Saturday, 29 May 2010

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us

This post may not mean a whole lot to you if you're not a Christian

The title is taken from the New Testament book of Acts. The context is a letter that has just been written from the early Jewish-Christian elders in Jerusalem, to the new non-Jewish believers in Antioch. The letter addresses the difficult problem of whether or not the new believers should be expected to keep all of the Jewish religious laws. This was the conclusion:

"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things." - Acts chapter 15 verses 28-29

I like that phrase - "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" - it leaves a somewhat blurry line between "what we think" and "what God thinks". There's a definite sense of God's involvement and approval, but it isn't just a dictate from on high - the elders are taking responsibility for this.

2,000 years later, looking back on their conclusion, we get a slightly different perspective. In fact, even later on in the New Testament, the apostle Paul advises the believers in Corinth not to get too hung up about food that's been sacrificed to idols (see 1 Corinthians 10 vs 23-33). For most of us of course, this is much less of an issue nowadays, but most Christians today are also a lot less bothered about the whole blood thing (mmm… black pudding!), where for the early Christian elders with their Jewish background this was a really big deal!

Sexual morality on the other hand, remains a big deal for most Christians to this day, and to my mind rightly so. Although secular western society now takes a far more permissive approach, sexual immorality continues to have deep and far-reaching emotional and social consequences.

Getting back to my main subject though, I like this idea of a dynamic interaction between us and God. There's a degree of God speaking and a degree of us listening and interpreting - seeking to obey Him, while taking responsibility for our choices. Sometimes we may need to revisit those choices as our understanding of God and the world develops.

Most evangelical Christians today see the whole Bible as the indisputable "Word of God" - although they usually tend to ignore the inconvenient bits, such as the above quote! Perhaps a slightly softer approach would be more appropriate - "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us"!

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Gaia Hypothesis

Watched this fascinating program a couple of days ago which my wife had recorded:
Unfortunately it's no longer available on iPlayer.

It's all about James Lovelock, who first postulated the theory that our whole planet effectively functions as a single interdependent organism. For example, animals and plants do things that effect the climate, which in turn makes it possible for them and for other organisms to survive.

One of the things that interested me was Lovelock describing the reception his ideas received. He said he was very pleasantly surprised by the strong positive reaction he got from religious people.  He mentioned a certain bishop - who I think he said was the bishop of Birmingham at the time - who was then shown on camera talking about how Lovelock's ideas dovetailed with his own concept of a benevolent creator God. Lovelock said he didn't share those ideas, but for Christians he thought it gave them a useful way of thinking about his theories.

By contrast, the reception he got from the scientific community was a lot more mixed. Richard Dawkins in particularly was (and I think still is) extremely anti-Gaia, and as I watched Lovelock explaining the theory I could see why. It's very hard to see how such a complex interdependent system could have evolved all by itself by a process of natural selection - which is indeed Dawkins' primary objection to it.

In response to some of these criticisms, Lovelock developed his ideas to explain how he felt natural selection could in fact account for Gaia, although he hasn't managed to win over all of his opponents.

The thing that struck me most about Dawkins' reaction, was how strongly wedded he is to a particular point of view, which makes it impossible for him to consider anything that doesn't line up with that. There's an incredible arrogance in his approach - the assumption that science must be capable of explaining everything, which leads to the conclusion that if something isn't (or even doesn't appear to be) susceptible to that kind of explanation then it must not be a true thing!

Maybe though, this is to some extent true of anyone who has a strong emotional investment in a particular point of view? I can think of plenty of religious people this applies to!

What do you think?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Destroying the Earth

I find myself constantly horrified by the damage that humans are doing to the natural world - here's an article I spotted on the BBC a couple of days ago:

"The global abundance of vertebrates - the group that includes mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and fish - fell by about one-third between 1970 and 2006, the UN says."

The main point of this article is that biodiversity is being reduced to the point that it will soon have a noticeable negative impact on our economies.  My first reaction to this is that it's a terrible shame that it seems to be necessary to talk in terms of monetary value before business people and policy makers will consider the natural world to be worth taking care of.  It seems obvious to me that nature has an inherent value which is far greater than all of the money that could ever be made out of it.  However, since (unfortunately) this does appear to be necessary, I am glad that somebody is taking the time to do it.  At the same time though, I can't help thinking how stupid and short-sighted greed makes people - of course if you destroy your environment, on which you are completely dependent for life and raw materials, then your capacity for making money is sooner or later going to be reduced!  Not to mention your capacity for happiness and ultimately, for survival!

As a Christian I have less to fear than some, from the destruction of the natural world, but it hurts me perhaps more because I see in it an amazing reflection of the beauty, ingenuity and creativity of it's maker.  One day, according to the Bible, the world will be transformed - there will be "new heavens and a new earth".  I look forward hopefully to that day.  In the meantime though, we have a responsibility to look after the world we have now - for our own sakes, for the rest of humanity both now and in future generations, and for it's sake and the sake of God who made it and entrusted it to us.

Believing that this world is temporary, in no way excuses Christians for over-exploiting it - any more than believing that one day there will be no more sorrow, could excuse you for being unkind to someone!  Jesus once said, "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come."  A similar statement could (pessimistically perhaps) be made about environmental destruction.

Finally, just in case there any Christians out there who are still not sure about this, the following is taken from one of the judgement scenes in the New Testament book of Revelation (chapter 11): "The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great— and for destroying those who destroy the earth" [my emphasis]!

Monday, 10 May 2010

Belief and Scepticism

I've called this blog "Life and Faith" because I spend a lot of time (possibly too much!) thinking about these 2 things and the overlap between them. I thought I'd get some of these thoughts off my chest, as they come up, by posting them here.

I've chosen the URL, thescepticalbeliever, firstly because lifeandfaith wasn't available and nor were the next ten or so ideas I came up with! Secondly though, thescepticalbeliever also says some important things about me. It's not an accident that "believer" is the noun here and "sceptical" is the adjective. First and foremost I am a believer. If you want to find out more about what I believe, then you'll have to keep reading this blog! Secondly though, I am and always have been a sceptic - ever since as a very small child I first learnt that all important word, "why"!

Strangely, although faith traditions often claim to specialise in answering the big "why" questions, people of faith can often be very nervous of this little word.

In my view, faith and scepticism need to work together. Scepticism is often feared by people of faith because faith can be undermined by scepticism. However, faith also needs scepticism because without it, faith ends up lacking integrity.

Scepticism on the other hand, has to stop somewhere, otherwise you end up like Descartes, questioning absolutely everything - which is fine for a philosophical experiment, but is no way to live your life. In the end you have to choose to believe something - but that doesn't mean you can't come back and question it again later!

"I think therefore I am" - Rene Descartes
"I believe that I may understand" - Anselm of Canterbury