Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (3)

9780567669964This is the second in a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Two on CONTINGENCY, VIRTUE, AND HOLINESS.

The exchange below is located within a complex discussion about Aristotle and virtue. It speaks, I think, right into our contemporary Western culture and its obsession with materialism, comfort, tolerance and equality. Brock’s question about a modern distaste for strong moral convictions evokes a classic Hauerwasian response about having children, abortion, faith, hope and a determination not to let suffering have the last word.

It also speaks to me of the adventure and challenge of being Christian.

BB: … Does it admit the debate or ought we to admit the debate, “Maybe I’d fare better if I didn’t have strong moral convictions?”

SH: Well, that’s one debate that would be well worth generating, if we could! I do think that people are afraid of having strong convictions today.

BB: Life certainly seems to go more smoothly in at least in the short and middle term with less strong convictions. How else would utilitarian and consequentialist modes of reasoning become our dominant modes?

SH: It’s clearly a bourgeois ethic! Or at least the way it works out most of the time. It’s a bourgeois ethic that asks how I can get through life with as little suffering as possible, given the fact that there is nothing that I  deeply care about. My problem with those kinds of lives is, “God, how do you stand the boredom of it!” If we weren’t Christians Brian, what would we end up doing? Drinking, screwing, and dying!

I think that you see the results of the attempt to avoid strong convictions in the avoidance of having children today. I’ve always regarded the debates around abortion as a failure to get at what’s really at stake. And what’s really at stake is people’s lack of confidence that they have lives worth passing on to future generations. So, abortion really is a nihilistic practice that says we’re not going to impose the meaninglessness of our lives onto future generations. That’s really a very sad result.

The supposed lesson of the Wars of Religion was that if we could just get people to not take themselves so seriously, then maybe they wouldn’t kill anyone. Well, they end up killing their children. I have a lecture I used to give on the yuppies as the monks of modernity, because the yuppies really have an ascetical discipline; they would rather have a boat than a child. So they discipline themselves not to have children exactly because why would you want children when you would rather have a boat? What strikes me about such a way of living is it is just so sad.

I regard one of the great moral witnesses of the last centuries as refusal of Jewish people to let Christian persecution stop them from having children. That they would have children in the face of Christian hatred was an extraordinary faith in God, because it’s not that you’ve got faith in your children turning out OK, it’s that you have faith in God, who would have the Jewish people be for the world a sign that God will not give up on us. (49)

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (2)

9780567669964This is the first is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post.

In this excerpt, Brian Brock asks Hauerwas about his method of writing his autobiography, Hannah’s Child.

BB: Having talked a bit about the question of why you wrote the memoir, let’s talk more seriously about how you went about doing it.

For instance, in every presentation of the self in writing, the writer has to locate herself within the conventions of the culture and the writing, identifying the canon which the writer wishes to join. You’ve already, as you do in the book, talked about Trollope being your model in a sense. To write is to opt into all the exclusions and elisions that positioning oneself within a canon demands. The ambiguity of all confessional, autobiographical, or memoir writing lies in the writer having to inhabit those conventions, the conventions of the day, and therefore to present themselves as inevitably artificial constructions. Writing in this way necessarily straddles the fuzzy boundary between literary convention and personal memory, and memory
itself is organized by conventional tropes and frames of reference. I take this to be one of the core reasons that you’ve resisted the comparison of Hannah’s Child to Augustine’s Confessions , and you only very guardedly and partially embrace this connection in your responses to those reviewers who have suggested it. You proposed instead that you stand closer to the tradition of the English realist novelists. That’s a positioning in relation to an established canon that I’d like to understand how to negotiate.

You’ve already said that you thought long and hard about how to write the book and the core question there had to be of what form would convey rather than threaten what you believe is most important about the particularity of your own life and theology. Is that right?

SH: I think that’s right. It’s lovely put.

It’s always important to try to read an author for what they don’t say, as well as what they say. There’s much in Hannah’s Child that isn’t said. I tried to avoid the “personal,” because I didn’t want— and this has to do with the point I made at the outset today— I didn’t want Hannah’s Child to be a legitimation of “my experience.” So I didn’t talk very much about my experience.

I didn’t notice a trope that is much used when I was writing the book, but folks kind enough to read the book have called my attention to it. The trope “I didn’t understand.” For example, I say I didn’t understand what it meant to go to seminary, I didn’t understand what it meant to marry Anne, and I didn’t understand what it meant to move from Notre Dame to Duke. I didn’t. I really didn’t, because I’m the kind of person that tends to make decisions and be willing to live them out, without having thought them through! That has worked out OK for me. I’ve talked with friends in the academy who have had a job of offer, and they use phrases like, “I’m not sure this would be a good career move.” I could never use a phrase like that. It’s never occurred to me that I have a career that I needed to be one place rather than another for the advancement of a career. My life has happened to me. That’s a wonderful thing. (8)

 

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (1)

A wee while ago I posted a book notice about Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Kevin Hargaden and featuring a series of extended discussions between Brian Brock [BB] and the man himself [SH].

The book is a creative format that draws you into what I’d call an ’embodied theology’. By this I mean Hauerwas has been willing to open up his life and thought beyond what emerges in Hannah’s Child. Indeed he admits he may not have known what he was getting himself into when he agreed to the idea of a series of conversations. [That theme of not knowing or understanding pops up throughout the dialogues. It’s another aspect of SH’s honesty and his humility (this might not be a word that many associate with SH but I think it is true).

I put ‘life’ and ‘thought’ together, because a by-product of reading these discussions is a reminder of how none of us are Cartesian ‘brains on a stick’  – disembodied objective minds rationally deducing truth with a capital T. All of us exist, think, live and work in specific contexts by which we are profoundly shaped, and Hauerwas is no different.

He’s lived a pretty tumultuous American life: full of friends, a lot of pain, a deeply ambivalent attitude to the idea of modern America, and an endless energetic work habit. It’s the latter that has propelled him from being an outsider to an insider; from the son of bricklayer to one of the most prolific and significant theological voices in the world. One thing he’s not is dull. So one of the beneficial, and perhaps unplanned, outcomes of what are deeply theological conversations, is the new light that is cast on Hauerwas the man.

I’m not drawing straight lines here between Hauerwas’ theology and his life. BB and SH talk about this issue a fair bit, particularly in chapter 1 on the writing of Hannah’s Child. Hauerwas resists any easy deconstructions (not that BB is attempting this – he’s far too astute. Heck at times, such is the depth and insight lying behind BB’s questions that it seems that BB knows and understands SH better than SH does!).

But what comes out in Hannah’s Child and in this book, is how Hauerwas’ writing projects, his idea of a ‘career’, his marriages – the whole trajectory of his life – just sort of unfolded, unplanned. This is not to say he was not ambitious and driven. But there is a real sense that he lived ‘in the moment’. Without complaining or much introspection he just got on with things regardless of the circumstances of his life (and at times they were grim). There is a sense of someone who survived and flourished in and through a relentless work routine. And, it must be said, the God-given gift of a brilliant mind.

Out of all of this contingency the famous ‘Stanley Hauerwas’ emerged.

One of my favourite exchanges captures SH’s innate ‘anti-success’ approach to theology in general and being ‘Stanley Hauerwas’ in particular. Brock brings out a lovely reverse parallel to Saint Paul. In Corinthians Paul describes his willingly embraced experience of suffering and rejection despite his right to be called an apostle. Hauerwas distances himself from being revered as ‘Stanley Hauerwas’ and insists that his ‘success’ is mostly due to factors outside of himself – especially his friends.

BB.  You and he are making very similar gestures but to opposite ends, it seems to me. He is being treated like rubbish, even though he’s an apostle, and so he tells his story to counter that. You’re being treated like the hero, so you talk about your friends to puncture that. Is that correct?

SH. Yes. I didn’t write my story to say, “Do this.” It’s the story I had to tell, and it had to be told that way because that’s the way my life has been lived. Namely, I’ve always been saved by friends who by claiming me as a friend make me more than I am. It turns out by making me more than I am, I am not the same “I am” I was before the friendship.  (7)

That’s a flavour of the conversations. Here are the chapter headings that follow a very well written Foreward by Kevin. I’m not going to review the book, but in a few follow up posts will clip a favourite exchange from each chapter (hard to select one but will try).

FOREWARD. Kevin Hargaden.

  1. BIOGRAPHY, THEOLOGY, AND RACE. Special focus here on the ethics and mechanics of writing Hannah’s Child. I think this was my favourite chapter in the book. Fascinating.
  2. CONTINGENCY, VIRTUE, AND HOLINESS. The densest chapter – on metaphysics and the implication that the ultimate contrast between God and all that exists.
  3. TEMPERAMENT, HABIT, AND THE ETHICS GUILD. What it means in practice to be a Christian ethicist.
  4. ECCLESIAL POLITICS, PEACEMAKING, AND THE ESCHATOLOGY
    OF WORSHIP. Discussions around the church and peacemaking and the transforming hope of the Christian narrative.
  5. ARE CASUISTRY, NATURAL LAW, AND VIRTUE METHODS? Brock really does interrogate Hauerwas here on his method of theological ethics.
  6. JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER. Themes most closely associated with Hauerwas the anabaptist. He is pushed hard here on specifics.
  7. MEDICAL ETHICS, DISABILITY, AND THE CROSS. The upside-down ‘anti-success’ kingdom emphasis of Hauerwas, especially on disability.
  8. PREACHING, PRAYING, AND PRIMARY CHRISTIAN LANGUAGE. Explores how prayer is central to Hauerwas’ thinking and writing. Reveals particularly, I think, a deeply engrained Christian habit of prayer that flows from a lived faith. This ventures into areas that many academic theologians fear to tread. As ever SH kicks against false modernist conventions that attempt to divide faith and reason.

AFTERWORD: Brian Brock and Kevin Hargaden.

PS. I happily received a free copy, but unhappily the book costs £85.

 

 

 

 

The Shack (2) Critique

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 2, unchanged.

PS: If you don’t want to know the story, stop reading now

Part 2: The Shack: a review article

Cracks in the woodwork

The sheer success of The Shack, combined with the controversy it has provoked, has meant that the book has been dissected, deconstructed, defended and derided by a phalanx of bloggers and commentators. One of the publishers (Wayne Jacobson) who had an active role in shaping the final script has issued a response to some of the main criticisms; presumably with the agreement of the author.[1]

So what is all the fuss about? First, a couple of alleyways we won’t venture down. Given that all art is subjective, to discuss whether the story works well as literature won’t get us very far. Some find the ending where the body is found and the killer caught far too neat by half. Others detest the book for being manipulative in terms of exploiting the deepest fears of parents of losing a child to a serial killer. Whether these reactions are fair or not, is ultimately a reader’s judgement. And since a fictional story of one man’s experience of God cannot be read like a theological textbook, I find criticisms that the book is not explicit enough on salvation, or the role of Scripture in the life of a believer, rather miss the point.

What is fair, and Jacobson welcomes, is a robust discussion of some of the theological ideas that are presented in the book. ‘Presented’ is the right word here. There is a definite agenda to communicate a corrective vision of an authentic relationship with God over against what the author perceives as the legalism, hierarchialism and institutionalism of much North American Christianity. This is where the story gets ‘edgy’ – it has a campaigning, anti-status-quo feel. In my opinion, the core theme of the book is that God desires people freely to choose to be in relationship with him. This is at once a source of some of its strengths (see Part 1) and its weaknesses. It’s the latter we’re going to look at now.

A reduced vision of God?

Young’s vision of a freely chosen liberating relationship with God has two sides. First, as Papa tells Mack, “True love never forces” (p.190). God’s love simply invites a response. Papa says “I don’t want slaves to do my will; I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me” (p.146). At one point Mack asks Jesus “So now what I am supposed to do?” and Jesus replies “You are not supposed to do anything. You’re free to do anything you like” (p.89 emphasis original). In talking about the cross Papa says, “Reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done may part, totally, completely, finally. It is not in the nature of love to force a relationship but it is in the nature of love to open the way” (p.192).

Second, this inviting love of God is the antithesis of duty, law and obligation. This is what Mack struggles to grasp and has to be set free from for healing to occur. Repeatedly Mack is told things like “I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation, or coercion, only through a relationship of love” (p.126). Sarayu tells him “I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation” (p.205). To be genuine, this response must be completely free from the pressure to perform to earn God’s approval. Papa says to Mack, ‘Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else … because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.”

What should we make of this? The trouble is that it is at once absolutely right yet, at the same time, a damaging distortion. It is gloriously true that the heart of the gospel is about believers being set free in Christ from law and slavery (Gal. 5:1) and that the ‘only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Gal. 5:6) since love fulfils the law (Gal. 5:14). Since this relationship is based on grace, it cannot be earned, but is lived out day by day in thankfulness and joy. However, the repeated emphasis on our total freedom to choose this relationship by responding to God’s invitation leads to at least two problems.

First, God becomes dependent on human decision making. Jesus at one point is described as almost pleading with Mack. It is almost as if God is ‘waiting on the end of the phone’ for us to call and take up his offer of forgiveness and relationship. Young (and Jacobson) are obviously sincere and passionate about loving God. But I think that on this point they are more conditioned by the Western myth of the totally free individual making authentic choices than they realize.

Second, by focusing on only one aspect of God’s love, Young reduces God to having no expectations of Mack or anyone else. The real Jesus isn’t so undemanding!: “Take up your cross and follow me”; “If you love me, you will obey what I command”; “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Similarly, one of Paul’s favourite exhortations is “Live a life worthy of the gospel”. Despite the book’s claim that the word ‘responsibility’ is not found in the Scriptures, they are full of commands for God’s people to fulfil their responsibility of being in covenant relationship with a holy God. It is an over-reaction to equate works with law – we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph.2:10).

Church as optional extra?

It is also in the context of the absolute necessity of human freedom that the book’s controversial comments about the Church belong. On the one hand, Jesus tells Mack that he loves his bride, the Church, which is full of individuals in whom he delights. Yet, on the other hand, Young has Jesus say at one point “who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian” (p.182) and “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will” (p.179). This is obviously a deliberately provocative way to put it; the point being that, as Young’s Jesus puts it, the Church is a man-made system and “that’s not what I came to build” (p.178). Mack realises that his friends do love Jesus, it is just that they are at the same time “sold out to religious activity and patriotism.” (p.181). This sums up Mack’s negative church experience – and you get a strong sense the author is writing autobiographically here.

Of course what Young suggests here is not unique. Many have made similar criticisms of evangelicalism and undoubtedly there is truth to the charges. However, Young offers an overly negative way to interpret the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’. He also buys into a popular – and mistaken – evangelical dualism about the Church as a body of genuine believers in opposition to being an organization. This sort of dichotomy would not only be foreign to the Reformers’ high view of the church, but it fosters a view of church as an optional add-on to personal faith – an attitude that would be baffling to Paul and pretty much all of church history. But, more seriously, this (very modern) sort of individualistic faith effectively detaches trust in God from the biblical narrative. For instance, apart from Jesus making a joke about his big nose, it appears virtually irrelevant for knowing God that a Jewish Messiah stands at the heart of God’s unfolding redemptive purposes for Israel and the world.

Is the God of The Shack too nice?

In response to criticism that God in The Shack is ‘too nice’, Jacobson points out that Mack is held to account for “every lie in his mind and every broken place in his heart.” This may be the case but it does not really address more important questions about the nature of God. Jacobson argues that God is “not the angry and tyrannical God that religion has been using for 2000 years to beat people into conformity”. Similarly, at one point in the story Mack asks God “Honestly, don’t you enjoy punishing those who disappoint you?” (p.119) Papa replies “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it” (p.120). Now, yes, sin is deeply self-destructive and there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. However, this is at best a partial view of God and sin. Is punishment really absent in God’s response to sin? Do we simply judge ourselves through our own bad choices? This cannot be squared with Scripture where God is the judge and it is unfortunate that both Young and Jacobson resort to presenting a caricature of a vindictive God who enjoys judging in order to reject the concept of his punishing sin. What then does God forgive us for if he only needs to cure our habit of making bad choices? It is the wonder of the cross that it is there that God’s wrath and God’s mercy meet. God’s judgement falls, not on us, but on the one who willingly gives his life, takes our place and dies our death. The problem with The Shack here is it ends up setting God’s love against God’s holiness – a nice loving God overcoming a nasty judgemental God. This will not do. God’s judgement is an act of love that establishes justice and gives hope. Without it, God is not God at all.

Universalism?

The Shack’s downplaying of God’s judgement inevitably means that there are strands within it tending towards universalism. The author’s attraction to Universal Reconciliation (UR) has been documented.[2] Jacobson candidly acknowledges that early drafts of the book leaned in this direction and the finished edition has corrected this error. Certainly there is a passage that explicitly rejects universalism. Jesus is asked by Mack do “all roads lead to you?” Jesus’ replies “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere [but] I will travel any road to find you” (p.182).

However, there are still strong traces of universalism within the fabric of the story. One is found in Mack’s meeting with his abusive, alcoholic father. The scene is a vision given to Mack by Sarayu of how God sees reality. Jesus is gloriously revealed as king of the universe, surrounded by his worshipping people. One of these is Mack’s father, with whom Mack is then reconciled. What is not explained, and needs to be, is what had happened to transform Mack’s father. The unspoken inference is of universal reconciliation with God. This implication surfaces again in Mack’s dialogue with Sophia when she shocks him by asking him to choose which of his children to send to hell. Mack cannot make such an awful decision and desperately offers to go instead. Sophia reassures him that his reaction is like God’s – a perfect self-giving love for all his children that costs everything. The message is clear: it is inconceivable that a God of such love could send any of his children to hell and that Jesus’ giving of his own life means that everyone is rescued from such a fate.

Trinity, Hierarchy and Women

Few issues are more significant, or hotly debated today, than the nature of relationships within the trinity. In Part 1, I argued that Young successfully helps us imagine the fellowship of mutual love between Father, Son and Spirit. Despite this, a couple of significant criticisms remain about other aspects of the book’s trinitarianism.

One revolves around the scene where Papa shows Mack the scars on her wrists remarking that at the cross “We were there together” (p.96 emphasis original). In one sense this is right; the Father does not abandon the Son to his fate. It is crucial to understand the cross as a triune work of salvation – otherwise you end up the gross caricature of a reluctant Son being punished by an angry Father. However, Young’s image is very misleading in that it blurs the distinction between Father and Son. It was NOT the Father who became the incarnate Word who was crucified at Calvary. This is a heresy called Patripassionism (the ‘passion’ [death] of the ‘patros’ [Father]). To be fair, I don’t think Young intends to say this. It looks like a case of pushing an idea (the unity of God’s saving action at the cross) too far.

The second idea, for which Young has been much more strongly attacked, is his insistence that the trinity is completely egalitarian, without any sense of hierarchy. Indeed, hierarchy is utterly foreign to God’s nature; it is a symptom of a human lust for power, control and independence:

“we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command … We don’t need power over the other … Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours … You actually rarely experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you … You humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that relationship could exist apart from hierarchy. So you think God must relate inside a hierarchy like you do. But we do not.” (p.122-4)

This flat denial of hierarchy within God is closely connected to Young’s simultaneous rejection of any notion of hierarchy between the sexes. Men and women, Mack is told by Papa, are also created for “a circle of relationship, like our own” in order to be “counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinct in gender but complementary” (p.148 my emphasis).

Now this is, of course, controversial territory. On gender, debates rage between ‘complementarians’ (affirming hierarchy between the sexes, the subordination of women to men, and leadership roles in marriage and church being restricted to men) and ‘egalitarians’ (who, like Young, reject all of those positions – although it must be said Young expresses a pretty extreme form of egalitarianism).[3] These discussions are closely connected to parallel ongoing conversations about whether the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father. Christian orthodoxy as outlined in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds insists that Father, Son and Spirit are co-equal and co-eternal. This is not in dispute, but the question is can hierarchy co-exist with full equality? (as people like Wayne Grudem proposes in his influential Systematic Theology). Or is hierarchy within the trinity intrinsically incompatible with equality and may actually open the door to the old Arian heresy that the Son is lesser than the Father? (as Kevin Giles argues).[4]

Without getting deeper into what are complex discussions, the relevant point here is that these are very much ‘live’ questions without obvious ‘orthodox’ solutions. In lots of reviews of The Shack it is surprising to encounter the consistent assumption that what Young says here is obviously heretical. It is not! Many broadly agree with him here (me included) and it is historically and theologically wrong to dismiss his egalitarian views as unbiblical.

Conclusion

This has been a longer two part article than I imagined starting out, probably due to my verbosity! But it is, I think, also an indication of how remarkably, in a short narrative, the author manages to open up debates about a whole range of important theological questions. In my view, the biggest challenge the book poses is how can the thrilling reality of the triune God and the astonishing good news of the gospel be communicated in accessible, compelling ways to an Irish culture that appears inoculated against Christianity?  Yes, the book is deeply flawed, and certainly unorthodox regarding a number of core Christian beliefs. It needs to be read discerningly as a result. But it can also be taken as an invitation to think afresh about the God we worship. Certainly it is provocative – but if it provokes readers to go back to Scripture and wrestle with what it says about the trinity, human freedom, gender roles, the cross, judgement, and what it means to love God and be loved by God – then it is well worth spending some time in The Shack, cracks and all.

Patrick Mitchel

[1] Wayne Jacobson ‘Is The Shack Heresy?’ http://windblownmedia.com/shackresponse.html

[2] James B De Young, ‘At the Back of The Shack: A Torrent of Universalism’. May 2008. http://theshackreview.com/content/ReviewofTheShack.pdf. De Young lists 12 tenets of UR more than a few of which surface in The Shack. Basically it teaches that God has already effected reconciliation at the cross and this reconciliation will be applied to everyone, either in this life or after death.

[3] For a good explanation of both sides, see Craig Blomberg and others, Two Views of Women in Ministry (revised edition). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

[4] Kevin Giles, Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

The Shack (1) What the Shack gets right

A conversation with a dear friend this week about the release next Friday of The Shack in the USA, reminded me of a two part review that I wrote back in 2008.

So without any comment on or knowledge about what the film will be like, here is Part 1, unchanged. Part 2 to follow.

if you have read the book, what was your take on it? How do you think the film will be received?

 

The Shack: a review article

Part 1: What The Shack Gets Right

Warning: if you don’t want to know the story, don’t read on …!

What sort of God do you really believe in? How do you relate to God emotionally? Do you ever consider how the three persons of the triune God interact with each other? How do you square God being an all-powerful being of infinite love with the reality of unimaginable continuous suffering and injustice in this broken world? Why does the church so often seem very unlike Jesus? How will God treat all those people who are not Christians? How can I forgive those who have done great evil to me and my family?

If these sound like questions in the syllabus of a theology course, you begin to get the picture that The Shack by William P Young is no ordinary story of fiction. Given the subject matter and that it is virtually a self-published book, it is all the more remarkable that is has become a publishing phenomenon. As I write, it is no. 6 in the Amazon bestseller list and no.1 in the New York Times Bestsellers of paperback fiction for the 24th straight week. The Shack website announces that over 4 million copies are in print and a movie is on the way. While being a very North American story, its popularity in Ireland is widespread. As I talk to students and visit churches, significant numbers of people have read it, most love it and some churches are using as the basis of discussion groups.

It is also a book that provokes strong reactions. A few minutes of ‘Googling’ will reveal an apparently endless maze of critiques, reviews, comments, debates, warnings and ardent recommendations. (This article, I guess, will add one more link to that maze). Some issue cautionary advice never to open its pages; some offer balanced assessment of its pros and cons; while comments on the book’s cover say things like ‘The Shack will leave you craving for the presence of God’ or ‘this story has blown the door wide open to my soul’ or it’s as good as Pilgrim’s Progress (Eugene Peterson).  Wow.

The Story

The story is simple and is structured to facilitate one man’s encounter with God. For four years Mack has been living in his ‘great sadness’ following the kidnap and murder of his young daughter, Missy, whose body has never been found. His seminary training and former church experience have proved unable to provide answers to his anguished questioning of God. His faith has been mothballed, his life grey and without hope. In the midst of his depression he receives a mysterious invitation from God to journey back to the shack in the wilderness where Missy probably died. What follows is Mack’s life-changing meeting with God, who is astonishingly unlike anything Mack had imagined.

The attractive power of The Shack

Now The Shack is a novel, but it is novel packed with specific theological views, most expressed directly by God. So it would be fair enough at this point to begin a point by point theological assessment of the picture Young paints of God. While there are real weaknesses with what he says in places (and I’ll look at some of the reasons why the book is so controversial in part 2), a more constructive question to ask first is ‘What is it about The Shack that has so captured peoples’ hearts and minds?’ I think there are at least six things Young does remarkably well:

A personal God

In an increasingly post-Christendom and materialistic West, there is a widespread longing for ‘something more’, something spiritual. In Ireland we’ve had plenty of bad religion. Authoritarian leaders, self-interested church institutions, power games, frequent fusion of faith and politics (whether Protestant or Catholic), abuse of the weak, and lots and lots of conformity where faith in Jesus gets somehow reduced to the (often boring) routine of ‘going to church’. Mack too has struggled with an experience of Christianity that seems hollow. His meeting with God blows such religious staleness out the door because he meets a God who is ‘Good News’. Young captures something important here – something that recalls Jesus’ encounters with the religion of his day. The God of The Shack echoes the father figure in the parable of the Good Samaritan; shockingly forgiving, loving and joyful. Rightly, Young wants to remind us that the heart of the Christian faith revolves around a personal God who delights to be in relationship with those he has made in his own image.

God as a triune ‘dance’

One of the most discussed aspects of the book is Young’s depiction of God as a trinity of ‘Papa’ (a large cheerful African-American woman), Jesus (an ordinary looking guy of Jewish looks) and Sarayu (an Asian woman with a mysterious shimmering presence). Any attempt to depict the trinity is doomed to fail in some respect. However, before dismissing his attempt, he should be given real credit for taking the triune nature of God seriously. Yes, some of the dialogue and scenes between Father, Son and Spirit are cringe-worthy – but Young is on to something. He describes God as being in himself a united community of mutual perfect self-giving love. Papa tells Mack, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourself. We created you … to join our circle of love” (p.124). The old Greek word for this is perichoresis – a ‘dance’ of love between the three members of the godhead – and it is into this community that Christians are welcomed by grace. Indeed, it is because God is in himself a fellowship of love that we, made in his image, are destined for love and relationship. Papa puts it this way; “If I were simply One God and only One Person … you would find yourself without something wonderful … all love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me” (p.95). This sounds very like how Jonathan Edwards put it in The Mind, “in a being that is absolutely without any plurality, there cannot be excellence, for there can be no consent or agreement.” I suspect this is not how many Christians think of God. Young succeeds in making the reader think afresh about the remarkable wonder of God being one yet also a co-equal and co-eternal fellowship of three persons.

Hope beyond suffering

During the story, Mack undergoes a profoundly emotional journey through desperate grief. Any parent could identify with his numbing loss. I admit I cried! On meeting God, Mack is finally able to ask the deep questions that have so wracked his soul. The answers he receives are not the ones he had been conditioned to expect. He emerges changed forever. The ‘great sadness’ has been lifted and he can now live most days with a sense of profound joy, able to embrace ‘even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted by invisible hands of love’. What does God say and do to effect such a transformation?

It is here that Young is extremely creative in how he manages to conjure up a marvellous sense of Christian hope. This life, and all its suffering and pain, is not all there is. Mack weeps for joy not because he has intellectually grasped the free will argument (of which more below) but because of the vision given to him of Missy, alive and well with Jesus. God had never abandoned her, even in her suffering and death. Mack is transformed by this eschatological hope, that there is life beyond what Paul calls our ‘light and momentary troubles’. Young is spot on here. The gospel is such good news that it meets our deepest longings for life beyond death. The ‘really real’ world lies beyond this one – a healed new heavens and earth, of beauty, worship, justice, peace and joy. The Shack gives us a glimpse of how this powerful Christian vision of the future can transform lives in the here and now and is all the better for it.

The problem of pain

A central theme of the story is how can a good and omnipotent God can allow such evil as the kidnap and murder of a young girl? This is deep theological water that many of the greatest Christian thinkers over the centuries have tried to navigate. There are no easy answers, and The Shack is essentially is a re-statement of the ‘free-will defence’ – for our choices to be real, God allows us genuine freedom, but such freedom entails the possibility of great evil. As Papa explains to Mack; “All evil flows from independence and independence is your choice … This world is not a playground where I keep all my children free from evil. Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me … all things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies” (p.190-1).

What Young does exceptionally well is to hold onto a number of crucial truths about God and suffering:

i. God will overcome evil (“it will not have the final say … I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light (p.191)).

ii. He allows our broken world to exist but he is not the author of evil – in fact Mack’s real problem is disbelieving God is good (“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.” (p.185)).

iii. He is not distant from suffering. In fact, in Jesus he has self-sacrificially walked into the maelstrom of this world’s violence and injustice in order to overcome it.

iv. From our finite perspective, we cannot know the deeper purposes that God is working through suffering. During Mack’s encounter with Sophia (God’s wisdom personified), she invites him to sit in the judgement seat of God. His refusal is reminiscent of Job’s realisation that who is he to judge God? Overall, it is this capacity to ask questions many of us struggle with and answer them with depth and integrity that makes The Shack thought-provoking and helpful reading on the problem of pain.

The transforming power of forgiveness

Forgiveness is another deeply emotive issue that surfaces during the story. This is complex territory but I think Young strikes a compelling note of grace that resonates with the good news of the gospel. I have read some criticisms that Mack’s forgiveness of his daughter’s killer is not ‘biblical forgiveness’ because the murderer does not first repent. I could not disagree more! If we demand that the offender says sorry before offering forgiveness, then forgiveness is not of grace at all! Yes, full reconciliation is not possible without repentance, but this is a second step dependent on the response of the offender that the Christian cannot control. Christians are called to take the risky first step in forgiveness. Mack has been so transformed by God’s grace he is able to offer undeserved mercy (that is what grace is) to the killer without knowing the response in advance. Nothing describes the astonishing grace of God in Christ better. Such forgiveness is courageous, attractive and powerful – and is, I think, the most inspiring aspect of the book.

Truth in story

The final reason for the book’s popularity is, I suggest, the obvious fact that it is a compelling story. Young is not the best writer you’ll ever read, but he has created an honest, deeply human main character with whom readers can readily empathise. We are made with imaginations and emotions as well as minds. Does Jesus himself, the greatest storyteller, not remind us that truths about God, suffering, forgiveness and heaven need to be grasped at all these levels if they are to be truly known? As Lewis and Tolkien brilliantly demonstrated, Christian fiction has a unique capacity to engage the whole person with questions of faith. The Shack may not be up to their standard, but it does successfully invite the reader to become part of the story themselves, grapple with profound questions of life, death, forgiveness and redemption in an accessible way, and reflect on the wonder of a personal loving triune God in the process. Not too many systematic theology textbooks manage that!

Patrick Mitchel

Next Part 2: Cracks in the woodwork

What is the Bible?

Interested in a really useful resource for helping people understand the Bible?

Thanks G for pointing me to these guys at The Bible Project.  They are doing a very impressive job of producing short clever, animated videos on how the Bible, and each Bible book, fits together.

I remember many years ago Peter Cotterell at London Bible College saying that something understood profoundly can be explained simply. He’s right. And these guys have done that. The videos are easy to understand, but behind them is a ton of hard thinking, careful theological judgements, and creative communication.

Here’s a wee 5 min sample on The Image of God.

And what I really like is that it is all for free. A gift to the church.

How do you think of the Bible? What is it? And more specifically, how do you think the NT relates to the OT?

For me, it’s all about story. A story framework is the way to unlock ‘the drama of Scripture’. The Bible is a complex narrative with all sorts of sub-plots. But if you can get the overall plotline clear, the rest starts to fall into place.

It’s a great way to teach the Bible. It opens up the Scriptures and educates the church to understand their place in God’s story. It’s a wonderful way to preach too.

Once you start to see how the Bible functions in multi-layered biblical theological categories, there is no going back. It’s full of life and imagination. It’s how the Bible is given to us. It draws you in to the story. All sorts of doctrines come into sharper focus within the unfolding narrative of God’s redemptive engagement in the world, through his people.

It’s a journey that I have been on for years and I continue to love it.

Systematic theology has its place sure. But it doesn’t ‘fit the rhythm’ of the Bible. It too easily leads to abstraction and rationalism. Primacy of place has to go to biblical theology.

I’m thinking out loud here, this image might work, it may not.

Narrative could be seen as the skeleton giving shape and coherence to the overall body of Christian theology. Without it, you have a spineless blob. Maybe the best way to think of systematics is as theologians as experts in their distinct bits (systems) of the body.  But what is going to connect the parts, give them shape and coherence? You need narrative to do that.

This, I believe, is the way to do theology. I teach Christology and pneumatology, both through a narrative lens (the focus of both courses is primarily biblical) and it brings alive the thought world of the New Testament writers.

The NT as a whole, I think, is best understood as an exercise in ‘retrospective theology’. The writers are looking backwards – in light of the world-changing events of the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit – to (re)tell the old [OT] stories of God, sin, salvation, covenant, law, Israel, promise, land, Messiah, Spirit, and creation itself in a new way. These stories are not complete innovations. Not at all. They are continuations of the old stories, but radically reshaped in light of Jesus and the Spirit.

One of the best examples of how narrative theology can be compelling and attractive, as opposed to systematic categorisation of abstract doctrines is to compare a standard bullet-pointed evangelical statement of faith with this   wonderful, accessible and attractive narrative account of what Christians believe from my alma mater.

It’s also worth thinking about how narrative theology has a special capacity to unite evangelicals who share basic convictions about the truth of the story and the means by which it is told (the Bible).

Reformed theology at its best has a strong narrative structure around creation, redemption, consummation – all held together through the thread of covenant. But there are many who are not Reformed who share a deep conviction about the importance of narrative theology – take Methodist Ben Witherington and his 2 Vol magnum opus The Indelible Image for example. Anabaptists like Hauerwas are also great advocates of narrative theology.  [Hauerwas and Jones edited one of the best academic books around on the topic. It explores the use of narrative in a much more complex and broader scope than my narrow focus on biblical theology in this post].

Comments, as ever, welcome.

C. S. Lewis on love and grief

The love sonnets in the previous post were written by the American Joy Davidman to C. S. Lewis.

A series of 45 Sonnets were only discovered in 2010 by Douglas Gresham (the younger of Davidman’s two sons) and have been published in 2015. Don W. King, The Naked Tree: Love Sonnets to C. S. Lewis and other Poems by Joy Davidman.

davidman-lewisDavidman and Lewis’s relationship has been well told of course – not least by the 1993 film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

They started corresponding in 1950, she first met him in 1952. She was divorced in 1954 from a long troubled marriage to William Gresham. Davidman and Lewis were  married in a civil ceremony in 1956, apparently on his side more to help her stay in the UK when her visa ran out. It was only really when she fell fatally ill with cancer that Lewis finally realised he had fallen in love for the first time in his life.

His subsequent and deeply moving book  A Grief Observed, (in which he called her H) recounts his own honest cries of the heart following her death in 1960 (Lewis himself would only live until 1963).  While that work has been in the public domain since 1961, Joy Davidman’s poems remained hidden away, undiscovered, in an attic.

What’s fascinating is the question of just how much his wife’s passionate honesty and uninhibited love changed Lewis. The sonnets show how infuriatingly passionless she found the confirmed bachelor academic!

In utter contrast to the platonic friend that she wished would shoot her dead rather than kill her with his kindness is his own description of marriage in A Grief Observed. How Joy Davidman’s love eventually broke through his English reserve!

For those few years H. and I feasted on love; every mode of it — solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.

And this on the physical embodiment of love:

There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.

And this desperately sad passage revealing how she had shaken him out of his old life and opened him up to a life that perhaps he had not even suspected existed :

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant — in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back — to be sucked back — into it?

I guess King and many other Lewis scholars will be reassessing how his wife’s many previously unknown poems, which he almost certainly read, may have shaped his own writing in A Grief Observed and elsewhere.

One thing is sure, her love profoundly changed his understanding of love – for love cannot be understood in theory, but only in the experience of loving others and being loved.

Yet all love has an end. Lewis wrote about the end of his unexpected, dazzling and yet all too brief love affair in typically compelling prose:

And then one or other dies. And we think of this as love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid career or a flower with its head unluckily snapped off — something truncated and therefore, lacking its due shape. I wonder. If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.

And this to close.

Does H. now see exactly how much froth or tinsel there was in what she called, and I call, my love? So be it. Look your hardest, dear. I wouldn’t hide if I could. We didn’t idealize each other. We tried to keep no secrets. You knew most of the rotten places in me already. If you now see anything worse, I can take it. So can you. Rebuke, explain, mock, forgive. For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives — to both, but perhaps especially to the woman — a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Eros and unrequited love – who is this in love with whom?

As part of a writing project I’m reading and researching on love and came across these love poems. They are remarkable.

Can you guess the author? And to whom they were written?*

You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out she is a woman – she’s madly in love with someone very famous.

What do you think of them? Of her? Of him?

What lines grab your attention? Why?

She wrote many more of these poems – a few below are selected around her earthy, passionate love for a man who seems to know of love only in the abstract.

There are powerful theological questions here:

What is a Christian view of sex, the body, and physical desire?

Do you find her erotic love disturbing, ‘unspiritual’? Too frank and ‘needy’? Or is her transparency beautiful in its heartfelt humanity?

Does his aloofness represent almost a sort of gnostic detachment from the material world? Is he perhaps afraid of real flesh and blood life and love, despite knowing much about it theoretically?

Or is he rightly focused on ‘higher’ things, a sort of modern Saint Paul in his resolute commitunrequited-lovement to singleness and a God-given mission?

One thing is sure, they show the risky ‘dark-side’ of love – love cannot be forced. You can’t make someone love you, however much you love them. Loving another makes you vulnerable to the agony of unrequited passion.

Don’t cheat by googling!

XVIII. You think you know something about kindness and pity. But you only
know these things in your head. Yes, yes, it is all well and good for you
to say “God loves you.” That is not the point. I do not want that kind
of love, as if I was an angel. I am flesh and so are you (whatever else you
may say). You run from passionate love and unwillingly play into your
enemies’s hands. What you call love — platonic, affection, friendship—
does nothing to whet the flesh. And I almost hate you when you give
me that passionless smile. I am left cold. I do not want your kindness or your pity. I think you know I want more.

XX. Yes, you are kind, sorry you cannot give me the kind of love I want.
You say you love my sharp wit and my courage. What is more, you say
you have warm feelings of friendship for me (are not those just the
kind of things a man gives a woman who longs for so much more!).
But you say you cannot love me the way I want. And then you have
the audacity to tell me that I am not exactly “plain”- in fact, you say,
someone else might even find me attractive (do you not know this cuts
out my heart!). “But I,” you say, “really do not care for brunettes.” Dear
Christ! I did not lose out because of his love of God. No, I have lost out because I am not a blonde!

XXII. Can I really blame him for not loving me? I guess he cannot help
not knowing what to say that would soothe my bitterness. But neither
can I help my loving him. If I was a fair hair and fair skinned lass, I
might win him and avoid falling into my self-imposed pit of pain. Who
should be blamed then? If it is God he wants, so be it. I, on the other
hand, stand stricken, numb and mute. And I confess, as my heart
breaks, that I cannot forgive God for my pain.

XXV. You are pathetic. Stop it. No amount of crying will bring him back. He
was never meant for you. It does not matter if you lie awake all night
in silent agony or whether you cry your eyes out. In fact, when you
weep, he just “prays harder.” It would not matter if you could break
the bars of hell and ascend the walls of heaven. He does not want you.
He is “with God,” probably in his prayer closet. Dear Christ, can you
not just leave him alone to his Lord and his “spiritual calling?” No, I
cannot. One day he may need me to salve his wounds.

XXVII. A torturer could hardly have done more-stripped me to pay off
debts, thrown me into a blaze to keep him warm, drank my blood for
drink, ate my flesh for food, or shattered my fingers for pegs. Or he
could have sired his children of lust on me. Instead, you kill me with
kindness-speak softly, invite me to live on sighs, and teach me to lie
through my smiles. You have always said you wanted nothing, that all
you want is to help me. I would rather you shot me dead.

XXXV. Tut, tut, my love. You thought you could rely on your love of God—
your wonder at His creation and your service to Him as His prophet—
as if they would be a magic circle around you. You failed to account
for feelings and emotions, especially those awakened in a woman like
me. You saw your mistake and tried to retreat. Too bad. It is not that
easy. Now a hollow-eyed female wraith haunts you, its head bobbing in
a frightening fashion, its bones clacking, its voice whispering venom.
Poor child. You should have known better than raising the dead.

XXXVI. Your naivety astounds me! It is as high as a mountain of ice. I could
have tamed a herd of fire-breathing dragons or scaled the burning wall
of a citadel. But your mountain office was too much. It was your childlike innocence—not your sexual purity-that thwarted me. Surely you know that hell is thought by some to be a lake of ice. _______, you are my
Antarctica, my Newfoundland, my continent of ice! If only I could
come to you at night, slip into your bed, and press my lips to you!
Then, I believe, you would not care about the colour of my hair.

XXXIX. Do not scorn me for what follows. Because I am a woman, I long to
kiss your lips, and I long for your hands to caress my breasts. Such
desires are only natural, including my desire to lie next to you, skin to
skin. And don’t scorn me for calling your name in the darkness, for
reaching out for you blindly hoping to find you in my arms. My body
was made for you and yours for me. Blame God for my desires, not me.
I have spent the last three years of my life bloodying my fists against a
bolted door. These same bruised and bleeding hands could do much
to teach you how to love me tenderly, certainly much more than what you have learned from praying.

* In the next post I’ll reference the source where these are published

Contested Love (4) idealistic optimists versus pesky pessimists

Some questions about love.

What sort of characteristics or virtues are necessary for love to take root and grow? Do you see love as that which requires discipline and hard work? What does such work look like in practice?

Or is love natural, easy, automatic and instantly available to all? Add a bit of passion and voilà! Love is in the air!

Are you an optimist or a pessimist concerning love?

These are the sorts of questions raised by reading Simon May’s excellent Love: a History.

Today, optimism rules regarding love.  In the West love is:

  • like God, eternal, overcoming death, as that which lives on after us
  • gives meaning to ordinary life
  • sacred – it connects us to a higher realm
  • the source and measure of true happiness

May says this modern idea of love as the grounding of meaning has no grounding itself – it has become an object of faith.

As we saw last time, historically Christian love has had two dimensions: love as divine and love as humility.

To love in Christian theology is to be recipients of God’s love and grace. Grace is gift which leads to a deep sense of humility. May does not really develop this, but love is primarily a work of the Spirit. The believer is empowered to love. Love does not come easily or naturally. It takes the discipline to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and ‘keep in step with the Spirit’.

Modern love has become detached from classical Christian love – the two sides of love (love as divine and humility necessary to love) have become ‘unstuck’.

Now we have love as divine – but without the humility.

“Without an all-powerful God to hold them together and serve as a standing reminder of how severely hard love is, as well as fundamentally beyond our control, they have simply gone their own separate ways, producing extremes of optimism and pessimism about love, both of which have damaged it.” 93

The optimists are in the majority: we all want to believe in love don’t we? But this is a love that is easy, romantic, lovely, and that which brings happiness. This is the radically democratic, universally available love that is celebrated, sought after, idolised, worshipped and pursued.

But with little sense of the need for the humility / obedience / discipline and the sheer hard work and stubborn covenant commitment required for love to last.

This makes much modern love superficial and thin. Everybody has a right to love and can love instantly. (And cease to love just as quickly) ‘Love’ can be emptied out to mean virtually anything.

But those pesky pessimists are a significant minority, throwing all sorts of dark and complicated spanners in the bright sparkly world of optimistic love:

The pessimists are those who have set about deconstructing the fantasies of optimists. So to the deep cynicism and pessimism about love in prophets of doom concerning love: atheists like Nietzsche and psychoanalysts like Freud (of more anon).

 

Has science proved the irrationality of faith?

This post is prompted by listening to “The Infinite Monkey Cage Christmas Special” – you can listen to it here.

It’s hosted by Professor Brian Cox (he of numerous TV series etc) and Robin Ince. The guests on the programme were Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock), cultural anthropologist and editor of the Sceptic Magazine Deborah Hyde and the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines.

Now it’s a sort of comedy come scientific education reality show .. sort of hard to categorise. However you define it, it’s popular – this is its 15th series. It’s an enjoyable listen, if trying a bit too hard to be funny.

The theme of this show was ghosts and “the Victorian obsession with the supernatural.”

This was no New Atheist rant against the dangerous irrationality and intolerance of religious faith. But (not far) under the surface, some very familiar themes were bubbling.

Basically the topic of ‘ghosts’ could just as easily have been ‘God’ or – as the blurb on the website says – the supernatural in general.

  1. Science and the measurement of reality

Cox began the show with a statement: We are here to investigate reality. When it comes to ghosts, there is nothing to investigate because they do not exist. For some sort of persistence of people after death to be possible there would have to be an “extension to the standard model of particle physics” that has escaped detection at the CERN Hadron Collider – something inconceivable at the energy scales that it is now able to measure.

His point goes beyond ghosts to any notion of a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ – anything that would somehow interact with our bodies must be detectable. Cox asserts (his term) that they can be no such thing as an energy source that drives our bodies.  We are purely material, physical beings.

Similarly, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that there was nothing he had encountered that defied his “complete knowledge of maths, physics and astrophysics.” Belief in ghosts etc was simply the ill-informed seeing mystery in things they did not understand.

Deborah Hyde commented that belief in the supernatural is the “default setting for human beings” and it takes “a lot of education” to come to understand things as they truly are. In the past it was “forgiveable” that people believed such things and it provides comfort in the face of the realities of life and death.

She added belief in the supernatural “plays into” human nature – “we don’t see the world as it really is.” We are finite and limited. We can’t see infra-red, electrons, gamma rays etc etc. Humans are enormously attuned to a very narrow range of stimuli (faces, movement) and tend to see the world through that (distorting) lens.

It is the genius of science, she implied, that has educated and set us free from the narrow psychological need to see the world in spiritual terms.

To this Tyson made an impassioned plea NOT to believe in or trust the hopelessly limited 5 senses of the human body. Science has access to dozens and dozens of sophisticated senses to measure all sorts of things the human senses have no access to. So successful has science been that it makes sense of the world, it transforms our cultures and has incredible explanatory power. So to believe in something spiritual beyond the human senses is not hard. But to believe in “some spirituality” beyond the vast modern day scientific apparatus is hardly tenable.

And going forward, anything seen as ‘spiritual’ will almost certainly one day be explained by advances in science.

To his credit, Bishop Nick Baines responded that Christianity says there is more to reality that what is measureable. It also deals in questions of meaning and purpose beyond the boundaries of science, but the overwhelming flow of the programme was that science is the gateway to knowledge and objectivity.

Nothing will stand in its way as an explanatory tool to understand all reality. The ‘spiritual’ and the ‘supernatural’ will eventually be squeezed out of existence by the onward march of the inquisitive scientific pioneer.

  1. Scientism

Now as I heard the show (and this is simply my take on it, my opinions are demonstrably falsifiable – just ask my family) this was an entertaining form of scientism – the belief that scientific enquiry forms the limits of our cognition and that any knowledge or belief claim that does not measure up to empirical enquiry is at best inferior and most likely a delusion.

It was a celebration of science, not only for what science can do but for what it is ‘disproving’. The whole ethos of the show is the elevation of experts sharing with us insights into the reality of the world; a top-down hierarchy of knowledge to be shared (in an entertaining way) with the masses.

Science deals in the trade of measurements, instruments and fact; religion is in the realm of unprovable opinions.

This is very much a modernist celebration of the advance of rational objective enquiry and the increasingly discredited and unbelievable world of subjective and credulous faith.

  1. A Conceptual Brick Wall

It seems to me that there is what I call a conceptual brick wall being built here; an inability to grasp that Christianity (I will focus on Christianity rather than the supernatural in general) believes in a God who created the material universe but who is distinct from that universe. He existed prior to it and will continue to exist if it ever collapses. He is not by necessity a material being but a Spirit who cannot be ‘measured’ in material categories.

  1. The ‘ghost’ of Immanuel Kant

kantThe ghost who was really present in the studio was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He wanted to ‘save’ religious faith from rational enquiry and tried to do so by redefining the scope of human reason.

Human reason was the basis of human knowledge, but it could only lead into knowledge of the empirical world. This was true objective knowledge.

That which does not belong to the material, spatio-temporal world (e.g. God, supernatural) cannot be comprehended by the human mind. So faith, for Kant, lay elsewhere, in man’s moral sense; in the realm of the subjective, as opposed to the world of ‘pure’ reason.

Brian Cox & co are disciples of Kant in their claim that knowledge only lies in the empirical world of scientific measurement. Yes, people may believe that there is something beyond the materialist view of the universe, but such claims are subjective (nonsense).

  1. Reflections

Kant’s ideas were a dead end philosophically. Christian truth is not confined to the realm of private subjective moral feeling. It is ‘public truth’, open to enquiry. Neither is it irrational. It has 2000 years of deep theological and philosophical tradition that has explored profound questions of existence. It is rooted in real historical events concerning the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Of course the Christian faith is not a total explanation of everything, but no belief system or worldview can ever be a total explanation of everything – including science.

Indeed, the Christian faith is not even really a ‘belief system’ or a ‘philosophy’ or an ‘explanation’ of reality. It is a faith in a person – the resurrected Lord.

I guess my feeling in listening to the Infinite Monkey Cage were these:

  • These guys (Cox and Ince and guests) are very smart
  • They know it
  • They are also very confident
  • And that self-assurance is leaking over into an over-confident celebration of all things scientific whereby science itself seems to be the measure by which reality and life can be understood

I guess I am just not that confident.

We don’t live in Kant’s Enlightenment Age, intoxicated by the apparently infinite capacity of human reason and all the good it will do. We life in a post-modern world, rightly sceptical of those who confidently claim to have the keys to knowledge.

Yes the rise of science and human reason has led to unimaginable advances, but also to unimaginable brutality and a contemporary ‘culture of death’.

Rather than deGrasse Tyson dismissing the Bishop at one point “Yes, you can get all philosophical if you want”, it would have been good to have a hint of humility that maybe science doesn’t have all the answers. That maybe things that can’t be ‘measured’ – like love, forgiveness, truthfulness, character, compassion, hope, joy – are what really make life worth living.

Comments, as ever, welcome