Category Archives: Unity with Christ

The not so super-natural

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

My A to Z prayer for 2013

walking_alone_on_long_road-other-e1343172538576My A to Z prayer for 2013

Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you

Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly

Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you

Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you

Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment

Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you

Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings

Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others

I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally

Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord

Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan

Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you

Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord

Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life

Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…

Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands

Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence

Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you

Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you

Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me

Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else

Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day

Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day

X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord

Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity

Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace

This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here

The Stench of Chronological Snobbery

God Is Not Great, Chapter 5

By chapter 5 Hitchens is well into his stride, his main thesis in this chapter is that religion only flourished in the past due to ignorance and superstition in times of “abysmal ignorance and fear”. In these less enlightened times people could (almost) be excused for believing in fairy tales invented to simultaneously comfort the masses and exert power over them. In an incredible demonstration of speed-assassination he rolls off tabloid-like sound bites on Aquinas, Augustine, Martin Luther and Isaac Newton. Each of these men were incredibly deep thinkers and spent years in seeking to understand the world around them through science and faith, but they are assigned to the intellectual scrap heap because they have a theistic worldview. Yes there are things they believed that we look back on now, with the benefit of hindsight, as primitive and simplistic. But to take this anomaly and assign it as a one sentence strap line, or more like epitaph, over their lives is downright dishonest.

In Surprised by Joy CS Lewis reveals his prejudices about the past: “Here were gods, spirits, afterlife and pre-existence, initiates, occult knowledge, meditation. “Why — damn it — it’s medieval,” I exclaimed; for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse. Here was everything which the New Look had been designed to exclude; everything that might lead one off the main road into those dark places where men are wallowing on the floor and scream that they are being dragged down into hell. Of course it was all arrant nonsense. There was no danger of my being taken in.”

The preconception shows itself by a scoffing at anything older than we are, “how less educated they were back then, how foolish” we say. But this attitude forgets two things – firstly that if we had we lived back then our intellectual capacity would have been dwarfed by the names mentioned earlier and secondly, that in 100 years generations to come may well look back on us and wonder how we could have believed such primitive ideas that we think are the height of sophistication today. A little more humility and a great deal more balanced critique of these historical figures is required if our analysis is to stand the test of time. I cannot say it better than Lewis when countering his friend Barfield who had become an Anthroposophist:

“Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

It was at this point that I wondered if Hitchens’ one-liners betrayed his journalistic roots – not taking the time to present the case in its entirety – just lifting certain facts to suit the argument. Hitchens seems content to sacrifice a longer piece of even-handed commentary to the quick flashes of an eloquent assault. I began to wonder if Hitchens is only ever able to skim the surface of the arguments, scoring quick points in a tae kwon do style attack, but never plumbing the depths of an Augustine to find the real person behind the fictional caricature. He sums it all up by saying that “we have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.” Granted, he thinks it is mostly learning from their mistakes!

But wait! There is someone who Hitchens would hold up as a critical thinker of a past century. William Ockham lived in the early 14th century and is most famous for his “Ockham’s Razor” which bears his name – this view describes the attempt to “disposing of unnecessary assumptions and accepting the first sufficient explanation or cause”. Essentially this means he sought to use logic to understand cause and effect behind religious faith. Thus, Hitchens presents Ockham as an orthodox, if controversial, Christian thinker who challenged the religious thinking of his day. In his search to simplify his preconceptions and find a logical explanation to his faith, Ockham realised that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. Moreover, in being obsessed with tracing back the cause and effect of each assumption he eventually comes to the wonder “Who created the Creator? Who designed the Designer?” This is music to Hitchens’ ears –a religious philosopher who unwillingly exposes the problem of the origin of God.

However, what Hitchens and Ockham fail to realise is that the “natural law” of cause and effect is not law which binds a free God – it is the expression of a created logical world.  Just as within a jigsaw there are inbuilt rules over which piece will fit with which neighbouring piece, but the designer of the jigsaw is not limited by these rules. So too God stands outside of our laws of nature and philosophical assumptions. Yes, within his created world, he has appointed cause and effect to underpin the world, but he is not bound by such spatial-bound sequential laws.

It’s the same with time – it is pointless to ask who or what existed before God, for he stands outside of time, as an eternal being. Yes we can use logic and reason to understand something of God and his world, but at one point we must put down these primitive tools and accept the knowledge of God through his self-disclosed revelation. Not that this divine revelation is illogical or unreasonable, but that logic and reason are limited in their ability, they can only take us so far. It’s a bit like using a step-ladder to reach the stars – it’s in the right direction, but ultimately futile. So our use of logic is good and proper, but they are not sufficient in themselves.

We need to realise that our knowledge of God would have been extremely limited had he not chosen to reveal himself. As Paul reminds us in Romans 1.20, the world around us testifies to his divine wisdom and unlimited power. But it is unable to reveal his character and attributes, for that we needed him to break the silence and speak to us. But even as God reveals that he is “a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34.6), he is still unknowable on a personal level due to our corrupted spiritual hearts. For the knowledge of God must be both experiential and doctrinal, and like oil and water, a pure and holy God and impure, unholy people don’t mix.

We think knowing something is as simple as firing up Google or Wikipedia, but what if I asked you how it felt to win an Olympic gold medal? Do you know how it feels to win a gold medal? Some do, but it’s not something I can know unless I put in the effort, compete and win – there are conditions to be met before we can experience that knowledge. So too with God, we are spiritually incapable of knowing him until he cleanses us and repairs our hearts. This is what Jesus was doing on the cross – making it possible for sinful corrupt creatures to know a holy and pure God. Wining the medal for us, competing on our behalf, and as we become united with him, we come to know what it feels like to win.

It’s not enough to understand and even believe the facts about God (for even the Devil does this), we must experience an awakening of our spirit to a new relationship with him – to be born again in our mind, soul and spirit. Logic and reason can help us to begin to fathom how he made it possible for us to know him, but they can never bring us into that relationship. Only the Spirit of God acting in the humbled heart through the mediatory work of Jesus can create such a knowledge.

The True Vine

I am going to be posting bible study questions that I am producing for our church’s house groups. We are working our way through John’s gospel on Sunday mornings and have reached chapter 15. My first study guide is listed below:

John 15v1-17 The True Vine.

This passage brings us to the heart of Jesus’ relationship to his disciples. These verses express the nature of the relationship between the Trinity and the church – the Father working as the master gardener, the Son being the fruitful & faithful vine and the Spirit indwelling and filling the branches, that is, the church. The church is invigorated by the life-giving sap and in return displays the characteristics or “vital signs” of spiritual life – fruitfulness.

  1. The vine was a common feature of life in first century Israel, what image might Jesus have used today in 21st century Scotland to communicate the truths of this passage to a modern audience? What does it say to our instant communication & permanently online society?
  2. What are the benefits of remaining in the vine? What are the results? Think of a time when you were particularly aware of this connection to Jesus – how did this make you feel? How do these experiences help us in the hard times?
  3. If “a Christian is someone who is united to Christ, and reveals it in a fruitful life”, how can we know that we are connected to the vine? How does this challenge a shallow understanding of what is means to be a Christian? What does it mean for those times in our lives when we struggle to see our fruit?
  4. What role do we play and what role does God play in growing more fruit in us? (see Philippians 2.12-13 & Matthew 7.24-27)
  5. What does it mean to “remain” or “abide” in Christ? How can we ensure that Jesus’ words (v 7), remain in us?  What would we say to someone who understood this to mean a purely intellectual belief in the truth of Christ’s teachings?
  6. How do we maintain a healthy approach to discipline in our daily devotions? How can we avoid legalism and stale routine whilst maintaining a close walk with God? Share some practical pointers that have helped you personally.
  7. Have we felt the pruning of the gardener? How can we turn this painful pruning into an opportunity for growth? What is the difference between pruning and punishment (see Hebrews 12.4-11)? Why is it worth the pain? (see Romans 8.18)

The call to fruitful, loving, joyful union with Christ “is simultaneously a mandate to Christ’s followers and a summons to those who do not yet know him. That is why the union of love that joins believers with Jesus can never become a comfortable, exclusivistic huddle that only they can share” (Don Carson). Take some time to pray for those who are not yet joined to the vine and ask God that we would always have this outward-looking, open-handed enjoyment of his love. Renew your commitment to the vine in the words of Frances Havergal in his hymn Take My Life:

“Take my love, my Lord, I pour, at Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.”