Tuesday, 29 June 2010


My MP, Mr Greg Mulholland, has recently called for a debate in Parliament about the adoption of an English national anthem (in case anyone isn't quite sure, there isn't one at the moment, at least not an official one - "God Save the Queen" is the anthem of the whole UK).

Apparently "Jerusalem" has been chosen by public vote, ahead of "Land of Hope and Glory", to be played for English winners at the Commonwealth Games this year, so if we do ever get an English anthem it's likely to be a strong contender.  The words go like this:
And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land
I've always felt a little uncomfortable with this hymn, mainly because of the somewhat militaristic overtones of the last 2 verses, which in the context of a national anthem (or similar) I can't help associating with the Crusades.  The first 2 verses have always annoyed me a bit as well - every time I hear them I want to reply: "Of course he didn't!"; "Of course it wasn't!".

Before I dismiss it too heavily though, it's worth remembering that this hymn is based on a poem - by William Blake - and poetry is rarely meant to be taken entirely literally.  The first 2 verses are actually inspired by an (admittedly extremely unlikely) apocryphal story that Jesus once travelled to England with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea and visited Glastonbury.  Blake doesn't say that these events happened, he only asks the question, and uses this story as the basis for his poem, the emphasis of which is on the here and now rather than on what may or may not have happened in the past.

In the Bible, Jerusalem, as well as being a real physical, historical city, also represents God's eventual dwelling place with man.  In the New Testament book of Revelation, the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to earth, representing the eventual union of heaven and earth in future paradise as God and man are finally able to dwell together in peace for eternity.  Blake's poem foreshadows this and sets it up as a goal to aim for - something all our energies, mental and physical, should be directed towards.

I don't believe we will ever achieve this goal on our own - ultimately I think only God can do this - but if we want to live in line with his purposes then I think this is a fairly good summary of what we should be aiming for - although not just for England of course!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

God is not the answer

I recently watched this programme - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00p90kk - which was the 6th and final part in BBC Four's "History of Christianity".

It was a fascinating and informative series, but near the end the presenter, Diarmaid MacCulloch, quoted Thomas Aquinas who apparently once said, "God is not the answer, God is the question".  I've done some googling and I can't find when, where or in what context Aquinas said this, so it's difficult to tell exactly what he meant by it.  I did however, find this interesting article on the subject.

I like the idea, mentioned in the article I've just referenced, that God does not "exist" in the sense that anything else exists - instead He is the cause of all existence.  I first came across this idea listening to Pete Rollins at Greenbelt last year, but it's not a new one - in theological discussion God has often been referred to as "the ground of being".

Thinking about questions and answers though, got me pondering that perhaps there are some questions that  actually ask us, more than we ask them.  For example, questions about suffering and the meaning of life.  These are questions that will probably never have complete and satisfactory logical answers, but perhaps our response to these questions is in the end more important than any answers we might find.  These questions don't just challenge our intellect, they call on our deepest emotional and spiritual resources - how will you respond to this question?  What will you do about it?  How will it affect the way you live your life?

Is God a question?  If so, what sort of answers are there to this kind of question, or should we even expect to find any?  The Christian God is at once transcendent (far above our human understanding) and also immanent (with us and accessible to us).  He is the question that keeps asking us, but He is also the answer that we will discover as we keep asking the question.  Ultimately the answer is not an intellectual one.  This is a question that calls right down into our very beings and re-unites us - if we dare to keep asking - with the ground of being - with God himself.  God may not be the "answer" in the conventional sense, but He is always there - the reason, who is waiting to be discovered!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The Fear of Science

A few days ago I caught part of this programme on Channel 4: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/genius-of-britain/episode-guide/series-1/episode-5

Near the end they showed a two-way interview between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.  During the interview, Hawking asked Dawkins why he was “so obsessed with God”, which I found quite amusing! I was also interested though, to hear Dawkins’ response. Dawkins said (paraphrased – I can’t remember his exact words) that science was all about asking questions and trying to understand things and he felt that belief in God got in the way of this because it encouraged people to use God as an explanation for anything they couldn’t understand.

To be honest I think this is a bit weak as many Christians are also scientists and this doesn’t appear to stop them from doing what they do.  In fact, the belief in an ordered world, which stemmed from a belief in a God of order, underpinned much early scientific research.  I do often wonder though, whether for many people, religious belief does sometimes present a barrier to honest scientific enquiry. I certainly think this is the case for many Creationists (in the narrowest sense of that word). It seems to me that hard-line Creationists have a very strong pre-defined view of what the world should be like, so that any “science” they employ is bent entirely towards proving this picture, rather than towards investigating what’s actually out there with an open mind.

On the flip side however, I think Dawkins actually does something very similar with his hard-line approach towards natural selection. He’s been quoted many times for saying that Darwin made it possible for him to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”. Dawkins doesn’t like mystery – he doesn’t like the unexplainable – and he believes that natural selection is able to explain everything about how the biological world – including humans – came to be the way that it is. But although most scientists (excluding Creationists) now accept that evolution has happened, there is no universal agreement on whether natural selection is the sole cause. Many (if not most) scientists would be happy to accept that there is still a significant amount of “mystery” around our understanding of what exactly has taken place.

For some Christians though, there can be a significant amount of fear involved in uncovering this mystery. What if we do manage to understand everything? Where would this leave God? If God is in the gaps in our understanding, where does He go if the gaps disappear? What if the things we discover disprove everything we thought we knew about the world?

First of all I think it’s extremely arrogant to assume that we will ever know or understand everything. For every answer we find there are - and always will be - a lot more questions. And if God is real, as Christians believe, then the mind of God will always be beyond ordinary human investigation.

Secondly though, what if the things that we discover disprove what we thought we knew? Well then, we should take it like men (or women)! Christians should have nothing to fear from the truth – it’s the foundation of our religion! If the truth we discover isn’t quite what we thought it was then obviously we have some learning to do! If God is real then we have nothing to fear from discovering His Universe. We should always be prepared to be surprised by God – and also by the truth!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Havoc and Healing

Bad stuff happens.

Sometimes life just seems to go screwy, for all sorts of reasons, or seemingly for no reason at all.

In the Bible, chaos and evil are closely linked. In the first Genesis creation account, God brings order out of chaos. The forces of evil on the other hand, seem continually intent on undoing this process.

Sometimes, precious things that we've spent days, weeks, months, years, a lifetime, lovingly and carefully building and nurturing can come crashing down - be reduced to chaos - in what seems like no time at all.

The gospel on the other hand - the Christian message of hope through Jesus - is all about healing. It's about undoing the chaos - reversing the damage. But what's the point if every time you try to bring healing or to build something good it dies or is destroyed - doesn't chaos always win in the end?

Not according to the gospel - in the end chaos is defeated, death gives way to resurrection. Resurrection isn't just about bringing the old thing back to life though - it's a whole new kind of life. It's a life that's endured suffering and been through death and out the other side - a life that has conquered evil and can hence no longer be touched by it!

This is what Jesus demonstrated through His life, death and resurrection and this is the life that works now in those who put their faith in him. One day this life will emerge fully triumphant in us, just as it did in Him, "if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory" - Romans 8 verse 17