An Easter Exercise for isolated corona virus individuals

An Easter Exercise for isolated thinkers during the Corona Virus from the book:

John Dickson: If I Were God, I’d Make myself Clearer: Searching for Clarity in a World Full of Claims, p/b, Kingsford, Matthias Media, 2002

John Dickson is a prolific writer of Ancient History, Theology and Apologetics. This little book seeks to answer the title’s criticism of God’s unclear revelation, a discussion that comes up often in explorations of the many world religions. The book is typically Dickson: brief, to the point, clear and full of accessible ideas and suggestions for moving forward. The following quotes/notes summarise his argument. (I hope accurately):

  1. When it comes to faith there appears to be no clarity, just a cacophony of competing claims.(p9)
  2. A pluralist approach accepts all perspectives as valid.(p.9)
  3. A New Age approach is popular because it does not make onerous demands (p.10)
  4. Many people, religious or not, like to think about religion; they sense that there is more to life than the material …a sense which at times requires gratitude for example, or a deeper meaning to ours and the world’s very existence. (p12)
  5. Questions of ‘spirituality’ do not go away. They seem to have consistently occupied human minds throughout history and even today in Western atheistic societies. (p12)
  6. ‘Religion’ of course does not just cover the big five (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism) but the I-Ching, Confucius, Zoroastrianism, Wicca, Aboriginal spirituality, Satanism and quasi-spiritual activities like the opening of the Olympic Games. (p13)
  7. In spite of limited formal worship in the C21st significant numbers of folk in the West believe in “The Almighty” eg in Britain in 2000, 62% with 69% believing in the existence of a human ‘soul’. (p14)
  8. Discussion about atheism vs faith is very prominent in the C21st with much energy  being expended in books and discussions both ways. eg Philip Adams, Richard Dawkins et al (p14)

9.   The daughter of renowned C20th atheist Bertrand Russell wrote about her father in strikingly        spiritual terms: “I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God, or, for those who prefer less personal terms, for absolute certainty. (p.15).

10.    Bertrand Russell himself wrote to his daughter after visiting a Byzantine Church in Greece: I realised then that the Christian outlook had a firmer hold upon me than I had imagined …I r ealised with some astonishment that I myself am powerfully affected by this sense in my feelings though not in my beliefs. (p15)

11.  In C1st Athens, the Apostle Paul found an inscription on an altar “to an unknown God”. (p16)

12   Paul goes on to argue in Athens that God has in fact arranged the times and places of human societies with the express intention that they should search for their Source of Life and perhaps “feel their way toward him and find him”. (p.17)  

13.  Every single society about which anthropologists and historians know anything significant has made ‘spirituality’ a key component of their cultural life. Australian Aborigines, New Zealand Maories , native Americans, pre-Anglo Celts, nomadic Mongols, and modern Chardonay-yuppies… (p.18)

14:   ..the question of God is one of the few universally shared premises of humanity throughout time. (p.18)

15. But why do we in the Western world talk about these things so rarely. We think about them but we don’t talk about them. (p.18)

16.  In the West, Three out of four of us believe in the existence of God and the reality of the afterlife according to the most recent research, but you would never know it just listening to the media or work conversations. (p. 20)

17. I don’t know anyone who’s not interested in the idea of religion, whether they’re opposed to it or for it. (p.20)

18. In Australia, robbed of a broader meaning to our lives, we appear to have entered an era of mass obsession, usually with ourselves: our appearance, our health and fitness, our work, our sex lives , our children’s development, our personal development. (Source: Apocalypse No! Australia’s Commission for the Future) (p.21)

19. It’s as if we hope that the accumulation of numerous smaller ‘meanings’ will make up for the lack of a grand meaning…(p.22)

20. ‘Covetousness’ (the pursuit of material things) and ‘idolatry’ (the reverencing of material things)  are not so different after all, especially when they are a substitute for honouring the Creator of all things himself. (p.23)

21. We tend to agree there’s more to life than material possessions but settling for them all the same; admitting God’s existence in the world, but refusing his influence on our lives. (p.23)

22. The Apostle Paul brought his address to the Athenians to a close with this quote: The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all peop(le everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness. (p. 24)

23. Despite the sixth sense many of us have that there is probably a larger spiritual reality to be reckoned with, our society appears to prefer experiencing the smaller things of life with the other five senses. (p. 24)

24. How many times do we hear the message: “Life is about the job, the car, the house, the clothes, the investments, the retirement package, and so on.” (p. 25)

25. This question of pluralism is the question I want to confront in the rest of this book. (p26)

26. Some shonky Christian preachers preach a “Christian” “Gospel” of prosperity. That is  rubbish. (p.27)

27. Many people look for a spirituality without demands. (p.28)

28. Others think that religion is simply a matter of style or preference, a projection of our imagination and not a fact of the real world. (p.28)

29. Others suggest that the spiritual traditions of the world in the end point to one unified r reality. (p.29)

30. Australia’s many different cultures and faiths especially in large cities is very culturally enriching. (p. 30)

31. The benefit of a pluralist view is that it promotes tolerance rather than warfare. (p.30)

32. But pluralism’s fatal flaw is that while the various faiths agree in superficial things like they all say prayers, at the more basic level they tend to disagree with each other. (p.31)

33. Hinduism is polytheistic but Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh faith, insisting instead that there was just one deity, while Buddhism as taught by Siddhartha Gautama, negated theism altogether. (p.31)

34. The people of the Book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share many things in common but central to the Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died on a cross and rose from the dead. This is non-negotiable for Christians but rejected by both Judaism and Islam. (p32)

35. Australian journalists have written articles purporting to show that Jesus really is shared by both faiths (Islam and Christianity) ..but a Jesus who was not the Son of God and who did not die on a cross is quite simply not the Jesus of Christian devotion. (p.34)

36. The faith traditions of the world are in no sense one. Perhaps one or other is true, perhaps none is true, but it is simply not possible that all, or even a few, are true. (p.34)

37. it is sometimes argued that to believe that a particular religion is true (and therefore that others are untrue) is arrogant since, in doing so you are consigning error to a huge portion of the rest of the world…the argument is valid to a point—lets face it, some Christians are arrogant, but all opinions, by their very nature, consign others to error.  Ironically, though, the views most open to the charge of arrogance are not the ancient monolithic ones such as Islam or Christianity, but the more recent ones like atheism and pluralism. (p.35)

38. Let’s start with atheism, the belief that there is no God or spirituality in the universe. This conviction is held by a tiny minority of the world’s population: according to the latest figures, just 2.5% [Source: Encyclopedia Brittanica,]

39.  Pluralism…is likewise arrogant since it claims to know something about all the faiths that none of the individual faiths is able to achieve…that there is an overarching faith which they all share. (p.36)

40. I do not personally believe that strongly held views—even those that negate the views of others —are in themselves presumptuous or bigoted. They can certainly lead to arrogance, but they do not in themselves constitute an arrogant claim. (p.36)

41. There is a legitimate fear that religious conviction will lead to religious intolerance and, as a consequence, to discrimination and violence. History is full of examples…(p.37)

42. But is an acceptance of all religious truth-claims the best way to respond to such dangers?…a better way forward, I believe, is to promote true ‘tolerance’, that is, not just to accept the validity of another person’s point of view but the more admirable ability to treat with respect a person with whom I deeply disagree. (p.38) 

43. By contrast, our common insistence upon mere ‘agreement’ is intellectually suspect and culturally insensitive. (p.39)

44. In short, I am suggesting that our society’s keenness to affirm all religious viewpoints stems, in part, from an aversion to think too hard about any of them. (p.41)

45. ..the result of all this is rather sad. Whether by an aversion to religious intolerance or a tendency to take the easy option, this acceptance of all faiths has the potential to leave us with no faith at all. God, whoever he or she is, remains for us a mystery. (p42)

46. Would not the Almighty—if indeed he exists—have made things decidedly clearer? The Apostle Paul….answered with a resounding yes, which moves the discussion to the idea of verifiability. (p42)

47. In all religious claims, how can the truth or falsehood of one’s claim be tested? (p.44)

48. If the Creator of the universe were the least bit interested in our devotion, he or she would surely do something ‘concrete’ to grab our attention, something we could all assess for ourselves and from which we could draw our own conclusions. Surely, he would have made himself clearer! (p49)

49. Mormonism provides a an example of a verifiable claim which, in my opinion, can be found (with a high degree of confidence) to be unwarranted. (p.50)

50. The claims of Judaism regarding the exodus from Egypt, while they cannot be proven, has enough evidence of verifiable claims that, when scrutinised…arouse not suspicion but a degree of confidence. (p.53)

51. Whereas Buddhism and Sikhism originated as offshoots and rejections from Hinduism, and Islam was a counter- movement to Christianity and Baha’i to Shiite Islam, Christianity began with a collection of devout Jews. (p.54)

52. In no sense was the early movement surrounding Jesus a rejection of Judaism. It was proclaimed thorughout the Mediterranean as the very fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. (p54)

53. The later Jewish leadership eventually rejected Jesus as Messiah, demanding that the followers of Jesus be excommunicated from the synagogues and regarded as blasphemers (this was shortly before A.D. 100) (p54)

54. This rejection centred on Jesus failing to fulfil the hope of a military Messianic leader who would free the Jewish nation from its Roman overlords. (p.55)

55. The Christian claim that Jesus is God begins with Philip’s question Lord, Show us the Father and Jesus’ reply: Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (p.57)

56. The news of Christ—his life, death and resurrection —is not mythical narrative revealed in the head of a prophet and transcribed in books called Gospels. It was a phenomenon of time and space; it was an event of history. At its heart, Christianity concerns the public, verifiable life story of the man Jesus, the man who claimed personally to reveal God and of whom God has ‘given assurance’ to use Paul’s words , by raising him from the dead. (p.59)

57. Christianity is potentially vulnerable to critical enquiry precisely because its main claims are verifiable. (p.61)

58. The fact that Christianity is so potentially vulnerable to scholarship and yet is still believed by so many professional scholars is not without significance. The openness of Christianity to rigorous scrutiny is in my opinion, one of the most exciting things about it. I want a faith that can be tested. (p.62)

59. …my aim here is not to ‘prove’ the Christian claim at all. …Rather it is intended to demonstrate that of all the great religious claims in the world the Christian one is the most easily and widely testable. (p.63)

60. First the language of these documents is not some strange tongue which on one understands any more. It is called Koine Greek and it is a very simple and widely understood language. (p. 64)

61. Secondly, the age of the documentary evidence is impressive..the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospels are dated around 200 A.D. , only 120 years or so after they were written.  (p.64)

62. Thirdly the volume of copies we possess is overwhelming…for the Gospels alone historians have over 2000 manuscript copies with which to work. (p.65)

63. Fourthly the stability of the copying process is very clear. Comparing copies of the Gospels produced in 600 A.D. with those copied in 200 A.D. we are able to confirm the high accuracy of the copying process. (p.65)

64. The broad outline of Jesus’ life is confirmed by several passing references to him in non- Christian writings …three from Roman authors (Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny) and four from Jewish pens (twice each in Josephus and the Talmud). (p.65)

65. ..equally impressive is the fact that the original time of writing was very close to the events themselves. The first Gospel was probably written in the mid-60’s A.D., just 30 or so years after Jesus’ death. (p.66)

66. Most New Testament scholars discern behind the Gospels at least five different sources, each composed prior to the Gospels themselves…the picture which emerges is strikingly similar across the sources. (p.67)

67. The incidental historical accuracy of the Gospels is also important. Much of what the Gospels say in passing about eg architecture or politics can be quite often confirmed by modern archaeological and literary analysis eg the recent discovery of the Pontius Pilate inscription.

68. The claim of the resurrection itself must be admitted provisionally as evidence. (p.69)

69.  The veracity of the empty tomb is generally conceded. The body of Jesus was never produced to counter the claim.  (p.69)

70. The first witnesses to the resurrection were women. Highly unlikely to be made up given t that in this period a woman’s testimony was regarded as spurious and carried little legal weight. (p.70)

71. The few small divergences between the four gospels tell you the witnesses have not simply copied each other’s stories. (p.70)

72. ..the most compelling line of verification for the resurrection of Jesus is the transformation of Jesus’ followers…it is one thing to die for an ideology you simply believe to be true…but it is another thing tod die for a claim know to be a lie. (p.70)

73. If the historical evidence points decisively in the direction of Jesus’ resurrection, our belief in a the existence of a powerful Creator gets us philosophically ‘over the line’ or ‘into the back of the net’ as it were! (p.72)

74. The intention here is not to ‘prove’ the Christian faith…but to set our briefly a number of significant lines of verification open to anyone who wants to explore the truthfulness of Christianity.  (p.72)

BOOKS READ MARCH 2020 (only 2 books this month as I have been cataloguing my library; but also a wonderful poem!)

Ann Patchett: The Dutch House, p/b, London, Bloomsbury, 2019

American bookseller, journalist and influential author Ann Patchett’s eleventh novel has a House as its central character! The Dutch House is an ecclectic,  over-engineered and richly furnished mansion in a quiet and leafy residential area of downtown Pennsylvania. The story is told through the eyes of Danny Conroy and his much loved sister Maeve and charts their story from childhood onwards through many twists and turns but the connecting link throughout is the Dutch House which exerts its own spell over them.  The novel has an easy flow which draws the reader onwards through all the normal tensions of childhood, growing up, unexpected changes, education, work and relationships, curiously oblivious to any political or major external events which might have made inroads into the story. If the centre of the novel is not the house it could be the inner psychological development and maturing of the mind of Danny Conroy. The novel is engaging to a degree, without in my view, ever reaching great heights.

Ann Patchett, author of the The Dutch House

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had 

the treasure in it.  I realise now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas

C S Lewis: The Weight of Glory: A Collection of Lewis’s Most Moving Addresses,p/b, London, William Collins, 2013 (1949)

 p.30f:   A very famous passage from Lewis about heaven (glory) from the first essay: The Weight of Glory.

…a desire [for our own far off perfect country and place; something I used to dream about when I was a child]  for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…out commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past.  But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it;  what he remembered would would turn out to be itself remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things —the beauty, the memory of our own past— are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself ; they are only the scent of a flower  we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am: but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used fo break enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantments as well as for inducing them.

I have always found this passage deeply moving.  There is exceptional beauty on planet music, in drama, in writing, in nature, in persons, in architecture, in painting, in tapestry, in poetry, in nobility, in courage, in children, in love, and much else besides. Nevertheless such beauty is fragile, fleeting and leaves us at times desperate to reclaim it. Lewis helps us here to understand both heaven and the love of God.

Some Thought starters from the essay The Weight of Glory:

1. p.32;  … no social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.  Have we come to grips with the inevitability of our own death? (Is corona virus also helping us to do this?)

2.  p33: Scripture is  symbolical when it speaks of the hereafter. The difference is that the scriptural imagery has authority. Do we accept the authority of Scripture?

3.  p34:  The Five promises of Scripture:  (i) That we shall be with Christ

(ii) That we shall be like him.

(iii) That we shall all have “glory”.

(iv) That we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained

(v)  That we shall have some sort of official position in the universe.

What do we think of Lewis’s understanding of the Biblical view of “how heaven works”? How does this relate to the more current understanding of Heaven as the renewed kingdom of God on earth. 

4. p.36:   Traditional Biblical imagery of salvation such as palms, crowns, white robes, thrones and splendour, does not impress Lewis and most “moderns”; he places more store in God’s people endeavouring to be “good and faithful servants”, a “creature before its creator”. What do we think about this and the danger of the “deadly poison of self-admiration”? (p.37)

5.  p.38   Lewis plays down the importance of “how we think of God” …”how God thinks of us in not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it isrelated to how he thinks of us.”  What do we think of how we should think??

6.  p.41  …in this universe we are treated as strangers, but we have a longing to be acknowledged.  Is this how you feel?

7. p.41  St Paul promises to those who love God not, as we should expect, that they will know Him, but that they will be known by Him (1 Cor. 8:3) It is a strange promise …but he follows up with the dreadful warning of Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats: Depart from me, I never knew you! Can we cope with the notion of being erased from the knowledge of him who knows all”?

There are eight other essays in this 2013 William Collins edition, at least one of which is not printed elsewhere. The essays vary from complex philosophical and logical arguments to quite small sermons including his very last sermon preached in Cambridge. Here is simply note some ideas that jumped out at me in this challenging collection of essays.

From “Learning in Wartime”  (1939)

p.51  If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.

p.51  If you attempt to suspend your aesthetic and cultural life you will only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life. If you don’t read good books you will read bad ones.

p.51 The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul. 

p52  A man may have to die for his country but no man must, in any exclusive sense live for his country. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars etc…God’s claims are inexorable and infinite.

p.54  Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God: anything not offered to God is sinful.

p.55  Cultural activities are not in their own right spiritual and meritorious…poets and scholars are no more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks.

p. 56 Our appetite for beauty and truth exists in the human mind and God makes no appetite in vain. and therefore it must have a purpose cf. Aquinas’ theological argument that sex is good and would have existed apart from the fall. 

p.57  Loving knowledge for its own sake is not a good thing.

p.58 We need an intellectual defence against the heathen; bad philosophy needs to be answered.

p. 58 We need an intimate knowledge of the past to understand the present. and to deal with the great cataract fo nonsense that flows from the press and the microphone of one’s own age.

` p.61   Leave the future in God’s hands. We may as well for God will certainly retain it whether we like it or not.

From “Why I am not a pacifist”  (1940)

p.64 Conscience is not a separate faculty like one of the sense, but the conscience can be altered by argument.

p.65  There are two forms of conscience: (i) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (ii) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are. 

“Transposition” (1944)An interesting Pentecost sermon preached at Oxford about heaven. Lewis himself seemed not to be completely happy with this and in 1961 added a substantial argument at p. 107 printed  in this addition. Because he is so intent on examining “the beatific vision” which I certainly agree is very important, he does not address the notion of a renewed kingdom of God on earth which I believe is central to understanding life after death, and thus this essay held less interest for me.

“Is Theology Poetry?”  (1944)  I loved this essay but the lecture, given to the Oxford Socratic Club,  is so complex and involved and requires following up so many hares running through so many burroughs in both theology and literature that it is impossible to summarise or pick out “zingers”. Suffice to say that theology has some poetic components and nature but in totality it is much, much more! This is an essay to savour and prove over a year or two of thought.

 “The Inner Ring”  (1944) was the annual commemoration lecture delivered at Kings College and was a healthy reminder to the students that being “in” was a superficial and dangerous activity and goal, bound to end in distress and much better ignored. Salutary and helpful.

“Membership” (1945)  is an excellent lecture analysing  he dangers of attempting to be a “solitary” Christian. The Church, for all its tensions and shortcomings, is an essential component of Christian experience.

“On Forgiveness” (1947) is a short sermon reminding us that most often when we make confession to God in prayer we are often  actually making excuses for ourselves and letting ourselves off the hook very lightly. A plea for honesty in our walk with God.

“A Slip of the Tongue” (1956) was Lewis’s last sermon, preached at Evensong in the Chapel of Magdalen College in Cambridge. It is a beautiful little sermon reminding us of that voice we have all heard in our private prayers which says: …to be careful, to keep my head, not to go too far, not to burn my boats.  I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerable inconvenient when I have come out again into my “ordinary” life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret…which will run up to big a bill to pay…for I know I shall be feeling quite different after breakfast! This sermon reminds me of the words of a former Archbishop of Melbourne who once admitted to a bunch of us meeting somewhere that sometimes in the morning he prays: “Lord please don’t let anything happen today!”.  Lewis’s final sermon closes with We may never, this side of death, drive the invader out of our territory, but we must be in the Resistance, not in the Vichy Government. And this, so far as I can yet see, must be begun every day. Our morning prayer should be something like..grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet.