Month: April 2012

Miscellaneous thoughts on subject headings starting with ‘M’

I don’t like being home from work sick, and I thought I should do something useful. So today I have been correcting the subject headings starting with ‘M’ of my library catalogue. (For a couple of years, this has been an ongoing project.) It might sound like a job only the most boring librarian would think worthwhile, but duplicate or incorrect subject headings make it much harder to find similar books on the catalogue. When they’re set right, the catalogue becomes so much more useful.

Going through the Ms has taken me across so many different elements of theology, history and wider world, and given me a fresh sense of the attempt by the Library of Congress to classify all this information with uniform headings.

A couple of times, the theological bias towards the established church in an early 20th century mindset show through.

First example – ‘ministry’ is not an authorised heading. You have to choose between ‘Clergy – office of’ or ‘Church work’, neither of which quite get to what Baptists (it is a Baptist library) and other free church evangelicals mean by ‘ministry’. It is not confined to the ordained clergy; it is something for all Christians to do. And neither is it confined to ‘church work’.

Second example – ‘mission’ is not an authorised heading. You have to choose between ‘missions’, ‘evangelistic work’ and ‘mission of the church’, none of which quite get to what evangelicals mean these days by the word. It betrays an old mindset where ‘missions’ were foreign, ‘evangelistic work’ was something done at home, and neither were probably connected to the everyday believer.

And here are the four most interesting random facts I have learnt:

  • Macrina the Younger was 4th century saint who some claim to be a universalist.
  • Marshall, Catherine – I see so many of her books go past in the booksale, especially Christy and A Man Called Peter. The thing which struck me about her Wikipedia article, was that although she remarried after her famous first husband died,  she was still buried next to him when she died three decades after him. I wonder how the second husband felt? Maybe he was understanding of his place in things.
  • Bible scholar C.F.D. Moule had an open life-span(1908-) and I thought he must have died by now. He had, but only just – 2007. Poor guy nearly hung on for his century.
  • ‘Muggletonians’ sounds quite Harry Potterish, but refers to an apocalyptic 17th century English sect, the last member of which died in 1979. Imagine if you were the last one in the world?

Evidence and belief in the God debate

A passage in Paul Chamberlain’s  Why People Don’t Believe (Baker, 2011) struck me. Chamberlain is discussing atheist Richard Dawkins’ attack on Richard Swinburne’s suggestion that too much evidence for God might be a bad thing:

Swinburne’s offending statement was made during a discussion about the existence of God when he was asked how much evidence exists for theism. His answer, as we noted earlier in this book, was that “there is quite a lot of evidence anyway of God’s existence, and too much might not be good for us.”[114] Dawkins is dumbfounded by this statement. Too much evidence might not be good for us! How can too much evidence for anything be bad—especially for a claim as momentous as that God exists?

… In Dawkins’s words, “If God existed and wanted to convince us of it, he could ‘fill the world with super-miracles.’ ” No wonder then that he is astounded that anyone would claim that the very thing that could settle the matter, namely more evidence, might not be good for us. (118-119)

Chamberlain goes on to explain Swinburne’s point by putting forward the idea that God ‘is committed to ensuring we are genuinely free as we make the choice of whether to believe in him’ and overwhelming evidence would remove this freedom.

This passage struck me because I think it is not only one of the stronger objections to theism, but also gets to the heart of the debate between belief and unbelief.

Some observations:

1. Unbelief in the New Testament does not seem to have much to do with evidence. Is it really evidence which holds Thomas back from believing Jesus is risen from the dead? From his perspective it is, but from the writer of John, it seems to be Thomas’s own attitude. I find it easy to understand unbelief in terms of the rich young ruler who has kept the law, but will not give away his riches and follow Jesus. Of course, it’s not an issue of evidence or even belief at all; it’s an issue of commitment and sacrifice. If the reason most people were not Christians was because they were not willing to give up things and follow Jesus, then it would make sense to me. Jesus’ demands are huge; his path is narrow. As an idealistic twentysomething against the world, I used to understand unbelief in this way, as essentially an issue of people’s unwillingness to pay the cost of discipleship. Yet this is not the way many unbelievers would depict their unbelief; many of them genuinely find it hard to believe in God’s existence. (Not a problem encountered in first century Palestine.) And then there is the related issue that the church in general has made it very easy to follow Jesus, and not expected that much sacrifice of Christians. Could this, paradoxically, have made it harder to believe by making Christianity weaker and compromised?

2. The suggestion that God ‘is committed to ensuring we are genuinely free as we make the choice of whether to believe in him’ is a speculative but logical response to the fact that belief in God is no longer obvious to the Western mind. It is a good attempt to answer the problem, but it has an obvious hole for me: for people in previous centuries, there was not this same freedom to choose whether to believe in God. Before the Enlightenment, the existence of God was obvious; there was no sense of people having to make the choice whether or not to believe. It was assumed. Of course, throughout history, many different gods were believed in, and we see in the New Testament a ‘freedom’ of people hearing the gospel to believe in the particular God revealed in Jesus Christ or not. One thing in common between the New Testament and today is that belief in the Christian God usually seemed to take some leap of faith. (But what about Saul/Paul? He seemed to have been overwhelmed by God. He didn’t have any problem believing in God, of course. It was more the question of what God was up to.)

3. We read in the gospels that for those with hardened hearts, it didn’t matter what miracles they saw, what evidence they were given – they would not accept that Jesus was of God. To what extent is this analogous to people who will not believe in God today? For one thing, very few unbelievers today have seen miracles. For another, the point never was an abstract belief like ‘God exists’. Yet these are different times, and the existence of God is a first and necessary hurdle for so many people.

On Being Asked “What is an Anabaptist”

At church recently, I got asked, ‘What is an Anabaptist?’. It’s a recurring question that I’ve come to slightly dread, because I don’t think I can give a satisfactory answer concisely. I should work on this. But also because it is asked with varying degrees of seriousness.  And because this time someone else in the room let out an exaggerated groan, and I’ve always feared that’s what someone’s doing.

The person who let out the groan really meant it, from what I can gather. The sense I get from him is that he believes ‘labels’ and doctrines are what is wrong with Christianity, and that my obsession with Anabaptism represents both. He’s right; I think labels are extremely helpful, especially when they are used intelligently to understand different believers better. Most thinking comes from somewhere, and it’s good to know its source; it’s what gourmands like to do with food. As for doctrine, well it’s used too often as a hammer or a brick wall, but I think Rob Bell’s right in Velvet Elvis and it can be a trampoline.

In terms of answering the question, I decided to avoid the historical angle altogether, because it never seems to help particularly. (It might be worth mentioning that it’s a nearly five hundred year old tradition, but explaining the roots in the Radical Reformation goes so far over people’s heads.) So this time I said that it’s a movement which believes our faith should be more centred on Jesus and his life and teachings. The Bible should be read with Jesus as the norm. Our lives should attempt to live out Jesus’ teaching, including peacemaking, which means Anabaptists are pacifists.

I’ve recreated it better than I said it, and it still falls flat. No mention of ecclesiology, which was is what drew me to the tradition in the first place. But I think you have about one minute of someone’s attention normally. And ecclesiology is the part of Anabaptism which I can’t demonstrate in my life very well any more.

Any explanation of Anabaptism should consider the person asking. How much do they already know about Christianity and theology? What aspect is likely to matter most to them? It’s a contextual exercise, a mix of translation and if not salesmanship, at least apologetics.

What do you think?

Jonathan Sacks on God, Science and the Search for Meaning

In this talk broadcast on Radio National on Good Friday, Norman Swan was interviewing the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks in front of an Australian Jewish audience. It was a wide-ranging conversation, returning often to questions of science and religion, but with Sacks pursuing numerous fascinating byways.

He talks about how the finely-tuned universe and the existence of life were so unlikely that they made God’s existence probable. Stephen Hawking tries to explain the finely-tuned universe by theorising that there must be an infinite number of universes, and we just happen to be in the one where random processes gave us advanced life. Ockam’s Razor requires we go with the simpler explanation, that the universe is divinely designed.

He talks of how Hebrew is a language without vowels, and thus words can only be discerned in their context as the reader supplies the vowels. It gives rise to a more creative, religious way of thinking, a meaning-giving way of thinking, as opposed to Greek, the first language to include vowels.

On the question of other religions, Sacks goes to the story of Pharaoh’s daughter who saved and adopted Moses. In his words, she is to the Hebrews like Hitler’s daughter; certainly no Hebrew, and yet she is saved. For him, the Jewish religion has always been inclusive and God has always been including people of other religions. He uses the analogy of a pair of trousers – singular at the top (God) and plural at the bottom where the legs go in (believers).

I found him stimulating yet comforting, a wise man.