Uncertainty in theology

by Frances Young

I guess we’re not very good at confessing uncertainty, but I was challenged to address the theme at a Science and Faith weekend.

I began with the recently circulating film, Silence – a dramatic realisation of a novel I’d read years before, by a Japanese Christian author who imaginately retells a true story.[1]

It’s 1643 and two Portuguese Jesuits set out for Japan, a place where Christians are savagely persecuted, to search for their former teacher and mentor who had disappeared. There were rumours he’d apostatized. The priests are hidden by Christian peasants and watch their sufferings; the main character is betrayed, imprisoned, and prepares to die as martyr.

The ‘Silence’ is the silence of God. Desperate prayers are repeated:  ‘Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent?’ (p. 153) “… you never break the silence,” he says. “You should not be silent for ever”.’ (p. 172) ‘The sea was silent as if exhausted, and God, too, continued to be silent.’ (p.  210)

The novel thus captures that sense of God’s absence which has been the 20th century experience. ‘If I were God, I wouldn’t let my children do to each other what they do,’ said a Professor of Jewish descent. Uncertainty is everywhere.

That God is Creator and sustainer of all that exists is fundamental to Christian theology, but the kind of creationism some defend is not, nor indeed the claims of intelligent design as usually enunciated. God is not to be conceived as a craftsman, needing some kind of material to make things out of. God created everything other than God out of nothing. And for anything other than God to exist the infinite God has to withdraw (Simone Weil wrote, ‘Creation is an act of abandonment’). The absolute otherness of God is fundamental, and the reason why there are no knock-down philosophical proofs. It is also the reason for the apparent absence of God.

Religious language must always be a sign, a symbol, a metaphor – that’s why the name of God is unutterable in the Jewish tradition. Religious epistemology involves profound agnosticism, but it is an agnosticism with a particular stance – neither indifference, nor intellectual superiority. Rather a profound intellectual humility before the known unknown.  Without doubt,  every concept of God, every linguistic description, becomes an idol, a projection, a reduction of God to a mere item in the universe.

Thus, uncertainty lies at heart of Christian theology.

Human nature craves certainty, control and closure.  That’s why it’s so easy for religion to breed dogmatism,  intolerance, etc., and it’s why fundamentalism resorts to literalism. The need for control is precisely why it’s necessary to establish the principle of uncertainty at the heart of theology.

Let’s go back to Silence.  The book/film is not  only a profound commentary on the absence of God, but also on the nature of love.

He had not been able to save the Christian [peasants]… His pity for them had been overwhelming; but pity was not action. It was not love. Pity, like passion, was no more than a kind of instinct. (p. 219)

Cross-examined and held in solitary confinement,  he identifies with Christ:’ My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Yet gradually he becomes more and more uncertain. The Inquisitor says, ‘you came to this country to lay down your life for them. But in fact they are laying down their lives for you.’ (p. 220) His old teacher challenges him: ‘You are preoccupied with your own salvation. If you say you will apostatize … they will be saved from suffering…  Is your way of acting love? A priest ought to live in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here … certainly Christ would have apostatized for them… For love Christ would have apostatized.’ (pp. 168-9). So he apostatizes and lives uncertainly with the terrible guilt of betrayal.

You can never be certain – all you can do is let go of the need for control, and TRUST. For trust in a moral and spiritual reality vastly bigger than yourself, beyond yourself, a reality capable of creation and re-creation, of blessing beyond anything we can ask or think – that’s what faith is.

 

[1] Shusaku Endo, Silence (Japanese, 1967; Penguin, 1988).

 

Gilead

by Martin Turner.

My friend the late Rev’d Geoff Cornell was a great reader of fiction, using modern narratives to enhance and apply to his always interesting preaching. For reasons that were never totally clear to either of us we had been invited to join a black minister’s group on a trip to Ghana, it was a long plane journey but I noticed Geoff was totally wrapped up in a book so I asked him what it was. He told me he was reading it for the second time and that it was one of the most thought provoking works of fiction he had ever read – so I thought that if it was that special for Geoff it must be outstanding and when I returned to the UK ordered a copy.

The Book was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson,  I want to focus this week’s reflection upon this most remarkable book and it’s two sequels, “Home” and “Lila”.  It may well be that you feel that this slot is for theological reflection and not a book review, but this is a book which can offer far more theological insight than any poor thoughts of mine!

Marilynne Robinson is an American author who has written just four novels, however her output in non-fiction, essays and reviews is prolific and she has won numerous awards and honorary doctorates.  Robinson was 37 when her first book, Housekeeping, was published in 1980, it was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize two years later.  There was then a twenty four year wait for Gilead to be published and this won the Pulitzer a year later.  Four years later Home, which won the Orange prize,  was published, then after six years Lila. The fascinating thing about these last three being that they tell the same story with the same characters, but each with the narration from a different character’s point of view.

The books are profoundly Christian; Robinson is a Congregationalist, she sometimes preaches and theologically she has been greatly influenced by John Calvin. She is also profoundly American, capturing all that rural mid American life is about from her home in Iowa.

I remember Donald English speaking about the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch and saying that there were more theological truths in them than in many specifically Christian books, but that unlike Christian books people – mostly non Christians – read them!  Gilead, my main focus, is such a book – I was especially struck by a review where the author ended with the comment that he almost wished he was a believer.

Gilead is the story of an elderly Congregational minister called John Ames who has spend all his life serving the small community of Gilead. Ames’ young wife died in childbirth, as did the child, thus for many years he has led a solitary existence, sustained by a deep friendship with the local Presbyterian minister Boughton. Boughton has a son, Jack, who Ames distrusts deeply – Jack’s return home is a tragic version of the prodigal son, told in the second book Home. Then into Ames’ life there come a most unlikely character, Lila, an illiterate drifter very much younger than him with who he falls in love, marries and has a child – her version of events is told in the third novel, Lila. Thus Ames has a small son, but is elderly with a failing heart.  Gilead is the journal he writes so that when his son grows older he will know something of the life, history and thoughts of his father long gone.  So these are books where not a lot happens, the pace is slow, the events largely ordinary, but in them very deepest issues of life are explored and touched – never before have I burst into tears whilst reading a book, but I did in reading Gilead!

So why should you read Gilead?  For ministers the reflection upon what he has achieved across the years is sobering – I was especially moved as he wonders what to do with his sermons – I have several hundred neatly boxed and filed and wonder what my own children will do with them one day! There is also deep theological reflection, where he wrestles with his Calvinist theology, a challenge for we Arminians. This theological debate comes especially into focus in the third book where Lila wonders how God will deal with the woman who has mothered her and yet is clearly not a believer.

This is a book about friendship, about how difficult family life can be, about faith, about facing death. No review of mine (or the many other reviews on line, especially Rowan Williams’) can do it justice. It is a marmite book, it will either bore you or stir you as none other – try reading it!

WannaCry

by Ruth Gee.

On Friday May 12th computer systems across the world were attacked by a virus affecting more than 200,000 victims in 150 countries. The UK was among the worst hit of the countries and 61 NHS trusts in England and Scotland reported problems.

In the following days I found myself, as a follower of one in whose life power was shown through vulnerability, reflecting on the use and abuse of power. In this instance much of the power was held by those who had specific information. Events were influenced by the ways in which they chose to share or to hold that information.

WannaCry ransomware encrypts the files on computer systems so that they cannot be accessed and then demands a ransom, paid in Bitcoin to unlock them. On this occasion the problem was made even worse because of the use of a tool known as Eternal Blue. It was reported that Eternal Blue was used by the National Security Agency in the USA and leaked by Shadow Brokers, a hacker group. Eternal Blue allows WannaCry to infect all the computers in a network once any one has been accessed.

WannaCry, Eternal Blue, Shadow Brokers and Bitcoin: a series of mysterious and evocative words hinting at mystery and dark secrets to the uninitiated. When translated into language we can understand it becomes clear that this is the language of subversive power and exploitation, it is the language of piracy, domination and theft.

As the computer systems in hospitals became useless, operations and procedures were cancelled and vulnerable people suffered. In the North East, the Nissan plant had to cease production. Internationally, there was widespread disruption. Ransom money was paid into Bitcoin wallets, digital containers for a digital currency that is not linked to any bank or government and can be used anonymously. The piratical blackmailers made a killing and it will happen again.

We are undoubtedly enriched by the ability to use technology to increase the efficiency in hospitals, transport networks and industry. Those who have access to computer systems and the internet are able to communicate fast and effectively. Through the World Wide Web we can access reports about events almost as soon as they happen, from almost anywhere. Such technology is a great gift and, at its best, it can be a means of providing support fast and well to those in need, of offering educational opportunities and of increasing our understanding of the lives of others. Communication and sharing are important elements in the life of a community and through modern technology we have the promise, or perhaps the illusion, of a world-wide community.

On May 12th we were reminded of the vulnerability that exists alongside the promise of enhanced communication. It is a vulnerability that is at least partially due to an imbalance of power, where some people hold knowledge and decide how and where it will be shared.

Eternal Blue was a very useful tool for the National Security Agency. By making use of vulnerability in computer systems, agents could hack into the computer networks of terrorist groups and access information that could lead to the prevention of attacks and the apprehension of criminals. That same vulnerability could be exploited by criminal hackers. Jay Caplan, formerly a worker at the National Security Agency described the dilemma in these words in the Guardian, “It’s this constant tug of war. Do you let intelligence agencies continue to take advantage of vulnerabilities to fight terrorists or do you give it to the vendors and fix them?”  Had Microsoft known of the vulnerability earlier, the problem might have been rectified more effectively but the security agency chose not to share their knowledge.

Other decisions made by people with power impacted on events on May 12th. Many affected NHS trusts were vulnerable because they were working with old computer systems that could not be updated and properly protected. Warnings had been given but hard choices had to be made with limited funds and it is reported that some chose not prioritise updating computer systems. Decisions made in good faith led to increased vulnerability and disruption for those needing care.

The 8th century prophets criticised the abuse of power by those in authority in Israel. They condemned those who used false weights and measures, who enriched themselves and lay on golden beds whilst the faces of the poor were ground into the dust of the earth. Jesus challenged the religious leaders who held power and had deep knowledge of the scriptures and religious tradition but failed to recognise the priority of loving their neighbours.

In the story of WannaCry (still unfolding as I write) there are questions for those who seek to do justice and love kindness about use and abuse of power, the sharing of knowledge, accountability, and vulnerability.

Resurrection – Picking up the Threads of a World Re-imagined

by David Bidnell.

It was on 13th November 1945 that Moscow Dynamo played the first match of their post-war tour of Britain against Chelsea. The result was reasonably inconsequential – a 3-3 draw. It was the impression it made on the London crowd and the British press that really counted. In advance of the match the Russian team had been all but dismissed as a bunch of also-rans, only to astound both the spectators and the Chelsea team by the speed, flexibility and imagination with which they played. David Downing, in his novel Lehrter Station, recounts how the press reported the match:

“Much was made of the Dynamos’ willingness to interchange positions without getting in each other’s way – a revolutionary tactic which had completely flummoxed their English opponents.”(Downing 2012. 33).

It is this “revolutionary tactic” of imagination, of re-imagining how the world might be and how people might relate to one another, which emerges constantly from the pages of the Gospels, whether it is in the narration of encounters with Jesus or in the narratives he himself relates. It is a re-imagining that some find so perturbing and threatening that they seek a solution in crucifixion. Jesus does not go looking for death. Rather his crucifixion is the consequence of his commitment to life. It is because he chooses life for those around him, that he is put to death – but not before the seeds of imagination have begun to take root in the lives of those following him.

Vaclav Havel’s definition of hope helps provide some focus for this way of understanding Jesus’ life.

“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (Havel 1990. 181).

This seems to be a pretty good description of the way Jesus sees the world. His focus is on living out what “makes sense”, and he is prepared to take the consequences, even if they are not pleasant or welcome.

If the crucifixion is the authoritarian response to the kind of hope, freedom and imagination embodied in Jesus’ living, the resurrection is a response to the crucifixion, which rejects the kind of triumphalism sometimes found in our Easter hymns and songs, and invites us instead to perceive more deeply the ways in which Jesus’ life makes sense and how we might pick up the threads of that life as an act of resurrection or as a means of putting resurrection into practice.

This idea of resurrection as “picking up of the threads of a world re-imagined” is reflected in the story of the “mother of the sons of Zebedee”. We meet her at two critical moments in Matthew’s Gospel. The first of these is when she approaches Jesus to request for her two sons places of honour at his right and at his left when he comes into his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28). The story differs from Mark’s version, where James and John do the asking themselves (Mark 10:35-45). Why does their mother take the lead in Matthew? Is it because she is a pushy mother dedicated to trying to get the best for her sons? Is it because her sons do not have the courage to approach Jesus themselves? Is she pushed into it by her husband, Zebedee? After all, it is worth noting that she is identified, neither by her own name, nor by the names of her sons, but as “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mathew 20:20). Though we are in the realm of speculation here, what is significant is the way in which she hears Jesus turn on their head notions of greatness. What matters are the values of humility and servanthood, of choosing life, even if it costs life.

This brings us to the second critical encounter. Interestingly enough Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” explicitly among the women at the cross (Matthew 27:56). On Jesus’ right and left are not her sons, but two bandits. The vocabulary Matthew uses to describe both this woman and the idea of being on the right and on the left is strikingly similar to the first story in chapter twenty, suggesting that Matthew wants his readers to make connections between these two episodes. The depiction of this mother as one who is now there with Jesus until the end, waiting with him, sustaining him with a sense of her presence, suggests that she has learned much from what Jesus said about servanthood and greatness. Even before the act of crucifixion is complete she has begun to live out the resurrection. She is picking up the threads of a world re-imagined for her by Jesus.

It seems she is not only the mother of the sons of Zebedee, but perhaps also the mother of resurrection!

 

Works Cited

Downing, David. Lehrter Station. Brecon Old Street Publishing Ltd, 2012

Havel, Vaclav. Disturbing the Peace. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.

Sharing our cape

by Catrin Harland

In the 4th century, a Roman soldier called Martin is supposed to have come across a man who was begging for food and had no protection against the cold. Taking pity on him, Martin (later known as St Martin of Tours) took his own cape, or cappella, tore it in half, and gave half to the man. In time, the half he retained became a holy relic; the priests who cared for it, and subsequently all priests working with the army, became known as cappellani, or chaplains. Martin, the man who lived his Christian faith in practical ways, within the secular sphere, became, in a sense, the founding figure of chaplaincy.

Today, of course, there are chaplains in many places – prisons, armed forces, hospitals, schools, universities, shopping centres, factories, town centres… They represent many of the major world faiths, and sometimes explicitly those of no faith, but my concern here is with the Christian – perhaps especially the Methodist – successors to St Martin.

As a chaplain, my ministry is not lived out in holy spaces or sanctuaries, but in the midst of the explicitly secular – in my case, a very proudly secular university. I am not there as of right, but as an invited guest, I seek to earn the trust of students and staff, by slow, patient steps, through acts of compassion and love, through participating in the celebrations and the boring administration of university life, through welcoming, congratulating, comforting, encouraging. I don’t always get it right, but even in my weaknesses and mistakes I show (I hope) the humanity which is a part of what I offer.

This, of course, is no more or less than the calling which belongs to the whole people of God. The Greek word for ‘people’ is laos, from which we get ‘laity’, and it goes without saying that the business of being God’s people is not a calling of the few, ordained to a special status. It is the task of all of us. When the Bible refers to ‘saints’ (literally, ‘holy ones’), it is not referring to those who have proved themselves unusually worthy, but to those who have accepted the call to follow Christ, and are his by grace. We are challenged to live out that calling, not in closed sanctuaries, but in the secular arena, recognising those secular spaces as holy, because they are equally loved by the God who is equally present in them. In that sense, the call to be ‘saints’ or ‘God’s people’ is precisely the call to be chaplains.

When I was training for ministry, I did a placement in a rural part of East Anglia, where I found that people classified themselves as ‘church’ or ‘chapel’. I don’t think, by this, they saw a clear distinction between the two; it was more a residual, slightly tribal loyalty, based on where their parents (or more often grandparents) had worshipped. It defined the place to which they would naturally turn for weddings, baptisms and funerals.

We tend to want to think of ourselves as a Church, and are probably seen as such. But that may mean different things to different people. Being a church may mean that we have come of age, and can be taken seriously as ecumenical partners. Or it may imply that we have achieved a certain rigidity in our structures and traditions. Perhaps it means that we have reached a state of peak irrelevance in the lives of many – available when specific rites of passage are needed, and perhaps at Christmas, but of little or no value at other times?

We have, in recent years, tried to explore what it might mean for Methodism to return to the identity of a ‘movement’. But I wonder whether the time is ripe for a return to the concept of ‘chapel’? Not as a marker of tribal, denominational identity – a rival for ‘church’ – but as a statement of how we understand our place in the community. And not to confuse mission, evangelism and daily living as ‘chaplaincy’, nor to devalue the work and training of our qualified and expert chaplains (heaven forbid!). Rather, to recognise that there may be value in a ‘chaplaincy mindset’.

This would entail being experts at speaking of the love of God in everyday life. It would entail valuing the ‘secular’ as in fact ‘holy’, working for its good, praying for it, and ‘seeking its peace and prosperity’[1].

None of this is new, but it is perhaps something of which we need to remind ourselves frequently. And it is, or has the potential to be, radical.

 

[1] Jeremiah 29:7

Staying in the city

by Claire Potter.

In the 1960s Marvin Gaye sang: “Wherever I lay my hat – that’s my home?”. There is something rather impressive about people who sit that lightly to places. In Jeremiah 29 there is an account of Jeremiah’s remarkable letter to all the people who were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem was, for them, the only place where you could truly worship God. Since all of life’s activities were associated with religion – work, family life, existing in society – then it is hardly surprising that they were so frustrated in exile. All they could do, like refugees across the world today, was to long for it all to be over.

But Jeremiah told them that God was not only to be found in Jerusalem – but was in fact with them even in exile. So he said: get on and live out your lives, build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat the produce, form relationships, marry, have families – for generations. It was clearly no short term solution. And Jeremiah went even further telling them to ‘seek the welfare of the city … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’. They might have lost their homes, their holy places, their familiar places, but they had not been abandoned by God and they would not be abandoned by God.

There is a similar feeling right at the end of Luke’s gospel. The two disciples who had had their eyes dramatically opened at Emmaus had run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus. As they are all discussing this incredible news, Jesus himself appeared amongst them. He demonstrates how physical he is by showing them his hands and feet, using the words that would have been familiar to them ‘peace be with you’ and then eating a piece of fish in front of them. He then helped them to understand how his death and resurrection had been foretold and what it meant for them. Then he gives his final instruction. As they wait for the power of God to come upon them – they are to ‘stay there in the city’.

Surely Jerusalem was the last place on earth where they wanted to stay. This was the place where everything had fallen apart for them. This was a place of betrayal, of the ending of their hopes, a place of loss and brutality and fear. It would have been so much better if Jesus had told them to wait in the more friendly environment of Galilee where they could go back into normal life. In Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus did in fact appear to the disciples in Galilee. The point Luke is making is significant. Before the disciples are empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have to muster all their courage to stay there and to believe that God’s power was coming.

Stay in the city” said Jesus according to Luke. “Seek the welfare of the city” said Jeremiah. What makes us feel that we are in exile? It could be a very real sense of isolation caused by illness, fear or addiction. It might be the speed of development of the virtual world and the possibilities of social media. It might be the political world or injustice. The natural human response is to look for security.

In churches though, there is a danger that we will locate our need for settledness and security in our church buildings, our hymn books, our familiar seat, or our favoured traditions. Then it becomes so difficult for us when any of those things change, and we can be a block in the development of a church. Surely it is much better to locate that need that we all have in God. God’s love for us will not change. He made us, he called us, he planted potential within us. When we are at sea in this bewildering world, let us allow God to be our anchor. Then everything becomes possible. We can then seek the welfare of the people we do not understand, We can seek the welfare of corners of our world that others think are hopeless, we can seek the welfare of whole communities who will never think like us or share our priorities or opinions. And miracle of miracles – when we do that – we will also discover our own welfare – our own hope, strength, courage and calling. So rather than retreating into our settled traditions and hoping that the threats will go away, perhaps we can all take the courage given to us through God’s Spirit to fling wide the doors and offer vulnerable hospitality as part of our living communities.

May God help all people in their own context to stay in the city and to seek the welfare of the city – wherever we lay our hat.

‘My God I am thine’

by David P. Easton

This article has been triggered by the case of baby Charlie Gard, a patient in Great Ormond Street Hospital with mitochondrial depletion syndrome. The hospital felt that it was right to withdraw life-support treatment from him. His parents appealed the decision in the high court. They had wanted to take him to America in the hope that an untried treatment could help his condition. Mr Justice Francis ruled that the hospital could halt Charlie’s life support.

I need to state first of all that what follows is not about this particular case. I also fully recognise that it is all too easy for those not immediately involved in situations such as this to make pious or platitudinous comments. For those intimately involved – family, friends, medical staff and, indeed, high court judges, the issues are immense, personal and deeply challenging. This may sound obvious, but I feel very strongly that it is important, before exploring ethical or theological issues arising from such cases, to acknowledge that discussion must not take place with abstract, theoretical detachment but in the context of the real lives of real people.

I want to explore two questions:
Whose are we?
How does the Church engage theologically with complex issues such as this?

Listening to a report on the radio, I heard it said that the parents believed that, as the child was theirs, they had the right to decide his treatment. Parents often speak of ‘their children’. Does this mean that they ‘own’ them or that they have a more intangible attachment of love and care? In this country we clearly do not believe that even parents have the final say on their children, as this case and instances where children are taken into care illustrate. So does the state, acting on behalf of all of us through the courts or social services, etc, ‘own’ its children? Most of us would probably be uneasy with such a notion, even if we couldn’t quite say why.

But there is a sense in which children belong to all of us. I don’t have children but I have obligations towards them that I am happy to fulfil. I am happy to pay taxes for their education. I would stop a child from running out in front of a bus. In paying taxes or stopping a child I am acting in the belief that their welfare is not just the responsibility of her/his parents; there is a sense in which they are my children too. So, I am expressing a degree of ‘ownership’ of the child, but, by the same token, the child’s parents are willing to share some of that ‘ownership’ with me – presuming that they are glad that I am paying taxes and stopping their child from being run over.

So, if children are, in the sense that I have been suggesting, ‘owned’ by all of us, when does that ‘ownership’ cease? Do I refuse to pay taxes for things that adults require, such as roads or further education? Would I ‘own’ an adult enough to stop him/her being killed? If I would, does that mean that there is a sense in which we own one another? And what does that mean in a western society which increasingly puts a premium on individualism and self-determinism? And what is the difference between the sort of ownership I have been positing and that which becomes controlling and sees the other as one to be possessed for our own ends rather than theirs or the society of which we are a part?

And where is the theology in all this? Where do we fit with one another? Where do we fit with God?

‘My God I am thine, what a comfort divine’.

When we sing this hymn with more or less gusto, are we saying that we are ‘owned’ by God because we have chosen to be? Or were we God’s possessed by his love – as infant baptism liturgies claim – even before we knew of him? And if we are owned by God, whether through design or desire, what does that have to say about our liberty and free will? Is the notion of being possessed by God make it more or less likely that someone would want to explore what it means to be a Christian disciple?

Finally, in a world that is constantly throwing up examples of the complexity and challenge of the one that we began with, how do we engage those in the wider world with what it means to be fully human and yet touched by the divine? How do we not appear to be ever-ready with the glib answer or ill-thought-through response? How do we avoid the twin dangers of appearing to know everything or knowing nothing? How do we wrestle beyond the ropes of over-simple certainties?