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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Dawkins has a Successor (but Nothing has Changed)

Marcus du Sautoy
Richard Dawkins was professor of public understanding of science at Oxford until recently. A mathematician has taken over from a biologist in the person of du Sautoy. This is a review of Sautoy's book "The Great Unknown."

Sautoy distances himself from the previous holder of this role: "a certain Dawkins" is how he introduces his predecessor. So we hope to hear a new tone? A more intelligent tone, a more reasonable tone, a more widely-read tone?

In terms of subject matter a new note is sounded. The shift from biology to maths and physics is interesting and Sautoy is a good writer who surveys seven fields of science on the hunt for the unknowns and unknowables. He shows that in at least six of those fields there is knowledge that we don't have access to - even can't have access to. For example, in chaos theory our inability to input data with sufficient accuracy into some equations renders their output unpredictable (and hence unknowable to us). In quantum physics, there is a basic uncertainty born of the very nature of the physical world of the tiny.

A new "god"
So far, so good. The next step might be to acknowledge the smallness of the human mind and then suggest that perhaps there is Someone in the universe who in fact does know everything. Or perhaps use the vastness of unknown knowledge as evidence of that Someone who invented it all; after all we're not talking random knowledge but highly sophisticated knowledge.

But so determined is mankind to suppress the existence of a personal God before whom we are accountable, that any way of doing this will be invented. Du Sautoy's method is clever:

(i) Deny the existence of a personal God - like the one all religions suggest, one with feelings, compassion, and so on. Without one piece of evidence, this God's existence is denied - in just the same manner as his predecessor.

(ii) Invent a new religion - Sautoy conjurs up an idol, a god of his own making who is "what can't be known." Talk about a weird new religion. This "god" - normally a personal proper name - is the sum of all unknown knowledge. Think about it. This god is nothing but the subset of knowledge unknown to mankind. Freakin' weird idol.

What does he say about his new god? Well this god clearly exists, because there is still stuff we cannot know. But how can knowledge "exist"?

He therefore cleverly manages to distance himself from Dawkins because he can say that some kind of "god" exists, but since the real and living God is denied, he is just a chip off the old atheist block.

There are so many problems with Du Sautoy's book and outlook:

(i) A new religion. Du Sautoy has started a new religion. No religion has ever taught the existence of a god like this, a god that consists of a subset of all knowledge, a god of the academy.

(ii) A silly inbalance. For most of life, and for most peoples, knowledge plays a 0.0001% role in their lives, which are otherwise occupied with relationships, jobs, families, holidays, friendships, beauty, hobbies, etc. To make knowledge the be and end all of life, makes books like this relevant to almost no-one in the world (except for the rare boffin types). 

(iii) A profound ignorance. The most remarkable thing about both Du Sautoy and Dawkins is that despite their ability to apply their minds to other fields of knowledge they are utterly ignorant of all things religious and spiritual. Du Sautoy freely admits that the heights of his knowledge about Christianity was acquired as a choir boy!

What has happened to our Universities?
What on earth do they teach at our universities these days? When our supposed learned teachers are so ignorant, what hope is  there for the students?

Long gone are the days when great men and women were to be found to be teaching in our universities - and especially at our Cambridge and Oxfords. Men and women with wide and interesting learning and the courage to buck the narrow PC paradigms that stifle research, narrow the human mind, constrict the heart and kill the soul. 

Evidence for God, the Creator, is all around us. The beauty of the world demands an artist. The fine-tuning of the universe demands a Designer and the wonderful practical care we experience demands a good personal God who can be known through the Bible, his Word, and through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Why we must read old books - especially biographies

Biographies: the bad and the ugly
If I had a dollar for every disappointing biography I have read, I'd be a millionaire! Here are the causes of the bad and the ugly....

(1) Some are just too long
If Matthew's biography of the perfect immortal Son of God contains just 18,000 words, perhaps that ought to set the bar for all other biographies? The point is, all we really need to know about a frail mortal can surely be compressed into a relatively small space. I have had to speed-read through a vast number of biography pages.

(2) Some are too "BBC"
A BBC biography is one written according to the moral norms of  today, today being the operative word. As a once-avid reader of Time Magazine and National Geographic I am astounded how much they, along with the BBC, have become children, not of age, decade, year or month or week, but of the moment. The character is judged by the fleeting morality of the moment and therefore the book is dated before it hits the deck at Amazon's warehouse.

(3) Some are just plain biased
Worst of all are the biographies which are just plain biased - either wittingly or unwittingly. I once read a biography of Van Gough that was more the psychobabble analysis of a human mind than a story of a life.

Christian biographies can be biased because they were written by people too close to the subject or because not enough time has passed for a proper assessment to be made. 

Perhaps the poorest biographies in this catergory are those written by unbelievers about believers! No-one can understand how a Christian ticks except a Christian. A recent example of this was a biography I read of the great James Clerk Maxwell written by an unbeliever who simply could not fathom what made the great man tick.  I have had to order another much older  biography, written by someone who understood the scientist's walk with God.

The marks of a good biography?
(1) Short!
No-one achieves that much in life, no-one is all that important. Short is not only good, short is best.

(2) Interesting!
Why write about them if there was nothing distinctive about their lives?

(3) Timeless!
Biographers must try to stand above the times in which they live and not judge their subject by the petty fleeting standards of the day. If they manage to rise above the times, there's  a good chance their work will be read in 100 years time - perhaps that's an aim every biographer should have in mind.

(4) Lessons!
What can we learn from that life  for ourselves today?

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Arguing with God in Prayer?

Our prayers are too lame!
Compared to the psalms, our prayers are pretty dull and lifeless affairs! "Help Lord!" (Psalm 12:1), "Why do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1) are more the urgent substance of psalmist's prayers.

Perhaps our prayers are dull by comparison, because our western lives are so easy by comparison?

Using Arguments to support a request
In this blog, I want to tease out one aspect of prayer from Psalm 16 - true prayer is not afraid of using arguments. I am not thinking here of disputation, "arguing with God",  but of using reasons why God should answer the particular request we are bringing.

Using arguments to encourage a response in someone else is part of any relationship. If a child wants something, they may think of a long list of reasons, or arguments, as to why mom or dad should give (in!). So we should not be surprised when the psalmist backs up his requests with good reasons to answer.

Keep me safe
The basic request of Psalm 16 is "Keep me safe." We are not told what danger the psalmist was  facing  for good reason. If it was specified we would feel upon reading the psalm, "that psalm doesn't apply to me." And so, it seems, the Holy Spirit has withheld mention of the specific danger so that we can apply it to ourselves: what saint has not at some time felt in danger?

So that's the basic request of this psalm: "Lord, keep me safe." And it is very clear by the end that the psalmist felt safe, " Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken."

But his journey to answered prayer began with arguments...

Why should God keep David safe? (verses 2-4)
David gives God four good arguments as to why he should answer his prayer....
  1. Because he has taken refuge in God (v.1). This is a good reason for God to take note - someone has come to him and made him their castle.
  2. Because he has no other good thing apart from God (v.2). The second reason God should take note is that God is number one in this person's life. 
  3. Because God's people are his number one people (v.3). 
  4. Because he has rejected all other helps (gods, v.4). There is a good practical reason for this rejection of other idols, to be sure - seeking the help of other gods, whether the mind, whether food, whether money, always leads to more, not less sorrow! Nevertheless, rejecting other gods, "puts pressure" on the Lord to hear this sold-out petitioner.
David rejoices in God's goodness (verses 5-6)
After using these arguments, we see faith rising! Of course the Lord will answer! He must hear me!  David is "feeling better!" He acknowledges that even though he is in a risky situation, he is in God's perfect location (verse 5-6). God has assigned him this lot, these pleasant fields - and he has thrown a delightful future inheritance into the bargain!

David stirs up praise (verses 7-8)
David tells himself to praise the Lord, the one who through the meditations of his heart counsels, comforts and helps him (verse 7). Praise leads to tremendous confidence (verse 8) - he knows he won't be shaken.

David is confident of future hope (verses 10-11)
David is confident not only in the present, but his newly blossoming assurance makes him confident of the future. There is a future for his present-dying body and eternal pleasures in heaven.

What a prayer!
David, who starts this psalm in danger, ends it with utter confidence, not only in the present but in the future. And where did that confidence start? With arguments to God as to why God should hear him.

Now, were these arguments for God or for himself? Did God send assurance in response to the arguments?  Or did assurance grow in his heart because as he listed the arguments one by one he himself became convinced that God could not fail to answer such a prayer? Either way, and probably some of both, David was moved from fear to assurance - through argument-filled prayer.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Where is your faith really placed?

The temptation to run away "Flee like a bird"
Psalm 11 addresses a common human problem  - the temptation to run away from problems - and in particular, to escape in our own particular way to our own "idol":  "flee like a bird to your mountain." We all run away in different ways - that's the idea. Some drown their problems with drink, some flee into the arms of a holiday, others run to gluttony.

What "mountain" do you instinctively run to?

By the time David had written this psalm, he had decided he would not run away but that he would make God alone his refuge, "In the Lord I take refuge" and he was prepared to resist any temptation to flee "How then can you say to  me?"

But leading up to that moment of resolution was a process, a meditation.

(1) The temptation
The temptation was powerful! Wicked people were firing on the righteous! The very foundations of society were being eroded. Let's run away! It makes perfect sense! A question encapsulated the strength of the problem and the powerlessness of the ordinary believer, "What can the righteous do?" Let's pilgrim father to a new promised land!

Sometimes our circumstances may look, to our own eyes, and here is the point, to our own puny analysis,  beyond remedy. And in these circumstances we are tempted to abandon ship and run to our own "mountain" or rather "mountain god".

(2) The truth
What should we do? David stops to think! He does not allow his heart to rule his head. Let's ask ourselves: what is the truth of the matter? Well, first, God is still with his people, "The Lord is in his holy Temple", and secondly, God is still King of the universe, "The Lord is on his heavenly throne", and thirdly, God knows what is going on, "He observes the sons of men". Fourthly, his attitude to the righteous is positive (he examies them- and examine must include love) while his attitude to the wicked is righteous hatred. Fifthly, he will one day punish the wicked and sixthly, God loves justice.

Armed with these truths, how on earth could you run away?!

(3) The resolution
So David resolves to affirm his trust in God alone, and to resist the temptation to run, no matter how powerful the urge, "In the Lord I take refuge." What a wonderful affirmation of trust!

Who will we trust?
In the end, this Psalm asks us who - or what - will we trust in? There are three options:

(a) Will we trust in our MINDS? The powerful arguments put in favour of running away? What if those arguments are flawed? What if, say,  there are only three bows bent towards one billion righteous? What if only one foundation out of a thousand is being attacked? Why trust your mind?

(b) Will you trust YOUR MOUNTAIN? Will you run for comfort to food, drink, friends, pleasure? What is your mountain? Your strong substitute for God?

(c) Or will you trust in GOD ALONE? Our hearts are fickle and they stray so easily and so often. We think we trust in God, but in point of fact we are often trusting in something else.

The journey of faith is in large part learning to trust in God and God alone.

"My soul finds rest in God alone." (Psalm 62:1)


Monday, 24 April 2017

Miracles and Science

Can miracles take place?

A common western objection to Christianity is that it is founded on a miracle - the supernatural Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This miracle is crucial to the Christian faith, so much so that if Christ had not been raised then Christianity would be a pure deception.

So, how do we tie up the resurrection of Jesus - trillions of dead cells coming back to life in an instant - with science?

Closed system assumption
Science relies for its normal operation on the assumption that any one part of the universe is a closed system. Take the solar system. Our ability to predict the orbits of the planets from the laws of motion depends on assuming that an angel isn't randomly nudging them this way or that! This is what we mean by a closed system and it's a good - and indeed essential - assumption to make.

When I was a PhD student with an experimental "rig", for example, I assumed that there were no angels or demons inside the rig and that I could therefore model the physical processes taking place within it using mathematical equations.

All the predictions scientists make day by day are based on this assumption. 

The assumption can't be proved
The problem however is twofold. Due to the vastness of the universe, there is no way that science could ever know whether the universe was closed. And secondly there are no theoretical reasons why the assumption needs to be true. So while science assumes the universe is closed it cannot either demonstrate that the universe is closed or provide any theoretical reasons as to why it has to be.

So we are left with an open system in which miracles can happen anywhere and science is OK with that - not that we are looking for cart-before-horse science approval of the miraculous!

Closed system?
Of course underneath the foregoing argument is a very subtle materialism. It assumes that there is no God upholding the regular laws of the universe. The truth of the matter is that what we call regular laws are nothing other than the underpinning mighty power of the Son of God who "sustains all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:3) and who "holds all things together" (Colossians 1:17).

In other words there is no such thing as a closed system! How ridiculous the notion of a creation where the Creator is abolished from his universe a priori! How arrogant! How blasphemous!

The universe, which while it is not God (we are not pantheists), is permeated by God's mighty power and sustained by that power.  Normally God choses to work in a regular way (normal nature) but sometimes he choses to work in a supranatural way (miracles).

Miracles are just God tweaking the way he normally works in one region of his universe and making things work in a different way. Miracles are not God "intervening" - he always intervenes, for he is God! Miracles are simply God working in mode B rather than in mode A.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Is there a time to STOP Praying?

Image result for jesus wrestling in the garden 
"Jesus prayed three times"

In Matthew's Gospel we read that Jesus prayed in the Garden three times, on  each occasion wrestling with God's will for him, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup (of suffering) be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39)

Jesus did not pray this prayer three times, but rather prayed three sessions of prayer, the first about an hour long. Jesus may have prayed the same prayer dozens of times during those three sessions.

What does the fact that he stopped praying after three sessions teach us?  Is there a time to pray and a time to stop praying?

How often should we pray?

Pray without ceasing
The apostle Paul teaches us to "pray without ceasing"(I Thess 5:16-18). We are always to pray! As we wake, as we walk, before we eat, when we rest - all day long, in constant communion with our Father in heaven. 

Pray without giving up
Jesus told a parable about a persistent widow to teach us to pray and not give up (Luke 18:1). There are loved ones and situations which demand persistent never-ending prayer.

There is a time to stop
But there is a time to give up praying! When we know what God's will is on a matter,  to keep on praying is tantamount either to mistrust ("I don't trust the response you have given me") or rebellion, ("I trust the response but don't plan to obey it").

Example: Paul Stopped Praying
Image result for paul prays three times thorn in fleshThe Apostle Paul was given a very painful "thorn in the flesh". We have no idea what it was, but it was a sore "something",  "a messenger of Satan to torment" him.

It is not surprising  that Paul began praying that the Lord would remove it. But God told him somehow - and not necessarily after the third prayer - that his grace would help him get through the trial, "My grace is sufficient for you", and the Lord told him that "his power was made perfect in weakness." Paul now understood that God had reasons and good purposes for allowing him the painful condition and not removing it. First, he would experience the amazing power of God working in spite of the thorn, and Second, that God himself desires to work through weak vessels, "my power is made perfect in weakness" - because then people would say "You mean God did great things through Paul? Don't believe it! He's such a weakling!" and they would turn their attention to Paul's God, and away from Paul. So deeply did Paul understand this revolutionary way of viewing his "thorn in the flesh" that from then onwards he delighted in insults and troubles!

God may have told him Paul all of this this before he began praying - I suspect he did - but Paul still began "wrestling with God's will", and counting how many times he wrestled with God's will. After three times he decided to stop praying. He knew what God's will was, and - here's the point of wrestling with God's will - he was fully resolved to accept it and "move on".

There is nothing wrong - or sinful - about "wrestling with God's will" - it is mark of our frail humanness to recoil from suffering. There is nothing wrong with moving from "is this God's will?" to "yes this is God's will but I really fear it and don't want  the suffering" to "this is God's will and I will accept it."

For Paul and for us, to keep on praying about an issue which God has made plain to us already, to not come to terms with God's will, to refuse to accept it, is mistrust at the least and rebellion at the most.

So, yes, it is even possible for prayer to be sinful: if after knowing God's will we try to change his mind by prayer, that prayer is rebellious and therefore sinful!

When God makes his will plain either by providence or by Scripture, it's time to stop praying and start accepting and obeying.

Sometimes what we need is not prayer but obedience!

Jesus prayed three times
Which brings us to Jesus' three sessions of prayer about God's will for him. Jesus was being asked to suffer the anguish of the cross. Jesus reveals his true humanity by wrestling with God in prayer. As a true man he needs to "come to terms" with the suffering that lies ahead of him. Not once is he unwilling to suffer, but as a human being there is a natural process and time-lag in coming to terms with such great suffering.

But eventually the time comes for moving on to obedience, "Rise, let us go!"

I wonder if Paul, reflecting on Jesus' own wrestling with God's will, used the same pattern in his own life: three sessions of wrestling followed by complete resolve and then obedience.

There is a time to stop praying and to start obeying.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Power of Roots - a film review of "Lion"

Image result for lion film"Lion" or "La la Land?" 
The choice was between "La La Land" or "Lion". A film based on a real life story always wins the day for me, unromantic as that may be!

The title "Lion" gives no insight into the film - and indeed could put some people off - if they thought the film was about some feline species. The title is taken from the name of the main character, Saroo, who one day learns that his name means "lion."

This is a wonderful story and a great film.....

Miles from Home
As a little boy in India, Saroo ends up lost, separated from his irresponsible brother Guddu, on a train and then more than a thousand miles from home. At the other end of the journey he gets picked up by a government adoption agency (none of the film is complimentary towards the way children are treated in India, I'm afraid; Saroo only narrowly misses being trapped in the sex trade), and ends up being adopted in Australia. He grows up as a fully blown Aussie, surf board and all. His new parents are devoted to him and under their love he flourishes as a young man eniding up in the world of business.

As he grows into his teens, and it seems especially when he falls in love, memories of his first family  rise to the surface and grow, until his one passion in life, is to find  his original family and return to them. He imagines them looking for him every day and can't bear that thought: he must tell them he is alive. 

One day, using his childhood memories, Saroo discovers the aerial image of his village and house on Google Earth (did they fund this film?) He sets out alone to return. Of course things are different. Guddu, the brother who had negligently left him at a railway station for a while, has been killed by a train, but he finds his mother and sister and is emotionally reunited with them.

The film finds its resolution here: home is where childhood unfolds.

The power of roots
Childhood memories shape us  because what we experience when we enter the world is imprinted upon our minds. Early memories and experiences are seared into our brains.

How vital it is, then, that parents care for their children well in these early years. Along with Saroo, the loving Australian couple adopted another lad who had been abused as a child - and that experience scarred him for the whole of his life. Abuse in the first years of life scars deeply, and perhaps irreversibly. 

In the spiritual realm it is much the same. When someone is just converted they need the highest levels of care and love in order to grow into a strong healthy follower of Christ. I know Christians whose whole future Christian life was messed up because they had poor examples of "mature  Christians" in their first tender, impressionable years of walking with God. Perhaps this side of heaven, they will never fully recover.

Jesus sets the example
Jesus sets the example - he spent many many long hours with just 12 men loving, teaching, protecting them from false teachers and setting an exemplary life before them.   This can't be done "once on a Sunday" or "in a crowd" but requires intense -  even daily - attention and care.

Marred by fornication
Tragically, this film, like so many others of our day is marred by the sin of fornication. Saroo has a girlfriend and the viewer needs to know he is sleeping with her without being married to her. No Christian should fail to notice these common movie sins, no Christians should "get used to sin". All sex outside of marriage is sinful.

The Ultimate Home
Saroo does not really find peace. In fact going back to his roots has made the situation worse: now he has two families, two roots, one in Australia and one in India: which one should he spend his days with? The idea that ultimate security can be found in our birth family - or in family of any kind - will always leave us empty, for families come and families go and mankind was never designed to find ultimate rest in earthly families.

God placed Adam and Eve in a garden to be with himself.  God was always meant to be our home, God is the end of the journey, heaven  our ultimate home. To look for ultimate happiness in any earthly community will always - must always considering how we have been made - lead to futility and emptiness.

Jesus said "Come to me... and you will find rest for your souls..."