Christianity and the Life of the Mind

1 05 2013

In the first century, Christianity blossomed and developed as a direct result of the concept of the codices (the binding of paper to form books as opposed to scrolls) and the invention of the printing press (in 1450 AD) made possible the Reformation that led to the spread of Christian ideals, thought and debate. Far from being an anti-intellectual movement Christianity fostered a culture in which the ideals of previous generations can be brought into conversation with contemporary cultural and intellectual ideas.

Just a cursory glance at the past will reveal the importance of the Christian contribution to education both through the founding of Monastic Schools (the origin of many Universities today) and later through the ‘Ragged Schools’ movement (a forerunner of universal child education). It is important to recognise that the establishment of these learning communities emerged alongside a depth of Christian thought on artistic, literary, historical, scientific, philosophical and theological ideas. Far from fostering a materialistic worldview that reduces existence to the sum of its elements, Christian intellectual inquiry has opened up a breadth of perspectives through which to learn and appreciate the world in which we live.

The English philosopher, statesman and scientist, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626 AD), often credited as the father of empiricism (the scientific method), observed that ‘a little philosophy inclineth a man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion’. This is a truth that is borne out in Prof Terry Eagleton critique of Richard Dawkin’s ‘lunging, failing, mispunching’ book, The God Delusion. There the Marxist literary critic is almost certainly right when he quips, ‘even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason’. In this way Dawkin’s illustrates, Francis Bacon’s claim that ‘the great atheists, indeed are hypocrites; which are ever handling holy things, but without feeling’.

For this reason it is better to offer a positive vision of what we understand of reason, faith and the world in which we live rather than to offer criticisms of a faith half understood.


The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)

Amazing Grace – a must see!

24 03 2007

I encourage everyone to make sure they attend Amazing Grace it is a fantastic film. It portrays the relationships between William Wilberforce, John Newton (author of the hymn Amazing Grace), and William Pitt (the Prime Minister). It shows the extraordinary pressure Wilberforce felt when deciding between entering the ministry and serving Christ through politics.  

Pitt felt that the Wilberforce’s evangelical faith would damage his political prospects, but it was Newton who convinced Wilberforce that he must serve God in politics (making William Wilberforce a man to be reckoned with). Wilberforce was not a political pragmatist, blowing with the winds of expediency, but a man of great faith and principle, driven by God to bring about the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom.

I was taken by one fantastic quote by John Newton (played by Albert Finney):

‘I know two great things:

one that I am a great sinner

and two that Christ is a great Saviour’

And that is wisdom indeed!

Searching for Truth

16 03 2007

In this world of competing stories, of human identity, of success and failure, of love and loss, of  meaning and meaningless – what might it mean to live according to the truths of scripture, to be faithful, to love truly, to glimpse God and understand ourselves in his light, power and glory?  

Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the cares of this world, life and death, justice and injustice, success and failure – but then I am reminded that God’s justice is complete, that the Father sees into the hearts of men and women, that the mercy of God works in the unseen depths of the soul as much as in the actions of humanity. 

It is easy to lose your way in the midst of competing stories, judging one to be true and another false on the basis of how things seem to be on outward perception and according to worldly standards – the rich seem to be washed righteous by their money, the beautiful by their good looks, the intelligent by their understanding, and the charming by their smooth words. 

So, how does a follower of Christ discern between the outward appearance and the soul, the will and the work?  

A humble obedience, to the community of salvation, to the testimony of the Holy Spirit within and to the Word of God is necessary for discerning the truth in a world of claim and counter claim. If you want to understand the world, if you seek wisdom, then cultivate your spiritual life. For it is only when your heart beats in time with the heart of the Father, when you follow in the footsteps of the Son, and live trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit that you will understand the world in all its created glory, all its rebellion, all its anticipation of redemption.  

“When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

John 15:26-27

Those Days and These Days

11 03 2007

I still have those days:

when the it feels as if Church has abandoned me,

when the World seems to close in around me,

when my vision of the Kingdom of Heaven fails,

and when the call of God grows faint.  

I still have those days:

when I’m not sure what I’m doing,

or why I’m doing it.

when I don’t know if I can do it,

or if I’m worthy of such a calling.

when I search for an excuse to say,

“Lord call another, God send another”   

I still have those days… and then I have these days:

when the Christians gives me reason to hope,

when Creation seems to be singing God’s love,

when the Spirit directs my thoughts and actions,

when Jesus’ ‘follow me’ rings loudly in my mind.    

I have these days:

when the next step is all that matters, 

and obedience is all that counts.  

when in my weakness I know God’s strength,

and when Christ’s grace is sufficient.

when I believe with total conviction,

without time to doubt the call.   

thoughts on prayer

8 03 2007

Some thoughts on prayer provoked by Maria Toth’s recent post Stubborn 4 Christ!

Prayer is not just about persevering when you want something; it’s about being present when your world seems to be falling apart. During three years I spent at Cliff College I came to appreciate the practice of morning prayers and opposed people who wished to make morning prayers an optional part of life in the community.  

Structured prayer can contribute to a dualistic way of seeing the world- and the “prayer is what we do in chapel at six o’clock in the morning” attitude isn’t helpful. But setting aside a specific time for prayer can be a powerful practice, it holds you in times of doubt and it strengthens you in times of challenge.  

The monastic practice of morning (matins) and evening (compline) prayer is not a dualistic practice, but rather serves to remind Christians that God is with them throughout the day and watches over them at night. When it comes to the discipline of prayer I have found two things helpful:  

  1. Praying with others makes us accountable to them and serves as a good reminder that prayer is not about “us and God”, it is about “us, the world, and God”
  2. Praying the Daily Office is also helpful as it gives our prayer life structure and when we struggling to pray it gives us words.

‘There but for the Grace of God go I’

8 09 2006

I was thinking about our age of ‘naming and shaming’ and political scandals. Is it right that the press expose the private lives of politicians and celebrities to the world? How we should, as Christians, respond to such revelations?

It was a few years ago, when I first heard a young Liberal Democrat politician asked to comment on a Conservative politician’s public indiscretion on Newsnight. It was the sort of question politician’s dream of, the opportunity to rub the opposition’s nose in his or her own mess. You can imagine my surprise then when the aspiring politician replied ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’. It was that answer and no other that won my respect.

I think that sometimes it is not the publication of the truth that disturbs me but rather my own ugly and pious response to newspaper revelations. Rita Skeeter is not a complete work of fiction news writers do play with the truth. Sometimes they publish gossip and scandal, or the truth but with lewd details that indulge our own unspoken pretence towards self-righteousness.

We need to resist the temptation towards condemnation and self-righteousness, proclaim the Gospel of grace, recognise that the wages of sin are death, and that the cross calls us to forgiveness and reconciliation to one another and to God.

What do you think? Am I going soft?