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christianity ethics philosophy science theology

beyond hocus pocus – understanding god’s presence

I just was listening to a worship song a few hours ago that talks about “the power of your presence” and asking God to “move upon our praise”. Some will also be familiar with the liturgical language around Communion or the Eucharist where a priest will pray the epiclesis, where the elements of bread and wine are consecrated. Different traditions have different ways of understanding and describing what happens during the Eucharist, but a widely shared understanding is that of “real presence”.

What do Christians mean when they talk about God being ‘present’? Often it is in worship settings, both public or personal, that God’s presence is spoken of. It can also be in mission settings, where people describe God being with and empowering them.

Modern people who can sometimes feel that scientific knowledge is the ultimate form or standard for knowing anything, can struggle to understand this. At times they can even mock it. Indeed, a mockery of the Latin that priests would use during Eucharist is thought to be how the phrase “hocus pocus” originated.

This post will outline how many Christians understand the presence of God. The Christian understanding of God’s presence lies between two philosophical extremes – dualism and pantheism. We’ll start with Dualism.

Dualism

This view separates reality into a sharply divided duality between physical and spiritual. It is a very old way of looking at the world, distinguishing between “everyday reality” and “primary reality”. In this view, God is normally quite distant and detached from our worlds; so in order for God to be present, God would have to have a reason important enough. If we are operating with this framework, then God’s presence is something like magic, and a religious leader praying is something like an incantation or spell. Perhaps a sacrifice, or some other act that ‘gets God’s attention’, provides the necessary impetus for God to come close.

There are ethical and religious implications here. In this view, it’s a supernational and special thing to understand God’s will and be in God’s group. Only a small number can claim to have the secret knowledge.

The problem with this view is that it is hard to get access to God, and it breeds the most harmful forms of fundamentalism, arrogance and disassociation with reality. The rules are ours and the rules are clear, and there is no room for discussion. It sees and rejects evil with total certainty.

Pantheism

This view is the total opposite of dualism. It collapses the distinction between physical and spiritual entirely. God is not only present everywhere, God is everything, and Everything is god. In this view, it takes no effort to cause God’s presence, and more than that, God is always present in the same way at all times.

There are also ethical and religious implications here . In this view, all actions are equally meaningful (or indeed meaningless) and thus equally full (or empty) of ethical meaning. Childbirth and murder are equally significant (or insignificant). Everything has equal value (or worthlessness).

This is the main problem with this view. It cannot distinguish between good and evil, and thus it necessarily leads to nihilism and apathy. Because this view cannot discern good from evil, it ends up permitting evil in the name of acceptance.

Creational Ethical Monotheism

This view is reflected in Judeo-Christian tradition. It sees God as both ‘transcendent’ above reality and ‘present’ within it. It’s not that you have a soul trapped in your body (dualism), or that your body is divine (pantheism), but rather that you are an embodied soul, whose being is simultaneously spiritual and physical. It’s not that God is normally far off (dualism) or that God is everything (pantheism), but that God is always present, and sometimes powerfully present in unique ways for unique purposes.

God is present with a mother giving birth in a way that God is not present with a murderer. God is present in a community of believers gladly celebrating Eucharist in a way that God is not present in a human trafficking ring.

This difference in God’s mode of presence is not due to a change in God’s nature, but due to a difference in alignment and relation to God. Only in this ‘both/and’ view of God’s presence can we understand freedom and purpose, action and responsibility. God is always ‘in control’ as the transcendent Father who is by nature constantly undergirding and carrying reality forward in all of its breathtaking cosmic breadth, evolutionary development and subatomic vitality. At this ‘omni-present’ level God is indeed present alongside evil, whilst abhorring it at the same time. But as the immanent Spirit, God always refuses to control or micromanage creation, most of all the image-bearing humans created to reflect God’s wisdom, will and purposes. At this immanent level, God is only present where God is welcome, and only empowers actions that align to God’s desire.

This is the meaning of God’s presence. It’s why we can ‘welcome’ God when we pray for God to be with us in our day, or in a worship service. And it’s why God can say in Scripture that he will not delight in worship if our lives are not also aligned to his will and we are doing harm to others (see Isaiah 58 and Amos 5).

Mercifully, God is patient with our imperfections and continually invites us to progress forward and live in greater and growing alignment with his presence in our lives.

Amen, come Lord Jesus.

Categories
ethics philosophy theology

a world worth the effort

Contrary to naïve positivism, the world is not so good (and God so easily offended) that we should suppress our questions and pain.

Contrary to cynical negativity, the world is not so bad (and God so easily blamed) that we should deepen our resentment and despair.

Between these extremes, the world is so interesting (and God so deeply committed to it) that we should apply our effort and compassion.

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christianity culture ethics philosophy theology

varieties of slavery

It is known that slavery has taken various forms at different times and places in human history. Some person-to-person relationships bearing the name ‘slavery’ is more akin to employment, whilst other forms of relating (not always called ‘slavery’) are more comparable with torture.

Given the limited helpfulness of using a single word to gather up so many kinds of behaviour, what might be a more helpful approach? Perhaps we could speak of a variety of ways in which humans come to be in a state where they are not free. We might list a multitude of forces that restrict and restrain the human body, mind, spirit and life.

I suggest the two largest categories for these forces might be:

  • forces outside the self (e.g. dictators, traffickers, poverty, etc.)
  • forces inside the self (e.g. anger, pride, lust, etc.).

A couple of observations may be interesting.

  1. Victim-hood v. Responsibility. We can be accustomed to pointing the finger of blame at forces outside ourselves that we accuse of enslaving us, which is far more dignified than taking responsibility for the character defects we have helped create within ourselves which we admit continue to enslave us. If a person, community or culture grows psychologically or collectively unable to identify their own participation in their un-freedom, and instead is obsessively bent on constant criticism of the enslaving ‘others out there’, are they truly free? Have they not become enslaved to their pursuit of their concept of freedom? Their maintenance of their safe victim-hood?
  2. One v. Many. We western culture conceives of freedom in highly individualistic terms. Our preoccupation with our own freedom forgets the impact of my actions upon others. We can become so focused protecting our freedom to do as we wish, that we unwittingly participate in activities others find enslaving, and can become enslaved to a narrow focus on our own lives.
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bible christianity philosophy theology

together

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

The timing of Christ’s birth – in the middle of history – is symbolic. As the Carol proclaims, “Late in time, behold Him come; offspring of a Virgin’s womb.” God steps into creation, in person, the person of his Son, in the middle of time, to keep creation from being split in two.

The agent and vessel for “all creation” stepped into the middle of creation to save it. In the squirming, soft-skinned son of Mary, the whole of existence is held together.

He started holding things together before his birth. The peaceful union of Mary and Joseph was threatening to never occur – yet they were held together. His birth, life, death and his ‘first-birth’ from the grave, together make possible all levels of togetherness reverberating through the cosmos. Jew and Gentile were hostile to one another – yet they came together in Christ the head of the Church. Slave and free, male and female, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, victim and victimiser, the addicted and those addicted to things they don’t realise, left-wing and right-wing, offended and offender, the broken and those who don’t realise yet their brokenness, the technologically advanced and the spiritually contented, the past and the future, the invisible and the visible, heaven and earth… yes, even Creator and creation; are all able to be held together in the bond of reconciliation – all because of the perfect, precious person of Christ.

May it be a togetherness we open ourselves to and participate in with the richest gratitude.

Categories
christianity philosophy science theology

creation obeys the Creator

Hillsong United’s recent song “So Will I” features the word “evolving” within a verse exploring themes of Creation.

Not surprisingly, critique has come from Christian opponents of evolution. David Mathis is concerned that people will be confused by the word, unsure whether it refers to limited change within species or some naturalistic anti-creational form of Darwinism (add scary music for effect).

I don’t personally think the song is ideal for congregational worship, but only because of the varied melody and syncopated rhythm. The lyrics, in my view, are clearly pro-creation. Let’s have a look…

First, we have a wider statement about “all nature and science” which “follow the sound of your voice”. I love this. It’s a big-picture conviction that all Christians share about the world. Whatever cosmic, ecological, biological, or other processes there are, they are only able to do what they do because of the power and permission of God. However much ‘evolution’ has happened and is happening, it only occurs within the sovereign will of the Creator.

Next we have the e-word. “A hundred billion creatures catch your breath – evolving in pursuit of what you said.” I also love this because it’s so darn celebratory of God! The word ‘breath’ signals the hovering spirit who moves upon creation. The line about ‘what you said’ refers to the command of God: “Let there be”. This is not some purposeless biological process being referred to here. This is God summoning the existence of various forms of life, and nature responding in glad patient unfolding obedience.

Fear not, Christians. If evolution is an accurate way to describe creation, God is bigger than it all.

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bible christianity philosophy theology

a theodicy of hope

Instead of attempting to use logic and reason to deduce a way to establish a valid justification for God (‘theos’) being just (‘dikaios’) in the light of suffering and evil, it may be more simple…

The following statement of Jesus in John 16:33 is key:

“In this world you will have trouble; but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

This beautiful and terrible world was always going to be both beautiful and terrible. Whatever time is, whether in terms of physics, metaphysics, science or theology, it necessarily entails process, opportunity, possibility and freedom.

On the one hand, God is not an absentee landlord, abandoning our space/time world to descend into chaos, but on the other hand, God is not a manipulative control-freak, exerting hands-on force upon the world, causing and desiring everything that happens in every and all senses of the word ’cause’. God cares. But this does not mean that God prevents every bad thing from happening.

Instead, we are given a promise that God will sort it out eventually, or indeed that in and through Jesus that sorting out has already been inaugurated. If Jesus is really risen from the dead, then God really has already begun to overcome the world with all its trouble.

This is a theodicy of hope.

Categories
culture ethics philosophy politics technology

cultural enmity

In this post, I want to reflect on what I take to be one of the most serious and urgent issues in modern society: that of social division.

It seems that in the area of political discourse, we are getting poorer at relating to one another. I often feel that the internet in general and social media in particular has partially delivered on the promise to spread information and unite us, and majorly delivered on the outcome of spreading misinformation and dividing us. Aside from whatever unity that has resulted, the internet allows people to find other like-minded people who agree with them, who share the same admiration (or frustration) about the same people, and they reinforce one another by sharing their ideas, videos, articles, webpages, memes, etc.

Whenever there is engagement between the divided camps, too often it descends sooner or later (usually sooner) into cheap and easy labeling of the other. “You are such a ______.”

In Aotearoa New Zealand, much too soon after the horrific violence of the Mosque shootings, the issue was weaponized into a way for those in opposing camps to blame the shootings on those on the other side. Righty folk had the nerve to suggest it was immigration’s fault. Lefty folk blamed and banned public figures who they don’t like. Both used the tragic events to demonstrate that they were right all along.

There are two reflections I have on all this. First of all, Jesus teaches us, not to never judge the other, but rather to do the hard work of judging ourselves first. In Matthew 7, we read that when we take the ‘log’ out of our eye, we will then see more clearly and be better able to take the ‘speck’ out of our neighbour’s eye. Political division will only grow as long as we focus only on how wrong we think the other side is.

Second, there is also another piece of wisdom that I think is relevant. It is not a biblical quote, but it is consonant with biblical wisdom, I suggest. It is the adage, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” I think the relevance for our current divided sociopolitical situation is that we need to stop labeling those we disagree with and start listening to them. Labeling is a conversation stopper. “You’re only saying that because you are a… (‘snowflake’, ‘millennial’, ‘racist’, or ‘xenophobe’).” It is utterly dis-empowering for discourse.

When is it hardest to do this? When we have strong ideas. If we’re unsure of our opinion on something, we listen much better; but when we’re convinced, we sigh, groan, label, and unfriend when we encounter the other view.

People fear that giving too much time to an extreme or harmful idea will strengthen it. But I say that if we don’t listen to it and don’t offer respectful engagement and challenge to it, it will grow cancerous growth. When people feel that nobody will listen to them, they give up on trying and retreat into their like-minded enclaves. As has been said, we were told not to talk about religion or politics, but we should have been taught to talk respectfully and constructively about them. I believe that if we do this, it will help put the brakes on growing extremism and enmity.

Engaging patiently with views that you disagree with means at least a few things: not using labels, not presenting the other view in its worst form (called ‘straw-manning’) paying attention to your facial expression, tone of voice, and not interrupting the moment you hear something you disagree with. It means holding your own ideas for the time being (if they are good ideas, they aren’t going anywhere), and making sure you understand what the other person means. If you cannot describe the other person’s view in a form that they will recognize and agree with, then you will never be able to dialogue with them.

This all may sound very clear, but in my experience it is incredibly difficult. I’m not great at it, but I’m trying.

For many of us, it is a real jolt of self-righteous pleasure to make a good point in a debate or discussion. In this way, patient dialogue has a sacrificial character, in that we sacrifice our own pleasure of feeling smart or right, and instead conduct ourselves in a way that awards respect to the other person and gives them the pleasure of at least being heard.

To hear someone, to listen to them, to give their side a hearing, is not to agree with them. It is simply to seek to understand them. Here’s to us re-learning the art of listening. May we be given the courage we need to do so.

Categories
bible christianity ethics philosophy theology

narcissism and image

All Humans Are Narcissists

I want to suggest that all humans, like Narcissus, look at their reflection and make too much of it. This is obvious in some behaviour and more discreet in others.

In my own experience, my narcissism is easily spotted when I think, feel, talk and act as though my own thoughts, feelings, words, opinions (blog posts!?), needs and achievements are – even a little bit – more important than others. In a less obvious way, my narcissism can hide behind all the ways in which I down-play myself. Narcissism is being increasingly recognized as lying behind many – of course not all, or even most – forms of depression.

In sum, I’m suggesting here that when humans play themselves up or push themselves down, some form or degree of narcissism – passive or active – is probably at work.

The Middle Way of the Imago Dei

Narcissism constitutes a form of idolatry. The self is made into an idol in an obvious way when we put ourselves on a pedestal. However, arguably, the self is just as much an idol when the self is abased. When we tell ourselves grand stories of how ‘low’ we are, we can still be making a big deal out of ourselves; we can see ourselves as being just as great as our suffering.

Charting the “Middle Way” between the narcissistic extremes of idolatrous self-aggrandising and idolatrous self-abasing, the Judeo-Christian tradition has the provocative notion of the Imago Dei. As scholars of the book of Genesis have contended, the opening chapter of Scripture depicts the Creator God building a temple, three days of forming the tohu (formless) and three days of filling the vohu (empty/void); and rather than finishing it off with a idol, the Creator God made humans (male and female) in God’s image.

The up-shot of this is that when we look at another human being, or more to the point, when we look, like Narcissus did, at our reflection, we should not merely see and fall in love with ourselves as he did, but rather should also see – and also love – the Creator God.

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bible christianity culture general philosophy science theology

possibility and surrender

I met a friendly man today who, learning of my religiosity, asked me about my views on science and faith.  It was a good chat, not too long, and remained wonderfully amicable.

The man was, by global and local standards, wealthy, educated and articulate.  At least some of the time, such a demographic can tend to view the ‘God’ topic primarily as an interest, a curiosity; certainly not a matter of life and death.

During the conversation, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, the science-and-faith conversation.  Is this still a popular topic for people?  Usually it’s hell or homosexuality.”  I have no idea of his intentions, but very often many Christians feel like such conversations have little if anything to do with someone’s genuine interest in (or pursuit of) faith, and everything to do with some kind of justification of their unbelief.  The theological out-clauses are many: global suffering and evil, hypocrisy in the church, science and/or evolution, hell, homosexuality, ‘the Old Testament’, etc.

This leads me to another thought, which emerged from my reflections.  It is the reality that if an ultimate invisible and limitless being is real, then that kind of opens up literally anything and everything as being possible.  A ‘god’ could be very controlling and hands-on, more distant and deistic, or somewhere in the middle; evil, good, impatient, patient.  If people just start believing in ‘god’ willy nilly, well they might start believing just about anything about that ‘god’.  This ‘god’ might send 99.9999% of humans to hell, gays first of course, and save only the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  Or this ‘god’ might be the mamby pamby, everything-and-everyone-is-great, domesticated, flaccid (and frankly boring) deity… Anything is possible if there is a ‘god’!

The truth behind all this is precisely this: Yes, you and I don’t get to say what God is like.  God may have attributes we don’t find pleasant or popular in our time and culture.

This is where a little notion called surrender comes in.  This is where we stop trying to be more moral than God.  This is where we let go of all our controlling questions and submit to the reality of an Ultimate being, far stronger and higher than us.

The good news, literally, is that in the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to wonder – or fear! – what God might be like.  We have a Creator and Saviour who is radically committed to the creation, humans in particular.  So much so that this God is long-suffering and hell-bent on saving us, despite our almost continual rejection, rebellion, apathy and downright selfishness.

Anything is possible with God; and what a good possibility it is with the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Categories
ethics philosophy

crutches are useful

If you think you are well, then you won’t find much use in a crutch.

But if you have learned to understand your brokenness, then you will appreciate how immensely helpful – even indispensable! – they can be for your healing.