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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.

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bible culture ethics science

truth, grace and covid-19

Covid-19 royally sucks, but it can teach us many things if we have ears to hear.

We have been reminded of the benefits of slowing down, cooking food at home and going for walks. We’ve realised that good hygiene is good not only for slowing the spread of Covid-19, but also many other things we don’t want to spread.

A more recent lesson I’ve noticed has to do with how we speak to one another.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, where I live, we’ve negotiated a lockdown after some guidelines were not adhered to. Naturally, there has been disappointment and people (including the Prime Minister) have encouraged everyone to “call out” those who are breaking rules. Her words were:

I’m asking everyone now more than ever to continue to back and support one another, and if that means calling a family member or colleague out for not following the rules then we should do that. Do it with kindness, but do it.

Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern

This advice is not only wise, appropriately-framed and practical, but also reminds me of another leader communicating similar advice to a group of people. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the value of “speaking the truth in love”.

Both advice-givers are concerned with health. Just as Jacinda is empowering people to keep one another accountable for the good of the community, even when it means saying something less than welcome, so too Paul is signifying the value of loving truth-speaking for the maturity and discipleship of the Church. We can argue if we want about the science (Covid) or the ethics (Christian maturity); but both communicators are talking about the kind of balanced communication needed to encourage what they both understand to be good for health and growth.

In both cases, there is a goal (or to use Jacinda’s term, there are “the rules”) and there are those who fall short of the goal (or breaking the rules). The goals of health and maturity require that we do two things.

We have to maintain the goal… and not shame those who fall short of it. We have to stick to the rules… and be kind to rule-breakers.

It has to be OK to admit you’ve done something not OK.

Consequences will always be necessary. Breaking different kinds of rules will incur different kinds of consequences. Losing a job, a role, a position, freedom to go out in public, etc.

Consequences for rule-breaking will be necessary, but we must be kind. Paul says elsewhere “If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness.” If we let shame, disgust and rejection to be the only things that characterise our response to rule-breakers, then we will only encourage people to hide their rule breaking. They’ll be even slower to admit it. And in the context of a disease that you could be passing on before you even know you have it, we need people to admit their mistakes as soon as possible.

Be kind, and call one another out.

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 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.

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bible christianity culture philosophy science theology

foolishness

This year, Resurrection Day falls on April “Fools Day”.  How fitting… Only a fool would believe in something like Resurrection, right?

Well… yes.  One of the more unpopular and counter-cultural aspects of Christian faith is its ‘foolishness’.  The Lord of all existence, meaning and being chooses not to select the best, the smartest, the most moral, the most successful, the strongest, the most desirable, to work through.  No.  In God’s economy, what society tells us are our assets are so often (if we hold them with pride) our liabilities.

Sure, in one sense, it is ‘foolish’ to deny the possibility of a thing like Resurrection.  How ‘unscientific’ is the emotion of disgust that poisons the well of honest and patient consideration of just what might be possible in this mysterious existence.

But the label ‘fool’ will inevitably be found on the backs of those believing in the impossible; that the days of Death are numbered, that another level of Life has emerged, undying, from the Tomb.  So be it.  I’m a fool.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:18-29

Categories
philosophy science theology

quarks, plants, and universes

A local apologist blog recently discussed Antony Flew, famously an atheist turned deist.  The good and accurate point discussed in the post is summarized as follows:

…the question [of God’s existence] should be placed under the jurisdiction of philosophers; for to study the interaction of subatomic particles, he notes, is to engage in physics; but to ask why those particles exist or behave in certain ways is to engage in philosophy.

I agree.  And it struck me that such a distinction goes all the way up from the micro (e.g. quarks), to the observable (e.g. plants), to the macro (e.g. the cosmos).

A slightly more  negative way to say that is: you don’t need modern scientific microscopic or telescopic insight to go beyond the mechanics of how something (e.g. grass) functions, to pondering ultimate questions of existence, purpose and meaning.

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bible science technology theology

the psalm 8 balance

One of my favourite Psalms is the eighth. I’m using it – very briefly – for a baptism sermon this Sunday, which will have absolutely no room to even begin to extol the kind of technical beauties this gem has.

First of all, there’s the structure.  Check this out:

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth,

B who has set your splendor above the heavens;

C from mouths of babes you ordained strength, to stop the foe & avenger.

D When I consider the works of your hands the stars you’ve ordained,

E what is man that you think of him, or a son of man that you visit him?

E You made him a little lower than angels & crowned him w/ glory & honour

D gave him dominion over the works of your hands & put all under his feet

C all sheep and oxen, yes the beasts of field

B birds of the heavens, fish of sea, all that swim in paths of sea

A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!

That’s a bit of chiastic beauty right there.  The widest frame of God’s glory, and within that the contrasts of the heavenly and the earthly ‘works of your hands’; all leading up to and from the middle, the intersection of heaven and earth: humans. Someone once said that, when it comes to what we have capacity to measure, from the estimated ‘size’ of the known universe, to the ‘planck length’, humans are in the direct middle.  True or not, that’s a cool thought.

Like the two triangles in the star of David, this Psalm is about the profound tension of being human.  Long before any old or new atheist ever protested the idea of humans being the centre of the world, we have ‘the baffled king’ David, who is flabbergasted at the thought of God thinking about humans.  And yet.  How inspiring is the irony that humans alone (so far as we know!) have the combination of sapience and science to grasp and be grasped by their small size in relation to ‘the rest’?  Psalm 104, by the way, speaks of purpose in creation beyond the comfort of humans.  Rock badgers, the land, the trees, the sun and moon and others all benefit.  Had David known about bosons, black holes, quarks and dark energy, he’d have found a way to speak of their delight in the provision of the Creator.

Which leads to what I like to call the ‘Psalm 8 balance’.  If to be human is to be “under the creator, and over creation” (as I recall hearing N.T. Wright say), then (as  humans primarily sin when they either fail to live up to their calling of being ‘over’ the works of God’s hands, or when they fail to submit to being ‘a little lower than God. (My understanding is that ‘elohim’ here should, as elsewhere, be translated ‘God’, not ‘angels’)  As Mark Biddle writes in Missing the Mark (p. 75),

“Authentic human existence involves living in and for the image of God while fully aware that one comes from the dust.  When this polarity becomes imbalanced in either direction, one falls into sin.”

Or Bruggemann, on this Psalm, writes,

Human power is always bounded and surrounded by divine praise.  Doxology and dominion its context and legitimacy.

Apathy is the enemy of the wonder that simultaneously makes worship godly and makes our ‘dominion’ humane.  And that is tension indeed.

And finally, there’s the way this Psalm just patient sits and quietly asks to be picked up and used to speak about Christ. The one in whom heaven and earth met.  The ‘man from heaven’ Paul would say.  The one who dared utter the words ‘before Abraham was, I AM’.  The incomparable God-Man.  The Only Begotten son, called both the son of God and son of Man, who didn’t leave his glory ‘set’ above the heavens, or just to the Father and himself ‘before the world began’ (as in John’s gospel), but who took flesh and let that glory be seen.

Categories
christianity general science theology

Evolution? Chaplain?

The two word response of my gym trainer at the university gym at which I am a chaplain, in response to an evolution-friendly comment by me. :)

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bible christianity culture ethics philosophy science theology

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

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christianity culture ethics philosophy politics science theology

just do it – a lot

All is/ought distinctions and naturalistic fallacies aside, whilst monogamy does occur in some non-human species, apparently humans have a evolutionary and biological predisposition of sorts to polygamy.

But is this really newsworthy?  Even the most prudish of “just lay there and think of the queen” conservatives would admit off the record to the fact that being married to one person doesn’t remove all attraction to all other potential mating partners.  Yet again, science is giving us technical and detailed accounts of what we already knew.  We like sex.  We like sex a lot.  We like a lot of sex.  Which is good news for the pornography and prostitution industries, though perhaps not for monogamy.

If both the above science and near-universal human experience is correct, then monogamy necessarily always involves a kind of saying ‘no’ to a desire that is as natural and normative as it gets.  There are two interesting points of relevance here for the current global discussion of same-sex marriage.

1) Legal same-sex marriage and legal multi-marriage are logically related.  It is hardly ‘scaremongering’ to point out that polygamy is the next step in the current progression, if not one of the next steps.  There is no shortage of online pro-polygamy groups which have been arguing for its legality for years (and plenty of challenging of other ‘no-marriage-for-you’ lines un-challenged in the currently proposed legislation).  Methinks that those pushing for the law change don’t want to talk for too long on this point, so they play the ‘scaremongering’ (or religious ‘fear’) card as quickly as possible.

2) Saying no to sexual desires may not be so inhumane after all.  If indeed the natural tendency toward polygamy is there in the vast majority of humans, then the widespread monogamous habit of routinely dousing of the flames of desire for multiple sex-partners is infinitely more backwards and sexually repressive in scope and number than expecting a relatively small percentage of the population to do the same with (homosexual) desires which are arguably just as natural, though incredibly less common.

But of course I do not think that sexual self-control is repressive or backwards.  Neither do I think that sexual expression (or marriage for that matter) is some kind of thing that makes you human – and therefore is a ‘right’.  All this goes directly against messages both implicit and explicit in movies, media and advertising whose suggestion is hardly a gentle one: namely that to err is virgin, and to get it on is divine.

And the church doesn’t help much either.  Marriage is on such a pedestal that single people feel like unfortunate, illegitimate, inconvenient accessories accompanying we normal married folk.  We need to affirm those who are both single and celibate as being just as human as any other.