Saturday, 24 October 2009

Love Abused

How would you respond if your cousin wrote a book advocating polygamy? Unsurprisingly, poet William Cowper (1731-1800) responded in verse, with a poem entitled 'Love Abused':

What is there in the vale of life
Half so delightful as a Wife,
When friendship, love, and peace combine
To stamp the marriage-bond divine?
The stream of pure and genuine love
Derives its current from above;
And earth a second Eden shows,
Where'er the healing water flows:
But ah! if from the dykes and drains
Of sensual nature's feverish veins,
Lust, like a lawless headstrong flood,
Impregnated with ooze and mud,
Descending fast on every side,
Once mingles with the sacred tide,
Farewell the soul-enlivening scene!
The banks that wore a smiling green,
With rank defilement overspread,
Bewail their flowery beauties dead.
The stream, polluted, dark, and dull,
Diffused into a Stygian pool,
Through life's last melancholy years
Is fed with ever-flowing tears:
Complaints supply the zephyr's part,
And sighs that heave a breaking heart.

['Stygian' = 'Of or pertaining to the River Styx or the underworld... black, gloomy, indistinct, infernal, hellish']

Ok, so what? Polygamy isn't really a hot issue for me. But then look around society and quickly you can replace talk of polygamy with the very similar issue of socially-acceptable (even encouraged) serial monogamy. As a newcomer to Cowper's poetry (having recently found his collected poetical works on a secondhand bookstall) what strikes me is how incisive his insight can be at times, and how much he can say with so few words. Serial monogamy is the search for 'the one', 'Mr Right', and personal fulfilment - and it's everywhere in our society. Relationships are such a prominent idol - the holy grail of contentment, but what do we find?

'Farewell the soul-enlivening scene!'

We find we've lost something - somehow that fulfilment remains elusive, our souls are never quite satisfied. Why? Because we've abandoned the God-given scenario of marriage, that when undertaken in a godly and responsible way offers something comparable to a 'second Eden', we find that we just can't fill the hole that's left. You can see the last four lines in action all around you - just open your eyes.

But we don't see it. We've decided a priori that the Creator's instructions are dull, dusty and terribly inhibiting. So we're pursuing 'freedom' without the One who could show us how to find it (and what 'freedom' really is) - the One who is the Truth. With what effect? Here's the closing lines of 'The Progress of Error' (the first 12-page poem I've ever read!!) that so effectively describe what's going on... and point to the only answer.

Hear the just law - the judgement of the skies!
He that hates truth shall be the dupe of lies;
And he that will be cheated to the last,
Delusions strong as Hell shall bind him fast.
But if the wanderer his mistake discern,
Judge his own ways, and sigh for a return,
Bewildered once, must he bewail his loss
For ever and for ever? No - the Cross!
There, and there only (though the deist rave,
And atheist, if Earth bear so base a slave)
There, and there only, is the power to save.
There no delusive hope invites despair.
No mockery meets you, no deception there;
The spells and charms that blinded you before,
All vanish there, and fascinate no more.
I am no preacher; let this hint suffice -
The Cross once seen is death to every vice;
Else He that hung there suffered all his pain,
Bled, groaned, and agonized, and died in vain.

Friday, 23 October 2009

True religion

"Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life."

William Lamb, British Prime Minister 1835-41

It's an understandable lament... viewed from a certain perspective. After all, what could be more delightful and fulfilling than being left to do exactly as I please in my own private life? What we want is a suitably undemanding religion with suitable guarantees for the afterlife. Or do we? Is that kind of religion worth anything? Does that kind of religion do anything other than soothe my conscience and allow my ego to carry on with whatever it fancies doing? We would ordinarily call that kind of arrangement a sham. Does it bring happiness anyway? I wonder if Lamb had really thought this through? Might the pain of his wife's scandalous affair with Lord Byron have been averted with a little meaningful 'religion'?

I can't really express how unappealing such empty 'religion' is to me. It's living a lie; a convenient way of fooling myself. Surely it speaks of an empty life - a need to atone for wrongdoing somehow, but a refusal to allow for any transformation. If wrongdoing really is wrong, then what could be better than to deal with it effectively? What could be more liberating? "No!" the world cries, "that's enslaving yourself to someone else's standards! That's not liberty!" The spiritual blindness shown in Lamb's opinion is just tragic, and all the more tragic because he speaks for multitudes. They cannot see the spiritual reality: 'Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?' (Romans 6:16). Rowland Hill, who died just 2 years before Lamb became PM, has something far more attractive to say (even if he looks so miserable in his portrait!):

"I would give nothing for that man's religion whose very dog and cat were not the better for it!"

This kind of attractive, comprehensive faith is the subject of a prayer I read this morning in The Valley of Vision - entitled by the compilers, 'True Religion'. The comprehensive sweep of its concerns over all aspects of life was what struck me.

Lord God Almighty,

I ask not to be enrolled amongst the earthly great and rich,
but to be numbered with the spiritually blessed.

Make it my present, supreme, persevering concern to obtain those blessings which are
spiritual in nature, eternal in their continuance, satisfying in their possession.

Preserve me from a false estimate of the whole or a part of my character;

May I pay regard to
my principles as well as my conduct,
my motives as well as my actions.

Help me
never to mistake the excitement of my passions for the renewing of the Holy Spirit,
never to judge my religion by occasional impressions and impulses, but by my constant and prevailing disposition.

May my heart be right with thee,

and my life as becometh the gospel.

May I maintain a supreme regard to another and better world,
and feel and confess myself a stranger and a pilgrim here.

Afford me all the direction, defence, support, and consolation my journey hence requires,

and grant me a mind stayed upon thee.

Give me large abundance of the supply of the Spirit of Jesus,

that I may be prepared for every duty,
love thee in all my mercies,
submit to thee in every trial,
trust thee when walking in darkness,
have peace in thee amidst life's changes.

Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief and uncertainties.

How much of this religion would William Lamb have recognised? Isn't it something so much better?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Is substitionary atonement immoral?

Reading a comment by Mahmut on Simon Hutton’s blog here set me thinking about the morality of the biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Simon has already posted a really helpful response here showing the necessity of understanding the biblical framework if you’re to meaningfully challenge the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – which is great, as that’s where I’d had in mind to start, but now there’s no need to say what’s already been said! So I’ll restrict myself to reflecting on just one point – doesn’t this doctrine lead to a ‘legal fiction’?

The Bible doesn’t simply teach that Jesus decided to step into our place and take the punishment on our behalf. Substitutionary atonement is only one part in a much bigger doctrine of salvation. Would that be moral? Would that satisfy God’s eternal justice? I think not. That tends to lead to ideas of God as an impersonal dispenser of justice – it doesn’t matter who 'gets it', just so long as someone does.

The Bible teaches something far greater than that – and, it must be said, something very different to our contemporary Western individualism. The Bible teaches that Christ acts as our representative head, just as Adam did. Perhaps a better illustration than the stories of one innocent person voluntarily standing in for the guilty would be the situation of the CEO of a corporation. He knows that his job will be on the line if there is corruption within the company – even if he wasn’t involved. He must be prepared to take responsibility for those under him. I am well aware that this illustration is very far from perfect – I offer it simply as a slight improvement on others that are more often heard to try, getting away from these ideas of radical individualism and suggesting ideas of more ‘corporate’ responsibility.

But the Christian’s relationship with Christ is not that of employee to CEO. The Bible describes it as being a far closer, more intimate and vital relationship – the relationship between the head and the body (Ephesians 5:23) or like a vine and its branches (John 15:1-7). The NT letters are peppered with phrases such as ‘in him’ or ‘in Christ’ to describe the Christian’s position.

Martin Luther, the great reformer, points to another NT image of the Church’s (=all Christians) relationship to Christ – that of bride to bridegroom in the covenant of marriage:

The third incomparable grace of faith is this: that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband, by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage--nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages--is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as His.

If we compare these possessions, we shall see how inestimable is the gain. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. For, if He is a Husband, He must needs take to Himself that which is His wife's, and at the same time, impart to His wife that which is His. For, in giving her His own body and Himself, how can He but give her all that is His? And, in taking to Himself the body of His wife, how can He but take to Himself all that is hers. In this is displayed the delightful sight, not only of communion, but of a prosperous warfare, of victory, salvation, and redemption. For, since Christ is God and man, and is such a Person as neither has sinned, nor dies, nor is condemned, nay, cannot sin, die, or be condemned, and since His righteousness, life, and salvation are invincible, eternal, and almighty,--when I say, such a Person, by the wedding-ring of faith, takes a share in the sins, death, and hell of His wife, nay, makes them His own, and deals with them no otherwise than as if they were His, and as if He Himself had sinned; and when He suffers, dies, and descends to hell, that He may overcome all things, and since sin, death, and hell cannot swallow Him up, they must needs be swallowed up by Him in stupendous conflict. For His righteousness rises above the sins of all men; His life is more powerful than all death; His salvation is more unconquerable than all hell.

Who then can value highly enough these royal nuptials? Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious Husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious harlot, redeeming her from all her evils and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her Husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying, "If I have sinned, my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine is His, and all His is mine," as it is written, "My beloved is mine, and I am His" (Cant. ii. 16). This is what Paul says: "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," victory over sin and death, as he says, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor. xv. 56, 57).

Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, written 1520.

Now, that may not sound terribly convincing to the modern mind either, but that’s because our radical modern individualism has seriously undermined our understanding of marriage. In the last year there has been a huge increase in the number of pre-nuptial agreements (I forget the figures – it was reported recently on the radio) as the modern individualist, quite logically, is in it for what they can get rather than for what they can give to their spouse, so it becomes a priority to protect yourself against the eventuality of it going wrong.

No, I’m not digressing. Rather this thought highlights a bigger issue – given the Bible’s teaching on salvation into which substitutionary atonement fits, the question of whether or not substitutionary atonement is immoral depends upon another question: should modern radical individualism be unquestioningly accepted as the basis of our ethical understanding, or could it be possible that this modern Western ideology may not hold the total supremacy it tends to assume for itself? If you hold on to your Western individualism, you won’t be able to make sense of biblical teaching. But if you allow the Bible to challenge your worldview, and if you begin to see the beauty and coherence of what it offers (I know which sort of marriage I want mine to be!) it all begins to fall into place.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Whose Delusion?

Here is Richard Dawkin's thesis in 'The God Delusion':

'...any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it. God, in the sense defined, is a delusion; and, as later chapters will show, a pernicious delusion.' (pg. 31)

There are any number of things that could be said about the massive assumptions - the leaps of faith - that Dawkins must make for his position to be tenable etc etc. But let's not - not now anyway. Instead, let's allow C.S. Lewis to comment on the situation. Here is the plight of Uncle Andrew witnessing the creation of Narnia, and Aslan endowing some of the animals with the power of speech:

'We must now go back a bit and explain what the whole scene had looked like from Uncle Andrew's point of view. It had not made at all the same impression on him as on the Cabby and the children. For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.

Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn't really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn't notice that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beasts. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn't run away from the big Lion.

When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion ("only a lion," as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn't singing and never had been singing - only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. "Of course it can't really have been singing," he thought, "I must have imagined it. I've been letting my nerves out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?" And the longer and more beautiful the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to making yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan's song. Soon he couldn't have heard anything else even if he had wanted to. And when at last the Lion spoke and said, "Narnia awake," he didn't hear any words: he only heard a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, bayings, bayings, and howlings.'

The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis

Finally, here is Paul's analysis of the above phenomena in Romans 1:19-23:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Searching for happiness - making us miserable?

A slightly edited version of a lunchbar talk I gave yesterday at Writtle College, Chelmsford.

The question was this: why do we have more rights, more stuff, more confidence... and less happiness than ever before? Let's start with the results of a quick survey carried out by the CU last week at freshers' fayre.

The question was simply this: what do you think will bring you the greatest fulfilment in life? The biggest group - 32% of the students surveyed - thought that fulfilment will be found in friends or family. This was closely followed by 31% who thought that success (whether in education, career, wealth, sport etc) would be their most fulfilling experience. Only 6.5% thought that love would bring fulfilment, matching the 6.5% who look forward to doing whatever they want. At a place like Writtle, perhaps it’s not so surprising that working with animals got a look-in at 4%, matching the number of people who were uncertain. Only 5% are expecting to find fulfilment in things such as helping others with their needs or living for God.

So what’s the point of all this? I was interested to find out where your hopes lie. American psychologists have found that there has been a trend stretching back to the 1960s showing an increasing obsession with ourselves. We (if we follow the same pattern as America) are taught that we are very special people – that we have rights, that we deserve to succeed all the time, that loving yourself is the most important thing you can do. Are those trends here in the UK too? And if they are (though granted I guess it’ll be less extreme than America), is there a problem with that?

What was very interesting to me about the results that came back from our survey is that at least 66% - two thirds – of responses were focused on the self. (I say ‘at least’ because other categories such as ‘love’ are ambiguous.) I don’t find that very surprising, and I’m guessing that you don’t either – where else would our search for fulfilment be centred?

Our whole culture is geared up to support this kind of way of life: companies try and sell us their products by telling us they will provide exactly what we want, when we want it, how we want it (e.g. online shopping), and credit companies offer the opportunity to ‘but now, pay later’ (UK consumer credit in June 2009 was £14 278 000 000!). Tragically we often treat our relationships the same way – in them for the pleasure they give us, not to love someone else. All these things are a part of our quest for self-fulfilment, and they are increasingly being taken to new heights in our society.

But here’s another question that is rarely asked: where is this focus on ourselves taking us? It seems to be such an unquestionable fact that first and foremost you’ve got to love yourself that no one stops to ask what consequences of this we can see. At the same time that this message of self-love has been spreading through society, levels of depression have soared (America 1987-97 – 1.8 to 6.3 million). Levels of anxiety have risen so much that ‘normal’ kids in the 1980s (America) reported higher levels of anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s! Loneliness is also on the increase. All this in the least traumatic era of recent history. Why? Because those who score the highest in tests for ‘narcissistic’ (self-loving) personalities are also those who tend to alienate others – they’re great personalities… until you get in the way of their self-fulfilment. (Don’t get me wrong – saying self-love is a huge problem does not mean I’m saying we should hate ourselves.)

So what can we do to tackle this tide of catastrophic super-self-love? I want to show you a couple of truths from the Bible to show the way forward – the first to explain why we’re in this mess; the second to point the way out of it.

First then, how have we landed up here? If you think I’m going to start lamenting the state of society today and looking back to the good old days, think again. Did you know that society has, at heart, always been just as bad as it is now. In fact, the Bible tells us that humanity has a major problem. We’re designed to look outwards – to be focused on others and on God, but we’re in a situation where we focus on ourselves and looking after number 1.

Now, I think if you take a long, hard, honest look into your own heart you’ll find the same symptoms there – a longing to put yourself first, in short, selfishness. Why else do you argue with friends, family or flatmates? It’s a battle of who gets to put themselves first, isn’t it? And yes, we’ve all been unreasonable more than once! Why do you look down on others? Why are there times you won’t admit you’re wrong? Why do we do all these kind of things, even though it causes arguments, fallouts, pain, unkind words? It even causes us more stress and pain ourselves!

So, you see it’s nothing new – its human nature, although not as God created it. We all know being like this is awful deep down (think of a time you’ve really hurt someone close to you) – but we don’t change. It seems our new problem is that society is approving of our selfishness more and more, bringing it out into the open.

So we’re in a mess, and all of us are in it together – it’s just that some of us are better at controlling and concealing it than others. But there is another way. The Bible teaches that although self-focus leads to self-destruction, self-denial leads to fulfilment (notice I didn’t say self-fulfilment!). It’s those times when I forget about myself and give myself in love to others that I find real fulfilment – when I wasn’t even looking for it (hence the lack of ‘self’ above)! Is that surprising? Not according to the Bible, because that is how God says things work. The ultimate example and explanation of this self-giving is seen in Jesus, God’s Son.

So what do we learn from Jesus Christ? Here is someone prepared to make this demand on his followers: ‘For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it’ (Mk.8:35). And here is someone who practised what he preached, even prepared to knowingly go to death under torture on a wooden cross. Paul, one of the biblical authors paints an incredible picture of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, enjoying the perfection of heaven, yet giving it all up, becoming ‘nothing’ and living the lowliest of lives and suffering the worst of deaths. All of this, the Bible adamantly insists, was for us.

Great! Here’s the answer to our problem! We just need to stop putting ourselves first and instead look outside ourselves, looking to give rather than to get; giving ourselves to God and to others and their needs. The problem is, we can’t seem to do it. Sure, we can have a go and make things better, but we find we just can’t abandon our first priority – me. There are many people who serve other people, and even turn religious, in order to feed their self-focus. I find it amazing how many people I meet like that. As soon as they find out that I’m a minister they launch into a detailed list of all the things they do for charity or other people! Many people act the same way toward God – he’ll be pleased with this list of things I’ve done and let me into heaven. That’s not the kind of serving others God is talking about – that is a way of comforting myself that I’m a good person.

In that light, perhaps you’re beginning to realise just how hard – how impossible – it is for us to leave our self-focus behind. The Bible says we can’t do it unless God does it for us. He offers to change our hearts – that’s what we really need: change from the inside-out, not just trying to improve our behaviour or appearance. That is what the Christian message offers – not a message of, ‘Come on! Try harder!’ but a message of, ‘You can’t, but God can’. If you think God will be impressed with your efforts you’ve got the wrong end of the stick – you’re loving yourself more than others. But God offers to give you this new heart as an undeserved gift that you may experience life as God intended it as he begins to change you. Then, when you forget about yourself and give yourself away, will you find the fulfilment you were looking for before in yourself – finding it at the very time you’d stopped looking for it!