Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

‘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.

Garden door

 “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough.

 “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved.

 “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test.

 “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown.

Revelation 3: 8-11

When we are children we often have comforting images we return to again and again. In my case one of these images was a door in a wall. Through this door was a garden and if I could only find it then I could go through this door and enter the garden where nothing bad could happen. Of course, as I grew up this image became tinged with sadness. In the godless world I lived in then, this door could never exist.

Before I started the book club I spoke to a number of (adult) people about their favourite books. This book, The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis came up again and again. Having read it again, I wonder if it is that image of a door into a perfect world that means so much to so many people. Yet it is a world full of paradoxes. The first is that you must step into the darkness to find the light. Lewis describes the moment Tirian (the Narnian King) steps over the threshold into the stable. He expects to find a dark place inhabited by Tash, the dark god. Instead:

For a moment or two Tirian did not know where he was or even who he was. Then he steadied himself, blinked and looked around. It was not dark inside the Stable, as he had expected. He was in strong light: that was why he was blinking.

In the bright world Tash is there. But he only wants to overcome the Calormene leader, who has summoned him. Soon, Tirian sees another sight.

Seven Kings and Queens stood before him, all with crowns on their heads and all in glittering clothes, but the Kings wore fine mail as well and had their swords drawn in their hands.

These people are the humans who have made their way into Narnia from our own world. But there is one missing…

The rest of the book is really an allegory or fable. Is it of Heaven? Is it of a New Earth, renewed in the image of Heaven? I don’t know and I’m not sure it really matters. Maybe we could go one step further and say it is a picture of the Kingdom of God here, now, on Earth, in our own lives and hearts.

SusanpevensieBut, Tirian asks: ‘Where is Queen Susan?’

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.”

So Susan is excluded from the New Narnia. And what is her terrible crime? She is the sceptic, the one who embraces the ‘real’ world. She has forgotten the wonder of the walk through the snowy forest and the awe of meeting Aslan. The everyday god of social acceptance has become more important. What she no longer believes in she cannot have.

But the next thing the Narnians find is that some people have arrived the New Narnia who don’t believe in Aslan. They find the dwarves sitting in a circle, unable to see the beautiful land and only seeing the dark and smelly stable. Even Aslan cannot help them. He gives them fine food and it tastes like raw turnips. Fine wine tastes like smelly water;

But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot.

But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

The problem is that the Dwarfs have been taken in. Night after night they had bowed down to a donkey in a lion skin. They had been told this was Aslan and, for a while, had believed it. They had done what this false god had asked them to do. So, when he was shown to be a fraud. They refused to believe in anything except themselves and, perhaps, each other.

In our godless world this is what we call ‘growing up’. In the last ten years or so I’ve met a lot of teenagers. They all believe in something. It may be a boy band or a football team. It could be their own dreams or ambitions. Yet all of these things will fail. The boy band or football team will, after all, be just young men who can falter. Even if the dreams are realised they will not change who we are, or chase the shadows away. So these youngsters will leave behind the gods that failed them, get a job and a mortgage and just well, carry on.

Before we reach the end I want to look at another character in this story. The Last Battle was published in 1956. To modern minds it has some very non-PC characteristics. One of these is that the baddies (called Calormenes) are clearly of middle Eastern origin. They are quite bloodthirsty and have an unpleasant, devil like, god. But Lewis makes the point that, even in such a rotten barrel, there will be one or two good apples. Emeth resolves to walk into the stable to find his god ‘to look apon the face of Tash though he should slay me’. But once he walks through the door he finds himself in the wide, beautiful, New Narnia and comes face to face with Aslan.

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, All the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’…

But I also said (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘Unless thy desire had been for me thou woudst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’

So Emeth the Calormene joins all the other humans, talking animals and other creatures as they go ‘further up and further in’. They go through another door into an even wider and more beautiful place. But I won’t tell you how it ends, you will have to read the story yourself.

Three Worlds

Start

When I was reading ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ it occurred to me that we need a new way of thinking about the world. A way that includes God. This sort of bothered me. My ‘light bulb moment’ happened standing in a supermarket queue (I don’t think anyone noticed). It was not a new idea for me, I’d explored it before as a way of thinking about some of the gospel stories but I realised I needed to lay it out as an idea on its own before looking at the implications. I’ve called it ‘Three Worlds’. And here it is.

World 1

Patterns I’m sitting at my desk, looking out the window; its been raining and there are spots of water on the window. These are all real physical things. World one is the physical world we move around in. What we can see, touch, feel, smell and taste. Yet this is not a simple thing. When I look out the window each tree is a different colour and the pattern of leaves is different. And how we experience the physical world is different for each of us. On my pilgrimage last month, I just wanted to look at everything, some people wanted to touch things. Others were concerned with signs and symbols. For many people the overwhelming experience was what was happening inside their body. Blisters, aches and pains, were taking up front space in their minds. Science is discovering more and more about our physical world. I honestly believe that some of these give us a clue to the mind of God. He cares about our physical world. He made it beautiful.

World 2

World 2 is the social world. We need to live in a world connected to others. Loneliness is a terrible thing and can cause illness and even death. We understand this world instinctively as clearly as the physical world we live in.People talking I’m thinking that one of the reasons why social media is so important in our society is that it is an attempt to recreate the village communities that we have lost. It is said that in one day a modern person sees more people in one day than someone living 150 years ago saw in a lifetime. So creating and maintaining communities of people who really care about and for each other is incredibly hard. Yet this is what we long for. The picture here is of some of the people on our pilgrimage after a private church service. We all had something to say, a connection to be made.

We also make connections to animals, places and even objects. One of my friends is always telling me to ‘declutter’. ‘What can you possibly need with all those books?’ she asks. I’m not sure she understands!

World 3

World 3 is God’s world. Jesus called it the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. We might call it the ‘Spiritual dimension’. In my very first post on this blog I talked about our nine senses. To recap these are:

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Taste
  4. Touch
  5. Smell
  6. The sense of the inside of our bodies.
  7. The knowledge of our own thoughts.
  8. The reasoning or judgement on these thoughts.
  9. The sense of the presence of God.

And, just as almost everyone can see, it seems that almost everyone can sense the presence of God. There is even a word for the presence of God in the everyday world – Numinous. I’m going to quote Alister McGrath for a definition of this word:

“numinous” – a mysterious and awe-inspiring quality of certain things or beings, real or imagined, which (C. S) Lewis described as seemingly “lit by a light from beyond the world”.

We sense this in the beauty of the natural world, in art, in the love we feel and receive from other people. For half my adult life I was an atheist but I was still moved by religious music. My heart knew that it was telling me something important and real even if my head didn’t understand it. More than anything else this presence of God in the world shows His generous nature. Everyone has access to his presence in this way even if they don’t believe in him.

From time to time God seems to break in and act in a more direct way. These are not necessarily true miracles, but they are experiences and events that cannot be explained in any other way. The tendency of our secular world is to do exactly that even if it means calling otherwise sane and rational people deluded. But if we accept the reality of God’s world it means that the world we see, feel and talk about makes a whole lot more sense.

Three Worlds together

The idea behind these three worlds is that they create a framework to understand the whole world we live in. What I’m hoping to do is to use this framework to think about all sorts of things. I’m going to go back to the start of my journey with God and look at Chaos Theory (Yes, really) and look at how we can understand some of the Gospel stories better using this framework. I’m not sure where we will end up. It should be interesting.

Suggested Reading.

‘The Book of Sparks’ by Shaun Lambert. The quote is from ‘C. S. Lewis, A life’ by Alister McGrath.

A New kind of Christianity – Brian Mclaren

Introduction

It is now quite a long time since a did a post on a book. And quite a lot has happened. After I had written this post I realised that it contains as many of my own ideas as those of Brian McLaren. If you want to know more of what he thinks then I would really recommend reading this book. I’m sure that he won’t mind me using his ideas as a springboard for my own…

What do we believe?

When I am sitting in church do I know what the person sitting next to me believes? I will almost certainly know their name, usually their occupation and the details of their family. I may well have sat in their house and eaten food they have cooked but do I know what they believe? There is a well known saying here in England – ‘Never talk about politics or religion’ and generally we don’t. This is not helped by belonging to an established church which tries to be relevant to as many as possible. The mission statement of the (local) church I belong to is:

Building a community to reach a community with the love of God.

Which is great, fantastic and most of us are doing our best to live this out. But it is more about what we do rather than what we think. Of course the two are connected. My recent posts on pilgrimage show that what we do can change who we are and even what we believe. Maybe, as McLaren says, we need to get past this, to emerge into an ‘Age of the Spirit’. As he says:

… an approach to Christian faith that tries to preserve the treasures of previous eras and face and embrace the challenges of the twenty-first century. So something is happening. Something is afoot. A change is in the wind

But first we need to be clear about what we are leaving behind. For many people this will be quite a wrench.

timeline
This timeline is taken from McLaren’s book (I couldn’t resist adding some pictures of my own). This is the classic ‘Christian’ story. It goes something like this:

Once we were innocent. We lived in a wonderful garden and talked with God all the time. Then Eve (naughty woman!) ate the apple and gave some to Adam. They were expelled into some bleak place and there they (we)stayed until Jesus came along and saved them (us).

At this point we were given a choice. Either believe in Jesus and then, after you die, you will go to a good place called Heaven or don’t believe and then (also only after you die) you will be in Hell forever, without any time off for good behaviour. Put as bluntly as this it not only makes little sense it also seems profoundly wrong. Lets start with Eden and the fall. McLaren says:

… the Genesis narrative sets the stage for what follows. As we’ve seen. it’s the story of a good creation, marred by expanding human evil, countered by divine faithfulness, leading to profound reconciliation and healing. This narrative serves as a kind of fractal for the (bible) story as a whole and for its many parts.

Last summer I spent a week in Oxford studying Christian apologetics. One of the many memorable conversations I had there was with a young (only 19) American lad called Drew. He said: ‘How do you explain the Fall with evolution and all that?’. I thought about this. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Who is the most fallen person you can think of?’. After a pause I came up with my own idea. ‘Gordon Gekko‘. The mythical antihero of Wall Street has no morals, no scruples, for him greed really is good.

‘So,’ I explained. ‘You have Jesus at one end of ‘falleness’ spectrum and Gordon Gekko at the other end and most of us somewhere in the middle. As society expanded it became more and more possible to ‘work the system’. Living in small family groups or villages it is hard not to be honest and upright as everyone is looking out for each other. But when people began to live in larger and more complex societies it is possible to use power to get your own way, to trample on those weaker than you.’

I had never considered this question before but I think my answer was broadly right. The story of Jewish/Christian faith covers a large chunk of human civilisation from about 3,000 BC until the present day. McLaren shows us the step changes in civilisation, each with advantages but each moving further and further from a more innocent past. This past is quite close to our own English myth of the happy and well fed farmer untainted by the delights of the big city. The story of Adam and Eve is really an ancient parable. All knowledge, all progress, comes at a price.

Here is where the conventional narrative becomes a bit confusing. We have to move from a ‘us’ story, involving everybody to one concerning each individual soul. Many of us, as Christians, are locked into a story where we have to reach a certain stage in our faith before we die so we can be in the good place. If we don’t reach that stage, if we are still confused or uncertain then we may go to the bad place after we die.

Except Jesus never said that. When he talks about Hell he uses the word Gehenna. When he talks about Heaven or (more usually) the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. It is as something present and real, that we can be living in right now not just after we are dead. Gehenna was the Jerusalem rubbish dump and we have all been there. Unhappiness, poverty, hopelessness can all seem just like a rubbish dump. I watched a TV news slot about the war in Syria last week. It looked about as close to Hell as you can imagine but this was really happening, right now and, as the camera moved through the bombed buildings, a woman with a small child ran across the blasted, empty street.

What about other people?

And this story of Heaven and Hell doesn’t make Christians look good. About 13 years ago, when I was a very new Christian, I worked with a lovely man who followed the Sikh religion. We had some long conversations about our faith and what it means to us which were really interesting and fruitful. But then he asked THE QUESTION: “What will happen to me after I die?” I answered “You will go to Hell, because you don’t believe in Jesus”. I’m ashamed to say that I said this without the slightest hesitation, not even feeling guilty afterwards. My only excuse was that this was what I had learned from my two or three years as a Christian. I really hope he didn’t take me seriously.

McLaren addresses the ‘other religion’ question in some detail. After a 4 page tour through the old and New Testaments he says:

We would eventually need to look at Jesus, considering in detail, say, his attitudes towards a Samaritan woman, or a Roman centurian, a Syro-Phoenician woman, or some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus and went through Andrew and Philip. We could even look at Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew, noting how the Magi – what we might call New-Age practitioners – are drawn to Jesus through their own religious arts.

As in so many other things, we need to see Jesus not as a rule giver (although there were a few) but as a living parable. As C.S Lewis put it ‘A true Myth’. In a society and culture that shunned and feared outsiders, Jesus and his followers reached out to others and respected their views. In a way this is easier in Britain than in other Western countries such as the U.S.A because we are just so diverse. It is quite difficult to feel badly towards someone of a different faith, nationality or sexual orientation if they are living next door to you or sitting at the next desk. Once you start speaking to people their lives start to be interesting and rich rather than just alien.

But, if you are reading this as a Christian, by now you will be shouting at the screen “John 14:6-7!!” For those of you who can’t recall the bible just by the book and verse (I can’t either) this is:

Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Message Version)

This is where Brian McLaren and myself will need to differ. McLaren wraps this around in the context of Jesus’ coming crucifixion, resurrection and the anxious questions of his followers. This is fair enough but I think we have to assume that if Jesus said it and John wrote it down then it has got to have a wider application. I completely agree with him that this does not mean that people of other faiths or none are automatically on that mythical rubbish heap, either before or after they die, so how should we look at this?

The clue is at the other end of John’s Gospel: John 1:12-13:

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. (NIV)

Belief treeThis diagram shows a number of relationships we can have with God. I’m going to be bold here and say that only Jesus Christ can offer us the relationship in the top layer. Which seems like a wonderful thing, and it is, but it carries with it a responsibility. If one of my own parents requires something from me I will do it if I possibly can and there is a bond that cannot be broken. So it is with God.

But not all Christians are at this stage. And that’s OK. And followers of other faiths are relating to God in whatever way their culture and personalities will allow. There are a lot of people who believe in God who don’t follow any sort of religion, who simply think he is there. I’ve called these ‘Onlookers’. There are also people who believe in God but are angry with him, some ‘atheists’ seem to be a bit like that.

I think God honours all of these relationships. There may be a point (perhaps after we die) when we see clearly the truth of who God is. If this is so then some of these people will have a big surprise and I’m sure we will all have to adjust our thinking. I’m going to end with a parable of my own, hope it helps:

There was once an girl, about 12 years old, who was put up for adoption. The prospective parents were extremely wise, loving and patient and took time to get to know the child. The girl had very mixed feelings. On the one hand she didn’t quite trust these people. Why did they want to love her so much? What was in it for them? On the other hand she was a bit afraid. They had a lot of other adopted children already who all seemed to have their lives sorted out. What if she just wasn’t good enough?

She realised that she had a choice. She could walk away and never see them again. They had said that she could change her mind at any time but what if they rejected her?

She could maintain contact and call on them when she needed support. This seemed like a good, safe option but it was a bit scary to be out in the world on her own and what if they ignored her when she called?

She could go and live in their house, follow the rules. She would pick up her clothes, do the washing up when asked and go to school on time. If she was good and polite they would look after her and keep her from harm.

Or she could really join the family and become their child. The prospect seemed very attractive and fun but all her old fears came back. What if they didn’t love her back? What if she wasn’t good enough?

So, in the end she decided to opt for the third option. She lived in their house and did what she was told and they loved her as much as she would allow. And because the parents were extremely wise and loving they waited.

Suggested Reading

I would really recommend reading the starting point for this blog: A New kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. It is completely packed with ideas about faith, Jesus and God.

The best two books written about Heaven and Hell are by C. S. Lewis:

The Great Divorce

The Last Battle

They are both works of fiction which seems quite appropriate for this topic.

Mind and Cosmos – Thomas Nagel – Part 1

I do not often feel sorry for the authors of books I read. Indeed, to have a book published is a fine thing. And Thomas Nagel is a Professor at the University of New York, while I’m just a humble blogger. But, as I read it, I did feel sorry for him. Because to challenge the current scientific view without straying into theology is hard,  very hard. He makes a good effort but it doesn’t altogether come off.

Because Professor Nagel has one serious problem and that is a lack of faith. Obviously, as an atheist, he lacks faith in God. Early on in the book he states:

…theism – which is to be rejected as a mere projection of our internal self-conception onto the universe, without evidence.

But he also lacks a faith in science. Now, faith in God and faith in science are very different things. What I mean by faith in science is an understanding that, even if we don’t understand how things work now, this doesn’t mean that we won’t in the future. Early on in the 20th century the prevailing view was that almost everything scientific was known, or soon would be. More than a century later we wouldn’t dream of thinking such a thing. This is especially true in the study of the brain. Until fairly late on in the 20th century the only way to see inside the brain was to cut it open. Now we have imaging techniques which allow us to see what the brain is doing in a general way but these are far from perfect. Nagel’s view is, because we have no scientific explanation for how the physical workings of the brain translate into actual thoughts, ideas and awareness (consciousness) it is not possible that there can be one.

I don’t agree. You are reading this page on a screen made of millions of individual points of light. The information is held on a database on a huge server somewhere in the world. Yet it (hopefully) makes sense to you. This is called emergence. The ideas and words emerge, not just from the technology but also from our understanding of language. So, out of this strange collection of squiggles on the screen your mind can make sense of what I am trying to say. In a way that we don’t yet understand the collection of nerves, electrical and chemical impulses that happen inside our brain organize themselves and emerge into what we call consciousness. But let’s start with something simpler…

sandcastleImagine you walk onto a beach. You see this sandcastle. Now the sandcastle has clearly emerged from the sand around it. It is made of the same stuff. You don’t think: ‘Oh someone brought it from their car and put it there’. But neither could you think: ‘This is something that happened by chance’. It is fairly obvious that an external force, probably in the form of a child with a bucket and spade, came and forced the emergence of the sandcastle from the beach. Even a natural sandy object, such as a dune, is formed by wind and sea. So there has to be external influence for emergence to happen.

In the human mind we start with the genetic code. This amazing blueprint starts us off and lays the outline of who we are. But then, of course we have our nine senses. Now, until just over a year ago, I thought we only had 5 and I’m forever in the debt of The Rev. Shaun Lambert for pointing out the extra four. Altogether, they are:

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Taste
  4. Touch
  5. Smell
  6. The awareness of inside our own body.
  7. The awareness of our own thoughts
  8. The awareness of the awareness of our own thoughts
  9. The sense of the presence of God.

Number 6 is fairly obvious. I’m sitting here thinking that I might want to go and visit the loo (that’s the bathroom to everyone on the other side of the Atlantic). If this feeling becomes strong enough I will get up and walk down the corridor. This sense is not always reliable. I can fool myself into thinking I’m hungry quite easily. Sportsmen and dancers develop this sense to an extraordinary degree.

Number 7 is also quite easy. We are aware of our own thoughts. Mostly we ‘hear’ them as a verbal stream. My best and most creative thoughts are usually pictures or diagrams and I can ‘see’  these ideas and reproduce them in the outside world. Each one of us can do this in different way because we can ‘sense’ our own thoughts.

Sense number 8 is an awareness of our awareness. This is a bit like listening in on a conversation. I’ll give you an example:

A few weeks ago I felt I had far too much to do at work. Then I had an e-mail asking (well telling) me to do some more things. At this point I got quite annoyed and started an internal stream of thought telling myself that I could not do any more and he needed to stop being so bossy. I was aware of all of this using sense 7. This went on for a while. Then sense number 8 began to become aware of this stream. It looked at these thoughts and found them childish and petty. This dampened down my annoyance enough to give me time to think that my manager was also under pressure and was generally a reasonable person and I needed to find a way to resolve this without making the problem worse.

This is clearly a good outcome but it can easily go the other way. Naturally, we tend to think our own thoughts are reasonable and our awareness of them will reinforce this. Sense 8 is not always good at distinguishing between healthy, positive thoughts and thoughts which will damage us. Which brings us to..

Sense 9: The awareness of the presence of God. I would say that almost all human beings have this sense, otherwise how would we know the difference between beauty and ugliness? Unless the ugliness threatened us in some way it would all be just the same. Just as there are people who lack the sense of sight or hearing there will be people who literally cannot sense God. But, I suspect, this is fairly rare. From time to time those of us who have faith have a pure sense of God, unconnected with anything else but He seems to work most effectively with Sense 8. St Paul puts in very well:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

2 Corinthians 10:5

Because, of course, God must be invited into our thoughts, just as we must open our eyes to see.

So, how does this work? How do we take captive our thoughts? I’ve drawn the diagram below to try and explain.

Thoughts

The black line is the outside of our mind. The gaps are where our senses meet the outside world. The coloured areas are the parts of our brain which interpret these experiences. The blue arrows represent the process going on in the everyday story earlier in this blog. I see (by reading e-mails)  and hear instructions to do certain tasks. These trigger certain thoughts which borrow the hearing interpretation area to become a verbal stream. I then become aware of these thoughts and invite God in by prayer to help me resolve the situation. The awareness of God influences this self awareness to bring me to a slightly different outcome from that which I would have reached on my own. This outcome is then sent back to the hearing interpretation area to become another verbal stream which becomes part of the conversation I have with my manager.

So consciousness emerges from the input of all these senses working on the substance of the brain. The only mystery in all of this is how we ‘hear’ God. Nagel suggests that matter, all matter has a protomental aspect. This is fairly close to Lewis’ idea that all matter is somewhere between the purely physical and the divine, that we are (to quote Lewis again) half Angel, half animal.

And these are not just philosophical ideas. Modern brain imaging techniques allow us to see different parts of the brain working as we think. And, as shown in ‘How God Changes your Brain’ (see previous blog post) faith in God really does change the structure of your brain, grows and shrinks different parts. And this awareness of God makes us aware of certain values outside our own needs and desires. Which brings us very neatly to the final part of Professor Nagel’s book. But I’m going finish this post now and leave that discussion for the next one.

If you want to contact me directly then please fill in the form below.

Some more useful reading:

A (fairly) easy book about how the brain works:

‘A Users Guide to the Brain’ – John Ratey

Still the best book about ordinary people’s experiences of God (unless you know better) is:

‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ – William James

Please leave your comments here:

Miracles – C. S Lewis and How God Changes Your Brain – Andew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman

For me the brain is a mystery. Ever since I was a teenager I wanted to know about this strange jumble of nerves and chemicals, electrical impulses and blood that somehow results in what we think, who we are, what we decide. Twenty years later I became a Christian and the mystery deepened. Where did God fit into all of this? Were my vivid experiences of God a part of me or a part of something else?

In very different ways these two books attempt to address this issue. I have to admit I was quite excited about reading ‘How God changes your brain’. Opening up the brown package I expected to get real answers to my questions. And, in a way I did. It explains in detail the way that spiritual practice changes the function and structure of the brain. That faith, and the practice of faith calms the primitive side of us and turns up the more altruistic, empathic side. It explains that prayer and meditation can cause us to become not only less selfish but to loose our sense of self altogether. Heady stuff. Or not. Because at the core of this book is an evasion. I find it incredible that two people can spend years researching the subject of God and still not recognise His reality. Towards the end of the book Andrew Newberg says the following:

‘For those who embark on a spiritual journey, God becomes a metaphor reflecting their personal search for truth. It is a journey towards self-awareness, salvation or enlightenment, and for those who are touched by this mystical experience, life becomes more meaningful and rich.’

And for those of you who are thinking: ‘This must really mean something profound but I just don’t get it’, don’t worry it really is meaningless. Newberg and Waldman are clinging onto the Naturalistic world view for all they are worth, almost hanging on by their fingernails. Also, it is profoundly patronising for people of faith. The suggestion, which is repeated throughout the book, is that God is not actually real.  On the final page of chapter 11 (Miracles pp150) C. S. Lewis describes the dillemma:

‘It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back – I would have done so myself if I could – and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’ – well and good. A subjective God of beauty truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power we can tap- best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband- that is quite another matter… There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?’

And yet HGCYB is a book with a great deal of useful information. Much of the focus of it on the practice of meditation, and how this can improve our emotional and mental health. This is an area the mainstream church has ignored. I think there is a certain fear that we may stray into Eastern or even ‘New Age’ practices. This could be the case if the focus of our meditation is internal (as with Buddist meditation)  but if we focus on God, to look outside ourselves to the divine, we will not fall into this trap. Another argument against using meditation as part of spiritual practice is that it is not mentioned by Jesus in the Gospels. This is true, but the reason for this could well be that He didn’t need to. I did a quick search of the Old testament for the words Meditate and Meditation. They came up 18 times in the Psalms alone. I like this one:

‘Within your temple, O God,
we meditate on your unfailing love.’ – Psalm 48 v 9

This, and the other verses, were something all his audience knew. Only we have forgotten.

So, how does this work? Well, about a year ago I started to pray using a form called the ‘Jesus Prayer’. As this involves actions as well as words I’ve tried to draw it below:

Jesus Prayer

The words are: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Have mercy on me, a sinner’. This is a very old prayer, from the 4th or 5th Century. The prayer is silent. The up stroke in the picture represents a breath in (try to breathe from your stomach, like a singer) and the down stroke a breath out. The traditional way to use this prayer is to find a quiet place, a relaxed position (I like to lie down but there is a danger of falling asleep) and say this prayer between 10 and 20 times. This may be quite difficult at first but it is worth persevering. As you continue you will find any worries fading and the barriers between yourself and God falling away. After a while God will become clearer and He will start to communicate. This may be a feeling of peace, or a great inrush of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I am prompted to pray quite simply for people I know who are in need.

I taught this prayer to our bible study group and about two thirds of them began to practice it. One couple, who were suffering from  health problems prayed it to help them relax enough to sleep. Another lady decided she didn’t like the words and used the same breathing technique, but on the words of the Lords Prayer. I have used it in all sorts of stressful situations, even in the middle of meetings. It doesn’t always solve the problems, but I feel so calm it doesn’t matter!

C. S. Lewis takes the role of the brain in relation to God and takes a completely different tack. HGCYB sees God as a product of the Brain. Lewis sees the brain as an spearhead or incursion of the supernatural into the natural world. The argument goes something like this:

  • The ability to reason is completely unlike the rest of the natural world.
  • Also the notion of right and wrong (even when it does not benefit the individual concerned) is so strong in Human Beings.
  • Therefore it must come from outside the natural world.
  • Therefore there must be a super nature outside of nature that has created this ability.

He says:

Human minds, then are not the only supernatural entities that exist. They do not come from nowhere. Each has come into Nature from Supernature: each has its tap-root in an eternal, self-existent, rational Being, whom we call God. Each is an offshoot, or spearhead, or incursion of that Supernatural reality into Nature.

I’ve tried to illustrate this below. On this 2D picture I’ve shown God on one side and Nature on the other with the two meeting within the Human mind. But it is more like a mingling or layering. Lewis talks of another dimension. I think it would be more accurate to talk of another sense. For a number of years I lost my sense of smell. I can well remember the day it came back. Just the smell of bacon was like a whole extra layer of reality in the world. Experiencing God is like that only bigger; a whole extra sense of reality.

brain2

Before we move on to more of Lewis’ ideas about Nature and God I think it is worth pointing out that this is not a particularly easy book to read. This is not because of the language or style (which, as you can see from the extracts is rather elegant) but because of the time in which it was written. Like most books of Christian thinking it is arguing against the prevailing thinking of its day.

But ‘Miracles’ was published in 1947. This is before the theory of the Big Bang, before Global Warming (well it was happening but no-one realised it), before chaos theory or butterflies flapping their wings in China. The universe seemed a very safe predictable place. David Hume could argue without a trace of irony that miracles could not happen because it was simply so unlikely that nature could be any different tomorrow from what it was today; so improbable, that it was impossible to believe. And Lewis needed to have a counter argument to this.

But the chapter ‘On Probability’ is the last one that the reader will need to make allowances for. From then on Lewis launches into a glorious and completely unapologetic exploration of the Miracles of the New Testament. Starting with the primary miracle of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Today, even Christians don’t like to examine miracles too closely. I have tried to lead discussions on the physical nature of miracles and been constantly deflected into their emotional and religious significance. But Lewis meets this challenge head on. He describes miracles as being like God reaching down directly into the world. Our God is the creator, the god of nature as well as supernature. So every birth is His work, but through the medium of the biological process. In the conception of Jesus he dispensed with the mechanism of biology and reached directly into the womb of a young Jewish girl at her prayers. Following on from his argument that each one of us has a ‘tap root’ of God within us he says:

We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human spirit of Jesus but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his natural organism. What we can understand, if the Christian doctrine is true, is that our own composite existence is not the sheer anomaly it might seem to be, but a faint image of he Divine Incarnation itself – the same theme but in a very minor key.

So, in all miracles there is a fusion of the natural and supernatural. And in this way they are physical prophecies, precursors of a ‘New Nature’. ‘There will be no room to get the finest razor blade of thought between Sprit and Nature’ says Lewis. I think we see this at work in the Gospels many times. In the feeding of the five thousand;

“Bring them here to me,” He said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to Heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. – Matthew 14: 18-19

At some point during the bread and fishes acquired a new spiritual reality. They were still loaves, still fishes, still could be eaten and digested, yet Heaven had entered that bread at that moment of giving thanks. I wonder what it felt like to eat that bread? Were those people changed by it?

But there is one thing I need to disagree with Lewis on. In many places he says that this fusion of God’s Spirit and Nature happened at one time in history. Even reading the bible this is clearly not true. There are many instances of this happening in Acts. But does this still happen today?

The answer is ‘Of Course it does’. Even among the Christians I know I can think of many instances. It is almost commonplace. But, as this is a blog rather than an academic discourse I’m going to describe something that happened to me last spring:

At the beginning of 2012 I found myself in a difficult place. I felt I was stalled in many areas of my life. My work was not going well, I seemed to be sleepwalking through both my Church and home life. During this time I had a vivid picture in my mind of being in a dark wood, surrounded by brambles and thorns. Gradually, as the days grew longer, the picture changed and I seemed to be coming to the edge of this wood. Through the brambles I could see a bright green hillside. Then the changes to the picture in my mind stalled. I was standing on the edge of the beautiful hillside; there was nothing stopping me from walking forward but I couldn’t and I could still see the brambles and thorns on the edge of my vision.

Then I became aware of God asking me to make a journey. Now this happens from time to time. The journeys are not usually very long, sometimes just to the other side of the room. The furthest I’ve ever been asked to go is Oxford (about 40 miles away). In this case it was to climb to the top of the hill near our house. Now this was not an unreasonable or difficult request but, for a few weeks, I kept on putting it off. Finally, I put on my walking boots (It’s quite a steep climb), packed my paints, and walked out of the house and up the hill.

Hillside

As I reached the top I began to realise that the landscape was actually the picture in my mind. To my right was the wood, full of brambles and thorns. To my left was a bright green hillside with wild flowers and little bushes in the distance. I sat on a bench and painted the picture you can see here. Then I packed away my paints and walked forward away from the dark wood.

It was at this point that the extraordinary thing happened. The ground under my feet seemed to have two distinct realities. It was still physical ground but it also had a spiritual reality that was hovering slightly above the solid ground. This spiritual ground was slightly luminous and even brighter than the grass in the spring sunshine. I wish now that I had been paying more attention. What was I actually walking on? If this had been water rather than ground could I have walked on it, like Peter and Jesus? I don’t know. Because what I was most aware of was a tremendous sense of peace and joy. The walk across that hillside was also a walk away from the brambles and thorns into a more positive future. I felt physically very strong and light, as though it took no effort at all to make that walk.

For someone like myself, with a scientific education, such an experience raises more questions than it answers. But I know it was not a dream or an illusion. If anything, it was more real than my everyday existence and has had a profound and lasting effect on my life. But I am going to leave the last word to Lewis:

But Christian teaching, by saying that God made the world and called it good, teaches that Nature or environment cannot be simply irrelevant to spiritual beatitude in general… By teaching the resurrection of the body it teaches that Heaven is not merely a state of the spirit but a state of the body as well: and therefore a state of Nature as a whole. Christ, it is true, told His hearers that the kingdom of Heaven was ‘within’ or ‘among’ them. But his hearers were not merely in ‘a state of mind’. The planet He had created was beneath their feet, His sun above their heads; blood and lungs and guts were working in the bodies He had invented, photons and sound waves of His devising were blessing them with the sight of His human face and sound of His voice… From this factor of environment Christianity does not teach us to desire a total release. We desire, like St Paul, not to be un-clothed but to be re-clothed: to find not the formless Everywhere-and-Nowhere but the promised land, that Nature which will be always and perfectly- as present Nature is partially and intermittently – the instrument for that that music which will then arise between Christ and us.