Friday, February 29, 2008

Solving Environmental Problems

This arises out of a discussion (more an agreement) I had the other day with one of my tutors...

The fundamental problem with the environment is that people usually act in their own interests. If there is a publically available resource (for example, air or the sea), then costs caused by damage to that resource are shared between everyone, but benefits arising out of use of that resource belong to the person who used it. Hence cost/benefit analysis for any one individual or small subgroup (e.g. a country) tends to be skewed towards exploitation of the resource.

In order to prevent such environmental problems happening, we need to find a way of making the personal interest of the individual coincide with the best interests of humanity, as Adam Smith nearly did with capitalism where the interest of the individual coincides with the wealth of society as a whole, which is why it is such an effective way of making countries richer. And in the case of states such as China, we need to find a way to make the best interests of the government coincide with the best interests of humanity.

Jostein Gaarder - the Ringmaster's Daughter

When Jostein Gaarder is at his quirky best, he is magnificent, especially when showing wonder at the world around us. Sadly, he doesn't do that much in the Ringmaster's Daughter, his quirks don't quite work, and the book is a lot poorer as a result.

The main character is a boy/man who is very bright and has an incredibly fertile imagination - he keeps thinking of stories, but doesn't have the persistence to write a novel. So he sells his work, and ends up getting caught in a trap of his own making.

The main problems here from my point of view was that the main character wasn't that believable - I can cope with magical philosophers (as in Sophie's World), but in stories meant to be set in the real world, kids don't think like that. That, the fact there is too much sex for a Gaarder novel and the fact the twist is so incredibly obvious.

This seems to be Gaarder a very long way from his best.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Islamic Reformation?

Turkish muslims start looking critically at the Hadith. Good news - and about time too! That sort of criticism of religious traditions is best done from within a religion.

Tozer - Omniscience

God perfectly knows Himself, and, being the source and author of all things, it follows that He knows all that can be known. And this He knows instantly and with a fullness of perfection that includes every possible item of knowledge concerning everything that exists or could have existed anywhere in the universe at any time in the past or that may exist in the centuries or ages yet unborn.
A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy

Monday, February 25, 2008

Religious Pluralism

Time for some quotes on religious pluralism. Sorry for the lack of blogging - a combination of quizzing, work and my girlfriend getting back might be to blame.

First up, some unintentionally contradictory ones from the same page of an utterly awful book:

The infinity and ineffability of God-Mystery demands religious pluralism and forbids any one religion from having the “only” or “final” word.

Pluralism tells us that there is no “one” that can be imposed on the “many”.

Paul Knitter, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness

So, does that "one" which can't be imposed include pluralism then?

And a sensible one from Michael Green, which gets thought provoking too.

I find it ironic that people object to the proclamation of the Christian gospel these days because so many other faiths jostle on the doorstep of our global village. What's new? The variety of faiths in antiquity was even greater than it is today. And the early Christians, making as they did ultimate claims for Jesus, met the problem of other faiths head-on from the very outset. Their approach was interesting... They did not denounce other faiths. They simply proclaimed Jesus with all the power and persuasiveness at their disposal.

Michael Green

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Coming into the Presence of God?

This is a case study of what I wrote yesterday about conservative / charismatic arguments.

What happens

One aspect of corporate worship which is very important to a lot of charismatics is spending quite a while singing and praising God, for example following John Wimber's pattern of call to worship, engagement, expression, visitation, giving. When done best, the "worship time" also often has prayers, silence and space for individual responses, as well as the opportunity to pray with others.

People find that when they do this, they often feel much closer to God, and are often challenged to live their lives for him to a greater extent, to the point where it can become the dominant element in what Christians do when they meet together.

How it is described

Because people feel much closer to God during this, it is often described in terms of us "coming into God's presence" or God "coming and visiting his people" or "the Holy Spirit coming".

Conservatives tend to hear these descriptions and point out that actually the person's status before God hasn't changed. Because they are often still reacting against medieval Catholicism, saying that performing certain actions gets us closer to God or God closer to us is completely anathema. And to an extent, they're right to say that (but it's worth noting Hebrews 10:15-25, which could plausibly be used in this debate but I've never seen used by either side. I don't think either Heb 10:22 or James 4:8 is talking about contemporary charismatic practice.) So from the conservative point of view, all that changes in such "worship times" is our feelings, not any reality, and hence there's no point to it.

Why it is actually a good thing

But that misses the point, and what is actually going on in "times of worship". Yes, sometimes there is manipulation of affections and induced ecstatic states and so on. But often there is something very important and valuable going on. I'm going to try to give a tentative account in more conservative language of what is going on.

It is good to spend time thinking about God and praising him. It is good to sing to him, and to sing to others about him. Yet our thoughts about God should not be dry and academic - if we think about God accurately, we should be excited about him and delighted in him. If we love God, we should love him, and that is not a merely emotional response, but neither is it less than an emotional response.

Music is a powerful way of thinking about God, because it uses more of us than just saying words does. Good songs should use our minds and our feelings, and our spirits. That means that if we sing about God or to God, we give more attention to him than we would do if we were just saying the same words, so it becomes easier to shut everything else out and focus on him. If we just sing one song then sit down, it is very easy to get distracted by the chairs or the person in front of us or something. So singing several songs in a row can be more helpful. In the same way, spending one minute studying the Bible is usually less helpful than spending 20 minutes, because our train of thought has more opportunity to think about what is being said.

So spending extended times singing about God can help us think about God more fully than having five songs split up by notices or sermons or whatever.

And it is good to prepare ourselves before studying the Bible, or before driving or swimming or anything else. So it makes sense to prepare ourselves before spending time thinking about God (call to worship). Id we are to praise God, it is good to be reminded and to remind each other of what God is like - that is the standard pattern in the Bible (engagement). On considering what God is like, the natural expression of that is to praise him (expression). And it is only to be expected if when praising God and aware of what he is like and his holiness yet nearness to us, we feel that nearness more consciously than when we are distracted by everything else around us.

To my mind it is a shame that those who spend time using extended times of music and prayer to contemplate and praise God do not describe the experience correctly, which leads others to avoid doing it altogether.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pointers on Preaching

Dan Edelen has posted some questions for preachers on his blog (modified from some Mark Driscoll asked).

  1. The Biblical Question: What does Scripture say?
  2. The Theological Question: What does Scripture mean?
  3. The Memorable Question: What is my hook?
  4. The Apologetical Question: Why do we resist this truth?
  5. The Missional Question: Why does this matter?
  6. The Christological Question: How is Jesus the hero/savior?
  7. The Praxis Question: So what are the next steps toward daily living out this truth in your life and mine?

How Conservative / Charismatic Arguments Happen

Here's a quick stereotype, which seems to be true far too often. I'll give a detailed example later.

  1. a Charismatic who hasn't got a strong theological background but has a real love for Jesus has a valid and helpful Christian experience
  2. that experience gets described theologically in a way that is clear to the people concerned, but is actually inaccurate in a strict sense
  3. Conservatives come across this description and realise that it isn't theologically accurate
  4. Conservatives conclude that the experience is wrong and/or dangerous
  5. Conservatives miss out on the helpful and valid experience
  6. Charismatics observe conservatives missing out on the helpful and valid experience and conclude that they are resisting the work of the Holy Spirit.

The big mistakes here are stages 2, 4 and 6. To prevent this stereotype from happening, charismatics need to learn to express their experiences clearly, and in a way that is theologically accurate and conservatives need to learn to see the strengths and validity of people's experience, even when it isn't explained clearly.

Case study here, on "coming into the presence of God in worship".

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Edwards on Beauty

God is not only infinitely greater and more excellent than all other being; but he is the head of the universal system of existence; the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty; from whom all is perfectly derived, and on whom all is most absolutely and perfectly dependent; of whom, and through whom, and to whom is all being and all perfection; and whose being and beauty is as it were the sum and comprehension of all existence and excellence: much more than the sun is the fountain and summary comprehension of all the light and brightness of the day.
Jonathan Edwards

There's a fairly easily accessible piece on Edwards' views of beauty here.

Great Bit of Materials Science

I really like this story on the BBC website, because it's a lovely bit of science. There's a solid that's made of small molecules with lots of hydrogen bonds, which means the molecules hold together well, and if you break it apart, it will stick back together really easily of its own accord.

The obvious problem is water - water sticks to hydrogen bonds very well, so there might be issues if it breaks then gets wet. It would be very hard to dry, and the water might muck up the resticking ability. But there might be ways round that, and it's a very very nice idea.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Christian Beauty

I've been thinking about this a bit recently. I think one of the implications that we (or me as a conservative evangelical at any rate) often miss of Christ is that he transforms our notion of beauty via the renewing of our mind (Rom 12:2). So part of what it means to be living as a Christian is to be displaying this sense of beauty (and to be becoming more truly beautiful ourselves as we come closer to Christ).

It would be easy to make one of the mistakes Hillsong are sometimes characterised as making here and then using the world's notion of beauty to inform how we should be becoming, but it's rubbish. And it's easy to criticise them as they are stereotyped, but at least they got far enough to realise there was an issue of beauty to be considered!

Here are a couple of quotes that illustrate something of what I mean?

But when the church puts belief into practice, in relation to man and to nature, there is substantial healing. One of the first fruits of that healing is a new sense of beauty. The aesthetic values are not to be despised. God has made man with a sense of beauty no animal has; no animal has ever produced a work of art. Man as made in the image of God has an aesthetic quality, and as soon as he begins to deal with nature as he should, beauty is preserved in nature.
Francis A Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man

Grasped in its proper Trinitarian depth, the gospel narrative not only breaks down all human perceptions of beauty, goodness, and truth, but reorients these broken perceptions around the centre to which it bears witness, and in this way reconstitutes and perfects them. Jesus' cross and resurrection are like a magnetic point around which history and culture take on a shape which could not be anticipated from any perspective they themselves provide, and which they could not otherwise have assumed...
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama

So what does this Christian conception of beauty look like?

The obvious answer is "Jesus", but it's also surprisingly deep. Do we think of Jesus as beautiful? Do we think of the woman's costly and humiliating devotion to Jesus (Matt 26, Mark 14) as beautiful? Do we think of the preaching of Christ as beautiful (Rom 10:25)? Do we think of the gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet 3:4) as beautiful?

There's some more thinking that needs to be done here...

Small Talk

Beauty and creativity are good, but I'm still a geek.

(from the great and ever-so-useful-in-quizzes xkcd)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Beauty and Creativity

One of the things I've been thinking about a bit recently is the important place that beauty and creativity should have in the Christian life. I'll give some theological justification for that later. In the meantime, here's a (not especially good) creative thing I did based on the opening of the Te Deum.

And yes, my girlfriend is away on mission. Can you tell from the fact I'm blogging a lot more?


Apologetics is providing a reasoned defense for the Christian faith, whether to Christians or non-Christians. I hereby propose the term "unapologetics" to refer to giving facetious answers to spiritual questions.

Do pets go to heaven when they die?

Of course they do. We're told that heaven is a great banquet, and we've got to eat something!

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Benefits of English Weather

The French will never have lawns as good as ours until they have as rotten a climate.
Horace Walpole

Quotes on Christology

Here are some quotes from my reading on 20th century Christology.

I find it very hard to see how someone can base faith on a narrative which they hold to be historically fictitious.
Mark Edwards

Grasped in its proper Trinitarian depth, the gospel narrative not only breaks down all human perceptions of beauty, goodness, and truth, but reorients these broken perceptions around the centre to which it bears witness, and in this way reconstitutes and perfects them. Jesus' cross and resurrection are like a magnetic point around which history and culture take on a shape which could not be anticipated from any perspective they themselves provide, and which they could not otherwise have assumed. This single point of fact contains a meaning that surpasses, consummated and embraces every other projected meaning.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama

One of the consequences of the Western Church's two centuries of fumbling with the historical-critical method is a loss of any sense of the connection between the classical doctrines of the Church and the text of scripture.
David Yeago

What is so profoundly odd about Philippians 2:10-11 is that it identifies the prophesied universal acknowledgement of the unique deity of YHWH with the universal cultic acclamation of an apparent “other”, Jesus of Nazareth. The difficulty is palpable: if “there is no other” how can the bending of knees and the loosing of tongues at the name of some other be compatible, much less identified with the recognition of the “glory” of the God of Israel?
David Yeago

A reduction in Jesus Christ's saving significance is precisely what Arius's present-day representatives want, for implicit in much modern critique of ancient theology is the supposition that we do not really require saving because in some sense we are intrinsically able to save ourselves, in some way we are already implicitly or potentially divine.
Colin Gunton

Friday, February 15, 2008

Action Films

I've watched a bit of action-type stuff lately. Or more accurately, I watched it a while ago and haven't had much time to write stuff up for here.

Die Hard 4.0

Classic Bruce Willis. Incredible action sequences, though the one where the car crashes into the helicopter just couldn't work... Basically fairly high quality spectacular escapist tosh. And the ending takes Willis's famous "shoot the hostage" tactic to another level.

24 Series 1

Yeah, I know it's been out for ages and I must have been hiding under a rock or something to miss it, but I went for years without a TV and everything... For those who don't know, it's a real-time (with ad breaks) 24-hour TV terrorist/spy drama.

Quite simply an amazing TV series - the production values are a long way ahead of even the recent series of Spooks, which is made to look like a poor British copy. The action and suspense are very well done.

A friend of mine said "you can't watch just one episode of 24", and told me that the trick to watching them is to stop it at the slight dip in the storyline about 20 minutes into an episode rather than at the end. Good advice. There are quite a few twists - pretty much every episode ends with a twist or a major plot development, often involving death. I remember one episode where I was fairly surprised that no-one had died and it was 40 minutes in, but it didn't stay like that. Even without the plane, I suspect the body count of this series might well make it into three figures. It's that sort of show.

Lots of people apparently say that the twist at the end of series 1 doesn't make sense. It does.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

1 Samuel 7 - Faithful Prophetic Leadership

This is a summary of a sermon I did on 1 Samuel 7. I didn't record it, and don't have a precise transcript.


1 Samuel 4:10-11

So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

1 Samuel 7:13

Throughout Samuel's lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to her, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the power of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.

What a different three chapters and twenty years makes. In 1 Samuel 4, Israel are being destroyed by the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 7, the Philistines are the ones being destroyed and Israel are taking all their land back. In 1 Samuel 4, God is glorifying his name, but he does it in spite of Israel. In 1 Samuel 7, everything is the way it should be. What makes the difference?

Faithful Prophetic Leadership.

1 Samuel 7 is also the integration point for the whole of 1 Samuel so far. In 1 Samuel 1-3, we've got the story of Samuel, his birth and his call to be a prophet. In 1 Samuel 4-6, we've got the story of how God was glorifying his name even though his people were being destroyed. And here, in 1 Samuel 7, we see how the two fit together. God's prophetic leader transforms the fate of God's people.

I'm going to draw out three characteristics of faithful prophetic leadership.

Faithful Prophetic Leaders Call People to Repentance

We see this in verses 2-6. In verse 3, Samuel says

If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

So do we, as leaders, call people to repentance? Do we call them away from their idolatry and to God? Do we point out what their idols are, and tell them to reject them?

Idols of image - wanting people to think we are beautiful, or sound, or passionate, or honest, or sexy, or clever. Would we rather our children were rich, successful, well-educated and happy than that they were faithfully following Jesus on a rubbish tip in Brazil? Faithful prophetic leaders call people to repentance.

Faithful Prophetic Leaders Pray for their People

We see this in verses 5-11. Samuel prays for the people. The people see they need it - verse 8. And it is because Samuel prays for the people that God rescues them - verse 9.

Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel's behalf, and the LORD answered him.

What expectations do we have of God? Do we pray for our people? God in his grace often chooses to wait until the leaders turn to him in prayer before pouring out his blessing. God says that the prayers of a righteous man are powerful and effective - not because there is anything magical about them, but because God loves to answer prayer. So do we pray for those we have responsibility for?

Faithful prophetic leaders pray for their people.

Faithful Prophetic Leaders call God's People to a Remembrance of God's Blessings

Verse 12

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far has the LORD helped us."

Do we do that? When God blesses us as individuals or as a congregation, do we set up a reminder of what God has done for us. Do we remember "Thus far has the LORD helped us"? What that would look like would be different in different settings, but it matters that we remember.

Every time an Israelite walked past that stone, they'd remember "Thus far has the LORD blessed us", and they'd be more likely to trust God for the future, because they'd know he'd blessed them in the past.

So do we call people to a remembrance of God's blessings?

The Perfect Prophetic Leader

Of course, the perfect prophetic leader is Jesus.

He is the one who calls us to repentance, to turn away from our idols and to him.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
Mark 8:34

He is the one who perfectly prays for us - he is at the Father's right hand and is also interceding for us. Hebrews 7:25 says that Jesus always lives to intercede for us. Jesus perfectly prays for us.

And Jesus is the one who perfectly calls us to a remembrance of God's blessings, by his Spirit living in us and by giving us Communion as a way of remembering and participating in his death for us, so that as we receive we can say "Thus far has the LORD helped us."


Monday, February 11, 2008

God and Suffering - the Pastoral Question

In part 2 of my recent series on "Does God Suffer?", Iconoclast asked me about pastoral responses to suffering.

Of course, often it's best not to say anything, and just to be with people.

However, the following theological points are relevant:

  1. God suffers with us and for us. He is not a remote God who inflicts suffering on humanity; he is a God who shares in the suffering of humanity through Jesus.
  2. In Jesus, God overcomes suffering and demonstrates that it is not the final word.
  3. In Jesus, God redeems suffering and shows that he can and does use even the rubbish of his son being crucified for good.

Calvin - Private Admonition

After all, why is it than such an evil has become prevalent in today's society? No-one is admonished in private and more in order to bring them back to God, but the sins that were hidden are slanderously published abroad. Why? It is only because each one of us closes the door, having itching ears that cannot bear to hear the truth about ourselves.... Brotherhood cannot exist among us without such mutual correction, where we all willingly submit to one another.

John Calvin, Sermon on Galatians 6:1-2

And yes, he does go on to say how important it is to be humble in correcting others.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rowan Williams and Sharia Law

Once again, the media's inability (whether deliberate or otherwise) to report religion stories accurately, and the Archbishop's apparent inability to see how people will misunderstand what he says have hit the news.

There's decent analysis of it here.

As far as I can tell, only Islamists want Sharia Law in England. Rowan Williams is using "Sharia" in a technical sense rather than the common one.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Does God Suffer? Part 4

Sorry for the infrequent updates. I've been very busy lately - I've got a lovely girlfriend who takes priority over blog posting and I'm helping to run a quiz tournament. Back to God and suffering...

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

We need to reflect first on what it means for God to act in history before we can reflect on what it means for Jesus to suffer in history. The Bible strongly affirms that God does not change, but clearly also states that he can and does act in history, which seems to conflict with a naïve notion of what change is. In 500BC, God was not incarnate. In AD20, he was. And yet God is unchanging. Grudem summarises the Biblical evidence well:

God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations. This attribute of God is also called God's immutability.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

I think Grudem is unhelpful when he says God feels emotions. God feels love, anger, compassion and so on, but when God feels them they don't change, they aren't wrongly motivated, they're always totally consistent with his character. I would say they're like emotions, but it's truer to say that emotions are a bit like them. But otherwise, Grudem's about right

Grudem also clarifies the Bible's teaching on divine eternity well:

God's eternity may be defined as follows: God has no beginning, end or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

If we combine Grudem's conceptions of what it means for God to be unchanging and eternal, a conceptual model of God starts to emerge which allows him to be both transcendent in the sense that the impassibilists affirm and suffering in the sense that the cross and human experience seem to require. It is further aided by the insight from General Relativity that time and space are so strongly interconnected that to be outside one would require being outside the other. If then, God transcends both time and space yet can act into time in exactly the same way that he can act into space, the way starts to become clearer.

God's changing emotions as presented in the Bible could then be seen to be true expressions, though also accommodations to our understanding, of unchangeable “themotions”, which change only because our position in history changes, and therefore we see some aspects of God's unchanging nature more clearly at different times, because our situation is different.

So God acts into history and therefore can and does suffer in history. And yet what is true of God in history is also true of God in eternity. God suffers in eternity because of what he chooses to experience in history.

So does that mean that suffering wins? If suffering goes on into eternity, doesn't that mean it's won? No.

For in God taking suffering into himself in eternity, yes, suffering itself becomes transcendent, and yet God transcends it, because the centre of the Christian faith is not Moltmann's Crucified God, but the Crucified and Risen Christ. Suffering is transcended because it is defeated and exceeded by the glory of the Resurrection.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Philosophy of Time Travel and Terry Practchett

One of the areas I used to be really interested in was the philosophy of time travel as represented in science fiction, especially with what happens if you change your own past, and how that ties into possible physical models of the universe. So there's the Back to the Future model, the Terminator model, the Quantum Leap model, the Sliders model, and so on. The problem if we ever do manage to travel backwards in time is knowing which model actually works. Maybe I'll write more on that at some point.

Anyway, here's a funny quote from Terry Pratchett, messing around with the idea in The Last Continent:

"I can't help thinking, though, that we may have... tinkered with the past, Archchancellor," said the Senior Wrangler.

"I don't see how," said Ridcully. "After all, the past happened before we got here."

"Yes, but now we're here, we've changed it."

"Then we changed it before."

And that, they felt, pretty well summed it up. It is very easy to get ridiculously confused about the tenses of time travel, but most things can be resolved by a sufficiently large ego.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Does God Suffer? Part 3

Sorry about the delay in writing this bit. One of the hazards of having a life is that it sometimes gets in the way of blogging ;)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4

Christ on the Cross - Traditional Views

The key for any theological answer to the question of whether God suffers is how it handles the crucifixion of Jesus. Of course, if God can't suffer and Jesus is really God and suffers, there's a problem.

Arius used that problem as one of the main reasons he decided Jesus wasn't God, and it was an important challenge for the Church. The answer they came to eventually was that Jesus was one person, both fully human and fully divine, and that his human and divine natures were distinct. So Jesus suffered in his human nature, but not in his divine nature. Christians could even say that God suffered in the humanity of Jesus.

On one level, that's a really important statement to make. I was rightly asked after my last post about pastoral responses to suffering, and one really important point to bear in mind is that God does suffer in the person of Jesus. He isn't a God who is immune from suffering.

Problems with the Traditional Answer

However, the Greek philosophy underlying us talking about Jesus as having two distinct natures has pretty much fallen away. We can rightly say that he is fully human and fully divine, but I don't know anyone who could actually tell me what it means for God to suffer in the person of Jesus but not in himself.

In addition, there are plenty of references in the Bible to God seeming to suffer because his people are suffering or because they are sinful.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.

Hosea 11:8-9, NIV

It seems so much simpler to say that God can and does suffer, though that suffering is because of us and because he chooses to love us. Choosing to love someone often leads to pain, especially when they aren't perfect...

But that then raises the questions about how an eternal God can suffer in time, and whether an eternal God suffering means that suffering wins in the end...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Solzhenitsyn - the pursuit of happiness

Unnoticeably, through decades of gradual erosion, the meaning of life in the West ceased to stand for anything more lofty than the pursuit of “happiness,” a goal that he even been solemnly guaranteed by constitutions. The concepts of good and evil have been ridiculed for several centuries; banished from common use, they have been replaced by political or class considerations of short-lived value. It has become embarrassing to appeal to eternal concepts, embarrassing to state that evil makes its home in the individual human heart before it enters a political system. Yet it is not considered shameful to make daily concessions to an integral evil. Judging by the continuing landslide of concessions made before the eyes of our very own generation, the West is ineluctably slipping towards the abyss.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1983)

Does God Suffer? Part 2

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

Dealing with Traditional Philosophy

In part 1, I described the traditional philosophical view of why God can't suffer. The problems with that are twofold.

First, God isn't ontologically dependent on us - we can't make God suffer, but he can choose to suffer for us and because of us. This is actually just the doctrine of grace.

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 7:7-8, NIV

God didn't choose Israel because he had to - he did it because he wanted to. There wasn't anything about Israel that forced him to do it. In the same way, there isn't anything about us that can force God to suffer. But God can still love us, by his own choice, and that might well affect whether he suffers.

The second problem is that suffering doesn't imply the sort of change that God doesn't do. The Bible teaches that God doesn't change, but also that he acts and that he was incarnate. In 500BC, God wasn't incarnate as a man. In AD20, he was. When we say that God doesn't change, if we are being true to the Bible or to the idea of the Incarnation, then we need to be careful what we mean by "change".

Wayne Grudem describes what the Bible teaches about God's unchangingness as follows:

God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations. This attribute of God is also called God's immutability.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

I think Grudem is unhelpful when he says God feels emotions. God feels love, anger, compassion and so on, but when God feels them they don't change, they aren't wrongly motivated, they're always totally consistent with his character. I would say they're like emotions, but it's truer to say that emotions are a bit like them.

When we have that understanding of what it means for God to be unchanging, it starts to become clear that it doesn't actually mean that God can't suffer. There's also the possibility that God might suffer eternally - I'll discuss that more later.

Jurgen Moltmann

I've avoided talking about dead Germans up until now. But Moltmann is really important here because if you read any modern books on God and suffering, they always spend a lot of time discussing his views, which have been very influential. And in true Monty Python style, he isn't dead yet either.

Moltmann effectively centres his whole theology on the question of God and suffering, even on the question of what it means for God to be with us in our suffering. Here's probably his most famous passage, which starts with a quote from a Holocaust survivor.

“The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. 'Where is God? Where is he?' someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, 'Where is God now?' And I heard a voice in myself answer: 'Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows...'”

Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn man to indifference.

Moltmann sees the idea of God being crucified as central, even to the point where it twists large chunks of the rest of his theology. He also sees the answer to the problem of suffering as being that as God is crucified, he takes into himself all the suffering in the whole world, past, present and future. So God is seen as sharing in and participating in the suffering of the world.

Along with many modern theologians who put God's suffering central, Moltmann tends to end up in panentheism - the belief that God is in everything and everything is in God.

In part 3, I'll look at the traditional understanding of how / whether God suffered when Jesus was on the cross, and whether it's enough.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Does God Suffer?

I wrote an essay on this recently. Here's part 1 of a summary, without all the references to dead Germans that are so much a part of theology essays, and with a slightly better understanding as a result of arguing about it with other people.

Part 2 | Part 3 |Part 4

Why Can't God Suffer?

The traditional understanding of God in Christianity is that he is impassible, though since the World Wars, most Christian theologians say that God is passible instead. One big problem is that the words passible and impassible have slightly different definitions depending on who you speak to, and the definitions make a big difference, so I'll ignore the words altogether.

None of our pictures of God ever manage to be exhaustively accurate. But it's very easy in this sort of topic to end up with a picture of God that gets important bits wrong, especially when it comes to keeping God's transcendence. It's important to affirm that:

  • God is not part of creation and creation is not part of God.
  • God is ontologically independent of us. We can't, in and of ourselves, make any difference to God whatsoever. We can't hurt him, we can't make him happy, we can't cause him pain, unless he decides to let us.

  • God does not change. The big question that raises is what it means for God to act, given that he doesn't change. I'll discuss that later.

The traditional philosophical understanding of suffering means that it needs God to be ontologically dependent on us - if he suffers because of us, that means we can hurt him. It also means that God changes - he goes from a position of not suffering to a position of suffering. I think the traditional philosophical understanding of suffering is wrong in both respects....



With the exception of emergency services, helicopters should not be allowed to fly over built-up areas, especially at night.

And this post might in some way be linked to the difficulty I had in getting to sleep last night...