down to the level of washing others' feet, but a meek and humble person is unlikely even to aspire to leadership. And holy and righteous people are not often prone to seeking out the company of sinners.

So how does Jesus manage to unite in himself what seem to us such opposites? We all have the weaknesses that go with our strengths, so much so that they may seem to be their necessary counterparts. So if gentleness is our strength, firmness is our weakness. If words are our strength, silence is our weakness. If tasks are our strength, people are our weakness. Yet somehow Jesus seems to combine them in one complete and coherent personality, to have just the strengths without their downsides. It is as if he is humanity as we were meant to be, all that is best about us fused into one majestic whole. I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he referred to himself as the Son of Man? Is he someone who represents everything that we could be, if only we could achieve our full potential?

 But I want to go beyond even this. Is he more than a very special and unusual person? to argue that I believe in God because Jesus is His Son is to assert that at least some things that are unique about God are also true of Jesus. I don't mean immortality, because he died, or omnipresence, because he lived at one time and in one place, or omnipotence or omniscience – all these he surrendered when he embraced our humanity.

I certainly mean the holiness of God. Jesus has a very powerful kind of holiness which does not consist of cutting himself off from the world, the flesh and the devil. Instead he is there for tax collectors, prostitutes, people in meltdown, sinners and lepers, not shunning their uncleanness to avoid being contaminated but, by embracing those enslaved to it, making them clean.

I also mean the freedom of God. Jesus has this tremendous ability to be himself and to fulfil his mission no matter what pressures are put upon him. For example he's on his way to rescue the daughter of a pillar of the local community when a woman in the huge crowd that has gathered touches him. Instantly he focuses on that one person who has reached out to him – as though the crowd and the synagogue rulers and the desperate situation and even his own disciples pressurising him to keep going are simply not there. Finally he discovers her: and it as if he has all the time in the world for her healing and affirmation. At last he reaches the house of the dying girl only to find the funeral has already started. He kicks everyone out – can you even imagine what it takes to disrupt a funeral like this? Then having restored the little girl to life he calmly tells the completely mind-boggled family to give her something to eat! It really isn't the miracle that is so astonishing here, it's the absolute freedom of Jesus to be himself. The bare-faced cheek of him! Well, all right, the miracle is a bit astonishing too...

But above all when I assert that Jesus uniquely displays characteristics of God in human form I mean the love of God. The key insight of Christian spirituality is God is Love. It is doubtful if this insight could have come about without Jesus, as a reflection on what his life says about who God is. But it carries a huge weight with it. If "I believe in God because Jesus is His Son," then Jesus has to be nothing less than God incarnate: and God incarnate in Christian talk means Love incarnate. Can Jesus' life and character stand up to this scrutiny?

To do this we have to re-set our parameters for what "love" means. Most of us would like God to offer us grandad love – giving us whatever we want on demand, turning a blind eye to all our foibles, making sure everybody gets to heaven (except for those who obviously deserve to burn, like Nazis and paedophiles). I think we all know that this sort of love, this sort of God, isn't good enough. In the spoiled West we give him a job description – to make sure nothing bad ever happens to anyone – and by and large we've sacked him for sleeping on the job. If he is so cuddly he's not going to mind anyway when we reject him, is he? So he will get us to paradise however rude we are to him – won't he?

But what if the Divine Love is not like that at all? What if our image of God is in fact an idol, a projection of our own consumerist desires? Surely anyone who is grown up, who has actually tried to love another human being, or has looked for more than a few minutes at the world around them, knows that grandad god is pure fantasy.

What Jesus gives us instead is the Cross. This is love so fierce it will dare any suffering, so powerful it will overcome every obstacle, so broad that it embraces everyone without exception, so uncompromising that it demands everything. Here at last is love that is worthy to be linked to the name of God – deeper, wilder, purer and more passionate than anything we could imagine. Again and again we see this love in the Gospel stories of Jesus: overwhelmed with compassion at the needs of outcasts, deeply angry with our hardness of heart that cast them out in the first place, demanding that we leave everything to follow him, shouting with joy over the tears of the Prodigal. Here is the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of God in a form that lives a human life with us. I believe in God because I believe that Jesus is his Son.

But Colin! We expected a proper argument here, with facts! This is subjective, it's opinion, it's literary! Where is your hard evidence?

Well actually there is plenty of evidence to look at, but that needs a new post, of a different character to this one. I hope to get on to it soon – watch this space. All I really want you to do as I round this post off is to read about Jesus for yourself. Try Mark. It's the shortest Gospel, you could do it in not much more than an hour.

And as you read, ask yourself a few questions:
·                What kind of person is Jesus?
·                Is there anyone else in history like him?
·                Is there anyone in fiction like him?
·                How can he be so like us, yet so different from us?
·                Is this what love incarnate looks like?

Who is this man?

But be warned. If your answer to that last question is yes, there are implications. Divine Love means eternal love. Jesus is still around. He's real. He will want to be part of your life, and that won't happen without you being changed by him. In the end, I believe that Jesus is God's Son because he came into my life and changed it utterly.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Last Hurrah for the Magna Carta (at least until 2115?)
A Wraysbury resident has already produced some comic verses on the Magna Carta, in't style o' Stanley Holloway's "T' Lion and Albert." So I never did anything with my own little poem, which is a take off of Kipling's "The Reeds at Runnymede." You probably haven't missed much, and if you are averse to verse, look away now! But here it is anyway...
At Wraysbury!
At Runnymede, at Runnymede,
What say the reeds at Runnymede?
Now listen closely, lend an ear –
those reeds have changed their tune, I fear,
since Kipling's day – "It was not here,
But Wraysbury!"
At Ankerwycke, at Ankerwycke,
What says the yew at Ankerwycke?
For lying reeds will bend and sway
with every breeze that blows their way,
But steadfast stands our yew today:
And she's stood here two thousand years
and more, and witnessed angry peers
Confront King John with his worst fears –
At Wraysbury!
At Wraysbury, at Wraysbury,
For here it was at Wraysbury.
So let us pay no longer heed
to reedy tales of Runnymede,
for here was curbed a monarch's greed.
Here a stout band of English knights
with jumped up Johnnie in their sights
Won for the world immortal rights -
At Wraysbury!
Now Rudyard Kipling, you've a line
(I own I think it rather fine)
Where John is grimly forced to sign
At Runnymede.
O Rudyard! At your ruddy error
We scream with rage, we faint with terror:
Our shaken senses from us steal:
We pinch ourselves – can this be real?
Hear our indignant chairman squeal,
"John did not SIGN! He used his SEAL!"
O Mr Kipling! Goodness sakes!
Your work is riddled with mistakes.
You should have stuck to making cakes…
image from BBC "your paintings" via Google Images UK

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Flower Festival at St Andrew's - Distinguished Guests

Just wanted to let everyone know that we have some distinguished guests coming to the St Andrew's Flower Festival. Please come along and welcome them!
  • Adam Afriyie our MP is expected to come and see us on Friday 5th at approximately 3.00pm.
  • Richard Ashworth our MEP is also expecting to come on Sunday 7 June at about 12.30pm.
  • Don't miss the unveiling of our amazing commemorative wall hanging by Lord and Lady Tunnicliffe at 2.30pm on Saturday 6 June.

The flower Festival is being put on this weekend 5-7 June - please see "Events" on St Andrew's Facebook page for more info. 

Sunday 26 April 2015

Today (Sunday 26 April) is Vocations Sunday, a reminder that God calls all his people to fulfil various roles that glorify him and bless others. These roles might be in your home as a parent or child, brother or sister; in the workplace through the job that you do and the way that you do it; in your neighbourhood through the way you treat others; or in the church in a variety of different ways.

On Saturday I led a reflection at a Vocations Breakfast, an event for people seeking God further for his calling in their lives. Here it is for you to think about - hope you find it helpful.

A letter from Jesus
2 Corinthians 3:1-6 (NIV)
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Today's reading describes us as a living letter, written on human hearts (v.3), known and read by everybody (v.2). How can we be a letter from Jesus more effectively? 3 ways:-

1. be a love letter.
• above all the message of Jesus is a message of love: "God so loved the world..." If people don't see God's love in us then we are not an authentic letter from Jesus because we are not conveying his message.
• My biggest mistakes in ministry have been when I've become too absorbed in tasks and not given enough time to people. If people can't see God's love in us we have lost the plot. But it's so easy when you sit down in front of your to do list.
• So let's see people who come to us not as interruptions but as messengers from God, reminding us to re-prioritise. The rotas and timetables and agendas and meetings and reports and returns are not the most important things. People need to know you love them!
• Not only that, but if we are not a love letter, nobody will want to read us. People are fed up of reading of a church that is judgmental, stuffy, that fudges everything, hypocritical and inward-looking. People are crying out for an authentic spirituality: for Christians, that means love.
• Above all, give people time - a precious gift in an over busy age - as Jesus did.

                Prayer – What kind of letter am I, Lord?

2. be human
• God's ultimate communication was not through the prophets or written laws. It was through a human being - "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus was not afraid to be vulnerable - hungry, thirsty, tired, angry, sad, happy, suffering, tempted - and nor should we.
• Our humanity is therefore not an obstruction to God's work in our lives, but the very vehicle and living channel of it - because that's how it was for Jesus. Our humanity is God's gift!
• Christian testimony is not "look at me, I'm perfect!" - that's the testimony of the Pharisees. Christian testimony says, "I mess up, I'm fallen - but I have somebody with me who keeps on picking me up"
• So don't keep up a front! People aren't helped by that. They feel, "I can't live up to that" and they go away discouraged. That's the letter that kills, v.6.

                Prayer – Am I prepared to let my humanity show, Lord?

3. hand written
• No word processors for Paul! everything was written by hand. In the same way, we, God's letter to the world, need to have His fingerprints all over us.
• The Holy Spirit's role is absolutely essential - v.3: vital to keep the channel of communication with God wide open! Even the apostle Paul couldn't do it on his own, v.5: how much less can we. We simply must have the Spirit for this ministry, v.6.
• The Spirit should be writing the story of our lives, shaping our attitudes, outlook, values, vision, relationships... Footballers have ghost writers to help them tell their story and we need a Holy Ghost writer to work with us on the story of our lives.

Prayer – Do I have your fingerprints all over me, Lord?

Monday 20 April 2015

Reasons for believing (2)

So we've already looked at two of the classic arguments for the existence of God in the last post. We found the argument from degree weak, and along the way we demolished the ontological argument as a mere word game: but we also found a much stronger case for the argument from intelligibility. Now we turn to Thomas Aquinas' other three arguments, the First Cause, the Unmoved Mover, and the argument from contingency.

I take the view that these are pretty much the same argument, which can be summed up in one of them, the First Cause argument. Everything that happens in the universe is caused by something else which happened before it. That something else was in turn caused by earlier events, and so on. But can the sequence go on ad infinitum? Only if things that have already happened can be caused by things that have not yet happened can there be a never ending circle of cause and effect. As this is not possible there must be a First Cause, which set everything else in motion. This we call God. Or so Thomas Aquinas asserts.

I think the argument from motion to a First Mover is basically identical, it's just that the cause and its results are both movements. The same is true with the contingency argument, that every being owes its existence to other beings and is therefore contingent upon them, until we get back to an original being who starts everything off, who is therefore not contingent but has absolute being. "Contingent" here basically means caused by something else, so again we are dealing with very much the same argument. So I'm going to stick with the First Cause argument and leave you to do more thinking about the others if you reckon I'm selling you short.

The First Cause has received massive support from the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Let's not forget that this theory means not merely that all the matter and energy in the universe started with one unbelievably huge explosion, but that absolutely everything about our universe also started in the same event. In other words there was nowhere for the universe to exist before the Big Bang, because there were no dimensions until it happened – there was nowhere for there to be anything and there was nowhere for there to be nothing either. Nor was there any time for anything to happen in, because time was also created by that same Big Bang. There were no laws of nature, because it was the Big Bang that brought those laws of nature into existence and forms their starting point. In fact the Big Bang itself contradicts those laws of nature – those of the conservation of energy and matter to begin with. 

This brings us very directly to Aquinas' point, that a literally supernatural explanation is required by such an event – supernatural in the very direct sense of being outside all the laws of nature that apply to our universe. Naturally this is a source of deep embarrassment to the contemporary scientific community (though not to their pioneering predecessors, as we saw last time). Anyway the hunt is on to find some kind of extranatural cause that is not Supernatural in older senses of the word. Here's what I make of the journey so far. I hope I am right in believing there have been three main contenders.

1. We can locate our supernature in an anomaly, or what Stephen Hawking termed "a singularity" in A Brief History of Time. Unfortunately I am not a genius mathematician so I can't claim to follow all the amazing maths involved. But I will admit to being suspicious of the term. Isn't "singularity" just another way of saying "one-off?" When we say something is caused by "a singularity," aren't we in fact saying we don't know how it's caused? In other words we don't really know (and don't really have to explain?) what might go on in there. We do know that singularities exist though because they occur in black holes. What if there was a previous universe that was all sucked down into a supermassive black hole, so huge and dense that everything except gravity was destroyed? What if it all the energy thus compressed into an infinitesimally small point then exploded as the Big Bang?
·         This view doesn't seem to be as fashionable as it was in 1988 and I am not completely sure of the reasons for this. Here's what I suspect. The Big Bang on this model presupposes a Big Crunch from a previous universe – that all the matter and energy in the system is sucked into various black holes which are then sucked into each other by the sheer power of their gravity to form the supermassive one that has to explode. However our own universe is not going to end this way. According to more recent maths there is not enough mass in the universe to counteract the velocity at which it is expanding. Matter and energy will become ever more thinly spread and the universe will die of attenuation - with a whimper, not a bang. That means there would have to be a radical discontinuity between our universe and the one that went before because the laws of nature governing the two are different. That means that we need a further supernature in addition the previous universe which is capable of spontaneously generating new laws of nature. The Big Crunch therefore fails to give a complete account of the origins of the universe. Some other entity needs to be factored in.

2. As an alternative we are offered a massive fluctuation in the quantum field. Apparently quantum mechanics allows us to consider a vacuum not as truly empty but as a space where electrons and positrons may spontaneously emerge and immediately cancel each other out. All we need then is for an awful lot of these to appear simultaneously in the same time and space – whatever that is supposed to mean in a quantum context – and to do so without cancelling each other out, and we have our big bang.
·         Again I don't have the physics to deal with this properly and would love to have someone who knows their stuff running through it with me. If only my old mate Roger from uni was here! However it seems to me as a non-specialist that there are lots of big questions here. I do get that there is a degree to which very small particles are not "there" in the Newtonian / Einsteinian universe which is so essential to our own existence - at some level they act more like fields of energy than bits of matter, so we can't predict exactly where they are and where they will be next. This isn't the same, is it, as saying there is this unbelievably energetic quantum field extending beyond our own universe? We haven't of course observed quantum fields from outside our own universe because we can't do so. All the observations that have been made of quantum particles and forces have been carried out inside the universe. So it's difficult to say what hat we are pulling this particular rabbit out of. Nor do I think we can have much of a meaningful idea of the behaviour of such a field. Let's just hope and pray though that it is not often given to massive random fluctuations of the sort described, or the life of our universe would be totally chaotic.

3. Thirdly we can go back to the multiverse to provide our First Cause. In some way new universes keep bubbling out of a primeval cosmic soup which is the multiverse, or sum total of all universes. Nearly every bubble is ephemeral and pops because its natural laws are unsustainable, but once in a while, by a trillion trillionth of a chance, a viable universe is formed and ours happens to be the holder of this golden ticket.
·         However in Reasons for Believing(1) I took the view that this scheme, with its multiplication of millions of invisible and unverifiable entities, has a fabricated look about it. It fails the test known as Occam's Razor.

Let's put these three cosmologies together and ask what they do have in common. All of them try to bypass the First Cause argument by asserting that there was something there before the Big Bang. It doesn't really matter too much whether it's a previous universe that went down the plughole of a Big Crunch, or a highly energetic and turbulent quantum field, or a multiverse which has the interesting property of spontaneously generating new universes. The point is that we have something pre-existent which dispenses with the need for any kind of Creator. I am reminded of the work of Fred Hoyle, who came up with the Steady State theory of the universe before the Big Bang was conclusively demonstrated. As an atheist, Prof Hoyle hated the implication that Big Bang might be held to amount to an act of creation. He therefore asserted that the universe (as we know) is expanding and that new matter and energy emerge spontaneously into existence to fill the gaps. Thus the universe could be eternal and self-sufficient and do without a creator. That this is completely contrary to what we know of the laws of nature so far did not deter him.

All the above look like ways to bring back the Steady State, but on a new level. Since we can't avoid the Big Bang, let's put something else in "before" it, so the universe can keep going without a beginning – a quantum field or a Big Crunch or a multiverse or whatever. But even then, can we succeed in finally exorcising the Creator from His own? No we can't. Because, at the risk of repeating the child's embarrassing question, "Who made God then?" the issue of origins still follows us into these new hypothetical spaces. Where did that vast quantum field, or that multiverse, or the universe that crunched, arise from? Did they have a beginning? These ingenious cosmologies fail to answer Aquinas' question: since everything we see is the product of cause and effect, was there a First Cause?

And even if they could answer the question, would we have then have got round God? Or would we find we were merely describing His immense handiwork, as Newton and Copernicus and Kepler and all the others famously thought? That the multiverse or the quantum field or extinct previous universes were also the products of a vast Imagination?

Only one more hurdle to clear, I promise, as this edition of Reasons for Believing nears its exhausted end. This is the assertion by Richard Dawkins that a Creator Being cannot be the explanation for the origins of the universe because it is not a proper explanation. A proper explanation, says Prof Dawkins, must simplify the thing being explained. Now it seems that God as Creator must be, not simpler, but greater and more complex than the universe He is alleged to have created. God cannot therefore be a proper explanation.

I hope you agree with me that this argument is deeply flawed. In fact we constantly accept explanations that are more complex than the thing being explained. The explanation for a joint stool is that a carpenter, a far more complex entity, made it to sit on. In case that metaphor seems unfairly to sneak in creation by a personal being, there are others. The aurora borealis was presumed by early scientists (once we got past the magic stage) to be the result of emanations from the poles of the earth. In time a far larger and grander account was accepted, that in fact it is storms in an object 333,000 times more massive than the earth, hurling matter 93,000,000 miles through space, that interact with our magnetic field and cause the aurora. The more complex explanation turns out to be the true one.

If we follow Dawkins' logic through, that every cause must be simpler than its effect, we end up with a strange inversion of Aquinas. Eventually as we trace the increasing simplifications further and further back through the chain of cause and effect, phenomenon and explanation, we can only end up at zero. The ultimate explanation turns out to be… that there can be no explanations, no causes, and no reasons. And so we'll have to start thinking about how something came out of nothing all over again. Then we'll have to accept that Dawkins has led us down a wrong turning that doesn't lead anywhere. All he has succeeded in demonstrating is the incorrigible reductionism of his own mind.

 Prof Dawkins - incorrigibly reductionist?

Well, what have we got out of all this notion-crunching? Surveys repeatedly show that people rarely come to believe because they've been argued into it. This often breaks down into a macho contest of wills anyway. Instead it's life events that led people to ask all the big, "Is anybody there?" questions. So - have the two cosmological bits of this series been worth it? I wanted to do it for three reasons:
1.      To remind believers that they don't have to accept the much flashed about opinion that faith is irrational. I hope readers will agree with my stance that repeated secularising attempts to destroy the Christian world view have not succeeded. There is still a satisfactory case to be made for faith - in fact some of the alternatives don't really stack up that well by comparison.
2.      To hope that those who don't believe will continue to explore and ask those big questions.
3.      I'm going to assert later that faith provides a better means for "seeing life whole" and "life" needs to include our rational life and scientific explorations.

Next time I'll be getting on to the stuff that really excites me, that is, I believe in God because I believe Jesus is His Son. This is the stuff that takes us from a First Mover who is only needed to kick the whole game off to a Lord who wants to engage with us… However I'm just back from holiday and there's a lot waiting to be done so it may be a few weeks before I can get on to it.

I hope you're sticking with me. Your thoughts are welcome!

Sunday 12 April 2015

Reasons for believing (1)

The enemies of faith seem to think it's OK to trash Christianity as a fantasy for gullible morons. So I think it's time to redress the balance. I wish my fellow Christians would be a bit more forthcoming in making our case, but we all seem to have swallowed the view that it is somehow offensive to assert that Christianity might actually be true. Consequently we censor ourselves. However intelligent people have some very reasonable grounds for believing. There isn't time to cover them all in one little blog post so I'm doing a few at a time.

So let's start with the classical proofs for the existence of God, basically as codified by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. There is a good if complex discussion of these on Wikipedia at They have been under a lot of fire from angry secularists for some time, and there is justification for some of the faults they allege.

The word "proofs" is the first problem. They are clearly not proofs in the current sense that they demonstrate the existence of God as a mathematical certainty. They are more like proofs in the publishers' sense: though they may invite correction, they define a field for debate. Thomas Aquinas himself used the word "ways." I'll stick with arguments.

I start by weeding out the weakest one. The argument from degree I find unconvincing. Most of what we experience comes in relative degrees, say from hotter to cooler or wetter to drier or nicer to nastier. There must be some sort of absolute standard to which these are comparable and that absolute to which all other things are relative, says Aquinas, is God. However this doesn't seem so obvious to me.
·         First most absolutes seem quite hard to establish. It has been established that there is a temperature of absolute zero, for example, where there is no energy whatsoever left in a system. Unfortunately absolute negatives are easier to fix than absolute positives: how much heat would there have to be in a system for it to count as absolute? I am pretty sure it would be possible to create absolute dryness, for example, if only in a test tube from which all molecules of H2O have been excluded. But what would absolute wetness be? I suppose the moment of the big bang might have contained infinite heat as all the energy in the universe was concentrated in an infinitesimal point. But what that was actually like is inconceivable to us. In what sense (other than inconceivability) would absolute heat imply God? It may help us get round some very difficult physics, but in the sense that absolute is supposed to equal divine?
·         Secondly I think it is faulty to argue from conceptuality to actuality in this way. Believers can conceive with hindsight that God may be the absolute perfection from which all relative things came and to which they all aspire. But we can't ask others to make the same jump. Just being able to conceive of the perfect banoffee pie unfortunately doesn't make it exist. In essence this is the same fault that Aquinas himself found with Anselm's ontological argument. That we can form an idea of something doesn't imply its existence.

Next on the hit list is Aquinas' fifth way – the teleological argument. This is the argument that the universe exhibits purpose or design, and is probably the most controversial today. Obviously for an atheist to accept that the universe is designed is to have already conceded his position. He can appeal to several areas to help him. In some areas, the design appears to be perverse, for example parasitism. In others, the purpose appears to be incomprehensible – why billions of unreachable galaxies? Why a million species of beetle? In still others, there seems to be a huge amount of randomness, for example in quantum physics or possibly, at least for the present, the dark matter that is thought to comprise 85% of the universe. And finally the universe often exhibits processes where Aquinas saw purposes – natural selection say, or the gradual cooling of the universe after the big bang.

I think these problems have a lesson for believers as well as unbelievers. We need to show greater humility in the face of the great mysteries of the universe. It would be arrogant to suppose that the purpose of the vast tracts of space is entirely focussed on our doings on our little planet, or that we should be able to work out God's unfathomably deep purposes as if they were a Sudoku puzzle. And yes we do live in a different universe to Aquinas' Aristotelian and geocentric one. Perhaps the galaxies are there as a display of God's infinitely fertile creativity, of his majesty, or his infinity transposed into exceedingly large numbers – we don't know, we are just filled with awe.

So the teleological argument needs restatement. The statement I would choose is that the universe is intelligible. Somehow it is amenable to the numbers and words we humans supposedly evolved at random to make sense of our experiences when we moved from forest to savannah. Amazingly, it seems that the little pathways of electrons moving round in our brains actually do correspond to real things. There are logical laws to the way things happen, and without them the universe would collapse into chaos. At some level both we and the universe we are part of are rational.

This could be the most incredible fluke ever, the result of an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters describing an infinite number of possible universes – and we are the lucky ones who happen to be on board the only one that will work. But it doesn't look like that – it looks rational. Of course, if there are an infinite number of monkeys etc, it would still look that way, to us who have won the golden ticket for the only ship that can navigate the chaotic waters of all possible universes.

However a little piece of logic called Ockham's razor comes to our aid here. William of Ockham held that in formulating explanations we should avoid the multiplication of entities: that is, if we have to fabricate a long chain of eventualities to explain something when a simple and direct explanation is available, we should prefer the straightforward solution.

To me the multiverse – the infinite number of dysfunctional universes – looks like the multiplication of entities. By their very nature as universes completely outside our own, we can never observe them or experiment on them or test their reality. These speculations have therefore ceased to be science, which is about the observable, the verifiable and the repeatable. In fact they are magic – everything's really caused by all these invisible powers…

In place of this factitious complexity we should prefer the direct and elegant explanation. The universe looks rational because it is rational. Whence then the rationality? In short, the teleological argument when suitably restated still provides strong grounds for the reasonableness of supposing that there is a rational mind at work in the way the universe is.

I have to admit though that I felt a bit bad rubbishing the multiverse in the paragraphs above. I actually think that if God is the kind of God who creates billions of galaxies and a million species of beetle, it would not be at all unlikely that He might create other universes too. As wise old Professor Kirke says in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, "nothing is more probable." What I would expect to find though, should any of them ever become amenable to our instruments, is that they too would exhibit rationality, beauty and sufficient order to enable them to keep going: a very different set of universes to the dysfunctional ones trapped in Brian Cox's Infinite Monkey Cage.

The other very intriguing thing to observe about the argument from intelligibility is that it puts a certain boot back on the right foot. Somehow or other we have come to swallow the secularising position that the more we understand about the universe, the less we need God. This view depends on the belief that people invented the gods to give explanations for the unknown, as in "What causes thunderstorms in the sky? It must be the thunder god!" However this is not what any of the great pioneering scientist thought. Like Copernicus, Newton, Mendel, Faraday, they were mostly believers. Instead of thinking they were invading God's space and squeezing Him out, they thought they were finding out about what God had done. "Thinking God's thoughts after Him," was Kepler's phrase. The argument from intelligibility expects that the more we know about the universe, the stronger our grounds for believing in God.

We've still got three more of Aquinas' Ways to explore: the First Mover, the First Cause and the Argument from Contingency. There is substantial common ground between them, so I'll discuss them all together in my next blog, Reasons for Believing (2). I hope you will agree with me that they provide further and indeed stronger support for the reasonableness of believing in a Creator God.

However there is only so far that Aquinas can take us. If we accept his arguments we end up with a Creator of all, a Mind on a supermassive scale, a Supreme Being rather like the one painted by William Blake below: but this is not enough. God so conceived very easily becomes an aridly intellectualised being, remote from us and right out of our league. So when I've finished looking at Aquinas I aim to move on to a key area for connecting with God, not merely hypothesizing about him: blog 3 will be I believe in God because I believe Jesus is His Son. The next blog after that will assert that I believe in God because through Him I can see life whole. This step enables us to move on to the way we live our own lives in relationship with God. In the last post I'm planning to cover as my fifth Reason for Believing the inadequacy of the alternatives. This will also give us space to reflect on where our society is going and what it needs to flourish.

It all looks terribly ambitious. I hope I'm up to it… Comments welcome!

William Blake's Ancient of Days
a remote, over-conceptualised vision of God?

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Easter Joy

Thank you everyone for a truly uplifting celebration! Both churches were ablaze with Easter flowers and enjoyed good attendances with a number of visitors. Horton had a beautiful Easter Garden, St Andrew's had an Easter egg hunt with the children, St Michael's had Kathy enthusing about the Moving On course, Wraysbury had the band with Becky leading the singing. I was once told off for not making my Easter service joyful enough. That has stayed with me and I have always aimed to make joy a keynote every Easter since. And it was your joy, your enthusiastic response to the risen Lord, that made this Easter special for me.

In both churches we reflected on the story of Mary in the garden, caught unawares by a person she took to be the gardener when she had come to mourn the death of her crucified Lord. The story is in John's Gospel chapter 20. We used the picture below, on screen in Wraysbury and on little cards in St Michael's. I thought you might like another look, especially if your card was a bit fuzzy at Horton or you were sat a bit far away at St Andrew's.

So here it is: Rembrandt's The Risen Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen, painted in 1638. The original hangs in the Queen's collection at Buckingham Palace. For a closer view, try Rembrandt - the Risen Christ appears to Mary

Rembrandt has packed a lot into his telling of the story:
·         The jar by Mary's knee reminds us that she had come to anoint Jesus' body in the customary way. There hadn't been time on Good Friday because the sunset that heralded Passover, the holiest Sabbath of the Jewish year, was just moments away.
·         Everything about Mary indicates that she has been completely focussed on death. She kneels at the tomb, reaching out her hands to where Jesus is supposed to be lying. She must have been thinking, "Couldn't they even leave his body alone? Haven't they done enough to him?" She hears a stranger come up behind her and demands to be told if he knows where they have taken Jesus. But it's so embarrassing - she's crying her eyes out: so she has kept her face turned away – until now!
·         The facial expressions are genius! Mary is in the act of realising who it is that has come upon her – amazement, shock, bewilderment. Jesus looks down upon her with compassion, understanding and, dare I say it, a twinkle of humour in his eyes, complemented by his relaxed, hand on hip stance. One of the angels sprawling on the tomb does that "eyes up" expression: "She's got it at last!"
·         Rembrandt uses the rock wall of the tomb to divide his composition firmly into two parts. One half is all darkness and gloom, the other is filled with light. One side is death, the other is new life and hope. Jesus is the brightest object, picked out in his white robe by the sunrise. He forms literally the turning point between darkness and light, as Mary turns her face towards him and towards the sunrise. Jesus' whole posture invites her to come and share in the light.

There is something very personal about this story. Jesus hasn't only come back to win a victory over death, to demonstrate the grand theology of redemption, to become a figure of universal salvation, vital as all those things are. According to Rembrandt, and surely according to John's Gospel too, it's much more personal. He's come back for Mary. He says her name, and that is the overpowering moment of realisation – "It's you!"

Isn't this true of all the resurrection stories? For Thomas: "Here are my hands that you wanted to see, here's the wound in my side." For Peter, who denied him three times: "Do you really love me more than these?" For two disciples trudging wearily back home, thinking it was all over… Jesus came back for each one of them individually, knowing their heartache and their issues. He came back because he wanted to be with his friends.

And that's true today. He's still the Risen Lord, he's alive, he still knows the things that wear us down or challenge us, our bafflement and our sorrow. He is still the turning point between a life circumscribed by darkness and death and the light of resurrection life. He wants to come to us as he did to Mary and Peter and Thomas.

He speaks our name. Are we listening?

Sunday 15 March 2015

Designer humans?

I have just read with great dismay the headline Human embryos genetically altered for the first time (The Times, Saturday 14 March). As usual the benefits are talked up, basically freedom from genetic diseases, a most worthy goal. But there seems to be little awareness of the further implications when we tinker with the terms of our own existence. Consider the following possibilities now opening up before us:
·         A militaristic nation creates the perfect soldier, who obeys orders without question and kills without compunction.
·         A multinational company creates the ideal worker, who is submissive and able to work long hours without fatigue.
·         A government institution creates a designer elite, a highly intelligent oligarchy who have no need of any input from the mass of ordinary people.

But surely we could never accept this in the liberal West? I think we will feel forced to. The line will be, "our workers must be as efficient as theirs or our economy will go down… our armies must be as ruthless as theirs or we will be at risk… our rulers must be as powerful as theirs or we will be unable to compete." We've done this before. When Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, he said this would end wars because nobody would be able to face the prospect of using such a horrific weapon. Instead everybody used it to avoid being defeated by their enemies.

This is what you get when you believe that human beings are valuable, not intrinsically for who we are, but for our uses. For the first time genetic tools are going to enable us to select the qualities we want and eliminate others. But what this really means is that we give some people, the ones who wield the technology, power over other people. This is a vastly more significant power than we have ever seen before – the power to determine our very nature.

In effect this means that human beings will become the property of others in a way not dreamed of even in societies that practised slavery on a vast scale. It will become possible for human beings to be created to order by generals, by multi-national companies, by elite institutions. The content of my DNA, my character, my abilities, my personality, will be owned and patented by somebody else.

We have the means to do all this – but do we have the wisdom? As soon as we start to conceive of our fellow human beings as blank sheets to draw our own aspirations on, manipulable to suit our own ends, we demonstrate that we do not have an ethical base capable of handling this technology.

In our contemporary world view, we are no longer children of God, valuable in our own right just by being who we are. Instead we are animals, the random product of a meaningless universe that got here by complete accident. Very soon now we will be saying, wouldn't it be better to be here by design? But who will the designers be? Sony? North Korea? the CIA?

I really, really hope and pray it never happens…

Friday 13 February 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie, mais…

I could never be Charlie. I just don't agree that it can ever be good gratuitously to trash other people. I'm not trying to protect islam from debate - for example, it teaches that Jesus never died on the cross, which is essential to the Christian relationship with God, and incidentally is also a matter of well grounded historical fact. But it is for the very reason that God is the kind of God who gives Himself for others that it can't be right to go around abusing people. He cares about them – enough to die for them, whether they acknowledge it or not.

Nor am I against satire. How can I be when the greatest English satirist, Jonathan Swift, was a clergyman in the Church of England, like me. But his satire had moral purpose. Swift attacked the unconcern with which Englishmen stood by while Irish children starved to death. He attacked the cant* with which hypocrites dressed up their double standards. He attacked the wilful ignorance and fanatical destructive zeal which sadly seem to be coming around again in our own day. But as far as I can tell Charlie's cartoons weren't about any of those things. Petty nastiness is not the same as true satire.

Freedom of expression means people have the right of course to express themselves even if they only have tawdry things to say. Very bad things happen to societies that suppress these freedoms. When freedom goes, sooner or later it will be my own Christian beliefs that are on the line.

Yet we need also to see the big picture. What is freedom of speech there for? Surely so that anyone can freely ask the big questions about life, that we can hold our own convictions and share them with others without fear, that we can poke fun at hypocrisy and evil, that we can take part in the big debates about how our country should be run and how we should live. This is the dignity and responsibility of being human. As humans we need to take part with others in defining our political, moral and spiritual landscapes. The Bible story of the creation of humans shows that God expects us to do this. "You are made in my image, so go into the world and take charge. Look after it for me..."

Having freedom of speech means of course that the less dignified and less responsible are also free to express themselves. In fact we curb that liberty in some instances. The old principle - that my freedom ends where it takes away the freedom of another Рhas been extended to vocal and written expression too. Sanctions are applied when people humiliate others because of their race or gender, or falsely defame them in such a way as to cause real harm to their interests. I'm not saying that Charlie should be suppressed, just that they have shown plenty of liberté but precious little fraternité.

Perhaps the best use for freedom of expression is to ask questions. So here are some.
1.      Which is the worse blasphemy against God? To draw a stupid picture? Or to burn alive someone made in His image? Actions speak louder than words…
2.      What would I.S. do differently if they worshipped Satan rather than God?
3.      How can people who carry out the most appalling acts of violence imagine they are going to heaven rather than to hell?
4.      Why would anyone want to go to heaven anyway if it means living forever with a god of terror?
5.      When you suppress other belief systems by force, isn't it because you are afraid to meet them in open debate?
6.      When you force people to convert at gunpoint, aren't you just demonstrating that nobody in their right mind would do so of their own free will?

I'm sure you can think of a few more questions of your own,

Jonathan Swift - our greatest satirist.

* What a wonderful word cant is. What a pity it is used so little nowadays when there's so much more of it about.