Month: February 2012

atheism reloaded?

I’m finding myself more and more squeezed for time at the moment (something about the start of semester and having a five and a half month old). If I’m going to keep posting here at all, I expect things will get even more unfinished and impressionistic than usual. My apologies.

To kick this off, I’d love to hear your reactions to Allain De Botton’s recent suggestions about atheists learning from religion and developing in new directions.

Why not watch the 19 minute TED version?

And check out Dan’s typically honest and insightful response. Here’s a sample to whet your appetite:

Strangely, I found within De Botton’s praise of religion a rather compelling critique of certain versions of conservative evangelicalism. Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied.

one dies…

There were two significant deaths on the world stage last week — Whitney Houston and our family cat, Mocha.

I’ll get to our dearly-loved pet in a moment. But first, the celebrity.

After the news of Houston’s death broke, there was the more or less predictable public outpouring of grief followed by a flood of images like this:

The point is clear, I take it.

Although, I remain unconvinced by the abstract calculus of stacking up the millions who mourn the celebrity or public figure against the few who mourn those dying in the Horn of Africa. For that would seem to imply a flattening and universalising of our commitment to grieve death.

Of course, death is always a tragedy — and always to be grieved. In New Testament terms, it’s the last enemy.

And yet grief seems to me to be bound up with closeness and connection. So it may be that the sense of connection millions of people have with the Whitney Houstons or Steve Jobses of the world was illusory and unreal. But that does that mean it’s automatically wrong for us to grieve when we lose someone we love?

Was it wrong for Jesus to weep at the tomb of Lazarus? Does it somehow diminish the horror of other deaths that he did so? Or does it rather shed light on the truth of them — that God himself rages against it, knows the pain of it, and ultimately faces it down?

But what about our pet? Does my grief over her death and subsequent absence speak of my brainwashing by Disney or an anthropomorphic projection of personhood and agency onto her?

I’m not so sure.

Theorists of grief and loss tell us we can experience grief over all sorts of non-human — and even non-tangible — things. Things like expectations, hopes, and dreams. We can grieve the loss of a limb. Or the terrible trail of losses inflicted by ageing.

The Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita argues in The Philosopher’s Dog that it is the care and attention we bestow on others — including animals — that renders them appropriate objects of grief (and relationship in general). And this doesn’t seem far from the biblical vision of a world of creatures whose value — and even reality — is bestowed on them by the loving attention and care of the Creator.


is God calling me into mission? (in place of a conclusion)

I’m going to leave off (I won’t say conclude, because I’m not sure I’ve reached any hard and fast conclusions) these reflections about the language and experience of calling.

After framing the issue, I explored Jesus’ general call to belong to him — the characteristically divine ‘commanding invitation’ to recognise reality and to discover our truest and best selves in trusting and following him. If you’d like to take this thought much further, I can highly recommend John Webster’s 2005 Scottish Evangelical Theology Society lecture on call and discipleship, which you can listen to HERE.

Then I suggested that it’s a necessary implication of heeding this call to be swept up in God’s mission in the world — to ‘Go’, leaving our comfortable and settled lives and going, ultimately, to the ends of the earth.

Then I tried inconclusively to weigh up the pros and cons of the way some people speak of being called to a specific mission field or work. There were lots of loose ends here. And I haven’t resolved for myself how helpful it is to speak this way.

But maybe it’s oddly fitting that my thinking about ‘calling’ resists being conclusively settled and having all its loose ends tied up. Perhaps I find myself disoriented by the epistemological echo of Christ’s own irruptive call — a call that for all its out-of-the-blueness also speaks of the tantalising prospect of peace and rightness in treading the difficult path our Saviour holds before us.

In that vein, I can hardly think of a better way to finish than to share with you a prayer our congregation prayed together a couple of Sundays ago (it’s from the Anglican collection of liturgical resources, A Prayer Book for Australia):

Christ, whose insistent call
disturbs our settled lives:
give us discernment to hear your word,
grace to relinquish our tasks,
and courage to follow empty-handed
wherever you may lead,
so that the voice of your gospel
may reach to the ends of the earth, Amen.

is God calling me into mission? (vi)

I’ve almost finished this series exploring the language of ‘call’. Read from the beginnig HERE.

In my previous post, I moved from God’s general call on all Christians — to belong to him and to be swept up in his mission — to considering the way some people sometimes speak of a special call (or ‘burden’) God places on them to serve a particular place, people-group, or project.

I suggested that there were some things this way of talking can help us safeguard. But I also need to highlight some of the reasons why I’m hesitant to talk this way.

To begin with, I wonder if such language can lead us to overspiritualise decision-making, leading to a pervasive and soul-destroying anxiety about ‘missing out on God’s will for our lives’.

All our decisions are spiritual in some sense. And they should be shaped in response to God’s grace to us in Jesus. But one of the key — and most frequently overlooked — aspects of this is Christian freedom. Let me explain:

I could worry away about what I choose to eat for breakfast every day, weighing up how it will help or hinder me in caring responsibly for my own body, the planet, and the people God has given me to love and serve. But I’m not sure the gospel encourages such paralysing introspection — and certainly not on a daily basis.

Instead, it tells me (a) that I can and will blunder in this regard — failing to care responsibly for myself, God’s world, and God’s people — and (b) that God graciously accepts me without regard to my success or failure in this.

So, in my view, to expend considerable emotional energy on this amounts to a refusal to trust what the gospel says about me. (I could also go on to speak about how it also romantically and individualistically refuses to trust what God says about the good gifts he gives us in our decision-making faculties as well as in the community of his people and the wider giftings of ‘common grace’ — all of which both stand in need of redemption and sanctification and can and are redeemed and sanctified in Jesus Christ.)

What’s more, the kind of obsessive introspective worry talk of a particular ‘call’ sometimes invites tends to treat our actions and motives as transparent to us in a way that I don’t believe is possible. As Jeremiah says, ‘the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things — beyond finding out’.

By contrast, we take hold of our freedom in Christ when we’re bold and prayerful not only in trivial, everyday decisions but also in apparently more significant decisions (and who of us knows ahead of time which of our decisions will prove truly significant and life-shaping?). This includes decisions we make as we seek to respond faithfully to Christ’s call to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth in his mission.

Rather than trying to sound the impossible depths of our own hearts, we should listen to Martin Luther and ‘sin boldly’. That is, we should get on with our lives, prayerfully entrusting ourselves to the God who enables us ‘to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2.5) — and confessing our mistakes as and when we inevitably make them!

is God calling me into mission? (v)

I’m part way through a series exploring the language of ‘calling’ — especially in relation to Christian mission. You can read from the beginnig HERE.

So far I’ve suggested that the God who meets us in Jesus Christ calls his people — all his people — into his mission. He asks us to step out of our comfort zone and ‘Go’ — ultimately to the ends of he earth. This, I’ve argued, is part and parcel of his call to belong to him.

But what about the way some people speak of being called to mission in Africa or with a particular people-group (e.g., Buddhist nuns in Timbuktu)? What sense can we make of this?

I should probably warn you: because this is where the rubber really hits the road, I’m planning to take two posts to cover this. I’ll explore the positive things that can be said for his way of speaking in this post before registering some of my hesitations in the next.

So, what can be said in favour of speaking of being called to a specific mission field or work? Briefly:

  1. Speaking this wa can help keep in view God’s soveignty in our planning and decision-making. In particular, rather than speaking purely naturalistically about our background, gifts, and opportunities, it attempts to discern the work of God the Holy Spirit — often with an admirable reverence and urguency to please the living God
  2. In refusing to allow our decision-making or its results to be reduced to a rational, mechanical calculation — in which we simply crunch the numbers on personal gifting vis a vis need or opportunity — it perhaps recognises that our decision-making faculties (our hearts in biblical terms) need redeeming and sanctifying by the Lord Jesus.
  3. Best of all, it often expresses a willingness to take risks, step out of our comfortably settled and self-contained lives, and entrust ourselves to the same Heavenly Father who sent his Son for the sake of the world.

There’s obviously a lot to be said for speaking of a particular ‘call’ — to a place, people, or project…

why faith requires patience

Last week I started reading Tomas Halik’s book Patience With God.

His central thesis is that the chief difference between Christianity and atheism — faith and unfaith — is not so much that one is more reasonable or can claim more evidence than the other. Rather, Halik contends, the difference is that faith is able to be patient — patient with God, trusting him to deliver on his promises in his own (good) time.

Atheism by contrast presses God to run to our timetable, to deliver on our schedule, to show up when we snap our fingers (like a genie in a bottle) and prove definitively that he’s real.

No doubt there’s something to this. Although, I’d want to be careful attributing a single cause to all atheism — let alone a cause (impatience) that’s generally considered a character flaw!

But I’ve been wondering if perhaps it’s not so much our patience with God as his patience with us that enables us to trust him.

That certainly seems to be the case with Moses in Exodus 4.1-17. It’s not that Moses is a particularly patient or trusting person — he looks like he’s doing all he can to extricate himself from God’s call on his life. Ultimately, the only thing enables Moses to trust and get on with the job is God’s patient accommodation of his doubt and weakness — first in giving him extra signs to perform and then in allowing Aaron to be his moral support.

So faith does require patience — and God’s patience above all!

is God calling me into mission? (iv)

I’m in the middle of a series exploring the language of ‘calling’. You can read from the start HERE.

In the last post I made the controversial suggestion that when God calls all his people into mission, he calls us to ‘Go’ — ultimately to the ends of the earth. But I guess this might leave you with a few questions. Questions like:

  • What could this possibly mean in practice? Should we all pack our bags and get on planes bound for mission ‘over there’? What then are we to make of the often-sounded caution that you can’t expect to ‘flick the mission switch’ when you get on the plane?
  • How does this fit with the insight of contemporary missiologists that mission today is “from everywhere to everywhere”? I.e., that it’s no longer merely a matter of ‘us’ in the materially rich, sophisticated, enlightened West sending people to bring light to the poor, backward, and primitive?
  • Equally, how does it fit with he observation — increasingly common since the likes of Lesslie Newbigin began making it — that the secular West now needs ‘re-evangelising’? I.e. that mission has come to us? (And all the associated ‘missional church’ stuff?)

Rather than tackling these questions head on, I want to come at them sideways and make two suggestions.

First, a theoretical suggestion. When God calls us to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth, he’s summoning us to reject what some theorists call a ‘sedentary metaphysic’. A sedentary metaphysic is in play whenever our very real physical, geographical limitations as creatures become an excuse to valorise things like staying put, being rooted or grounded, and settling down (something that often seems to be equated with ‘growing up’).

How easy it is to find it too risky to listen to Jesus’ call to ‘Go’ — across the room, across a cultural barrier, or across the world — under cover of being ‘tied down’ with our comfortable burdens! I seem to recall Jesus had stern words for those who wanted to follow him but wouldn’t let that reshape their comforts and obligations.

It may suit us to turn the volume down on God’s call to ‘Go’. But it does no honour to the one who calls us (who was also the one who not only sent but went — or came, depending on your perspective).

As for my more practical suggestion, I’m sure there have been hints of it in what I’ve already said. But I think the call to ‘Go’ means taking risks and stepping out of our comfort zones — starting … wherever you are!

We’re called to ‘Go’ into every level of society as well as every corner of the earth. But that’s got to start with us crossing that barrier of awkwardness to talk with the neighbour whose name we never caught. Or that internal barrier preventing us from listening to that person who’s hard to understand (because they don’t speak the language, don’t approach the world like I do, or don’t smell like something I’m comfortable with).

Our God calls us to ‘Go’ to the ends of the earth. Let’s make a start instead of twisting it into an invitation to stay put…