Saturday, 29 September 2012

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

The title of this post is the title of a book by Ronald Sider. I read an old version of this book as a teenager and it had a profound - if disturbing - effect on me. A friend of mine has recently mentioned that he is currently reading the updated version and this has got me thinking about it again.

If you're hoping for a review of the book then I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed as I can no longer remember anything about the contents. I just remember how it made me feel afterwards and the kinds of thoughts it triggered in my mind - some of which I am still living with. Basically - partly as a consequence of this book, but perhaps not entirely - I now have the following script running in my head, which in the last 20-25 years I have been unable to resolve:
  1. I obviously have more than my fair share of "stuff" - certainly on a global scale, although even in UK terms I'm pretty sure I'm above average.
  2. There are loads of other people out there in the world who have so little "stuff" that it's a struggle - if not an impossibility sometimes - for them even to survive.
  3. I haven't done anything to deserve it. OK, if I'd been a bit more lazy I would probably have less, but most of my success has been down to accidents of birth, ability and opportunity. There are lots of people out there living on the bread line (or below) who work a lot harder than I do!
  4. The logical thing for me to do therefore, would be to get rid of a lot of my "stuff", only keep whatever I decide really is my "fair share", and give the rest to those who have nothing. OK, it wouldn't change the world overnight, but it would if we all did it and it has to start somewhere!
  5. I don't want to! I could use my marriage as an excuse - and it's not a bad excuse, because I'm pretty sure my wife would have something to say about it if I suddenly decided to give away three quarters (or whatever) of everything we own! - but actually that doesn't really wash because the truth is I was just as unwilling to do this before I ever met my wife.
  6. There are obviously lots of implications involved in giving most of my stuff away. Money, to a large extent equals choice. Without money I am far more restricted in terms of what I'm able to do, where I'm able to go and even to some extent, who I'm able to spend my time with. None of these implications are insurmountable though, they just involve very big adjustments. In many respects, these adjustments could turn out to be very positive in terms of forcing me to rethink what is really important about life. 
Basically, there seem to only be 2 possible ways of resolving this dilemma:
  1. Convince myself that it's actually perfectly fine for me to keep most of what I "own" and just give away a relatively small amount of that as I do at the moment.
  1. Actually do it! Work out what I genuinely do think is a "fair" amount to hold onto and give the rest away (but only with my wife's approval of course!). This would of course be a radical and probably very difficult lifestyle adjustment and would be extremely restricting in very many ways. I think I would find the curtailment of liberty the hardest thing to get used to. It would mean sacrificing a great deal of independence and consequently depending a lot more on God and on other people. In theory at least, I believe these to be very good things, but they are also extremely scary and seem to require a massive effort which I can avoid by simply not doing this!
So in the last 20-25 years I have completely failed to plump for either of these options and have consequently had to live with this dilemma!

What do you think about this question? How do you, or have you, managed to resolve it ... ?

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Don't Let Your Understanding Get in the Way of Your Understanding

Christianity is for stupid people!

By that of course I mean that Christianity is for everyone, regardless of intellectual capacity.

As a moderately intellectual person myself though, I like to ask lots of questions and try very hard to reason things through. I have a high degree of confidence in my own reasoning skills which can cause me significant difficulties when I'm confronted by something I can't understand. This can make being a Christian quite difficult - because when it comes down to it I don't really understand my own faith! I like to pretend that I do and I can usually talk fairly intelligently about it in a way that sounds quite convincing to other people (or at least to some other people anyway!), but I always have a lot of questions in my own mind - sometimes nearer the surface than others - which I am not able to answer.

I have often noticed that happiness and/or goodness do not seem to correlate - at least not positively - with intellectual capacity. In fact, if a correlation was discovered, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that it runs the other way! The cleverest people I meet and the wisest people I meet are completely different groups. Just occasionally there is some overlap between the two!

I think there are (at least) two different kinds of "understanding". There is a logical/analytical kind of understanding which can be extremely useful, but can also come to some very wrong conclusions, particularly if it strays outside of the narrow range of problems to which it is particularly suited. Then there is wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience, from making good decisions (and sometimes bad ones), and from an instinctive or intuitive grasp of what is good, right and meaningful - from a deep inner sense of what really matters in life.

But how do you get wisdom? The book of Job (in the Old Testament part of the Bible) has this to say:
There is a mine for silver
and a place where gold is refined.
Iron is taken from the earth,
and copper is smelted from ore.
But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
No mortal comprehends its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”;
the sea says, “It is not with me”.
                        - Job chapter 28
And what is wisdom anyway? The book of Proverbs says this:
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom1!

                        - Proverbs chapter 4 verse 5
A recursive definition if ever there was one!

Proverbs also says this though:
Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
                        - Proverbs chapter 8
So wisdom is both elusive and hard to find (according to Job) and shouting out in public to anyone who will listen (according to Proverbs). Both of these things are true - wisdom is sometimes best expressed through paradox! The logical mind doesn't like paradox and tries to resolve it. The wise heart knows how and when to accept it and hold both parts in tension.

I can't tell you where to find wisdom, but I can tell you that it is accessed primarily, not through the logical/analytical mind, but through the heart. Pascal spoke well when he said:
The heart has its reasons, that reason knows nothing of
Pascal also said:
It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason.
And the quote from Job earlier goes on to say:
The fear2 of the Lord — that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.
Understanding in the sense of "reason" is a good thing and should be encouraged, developed, listened to and taken seriously, but reason will only get you so far. Understanding in the sense of "wisdom" will take you to a deeper level - a level that will show you what reason is for and teach you what to do with it.

Wisdom should be informed by, but not clouded by reason - don't let your "understanding" get in the way of your "understanding"!