Thursday, 24 December 2009

'Jerusalem Widow': A saviour comes!

The Bible gives detailed accounts of the birth of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1 & 2) and Luke (Luke 1 - 2:40). It presents the details of the birth, shows how Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in him and presents a number of descriptions of the encounters of ordinary people with the baby Jesus. Two of the most wonderful stories in the gospel accounts are the encounters of Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:21-38). Both knew of Jesus coming and rejoiced at what it meant to them personally when he arrived as a baby in Bethlehem. Two separate people who faithfully waited for the promised Messiah and who overflowed with joy when he entered the world.

At this time when we remember the birth of Jesus and rejoice that in him salvation has come, I thought I would simply share a beautiful poem written by my daughter last Christmas, that tells of the old Jewish widow Anna who was a faithful servant of God fasting and constantly praying in the Temple as she awaited the arrival of the promised Messiah (the painting is Rembrandt's 'Anna Prophetess'). Might all readers of this blog encounter Jesus in their own way at Christmas.

Jerusalem Widow
By Nicole Starling

Luke 2:36-38, Lamentations 1:1-2, Isaiah 54:1-4

Married seven short years,
Jerusalem widow
alone and childless,
makes the temple her home.

She does not know
the chatter of children
squeezed around
a table filled with food.
Just the hard knot of hunger,
fasting day and night.

She has no comfort
in the night.
No warm arms
slipped around her belly
as she sleeps.
Instead, she weeps into the dark,
And waits a lifetime.

But when a baby comes
one ordinary day,
She knows.
Her wait is over.
She takes the baby,
and holds him.

Jerusalem widow
(like widow Jerusalem)
cradling salvation in her arms.


May God bless all readers of this blog at this time and enrich our understanding of the amazing entrance of God into our world.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6

Sunday, 20 December 2009

How will our children 'read' us this Christmas?

Children are learning machines. From birth they observe their world and the people who inhabit it. Even if you wanted to stop children from learning you'd find it difficult. The hard part about being a parent is that often we don't have the degree of control that we'd like in the things that our children learn. We often lament the fact that our children don't (or won't!) learn the things we want them to. But in many ways, a much bigger problem is the fact that they learn lots of things we'd prefer them not to learn simply by observing us.

The major task of the parent is to shape their children's character. I doubt that there is any parent, irrespective of their worldview or faith, who would not want to influence their children for good. But unlike the humanist who assumes that all people are basically good or capable of becoming good people, Christians believe that all people are marked by sin and require God's intervention and salvation. The Bible teaches that the "..intention of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21), so consequently, one of the major tasks of the Christian parent is to train our children's hearts. Our aim is not simply to shape behaviour, but instead we seek to influence their foundational beliefs. We do this in many ways. Clearly we set limits on their behaviour and try to train them to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26), but as Tedd Tripp points out in his book 'Shepherding a Child's Heart', it is easy to spend most of our time focusing on our children's behaviour and to neglect the need to train their rebellious hearts that produce the behaviour (Luke 6:45). We need to work constantly to orient our children towards God. We do this in many ways.
By teaching them about Christ and their personal need of forgiveness and redemption.
Through the example that we set for them and the extent to which our own behaviour reflects the orientation of our own hearts towards God.
The priorities that our family life demonstrates - how much is life within our families shaped by our faith in Christ and our desire to know him better?
At Christmas Christian families have great opportunities inside and outside their homes to speak about and demonstrate the reality that Christ lives (!) in their hearts and lives. And yet, it is easy at this time to demonstrate inadvertently the opposite in our words and actions towards others and hence provide confused messages and priorities for our children. While my children are grown up, I still have a responsibility to provide an example to my children and grandchildren, and members of our extended family. And I still find it challenging to provide a message in my actions that matches my faith in Christ and the priorities that I say have shaped me.

So as we approach Christmas it would do us all a lot of good to consider in advance how our family members will 'read' us at this time when we celebrate God's grace and mercy in breaking into the world in the person of Jesus. I offer some questions below for self-evaluation that I've framed broadly enough for those of us who don't have young children.
Do we speak of God's grace at this time and yet demonstrate lack of forgiveness in our attitudes and actions towards our family members, fellow Christians, workmates and neighbours?
Do we talk of the love of Christ and yet demonstrate a coldness of heart that fails to show patience, kindness, and gentleness in the way we deal with others?
Do we speak of the generosity of God in sending his Son into the world and yet demonstrate avarice, greed, envy and jealousy?
Do we speak of the priority of Christ in our lives and yet at this time demonstrate in our actions that other things gain priority over our devotion, love and service in Christ's name?
Paul challenges his readers in several of his letters to be imitators of godly men and women who in turn are imitators of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2:14). Similarly, the writer to the Hebrew church exhorts his readers to be imitators of those who through faith and patience have inherited the promises of God (Hebrews 6:12; 13:7).

Our children read us every day. How will they read us this Christmas?

Related posts

My review of Ted Tripp's book 'Shepherding a Child's Heart' (here)

'How not to teach children to gamble' (here)

Sunday, 13 December 2009

The promises of God in the midst of anxiety: The Consolations of Theology

We live in an anxious world filled with anxious people. Whether it is our anxiety concerning when the Global Financial Crisis might end, the threat of terrorism, whether human’s are causing global warming, the future of our job’s or our children, the signs of anxiety are everywhere. What do we do with anxiety? What does it mean for the human condition? Is it an inconvenient threat that we need to deal with medically or through counselling? Or do we pander ourselves with little luxuries in the hope that the anxieties of life go away? What about some of the other maladies of our age (or perhaps all ages)? What do we do about anger, obsession, despair, disappointment or even pain?

A recent book edited by Brian Rosner reminds us that the Bible has much to teach us about consolation that is immensely practical and that will lead us towards becoming the people God wants us to be? Rosner’s wonderful collection of essays records some of the papers of a conference that attempted to offer a theological perspective on all of these human conditions. It draws together what some significant theologians have said about the consolations of God and the individual authors’ insights concerning the Bible’s teaching.


Overview of the book

‘The Consolations of Theology’ was the outcome of a conference at Moore Theological College in Sydney that used the structure of Alain de Botton’s book the ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ to consider the work of six theologians and what their work has to say about the consolations of God in the midst of the struggles, challenges and disappointments of life. Just as de Botton had followed the pattern of Jean Gerson and Thomas More who had in turn followed the genre of the pioneering work of the philosopher Boethius in the sixth century, the speakers at the Moore College took de Botton’s work framed by philosophy and instead applied a theological frame. The resulting publication has six rich and challenging chapters:

  • Richard Gibson considers ‘Lactantius on Anger’
  • Andrew Cameron considers ‘Augustine on Obsession’
  • Mark Thompson considers ‘Luther on despair’
  • Peter Bolt considers ‘Kierkegaard on anxiety’
  • Brian Rosner considers ‘Bonhoeffer on disappointment’
  • Robert Banks considers ‘C.S. Lewis on pain’
A quick summary of one chapter might give you a flavour of this wonderful 160-page book.

Peter Bolt on Anxiety

Dr Peter Bolt frames his chapter with Paul’s words to the Roman church, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Hebrews 8:19) and proceeds to offer a discussion of the anxiety of our age that he reminds us is little different from previous ages. “To be human in this fallen world is to be anxious” for all have been anxious since sin entered the world through Adam. But the Bible suggests that rather than conquering us and leading us to despair and immobility, that anxiety can, indeed should, move us towards anxiety for the things of God (1 Corinthians 7:32) and his people (2 Corinthians 11:28; Philippians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 12:25).

Peter Bolt then unpacks Kierkegaard’s writing in the nineteenth century on anxiety as dread (“Angst”). Kierkegaard argued that anxiety must be distinguished from fear, since animals share the latter. Fear relates to real threats while anxiety reflects the mere possibility that something might happen or come to pass. Kierkegaard also stressed that anxiety must be distinguished from despair. Despair he suggests reflects us giving up on becoming the people God wants us to become, whereas “anxiety arises from the act of us becoming spirit, of becoming who you were created to be. It arises from the possibility that exists in the actual experience of our freedom”.

Bolt then summarises Kiekegaard’s ideas on the relationship between sin, freedom and anxiety this way, “there is a severe disturbance in all of creation, and we human beings are caught up in this objective anxiety. There is a profound disturbance at the core of our being as we live as part of a world subjected to frustration” (Bolt, p.92). The whole world is groaning in anxiety (Romans 8:19 reinforces).

As creatures that have had their relationship severed with God we live under the shadow of death. Bolt in presenting Kierkegaard, suggests that this is “an objective anxiety, a core insecurity, built into them” but there is a subjective anxiety that “arises when a person has set before them the possibility of becoming spirit”. Kierkegaard argued that anxiety is necessary “that the individual must feel the anxiety of the moment of decision, and by choosing to act, so they become human…as we stand in the moment, we stand as a being before God, who must become spirit. As we feel the anxiety of our freedom’s possibilities, we need to act in order to become the person that God wants us to be.” Kierkegaard also talks of anxiety “about evil”, that anxiety about evil can lure us to do evil. And he addresses anxiety “about the good”, anxiety that can lead us to be enslaved to NOT choosing to choose the good, to be the person God wants us to be, that God expects of us. This is an anxiety that shuts us off from the good.

Peter Bolt then takes Kierkegaard’s work and considers it in the light of the New Testament. Anxiety should move us towards God not away from him. He concludes:
“Anxiety is not something to flee from; but it is here, in the midst of anxiety that is built in the fabric of our world, that we can hear the promises of the gospel most sharply. It is here I am summoned to believe, to stake my all on the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Bolt argues that, “this is the age of anxiety”. Our very mortality makes us insecure, and we struggle day by day to cope with the anxieties of life, and can succumb to it. As a young 31 year old I can well remember how crowded in I was by the anxieties of life, the security of my young family, my career, relationships, the mortgage, and death. These anxieties eventually lead me to consider the promises of God and I committed my life to following Christ. But this of course did not remove life’s anxieties, rather it simply redirected my desire to depend on God and seek consolation in these anxieties knowing that my life was in his hand. I needed to learn to be strengthened by anxieties not weakened by them, and I’m still learning this lesson 26 years later.

In drawing on Kierkegaard’s thoughts on anxiety of the good, Peter Bolt concludes that our separation from God can so distort us. That is, the very promises of God and the purpose he has for us to live as the person he wants us to be, are seen as slavery rather than the freedom that the Bible promises in Christ. As the parable of the sower tells us like the seeds in thorny ground the word of God is choked and so are we. The Bible promises that there is a future, an eternal one, that nothing can take away. Nothing can separate us from the love of God:
The gospel promises bring us the most profound consolation. With the promise of this glorious future, even in the midst of the groans of our anxious world, there is a tremendous impetus to constantly turn our groans into prayers – to “cast all your anxieties upon him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Related posts


Freedom to Choose (here)

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Marriage As Covenant Not Contract

I've just returned from the wedding of two former members of the New College community. It is a Christian residential college at the University of New South Wales. Every part of the wedding ceremony was a wonderful reminder of the fact that marriage is not simply a legal agreement between two people. The message delivered by the preacher, the words of Scripture that were read, the vows taken and the promises made by the young couple, all pointed to the fact that they were not looking simply to sign a simple legal contract of marriage.

Many people enter marriage today as a way to sort out the legalities of a long-term relationship and in order to give shape to their obligations and rights in the relationship. Of course, for those who choose to enter into a legally binding marriage outside of a church marriage, there may well be little more intent than this, and even this limited function has some social benefit. But the Bible teaches that marriage was meant to be so much more. As Gordon Menzies reminds us in an article he wrote for an edition of Case Magazine on the theme 'Family Foundations', marriage is meant to be a covenant between a man and a woman, not simply a legal agreement that entrenches rights, obligations and responsibilities. He wrote:

"...the starting point for the covenant understanding of marriage is not the gains from marriage, but the relationship between man and wife, the ‘inner commitment’ of the couple to each other in self-giving love (Greek: agape), involving openness to each other - emotionally, psychologically, sexually and spiritually. This is a relationship for life: as the Anglican marriage service puts it “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”. An exclusive sexual relation is central to this relationship, primarily as an outward expression of the inner commitment of the couple. In this understanding, any productive ‘gains’ from marriage, and even procreation, are marital ‘goods’, by-products of the relationship, and are shared by the couple on the basis of their love one for the other. Bargaining over the gains is completely alien to this model. Moreover, the marriage would still be valid if there were no productive gains (or even losses), or if one of the partners experiences a net loss of real income through the marriage. The marriage is defined solely in terms of the relationship between the partners, and not at all in terms of the ‘gains’ and how they are shared."
Menzies reminds us that the Bible stresses that marriage promotes a number of things, including relationship (Genesis 2:8), procreation (Genesis 4), social order (Genesis 2:24), sexual intimacy (1 Cor. 7:3-7) and the provision of 'material goods' (to use an economics term) that meet the needs of the couple (Gen 1 and 2). But unlike a simple contract, the marriage covenant involves a solemn promise by a man and woman before God, that reflects their ‘inner’ being, not just the assent of their minds.

As Kim and Lachlan embarked on marriage today, there was no doubt that they were entering into a covenant relationship before their God. There was no doubt that this was an unqualified commitment, and that in their vows they were committing themselves to a relationship that they hope will survive all the circumstances of life (‘for better, for worse, for richer or poorer’). This is not relationship where the expectation is that it can be cancelled as soon as one of them fails to fulfil their obligations. This is a relationship that is a reflection or echo of the relationship between God and his people (Ephesians 5:29-32). The implication is that the marriage covenant demands complete faithfulness of the man and the woman irrespective of the material good that they receive from the relationship. This is a tough requirement not to be entered into lightly. In contrast, the marriage contract can easily be seen as something that can be broken as soon as rights and obligations are not seen as being met. The Christian marriage is until death us do part, whereas the marriage contract is until either of us has had enough.

I praise God for the precious gift of marriage and young men and women like Kim and Lachlan who enter it with their eyes open and the highest expectation that in this precious institution they might bring honour and glory to God.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Incredible Value of Human Life

In Australia one of the biggest news stories of the last week has been the remarkable story of conjoined twins Trishna and Krishna who were successfully separated by a team of surgeons at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne on the 18th November.

Two years ago the 'Children First Foundation' brought these two little girls from Bangladesh to Australia for surgery.

An aid worker first saw Trishna and Krishna in an orphanage in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, when they were a month old. The aid worker contacted the Children First Foundation, which brought the girls to Australia for the operation. Their mother handed over her girls because she and her husband were unable to care for their special needs. The Children First Foundation also recognised that this was their only real chance of a longer life due to the nature of how they were joined at the skull.


Trishna and Krishna were joined at the top of their heads and shared brain tissue and blood vessels. They were gravely ill when they arrived, and underwent several preparatory operations over a period of almost 2 years before being separated. The doctors doing the surgery had warned that there was a 50 percent chance that one or both of the girls could suffer brain damage as a result. They were separated last week after a 32 hour operation by a team of 15 surgeons and over 70 medical staff working in shifts to complete the procedure. They left intensive care on Monday, are in stable condition, and the operation appears to have been a complete success.

The High Value of Human Life

People have applauded the remarkable doctors and people everywhere have been filled with great joy because the two little girls are now separated. Many have also praised (quite rightly) the woman who was responsible for bringing them to Australia (Moira Kelly). However, my wife Carmen put her finger on what is even more remarkable about this story. She commented over dinner through the week:
"You know what is so wonderful about this story? Moira Kelly and the doctors have shown how they put such a high value on human life."
In the second of his New College Lectures this year, Professor John Wyatt reminded his audience that the value of human life should never be linked to any judgements about the 'quality' of life, for such a judgement is hard to make. He shared the story of a little boy named Christopher who was part of his church and was born with Edwards syndrome. This is a tragic and rare chromosomal disorder that causes multiple malformations, severe mental impairment and a uniformly fatal outcome. He shared how this little boy had had a huge impact on his family and in fact the entire church, and how much his life had touched many and had been significant. In making sense of how this could occur in a world that seeks only perfection in people, he commented:
"....behind it all is the Christian conviction that even the weakest and most malformed human being has a life of unique value. Christopher in his way was a God-like being, a flawed masterpiece. His life was an example of Christian theology in practice, and it was a privilege for me to know him.

Here is a strange paradox. Sometimes we see the image of God most clearly, not in the perfect specimens of humanity, not in the Olympic athlete or the Nobel prizewinner. We see Christ in the broken, the malformed, the imperfect. It is an example of the Easter mystery. God is revealed, not in glorious majesty but in a broken body on a cross."
Though Trishna and Krishna were living their lives in bodies deformed and facing suffering and death, their lives were seen as having a high value by Moira Kelly, the 'Children First Foundation', supporters of the foundation and the large team of medical practitioners. As a result, they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to save them.

In a world so keen to use genetic screening to abort all but the most perfect foetus (see my previous post on 'Prenatal Genetic Testing), the story of these little girls is special. Psalm 139 helps us to understand that though these little girls may have been malformed in their mother's womb, they were known by God and precious to him:
For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.

Psalm 139:13-16
Praise God that these little lives were also precious to Moira Kelly and the medical team that has separated them.

Related posts

a) A mother praises God for her conjoined towns - In a similar case of conjoined twins, a mother raised eye brows in January this year when she greeted the news that she was to have dicephalous twins, the rarest known type of Siamese twins, with the comment:

"Some people might look at me and say, 'You're going to give birth to a freak' - but I don't care because I feel blessed......To me, my twins are a gift from God and we're determined to give them their chance of life."

Read the post HERE.

b) The latest on Trishna & Krishna - The girls are still doing well (HERE & HERE)

c) MP3s of Prof John Wyatt's lectures on 'Bioethics and Future Hope' (HERE)

d) All previous posts on medical ethics (HERE)

Thursday, 19 November 2009

To Exclude or to Embrace: Considering 'otherness'

Our next issue of Case magazine will consider how we relate to ‘the other’. As I ask in my introduction to the magazine, is this just a philosophical and theological discussion to keep scholars busy? Clearly, we see it as a topic of concern to all people. In his influential book 'Exclusion and Embrace' (which I mentioned in a previous post here), theologian Miroslav Volf shows just how important the question of otherness is to all of life. Understanding and living with others, is not simply a matter of accommodating diversity. He suggests our approach to the other should reflect the character and actions of our God revealed in the person of Christ. Volf challenges us to embrace ‘the other’ in the light of God’s giving of himself on the cross—this includes our enemies. We need to adjust our very identities to ‘make space’ for the other. We have four wonderful articles that address the theme.

1. Otherness and Continental Philosophy

Matheson Russell begins the issue for us by outlining the treatment of otherness in the field of continental philosophy. While much of philosophy has traditionally centred on the self, taking its cue from Descartes’ famous thinking ‘I', a concern for the other has emerged in more recent philosophical and theological works. Russell guides us through the work of key thinkers such as G. W. F. Hegel, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hannah Arendt, reflecting on the lingering presence of biblical themes in this literature. Emmanuel Levinas set the scene with his observation that the Western world tends to privilege the ‘same’ over the ‘other’. In such a world, the other counts only to the extent that he or she can be made the same, leading to behaviours of acquisition and domination. In Levinas’ work, says Russell, ‘the ethical demand of the other is the demand to let the other be, to break off the struggle for dominance…in short, to lay down arms and accept peace with the ‘other’ without reducing them to the ‘same’. Russell concludes by drawing on the work of Karl Barth, and by reflecting on the need ‘to relate to God as the absolute Other’, accepting his gift of grace and recognising Christ as Lord and Saviour.

2. A Theological View of Otherness

Moving from philosophy to theology, Linden Fooks asks what we can learn from Miroslav Volf. One of the pressing questions of our time is whether religion is a cause or a cure of cultural conflict. Volf’s answer, as Fooks shows us, is not ‘no religion’, but rather more, what he calls ‘thick religion’. His is a call to engage more seriously with the peace-making resources at the very heart of the Christian faith. This will require for Christians ‘an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures’ (Volf, p.40). Embrace—the theme of Volf’s major work, is not mere cheap reconciliation, but will require deep and costly forgiveness. Volf’s theological exploration of otherness and reconciliation has had an impact around the world.

3. Otherness and Disability

In our third article, Kirk Patston explores the issue of otherness and disability. Do we live in a land of ‘apartheid’, in which the disabled are systematically ‘othered’? Patston helpfully draws on the emerging field of disability theology to explore the portrayal of disability in the Old Testament. He asks and answers a number of fundamental questions. How can we reconcile the Bible’s call to welcome the alien and stranger with the way it appears to render certain groups, such as people with disabilities, as ‘other’? How are we to interpret the Old Testament’s complex portrayals of disability? Do postmodern critiques of these texts really fit? Patston reminds us that in the Old Testament ‘we do not meet the consistent, autonomous, rational adult that Enlightenment thinkers may have imagined. But we meet a humanity that is real.’

4. What it Means to Become ‘the other’

In our final article, Susannah Macready provides an insight into what it might mean to live with ‘the other’ and thus become ‘the other’. Her experience in entering the deaf community offers a humbling example of how we can experience otherness and yet find embrace. Her reflections on becoming an alien - becoming ‘hearing’ - are a timely reminder that relating to the other needs to be construed ‘less like an act of charity…and more like the initiation of diplomatic relations with another country, a country with an enviable language, culture and heritage.’

This is a challenging topic for all of us who live in pluralistic societies. How easy do we find it to embrace our neighbours, let alone our enemies? And in a more practical sense, how does this discussion challenge us as citizens as we collectively take responsibility for aliens and strangers. Does it inform our attitude to so-called boat people? What about the severely disabled, the homeless, the drug addict, the paedophile and so on? What does my understanding of the divine self-donation of the Cross mean for the construction of my identity and my relationship with the ‘other’ under the varied conditions of life? The writers in this issue have issued many challenges, I hope that many will read the issue and consider how to respond.

If you'd like to receive Case four times per year you can become a CASE Associate for just $55 per year. Single or multiple copies of specific issues of the magazine are also available.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is scientifically accurate

We receive many books to review at CASE that we usually send on to reviewers. There is always a temptation to read every book yourself, but usually common sense over-rules the temptation and you pass each book on to someone else. I failed this test with Andrew Parker's book 'The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible is Scientifically Accurate'. A new book on Genesis is not unusual, nor is one that claims that the Bible is true. But what is more unusual is to find a scientist with no faith claiming that Genesis chapter 1 is consistent with the latest evidence-based science. This is in stark contrast to many scientists and atheists who spend a lot of time pointing to what they see as the inaccuracy of the Bible.

The motivation for the book

Parker's exploration of the topic arose after he had published a popular scientific book called 'In the Blink of an Eye'. The book explores the origins of life on earth and in it he outlines his 'light switch' theory that forms part of many scientists' understanding of how life began. His theory based on fossil evidence, holds that it was the sudden introduction of vision on earth that triggered the sudden explosion of complex animal life in the Cambrian era. After the publication of his book on the theory he started to receive letters from Christians pointing out that his scientific theories had parallels with the first chapter of the book of Genesis in the Bible. He decided to have a look at Genesis 'mainly out of courtesy' and was surprised to find that there were a whole series of parallels between the Bible's creation narrative and modern scientific accounts of the beginnings of life.

The Genesis Enigma is the result of his reading of Genesis, exploration of biblical history, and discussions with leading Christian scientists like Professor John Lennox, apologist Alistair McGrath and others. He writes the book as an agnostic scientist. I don't think he calls himself an 'agnostic, but as he writes the book this is what he seems rather than an atheist. In the first chapter of the book he explores the evidence for the authenticity of the Old Testament and evidence for the claims that it is an accurate non-fictional work. In the remaining chapters he provides an explanation of how scientific understanding of the origins of life developed over time and parallels this with the Genesis chapter 1 account.

What does he conclude?

In short, he concludes that the parallels between Genesis 1 and science are so strong that the writer must have either made an extraordinarily lucky guess, or that the writing was inspired. He sums up his arguments in the final chapter of the book this way:
"...the Genesis Enigma holds that the Bible has, in its opening page, correctly predicted the history of life on earth, with its series of macro-evolutionary steps, or fits and starts, from the origin of our solar system to the evolution of birds and mammals. We can be certain that the author of this biblical account would have had no idea of these scientifically established events, covering billions of years....The possible explanations for this parallel.....are clear-cut: either the writer of the creation account of Genesis 1 was directed by divine intervention, or he made a lucky guess" (pp 202-203).
In summing up his work he asks himself (and the reader) a serious question. "Could it be real?" Has the Bible survived as an authoritative text for many millions of people because it carries a divine message that strikes a chord with humanity? He concludes:
"But I must admit, rather nervously as a scientist averse to entertaining such an idea, that the evidence that the writer of the opening page of the Bible was divinely inspired is strong. I have never before encountered such powerful, impartial evidence to suggest that the Bible is the product of divine inspiration. The Genesis Enigma may provide us with support for this proposition on a whole new level" (p.238).
What Parker is NOT saying

Lest Six Day Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates see Parker's book as support for their readings of Scripture, Parker is at pains to dismiss such arguments. In no way is he trying to suggest that Genesis 1 is a scientific account. While accepting that people are free to believe both these theories, he suggests that they are faith-based rather than evidence-based. Parker isn't suggesting that the Bible is science. Rather, he is suggesting that faith and science can co-exist. He goes further to accept that it is possible to find "...God within the confines of the evidence of evolution..". Whatever theory is accepted for the origins of life, Parker suggests that a prerequisite is needed and that science cannot provide the answers. He continues to speculate and pose many questions as he tries to make sense of his discovery. Why is there a human propensity towards religious thought? Why has this persisted throughout the ages? Did the concept of God evolve in humans because it was needed to raise our emotional state (the claim of some atheists and scientists)? Or was it God-given? Could religion be a critical element in the human mind?

Reservations about this book

The dangers with a book like this is that in writing such an honest account of one's pondering about faith and the origin of life, the writer leaves himself open to criticism from absolutely everyone. Some scientists will critique his science, Christian's may critique his reading of Genesis, theologians might question his reading of Scripture and his understanding of God, and historians could question some of the historical analysis. But in spite of this, I find myself filled with admiration for Parker's honesty and humility in exposing his inner struggles to reconcile the coexistence of faith and science. In the final pages of the book he displays his vulnerability with these words:
"I am a scientist, and incorporating God into my thinking feels like a quantum leap. But I am at least comfortable with the idea that my acceptance of evolution, and science in general, does not affect, or is not affected by, my feelings about God" (p. 235)
Parker's book is an interesting apologetic from a surprising source. It's worth a read.

Related posts

'The God of Science' (here)
'Five Things I Never Learnt in a Science Class' (here)
'The Wonders of Space' (here)

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Revealing the Truth or Hiding it From Children: Learning from Humpty Dumpty

The BBC created quite a stir two weeks ago when one of its children’s programs altered the words to the children’s rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’, in order to give it a more cheerful ending. In the revised edition, instead of all the kings horses and all the kings men not being able to 'put Humpty together again', all the King's horses and men 'made Humpty happy again'. The revision of fairy tales and nursery rhymes isn’t new. In recent years some have been modified to remove racism, sexism and in some cases culturally insensitive material. As well, some have been touched up in order to make them easier to understand for today’s children. But is this always a good idea?

It’s easier to build arguments for removing racism and culturally insensitive material, but the type of revision that Humpty Dumpty has suffered is less justifiable. Why do I say this? I think there are a number of reasons but I’ll comment on just two.

1. Narrative helps to explain and offer a rehearsal
for life


Children’s stories introduce ideas and concepts in narrative form as a type of rehearsal for life. Narrative whether told, heard, seen or written can provide a way to learn about, reflect on and explain life. In fact life always ends in death and there can be suffering, sickness, persecution, fear and sadness along the way. Stories may just as easily give a false impression of life if they distort the nature of human experience, or offer it in a limited way. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending. In fact for all of us it can involve pain and suffering and ultimately will end in death.

How children grow in their understanding of the realities of life varies and causes many parents anguish and sometimes pain. Every parent who has had a tearful child come home complaining about being bullied for the first time; having been teased because of their appearance, body shape etc, will know what I mean. Life requires us to cope and grow with our successes, failures, pain, ridicule, joy and sorrow. But how and when do we deal with such issues? Because children begin life in innocence with no awareness of the hard and sometimes dark side of life, parents are right to be cautious about what concepts they introduce to their children as well as how and when. Greg Thiele’s post on appropriate movies for children (here) dealt with this issue. Children need to grow emotionally and not be forced to deal with issues beyond their stage of emotional development.

Parents are the key to the child’s emotional growth and wellbeing and have the important task of knowing what to say and when to say it to their children. It’s terrifying for any parent to let a child go off to preschool or preschool where we can’t personally respond to every situation. Often the way we respond to our children when they get home is in terms of story or anecdote. The child tells their story about what happens, and the parent often responds in narrative form, “I had something happen to me….”, “It’s a bit like that time that your sister….”, or “Daddy had that happen to him….”.

Beyond real life anecdotes and stories children are introduced to many more serious aspects of the human condition through story. On my other blog ‘Literacy, Families & learning’ I have written about the role that literature plays many times (here). For example, in a post on ‘Conquering Fears’ I explored the role that children’s literature can play in helping children deal with unknown fears and known fears like death, danger and the threats of other children. I also explored the role of literature in understanding ‘Death’ and ‘Being Different’.

Christian parents will of course always want to bring back their discussions with their children to the central narrative of creation that explains all other things. And while the best place for parents to start is in reading the Bible to and with their children, all narrative can provide echoes of the central and foundational human narrative. As I wrote in a previous post on ‘Christian Writing for Children’ (here), the gospel of Christ is the central narrative to which virtually all other narratives have some relationship – certainly in the Western cultural tradition and literature. The central focus of the Bible is Salvation History; with its central narrative tracing both the history of Judaism and Christianity and God’s redemptive plan for his people. In the beginning God created…and it was good. But sin entered the world, man rebelled against him and so God placed a curse upon his creation that one day would end in judgement. But God always had a plan for such rebellion; a plan of redemption motivated by love. An amazing gift of grace; his own son sent to die and three days later to be raised from the dead to defeat sin and death. A plan that provided a way for creation to be restored and for humanity to be brought back into a relationship with him.

The biblical narrative of God’s redemptive plan and work is the central narrative that gives shape to all other narratives. In every story there is a sense in which there is an echo of the biblical narrative. J.R.R. Tolkien once said (to his friend C.S. Lewis) that “The Christian story is the greatest story of them all. Because it’s the real story. The historical event that fulfils the tales and shows us what they mean." Lewis and Tolkien both saw the gospel narrative as the central or foundational human narrative.

2. Back to ‘Humpty Dumpty’: Disconnecting stories from ultimate truth

So does it matter that they’ve messed up ‘Humpty Dumpty’? I think so, but probably for different reasons than Ricky Gervais who is also fired up about the matter (see below). There are two good reasons. First, in messing about with a simple rhyme or fairy tale we strip away the depth of meaning and possibilities that were originally intended by the writer. Most fairy tales, in fact most children’s stories have many layers of intended meaning. In fact, many well known nursery rhymes and playground chants have deep political meanings. I’m preparing a separate post on this for my other blog, but let me illustrate with poor old ‘Humpty’.

We're not certain what the original intent of Humpty Dumpty. Some suggest Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England to describe an overweight person. Others suggest that the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ of the nursery rhyme was a large cannon used in the English Civil War (1642 - 1649) as part of the siege of Colchester (1648) by the Parliamentarians (Roundheads). It is believed that the cannon was placed on the city wall near St Mary’s Church (opposite - Colchester Arts Centre today). It has been suggested in one account that a shot from the cannon of the Roundheads succeeded in damaging the wall beneath ‘Humpty Dumpty’ that caused it to fall to the ground. The Royalists tried to restore it but 'all the King's men' couldn’t raise the canon back onto another section of the wall due to its weight. The town of Colchester eventually fell after a siege of eleven weeks. Many now doubt this reading of Humpty. Some suggest that it alludes to English King Richard III and the Oxford Dictionary refers to 'Humpty Dumpty' as a brandy drink boiled with ale. I like the siege of Colchester version but it is difficult to know the truth of the rhyme.

So at one level, changing the ending simply relegates this rhyme to a playground chant with a happy ending. But at a more fundamental level, the change to the rhyme strips away a connection or echo of the divine narrative. Changing the ending as they did is to suggest a lie to our children (if repeated). Instead, children must learn (eventually) that life can take twists and turns that we don’t expect, and that for all of us it will end up in death. But they also need to learn over time that while there is pain and loss in life, there is also joy and hope, and that ultimately we will be ‘put back together again’ just like the cannon (or the egg!) in and through Christ. Our only hope is in him, and we need not despair or be fearful of death.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)
3. Just for fun – Rick Gervais on Humpty

I don't want to trivialise a serious post, but I enjoyed the 'analysis' of Humpty Dumpty by Ricky Gervais. Gervais is one of my favourite comedians (star of the British TV series ‘The Office’) has a rant about what they did to Humpty. Apologies for some of his language.



Related Posts

Report in 'The Independent' on the BBC changes to 'Humpty Dumpty' (here)

Sydney Morning Hearld report on the story (here)

Monday, 26 October 2009

Having the 'right' heart for the Internet

The Internet and new communication technology have had a huge impact on our world. Just like any new technology it is easy to see advantages and problems. Any criticism of the Internet will evoke strong defence because of the many wonderful things that it offers; it is easy to love the Internet. But there will be just as many people who will point to the obvious problems we can identify with its use - misuse of social networks to bully and deceive, online gambling addictions, crime and abuse to name just a few. But it also brings many blessings and opportunities: improved communication between isolated loved ones; a means to bring political accountability and action as occurred with the use of Twitter to monitor the 2009 elections in Zimbabwe; use of mobile phones to enable rescues and prevent crimes; access to information and knowledge at the 'click' of a key; new ways to share biblical truth in varied languages and so on.

In recent weeks in Australia we saw a dramatic rescue of two girls in Adelaide aged 10 and 12. While trapped in a stormwater drain they were able to update their Facebook pages using mobile phones, leading to their rescue (here). Once again, this demonstrates that new technology isn't necessarily the problem it's what we do with it that matters and the hearts and minds that drive our use of technology.

Case magazine focussed on technology in 2008 with an issue that had the theme 'Communication, Cyberspace and Community'. In my contribution to the issue, 'Truth and the Internet', I made the comment:

"The Internet like other tools is simply a means to understand the world. Like other tools it is used as an extension of, and as part of, cultural groups (e.g. the family, school, church etc). It is in such groups that we learn how to use psychological and material tools. Much of this occurs with no formal instruction as children from birth learn through interaction with others. The tools we use reflect the culture in which we live and are applied as we interact with others....tools and the cultural groups within which we live mediate our thoughts and actions."

But while the work of great psychologists like Vygotsky remind us that the Internet is just a tool, any tool can be misused. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that I have serious worries about the way we use the Internet - and I include myself in the 'we'! I love the Internet but I recognise that I need to use it responsibly. John Smuts from Petersham Baptist Church made this point well in a helpful sermon on Sunday on the Christian and culture and motivated this post. The Bible offers knowledge and wisdom that takes us to the next step, providing us with the guidance that we need to use tools like the Internet wisely. Day by day I need to be thinking about the way I use the Internet and the motives that drive my use:
I need to be careful that I don't use email instead of face-to-face communication.
I need to guard my words and my motives online.
I need to avoid presenting a different and false persona to my virtual world than to the one where people observe me face-to-face (Roberta Kwan's article in Case #18 - 'Name Unknown: Anonymity in the City' is relevant here).
I need to make sure that I don't rob my God, my family or even my employer (see previous post on this here) of the time that I owe to them.
I need to ensure that I observe ethical principles in how I use Internet resources, not stealing that which I should purchase.
I need to avoid becoming addicted to social network sites, online shopping, twitter or blogging.
I need to be an example to others of how best to use the Internet.
Paul's letter to the Philippian church are helpful in offering us a starting point for handling the Internet well. He stresses the importance of our minds as drivers of our actions. At a general level he commends the Philippians to be conscious that their relationships in life are driven by their minds: "Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ" (Phil 1:27). Be "of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (Phil 2:2). "Have this mind among yourself, which is yours in Christ Jesus" - a mind centred on Christ that leads to humility, servanthood and sacrifice (Phil 2:5-8). God is concerned about our minds and what we do with them.

Tools like the Internet can be used for good and evil; for their use reflects the state of human minds. Paul underscores this for his readers later in the letter when he commends them to be concerned about their minds, for he knew that it is the focus of one's mind that dictates what Christ's followers do with their lives. Our minds shape our actions, our priorities and our passions.
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you." (Philippians 4:8-9)
Jesus also taught that it was from within us that our actions are shaped. He spoke of the 'heart' as the shaper of actions.
And he said, "What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:21-23)
The lesson is simple. The Internet isn't the problem; it's sin that can drive us to use it in ways that are not for our good. Furthermore, our use of it is shaped by our minds (or 'hearts'). Of course, this doesn't mean that we should be blind to the potential challenges of using the Internet. Like anything that can cause harm, not simply be used for the good, we need to be cautious and make wise decisions about how we use it. It may well be that if we cannot use the Internet wisely that we need to build greater accountability into our own lives and also for our children.

Related Posts & Links

'The Soul in Cyberspace: Wisdom from Groothius' (here)
'Is the Internet Dumbing us Down? 2 Rite' (here)
'Truth and the Internet 2' (here)
'Communication, Cyberspace & Community' (here)
'Writing, Communication Technology & Relationships' (here)

Monday, 19 October 2009

To Give a Reason

CASE has just released its latest issue of its quarterly magazine Case that focuses on approaches to apologetics. Some Christians see apologetics as an interesting, but non-essential tool. And yet all are exhorted in Scripture to always be ‘prepared to make a defence [apologia] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15). Peter’s exhortation to be prepared to ‘to give a reason’ — an apologia — forms the theme and the title for our 20th issue.

Apologetics has commonly been defined as ‘the defence of the Christian faith against charges of falsehood, inconsistency or credulity’ (Cowan, Steven, ‘Five Views on Apologetics’, 2000). Such a definition pushes us towards methods based on reason and argument. Paul’s defence before Roman officials (Acts 24-25) is one example of how this is done. Yet is there more to apologetics than rational discourse? Taken together, the writers in this issue of Case show how relational and rational apologetics ought to co-exist in the commending of the Christian gospel. While not denying the importance of knowledge it is important to underline that apologetics takes place between people sharing relationships—not least in the relationship we call church.

The essays in Case #20 offer a number of foundational principles that help us to rethink and clarify attitudes and approaches to apologetics. As I've edited the magazine with Mike Thompson my Associate Editor I have been challenged in many ways. Here are a few of the key ideas that have struck me as significant.

Apologetics is more than winning arguments

In offering a defence or reason for the hope that we have in Christ, we must do more than simply seek to win arguments; our lives must also commend Christ (see my previous post on this topic here). David Hohne frames his essay with Peter’s challenge (1 Peter 2:12) to live an honorable or good life. As David puts it, to have ‘a beautiful way of life’ that commends God to others. Our defence should not be just rational argument; we must use our ‘head, heart and hands’ and live as apologetic people in apologetic communities—with ‘our whole lives as both a defence and commendation of the grace of God in Christ’. The church is not separate from culture, and yet it should stand out against it.

Michael Jensen makes the point in his contribution to this issue that the church needs to build ‘communities of grace’ in which are demonstrated authentic Christian lives. Christ-centred communities draw attention to the one in whom members place their hope.

We must look for new ways to engage in apologetics

A common error with apologetics is to see it as just skills and tasks to be learned. Andrew Bain suggests that we must become better at connecting core elements of the Christian faith with related themes in the cultural world in which we dwell. We need to articulate, for the benefit of others, those points of ‘conflict and connection’ between Christian doctrines (e.g. the Trinity, revelation, Scripture, and Christology) and their apparent counterparts in our cultural and intellectual surroundings.

William Lane Craig points out that apologetics is not just for evangelising unbelievers and strengthening Christians. Apologetics also has a broader value in helping to create receptiveness towards Christianity in society more generally. As he argues, ‘It is the broader task of Christian apologetics to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the Gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women.

Beware of apologetic transposition

Richard Gibson and Mike Thompson suggest that when we translate the Christian faith into the language of our surrounding culture we must beware of reconstituting the message itself—in particular the Biblical portrayal of God’s character. Drawing on the example of the second century apologists they show how apologetic translation can become apologetic ‘transposition’—a problem not only for apologetics but for the long-term integrity of Christian theology as a whole.

Exercise humility as we present Christ

All writers in this issue either address or allude to the need for a more ‘humble apologetic’. Michael Jensen reminds us that we must prayerfully approach our task with the knowledge that God is sovereign in our apologetics. As well, he commends the apologist to listen attentively and intelligently, and be prepared to say ‘I don’t know’. Similarly, William Lane Craig commends us to be ‘relational, humble and invitational’. We must present the reasons for our hope ‘with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).

Seminar on Apologetics for readers based in Sydney

CASE holds a quarterly discussion group based on the previous issue. Our discussion group for October will be held at Moore Theological College on Thursday 29th October 2009 at 4.00pm in the Lower Lecture Room. Dr David Höhne, lecturer in Philosophy and Theology at Moore, will speak briefly about his article on ‘becoming apologetic persons’, in which he critiques the lingering influence of Kant and Schleiermacher, and challenges readers to re-conceive of apologetics not as a matter of rational discourse alone but instead as a matter of ‘head, heart and hands’.

Discussion will then be open on any of the contents of Case # 20. The related contents include:

Andrew Bain, ‘Theological Apologetics: a Program for Action
Richard Gibson and Mike Thompson, ‘What Happened to God’s Emotions?: A Warning to the Apologist from History’
William Lane Craig, ‘Who Needs Apologetics?
Michael Jensen, ‘16 Verbs for a 21st Century Apologetics
David Hohne, ‘Becoming an Apologetic Person

Registration is open to all and a copy of the latest magazine will be provided as part of the seminar.

Phone: Sydney 02 9381 1999
Email: caseadmin@newcollege.unsw.edu.au
More information: CASE website (here)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Faith & Politics: Our rights and responsibilities

In an article titled 'The voluble and the Word: amen to that' (Sydney Morning Herald, 10-11 October, 2009) Damien Murphy wrings his hands at the increasing influence of Christians in politics. He frames his article with the question "Is politics becoming more entwined with Christianity while Australian society becomes more and more secular?" He points to the Prime Minister's public professions of faith (and that of others) as if this may be a troubling development:

"No politician has ever spoken so frankly or linked his [i.e. the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd] beliefs to political policy. His open and sincere religiosity even provided an ethical public persona that enabled him to battle John Howard for the hearts and minds of Christians and eventually lead the ALP out of the political wilderness. Rudd is now joined by political contemporaries like Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott in overtly embracing religiosity as a shorthand way of proving credentials and displaying the sort of principles to which they aspire."

What place does faith have in politics?


At various points in the article Murphy makes it clear that he is of the view that Rudd, Abbot and Hockey have made use of their faith for reasons of political popularity. I've heard comments of this type before about politicians who dare to mention their faith. I have no idea whether any of them (including the Prime Minister) have been open about their faith simply for political gain, but surely what is at issue here is whether one's faith is relevant to one's politics, which Murphy appears to question. Indeed, he questions whether faith, as a basis for one's values and as a shaper of actions and concerns, is as relevant as it once was. He continues to imply in his article that this rush of 'religiosity' (as he describes it) is somehow disconnected to the needs of our secular society:
...Australia is an increasingly secular society. Although 64 per cent say they are Christian, fewer than one in 10 attends weekly church. Compared with many countries, Australia has invested little energy in public debate about the place of religion in a secular society. In some, such as the US and France, protecting religious freedom means rigorously policing the boundary between church and state.
He continues with his thesis that religion is somehow less relevant than it once was for public debates about Australia's political policies.

Curiously perhaps, Australian politicians have 'got religion' while more and more people around the country are letting go......In the 1996 census, 71 per cent of Australians said they were Christians. By 2006 Christians were down to 64 per cent. The number of Australians who professed no religion soared to almost 19 per cent.

Interestingly, a recent piece of research by McCrindle research for the 'Jesus All About life' campaign (here) shows that a majority of Sydney people (51%) believe Jesus was a real figure, that he had miraculous powers, and that he was the son of God.

The views of Kevin Rudd

It might also surprise Damien Murphy to find that Prime Minister Rudd would agree with him that religiosity and moral arguments have little place in politics. In a lecture given at New College (the home of CASE) on the 26th October 2005, 'A consideration of the relationship between Church and State' the then member of the Opposition offered 5 models that can be used to link faith and politics. He rejected (almost disdainfully) the first three that encourage voters to offer support to the Christian politician simply because the politician has a faith position, supports a narrow set of values, or stands for the family. He rejected a fourth that he saw as deficient because this model had a limited application of faith on values and stops short of making stands on what he sees as critical policy areas like foreign affairs, Indigenous issues, industrial relations etc. Instead he argues that:

"....the Gospel is both a spiritual Gospel and a social Gospel. And if it is a social Gospel then it is in part a political Gospel because politics is a means by which society chooses to exercise its collective power. In other words the Gospel is as much about decisions I make about my life as it is about how I act in society and how in turn I should act, and react, in relation to the exercise of the coordinated power of society through the State. This view derives from the simple principle that the Gospel which tells human kind that they must be born-again, is the same Gospel that says that at the time of the Great Judgement that Christians will be asked not how pious they have been but instead if they helped feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the lonely. In this respect, the Gospel is an exhortation for social action."

Prime Minister Rudd concluded by making the point that Damien Murphy seems to miss, Christians have a right and in fact a social obligation as citizens to engage in political thought and action. He comments in the same address that while the number of Christians has declined in Australia that they nonetheless have an obligation to be politically involved:

"Whereas a Christian perspective on contemporary policy debates may not, therefore, prevail, it must nonetheless be argued. And if argued it must therefore be heard by those in authority. It should not be rejected contemptuously by secular politicians as if these views are an unwelcome intrusion into the political sphere."
The challenge to Christians to be better citizens

Just as it is relevant for Christians to enter politics, all citizens who call themselves Christians have a responsibility to contribute to better government and justice for all people.

In his book 'The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology' Oliver O'Donovan reminds us that two New Testament phrases sum up the role of government. It is a “minister of God” and it is a “human institution”. That is, it exists to serve the will of God that there should be government and it exists to give order and shape to human society and its affairs.

As Andrew Errington also reminds us in an article in issue #13 of Magazine devoted to the 'Christian and Politics' (Case here) as citizens the right approach to political action is for us to help our representatives of government do their job well and ensure that we have a good government.

The Christian has a responsibility to challenge politicians to ensure they seek justice. This will mean reminding them of God's truth taught in his Word, that ultimately God governs this nation and indeed the entire universe. God's word gives us clear guidance about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, good or evil.

So the right approach for Christian political action is to seek to help our representatives govern well and to help our governments be good governments. This means setting before them the priorities of justice; it means calling them to the truth about the universe revealed in the word of God. We must also remind them that Jesus Christ is the only true King. It is before him that every voter, every citizen and indeed every politician and ruler will one day bow down. There will be a day of judgement, and on that day every one of us will be called "to give an account of every careless word" (Matthew 12:36). Rather than standing in judgement on our politicians' words, motives and actions, we must challenge them and remind them that they have a great responsibility to do good and that one day, like us, they will bow before God (Rom 14:12) and he will judge "the living and the dead" (1 Peter 4:5). We are all known to God who can judge words, motives and hearts. As the book of Hebrews reminds us we are all "naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account".

This responsibility is challenging for the person of any faith. Damien Murphy has it badly wrong when he questions the right of politicians to have faith and apply it to their politics. Every politician who has a faith has a right and responsibility to apply this to their actions, and hopefully this shapes their values. This does not mean that they can hope to enforce their faith on the people, nor to narrowly apply their faith to a limited range of social and moral agendas. If they do this then God himself will judge their actions.

Monday, 5 October 2009

'Exclusion & Embrace' - Identity, otherness and reconciliation

In our next issue of Case magazine (#21) we will examine 'Otherness'. The issue will offer a theological exploration of a topic that has long interested philosophers, sociologists and psychologists. Being able to define the 'other' (someone not like myself) is part of how we define the self. It is also the basis on which individuals, groups, communities and societies in general reject or distance themselves from other people; we use perceptions of difference to exclude rather than to 'embrace' (to use Volf's term). Miroslav Volf's work is central to much recent discussion of the topic and hence is important to the theme that we address. In his book 'Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation', Volf suggests that understanding the problem of identity and otherness and the conflict that results, can be approached from multiple perspectives including that of the 'universalist' who seeks to control difference and instead promote common values, the 'communitarian' who seeks to celebrate all difference and promote heterogeneity, and the 'postmodernist' who wants to flee both of the above and seek instead the radical autonomy of the individual. But Volf (1996, pp 20-21) suggests that a Christian examination of otherness should take us in a different direction:
These proposals [i.e. the above arguments] do entail important perspectives about persons who live in societies, but their main interest is not social agents, but social arrangements. In contrast, I want to concentrate on social agents. Instead of reflecting on the kind of society we ought to create in order to accommodate individual or communal heterogeneity, I will explore what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others. My assumption is that selves are situated; they are female or male, Jew or Greek, rich or poor - as a rule, more than one of these things at the same time...often having hybrid identities...and sometimes migrating from one identity to another. The questions I will be pursuing about such situated selves are: How should they think of their identity? How should they relate to the other? How should they go about making peace with the other?
Volf suggests that our starting point in this journey of discovery should be the cross of Christ, for it is the starting point to understanding the character of the Christian self in relation to the other. He suggests that Moltman's work (e.g. 'The Spirit of Life' 1991) offers insight into our need for solidarity with those who suffer and are excluded - "the sufferings of Christ are not just his sufferings but are those of the poor weak, which Jesus shares in his own body and in his own soul, in solidarity with them". As well, Moltman points to the need for atonement for the perpetrators of injustice - "just as the oppressed must be liberated from the suffering caused by oppression, so the oppressors must be liberated from the suffering caused through oppression". But Volf suggests we need to go further, we need to consider "divine self-donation for the enemies and their reception into the eternal communion of God" (Wolf, 1996, p. 23). In doing this, Volf seeks to consider the social significance of the theme of divine self-giving. God does not abandon the godless to their evil. Instead, he gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through Christ's atoning sacrifice. As a result, he argues, we too should embrace our enemies. The metaphor of embrace he suggests is helpful in moving us in this direction. He describes it this way:
'The will to give ourselves to others and 'welcome' them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgement about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any 'truth' about others and any construction of their 'justice'. This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into 'good' and 'evil'." (Volf, 1996, p. 29).
Volf's ideas are personally challenging for me, living in the relative comfort of a western nation with stable government and in a pluralistic society that at least claims to embrace the isolated, the weak, the disabled, the alien, the oppressed. While I see myself as a person with a sense of justice and a heart for the oppressed, I'm repulsed at times by the inner attitudes of my heart to the 'other' that may manifest themselves in politely ignoring needs, avoiding those who I see as different, condemning those who do evil and so on. I find it easy to embrace those who share much in common with me, but in my community how would I deal with the paedophile, the alien of radically different faith, the severely disabled, the homeless, the drug addict and so on. What does my understanding of the divine self-donation of the Cross mean for the construction of my identity and my relationship with the 'other' under the varied conditions of life?

If you are interested in these issues then check out Case. Case magazine is published quarterly. Issue 21 is due out in December. For more information consult the CASE website (here).