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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Why you must take the ramblings of scientists with an ample pinch of salt

The Great Tree of Knowledge
I shall never forget one of my lecturers being asked what he had actually done in order to be called "Dr. Hathaway". He was one of the rare breed of humble scientists who explained to the class that knowledge could be likened to a growing tree. Each branch is a different subject, biology, physics whatever. The leaves - thousands of them - are like the individual and often esoteric offshoots of knowledge that emerge from each subject. He explained that we undergraduates were mastering a branch, and that someone with a PhD had, in addition, mastered one tiny little leaf: that's all.

He was right and rightly humble with it. He stands in the line of the really great scientists of all time who realise they are just learners. "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me" is how the great Isaac Newton put it.

The Hubris Gang
Today however, a new breed of scientists - fortunately in very small numbers - are emerging who don't take the humble view at all. They think - for some odd reason - that science has reached the stage where it can answer every question in life. Richard Dawkins and now Stephen Hawking are found among the Hubris Gang.

One blight of all working scientists is that they are so involved in their leaf, branch or in rare instances tree - that they fail to notice that their tree is but one of a thousand trees on the landcape of life. They can't see the forest for their tree.

I picked up Stephen Hawking's latest offering "The Grand Design" and decided to read it through the eyes of someone whose marriage had just broken down. Here is a book that pupports to answer all of life's mysteries and more. Surely then it would then give succour to my imaginary personage. 

It failed to bring an ounce of comfort.

For one thing, I can't imagine many people getting to the end of the book (let's call it the Hawking effect - millions bought A Brief History of Time  for their coffee tables - to show off that they have the latest cool book - but few read them). As a physicist, I myself struggled in places. If you get to the end of the book you will marvel at the amazing material universe The Grand Designer has created, but none of that will comfort you in sorrow.

The Limits of Science
There are many good reasons science has no answers for the most important questions of life. For one, science deals only with the material world of particles and forces. As fascinating as that world is, it's not where we live our lives. We live in the trees of meaning, emotion, fear, hope, dream, relationship, prayer, plans, work - and none of those have anything to do with quarks or gluons. Someone put it like this, "Science says an awful lot about nothing". 

In  the second place, science changes with the seasons. Hawking admits as much by telling us on the fifth page that his new ideas have emerged only in the last decade or so. So imagine building your life on the last set of ideas. Imagine taking science as your guide in life, 20 years ago. You drop dead and soon afterwards it is found that all the ideas you built your life upon were in fact sand. Great.

This is where we fail in our teaching of science at school and universtity. It ought to be compulsory to learn the history of science - and in one instant this would make better scientists, for instead of thinking today's science is 'final' they will question everything, knowing it will all change in fifty years. (If you don't believe that consider the changes in geology - plate tectonics, and cosmology - big bang, that have taken place over the last fifty years). Science - particularly the big stories - are all interesting, but you'd be a fool to take them as gold. Of course establishment scientists wouldn't want you to learn much about the  history of science lest you questioned present science - upon which all their prestige has been built.

In the third place, science is limited because like all men and women, scientists are flawed. Through pride they claim too much for their discipline or like the X Club of Victorian days, they actively seek power over the public mind. 

More often they are flawed through a spritual blindness that doggedly seeks to suppress the knowledge of God that continually pushes to the surface. That's the biggest enigma in "The Grand Design". We get a glimpse of the counter-intuitive wonder of the universe together with the blindness of the authors who will do anything to deny the existence of a God: the universe self-created and spawned such a large number of other universes, that it is not surprising that ours is tweaked in such a marvelous way, for in all the other infertile universes the numbers are different. "These multiple universes arise naturally from physical law" (p.9). OK, where does physical law come from?

The title itself gives the truth away. I think it was Stephen Meyer who said that so ingrained is the idea of intelligent design that like the water a fish swims in, we can't see it. The very title implies what the authors seek to deny. And without knowing it  they have named their book after the work of His hands.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

When is a church too big?

Different perspectives, different answers
If you are after fame, the answer is at the infinity end of the spectrum: the bigger, the more well known you will be; golly you'll soon be on the Telly. And in our fame-mad culture, glory is all that really matters.

But what might be a New Testament approach to the question, When is a church too big?

When real discipleship is no longer taking place
The commandment of Christ is to make disciples of all nations teaching them to obey everything he commanded them to (Matthew 28). The process Jesus used, if we note carefully his method, was to gather believers into small groups - i.e. The Twelve - who would teach one another and learn from one another as well as learn from Him. Over time, they would, by the Spirit and Word, integrated into the body of Christ, become more like their Master.

When believers are no longer maturing in Christ - advancing in knowledge and Christlikeness - then the church is too big.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Narrowing, Part III: Bible Babble

Wonderful Books
Today, Christians have access to wonderful books which open up the world of the first century and genuinely throw light on the New Testament. I am reading one at the moment, but I shan't tell you the title since in one- fatal - respect it is flawed.

Sadly this flaw runs like a vein through most of contemporary biblical scholarship. It mars so much of it, rendering it - for the purposes of the church -  partial at best and useless at worst.

I Blame The Narrowing
The moment we set reason as King (I blame The Narrowing for this - the so-called Enlightenment), we begin to ask all the wrong questions and get all the wrong answers. We ask, for example, who wrote the letters of Paul. We won't believe the simple written verdict "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus... to the saints in...." but minutely dissect the grammar, style etc., and come up with the Scholarly Verdict - "not Pauline". We trust in our mind's verdict, we trust in the verdict of the Scholarly Community - which tomorrow may change its opinion based on the 'latest research' of a single clever paper by Joe or Jane Babble.

As if a guy can't write in a thousand  different styles? Particularly if you have just had a beating from a particularly nasty prison guard or you are trying to craft the letter to suit the needs of a different culture. I sometimes review sermons I wrote just a decade ago and wonder who the author was. One day they will say of  The Radical Disciple, "This book does not belong to the Stott corpus". As a student I remember the tedious boring arguments against authenticity and found a 1000 immediate common sense responses to every one of them......

The fallout of all this Reason is King stuff is tragic. These guys then reduce the number of Paul's  letters they take seriously, and thereby distort his teaching. And they have the cheek to say in the title of their books "Paul's view of X".

The tragedy is that even us evangelicals are enticed by academia. In pastors' conferences you sometimes hear "you must get the latest commentary on Y by Z", Z turns out so often to be a university scholar and the commentary turns out to be as interesting as a Haynes car manual and as dry as dust to the soul. The devil must be laughing.

Take with a big pinch of salt
So the book I am reading which purports to tell me what Paul thought about community is going to be a let down. The author has already ruled out Ephesians and the Pastorals - four out of thirteen letters. So I shall take everything he says with a very large pinch of salt. There is gold among the dross, but sadly the gold has lost its shine.

Distanced from the Church,  Writing for Peers
The real problem, of course, is that so much of this stuff is written by men and women in ivory palaces, who have little connection with the church, no concern for the impact of their words upon the man in the pew, but every concern for how their work will be viewed by their peers: they are writing for the gallery.

Not surprisingly, these books come and go like actors on the stage. Unlike some of the mighty scholars of the past, their sun soon sets never to rise again. 

Scholars who take the Scriptures seriously, and make the glory of God and the good of the saints their great passion will discover, along with the Augustines, Calvins, Bunyans, Ryles, Spurgeons, Stott's and Lloyd-Joneses that in the centuries to come, the saints will rise up and call them blessed.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

From whence doth money get its claws?

An important question
Where does money get its claws from?

The New Testament warns again and again about the terrible damage the love of money can do. It can keep a man out of the kingdom (Matthew 19) and make it impossible to love the right Master (Matthew 6). Jesus warns against all kinds of greed (Luke 12:15) and Paul insists that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6).

With this persistent New Testament warning against the dangers of the love of money we had all better presume we are guilty and humbly work to establish our innocence.

But why does Money exert such an influence over us? What are its claws? Surely not the mere amassing of paper and nickel - greed is not stamp collecting.

The love of money comes from what money says it can do. Money makes promises, which Jesus says are all a pack of lies (the 'deceitfulness of wealth' - Mark 4:19). Money mimics God and promises to do what only God can do.

Money says "I will make your tomorrow secure", so we amass it and begin to trust in it, rather than in God. Tomorrow we may loose every penny of it, of course, but we believe the lie.

Money says "I can make you happy - buy a holiday in the sun, or a concert ticket for your favourite band". We believe the myth rather than praying to him alone who can satisfy us in the morning with his unfailing love (Psalm 90).

Money says "I can protect you - if you get in trouble, I'll get you a lawyer; if you get ill, I'll sort out the best doctors." And we believe it and dispense with our need for God.

Counterfeit god
In other words Money gets it's power from being an idol - a counterfeit God.

In our western world with such vast riches (in spite of the recession) we need to take Jesus' warning seriously, "Be on your guard for all kinds of greed", lest we find ourselves in fact trusting in wealth more than God.

The antidote to the love of money is to have our hearts captivated with Another Passion. And just as Zachaeus' love for money fell away when he exepreinced the overwhelming love of God, so we too need a fresh vision of God's love for us through Jesus so that we can say, truly, "My soul finds rest (or trusts) in God alone." (Psalm 62).

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Protestant church idols? Naa.....

Churches and idols
While pondering personal idols, I have begun pondering church idols. Protestant churches don't have idols do they? The evangelical community? Pastors? Surely not!

Oh yes they can!

Some years ago Os Guiness and John Seel wrote a book "No God but God" designed to expose how the idols of our age had infiltrated the church. They found some idols and then some more. I wonder how well the book sold - perhaps the real question is how well the book was read (this can be called the Hawking Question: lots of people bought A brief History of Time, I have met few who actually read it). Here are four of the idols I have found in the conservative evangelical churches I have served in and loved.....

"This is the way we have always done things...."
This is a universal idol, I know, and we are surprised perhaps to find it in Bible believing churches, but the traditional impulse is surprisingly just as strong here as anywhere else. As a result, nothing can be changed, from format of worship, to new forms of evangelism, to new patterns of leadership.... Result? Instead of being the living organism a church is likened to (a body, the body of Christ, no less), it traditionalises and fossilises into an institution, incapable of any change.

"Celebrity Culture"
A second common idol is celebrity culture. This is the worship of leaders who have carved out a reputation either by speaking, writing books, playing in famous bands or pastoring large churches. We thank God for godly leaders and recognise those whom God has gifted with extraordinary gifts. That's not celebrity culture. Celebrity culture is when the church apes the celeb community: for example when it holds a public event it feels pressure to get in the latest author, singer, writer and whatnot on the Christian celebrity circuit to make the event worthwhile. Where in Scripture does popularity or fame equate with usefulness or godliness in the kingdom of God?

"Climbing the corporate ladder"
This is a third idol that plagues pastors in particular who view the ministry much as a business man might view the world of commerce - as a ladder to climb. How do they do this? Well you have to write books, get a big church and get yourself known as the founder of this or that. You would be amazed at how many pastors and Christian leaders think that the way up in the kingdom of God follows the same contours as success does in the world. Actually true greatness comes from descending rather than ascending. It comes, as it did for Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and every true follower of Jesus in becoming the servant of all, and in so doing being despised and rejected by men.

A fourth idol found in the conservative evangelical world is the church aping the world when it comes to training its workers. For one thing we stick them in  lecture theatres rather than sending them to needy towns and villages. And then we ape the foolish scholarly traditions of the university. I recently came across a lecturer who stated that his present interest was "the relationship between eschatology and missiology. I am also fascinated by Johannine theology and the interaction between theology and culture." Now can you imagine Jesus sitting down with his disciples or Paul teaching trainee pastor Timothy this kind of stuff? "Thomas, I want you to spend the next three years exploring the relationship between eschatology and missiology!" Or Paul to Timothy, "Timothy my son, what you need to get to grips with this year is Johannine theology. Find out who the authors of the Johanine literature are and write me a 2000 word essay!" (Yes I know the 'Johanine literature' was probably written later than Timothy's time...). How did Jesus teach his disciples? How did Paul teach Timothy? It's there in the New Testament, but we are so shaped by the schoolroom we instinctively follow it rather than following Scripture. Then we are surprised when the preachers who emerge from this sausage machine have little more life in them than you'd expect from a production line. 

I am not arguing against the deep study of Scripture. I am arguing that we must shift our emphases in training to the priorities of the New Testament - we need to prize, faith, courage, love, character, servanthood more than knowledge.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Biggest Worshipper in Great Britain?

GK Chesterton commented that when men and women do not worship God, they do not worship nothing, they worship anything.

Who then might win the prize for being GB's number one worshipper? Of course we don't know, and I would hope a Christain would come out tops, but perhaps it would be Richard Dawkins. Of course the object of his worship isn't God (nor the natural world) but an idol - let's call it scientism or naturalistic philosophy - big words for the view that the only thing that exists is matter and the only things that act are forces. 

Worship involves the trinity of love, trust and obedience. And since all three describe Dawkin's attitude to naturalistic philosophy, that makes Dawkins a worshipper, and since he loves, trusts and obeys with great passion that puts him up there with Britain's top worshippers.

The problem with all idols is that in the end they must fail. They cannot provide what only God can. In private moments idol worshippers must know that their idols are foolish, empty and weak.

May God have mercy on Richard Dawkins and open his eyes and turn him from idols to the living God, the Creator of this amazing wonderful universe.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Of God and Idols

Yesterday I preached from 1 John 5:21 on the subject of God and Idols. "Dear children, keep yourselves free from idols." This is a synopsis of the sermon.....

Only God can meet the deepest desires of our hearts
"My soul finds rest in God alone" (Psalm 62:1).  David's soul is not content, is not satisfied, does not trust any thing or person apart from God. His ultimate help, ultimate worth, ultimate significance come from God alone. God is his chief joy and delight. All other things in creation are secondary; they may be precious but they are not ultimate.

Idols keep us from loving God
An idol is some good thing (most of the time, good thing) which we elevate in our hearts to such an extent that we find ourselves expecting from it / him / her, what only God can provide. They can appear in our lives suddenly or slowly, and sap away our spiritual energy; they are lovers or mistresses in the marital home. One of the chief messages of the prophets was "stopping running / whoring after other gods". Today we live among a people whose hearts run after other gods, and since the human heart is an idol factory we too have the disposition to forge foreign gods. G.K. Chesterton described the "must worship" habit of the human soul well when he said that people who don't worship God, don't worship nothing, they end up worshipping anything. Homes, husband, wife, pleasure, food, drink, children, grandchildren, career, hobbies... the list is almost endless.

Idols not only sap away our spiritual energy, they disappoint, end up burdensome and can ruin the very gift being idolised. All of this flows from the impossibility of idols to fulfill the role of deity; it's like expecting a drop to fill an ocean. When we idolise our children we ruin them, for we then expect from them more than any child can bear. We over-discipline them because we want them perfect or under-discipline them because we can't bear their displeasure when we inflict pain of some kind. Only parents who put their children second to God can truly love them - which means allowing them to fail, and allowing them to follow  God's (often bumpy) pathway in life. I mention children, because family is the great idol of Hollywood. Think of how many films end with 'happy family ever after'. Lots.

"Come to me all you who are weary and burdened.."
In Matthew 11:28, Jesus gives the antidote to burdened idolaters. He says that he can re-connect them to God, who alone can satisfy the deep longings of their hearts.

The prophets, idols and reaction to preaching on idolatry
The prophets had a rough time when they dealt ruthlessly with idols. Why? Because idols touch our hearts, touch our worth. They were hounded and persecuted because they said "stop worshipping idols." The same will happen today. We live in a culture filled with idols, and a church filled with idols. We can expect dark reactions when we too preach on idolatry, for we are touching matters of the soul. I am waiting.....

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The Narrowing, Part II

They say that missionary kids do not feel at home either in their family culture or the culture their parents serve in: they are 'third culture kids'. One of the strengths of such a perspective is that you can see the faults of both cultures; one of the weaknesses is that you never feel at home in either.

Every Christian should be 'third culture' in two ways: (1) we find ourselves critical of the culture in which we live and (2) our home is not in this world.

Concerning the first, Christians should be aware of how much their culture has been shaped by The Narrowing (the so-called enlightenment) - and how much they have imbibed that spirit.

Our individualism is a chief sign of that influence. As Western born-again believers, we just cannot see the New Testament's insistence that we think and act as a body, as a community, rather than as individuals. Every decision we make affects the people around us. For example, when we join in we encourage our brothers and sisters, when we stay away we discourage them (Hebrews 10:25).

This individualistic attitude is an inheritance straight from The Narrowing. (Yes I know it goes further back to the Fall....). These thinkers (1680s-1780s) believed that human reason alone, not faith or tradition, should guide human conduct. "Have courage to use your own reason" was their motto. "The Enlightenment valorized the individual and the moral legitimacy of self-interest." (The Portable Enlightenment Reader, p.xii).

The Western Church is profoundly affected by this attitude. We make decisions without due concern for or reference to their impact on others. This is one reason the Western church is so weak. Instead of working together as a body, Christians often act as dismembered limbs and body parts: not a pretty sight, not very functional either.

It is a real blessing to experience the reverse! And in the Western church there are blessed examples of groups of believers who have, by the Word and Spirit, been made sensitive to their interconnectedness and the impact of their actions upon others and who love each other as family members do.

They are true 'third culture' Christians who have seen the sinful self-centredness of their own culture and in obedience to Christ come to truly love their eternal family.