Vanity

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”

I never do. But let me explain something. Most people think that The Third Commandment means that they shouldn’t use his name as a swear word, e.g. shouting, “Oh God!” when they stub their toe instead of, “Oh Fuck!”

This is not the case (although I love the idea that God would rather them shout “Fuck” than “God”. That makes him cool in my book. But no.)

The commandment could equally be, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in ‘vanity’,” e.g. when your enemy is hurt or defeated saying, “that’s God’s wrath,” or when you win an award saying, “thank God.” This is using his name in vanity. It’s suggesting that you KNOW that God helped you win that award because you deserved it more, or because he was on your side. It’s always tickled me that God would have a favourite actor at The Golden Globes.”

Ricky Gervais theologising… I kind of like his interpretation, although I’m not sure I would have made the same call in the past. Yet there is something fitting here, even amongst the deliberate flippancy. I, like Ricky, have become very wary of people who say that they know what god does or doesn’t think on any matter. At the very least it’s arrogant. At worst it is putting your own opinions on a level (or above) that of god. And that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me…

Jesus is welcome at my party

The wonderful Phil Jackson has written an interesting (if very long) treatise on wine, starting with John 2:1-11 (The wedding in Cana).

Phil’s opening comment has prompted me to re-look at the passage in question:

150 gallons of wine. If your Christian friends are not in the regular habit of hosting parties of the sort that 150 gallons of wine need be called upon, then speak gently to them, but they may have missed a conspicuous and central priority of the faith they profess.

I did the Maths. Those six stone jars held a lot of water. Jesus made the equivalent of 700 bottles of wine. And that for a party that had been going on for a while already. And you wonder why Pharisees accused him of being a drunk and a sinner…

Still, anyone who comes to a party with 700 bottles of free (and good) wine would be very welcome at any party I hosted. I can’t quite imagine it becoming a regular “Christian” thing though – Christians in this country just don’t seem to throw that kind of party…

A better word

Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s outgoing Religious Affairs correspondent, has written a piece for the Comment Is Free site about his journey from faith to agnosticism. Except that he doesn’t.

It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 60 seconds of your life it will take to read it, but the journey he describes is really the beginnings of a gradual slide from Theism to Atheism. Stephen is mired in increasing doubts, and has come to the conclusion that his historical faith is untenable. Which is all well and good, and all-too familiar.

The problem I have is that he implies that this state of affairs is best described by the term Agnostic (or agnosticism, if we’re getting our tenses right). And that isn’t what agnostic means. As I’ve said before, the definition of agnostic is thus:

agnostic |agˈnɒstɪk|

noun

a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

Now, the second part of that definition is actually quite new. It’s the unfortunate common usage. The technical definition is the first part: someone who believes the answer to the question is unknowable.

This is a useful label, because it is a real philosophical position. The problem is that this isn’t the position that Stephen Bates has arrived at. Or my current position. Or that of the majority of the country.

So what word is appropriate? What word best fits the position of the multitude, who either doubt, are uncertain, or have just not given it much thought? Most people seem to live their lives without having settled on a theological or philosophical definition of their beliefs, unable to firmly adhere to the tenants of any particular camp. Some minds might find this situation intellectually untenable, but the reality is that the deep rigour of thought and debate necessary to come to a resolved position escapes so many of us, at least for large portions of our lives.

We need another word. But while that is easy to say, a solution is not easy to find. One might suggest the term “irreligious” but this is both a horrible word, and altogether inaccurate. Very few are irreligious, in two primary senses. First, it is rare that an individual does not have some sense of interest in spiritual concepts, or some (perhaps semi-conscious) understanding of forces greater than themselves, be that a theistic god or the forces of the market. It seems that the default position in many of us is somewhat superstitious; looking for reason and explanation for events beyond ourselves. This cannot therefore be described as an irreligious tendency.

The second reason that the term “irreligious” does not seem appropriate is that the word literally means an indifference or hostility to religion. Now, I am sure that there are many people who are profoundly hostile to organised religion, and for whom this is an accurate moniker. It would certainly fit someone like the good Mr Dawkins. But then, Dawkins is an avowed Atheist, so this really doesn’t help us. And the rest of us are unfortunately neither hostile nor indifferent. People like Mr Bates and myself have a religious heritage, religious friends and family, and a history of wrestling with the questions of faith. None of that is indifference, and the result is not hostility. We still sympathise with religious figures, and love our religious families and communities, even though we may find much we disagree with. Even much that is deplorable.

So I’m stuck. I’m tired of fudging my answers to this question. The phrase “doubter” seems clunky and non-specific. “Agnostic” is, as we have discussed, inappropriate. As is “irreligious”. What does that leave us with then? Any ideas?

Ministry

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is slowly making there way through the application process to train for the Anglican ministry. I have been very supportive to this friend over the last sixth months or so, encouraging and cajoling them through the various steps of the process. The friend raised the question yesterday as to why I was being so supportive to someone wanting to become a vicar, when I am so uncertain about the existence of god, never mind the truth and validity of the Christian faith?

It’s an interesting question. I mean, leaving aside the fact that I think my friend would make a good vicar, why be supportive of someone trying to dedicate their life to something which I doubt the fundamental basis of? Is that inconsistent? Or even intellectually bankrupt?

I can excuse myself somewhat on the fact that I doubt, rather than disbelieve. I freely admit that I don’t know what the truth is, so how can I say that someone is doing something wrong? But then, as my friend pointed out, I am not standing impartially on the sidelines, but metaphorically at least cheering them on. How can I justify being supportive of this career choice?

I don’t really have much of an answer for this, at least not necessarily a satisfying one. On the one hand I can admit that, despite my doubts, Christianity could be true. If it has the possibility of truth, then why not let people dedicate their lives to that possibility, if they themselves are convinced? I think I can also see a benefit to the church, even if the underlying assumptions are false: faith provides a solace for many a hurting soul, and Christian ministers are often (but by no means always) some of the most selfless and caring people in our society. If a friend wants to support the hurting and downtrodden in our society, why not encourage that?

I know that some people who reject the premises of faith believe that ministers are liars and deliberate deceivers, who are actively misleading their congregants by peddling a false doctrine. I don’t think that I could claim that, even if I became convinced that the Christian faith was untrue. I have met too many Christian leaders, and most of them are very sincere in their commitment to the gospel. They believe it is true and live their life by that belief. I think that is honourable.

That is not to say that there aren’t bad apples. Being a paid minister of a congregation is a position of power and influence, and I am convinced that some people in those roles are more interested in that personal influence than they are in ideas of service or truth. Some expressions of ‘Christian’ leadership are manipulative, self-serving and damaging. But I don’t in any means believe that is true for the majority, or that the roles in themselves are negative. Too many people use those positions to serve their parishioners, to play genuinely caring and comforting roles.

I don’t know if Christianity is true. There is much that I question. But it could be true, and if it is that truth is important. And even if it is not, it is a doctrine that inspires a lot of charity in its adherents, so why shouldn’t people who are seeking to go into ministry for the right reasons be encouraged? Especially if you think they’d be good at it?

What do you think? Is this an intellectually bankrupt position? Should I refrain from supporting my friend until I’ve thought this faith thing through some more? Or is this just a throwback to my previous years of faith?

Sovereign Gold?

[Warning: this is a long post, and a bit of a rant. I get a little heated here; sorry]

As I said in the last post, I find it hard to know exactly what I believe about god and about Christianity right now. But I think there are some things that I can safely say that I don’t believe. Or, at least, are things that prejudice me against the Christian faith, if they can be described as indicative of that faith.

One of the things I realised at l’Abri was quite how angry I was towards certain Christian theologies. There are beliefs within some wings of the church that I find downright insidious and damaging. Some of the ones I find hardest are those held by the Reformed or Calvinist branches of Christian faith.

Now, a friend complimented me last night on how I had managed to write the last post with a ‘profound lack of bitterness’ in my tone. I want to apologise right now if I don’t manage to maintain that attitude here. I am going to try and be charitable, but I don’t honestly know if I will manage it.

One of the biggest issues I have is with the concept of the Sovereignty of God. The idea, as far as I understand it, goes like this: God, if he exists, has to be the biggest, most powerful being conceivable. God created the universe out of his will, and sustains it out of his will. The very continued existence of the universe is because of the present, continuous will of God. But more than that, God, being the biggest, most powerful force in all of creation, is fully sovereign over all of said creation.

Which is taken to mean, in this theological interpretation, that everything that happens, happens according to the will of God. Effectively, ‘because He Said So‘.

In some ways, this is one of the oldest philosophies. The Greeks and the Persians, and all sorts of ancient peoples would look upon a natural disaster, such as the failure of a harvest, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption as the anger of the gods. The Mayan’s would sacrifice people to appease the wrath of the gods. It is an OLD idea.

And even today, to many of us, it is the first, most natural thought when it comes to the existence of a Supreme Being. When sickness or natural disaster, or unnatural calamity afflict us, our deepest hurt reacts, crying WHY?!?

We cry ‘why?’ because we believe there to be someone to blame, someone pulling the strings, someone afflicting us. I find it perfectly natural that reaction in so many of us is to find someone to blame; someone to direct our understandable anger at. I have done the same. I have angrily ranted and blamed God for my hurt and my circumstances in the past.

The problem I have is when you turn the understandable first reaction of a hurting individual into a cast-iron theology, into an explanation of The Way The World Is. This theological understanding of the Sovereignty of God says that everything that happens, good or bad, is the Will of God. Everything. The failure of a harvest, an earthquake, the collapse of the money markets this year, the almost-inevitable victory of Manchester United in this year’s Premiership, the Holocaust.

While it might comfort us in the midst of our pain to shake our fists at God after the death or a friend or relative, to have someone or something to vent at and direct our cries of ‘Why?!’, it doesn’t actually comfort once the blood has stopped boiling. It actually makes the questions harder, deeper. You see, to me, it seems that if you ascribe the cause of every action to God, then you have some real issues when it comes to his nature. A God who causes Holocausts and tsunamis doesn’t seem very nice. I honestly do not know why anyone would want to be involved with, let alone worship, a divine entity that sweeps thousands of unsuspecting individuals away in a ‘sovereign’ fit of pique.

We’re hit with a real dilemma here. The Christian god is supposedly described as gracious and compassionate, as the very embodiment and definition of love. Not loving, but love. Yet there are very few circumstances that the average person can imagine where killing someone could be considered loving. And what happens when we consider sickness, or poverty, or oppression, or the evil, damaging actions of individuals?

Now, the proponents of this theology would probably argue that there are also verses in the bible that speak of gods anger, and of the sinfulness of man, and of gods sovereignty. Well, yes, there probably are. I’m not pretending that there is no rational basis for this idea, that it isn’t a theology that someone of good conscience can hold. I know good people who believe this. I wish they wouldn’t, but they do. I don’t love them any less (well, much less) or value them less as human beings for espousing this belief.

But I have huge problems with the idea. Of what it tells people, of what it communicates about the nature of reality, of this supposedly-loving god. I have a friend who was raped. Another two friends who were sexually abused as children. These friends have been profoundly damaged by their experiences, by the evil, deeply wrong actions of human beings. These events overshadow their whole lives. But rather than giving them comfort or solace, this insidious doctrine lays the blame for these crippling events at the feet of god himself. It says that, because God is Sovereign and only the things that He Purposes happen, that in some way these terrible events must have been His Will for my friends lives. God ordaining rape and child abuse? No thanks!

I have a family member who has been sick, bed-bound, for 8 years now. Eight years, their whole adult life, stolen, and that of their parents who care for them too. Does it comfort me, or them, to think that god has planned this, purposed this, even if it is (somehow) supposedly for their good? No. I think that, if this is gods will, then he’s a real sadistic bastard.

(sorry, I think I might have lost my ‘lack of bitterness’ there)

If you think I’m being ridiculous here, or painting a wrong picture, then I just want to repost this link, to a very senior figure in the Reformed wing of the American church, who is effectively saying that God caused a bridge to collapse and kill people. Why? Because we’re all sinners and deserve to die, and this event reminds of the fact. Effectively, we should all fear and tremble before God, and be grateful that He is so ‘loving’ as to let us live our pitiful existences in the first place.

I’m sorry, no. Just no. I don’t know how to resolve the problem of suffering. I don’t know how to square the circle when it comes to the seeming incompatibility of the sovereignty of god and the free will of his creation. But I do know that my friends were abused by human beings, and to shift the blame to god removes comfort rather than gives it. To say that god ‘ordained’ the action somehow is seeking to find purpose in actions that are evil, wrong and damaging – actions that are inherently purposeless. And it removes the blame from those who should carry it, squarely, on their shoulders.

To blame sickness, or natural disasters on god is perhaps understandable in emotional terms, but in theology or philosophy it simply creates a monster of a deity – an angry, vengeful, petulant god, not in any way deserving of love or worship. If god causes tsunamis and earthquakes, if he afflicts people with sickness deliberately, if he purposes, directs and ordains rape, child abuse, murder, then there is nothing loving in him, and I for one don’t want anything to do with him.

Like I said, I really don’t know what I believe when it comes to the existence of god or the problem of suffering. It may be that the cruelty and hardship of this world are all because of the selfish actions of human beings and the natural movements of tectonic plates – that it is all random and senseless. It may be that god exists and weeps for the brokenness of his creation. I don’t know.

But I do know this – there are some doctrines of some parts of the Christian church that paint a picture of a deity that I want nothing to do with. I don’t find them believable, good, or consistent with the idea of a god that is meant to be the very definition of love. I can’t believe they are true, but if they are, I want nothing to do with them.

Why GAFCON matters

Train WreckI was quite flippant about GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future CONference) in my last post. The thing is, while I acknowledge that this is something that will bore or bemuse the vast majority, I think it is actually a hugely significant event.

The BBC and the broadsheets certainly think so. Dave Walker, over at the church times, shows some of the huge amount of press comment being generated on this at the moment.

The BBC especially love to talk up disharmony in the Anglican church. last night we had Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, who does for the left what Chris Sugden is for the right of the communion. Between them Auntie can pretty much guarantee that someone will get slagged off, insulted, or described as heretical. Why we never hear moderate, nuanced Anglican voices on PM or Newsnight I don’t know, but then I guess there is nothing a liberal, atheistic media would love more than a real schism in the state church.

So, why does GAFCON matter? Well, despite the fact that the end result of this conference may not be what the commentators are hoping, the fact that GAFCON is happening at all is momentous. The Anglican Church has historically managed to tread a difficult tightrope, maintaining Communion with people of widely different perspectives of theology and praxis. It has often done this through fudge and compromise, but it has done it. As much as they would probably rather not be, Colin Slee and Chris Sugden are ordained in the same church, committed to the same central tenants, recognising the same authorities.

The issues of homosexuality and women priests are not the only ones on which there is a variety of opinions in the Anglican Church. There are Calvinists and Arminianists, Charismatics and Cessationalists, the Anglo-Catholic High Church and the non-liturgical Low. All these and more have managed to remain under a single banner, despite disagreeing, often vehemently. Through fudge, compromise and a glacial pace of change the Anglican leadership has managed to tread a middle way that keeps even those at the far edges in step, never quite reaching the point of breaking away.

Yes, there have been leavers: my current employers for one, and the forbears of my churches movement as another. But for every group that has decided to part ways, there have been others of similar sensibilities who have managed to work within the wider body, enriching it and being enriched as a result.

GAFCON matters because here is a group that is actively talking about alternative structures and relationships, about reaching points of no return. That raises the dreadful possibility of all the fundamentalist evangelicals jumping ship. Many, I know, would say ‘good riddance’ but, as an Aeronautical Engineer, I can tell you that if you lose the end of your right wing and keep the left then you are not going to be able to fly straight. In fact, that lack of stability may well see you crash and burn.

If the GAFCON attendees leave the Communion, the moderates, even the Evangelical moderates who sympathise with the cause (if not the manner of its implementation) will not follow. But the resulting Church will be unbalanced with far more leaders of liberal persuasion in high office than would be healthy.

The other reason that GAFCON matters is because it enables the media to continue to paint the Church (and by that, I mean far wider than just the Anglicans), as illiberal, out of date and obsessed with sex. The resulting image is not one of a love of Christ for the world, but of angry, bigoted reactionaries intent on making society like themselves or departing from it to as great a degree as is possible.

GAFCON makes the Church seem backward and irrelevant to the world. It might actually split the Anglican Communion. It matters, and I sit here and watch with horror and a morbid fascination. Its like watching a train wreck, on live TV…

Taking the Pledge

Anyone from across the pond will be fully familiar with the idea of a pledge of allegiance, an oath of agreement and support with the values of a country. In the States schoolchildren pledge allegiance ‘to the flag of the United States…’ Well, Lord Goldsmith, former UK attorney general and Tony Blair’s right hand man has suggested that such a thing might be a good idea for over here too.

Oh, this is wrong on so many levels…

Aside from the ridiculous notion that we should take pointers on what makes a citizen from America, who suggests that anyone would be more committed to the UK simply by saying a few words? The planned pledge will be in allegiance to the Queen. Now I have no problem with the Queen, I think she’s great and long may she continue to live happily in the house at the end of The Mall, but what about this countries long history of quiet republicanism? Isn’t that British? I mean, the vast majority of Labour MP’s are republicans for crying out loud!

OK, I’m going to leave the political rant there, because my main concern is actually a religious one. Pledges of allegiance, whatever their form and whoever or whatever they are to, are fundamentally un-Christian. To require schoolchildren to take an oath (something they can’t possibly fully understand) is to infringe their freedom of religion.

Christians call Jesus Lord. Now, that is a statement that doesn’t translate well into modern English, because the only people we call Lord now are ceremonial figures like Lord Goldsmith. Shane Claiborne has a better suggestion that helps us to understand the point. He says we should call Jesus President.

The declaration of Jesus as Lord (or as President) is a recognition of Him as the fundamental authority in our lives. It is to Him and Him alone that we ‘pledge our allegiance’. That declaration is fundamentally a political act, which is why the Romans killed so many Christians in the first 4 centuries: because the Christians were allied to a higher authority than Rome. They recognised Jesus over the Emperor.

I believe that Christians cannot pledge allegiance to a flag, or a Queen or a President, to a nation or a republic or a people group. Because Jesus Himself said that we cannot serve two masters.

That doesn’t mean we cannot serve peacefully under the authority of a state, or a citizens of a nation. But it does mean that we cannot take an oath to pledge allegiance to that nation, because our allegiance is elsewhere.

Throughout the last 2000 years Christians of many nationalities have had to take a stand for their beliefs over and above the politics and policies of their nation. Many, many have died because of that decision. Some of the worst excesses in Christian history, the stuff that has given us a bad name, has occurred when we have not been able to do that, when national interests, politics and ideologies have got in the way.

The Queen is great. Britain is great, and I am proud to be a citizen of this nation. But I am unable to pledge allegiance to either queen or country, because I am allied to ideals that go beyond such boundaries. And I believe that there are many, of my faith, of other faith and of none, that would be similarly unable.

Ditch the idea Gordo; its daft.

Identification

18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19″Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.'”  21″All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. 22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.

[Luke 18:18-23 (NIV). Mark’s fuller version here]

Have you ever thought about what bible character you identify with most? It’s a useful exercise, to find a story where you feel the outlook or attitude of the protagonist mirrors yours, and see if you can learn from it… It’s not the most scholarly form of bible study, but it has its benefits. 🙂

When asked this question I have always had a few stock answers (Gideon, Jonah, Jeremiah), designed in some ways to get the questioner to leave me alone. But recently I’ve been dwelling on this question myself. The answer I’ve some up with hasn’t cheered me.

Soren Kierkegaard said many wonderful things, a few of them quite challenging. Here’s one for starters:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly.

“Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship.

In recent years, as I’ve read the bible, I’ve been unable to gloss over the words of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve tried really hard, but it just doesn’t work. The enormity of even simple things, like turning the other cheek, going the extra mile hit me between the eyes. Never mind the hard stuff, like taking up your cross… [Matt 16:24-25]

The picture that has begun to open up before me as I’ve read and wondered, is one where faith in God is grounded in action, where it is not enough to profess a belief, if you don’t have the actions that match. Or, in the words of Batman:

Its not who I am inside, it is what I do that defines me.

The Christianity of my upbringing, the tradition that I have swam in and clung to, says that what matters is that most ephemeral of qualities: faith. The declaration of Christ as Saviour is the most important action; the only one that is truly necessary. After all, what is Grace, if not an unmerited favour for which no response could match?

But Faith without works is dead [James 2:17]

Jesus issues challenge after challenge in the gospels that seem to be rooted in action. He talks of judgement based on works, on helping the poor. He talks always in terms of Kingdom; a new way of doing.

And that leaves me battling with the response. Surely, if my faith is true and valid, it should be outwardly expressed, visible in action. It should cost.

I see it; I know it. It tears me up. Because I know what my life should look like, but I struggle to motivate myself to change. I have begun to realise that I identify most clearly with the Rich Young Ruler of Luke 18 and Mark 10.

***

Here is a man who comes to Jesus seeking something more than the everyday Jewish faith he has been living. Reading Marks more in-depth account, we see him run up to Jesus, fall at His feet and implore Him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

This isn’t an idle question from an interested bystander. It isn’t the trickery of the religious authorities we see elsewhere. It is the heartfelt yearnings of someone who has lived his life by the outward precepts of the Jewish scriptures and yet feels powerfully the need for something more.

The young man obviously feels that Jesus has something he needs. Perhaps he has heard about Him from others and travelled a distance to see Him. Perhaps he as been following, waiting, standing on the edges of the crowd until Jesus comes to leave. But whatever, he finally takes the plunge and runs to Jesus, hoping, begging for an answer to the yearnings that he feels inside.

Jesus challenges him, questions his devotion. Who does he think Jesus is? Has he sought to follow the revelation God has already brought to the Jews? Is he really ready to change…?

And seeing the confusion, the restlessness, the hope in the young mans eyes, Jesus loves him.

***

Jesus’ challenge to the young man is to abandon the ways of the world, and to find God in meeting the needs of others. It is to let go of material trappings, let go of security and embrace the way of Grace (and the life of the itinerant preacher before him).

The young man goes away crestfallen. It seems it is just too much to ask.

***

Most people read this passage as a warning against too great a love of money. Yes, but you miss the point. This passage is a companion to the one in John where Nicodemus asks the same question as the young man here [John 3:1-21].

Jesus’ answer is essentially the same; it is about abandoning what has gone before and starting again. It is about taking on a completely new set of values. It is about being born anew

Yet in this passage, far more than in John, the cost of Jesus’ challenge is apparent. Nicodemus struggles with the existential concept of rebirth; the young man here struggles with the reality of what it would mean for him. Jesus clearly indicates that the price of ‘eternal life’ is high: abandoning your current way of life and starting completely afresh.

This isn’t a theoretical concept. It isn’t a simple matter of praying a prayer. It’s a real, life changing decision. “Decide here and now if you are ready to completely change your life as you know it. Are you ready to abandon your material security; your cosy self-righteousness? Are you prepared to live for the sake of others instead of yourself? Are you prepared to follow me, whatever the cost?

Its no wonder the rich young man finds this too much. It wasn’t really what he was expecting. The cost is so high!

***

I’ve grown up with an understanding of Christianity that really hasn’t been that costly. It’s been about personal morality and outlook, rather than active sacrifice. Being good has always been more important than doing good. Yet that doesn’t seem to cut it for me any more.

The more I have understood of the gospels, the more I’ve realised that my own life fails to meet the challenge that Jesus issues. I look at myself and I see that young man, with his good intentions and earnest seeking, with his desire to change mitigated by the comfort provided by his wealth.

Years ago I would have said “money isn’t that important to me; I don’t care for riches… I’m not that person” and to a degree, I would have been right. I’ve never been motivated by achieving the highest paid job or the nicest clothes or whatever. But what I see looking at these passages now is a young man for whom honest, hungry desire for holiness and God hit hard against the sheer cost of discipleship. And I don’t blame him for walking away…

That’s me. I don’t know what I need to step across that invisible line, but I don’t have it yet. I’ll leave you with more from Kierkegaard:

Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Taking the Lead

As I sat round a dinner table with a bunch of wonderful close friends the other night, and conversation meandered comfortably as it always does in these situations, the question of the environment was raised: Did we think that the issues of global warming and environmental sustainability were important for Christians?

I’m paraphrasing, and it’s a conversation that is beginning/ongoing for us, as it is for many, but I bring it up as it’s an issue that has been on my mind for some time…

Today the BBC News website has two articles on the issue, which are really worth the read. The first is a comment piece on the opening up of the North-West Passage; the second a summary of the recent UN report on Global Environment Outlook. Both of these articles highlight the issue in stark terms: humankind is having profound affects on our environment; we are changing our planet in detrimental, and possibly permanent, ways.

In some ways the question is redundant. If the issues are as big as the UN seem to be suggesting, then this is something that affects us all, regardless of creed. But it does have merit. This is something that must be addressed by us both as individuals and as a faith.

In the last 40 years, as humankind’s impact on the environment has become more and more apparent, there has been call after call to do things differently. This UN report is the 4th of its kind, arriving 20 years after the first banner the national governments rallied around, yet shouting loudly that intergovernmental efforts have failed. The very human failings of greed and apathy have meant that all but the most impassioned individuals have carried on regardless, and national and international efforts have been far, far too little to bring change.

I have hesitated to comment or make pronouncements on this issue so far because I am acutely aware of the reality of those vices in me. Even as I have become more and more convinced of the reality of environmental change due to human endeavour, and of our need to actively reduce our detrimental impact, my lifestyle has not radically changed. I recycle (to the extent that Southwark council enable me to), but do little else.

***

Perhaps it is because of this reticence on my own part that I have come to think that we need to act co-operatively. Groups of individuals acting together can encourage each other and unite around particular projects or solutions. Economies of scale can mean that activities unfeasible for the individual can become realistic when done as collectives. I like the idea of growing your own food, and if I had a garden this is something I would try; but a community growing food together in allotments… suddenly ideas that seem at first impractical can become much more realistic.

In reality though, it seems to me that the lead needs to come from Government. Individuals can turn off their plugs, clad their houses, buy energy saving light bulbs and compost their waste, but only governments can change the building code or require manufacturers to produce electronic goods without standby buttons (for example).

It seems to me that we need really radical solutions to curb our greedy, resource intensive lifestyles. We need solutions that permeate the whole of our society, not ones that can only realistically be implemented by middle-class home owners. In reality if left to us, or if left to ‘the market’, normal human failings will mean we fall far short of the goals we need to hit. The Government needs to make some really tough decisions; it needs to ignore the moaning of business and take a strong lead. Without that we are in trouble.

I’m thinking of using this post as the start of a new category; to try and write on this subject regularly. I’m conscious of, a) being too preachy, and b) the whole ‘best intensions’ thing… Well, we’ll see. I have a few ideas that have been rattling round my head, and if I can’t write about them here, where can I?

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It’s easy to read things like the UN report and to become very pessimistic. Is it possible for us to change our behaviour when we have had so little success so far? I think it is, but what the world needs is an example to follow. The West needs to know that it is possible to dramatically alter a nation’s consumption without impoverishing its citizens and the rest of the world need to be shown ways of building wealth that don’t involve the raping of natural resources. The world needs an example.

I think Britain could provide that example. We are a nation of innovators and entrepreneurs. We are used to adapting and even thriving under new forms of regulation. We have an agriculture industry to revive… It will take some hard choices, and a lot of initial sacrifice, but I think we can become an example of how to build a sustainable future. We need some tough leadership. Anyone think the current lot of have it in them?