Article in Stretton Focus, December 2014
God and Man United
If you are a supporter of that particular football team, you will be happy to accept my title as a simple statement of fact – which the other teams in the Premiership would do well to recognise. But if, in spite of Bill Shankley, you believe there are more serious things in life than ‘the beautiful game’, you will want to pause and give the title more thought.
Any use of the word God should immediately raise the question of what is meant by that word. For me, the word God is a mystical concept which humans have created to account for the existence of all things – including ourselves. It is there to give a sense of direction, purpose and meaning to life.
Unfortunately religions have generally objectified the word, and made God into somebody – usually male, somewhere in the universe – who from time to time intervenes in world affairs. Religions have also done terrible things in the name of their God, and they have created theologies which in today’s world are simplistic, naïve and sometimes dangerous.
Religions need to repent much of their past, and find new ways of understanding how God and Man can be united. The only place where we can be united is in our humanity – that is in who we are and what we do, think and feel.
The Christmas story can be seen as a focal point for this idea. We can think of Jesus as representing all humanity; and being an ideal example of God and Man united. This should not be made into theological doctrines and creeds, to be believed in – or else! The thought of God and Man united should be regarded as an ideal which can inspire us to pursue the programme which Jesus started. And, with that idea in mind, we can look forward to celebrating his birth on Christmas Day.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, November 2014
Reviewing the Evidence
A great part of our life is governed by evidence – we look and listen for evidence of danger when starting to cross the road. In particular areas such as health care, evidence tells us what has benefited patients and what has not.
Can we take an evidence-based approach when we consider religion? Many people would say that the evidence for God is in the Bible. But is the Bible really evidence? It is after all a lot of anecdotes quite often without any cross-references which might help confirm what is put forward as fact. For some this may be enough but the decline of church attendance suggests that for many it is not. The standards which one would apply to assessing the Bible as evidence would be completely inapplicable if we were looking at healthcare. In healthcare there need to be undeniable facts supported by measurable data. So is there a better way to go about looking for evidence which supports the exercise of faith?
Those with a strong faith may be horrified by taking a modern approach allied to science to this question. Is such an approach appropriate? I think it is. It is perhaps surprising to find that there are many scientists who have a faith. It isn’t rooted in their science. It is rooted more than anything in their understanding of life, and their awareness that there is something deep in humanity which cannot be readily explained.
It is not about language, family or society. It is not measurable. It is a different kind of evidence. Some would identify it as the core of our humanity. It is about the spiritual love of human kind which we all know about. Something taught by Jesus and all the great prophets of religion. It is something which takes you into the deeper connections of humanity.
This brings science and faith together in love. It is personally spiritual and intellectually mysterious. It is also quite exciting. Acceptance of this is a process which is both emotional and scientific. The evidence is personal, unique to each of us. Once understood like this it is with us everyday in everything we do; the eternal mystery of unconstrained love, striking the chords which are the music of faith.
Article in Stretton Focus, November 2014
The Death of God
Some of you reading this piece will remember the ‘Death of God Controversy’ of the 1960s. That whole decade was a melting pot of social and religious upheaval. Young people were looking for a freedom of expression denied to them by the social mores of the time. The poet Philip Larkin may have exaggerated a bit when he wrote “sexual intercourse began in 1963”, but he saw what was happening.
Religion itself could not escape the turmoil. There was a clash between the modern world view, and religious belief in a transcendent deity. That particular tension has always been there, but it was brought to a head by Time Magazine, whch on its front cover, posed the question “Is God dead?”
The controversy of the 1960s has by now lost some of its momentum, but the underlying issue still needs to be grappled with in the light of continuing changes in our knowledge of the world. Our present understanding of the universe makes old religious ideas about God inadequate and obsolete.
These old concepts of God need to ‘die’, so that new ideas can be born. That very principle of death and rebirth is written into the fibre of an evolving Creation; and it includes the necessity for even religions to die.
Jesus himself is recorded as saying that every seed must be planted in the ground (that is, it has to ‘die’) if it is to produce new growth. This is a parable, not just of nature, but of the whole of life. Old religious ideas of God do need to die; but the seed, or kernel of religion (goodness, truth, beauty and love) should be replanted in the ‘soil’ of the modern age, so that it can bear fruit for us today.
Christianity itself is based on the concept of a dying-and-rising God, and should be leading the way into new ways of thinking about God.
God is dead – long live God.
Article in Stretton Focus, October 2014
A Sense of Humour
There’s not a lot to laugh at when you catch a cold. Recently I was coughing and sneezing and swallowing over what felt like a pile of rocks at the back of my throat. At one time I would have shrugged it off in a few days; but now, at my age, it’s a four-week ordeal before I’m back to normal.
I lost my appetite, along with my sense of taste and smell: and a friend said to me “Make sure you don’t lose your sense of humour as well!” That was good advice, although not so easy to take: but at least I had time to think about it!
Smell, taste and appetite are bodily functions, but your sense of humour is more of a spiritual attribute. As such, it needs to be fostered and cared for, so that it grows up healthily and happily, as an integral part of who you are.
A sense of humour can be very useful in helping you keep your balance in life, and not be overthrown by events (dear boy!). The pressure of modern life can be overwhelming, confronted as we are with choices and decisions at every turn, with worries and anxieties taking a heavy toll on our well-being.
A sense of humour, and especially the ability to laugh at yourself, as you charge around doing everything and keeping up with everybody – can take the pressure off, and help you to relax and smile a bit more. Of course each person will have their own appetite for and respond to humour in their own way. The ‘media’ will try to manipulate you with ‘canned’ laughter, so that if you don’t laugh along with the crowd you are judged to be some kind of misfit. More pressure – switch off!
I wonder, does God have a sense of humour? Asking that very question might make you smile, because it’s a nonsense question. Nevertheless, one distinguished theologian some of you might know (Father Harry Williams), said that if the Gospel is true, that God accepts us all unconditionally – that shows God must have a sense of humour! And further, he claimed that “laughter is the purest form of our response to God”.
Article in Stretton Focus, September 2014
Eat Less, Live Longer
As head of the family, I have devised this slogan out of concern for the health and well-being of my children and grandchildren. Eat less and live longer. (As an aside I would say that if any supermarket or fast food outlet would like to use it for advertising purposes, I am open to negotiations!)
I realise of course that it would not be applicable to all people and in all situations. But then, no slogan is. Nevertheless, in a nation where obesity is rampant, this catchword could serve as a warning – danger ahead: stop and think about how much and what kind of food (and drink) you are consuming. In 2012 more than one third of the population was overweight or obese. This condition can have both immediate and long-term effects. It can lead to all kinds of health complaints; as well as causing social and psychological problems, especially for children. The remedy is simple enough, though it may not be so easy to follow. It is to develop a wholesome lifestyle, with healthy eating and physical exercise.
Religion might also have some help to offer. Most religions would have some form of teaching, which in Christianity is crystallised in the words ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit’. Whatever else that might mean, it can direct us to think of ourselves as being more than just a physical body: that we should regard our bodies as sacred: that we are somehow (spiritually, mystically) indwelt with the enlightening and life-giving Spirit, that we also call God.
If so, would it not be wise to respect our bodies by keeping them as fit and healthy as we can? And not just living longer, but being healthier and happier, and even discovering our essential spiritual nature.
Article in Stretton Focus, August 2014
A New Reformation?
There are those in the Church today who are calling for a new Reformation. It will need to be radically different from the 16th century Reformation where, as John Milton quickly realised “New Presbyter was but old Priest writ large”. They were still playing the same game of denouncing one another as heretics.
It’s not a ‘re-formation’ as such that we need. That would just be the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The changes needed will have to be more radical than just tinkering with the liturgy, doctrines and statements of belief.
Many people today are looking for a new sense of freedom from ecclesiastical control, and from religious domination. Whatever is meant by the word God will have to be different from what is currently on offer. Your God is too Small was the title of a book written by J B Phillips in the 1950s, but as a statement it is true for all time.
The mystery of what God is will always be out of our limited reach: but that has not deterred religions from making exclusive and exaggerated claims on God’s behalf. This has led to long years of warfare and religious persecution, which have been (and still are) a blight on the development of wholesome ways of living together on our planet earth.
But there is hope! It is possible to detect stirrings of that required ‘reformation’. There are those who are wanting (and even hungry for) a change of direction: the change will be from ‘up there’ to ‘down here’. It will be from the sky Gods of primitive religion to the life-giving Spirit that pervades the whole of creation.
There will be a call to celebrate the diversity of life, and in doing so find the Unity which holds all things in one (and may be called God). We shall be urged to develop a greater sense of what is sacred: to look more determinedly for ways of living in peace and harmony with one another, and with the rest of creation.
There will have to be a paradigm shift from Religion which is divisive, to Spirituality which is inclusive. The challenge will go out for all people to realise their spiritual potential: to tune-in to that all-pervasive Spirit which holds the secret of who we are, and of what we have to do to become what we have it in us to be.
Article in Stretton Focus, July 2014 (Amended)
It’s a Cop-Out
You may well have used the word yourself, or had it used against you – as I have. The word has been around for over 100 years, but has only come into prominent use in recent times. It’s a cop-out.
The word is used as an accusation that someone is evading the truth, and using unworthy means of doing so. It refers to a situation that fails to meet standards of honesty and integrity. It’s an excuse for sloppy thinking!
Cop-out is a word that I would try to avoid using, because the very use of it could be a cop-out itself! It’s a kind of sledge-hammer word; lacking in delicacy and with overtones of arrogance. Nevertheless, the concept is real enough, and some situations deserve the condemnation.
The greatest cop-out of all time was back in 1633, when the Church evaded the truth of Galileo’s scientific discoveries by quoting Scripture. Galileo and others had overturned the Church’s belief that the sun went round the earth. But the Church claimed to know better on the evidence of the Bible, and common sense – because they could see the sun going across the sky every day and sinking in the west.
This cop-out by the Church had serious consequences for the life and health of Galileo – at the hands of the Inquisition, who had previously (in 1600) cruelly tortured Gordiano Bruno and then burned him at the stake for the same ‘heresy’.
Thankfully the days of the Inquisition are over, but in some religious thinking today God is still being used as a cop-out. As science discovers more truth about the Universe, so the Church must be ready to embrace new ways of understanding Creation and our place in it. God help us!
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, June 2014
Faith and Glory
Over the next four years we are going to face constant reminders of the First World War as centenary commemorations take place. No war is a great achievement in the history of mankind. The horror of the trenches interwoven with occasional mass slaughter is among the least glorious of all. We must remember that the churches played a part.
The churches encouraged young men to do their duty, to enlist and, by implication, to learn how to kill the enemy. It was a patriotic duty and the churches demonstrated their patriotism, whether they were in England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria or anywhere else. Ministers of religion went with the troops and provided support and succour to the men themselves; these were often individual acts of great courage.
Today we can ask whether by endorsing the war, did the churches do their patriotic duty at the expense of spiritual leadership. It is also fair to ask what else they could have done. Times were different. The benefit of hindsight influences our view and we might come to conclusions which would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago.
The answer lies with the cross. It is not an idle symbol, not a decoration on church walls or a casual subject for artists. It signifies life above and beyond death. The cross is a spiritual call which rejects violence, all violence, not just that of the crucifixion. It is also a symbol of justice and here man’s judgement comes into play. Rarely are there absolute rights and absolute wrongs. The cross reminds us of Pilate’s dilemma and decision. It is a reminder that man can too easily reject talking and turn to violence to resolve differences.
Church leaders were in tune with their times when they chose to support national politicians. Some rare individuals did stand out against endorsing violence and we should respectfully remember their refusal to colour their faith with patriotic fervour.
As we honour the sacrifice of so many young men who faced an appalling challenge, let’s also recall the challenge to faith. I for one hope that we never have to make the same kind of judgement ourselves.
Article in Stretton Focus, June 2014
Which God do YOU worship?
A few months ago, in a letter to Focus (December 2013) a correspondent enquired about which God I worshipped. It was a ‘loaded’ question, designed to show that I didn’t worship any God; or at least not the right one!
Certainly for me, the word ‘worship’ has connotations that I don’t accept. If worship involves fawning and flattery and excessive adulation, then count me out. The philosopher Wittgenstein said that regarding any God who desires (or worse still, demands) to be worshipped, he would regard it as his duty to defy that God (and I would agree!).
The big question is not so much about worship itself, as about the God who is being worshipped. Even the simple question ‘do you believe in God?’ is loaded with the massive assumption that we can know who or what God is. What we DO know is that ‘God’ is a word in the English language. It’s our word, and it’s up to us to say what it means.
It will mean different things to different people. Those who claim that God is some Divine Being (or even, person!) who created the world, and intervenes in it from time to time for ‘his’ own purposes, are no different in kind from people who think otherwise. They are not telling us something about someone called God. They are telling us about themselves, and how they interpret their own experiences.
They may claim to have been ‘born again’ through some life-changing drama; but that too is their own opinion, no matter how much it is wrapped in religious language. Lots of people have similar kinds of experiences without resource to any Gods. There is no escape from this position; we are all in the same boat. Whatever happens to us are our own experiences which we have to understand in whatever way we choose.
If the word ‘God’ is our way of projecting ‘out there’ all that is best in human nature, all that we hope for, and long for, in terms of compassion and love, justice and peace, that’s fine by me. I’m prepared to be inspired and drawn by such a concept. But during our time on Earth, we humans have projected a lot of violent, negative and other unworthy attributes on to our Gods. It’s time for some new thinking about who or what God is; and thankfully this is happening. There is a paradigm shift going on (a movement of the Spirit), and when outdated ideas have crumbled, it will be time for re-building.
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, May 2014
Be Cool – Truck Timber
Among the earliest religious activities that we know about are those concerning the weather and the seasons. Even today we hear prayers asking for weather which suits human activity, whether that is harvest, fertility, or good skiing. In the Bible the weather often takes a hand, notably the story of Noah and the flood. How that must have resonated with some people earlier this year.
Noah’s flood was initiated by God seeking to punish a society which was ignoring him. Noah needed plenty of time to build his ark – just acquiring and getting the timber transported must have been a major task. The residents of the Somerset Levels had no such preparation time. It can be argued that they were let down by society which promised them an ark but failed to deliver.
Fingers are also pointed at global warming, climate change driven by human activity. There are of course deniers, including some well-known politicians. The weight of scientific evidence points the other way but it sometimes looks as though eminence outweighs evidence. Noah did not have that problem.
We seem to be able to affect the weather through decades of collective action while at the same time we cannot affect it as individuals. Changing the way we heated and powered homes and factories in the 1950s and 1960s got rid of the smog in our cities so it is clear that individual interventions have value if they are part of a collective activity.
The idea that weather and faith have no relationship is generally accepted today. But it is worth asking if there is anything in our relationship with the weather which tells us something spiritual ? Ancient peoples used to think so and if there isn’t why do we still pray for kinder weather.
The spiritual part of this relationship is about humility. Cruel weather may be a reality but it is also a metaphor for many challenges our faith faces. We must find the spiritual strength to recognise and address the really big issues affecting life. We must approach our future with humility, that is the lesson from our faith; because with humility there lies the route to benefiting all human life. Like Noah we need to take the time to truck timber.
Article in Stretton Focus, May 2014
Love Life: Believe in Yourself: Hope in God
In my line of descent, we don’t have a coat of arms with a Latin inscription. But if we did I would like the translation of the Latin to be – Love Life: Believe in Yourself and Hope in God.
Life is the most amazing gift that Creation gives to everything that is alive. Humans have developed this gift to become self-consciously aware, and so to realise how precious it is. If you love life, you will want to fulfil its potential and enjoy its possibilities. You will therefore show concern for and treat with respect, everything which fosters that potential and creates those possibilities.
Loving life will present you with the challenge that Kipling expressed in a poem to his son, urging him to live life to the full and “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”
To do this effectively, you will need to believe in yourself. Nobody knows yourself like you do. Only you can find the motivation to do what needs to be done. Knowing yourself, who you are and how you relate to others, is the fundamental task that faces all people. But it’s a task that is fraught with all kinds of dangers!
There are expectations of other people; and the pressures of your culture and religion wanting you to conform. There are those hidden persuaders within, which have been called ‘the seven deadly sins’ (greed, lust, envy etc) and there is always the possibility of self-deception, which can get you into an awful mess. Life can get very complicated! The solution is to be in touch with some concept of a ‘better self ’. This will act as a guide, and serve as a magnet to draw out all that is best in you.
Hoping in God is another possibility which will direct you to the same end, and give you the inner resources to get there. Not the kind of God that religions claim to know a lot about, and usually describe in supernatural terms: I don’t mean a Divine Being who lives in some remote heaven or Valhalla or paradise or wherever it is.
The word ‘God’ is best understood as our word for some mysterious, infinite reality, which underlies, interconnects and empowers all things: and yet can be thought of as greater than the sum of the constituent parts: a Oneness holding all things together, and so holding you at the same time.
Article in Stretton Focus, April 2014
You could say (and I will!) that life is about ‘making connections’. Our life begins as a connection between egg and sperm in the womb: followed by a myriad of interconnections and link ups as the foetus develops. After birth the child begins to make connections with the outside word: making relationships and growing to understand those relationships: and in this way developing a sense of SELF (which is the most important possession we have).
There is always a tension between the self and its relationships. If this is a healthy and creative tension, the self will remain balanced and continue growing to full maturity. As life goes on there will be more and more opportunities for making connections. Things will just happen (that is, life will happen!) and the self will have to choose which connections are valuable, and how to incorporate them into the person you want to become.
One of the things that could ‘just happen’ is the idea that we live in ONE world: which is part of a UNI-verse, where all things are connected in what might be called a Cosmic Web. Such a thought is a concept beyond our full understanding, because we are part of what we are thinking about. Nevertheless, this is not a problem to be solved but rather a situation that can be accepted.
The best word for describing such an acceptance (which in effect would be a humbling of yourself before an unfathomable mystery) would be the word GOD. Making this connection with God, you could imagine your ‘self’ as part of a Greater Self: your own ‘being’ as one with Ultimate Being, which some religious thinker has called The Ground of All Being.
Making that connection you will feel desire (or even compulsion) to become your ‘best self’; to find what in effect is your ‘true self’. This would reflect the Biblical point of view that we are all ‘made in the image and likeness of God’ which the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has called ‘the single most powerful idea in Western civilisation’.
Life then becomes a matter of making those connections (physical, spiritual and psychological) that will advance the knowledge of your true self, and enable you to become the person you could be, and God wants you to be.
Article in Stretton Focus, March 2014
Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation
Just a minute! Let’s think again about those speech defects that Nicholas Parsons is so concerned to remove from the participants in his popular radio and TV programme.
The programme itself has been on since 1967, and is still going strong. The spontaneous wit of the likes of Clement Freud, Gyles Brandreth and Sue Perkins have been a delight to those who tune in each week. Nevertheless, we don’t live ʿon airʾ, and there is much to be said ʿin favour ofʾ Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation.
For example, a bit of hesitation would be a useful corrective for anyone who is over-confident, self-assertive or even aggressive in their views and opinions. A little hesitation before launching an attack would be a good thing. Put yourself in their shoes for a while and see how it feels.
On the other hand, if you do have a firm belief in some philosophy or way of life: if there is some truth that you consider worth communicating to others, you will inevitably find yourself repeating it, whenever you get half a chance and that’s OK. But keep an open mind and remember the ʿhesitation caveatʾ, and all should be well.
As for deviation – this is definitely to be recommended. We should be ready to ʿbranch offʾ from our own road, and have a look down someone else’s: they probably have an aspect of truth that needs to be embraced. All things are connected, if only we could see it: but at present we only ʿsee through a glass darklyʾ: so we should be open and ready to see a fuller and clearer picture as we look for the time when all those connections merge into one.
Article in Stretton Focus, February 2014
Readiness is all . . .
Some readers will recognise the title of my piece, as a quotation from Hamlet. The young prince is about to fight a duel, in which he could be killed. He faced the prospect of his own death with a cool philosophy, saying that death is inevitable; and if you don’t die today you are only putting it off to another time – readiness is all.
How ready are we to face the inevitable? We should be thinking first of those we leave behind; and making it as easy as we can for what they will have to do. Have you written your will? And what about the funeral arrangements? You may want to donate your body for medical research or make provision not to be kept ʿofficiously aliveʾ.
But what about the ʿother sideʾ of death? How can we be ready for that? It all depends on what your expectations are. Different religions have a variety of speculation on life after death: and that’s all it can be – speculation. You will have to judge for yourself the value of what’s on offer from the various religions.
Personally I’m not enthusiastic at the prospect of sitting through an everlasting Songs of Praise. John Milton thinks that “Attired with stars we shall forever sit / Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time”. Sitting seems to be a favourite posture, but I would like a bit more action myself. Rupert Brooke is more philosophical and envisions himself as being “a pulse in the eternal mind, no less”.
Perhaps it would be better to leave the unknown where it is, and just focus on being ready before you go. I would recommend being at peace with yourself, and with those around you (and therefore at peace with God) and trusting that all will be well: but also being ready for a few surprises!
From ‘Focus on Faith’, Stretton Focus, January 2014
With a newborn baby in the family my thoughts turned to the concept of original sin. It’s not a concept which I have ever readily accepted. Just looking at the beauty, helplessness and total innocence of a newborn child the idea that it requires forgiveness in order to function as christian is not something I can accept.
Original sin is deep rooted in the bible and has pervaded Christian theology from the earliest days. The fifth century heretic Pelagius challenged the idea but the church found powerful arguments against him. His belief that redemption was made accessible through actions in life was outlawed by the church.
Forgiveness is inextricably tied in with the exercise of power within the Medieval church. Baptism washed away original sin but it also placed the child within the control structures of the church. Thereafter confession was essential before receiving the Communion, the sacrament of redemption. Ritual words and active penance completed the act. Confession put an intimate knowledge of the workings of his community into the hands of the priest, effectively it required the individual to cede control over his life.
The idea of being able to take your place in heaven through the spirit’s power of redemption is much more an idea of the reformed Churches today. It is not solely about forgiveness nor about doing good deeds.
The Lord’s Prayer positions the idea of seeking forgiveness for doing wrong alongside our willingness to forgive others. It tells us to open ourselves to the spirit of forgiveness, to be able to grant and to receive. The promise that forgiveness is within the power of the spirit, and can be reached by all of us makes nonsense of original sin. If we extend the idea we need no longer rely on rituals and forms of words for forgiveness.
I find that a much more attractive approach to the workings of right and wrong in today’s society. I want to see our family’s children living a good and happy life, I don’t want them shackled to ancient dogma, I want to see them reach out through life to a deeper understanding of the spirit, which is relevant to them today and tomorrow.
Article in Stretton Focus, January 2014
“The unexamined life . . . .
. . . . . is not worth living”. So said Socrates one of the founders of western philosophy (469-399BCE). He lived up to his own teaching, and was ready to pay the price for delivering it. He was a gentle and humble man, but lived in turbulent times.
He was critical of the democratic rule of the city of Athens where he lived. He said that a ‘numbers majority’ does not guarantee the wisdom needed to create a just and virtuous society. The wisdom needed would be found only by ‘lovers of wisdom’, who by definition are the philosophers.
Socrates’ philosophy was based on questioning people about their hidden assumptions and their claims to certainty. He made people think a bit more deeply about what they said they believed, and the practices they followed.
He made no claims about having arrived himself at any ultimate destination. It was the necessity for free thought, and the pursuit of wisdom that was all-important. Of himself he said “I only know that I know nothing” – and so he was open to discovering truth from wherever it came; and following wherever it led. And on that basis he was judged to be the wisest man in Greece.
For Socrates, the big question was not knowing about the world we live in: but rather about knowing ourselves. In this respect his teaching was like that of Jesus of Nazareth, who came 400 years later. Both had serious questions to raise about the popular religion of the times: neither of them wrote anything down, and yet their influence has been widespread: and they were both put to death for the radical nature of their teaching.
Socrates urged people to examine their lives, and get to know themselves more honestly: Jesus told people to look for the presence of the kingdom of God that is within.