Category Archives: Faith

Spring cleaning, Roses and our wonderful brains

Roses

Inspired by my new toy, A Steam Cleaner, I did some spring cleaning yesterday. These roses looked wonderful in the sunlight and steam.

But back to my books…

I’ve finished reading ‘Chaos’. It ends with some thoughts on the most wonderful natural system of all: our own bodies. Most of the focus at the time this book was published (1987) was on the functioning of the heart. It was known even then that a jolt of electricity could reset the rhythm of the heart when it was running out of control. This kind of rough treatment has also been tried on the brain and sometimes even seems to work, but can also result in damage.

One of the difficulties of thinking about the mind in a Christian context is our tendency to split it into several separate entities. First there is the ‘mind’: A complex computing engine designed to figure out logical stuff. Then there is the ‘soul’ which deals with emotions and spiritual stuff. Both of these are somehow superimposed, but not quite part of, the ‘brain’ which is a wobbling mass of nerves and chemicals.

But Chaos theory gives us another way of understanding the mind. Experiments in artificial intelligence created:

… points of stability mixed with instability, and regions with changeable boundaries. Their fractal structure offered the kind of infinitely self-referential structure that seems so central to the mind’s ability to bloom with ideas, decisions, emotions and all the other artifacts of consciousness.

If we think of the brain as only a sophisticated computer then we have to see the spiritual side of ourselves as separate and non-physical. But if we see it as an almost infinitely complex system, like the weather, then all of who we are can be incorporated into our real, physical brains.

Once we think like this we can have a much more holistic approach to spiritual, mental and physical health. We can see the rhythm of a walk as a way of bringing us closer to the rhythm of God’s creation. We can see intense experiences of the Holy Spirit as being a way of resetting our minds into a better track – like defibrillating a heart. Every action, even spring cleaning, and every sight, like a bunch of roses, becomes part of the pattern of our minds.

 

Sensitive Dependence on Initial conditions – How I started being a Christian.

Chaos Book

Evangelism seems a thankless task. All those books written to convince us that God is real and Jesus is important. All those talks. Then a book comes along which seems to have nothing to do with God and it flicks a switch and makes it possible to believe in God after all. The picture here is of that actual book (Chaos, by James Gleick). It’s a bit mouldy and bent out of shape. It’s a great book and I would recommend it but, unless you are also a computer geek with an art degree it probably won’t change your life.

So what is Chaos? What it is not is complete disorder. As Gleick says:

Truly random data remains spread out in an undefined mess. But Chaos – deterministic and patterned – pulls the data into visible shapes. Of all the possible pathways of disorder, nature favours just a few.

But it is not straight lines and geometric shapes either. Go for a walk and look at the clouds. They are all different yet we know they form a pattern. That pattern can be modelled or represented using mathematics and so can the trees and the grass. This is how modern animators make their films look so real, using ‘fractal geometry’. This kind of geometry can be very complex but the principle is fairly simple. You take a function (often including an ‘imaginary’ number like the square root of minus 1) and run it over and over again for each spot on the graph, each time feeding back the result of the previous calculation. Do this thousands of times and, depending on where the result ends up, colour your spot a different colour.

mandlebrot set
This image is the output of such a process called a Mandlebrot set. One of the interesting things about this kind of maths is that, even if you do exactly the same maths, if you change your starting point very slightly (say by 0.00001) the results can be very different. This has become known as the ‘Butterfly Effect’ (because a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a hurricane in the USA) or ‘Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions’.

For me, that was the switch. I had been struggling to see what role God could have in the world. Then I had the idea that God was nudging the world subtly by changing the Initial Conditions, setting it off in a different direction every now and then. It was a very small role for God indeed and my conception of God’s role in the natural world has grown and grown until I feel we are literally surrounded and kept alive by the wonder of His ever changing world, but that is how I started being a Christian.

Is God playing with our world?

 

When I was a girl I loved to do pottery. At school we had a large pottery studio and one project we were given was to create a ‘Noah’s Ark’. I built the Ark and the people then lots of animals. There were elephants, mice (all more of less the same size!), pigs and even snakes. I was very proud of my ark. The animals could line up, go inside or sit on top. I coloured and glazed the Ark and the animals. Then it was finished. For a while it was displayed on a shelf in the house and then put in a cupboard. After about 40 years I’m sure someone has thrown it away but it could still be sitting in a cupboard, exactly the same,  just a bit dusty.

I’m telling this story because it seems this is how people think God has created the world. A set of objects: some big, some small that sit around much the same for ever and ever. But, when we look closely, this isn’t the case. Everything is in movement and changing. I took this little video of a fire: there are patterns and ripples within the flames. And the fire has a life, a beginning and end.

Hawthorn Bush

Our perception of time is quite fast so many things, like plants and mountains seem still to us. But if you were to take a frame a day of this hawthorn bush you would be able to see it moving and changing. There would be a cycle of leaves and fruit but also a slower cycle of twigs growing and the wind on the downs changing its shape.
So, in answer to my question: God is playing with our world. Sometimes you can almost feel the joy of His play from the clouds forming to the mountains creaking through geological time. In the next few weeks I would like to share some of my thoughts on what He might be doing. I hope you will stay with me.

‘The Great Divorce’ between Heaven and Hell – Looking at C. S. Lewis’ fantastic book.

ghosts 1 copyHell is a state of mind – Ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains. – C. S. Lewis ‘The Great Divorce’

We make a choice. Every day we make a choice between living in Heaven (or as Jesus put it – ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’) and Hell. I’ve begun to realise this more and more recently. There have been a number of problems, some small, some a bit bigger, coming my way. Every time it seems I could consider myself ‘hard done by’ or that life is unfair. Or I can take a deep breath, relax and thank God for the blessings I have. Generally, of course, I do both. I’m very far from saintly so I often have to go through the ‘Its unfair’ stage before seeing things in the proper light.

In ‘The Great Divorce’ C. S. Lewis illustrates this conflict in two ways: The first is by making the physical substance of Heaven very different from Hell. The second is by a series of conversations in which visitors from Hell talk to the inhabitants of Heaven. I like the way that Lewis mixes the social, spiritual and physical. The visitors arrive from Hell on a flying bus. They are an odd, argumentative crowd, all except our hero, Jack, who seems fairly normal. When they arrive in Heaven they find themselves in a world which looks like a beautiful natural landscape but everything is as hard and strong as diamonds. Even walking on the grass in this world is painful. They themselves are ghostly phantoms, almost without substance.

A word of warning here. Lewis says in his introduction:

I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral. But… the last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

Yet there is an underlying truth in this strange, hard world. There are a number of clues in the Gospels that suggest the substance of Heaven is not the same as that of Earth. After his death Jesus appears to his friends:

jesusthomasdoubt1

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”

Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving, believe.” – John 20: 26-27 (Message translation)

Jesus is the same yet clearly different. He can go through locked doors. He can do normal things while still having the mortal wounds inflicted on him during his crucifixion. Many Christians (including myself) experience the physical world in unexpected ways. This can be an awareness of the presence and power of the Holy spirit but it can also mean seeing and hearing things that come from God and are not simply ‘natural’. This is often glossed over in the Church in the UK but it seems important to acknowledge and celebrate this. We are physical creatures. If the Kingdom of Heaven is only an idea in our mind it will never truly be real.

But the main part of the book is a series of conversations. I certainly can’t do justice to all of them in this blog post but I’d like to look at a few of them:

Jack, as he is walking around this diamond hard country, comes across a man with a ‘hard-bitten’ look leaning against the tree and smoking a cigar. He is one of those people, and we have all met them, who know that everything is run by a sort of faceless management and it is their job to sort things out. He is considering whether to stay in Heaven or go back on the bus back to Hell.

‘What would you like to do if you had your choice?’ I asked.
‘There you go!’ Said the Ghost with a certain triumph.’Asking me to make a plan. It’s up to the Management to find something that doesn’t bore us, isn’t it? It’s their job. Why should we do it for them? That’s just where the parsons and moralists have got the thing upside down. They keep asking us to alter ourselves. But if the people who run the show are so clever and powerful, why don’t they find something to suit their public. All this poppycock about growing harder so that the grass doesn’t hurt our feet.’

(In the story the ghosts are assured that as they continue in the heavenly country and think less of themselves they will harden and solidify.)
The hard-bitten ghost has a very modern counterpart. The sort of person who believes that everything is someone else’s fault. Usually a sort of faceless ‘Them’. So their lives are spent in a sort of disdainful superiority where they feel that, if only they were listened to, if only the people in charge would do what they say then everything would be fine. But this assumes that there is ‘someone in charge’ and, if there is, they are able to do what these people want.

I watched a TV program recently where the leader of one of our political parties was answering questions from an audience in their teens and twenties. The party leader kept his composure remarkably well throughout as the teenagers kept on saying that there ‘was no one like them in Parliament’ and they were not going to vote as ‘they were not represented’. Finally, a very articulate young woman of 15 or 16, put this point and the party leader turned to her and said ‘Why don’t you go into politics? Then there would be someone just like you in power?’. She was a bit taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to her that she should actually do something herself. I hope she does.

Jack overhears another conversation between one of the bright people and a ghost. The ghost is a mother who had lost her son. Her only concern, her only thought, is to see him again, to ‘have’ him. She asks the bright person: ‘When am I going to be allowed to see him?’ But he explains:

‘There is no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it is possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up a bit.’

‘How?’ said the Ghost. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.

‘I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,’ said the Spirit. ‘But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want Someone Else beside Michael. I don’t say “more than Michael”, not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only a little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process’

Of course, Pam is not convinced. But it does make sense. Without God it is easy to make idols of the people we love. We try to make them fit the empty place in ourselves that only God can fit, demand more than any human being can give. Being a mother is hard and confusing and it is easy to think that we should get something back from those we gave so much to. But that is not the way it works. I have found that my faith in God has allowed me to let go of my children as they have grown up and still love them. A gift indeed. As Lewis says:

‘Pam, Pam – no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods’

The final conversation I want to look at in this post is that of a ‘liberal’ bishop who has cast off even the doctrine of the Resurrection in his search for ‘honesty’. In his biography of C.S. Lewis Alister McGrath identifies this as a ‘Cultural stereotype of his day’. I agree. ‘The Great Divorce’ was written during the 2nd World War and published in 1946. I don’t think you would find any clergy in today’s church who do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet there are plenty of people (and I know a few of them) who have reasoned themselves out of faith altogether. Indeed I did this myself in my teens. It took me more than 20 years to find my way back.
The conversation is between two colleagues in the Church. It goes on for a number of pages because the ghost visitor from Hell keeps on trying to evade the point and change the subject. Finally, Dick, the Bright person, asks:

‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’

The ghost asserts that he was honest and ‘brave’ to follow his ‘Critical faculties’ to their obvious conclusion, even though they only brought him fame and promotion. Dick continues:

Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? when did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’

‘If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like…’

‘I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude Salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid(above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.

The truth is, there are two ways faith in God can start. For a few lucky souls it starts with an experience of the supernatural so powerful and profound that they have no way of denying it. But for most of us it starts with learning something. Maybe hearing someone talk or reading the bible. And then we have to start to believe in the supernatural nature of God before we can experience it. Some of the most powerful experiences of God have been when I have ‘gone forward’ for prayer during a service. It is as though I need to take a step towards God before he will give me His Grace.

Dick, and the ghost he is talking to, started in the same place. They both started with being clever and modern, but ended up in very different places. There are still a lot of clever, modern people about. People who see religion as a ‘cultural construct’ or a ‘crutch’ for people who can’t cope with life. I don’t think it is impossible to be intelligent and a true Christian. I have listened to Oxford Professors who are passionate about their faith and truly believe in the supernatural power of God. But when that intelligence becomes an end in itself, that is where the danger lies.

This is already quite a long post but I want to end with a question: Is ‘The Great Divorce’ a book about what happens after we die or before? Well, as ever, Lewis himself answers this question:

This is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering. “No future bliss can make up for it”, not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” and both will speak truly.

Reading Suggestions

First I would like to recommend reading ‘The Great Divorce’ itself. It is not a long book (146 pages) and has so much depth that it will repay any effort.
If you are interested in C. S. Lewis’ life, Alister McGrath’s biography ‘C. S. Lewis, A Life’ is well worth reading.

A few thoughts about swimming in the sea

Light on SeaSummer this year seemed to go on a long time. But, about a month ago we felt it would be the last warm weekend so we (me, my daughter Lucy and my husband) packed the car and headed down to the coast. I love being near the sea but I especially love being in it. I love the light bouncing off the waves and the feeling of being supported in the water. The picture above is from that day and it was very calm but even on a day like this there is a slight sense of danger. There was a strong ebb tide which was pulling Lucy away from the coast. With a few strong strokes she came back in again but I am always aware of the possible dangers.

For me the sea is like a living parable. It is so deep, so full of life, so strong. Like God it is constantly changing, like Him it is always there. Of course the parable is not perfect. We should let the currents of God’s spirit take us where He wants us to go, not swim against them.

Flying fishI did this picture on holiday in the summer. I felt very free and light and this is the feeling of being in the waves with the sunlight sparkling through. It was done with hot wax sprayed on with a hair dryer. The wax goes everywhere and is pretty hard to control.

Many of the stories in the Gospels (and in Acts) are set in or around water. Even though the apostles were experienced boatmen they were not always in control either. Storms came up and the fish headed for the other side of the sea. A few years ago I swam across St Paul’s Bay in Malta (on a calm morning, not in a storm) and it felt really special to make that connection with the story in Acts.

The Jews had a good sense of the connection between the physical and spiritual that maybe we have lost. Not everyone can swim well but most of us can walk or run. Maybe we need to take God out of church sometimes and feel the wind on our faces.

A highly improbable universe. Notes from the Book club.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God –  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John 1:1-5, 9-14)

Imagine a chilly desert night. Jesus and His friends gathered around a fire. One of them leans back, looks up at the stars and says: ‘Tell us how it all started Rabbi’. So Jesus starts ‘In the beginning…’ and they all settle back to hear the familiar story. But instead of the story they all know He begins to talk about a word, an idea, being the start of it all and He himself is the Word, and caused all things to be made. Not the normal story of animals, plants and people but a universe born out of an idea and a person.

He wouldn’t have got it out in one go. There would have been questions, lots of them. But through it all John sat quietly, listening, his poet’s brain working out how to write the conversation down.

To me, it makes perfect sense. If God needed to create a universe with living breathing creatures that could be his children; if He wanted His own son to become a living breathing human being and be with these creatures then this would be the way to do it. The purpose was there right from the start. It is the most human purpose of all, to create a family.

God's Undertaker bookOur book for this week was ‘God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?’ by John Lennox. The answer to the question is no, but more than that, it seems that science is revealing God, bit by bit. This can be a bit unnerving for the scientists involved. Here are some quotes from the book:

The remarkable picture that is gradually emerging from modern physics and cosmology is one of a universe whose fundamental forces are amazingly, intricately, and delicately balanced or ‘fine tuned’ in order for the universe to sustain life. Recent research has shown that many of the fundamental constants of nature, from the energy levels in the carbon atom to the rate at which the universe is expanding, have just the right values for life to exist. Change any of them, just a little, and the universe would become hostile to life and incapable of supporting it.

Theoretical physicist Paul Davies tells us that, if the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force had been different by 1 part in 10 to the power of 16 (10 with 16 zeros after it), no starts could have formed.

The distance from the earth to the sun must be just right. Too near and water would evaporate, too far and the earth would be too cold for life… Astrophysicist Hugh Ross lists many such parameters that have to be fine tuned for life to be possible, and makes a rough but conservative calculation that the chance of one such planet existing in the universe is about 1 in 10 to the power of 30.

We were much taken by the sheer improbability of the universe. This does seem to show a real intelligence in its design.  And this does not mean that we need to find the ‘gaps’ in science to make God real (I am in debt to Wendy for pointing out my tendency to fall into the ‘God of the Gaps’ error). For instance there is currently almost no evidence for how individual species get started. The fossil records do not show a gradual change between one species and another. What they actually show is new species coming into being very suddenly and then staying the same for millions of years. They then die out and are replaced by other species.

Once we know this it is tempting to say ‘Oh, that means God steps in and miraculously creates new species’. Well that could be the case or it could be that there is a scientific and physical explanation for how this happens. Evolutionary biology has only been studied for about 150 years and there must be a lot left to learn. The truth is we do not need to find holes in scientific knowledge to reveal God’s work. Science itself will provide this evidence.

Before we ended the discussion we went onto the whole idea of life as information. This can be a difficult idea to grasp and I will admit that, as a computer programmer, I have a bit of an advantage here. Sometimes I sit next to the people using the computer system I look after. They are entering data onto a screen much as they would fill in a paper form. To them the form they are entering the invoice data into has an almost physical form. But I know that what they see is actually constructed from written lines of code. These are broken down by the operating system (I am simplifying a lot here but you get the idea) into machine code which is ones and zeros and this is then used to display the screen the users see. So, the whole system barely has any physical form at all, it is almost all information.  But a single cell within the human body makes my computer system look like an abacus:

Each cell has, curled up within it, about 2 metres of DNA with 7 billon bits of information. The information in the DNA is used to create proteins, the simplest of which have about 100 amino acids. Each protein must be perfect and precise otherwise our bodies will not work properly and all of this is happening every moment of every day without us even being aware of it. Although DNA itself seems to stay the same the information it expresses does not as bits of it can be turned off and on.

This is all wonderful but the question that no-one can answer is ‘How did life start?’ Lennox makes a good case that the only way life could have started is by an ‘Input of information’, that something (or someone) must have got it started. Dawkins himself makes a good case for this when he says:

It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work. You don’t need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck.

Before I finish this post I’m going to go back to Jesus and His friends sitting under the desert stars. We have become used to the idea that the natural and supernatural are separate, that stuff happening in the world around us is caused by one or the other but not both. But the ancient Jews did not see things that way. For them, there was no dividing line. I think we need to recapture that, to see everything as God’s work. I love science. I love what it tells me about the world we live in but it is all God’s world.

 

 

Berlin – A family pilgrimage

I don’t know what I expected. This photo seems to capture something of what I found. Berlin was a strange mixture of old and new. New images and lights on old style buildings. But nothing really old. In London there are little Tudor alleyways next to brand new office blocks. Here, everything has been built (or re-built) since 1945. And its very quiet with lots of electric trams and bicycles. We stayed in a little hotel in the East side of the city. Several people I had spoken to in England had warned me that it would be grim but it wasn’t. In the 25 years since the wall came down the city has been transformed. The old buildings, built by the GDR in the 50s, are still there but painted and with new windows. At street level they are full of cafes and boutiques.

Elias Sachs GraveOn the first morning we visited the Jewish Cemetery at Weissensee. This is the grave of my Great-Great Grandfather and mother, Elias and Flora Sachs. He was born 1829 near Katowice in (what is now) Poland. After running a successful metal processing plant the family moved to Berlin where he retired to help bring up his children (according to my Dad, he wasn’t very good at it).

After looking at the grave and discussing how we could keep it in better condition we wandered through the cemetery. Two things struck me: One was how many other Sachs graves there were, the other was that the cemetery was completely intact. It was a bus ride out of central Berlin but, unlike everything else, it was completely undamaged. Grand monuments had been placed next to modest grave stones; some of them quite old. There were some new graves as well, but these all seemed to be in this century.

Me and my Dad started talking about Jewish history in Germany. He is a keen amateur historian and has co-authored a book called ‘German Family Snapshots’. On the way back to the bus stop he talked about various members of the family. Some of these had been quite prominent members of German society, some had lived quiet respectable lives. Some had died peacefully, others had their lives ended or disrupted by the Holocaust.

When I was in Oxford last year I met a Church of England Vicar. He seemed much engaged with the problem of suffering, especially on a mass scale. ‘How do we deal with this as Christians?’ He asked. My answer, then and now, was ‘One life at a time.’ Each person who died in the Holocaust lived a life. Each person who survived it, but was forced into exile, lived a life. Those lives may have been shorter than they should have been or lived far from home but they were all important to God. Each one of those people felt love, pain, sorrow and joy. We can remember and celebrate this as well as the millions of other German people whose lives were ended or changed by the war.

AlexanderplatzLater that day we relaxed in these deckchairs in the Alexanderplatz, sipped iced coffee and chatted. With the brightly coloured trams and blue sky it felt like being in a picture postcard.

So, what have I brought back from Berlin? I feel rather proud. Proud to have our Jewish connection with this great city. Follow another branch of my family and you find James Simon (My Great-great Grandfather’s cousin). He was a great benefactor to the city. This notice is next to a park named after him. James Simon noticeBut I also feel proud of my German heritage. Berlin is a brave, amazing place, a huge project to bring together East and West. It is a city being created and built in a way I’ve never seen before. It didn’t have to be done and it may still fail but I’m glad that the German people have decided to do it.

It has taken some time to get to Berlin. There were many times in the last few years when it could have happened. But it felt like the right time and I was able to come with my husband and children (aged 15 and 20, so not really children any more) as well as my Dad. What also feels right is that we are all Christians. The circle has turned and we have come back to God. A different faith but the same God.