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 good reason to welcome people from Eastern Europe. A viewpoint from history.

One of the advantages of getting older is that you begin to remember little bits of history as it happened. I have a vivid memory of a TV program from the early 80s. It was a documentary of a piano competition. The unusual thing about this broadcast was that it was from behind the Iron Curtain, as the competition was in Poland. The final 10 minutes or so was a complete rendition of the slow movement of Chopin’s second piano concerto. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, almost like a lament. In between seeing the pianist playing there were pictures of rows of bodies lying in fields, lines of ragged people walking along roads with only what they could carry. This was the reality of Poland in the second world war: A fifth of its population died in the war; whole areas forced to move to different parts of the country; most of the Nazi concentration camps were built in Poland and millions of Polish people were put to death, not just Jews but intellectuals, homosexuals, anyone whose face did not fit.

Then, after the war, there was no NHS, no swinging sixties, no 80s financial boom. What the Poles had was the heavy hand of Soviet communism. In Great Britain we take it for granted that we can think and do what we wish. This was not the reality for the Poles: Before, during and after the war, their country was not their own.

‘So?’ You might say, ‘Its not our fault’. Which is true, of course. Even in the strange fault finding of the 21st century the problems of Poland cannot be laid at the door of the UK. But does that make a difference? Surely the Christian point of view is to help those who need helping, even if we have not caused their problems. Poland’s economy is growing now and they are finally able to be themselves. Europe is not perfect but the Poles are being offered something honest and worthwhile by being part of it. We, in the UK, should feel proud that we are contributing to this. By welcoming workers from Poland and other Eastern European countries we are playing a small part in the rebuilding of their country.

I thought about putting some stories in this blog of people I know from Romania and Poland but the truth is we all have these stories. They are stories of honest, hardworking people. Some go back and some stay but I don’t know anyone who has a bad word about an individual they have known from these countries.

When we were in Berlin in August I was struck by something unexpected. It seemed to me that the European project was partly about healing the wounds of the 20th century. Initially this was the second World War but also the Cold War. If we want, we can be part of that healing process.

Just back from Oxford

I took a break from reading books (and other things) to spend the weekend in Oxford learning about Christian Apologetics. It was a great weekend, packed full of ideas, people with the Holy Spirit helping it all along. I feel re-energised and full of ideas.

Highlights for me were: Having a conversation at lunch about the relationship between Spirit and Matter and how Art can bridge this gap.

Going through all sorts of Logical Fallacies at breakneck speed.

Trying (and failing) to grasp the Trinity but learning that ‘If you go down to the bottom (of everything) there is love’.

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.

 

 

Its been a good year for teenagers. Lets give the vote to all 16 year olds.

The problem with giving people the vote is that you can’t take it back. We have a general election next year. Are all the teenagers in Scotland going to be told: ‘You’ve had your chance at being grown up, just settle down and be kids again’? I hope not, I really hope not. So, here is a radical idea. Why not give the vote to 16 year olds in the rest of the UK? Why not even go further and extend it to 14? At this age young people are deciding on their GCSE subjects. Why not also give them a say in how the country is run? Who knows, it might shake things up a bit.

I see teenagers doing amazing things. Don’t we all love Martha on the Great British Bake off? At the same age my own son gave his first speech to party conference. I see them making music, doing sports and making a difference in their communities. In a few years time we will be celebrating 100 years of women being given the vote. This has helped to make a huge difference in what it means to be a woman. Maybe it is time to talk about the same sort of emancipation for teenagers.