What is God like?

by Sheryl Anderson.

Whilst commemorating 500 years since the Reformation, I have been exercised by Luther’s understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ. Luther came to his understanding of justification by grace through faith after much struggle.

‘Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience.’[1]

Personally, I do not recognise ‘the righteous God who punishes sinners,’ or God, ‘also by the gospel threatening us with his righteous wrath!’ Initially I attributed this to historical and cultural difference. Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) lived in a very different time and circumstance from me. Even so, Luther seems to have been a deeply troubled man.

Then I discovered St Pierre Favre (Peter Faber) 1506 – 1546[2], a contemporary of Luther and a close companion of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Favre is arguably the 16th Century’s least known saint. He came from Savoy; his parents were working farmers and he grew up herding sheep in the high pastures of the alps. As a young man, he studied at the university in Paris and was a gifted scholar. However, like Luther, he was a deeply troubled man. He struggled with his sense of his own sinfulness, with indecision, and with a permanent deep-seated fear of offending God.

It is worth noting that, when Favre was engaged in his theological studies, the teachings of Luther and his contemporaries would have been hot topics for debate in the lecture halls and rooms of the universities. However, this would not have been an abstract discussion. As a university student, Favre would have been obliged to attend the public execution of heretics. Given his personal insecurities, such brutality could have had a deep and potentially traumatic impact on him.

It was through his relationship with Loyola, that Favre slowly came to terms with his fears and anxieties. Years later he wrote:

‘… he gave me an understanding of my conscience and of the temptations and scruples I had had for so long without either understanding them or seeing the way by which I would be able to get peace’[3]

Favre kept a journal for the last four years of his life. The reason we have any insight into his understanding of God and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ is largely because of this. His Memoriale is one of the main texts that documents the spirituality of the early Jesuits. In it he imagines his life as a journey, following the example of Christ: traveling for obedience, always alert to seek God’s will and not his own. Unlike Luther, Favre’s attitude is founded on his belief that people are changed more by those who love them in God’s grace than by those who seek to coerce, outsmart or overwhelm them.

Simplicity and goodness should eventually get the upper hand over our natural way of thinking. That is to say, though on a natural level we might think it right to be angry or depressed over something, nevertheless goodness and simplicity ought to put up with it. Sometimes we are interiorly anguished; and though this spirit may speak what is true, reproving us for our many failures, nevertheless if it robs us of our tranquillity it is not the good spirit. The spirit of God is peaceful and gentle, even in reproof.[4]

These profoundly contradictory notions of what God is like have led me to wonder: to what extent is our understanding of God, and the relationship God has with humanity through Jesus Christ, determined not so much by our world, but by our world view?

 

[1] Luther’s Works, Volume 34, P336-337.

[2] I am grateful to Edel McClean who introduced me to Pierre Favre. More about him can be found here http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130802_1.htm

[3] Memoriale: The Spiritual Writings of Pierre Favre (Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996) §9, p. 65.

[4] ‘Instructions for Those Going on Pilgrimage’ in Spiritual Writings, p. 342, my emphasis.

 

‘Reformation!’

by Andrew Stobart.

One of the ironies of our use of the word ‘Reformation’ is that its strong association to the tangle of sixteenth-century movements that began with the monk from Wittenberg is in fact at odds both with the main burden of those movements and the etymology of the word itself. Reformare, its Latin root, literally means ‘to shape again’, much as a piece of clay, having held one shape for a short while, might be taken by the potter and fashioned into something more becoming, or more needful. To speak, as we have done this week (31st October), of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is thus something of a misnomer, since it suggests that there was something ultimate about the defiant propositions of the likes of Luther that cannot now be refashioned. Rubbing shoulders with some from the ‘Reformed’ tradition today justifies this perception: Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms are sometimes treated as a clarion call for ‘soundness’: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

While appreciating the sincerity of this regard for sixteenth century ecclesial activists, it is, respectfully, simply not true that the Reformation is the one and only reformation. The literal or metaphorical nailing of Luther’s 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg[1] was certainly a reformation, but we would be foolish to stand on its stated tenets today and repeat Luther’s words verbatim, thinking thereby that we have secured the ‘soundness’ or ‘faithfulness’ of our present church’s life and doctrine.

Take one of the keys that Luther used to unlock the good news of Jesus for his contemporaries: ‘justification by faith’. In the past two decades, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification has been affirmed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1999, the World Methodist Council in 2006, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches this year. It would be easy, then, to consider ‘justification by faith’ as one of the Reformation’s greatest doctrinal triumphs. And yet, has the sharing of ‘justification by faith’ in actual fact brought today’s church – across all denominations – closer to the church God intends, or not?

The late Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, puts the issue starkly:

‘Precisely to be itself, the gospel is never told the same way twice. The formulas which yesterday opened Jesus’ future will tomorrow bind to the past. “We are justified by faith alone,” said Luther, and liberated four generations. When preachers say these words today, supposing themselves to be following Luther, they bind us to the terrible law of having to save ourselves by the quality of our sincerity, for that is what “faith” has come to mean since the eighteenth century. And who knows what “justified” might mean, without lengthy explanations?‘[2]

It is not good enough, for those who wish to faithfully preach the good news of Jesus, simply to restate the faithful formulations of the past. Words morph in meaning; cultures lose shared plausibility structures; the practical realities of everyday life become framed by new technologies, new possibilities, and new fears; and, most important of all, the lively God of Jesus Christ adamantly refuses to be the God of the long dead, but rather of the living present.[3]

‘Justification by faith’, for the most part, is no longer the fear-shattering good news it was for the conscience-stricken monk Martin Luther, or for his contemporaries who lived under the threat of a fiery future for themselves and their loved ones unless they reached deep into their pockets.[4] This is not to say that justification by faith is now redundant; far from it. Justification by faith remains critical to salvation’s sole origin in the kindness of God, irrespective of the moral success or otherwise of those who are candidates for such salvation (which, by the way, is everyone).

However, just as Jesus didn’t preach ‘justification by faith’ but rather the present availability of God’s Kingdom; so too must Jesus’ disciples today bear witness to whichever leading edge of grace that shatters today’s tomb of human self-sufficiency and renders us defenceless before the beauty of divine generosity⎯or, to put it another way, which announces God’s reformation of us.

 Bearing witness to this power of God to refashion us[5] demands our alert attention. It is all too easy to mimic the formulas of the past, in the hope that the immediacy with which they brought the challenge of God’s active presence to their hearers will somehow, by sheer sincerity on our part, rub off on ours. Doing so, though, shows how little we truly understand the habitat of our faith, and how little we trust God’s creativity, new every moment. How is the risen Christ poised to speak into our lives today, to unlock God’s Kingdom to us in all its transformative power? If ‘justification by faith’ will do, then so be it. But a brief survey of the ecclesial landscape would suggest that our gospel-telling needs another reformation.[6]

The prophet Ezekiel had stern words for those who cried “Peace!” when there was none. It was as if they were whitewashing a flimsy wall to give it the appearance of permanence. When we cry ‘Reformation!’, may we not do the same, seeking to hide the fragility of our contemporary church life with the whitewash of the sixteenth-century reformation. When we cry ‘Reformation!’, may there actually be reformation, fit for now, and for here. Triune God, refashion every aspect of our lives this day, so that, in you alone, our lives might be overwhelmed with the hope and purpose of your Kingdom.

 

[1] It hardly matters if, as scholars now think, Luther didn’t actually don his tool belt that legendary morning in 1517 in preparation for an act of theological fly-posting aiming to bring down the established order; his Theses were a Rubicon of sixteenth-century European history.

[2] Robert Jenson, Story and Promise (Ramsey: Sigler Press, 1989), 11.

[3] See, for instance, Matthew 22:32.

[4] The sale of indulgences, which was the presenting issue for Luther’s reformation, had been advertised by Johann Tetzel, the highly successful mogul of the indulgence-trade, in a crudely simplistic way: ‘As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.’ (So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt, die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt.)

[5] See Acts 1:8.

[6] For further reflection on ‘justification by faith’ and its potential rehabilitation today, see Andrew Stobart, ‘Justification by faith’, Holiness Volume 3 (2017) Issue 2 (Holiness & Reformation), pp. 301–316, available online at www.wesley.cam.ac.uk/holiness.

Apocalyptic Skies

by Stephen Lindridge.

It was very hard to avoid noticing the bizarre atmosphere created by the colours of the skies, as the remnants of hurricane Ophelia blew over the UK on 16th October, full of fine particles refracting the light. Some had fantastic orange and reddish views of the sun, while other parts of Britain saw the skies turn yellowy green. Social media, especially twitter, went mad with sentiments about the apocalyptic mood created; sending significant messages to loved ones who were not near just in case it was the end of the world as we knew it!

It did feel eerily weird. In what was the middle of day, it was so dark and oppressive; so much so the street-lights came on and the luminescence radiated like a snow-storm in ambient light – yet it was 18 degrees centigrade outside. It was easy to sympathise with the many on twitter wanting to draw close to those they loved, in the face of what felt very unnatural and disconcerting times.

I found it both re-assuring and unappreciated just how significant our instinct is, to notice when we think something is wrong or not normal. However, do we only need a bit of blue sky, a warm breeze and white fluffy clouds to think it’s all back to normal and go on our way content? Perhaps it’s only me who is easily distracted from on-suing calamity!

So, there are for me two things going on here. The first is the transient nature of my instinct: to react to the immediate, the obvious, the very concerning but then in the days and weeks to follow, how quickly do I forget and move onto the next thing?

The second is; what do I really notice and work to change? I wonder how we might react if some of the current pervading issues in our time could be presented as a sky colour or mood, to be seen or felt as easily as sandstorm or dust-cloud? What if injustice caused by inequality, whether in tax avoidance at one end of the spectrum or Universal Credit at the other could colour the hues of the skies? How apocalyptic would that seem? Or the misery of anyone who has suffered any form of sexism or racial discrimination in recent times, would those skies make us think the world was coming to an end?

The eyes to see or the ears to hear are prominent motifs both in the Old and New Testaments[1], to notice what God is doing, with the challenge to respond. Do we, God’s people, notice? Do we respond? Perhaps the metrological knowledge of what was happening as storm Ophelia passed by helped affirm the notion that all would be right soon and helped us fight off a natural instinct to find somewhere to hide and hope for the best! Logic and understanding may do that but it did not take away the very real sense that something was wrong and we were helpless in avoiding it.

Does that inescapable sense leave us feeling like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, seeming as though we are stuck, unable to move, unable to change the circumstances and escape the catastrophe that is upon us? It may well be our only option is to face it and journey through until clear skies and calm weather return or the knowledge of whatever trouble it is moderates our natural instinct and lessens our action.

So I found myself asking a few ‘what if’ questions.

What if our instincts could detect the ‘atmosphere’ of the pervading nature of economic injustice, sexism or misery caused by racial hatred?  Would that atmosphere bring a swifter more radical wind of change, rather than the catastrophic impact that doing nothing would bring? Would we, could we, be moved to action, if we could see more clearly how unnatural such things were?

My hope is; if we seek after loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will undoubtedly discover the things God wishes us to see in the world. Are then the unsung spiritual charisms of patience and persistence that which are most required from our generation and of God’s people today?

As so many faithful worshipers and witnesses have done before we look at our time and the issues facing us and believe they cannot be ignored. We draw on the encouragement that others before us have faced such immutable challenges and pressed on. Many have just celebrated the 500th year of the Reformation. Did those reformers begin by knowing the outcome of their work? No, but they did hold within themselves a knowledge and instinct that something was fundamentally wrong in their world and worked to bring all that God had placed on their hearts for Christ’s Kingdom to be more realised in their time and day.

Sometimes the best way of going forward is instinctively knowing what it is that is holding you back…and facing it.

 

[1] Deut. 29:4, Jer. 25:4, Ezek. 12:2, Matt. 13:15-16, Mark 4:9,23, Luke 14:35

The Blood of Christ

by Colin Morris.

This is a subject I had always found personally difficult.  Of all the themes in traditional theology, emphasis on the blood of Christ seemed to be a throw-back to an eerie past when devotees in the most sacred moments of life felt constrained to kill something in order to get right with God.  So I’ve always let my eyes slide over the phrase ‘blood of Christ’ and treated it as evidence of his fallible humanity and inevitable mortality.

But I was conscious that to exsanguinate the imagery of the New Testament and hymnody is to be left with a very pallid theological landscape. Christ’s blood is splattered across our bibles and hymnbooks and Offices. There are the words John Wesley whispered shortly before his death, ‘There is no way into the holiest except by the blood of Christ’.  And Pope John 23rd made the significant comment, ‘Protestants have something to teach Catholics who tend to be devoted to the sacred heart of Jesus and the blessed sacrament but not to the precious blood by which Christ paid for our redemption.’

Unless one holds the most mechanistic view of God’s providence, it was a coincidence that the religious rituals and the punitive procedures of Jesus’ time both involved the spilling of blood. It would not have mattered how much blood Jesus spilt in dying, for the virtue is not in the substance.  Indeed, as has been said, Jesus could have been killed in some other way – flogged to death or hanged or poisoned like Socrates; the symbolism would have changed, that’s all.

But it would have mattered had Jesus died in his bed full of years and honour or dropped dead of a heart attack.  Everything turns not on his life having been taken from him but on his laying it down – and not simply as a martyr lays it down – there can be an element of wilfulness or even subtle egotism in that; it was not sacrifice by the self but of the self which was the key to Christ’s death. The early Christians were inspired innovators who used the best of Old Testament teaching, religious ritual and judicial procedure to reinforce one another powerfully. Certainly, Athanasius declared the appropriateness of the manner of Christ’s death because, he said, it is only on the cross that a man dies with his arms outspread.  But that is a homiletical rather than a dogmatic truth.

Then I discovered the writings of P. T. Forsyth.  I cannot quote particular references because I found them scattered throughout some volumes of his I came across in the thatched hut which housed the library of the only theological school in Northern Rhodesia sixty five years ago – a legacy from a long-dead missionary.  Forsyth deepened my thinking to see the cosmic significance of Christ’s death, whilst insisting that true sacrifice is an ethical rather than a sacerdotal or mystical transaction. The appeal of Christ’s blood is to the will in obedience or rejection, not to the feelings in sympathy or revulsion.

Because the original sacrifice was made by God rather than to him, the energy behind atonement is God’s grace rather his anger – a truth that undermines all theories based on severity of punishment or degrees of suffering. Forsyth declared that because God was fully present in Christ’s death, he experienced the cost of sin as only God could do, but he experienced the effects of sin as only someone fully human could do for unlike God he could bleed and die.

Hence, when we say that we are cleansed from all sin by the blood of Christ we are stating a truth not just about our personal redemption but about the transformation of the human condition.  Sin may still be a lapse or an episode but it need no longer be the principle of our life. The Kingdom of sin may be a region we visit but it need not become our home.

With one exception, Jesus speaks only about his blood at the end of his life; for the rest he spoke of forgiving grace, but that was not possible for the world without judgment and sacrifice.  His plea, ‘Come unto me,’ was not enough – only ‘I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto me’; that was enough.  He was a failed prophet but an effectual saviour.

Theories of atonement that emphasise the revelation of God’s love or the call to repentance have their truth, but Forsyth declared them to be inadequate unless there is struck the note of judgment to do with sin, righteousness and a new creation.  This is not the natural idiom of a liberal such as myself but the blood of Christ is such a primal metaphor that the traditional language is most appropriate.

To sing, preach or pray about the blood of Christ is not to wallow in sentimentality or morbidity but to celebrate a wonder – Christ entering wounded into eternal life in order that our eternity might be whole (Forsyth again).

Thoughts and Prayers

by Jonathan Pye.

On 1st October 2017, 59 people were killed and 500 wounded when a gunman opened fire on a crowd attending a music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although reported as the largest mass shooting by a lone gunman in US history, it was also simply the latest in a long litany of fatal shootings in that country that over just the last 20 years has included places like Columbine High School, Virginia Tech., Sandy Hook, Fort Hood and Orlando.  The assailant was neither young, nor black, poor nor radicalised. He was a 64 year old accountant, living in a retirement complex. It remains unknown why this seemingly unremarkable man amassed an armoury or used it to such deadly effect. In the days that followed we heard, time and again, from elected officials the usual familiar clichés in the face of such tragic and large-scale killings.

Two days after the shooting Kirsten Powers wrote in an article in the Washington Post – “Why ‘thoughts and prayers’ is starting to sound so profane”. Although herself, ‘a person who prays and who has been prayed for and knows its power’ she wrote:

It’s become a sort of twisted American ritual: A lone white male shooter opens fire on a crowd of people. Americans cry out for someone to do something and are met with shoulder shrugs, mumblings about ‘the price of freedom’ and assurances that the people elected to protect them are sending their “thoughts and prayers.” Politicians have managed to make a once benign, if not comforting, phrase sound almost profane.[i]

What she objects to particularly is the way in which civic and national leaders ‘spiritualise’ the problem by praying for victims rather than offering any practical response or effective action.

Her colleague, Colby Itkowitz, writing after the 2016 nightclub shooting in Orlando described this as ‘a too easy, even insincere, display of empathy in absence of real action…’[ii] While both would agree that prayer can be efficacious both as an expression of empathy for the victims and a way of finding meaning in the face of brutality, nonetheless both would contend that ‘thoughts and prayers’ alone can simply be an evasion of the responsibility to act in the face of wrongdoing. Without action, prayer becomes merely a self-directed act – it makes the pray-er feel better, rather than being something that seeks to help those who are prayed for or to change the way things are. Such observations are charged with both psychological and theological insight.

In his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy[iii] Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology in the University of Cambridge, seeks to understand why some people act in ways that demonstrate great cruelty while others are completely self-sacrificing (the kind of contrasting behaviour that we observe in the difference between the shooter and those who covered the bodies of friends or relatives with their own bodies to prevent them from being injured). Baron-Cohen asks whether rather than thinking in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ we ought rather to consider everyone as lying somewhere along an ‘empathy spectrum’.

Without minimising the effects of either ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, I would resist Baron-Cohen’s too deterministic thesis that our position on that spectrum is largely determined by both our genes and our environment because it leaves little place for moral responsibility. This is why President Trump’s description of the gunman, Stephen Paddock, as ‘pure evil’ leaves me so uncomfortable. By describing someone as personifying ‘evil’ we render that person ‘other’, unlike ‘us’, and so places a distance between us. As a theologian, I agree with Baron-Cohen’s psychological insight that we are all capable of acts of great cruelty and great compassion and so I would argue that we share a moral obligation to go beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’ and to act in ways that promote the common good. While we may never fully prevent the killer’s actions, we may nonetheless, act positively to change a culture in which violence is endemic and the means to enact it are so readily available[iv] Theologically, this reflects a proper understanding of Augustine’s theory of ‘original sin’, not that we inherit the sinfulness of our parents but that by participation in a common humanity we all bear some measure of responsibility for what happens around us. This why Augustine could say, ‘Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are’ because in Miroslav Volf’s words, ‘Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.’[v]

 

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/10/03/why-thoughts-and-prayers-is-starting-to-sound-so-profane/?utm_term=.f2faad895eb8

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/06/14/when-people-prayfororlando-is-it-empathetic-or-selfish/?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.32c0573154c4

[iii] Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness. London: Penguin.

[iv] Extending this argument to include consideration of the increasing use of motor vehicles etc., deliberately to effect mass casualties or deaths lies beyond the immediate cope of this short article.

[v] Volf, M. (2011) A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. Brazos Press.  

The Future of God

by Tom Greggs.

This last week was my birthday—another year old but no sense at all of being any wiser! Inevitably, for me at least, birthdays involve some reflection on the past—not only the past year but also further back, thinking about where one has come from and where one has got to, and what one has achieved and what one has failed to achieve.

Thinking about God within the life of the church can be a little like reflecting on the past from the standpoint of an anniversary or birthday. Within the church calendar, we mark specific events of God which we commemorate each year. We remember Christ’s birth at Christmas, the temptation of Christ during Lent, the events surrounding Jesus’ death in Holy Week, the resurrection of Christ at Easter, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, as well as many other events marked within the rhythm of the church year. And in the weekly life of the church, we give praise to God and thank God for all God has done, and we celebrate communion to commemorate the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ shed for us—the inestimable grace of God. We also proudly look backwards and commemorate the great moments of God’s favour within the life of our denomination or within the life of our individual congregations. Looking back in thankfulness to seek and gain encouragement is a significant part of what we do in the life of the church.

Our God is certainly forever the God of our past. In the story of Moses and the burning bush, in which God reveals God’s holy name to Moses as Moses is called to lead the people out from slavery, God reminds Moses of God’s identity in relation to the past, in relation to God’s faithfulness to Moses’ ancestors. God says in Exodus 3:6: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And we, I am sure, would want to add: and of Sarah, Rebekkah and Rachel! There is assurance in being reminded of the faithfulness of God to all generations.

But God is also for all eternity the God of our future. At this moment in the story of the Hebrews and their liberation, God reveals God’s own name to Moses, a name which is so holy it is not even spoken by Jewish people today:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)

This name is usually translated in English (as in the above) following the Vulgate’s (the Latin translation) rendering ego sum qui sum (I am who I am). However, that translation does not capture the vitality, dynamism and depth of the Hebrew phrase. That phrase does mean “I am who I am”, but the Hebrew name equally could be rendered: “I will be who I will be” or “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.”[1] Indeed, given that God is poised at this point of the story to do a new thing with the Hebrew people, this future and causative rendering might be more fitting than the rather philosophical sounding and detached “I am who I am” (though that sense is also certainly included). But what is more, this future orientated understanding of the name is one which does not cease when God has accomplished God’s new work. The name God names Godself with is the name God has for all eternity. God says: “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations” (Exodus 3:15b); the Hebrew here emphasizes the ongoing nature of this title which God has forever and ever.[2] God will for all eternity be who God will be. God is always the God of the future.

When we think of our faith, when we think of the wonderful acts of God throughout history, let us not imagine that God is somehow a museum piece who needs dusting off and dragging into the present—that this is some part of our past but not our present or our future. God is always the God of our future, the One with whom we need to catch up, and even when we do catch up with God, like the pillar of cloud and of fire of God later in Exodus, God allows us to rest with God for just a while but then is once more quickly leading us on to the future God has in store. In our church lives, let us not only commemorate the wonderful acts of God in the past, but anticipate in these commemorations not only the never ending future of God but the God who in every present is always our future.

 

[1] See H. C. Brichto, The Names of God (Oxford: OUP, 1998) p.24; B. W. Anderson, The Living World of the Old Testament 4th Edition (London: Longman, 1993) pp.62f.

[2] The Greek Patristic idea (particularly associated with the Cappadocians) of epektasis captures this never-ending aspect of God’s futurity: even in eternal life we shall journey for all eternity ever deeper into the boundless future infinity of God.

‘Things can only get better – or can they?’

by Michaela Youngson.

The strains of the D-Ream song, “Things can only get better” run like an ear-worm in my head as another ‘Breaking News’ banner flashes across the screen of my lap top. Another day, another half million refugees fleeing persecution. Another day, another hurricane devastating lives in the Caribbean. Another day, another location in London is the scene of a fearful attack on ordinary people going about their business.

I was born in the sixties and am part of the generation that really did, until relatively recently, think that things can only get better. The Berlin Wall came down, the Apartheid regime was dismantled, women gained rights over their own bodies and possessions and we marched together to call for debts to be wiped clean for the most impoverished countries on earth. Anti-racism in the UK and the Civil Rights movement in the USA brought about change and I believed there was a broad consensus about what made for just and peaceful society – good seemed to be ‘winning’. That optimistic view of a trajectory of progress has taken quite a beating in the last few years. As the ‘War on Terror’ continues to unfold in wave after wave of unforeseen circumstances and new fascist movements gain prominence even in ‘mainstream’ politics, it is easy to despair.

I put this point to Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he spoke to the Methodist Summer School earlier this year, asking how my generation are to make sense of this shift of perspective and how are we to live with the sense of dislocation and disappointment that we are left with. He made some helpful responses to my meandering thoughts, the first being “God is still God” and secondly, “What makes us think that any of this is about ‘winning’?”. I’ve reflected since on these thoughts.

God is still God.
I’m reminded of the wonderful poetry in Isaiah 40. 21-24:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

The Creator is not diminished, God is not mocked (Gal:6.7), by the human tendency to grasp for power. The ‘princes and rulers of the earth’ are brought to nothing in the face of the divine imperative for love. They may have their day but that day is brief, the signs that they ever existed will be wiped away. We might see this as a reason to give up, leaving it to God to make things right whilst we live in a fatalistic bubble, disconnected from the struggles for justice in the world. Yet, on the contrary, a belief that in the end God’s way of love, justice and peace will be manifest, even if we do not live to see it, should spur us on to every effort in changing the world. Faithfulness calls us to participate in God’s plan for creation, to join in with God’s desire for a world where love is manifest. Remembering that God is still God, is a liberating state of mind that reminds us we have nothing to lose – even when the world seems to be going to ‘hell in a handcart’.

What makes us think that any of this is about winning?

The group, ‘club’, ideology I subscribe to is shaped by my faith, my context, my upbringing and the people I choose to spend time with. This is borne out on my social media pages, where I rarely find my views of politics or faith challenged – it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that mine is the only ‘right-minded’ perspective and that if everyone else thought about things the way I do there would be no problems in the world. It’s only a small step from this perspective to one where I want to change people to see things my way, to win them over – or more dangerously to ‘win’ in politics, commerce, faith etc, rather than to serve God and love my neighbour.

Living faithfully in God’s world involves far more compromise than most of us are comfortable with – the God who ‘stretched out the heavens like a curtain’, made a tent big enough for all to live in – if you’ve ever been camping in a group you will know that the exercise involves co-operation and compromise if all are not to suffer!

I continue to reflect on this response. How do we make sense of events in the world in a way that acknowledges God’s continuing engagement in creation? How can Christians work for change in the world in a way that makes space for the opinions and ideologies of others and when is it fitting to challenge ‘the other’? What are the ‘wins’ we should be putting our efforts into?