Woolly thinking …

November 3, 2018

dav

One of the good things about where I work is that – although it is a large business and science park full of buildings – it only takes a few minutes walk before you are out in the countryside. I often go for lunchtime walks and over the last month or so some of the fields through which I walk have been full of sheep.

One lunchtime as I walked a few weeks ago, to my surprise, as well as the sheep I saw a lady standing in a nearby field watching over the sheep. I’m not sure if she was the farmer, a shepherd or some other person caring for the sheep. The sight of a shepherd is now a rarer occurrence than it once was.

I’m not an expert about sheep but they are not renowned for their intelligence and the sheep I’ve met haven’t seemed bothered to improve my opinion of them. Even in a safe field there is usually potential for them to get themselves stuck somewhere and no doubt these seemingly rather stupid animals need some oversight.

We however are different, with the ability to judge wisely, predict the future, anticipate problems, think things out, and generally make our own way safely in the world.
Only I don’t always feel this is true. Life can often be so complex, and dependent on people and circumstances which are so uncertain, that for all my education, time thinking things through, advice sought, and care taken, the right way forward seems impenetrable, the future unpredictable and I can all too readily land in a mess. I wish that I too could have a ‘shepherd’ to watch over me and help me through my scrapes.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 NLT)

I’m glad that I do.

Truth, Lies and Brexit

October 8, 2018

The Brexit negotiations have been thrown into disarray following the rejection of the chequers plan by the EU leaders recently.

In the interest of openness and honesty I should say that I voted to remain in the EU in the referendum and would still prefer not to leave it – although I do have misgivings about being part of a group that makes it so difficult to leave! But whatever your view on Brexit, circumstances have shown that neither side in the referendum accurately described what would happen if the UK voted to leave the EU. Many remainers suggested immediate dire economic consequences which have not been born out. Leavers suggested that a good trade deal and the resolution of challenges – such as over the Irish border – would be easy to reach – the reality since then has been very different. The latter view seemed particularly unrealistic – how can you state so confidently that something will happen when this can only be with the agreement of others who have expressed such a different viewpoint.

So did the leaders of the leave and remain camps deliberately lie in order to win our votes? This may be true in some cases, but I am inclined to be more generous. I think many people were so taken up with their own convictions that they failed to see or understand – perhaps were even incapable of seeing – other perspectives on the matter. When we only see our side of an argument, then our ability to grasp the truth is seriously impaired.

This is nothing new. We are all swayed by our own personal experiences, past events or circumstances, friendships, preferences etc, as we look at an issue. No matter how hard we try, we will always look at things from a biased and limited perspective, and disagreements will occur with those who view matters from a different point of view. The more serious issue in my view is that we often fail to acknowledge our own limitations and insist that others recognise our ‘truth’. As Jesus said to a group who insisted that they were seeing clearly:

If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. (John 9:41, NIV)

So do we give up on any idea of knowing truth about any matter, and admit that disagreements, conflict, wars, are inevitable. If there were no God then I think I would be forced to such a pessimistic conclusion. But as a Christian I have more hope. There is a God who does not suffer these limitations, who sees all aspects of a matter. One in whom there is truth, indeed who is truth. And he offers to help us and guide us into wisdom. He has also given us a guide to know that truth and help us in the thorny issues of life – the Bible. You may say that in saying this I’m just setting up my own truth from my own biased perspective. I can’t prove that God is the ultimate truth but I have found by experience that I can trust in him and his word in my life.

For everyone, we need to recognise our own limitations and that we will never be the source or guardian of truth. With humility we need to listen to the one who is far wiser, who sees all things, and who is a far better guide in life than anyone else. Where there are things which we disagree about, perhaps he might just see things better than us.

For the person who accepts this, there is another question however. We may accept that God is our guide, and the Bible one of his primary ways of guiding us. Yet still Christians disagree about what God has said in the Bible. How do we know which Biblical interpretation is really the truth?

An important answer to this question is that God promises us that his Spirit will guide us into truth (see for example John 16:13, 1 Cor 2:14). But faithful, humble Christians, seeking the help of God’s spirit to understand the Bible, still come to different conclusions as they read it. I believe that there is another important element in our answer to this question. The Bible isn’t just given to us individually, but to us together as His church, his followers. We need the help of each other to understand it. This is emphasised in the picture of God’s people as a body with many different parts each with its gift to bring to the church as a whole. This is usually applied in terms of roles or gifts that we use in serving the church together, but it applies in other areas, including our understanding of what God is saying and has said to us. We need each other’s gifts, experiences, wisdom to gain a better understanding of the truth that God had revealed to us together as his people. Just seeking to understand it on our own, or only with people similar to ourselves – or just those from our own Christian tradition – will lead to a distorted understanding, like that of a bunch of ears, or a gathering of knees might have compared to the more rounded view of a body!

So we need to spend time listening to and learning together with many other followers of God with different characters and backgrounds, and from different church traditions than our own. This is not just talking about the occasional isolated ‘united church service’, or spending time with those from a few selected churches that we feel are ‘sound’ enough, but a real living out of Jesus’ picture of us together as His body the church. This is not easy to work out in practice. While we need to listen to different voices, not all are really seeking to listen to God’s truth – we need discernment too. But if we want truly to seek to know better the truth that God has given us, this seeking together is not an optional extra but a necessity.

Something to blog about

September 16, 2018

I see that it’s about 6 years since I last posted a blog article here. Looking at the site stats I also see that while I had a healthy (though far from earth shattering!) number of views of my blog articles for many years, it has dried to a tiny trickle of views over the last few years. However for the last few months I have increasingly felt that I should return to the blog. Why you might ask, when it seems to have died a death over the last few years? And why bother when it seems likely that no one (or at best very few) will read it?

Psalm 19 (NLT) says:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.

The beauty and grandeur of the sky, in particular I think the night sky, is a constant testimony to the greatness of the God who created it, who caused it to come into existence. I love looking up at the stars and as I reflect on them, and the immensity of the distances that I am looking across, this give me some inkling of the greatness of God. Yet many of these stars, great suns putting forth huge amounts of energy are scarcely visible or noticed by most of us. But they display God’s glory whether or not they are being looked at.

There are many questions in life to which I don’t know the answer, many things which are unclear. Many of my thoughts and views are not profound and unlikely to be worth sharing. But I do know that I know the God who made and loves me, and the truth that we can know him is truly amazing. And in the midst of the challenges of life, my God is the one thing I am sure and confident in. Given this there is value in ‘proclaiming his glory’ whether many or few will listen.

Rainbow in the fountain

September 10, 2012

There’s a fountain near my work, and one day – a year or so ago – I saw this beautiful rainbow reflected in it as I walked past. I’ve never seen it since, but last week, as I was passing on a lovely sunny day, I decided to walk carefully around it and try my best to find the rainbow again. I did find it – photo below (snapped on my mobile). It’s not as good a rainbow as the one I saw by accident a year ago, but it does at least show that if you pass a fountain on a sunny day and try enough viewing angles you have a reasonable chance of finding a rainbow in it!

Regarding the photo, I focussed into the distance in an attempt to make the rainbow clearer  – didn’t work brilliantly but that is why the rest of the photo is not particularly in focus – this was deliberate.

A rainbow in the fountain

Significance

June 6, 2012

 Many, if not most, people want their lives to count for something – they want to be significant. This can be in many spheres. At work we want responsibility, to have a higher profile role in whichever organisation we may work for. We want what we do in our work to last in some way and to make a name for ourselves which will last longer than we will. Others care more that their lives are significant to their friends and family, knowing that there are some around them whose lives are enhanced because they are there.

When those things which we hope / trust in to bring significance fail, then it’s tough going. Maybe it’s reaching an age – often somewhere around my own – when you start to suspect that you’re not going to achieve anything world changing after all. Or if family or friends reject or disappoint you, you realise that trusting your desire to be significant on those around you can be a shaky enterprise.

Contemplating the universe also makes it hard to feel significant – the earth is just one planet orbiting one star in a vast universe with an incomprehensibly large number of stars. And what’s one creature among many billions that live there? The eminent mathematician and physicist, Stephen Hawking is quoted as having said

‘We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence.’

Such reasoning makes sense– but it’s wrong. The staggering thing is that we are significant to God, he does care about us. This struck me recently as I was reading the book of Jonah. See my thoughts on Jonah for more details, but basically although it’s full of dramatic elements with a whale and a city full of ‘evil’ people deciding to change, the majority of the book really describes God taking time (and going to great lengths) to impact Jonah’s life, to change his attitude and to teach him an important lesson – that God cares about people, even those who seem not to deserve it. He cares about the cities of people, and also about each individual like Jonah.

If we are significant to God we know it’s not going to be because of something extra-special that we’ve done. Perhaps we don’t want the sort of ‘significance’ that depends on someone else being great (God), rather than us. But can there be any greater significance than that the God of the universe cares about us? And because it depends on God, not us, this significance will last.

Aeroplanes and beginnings

January 28, 2012

Chapter 4 of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ focuses on his central argument as to why ‘there almost certainly is no God’. His argues that God’s existence is highly implausible, an argument which he describes as ‘the ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’. The name comes from an illustration comparing the probability of life originating on earth as no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would assemble a Boeing 747. This sort of illustration is often used to argue that – given such an improbability – there must be a designer of life, God. Dawkins turns this argument round however and suggests that any such designer, or creator, must be more complex and therefore more improbable than the thing which has been designed.

For much of the chapter he seeks to counter the suggestion that the existence of life on earth is implausible. He argues that Darwinian evolution is a process which naturally explains how life can move from the simple to the more complex without the resort to any unlikely or improbable ‘chance’ occurrences. He then looks at other improbabilities required for life (as we know it) to exist; for example the need for water which imposes tight constraints on a planet’s orbit, how the physical laws of the universe seem finely tuned for life, and the improbability of the creation of the first cell. All of these potentially highly improbable events need only occur once, so their improbability can be balanced by the vast number of planets that probably exist around the universe, or a plethora of universes in a ‘multiverse’. Hence, while each event is highly unlikely to have occurred on any given planet / universe, the chances of it happening somewhere are perfectly reasonable. The anthropic principle then reasons that as we are here to be asking questions like this we must be in that place where conscious life has occurred. There are no such arguments to counter the implausibility of how God might have come into existence, however. The argument from implausibility, he argues, is therefore a strong one against the existence of God.

The weakness of Dawkins’ argument, I feel, is that he doesn’t really consider properly the question of ‘beginnings’. With regards to the improbable events required for life to exist – the first cell, the right physical laws etc., his argument may be valid, or it may not. The truth is that the probabilities he talks about are far too vague and unknown to really assemble any meaningful estimate of whether the vast number of planets or universes (the multiverse hypothesis is only that, a hypothesis, without any evidence, so how you can determine how many universes it might contain?!) does really counterbalance the low probability of the events which might occur in each one. But even allowing it as a valid argument, he doesn’t address the issue of why the universe bothers to exist at all in the first place? (Something else of great complexity and therefore highly improbable that it exists by Dawkins’ argument). The best you get from his chapter is a hope that physics might one day come up with some process analogous to evolution through which a complex universe naturally arises from a simple (nothing).

We naturally think of all things as having a beginning (and end) as that is our experience in life. The world around us has a definite ‘arrow of time’ which requires all things to have a start and end. The laws of thermodynamics, for example, insist that as time progresses all things move from an ordered to a less-ordered state and hence could not have just been there forever. But God is not part of the physical world around us, and hence does not need to have had such a beginning. Indeed the Bible tells us that he has always been around, without any such ‘starting point’. Arguments of improbability are only valid when considering how something might have come about from what was there beforehand. They have nothing to say about one who has always been there.

Dawkins seems to believe that God is postulated as a bad explanation for the mystery of why life exists – and now science has come up with a better, far more plausible answer. This is not true, however. I believe in God, not because I need an answer to the mystery of how I’m here, but because I know him personally. His existence is not an implausible hypothesis but an inner reality.

Mea Culpa

September 27, 2011

There’s a lot of blame around at the moment.

At the UK Labour party conference yesterday, the shadow chancellor – while admitting that their party had made mistakes – insisted that Labour wasn’t to blame for the current financial challenges, saying that it wasn’t “public spending on public services here in Britain which caused the global financial crisis.” Trying to avoid political bias, I can point out that the blame game occurs on all sides of the political spectrum – so the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats equally insist that the current hardship caused by public spending cuts is not their fault, but the consequence of the public debt that they inherited.

Trying to pin the blame on someone for the current financial crisis will also lead you in circles – was it the reckless bankers, the politicians who were reluctant to regulate, the failure to provide adequate safeguards when the European single currency was set up, the addiction to debt of us all? The one answer you are unlikely to get – no matter who you ask – is ‘Mea Culpa!’

People are willing to admit that they are not perfect, they have made mistakes, they must put their hand up for some of the things that have happened: but on the big issues, the ones most under consideration, they are really not to blame.

I’m not aiming to denigrate politicians here. I may be naive, but I think that the past Labour government followed a policy of relatively high public spending to boost the economy during financial turmoil because they sincerely believed that was the best course of action for the country as a whole. Likewise I believe that the current government is following a course of fairly severe public sector spending cuts because they also sincerely believe that this is the best and wisest policy in the current circumstances. In a similar vein, I suspect that most of the individuals that authorised the bank loans which ultimately put banks in financial difficulties, did so believing that debts would be repaid and the loans were a good thing for their employers. And when we go it into debt, most of us do so in the confidence that we will repay those debts before long.

Just after Jesus healed a blind man he said:

“For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and asked him, “We are not blind too, are we?” Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:39-41, NET)

The truth is that knowing the best course of action for a country in the complex world of interdependent economies and unpredictable market forces, is beyond any human’s ability to fathom. Any individual’s views will always be swayed by their limited and one-sided experiences and perspectives. Even in a larger group, the collective perspective will always be biased. In such circumstances we should recognise that we don’t really know what is best, that we need the help and advice of many others and that even with the best advice and soundest judgment the decisions made will undoubtedly prove to be at least partly wrong.

And this is no less true in the equally complex sphere of everyday life. We have limited understanding, experiences and, no matter how hard we try, are most likely to see things best from our own perspective, rather than that of others. We need help in life.

The guilt of the Pharisees lay, at least in part, in their unwillingness to recognise their own blindness, their unwillingness to listen to a different understanding of what was true, and to acknowledge that they had been far more ready to judge than to help this man in need. For us, we too should recognise that we are ‘blind’, that we are often to blame, and that we need the help and advice of others as we go through life. And supremely we need the wisdom, guidance and teaching of the God who does see all perspectives, is not tainted by bias, and does know the best way forwards in a complex and confusing world, even if that way forward is not the one we want to hear.

Sadly though, the tendency is to assert our own independence, our own ability to determine what is best for us, and to insist that we see quite well enough thank you. So our guilt remains.

Science and experience

May 10, 2011

In the third chapter of “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins spends his time dismissing the most common arguments in favour of the existence of God. I don’t have a problem with much of the chapter if I’m honest. Many of the arguments he covers are indeed somewhat feeble, and a poor basis for a belief on which to base your life. I would also say, however, that my faith is not ultimately based on a convincing intellectual argument about God’s existence, and I think most Christians would confer with me on this.

There are two points that I would quibble with however . The first of these is his dismissal of ‘The argument from scripture’. This is a big topic and I don’t intend to go into it in great detail. I would merely say that as I read through and meditate on the Bible, its authority, consistency and relevance – thousands of years after it was written – is striking.

The main thing I want to say, though, relates to his discussions on ‘The argument from personal experience’. Even in this, most of what Dawkins says is true. He cites an example of an undergraduate contemporary who mistook the call of a ‘Manx Shearwater’ for the devil, to demonstrate that a spiritual experience may have  a more down-to-earth explanation. He rightly points out our brain’s ability to read something that isn’t there into the sensations that it receives. Yes, we can easily misunderstand, misinterpret and misremember isolated events that happen in our live and to base a life-changing belief on one ‘mystical experience’ might be a flaky enterprise.

The problem with his argument, however, is that Dawkins misunderstands what Christians mean by their personal experience. While I can only properly understand my own experience, I don’t think I am unique or even in unusual in what I say. For me, while there are spiritual ‘high points’ and specific times when I’ve been very aware of God’s presence, my personal experience of the reality of God does not rest on just one (or indeed several) such isolated events. Rather my personal experience is as much the cumulative impact of being aware of God in the everyday. There are many aspects to this personal experience, for example:

  • seeing God answer prayer in both quite spectacular and more ordinary ways.
  • seeing something quite different in the lives of other Christians which I can only account for by God’s work in their lives.
  • the relevance of God speaking into the events of my life, sometimes quite directly, as I read the Bible.
  • a real sense of God’s presence, not just in spiritual high points but often in my every day life following him.
  • reflecting on my life, and recognising that it only makes sense if God is there.

There are other ways that I could say that I am aware of God’s reality in my life (perhaps other Christians reading this could reflect on how they are aware of God’s reality in their lives, and comment on some of the forms this takes?) but the point I wanted to make is that personal experience for most Christians does not come from a one-off experience, a voice or a vision, but a more common every day reality, different to but yet analogous to the way in which we experience most of the realities of our every day life.

For I think one common misconception that underlies a denigration of ‘the argument from personal experience’ is that personal experience is somewhat inferior to an argument that can be written down in a logical (and preferably mathematical) fashion on paper. My experience of my love for my family and theirs for me is not something that can be written down in this fashion, yet is no less real for that and also a core centrality in my life. Ultimately all things, even scientific facts boil down to basic truths that we accept because of the experiences gathered through our senses in our every day life.

Personal experience is powerful and a key reason why I, and others, believe in God. It could not be any other way.

Changing reflections

January 11, 2011
Icy lake at Blenheim Palace

Icy lake at Blenheim Palace

2011 has arrived, and the start of a new year is often an appropriate time to reflect over the past one. 2010 was a year of change for us as a family. I changed job half way through the year. A few months later we moved house and have been working our way through all the tasks that this entails since then. We’ve had other, sadder and harder changes to come to terms with this last year too.

Too much change brings stress and exhaustion. I don’t think that this is good for you(!) – but I’ve known something of this reality over the last year. However change also brings us the chance to learn new things, to develop and grow.

To give a trivial example. Our new house – the second we’ve bought – was also the second house that we’ve moved into with a broken letterbox in the front door. This had been fixed by the previous owners using glue but in time the fix came apart and the front plate came off – much like it had in our last house after I’d glued that! In our old house we eventually got a door repair company to come and change it. This time I was more adventurous and decided to try and fix it myself. I learned that actually this was very easy to do, that the mainstream DIY stores do not tend to stock replacement letter boxes for doors like ours, but that your can buy replacement letter boxes of all shapes and sizs on ebay! We now have a nice shiny new letter box on our door. It also cost rather less to fix this myself, than it does to pay for someone else to do it.

I would hope that learning to fix uPVC door letter boxes has not been the most profound thing that I’ve learned through the changes of last year. While changes can be uncomfortable, life would be much less rich without the challenges of new circumstances to face. A school that gave the same lessons each day would not be one to recommend.

Change while not always nice is often good for us.

…  a bit less change in 2011 would be nice though.

For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth… (Ecclesiastes 3:1. NET)

Magesteria

June 7, 2010

One of the main points that Richard Dawkins tries to make in the second chapter of ‘The God Delusion’ is that science has something to say on the question of whether God exists or not. He states that

Either he (God) exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability

He spends a fair amount of time criticising the concept of NOMA, or ‘non-overlapping magesteria’ as put forth by other atheists /agnostics such as Stephen Jay Gould or Thomas Huxley which suggests that science and religion look at different realms or magesteria – science covers the empirical realm of what the universe is made of and why it works that way, whereas religion extends over questions of meaning and moral value. As these two magisteria do not overlap science cannot comment on religious questions.

Dawkins, as I said, objects violently to this view – he considers God’s existence a scientific question which should be assessed using our scientific knowledge. As often, he makes some fair points. If God has and does intervene in supernatural ways in this physical world, as the Bible says and I believe, then this intervention is not outside the ability of our scientific instruments to measure and comment on. In one sense, I am not that bothered by Dawkins’ view as I do not think that the ‘evidence’ points in the same way that Dawkins does.

However Dawkins does overstate his position and ignores two significant things:

1) When God works supernaturally / miraculously in the world it is a ‘one-off’ occurrence whereas science is essentially a study of the repeatable. Few scientific studies or discoveries are accepted until they have been repeated at least once by other researchers. The basis of science relies on the world working in a consistent way so that we can repeatedly study that consistent behaviour. The normal everyday way things work which science describes are (I believe) the way they are because that’s how God has made them, but they are not what we would call miraculous or supernatural. When God however causes the world to behave differently to the normal rules that he has created it is not ‘repeatable’ behaviour – and so science will (and does) ignore it as an unexplained ‘blip’.

2) If God (as I believe) is responsible for the world we see around us coming into being, God is not part of that creation. The created world is therefore not ‘all that there is’ to know about. To suggest that it is necessarily rules out the existence of a creator God. A study of that world cannot by definition study the God who is beyond, outside, greater than that created world – this is not a convenient fudge to move God outside of the realm of scientific study but an unavoidable implication of who we mean by God. While God may and does impinge on that physical world, the study of the world alone will always have significant limitations in what it can say about God (including about his existence).

The upshot of these two facts is that I think that science will only ever be able to say a very limited amount about God’s existence or non-existence. There is evidence, although it is perhaps more in the historical / experiential / personal realm than in the scientific one, but belief in God will always be, ultimately, a matter of faith. We will never scientifically prove God’s existence or non-existence, and I think there may be good reasons why God has made it that way – more about that, perhaps, in a later post.


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