“Up, civil unrest!” (an Easter-ish reflection)

You may have come across the popular Easter-themed worship song “O Praise The Name (Anástasis)”. I like the song, but I’m amused that someone felt the need to add that biblical Greek subtitle. For those like me not fluent in biblical Greek, ‘Anástasis’ means ‘resurrection’… or also apparently ‘standing up’, ‘removal’, or sometimes recovery from a debilitating condition. Well, I guess death is fairly debilitating.

However, when a friend studying Classics first encountered the song, her response was ‘Why have they called it “Up, civil unrest!”?’

This novel translation arose from splitting the word into ‘ana’ (‘up’ / ‘again’) and ‘stasis’, which surprisingly in Ancient Greece referred to periods of civil war. Sadly this delightful etymology isn’t correct – the actual derivation is from anístēmi, ‘rise up’. But I think ‘Up, civil unrest!’ does, albeit accidentally, capture something important about the resurrection and about the whole of Jesus’ mission. And I’m always up for a bit of accidental prophetic wordplay (see earlier posts on ‘The Ebola crisis or the abode of Christ’ and ‘Jesus is Charlie’).

Jesus the revolutionary?

I don’t of course mean that Jesus was a 1st-century Che Guevara, though I do still like this image (right).

The gospels are at pains to show that Jesus consciously eschewed the violent revolutionary methods and goals of his contemporaries the Zealots; that he stopped his followers from using violence to fight back against his captors in Gethsemane; and that he consistently resisted calls to forcibly re-establish an earthly kingdom of Israel. (Something that some current right-wing Christians might do well to remember.)

However, I do think it’s fair to say that Jesus had a pretty uncomfortable relationship with authority, both political and religious. 

He did of course come out with those startling lines “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword [or division]” (Matt 10:34), as well as that variously-translated and hard-to-understand phrase from Matthew 11:12 about violent men entering the kingdom of heaven by force. 

More significantly he committed some fairly provocative, subversive, even seditious acts. Perhaps the closest Jesus came to open revolution was riding into Jerusalem as ‘king’ on Palm Sunday (albeit in peace on a humble donkey), and then using physical force to turn the money-changers out of the temple. Both of these were of course highly symbolically-charged and prophetic acts with multiple meanings; almost enacted parables. They were more than mere civil disobedience – but surely not less. You could certainly argue that his action in the temple courts wasn’t a million miles away from BLM protesters tearing down statues of slave traders – wherever you stand on that debate, it’s worth pondering the parallels with Jesus’ actions.

Some have suggested that one of the chief aims of Jesus’s ‘cleansing of the temple’ was to provoke the authorities into arresting and ultimately executing him in fulfilment of his greater mission. He wasn’t starting an armed rebellion to overthrow his people’s ungodly oppressors (to the disappointment of many of his followers). He was apparently offering himself up as martyr in an even greater cause, to establish something far greater and better than a political kingdom or empire… but one that nonetheless did still challenge and threaten the political empires, kingdoms and rulers of his day and of ours. 

Jesus was and is a revolutionary – but in a completely new and unexpected mould, unlike almost any other revolutionary we’ve seen (maybe with the exception of people like Rosa Parks, MLK and Gandhi who were all arguably following the pattern Jesus set). 

And perhaps Jesus’s most shocking and subversive acts of all were his incarnation in a human body (which I’ve argued elsewhere is so shocking as to be almost blasphemous); his death (God or the Messiah dying – unthinkable!), and his resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is literally an uprising. It’s a rebellion against death itself, against entropy and the natural order of things – the universal powers-that-be. 

God on whose side?

In the western world at least, where the church has often allied itself with the political or royal establishment, there’s often been a view that God is on the side of the powers-that-be, the conservatives, the proponents of law and order and of the nuclear family. However, this view tends to be less prevalent where Christians are a persecuted minority, or among disenfranchised groups who know the ruling establishment will never represent them. In such places, more revolutionary ideas like Liberation Theology tend to spring up, allying Christ with the powerless underdog and against the powerful establishment.  

From my comfortable armchair position as a privileged, un-oppressed western liberal, I think Liberation Theology goes too far when it calls for actual revolution – I just can’t get around the fact that Jesus always eschewed that course of action. But I do believe that God is absolutely on the side of the poor, powerless, marginalised and oppressed against the powers-that-be – just that (by the same token) his methods are not those of earthly powers or power. 

When I say God is on someone’s side, I don’t mean that he endorses all their beliefs or actions; and when I say he’s against another side, I don’t mean that he hates them or wants to destroy them. I don’t even mean that God is always just radical as opposed to conservative. God is far bigger than our human divisions and ideas, and won’t be co-opted by any human cause, though many have tried and still try. God alone sets the agenda and invites us to join him, or not. But I think that what God calls us to join looks far more like a revolution than it does a safe, comfortable establishment. 

As Jesus’ mother Mary sang it, “God has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” Or as Jesus put it, “The last shall be first, and the first last”, and “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Jesus came to usher in an inverted kingdom which ultimately upsets the power structures, hierarchies and even meritocracies of our human world orders. The good news of Jesus is always more directly and obviously good news for those currently at the bottom of the pile than those at the top – for the last who Jesus says will one day be first. Jesus’s kingdom isn’t an earthly one, but it does turn the earthly order upside down. 

Can you imagine a world in which the Putins, Trumps, Jong-Uns, magnates and tycoons cleaned the toilets of the people who currently live in the Kibera slum? That would surely be fitter justice for the mighty than any lake of fire – or any bloody human revolution. We can dream.

So how about this new liturgy for Easter Sunday:
“He is risen –
Up, civil unrest!”

Happy Easter all.

Posted in Easter, Good Friday, Politics and faith | 3 Comments

Still Evangelical Liberal after all these years?

Astute longer-standing visitors to this blog may have noticed that I’ve been a bit absent for a while. Up till the end of 2016 I was posting monthly (ish), and then Stuff Happened, and I only posted twice in 2017, not at all in 2018 and just once in 2019. Last year with Covid lockdowns I gave it another go, but still only managed 4 posts.

(And it turns out I forget what I’ve said and repeat myself, so I may well just have re-hashed the same post multiple times over the last few years.)

Anyway, it’s been a while since I was blogging regularly, and a fair bit’s happened and changed in that time – both out in the big world and here in my own life, my thinking and beliefs.

So I thought it was time to re-evaluate the blog, its title and its aims – if nothing else, to remind me what it’s about, and as an introduction for newer readers. But also to see whether it’s time to change direction – or to change name.

What’s an Evangelical Liberal anyway?

Why ‘The Evangelical Liberal’? When I started the blog 10 years ago I chose the title partly just because I liked it – it felt playful, paradoxical and mildly provocative. I wasn’t really using it to set out a definite position or to propose a manifesto – almost the opposite. I just wanted to raise questions, to query received orthodoxy, to provoke people (and myself) to think outside boxes and labels.

It was also an expression of where I’d come from, where I was moving towards and the uncomfortable mix of beliefs wrestling within me. I was raised fairly liberal Anglo-Catholic, did the prodigal thing in my late teens, and then ‘converted’ at 21 to a full-on charismatic-evangelical Christianity. I followed this ardently for several years, and then gradually started to notice that I wasn’t convinced by or comfortable with aspects of evangelical Christianity. I even seemed to be becoming that worst of things (from an evangelical perspective) – a liberal Christian. Some would say, no Christian at all.

I struggled with this of course. I was afraid of wandering away from Truth, of Losing my Salvation; yet I felt increasingly unable to offer full assent to many evangelical doctrines and practices. So I explored ways of becoming a bit liberal while still remaining partly evangelical; of incorporating elements of liberal theology within a broadly evangelical framework (or possibly the other way round). I didn’t want to stray too perilously far from the safety of the evangelical fold, but I did want to be honest about my doubts and concerns.

So I started blogging as ‘The Evangelical Liberal’. I didn’t – and still don’t – want to go the whole hog and be just liberal. I didn’t and don’t feel I can entirely chuck out the Bible, or the miraculous, or all of the things I experienced and learnt back in my more full-on charismatic-evangelical days. I still need that anchor, and I still value (and believe) aspects of those traditions. But nor do I want to go back to being just evangelical – that feels to me like returning from freedom to captivity.

So ‘Evangelical Liberal’ is also an attempt at reconciliation or synthesis between these two seeming polar opposites; an effort to make peace between the two apparently opposing camps. I grew up in an ecumenical Anglican and Roman Catholic family and my parents worked hard for unity between these traditionally warring denominations. And it’s built into the fabric of my personality to try and see both sides of any argument or division. I don’t know if it is ever possible to reconcile evangelical with liberal, but I feel compelled to try.

What’s changed?

As I said though, some things have changed over the last few years. Have my beliefs changed significantly in that time? Yes and no.

I hope I’ve become a little less angry and react-y, and have moved on slightly from just knee-jerk reacting against evangelicals. We’ll see.

I’m certainly not actively rejecting most mainstream doctrines – the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection etc. It’s more a case of re-interpreting some of them, finding new ways to think about them that shed some of the unfortunate baggage they’ve accrued. And it’s also challenging or querying particular emphases – for example, I still think evangelicalism makes too much of divine sovereignty, biblical inerrancy and human depravity, as well as (in my view) slightly misunderstanding them.

I think I’m actually both more liberal and more evangelical than I was 3 years ago. My faith feels more alive again, more real, more meaningful – and it still has both these aspects, the evangelical and the liberal.

However, there are other equally (perhaps more) important aspects – the charismatic and the contemplative in particular. I’m really more charismatic than I am evangelical, and more drawn to the contemplative tradition than to the purely liberal. Maybe ‘The Contemplative Charismatic’ would do more justice to where I’m at these days.

It’s Complicated

Other titles I’ve been considering for this blog are ‘It’s Complicated’, ‘Seeing Both Sides’ and ‘The Excluded Middle’. On pretty much every issue I look at – theological, ethical, political, sociological – my overriding impression is always that ‘it’s complicated’. I’ve rarely found any issue with definite, single, simple answers.

And I do just have the kind of mind that sees complication rather than simplicity; sees nuance rather than black-and-white; sees the exceptions rather than the rules, the little errors rather than the overall consistency.

As I say, I’m also programmed to see both sides, always – I often find it very hard to come down definitely on one side or the other, and usually end up (uncomfortably) in the middle.

Seeing complexity isn’t always helpful. I too easily get lost in the detail and fail to see the bigger picture. And sometimes decisive action is needed rather than endless thinking; sometimes a side has to be chosen and a stand made.

But when pondering the deep questions of theology and faith, I think complexity, nuance and a degree of uncertainty often are helpful – and all too often are lacking. There are things we don’t know and things we maybe can’t know.

There are also things we think we know but are wrong about – plenty in my case. So I think an ability to see the other side is hugely important, to help move us out of entrenchment and conflict into dialogue and maybe ultimately harmony. I don’t want this blog just to be an echo chamber of like-minded people all jaded with evangelicalism. I hugely appreciate those voices that agree with me, but if I’m only ever preaching to the choir then we all might as well be talking to ourselves.

Nonetheless, I think the phrase ‘The Evangelical Liberal’ does already encapsulate complexity, and does already point to seeing both sides. So I’ll probably stick with it for now. But please shout at me if I do just go on writing the same post over and over again in slightly different ways.

And if you’ve got any ideas for things you’d like me to write about and save us all from endless repetition, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.

Posted in Evangelicalism, Liberalism | 32 Comments

Reasons to be hopeful?

Belated Happy New Year to you all! But of course, as everyone’s been pointing out, for most of us it isn’t all that happy a new year at the moment. 

It hasn’t even felt particularly new, with 2021 so far just seeming like an unwelcome extension of 2020 – even a return to the worst parts of last year. 

Reasons to be depressed

So on the face of it there don’t seem many reasons to be hugely hopeful. Covid isn’t going away, and many of us have already lost friends and loved ones to it. Meanwhile most of us are back in full lockdown with no signs of life getting back to anything like normal for months – and the effects on mental health, education, the economy, and all health that isn’t Covid-related look pretty dire. 

To add to that we have all the mounting concerns about climate change, mass extinctions, deforestation and extreme weather. All while we’re living in this increasingly divided and polarised world where tolerance and mutual respect seem to have been replaced by factions shouting angrily at each other on Twitter. We have the rise of far-right groups, extremist and totalitarian governments and anti-liberal sentiment. We have the erosion of truth and trust with so many getting their news from propaganda and echo chambers rather than objective sources. 

And even with Trump finally out of power, his supporters haven’t gone away. And I’m not even going to talk about bloody Brexit.

Plus there are still all the usual reasons to be depressed in January, in the northern hemisphere anyway – cold, dark, post-Christmas, new year’s resolutions broken, etc.

Reasons to be hopeful

But this isn’t the full picture by any means. There are many good news stories. With mass vaccinations the tide is gradually starting to turn against Covid. We do still have a chance to reverse the worst of man-made climate change. For all the extremists, the angry shouters and haters, there are far, far greater numbers of reasonable folk who just aren’t as audible. And, hey, Donald Trump is out of the White House. It’s not all bad. 

I deliberately didn’t title this post ‘reasons to be happy’ though – for a start, happiness is an emotion and you can’t choose to feel something. You can look for the good, count your blessings and put a brave face on things, but you can’t force yourself or anyone else to feel happy. There are things we can do to make happiness more likely, but they don’t always work.

Still, if we can’t guarantee being happy, we can perhaps at least be hopeful. 

Even just on a practical, non-spiritual level, there are plenty of reasons to have hope. There is always a good chance of better to come – and the worse things are, the more likely it is (statistically speaking) that they have to get better at some point. And there is truth in the cliches – it often is darkest before the dawn, and spring generally does follow winter; most clouds do have some kind of silver lining, and most ill winds blow somebody some good; that which doesn’t kill us often does make us stronger. Not always, but enough for hope to be more than just wishful fantasy. 

The world we live in does seem to be largely set up for recovery and self-repair. Deserts burst into bloom after years of drought. Bodies mostly do heal. People endure and survive incredible hardships and losses, and come out the other side (in small ways that’s been my own experience). Nations recover from war and famine and economic crashes. The world has survived ice ages and mass extinctions and pandemics and asteroids and supervolcanoes. Life always somehow finds a way to bounce back, to push up through the cracks. 

Patterns of redemption

And as someone who does believe in God (even if I’m not too sure on all the details), I can’t help but see a meaningful pattern in all this. I think the world and its creatures – us – are set up to heal and recover because that somehow reflects God’s desires or intentions. Which means that God expects stuff to go wrong sometimes (even terribly wrong), and also that he’s made provision for that; that even the worst catastrophes aren’t ‘the end of the world’. 

Most of the time at least, I believe in a God who’s primarily in the business of redemption; of restoration, renewal, reconciliation and even sometimes resurrection. A God of hope, in other words; of second chances and new beginnings – whether or not this New Year is currently delivering much on that front.

I also believe in a God who seems to do his best work in situations that are bleakest and most hopeless. I don’t know why God so often seems to wait for things to get about as bad as they possibly can before acting, but time and again that’s what I’ve seen.

Your kingdom come

An agnostic friend recently asked ‘Where is God in this?’, meaning (I think) ‘how can you believe in a good God when everything is this rubbish?’. It’s a fair question. It’s hard to look at a world in such chaos and see a benign sovereign power running the show.

And if I believed that God was entirely sovereign, directly responsible for how everything is and for all that’s happening, I’d probably feel less hopeful than I do. Of course, some find it reassuring to believe that God is utterly in control. But I find it too impossibly unpalatable to believe in a God who actively chooses to inflict all this chaos and suffering on his creatures, however sinful they might be. (And I am aware that humanity is fairly spectacularly awful at times, including me.)

But as I understand it, God’s will isn’t perfectly done here and his kingdom isn’t fully realised, not yet – or why would Jesus tell us to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’? How things are now is not yet how God wants them to be. But, in all this mess, he is still present and active; not preventing or wiping out all the bad (which after all might wipe us out too), but rather working to bring the most good out of it in the long run; slowly growing the new life of his kingdom up out of the cracks in the concrete.

For me, faith isn’t a magic ticket to everything being lovely now. It’s about glimpsing a bigger picture, a greater story, and locating yourself within that. It’s about holding on (and being held) while things aren’t yet all well, in the hope and trust that one day they will be – and that we can even play a small part in bringing that about.

So even if it’s not really a happy new year, perhaps it can still be a hopeful one. I hope so.
 

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Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Covid questions – 3. What kind of God would send a pandemic?

Last time I was looking at whether pandemics and plagues are sent by God to punish sin, and concluded that (even in the Old Testament) the picture is a lot more complex than that.

So did God actively send coronavirus or did he just allow it, and why? And perhaps as importantly, what do we really want to know when we ask these questions?

What are we really asking?

Aside from just intellectual curiosity (which seems a perfectly valid reason to me), I can think of at least 4 reasons we might be asking if and why God sent Covid-19…

  1. We might be trying to understand God’s character and nature; to discover what kind of God he (or she or whatever) is. Is God an almighty sovereign who chooses and causes everything that happens? Is he/she good and can I trust him? Does he actively intervene in the world or just watch ‘from a distance’? Is he angry and vengeful, needing appeasing, or are his purposes always benign? Does he care, and is he capable of saving us from trouble? Is he really worthy of worship?
  1. Alternatively, we may just be looking for some meaning, purpose and hope in a confusing and difficult situation. Do our trials have a good, even divine, reason and can they have a good outcome? If it was sent by God, could Covid even turn out to be a positive thing ultimately, a blessing in disguise, despite everything?
  1. Relatedly, we may be seeking guidance and direction, asking how we should respond to this crisis. Is there anything specific God wants us to do to alleviate it, end it or bring good out of it – whether that’s an overtly religious response like prayer and fasting, or whether it’s about practical action to alleviate suffering or find a cure?
  1. Or as I said last time, we may simply be looking for someone to blame for our troubles – whether that be God himself, or more often a human scapegoat who’s brought Covid on us all by their sin (or just their carelessness). And in so doing we may be seeking the reassurance of a neat explanation for our troubles, and also perhaps the comfort of knowing that someone else is to blame and will have to take the rap for it.

Leaving aside the last which we’ve already kind of dealt with, I’d like to look more closely at these questions over the next couple of posts. Starting with…

What kind of God do we believe in?

The question of what kind of God creates or sends Covid-19 is essentially another version of the classic ‘problem of pain’; the perennial and age-old question of why God – if he’s truly good and omnipotent – allows or even sends suffering and other things that we see as evil.

And in asking it we may be seeking reassurance that God really is good, really does love us and really is ultimately capable of saving us.

Or we may be approaching from the opposite side and looking to discredit God, to show that he’s either useless (unable to save us from Covid), petty (using it to punish minor infractions), or actually evil (delighting in inflicting suffering), and is therefore clearly unworthy of worship. (Incidentally this response has almost as long a historical heritage as the idea of plague as divine punishment – Lucretius, the great proto-atheist of the 1st century BC, used Thucydides’ account of the Athenian plague as demonstration of the uselessness of belief in the gods.)

So what is the nature and character of a God who sends – or at least allows – a disease like Covid-19? There are a few obvious alternative positions on this (and probably a bunch of others I haven’t thought of):

  1. God is completely sovereign and all-powerful, so everything that happens – including Covid – must be directly planned and willed by him, or at the very least be allowed by him for a divine purpose.
  2. God is good and loving but not all-powerful (or he allows his power to be limited in particular contexts for particular reasons); he therefore cannot always prevent all the evils in the world, however much he would like to.
  3. God doesn’t ever intervene.
  4. God doesn’t exist.

The first (God is sovereign) is usually associated with Calvinists and others who emphasise God’s absolute supremacy and holiness, and we looked at it a bit last time when asking whether God uses plagues to punish sin.

The plus side of this view for many is that it maintains God’s greatness and majesty (oh, and that it’s ‘biblical’). On the flip side it does lead to the charge that God can’t be truly good or loving if he wills things which we see as cruel or evil. This isn’t unanswerable of course – our view of what’s evil may be mistaken; there may be such things as ‘necessary evils’ or the lesser of two evils; and allowing evil to happen doesn’t necessarily make someone evil, depending on why they allow it. Also, there’s the argument that God has rights over his creation that we as creatures don’t have – so while it’s wrong for people to kill each other, it’s not wrong for God to take away life which was always his gift to us not a right.

The second view (God is good but not all-powerful) protects God’s character as good and loving, but brings the charge that he is weak or useless. Again, this isn’t unanswerable – if God can’t prevent all evils, it may simply be that his power is not of the form we expect or exercised in the way we expect (I’ve argued elsewhere that love is both the strongest and weakest power in the universe). Or it may be that he has chosen to limit his power for a greater purpose, perhaps to allow his creation genuine freedom and responsibility. And crucially he may be able to redeem the evils and even bring greater good out of them than if they had not been.

The third view (classic Deism) neatly sidesteps the issues – if God never intervenes in the world, we can’t accuse him of being evil for causing evil, nor of being weak for not preventing it. But it does bring the charge of his being uncaring and aloof, more like a lab experimenter than a loving father. Again, this isn’t entirely unanswerable – God might not intervene simply because he places such a high value on our autonomy and responsibility. And good parents often don’t intervene to bail their children out of difficulties, knowing that if they did so their children wouldn’t develop life skills, judgement, independence and responsibility. (However, most parents would intervene in situations where their child’s life is threatened.)

And the fourth view (God doesn’t exist) removes the question entirely, but doesn’t take away Covid or make it any easier to deal with – and doesn’t help us if our experience or reason convinces us that there is a God.

Of course it’s possible to take more or less nuanced versions of any of these views – and the reality may be something quite different that doesn’t fit into such neat logical categories.

Incarnation and redemption (and Satan)

My own belief is that God is genuinely good, loving and powerful, but that he chooses to allow his creation considerable autonomy and so limits the exercise of his powers. And I believe in incarnation – that, in Jesus, God is truly present in and through us, and in and through our sufferings. I also believe in redemption – that God is actively working to bring good out of our trials. So I do therefore believe that God intervenes, at least in the sense that he is actively present in and through our lives.

The other thing to mention here is the idea of Satan, or forces of evil that are not God and that even oppose his will. It would be convenient just to blame Satan for all evils in the world including Covid, but that doesn’t really change what we’ve said above. If God is fully sovereign, Satan can only do what God wills or allows anyway; if God’s good but not entirely almighty, Satan is simply the chief evil God isn’t fully able to prevent. (And if God never intervenes or doesn’t exist and Satan’s real, then frankly we’re a bit stuffed.)

Maybe it’s also worth asking whether Covid-19 really is evil as we tend to assume. It’s fairly obvious why we view it as evil, because of the devastating effect it has on human lives and communities – but perhaps that’s not the full picture. I’d like to look at this more fully next time when thinking about divine purpose.

Suffering

I do realise that all of this only scratches the surface and doesn’t really address the deep age-old questions about suffering. I have looked at suffering in some depth before so I won’t rehash it all now but do have a browse.

For the moment I’ll just say that suffering is an unavoidable and perhaps necessary part of all life; and I find it more helpful to see suffering as a mystery to be experienced and changed by than as an intellectual puzzle to be solved. I also hold to the belief that sufferings and trials have the potential to be redemptive, or at least to be redeemed.

And to end, I don’t believe that suffering is the end or that it has the final word. In the end, all shall be well…

Posted in Divine intervention, Suffering, World events | Tagged | 2 Comments

Covid questions – 2. Is it sent by God to punish sin?

Last time I was saying that one common religious response to strange and difficult times (such as our current Covid-19 situation) is to see them as a sign of the End Times – and that some people even find this strangely comforting. It means God’s in control (and is almost definitely on their side), and it gives an explanation for trials rather than them being random and meaningless.

A similar and even more common religious response is to proclaim that what’s happening has been sent by God as a judgement for human sin – often for some particular sin of society (usually sexual) or of the church (heresy/apostasy). In sending plague and pestilence, in this view, God is both justly punishing sin and mercifully calling people to repentance.

Again, it’s comforting in providing an explanation for what’s going on; and it also offers people something they can do to alleviate the situation – pray, fast, repent or call others to repentance. And best of all it provides us with a scapegoat, someone to blame – ourselves if we have sensitive consciences, or preferably those bad other people who’ve been angering God with their sins. 

A quick tour of historical plagues

You can see this response to plagues and pandemics throughout human history. 

One of the earliest written examples outside the Bible is in Homer’s Iliad (probably composed around 700BC), where Apollo sends a plague on the Greeks because Agamemnon insults one of the god’s priests. (As an aside, much of the Old Testament may have been written down around 600BC, so maybe a century or so after the Iliad – though of course the oral tradition it’s based on may be much older.)

When plague hit the Roman Empire in 165AD, philosopher-Emperor Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians for angering the Roman gods by refusing to take part in public religious rituals, and so instigated a bout of persecution against them.

400 years on, Pope Gregory the Great responded to the plague of 590AD by decreeing that it was a divine punishment for humanity’s sins and that the required response was public repentance. Unfortunately the resulting penitential processions to the shrine of the Virgin Mary then spread the plague even more.

The medieval Black Death was of course the worst human pandemic ever yet experienced. Reasons offered at the time for God’s sending of the plague included, among myriad other human sins: the failings of the clergy; divine disapproval of tournaments; indecent clothing (such as women dressing as men); and the disobedience of children (see https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1O_PX2wVD0sC&pg=PA127).

Title pages of two sermons prompted by the Great Plague of London

Title pages of two sermons prompted by the Great Plague of London

Finally, in the 1665-1666 Great Plague of London, various (I think mostly Puritan/Calvinist) preachers published sermons with titles like ‘God’s Terrible Voice in the City’ and ‘Meditations… occasioned by the present Judgement of the Plague’. These sermons again tended to take the line that the plague was sent by God as a result of human sin – or else perhaps as a trial to be endured by the faithful. They did also seek to offer comfort and counsel to Christians, who could serve Christ by their acts of mercy and who (should it come to that) could look forward to being united with him in death. (You can read these two particular sermons in full at: https://gracegems.org/C/Vincent_Gods_terrible_voice_in_the_city.htm and https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2hBt5WshlPkC&pg=PA1)

Biblical Plagues

Of course, there are plenty of cases of divinely-sent plague and pestilence in the Old Testament. Most famous are Exodus’s 10 Plagues of Egypt, which Israel’s God YHWH sends to punish Pharaoh for refusing to set the Israelites free. (Though of course God also famously hardens Pharaoh’s heart against setting them free, raising all sorts of questions of free will and fairness – of which more in a minute.)

‘The Plague of Ashdod’ by Nicolas Poussin

In 1 Samuel 5-6, YHWH sends a plague of ‘tumours’ upon the Philistines at Ashdod as a punishment for taking captive the holy Ark of the Covenant (fairly mild compared to what happens to its desecrators in Raiders of the Lost Ark). The Philistine priests wisely realise that the plague can only be lifted by restoring YHWH’s Ark to Israel (and also by making some gold tumours and rats for good measure).

But for me the most interesting example is the episode recorded in 2 Samuel 24 (and slightly differently in 1 Chron 21). David orders that all his fighting men be counted, which is apparently a grievous sin – perhaps because it signals pride or reliance on human/physical strength rather than faith in God’s protection. As a result, God (via a prophet) directly offers David a choice of three alternative punishments, of which David chooses three days of divinely-sent disease or plague, which kills 70,000 people. 

The biblical account offers at least three alternative reasons for why the plague stops – that God relents rather than destroying his beloved Jerusalem; that David offers a sacrifice on behalf of the people (and also asks to take the punishment just on himself); and also simply that the allotted 3-day span was up. Nonetheless, the account is clear that it’s God who both sends and stops the plague, and that it’s a punishment for sin.

However, the account also starts by saying that God incited David to number the fighting men, the reason being that he was already angry with Israel (‘once again the LORD’s anger burned against Israel’), though it doesn’t explain what they’d done to anger him. So the plague sent as punishment for David’s warrior-numbering sin is actually presented as a proxy punishment for unspecified national sins of Israel.

YHWH is utterly sovereign

What we have to remember, for any of this to make sense, is that in much of Old Testament thought the LORD or Yahweh/YHWH was utterly sovereign and almighty (and beyond human understanding). The LORD was the ultimate – and quite often the direct – cause of everything that happened, whether for good or ill, often even extending to individual human decisions and actions. So in this worldview, a plague must have been sent – and stopped – by God, and even David’s choices had to have been ultimately caused or influenced by God. 

The same applies to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. To OT writers there is nothing inconsistent or unfair about this – God is simply sovereign. 

And crucially, although they acknowledge that God’s reasons are often beyond our understanding, the OT writers do nonetheless believe he always has just cause for his actions. If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh must have deserved or needed it. 

For though God is in this view the bringer of both good and ill events, he himself is entirely good and therefore any ill he brings must have good cause – most likely as a righteous and merited response to human wickedness and disobedience. And finally God is also merciful and may remove the affliction he sends if we truly repent. 

All of which does seem to make perfectly sound logical (and theological) sense, and as we’ve seen it’s been echoed by many religious thinkers over the ensuing millennia whenever plagues have struck humanity. And let’s face it, we humans (particularly other humans) are a pretty dodgy and disobedient lot at the best of times, so we can almost always argue that any given pestilence is merited. 

An alternative view

However, I’m always a bit suspicious of overly watertight logic – I find that it doesn’t generally correspond that well to the complexities and messiness of actual human life or of the real world – or indeed of the Bible itself. 

And the trouble is it’s all too easy for the message of judgement for sins to be hijacked by those with a particular agenda – often a fairly conservative one (e.g. that God’s judging our society for allowing abortions / gay marriage / women priests / Muslim politicians / Jerry Springer: The Opera, etc …). Such agenda-driven preaching in turn often just drives people who feel attacked or excluded to hate God and the church even more.

It’s also worth noting that other biblical witnesses do present quite a different picture from this theology. Perhaps the most striking example is in the book of Job, thought to be the oldest book in the Bible. Terrible disasters afflict Job and his family (including a kind of plague, of boils), and his ‘friends’ come along preaching the now-familiar and pastorally helpful message that this must all be God’s just judgement on Job for his sins. Yet in the end Job is vindicated and his friends’ logically watertight theology – precisely the same theology we’ve been looking at above – is shown up to be false. Job was righteous and God wasn’t punishing him for his sins. Job never does find out why he suffered – but in the end he is restored and his sufferings are redeemed, sort of.

So in Job we get the alternative idea that our trials may be mysterious and not necessarily merited, but may somehow be ultimately beneficial or redemptive. And we also see behind the scenes that it is not God afflicting Job, but Satan (though the Satan in Job seems barely related to the New Testament Satan).

Another striking case is in the gospels, where Jesus heals a man who had been born blind (John 9). The disciples again assume the familiar theology that all affliction must have been sent by God to punish sins, and so ask Jesus whether it was the man himself or his parents who sinned in order that he be born blind. But Jesus brilliantly turns this theology on its head, saying that no-one sinned – rather the man’s blindness is in order that God’s work might be displayed in him (or perhaps that God’s glory be revealed in him). 

So… does God send plague to punish sin?

I realise I can’t hope to answer this question in one post – so far we’ve barely scratched the surface. And I certainly don’t want to say categorically that God would never send plague or that he would never punish sins in such a way. I’m not a prophet and I don’t know all the mind or ways of God. Rather I think we should always pause before making any categorical statements about God’s actions and intents, whether that he does or doesn’t send plagues, that he does or doesn’t act to judge sin, or which specific sins he might be most bothered about. 

And I would also say that, though it’s certainly worth considering that any given disaster may have been sent (or allowed) by God, and that one reason for this may be human sin, the whole picture is likely to be far more complex. Even if God is involved, his involvement may not be causal, and he may well have entirely other motives and concerns than the judging of human sins. But maybe we can look at all this a bit more next time… 

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Divine intervention, Fundamentalism, Sin, Suffering, World events | 3 Comments

Covid questions – 1. Is it the end of the world?

Well, we’re certainly all living in interesting times, as the old proverbial curse has it. Who even a few short months ago in 2019 could have predicted the situation we’re currently living through? (Who a few short months ago had even heard the terms Covid-19, self-isolation or social distancing which are now dominating all of our lives?)

Covid-19, and the complete upheaval it’s caused to our world and our daily lives, has taken pretty much everyone by surprise. And of course it raises all sorts of questions, including a few spiritual and theological ones. Where is God in all this? Did he cause this or just allow it, and why? Is it a Sign of the End? How should we respond to it? How do we survive lockdown without going loco and murdering our nearest and dearest, and what do we do if the shops run out of essential wine and beer? I’d like to address at least some of these questions over the next few posts. Starting this time with the question of whether Covid-19 is a sign of the End Times.

The end is nigh (maybe)

Apologies for the slightly alarming image

At times like these, certain types of people inevitably respond by reaching for their well-worn copies of the book of Revelation and proclaiming that what’s happening is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. For such people, the coronavirus pandemic is a sure sign that, this time, The End Is really Nigh, and that Jesus will shortly be landing in Jerusalem (or just possibly somewhere in the southern United States).

And joking apart, I suppose that if we believe – as most Christians probably do in theory at least – that Jesus is ultimately coming back to wrap up history and institute a new era, then at some point the prophesiers will have to be right – even if only by statistical chance rather than divine guidance. (And even if they’re hopefully not right about most of the details of what Christ’s return will look like – for example, The Rapture, or everyone bearing ‘the mark of the beast’ being cast into a literal lake of eternal fire).

If you think I’m being overly flippant, you’re probably right – it’s a coping strategy, rather as predicting the end of the world is for some (as I’ll argue below). I don’t really think the end of the world or the actual return of Jesus are laughing matters – but I do think that some Christian interpretations of them are.

Why do people keep predicting the end?

So why do some people seem so keen to predict the imminent end whenever things get a bit strange or difficult? I think partly it goes with a certain fundamentalist mentality, a theology that’s always wanted to believe that Christ will return soon to vindicate the true believers and to judge and punish the scoffers, evildoers and liberals. Which of course can be a tremendously comforting belief.

But furthermore, sometimes the strangeness and difficulty of our situation becomes so extreme that it’s really hard to deal with, as I think it is now for many people. Then it can be tempting for any of us – fundamentalist or not – to hope for some kind of divine or magical end to all the seemingly insuperable problems of our lives and of the world; the return of the Saviour to whisk us all away from present trouble to eternal paradise. (And if the Saviour also decides at the same time to punish those who we deem to be irredeemable – whether that be politicians of the wrong party, anti-social neighbours or people who aren’t observing lockdown as assiduously as we are – well, who are we to argue?)

And also, comfortably liberal and sceptical as I am, even I have to admit that at times over the last few years it’s been hard not to feel that world situations and events appear to be hotting up to some kind of climactic (or climatic) crescendo. Sometimes it is hard to watch the news and not feel that things are spiralling a tiny bit out of control and that surely this can’t all just go on indefinitely without a major and possibly terminal crash.

At the start of 2020 many of us were fearing that Donald Trump might be about to precipitate World War Three with Iran. Others were worrying that the raging wildfires in Australia and then Storms Ciara and Dennis were signs of impending climate disaster. And then Covid-19 hit, kicked everything else into touch and turned the whole world upside-down. At times like these, talk of the End of the World perhaps doesn’t feel quite so crazy as it usually would.

We’ve survived worse

And yet – let’s also acknowledge the historical reality that the world has faced countless catastrophes and cataclysms before, and it’s still here. Humanity too has been through near-global wars, large-scale disasters, economic crashes, pandemics and dramatic climate shifts before, and people are still here, indeed in greater numbers than ever. And of course the self-appointed prophets of doom have been regularly predicting The End, or Christ’s Return, for millennia, and so far none of them have ever been right.

So I think it’s still reasonable to have a fairly strong scepticism about any prophetic claims of an imminent End, or that any particular event – however catastrophic or unprecedented – is a herald of the impending Apocalypse. Coronavirus is undeniably a horrible, devastating and even world-changing thing, but so too were the World Wars, the Black Death, the Spanish Flu pandemic and hundreds of other terrible events in history, and none of them ushered in the End of All Things. Which is not at all to belittle them or the impact they have had on real people’s lives.

But while I am always sceptical about End Times claims, I’m also not going to write them off completely. As I say, at some point, eventually, the end-predictors will probably have to be right if only by accident. Equally at some point the sceptics like me will have to be wrong. And none of us knows the day or hour – it could be in a billion years, or it could conceivably be today.

Never mind the end of the world

But either way, what we do know is that our own lives are relatively short and will certainly end – in a matter of decades at most, and very probably long before this world does. In light of the current situation our short lives seem even more fragile and vulnerable than ever. So what matters surely is what we do with the time that is given us, as the Bible – no sorry, Gandalf – says.

So I’m inclined to say: never mind the end of the world – you can’t do much about it anyway. Instead, concentrate on what you can do something positive about – yourself, and the situations immediately around you. What can we do to be our best and most creative selves during lockdown, and not take out our frustrations on those we’re cooped up with? How can we support the people who most need it despite social distancing, and how can we not fall into the easy traps of becoming judgemental and self-righteous, fearful and isolationist, or just cynical and apathetic? The end of the world can worry about itself – we’ve got other stuff to do.

And who knows – if we all learn to live a bit more sustainably, there’s just a tiny chance that the planet might limp on for a little bit longer than it would have otherwise. God willing, maybe we can do something to postpone the end.

Next time – is Covid-19 God’s judgement on sinful humanity?

Posted in Eschatology/end-times, Fundamentalism, World events | Tagged | 1 Comment

All together at the cross

Good Friday – Christ crucified. After nearly 2000 Good Fridays can there be anything fresh to say about the cross (and does there need to be)?

One understanding of Good Friday is that on the cross, God – the Lord, maker, judge and ruler of everything – identifies with the very least, the lowest, the worst of humanity. On the cross God, in Jesus, takes on all our shame, our brokenness, our hurt, our badness, our alienation – all the worst and most unacceptable in us. That’s pretty flipping amazing.

But I think it also has some surprising – even shocking – implications.

God of both sides?

On the one hand it surely does mean, as has often been said, that in Jesus God identifies with the victims, the oppressed and the abused, the marginalised and the minorities; with the have-nots and the powerless. That’s clearly good news for a great number of people.

But does it not also mean that God in some way identifies too with the oppressors, the abusers, the villains – even the very worst people – of history and of today’s world? If God’s salvation really is for all, and if on the cross he really does take on our sin and shame – all the very worst in us – then surely that means he identifies with the very worst of us too, the people we see as utterly evil and beyond all possibility of redemption?

If so, on the cross, Jesus somehow impossibly holds together the victim and the perpetrator, the oppressed and the oppressor – and furthermore makes us realise that we’re all, always, both. We’re all on both sides at different times and in different situations. There are no entirely guiltless people, who have caused no harm or suffering to others (or at the very least to themselves); and there are no people entirely beyond sympathy, no people who have never suffered at the hands of others or of the world. At the cross we’re all levelled and brought together.

It’s often been said that each one of us in a sense nailed Jesus to the cross, including by our mistreatment of others (“what we did to the least of his brothers”). And at the same time each of us has been mistreated by other people, and Jesus takes this to the cross too, identifying with us in our roles as both aggressor and victim, and so enabling full healing and reconciliation.

Over the past couple of years, #MeToo has become a powerful cry for the victims of male abuse. And naturally I, like most others, want to distance myself as much as possible from the Harvey Weinsteins and Jimmy Saviles of the world – ‘I’ve never done anything like that and I never would’.

Yet in the light of the cross, maybe I need to acknowledge that I am in some way part of the problem, tacitly and implicitly if not actively and directly. Deep down I know I’m not fully free from all of the sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and other toxic prejudices, fears and lusts that lead to the abuse, marginalisation and mistreatment of my fellow human beings – people Jesus loved and died for. Maybe I have to whisper, shamefacedly and reluctantly, ‘Me too’ on the side of the perpetrators and abusers. Maybe.

We’re all sinners – what a relief!

Of course the message that ‘we’re all sinners’ comes across so negatively. But seen from another angle I think it can be a tremendous relief. We’re all ‘sinners’, we’ve all messed up, we’re all failures – not just us, but everyone else too, even the people we most admire and wish to emulate, the ones who we’re sure would never have any horrible prejudices or do anything shameful. And if we already feel deep down like we’re bad, that we’re unacceptable failures or misfits, then to know that we’re actually in the same boat as absolutely everyone else is pretty encouraging.

And it means we can stop pretending (at least to ourselves), and stop beating ourselves up when we fail (as we inevitably will). It’s not that most people are good and we’re going to get found out as being the bad people we are – we’re all in it together, and we can stop pointing the finger at each other to try and avoid exposure ourselves. And we can start being merciful to others who are also failures and who have bad thoughts and feelings and attitudes just like the ones we want to deny we have.

And of course the further good news is that although we might all be equally ‘unacceptable’ from the perspective of perfection, at the cross we’re actually all completely accepted; loved, welcomed, forgiven, healed, included. At the cross we are both guilty and forgiven; judged yet released; exposed yet accepted and welcomed. The cross reaches across all divides, all that separates us and imprisons us, all that puts us beyond the reach of other humans, and of love.

G.K. Chesterton characterised the shape of the cross as an intersection of irreconcilables – of love and anger, of justice and mercy, of guilt and forgiveness. St Paul talks of it in a similar way as the place where all our dividing walls are torn down and old enemies are united – God and human first of all, and so also Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, left-wing and right-wing; even victim and aggressor.

At the cross we are re-united with others and also with the broken, shameful parts of ourselves that we’ve tried to split off and deny – the parts that are aggressor not victim, villain not hero, loser not winner; or that are ugly or weak or just weird. At the cross we can at last be whole again.

Though of course when we actually come to try and live that out it’s nowhere near as easy as it sounds…

Posted in Easter, Good Friday, Love of God, Salvation, Sin | 1 Comment

Does light overcome darkness?

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

What does faith – especially Christian faith – mean? It’s something I’ve been pondering for a while now, particularly as so many aspects of Christian theology and practice, of the Bible, and of Church history and tradition have felt increasingly alienating to me. For some time I’ve found it increasingly hard to know whether to call myself a Christian – whether I even legitimately can, and whether I actually want to. I look at Christianity and I’m not sure it’s what I want to be part of.

So perhaps the key question for me right now, the test on which my faith stands or falls, is this –

Is Christ’s power, ability and will to create greater than the darkness’s power to destroy? Is Christ’s power to redeem and restore greater than the darkness’s power to corrupt, spoil, ruin and mess up? Is Christ’s power and desire to free, to liberate, greater than the darkness’s power to enslave and imprison?

That for me, right now, is the cornerstone of my faith; its meaning if it has any. And I think I am still willing to believe in – maybe even to stake everything on – the power of Christ’s Light ultimately and finally to overcome darkness.

And when I talk of darkness, I don’t just mean Satan and the spiritual or demonic forces of evil in classic Christian theology. I don’t know whether such beings exist – they may, or as I increasingly suspect they may simply represent aspects of reality we can only speak of in symbol and metaphor. But I do definitely mean the real darkness in the world, and crucially in us, in our own hearts and minds; our propensity to mess things up, to hurt and spoil what’s good. I don’t know where this darkness comes from, or its precise nature, but I am sure of its reality because I see it at work in me and in the world every day.

Can God really overcome that darkness? If not, I have no meaningful faith. Sometimes it seems unlikely that Light can really win over dark – the dark is so strong, so present, so real; the light so apparently weak, insubstantial, even absent. But this is still my faith – and this is why it’s faith, precisely because the victory of light isn’t self-evident, isn’t what our experience and evidence obviously point to.

Vanquishing or redeeming darkness?

When I first drafted this post last Christmas, I think darkness felt too dangerous to me for me to wish anything but its complete vanquishing and banishment. But gradually I’ve been changing my view on darkness.

Obviously darkness is a fairly vague symbol, and can be used to mean all sorts of things. But I’m no longer convinced that darkness is only or always just a bad thing that needs banishing. I wonder if it can sometimes be a difficult but necessary thing that needs owning and accommodating, even in a sense welcoming and befriending. Our own darkness, our shadow, the part of us we’re afraid of and wish to hide, is not always the hideous monstrosity we’ve imagined. With love and grace, perhaps it can be transformed into something good and beautiful. Perhaps this is part of what it means for light to overcome darkness.

Christmas versus Easter?

Christmas or Easter – which is more important? Many Christians would say Easter and view Christmas as just a sideshow, but I think it’s a false dilemma. You can’t have the Resurrection without the Incarnation; and I’d argue you equally can’t have the Incarnation without it leading to the Resurrection, its culmination. They are two sides of the same coin; the one is needed for the other, and the other fulfils and completes the one.

Light overcomes or transforms darkness – for me that is the message both of Christmas and of Easter, both of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. At Christmas, light enters darkness; at Easter, the light is first extinguished by darkness and then blazes back, never to be put out again. And that is my faith – Love wins, if you like. Life is stronger than death. Light overcomes darkness.

Light overcomes darkness… in the end, anyway. But the trouble is that here in the middle, where we are, we can’t see that end. We have no proof that things are going to end that way; it seems far more likely that light will be swallowed up in eternal dark as the laws of Physics and entropy suggest.

But perhaps in Jesus, if we believe it, we have seen the end. The resurrection, the rebirth of light that can never again die, that will one day swallow up and transform all darkness in us and in the world, has already happened, once at least. I don’t know for sure if my faith in this is not just a tiny guttering candle held against a howling, overwhelming dark, as it often feels. But it is still my faith; it’s what I hold on to and what still holds me.

Happy Christmas! May the light shine on you and in you.

Posted in Christmas, Faith | 9 Comments

God bless America

You may have noticed that I haven’t been on this blog for a while – apologies for that. There Have Been Reasons.

And also apologies for this song, which is likely to offend the more patriotically American of my readers, though it isn’t meant to:

A few important caveats:

(1) This is not a blanket Anti-American song, despite appearances – it’s really only aimed at President Donald J Trump, his government and his staunchest supporters. Most of it doesn’t apply to most Americans – I know that.

(2) It’s satirical, so not meant to be taken entirely seriously. Nonetheless, I do apologise again for any offence caused.

(3) I really do want God to bless America, for all our sakes. And I’d particularly like God to bless Trump with humility, humanity and a sense of hubris.

(4) I’m not particularly better than Trump (and nor is my country better than the US) – I’m just not in power. So the most I can do is moan about the people who are. (Very cathartic it is too – highly recommended.)

And here are the lyrics:

God Bless America, God Bless America
God Bless America
Man, woman, boy and girl
From New York to Iowa,
Texas to California,
Oh please God bless America
– before they screw up the world

Does ‘America First’ just mean that the rest of us are second rate?
You care for unborn American kids but not the refugee at your gate;
Will you destroy the environment and leave the rest of us to our fate?
You want everyone to love you but speak the rhetoric of fear and hate

God Bless America…
Each congressman, every senator
Oh please God bless America
Before they screw up the world

Mr President, I hope you’re better than the hateful things you’ve said;
I sometimes wonder what passes for thinking in your presidential head;
I worry about that twitchy finger near the button labelled red –
If you go that way it won’t just be the bad guys who end up dead…

 

…And now I need to go and write one about Brexit or something, just for balance…

Posted in Satire/silly | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments