Judgment as both necessary and good

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My ‘Musings’ column was titled ‘Facebook, Judgment and Easter’ and is below. It came from reading this article in the Irish Times

‘This is what my job has taught me. People are largely awful and I’m there behind my desk doing my best to save the world.’

These are the words of an Irish ex-Facebook moderator who is taking legal action against the company for psychological trauma experienced as a result of his work.

Reading about his job makes you think alright. Every day moderators like him review a never-ending stream of images reported by users from all over the world. These range from the foolish (petty arguments) to indecent (nudity) to potential hate speech, to illegal trade in animals, all the way to child abuse and videos of groups of terrified people being executed somewhere in the Middle East (and this is only reported content remember).

Apparently Facebook provides detailed lists of rules to moderators for making judgments. These document are tens of thousands of words long and keep expanding in length and complexity. The moderator is faced with between 100 and 250 possible decisions on any given piece of content. Such is the volume there is limited time for evaluation and the moderators are expected to meet a target of 98% accuracy in their decision making. No wonder they are stressed; I don’t envy them their (unfortunately necessary) job.

There was a popular illustration used in evangelistic talks when I was younger. The speaker invited you to imagine a video of your life – all your secret thoughts and sins – being shown publicly to everyone you knew. The point was to bring home how none of us live up to our own standards let alone God’s. We would be ashamed if others really knew what we were like. The idea was to make listeners aware of their need for God’s grace and forgiveness.

I haven’t heard that illustration in a long time (and I’m not saying it’s necessarily a good one). But my impression is that Christians don’t talk too much about shame, sin and guilt these days. Maybe it’s because they seem to be outdated and repressive ideas, especially given recent Irish history. So we rightly emphasise the limitless nature of God’s love, but quietly downplay how much the Bible talks of his wrath and judgment. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and smacks of intolerance – and who wants to be thought of as intolerant?

But the story of the Facebook moderator shows us that, when we think about it, judgment is actually both necessary and good.

Judgment as Necessary

It’s necessary because while the moderator isn’t a pastor or theologian, he looked into the ‘heart of darkness’ and concluded that ‘people are largely awful’. This echoes Paul in Ephesians saying that we are ‘by nature deserving of wrath’ (2:3). The moderator was doing his ‘best to save the world’ by trying to discern between good and evil. Out of compassion and a sense of justice he tried to put things right. But of course he couldn’t – none of us can. The depth of sin and the power of evil are too strong and the moderator, a mere man, was nearly destroyed in the process.

Judgment as Good

Judgment is good because the moderator’s experience shows the importance of naming and resisting evil.

This brings us to Easter and to another saviour and judge. The wonder of the cross is that ‘because of his great love for us’ (Eph 2:4) God freely chose to take his own judgment upon himself in Jesus Christ so that all in him share in Jesus’ resurrection victory over the power of death and sin.

While those destructive forces still stalk our world and God’s people are to battle against them, we can look forward to the goodness of God’s final judgment. We can thank God that there is no impunity for all the innumerable horrors humans perpetrate on each other and over our despoliation of God’s creation.

On that day justice will be done and this broken world will be put right for good. That’s why Christians today can say with the first believers

Maranatha. Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor 16:22).

Easter Sunday Reflection: Christus ist auferstanden!

And here is my reflection for this Easter Sunday to finish a series written during Lent by members of our church in Maynooth. Easter greetings to one and all.

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Christus ist auferstanden!

If we were physically in church this morning, retired German teacher Ian Stanton, with a mischievous smile on his face, would likely come my way and say “Christus ist auferstanden!” (Christ is risen!). I say ‘mischievous’ because he knows I will be panicking trying to remember the few words of German that he expects me to know one day a year. For the record they are “Er ist wahrhaftig auferstanden!” (He is risen indeed!).

These are days of deep uncertainty and loss. Walking around Maynooth it’s heart-breaking to read sign after sign of businesses closed. Behind those notices are stories of lost jobs, debt and fear for the future. One talks honestly about the owner’s ‘trepidation’ over the ‘big and scary’ decision to shut. I find myself praying for her and make a promise that, hopefully, when that café reopens, I’ll go and give her some business.

Walking along the canal parallel to the railway, empty trains go past. I wonder how long this is going to go on, aware there is no easy fix and multiple lockdowns could come and go for over a year or more. I think of health-care workers in MCC like Andy and Susanne on the front-line. I think of friends who have suddenly no work and no income. I wonder how many in MCC are in a similar situation. I think of other friends at high risk and pray they can stay free of infection. I think of my dad in his 90s and living at home alone and find myself strangely grateful that my mother died over a year ago and is not now stuck in a nursing home, confused, with no-one able to visit her. And if I’m honest, I also wonder about my own job.

And yet, as I enjoy the Spring air and blue sky, I know I’m deeply privileged. I have health, family, a home to live in, access to technology and food to eat. I wonder if this pandemic has caused such angst because it has hit the rich West. It has shown us to be far less safe and in control than we thought. It has made us face the possibility of sudden death. Yet millions of people in the world are only all too familiar with disease, famine and war. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are over 400,000 deaths annually of malaria and over 2 million new infections.

And so I think of countless Christians in the past and today who have never known the safety nets of stable employment, fair pay, a home, access to health care, physical security, food and clean water or the expectation of a long life.

And I start to wonder if this pandemic, awful as it is, is bringing more sharply into focus just how relevant and important it is that Christus ist auferstanden.

For if Christ is raised, then we can trust that our futures are in the hands of the risen Lord.

If Christ is raised, then, those in Christ through faith already have resurrection life.

If Christ is raised, then God has already won the victory over death and evil powers and that therefore Christians can rest assured that

“… neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

And if Christ is raised, we can have a sure and certain hope that, regardless of when we die, we will share one day in Christ’s resurrection to a new life within a renewed world – one that will be gloriously free of viruses, disease and death itself.

Lenten Reflection – Alison King

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth.

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1 Corinithians 13:12 and Unmet Expectations

12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

I love this verse. It’s an often go to verse of mine. Why? Because it reminds me that because I don’t have God’s “whole picture” perspective, there are always going to be things this side of heaven I simply won’t understand. However, honestly, within my not understanding I can all too easily get caught in an endless cycle of over thinking, especially when expectations are not met.

I wonder this Lent what might be some of your unmet expectations? Perhaps you expected to be married by now, or have a better job, even any job, or you didn’t expect to be walking in and through so many hard spaces, or perhaps like me you’ve been given a medical diagnosis which you didn’t expect? And within those unmet expectation places I am certain that people, including family and friends, haven’t always behaved as you expected them to. You thought others would understand better, be more supportive, spend more time listening to your side of the story, and so you end up feeling let down.

And what has all this got to do with Lent you might ask? Well it’s simply this: as I think of Jesus being tempted, I’ve come to believe, that these unmet expectations can be a destructive tool of Satan as he tempts me with his insidious whispers: “If they really cared, or if you “did” enough, or if only you had more faith?”

What then do we do with these feelings? Firstly, recognise them for what they are, just that, feelings, which our sometimes muddied thinking minds, often don’t allow space, or indeed grace, for the whole picture to be considered. Then I need to bring my hurts firstly and fore-mostly to God, and to then try to leave them there. The Psalms are full of laments. However, as you read them you will find that most often they are written from the perspective of being spoken to God rather than other people. Philip in a sermon to his class recently wrote of how when the cloud descends over us, when we can’t see God in our situation, (when expectations are un-met) that is the very time we most need to lean into Him to ask Him to transform us. I both like and am challenged by the idea of allowing God to mould me in ways I may not understand. I also need to remember, that God as El-Roi sees and knows the whole, including the finish of our stories! And therein surely lies our very hope during this waiting for Easter Sunday season.

Having read this now I invite you to perhaps firstly to pause and be real with God about some of your unmet expectations. Then I’d ask you to see Him coming alongside you and hear Him say to you, “child of my heart all that is not known or understood by you, is seen and fully known by me and I can assure you that I’m going nowhere, until, together we cross the finish line.”

Amen. 

 

 

 

Lenten Reflection – Sinead Hussey

This week leading up to Easter I am posting with permission a series of Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. This one by Sinead Hussey is well suited to this Good Friday – ‘Hope in the Darkness’.

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Hope in the Darkness

The terrifying term “pandemic” has been headline news now for weeks.  You cannot turn on the TV, radio, or social media without hearing the statistics about the Coronavirus.

We are living in a world where everyone is facing some level of increased anxiety, stress and fear. Some of us fear catching the virus or losing a loved one, while others fear losing their jobs and what this virus will do to the economy. Fear is a natural reaction to danger, uncertainty and death. Fear, however, can be crippling and can drag us down into despair and hopelessness. Fear can distract us from our relationship with God and the truth that He is in control and “Lord of Heaven and earth” (Matt 11:25).

So what should we do with our fear?

During this lockdown I have been making a list of what the Bible says about who God is.  Writing the list has helped me focus more on who He is and has helped me with the stress this virus has inflicted. I find reading Scripture helps alleviate my stress. It comforts me to know that God is in control, that He is Sovereign and that He has a plan, whether I know his plan or not. By turning my attention to God my worries ease a little.

To remember that God is gracious and compassionate (Ps 145:8-9), merciful (Lk 6:36),  trustworthy, faithful (2 Tim 2:13), good (lk 18;19), kind, (Eph 2:7), wise (Job 9:4), unchanging (Deut 7:9), just (Dan 9:14), holy (Ps 77:13), loving and forgiving (Ps 86:5) helps refocus my thoughts on Him and I feel reassured that we are in this together.  Knowing that He is our refuge and our hope (Ps 46:1), and that He has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us (Deut 31:6) comforts me during these unprecedented times.

Turning my attention to God lifts the stress and anxiety that I feel during this pandemic.

Remembering the truths of who He is, and what he has done, brings me a sense of peace and calm. This peace alongside our future hope moves me/us to respond to this crisis.

So, how do we respond to anxiety, stress and fear during this crisis?

By redirecting our minds to God we can become the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. By focusing on who He is we can be released from fear. We need to remind ourselves that He has a plan and He will protect us.

We respond by offering prayer to others, by keeping in touch with those who are alone, by calling on our elderly neighbour, by doing some shopping for someone who needs it, and by going to the post office for those who are cocooned.

Prayer is an amazing tool we have as Christians. I recently prayed with an elderly woman who has parkinsons. When I opened my eyes after the prayer, she was still, her jerking movement had stopped momentarily. She looked up at me, smiled and thanked me for bringing her so much comfort and peace. This is our privilege as Christians.

Technology is a wonderful tool also and we can use it to stay connected with the more vulnerable.

We can overcome fear and respond to this crises with courage and compassion in knowing we are not alone and that we are part of God’s plan. Hear God say to you today, “Do Not Fear”. Germany Kent says

“Let your life reflect the faith you have in God. Fear nothing and pray about everything. Be strong, trust God’s word, and trust the process.”

Let us join in prayer together and ask God to be merciful and stop the spread of this virus. We ask God to look after the elderly in our nursing homes and to give our healthcare staff the strength and energy to keep doing their job.  We pray that we do not panic. And we pray that  the peace that passes all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen

Lenten Reflection – Paul Burke

This week coming up to Easter I am posting with permission some Lenten Reflections written by members of our church in Maynooth. Some were written pre COVID-19.

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As I write this, Storm Jorge has arrived, the fire is lit, ‘Agus anois an Aimsear’ plays in the background and I sit. The crackle of the fire is echoed outside by the rain on the pavement and the green tarpaulin that flaps and slaps the table it covers.

One could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Spring has arrived. Since the solstice, and ever so slowly, the sun rises higher over the horizon and we emerge from the dark days of winter once more. The clay pots outside my door display nature’s capacity to begin again; snow drops hang like pearl earrings, a pale yellow crocus opens itself as if in worship, the first cherry blossoms are born on bare branches and much is yet to come.

It is in this changing of the seasons, the movement from darkness into light that I consider my own shadow, the ways in which I miss the mark, the ways in which I don’t reflect the light and love of the Divine. The hatred I sometimes feel towards those who make my life difficult. The anger that simmers just below the surface and then is misdirected at those I care most for. The empty places I seek comfort from the pain of living in a broken and often dark world.

In these moments I take comfort in a God of change, a God of renewal.

Forget the former things: do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

Jesus invites us to change when he says ‘repent and believe the good news’(Mark 1v15). The word repent refers to a changing of attitude or mind; to turn in a new direction and to go a different way.

Padraig O Tuama writes on repentance in his book In the Shelter.

To be open to the possibility of repentance is a sign of the goodness of humanity. To consider one self immune from the need for such changing of tune, of mind, of direction or idea is to alienate oneself from the argument of being human. Hello to the gift of being wrong. Hello to the gift of repentance. Hello to change.

Change is often like an unwanted visitor; I’d rather just be left alone. Change requires humility and humility is hard. Change is also slow.

But what if, as I lay to rest the attitudes and actions that are unreflective of the God of Love, something else was born? What if out of the darkness something life giving emerged? What if from beneath the dead and decaying leaves on the forest floor pushed primroses, snowdrops, bluebells, trilliums, anemones and erythroniums? A woodland in spring is a beautiful thing, a tapestry of colours and textures a long time in the making.

We have a God who since ancient times has been weaving threads of love, grace and beauty into the fabric of this world and into the fabric of our lives. Hello to the God of resurrection and hello to the God who is making all things new!

Peace Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

 

10 suggestions towards responding theologically to the Coronavirus pandemic

M12597 Dept of Health_COVID-19 Poster_For Public Offices AWLast Sunday in church we received a communication about Coronavirus from HQ. It was perfectly commonsensical and useful: consider how to greet one another, especially those on welcome duty (probably not shaking hands). Wash hands and generally be sensible in trying to limit potential for spreading the coronavirus as you meet in community.

This is all fine and good to have the issue acknowledged and basic guidelines set out.

But what might be some distinctively Christian things to say at a time of confirmed pandemic? What theological issues are being raised by potential quarantining of whole countries, wall-to-wall media coverage; limitations to travel; economic crisis; pressure on health services; and heightened vulnerability among the aged and ill?

What to make of wildly divergent estimates of potential numbers of deaths? In Germany Angela Merkel said possibly 58 million people in Germany could get it (70% of the population), while an expert virologist said, based on China, it would be more like 40,000. So, give a death rate of say 2.5% of those who get it and that is a rather large margin of error of between 1000 and 1,450000 deaths!

In Ireland you have health minister Simon Harris say that he takes seriously the possibility that the country with a population of 4.8 million could have up to 120,000 deaths. If the death rate is 2.5% that means everybody would have get the virus (he is obviously working with a worst case scenario much higher death rate).

The maths isn’t the issue and I am not qualified to dispute the figures one way or another. The issue is the massive fear and uncertainty of just how bad things are going to get.

These are just initial sketches written on the train home from work, please feel welcome to add your own suggestions for relevant theological themes.

1. Love your neighbour

From Christianity’s earliest days, it was known as a movement of compassion and care for those in need. Such teaching is embedded in the gospels and in John, James and Paul. Their teaching is in turn rooted in the Jewish scriptures which speak of God’s impartial love for the widow, alien and stranger. Christianity lay behind the development of hospitals and the idea that all people, made in the image of God, are worth caring for.

Such love is costly and other-focused. It is impartial – given to those in need rather than making judgements about who is worth loving. The twist in the tale of Jesus’ story of neighbour-love in the parable of the Good Samaritan is that loving your neighbour means practically caring for your enemy.

As the pandemic spreads, love means considering others before yourself. It sure isn’t panic buying in supermarkets. Obviously self-care is part of this – you don’t want to catch Covid-19 and pass it on. But the pandemic calls Christians to consider how they can prioritise helping the weak, the isolated, the elderly who may not have the resources and physical ability to look after themselves.

2. Do on to others as you would have them do unto you

The ‘golden rule’ should govern all Christian behaviour all the time. As Bob Dylan puts it in ‘Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others) in Slow Train Coming

Don’t wanna judge nobody, don’t wanna be judged
Don’t wanna touch nobody, don’t wanna be touched
Don’t wanna hurt nobody , don’t wanna be hurt
Don’t wanna treat nobody like they was dirt.

But if you do right to me baby
I’ll do right to you too
Ya got to do unto others
Like you’d have them, like you’d have them, do unto you.

As much as possible we are to be responsible for not unnecessarily risking the health of others. Especially if in good health and/or young, we may think there is massive hype after what is probably something like a dose of flu. But Jesus’ teaching calls us to put ourselves in other’s shoes – and those include the slippers of the elderly and those with underlying health issues, especially respiratory.

3. Hope not fear

There’s a lot of fear about. Not only for our health but also economic – and that means jobs and all they represent. There is proper and responsible caution about trying to contain the virus. Already today we are told no indoor gatherings of over 100 people which will stop a lot of churches meeting. And this may be necessary.

But when does concern for health and safety turn into unfounded fear? Fear that becomes corrosive and destructive? Fear than becomes overly self-protective? Fear is not a Christian characteristic. Crisis should reveal Christian virtues of faith, love and hope, not anxiety, selfishness and despair.

4. Pandemic as ‘a school for exercise and probation’ of faith

Eusebuis’ Ecclesiastical History tells of how the early church was known for its sacrificial care for the sick in times of war, famine and plague. This is a description of events in Alexandria as recorded by Dionysius (Eccl Hist XXII)

For the very heart of the city is more desolate and impassable than that vast and trackless desert which the Israelites traversed in two generations … men wonder, and are at a loss to know whence come the constant plagues; whence these malignant diseases; whence those variegated infections; whence all that various and immense destruction of human lives…

… But now all things are filled with tears, all are mourning, and by reason of the multitudes already dead, and still dying, groans are daily resounding throughout the city…

[This pestilence was} a calamity more dreadful to them [the pagans] than any dread, and more afflictive that any affliction, and which as one of their own historians has said, was of itself alone beyond all hope. To us, however, it did not wear this character, but no less than other events it was a school for exercise and probation.

“Indeed, the most of our brethren, by their exceeding great love and brotherly affection, not sparing themselves, and adhering to one another, were constantly superintending the sick, ministering to their wants without fear and without cessation, and healing them in Christ, have departed most sweetly with them.”

Many also, who had healed and strengthened others, themselves died, transferring their death upon themselves … So that this very form of death, with the piety and ardent faith which attended it, appeared to be but little inferior to martyrdom itself.

Among the heathen it was the direct reverse. They both repelled those who began to be sick, and avoided their dearest friends. They would cast them out into the roads half dead, or throw them when dead without burial, shunning any communication and participation in death, which it was impossible to avoid by every precaution and care.”

Compared to this the Coronavirus is pretty mild stuff! The Pope’s call to priests to visit the sick is an echo of such courageous love. Putting others first at risk to yourself is profoundly Christian. It is not every man and woman for themselves, but how as communities of disciples we can look after those in need. Of course the Pope’s call is problematic as to how it would work without risk of infecting the healthy. But its instinct is absolutely right.

Behind such action is a belief that death does not have the last word. Christians believe death has been overcome already in the death and resurrection of their Lord. It has lost its sting and power.

5. The illusion of control

In this excellent article (tks SS) the author, wandering empty streets in Venice, reflects on mortality. Is a subtext of panic in the West about loss of control?

If we can only cling to these totems, if we can only wear these items, if we can only take these precautions, we will be safe — not just from death but from the consciousness of its possibility. We will be, once more, comfortably sterilized; we will exist, once more, in a world in which our bodies are under our control.

The virus has confronted us Westerners – cocooned in our technology, medicine, knowledge and freedom – with our own mortality. My daughter says sometimes that human civilisation is only a couple of short steps away from anarchy and chaos and I think she’s right. We are being reminded that we are not in control – however much we like to think we are masters of events, our lives and even our bodies.

As Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, in the West we like to think we have the medical technology to get out of life alive.

The trouble is life has a 100% death rate.

6. Grace not blame

The illusion of control is closely linked to the blame game. There has to be someone to blame for things going wrong. And so you have xenophobia, racism and verbal and physical attacks on individuals or communities associated with ‘causing’ the virus and threatening ‘our’ way of life. Rather than solidarity, sympathy and help and “there but for the grace of God go I”, there is judgment, fear and hate.

I don’t need to say more here – Christians are called to the former, not the latter.

7. Pray

I liked Ian Paul’s comment that when washing your hands, don’t sing Happy Birthday twice, pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Prayer is bringing our concerns and fears to God in faith and trust. It is asking his blessing on others. It brings us consciously into his presence and re-orientates us to think, talk and act in light of the truth that God is God and we are not.

8. Economics

There has been plenty said on this blog over the years about the destructive myths of hyper-capitalism and the toxic effects of the love of money. But of course a well-functioning economy is crucial for human flourishing. You only need to look at waiters standing in empty squares in Rome to see that the days ahead hold much uncertainty for millions of people in regard to possible recession, closures and loss of jobs.

empty square

There are pastoral and practical responses here for churches to help those effected. There is prayer for those in our church communities in management of businesses and organisations to make wise decisions. There is debate and lobbying of government to use its unique authority and power to help individuals unable to work and businesses to survive.

9. Gaining a sense of perspective

There is a deep modernist narrative to life in the West: expectations of endless growth, freedom, happiness, travel, insurance against risk, comfort, health, low infant mortality and long-life. The pandemic poses a moderate and probably temporary challenge to that narrative. Perhaps in a year it will be all but forgotten.

I have posted about this before, but perhaps this is a good time to reflect self-critically on those expectations. It’s worth reminding ourselves how localised geographically and novel historically our modern expectations are.

infographics_malaria03-25If we lived in sub-Saharan Africa we would be used to death and the fragility of life. See this graphic of malaria, a preventable disease. Annual deaths are 438,000. There are 214 million new cases each year (thks SS).

10. Witness

The job of every disciple, whether in a pandemic or not, is this

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15a)

 

 

 

 

 

A mini-essay on why The Good Place didn’t end in a good place

SPOILERS AHEAD

This post will make sense only for viewers of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. If you haven’t seen it and may want to one day, then best to quit now because there are SPOILERS all over the place and I’m assuming a working knowledge of the show – which I’ve loved by the way.

The Good PlaceThe four unlikely friends, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahini (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), have spent 4 seasons of a comedy show navigating some very surprising twists and turns of the afterlife accompanied by their reformed demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) and all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

Who knew that the route to heaven was a complicated points race for good behaviour on earth? Who knew that demons, getting bored of conventional torture in the ‘bad place’, had devised ways of making deliberately incompatible groups of humans drive each other mad in a cheery paradise-hell masquerading as the real Good Place? Who knew that the afterlife was ruled by an impatient judge with little empathy for humans who likes nothing more than binge-watching the Leftovers? Who knew that due to a fault in the system, no human has qualified for heaven in hundreds of years?

Many Christians might find such a premise trivial, not to say heretical. I can understand if it’s not your cup of tea. But underneath the colourful froth and humour, Schur cleverly explores some profound moral and philosophical questions. He combines wit, warmth, fun, and surreal silliness with real emotional and intellectual depth. It’s not often a hit comedy show, with episodes of 25 minutes, includes discussion of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. Can someone be redeemed by learning to be morally good? Where is meaning ultimately to be found? When is judgment merited? On what basis is anyone worthy of heaven?

Over the 4 seasons each of the characters are, in their own way, transformed for the better to live for the good of others: Eleanor the selfish bimbo, Chidi the insufferable ethicist, Tahini the superficial socialite, and Jason the amiable wastrel from the backend of Jacksonville. So much so that finally, and to their surprise, they earn their way to the real Good Place as a reward for fixing the system and giving all humans a fighting chance of getting there.

Good Place Season 4Maybe the show should have finished as they got in a balloon and ascended toward heaven. It would have been a fond farewell to deeply human and loveable characters. But the final double length episode goes a step further to ask ‘What might life in heaven be like?’ And the answers it came up with left me feeling rather depressed.

It turns out that the Good Place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

After 50 episodes, our heroes’ arrival in the Good Place is an anti-climax. It felt, and looked, empty; reminiscent of the artificially manicured campus of an anonymous multinational. Very quickly we get a sense of imperfection. The hyper-nice managers of heaven pass the buck of running heaven on to Michael and clear off as quickly as they can. Why they do so soon becomes clear – perfection is boring. The Good Place, it turns out, is effectively life on earth with all obstacles to pleasure, happiness and fulfilment removed. However, endless satiation, we learn, dulls the mind. Phoebe from Friends is there as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher-mathematician who can hardly remember her name, let alone any algebra. Her mind is turning to mush. The citizens of heaven are a subdued lot – there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge, nothing to fight for as they sleepwalk through eternity.

Faced with such an appalling future, our friends persuade Michael to give people in the Good Place an opt-out clause – non-existence. All they have to do is, when ready, to walk through a door and dissolve into a great nothingness. This introduction of finitude into heaven, paradoxically brings everyone alive again. Life is worth living once more – the party begins and the energy rises. Joy, it seems, can only exist in opposition to loss. Love only gains depth and poignancy in the face of impending separation. Real life only flourishes when it is temporary.

A Future Hope of Non-Being

And so, one by one, our friends make their own journeys towards that pretty door of woven branches in a forest glade. They are in no rush – there is infinite enjoyment in the Good Place after all. There is a sense of perfection or fulfilment to be reached, but once this transcendent moment arrives, it is time to die to the self – literally.

Good Place doorJason cannot ever top a flawless game of Madden with his father. Chidi reaches complete peace with himself, his family and Eleanor. Tahini perfects herself by acquiring endless new skills (I was reminded of Bill Murray in Groundhog day here) and by finding reconciliation with her sister and her parents. Eleanor, the real heroine of The Good Place, finds ultimate fulfilment in helping Michael realize his dream of becoming human and experiencing life (and eventually death) as a mortal.

The mood for each parting is a strange mix of muted grief and cheerful thankfulness for love and relationship that has now reached its end. Jason says goodbye to his beloved Janet. Tahini’s about to go but finds a reason to delay in a new career as an architect creating other worlds – but we can only assume this too will eventually pall and she will return one day, alone, to the door.

The centrepiece of the episode is Chidi regretfully leaving his soulmate Eleanor, despite her desperate attempts to inspire him to stay with her by revisiting together all the places he loves most on earth. But once she sees he has experienced ‘the’ moment of complete fulfilment and ‘has’ to walk through the door, she knows it would be ‘selfish’ to make him stay. It’s like both of them have no choice – they can only submit to the inevitable dissolving of their relationship – and literally of themselves.

Sugar Coated Suicide

Eschatologically speaking The Good Place presents future hope as non-being. Death, ultimately, is the goal. Jason, Chidi and Eleanor all voluntarily end their own lives, their selves fragmenting into the impersonal universe.

In other words, these were at once cheerful, sad, yet noble, suicides (‘an act of taking one’s own life intentionally and voluntarily’).  They may be a very long way from a brutal and upsetting suicide In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri that I wrote about some time ago, but they shared its portrayal of self-inflicted death as poignant and virtuous.

In the finale, in one of the only references to a specific religion in the show, Chidi explains Buddhist philosophy to Eleanor; life is like an ocean wave, it takes form for an instant, before dissolving on the beach and washing back into the ocean. The two lovers are comforted by that image as a prelude to Chidi’s dissolving. He will not be ‘gone’ altogether, his self will be absorbed into the great oneness of the universe.

Everyone I’ve talked to about the finale has shared a sense of unease, loss, ‘being cheated’ or feeling depressed. And for good reason. Let’s be blunt, the message is ‘death wins’. After all the laughs, fun, learning and growth in love among the main characters, all those relationships are eradicated. Why The Good Place was such a great show was the sheer likability of its characters. Each discovers that life at its best is self-giving love for others, but the finale celebrates the cessation of all relationship. The ‘second death’ of Jason, Chidi and Eleanor (to be followed by Tahini and Michael) not only ends the show, it negates what the show has been about.

Which eschatology?

All this made me think afresh about what Christians hope for. A number of contrasts with The Good Place come to mind.

The end of love or unending love?

First, The Good Place’s eschatology is one where individualism trumps love. Chidi has to follow his inner sense of completion all the way to the ‘death door’ in the forest. Obedience to the authentic self comes at the expense of his love with Eleanor.

In the Bible, the goal of God’s redemption is love. The message of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love in the present is just a foretaste of ‘love unleashed’ in the future. The Christian hope is of a ‘good place’ of creative, dynamic and joyful other-centered relationships, where love flourishes to an unimaginable extent as citizens of heaven are perfected to love as God loves. Love, not non-being, is the whole goal.

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

Second, I mentioned earlier the weird emptiness of The Good Place. It took me a while to pin this down and then I realised that it was because when the friends arrive there is no-one to meet them. A few moments later Michael finds himself in charge. The Good Place may be filled with people, but they remain on their own, each pursuing their own version of happiness. And when that pursuit palls, they can always dissolve themselves into an impersonal oneness.

In contrast, Christian eschatology is personal and relational through and through – God’s people together enjoying the presence of God because of his relentless commitment to restore and redeem his good creation.

Probably the most powerful image of this is in Revelation 21. The descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, marks the union of heaven and earth and of God and his people.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christian hope is not happiness, nor heaven, nor overcoming death, nor personal fulfilment: ultimately it is being in the presence of the triune God who is the source of all life and love. Believers look forward, not to an empty paradise, but a new creation in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

Third, using a literalist and individualist perspective The Good Place concluded that heaven will become boring, even oppressive, as the self comes to the ‘end of itself’.

This isn’t a new question; Christians have long speculated about what life in the new creation will be like. Rather than an endless praise service, biblical imagery suggests a dynamic, productive and creative existence full of joy and purpose. From a mortal point of view this is literally unimaginable. No human language can describe an unexperienced future. But the picture is of life in the Spirit lived outwardly to the praise of God and the good of others. It is in giving that we receive life and that is a source of inexhaustible fulfilment.

Death or Life?

The Good Place pictured death as a friend to be actively embraced, a form of release from the burden of even what the very best of life has to offer. Not without reason, there has been a lot of online comment about the finale being a trigger for those wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

In utter contrast, Christian theology sees death as an alien destructive power, an enemy to be overcome, a malign force that ruins God’s good creation and devastates relationships. It is such powerful an opponent that the climax of the whole Bible story revolves around the ‘death of death’ in the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Son, through which death has lost its power:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-56)

Christians affirm life, not a culture of death – however cheerfully and colourfully packaged.

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

Eschatology and Advent (11): is Christianity a delusion?

As Advent comes to a close, this is the final post in our series. Here’s a fundamental question that we are left with:

Is history moving towards an ‘end’? And to be more specifically Christian, is that end a good one in which God renews and restores this broken world?

OR

Are such hopes human delusions? History just keeps grinding away. There have been and are any number of utopian dreams, both religious and secular, that imagine history is about to end and a dramatic transformation is about to occur.

The political philosopher John Gray was on BBC Radio 4 ‘Point of View’ this week arguing the second option. The title of his talk was ‘The Recurrent Dream of an End Time’.

‘Human beings dread the prospect that the world they know is coming to an end, while at the same time they long for a world different from any that has ever existed.’

He gives various examples of a ‘millennarian mindset’ – particulaly political ones – in which hopes of a dramatic and imminent transformation of the world is about to dawn.

Failed Dreams

CHRISTIAN MILLENNARIAN MOVEMENTS – there have been many throughout history

FRENCH REVOLUTION – a new world order of reason – that descended into chaos and bloodshed

COMMUNISM: Russian and Chinese (Mao). Gray could have included Pol Pot in Cambodia setting the clock back to year zero. They also ended in bloodshed, genocide and disillusion.

LIBERAL OPTIMISM: the dream that ‘history had ended’ with the spread of liberal values (Francis Fukayama in the 1990s. It wasn’t convincing then, its seems even more foolish now).

ALIENS: (no, not the movies). Think H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds’ and movements since that imagine imminent catastrophe or new beginnings.

EXTINCTION REBELLION. The world as we know it is about to ‘end’

SILICON VALLEY. The dreams of tech executives that an ‘Omega Point’ in human history is about to arrive where we can develop a new sort of humanity, coupled with AI, to create a new age of transhuman immortality.

“The belief that the end of history is imminent is always near”

Can We Face the Truth?

The reason, Gray suggests, is that if history is linear it is going somewhere. There is a story to the world, to our lives, and the fact that we can have a part to play in participating in that future gives hope.

The human animal, cannot bear to think that its existence has no wider story. It denies the reality that our lives, and our civilisation, will start and end, to be succeeded in time by others.

It is this delusion that Gray rejects. All dreams of a golden new age will perish. There is no escape from everlasting recurrence. History is not going anywhere.

The question is, he asks, is whether we can overcome our obsession with hope of a better age to come, or will we be like the hapless characters in Samuel Beckett’s piece ‘For to end, yet again’ who are always waiting for an ending that never arrives?

If Christ is not raised

Gray is always refreshing to listen to. He sees how much politics, technology and religion overlap in how they represent ways to think about our place in the world. Nothing is ‘value free’ or ‘story free’. He’s especially astute in describing the optimism of so much secular liberalism – that it is somehow ‘beyond’ the outdated and regressive beliefs of religion(s).

So I’m with him. Human dreams of a new age about to dawn are just those – dreams. We do not hold the future of the world in our hands. In fact, we are horribly brilliant at making a violent and unjust mess of this world.

And this brings us right back to advent and apocalyptic theology. The Christian faith is either true or it isn’t.

Either God has been active in and through human history (the story of Israel) or he hasn’t.

Either God has apocalyptically invaded that human history in the ‘once and future coming of Jesus Christ’ (to quote the strapline of Fleming Rutledge’s book) or he hasn’t.

Either history is pitiless endless recurrence (Gray) or it is unfolding in God’s eschatogical time towards the parousia of Jesus, final judgment, resurrection of the dead and new creation in which all things will be finally be put right.

In the Bible, Paul sees this ‘either / or’ of God’s eschatological future or human delusion just as clearly as Gray does.

While he was not writing apologetically trying to ‘defend’ the truth of the gospel (his main concern is to affirm the resurrection to come), in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 he imagines the world if Jesus Christ was just another man who lived and died.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So am I – and you if you are a Christian – a ‘hapless’ figure waiting for an ending that will never come? Well, it all depends if the new age has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or not.

Eschatology and Advent (10) Fleming Rutledge on the good news of judgment

If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?

Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?

This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.

To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?

In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.

One angle is how divine judgment is good news.

I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But

Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)

1. The judgment of God as good and necessary

‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.

Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.

The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)

… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)

(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.

If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.

And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.

  1. Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
  2. Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
  3. Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.

It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if

we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)

… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)

2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment

But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.

This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19

For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …

I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..

‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.

Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5

for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.

This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.

GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)

3. Personal Judgment

And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)

Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.

Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.

We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)

This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.

These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.

Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?

Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?

What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?