Shame, lust, and sex in paradise

Now that I have got your attention let me say right up front, I wouldn’t be writing about these topics if they weren’t the main theme of Book 14 of the City of God. But having committed to blog my way through it, these are the topics Augustine addresses and there are some timely lessons, reminders and corrections that we need to heed. It’s probably good for me to write about things I would ordinarily avoid!

Augustine begins by tracing the origins of our first disobedience and the ethical standards within the two Cities – one that lives by the standard of the flesh, the other that live by the standard of the spirit. These two cities are “different and mutually opposed”. Augustine then investigates how our corruption manifests itself and finds faults of both mind and body (ie flesh). Although he notes that:

Man has undoubtedly the will to be happy, even when he pursues happiness by living in a way which makes it impossible of attainment.

XIV.4

Four “disturbances” or “passions” are identified that drive our emotions: desire, fear, joy & sadness. Augustine rightly sees that these passions are not good or bad in themselves but are dependent on how our wills direct them.

A love which strains after the possession of the loved one is desire; and the love which possess and enjoys that object is joy. The love that shuns what opposes it is fear, while the love that feels that opposition when it happens is grief. Consequently, these feelings are bad, if the love is bad, and good if the love is good.

XIV.7

Switching gears to before we had our fallen and corrupt nature, Augustine takes us back to the Garden of Eden – paradise! He asks what kind of emotions they possessed while they were sinless. He says there was “a serene avoidance of sin” and proposes that offspring could have been granted in this sinless bliss until “the number of predestined saints was made up”.

Unfortunately we never got to see what would have happened if Adam had never sinned. All subsequent offspring were conceived after the Fall. This raises a very specific question in Augustine’s mind – how would procreation have been different in paradise? He sees the evils of sexual lust, the sense of shame it creates and wonders how it could ever have been done purely.

For Augustine it boils down to the inability of our wills to control every part of our bodies. Why did our first parents, as soon as they had sinned, feel shame when the knew they were naked, and sought to cover themselves?

It was after the sin that man’s nature felt, noticed, blushed at, and concealed this lust: for man’s nature retained a sense of decency, although it had lost the authority to which the body had been subordinate in every part.

XIV.21

Augustine imagines a paradise where there was no conflict between lust and will, and the act as of procreation was as natural and pure as any other bodily act.

Reading this book I can understand why Augustine has been perceived as “anti-sex”. He is willing to speculate beyond the bounds of scripture, and his piercing intellect wraps his arguments up in a forceful hypothesis. But in areas in this book he is over-reaching scripture’s solid ground.

Unfortunately in the following centuries the church built upon teachings such as these a disapproving tone regarding sex. We know God loves marriage and designed it as an illustration of his love for his bride, the church. We will never know this side of eternity what marriage was like in Eden.

Moreover, shame of their nakedness was quickly followed by shame and guilt from lying about their deception, and shame of murder by their son. Perhaps a better perspective on this discussion is the concept of modesty rather than shame?

Those within the City of God know every act they do has the faint taint of sin, but yet we seek to use our wills and direct our emotions to serve God and others by acts done in love. We know too well that no act we ever do, or relationship we ever have, will ever be wholly free from sin. Those within the City of Man deny their shame, redirect their wills and rejoice in the fulfilment of their selfish desires – preventing them achieving happiness whilst desperately seeking to attain it.

Death is the most certain possibility

If there is one topic that no one wants to talk about or think about it is death. Many people would rather think about anything else than their own mortality. We prefer escapism to realism, counting our “Likes” to numbering our days, numbing our pain to meditating on our end.

Into this world Augustine is a counter-cultural cold shower. Book 13 is seared through with the facts of death, encased in cold hard biblical logic. At the heart of his essay is the question of the nature of the fall of man and how this can be overcome by the granting of the life-giving Spirit.

Augustine investigates many important themes including the relationship between the soul and the body, the interplay between death and punishment. The quote of Book 13 for me was this:

There is no one who is not nearer to death this year than he was last year, nearer tomorrow than today, today than yesterday, who will not by and by be nearer than he is at the moment or is not nearer at the present time than he was a little while ago. Any space of time that we live through leaves us with so much less time to live, and the remainder decreases with every passing day; so that the whole of our lifetime is nothing but a race towards death.

XIII.10

Wow! Stop and re-read that several times. This knuckle-grating realism quickens our senses and alerts us to the coming last stop. Rather than breed fatalism there are two urgent applications that this truth sharpens in our focus and we would do well to heed.

Through a detailed analysis of what it means to pass from like to death Augustine proves there is only life or death, and speaking about someone dying is illogical. He looks at three situations: “before death”, “in death” and “after death” and concludes there is only life which immediately becomes death, with no in between phase. Yes, yes, I say to myself, this is clear, why are you stressing this so much? Then his reason slams home as he describes the second death (the abandoning of our soul by God).

For that death, which means not the separation of soul from body but the union of both for eternal punishment, is the more gracious death; it is the worst of all evils. There men will not be in the situations of “before death “ and “after death”, but always “in death”, and for this reason they will never be living, never dead, but dying for all eternity.

XIII.11

This is an horrendous sadness. There are no words to soften the blow of this reality. The only hope is to avoid this situation before it is too late, before the final sand grain falls

By contrast, the second major application is a ray of hope for all those awaiting a new body, without the failings and foibles of our current version. Augustine meditates on the difference between the body Adam had in Eden and the bodies we shall be given in the new Paradise:

For the body which will be incapable of death is that which will be spiritual and immortal in virtue of the presence of a life-giving spirit. In this it will be like the soul which was created immortal… The immortality with which they are clothed will be like that of the angels, an immortality which cannot be taken away by sin; and though the natural substance of flesh will continue, no slightest trace of carnal corruptibility or lethargy will remain.

XIII.24

Given the certainty of death and the exhortation of our Creator to consider these two destinies, who wouldn’t chose life? The psalmist said “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (90.12). May we be wise to reflect on the brevity of life, choose wisdom, choose life and choose Jesus.

The God beyond time

As I went on my morning walk today I noticed the frost on the ground in the shape of a tree. It seemed to me the perfect illustration of the debate at the heart of Book 12 of the City of God – how does a changeless God relate to a changing world?

Augustine’s opponents were suggesting that God’s decision to create time & nature somehow reflects a change in his essential being. How can he go from being in perpetual eternity, outside of time, to then creating the world in a specific moment if God cannot change?

This is a lot more practical than it sounds. Essentially the arguments Augustine is dealing with here are very similar to the debate a few years ago on Open theism. This debate sought to highlight the bible verses that talk about God changing his mind, or changing a decision based on human activity.

Both the modern and ancient questions drive at the heart of God’s relation to his creation – either in its inception or its growth. Although I am finding I don’t agree with Augustine on everything in this book, his reasoning on the question of God’s unchangeable nature (his immutability) is outstanding.

His opponents were suggesting that perhaps God has always been sovereign over creation because there have been an endless cycle of birth, growth and death of planet earth and humankind. They argued that this cyclical theory avoids God transitioning from an eternity of nothingness into a time bound physical universe. Augustine argues that no matter how many cycles there have been there must have been a beginning to the process, and compared to this:

“any space of time which starts from a beginning and is brought to an end, however vast its extent, must be reckoned when compared with that which has no beginning, as minimal, or rather as nothing at all.”

XII.13

There was a moment when eternity observed the birth of time and the invisible beheld the arrival of the material world. Augustine recognises this is “certainly a profound mystery that God existed always and yet willed to create the first man, as a new act of creation, at some particular time, without any alternation in his purpose and design”.

Augustine is right to warn against digging to deeply into this mystery. I think the problem with trying to probe this mystery is that we are bound within time. It’s like the frost on the ground in the shape of a tree. A child might observe this and wonder how a tree’s shadow can make the ground so cold it creates frost within the shadow, while the ground all around is green. When time is taken into account we realise that it’s not that the tree’s shadow causes the frost, but that the sun is melting all the frost except for that protected by the shadow. The effect of time on the movement of the sun fools us.

So too we look at the “changes” that God instigates in time from our perspective and try to peer into eternity from within the tree’s shadow. It is impossible. Only the one who is outside of time can answer these mysteries.

“Every infinity is, in a way we cannot express, made finite to God, because it cannot be beyond the embrace of his knowledge”.

XII.19

All this is to do with origins, as Augustine is dealing with the origin of the Two Cities in this book. I suspect we will get to the even bigger brain-buster on this theme, which is the incarnation. Never mind God entering time from eternity, what about the omnipresent God entering a human body? Faith rests in the wisdom and revelation of God, unbelief asks why the tree’s shadow is producing frost.

The scattered traces of his being

Have you ever wondered why we are here? Many of us have asked this question at one point or another. As Augustine hits his stride in this first book (XI) of Part 2 of The City of God he asks a number of incisive questions: why do we exist at this moment in time? Why here in this part of space? What is the origin of the two cities? When did time start?

As this book pivots away from ancient discussions on the spiritual realm to the very real existence of planet earth, Augustine is diving head first into deep waters. He is unafraid to tackle the biggest issues head on – the origin of humans, angels, demons, goodness, evil, and philosophy. Through it all he keeps his Rule of Faith to guide him in what is truthful, helpful and appropriate.

Two discussions in particular are worthy of highlighting: his treatment of the origin of pure & fallen angels and his masterful handling of God’s creative purpose (ie the who, how & why of creation).

It fascinating to read how Augustine builds his case using the creation account in Genesis 1. He proposes that time began with creation and that “the world was not created in time, but with time” – hypothesising that there is no time without change and motion, which both started with the act of creation.

Augustine refers to Job 38.7 as evidence that angels existed before stars were made. As the sun wasn’t made until Day 4 he proposes that the “Let their be light” of Day 1 refers to the creation of angelic beings, with the separation to greater and lesser light being the division of the obedient and fallen angels.

“Thus the angels, illuminated by that light by which they were created, themselves became lights, and are called “day”, by participation in the changeless light and day, which is the Word of God, through whom they themselves and all other things were made.”

XI.9

Building on his consideration of creation, Augustine reflects on God’s verdict on his work – declaring it is good. Like an expert surgeon he unpacks this divine declaration, on multiple levels. He recognises that “it is not that God discovered that it was good, after he had made it. Far from it… he is not discovering that fact but communicating it”.

Augustine goes on to say how God experiences things is totally different to us. He is not time bound like us mortals, no rather “he sees in some other manner, utterly remote from anything we experience or could imagine”. He says

“God comprehends all these (ie past, present & future) in a stable and eternal present. And with him there is no difference between seeing with the eyes and “seeing” with the mind, for he does not consist of mind and body”.

XI.21

So, says Augustine “he saw that what he had made was good when he saw that it was good that he should make it”. And why was it good that God should make such things? We find the answer by asking: “who made it, how he made it, and why he made it”. So for the statement Let their be light, the answer to these questions are: God / He said “let it be” / it was good!

“There can be no better author than God, no more effective skill than his word, no better cause than that a good product should be created by God, who is good.”

XI.21

This has tremendous implications as we consider our own existence: “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know we exist, and we are glad of this existence and this knowledge” XI.26.

In a world that has lost its grip on the divine intent and pleasure behind our existence it is no surprise that we are also losing our sense of purpose, inherent self-worth and the preciousness of existence.

If we take one thing away from Book XI it should be that each and every one of us is crafted by the heart of a God of love who is delighted at his good handiwork. We are his prized possession – one he was willing to rescue by sacrificing his only Son. May we discovery this afresh this Easter Sunday.

The royal road

On first impressions a mirror appears an exact copy of the real world. Everything is the same as reality – save for one thing, everything is reversed. The left is the right and the right is the left. Perfect in detail, opposite in order.

So to for this latest section of The City of God, where we travel back in time to a mirror world. In Book 10 Augustine is responding to the views of a philosopher named Porphyry (234-305 AD) who is from the Platonic school of thought.

As I read the arguments it struck me how they were wrestling over issues that are on the whole the exact opposite of what we face today. They were concerned with the spiritual realm of angels and demons as a way to the blessed life, the world today is concerned with the god within ourselves.

They were concerned with finding the one right path to truth, society today has abandoned the idea of an absolute truth. They were concerned with understanding the heavenly realms, we are obsessed with the physical.

If this is the case what benefit is there in studying this mirror world, and what can this book teach us? Much I believe. By stretching our minds over a long span of time we can see that the ancient days were different but similar to our own. Despite the different cultural backdrop mentioned above these discrepancies only serve to highlight where we are still the same after over a thousand years later.

We still are lost! We are still looking for the secret to a blessed life. We still debate the validity of the historical record of the New Testament (despite overwhelming evidence). We still need help to find the path to life.

At one point Augustine notes that despite his great learning Porphyry admits “no doctrine has yet been established to form the teaching of a philosophical sect, which offers a universal way for the liberation of the soul; no such way has been produced by any philosophy, or by the moral teaching of the Indians or by the magical spells of the Chaldeans…this universal way had never been brought to his knowledge in his study of history (X.32).”

Ironically, here we are over a thousand years later and still the world is looking for the answer to life – now within the dark corners of our souls. Not much has changed!

Down through the ages Augustine teaches that there is indeed a “royal road, which alone leads to that kingdom whose glory is not the tottering grandeur of the temporal, but the secure stability of the eternal.”

Porphyry dismissed Christianity as the “universal way” because he lived at a time when it was being persecuted and thought this would “soon lead to the disappearance of this way…not realising that this persecution which so influenced him, and he was afraid of suffering if he chose to follow that way, in fact tended to strengthen Christianity and commend it more forcefully”.

As we approach Easter this is the perfect time to discover the truth that so evaded Porphyry – that there is indeed a Royal Road that is open to all – a universal way to find truth, please God & live a blessed life. It is this road that leads to “the eternal dominion of the glorious City of God in the deathless enjoyment of the vision of God”. May we discover it this Easter and find the life that it brings to all who journey on it.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:13-14‬

Exploring a Faith Network

One of the key building blocks to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is empowering employees to bring their whole self to work. If you are anything like me then you will know how powerful this is if you have ever been in a team where everyone knew each other really well, had developed a high level of trust and accepted the different abilities and experiences each person brought to the team. This goes a long way to creating a high performing team!

Over the last couple of years I have been exploring the possibility of establishing a new staff network for those employees within the company I work for who have a faith. Faith is one of the features of life that can lead you to being in the minority at work, in a social group or country.

I would like to try and establish a safe space for people of faith to raise their hand and find others that belong to that faith for mutual encouragement. I myself have a Christian faith and have benefited enormously from the group of 70+ Christians that are connected through Yammer. We have been meeting once a month since June 2019 and have found it really helpful, especially this year with all its challenges to share our concerns and pray for each other, our company and our leaders.

At the start of 2020 I put out some suggested religious festival dates that we wanted to encourage people to celebrate with their Wood colleagues, its been great to see some of these celebrated this year.

My guiding principles in this journey have been to:

  • Accept people as they are, knowing that it is in the company’s interest for us to each be our unique selve
  • Agree to disagree – we will never agree on everything, especially when faith and religion are involved, we must be generous and think well of those that have different beliefs from us
  • Advocate for our own passions – each person can decide what they are passionate about, without pressuring others to advocate for their personal interests
  • Welcome all faiths and those who are curious and want to know more.

If you would like to know more about this initiative then please get in touch.

“Learn to see” – my prayer for 2021

Father, help me to see the church as it should be

Not as it is now, but as you see.

No longer regard people from a human point of view

See with God’s eyes how we will be made anew.

See the bursts of glory all around

Exchange the errors for the profound.

See the potential in others; sin in myself

Forgive, forget, restore back to health.

“Bless others”, He says, “as you have been blessed”

“Unconditionally, relentlessly, indiscriminately”, I confessed.

Thrive Dundee

As part of our discussion and prayers on next steps from the Thrive conference (www.thrivescotland.org) we sensed God prompting us to explore establishing a marketplace city gathering across Dundee.

There are already such groups in Aberdeen and Edinburgh and we feel that now is the time to see if God is opening a way to form a similar group in Tayside. There is a growing group of people in and around the city who attended Thrive and are keen to meet up when it is possible again.

I realise there are challenges around physically meeting up but wanted to start praying about meeting face to face for breakfast in the spring of 2021. We are planning on having a Zoom call in the new year and potentially start meeting for a fortnightly breakfast in March or April.

We would ask for your prayers for this new extension of our ministry. If you would like to know more please contact me.

Navigating uncertainty in an age of perpetual crises

Or, Six Shifts on the Road to 2030

What if this goes on for two years?

I asked my team, stoked their fears

No more holding our breath,

Hoping for the best,

Watching our peers.

Time to embrace different living,

Find strength to keep on giving

No more easy sailing

Comfort Zone staying,

In the shallows swimming.

Time to embrace the raging seas,

“Out of your depth?” the doubters’ tease

Not aware our feet are firm

Changing our subtle form

A new army rises from its knees.

Back in September I asked my team a simple question – “What if this goes on for two years?” In the summer, the World Health Organisation President said we should expect two years of restrictions. It made me think, what would I do differently if this went on until Spring 2022? Since then we have had good news about a new vaccine, and a series of disappointing and continuing restrictions that have pushed normality over the horizon.

Amid this season it is easy to become discouraged and downhearted. We need each other more than ever to listen, be sympathetic and remind each other of our love and care for each other. However, if we raise our gaze beyond the immediate circumstances, I believe there are a number of shifts that are happening due to the fracturing of normality. I have outlined six strategic shifts that I see happening and what you can do within your organisation to help it prepare for a different world.

OPERATING MINDSET: Shift from Resources to Resourcefulness (What you know is less important than how you think)

In a hyper-VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world the speed of change means no one can cover a large enough domain of expertise to become the de facto guru. It turns out in a knowledge economy, it is not the accumulation of knowledge that gives you an edge – but the ability to extract actionable insights from the wealth of knowledge that you have access to.

A strong and diverse network with a rapid speed of response becomes more important than hoarding resources. Informed instincts become more important, and speed of adaptation becomes a competitive advantage, even in some places a survival attribute. Seek to build an open and diverse group of voices that you listen to and allow to speak into your life and leadership.

LEADERSHIP: Shift from Positional to Purposeful power (Who you are is more important than your role or title)

Old hierarchies have been overturned almost overnight. Those leaders that kept their people in line by walking past their desks and looking over their shoulder are powerless in a work-from-home world that runs on flexibility and trust. In an age where everything is available and accessible online, people are voting with their fingertips for the people and programmes they want to follow. Command and control is very hard to implement down broadband cables.

When location is irrelevant, meeting people has never been easier, keeping people has never been harder. We must stop giving orders and start listening to questions in order to motivate people to want to do what we want them to do…take 50% longer to share the vision than you think necessary. People will follow when they believe in the purpose.

ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT: Shift from Administration to Exploration (Your Comfort Zone is shrinking every day!)

At every organization there are those that are simply keeping the engine ticking over – either knowingly or unknowingly. When crises after crises hits us and business as usual becomes business unusual, what happens to the person who can only operate within a limited frame of skills or experiences? When we are off the map, and in uncharted territory the heart of the explorer returns.

It was the privilege of our earlier ancestors to go into parts of the world that weren’t on any map. That task now falls to us – but not geographic exploration, rather a re-inventing of the economic model that is built on new principles. Look to the fringes of your organisation for inspiration, there are probably people already adapting to the future within your organisation but don’t have access to the top decision makers. Find, empower, and follow these emerging leaders.

ENGAGEMENT: Shift from Assumed to Asked / Online to Engaged (What does discretionary effort look like when no one is watching?)

A key question for leaders in the future will be “What are the measurements and metrics that help you understand if your message and mission is being followed and making an impact?” In the old world we knew if people were paying attention because when we looked round the Town Hall, we could see how many people showed up and who was paying attention. In the new world we have no (immediate) idea what the organisation are thinking and if anyone is following. We have lost the most important communicator of all – body language.

We must now deliberately take the time and effort to ask people what they think and build an expectation of transparency and openness, which will enable them to be honest. Don’t take attendance for engagement, learn how to get under the skin of your organisation and get their 100% honest, unfiltered opinion. By the way, this will probably be painful!

FRAGILITY: Shift from Risk to Resilience (Only the bendable will survive!)

Much of our past thinking about the future has been to avoid risks and find opportunity. Now we can see that the events we need to navigate are too big to avoid, and the key uncertainties are timing and scale of impact. In this world we must practice our crises response way ahead of time. Resilience is the idea that we come back stronger after a severe test. We must understand the fragility of our system and what vulnerabilities could be exposed during a shock.

Those that thrive in the new world will be those that see the value in investing time, effort and money in small adjustments to build resilience ahead of the coming shocks, rather than pay massive bills after it has happened. Practice worst case scenario thinking…be brave enough to ask the really tough questions and work back from there. Small bets, less borrowing, patient growth.

VALUE: Shift from Value Extraction to Value Creation (How to make more with less?)

We must find a way to generate value without reducing our resources. Resource scarcity drove our understanding of economics in the past – get as much as possible as quickly as possible and earn as much as possible. This is a zero sum game when our resources are reducing the inhabitable portion of our planet.

People will always pay for a service or a product that they value. The organisations that thrive in the future will find a way to generate that value without contributing to the ever diminishingresources equation. It is possible but hard. Every future business case will need to explain how the idea contributes positively to the accretive impact on our natural and human capital. Our number one challenge is to leave this Earth a richer, more beautiful, more diverse place than how we found it.

There is no better way to sum all this up than by the saying of the late, great football manager Gerard Houllier who died last week and once said:

“Leadership is a transfer of emotion”

It is the heart that connects to other human beings and inspires them. If we want to make an impact in the midst of an ever changing and uncertain future we must dig deep to find our inherent values and passions and be the person who others will trust enough to share their deep frustrations and emotional struggles. If we are genuinely following this path, the rest will follow naturally.

The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you

If there is one book that has incapsulated the journey I have been on in the last 15+ years it has been Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I only read it three years ago, but little did I realise I had been experiencing the reality of its challenge long before Tod articulated it for me.

It was the summer of 2017 and I was sitting in Cafe Nero riveted to Tod’s description of explorers Lewis & Clark. They set out in 1803 to map the western part of America, an expanse previously unknown and assumed to hold a water course to the Pacific Ocean. Tod interlaces this analogy of exploration with the steady marginalisation of the church in western civilisation.

The beauty of what Tod does in this book is that he is able to draw insightful parallels from their unexpected adventures in the wilderness with the monumental shifts that have taken place in society’s relationship with the church.

The gems in this book are too rich to summarise in a soundbite, they reward the thoughtful. This book deals with how to lead transformational change within an organisation when all around us is shifting. In the military they call it VUCA – volition, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. How do we lead change in a VUCA world?

What kind of leader do we need to be in order to both care for people and lead them into uncharted territory?

I have found its wisdom has remained with me these last few years. It calls us to not remain in the shallows but cast out for deeper waters abandoning our preconceived assumptions of what life would hold. Complete surrender is the goal, letting go of the need to gain approval or acceptance.

Stepping in to the unknown will mean we let go of our human resource to find all sufficiency in God’s provision – often in the unlikeliest of places & the least listened to people.

Reflecting on this book helped me to see two things clearly that I will be forever thankful for:

I need to care less about what people think of me – I surrender my need for approval

I need to care less about the problems causing the decay – I surrender my need for control

This is the fifth book review ahead of Thrive Scotland 2020, a catalyst conference starting on 9th September for encouraging Christians in the workplace.

seeking a reasonable faith

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