Saturday, 26 February 2011

Priests of Creation

I recently stumbled across this article by John Zizioulas (the Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan of Pergamon(!)), and it's given me quite a bit to think about!

I've recently been reading "Virtue Reborn" by Tom Wright, which talks quite a bit about humanity's twin calling to be "rulers" and "priests". This starts in the garden of Eden, but is messed up when Adam rebels against God. The baton is then handed on to Israel, with whom God has a special relationship in the Old Testament, then taken on and fulfilled by Jesus - our great High Priest who is also the Messiah who comes to rule over God's new Kingdom. Finally, in the New Testament, Christ's followers are commissioned as a "royal priesthood" and in Revelation we are told that ultimately they will "reign on the earth".

Zizioulas has helped deepen my understanding of the "priestly" side of our calling, specifically with regard to creation. Here is my attempt to summarise the main points that stood out to me, intermingled with some thoughts from Tom Wright, as well as a few observations of my own:
  1. Humans are part of creation. Contemporary scientific theory says we evolved from apes. Genesis 2 says we were made "from the dust of the ground". To my mind these are 2 different ways of saying the same thing (although I think the evolution "metaphor" actually says it better) - we are an indivisible part of the natural world.
  2. In some way nevertheless, humans seem to transcend nature. In particular we have:
    1. Rationality - the capacity to understand and make sense of our environment, to create order and to construct meaning. 
    2. Creativity - the desire and ability to create new "realities" by reflecting and refashioning what is there, but in our own unique style.
    Consequently, we are always trying to reach beyond nature. This can be seen in our spirituality and also in our pursuit of knowledge and technology.
  3. Just as we are mortal, so also the world is finite - one day, like us, it is going to die (and at the moment, we seem to be speeding up the process!).
  4. The Bible however, holds out the hope of resurrection - a re-embodied life after death - for us (through Jesus) and also for creation (see Romans 8:19-21, 2 Peter 3:13).
  5. The only way creation can attain immortality is by being united with its creator - the immortal God (this is what Revelation 21 is all about).
  6. Humans are in a unique position to bring about this unity - as part of creation we represent it before God (in the same way that the Old Testament priests represented Israel before God in the Temple), but because of our transcendent nature (or because, as it says in Genesis, we are made in God's image) we are able to reach out to God in a way that the rest of creation can't.
  7. Human beings are therefore tasked with a dual role:
    1. To reign over creation - to reflect God to it by our wise stewardship (this is part of what being in God's image is all about).
    2. To act as priests - intermediaries between God and creation - thus bringing creation into full relationship with God and enabling it to fulfil its destiny.
  8. We have messed up this calling, by trying to be like God ourselves (this was the temptation offered by the serpent when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit). Because of this we try to lord it over creation, imagining ourselves to be its masters, instead of ruling it wisely for its own benefit and on God's behalf.
  9. Consequently, creation is cut off from God and doomed to decay and destruction.  Also though, we cut ourselves off from creation, as we imagine ourselves to be like God - separate and independent masters of it, instead of dependent on it for our very being.
  10. God saved the day by sending Jesus, who "undid" mankind's rebellion through His obedient, self-sacrificial death on the cross and consequently became the first man to be resurrected to eternal life.  Through His sacrifice, it is now possible for us and God - and ultimately creation and God - to be fully reconciled.

To me, this seems to have massive implications. Here are a few that spring to mind:

  • First of all, part of the fairly recent appeal of New Age and Pagan spirituality is its' sense of connectedness with the earth. Many people see this as a powerful antidote to the sense of estrangement they feel from the natural world, especially since the Industrial Revolution. Traditional Christianity seems to have had little to offer in this respect, but the perspective above addresses this quite powerfully.

  • Christians usually seem to assume that God's salvation plan is just about human beings. Yes, we should look after creation, because God made it and He asked us to, but it isn't really a central part of our faith. The above perspective puts things the other way around though - God's plan was to save the whole of creation and He made us as part of His plan to achieve that! Yes, He could have left us out of the equation, but He wanted a creation He could relate to and which would willingly submit to His loving rule. Creation can't do this without us - we are its representatives and only we have the capacity to enter into willing relationship with God.

  • Our pursuit of technology shows a constant desire to transcend nature and break away from its constraints. Creativity and innovation are part of our God-given nature, but we tend to do this recklessly and destructively, forgetting that we are part of the natural world and dependent on it for everything we do. This comes from our desire to be like God and an unwillingness to accept our "creature" status.

  • To care for the world is to fulfil our calling - or at least a fairly central part of it. It isn't just a side-line - it's preparation for, and an anticipation of, our future destiny! We are part of creation and in relationship with it. God's plan isn't to rescue us from it one day, it's to save the whole of creation and us with it, and to bring heaven and earth - us and Himself - together in perfect unity!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Reasons to Become an Atheist...

I'm not advocating atheism and I have no intention of becoming one, but if I did need a reason to do so, I reckon this would be a pretty good place to start... :-{

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Does being a Christian make you a better person?

This is a question I've puzzled over for some time.

I fear that many - perhaps even most - non-believers would answer that it doesn't. Many would even suggest it does the opposite - that Christians are hypocritical, judgemental, self-righteous, out of touch, etc. Mahatma Ghandi for example, who had many sympathies with the Christian faith but remained a committed Hindu all his life, is alleged1 to have once said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians".

For myself I've known some Christians who seem to be genuinely "saintly", in the best popular sense of that term - kind, caring, generous, patient, loving, big-hearted people. I've also come across some very saintly people who are not Christians, but my general experience of most people is that they are a mixed bag of tricks. I can sometimes be shocked by a person's arrogance or selfishness or their apparently shallow or short-sighted attitude, and then shortly afterwards be amazed at the same person's kindness or sensitivity in a different situation.

What about me though? Does being a Christian make me a better person? This is a hard question to answer. For one thing, I was raised in a Christian family and made my first commitment to Jesus when I was four and a half. It's difficult to remember what I was like before this and given the age difference between now and then I hardly think it would be a fair comparison in any case! I was brought up with certain moral standards. For example I was taught to respect and obey authority (this may have been over-emphasised...), always to tell the truth, not to swear, not to engage in physical violence, not to steal, etc.

It wasn't until my early teens however, when I began to question my faith and had my first major experience of God that I can remember, that I first began to realise how selfish I was. God showed me all sorts of unpleasant things about my heart that didn't seem to have been touched by all those rules I'd learned to follow. God also showed me - at the same time - how much He loved and accepted me, which felt great at the time, but which I began to lose sight of as I realised that all of those bad attitudes didn't seem to be changing very much!

For a long time I've compared myself and other Christians to those who don't seem to know God or Jesus and wondered if it really does make any difference. I can always find ways to compare myself unfavourably with others. Likewise I can usually find some way in which I think I excel - but even as I am internally praising my moral superiority over some poor, unenlightened heathen, I notice my own judgemental self-righteousness and am knocked back down a peg again!

What can I say now? That I'm still very much in process and have learnt that following Jesus is a journey. That without love and acceptance I'm unable to change - I just get discouraged and frustrated, which ends up encouraging and re-inforcing the same negative attitudes and behaviours that I'm trying to replace! That I suffer from the same moral weaknesses and afflictions as everyone else but have learnt that discipline and good habits can make a difference. Finally, that I can't do it alone - I need help from God and from others who are similarly committed to developing this way of life.

Does being a Christian make me a better person? I hope that it slowly is doing - but only time, and those around me, can really say.

1 This has been disputed - see here - but I still think it unfortunately sums up many people's feelings towards the Christian faith.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Collateral Damage

The idea for this post comes from a brief conversation I had recently with a friend at work.


Somehow we got onto The Book of Eli in which the main character, Eli (played by Denzel Washington), violently kills numerous bad guys in post apocalyptic America in defence of - as it turns out - a copy of the King James Bible. One of the premises of the film is that Eli has near-supernatural fighting and survival skills, because he is being protected by God for the sake of the book he carries.

I enjoyed the film and I liked the way the Bible was presented - both as a valuable resource which changes lives for the better, and also as something which can be manipulated by the powerful as a tool of oppression and control.

The main thing that grated on my Christian sensibilities however (although I took it with a pinch of salt as it's so typically Hollywood!) was the central role of gratuitous - and apparently God-sponsored! - violence.  This led to my friend's use of the phrase, "collateral damage" - a kind of tongue in cheek suggestion that I should be expected to justify this behaviour, since it was all for the "greater good"!

This got me thinking about this phrase. The main place it's come up recently has been in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the American government in particular have used it to justify the accidental killing of innocent civilians - the logic being that some amount of "collateral damage" is unavoidable in a war situation. I have my opinions on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts but they're not very well thought through and I don't intend to discuss them here. Thinking about this made me wonder though, whether "collateral damage" was something God could ever be accused of.

One of the first things that sprung to mind was the Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew's gospel. In this story, Herod wants to kill the baby Jesus but all he knows is that He is in Nazareth somewhere. Jesus' father, Joseph, is warned by God in a dream and they escape to Egypt, but Herod, not knowing this, orders all male children in the vicinity under the age of two to be killed! So Jesus is saved, but there is immense "collateral damage" to many other nearby families!

I also thought though, in a wider sense, about the presence of sin and evil in the world (of which this story is just one small example). Every day, thousands of people are murdered, raped, otherwise mis-treated, or die of poverty and disease, all because God decided it would be a good idea to give people free will to make their own choices, and to allow them - and others - to take the consequences. I believe God has a plan and that it will all be worth it in the end. According to the Bible - perhaps surprisingly - it's all about love! In the meantime though, an awful lot of people are suffering - often because of the behaviour of others and through little or no fault of their own. For this reality, the phrase, "collateral damage" seems quite appropriate.

I've often been a victim of this kind of "collateral damage" - I've often been mistreated by others through no fault of my own. Those who've mistreated me have often done so, whether or not they realised it, at least partly because of the way they themselves have been mistreated. I'm ashamed to say that I've also inflicted undeserved damage on people. Sometimes because of my own greed and selfishness, but also as a result of the damage done to me.

The natural reaction to all of this is to say, "it's not fair"! It's not fair that innocents in Iraq should be killed or have to suffer because of the actions of a few extremists (whichever side of the conflict they happen to be fighting on!). It's not fair that innocent babies in Bethlehem should be murdered by a cruel king while one baby survives! It's not fair that thousands of people should be left to die in poverty because their countries have been - and still are being - exploited to the brink of political and economic collapse. None of these things are fair. The world is not a fair place to live. This is the reality of "collateral damage".

Matthew's gospel also records these words though, spoken by Jesus:

"What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish." - Matthew 18 verses 12-14

Here Jesus seems to be teaching that God is more concerned about each individual than He is about "the greater good" - but how can these extremes be reconciled?

Perhaps because, according to the gospel, the kind of "collateral damage" I've been discussing isn't just something that is inflicted on others. By way of comparison, let's imagine for a moment that the Americans were completely correct in believing that what they were doing truly was for the benefit of the Iraqis. Would American pilots still fire missiles in a conflict zone if their own families and children were living among the at-risk Iraqi civilians?

This is effectively what happened in the gospel story. God sent His own Son - Jesus, who He loved - right into the heart of the conflict zone, not only putting Him at risk, but actually guaranteeing that Jesus - and through Him, God Himself - would suffer the full destructive force of evil when He was tortured and killed on the cross. By suffering in this way, Jesus showed the depth of God's commitment to this process and the extent to which He identifies with those who suffer. But by His subsequent resurrection from the grave, Jesus showed that this state of affairs is only temporary - death and suffering do not have the last word - and it really will all be worth it in the end!