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.

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.

So Will I

When I attended The Gathering in Birmingham last year I heard some amazing messages and experienced some wonderful worship. One of the highlights was Amanda Cook’s outstanding rendition of So Will I (100 Billion X). I hadn’t heard it before, and it filled me with such joy, such awe, such appreciation of our beautiful God. Since that evening I haven’t found a version to equal the majesty of that performance, even from Amanda herself, although the one below is close.

The lyrics of this song are exceptional, and I like to read them as poetry, and as a prayer:

God of creation
There at the start
Before the beginning of time
With no point of reference
You spoke to the dark
And fleshed out the wonder of light

And as You speak
A hundred billion galaxies are born
In the vapour of Your breath the planets form
If the stars were made to worship so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve made
Every burning star
A signal fire of grace
If creation sings Your praises so will I

God of Your promise
You don’t speak in vain
No syllable empty or void
For once You have spoken
All nature and science
Follow the sound of Your voice

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You say
Every painted sky
A canvas of Your grace
If creation still obeys You so will I

If the stars were made to worship so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high so will I
If the wind goes where You send it so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence so will I
If the sum of all our praises still falls shy
Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times

God of salvation
You chased down my heart
Through all of my failure and pride
On a hill You created
The light of the world
Abandoned in darkness to die

And as You speak
A hundred billion failures disappear
Where You lost Your life so I could find it here
If You left the grave behind You so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve done
Every part designed in a work of art called love
If You gladly chose surrender so will I
I can see Your heart
Eight billion different ways
Every precious one
A child You died to save
If You gave Your life to love them so will I

Like You would again a hundred billion times
But what measure could amount to Your desire
You’re the One who never leaves the one behind

From https://hillsong.com/lyrics/so-will-i-100-billion-x/

A Short Note About Goodness

As I walked down Chester Road towards the railway station this afternoon I heard the distinctive siren of an ambulance approaching from behind.

The road was quite busy, and one by one cars slowed down and moved to the side of the road, or even onto the pavement, to allow the ambulance easier progress.

All except one car, whose driver continued in an unchanging line, either ignorant or indifferent to what was happening around him.

Of course I wasn’t surprised. It’s a sad truth of human nature. And I’m not just talking about that driver, I’m talking about myself, and I’m probably talking about you.

Because here’s the sad truth. It’s not that I noticed that one selfish driver more than the dozen decent individuals. It’s not even that I expected someone to act that way. The sad truth is that I was looking for them.

This is how many of us are brought up. It’s how we are conditioned by the media and our society. And yes, it may well be built into our very nature. We find ourselves always looking for the bad and pointing it out, while we are seemingly blind to the good that surrounds us constantly.

Whether it’s that driver who cuts you up, the neighbour who causes a noise nuisance in the dead of night, the politician caught in scandal or the corrupt businessman. These are all exceptions. It’s not true to say “they’re all the same,” it’s truer to acknowledge that we notice their differences, and to understand that the news will report the abnormal rather than the everyday.

God is good, and He made us in His image. That image has become distorted but the goodness is still there, and we would do well to recognise that, and thank Him for the goodness in the world, in ourselves and in each other.

Is That All There Is?

It’s not entirely surprising that our reaction to some artistic works changes with our worldviews. When I first heard this song, twenty or more years ago, I think my first thought was “hmm, a bit old-fashioned,” and then when I listened to the words, I found them sadly sweet, and because my life too felt sadly sweet, it struck a chord and became one of my favourite songs to chill to.

So it has remained on my playlist, but since finding Christ this is one of many songs I wonder about, thinking is it right for me to still connect with this. After all, the twin themes seem to be nihilism and hedonism, neither of which are exactly fruit of the Spirit.

 

Well, I can think of at least two reasons to value this song.

First, if it connected with me, then it will connect with others, and maybe it will help them, comfort them to know that there’s someone who saw things the same way they do. It’s a truth too easily forgotten in our darkest times, that “you are not alone, you’re not the only one who has felt like this.”

Second, a song like this challenges me to think about big questions, and talk about them like I’m about to do right here.

The song is actually based on a short story called “Disillusionment” by the German writer Thomas Mann. You can read it here. It is the story of a man for whom everything in life is a disappointment because nothing in the real world is ever as great, or as awful, as it is in his imagination. It is very dark, and like the song, it ends with the speculation that death itself will be the final, maybe the greatest, disappointment.

When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller adapted the story into a song, they added a chorus which suggests that as our imaginations and expectations can only lead to disillusion, we might as well stop worrying and just enjoy empty pleasures. In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die – a corrupted conflation of verses from two very different passages of scripture (Isaiah 22 and Ecclesiastes 8).

When I listened to this song a few days ago, it brought to mind quite a well known interview that Stephen Fry gave to Gay Byrne early last year. He starts his reply to the question about what he would say to God…

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

There is much to be debated in that answer, and in the rest of Fry’s opinions articulated in that interview and elsewhere. But today I want to focus on how I connected his diatribe with the Peggy Lee recording.

Because in truth, if I could look at this world, and even this universe, in all its beauty and all its horror, with all its grandeur and all its injustice, and if I honestly believed that this is “all there is,” then I would probably do two things. First I would rant at God “if there is one” about how unfair and mean and stupid he is. Second, I would break out the booze and have a ball.

Because really, if that’s all there is, what else is there to do?

Now I can’t give a neat answer to the question “what’s bone cancer in children about?” There are many, many awful things that happen on this Earth. Some are manmade, and others are out of our hands. But let’s just imagine for a minute God creating the universe and making it perfect – perfect in the sense that nothing can go wrong, there can be no evil, no pain and no tears. According to the Bible there is such a place, but it isn’t Earth. Even in Genesis 1, before everything went wrong, Earth and everything in it is not described as perfect, merely “very good.”

In fact if this world and we human beings had been created perfect we would never have had a choice about how to live. We would only ever be able to make the decision that is right in God’s eyes – because by definition the Creator decides what is right in His creation. We would be robots, programmed not with Asimov’s three laws but with God’s ten commandments. The world would be beautiful and perfect, but our part in it would be meaningless. And if we were somehow given free will but nature held no peril, what purpose would our lives really have?

This outcome would not be so different from the atheist’s alternative. Theirs is a universe where there is no creator and no reason for creation to take place. It just happened, and from that moment on everything that has occurred has been entirely subject to the laws of physics. Every atom of every cell of your body is in its place because of the interaction of fundamental forces and particles. Every thought you have and every action you take is predetermined by those same natural laws. Because “if that’s all there is,” then you, as an individual, have no control over what the laws of physics lead you to do. And ultimately this means that your life, and this entire universe, has no purpose or meaning whatsoever.

Disillusionment.

There is another possibility. This is the possibility that God created the universe with intentional ‘flaws’, and that He created us with free will so that we could choose whether or not to follow His direction; so that we could decide how we wanted to respond to the threats that an ‘imperfect’ world presents; so that we could experience pain and grief and thus understand what joy really means. And all of this gives meaning to our lives. What we do, or even just try to do, matters. What we say and what we think matters, because they really are our thoughts, words and deeds. We have responsibility, and we have purpose.

And yes, there is a place of perfection, described in Revelation 21. A place where a child who died of bone cancer can live again with no tears and no pain. Maybe the broken life will be forgotten, or maybe it will be remembered in a way that heightens the joy of the new life. I don’t know. I don’t really know any details of what heaven and hell will be like. I think their reality is beyond the description of words, even the words of the Bible’s writers, even the “extravagantly rich” words that led Thomas Mann’s protagonist to his unhappy conclusions.

When every other option speaks of futility, I will choose to believe in the one that speaks of hope. And I will try to make good choices when facing the difficulties of this world, and I will try to enjoy the good things it offers, and I will know in my heart that the best is yet to come.