Was Jesus a pacifist? Early church beliefs about war and violence

I had a debate with someone about pacifism the other day, online. Did Jesus teach pacifism? To me it is fairly clear that He did, with words such as ‘love your enemies’, ‘pray for those who persecute you’, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’ etc.

It’s not easy being a pacifist, especially if faced with violence personally, or when there are murderous expansionist fascistic regimes who hope to kill or rape all those who don’t agree with them. I honestly wouldn’t want to judge anyone who committed violence, and there are many situations where it would be an automatic reaction for me. Sometimes it is done with good intentions – those going in to rescue people from slavery, for example.

I just can’t see that violence is God’s will, based on the New Testament. Yes it was ‘allowed’ in the OT, though there are many passages that show this would not be God’s ultimate will for the world. But post-Jesus, things change, it seems to me.

One of the strongest arguments that this is what Jesus taught, I believe, is that the early church was unanimously pacifistic. I’d highly recommend a book called ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ compiled by David Bercot. It’s a quick way of examining what was taught in the pre-Nicene church (the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection). Here’s a very quick summary:

Many church fathers taught that it was not right for a Christian to go to war, or be in the army. Explicitly condemning war and violence (rather than the idolatry of the army etc, which some say is the reason early Christians were not allowed in the military) were: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius.

Also saying that they personally would not go to war, or making less explicit condemnations of war, or commenting that Christians do not commit violence or go to war: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus.

There are a small number of mentions of Christians being in the army. But they had this restriction, which is a pretty extraordinary one, when you think about it:

By the close of the second century, if someone who was already a soldier came to faith, they were allowed to stay in the army after baptism, but only if they didn’t use the sword, take oaths, or engage in idolatrous practices. This was confirmed in the writing of Hippolytus, who wrote: “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism.”

The earliest Christians had the heritage of the early church, led by people who spent 3 years in Jesus’ company. Wouldn’t they have a pretty good idea of what His views were on this subject?

War may seem the easiest way. But Jesus doesn’t teach the easy way.

 

Why I support International Men’s Day

A few months ago, I was in a room full of students, talking about gender. A man was talking on the subject as if he didn’t have a right to do so, because he was a “cis, white, straight man.” I said that he didn’t have to apologise for that. The room laughed at me – they thought that he did.
It’s this kind of experience that has led me to have some sympathy for the new ‘meninist’ movement and today’s ‘International Men’s Day’. At one point in my life, I did feel anger towards men, due to some unpleasant experiences that I and some of my friends had been through. But after I became a Christian, and I turned it around and looked at it from a man’s point of view, I could see that some of the things I’d done ‘to men’ could cause them to get pretty angry with all women, if they so wished. Jesus’ instruction to consider the log in my own eye before I start picking at the speck in another, burned within me. The attitude many people have towards men seemed grossly unfair. In the same way that we should not blame all Muslims for crimes done by some Muslims, of course it’s ridiculous to blame all men for the actions of certain men.
I am worried that the modern language of ‘privilege’ and identity politics causes us to see one another as enemies, to mistrust and belittle those who we perceive to have an easier time in society. Yet we know nothing of that person’s struggle and we should not judge. One “cis, white, straight, male” may have had an incredibly painful life – he could have been abused, raped, attacked, isolated – by the hands of men or women. Does that make his pain any different from people with other gender and sexual identities who experience the same horrors? Even if he had ‘structural privilege’, you could hardly argue that he was ‘privileged’. His pain is the same as a woman’s pain in the same situation. I’m against the mistreatment of men as much as I am against the mistreatment of women. The idea that he should be allowed less to say on a subject than I do, is quite offensive to me. Yet that seems to be the belief held by some who use identity politics.
Some would argue, no doubt with good intentions, that gender inequality is one of the biggest problems in society, and that it can only be addressed by fighting the structures that create it. But this is a very Marxist way of looking at things. Jesus seemed to have a much simpler way that was kind and humble. Martin Luther King fought hard for black civil rights, but he did so in a way that seemed more winsome and inclusive, rather than shouting down the white people who were oppressing him (and they were openly harming him with violence and prejudice). The response of non-violence that King taught comes straight from Jesus Christ – and it involves more than just a lack of physical violence, but our language and attitude.
I’m less inclined to see inequality of gender as the issue, but the age-old problems of sin: greed, pride, hatred, anger, jealousy… that can be committed by a person of any gender. And the victims can be of any gender. Men are actually more likely to be victims of violence than women – and a significant proportion of ‘women’s issues’ such as domestic violence and rape are also experienced by men. Let’s not divide and rule, but reconcile and listen, and seek healing wherever it’s needed.

What do I mean by the “living Christ” and morality?

I was chatting to an atheist on twitter, and we were discussing how we can know what is right and what is wrong – and how we can be sure we’re not being deceived. My answer is, ‘The Bible and the living Christ’. He said he didn’t understand the latter, so I thought I’d write a blog post to explain.

Christians debate about what extent their own experience of God – which could also be called the presence of God, mystical experiences, being filled with the Holy Spirit, the indwelling Christ – should play a role in the Christian life. Usually if they are concerned or sceptical, then they say it should just be the Bible. After all, we could be deceived as to what we’re feeling. And, presumably, most atheists would think that we are deceived.

Yet – a secular morality has to come from conscience and/or rational thinking. But how do you know whether your conscience, or reasoning, is correct? Both of those things can be entirely subjective. Even groups of people can come to very wrong moral decisions together through their own thinking and feeling. So the atheist has the same issues as a Christian does – how can we know what is right?

That’s why the Bible as a foundation is so important to me – and why the living Christ is just as important. The Bible is an objective measure of standards, particularly if we are focused on the simple and beautiful teachings of Jesus, as I think anyone who follows Christ should be. If I am tempted to have an affair, and ‘feel’ that it might be right, or even think that God is telling me to do this – I can look to the words of Jesus that tells me adultery is wrong. (I can also see his words of mercy for things I’ve done wrong in the past – but I would be clear that he does not want them to do this in the future).

Of course, many people have twisted what the Bible says to suit their own ends, sometimes for evil and murder. This is harder to do though, when you focus on Jesus, what he did and said, as a whole. How can you be deluded into thinking that Jesus wants you to kill, or even hate someone, when Jesus said ‘love your enemies… do unto others… pray for those who persecute you… he who lives by the sword dies by the sword?”

But, coming back to the living Christ. Why is this important? Why not just the words written down? Well, one danger is to just think that Jesus was a good teacher who lived a long time ago, which can mean we don’t pay much attention to him. But as a Christian, I believe that he lives today, that he is the visible image of the invisible God. That his presence can be felt in the here and now, as a very clear reality. That we can talk to him and know his love – in the here and now. I do feel this, though there are ups and downs in this journey and I am not always in this state of bliss!

The Bible says that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ, that we will feel and demonstrate: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

In this state of feeling or knowing the goodness of God inside of us, the written words of Jesus written down are also given more insight, beauty and clarity. Because as we KNOW Christ in the here and now, by experience in our hearts, we can also read his clear, objective words in the Gospels, and clearly hear His voice. They become alive, and have more power and meaning.

Many times as I’ve struggled with something, particularly if I’m annoyed with someone, or hurt, or in some way battling with anger and negative feelings – if I repent and focus on Christ’s presence, and His words in the gospels, then there is a breakthrough and I feel love once more.

So this is how the living Christ influences what I do and think in the present. By knowing Him in my heart, and also knowing him through his Word. This can be kind of a simple morality – about what I need to do with myself in my life in the here and now, rather than philosophical debates. But without doubt it has led to more love in my life (though there is still plenty of room for improvement, and more of that love).

This was the experience of the early Christians, as St Paul wrote as a prayer to other believers, that God would: “empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”

This is obviously difficult to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I am no better than anyone else for having had these experiences – and I need much more of his indwelling presence in my life, as I have only made limited room for it so far. But Jesus makes my life richer and more beautiful, and has brought much more love to my life. I still make wrong judgements and I’m sure I could be led astray with wrong thinking or emotions. But I know it’s only the living Christ who could bring me back to a place of love, and its his presence and his words that I rely on.

I hope that makes sense to you, please feel free to ask questions.

Are religious children less altruistic? Bad science and anti-faith propaganda in The Guardian

I am on a bit of a writing break at the moment – but felt I should very quickly respond to this report of a recently published scientific article. The Guardian’s headline is “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds” and it’s been published elsewhere, including the Daily Mail, Time and other esteemed outlets.

This is rubbish, and worthy of The Guardian’s excellent former ‘Bad Science’ columnist Ben Goldacre. Why?

  1. Social science experiments such as this have limited application to the wider population, for a number of reasons. Psychological experiments often test issues in artificial ways that can’t be extrapolated to real life.
  2. This particular study seems to have a serious design flaw: the use of the ‘dictator game’ as a measure of altruism, when it has been critiqued to be more a measure of susceptibility to peer pressure. See this post from John Baskette for details. Even if it was a good measure of altruism, the other problems with such experiments still apply, and experimenter demand effects are common confounding variables.
  3. The fact that this study is in a biology journal, when it is a social science study, makes me wonder if it was rejected from journals where a rigorous and learned peer review would have taken place. Biology and psychology are very different disciplines, with very different experimental designs.
  4. The children being tested were from USA, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Are these countries representative of people as a whole? How did they select the religious children, from which kind of religious communities were they? As anyone who has faith will know, even within one particular religion, there is wide diversity of practice and belief. There is very little information on sampling – how the researchers chose the schools and children involved, which seems as though it would have a crucial effect. For example, if their USA school was one run by the Westboro Baptist Church, it’s likely that Christian children would not be representative of Christian children as a whole!
  5. The researchers appear to have a particular axe to grind. They say at the end: “More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.” To make such a politically loaded statement in the conclusion of a research article indicates a degree of experimenter bias.
  6. The fact that the experimenters claim their findings ‘robustly demonstrate’ less altruism in religious children, and omit all the usual qualifications about generalising from experiments that are in good quality social science papers, again suggests experimenter bias and poor interpretation.
  7. There are other experiments that could suggest that religious people are more altruistic. These are barely mentioned in the paper. Of course, such experiments also have limitations in how they can be generalised and should have lots of qualifications too. But they should surely be given more weight and discussion in a report that finds the opposite?

[Update] Since I wrote this, more learned souls have been pointing out other problems. George Yancey points out the lack of control variables, along with other similar criticisms; and William M Briggs points out problems with the statistical analysis. And atheists who have understanding of the social sciences are pointing out the problems with this study.

This article is so poor, that I’m sure I could find more flaws if I spent more time on it, but I’ve just whizzed through. It’s a shame that it is being taken seriously by media and public alike. Please add any other flaws you see in the experiment in the comments below.

God is love

I’m reading a lot of Neil Anderson books at the moment, and I recently came across this gem, actually from one of his colleagues, Steve Goss. I thought I’d share it with you.

Here is a basic truth: God is love. You already knew that, didn’t you? But od you really know it, have you made a deep connection with it? For example, if God really is love, it means that he simply cannot not love you. The love of God is not dependent on the one being loved but on the character of the one doing the loving. God is love. That’s his nature. He couldn’t not love you. It doesn’t make any difference whether you perform excellently one day, and mess up the next. God will still love you because God is love. Nothing can make God love you more or love you less. It has nothing to do with you – or what you do or do not do – it’s all about him.

Faith is seeing things as they really are. If you saw that truth as it really is, would it have an effect on how you felt about yourself and consequently on your behaviour? More than likely. This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of how the rest off your life as a follower of Christ works out.

From ‘Free to be yourself: enjoy your true nature in Christ’ by Steve Goss.

I think if we all really knew this truth, it would transform the church, and then the world…

A beautiful prayer

I’m just finishing Heinrich Arnold’s book, ‘Discipleship’, which I’d heartily recommend. Lots of helpful wisdom, very Biblical, very absorbed in the reality of Christ’s presence with us. I thought I’d share one little prayer, which I think is beautiful:

The Spirit pierces hearts like a sword
that cuts through bone and marrow.

We plead: give us your Holy Spirit
and pierce us deep into the past,
into the present, into the future.

May Jesus enter deep into our hearts and change them.

May he reach his hand into our past,
to the ultimate beginning of our being.

The Holy Spirit can change all things.

We believe this.

For this, Jesus experienced godforsakenness
on the Cross.

Is Christian faith a triumph of heart over head? No. For me, both win.

I’ve just written a piece for Christian Today, reflecting on a recent article by Brandon Withrow. He was brought up in an evangelical home, and had worked in a Christian university. But after what he describes as an ‘intellectual journey’, he has publicly declared he does not believe, and is now a secular humanist. He sounds genuinely heartbroken over this, which I find really sad – even more so as I don’t think it’s necessary.

I’ve probably said all I’d want to say in the piece, so please do go and have a read. But I think it’s really important that those of us who have a ‘thinking’ faith articulate very clearly why we believe – the ‘heart’ reasons and the ‘head’ reasons. There’s no intellectual reason to abandon Christian faith. The only reason to do so is to conform to the dogmatic secularist worldview that most of us are absorbed without even being aware of it.

Evidence of media bias: airbrushing Christianity out of the (positive) news story

Christians are pretty used to having the positive fruits of our faith being erased from history. The media will happily tag the label ‘Christian’ to ranting or philandering pastors when they hit the headlines, the atrocities of the Crusades or Westboro Baptist Church.

Yet in the secular media, our faith is rarely, if ever, associated with the true inspirations of Christianity: Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Josephine Butler. Such people are presented as modern day humanists, rather than the devout and conservative believers in Christ that they really were, motivated by their faith.

So it’s also the case for modern believers.

Earlier this year, successful rugby player Jason Robinson talked to an ITV programme about how he once contemplated suicide. What changed? His Born-Again team-mate, Va’aiga Tuigamala, talked to him about God, and Jason found new life in Christ:

I honestly believe the Lord sent him. He came to me and said: ‘I’m concerned about you. I had a dream about you last night. You were stood on top of the world and as I watched, slowly from underneath you, the world started to crumble.’ The Bible talks about repenting [changing your mind] and asking the Lord into your life. That’s what I did. After I said it, I felt something lift. Had it not been for him I certainly wouldn’t have the hope that I’ve got now. And hope is something that people can’t take away.

Yet, most of the secular media that reported the story totally ignored the main part of the story. Reports from The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, and the ITV website, all totally ignored that it was Christian faith that changed Robinson’s life.

There was a brief mention in The Telegraph, Wigan Today, and the Yorkshire Evening Post, but it’s very brief.

Is there anything we can do about this? I’m seeing more and more anti-Christian rhetoric and propaganda on social media, even in people I’d have thought would be open and tolerant.

In the meantime, read about Jason’s faith in his own words from a Christian site:

A player called Va’aiga Tuigamala (Inga) joined my club, Wigan.  As I watched him it was obvious that he had something I did not have, something that I wanted.  He played the same game as me, but didn’t need all the going out and drinking that I did. He was at peace with himself.  He was the happiest man in the place.  I talked to him about it and he explained his faith.  I became a Christian.

(Does believing in Jesus Christ make a difference?) I am leading a better and more fulfilled life than I ever lived. I have been a better father, a better husband, and 100 times better morally than I was before.

Radiant smiles, and forgiveness in the face of cruelty: the Charleston church is showing the world the face of True Christianity

When I heard of the Charleston shooting story broke, I was asked to write a background piece on the State Senator who was killed, Clementa Pinckney. I was touched by the photos of this man, which suggested a loving and humble character. I was touched by the tributes, that he was kind, without cynicism and served others. I was touched by his words about service to the community.

Why would God allow such an outrage in a church? My answer to this is not about whether God ‘allowed’ it, but more what the people of that church are demonstrating – the real face of Jesus Christ.

Clementa was clearly a man of faith. When I saw the faces of the other victims, all I could see was that radiant joy that you see when people are really close to Christ. They are beautiful:

_83744417_charleston-victims-composite

All the more in contrast with the angry, confused and hateful expression on the killer’s face. He is reported to have said that he nearly didn’t kill them because they were so nice to him.

The legacy and fruit of that Bible study group is next displayed in one of the most extraordinary expressions of Christ I’ve ever seen. One by one, the family members of the victims spoke at the killer’s bond hearing, and told the killer, whose impassive face is seen in this video, some extraordinary words:

I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. God have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me, you’ve hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you, and I forgive you.

I would like you to know that… I forgive you and my family forgive you. we would like to take this opportunity to repent. And give your life to the One who matters the most, Christ, so he can change you. He can change your ways no matter what happen to you. And you’ll be OK. Do that. You’ll be better off than you are right now.

We welcome you Wednesday night in our Bible study, with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fibre in my body hurts. I’ll never be the same. [My son] was my hero. We enjoyed you [in the Bible study]. May God have mercy on you.

Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate. But everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love, and their legacies live in love. And, hate won’t win.

I’m a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I am very angry… we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate… may God bless you.

If you don’t think that Christianity is true, and Jesus is real – I don’t know how you can deny the reality of Christ living in these people. The ability to forgive while in such pain and grief is the power of God, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. What an amazing community.

Blog: Tanzania and “How planting trees can tackle poverty”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Sorry I’m a bit late with this. I took a trip to Tanzania to observe the work of a charity – Plant With Purpose – and see how permaculture ideas, Christian faith and development can be integrated holistically to help people. I’m writing a few articles about it, here’s the first short piece for Christian Today, about how something as simple as a tree can help people as well as improve the environment.

For people on the breadline, the link between the environment and poverty is much clearer and easier to see. A significant root cause of poverty is the state of the land.

The picture is of a beautiful area in this lovely community of Marangu that’s been set aside as a nature reserve, and it’s truly gorgeous. Leaving nature to do its work has also brought them a new water source – good news for rural farmers in a hot country. They were so generous and welcoming – it was an amazing experience.

If you’ve any questions about the work, I’d be really happy to answer them.

Darkness and light: the crucifixion and ISIS

candle-386607_640

Today I was given a clear picture of the scene of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, as I was reading Matthew 27. I saw how much hatred there was in the crowd, and in the religious leaders, and in the soldiers. The crowd was shouting for Jesus to be viciously tortured and killed – full of murderous rage and evil. The leaders were desperate to find something wrong in Jesus and to condemn him for blasphemy – and so have him killed and tortured. The soldiers were mocking and taunting him and drove nails into him. There was no compassion, no mercy – just hate and evil.

And yet Jesus did not fight back, he did not try to defend himself. He did not try to justify himself. He remained pure, and good, and holy. Even when he was in agony on the Cross, he still said to his Father: ‘Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. The darkness was raging around him, throwing its worst at him, hating him, hurting him and cruelly mistreating him. Yet Jesus remained the same – pure and loving – and full of mercy.

It struck me very clearly and forcefully how the evil of the crowd was darkness, but how brightly Jesus was the light. As it says in John 1:5:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

It also struck me how similar kinds of darkness have expressed themselves throughout history. The crusades, the gas chambers, and the modern-day atrocities committed by ISIS are all examples of the darkness expressing itself. All too often, it prompts evil and hate in return. But to have the mind of Christ is to stay pure, stay loving, stay forgiving in that situation. That is completely impossible for a human being, but it is possible for Christ living in us. That light cannot go out – we must let it shine within us, and keep the darkness out of our souls – even when the darkness rages outside.

Boxing star Manny Pacquiao: from booze, girls and gambling to a devotion to Jesus Christ

I loved researching this story for Christian Today before the weekend and the big fight, do take a look!

Boxer Manny Pacquiao used to go to church – but he also cheated on his wife, drank and gambled. Then he had an amazing encounter with God and his life changed. Now he tells people of the importance of obeying God, and being born again. He said:

When you have Jesus in your life, when you have God in your life, the things in this world are not important to your heart. The most important is God in your heart

I read around the guy and his conversion seems to be very sincere. Great that he can see that God is so much greater than all the money and trappings of fame.

Cycling and walking solve a lot of problems

I’ve just given up my car, mainly due to the cost, and the fact I didn’t use the car that much. Most of the journeys I make can be made by bike or public transport. I’d been putting off selling it, as I’ve not been well, and also I do use it for church stuff. But when I worked out how much it costs me each month, I could pay for taxis and occasionally cars easily within the money I save.

There are many problems solved by this approach:

  • I save a lot of cash
  • I do more exercise
  • I’m more connected with my surroundings – I’m enjoying the outside more
  • I don’t have the road rage aggro or parking anxiety
  • I’m no longer expected to give lots of lifts, so I save time

The downside will be in the rainy spells – but I live in a dry part of the country, so it’s easier. Hills are also a problem. But so far, so good.

The search for true intimacy and love

I love this post about developing intimacy with God. So often, intimacy is confused with romance or sex. But true emotional intimacy and love is what we all need. The ultimate source of this is God. I’d really recommend reading the post. Here’s a quote:

The first step to developing an intimate (and fulfilling) love relationship with God is to admit that the abundant life He promises will never be found in another person. Instead, as the definition of zoe (life) shows, true abundant life is internal and it’s found in Christ alone.

Once we have that intimacy and love relationship with God, then we can start to share our love with others.

She writes again in a different post about emotional intimacy, which I really agree with:

There is one particular key to open the Intimacy Door in your relationships: it’s called the Key of Acceptance. Because intimacy means that we allow another person to “see into” us and they allow us to “see into” them, the Key of Acceptance must be used. After all, no one wants to allow someone to “see into” their heart who is controlling, judgmental, critical, sarcastic, unforgiving, abusive, selfish or just plain nasty.

So, if you want others to open their heart to you, you’ve got to give them a safe to do so. Why? Because the truth is that while most of us may act like we’re not afraid of anything, in the deepest part of ourselves, our hearts are very tender, fragile and generally fearful of relational pain. For hearts to thrive in intimacy, they’ve got to feel safe and accepted.

This is true for all relationships – whether romantic or platonic. But perhaps, first of all, we’ve got to accept God’s love for us, deep and truly from the tips of our toes to the hairs on our head.

Pearls of wisdom from “The Cloud of Unknowing” (Christian contemplative prayer/meditation)

The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (Penguin Classics)

I’ve just finished reading the medieval Christian book “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which is a classic of Christian mysticism. I always take such books with a pinch of salt, because I think you’ve got to approach mysticism carefully and use the Bible as your boundary. But I did find a lot of great wisdom in this little book. Here are some examples, with quotes:

1) Seek God for God alone, and not what He can give you

Peace, love and the Spirit are wonderful benefits of contemplative prayer – but not always. And one of the blocks to knowing God that I’ve found is if I’m only doing the prayer to feel good. Instead, it’s important to just seek God and God alone – love requires that we are not seeking for only what we can get.

Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him… Try to forget all created things that he ever made, and the purpose behind them, so that your thought and longing do not turn or reach out to them either in general or in particular.

There’s encouragement to wait in prayer, even when it seems difficult:

When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, and this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God… Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love.

2) Christian meditation / contemplative prayer is very different to Eastern, Buddhist styles of meditation

It’s not a game of trying to seek knowledge, and pride is a danger.

Whoever hears or reads about all this, and thinks that it is fundamentally an activity of the mind, and proceeds then to work it all out along these lines, is on quite the wrong track. He manufactures an experience that is neither spiritual or physical. He is dangerously missed and in real peril.

Indeed he points out that you need a foundation of knowing your own sinfulness, meditating on the Cross and the kindness of God.

See to it that there is nothing at work in your mind or will but only God. Try to suppress all knowledge and feeling of anything less than God, and trample it down deep under the cloud of forgetting.

Although the Christian meditator is seeking to lose ‘self’ it is ONLY to give it to God in love – to surrender all we have to our Creator.

3) As you reach towards God, run away from all that is bad

By its very definition, if you are seeking God you must turn away from all wrongdoing – all sin.

In itself prayer is nothing else than a devout setting of our will in the direction of God in order to get good, and remove evil… all evil is summed up in sin… if we pray with intention for the acquiring of goodness, let us pray, in word or thought or desire, no other word than ‘God’. For in God is all good, for he is its beginning and its being.

Being aware of this great separation can be a help if we’re struggling with sin, or with hiding from God:

Feel sin in its totality – as a lump – without specifying any particular part, and that all of it is you. And then cry ceaselessly in your spirit this one thing: ‘Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!

4) The fruit of contemplative prayer is love, and intimacy with Christ

This kind of prayer is done to know God more, and to love him more.

The nature of love is that it shares everything. Love Jesus, and everything he has is yours.

…He may, perhaps, send out a shaft of spiritual light, which pierces this cloud of unknowing beteween you, and show you some of his secrets… then will you feel your affection flame with the fire of his love, far more than I can possibly say now…

Happy praying!

The limits of science and the necessity of humility

Why Us? / How Science Rediscoveerd The Mystery Of Ourselves

One of my favourite books I’ve read recently is “Why Us: How science discovered the mystery of ourselves,” by Telegraph columnist and doctor, James le Fanu. It’s said to “reunite science with sense of wonder” and it’s well worth a read. Essentially it’s a critique of Darwinism or materialism as an explanation for living phenomena, though not from the perspective of religion. The author seems to have spiritual beliefs but of an unknown variety.

Personally I find it lacking some depth in terms of its critique of Darwinism – and there were facts that were not taken account of. However the book neatly summarises one of my biggest problems with the New Atheist arguments that use science to attempt to disprove the existence of God. Science is presented as if it has already answered all the questions of life, or at least the big ones. But nothing could be further from the truth. As we unravel the complexities of molecular biology – more problems arise. What seemed to be a simple explanation for phenomena becomes much more complex, or even untenable.

I agree with atheists that this is not a reason to therefore decide “ah well, God did it then”, the infamous “God of the gaps.” The book has a tendency to do this (though it is with a “life force” rather than God, in keeping with the author’s beliefs) But it is a reason to generate humility and awe for the world around us. It’s important to acknowledge that despite all the efforts, all the research, all the great minds working hard on their subject, to the end that now, no one person could possibly know and understand all of the scientific discoveries and results we’ve achieved, at least in one lifetime – we still just don’t know. There is so much to learn, to understand. it is a mind-bending and humbling truth. Anyone who says we know it all, just exposes their total ignorance of all that we know.

It’s a well-written and interesting book, and a great place to start exploring this topic. Don’t let the anti-Darwinism put you off, it does make interesting points and it’s not anti-science.

Stephen Fry, it’s not God that’s the problem with the world, it’s you and I

I write this knowing that there’ll be very few who read my opinion, compared to the millions for your recent tirade against God. Apart from the Pope, or perhaps Bono… even learned and accomplished believers get little coverage compared to you and Dawkins and all of the other famous celebrity atheists. You have an awful lot of power. Somehow The Archbishop of Canterbury doesn’t seem to go viral, he seems a nice man but he’s just not got the street cred I suppose. Most of the believers who get the headlines are the nasties like Westboro Baptist Church, and they’re about as representative of Christians as Stalin and his cronies are of atheists.

As many of my learned friends have pointed out, your anger against God assumes that this world is the way he designed it to be. But it’s not, if we take a Christian view on the subject. It doesn’t take much reading of the Bible to see that the God described in those pages is not very happy with the world as it is. In fact when he’s most angry, in the much maligned Old Testament, then God’s raging about the lack of compassion for people in poverty, the murdering of children in pagan blood sacrifices or just plain selfishness and hate. Most clearly in Jesus’ teachings, you can see clearly that God wants people to care for one another, not to be greedy etc. Yet, we ignore him.

The problems you cite in your rant on RTE – as with most of the suffering of the world – could be alleviated, if not eradicated, if human beings chose to love. (Not the fickle, randy, romantic kind of love that is usually what’s counted as ‘love’ these days, but the agape, compassionate, caring kind of love that Jesus talks about.) How? Well, we could be giving our money to the care of those children turned blind by worms, rather than spending it on nice meals out, posh clothes or sunny holidays. We could be adopting the orphans and tending to the sick kids – spending all our time caring for them rather than all the ‘leisure’ activities that us Westerners love so much. We could be studying for the ultimate purpose of relieving suffering and treating illness rather than just the learning for enjoyment’s sake that we tend to do – or the learning we do to make ourselves sound clever and be admired, even worse. We could be spending as little money as possible on ourselves, in order that we can give it to others. In short, we could be living lives of pure love, and focusing all of our time and energy on relieving the suffering of others. But, we don’t. You and I, Stephen Fry, do not do that. Even the people I know who do a much better at it than I do, still obviously fail at it on a regular basis.

This, according to the Bible, is why God is angry. He doesn’t want it to be this way, because he loves us. He created a world that was meant to be good, where humans were meant to love one another. But, we were given free will. We have many choices that we make each day, that could make the world a better place. They involve more than just giving a fraction of our handsome surplus or of our time to our favourite charity – it involves genuine sacrifice of our whole lives for the sake of others.

We’ve been given that responsibility. And most of us have it in our power to do something about it, however small that something is. If everyone used their little bit of power for love’s sake, then most of the evil in the world would either be stopped at source, or at least alleviated. It’s no use shouting at God for the evil we claim he is responsible for. He’s given us the power and the free will, to make things different. And we choose not to do that. Heaven is the place where what God wants is done perfectly, not here. He’s given us the reins while we’re on Earth, and we’re doing a hopeless job of being in charge.

Jesus was pretty clear, when he was asked by a rich young man how to be good enough get to heaven. He said, we’re to give all our money up for the poor – to the people who are genuinely suffering. The rich young man was sad, as I suppose we would be too, if told we had to give up our comfortable, Western lives, to help those who are suffering today.

His disciples were too. But thankfully, Jesus had more to say – “nothing is impossible with God”. Christianity is not about us being good enough, but instead recognising that God is good enough. That’s pretty good news given the very clear reality that there’s no-one who’s perfect in this world – no-one who is giving up everything for the sole purpose of genuine self-sacrificial love of others. It says that Jesus saw this problem, and decided to take on the negative consequences of all our selfishness so that we can be free of it. If we choose to, we can accept this free gift, accept our own responsibility for the problems of the world and say sorry to God for this – and then learn from Him how to love better, love more, and relieve suffering. But we have to recognise that we can only do this, by turning to God, for his leadership and his love. On our own, we just don’t manage it.

Now you might say, with good reason, that the church is not presenting this utopia to the world. We’re not the perfect houses of love that we’re meant to be. That’s very true. There are some pretty irritating and occasionally nasty people within church walls – such as myself, I would say. But I came from a very typical liberal, secular culture and then moved into the church after I became a Christian as an adult. No, it’s not perfect, but when you find a genuine church that is truly seeking to follow Christ, then you do start to see something a little bit different. You see glimpses of the way the world is meant to be. Not a window, but just glimpses. A drug addict who has been healed and now has a happy family and is holding down a job. A church rallying round a mum whose disabled daughter and poorly husband have left her exhausted. People who give up well paid and powerful jobs in order to go and practically help the suffering in other countries. Those who suffered terrible abuse as a child who find peace through faith, and start to give their lives to help others. These are glimpses of heaven, and of the way the world is meant to be. Sometimes those glimpses are seen outside the church, it’s true, but in my lifetime I’ve most often seen self-sacrificial love within the church. It’s not a wishy-washy, State-dependent, ranty, political kind of ‘love’, either (though there is quite a bit of that too, to be fair, it not being perfect). There’s a ‘taking on of responsibility’ kind of love, making things happen with our own hands and not blaming the government or whoever else for the problems. It’s recognising the massive responsibility that has been given to humans to choose. To choose whether to obey God’s commands for genuine love and to avoid greed and suchlike – or not. To choose his way, his redemption, or not.

So, when you get to the Pearly Gates, you rage to God all you want to. I suspect what he might say to you or I, or anyone who chooses to start wagging their fingers at him: “And what about you? What did YOU do with the money, time, gifts and relationships that you had? Did you love others or did you love yourself and your own desires? Did you follow Jesus’s instructions for making the world a better place, or not?”

I think that we’re living in this world where God’s will is not done, to see whether we want to live in the world where his will IS done – heaven. There, is pure joy and pure love, with no greed or selfishness at all. If you don’t want to follow his way of love – loving God, loving people, and recognising that the world’s problems are our fault and saying sorry for that – it’s your choice. But you might find out that who you should really be angry with, is not God, but yourself, myself, and everyone else.

Ways to reduce waste and plastic

I’m setting myself a personal challenge, to reduce the stuff in my waste bin as much as possible. I’m even trying to find ways of re-using the stuff that can go in the recycling bin. Here are a few ideas I’ve been trying, that haven’t been too difficult. Let me know your ideas…

Replace tissues with hankies

Replace plastic dishwashing brushes/sponges with cotton dishcloths

Replace kitchen towel with cotton dishcloths

Search for food sold in paper bags rather than plastic

Choose loose fruit and veg at the counter, and don’t use plastic bags to put them in (even better, get an organic veg box)

Buy Ecoleaf toilet tissue – you can compost the wrapper

Get milk delivered in old fashioned milk bottles

Use re-usable bags for shopping

Make bricks for your fire with all your scrap paper and junk mail

I found this great blog recently – Trash is for Tossers – try it for some more ideas