Although here in the UK we have a Queen as our nominal head of state, we are not ruled by monarchy in the traditional sense. We live in a democracy, in the hope that the… More
The Tower of Babel is one of my favourite Old Testament stories, and one that I’ve always enjoyed telling to children of all ages in assembly, while building a large tower from shoe boxes. “How would you stop the tower builders reaching the heavens?” I would ask. There would be lots of suggestions – knock it down as a child in a tantrum, alter the laws of gravity, kill the builders, make the stones soggy….?
The solutions of the gods (and there is more than one god in the story) is ingenius. They confuse the constructors’ language. Without communication we cannot discuss or collaborate on planning, inspire and cajole others to join in the project, or share technology and know-how. Politicians and planners, priests and parents also need good communication skills.
Sometimes the students would answer my question with another: Why did the gods want to stop the builders reaching heaven? Why indeed? After all, Christians in the Lord’s prayer pray for the coming of heaven; it’s the goal of most spiritual journeys. There’s an equally probing enquiry to be made into the story of Adam and Eve. Why are they forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of good and evil, when surely we should already recognise the difference?
As Christians know well, the story of the Tower of Babel is mirrored in the story of Pentecost. In the Acts of the Apostles we read of the disciples preaching to a great crowd of people from across the world. They speak different languages, yet each hears and understands the message in their own tongue. The Tower of Babel looks to answer the question as to why people across the world speak different tongues. Perhaps this story presents it as a curse imposed upon human beings for their divine ambitions? I propose the existence of language as quite the opposite; the variety of our languages reflects the wonderful richness of human life. Seeking to understand each other and crossing linguistic boundaries brings us not only to a greater understanding of each other and make new projects possible, but also gives us a greater understanding of the spirit of God.
As a choirboy I was always intrigued by the line in the Magnificat, The Song of Mary, “he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”. It was also fun to sing, with the organ used to dramatic effect in the accompaniment. However, on one level it seemed to be giving imagination a bad press. “You’re imagining things” we’d be told when being accused of subscribing to conspiracy theories or in over-zealously seeking out the truth, whilst conversely being urged to “Use your imagination” if the details of that very truth prove too uncomfortable to air publicly.
Today I think it’s well recognised that using our imagination is an essential part of what it is to be a living, thinking, understanding and responsive person. It takes a leap of imagination to make a scientific discovery, just as much as it does to make a sci-fi movie. It takes imagination to act in the world and to have a vision and set goals. It helps us to understand people, to step into their shoes and empathise with them. It isn’t reserved for day-dreams and art projects. It deepens our insight, clarifies our vision and motivates our action.
Interestingly, for Christians, much of this work of the imagination is characteristic of the work of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, the creativity of God is seen in the spirit brooding over the face of the waters. In the Old and New Testaments it’s the spirit that gives wisdom and understanding. Through the spirit, the prophets have visions and the people dream dreams. In the New Testament, to be filled with the spirit is to give birth to love, joy, peace, kindness and goodness. To live in the spirit is to be bound together in love. In short, we are the image of the creator God, or as the British theologian John Macquarrie said, “life in the spirit is life in the imagination of God”.
Making a connection between the Holy Spirit and the imagination might appear blasphemous as it seems to suggest that God is merely a figment of the imagination. However, imagination is crucial to human life and faith. As Whit Sunday approaches and we prepare to celebrate the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, we need to rejoice in and encourage all the creativity and imagination that has formed our faith and its practices over many generations.
THE GREAT BBQ COMPETITION
There’s been something of a minor heatwave here in the UK this week and people have immediately rushed to light their barbeques and enjoy al fresco dining. The Great Barbeque Competition in the First Book of Kings is a dramatic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They set up their rival bonfires and place a prepared sacrificial bull on the top. “The God who answers by fire”, says Elijah, “he is God.”
The prophets call on their God but to no avail; the fire remains unlit. Elijah taunts them – perhaps Baal is meditating, or asleep or has “stepped aside”, a Hebrew euphemism for visiting the toilet!
Elijah has the people pour four large water pots over his offering and calls on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” It ends badly for the prophets of Baal who are taken down the mountain and executed.
One cannot imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other religious leader today setting up such a challenge to see which, if any, gods exist. As the philosopher John Wisdom wrote “The existence of God is not an experimental issue in the way it once was”. Believers do expect their faith to make a difference, and there is thought to be a difference between believers non-believers. But what is that difference?
John Wisdom writing just before the Second World War in a paper entitled Gods, went on to ask how something that was once an experimental issue could become something very different and tells a parable about two men surveying a piece of ground. One points to things that he thinks show there is a gardener at work. The other sees only signs that no one is looking after it. So they start to look for more evidence in this and other gardens until, having studied everything, they still disagree. You can read the parable here and the full paper. It led to a long debate about the nature of belief. Is belief a way of seeing the world, having a particular attitude towards the world? Is it using a certain vocabulary to talk about life, practising various rituals?
Readers of this blog will know that for me (and I suspect for many believers) God is not an extra thing that exists and is alive in the world but life itself. The practice of faith can make a difference just as art and music can. What matters is that believers and non-believers alike acknowledge that the existence of God is not the experimental issue it once was.
Doubt can play a crucial role within faith; it avoids the certainty of the fanatic, develops humility and as in science, often opens the path to truth. A few years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby created something of a storm when he questioned whether or not God was actually “there”. He is reported to have said “The other day I was praying over something that I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Some headlines ran “Archbishop doubts existence of God”, another columnist of atheist persuasion simply declared “Victory!”, whilst others were keen to support, pointing to the archbishop’s humanity as a man who knew the agony of grief, having lost his first-born child in a car accident.
However there is one concept which cannot be doubted within a Christian philosophy: the existence of God. For Christians, God is that whose existence cannot be doubted because God is existence itself. God is that in whom we live and move and have our being. The language of faith may not always be helpful in exploring that which is essential to life. It may be doubted whether there is any value in exploring existence itself, but to talk about God is to talk about that which cannot be doubted.
People may have reservations about the value of religious practices like prayer and worship, they may have doubts about Jesus and what he said and did and about the institution of the church. They may be uncertain as to what course of action they should take as a Christian, they may lose faith in standing up for justice but not about the existence of God. It simply makes no sense to say existence itself doesn’t exist.
Christian faith should not concern itself with questions over the existence of a separate entity called God, either in or outside our universe. It is about our relationships within the world we inhabit, both with ourselves and those around us. It should lead us in life and love, helping us to make society a better place for more people. The most effective way to bring about these changes may be shrouded in doubt, but God must not.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused an uproar at its first performance in 1913, with witnesses reporting that blows were exchanged, objects thrown at the stage and one person at least challenged to a dual. The subject of the ballet was even more shocking, with its depiction of ritual abduction and a young girl dancing herself to death in the presence of old men.
Most ancient societies practised human sacrifice, later abandoning it in favour of the offering of animals. The story of Abraham climbing the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to be interrupted by God with the order to substitute a ram, originates in this moment of change in human history. However, animal sacrifice might be perceived as no less barbaric: according to the First Book of Kings, at the dedication of the Temple in the space of one day,
“Solomon offered a sacrifice of fellowship offerings to the Lord: twenty-two thousand cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats.”
In 2016, after a break of two millennia, a Paschal Lamb was again sacrificed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in an effort by right-wing activists to lay greater claim on the site.
At this time of year Christians prepare to retell the story of Jesus’ passion, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world and brings to an end the need for further human or animal sacrifice. So what place has the notion of sacrifice in our time? We still talk of self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives for our freedom, giving their today for our tomorrow.
During Holy Week we could ask ourselves two questions. Is there anything for which we would sacrifice our lives? Most of us could imagine a context in which we might at least hope for the courage to lay down our lives; to protect our children, defend the freedoms of our society, or in an attempt to prevent abuse and slavery.
The second question follows. If we think there are situations in which we should be prepared to risk our lives, then are we physically and mentally prepared? Part of our Lenten discipline and the following of Jesus’ passion should be to strengthen our resolve and take up our cross if called.
One of the characters in Aidan Chambers’ novel Now I Know offers a definition of belief by separating the word into two parts “be and “lief”. “Be” is to exist, to live, to have a presence in the world. “Lief” relates to an Old English word for love and means gladly and willingly.
“So belief means: that you will give all your attention to living with loving gladness in the world you think really exists.”
The etymology is a little more complicated than the 17 year old Nik describes and the word belief in English has a variety of meanings, ranging from the conviction that something is true, to having faith and trust in a person’s character. However, Aidan Chambers reminds us that neither definition paints the full picture.
When English-speaking Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in God”, what do they mean?
God is to be trusted?
God is the means by which they embrace and embark on a meaningful life?
In Latin, each of these has a different construction corresponding to the above:
credo in deum
Surprisingly perhaps, it is the third option that we find in the original version used in Christian worship dating back to the fourth century. In his Commentary on John’s Gospel, St Augustine writes
“What is it therefore to believe in him? It is in believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk towards him, and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body.”
In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis also makes much of the distinction between credere in Deum and credere Deum. “in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum” as it leads to a loving, dynamic faith, one that doesn’t stop at only marking out the limits of what we believe, but leads to a faith that changes our lives.”