Comprehending God

Accompanying today’s Moravian Losung, these words of Paul Gerhardt:

Ich sehe dich mit Freuden an und kann mich nicht satt sehen; und weil ich nun nichts weiter kann, bleib ich anbetend stehen. O daß mein Sinn ein Abgrund wär und meine Seel ein weites Meer, daß ich dich möchte fassen!

Now, that’s what I call a hint of the greatness of God, glimpsed in worship. It kind of knocks a lot of Hillsong offerings off the board.

Playing with God

Last week I spent four days on retreat at Mucknell Abbey. Why does a retired vicar even need a retreat? I hear you ask. Isn’t the whole of his life one long retreat? Well, yes and no. I may be much more the master of my time, than I was when I was a working vicar; but there are still all sorts of ways in which the business of ‘everyday living’ can feel as if it gets in the way of being able to think about God, and spend as much time thinking about God, as you might like. Also, I’ve found myself spending the odd idle moment asking myself, What am I actually supposed to do, now that I’m nothing but some superannuated old priest?

Mucknell Abbey is one of my favourite places to be in the whole world. Just a few miles from Worcester, it’s the home of a community of Anglican Benedictines, men and women, who devote themselves to living and praying according to the Rule set out by St Benedict 1,600 years ago. They used to be at Burford Priory, but when that property became too expensive for them to maintain, they sold it and moved to their new, purpose-built monastery, in 2010. There are 12 members of the community, including two novices, and their number is sometimes augmented by a few ‘alongsiders’: young people who have chosen to share the community’s life for a short period of time. If you want to know more about them, have a look at their excellent website.

The Oratory, Mucknell Abbey

Staying at Mucknell, even for just a few days, is a spiritual tonic. Sharing in the community prayers six times a day (I never managed the seventh, the Service of Readings at 6 a.m. each day), enjoying their simple but ample (mostly vegetarian) meals, and lots of hours to read or think or wander around the grounds up there on their windswept hill.

Perhaps I hoped for some dramatic revelation, a flash of light and the voice of God telling me exactly what I have to do. One always does hope for that. Or maybe not. Instead of that kind of drama, something much better happened. In my thinking alone, and my reading and praying, and the Offices, I began to discern a common theme, which was about God being present, and near. (In fact the Rule of St Benedict has a lot to say about God being present everywhere and anywhere.)

You know how it feels if you’re in the same room as someone you really love and admire but you maybe don’t know very well – perhaps a celebrity or popstar or some other kind of hero – and they look at you, and your heart jumps? It was a bit like that. I got the sense that God was there, and that God looked at me. Not with reproach or blame or anything scary like that – it would be possible I suppose to feel terrified by the thought that God was looking at you. No, this look was with interest, and love.

While I was away, Alison posted a picture of her visit to youngest grandson Jerm. It somehow became a lovely kind of icon for me, that described my week at Mucknell. In this icon, God is represented by Alison, and me by Jerm. We’re involved together, we’re looking at each other, we’re playing together, we’re having fun.

That’s kind of how the spiritual life should be. Hang it all, that’s how life should be, and how St Benedict sets out to regulate it so it can be. Living with God, being with God, sharing God’s deep joy in all things. I’m really hoping to bring that sense home with me and hold on to it as the special revelation that God did indeed give during my retreat.

What I want to say

What I’ve prepared to say at the Eight O’Clock Holy Communion this coming Sunday (the Tenth Sunday after Trinity). As usual, preaching to myself before I preach to the congregation:

And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. (Luke 19.41-42)

It’s probably the year 30 AD. In Luke’s account, Jesus is approaching the holy city for what will be his last Passover. He has foreseen his death and knows that now it draws near. Yet it’s not himself, but Jerusalem, the City, the people, his fellow-Jews, that he weeps for. Why? Because they do not know the things that belong unto their peace.

All they knew was that they were oppressed, under the Roman occupation, part of an Empire they hated and despised, governed by Gentiles whom they regarded as unclean, outside of God’s covenant and therefore hated by God. They expected and longed for a Messiah who would be a king, a man of war, a conqueror to drive out the Romans, set them free, establish a glorious new godly kingdom.

And this would be disaster for them. It would lead to uprisings, rebellions, eventually to the Jewish War of 66-73 AD which would result in total defeat. Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Temple destroyed, never again to be rebuilt.

If only they had known the things that belonged to their peace! If only they had believed Jesus and embraced his teaching about the true kingdom, the kingdom of God and what it means. (See the Sermon on the Mount, and the Gospels passim.)

But when I consider the world today, I seem to hear exactly the same words: If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.

Jesus is still weeping over a world that turns away from blessing – the blessing that comes from seeking God and living by his will – and instead embraces the untruth and the lies that can only lead to disaster.

I think only of our own country. I don’t want to talk about Brexit: whatever views I have about it, some of you will agree with me, and probably just as many will disagree strongly. None of us really knows what will happen next year, to us or the EU, and the problem seems to be that all of us believe only the facts and forecasts we want to believe…

But I already hate what has happened to this country in the last few years: that we have become so divided, not only about this issue, but about so many others as well. Not just divided, but hatefully divided. Instead of being able to have a calm, sensible, rational debate about things, with people who hold different views – trying to listen to one another, to discover the facts and what is true and right, and then discern together the best course of action, all we have now is not debate at all. It’s become almost usual to curse, accuse, hate and vilify people who hold different views. Not only to suspect them of the worst possible motives, but to publicly accuse them of being traitors or worse. Social media has a lot to answer for in this respect, of course, because people feel able to say all kinds of things on the Internet that they would hardly dream of saying out loud in public, or to a person’s face. (Though sadly, saying it in the safety of the Internet makes them bold enough to do just that.) But it’s not just social media! The headlines of supposedly responsible newspapers, and the tone of their editorials, so often seem to want to stir up violent attitudes and reactions, suspicion, mistrust, hatred of ‘enemies’.

What happened to our country? Where did it go? What happened to British values of tolerance, openness, welcome, hospitality, freedom to hold different points of view, and express them without fear, without being accused of being somehow criminal or evil, without being threatened with violence or death?

These are horrible times to live in, perhaps even dangerous times. (And let me quickly say we are all infected, none of us is immune: don’t we all find ourselves beginning to hate people on the other side of these current issues?)

So what are we, as Christians, to do? Join in with the haters, those who want to make and to crush enemies? Run away and hide our heads in the sand, and pretend that all is well?

I believe that we have a different and special calling, which may be the only thing that holds out any hope of healing. Let us, at least, be people who know the things that belong unto our peace.

Because we are Christians, we are people of Resurrection. We believe in life from the dead; we believe in hope even when others think all hope has gone. We are people of reconciliation, because Jesus died on the cross to reconcile the whole world, all people, to God.

So we must

  • Believe: in all that Gospel we claim to believe.
  • Pray: for our country; but especially love and pray for our ‘enemies’, because that’s what Jesus told us to do.
  • Seek God’s kingdom above all us, because it alone, rather than any of the kingdoms of this world, is the kingdom in which our true citizenship is found.

Above all, not give in to what the World wants to do to us: namely, to make us afraid, make us hate, make us give up hope.

Let’s stand tall and say: No, I won’t give in to that. I will not become what you want me to be.

Prayer, in the words of Psalm 46:

GOD is our hope and strength : a very present  help in trouble.

2 Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved : and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

3 Though the waters thereof rage and swell : and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

10 Be still then, and know that I am God : I will be exalted among the heathen, and I will be exalted in the earth.

11 The Lord of hosts is with us : the God of Jacob is our refuge.

 

Is there a Hell?

Tom Wright describes studying Theology in what he calls the ‘heyday of liberal theology’ in the 1960s and 70s. One of his teachers told his students, “There may be a Hell, but it will turn out to be untenanted.” As a consequence of that prevailing fashion, Wright says, most Christians at least within the mainstream churches have become effectively universalists – people who believe that ultimately, everyone will be ‘saved’.

And yes, gentle reader, I am one of those who, although I was not reading for a degree in Theology until almost the end of those liberal decades, find myself most comfortable within a universalist view of humankind’s final destiny. But I also agree with Tom Wright that universalism just won’t hold water in the world we inhabit at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Decades in which we have seen genocides in the Balkans and Africa, bloody civil wars in Syria and DRC, constant wars in the Middle East, terrorist atrocities in Western countries and even more in Islamic countries, where Islamist extremists massacre fellow-Muslims by the hundreds and thousands. Where there are evil leaders who even train children to be suicide bombers, with lying promises of Paradise hereafter.

The Great War of 1914-18 showed up the bankruptcy of the liberal Protestantism of the 19th century, which Karl Barth denounced in his Epistle to the Romans and Church Dogmatics. The German liberal theologians who had not challenged but lent their enthusiastic support to the militaristic war aims of the Kaiser, were equally ineffective in challenging the Nazis when they took over the German State and Church in the 1930s. A new theology was needed, which took seriously the Word and the sovereignty of God, and this became the inspiration for the Confessing Church and younger theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who resisted Nazism. Now that we find ourselves living in our own new age of barbarism, where is the tough new (or old?) theology we need to bear witness against the powers of this present darkness?

Yet I was still secretly hankering after that universalist pabulum. Until I re-read the Rule of St Benedict, one of my favourite spiritual readings. The Rule sets out one of the most gentle, moderate prescriptions for a life of Christian discipleship. The Master claims that he wants to prescribe nothing that will be too severe, or will frighten off the would-be servant of Christ. So far, so good. But at the same time he robustly warns his students about the horrible punishment that awaits those who fail to keep the commandments of God’s Word. Even for the holy pupils in Benedict’s ‘school for Christ’s service’, there is no free pass, no ‘Get out of Hell free’ card, for those who fall short.

So Alison and I found ourselves, at teatime last Sunday, debating whether or not there is a Hell. We didn’t reach a definitive conclusion, no surprise there then. But we did decide that Hell is something like a theological Schrödinger’s Cat.

God must ultimately put everything that is wrong in the world to rights; God must deal with evil and its consequences, and establish justice. Therefore Hell is necessary.

God’s love and everlasting mercy are all-inclusive, infinite and invincible. Therefore Hell is impossible.

Wikipedia explains the dilemma of Schrödinger’s Cat like this:

Schrödinger’s cat: a cat, a flask of poison, and a radioactive source are placed in a sealed box. If an internal monitor (e.g. Geiger counter) detects radioactivity (i.e. a single atom decaying), the flask is shattered, releasing the poison, which kills the cat. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that after a while, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Yet, when one looks in the box, one sees the cat either alive or dead not both alive and dead. This poses the question of when exactly quantum superposition ends and reality collapses into one possibility or the other.

Perhaps we have to live on the basis that Hell simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist; but at the end of the day, when the ‘box’ is ‘opened’, it will either exist or not exist.

So which is it? Is the Hell-Cat alive? Or dead? And what will be the moment at which reality collapses into one possibility or the other?

38 years a priest

38 years ago today, I was ordained as Priest in the Church of England. In my morning prayers today, I looked up the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer to read the exhortation in The Ordering of Priests. These are not quite the words we heard in that service, which I suspect had been brought in line with Series 3 or some other revised form of service. But these words express the same sentiment. And they are scary…

YOU have heard, brethren, as well in your private examination, as in the exhortation which was now made to you, and in the holy Lessons taken out of the Gospel and the writings of the Apostles, of what dignity and of how great importance this office is, whereunto ye are called. And now again we exhort you, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he his blood. The Church and Congregation whom you must serve, is his spouse and his body. And if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof, to take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with yourselves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and body of Christ; and see that you never cease your labour, your care and diligence, until you have done all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for error in religion, or for viciousness in life.

Forasmuch then as your office is both of so great excellency and of so great difficulty, ye see with how great care and study ye ought to apply yourselves, as well that ye may shew yourselves dutiful and thankful unto that Lord, who hath placed you in so high a dignity; as also to beware that neither you yourselves offend, nor be occasion that others offend. Howbeit, ye cannot have a mind and will thereto of yourselves; for that will and ability is given of God alone. Therefore ye ought, and have need, to pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. And seeing that you cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures: and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside (as much as you may) all worldly cares and studies.

We have good hope that you have well weighed and pondered these things with yourselves long before this time; and that you have clearly determined, by God’s grace, to give yourselves wholly to this office, whereunto it hath pleased God to call you: so that, as much as lieth in you, you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing, and draw all your cares and studies this way; and that you will continually pray to God the Father, by the mediation of our only Saviour Jesus Christ, for the heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost; that, by daily reading and weighing of the Scriptures, ye may wax riper and stronger in your ministry; and that ye may so endeavour yourselves from time to time to sanctify the lives of you and yours, and to fashion them after the rule and doctrine of Christ, that ye may be wholesome and godly examples and patterns for the people to follow.

Clearly no one is worthy, or can fully live up to that high calling. (God knows how any priest could physically or spiritually abuse any person, if they at all remembered those words about causing any hurt or hindrance to any member of the body of Christ, by their negligence…) The ordinary harm we cause by the ordinary negligence of ordinary sinners is a hard enough burden to bear, with words like ‘horrible punishment’ hanging over our heads. The only comfort is that Jesus called some pretty unworthy people to be his disciples and apostles (see the Gospels, passim); and that the Everlasting Mercy is always greater.

How did I dare to do it for all those years? And how do I still dare, when I’m asked to? Because somewhere, and sometimes it seems against all experience and evidence, I do believe that Mercy always triumphs over Judgement.

Why, why, why, Samson?

Blanchard, Pascal, active 1885-1909; Samson and Delilah

Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery

Then [Samson’s] brothers and all his family came down and took him and brought him up and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of his father Manoah. He had judged Israel twenty years. (Judges 16.31)

So ends the story of Samson, according to the Book of Judges. Clearly the word ‘judged’ means something different here, from what we take it to mean. For us, a judge is expected to be a person of wisdom, experience, and knowledge of the law. Samson, a testosterone-charged strong man, bully, boor, terrorist (according to the Philistines) or freedom fighter (according to the Israelites), womaniser and idiot, is of all the characters in the Bible pretty much the most lacking in all these qualities.

In fact, the word translated ‘judge’ does include other significances in the Bible. The entry in Strong’s Concordance for H8199 reads:

שָׁפַט  shâphaṭ, shaw-fat’; a primitive root; to judge, i.e. pronounce sentence (for or against); by implication, to vindicate or punish; by extension, to govern; passively, to litigate (literally or figuratively):— avenge, that condemn, contend, defend, execute (judgment), (be a) judge(-ment), needs, plead, reason, rule.

Well, there may be a lot of avenging and punishing going on in the story of Samson. But very little vindicating, pronouncing sentence in any legal sense, and still less governing. This is a man who can’t even govern himself; it would be remarkable if he could govern anything or anyone else.

When I was a child the biblical story of Samson used to be considered suitable reading for children, in Children’s Bibles and the like. Please don’t tell me it still is. We had to read the story of Samson and Delilah in this morning’s lections for Morning Prayer, and frankly we didn’t know what to make of it. (See Judges 16.4-31) It’s certainly a well-constructed story, as stories go: you have the rule of three, three questions and false answers before Samson finally betrays the secret of his strength (because of his mistress’s nagging and pestering, the narrator tells us); the inevitable violent consequence in his capture and the gouging out of his eyes (suitable for children?!); his final repentance and restoration, so that his enemies get their justifiable comeuppance… But really: what else is going on here? Is this a subversive tale, subverting patriarchy, marriage, male machismo in general? Is it a cautionary tale about ‘marrying out’? (Samson should have fallen in love with and married nice Jewish girls, instead of these sexy Philistine women…) or just against extra-marital sex in general? Is it a feminist tract urging women to get their own back? Is it a dire warning for parents not to indulge their children? Because we blamed the parents: Manoah and his (of course, unnamed) wife are visited by the angel of the LORD and promised a miraculous son who is to be consecrated to God for the whole of his life. But instead of bringing him up to have any kind of respect for that consecration, or any understanding of the Law or what it means to be holy and godly, they pander to his every whim, chasing round the country to negotiate for him to marry some young woman who has taken his fancy, whom their son then deserts on his wedding night, with the consequence that she and her father get burned to death by their neighbours. Nice story.

So, what is this Samson? A thoroughly nasty piece of work? Or a hero and a role model for Israel? I was going to say, Surely not! But maybe that is exactly what he has become: a model for still smiting and killing Palestinians?

Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom

Emmanuel Carrère's *The Kingdom*

I’d never even heard of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom until I found a copy in the religion section of our local (independent!) bookshop. It was one of those “This looks fascinating – must take it home with me” encounters. And having taken it home and started reading, I checked out the review in The Guardian, to see what others had thought of it. The reviewer, and numbers of those who commented on the review, refer to the author’s ‘scandalous narcissism’, which many find truly off-putting. True, it’s a distasteful trait. But in his favour: Carrère does confess that this is a fault of his: a confession you can either find strangely engaging, or even more infuriating. His Ego is the most important thing for him – but after all, isn’t that true about many of the people who write personal blogs, or share their lives on social media? Narcissist he may be, but he’s an intelligent, urbane and interesting narcissist, so I didn’t mind his company for the duration of this read. (Whether I would be able to stomach him in the flesh: that’s another matter.)

So what kind of a book is this, a huge bestseller in its native France? I think we first have to recognise that it is, well, French: the kind of book we hardly have in this country. In France, after all, they respect and admire intellectuals. Whereas in the UK, intellectuals, like any kind of experts, are people our leaders and opinion-formers have taught us to distrust, disbelieve and despise.

The Kingdom is partly a memoir, recording Carrère’s conversion to Christianity in the early 1990s, his years as a devout believer, and his subsequent loss of faith, or at any rate ceasing to be a believer. Yet he is still fascinated, you might even say obsessed, by the New Testament, and by the phenomenon of Christianity. So the main part of this book is a retelling of the New Testament, in particular the early years of the Church, the life and missionary journeys of St Paul, his letters to the churches, and the work of St Luke in being the earliest ‘historian’ of the Church, later author of the gospel that bears his name, as well as (possibly?) other NT books which for all I know no one other than Carrère ascribes to him.

Is it pure fiction? Or can some of it possibly be true? Carrère himself doesn’t claim that it’s all true; only that some parts of it are believed by many scholars, that other parts are more or less speculative, along a spectrum of probable – likely – possible – at least plausible. He draws fascinating analogies with other faith movements in the course of history, notably the growth of Communism. I’m not convinced that the power plays between the Russian communist leaders, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the like, are comparable with those between Paul and the the leaders of the Jerusalem Church… but that’s the kind of thing I mean. In other words, you may find The Kingdom fascinating, enlightening, giving you lots to think about that you’ve never thought about before. Or just plain annoying, and downright wrong. But dull? No.

For me, it was probably all of those things by turns. Carrère, to my mind, gives too much weight to what Ernest Renan had to say; but then again, that may be something to do with my sometimes sharing the Englishman’s traditional Gallophobia. Here’s my favourite (AKA, least favourite) example, talking about what really happened on the first Easter Day:

When I say that no one knows what happened, I’m wrong. What happened is very well-known, only: it’s one of two different and incompatible things according to what you believe. If you’re a Christian, you know that Jesus was raised from the dead: that’s what being a Christian means. Or you believe what Renan believed, and what reasonable people believe. That a small group of women and men — the women first — deeply stricken by the loss of their guru, started spreading the word that he’d been resurrected, and that what happened next was not at all supernatural but astonishing enough to be worth telling in detail: their naive, bizarre belief that should normally have withered and died with them went on to conquer the world, and is still shared by roughly one quarter of the earth’s population.

Apparently, according to Carrère, ‘reasonable people’ believe something even more unlikely and impossible than believers. But then: I would say that, wouldn’t I?

All in all, this is a book I’m glad to have read and to recommend. I hope you enjoy it, learn from it, argue with it and shout at its author, as much as I did. Most of all, I hope you will stop ad think about it many times as you read it, and then put it down and turn back to the New Testament, to find out what it really says.

Written with StackEdit.