The emptiness of ‘Thought for the Commute’

The British Humanist Association have launched a new campaign called ‘Thought for the Commute’. This involves posters going up on the London Underground (initially) with inspirational quotes from famous Humanists.

I say inspirational quotes. The quotes are … well, in my opinion at least, not that inspirational. In fact, to be honest, I think it’s an illustration of how empty humanism actually is as a philosophy. Let’s have a quick look at them.

My notion is to think of the human beings first and let the abstract ideas take care of themselves. (Virginia Woolf)

Does that give you a nice warm glow in the pit of your stomach, and inspire you to love and cherish your fellow human being? … me neither. It’s morally neutral: one could well think of human beings first – in a negative sense – and let abstract ideas (such as ‘justice’, ‘compassion’, or ‘murder’) take care of themselves. It seems strange to me that you could think of human beings without thinking in terms of abstract ideas, such as love, kindness and justice.

If I’m being charitable, I think the sense of the quote is that we need to consider what’s best for human beings first, what is in their interests. But surely, what you think is in someone’s best interests will largely depend on the abstract ideas you have about what it means to be human, what it means to be in society (and so on).

Also, given that Woolf doesn’t seem to like “abstract ideas”… the quote is pretty abstract, isn’t it?

Wear a smile and make friends; wear a scowl and make wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other? (George Eliot)

This is probably the best of the four slogans, but it seems to boil down to “be nice!” It’s a good sentiment but, if the history of the human race has taught us anything, it doesn’t work. Try giving the slogan to ISIL in Iraq and see if that changes anything. Try giving it to rich people who are exploiting the poor and see if it changes anything.

The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile. (Bertrand Russell)

I’m sorry, but… this is useless. The second half (“friendly rather than hostile”) is essentially ‘be nice’ (albeit with a caveat – “as far as possible”), and so suffers from the same defect that I mentioned above. The first part… let your interests be as wide as possible? Really? That’s the secret of happiness? There are plenty of people whose interests are pretty narrow, from what I’ve seen they don’t seem less happy than average.

The meaning of your life is what you make it. (A.C. Grayling)

There should, of course, be a footnote which says “unless you’re Adolf Hitler, Rupert Murdoch or … any other bogeyman you’d like to mention”. And that’s not to mention that life is not really what any of us make it: life didn’t turn out the way I expected it to be, for sure. I’m sure it’s the same for pretty much everybody. Many people, in fact, having achieved what they dreamed of, end up feeling empty because there’s nothing else to try for. Why do people who win sports tournaments enter them again the next year?

Part of the problem with this statement – and really with all of them – is that they are vague enough that they could be applied to just about anything. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about why some ideas are memorable and some are forgotten. They cite Jesus as a master example of someone who communicated effectively using their criteria. Things like referring to specific, concrete objects (i.e. trees, farmers, and sowers in Jesus’ parables) rather than abstract ideas. All these BHA slogans seem to fall short simply on the grounds of effective communication. Bertrand Russell’s quote is particularly egregious in that regard – as if anyone ever refers to “things and persons that interest [them]” in those terms! How forgettable is that phrasing?! (As an aside, do have a read of George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language for some gold dust on poor use of language).

Many atheists recently have begun to realise that saying “there is no God” is insufficient – such as Alain de Botton’s book “Religion for Atheists” or the atheist ‘church’. Unfortunately, as this campaign demonstrates, it turns out that it’s pretty hard to come up with something positive to replace religion. For my money, I think it’s because human beings are hard-wired to find meaning, meaning which can only be found ultimately in God. Exhorting someone to ‘be nice’ will not really change anything – I think only God has the power to change someone’s life (I wonder how many humanist cardboard testimonies there are, for example).

We’ll have to wait and see what the reaction to the campaign will be. For my money, I’m betting there won’t be much of one!

Sermon: Abraham and the Promise – Genesis 12:1-9

This is the text of a sermon I preached this morning at church. It’s part of a series on Genesis (looking at Creation – Fall – Noah – Abraham – Joseph, following our Holiday Club themes).

I think at some point I will need to reconsider posting up sermons as I’m not sure that the blog is the best format for this kind of thing. In the meantime, they will be here. Without further ado, here’s the link to the PDF:

Abraham and the Promise – Genesis 12v1-9

Evangelicals and disagreement: What can we learn from the Arians?

Athanasius

Athanasius of Alexandria.

If you haven’t seen the news recently, Christian worship leader and media commentator Vicky Beeching has come out as gay. (If you don’t know who she is, or any of the background, that link will hopefully explain). In a similar vein to Steve Chalke, who came out in support of same-sex marriage recently, Vicky wants to retain the label ‘evangelical’. All this has re-opened the same debate which has been bubbling away for some time now: just what is an evangelical? (A subject which I’ve written about before from another angle).

I read an interesting post this week by Ian Paul about the role of experience in interpreting Scripture, and it made me realise once again that the debate (within evangelical circles at least) largely centres around how we interpret Scripture. Two people can have the same view of Scripture and yet interpret it differently, so it is said – therefore, both interpretations are legitimate.

It put me in mind of something I studied at college last year – namely, the debate between those defending Nicene Christology and the Arians. If your eyes glazed over when I mentioned the word ‘Nicene’ and you entered a coma-like state at ‘Christology’… I apologise. I will explain. But the similarity between the debates within evangelical circles today and the debates in around the 4th century AD are striking, to say the least. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). Read the rest of this entry

The Spirituality of Deal or No Deal

Deal or No DealOver the past week or two, I’ve been watching “Deal or No Deal”. It’s not a show I’ve ever watched before, but given that our former next-door-neighbour has been on it, I thought I’d watch to see her on TV. If you’re not familiar with the show, then I’m not going to explain it here – watch an episode online and you’ll get the gist of it within about two minutes. One of the things that’s fascinating about the show (at least to me) is the spiritual or religious element to it.

You may be thinking, “Spirituality? In Deal or No Deal? How ridiculous!” But let me outline what I’m talking about:

  • There are several ‘superstitions’ in the programme, for example: “The curse of the newbie” – the newest contestant to join the programme is thought to usually have red (high) numbers, so they rarely get chosen. I’ve also seen things like everybody holding hands – as in a seance.
  • More than that, the way the whole show is put together has an air of superstition about it. When someone gets a run of red numbers, people virtually pray for a blue (low) number. The way Noel narrates the show, and the way the contestants talk, the thinking seems to be try really hard and get a blue number. Although ultimately they know they can’t control it, they seem to believe that there is some kind of transcendent destiny about what numbers they pick: if you try hard enough, fate will reward you with a better score.
  • Speaking of reward, the way Noel Edmonds talks about the final amount is entirely geared around getting people to continue. I’ve heard the phrase “life changing amount of money” frequently. Contestants have to have a list of things they want to accomplish if they want to go on the show. In other words, the prize money is seen as something to improve people’s lives: it’s not just money – it’s money with the power to make your life better, and fulfil your dreams.
  • Finally, on more than one occasion Noel Edmonds has called those visiting  (i.e. the audience) ‘pilgrims’.

So, let’s put this all together. On Deal or No Deal, contestants try to make the right choices / do the right things, in order to manipulate something transcendent / supernatural (i.e. fate), in order to accomplish ‘paradise’ – or at least, (some of) their goals in life. Does that sound at all familiar? That is the message which Deal or No Deal is implicitly sending out, even if it’s not explicit.

What’s so tragic and yet so depressingly predictable about Deal or No Deal is the way the contestants seem to universally buy into this kind of thinking, even if the boxes are completely random and the contestants have absolutely no control over which they pick. These people seem to think that if they can just manage to choose the right boxes, they’ll get the highest amount of money and their lives will change forever. (If you listen carefully to what Noel Edmonds says, he strongly encourages this way of thinking). What’s sad about this to me is that it’s ‘religion’ all over.

Religion says, “if you do this well enough you’ll be acceptable to God, and he will bless you”. Look at any religion you like, except for Christianity, and that’s the message that you get: try hard enough, appease the gods, and you will get ‘success’ (however you define it). The point is, it’s all down to your effort. You try hard enough, you obey the rules to a high enough standard, and you get rewarded. It’s like a cosmic vending machine – put the right good deeds into the coin slot, and blessings come out at the bottom. I think that’s not far away from the message of Deal or No Deal.

This is not what Christians believe. What Deal or No Deal offers is what the Bible calls idolatry – belief in a false god. The show encourages belief in some kind of fate or chance – something which, as we see time and again, is no god at all.

By contrast, the Christian God is the God who created the universe, the God who does not demand obedience of us for us to be acceptable to Him but freely gives forgiveness and bestows blessing out of love. He is the only the only one who can make a difference. As He says in Isaiah 44:

I am the Lord,
    the Maker of all things,
    who stretches out the heavens,
    who spreads out the earth by myself,
who foils the signs of false prophets
    and makes fools of diviners,
who overthrows the learning of the wise
    and turns it into nonsense,
who carries out the words of his servants
    and fulfils the predictions of his messengers

God is the only one who is able to do what he promises. Nothing else is worth believing in.

I came across this quote from John Stott earlier today, which I thought would be worth quoting here:

There are many ‘Jesuses’ on offer in the world’s religious supermarket , and many of them are false Christs, distorted Christs, and caricatures … if we want to grow into maturity in Christ, we need a vision of the authentic Jesus . . . Away with our petty, pygmy, puny Jesuses . . . if that is how we think of Christ, no wonder immaturities persist . . . nothing is more important for mature Christian discipleship than a fresh, clear, true vision of the authentic Jesus.’ (John Stott, in a sermon preached in Oak Hill Chapel 2003)

What Deal or No Deal offers is a distortion of Christ and what he offers. Deal promises fulfilment, happiness, a change of life – but will disappoint in all three areas. Deal enslaves people to money and to the potential that it brings; Christ brings freedom. Christ offers life in all its fulness – and he is the only one who is able to do what he promises. The Deal or No Deal gospel is one which is not worth believing in.

Review: Wise Counsel

Wise CounselI’ve just finished reading “Wise Counsel” – John Newton’s letters to John Ryland, Jr. And when I say John Newton, I do of course mean that John Newton – he of Amazing Grace fame, the former slave trader turned Church of England minister. Although Newton is probably best known today for Amazing Grace, at the time he was most famed as a letter writer – many of his letters were published, and he admitted himself that his letters were where God seemed to use him the most.

And his letters are well worth reading: I started reading the book just before ordination, as I thought it might be beneficial to read as I started pastoral ministry. I was not disappointed.

As I said, John Newton was a minister in the Church of England, and John Ryland Jr. was a Baptist minister. The two corresponded for many years, and it’s wonderful to see the growth of their friendship through these letters. Grant Gordon – editor of the book – has provided a very helpful biographical introduction, as well as notes at the end of each letter explaining the circumstances of the next one.

For me, the real highlights of the book were:

  • Newton’s “wise counsel”. It is an appropriate title for the book – Newton was clearly someone who had a lot of Godly wisdom in various situations. Obviously the situations were specific to Ryland at the time, as was the counsel given, but it’s worth reading simply for Newton’s approach. In particular, Newton was someone for whom theology and the Scriptures were not just an academic thing: they applied in real situations. That is what was so helpful about the book for me – seeing how he took the theology he knew and applied it to the situations he was given. His letters are soaked in Scripture and Scriptural references.
  • Similarly, he was not someone who courted controversy. He was charitable in his dealings with those of different theological persuasions whilst at the same time knowing when to stand firm.
  • I would recommend the book to any Christian, nonetheless they were originally written to a pastor of a church, and as someone now in a similar situation I think the letters were especially relevant to someone in Christian ministry.
  • Finally, what I particularly enjoyed was seeing how many of the situations Newton and Ryland were facing that I could relate to: it’s surprising how little has changed in the last 200 years. It was actually encouraging to think about some of the issues that they were facing in the 18th Century, and how the church has survived those challenges – it gives me confidence that the church will survive today. God has kept the church through many changing times, and he continues to work today.

All in all, this is a book I heartily recommend!

Sermon: John the Baptist – Herald (Luke 3:1-6)

John the BaptistThis evening, I preached my first sermon at St John’s. My first post-ordination sermon! To be honest it didn’t feel any different to preaching before ordination – it’s simply a great privilege to bring God’s word to God’s people. The passage was Luke 3:1-6, part of a series on John the Baptist.

Unfortunately no audio is available, but you can download the PDF version. Given that I don’t preach from a full script what I actually said will be slightly different, but there you go.

I hope to be updating this blog soon with how things have been going over the past few weeks too!

Finishing College and Ordination

ChurchThose of you who have been paying attention will know that I’ve spent the last three years of my life in North London, studying for full-time Christian ministry in the Church of England at Oak Hill College. Well, those three years have positively flown by, and in the next two weeks I am going to finish at college, be ordained, and start work in my new role as curate in Great Clacton.

In short, it’s going to be absolutely crazy for a while. (Don’t expect too many blog posts over the next few weeks… I don’t know how much time I will have for blogging once I’m a curate, but hopefully I can do the occasional post).

I thought it might be worth reflecting on a few things I’ve learned over the last three years at college, focussing on this final year:

  • God is amazing. To be honest, I didn’t really need three years of college to know this – but I think I have a much deeper appreciation of it now. As I said in my review of Simply God, “I’ve found my faith enlivened as we have considered together what it means for God to be God”. What does it mean for God to be eternal, omniscient, infinite, perfect…?
  • God’s Word is amazing. This is something which I’ve particularly noticed since coming to college – I now have far more confidence in the Bible (i.e. God’s Word) than I used to have. I’ve had my eyes opened in a new way to how the Bible fits together, how to understand it, how to teach it. I believe God has called me to a ‘ministry of the Word’, i.e. a particular emphasis on preaching and teaching the Bible to people, and as such this is the kind of thing which gets me out of bed in the morning.
  • What God has done for us is amazing. In the last term we’ve been looking at Justification, and how God could “justify the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). The implications of this are huge: what motivates us to love and serve God, for example? Are we motivated out of fear, wondering whether we could ever do enough to merit God’s favour? Or are we motivated by love, in thankfulness for what God has already accomplished?
  • How God works is amazing. I’m thinking particularly here of the Pastoral Counselling course we did back in the first term. It was one of the most helpful practical courses I’ve done at college: how does the Gospel work out in people’s lives? It’s been very helpful for me both in my own life, and in talking to friends and family. God is at work in our situations, even if we don’t know the “why”.

I could go on, at some length, but that’s probably enough for now. I think it’s appropriate to finish with the doxology from the end of Hebrews:

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

The Victim Triangle and ‘Accepting’ Evangelicals

Victim Triangle

Source: Wikipedia

In a class at college recently, we looked at something called the “Victim Triangle”, or the Karpman Drama Triangle as it is more properly called. It’s a fascinating concept, partly because it’s so simple, and partly because once you’ve read about it you literally see it everywhere. Well, maybe not everywhere, but almost everywhere: it’s incredibly common.

So, what is this triangle? Essentially it’s a tool for analysing human interactions and relationships: there are three ‘roles’, and each party plays a particular role in the interaction. As you can see in the image on the left, these roles are: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer.

Now, why do I use the word ‘role’ here? It’s significant, because playing a role doesn’t necessarily mean that you actually are that role. In other words, one party may play the role of Victim without necessarily being a victim. Alternatively, one party may be an actual victim but by casting themselves in the ‘role’ of Victim it has a totalising effect: everything about them becomes an aspect of being victimised. And, of course, if one party assumes the role of Victim – it means there must be a Persecutor. Read the rest of this entry

Review: Simply God

As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, over the past academic year I’ve been studying a course on the Doctrine of God. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the best courses I’ve done at college: the doctrine of God is fundamental to theology – it affects pretty much everything else (what else is theology if not about God, in order to relate us to him?). And it’s been a real privilege to look into how the great theologians of the past (such as Augustine and Aquinas) have understood the doctrine of God, and how they went about doing theology – their careful methodology is a real treat given much of what passes for theology on the internet these days.

And it’s not just an intellectual thing – I’ve found my faith enlivened as we have considered together what it means for God to be God. My mind has been stretched as we’ve thought about God’s simplicity (theological term, not simplicity as you may know it… hence the title of the book), omniscience, omnipotence, eternality and so on. In short, I’ve discovered to be true what Spurgeon once said about God:

Oh, there is, in contemplating Christ, a balm for every wound; in musing on the Father, there is a quietus for every grief; and in the influence of the Holy Ghost, there is a balsam for every sore. Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.

Given all that, I can warmly and heartily recommend “Simply God” to you: Peter Sanlon was until recently a tutor at college and taught the Doctrine of God course which I’ve been doing this year. As such, much of the contents of this book are similar to what I’ve been learning at college – if you wanted one book to read instead of doing the course, you couldn’t do much better than this one. Let me highlight a few aspects of the book I found particularly helpful. Read the rest of this entry

God’s Existence and Kalam

This academic year, I’ve been taking a class on the Doctrine of God. Last week we were studying God’s eternity, and as part of that we looked at the Kalam Cosmological Argument (William Lane Craig’s formulation of it – that link goes through to his website, where you can watch a short video on the Kalam which is actually quite good. He didn’t come up with the original argument himself, but he did extend it).

The argument itself is pretty simple. It goes like this:

  1. Everything that began to exist has a cause of its existence
  2. The Universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.
  4. Causes are either:
    1. Impersonal (without a will) – a previous physical state of affairs which ‘produces’ the new state of affairs. or…
    2. Personal (a will produces the new state of affairs)
  5. So: The universe is either caused by a 4a) or 4b) cause.
  6. But: 4a) causes are not available to cause the universe because by definition there is no previous physical state of affairs.
  7. Further: This personal cause is – in relation to the universe: Transcendent, incorporeal, omniscient and omnipotent.

Read the rest of this entry

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