Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

How did England lose its Faith?

To most people in this country the answer would be: Why not? We know better now than to believe all that superstitious nonsense. But I knew there had to be an answer. It just took a long time to find it.

It came to me at the beginning of the hot summer of 2011. I was called to do jury service and it was altogether an odd experience. I was warned that there would be quite a lot of waiting around so I brought a book to finish. The book was one of my favourites ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ by William James. So I sat on the bank of padded, but not too comfortable chairs and read. ‘What are you reading?’ The tall, thin man opposite asked. I showed him and explained it was about the way that people experience God. ‘Oh, I’m a born again Atheist’, He said, ‘God is just something you have constructed in your mind because you need an authority figure’.

Now it seems very interesting to me that someone can be so certain that something is not true. For instance, I rather like the idea of UFOs. I’m fairly sure they don’t exist but it seems intriguing  that so many people believe they do. This man (his name was Alex) had all the arguments and had obviously read ‘The God Delusion’ with attention. But what Alex, and Dawkins, never seem to take into account is that many people experience God in very direct ways. But I am getting off the point…

One major difference between doing Jury service and my normal existence was the amount of free time I had. During long lunch breaks I would wander round Guildford looking in the shops and, of course, ended up in the local bookshop. It was quite a large bookshop but had the usual measly couple of shelves on Faith matters, perhaps 100 books altogether. Many of these were arguing against God rather than for Him. Initially, the book I picked up looked as though it was one of these. It was called ‘The Rage against God‘ by Peter Hitchens. As I looked through it seemed the ideal book to give to my new friend Alex.

I never gave it to him. As I read it on the train, moving through the parched Surrey countryside, I realised it was saying something unique and important. That the English people, even while they sat comfortably in their beautiful old churches, were worshipping the wrong God. As Hitchens puts it:

I hope to show that one of the things I was schooled in was not in fact religion but a strange and vulnerable counterfeit of it, a counterfeit that can be detected and rejected while yet leaving the genuine truths of Christianity undamaged.

The relevant Bible text is from Exodus 20:

No other gods, only me. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments. (The Message translation)

Which is the first commandment. Its strange really but even completely non-religious people are comfortable with most of the 10 commandments. Some are even written into law. Others, such as the prohibition of adultery, they know to be right even if inconvenient. But this first one appears to be uncompromising to the point of cruelty. I’m going to come back to this later but first I want to continue with Hitchens view of English religion. He talks of the ‘Faith in Science’:

The Christian conservatism of my schools did not protect me from the rather Victorian faith in something called ‘Science’ which was then very common. Perhaps this is because Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers wheras materialistic, naturalistic faith was. This faith did not require any great understanding. Mainly, it was just an assumption, a received opinion we all accepted.

But faith in science can only dilute and misdirect religious faith (and taken seriously it can even strengthen it, but that is for a future post…) . It takes something stronger to poison it. He comes to this in chapter 5:

Now we come to the very heart of the cult that enthralled us all, especially children… I possessed for many years a comic book biography of our Great Leader, called ‘The Happy Warrior’, one of thousands of more or less idolatrous publications which concentrated rather heavily on Mr Churchhill’s good side. I knew more about his life than the life of Christ. He was our saviour.

Hitchens describes the central ritual of the year:

As pseudo-religions go, ours was attractive and elegant, and it contained many decent and godly elements. Its central ceremony was Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 11th of November…In the very depths of this season of universal drab coloured gloom we were marched in ranks and files down to the town war memorial, absurd caps on our heads, for the crowning ritual of the year.. A Vicar in austere black and white vestments intoned uncompromisingly Protestant prayers, we kept in silence, a quavering bugle blew, we sang ‘Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past’, a hymn that seemed to have been carved from granite much like that of the memorial itself. It was a deep evocation of everything we liked about ourselves, an indulgence in melancholy and proud self restraint. No outsider could possibly have penetrated its English mysteries, or imagined that we were, in fact enjoying ourselves. But we were.

There is a great deal more in the book about the cult of the Second world war and it is well worth reading but I will end my quotes on this subject with this summing up:

… the proper remembering of dead warriors, though right and fitting, is a very different thing from the Christian religion. The Christian church has been powerfully damaged by letting itself be confused with love of country and making of great wars.

There was a sort of double whammy effect here. On the one hand the content of what was being offered by the Church became thinner, less convincing and more boring. Also, the Church (especially the Church of England) became associated with increasingly old fashioned values. The generation born after the war wanted to move on and the Church was not moving with them.

Timothy Keller, in his book ‘Counterfeit Gods’, describes something similar happening in the USA.

Why did our culture largely abandon God as its Hope? I believe it was because our religious communities have been and continue to be filled with these false gods. Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ. These toxic effects of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.

But, you may well ask, why didn’t I realise this? I was born and raised in England, why did I spend 15 years pondering this question? Well, I was raised in this country but my parents were not. My mother rejected the rather austere Dutch Protestantism she was raised in. My fathers parents had already ceased to be practising Jews by the time they arrived in England, from Germany in the late Thirties. As a girl, Churchill was no more than an interesting historical figure to me. The fact that ‘we’ had won the war was no more to me than a fact. When the bugle blew and we stood in silence I was remembering quite a different war.

Last November I turned on the TV on Saturday night expecting to watch the usual hospital drama. Instead there was a program from the Royal Albert Hall. Groups of various parts of the armed services were processing into the centre of the Hall with great ceremony. A Welsh newsreader was describing the function of each of these armed services with great dignity and ceremony. A glittering brass band played sombre music for the men and women to march to. It was all very touching, just like a religious ceremony. But who was being worshipped? Was it the actual men and women there? Or those who had died? Or some abstract noble warrior? Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against soldiers. Those who I have met are fine, courageous people and they do a difficult job. But so do a lot of people and when it comes down to it they are just people. To put them in place of God is certainly wrong.

By the time I was an adult the cult of Winston Churchill had faded but it was to be replaced by another, equally potent, figure. Diana Spencer was married to Prince Charles at 19. She was a year older than me. The summer I left school I watched her arrive at her wedding on the TV with millions of other people but she did not figure much in my life after that. When her marriage fell apart I can remember thinking how sad it was. She was badly treated, a genuinely tragic figure. So, it wasn’t until her death in 1997 that the scale of the focus on her became apparent. I remember the morning she died. We were preparing to go on holiday. I was hoping that our 3 year old son would be happy watching kids TV for an hour while we did the last of the packing. But instead of Teletubbies and cartoons there was only an endless reel of a wrecked car in a Paris tunnel. I switched the TV off and spent the next fortnight in a campsite on top of a hill in Dordogne. While we were there we found out that Diana had died and, of course, this was a big story but it wasn’t until we returned to England I realised just how big. It seemed the whole country was in mourning. I just kept quiet and watched the TV news: The weeping mourners, the young Tony Blair talking to camera, the acres of flowers outside Kensington Palace. I had started going to church the year before and there was a prophecy being spoken at our church in Reigate…

I said I would come back to the passage from Exodus. Churchhill and Diana are not the only gods revered by the English people. You only have to wander through the cathedrals dedicated to shopping or corporate success to realise that. It seems incredibly harsh for generations to be punished for worshipping the wrong god but the problem is that it is true. Sin is an odd word but, in this case, I would call something a sin that hurts other people. And we all know families that repeat hurtful actions generation after generation. It could be addiction, alcohol abuse, pride or anger. And these families can look to their ‘gods’ all they like but, you know something, they are not going to help. Some people reading this may say that God won’t either but He seems a much better bet and Jesus offers us the hard, deep magic of forgiveness that we must offer first before we receive it. In the ‘Rage Against God’ Hitchens describes a Russian society that has almost completely forgotten God. It is a bleak and hopeless picture and he says that we are heading the same way. I don’t agree.

The prophecy I heard went something like this:

Before the flowers have faded around Kensington Palace God will have started something new.

I don’t know if this was just something said in Reigate or was more widespread. At the time I dismissed it. After all there were no accounts of people flocking to Church. But, by 1998, the Alpha Course was successful enough to be described as a ‘cult’ by the newspapers, thousands of people were spending their holidays at New Wine or Spring Harvest Christian conferences,  many new churches are being started in school halls and ordinary people’s front rooms. Something was starting. The installation of our current Archbishop of Canterbury is another sign of the rebirth of Christianity in this country

But we need to be careful. Jesus did not insist on his ‘rights’. He did not define himself as better than those categorised as sinners in his society. When we define Gay people as sinners we hurt ourselves as much as them (especially those who wish to become Christians). I will end with a quote from Sir Andrew Stunell MP.

Making Christians angry is easy. Making Christians think is the hard part.

Suggested Reading:

‘The Rage Against God’ by Peter Hitchens. Well worth reading, if only for the description of modern Russia.

On Forgiveness: ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace?’ by Philip Yancey.

On modern ‘gods’ (but from an American point of view): Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller.

The quote from Sir Andrew Stunell from ‘Liberal Democrats do God’ – Edited by Jo Latham and Claire Mathys

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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.


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.


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.