Category: faith

A mystifying text and frustrating word

By , 27 November 2009 6:30 pm

I had an odd message on my old blog site yesterday. It simply read “用心經營的blog~您的部落格文章真棒!!”  and seemed to relate to a blog about a month ago. As I gazed perplexed at it, inspiration suddenly triumphed over commonsense and I pasted the text into Google Translate and pressed the buttons for Chinese to English. In seconds I got the following: ‘Working hard to blog ~ your blog article terrific!!’ I would give you the name of the sender but I suspect it is indeed from mainland China or (following last week’s blog) Tibet. I must admit I love the idea that illegally translated copies of Lamb among the Stars are being furtively circulated across China. Who knows? Anyway if you are reading this in China: may God bless both you and your nation!

Anyway back to the West. Our minister preached the other Sunday on spirituality and began to tease out some of the problems with this very enigmatic word. This stimulated me to think about this and I have concluded that what most modern people mean by spirituality bears very little resemblance to what older Christian authors understood by it. (Mind you, I’m not sure older writers used the word very much; I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis somewhere on the ‘Death of Religion and the Rise of Spirituality’.)  So I thought I’d pen some comments on this but I do have to say that my thoughts are very tentative.

My basic proposition is along the following lines. Modern writers when they use the word spirituality seem to be referring to the pursuit – or experience – of some mystical or extraordinary psychological experience. Older Christian writers, if they used the word spirituality or any such concept, would not have disagreed but would always have seen it as an experience in the context of religious creed and religious action. Although I suspect it’s not often been formalised, traditional Christianity has had three interlocking elements: right beliefs (orthodoxy), right practices (orthopraxy) and the mystical experience of God. (Ironically, the last element has often actually been considered the most minor one and, in some churches and individuals, almost ignored altogether.) In my view, within traditional Christianity, mystical experiences have always been constrained by right beliefs and right practices. There is a certain logic here: our internal experiences are notoriously susceptible to being affected by music, mood or what you’ve just eaten or drunk. They’re also impossible for others (or anybody?) to test for genuineness. Creeds and conduct are, in contrast, much less ambiguous. The result was that in traditional Christianity all experiences had to be tested by their  effects on what you believed what you did. A spirituality that led you to deny Christ or rob a bank wasn’t genuine. And a spirituality or spiritual experience that led you to understand the creed better or to love your neighbour more completely was more likely to be authentic. In summary, the untestable experiences of spirituality were thus constrained by the external creeds and codes of religion.

Today though I think things are very different. What we have today is, all too frequently, a spirituality that stands on its own and seeks no external authentication. The modern spirituality is a free-flying, liberated mood divorced from any concern with right beliefs and right actions. It is no wonder that so many people today claim to be spiritual without being religious.

The problem with modern spirituality is that of all internal experiences: namely, how do we know we have something of genuine value? At the risk of sounding rather unspiritual I would say that if you gave me a first-class restaurant with a fine view over beautiful countryside, I might easily have something close to a spiritual experience. Send me a Nikon D90 with the 18-200 VR (MK2) lens and the experience I will have on opening the box will, I assure you, be pretty much on the spiritual plane. Indeed I don’t have to be hypothetical: I have enjoyed near rapture on an ageing Boeing 707 at seeing Mogadishu vanish into the haze behind me. And seeing your newborn children is also awesome.

Put like that you see the problem.  A spirituality without religion is actually quite problematic. What can we say to someone for whom drink or drugs provides some sort of spiritual boost? What about those for whom shopping gives a spiritual high? And if we liberate spirituality from both creed and morality, why can’t violence or arson be spiritual?

Well, I need to think about this further. But you can understand why I’m a little cautious when I meet someone who says ‘I’m very spiritual but I don’t like religion’.

Have a good week.

Preston and the decline of the West

By , 28 August 2009 7:31 pm

I don’t expect that many of my readers will know of Preston. It is a small town on the very northern limits of the industrial north west of Britain. If it is known at all, I suspect its chief fame lies as being something of a landmark on the journey north on the motorway: after Preston the ghastly and almost continuous urban sprawl of Central England is left behind and the Lake District fells begin to beckon. It is a town that I have known from school days so I reckon I’ve been acquainted with it for a rather staggering 45 years. We were there last weekend (my parents live nearby) and walking through I was struck by the contrast between the Victorian buildings and those created during the last half century.

I should explain that Preston was an important textile town in the 19th century (its motto is ‘Proud Preston’) and like so many of our northern cities acquired a civic architecture appropriate to its status as a global leader in industry. I’m afraid I’ve had to borrow some photographs off the web but this is the Harris Library and there are a number of other civic buildings of similar scale and quality.

Although Preston survived the Second World War without any major damage from bombing it lost a very fine town hall due to fire in 1947. But much remains: even some of the smaller Victorian chapels display a striking solidity.

Now what struck me in my stroll was how all this contrasted with what had been created during the near half century that I have known Preston. In my time I have seen the arrival of shopping arcades, out-of-town centres, car parks, bypasses and the odd sports ground or two. But there is nothing built to last. Indeed, the massive but now rather shabby concrete bus station built in my youth is now about to be torn down and replaced. This is all rather striking given that the last half century has been a time of almost unparalleled prosperity. Yet as I looked around I found myself wondering where all the wealth had gone. What have we done with the money? Where are the civic improvements that you might expect?

I do not believe Preston’s experience is unique: quite simply we do not seem to build anything in the same way these days.  This of course raises the question ‘why?’ Why do we no longer build majestic buildings that we expect to last for at least a couple of centuries? Why are our buildings – with a few exceptions –temporary, ephemeral structures whose best claim to fame is cheapness and functionality? I suspect you would need to be both an architectural and a cultural historian to really pin down all the causes and I am neither.  But let me make some suggestions: I think there are several technical factors that have come together.

  • There are technological changes. Steel, concrete and glass produce a very different building style. We go for lightness and space rather than solidity and weight.
  • With the ever more rapid changes in technology there is no point in building for the future; we all know of old buildings where we cannot fit in insulation, double glazing, fibre-optic cable or even enough electrical power points. In a world where the future is imponderable, the answer is simple: don’t build for the future.
  • City centres are not the permanent features that we thought they might be. In Britain the Second World War was very salutary in this respect. The conventional bombing of Coventry and Dresden demonstrated that large-scale urban destruction was possible; the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that total urban destruction was possible.
  • With the rise of the motor car city centres began to lose their central importance. The peripheries became more important.

Yet there are also I think cultural and philosophical issues worthy of consideration. So for a start, we don’t do ‘civic’ architecture on this scale anymore because we don’t have their values.

  • The elevation of market forces means that cheapness is all. One of the sad maxims of earthquake damage is that educational buildings generally collapse quickly. The reason is that they are thrown up quickly by councils whose agenda runs no deeper than providing a service for voters. There are no votes – only increased costs – in building for centuries.The western world has become dominated by an ideology which centres everything around the private individual as consumer. With such a worldview why take the time to build major and imposing buildings for the community?  Instead we create what is effectively consumerist architecture: and here a building is surely like the packaging around an item; effectively disposable.
  • Yes, there has been a massive growth in wealth but it has been largely diverted back to private individuals and private wealth. We have consciously – or subconsciously – chosen cheap holidays and new cars over faster rail systems, expanded civic libraries and imposing town halls. You could almost say ‘If you want our monument look in our garages’.
  • We simply do not build for the future. Much is made of popular evangelicalism’s preoccupation with an imminent end. I actually wonder whether that is not to some extent an echo of secular culture’s failure to believe in a lasting future.  “Let us eat, shop and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

The thing that is striking is that some of this short-term consumerist ethos has found their way into the church. In the Old Testament we see the Jewish people moving from the temporary tented Tabernacle to the solidly imposing Temple. In what we are and what we stand for we seem to prefer the alternative trend. There is something troublingly lightweight, flimsy and ephemeral about much of our worship and teaching and yes, our, buildings. In many ways I am troubled by the massive chapels of towns like Preston and of many Welsh urban areas. They are impractical and hard to maintain. Yet in their construction I see things that I find missing today: a confidence, a hope in the future, a desire to make a lasting statement about values. In a way that we do not, they had faith.

Mind the Gap

By , 24 July 2009 6:30 pm

I have been reading through the 10 Commandments and the social legislation that follows in Exodus 20 over the last few days and happened to glance at the notes in my NLT Study Bible. The writer made the very interesting point that although many of the legal elements have parallels in other documents of the ancient near East, the cause and effect linkage between faith and ethics found here seems to be unique. In other words although there were religious practices elsewhere and legal rules aplenty, it seems that very few people connected the two. Yet in Judaism to be a believer in Yahweh was to live out his religious code. To some people this may come as something of a blinding novelty: after all isn’t religion all about ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do that’? Well apparently it wasn’t common then.

The interesting thing is it is becoming increasingly uncommon now. We are seeing – increasingly I fear – a split between ethics and faith. In other words we are coming to a point where belief is totally separate from actions. So we have all sorts of people engaged in all sorts of unpleasantness and immorality (and please remember that immorality is not just to do with sex) who are quite happy to call themselves Christian.

I was reminded of a classic example of this in my recent reading up on the Napoleonic Wars where towards the end the Duke of Wellington plays a major part. A few years ago I read a very fine biography of the great soldier (and not so great politician) called ‘Wellington: The Iron Duke’ by
Richard Holmes. Here, as far as I remember, on one page Holmes details the Dukes voracious sexual appetite: it was of such an extent that one suspects his genes are now widely disseminated throughout Europe. Then a few pages later he discusses his religious beliefs with a degree of care and concludes that he was a generally orthodox run-of-the-mill Anglican. The really striking thing is that there is not a single sentence to suggest that the biographer saw any contradiction between Wellington’s faith and his actions. For Holmes, religion is in one compartment; behaviour in another. Interestingly enough this is surely sloppy history. Even if a late 20th century author sees no contradiction in a promiscuous and openly adulterous man having a Christian faith, then surely the Duke himself and his contemporaries would have been aware of the tension.

Of course you don’t have to look into biographies to see such sentiments. Many religious people parade their spirituality and do not feel obliged to justify or excuse the evident immorality of their actions; whether sexual, financial or behavioural. We can easily be tempted to go along with this current mood. For instance I quite often get annoyed with my students, laugh at rude jokes or say things that I later think ‘Doh! I really shouldn’t have said that.’ Yet I don’t think in four years of teaching I have ever had anyone say ‘Chris isn’t that inconsistent with your Christian beliefs?’ But they all want to know whether I believe in the Big Bang. Maybe I should point out my own inconsistencies?

Failed hopes and faith

By , 15 May 2009 7:39 pm

Let me begin by a little bit of background. Around 10 years ago Wales was granted some degree of independence within the complex geographical unit that is the United Kingdom. Its governing body, the Assembly (which seems to increasingly bear less and less resemblance to the benign and competent Assembly of my novels), has both jurisdiction and funding control over a few limited areas. One of those areas is education. Recently, partly due to pressures caused by the recession and partly due to what seems to be incompetence, they have managed to cut funding to many schools and colleges that provide education for our 16- to 18-year-olds. One of those badly affected is my college, where we have something like a £400,000 shortfall.

I hasten to add that our academic record is exemplary, but these days being good doesn’t seem to be enough. (Actually, it seems that you are better off being a poor performer because the trend is to throw money at failures rather than successes.) Well this week we were told that there would have to be major cuts and various drastic measures including increasing class size and reduced course options. I have been moderately badly hit by this. From teaching almost nothing but geology I will now have to diversify into geography and a wider area of environmental studies. And, on current numbers, I will have class sizes of around 24. Now of course all this may change (prayers are welcome) but the mood has been pretty glum in college and I have to say I have felt pretty discouraged. Had it been financially feasible I might have been tempted to hand in my resignation this week on the grounds that educational standards are likely to be compromised. But it wasn’t feasible. I consoled myself with the thought that I once ran an academic department that survived a direct hit from a tank shell, an assassination and an invasion. So I will try to grin and bear it.

Anyway, what I have found interesting is that a number of people who are more badly affected than me are less fed up about it. Some of them are not, as far as I know, Christians or believers in God. This raises an issue that I have noticed before: Christians can get upset and worked up over things that other people are largely unaffected by. In fact it may even be – I have no figures to prove it –that there are slightly higher numbers of depressives in Christianity than outside. What’s going on here? How does this square with our songs of joy and our talk of victory?

A full answer would require a book and a lot of time. I suspect though that a major factor is that we very easily fall into a gulf between the world as we believe it ought to be and the world as it actually is. Let me explain what I mean. Imagine you are an atheist of a Dawkinisian hue: how do you view the world? I suspect you would see it is as an imperfect place full of temporary ad hoc solutions due to working of that interminably slow, blind and extraordinarily clumsy giant Evolution. On such a view the failure of an educational policy, the triumph of bad over good, the destruction of something – or someone – worthwhile is just one of those things that happens in a messy meaningless and godless world. ‘Things are a mess!’ we protest, but our Evolutionist simply responds: ‘What right have you to expect anything otherwise?’ As Shakespeare has Macbeth say: ‘life is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’

The Christian, however, takes a different view. For one thing, we have higher hopes; we believe that good should triumph, that evil should be punished and that in every way things ought to get better. I am not here being rude about atheists (although if you ask me nicely I will be) but I do believe that we Christians dream higher dreams. So our expectations are higher. We would, though, go even further. We believe in a God who has not only created the universe but also supervises it. On this basis we have feel certain that when some dirty deed is done, God as the cosmic referee will blow the whistle and cry ‘foul!’

On this basis you can see that we expect life’s little tales to have happy endings. And, all too frequently, they don’t.  If you understand this you can see why perhaps we more easily get depressed when unrequited nastiness occurs or unjudged stupidity triumphs.

There are two answers to the conundrum we find ourselves in. The first is to lower our expectations – and that I am reluctant to encourage; I feel we must always aim high and hope for the best. The second is to remind ourselves that we do not here see the full picture. As the old image goes, what we see is merely the back of the great tapestry and here there are many random and tangled threads. We have not yet seen the real end of the story.

I am not of course defending depression; if you are suffering from it I wish you a speedy recovery. But if it is the depression caused by the gap between high idealistic hopes and a dismaying reality then you deserve every sympathy. Far better to dream and be frustrated than not dream at all.

Have a good week!

A family crisis

By , 6 September 2008 9:40 am

I suppose it takes me around ten steps to get from our bed to the phone in the hall. So when, around three o’clock on Thursday morning it rang, I was already partly awake and prepared for something unpleasant by the time I picked it up. No one except Swansea drunks getting a wrong number calls at that hour unless it’s an emergency. And emergency it was: our grandson Simeon, 15 days old, was in intensive care, anaesthetised and ventilated, with something unknown, but serious, wrong with him. Three hours drive away, all we could do was pray and lie awake hoping that there would not be a second phone call.

Thursday was the first proper day of teaching for me and I can assure you it was not a good one. However I do have to say my colleagues were universally superb in their sympathy and support. Bit by bit during the day the details came out and a tentative diagnosis (still not fully confirmed at the moment) made of what is called CAH or Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: courtesy of the web you can read all about it. But over the last couple of days Simeon has gradually recovered, being shifted first to high dependency and then to a normal ward while he recovers some weight and, I presume, more tests are done. If it is CAH the prognosis is reasonably good although with current technology he will have a lifetime of being dependent on replacement steroids. Which, as someone said, means that he will probably be ruled out from ever competing in the Olympics.

Let me make three cautious observations. The first is that we have come to take for granted the wonder of childbirth and healthy children. When you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing for a baby to shift from being effectively a parasitic creature taking food and oxygen from the mother to being a (more or less) self-sustaining and self-regulating organism. Somehow we have come to consider it to be a right that this proceeds automatically and without trouble. We shouldn’t do so. Two of my colleagues have had neo-natal fatalities recently.

The second observation was that things like this make you realise the true importance of family, friends and the faith. As I lay in bed my thoughts turned to last week’s blog on the iPhone and the whole topic seemed pathetically insignificant. Perhaps being reminded of one’s true priorities is no bad thing.

The third observation is that contrary to what you might expect I don’t think I ever once rounded on God and angrily demanded ‘Why Simeon?’. I suppose if things had turned out worse (and of course he is not out of the woods yet) I might have done so. I think – intellectually at least – I have come round to the view that being a child of God does not exempt you from suffering. I think I would almost be embarrassed to be in a situation in which I was granted immunity from the world’s woes. No one respects those who dodge military service or jury duty through family influence. In a world full of wounded people perhaps we need to have scars.

Anyway I will keep you in touch. Have a good week.

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