Sunday, August 10, 2008
Some of you may know that occasionally I write hymns or songs for services I'm taking or participating in. I've now put them online - they're listed at the bottom of my preaching page. There aren't many yet, but I'm hoping to write them more often now. The current crop are all new words to old tunes - I'm considering the possibility of using more modern tunes as well. (There's no chance of me composing tunes myself though - it's not my kind of thing.)
Monday, April 07, 2008
Synopsis of my faith
A little while ago, someone asked some probing questions in a comment. I promised that I'd answer them when I had time to do the job justice. Unfortunately I didn't take a local copy of the questions, and I'm about as far from a network as I can get (mid-Atlantic) but I suspect if I just give a general synopsis of my beliefs, I'll touch on most of the issues raised. The issue I clearly remember was that of heaven/hell, so I'll make so I cover that, at least.
I don't promise to give a no-nonsense, no-detours tour of my faith - quite the opposite, in fact. However, my hope is that the diversions might give more of a sense of what God means to me than my actual direct words on the matter can express.
I recently preached on Low Sunday (the Sunday after Easter) when the lectionary Gospel reading was that of Doubting Thomas. This naturally invited a sermon on faith, and so I gave one. In particular, I considered the idea that Thomas might not so much have doubted the resurrection, as not felt part of it - that only through experiencing Jesus in a direct way (touching the wounds) would he be fully living his faith.
I readily admit the idea isn't an original one of mine - a friend of mine, a parish priest, mentioned it to me about three years ago, and it stuck in my mind. (Many things he says have that habit - ironically I haven't actually heard him preach, but he has a way with words which I'm sure translates spectacularly to the pulpit.)
Back to my own faith. For me, faith isn't a list of beliefs I consider correct or incorrect. It's not a way of proving anything. In fact, I'm strongly agnostic in that I don't believe the existence (or, importantly, the non-existence) of God can be proved, empirically. Certainly if such a proof were already available either way, all rational thinkers would agree on the result.
Nor, however, do I place faith in the "belief without evidence" category of superstition, with astrology and avoiding walking under ladders. (I'm aware I'm now attracting the ire of the many people who have firmly held beliefs in astrology, and the mockery of those atheists who don't see that their own firm belief in the non-existence of God is also a form of faith.)
My faith is one based on personal evidence. I can't prove God's existence to anyone else, but God has proved it to me in ways which (usually) halt my doubts. That's not to say I don't have times of complete doubt, of course. More on that later, perhaps. The important thing is that it's possible to believe something for good reason and still not be able to prove it empirically. My own reason may be faulty, and my evidence may indeed be wrong - but to assume those things is to take just as much of a leap of faith as to assume they're right. In some ways the only way not to hold a view based on faith is to hold no opinion at all on the matter.
Being based on both reason and personal experience, my view of scripture is different from that of some other Christians. The comments on other posts (in particular "Coming out of the belief closet") suggest that I don't know my Bible as well as my readers. That may well be true, but I would suggest in return not only that I may be perfectly aware of some of the passages to which they're referring, but also that there are plenty of liberal Christians out in the world who have a better knowledge of the Bible than I do, and quite possibly better than that of those readers criticizing me. If it were purely a matter of "those who study scripture thoroughly are always morally conservative and those who just skim are always morally liberal" then I would indeed be concerned - but I think it's fair to say there's a broad range of scholarly opinion.
It doesn't come down to just how well you know what the Bible says, it's also a matter of what you understand the purpose and nature of scripture to be in the first place. I believe that:
The writing in the Bible was inspired by God
Inspiration is often confused during human expression, and in particular the biases of both the time and the writer are important
Taking each phrase of the Bible as literal truth is problematic in terms of consistency and understanding
The Bible is not the only way God's will is communicated
Many of the liberal values of today - including those which are broadly accepted across the conservative/liberal spectrum - cannot be directly drawn from the Bible. Where is Christ's decree to ban slavery, or to give equal rights to women? (These may exist in non-canonical pieces of scripture, of course, which begs another question.) The overall teachings of unconditional love are present, and Jesus certainly acted unexpectedly in the company of those whom he would be expected to revile (the Samaritan woman and Zacchius spring to mind) but surely if we were to receive all our wisdom from scripture, we should expect more direction.
Instead, I believe in using scripture as one way of understanding God's nature, will and purpose. It should inform other sources, and they should inform it. I believe God gave us reasoning minds and an innate sense of justice for a purpose, rather than to always defer to a canon of text which cannot possibly speak God's complete message for every situation.
This is not to dismiss scripture either, however. When the Bible (particularly the New Testament) appears to go against my own experience, prayers and thoughts, I don't just assume it's wrong. I wrestle with it. Very often I don't end up with a clear answer, which is fine by me. I do not hope to ever understand God completely. I merely pray that I will do so increasingly, and that through that improved understanding (and in the power of the Spirit) I may more usefully serve God and carry out God's will on earth.
One of the areas I wrestle with is that of salvation, and in particular what the alternative is. Wesley famously has four "all" doctrines:
All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know they are saved
All can know they are saved to the utmost
(I've sometimes heard this referred to as three doctrines, with the last two being combined. I would look it up in the my copy of the catechism, but it's several thousand miles away at the moment.)
If all need to be saved, that means there must be a consequence to not being saved. The Bible states several times that this consequence is fiery hell. I find that hard or even impossible to understand in the light of my experience of a God who loves unconditionally. I love my sons imperfectly, but it still hurts for me to punish them however trivially and temporarily (and before anyone calls social services, I'm talking about taking away toys or being sent to their bedrooms). How can a God who loves us so much ever bear to sentence any soul to eternal torture without there even being a positive end result? Our use of punishment for children is to attempt to teach them right and wrong, compassion, obedience etc for the use in the rest of their lives. If they weren't going to learn anything from the punishment, it wouldn't be worth doing at all. With hell, there's (at least Biblically) no "next life after that" that the tormented souls are preparing for.
Moreover, can any non-eternal sin really deserve an eternal punishment? Even if "justice" really is about punishment rather than rehabilitation, about two wrongs effectively making a right, I find it hard to see how eternal torture can really be a suitable punishment for in return for, say, the life of someone who always tries to do good, but happens not to be a Christian.
Then there's the matter of how our salvation is achieved in the first place. How could Christ's tortured death on the cross actually help? Penal substitution has never sounded particularly fair to me. There are numerous options when it comes to theories of atonement, of course, and I have tried to preach on the matter just once, laying out some of those options as best I understand them. Needless to say, it was a sermon without a conclusive answer.
If you've persevered this far (you can see now why I wanted to wait until I had a good chunk of time) you may be wondering whether I'm actually a Christian at all. Indeed, some more fundamentalist readers may have decided I'm certainly not, and that I'm headed for a fiery end, whatever else I have to say in this post. Well, having outlined some of the problems, here are a few of my more positive thoughts.
I do believe we all need saving, although I wouldn't like to claim I understood what from. Annihilation of souls, perhaps? That's actually quite an attractive answer in some ways, although it does leave the question of how to deal with all the Biblical references to hell. In some ways that doesn't matter to me. If I'm told that something really bad is coming in one direction, I don't need to know the details of it in order to realise that going in the other direction is a good move.
I do believe that Christ is the route to salvation. No doubt my use of the definite article has come as a relief to some. Yes, I belief that Christ's work of salvation is somehow, miraculously, the only way we can really get ourselves "right" with God. That doesn't mean I'm as much in the "Christians have it right, all other religions are wrong" camp as you might think though. More on that later. I really don't know how atonement works. It's clearly about mercy, which is a problem in itself. To my mind, if God is just then God can't be merciful. Justice is about people getting what they deserve and mercy is about people not getting what they deserve. There's more to them than that, of course, but that's why I see the two as being in tension. I don't know how God resolves that tension, but that's okay too. I certainly have faith that God is good and if that means God doesn't always demand or execute justice, that's fine by me. Or, perhaps a more likely solution is that the human concept of "justice" is very flawed. (That's intellectually unappealing though: it means that whenever we say that God is a God of Justice, we don't even know what we're claiming. We might as well say that God is a God of Well-Shrimpified Higlingness.)
Understanding of other faiths
I've never been easy with the idea of "my faith is better than yours" - at least not when it's applied to serious religions which have stood the test of time. In particular it smacks of complacency given my original basis of faith. I should extend the courtesy of allowing people to have evidence which they can't use to convince me, given that I'm asking others to extend the same courtesy towards me.
It would seem crazy to believe that when I feel the will of God it's genuine, but when any Muslim feels the same it must be self-delusion. This is not to give equal weight to all understandings of the will of God, of course - I'm not for one minute claiming that suicide bombers have God's blessing on their actions, for example. But likewise I don't claim that every Christian insight into God is genuine. (To take it one step further, I'm not saying that I personally always interpret correctly. I'd be quite amazed if I got things right even a majority of the time.)
That said, I don't see anything in the Bible which states that Jesus must be taken as the means of salvation during our lives. Suppose each of us stands before God, and Jesus offers us the option of using his death to wipe our slates clean. Frankly, the simplest way of understanding my viewpoint on this is to read The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, and the section where after the battle one of Tash's followers approaches Aslan expecting death - but instead finds redemption and a greater meaning to the life they've already lived.
I'm not going to try to summarise this post. My belief system is complicated (as is that of most people, I believe) and I certainly haven't exhaustively described it above. To try to boil it down even further would be to invite misinterpretation.
I'm well aware that my beliefs don't correlate well with those of many other people. I don't ask for agreement, although I do request a certain amount of respect for differing beliefs. I don't think much is to be gained by simply belittling someone's deeply held (and seriously cogitated) views. Discussion is healthy, but unfortunately I don't believe a blog like this is a good medium for debate. By all means engage me personally if we ever meet, but it's too easy for electronic media to heat disagreements well beyond any productive temperature.
Finally, whatever your own beliefs, I pray for the blessing of God on you. Apart from anything else, you deserve something for reading all of this! Peace be with you.
Monday, February 11, 2008
Sharia law and the Archbishop of Canterbury
I don't know how far the news has spread, but the Archibishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) is currently in a bit of hot water around a lecture he gave about "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective" and a subsequent interview on BBC Radio 4.
I'm currently on page 7 out of 10 on my print out of the lecture. I'll need to read it again before I would feel entitled to an opinion on the lecture itself... but there's more to the issue than what was actually said. There's the matter of the reaction.
I strongly urge anyone reading this blog to read the Archbishop's lecture instead. Whether you agree or disagree, or feel somewhere in between, this is clearly a crucial debate... and one which Rowan Williams has done a very good job of encouraging.
He's been criticised for being badly advised, introducing the topic at a sensitive time and all kinds of other things. Personally, I think he's a smart guy who knew exactly what would happen. Most people will form an opinion based on what they've previously heard of Sharia law, or whatever they read in the paper or hear on the radio about the lecture. However, there will be plenty of people giving the topic significant thought, who might otherwise not have done. I intend to be one of those people.
It's quite possible that the Archbishop of Canterbury will be forced to resign over this - and some people will cite a "lack of leadership" as the cause. Again, I believe he probably understood that this would be a risky play, career wise. The fact that he was willing to do it anyway is evidence to me that he's a true leader - one willing to sacrifice himself for a greater good. Likewise, he is leading us (and I use the term as a Christian and a citizen of the UK rather than as an Anglican) in terms of a debate which must be tackled head-on, and in a far broader context than just Islam and Sharia law.
But hey, we all know Jesus never had controversial viewpoints, don't we? :)
Is "In Christ Alone" the new "Shine Jesus Shine"?
For several years, if a preacher in the Methodist church who really didn't know much about modern hymns wanted to look contemporary, they'd pick "Shine Jesus Shine" as one of their hymns. These days, "In Christ Alone" is the traditionalist's favourite modern hymn.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying everyone who picks it is ignorant of other modern hymns (and I know plenty of people who pick it despite having a much wider repertoire of modern hymns than mine). I'm also not picking on the hymn - it's my favourite modern hymn too, and pretty high up my "all time" list too. It expounds so much theology in such a small space, and does so in such a fine way - it would be hard to object, really. (I like Shine Jesus Shine too, by the way.)
I just get worried about familiarity breeding contempt. It would be a shame if anyone was turned off such a fine hymn because preachers choose it too often.
Friday, October 05, 2007
Coming out of the (belief) closet
Note: This post should not be taken to be Methodist doctrine.
This post has been a long time coming. I've been wanting to preach about my beliefs on the topic of homosexuality for a long time, but as they go beyond Methodist doctrine, I've held back. However, on this blog I see no reason to be shy.
The real prompt for getting down to writing this, however, was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, one of my favourite dramas at the moment. One episode went into the topic of homosexuality in terms of an ongoing debate between two characters. One of them was giving a "sitting on the fence" answer about civil unions when the other interrupted with:
"[...] there's no way to get to the end of that sentence without saying that homosexual love is something less than heterosexual love [...]"
That, for me, says it all. I believe that homosexual love is on a par with heterosexual love. It can be as close, warm, loving, supportive, self-sacrificing and fruitful as heterosexual love. That doesn't mean I have some rose-tinted vision of every gay couple being blissfully happy, of course, any more than I would for straight couples.
What's important to me (in terms of faith) is that I can't see how God could have anything against the kind of love I see exhibited by the gay couples I'm proud to count as my friends.
That's why I support gay marriage, rather than just civil unions. To many people it may make no practical difference, but it makes a big difference in emphasis. While there are two tiers, however legally equivalent, there will always be an implied moral inferiority of civil unions - and I find that repulsive. I believe God is happy to bless any loving, informed, consensual, monogamous relationship, no matter what genders are involved.
Friday, January 19, 2007
The God/Nintendo analogy: my Christmas sermon
I had the fabulous privilege of preaching at our local church on Christmas Day this year. I thought for quite a long time about what to do, exactly - ironically, Christmas tends to be one of the least spiritual services of the year, and I wanted to avoid that situation if at all possible.
While thinking about it, I kept coming back to the same idea - an idea which some colleagues thought I wouldn't be able to get away with, and which I had doubts about. In the end though, it was the only really interesting idea I had at all, so I went with it. So, here it is: the God/Nintendo analogy.
One of our customs at Tilehurst Methodist Church is that on Christmas morning, some of the young people (and some not so young) bring a present still wrapped up, and unwrap it in front of everyone. I stuck to this tradition, and then revealed my main Christmas present: a new Nintendo Wii. For those of you who aren't interested in video games, the Nintendo Wii is one of the latest generation of home video gaming machines. There are two others, but the Wii is a bit different. For a long time gaming has been getting prettier and prettier, in terms of the visual effects and so forth. However, it's still been very complicated. If you take a look at the controller of any of the other consoles, there are lots of buttons, and they tend to all be used. In the gaming community there's a lot of talk about "hard-core" gamers, and you get the feeling that for any one game there will be someone who has virtually dedicated their life to that particular game, and finding out every nook and cranny. In short, gaming has been hard to get into, which is why relatively few people do it.
Nintendo are hoping to change all that with the Wii. The main controller looks very much like a TV remote control - except much simpler. [I took the Wii and a controller to church to show everyone - along with a Gamecube controller to show the difference between the too.] It's got a total of 8 buttons (although one of them is an up/down/left/right button) and most of the time you're playing (at least in the games I've got) you don't use many of those buttons. There are other controllers that can be plugged in to add more capabilities, but the message Nintendo are pushing is that it's simple. The Wii comes with a game bundled in - "Wii Sports". As an example of how simple gaming can be, you can play the tennis part of Wii Sports without using any buttons at all - you just wave the controller around as if it were a racket, and the game will respond appropriately. The Wii knows when you move the controller, twist it in any direction, and when you're pointing it at the screen - to go through the menu systems, you just point at the item you want to select and use the "A" button.
So, as a result of this clever controller, the Wii can be played by anyone. You don't need to learn vast numbers of rules - you can just pick up and play, at least for things like Wii Sports and Wii Play. There are numerous reports on the net of people (adults!) showing the Wii to their parents, and then only getting a go themselves after watching said parents playing on it for hours. Instead of trying to gain a large proportion of a small market, Nintendo are trying to make that market massively wide, appealing to anyone and everyone.
So, what has this got to do with Christmas? Well, Nintendo effectively gave the world the Wii for Christmas. God gave Jesus. Jesus cut through all the details of the complicated Judaic laws, distilling them into "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength" and "Love your neighbour as yourself". Those are instructions which are simple enough for anyone to understand. Similarly, instead of only the high priests being able to have direct contact with God, Jesus made himself available directly - and not just to Jews, but to everyone. While this obviously misses out a lot of the nature of Jesus (and the crucifixion/resurrection in particular) it's still interesting. The Wii is taking the world by storm, just as Jesus did - it's just a shame the modern day church isn't always as enthusiastic as Wii fans often are.
Holly and I were both worried that this message would be lost on a non-games-playing congregation, but fortunately it went very well - they appeared to be with me at every step, as it were. Furthermore, it may be pretty much my only sermon which comes close to being genuinely original - I suspect there weren't very many Nintendo-based sermons preached on Christmas day...
Thursday, August 17, 2006
Praying for non-believers
First off - sorry it's taken so long to put anything in here. At some point I want to answer a question which appeared on my coding blog, in terms of how I square my faith and scientific background, and what happens when I experience doubt. Tonight, however, I'm thinking about prayer.
Right now, a friend of mine is in labour. (At least, I assume she is - she went in this evening to be induced.) Both halves of the couple are friends of ours (although I know the guy in question much better than the lady), and I know both of them are atheists. That leaves me in a bit of a quandary when it comes to praying for them.
I have no issue with praying for anyone. I certainly don't believe I should only pray for Christians - that would be daft. However, I'm aware that some non-believers don't like to be prayed for. I don't know the wishes of the couple involved in this respect. I strongly suspect they wouldn't mind at all, and wouldn't see the harm - but as I don't fully understand the reasoning of those who do mind being prayed for, it's hard to say for sure.
I wouldn't mind being prayed for by a non-Christian, assuming it was with good intent. I would object if sacrifices were involved, but the equivalent of Christian prayer would be something to be respected and welcomed, for me. I suspect the issue for some is a feeling of "meddling" - but would those same people object to a card saying, "Thinking of you at this difficult time" (or whatever)?
In my view, God's already with this newly growing family, and is looking after them and loving them. That's what God does. I waver greatly in terms of what prayer does, what it can accomplish etc, but I think I'm generally of the opinion that it's more to influence our actions than God's. If praying makes me more aware of their needs, even just by giving me space to consciously think of what they might be going through and how I could help, how is that a bad thing?
The tone of this post may be seen as somewhat aggressive towards those who do object to being prayed for, but that's not the aim at all. I'm just intensely puzzled by that mindset (just as I know some without faith are very puzzled by those who have faith). I'd like to understand better, so I could either be more sensitive or perhaps even ease some concerns. So, do any of you readers (assuming anyone is still even subscribed to this blog) object to being prayed for? If so, why? (If it's something that's hard to put into words, that's fine - I'm interested anyway!) If you're a person of faith, how do you deal with the issue?
Sunday, April 16, 2006
I suppose every blog has to have an introductory post. While I was in church this morning with my son Tom, I considered that I haven't really got anywhere appropriate for occasional thoughts on my faith. I have my (desperately out of date) preaching page with sermons etc on it, but I wanted something a bit less formal. This is it.If you came here expecting posts about C#, Java and computing in general, you probably want my technical blog.
I have no idea currently how active this blog will be, either in terms of readers or posts, but as much as anything it's a place for me to explore ideas. If anyone's still reading at this point, I hope you'll help me with that exploration in terms of comments and emails - and please don't think I'm only after comments from other Christians!Apparently Blogger doesn't believe in making it obvious where the feed for a blog is. You can get the Atom feed of this blog at http://skeetfaith.blogspot.com/atom.xml.
A little background
Just in case you've come to this blog entirely randomly, I'm a soon-to-be 30 software developer in Reading, England, and I'm a Methodist local preacher. My theology is pretty liberal on most issues, I believe. I have a wife (Holly) and a son (Tom), currently about 2 1/4, and two more sons on their way in about a month. My wife writes children's books from home. If my sermons are anything to go by, all of this is likely to be relevant at some time.