Responding to the Pandemic

I’ve been wanting to say something here about Novel Coronavirus / Covid-19 / SARS-CoV-2 for a few weeks, but I struggled to find the right approach, and the right words. Fortunately Frank Viola today wrote a post that came very close to what I would have chosen, so I can direct you to his words:

It’s Not the Time to Binge on Netflix

He does a little self-promotion in his post, but that’s ok because the material he produces is generally excellent. I found the Martin Luther quote at the end of the post stunning.

All I will add to this is that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This situation feels extraordinary to us because it is extraordinary to us, but similar events have happened throughout human history, and human beings have no doubt responded in all the same ways we are doing now.

I don’t want to discount the real pain and suffering of all kinds that the current situation is inflicting on people everywhere. The phrase “mourn with those who mourn” came to mind. Here is the passage that contains those words. This is for all times:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 12:9-19

A Prayer For Help

Why are you far away, Lord? Why do you hide yourself when I am in trouble? Proud and brutal people hunt down the poor. But let them get caught by their own evil plans!

The wicked brag about their deepest desires. Those greedy people hate and curse you, Lord. The wicked are too proud to turn to you or even think about you. They are always successful, though they can’t understand your teachings, and they keep sneering at their enemies.

In their hearts they say, “Nothing can hurt us! We’ll always be happy and free from trouble.” They curse and tell lies, and all they talk about is how to be cruel or how to do wrong. They hide outside villages, waiting to strike and murder some innocent victim.

They are hungry lions hiding in the bushes, hoping to catch some helpless passerby. They trap the poor in nets and drag them away. They crouch down and wait to grab a victim. They say, “God can’t see! He’s got on a blindfold.”

Do something, Lord God, and use your powerful arm to help those in need. The wicked don’t respect you. In their hearts they say, “God won’t punish us!” But you see the trouble and the distress, and you will do something. The poor can count on you, and so can orphans. Now break the arms of all merciless people. Punish them for doing wrong and make them stop.

Our Lord, you will always rule, but nations will vanish from the earth. You listen to the longings of those who suffer. You offer them hope, and you pay attention to their cries for help. You defend orphans and everyone else in need, so that no one on earth can terrify others again.

Psalm 10, Contemporary English Version

I’m not sure what led me to this psalm last week, but when I read it I was immediately reminded of many powerful people in today’s world that seem to fit the description of the “wicked” given here. And I recognised the frustration of the psalmist, wondering how and why God allows these people to apparently thrive.

But their “victory” is temporary, while God’s is eternal. Their “freedom” is an illusion, while freedom in Christ is deep and real.

We can cry out to God, and pray for justice. And we can do our part, large or small, in bringing it about. But no matter how dark the world becomes we can never lose hope, because the Light of the World has already overcome the darkness.

John 1:5, John 3:19-21, John 8:12, Ephesians 5:6-20

Leaving Auschwitz

I’ve heard people say that you can’t grasp the magnitude of the horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz until you have been there.

I visited today and I can confirm that what people say is true. In fact I don’t think I can comprehend it even now, after a three hour guided tour. It may be further beyond me now than it was yesterday.

The word ‘extermination’ was used frequently. I don’t like the word because in a way it seems to legitimise the Nazi view of Jews and others as a sub-human pest to be eradicated. ‘Death’ was also common – death walk, death barrack, and so on. But death sounds clean and natural, and there was nothing clean or natural about the death camps.

The only word that seems right to me at this moment is murder. And what I witnessed today was the gruesome evidence of the industrialisation of murder. And that inevitably leads us to ask many questions of why?

I’ve tried, in my less than adequate way, to answer the question of evil in previous posts, for example Is That All There Is. I can’t add anything new to that debate, I just want to briefly reflect on what the knowledge and experience of evil does to us.

I don’t think it leaves anyone unmoved. It either draws you closer to God, or further away. For me, the critical moment was when I entered the ‘Hair Room’. I felt my heart break, weighed down by sorrow and compassion for those poor (mostly) women. And as I was drawn closer to them and their memory, I also found myself drawn closer to God, who created them, and who loved each one of them more than I can imagine.

I think there’s something very profound connecting the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and the suffering of Christ on the Cross. They are not the same thing, and I don’t have words to describe the connection I feel. I just know that there is a deep, deep significance in what I saw today, that somehow magnifies the life of every one of the murdered millions, and also magnifies the love of Christ for each one of them, and for each one of us.

Are Natural Disasters God’s Punishment For Sin?

It’s good to be challenged now and then. I don’t ever want to get complacent in my faith or imagine that I have everything worked out. So here’s an example of a blog post I find uncomfortable to read.

https://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Are-natural-disasters-God-s-punishment-for-sin

The post challenges two aspects of my thinking about God and man.

The first is right there in the title. Natural disasters are very difficult to explain in terms of God’s purpose for the world, and can seem to be a powerful weapon in an atheist’s arsenal. How can a good God allow such things?

My response is not entirely satisfying but it is usually enough for me. It has two parts. One, that the movements of the atmosphere and of the earth are indeed natural and necessary as part of the continual renewing of the environment – think of forest fires that clear the ground for new growth to begin. And you don’t have to take Genesis literally to see a message in there that God intended us to live in the “safe” areas of the world. I don’t believe the Garden was positioned on the side of a volcano or in a tornado alley.

That leads to the second part of my response, that human beings have been drawn to areas which are more prone to various disasters, for various reasons such as more fertile ground, or more plentiful or valuable resources. So there’s a sense in which our greed or laziness have led us to populate some naturally more dangerous parts of the world.

As I said, that’s not an entirely satisfying explanation, and I wouldn’t pretend that it’s watertight, but it’s enough to convince me that we don’t have to blame God when nature seems to turn against us.

The other uncomfortable notion in the post is that of our “underlying evil nature,” which I take to be an alternative description of “total depravity” – quite a widely accepted theological doctrine.

This is supported in the post by scripture, the words of Jesus, no less. I return to Genesis and recall that we are made in the image of God. I want to believe that we are fundamentally good, but could I be deluding myself because I don’t want to accept a reality that is quite the opposite? Just when I think I’ve resolved the problem of evil, it comes back to bite me!

I am writing this at the end of 2019. And it reveals a simple message for myself and for you as we enter a new year.

Keep thinking, and keep trusting God.

When Communication Breaks Down

A recent incident upset me considerably. I’ll describe it later, but first I want to talk about some of the thoughts that came to me as I analysed what had happened. I still find it hard to understand how two people with good intentions can become so incensed by a conversation that they agree not to speak to each other again, but it happened. And neither of those people did anything wrong. What happened was all about misunderstanding and miscommunication. I’ve seen the issues before, in my life, in church, and in society. There are many ways that communication can break down. Here are three that I see most often. I know I’ve discussed them with friends before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve written about them too, in other contexts.

Simple v Complicated

I’ve been frustrated so many times when I see people consider a simple thing as complicated, or a very complicated thing as simple. I do it myself, especially the first of those, as I have a strong tendency to overthink. It becomes a problem when a “simplifier” and a “complicator” can’t see the validity of each other’s perspective.

There are a couple of Biblical examples to illustrate the point. Actually you could probably use just about any scriptural extract for this purpose, but these are my go-to examples.

First, Genesis, and specifically creation. The simple view is that God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in them, in six twenty-four hour days, and we know this because the Bible – the Word of God – tells us so. A more complicated interpretation is that this is a poetic representation of creation, written to explain our place in the universe, and the thought and design that went into it. The complicated view says that we can use scientific tools and methods to explore the physical nature of the universe and its origin, but that scripture tells us the meaning behind it, and its spiritual nature.

I subscribe to the “complicated” view. I don’t believe God has allowed us to be so fooled by false evidence or assumptions that everything science has explained so far is wrong. On the other hand, I accept that none of us were here at the point of creation, and there can always be room for doubt, so I wouldn’t mock anyone for having a “simple” literal view, but I would expect them to respect my opinion, and appreciate our common ground – our understanding that “In the beginning, God…”

Second, there is the whole notion of “Christian living.” Here, the complicated view is what you hear in churches across the world for 20-60 minutes every week. It’s what you read in the thousands of Christian books published every year, of which I’ve bought plenty. It’s everywhere, all the time, explaining how we should respond to the difficult moments in our lives, or the beautiful moments, or the big issues in a changing world. It’s what I’ve written about in most, if not all, of my blog posts.

The simple view is Matthew 22:37-40 – Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I haven’t always done so, but I now subscribe to the “simple” view. Why should I tie myself in knots wondering what God thinks of every decision I make, or whether I’m saved, or what happens after I die, or why there is evil? The best I can do, in fact all I can really do, is to try to love God and people. That’s hard enough sometimes! And I fail often, but I’ll keep trying, because in my heart I know it’s right. The other questions interest me, obviously, or I wouldn’t keep writing about them, but if I devote too much time to studying them in hope of finding a complete answer, I’ll be losing the opportunity to live the abundant life Jesus promised me. Some people find the very meaning of their lives in studying the hard questions, and that’s fine, but sometimes apparently “thoughtful” interpretations of the Bible lead to “simplistic” and dangerous outcomes where I have to question just what some people think it means to love your neighbour. That’s a topic for several other posts.

You don’t need a faith to struggle with simple v complicated. In the political world it happens all the time, particularly when complex interconnected socio-economic issues are reduced into politically convenient soundbites. In community life I feel that the opposite is more common, as we make simplistic judgements and assumptions about people without regard to the complicated difficulties they may be facing behind closed doors.

God (and the devil) v Humanity

Is the heading too controversial? I don’t think so, because I think many people have peculiar and irrational ideas about the balance of natural and supernatural input to our lives.

On the one hand, I’m bound to say that an atheist, or really anyone who lives as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t care, is storing up trouble for themselves. I don’t want to fall into a simple/complicated trap and suggest that I or anyone can be sure of the consequences. I just believe that God is real, and does care, and so I think it’s wise to live with that in mind. But people can go too far the other way.

I’ve said many times in this blog that God is not a puppet-master. We are free agents who can make any choice we wish – including the choice to submit ourselves completely and become “slaves of Christ.” I do believe that God will sometimes open doors – but we choose whether to walk through them. He sometimes stirs our spirits in a particular direction, but we choose whether to acknowledge those stirrings or to go our own way. I’ve no doubt that occasionally God will make a direct intervention, and put someone in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose. But His plan for His creation doesn’t depend on any one of us, nor does He hand us each the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and expect us to put the pieces together. I’ve seen people waste years of their lives waiting for God to speak or act, or trying to work out what God’s purpose is for them. If only He would whisper in their ears, “Matthew 22:37-40. Now get on with it!”

Equally, I’ve heard too many people blame the devil for every bad thing that happens to them. Ironically this belief actually does the devil’s job for him, because it is a lie that plants seeds of doubt and fear, suggesting he is more powerful than he actually is. I believe that the vast majority of bad breaks come down to bad decisions by human beings, whether it’s ourselves, those around us, or those that govern us. Blaming the devil gets human beings off the hook and stops us trying to make better decisions.

Trust v Suspicion

People make bad decisions, but I believe we are all made in the image of God, and fundamentally that means we are good rather than evil. We have self-interest, certainly, but we also have compassion for others, and rarely act or speak with bad intentions. We may be misguided. We may be emotional. We may be mistaken. Any of these or other reasons could lead us to make those bad decisions and treat people wrongly.

Circumstances are important. Someone may be completely honourable in their personal life, but in their profession their self-interest becomes an overriding factor and leads them to act deceptively.

But in general, unless circumstances or experience says different, I would choose to trust people. I’ve heard church leaders say the opposite, and that is very worrying.

When Communication Broke Down

As I usually try to do, I’ll keep this very vague. The details aren’t important, the process is. So the second person in the story is unidentifiable, although if they read this post they’ll recognise themselves immediately. The first person is me.

I met a friend and had a long and rewarding conversation. A couple of days later they wrote something online, and because of the timing of the statement it seemed feasible that it could be referring to me. I honestly thought it was unlikely, and an embarrassing topic to bring up, but at the same time, if it was about me it would have been wrong, and possibly cruel, to ignore.

So, as gently as I could, I asked. And unsurprisingly I was wrong. I thought that was the end of the matter, but the subsequent text exchange proved it was just the beginning.

After a few more days they asked why I’d thought what I did? I said it was the curious timing and circumstances, and I was sorry for jumping to conclusions. This wasn’t enough, it made no sense to them, they needed to know why. So I tried to unpick and describe step by step what my thought process had been, acknowledging again when those thoughts had been wrong.

This didn’t satisfy my friend either. Other friends haven’t had the same thought, so why had I? What was going on?

Eventually I couldn’t see any good way out of the situation. None of my reassurances were being accepted. First my friend was turning a simple mistake into something far more complicated. And then they took the approach of treating me with suspicion instead of trust. I said we should call it a day and they agreed.

Well I thought that really was the end, but there was a sting in the tail. After a few days my old friend wrote something else online, referencing the different ways the devil was attacking them. It was clear that not everything was about me, but I was in there somewhere. It appeared that they had many issues that I would have liked to help with but I’m not the right person, so I hope and pray that they get what they need.

It’s no great revelation to see that when communication breaks down, so do relationships. It’s also clear to see that they can only be mended when both parties want it to happen and can get themselves on the same wavelength. And it’s just a sad fact of life that this can’t always be the case.

Further Thoughts on Genexis 2019

In my last post I said that I planned to write about each of the Genexis talks as I attended them. I haven’t done so because I didn’t feel that I could say enough to justify six more posts, unless I went into detail about the subjects in a way I’m simply not qualified to. Yes, I have my own thoughts about creation, life, consciousness, ethics, resurrection and the rest. I write about all those subjects to some extent here from time to time, and no doubt I will continue to do so for as long as this blog exists. But ultimately when discussing these lectures it would be a simple case of agreeing with most of what’s been said, and questioning the odd point, but not adding anything significant beyond what the speakers have presented. Some of the talks are now available here and hopefully the others will be added soon.

So I will just make a few observations about my reaction to the events. And the first is to say that I was very impressed with all the speakers. Some were more eloquent than others, but all were clear and informative, speaking with authority but humility, and at a level that was suitable for a wide range of listeners. The people I knew – John Lennox and Tom Wright in person, Francis Collins and Lee Strobel digitally – lived up to expectations, but the other speakers and hosts were all well worth listening to as well.

When it comes to the content, I retain the mixed feelings I described in my previous post. Occasionally I would have my eyes opened to new ideas, either scientific or apologetic. For the most part I was just happy to see pieces of the jigsaw put together by the speakers, presenting a more coherent and persuasive argument for God than I would be able to articulate. But no assumptions were made. The arguments were based on evidence and logic rather than speculation or wishful thinking. The general pattern was to present the latest scientific understanding of the topic, and in doing so point to where current knowledge breaks down, either as unknown, or perhaps even unknowable. At this point several of the most well regarded theories would be described, and logically critiqued. In doing so, the flaws of the “non-God” theories were made clear, although they were never dismissed out of hand. By definition, we just don’t know.

So the most satisfying outcome for me was to be reminded and reassured that an intelligent critical thinker can believe in God. I get this from articles and podcasts, and it’s something that good preachers can offer in church, but it’s great to be in a large mixed audience of believers and sceptics and to hear these fine minds make their excellent points. At the same time, I was always hoping (unrealistically) for that evidence to become inarguable proof, and was inevitably disappointed that this didn’t come to pass.

One of the lectures was less persuasive than the others, and that was the talk about consciousness by Sharon Dirckx. This is not a reflection of Sharon’s skills as a speaker or as a scientist. I think the subject matter was simply less compelling in providing an argument for God. In presenting ideas about the connections, and differences, between brain and mind, too much weight was given to current brain-scanning technology, and the fact that it can’t be used to identify individual thoughts, for example. As this was a presentation for the general public, maybe it didn’t include some vital but deeply technical information. However, my impression was that we are still in the very early days of the technology, and there seems to be no reason why future developments, improving the resolution of scans, and perhaps their nature, couldn’t eventually make thoughts “visible” to the observer.

Of course, whether or not such advances are made in this field – or equivalent ones in the other areas discussed – it seems doubtful that these observations will ever provide proof of a Creator God’s existence or otherwise. That seems to be something that just has to be experienced, for now on the part of individuals as they come to faith, and in the future for the whole of humanity when God reveals Himself to us again.

It was disappointing that there was no time for questions in the last three sessions. I have to assume it was a timing issue, as there’s no doubt many questions would have been asked. But as each of those three sessions covered two subjects rather than one in the first, I think it’s understandable. Maybe something can be done about this next year.

Finally, I want to give credit to the many people involved in the running of these events. Stewards, AV personnel, tech support, administrators and organisers of all kinds come to mind. If you were part of Genexis in any capacity, thank you for helping to create an informative, entertaining, and spiritually satisfying series of talks. And thank you to everyone at Coventry Cathedral for allowing us to meet in such a magnificent venue. I look forward with optimism to Genexis 2020.

…But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

1 Peter 3:15

Thoughts on Genexis 2019 – Beginnings

I was excited to hear about Genexis – a series of talks at Coventry Cathedral aimed at presenting “an evidence based case for a creator God.” If you’ve read many of my posts I expect you’ll know that I have a sincere interest in apologetics, and this was a rare opportunity to hear the arguments, and the evidence, in person and close to home, presented by renowned experts. The talks continue on Mondays throughout September, people of “all faiths and none” are welcome, and the tickets are free, though very limited now. It’s my intention to write some thoughts here on each of the sessions. I’m not expecting to give lengthy reviews or to delve too far into the topics myself, as this is something I naturally do in the course of my thinking and writing. But hopefully I’ll give a small flavour of the sessions, and my strongest take-aways from them.

The organisation and presentation of the first session was encouraging, my ticket was quickly scanned and I was able to find a seat fairly close to the front, although large screens were available to give a good view to the whole audience, as well as showing helpful illustrative slides. The atmosphere was welcoming, and there was clear encouragement for the idea of asking difficult questions and thinking critically about the given answers, rather than just accepting any “information” given, either religious or not, on the basis of “blind faith.” The format of the evening was a series of introductions about the event and the speakers, leading to Sir Stephen Males talking about the nature of evidence and expert witness (he is a judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) before he introduced the main speaker, Professor Ard Louis. Professor Louis then presented his evidence for God in the creation of the universe, before taking a few pre-selected questions from the audience.

I made an audio recording of “Beginnings” but unfortunately the sound quality is dreadful. I hope that video of the talk will be made available in the near future.

To start at the ending, I left the cathedral at the end of the evening feeling disappointed. On further reflection, I realised that this was based on natural but unrealistic expectations I had brought to the event. Because what I was hoping to find was something irrefutable – the silver bullet that could destroy the atheist argument once and for all. Of course this wasn’t going to happen! It’s very frustrating, but I’ve written some previous thoughts about why this might be necessary. Maybe I’ll try to get a question into a future session on this subject though, as I’d like to get a second opinion.

Ard Louis is a theoretical physicist. His topic was ostensibly “creation” – how the universe came into being, and how this points to a creator God. I think this specific point actually took up quite a small proportion of his presentation. This is understandable, because while it is possibly the most fundamental aspect of the “does God exist” question, it is probably the hardest area to actually find “proof” for, due to the limitations of observation, and the laws of physics (more on those later).

Louis first described the huge size of the universe, and then went on to talk about the origins of the “Big Bang” theory, including a very helpful presentation slide showing the size of the universe over time – which really put the concept of “inflation” into context for me – I’ve always had a soft spot for astrophysics.

He then discussed the question of where the universe came from, and suggested that this was in fact the wrong question, and we should really ask where did the laws of physics come from? This is because those laws are apparently what brought about the big bang, and also because (as a later session will detail) they are extraordinarily well tuned for the purpose of allowing life to exist. He said that this points to two possibilities – a multiverse, or a Creator.

So where did the laws of physics come from? No one knows definitively, but Louis described three plausible answers to the question, which I will paraphrase here.

  1. They have always existed
  2. They randomly came into existence from nothing
  3. They were designed by an external intelligence

Louis admitted that all three of these possibilities are troublesome in their own ways, but he found the third answer the most coherent and compelling.

And that, I suppose will be the theme of the whole series of talks – which answers are most coherent and compelling? Given that some truths are unknown (and possibly unknowable) where does the balance of the evidence point? Our own “instinctive” answers will be based on the worldview that we have adopted, but we always need to keep our minds open and question our assumptions, or else we will fall into the “blind faith” trap, and that is neither scientific or Biblical.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” 1 Peter 3:15

A significant percentage of the talk dealt with the supposed conflict between science and faith. I can’t recall a time that I was convinced that such a conflict existed. To my mind they are largely looking for answers to different questions, in two different realms – mechanism and meaning. But Louis also gave many historical and contemporary human examples to demonstrate the fallacy.

These were presented in a section he called “zombie myths” about faith and science – zombies because no matter how many times you cut them down they keep coming back. This section gave me my most satisfying moment, when a truth I was instinctively aware of was articulated in a way that I’ve never managed to do. This is the myth of the “pink unicorn” as Louis put it. Basically it’s the criticism that believing in a creator God is the same as believing in a pink unicorn, or a tooth fairy, or a flying spaghetti monster.

The response is so simple. These comparative examples are constructs “within” the material universe. They are figments of imagination, just as I can imagine a phone that transforms into a car when I touch it with my nose. Such an object or creature cannot exist unless it evolves or is built. A creator God by contrast, and by definition, exists outside of the universe and does not need to be bound by the physical laws of His creation.

I think this is also suggested in the Bible, for example in John 4:24 – “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Maybe I still haven’t articulated the rebuttal very well, but then I’m not Ard Louis!

I’m looking forward to the next three Genexis evenings, which will each contain two sessions. I hope I’ll do justice to them in my future posts.