“Knowing me, knowing me…”: on knowing ourselves

Gnothi_seauton
‘Gnothi seauton’ – ancient Greek for ‘Know Thyself’

Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. What do you think about that? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s park that there, I’ll come back to it in just a moment.

At church yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus’ famous words from John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

As I was preparing the passage, one thing which really struck me about it was the idea of knowing ourselves. How do you know yourself? Do we know ourselves truly, just by virtue of being ourselves, or are there still things about us which are unknown even to us? I apologise if that sounds a bit weird and abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete. Have you ever been in a situation where you discover something about yourself that you didn’t realise? I think it happens sometimes under pressure – we discover who we really are, in a way which we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Someone who sees a child drowning in a river discovers that actually their instinct is to dive in and help. Someone faced with a difficult situation realises they are less patient and forgiving than they thought they were.

Or perhaps you’ve seen or read stories where the protagonist goes on a ‘journey of self discovery’. People sometimes use the expression “finding myself” – implying that they needed to discover who they were, their purpose, and so on. It seems to me that we are a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. How do we find our way through the fog?

As I was looking at Jesus’ words, I realised that true identity – true knowledge of ourselves – can only come when we see ourselves in the light of Christ. All of us by nature, as Jesus says, “walk in darkness”. This is a big theme in John – see especially John 3:19-21:

This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

By contrast, God does not walk in darkness. Many people know John’s famous statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but I think fewer people know his statement from the beginning of the same book: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In other words, not only does God not walk in darkness, but God is himself light. So, as Jesus, says, if we want to walk in the light we need to see ourselves in God’s light. It turns out that true knowledge of ourselves is bound up with true knowledge of God.

In a strange kind of way, I think Aristotle was onto something when he said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”: the book of Proverbs famously says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7) – perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know ourselves when we know God, when we see ourselves in his light.

But what does it mean to see ourselves in God’s light? In John 7:7, Jesus says “[the world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” Jesus is the one who bears witness to the world that its deeds are evil. In the passage from John 3 I’ve already quoted, it says: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

In other words, what Jesus does is expose evil for what it is. You and I, without the light of Christ, could get on perfectly happily in sin, in evil – all the time thinking that there was nothing wrong. But as soon as we bring the light of Christ into the picture, it bursts our bubble (to mix metaphors a little). We can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong anymore.

Fingerprints_Dirty-Glass-Windows-House_IMG_5872-320x480
Source: publicphoto.org

Think about dirty windows: In our house we have a toddler running around. Toddlers, it hardly needs saying, love to put their sticky hands all over your nice clean windows. You end up with the glass covered with hand prints. The thing is, for the majority of the time you don’t really notice: on a typical day – grey and cloudy at this time of year – the glass looks fairly clean. You can’t see the hand prints. But as soon as the sun comes out, as soon as the light streams through the windows, they show up clearly.

This is how it is with the relationship between us and Christ: when we walk in the darkness, we look pretty clean. But as soon as we come towards the light, it exposes all our flaws. It exposes the fact that we walk in darkness. It exposes the fact that we are actually living a lie about ourselves: we are not the people who we kid ourselves that we are.

What this means is, we do not have true knowledge about ourselves until we see ourselves in Jesus’ light. Unless we can see ourselves as sinners, we do not know ourselves truly. And, the real problem: if we do not see ourselves as sinners, we cannot seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” If we don’t acknowledge that we are ‘ill’ to begin with, we won’t bother to seek a doctor. Think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – instead of admitting defeat at any point, he simply denies that he has any injuries at all. It’s an absurd picture, but I think it’s akin to what Jesus is saying people do by nature: denying the obvious fact that there is something wrong with us!

Why is any of this an issue? Why does it really matter? Back in John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (v24). Dying in sin – this is the fate for anyone who does not believe that Jesus is the one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin separates us from God; sin incurs God’s righteous wrath and judgement. To die in our sins is not a good thing. As Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

And so the key question for us all is: will we let Christ expose us for who we are? Will we come to the one who exposes our darkness, and yet is the only one who can take away our darkness? It is literally a matter of life and death.

Gay marriage and the power of stories

Image by Sabtastic
Image by Sabtastic

Although same-sex marriage has been legal in the UK now for nearly a year, I still think it’s worth reflecting on the road which brought us to where we are. In fact, I think it’s probably good to reflect on what happened with the benefit of hindsight.

One thing which is clearer to me now than it was at the time was just how powerful a story can be. The pro same-sex marriage argument would often present itself using the story of someone who wanted to get married. I remember reading and seeing various different stories about a young man or woman, who grew up dreaming of a white wedding, dreaming of a family – only to have those dreams shattered because gay people were unable to marry. Now, whatever your position on marriage – you have to admit, in our culture today, that is a powerful story. A story so powerful, in fact, that I think most people bought into it.

By contrast, those who were (and are) against same-sex marriage – and I include myself in that camp – had nothing really to compete. That’s not to say that the arguments weren’t sound: I still believe what was said about marriage two years ago (see my blog posts on “What is marriage?”: part one, part two) – but I think by and large people didn’t understand because they didn’t have anything to relate to. Quite a few people who I interacted with simply could not see how same-sex marriage would make any difference at all, and abstract arguments didn’t really help. The argument was mostly won (or lost, depending on how you see it) at the emotional level. Continue reading

Update: Was Stephen Fry speaking ‘hypothetically’?

Stephen FryA quick post-script to my previous post about Stephen Fry’s diatribe about God and evil. A few people have come back and said to me, “Ah, yes, but Fry was speaking hypothetically – assuming that the question was true for the sake of argument. He doesn’t actually believe in evil.”

It’s interesting, because I think from what he says he does believe in evil – and that is what gives his argument its weight. Whether or not he’s speaking ‘hypothetically’.

This is a transcript of what he says (taken from YouTube transcript and edited – I’ve removed a few bits which I think are irrelevant).

I think I’d say, bone cancer in children … what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I’d say.

[…]

I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms … they’re wrong.

Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish … yes the world is a splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind – they eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. So you know atheism is not just about them not believing there is not a God but on the assumption there is one, what kind of God is he? It’s perfectly apparent that he’s monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.

Now, after you’ve read that, tell me that Stephen Fry believes that evil doesn’t exist – even if he is speaking ‘hypothetically’. If God did not create the world, then those insects which burrow into the eyes of children – they’re just natural, they’re morally neutral. If God did not create the world, then there isn’t really such a thing as injustice and pain – and on a cosmic sense it would hardly matter if there were.

The whole weight of what he says rests on the fact that some things are actually wrong or evil. If they are not, then his argument basically collapses. Imagine, for example, if he’d said instead: “yes, the world is splendid but it also has Wensleydale cheese in it. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn’t exist.” It would just be utterly meaningless, wouldn’t it? I use cheese as an example because it’s a morally neutral thing (I happen to like it, some don’t). The whole power of his argument rests on the fact that God would be a moral monster, and the only thing which gives that view any weight is that there is a transcendent morality which Fry thinks that God should adhere to.

In other words, Fry presupposes the fact that God exists in order to argue against God existing.

Evil and the problem of Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry… or do I mean, Stephen Fry and the problem of evil? Either way, one of the links which has been doing the rounds on Twitter today is that of Stephen Fry talking to Gay Byrne about God, and more specifically, about what he would say to God if Fry died and found out he was wrong about his atheism.

Stephen Fry’s answer focusses on the problem of theodicy, which is a philosophical term meaning the problem of reconciling evil with a good God. (There would be no need to reconcile evil with an evil God, obviously – the problem only exists if we start out by assuming that God is good).

Now good/evil and atheism are two subjects I’ve written about here quite often (e.g. whether secular society would be a good thing, and godless ethics), so here I’d just like to focus on one thing. Stephen Fry says that a God who allows (say) bone cancer in children would be “evil”.

My point is simply this: evil is a problem for everyone, not just Christians. Whether you like it or not we live in a world where children do get bone cancer, where parasites exists, where ‘evil’ exists. I would therefore suggest the question is not simply ‘how could God let this happen?’, but rather ‘which worldview best answers the question of evil?’

Let’s think briefly about atheism. Atheism demands that there be no God, no purpose in the universe – we are simply the result of an accident, some sort of cosmic blip which caused everything that we see. In other words, you and I are nothing, we are simply the product of blind forces acting in accordance with the laws of an uncaring universe. What that means, and this is what Stephen Fry and others seem to have missed, is that bone cancer and parasites (etc) are completely natural. If atheism is true, then we are exactly the way we are intended to be: evolution just dumped us here, in a place where illness and death exist – the universe has no categories of right or wrong, it just simply is.

As Richard Dawkins famously said:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

So, my question for Stephen Fry, and others who share his opinion, is – from where does this category of “evil” come from? In the interview, Fry seemed to understand evil to be an objective thing, something which really exists. And yet, that cannot be if atheism is true, if – as Dawkins says – the universe has no design, purpose, etc.

I believe Fry has essentially contradicted himself in his answer: atheism does not and indeed cannot explain or account for evil. In fact, ironically, I think Fry demonstrates the truthfulness of Christianity in his answer because only the idea of a good God can give rise to the idea of an objective moral good and evil.

Personally I believe that Christianity is the best explanation that we have for the universe as we perceive it, evil and all. Very, very briefly: (1) evil is an alien intrusion into the world, caused by the Fall (see Genesis 3). This explains why we have a higher ideal for the world than the one we actually see – because creation is not as God originally created it. In other words, illness, death etc are not ‘natural'; (2) despite that, God promises that there is a purpose in all suffering – that “all things” work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28, see also Genesis 50:20 and elsewhere); (3) One day God promises to end all suffering (Revelation 7:17). To my mind that is a far more convincing and comprehensive answer to the problem of evil than anything atheism could provide.

The important thing to remember is that all of us have to give account for the world as we see it: it’s not a question of God being on trial, but rather – every view needs to be put on trial. I find it surprising that someone as intelligent as Stephen Fry should be so blind when it comes to critiquing his own views. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency and rigor?

Post script: I’m nearly finished working my way through Christopher Ash’s excellent commentary on Job. It deals a lot with precisely this question – how a good God can be reconciled with evil. I hope to be writing a review on it soon.

Water into wine: what’s going on?!

Marriage at CanaYesterday at church the theme was ‘Jesus turns water into wine’, from John 2:1-11. It’s a well-known story – if you’ve ever been to a wedding in an Anglican church, for example, you will have heard it mentioned in the introduction – but the story is nonetheless quite puzzling. To be honest with you, I’ve never really understood it properly: does Mary force Jesus into doing something he didn’t want to do? Did Jesus basically provide people with a load of decent plonk for free, for no reason other than the fact that he was asked to by his Mum? What was the point? Does that really sound like something Jesus would do?

I don’t know about you, but these kind of questions have always plagued my mind – even when I was studying John at college a couple of years ago, it was still difficult. However, as I was listening to the passage and sermon I had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d write them up in case they’re useful for anyone else. Obviously there are many things you could say about this passage, and I will only be able to pick up a few of them, but hopefully this will help to shed some light.

Jesus’ mother and the disciples

Notice in the first couple of verses, John writes “Jesus’ mother” – twice – as if he wants to stress the fact that Mary is here acting as Jesus’ mother. In contrast, Jesus “and his disciples” were invited to the wedding – note that Mary is specified separately to the disciples. Mary is not included as a disciple here.

And I think this leads on to Jesus’ reply to Mary: “Woman, why do you involve me?” Why doesn’t Jesus call Mary his mother? Even if, as the NIV footnote points out, ‘woman’ was not a disrespectful term – in the normal way, wouldn’t Jesus have said ‘Mother’? I think this is significant: Jesus is highlighting the fact that Mary does not have maternal authority over him. In a sense, Mary is not Jesus’ mother in the same way that the Father is Jesus’ father. In John 19:25-27, Jesus essentially hands over the mother/son relationship to the beloved disciple – I wonder if that is him providing for his mother in the way he was unable to as an ordinary son would. (In this place, too, Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’).

Either way, it seems that the point of this is that if Mary is to have a relationship with Jesus, it should be the relationship of a disciple. At this point in Jesus’ life, the need for Mary was to believe in Jesus along with the rest of his disciples – not to be a mother to him. Throughout the whole gospel John gives us little pictures of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, and here – as in many other places – he is showing us that what we all need to do is put our faith in Jesus.

My hour has not yet come

Another puzzling aspect of this story: does Mary force Jesus into doing something which he didn’t want to do? When Jesus says, “my hour has not yet come” – why does he then go ahead and perform the miracle? If you read through John, Jesus talks a lot about his ‘hour’ of glorification coming. This culminates in 12:23, where Jesus says “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” – referring to his own death. In other words, the hour of Jesus’ glorification is the cross: for John, the cross is the place where Jesus’ glory is revealed.

In 2:11, we see that “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory”. So this sign, the turning of the water into wine, should say something about Jesus’ glory – it should say something about the cross. It’s not just a simple miracle, it is a sign. But what sign is it?

The miracle

I think here, as with what we have already seen, the clue is in the details: Jesus doesn’t just turn water into wine in an unspecified container. He turns water into wine, John tells us, in “six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing”. The kind used for ceremonial washing, i.e. the kind of jars that were used in the context of ritual purification and worship. And Jesus doesn’t just turn the water into any old cheap plonk – he turns it into the finest wine, wine which causes the master of the banquet to exclaim “you have saved the best till now”.

What’s the significance of wine? We know from Matthew 26:28 and elsewhere that wine is used in communion as a representative of Jesus’ blood. Although John in his gospel doesn’t include the last supper per se, Jesus does say in John 6, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” So I think it’s quite likely that the wine in this story here is symbolic of Jesus’ blood – the blood which will bring ultimate purification, the blood of the new covenant which cleanses from sin once for all.

Hebrews talks about Jesus’ blood:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, so obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Summary

So what can we say about this passage? As with many things in John, I think there is an element of misunderstanding and irony going on: Mary thinks that she is doing one thing – compelling Jesus to provide wine for a wedding feast – whereas Jesus is actually showing a sign which illustrates what he has come to do. We see that Mary attempts to assert her authority as Jesus’ mother, but in actuality what she needs to do – as we all do – is turn to Jesus as a disciple. And we see that Jesus came to turn the imperfect nature of purifying with water into the blood that cleanses from every stain of sin.

This is my fourth post on John’s gospel – if you enjoyed it, you might like previous thoughts I’ve had on John: the woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus, and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

The Church’s Mission: What’s the point?

Is this how most people imagine missionaries?
Is this how most people imagine missionaries?

I was recently asked to contribute a piece to the “Mission Matters” magazine in our church, a magazine looking at mission in the local area as well as the wider world. This is what I came up with.

One of the privileges and joys of training at Oak Hill was training alongside those who were leaving for the mission field in other countries. I have friends from college who are now in, or shortly to move to, countries which span the globe. They are ministering amongst a whole variety of cultures and religious beliefs – Islam, Buddhism, the Orthodox Church – all sorts of different contexts. So I thought this time for Mission Matters it might be worth going back to basics and asking: what is it that really motivates them to give up their lives here, leave friends and family, journey hundreds or thousands of miles, and invest many years into learning a different language and culture? What could motivate someone to plough years of their lives into a country with little return, even under active persecution? In most of the countries I mentioned, for example, even in countries which are not actively hostile to the gospel the number of Bible-believing Christians is a tiny fraction of the population. Why would anyone do such a thing?

The book of Acts is a great place to go to when thinking about the mission of the church. Let’s first turn to the story of how the early church got going after Jesus’ ascension.

In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascended, he said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This is one of the most significant verses in Acts: Jesus said when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples would “receive power”. What would they receive power to do? “be my witnesses” – to proclaim boldly the message of salvation in Christ. And this message was not just for a small group of people in a small corner of the world, this is a message which was to go “to the ends of the earth.”

This is exactly what we see happening in the rest of Acts – the Word of God, the gospel, goes out into Judea and Samaria. Then, in Acts 10, we see the gospel being brought even to the Gentiles. The message spreads further and further from Jerusalem, further and further away from the Jewish context where it originated. This same process, of reaching those who have never heard of Jesus, continues today. It is the mission of the church, as received from Christ: to reach even to the ends of the earth with the good news of salvation.

Let’s look at one more passage from Acts, where the apostle Paul goes to one of the major cities of the time – Athens. In Acts 17:16, we read: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In those days, the Greeks liked to have a god for every occasion – as Paul walked down the streets he would have seen statues of many different gods. The worship of idols there was pretty obvious! But have we changed all that much today? In Romans 1, Paul talks humanity in general and says that all of us have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Paul here is not saying that all of us explicitly worship images – but rather, every single one of us has exchanged worshipping the Living God for worshipping a lie. The natural state of humanity is to worship the created rather than the Creator. Every single culture, every single person on the planet, is an idolater in some way. How that looks in practice will naturally vary in different times and places – in the ancient city of Athens the idolatry was obvious. In our modern Western culture, people are perhaps tempted to worship money, sex, or power – anything which is a substitute for God.

So how does Paul deal with this situation in Acts 17? Does Paul say, with much of our current culture, “let’s celebrate diversity! Let’s rejoice that these people are worshipping God in their own way!”? Absolutely not! He is “greatly distressed” that the city is full of idols and he says to them:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

The almighty and living God, the only God of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made by human hands but gives each one of us life and breath, commands us to repent and believe in the good news. Each of us must turn from the idols we worship to worship Him, so we will receive a good verdict on the day when he will judge the world with justice by his risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This message of good news is not limited to a small group of people – it is for everyone, whatever their culture, creed, language or nation. It is a message for us here in the West, it is a message for all those countries my friends have gone to, it is a message for all those countries we support and remember in prayer. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1 ESV)

This is the message that motivates us as we look around the world. The same message that gets my friends out of bed in the morning also fires us: our God has good news for all people. Let’s pray that God would send workers out into his harvest field, both at home and abroad, and let’s pray that God would keep bringing people to him in repentance and faith.

Our loving heavenly Father, we thank you for your message of good news for all people. We thank you that your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We thank you that you send out workers into your harvest field, and we pray that through them you may bear much fruit. Please bless all those we support at St John’s and St Mark’s, give them confidence in your glorious gospel, and may they always fix their eyes on you. Amen.

 

Top Gear Patagonia Special: The dark side of social media?

Social MediaI’ve just finished watching the Top Gear Patagonia Special (and, not that it really matters with Top Gear, but if you’re still planning to watch it this will discuss the episode content and should come with a spoiler warning). The end of the second part is pretty intense – a nationalist gang in Argentina essentially forced the Top Gear film crew out of the country, and attacked them on the way out – throwing rocks at the cars and breaking windows. At one point there was apparently a gang of 300 people waiting to assault the TG crew as they came through the town.

As I thought about this, it did strike me that all of this is a pretty good illustration of the power of social media: getting a mob together like that requires a degree of organisation which I don’t think was really possible (at such short notice) before the rise of the internet.

I can imagine how easily social media / the internet allows this kind of thing to happen:

  1. Word gets out that Top Gear are coming to the country. If you’re on social media, chances are you’ll see the news – or one of your friends will. This includes members of the nationalist gang.
  2. News camera crews film the cars while they’re in the country. Someone spots that the number plate of Jeremy’s car looks like a reference to the Falklands war. Word gets out on Twitter.
  3. Members of the Argentinian nationalist gang – who connect via a group on Facebook – start discussing how they’re going to respond.
  4. On the day itself, some of the gang find the Top Gear crew and broadcast that information online. They are able to give updates in pretty much real time as events unfold.
  5. As the Top Gear crew leave, some of the gang follow on and update with the route.
  6. Meanwhile, back on Facebook, the rest of the gang are organising themselves. They come up with a plan, quickly, and share it widely to bring in as many people as possible.

The key thing seems to be the power of communication via social media: it allows a group to organise itself amazingly quickly given the latest information, and then distribute the plan widely. Although I think such a lynch mob would have been just about within the bounds of possibility in pre-internet days, it would have taken massive pre-organisation and I think would have been highly unlikely.

It's a fake.
It’s a fake.

But there is another side to this, other than simply practical. This highlights one of the biggest dangers of social media: outrage spreads like wildfire. There is very little more powerful than outrage, especially on social media. One of the most shared photos over the last few months on social media purports to show MPs debating their pay rise (a full house) and debating welfare (an empty house) – the message clearly being “MPs don’t care about the poor or anyone else, they’re just in it for what they can get out of us.” There’s only one tiny problem with the picture: it’s a fake.

And therein lies the problem: on social media you don’t know whether something is true or false. It’s so easy for misinformation to propagate, especially when it plays into the hands of prejudice. In the case of Top Gear, when someone made the connection between Jeremy’s number plate and the Falklands war, it would have spread rapidly – most probably riding on the back of some anti-British sentiment. The MPs image probably spread so fast because many people do not trust politicians. So social media makes our prejudices easily reinforcable. We can share without fact checking. The voices which disagree don’t get a hearing – or we can simply switch off or ignore them. And, in the case of the Top Gear incident, it leads to a mob of 300 people itching to get their pound of flesh.

I wondered a little while ago whether Twitter makes us angry and dumb. I still think that there is a big problem here, which is only going to get worse as people use social media more: if we only listen to the voices which we want to listen to, we don’t hear any disagreement – does that render us incapable of intelligent thought about the subject? If we all know what the ‘right’ answer is, how do we treat someone who gives the ‘wrong’ answer? Social media makes it easy for something to become a ‘right’ answer – the dynamics of a group. There probably were those who doubted that Jeremy Clarkson’s registration plate was a reference to the war, but I doubt they were listened to and quickly came into line with the opinion of the group. And witness what happens on social media if you express the ‘wrong’ opinion about gay marriage, UKIP, or climate change (to name but three examples). Instead of intelligent debate, those with the ‘wrong’ opinions get hounded.

It seems to me there is a connection between what happened to Top Gear and the way the recent abortion debate at Oxford University was shut down.

Social Media is a tool, and – as with all tools – it can be used for good or ill. What’s the solution? I can’t think of any easy options. The problem is not with the tools themselves, but more with the people who use them. The problem lies not in social media but in the human heart. As such, the only solution I can offer is the one which we have just celebrated at Christmas: the coming of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

The only solution to the problems with social media, ultimately, is the solution to the problem of the human heart. Unless we can do anything about that problem, any technological solution will fall short.

Postscript: The Telegraph has an article about what actually happened… count the number of social media references. Seems like my imaginary scenario isn’t too far off the mark.