If you work for a large corporate company you will have probably started work with an induction session on your first day. You sit there getting told lots of things that you will forget a few hours later. Where the company is headquartered, who the CEO is, how the company grew to its current size…lots of great information but much of it of little use to your daily work. You sit there as a group of strangers wondering who among you will be still here in 5 years, who will leave first, and who will be promoted.
For many of us our first day marks the start of our sink or swim aquathon – our daily challenge to keep our head above water while we swim against the tide of work. Some of us find that swim easier than we expected as we discover that work can be interesting and fulfilling. For many of us however the current of repetitive mundane work threatens to emotionally drown us.
At what feels like annual intervals the busyness of work pauses momentarily and we ask ourselves some deep probing questions: is there a deeper purpose to my work? Am I a meaningless cog in a giant monolithic machine? Should I quit my city job in order to do something more meaningful?
If you have found yourself asking these deeper questions about life, the universe and the mysteries of excel macros then we would love you to join us as we unpack God’s big picture for our workplace. The Thrive Conference is designed to help you explore these issues through a reinvigorating training session containing great teaching, personal reflection and the encouragement of fellow swimmers. We look forward to having you join the Thrive swim lane!
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Linkedin: The Business Connection Aberdeen
If you are anything like me you will have started work with an induction session on your first day. You sit there getting told lots of things that you will forget a few hours later. Where the company is headquartered, who the CEO is, what the values are, lots of great information but much of it of little use to your daily work.
For Christians entering the workplace there is likely to be no Christian version of such an induction into the world of work. We are expected to jump in and swim, pick it up as we go, and enjoy the benefits of earning some money…at last. If we were to have an induction for every Christian starting their first day in the workplace, what would we say? How would we counsel them? We know God wants us to be good employees, but what does that look like practically?
I have been in the workplace for 15 years, and realise looking back that I was unprepared for the long hard slog that makes up the majority of my time in the workplace. In my new job no one was interested in my beliefs, my clever apologetic arguments or my lively church filled with young people. Well, almost no one, it certainly felt like that in the early days. Thankfully back then there was a ministry that organised lunchtime Business Alpha courses that was run by business people for business people. A number of my friends came along to this over the years, opening the way to a number of conversations about faith. So that is why I was there, to befriend people and help them see a relatively “normal” Christian in the world of Apprentice-like consultants?
If I could put on this induction for every Christian entering the workplace I wouldn’t start where I started. I would start with God. Strange as it may seem God invented work, and this was before mankind messed everything up. Work is not a result of the curse. Read Genesis and you will see that God made work a harder ministry after the fall, but the origins of why we work are wrapped up in the creative acts of God. We work because God works…that would be the first point.
The second is a natural follow on; work is good. Sure, there are jobs that harm people, destroy society or the environment, but on the whole work is a great benefit. We have warm houses, fast cars and healthy children largely because someone somewhere invented something and lots of people maintain the fabric of work. For one person in one job it is hard sometimes to see the big picture, but pull out enough of these jobs and eventually society grinds to a halt. Who knew we would have a milk-and-margarine malaise after three days of snow. Did we not appreciate lorry drivers that little bit more afterwards?
My third point on my induction (probably after a coffee break by this time) would be do your best. Simple as it may sound there are many people at work not doing their best. Over the years complacency, cynicism and apathy grow in many people and they mentally detach from their work. They turn up and do the job, but their heart is not in it. For the Christian this can never be an option. Colossians 3.23 calls us to do our best no matter what our job is or who our boss is. I have discovered that any credibility or respect that you may want as a Christian for the way you work will be totally destroyed if you are not competent. First be excellent, then everything else will flow from that.
My next point would be you are not alone. For many Christians in Scotland they will be the only Christian in their immediate workplace and the isolation can be debilitating. When I started working in my current role I was the only Christian I knew of amongst 400 people. I was wrong to think I was alone. But even if you are alone in your company, there are many fellow Christians facing similar challenges in similar companies. I have learnt that one person can make a difference…who knows, perhaps God’s purpose for your 30-year career was all because God wanted to reach one solitary soul? Would that be enough for you? Which brings me to my final points for the induction session.
Those of us in the business world will probably be familiar with the concept of mind-sets. People you meet have certain beliefs that shape the way they recruit and train staff and sell their products. Sometimes a mind-set reset is required due to vague or misguided thinking. We face a similar challenge today. For reasons folded within history Christians in the workplace sometimes feel that the primary value of their work is to evangelise the lost. I certainly started from this perspective. If I was having good conversations I was fulfilling my purpose, if I wasn’t I was treading water. It seems that we need to regain our understanding of how our work contributes to God’s kingdom work. While gospel witness is the most vital task the church faces, our daily work fulfils a much more subtle, broader role in the growth of Christ’s kingdom.
Playing our part in God’s Common Grace to society is a great thing. Using our gifts and abilities to help, protect and nurture others is a beautiful outworking of God’s provision to his creation. I would use my last 10 minutes to remind them that Joseph and Daniel are as much a worthy example to follow as Paul and Peter. Will they become the role models so desperately needed of Christians who have moved beyond the sacred / secular divide to work out what it means to seek for whole life discipleship in their job, family, church and community?
I would close with saying “Go out there and do you best, seek to enjoy what you do, do it with all your heart and see what God will do with years of faithful service. Some of it will be dull, mundane, repetitive and exhausting, but that too is part of the discipline of bringing every act under submission to Christ. Some of you will be led to take what you have learned into full time paid Christian ministry. For those that don’t, remember that work is no second best, if it is God’s plan for you. All of life is ministry, if done with the ultimate aim of bringing glory to God.”
If you never had an induction like that, a group of us are working on bringing a conference to Aberdeen in March 2019 providing an inspiring time of teaching and ministry to explore some of these areas further. We would love you to be a part of it. The event comes out of the passion of four Christian businessmen in Aberdeen who believe God is moving across the workplaces of our city. We have joined with a number of partners to put on an event that we believe will be challenging and stimulating and may well just be the best induction you never had!
The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of a young genius mathematician from India who can see formulae for incredibly complex theories as if they are simply colours in the rainbow. He explains (spoiler alert!) that these equations are given to him by the goddess he worships. Is it possible that the gods and goddess communicate with their followers? And if so can they help them find eternal peace?
This is the question that Augustine is wrestling with in Book 9 of the City of God. Perhaps a question unfamiliar territory for modern day Western minds, but maybe not so for Eastern religions. The issue Augustine is addressing is the problem of our separation from God. He is seeking to understand how a being who is infinite and spirit, can be known by those who are finite and physical.
In the ancient world (and still today in some parts of the world) this problem was attempted to be solved through the mediation of gods on behalf of people to the supreme being and vice versa. But does this solution withstand closer scrutiny? Augustine takes what their own philosophers have said about these beings and challenges the logic to see if there is any real possibility that they can help humans bridge the divine divide.
He starts by asking, are there good and bad gods? Followers of Plato saw all gods as good. So, how then to explain the things they do that we disapprove of? The bad ones some call demons, those who do evil activities and have degraded passions. These philosophers believed that gods have no contact with man, so gods are established midway, to carry men’s requests and bring back the benefits the gods have granted.
In order to more accurately define what we are talking about Augustine uses the definition of Apuleius, saying that these beings (described as demons throughout the chapter) are “animals in respect of species; in respect of soul, liable to passions; in mind, capable of reason; in body, composed of air; in life-span, eternal“. Some of these characteristics these creatures share with humans, some with the supreme being.
Humankind is described as having “a lowly abode, mortality & misery“, while gods are described by “the sublimity of their abode, the eternity of their life, the perfection of their nature“. Thus we can see three key elements that distinguish people, demons and God: i) their mortality, ii) their location and iii) their nature. People are temporal, earthly and unhappy, demons are eternal, ethereal and miserable, while God is eternal, spirit and forever blessed.
Augustine says these demons are worse than men, “older in wickedness and incapable of being reformed by the punishment they deserve” and so they are tossed about on “the raging sea of their minds“. He says that “only truth and virtue can offer a centre of resistance against the turbulent and degraded passions” if we are not to be carried along with them on the path to destruction.
To all this Augustine poses the question, can such beings that share our misery help us acquire the eternal blessedness of God? Can they aid us to achieve that which they are unable of accomplishing themselves? No, says Augustine, we need a mediator that has the opposite characteristics to demons, something, or someone who is mortal, earthy and perfectly blessed:
“all men, as long as they are mortals, must needs be also wretched. If this is so, we must look for a mediator who is not only human but also divine, so that men may be brought from mortal misery to blessed immortality by the intervention of the blessed mortality of this mediator. It was necessary that he should not fail to become mortal, equally necessary that he should not remain mortal“.
In order to bridge the gap between two worlds a mediator must share common ground with each side of the divide. In theory it may seem that demons could do this as “they are immortals, like the gods, and wretched, like men“. However, their desires are corrupted and even if they could help humankind reach the divine, they would not want to unite people with their sworn enemy. In fact they would do everything in their power to separate them from their eternal home.
In Augustine’s time they did this through creating a counterfeit religion which attempted to divert people from worshiping the true God. In our day they do it through covert means of maintaining the illusion that the only reality is the visible realm. Hiding behind the curtain they use their power to filter out the ripples of real supernatural activity, and hide their true nature from prying eyes.
These days we would never ask the same questions Augustine does of these beings. The average Westerner would claim they couldn’t care less about whether such demons exist, they are the thing of reality TV shows in haunted houses, and gory Hollywood horror movies. Our fascination is less about salvation and more about sensation – helping us escape from the real world for a few hours in our imagination.
We would do well to reconsider our limited view of the supernatural if we would avoid the twin errors of a counterfeit religion and a covert deception. We must find our refuge in the one true mediator who truly has our best interests at heart and has once and for all bridged the chasm between the divine and the debased. God the Son fulfilled the criteria perfectly by demonstrating that “the mediator between God and man should have a transient mortality, and a permanent blessedness“. And he invited each of us into that blessedness through his atoning death on the cross.
Lord Jesus, help us to rest fully on your mediating work, the one and only rescue to bring us safely to our eternal home. Thank you for taking on our frail humanity and weak nature to join us with you for all eternity. Amen
In Psalm 86 David is crying out to his God for help. He is facing enemies who seek to destroy him and have no love or fear for God. David reasons that since he does love God he will cry out to him for help.
The psalm is a beautiful example of the struggles of the faithful heart in the midst of turbulent waters. One the one hand praising and worshiping a God who is unchangingly merciful and relentlessly compassionate, while on the other experiencing the day by day pressure of being pursued by those seeking our harm. One the one hand surrounded by peace & rest, on the other contempt & hatred. For anyone who has known opposition in their life this psalm is an oasis of hope in a inhospitably desert.
Right in the middle of meditating on this psalm I was struck by one phrase in verse 16. I had been reading the psalm for many days but never read this phrase as I read it now. David is crying out to God to remember his life of service to him and using this as a reason for God to save him. Then there comes this throw away phrase that struck my profoundly – just as my mother did.
David is here remembering how his mother served God, how she loved her children and her husband Jesse through her service. In his moment of heartache David’s mind goes back to his mother. Remember her Lord? Remember how she served you, as I now serve you? Remember that from generation to generation we are a faithful family? Would you intervene to rescue those that are seeking with their whole heart to follow your ways?
One of the things that hits me about this text is how it deepens the intimacy of the final plea to God. In the final few verses David cries out for God’s visible manifestation of his strength (v16). He asks God to be God in his circumstances because David is his servant, who serves him and seeks to glorify him in each moment of his life (v12). He thinks of the most visible expression of that servant attitude in his life and his mind instinctively goes to his mother, rather than his father. Then he immediately thinks of his enemies and their absolute absence of a humble servant heart. This extreme contrast compels him to cry out to God for the invisible pleasure of God upon his people to be made known to shame his opponents into submission.
David’s mother is not named in the bible, but according to the Talmud it was Nitzevet. We know very little about her, but she must have been some woman. Not only did she exemplify a life of service to God, but she raised seven boys. Sometimes in parenting our enthusiasm is overcome by apathy as more and more children arrive. The youngest one can sometimes be the most ignored and left to get on with things themselves. It is to her credit that her witness did not wane with age, but rather deepened and sweetened.
Until this little phrase hit me this week I had not appreciated how much of an influence David’s mother would have had on his ministry, leadership and reign. The example of this godly woman helped shape the man who “shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skilful hands he led them” (Psalm 78v72). What an impact her life made, what a difference had she not been the faithful servant in her private home as a mother, wife and friend. She was a visible sign of God’s goodness to David which lasted his entire life and impacted the entire Israelite nation. Thank God for faithful, godly, servant hearted mothers!
On the 25th May 2018 a new law hit the UK that changed how organisations held people’s private date such as their name, address, email etc. It was called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and sought to ensure that there is greater transparency over what information is held about us online and in databases.
In preparing for this day I got a load of emails from organisations asking me to verify that they could keep sending me their marketing materials. Hopefully this new regulation will mean fewer spam emails and phone calls over the coming years as there is a greater penalty for misuse of personal information.
All this focus on personal data made me think about three important lessons for learning more about how the gospel impacts our daily lives in this area:
We are more than our data
In this day of social media and everything being online, it is sometimes easy to forget that even through you may know all about someone from their Twitter or Facebook feed, you don’t really know that person until you meet them and spend time with them. All of us whether we realise it or not present only a certain side of our personality online, the real us is much too complex, contradictory and cautious to bare all online.
We are so much more than the bare statistics of our life, what our name is, where we live, who we are married to, our waist size, our iQ, our job title. All of this data is a representation of the person behind it, and can be copied by others to try and steal our identity, but the real you stands distinct and separate from all the numbers and characters.
Our data is not our own
GDPR says to us that we control the data about ourselves, and can have it removed and deleted if we so wish from any UK organisation that holds information about us. While it is theoretically possible to remove every digital copy of our data there is an infallible and never-ending record of not only ever online transaction, but everything we have said, done and thought being recorded right now.
This is the story of our life as recorded by an infinite, all-knowing God who is the one who really does own all of the information about you and me – the God who created time, the universe and human history. All of life is logged away in his memory banks, a perfect record of our lives, for better or for worse.
He owns this data and no amount of hitting “unsubscribe” will remove it from this database. It is permanently etched onto his memory for all time by every person who is alive now and has ever lived. God knows us inside and out, and has it all on file!
Your data will destroy you
As this data repository grows throughout our lives it shows us for who we really are, not the photoshopped version of ourselves, but the real you. All of us fail at some point or another, all of us leave traces behind us of weakness or corruption. We seek to move on and forget the bad stuff and hope that no one ever pulls up that file or views that video, but it is there like a silent depth charge waiting to explode at the first contact.
None of us can claim to have a totally pure hard-drive. Our personal data is private but not hidden. On the final day everything will be laid bare and the private will become public, and the hidden things revealed. Unless we act now, it will then be clear that the viruses were not the only reason our files were corrupted.
Data cleansing is for real
The good news is that the record can really be swept clean. Although in this life every online action leaves a trace, by the power of the one who made us he is able to destroy our records once and for all – through the cleansing that comes from the death of his Son.
Then we will find that there is really only one piece of information that is really important and we are happy for the entire world to know – whether we are his disciple or not. It will be this piece of data that will split mankind right down the middle, and it will be this tiny piece of data that restores and refreshes our systems totally and completely one day.
So feel free to unsubscribe from following this blog at any point, and let me know if you want your email address deleted, but just make sure you don’t opt out of GDPR – gospel driven personal renewal!
As I write this the UK is reeling from the use of chemical weapons on its home soil. It was a deadly attack and left two people in a critical condition and injured a third. We are rightly appalled at the blatant disregard for public safety and national sovereignty. It makes us thankful for our scientists who seek to ensure that should something like this happen we have the right antidotes to treat people who have been exposed.
As I have studied Book 8 of Augustine’s City of God this week I have been struck by its profound relevance for our contemporary situation. We are deep into the study now, and Book 8 is a masterpiece in unravelling the deepest desires of the human heart. As I have studied Augustine’s reasoning, it has forced me to wonder whether our modern UK society has been exposed to some sort of spiritually engineered soporific.
Could it be that our spiritual senses have been numbed into a Candy Crush-induced coma? Could our emoji expressions and 140 character limit be trivialising our soul? Like bodies that are weakened by an endless diet of donuts and Danish pastries, we have been feeding our souls on what is neither nourishing nor natural.
If Augustine was alive today I believe he would stand at the highest point of our nation and sound a clarion call for us to reclaim our souls. In this section of the City of God he explores what is the true food for our souls, he calls to us to feed on the right substance, for our souls were not made to consume, but to admire, to aspire, to adore. But what should we adore? Nothing that is of less worth than our soul, he says, for “the homage due from the soul cannot be due to something which is inferior to the soul”.
Throughout this section Augustine is seeking to find the true purpose and calling of our soul worship. To what do the wisest men of his time say we should direct our soul? If we ask people today, many may say that our greatest good is to be happy and to be true to yourself. But is this the right approach? Are we ourselves more worthy of the praise and adoration we give ourselves than anything else in the universe?
To answer these questions Augustine plunges into the philosophy of theology – the study of the divinity. Augustine wants to understand what we can learn from those thinkers who share a belief in a supernatural being. He works his way through the history of philosophers, until he reaches Socrates and Plato. They strived to answer this question by seeking to find the highest good, for when we know what that is, it is only right that we should adore only that which is worthy of adoration. Like a compass pointing to north, our souls will naturally turn towards it.
Socrates was the “first to turn the whole of philosophy towards the improvement and regulation of morality” as his predecessors had focussed on the study the natural sciences. Moreover, Socrates “saw that man had been trying to discover the causes of the universe”. He believed it had its “first and supreme cause in nothing but the will of the one supreme God, hence he thought that the causation of the universe could be grasped only by a purified intelligence”.
“He thought it essential to insist on the need to cleanse one’s life by accepting a high moral standard” in order to “behold, thanks to its pure intelligence, the essence of immaterial and unchangeable light where dwell the causes of all created things in undisturbed stability”. If only we could rid ourselves of our corrupted thinking and deeds, reasoned Socrates, we could as a clean mirror more clearly perceive the mind of God. A noble aim no doubt, but is it possible? Can we lift ourselves up to this spiritual level?
If Socrates was clear on the process he thought would work, he was less clear on what we would discover behind the veil. He sought to understand and identify the Summum Bonum – the Highest or Final Good. “Everything else we desire for the sake of this, this we desire for itself alone” as it alone conveys blessedness. But his approach of refuting various hypotheses and countering every argument left his followers with different opinions on what this Final Good was – was it pleasure or virtue or something else?
Where Socrates brought questions, Plato brought structure. Up until Plato philosophy had been conducted along two lines, one concerned with action, the other with pure thought. Or in other words, practical and speculative philosophy, the former dealing with the conduct of life and establishment of moral standards, the latter concerned with the theory of causation and nature of absolute truth. Plato “brought philosophy to perfection by joining together these two strands”. He then divided philosophy into three parts:
- Moral, relating to action (i.e. ethics…the Summum Bonum);
- Natural, devoted to speculation; and
- Rational (logic) which distinguishes truth from falsehood
Augustine summarises these three elements as relating to questions about:
- “the blessedness of life” – ie how do I live a good life?
- “the origin of existence” – ie why am I here?
- “the truth of doctrine” – ie what is truth?
When the Christian views these three categories we get a deeper appreciation for how our divine creator fulfils and satisfies each question in turn. As Augustine says, the Christian finds in God “the rule of life (moral), the cause of existence (natural) and the principle of reason (rational)”. He then goes on to say that if we have been created to attain to the knowledge of God then “we should seek him in whom for us all things are held together, we should find him in whom for us all things are certain, we should love him, in whom is found all goodness.”
Is this not the true north of our souls? Finding the greatest source and fountain of goodness, the reason for our existence and the source of all truth can only lead to adoration, thankfulness and worship. Only by centring our souls on this spring of life can we avoid the temptation for self-love and discover the satisfaction of all our souls could ever desire.
Long before any of us were born, before we ever had a thought or asked a question, a civilisation had been born, grown, conquered the known world and then died. In this society the great questions of life were asked by the philosophers, portrayed by the plays and idolised by the poets. An intricate web of personalities stood behind the cause and effect of the visible and invisible world. The civilisation was the Roman Empire, and the personalities were their pagan gods.
In chapter 7 of the City of God, Augustine dissects as an expert surgeon the layers upon layers of these gods. A complex hierarchy determined the degree of control or influence of each god. He again goes back to Varro to use one of their own philosophers to ensure he represents their position accurately. Augustine asks basic questions like, is there a logical reason why some gods have more important responsibilities or are given a greater degree of worship? After a lengthy analysis of these so-called principal or select gods, Augustine concludes that there is no logical system to explain the hierarchy, but “simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown of the general public”.
So far, so good. We, as a modern, sophisticated reader, can look back at these times as naive and easily discard their superstition. Maybe. This is when the chapter gets really interesting! For Augustine pushes on to the deeper question behind and beyond the pagan rituals, to ask, to what purpose was all this constructed? Why did all of this appear? According to Varro, all the images and attributes and ornaments were created in order that those initiated “could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their minds the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and it’s manifestations”.
Don’t miss the significance of this, one of the leading experts and advocates of the Roman gods is saying that these hundreds of gods were created because there is something else that is indescribable, there is something Other that is untouchable. It is this that he calls the Soul of the World, this essence that is not human, or any created thing, that is beyond our senses but we can hear it’s echo in our lives.
What is this essence? Varro describes it using the three degrees of the soul (borrowed from Aristotle): the most basic level is the material body; the next is sensibility, the ability to experience sensation; the highest level is intelligence, “a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man”. Augustine then goes on to say that “it is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro is God; in man he calls it genius“. This genius connects all things together, and expresses itself as the god of the earth, Tellus, the Great Mother, and the god of the sea Neptune.
An essence within but beyond the created world? Something intelligent, like a person but not human? We may say we have left all of this superstition behind hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but when I went to see The Last Jedi at Christmas this could have been the script for Ray’s island training (a story that mirrors the sentiments of many who feel there must be something out there). Feel the force Ray, find the genius Varro. Why are we aching, reaching, yearning to find what is just out of reach? To describe something indescribable? To find a unifying purpose to make sense of all of life? We may have dropped the pagan gods, yet the human heart remains the same…looking for a way to explain our sense of unaloneness in the universe.
The seeking is good, the longing is innate, but the answer is wrong. For what Varro called the World-Soul, what the modern spirit-seekers may call the Force, what the Greeks called the logos, has been revealed once and for all. Not as a thing, or a system, but as a person. The mistake has been to look inside the created order for the answer, when all the signs pointed to the answer being outside of the natural order of things. “In the beginning was the logos (Word)” says John the apostle. And who is this Word? “And the word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.
All of the ancient pagan system was man’s Herculean attempt to explain the personality behind the planets. Years before Augustine another church father told us that “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33). It is the breath of God that we can see on our rear view mirror, the word of the Lord that we can hear echoing across our our conscience. It is the call of Jesus, the Word made flesh, calling to our lost world to come home.
At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.
We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better. Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:
i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:
- Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
- Cremation practice and law in Britain.
- The banana industry.
- Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.
Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.
So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.
ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.
Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel. To the natural man it is foolishness.
There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.
iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.
Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.
Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day – an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He was described as “Varro, that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”. Back in the final years of BC, Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular religious author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists from Constantinople to Carthage.
It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in Book 6 of City of God in order to refute the widely held belief that, the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps, he asks, we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?
It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life, from the growing of beards (Fortuna) to eternal life (Juventas) to everything in between. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the fabulous (from fable), natural and civil. The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro states that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theatre; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.
Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude. In frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.” Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.
Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people as superstitious, just as today’s atheists look at Christians as equally superstitious. We live in the age of secular humanism, where there are absolutely no gods behind the scenes, only the mechanistic mono-dimensional world where the only reality is the reality I see with my eyes. The so-called rational secular humanists claim the voice of reason as they heap scorn on our belief in things that the human eye cannot see. In chapter 6 of City of God the roles are reversed. It is society that sees hundreds if not thousands of gods everywhere, and it is Augustine who is claiming the voice of reason. In chapters 1-5 he has argued against those who believe that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of benefit in this life, in chapters 6-10 he takes on the belief that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of eternal life.
Mankind has always oscillated between pantheism and atheism, with a healthy dose of monotheism thrown into the mix. The world is such a wonderful, capricious and unsentimental place and our lives are so fragile that we struggle to reconcile the certainty we long for with the uncertainty we experience. Are the failed crops a sign of divine displeasure, a random act or ecological karma? The response of people in Augustine’s day was to humanise their gods and make each one accountable for a different aspect of life, even the growth of beards. Their gods were an integral part of everyday life – the topic of the theatre, the focus of ceremonies, the theme of the academics. They were awash with superstition and contradiction.
Augustine asks the key question, “can these gods give you eternal life?” Does following them bring reward in this life, or the next? Augustine sought to refute the idea that the gods had any real power to control events and uses the most well known philosopher of the day on the topic. Atheists say that Christians are right to argue there are not thousands of gods – but that they stop one God short of the correct answer. But this underestimates the magnitude of the binary difference between 1 and 0. For me it is like finding a spouse – for the boy desperate to find his perfect girl the difference between no one and someone is immense. It is the difference between happiness and sadness, joy and despair.
No matter what the prevailing fashion of society is, there will always be Christians who hold to the reality of the Someone. For they have met their true soulmate and have found lasting, deep joy. The contrasting religious background may be black or white, pantheism or atheism, but the red of the cross will always stand out. Let society say we are alone in the universe, or let them say there are hundreds of mini-gods under every stone, we cannot agree.