IDENTITY THEFT We are all acutely aware of the vulnerability of our personal data, since Cambridge Analytica was accused of harvesting thousands of Facebook profiles. Many companies keep an eye on our internet searches and… More
A friend told me of a recent visit to one of our cathedrals, where having been welcomed by the steward, was offered the pass code for the toilets. Why, she asked, do the toilets command such high security? The answer, “well we don’t want drug addicts injecting themselves in there, do we?” was delivered with an unhesitating conviction that my friend found initially rather unsettling, within the Christian context.
This response, or at least the manner in which it was delivered, so disturbed her that she looked to me for an explanation. Surely the church should be welcoming such people; furthermore, what positive action is the church taking towards engaging with, and caring for them.
Perhaps rather too keen to defend our cathedral churches, I pointed out the health and safety issues involved in having dirty needles lying around in toilets available to visitors. “People often expect the church to be a soft touch…” was a common line of argument that I proffered.
Most cathedrals and city churches do indeed have programmes of support for homeless people and their associated problems, but I knew I was on the wrong side of the gospel. Jesus tells a parable of a Samaritan travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He comes across a man who has been attacked and left for dead. A priest and Levite have already passed by the man, either fearing that they would become “unclean” through contact with the man or had urgent or ritual obligations to fulfill. The Samaritan, however, disregarding all health and safety concerns for himself and his patient, entered the crime scene, (were the muggers still around?) applied first aid (had he any idea what he was doing?), supplied ambulance support by putting the man on his donkey (was the man in a position to be moved?) took him to the nearest inn, and left money with the innkeeper to look after him (was he to be trusted to support the man?).
Who, asks Jesus, acted as neighbour to the victim? The answer might seem obvious, but for us to emulate the Good Samaritan in our own lives as Jesus commands, is rarely so clear-cut. We are both to care for our neighbours with planned and responsible programmes of action, and yet be ready to respond to the unexpected where we see an immediate and urgent need, by putting our own plans to one side and taking risks.
I’m looking forward the cathedral’s response to my friend’s letter.
According to a recent survey involving a computer generated “identikit “, this is what a sample of American Christians believe to be an accurate visual representation of God. The 511 participants in the study saw hundreds of randomly varying face-pairs and selected the one which most closely matched their ideal. By combining all the selected images, the researchers could assemble a composite “face of God”.
Note the image has no beard and even if he is younger and more feminine than the clichéd “Old Father Time” model, he’s still white and male. It’s hardly surprising, since our services address God in masculine terms and as Father.
In another American study concerned with gender stereotypes, girls as young as six believe that academic/scientific brilliance is a male attribute. The majority of children and adults will draw masculine figures of surgeons and engineers, and despite a growing interest in maths and science among girls, only 10% of their toys are focussed on science, technology or engineering, compared with over 30% of those directed at boys.
Perhaps most alarming of all, is that in nearly all cultures worldwide, men seem to enjoy higher self-esteem than their female counterparts. Surprisingly perhaps, in industrialized Western countries like the U.S. and Australia, the gap between male and female self-esteem is more pronounced than in non-Western, developing countries.
How can we improve this situation if we still think of God in male terms? As Mary Daly the American radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian, wrote in 1973: “If God is male, then the male is God”. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear; “God is neither man nor woman: he is God”. Even St Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.
The present Archbishop of Canterbury could do more for the cause of women by insisting on removing all patriarchal imagery from services and theological texts, whilst using inclusive language in all its publications. Other denominations have set a precedent which we would be well-advised to follow: the United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and in 2014 its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”. In 1996, a prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father. A change within all churches is long overdue.
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 self-evident dangers of investing power in one person alone can be avoided. If we hold that to be a morally sound principle of government in the secular world, then surely we should apply the same philosophy within our spiritual lives.
That is exactly the focus of Pentecost : the power, energy, life and responsibility of God are poured out on each of us. Together as the body of Christ we have the responsibility to act in the world. We have the power to forgive, the power to create, and the power to love.
I think there is a tendency to view the spiritual life as akin to the polarised society of Downton Abbey, or of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; a world of glamour, bright lights and luxury upstairs and a world of darkness and drudgery downstairs.
Even through the distortions of those rose-tinted, period-drama spectacles, we can see clearly what an inherently unsatisfactory existence it must have been; Women wouldn’t have the vote, the food would be cold having been brought long distances from the kitchen, medical treatment would be primitive by today’s standards, not to mention the lack of wi-fi in the house…..and that’s just upstairs.
Some still peddle the notion that down here in our earthly existence we toil away against the odds of nature and disease and then in the life to come we will enter the bright, glamorous world of heaven.
The Gospel of the incarnation asserts that God is with us, born among us, and power is outpoured upon us. We are here to build heaven on earth, indeed the kingdom of God is among us already.
If we think of the spiritual life in terms of an upstairs and downstairs realm, all power will be invested in God alone, allowing us to abdicate our own responsibility to others and society.
Read the parables of Jesus which begin “the Kingdom of heaven is like . . . the kingdom of God is like” . . and you can begin to understand early Quaker Gerrard Winstanley’s notion of the Republic of Heaven. Kingship and God are simply not compatible in post-Pentecost thinking.
In an open, liberal society words themselves cannot be banned but if we are to continue to use the image of kingship in our theology, let us at least have the right sort of image to inspire us. Think of Prince Harry on his Arctic Charity trek trudging to the North Pole with wounded fellow servicemen, enabling them to become the first amputees to ski to the North Pole unsupported; or think of the Queen, powerless to speak her mind in public.
After all, in the New Testament, it is the dying Jesus, powerless, subjugated and nailed to the cross, who is described as king.
I had been unaware that Norman Tebbit lived in my neck of the woods until he recently popped up in the media, unhappy about the appointment of the local cathedral Dean. Lord Tebbit said he found it difficult to accept a “sodomite” as a member of the clergy and would not be attending services at which the new Dean was officiating.
Rev Canon Joe Hawes was gentle and diplomatic in his response, saying he felt “no ill will” towards Tebbit and admired the way “he has cared for his wife with such devotion following the Brighton bomb”.
The Church of England itself also took a very measured stance after the statement was made public: “It has been clear for more than a decade that clergy are entitled to be within civil partnerships. Lord Tebbit is welcome to his views.”
Yet on closer examination the Anglican church is far from even-handed in its attitude to gays, gay marriage and civil partnerships. Certainly ministers are allowed to live in a civil partnership, providing they remain celibate, as “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively….” and …”it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage.” There are times when I’m embarrassed to be a priest in the Church of England.
Such hypocrisy cannot remain and should not be tolerated. How can there be one rule for lay people and one for priests? What exactly do the bishops in the Church of England profess their God finds so objectionable in a physical relationship between two people of the same sex? What constitutes a physical relationship anyway? Will the gay priests be allowed to kiss, to kiss with tongues? Which parts of the body will they be allowed to touch, hold, stroke? How will the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich ensure the new dean refrains from a physical relationship?
Of course many leaders of the church are afraid that promoting same sex relationships will offend and alienate others within the Anglican Communion, but the cause of equality must take precedence over the risk of schism. The Church of England should affirm gay relationships in all their fullness, and rejoice both in civil partnerships and gay marriage.
My friend Paul rightly took me to task this week for not crediting the painting of the Tower of Babal in my last blog, so retrospective apologies to the 16th century Flemish painter, Pieter Brueghel the Elder. He’s perhaps best known for landscape paintings such as “Hunters in the Snow”, which adorns many Christmas cards.
“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” has a remarkably modern message; if it weren’t for the title, one might easily overlook the hapless subjects’ legs disappearing beneath the waves after his father’s warning against flying too close to the sun remained unheeded. There’s perhaps a look of mild surprise or puzzlement in the faces of the shepherd, ploughman and sailors but if they did notice the plumetting figure, they quickly returned to their tasks, indifferent to the drowning Icarus. Like the priest and levite in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, the farmers and sailors have things to do and places to go.
In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, WH Auden makes reference to the painting with this insightful observation. It begins:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….”
I once took the funeral of a young man who threw himself from the top of a carillon tower. His father read Auden’s poem, partly because he felt his son had metaphorically flown too close to the sun, but also because he felt others had been indifferent to his son’s needs.
Indifference to suffering has always been part of human history and with today’s ubiquitous and inescapable media coverage of world events, we are even more likely to suffer from compassion fatigue. Painter, poet and prophet challenge us to be prepared to step aside and help those we meet along our paths.
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.