Sunday, 26 February 2012

Gawd Bless 'er Majesty!

I've just recently finished watching - and have been quite impressed by - Andrew Marr's Diamond Queen series on BBC1.

I have mixed feelings about the monarchy and used to feel quite opposed to it.

There's that whole thing about a privileged few people, who just happen to have been born into a certain family, living in the lap of luxury at the tax payers' expense. It's also not very democratic - these people who we've never elected, still somehow represent us and our interests, at home and on the international stage.

Then there's the whole church thing. I've never felt very happy with the idea of any one person being declared "head" of a church, when the only "head" that the church ever had in scripture was Jesus himself. Even more strange though, is the idea of someone being head of a church, just because they happen to be the ruling monarch. Surely such a role - if it should even exist - should be assigned on the basis of a person's spiritual credibility, not on the basis of what family they happen to have been born into? What if the monarch is not even a believing Christian? How could they possibly, in any meaningful sense, be the head of a church whose beliefs they don't even agree with?

All those comments aside however, I do have a great deal of respect for Queen Elizabeth II. Andrew Marr is obviously very pro-royal and I have no doubt been swayed to some extent by his - not entirely unbiased - presentation, but it did also resonate with much of what I have previously observed. Her majesty is obviously by no means perfect, but I do believe the British Nation has an awful lot in her to be grateful for.

The Queen - and many of the other royals - seem to attend an endless stream of public engagements. I've never really understood the fuss of seeing a member of the royal family drive down a road in a carriage or stop to give someone a wave - they're all just people after all, but I can see that to many people it does make a difference. The Queen has little if any real power, but the job isn't about power any longer, it's about relationship. To some extent, when the Queen visits somewhere, she embodies Britain. If she visits somewhere within Britain then she carries the message that Britain cares about that place, and for a moment at least, the eyes of Britain are focused there. If she is received warmly in another country then Britain is received warmly, animosity is diminished and ties of friendship between nations are developed.

The monarchy also gives us the benefit of longevity. Our politicians are elected for 4-5 years at a time and may perhaps manage 3 terms at the most. For voters this is a benefit because it means that if we don't like our leaders we can change them fairly quickly. For politicians though, as well as keeping them on their toes and reminding them of who they are accountable to, it also often pressures them into taking a short term view. More than anything else, elected leaders want to be re-elected, which means they have to do the things that will make them popular in 4-5 years time. These may not necessarily be the things that are best for the country in the long term.

Our Queen however, has been on the throne for nearly 60 years! - and in that time has seen 12 different Prime Ministers. She religiously and regularly reads through reams of government documents and along with the Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is said to be one of only 3 people in the country who really understand what's going on! She meets with the Prime Minister - of whatever political party - every week, and has a full and candid discussion on government issues, gives the benefit of her advice and offers her opinions. She has no power to make decisions but to my mind this is still an invaluable role. Who else does a Prime Minister have to turn to for outside help who has such a depth of wisdom, knowledge and experience?

The thing that impresses me most about our Queen though, is that I am convinced that she sees herself - and has always seen herself - as a genuine public servant. She may live in the lap of luxury, and I am sure that has many benefits, but as far as I can see she devotes herself tirelessly - and has always devoted herself - to the service of her people. She doesn't just do the job, she lives it and can never walk away (unless of course she abdicates, like her uncle previously did!).

In times gone by, the monarchy was an instrument of power, and often a very oppressive power at that. In the 20th and 21st centuries however, it's role has become much more symbolic. To me, some of the symbols of monarchy and which monarchy represents, still seem to reek of the oppression of the past, but in Elizabeth herself at least, I see a monarch who is genuinely there to serve rather than to be served. Her 21st birthday speech in 1947 in Cape Town, South Africa, included these words, addressed to the Commonwealth: "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service  ... God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it." 65 years later, I think we can safely say, that she has lived up to those words!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Outside the System?

I recently came across this post on the BBC website, discussing the influence of human hunting activity on evolution. The basic point of the article is that humans have evolved/developed predatory abilities which are far beyond those of any other organism on the planet, and that as such we represent a major threat to the rest of the system.

Normally - so the theory goes - organisms develop, in part at least, as a consequence of an evolutionary arms race between prey and predator. So carnivores for example, become faster runners or develop sharper teeth and claws, while the herbivores they prey on become faster or larger or develop tougher skin or other defences.

The problem is that humans have an incredible ability to out-think their prey, and to develop tools or technology that can get round any or all of their defences, and they have been able to do this so quickly that evolution no longer has any chance of keeping up. The consequences of this are obvious - we have already wiped out many species and seem to be well on our way to wiping out an awful lot more!

All of this raises the question though: If evolution has been such a wonderful system up until now, then what has gone wrong? This system has worked effectively for billions of years, allegedly producing living organisms from non-organic matter and then producing the mind-blowing quantities and variety of flora and fauna that we see today. Has this system finally broken in the last couple of hundred thousand years? Has it finally unbalanced itself by producing this strange new species of super-predator which somehow seems to have the capacity to destroy the whole thing?

There is another way to read this story. It's not a scientifically precise or complete way of looking at it, but in many ways it's a lot more useful. This version of the story has been around a lot longer than modern science or evolutionary theory and can be found - yes alright, you've guessed it! - in the pages of the Bible.

This version of the story says that human beings were made, "in God's image". In ancient times, long before the advent of modern communication, if a king ruled over a large empire it was common for him to put statues of himself in the places he ruled over, to remind the inhabitants of who was in charge. In the same way, according to the Bible, God has left a living statue of himself on this planet - that is, you and me! According to the Bible then, it isn't an accident that human beings have intellectual and other capacities which are far beyond those of any other creature - we've been given these capacities by God because we are here with a job to do. We've been given control of this planet and He expects us to look after it for Him, and to show the world what He is like by our wise and careful stewardship of it.

Of course it doesn't take a genius to notice that this arrangement also seems to have gone rather wrong! But the problem is with us. We know that we have the capacity to be wise and careful stewards, but we often choose to be selfish and short-sighted instead. This again, is either a sign that evolution has gone very wrong (if you believe that version of the story), or that there are other forces beyond mere evolution which are at play.

So then, are we independent creatures with the capacity for moral choice who are meant to reflect the good God who made us, but often don't and - it seems - have become estranged from Him in some way? Or are we simply evolved beings whose existence represents the fact that the impersonal system that created us has now finally over-reached itself? Or could there - possibly - be elements of truth in both versions of this story...? What do you think...?

Monday, 13 February 2012

No Answers?

A few days ago, me and some friends at work had an interesting discussion about the state of the world economy, global injustice and all that kind of stuff. We were all kind of agreed that capitalism has gone a a bit wrong but none of us really seemed to have any good solutions. One person astutely pointed out that it isn't capitalism per se that's the problem, it's human nature, and capitalism in its present form is just one manifestation of that. People are selfish, people are greedy and whatever systems or regulations you set up, people will always try to find a way round them. Of course, that isn't to say that you shouldn't have systems, or that you shouldn't try to regulate!

A few minutes later, as I was mulling over the conversation, I mentioned that I'd read a book when I was a teenager called, "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger", and that it had messed me up for about 10 years afterwards! The book actually affected me for a lot longer than that and it probably still does, in spite of the fact that I can no longer remember any of the contents! What I do remember though, is that it made me feel incredibly guilty about the enormous disparity between rich and poor in the world and about how much wealth I horde, when so many others are doing well even to survive. One of my friends commented - respectfully I thought! - that I obviously think a lot about these sort of things. My response was that, yes, I do think about them, but that doesn't necessarily mean I have very much in the way of answers!

I often feel that as a Christian I ought to have answers. After all, I'm promoting a message which I believe is the ultimate answer - and yet I often feel that there are so many situations that I don't really know how to apply it to, and that this answer is such a long way from being fully worked out or reflected in my own life.

Much later on the same day, I was trying to think about why I didn't know the answers, or at least still don't seem to be able to apply them to my own satisfaction, and it occurred to me again - as it often has before - that in the end I only really have one answer. It isn't another system though, or another set of rules to be followed, it's a person and his name is Jesus. The heart of my faith isn't about rules or systems, it's about an encounter and a relationship with God-who-became-flesh: God who came and lived among us and gave up his life in sacrificial death because that was the extent of his love; who has ridiculously high standards of love and justice and yet lives up to all of them; who understands and has compassion on us in all our weaknesses and failings; who loves us and wants us to change and has the grace and the patience and the ability to make that possible.

This is my answer: That when I look at my life and see the difference between the man I am and the man I'd like to be, I have only to look at the smiling face of my father in heaven to know that I will get there one day and that in the meantime I can be patient as He is with me, knowing that I am loved and accepted and that I will be forever. And the more I appreciate the depth of His love and compassion for me, the more I am able to show the same compassion towards others and to strive for love, mercy, faithfulness and justice, knowing that I am doing the work of the one who loves me and who laid down His life for me and for all those I want to reach out to.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gamblers & Settlers

Last weekend I played the board game, "Settlers of Catan", with some friends for the first time.

The game board consists of a representation of an island divided into hexagons, each of which represent different types of landscape - forest, mountain, hills, fields and pasture. The first thing that struck me about the game was that each type of landscape also represents a "resource" - lumber, ore, brick, grain and wool respectively. There is also a 6th type of landscape - desert - which contains no resources and is hence treated as useless. The object of the game is to position your pieces in such a way as to maximally exploit these resources for the purpose of developing roads, settlements and cities. This development earns you "victory points" and the first person to acquire 10 points wins the game.

I'm a competitive person with a good mind for problem solving and strategy and I loved this game! These traits combined with a good dose of beginner's luck, meant that I also won on this occasion which of course enhanced my enjoyment considerably! I couldn't help noticing some uncomfortable comparisons with real life though:

As I've already described, the board reduces a large island - which in the real world is a thing of awesome natural beauty and splendour - to nothing more than a set of resources, which are to be exploited as aggressively as possible if you intend to win the game. Of course, within the context of the game no real islands are involved and so no damage is done, but ... what if people were to treat the real world in the same way ... ? You can probably guess where I might be going with this!

The game is necessarily one dimensional as games usually are - they are not intended to reflect or replace the fully-orbed and multi-dimensional nature of life in the real world. They can sometimes reflect the values that are prevalent in that world though, and some people do actually seem to treat life in a similar way.

This article on the BBC News website describes a workshop called, "Investment Heatmap", which took place this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  In this workshop - which was run for the benefit of some of the world's top financial "big-hitters" - each team of participants were given the task of setting up an imaginary investment fund in a particular part of the world. They had to think about what kinds of people to employ to manage the fund, local regulatory frameworks, the state of the market, etc. They also had to consider things like corruption, politics and environmental activism - but only in so far as they might help or hinder their monetary objectives.

This exercise was only a game, but it was a game with a purpose - to help people think about how to approach such situations in real life. It seems to me that the "real life" in which many of these people live though, is actually just the same as the exercise - where the ultimate consideration is the bottom line and all other interests become subservient. To underline this point though, just in case it wasn't clear enough, the room in which the workshop was held was carefully and deliberately laid out like a casino! If this is the view which the world's top financial big hitters have of our world and all of our economies, then it seems small wonder that both have ended up in such a state!