Saturday, 30 April 2011

More goodbyes

Easter is a time that holds great significance for us as a family. Primarily, Easter is at the centre of our faith as Christians as we rejoice in all that God has done for us through the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, Easter also marks some important milestones in our family life. At Easter ten years ago I celebrated my last service at Becontree West in Barking and Dagenham, and it was an occasion made more memorable by the baptism of our son. This Easter Sunday I celebrated and preached at our last service in Great Leighs.

The whole weekend was very special. On Good Friday we met up with my wider family to celebrate Dad’s eightieth birthday in Suffolk and then later with Kate’s sister and brother-in-law who spent the rest of the weekend with us. On Saturday evening the parish held a farewell party for us and finally the Easter Sunday service. We were touched by all the kind words and generous gifts which will be treasured mementos of our time in the Leighs. Although we are saying goodbye to some very dear friends, we are only moving a few miles down the A12 and so will see them often.

Now we are looking forward in Easter hope to what lies before us in Great Baddow. At the moment it is difficult to see beyond the packing boxes and all the hassle of moving, but we already feel very welcomed and encouraged by the warmth of the messages we have received and by the prayers of people in our new community.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Oh death, Up yours!

It’s a bit hectic in the Ritchie household as we prepare for our move to a new parish next week so not much blogging going on. I have been trying to snatch the odd moment to do some reading around the themes of Easter including Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Tom Wright’s Justification and Paula Gooder’s This Risen Existence. Lots of good, thought provoking material to mull over while slapping the paint on a bedroom wall.

However, my favourite quote over the Easter period has come from Revd Richard Coles. On hearing news of the death of the great Poly Styrene former singer with X-Ray Spex, Richard sent the following tweet:
Have just heard of the death of Poly Styrene - may flights of angels hymn her to her rest. RIP, and , in Easter Hope, Oh Death , Up YOURS!
I was wondering whether we could use this in some Easter liturgy. How about:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Oh death, Up yours!

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Resurrection: Borgo San Sepolcro

Today it is time. Warm enough, finally
to ease the lids apart, the wax lips of a breaking bud
defeated by the steady push, hour after hour,
opening to show wet and dark, a tongue exploring,
an eye shrinking against the dawn. Light
like a fishing line draws its catch straight up,
then slackens for a second. The flat foot drops,
the shoulder sags. Here is the world again, well-known,
the dawn greeted in snoring dreams of a familiar
winter everyone preferes. So the black eyes
fixed half-open, start to search, ravenous,
imperative, they look for pits, for hollows where,
their food can be decanted, look
for rooms ready for commandeering, ready
to be defeated by the push, the green implacable
rising. So he pauses, gathering the strength
in his flat foot, as the perspective buckles under him,
and the dreamers lean dangerously inwards. Contained,
exhausted, hungry, death running off his limbs like
from a shower, gathering himself. We wait,
paralysed as if in dreams, for his spring.

Rowan Williams: Headwaters. Perpetua, 2008. Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection hangs in the civic hall of Borgo San Sepolcro, Tuscany.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Bible, beer and the shoeshine shuffle

Great report in the Essex Chronicle on Bishop Stephen Cottrell visiting the Oddfellows’ Arms as part of Beer and Bible. Holy Week is a busy time for the bishop but he made space to visit several pubs to show his support for the public reading of the Bible. On Thursday, after celebrating and preaching at the Chrism Service in Chelmsford Cathedral, +Stephen was to be found in Chelmsford High Street outside The Saracen’s Head shinning peoples’ shoes.

Bishop Stephen’s Easter message is also well worth a read.
What does this (the resurrection of Jesus)mean for us, his followers today? Well, it means that we must look for Jesus not just where he has been, and not just in what is familiar, but beyond ourselves, and beyond our present understandings. He is going before us, and we will now find him in ways that challenge and disturb. And in all this we must be his witnesses.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Story before doctrine

Enjoyed attending the Blessing of Oils and Renewal of Ordination Vows service at Chelmsford Cathedral today. Over 200 clergy gathered for the service led by +Stephen Cottrell who preached on God’s call to Samuel and the woman washing Jesus’ feet. Some chrism 1 provocative and challenging insights but the comment that particularly stuck in my mind was +Stephen’s reminder that Christianity was story before it was doctrine. He went on to challenge us to allow ourselves to be drawn into the stories of the Gospel and to recapture the art of story telling in sharing the Gospel with others.

After the service we processed out and gathered around the cathedral green for a final blessing. As it was lunchtime a group of people were sitting on the grass enjoying their food and they suddenly found themselves surrounded by a circle of clergy, readers and bishops. Is this the first recorded experience of clerical kettling?

chrism 2
One minor whinge. Why is it that there seems to be a moratorium on hymns written by anyone who is still alive at these services? We sang a hymn written by a 13th century pope but the nearest to anything contemporary was something penned at least thirty years ago. I had hoped that a diocesan service would reflect something of the breadth of hymnody and song being used in worship across the diocese and it is no surprise that some colleagues give it a miss. It wasn’t as bad as some of the ordination services I’ve attended in the last few years but was still a bit of a culture shock after Spring Harvest.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Time to go

Today was my last day in the Diocesan Office as I prepare to take up my new role back in parish ministry. I haven’t been very successful at clearing up my desk so will have to return to pack books and other odds and ends after Easter. Highlight of the day waOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         s a leaving lunch in the Cathedral Chapter house where I was joined by nearly a hundred friends and colleagues from around the diocese who I’ve been privileged to work with over the last ten years. It was great to catch up with people and to say thank you for their encouragement and support for lay education and training. I’m particularly grateful to my administrator Liz Watson who worked so hard to put the lunch together and to Canon Dr Roger Matthews and Bishop Stephen Cottrell who spoke at the lunch.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Along with the very enjoyable food and drink were some great surprises in the form of gifts for both the family and me and a card with many lovely messages. The gifts included a bottle of champagne (for Easter), a copy of Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography with a message from the great man and a cheque for an iPad 2!

So a moving day in many ways. I thank God for the partnership in the Gospel with so many across the diocese and look forward to it continuing in new ways in the future.

leaving 4

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not giving a fig: #EasterLIVE

I’ve been enjoying following and taking part in EasterLIVE, a Twitter stream telling the story of Easter through the eyes of different characters. My main character is a pub landlord called Benny who has hired out his upper room to a group of Galileans for a party on Thursday night. However, I became rather side tracked yesterday and found myself reflecting on the experience of a fig tree.

On Monday of Holy Week Jesus and the disciples head from Bethany towards Jerusalem and the Temple. This is what happens according to Mark 11:
12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree,“May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
The story continues the next morning as Jesus and the disciples again return to Jerusalem:
20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
In order to understand the story we need to recognise the literary structure that Mark frequently uses in his gospel. Mark often pairs incidents together so that they interpret each other in what can be called a framing technique. The narrative begins with Incident A, Incident B then takes place and finally Incident A continues and concludes. In Mark 11 the fig tree is Incident A and what takes place in between the beginning and conclusion of the story is Incident B Jesus prophetic action in the Temple (Mark 11:15-19). The fig tree therefore symbolises Jerusalem and the Temple and Jesus’s words and actions are a prophetic judgement on them.

But I can’t help wondering how the fig tree owner would have felt when he discovered the fate of his property.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Table of Hope

At morning prayer today we spent a few moments reflecting on a painting of the Last Supper. HAPAG NG PAG-ASA (Table of Hope) was painted by Joey Velasco and depicts a group of street children in the Philippines in place of the disciples gathered around Jesus.

table of hope

The artist explained that the original intention behind the painting was to remind his family to be grateful for the food they have. Having finished the painting Velasco went back to find out more about the lives of each of his subjects and the painting took on fresh meaning with each story. The girl on the far left clutching the bag, for example, lives in a graveyard.

In this haunting video Sa Kambas ng Lipunan (On the Canvas of Society) Velasco talks about the painting and the stories of the children behind it. It’s quite long but well worth watching if you have the time.

Joey Velasco died in July 2010 of kidney failure.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

On Route 66 #SH2011

This year we forsook Minehead to visit Skegness for Spring Harvest 2011. It was a good call as the weather was dry and warm with a healthy dose of sunshine. Last time I went to Skeggie for SH it snowed. I mentioned in a previous blog the theme of this year’s celebration was Route 66 and focused on the Bible. As in previous years I haven’t planned a full review but offer some reflections on the experience.

Bible Reading: SH returned to its more established style of exposition for the morning Bible readings. I had been concerned that over the last couple of years these sessions had drifted away from engagement with the text and become little more than a springboard Dave Steell for the speaker’s observations and experiences. However, the series of readings based on the book of Malachi had a healthy balance of exposition and application and were ably led by Dave Steell.  During the four mornings we explored a variety of themes including worship, justice, complaint against God, money, sex and power. The teaching was accessible without being superficial. As I’ve mentioned before I tend to take phrases away to chew over and some thought provoking comments included:
Justice isn’t just about Mugabe or Libya. Justice is about when we go to buy a T-shirt for £1 and don’t ask how that’s possible.
Richard Dawkins’s ignorance about God is born out of the witness of Christians.
If we can’t honour our highest human covenant relationships, how can we expect to honour the rest.
The problem with tithing is that it often stops us thinking about our giving.
The mistake we sometimes make is to complain about God when we should be complaining to God.
Worship: One of the themes running through the Bible readings concerned our understanding of worship. I think there is a problem with the way that worship is often presented as being about the singing. Singing and music are an important and valued part of worship but worship is to be the offering of the whole of our lives to God. So when the person leading the singing is referred to as the Worship Leader it reinforces this partial understanding. I would prefer it if the person was referred to as the Music Director as that is a more accurate description of the role. To be fair this isn’t only Spring Harvest’s problem but an issue for the wider church.

This year the music was led by Ben Cantelon and he did a good job, drawing on a variety of material appropriate for the context of the celebrations. It helped that Ben didn’t have an album to promote and so it didn’t feel as if we were being force fed his own material. I did fear for my life at one stage when we sang a song inviting us to dance and jump; not a good move for those of us on the risers at the sides of the Big Top and I was not surprised when we were asked to stop jumping by a message on the stage screen (not that my pals paid any attention to that instruction).

Dave Steell gave a helpful example of the problem of defining the secular and the sacred when thinking about worship. Dave’s father had a huge record collection and the records were carefully categorised and labelled. One of the key categories was to distinguish between the secular and the sacred. What Dave noticed was that from time to time various artists were transferred by his dad from one category to another. So one week Johnny Cash was classified in the sacred, at another time he would be moved to the secular and then a few weeks later Cash was back in the sacred. As Christians we are called to see everything as sacred, belonging to God and honouring to him. That is a challenge to offer every aspect of our lives to God and it also challenges us to have a much broader view of what can be seen as reflecting the glory of God.
Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Malachi 2:10
There was plenty of space to enjoy time with family and friends, including the annual go-kart race and a daily splash with the kids. I gave the teaching zones a miss to do my own reading and thinking. Enjoyed watching lots of football, not least Man Utd’s win over Chelski and an evening vigil with the Bishop of Willesden as he watched his beloved Spurs go down to Real Madrid in the Champions League. A bonus was the free wi-fi courtesy of Costa coffee.

Bibles Lowlight of this year was the book stall at the resources exhibition. I realise that SH’s usual supplier has gone out of business but this year’s offering was not very inspiring and there were a couple of tables dedicated to different ‘versions’ of the Bible that chilled the blood. Prize for the worst offering was shared between the Precious Moments Bible and the Princess Bible. This fetish for creating different versions of the Bible has got to stop. If the Bible is for everyone then why do we have to manufacture these different versions to appeal to different groups? My suggestion to Bible publishers is that they waste less time creating these atrocities and devote more energy to making the Bible available to different communities throughout the world who don’t yet have the privilege of the Bible in their own language.

Two final challenging comments about the Bible that have stuck in my mind, both from Krish Kandiah:
The Bible should be a kiss of life but it is often heard as a text of terror.
You may be the only Bible some people get to read.
Thanks to the Spring Harvest team for all their hard work in preparing this year’s programme and theme. Next year’s theme is Church Actually: God’s Brilliant Idea.

For reflections on the second week of Spring Harvest at Skegness check out The Beaker Folk.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Dedicated to decline

I am not sure why I still find myself scanning the job adverts in the church press each Friday, despite the fact that I am about to take up a new appointment. I suspect it is in part force of habit, however, I do find it interesting to see what posts are being advertised and how the adverts are worded. One thing that does stand out is the little strap lines that different dioceses use to describe themselves in their advertisements. The Diocese of Wakefield was for a long time ‘The Missionary Diocese of Wakefield’, though I note the word ‘transformation’ seems to have replaced mission on their website header. At the moment it is the Diocese of Lichfield that draws the eye with it’s ‘Going for Growth’ statement.

I can’t help feeling that some of these diocesan mission statements are hostages to the future. What happens when Lichfield drops the ‘Going for Growth’ header? Are we to assume they have reached their growth target or given up trying? I had rather naively assumed that all dioceses were committed to growth. A good test of the value of a mission statement is to consider whether it is really just a statement of the obvious and to imagine what the alternatives might be. Put it another way, would any diocese declare that they were ‘Moving into Maintenance’ or ‘Dedicated to Decline’?

Friday, 8 April 2011

Rooney – the managers speak

Reflections from some of Europe’s top managers on the Wayne Rooney ban for swearing.

With apologies to a certain Archdruid who can't cope with watching videos.

A city united

Manchester may be a city with two football teams vying for power at the top of the Premier League but we supporters seem to share something in common, a problem with spelling.

banner 1

Above a banner displayed as Manchester United played Chel$ki in the Champions League. Below a rather less sophisticated offering from a Manchester City fan during an F.A. Cup match.

banner 2

I post this as a Manchester United fan.

h/t Off The Post.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Arrogance and ignorance

Martin Rees, theoretical astrophysicist and Master of Trinity College Cambridge, has been awarded this year’s Templeton Prize. The award has caused something of a stir in certain sections of the scientific community because the Templeton Prize describes itself in these terms:
rees_The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit”—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.
In other words, in the eyes of some, the prize is tainted by faith and religion. Martin Rees is clear that he holds no religious beliefs and yet he has been happy to accept the prize and is quoted in The Independent as saying:
‘I would see no reason to be concerned because they (Templeton Prize) support a variety of interesting and worthwhile research projects in Cambridge University and many other places,". "The fact they have given this award to me, someone who has no religious beliefs at all, shows they are not too narrow in their sympathies. I feel very surprised because I really thought that I didn't have the credentials, but obviously I'm extremely pleased because I'm joining a roll call of distinguished previous winners, including six members of the Royal Society."
Others do not share Rees’s view and the usual suspects have lined up to express their dismay at his willingness to receive the award. Richard Dawkins declared:
‘That will look great on Templeton's CV. Not so good on Martin's’.
Others have been even more scathing. Harry Kroto, a British Nobel laureate at Florida State University in Tallahassee, is quoted as saying:
‘There's a distinct feeling in the research community that Templeton just gives the award to the most senior scientists they can find who's willing to say something nice about religion.’
Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, said the Templeton Foundation is "sneakier than the creationists" by introducing the idea of faith into a discipline where faith is anathema.
‘Religion is based on dogma and belief, whereas science is based on doubt and questioning. In religion, faith is a virtue. In science, faith is a vice.’
I never cease to be amazed at the arrogance and ignorance displayed by some supposedly intelligent people. Coyne is clearly ignorant if he thinks that doubt and questioning do not play a part in religion. Does he know anything about Theology? If I dismissed the work of these men and the disciplines they study with the same banal generalities that they bandy around about faith and religion I would rightly be criticised or probably ignored.

There is something else I’ve noticed about these men, I say men because the people quoted are usually men; they seem to have a very narrow view of who makes up the scientific community. For them there is no place for the scientist who has a religious faith and so they dismiss a great tradition of scientists who were not only people of faith but inspired in their scientific endeavours by their faith. Even more damning is their dismissal of contemporaries around the world who are scientists and hold religious beliefs.

Maggi Dawn has mentioned a meeting with Martin Rees on her blog and it is well worth a look. There was one thing that made me uneasy and reinforced my concern about the blinkered views expressed by some scientists. Maggi quotes from an interview given by Rees in The Guardian today where he says this:
IS: Do you see an importance in trying to diffuse some of the conflict that sometimes gets stoked up between science and religion?
MR: I think they can co-exist. They are very different activities. Obviously one opposes Creationism and such-like, but it’s fairly clear that there are some scientists for whom religion is important and most of us for whom it isn’t, but again I think they can be co-existent.
‘Most of us for whom it isn’t’. Who is the most of us? The world wide scientific community? Is Rees saying that when one looks around the world the large majority of scientists do not regard religion as being important? I would like to see the evidence for this, but I suspect that Rees falls into the all too common trap of generalising from his own particular experience. I would be interested to know what the proportion of scientists with religious convictions is in, for example, Asia or the Middle East.

It is predictable and depressing to see the bitchiness of some of the comments that have greeted the news of Rees’s award. I have no problem with people who do not believe in God expressing their views. When the views expressed are founded on arrogance and ignorance then they deserve to be challenged as robustly as they would challenge the views of those who believe in God.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Route 66 #SH2011

Apart from being the title of one of the first songs I learnt on the guitar as a teenager, Route 66 is the title of Spring Harvest 2011. We’ve been going as a family for quite a few years and there is much I enjoy about the event. It’s a good family break, always a joy to spend time with friends and there is an excellent programme for the kids. There is usually something on the teaching side of the programme that I find refreshing and challenging, and plenty of time for good conversation.

Of late there have been a few SH developments I have not been so keen on: the worship has become more focused around the performance of the worship leader/band; the Bible readings have drifted from exposition to talk, becoming more like the evening celebration addresses, and there is still too much of the old pals act between the leadership team up front. I blogged about some of these concerns last year on a post titled Feast or Famine.

This year the Spring Harvest focus is firmly back on the Bible, hence the Route 66 title, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the team encourage us to engage with scripture. Gerard Kelly has been heavily involved in developing the material and his Bible Readings a few years ago, taking a multi-arts approach to help explore the text, were excellent. What I am not looking forward to is the Skegness climate as the last time we forsook Minehead for the East Coast it snowed.

I shall attempt to blog during the event and the Twitter hashtag is #SH2011 for those who want to follow. No news about a Tweetup yet but where two or three Twitterati gather…

Here’s Gerard Kelly explaining the idea behind Route 66.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Good Book

You have to hand it to the philosopher A.C. Grayling, if you are going to make a statement about your work then you might as well aim high. Grayling has produced The Good Book which is described as A Secular Bible. Here is what the blurb about The Good Book says on Amazon:
good bookDrawing on the wisdom of 2,500 years of contemplative non-religious writing on all that it means to be human - from the origins of the universe to small matters of courtesy and kindness in everyday life - A.C. Grayling, Britain's most popular and widely read philosopher, has created a secular bible. Designed to be read as narrative and also to be dipped into for inspiration, encouragement and consolation, "The Good Book" offers a thoughtful, non-religious alternative to the many people who do not follow one of the world's great religions.
Instead, going back to traditions older than Christianity, and far richer and more various, including the non-theistic philosophical and literary schools of the great civilisations of both West and East, from the Greek philosophy of classical antiquity and its contemporaneous Confucian, Mencian and Mohist schools in China, down through classical Rome, the flourishing of Indian and Arab worlds, the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, the worldwide scientific discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present, Grayling collects, edits, rearranges and organises the collective secular wisdom of the world in one highly readable volume. Contents of this title  include: "Genesis"; "Proverbs"; "Histories"; "Songs"; "Wisdom Acts"; "The Lawgiver Lamentations"; "Concord Consolations"; "Sages"; and, "The Good Parables".
ACGraylingThis morning Grayling and Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, discussed the book on Radio 4’s Today programme and it made for an interesting debate. Grayling describes his work as declaring: ‘There are as many good lives as people who have the talent to live them.’  Grayling sees the Bible as being about a deity handing down commands about how to live a good life and he argues there are many other sources and traditions to inspire the moral life. Fraser rightly agreed with Grayling that you don’t need to be religious to be moral, but he then went on to say of the Bible ‘It’s not about being good… it’s about being saved.’ In other words the problem of the human condition, which the Bible addresses, is much deeper than our ability to follow sets of rules. Earlier Fraser had explained that it is the full blooded account of human life, set in the deep complexity of the world, which attracts him to the Bible, and this aspect has been stripped out in Grayling’s work. Fraser contrasts the Bible with what he describes as the tame stoicism and easy going morality of The Good Book.

The Good Book looks like an interesting synthesis of some of the great works of moral philosophy but does it offer an answer for Everyman? I suspect it may be fine for the Oxford don relaxing in his bath while reading Aristotle, however, I prefer a book which is more than a moral self-improvement manual. My problem is not knowing what is right. My problem is doing what is right and in that the Bible seems a bit more realistic, even if it can be dismissed as ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Shelley was wrong: a response to Andrew Copson.

Andrew Copson the chief executive of the British Humanist Association has written a piece in The Guardian in praise of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Copson draws attention to Shelley’s argument for the non-existence of God put forward in The Necessity of Atheism. The conclusion of Copson’s article I wholeheartedly agree with, as he calls for his readers to challenge the persecution of people in different parts of the world for thinking and speaking freely. Copson has in mind the non-religious but the argument applies to all, religious and non-religious alike.

In support of his case, Copson cites the case of a young man in Saudi Arabia facing persecution.
One of the most upsetting stories I was ever told was by a young humanist from Saudi Arabia who grew up so frightened of what would happen if he spoke out loud about his beliefs to another person that the only outlet for his thoughts was to go on long walks away from all people, and speak his mind only to the air. In fact, he never spoke to another human being about his most fundamental beliefs until coming to Britain in his late 20s, and experiencing then for the first time what those of us who live in freedom take for granted: the joyful dynamic of testing and developing our own ideas in conversation and dialogue with others.
It is a terrible story and I am pleased to hear the young man now enjoys the freedom to express his beliefs. I use the word ‘beliefs’ because that is the word Copson uses twice in recounting the story and the second time he refers to ‘fundamental beliefs’. Is Copson now accepting what many of us have been arguing for a long time, that Humanism and Atheism are belief systems? And if Humanism and Atheism are beliefs then why should they be considered any more rational than religious beliefs?

This brings me to the problem with Shelley’s argument or at least with Copson’s brief summary of his argument about the non-existence of God. Here is how Copson describes Shelley’s thesis:
The argument itself is simple. If you have seen or heard God, then you must believe in God. If you haven't, then the only possible reasons to believe in God are reasonable argument or the testimony of others. The main argument given for believing in a deity – that the universe must have had a first cause – is not persuasive because there is no reason to believe either that the universe must have had a first cause or that this cause, if it existed, was a deity. The testimony of others – a third-rate source of knowledge in any case – is invariably contrary to reason. This is not least because it reports God as commanding belief, which would be irrational of God, given that belief is involuntary and not an act of will. So there is no reason to believe in God.
The first part of the argument is to dismiss the necessity of belief in God as the first cause of the Universe. Given that everything else we observe in our universe seems to have a cause why should the Universe be any different? I would suggest it is as much a matter of belief to say the Universe has no first cause or creator as to argue that it does, given that we have no other examples of anything not having a cause. I am no cosmologist but my reading of the latest debates about the origins of the Universe suggest that at best the jury is out on this one.

However, my faith is not primarily based on belief in a first cause / creator God. This brings me to the second part of Shelley’s argument, the testimony of others, which is described as a third-rate source of knowledge contrary to reason. Testimony may be a third-rate source of knowledge but most of us live our lives depending on it otherwise we might never try anything new. Or is he only saving this judgement for testimony regarding belief in God.

Is it irrational to take the testimony of others to find out if something is true and finding it is true to believe in it? It strikes me we do this all the time in our lives. Was Shelley and is Copson seriously suggesting that it is irrational to believe anything on the basis of testimony, for that would seriously undermine most scientific endeavour which builds on the testimony of others. I fly in aeroplanes not because I know how they fly but because I have trusted the testimony of others  who have flown and then discovered it to be true for myself. Scientists would be required to keep repeating the same experiments if they didn’t trust the testimony of others. 

Or is Shelley arguing that it is only testimony about belief in God that is third-rate and irrational? I presume he is as it would be irrational to dismiss all testimony as third-rate and irrational. How does Shelley’s claim stand up?

The claim is that testimony to belief in God is irrational because God demands belief and such belief would not really be belief because it would be involuntary, forced on us, and not a decision of our free will. It would therefore be irrational of God to demand we believe in him. Testimony to such a demand of God would also be irrational. Now this might be true if that is what testimony about God is like but is it? It certainly doesn’t sound like the God I was invited to consider believing in by the witness of others. The God I was invited to consider was the God of Jesus Christ who called me to join with him in the great adventure of the Kingdom of God. No one demanded that I believe, no one forced me to believe, no one asked me to abandon my reason or free will in deciding to become a follower of Christ.

I came to faith as the result of the testimony or witness of my parents and other Christians I knew. I was brought up to believe but there came a point when I had to decide whether this belief was actually true or simply something I was conditioned to believe by my upbringing. The point about testimony is that it points to something else and we only discover if that testimony is true when we begin to live as if what that testimony points to is true. This is how I define faith; living as if what I say I believe in is true. Having committed myself to living in this way I find it to be true. I can’t convince or compel others to believe, all I can do is invite them to try it for themselves.

If Shelley’s caricature about Christian witness and the God of that witness were true then he would be right and belief in such a God would be irrational. However, this is not the God I believe in and it is not the testimony of the vast majority of the Christians I know.

In his article Copson asks that we stop caricaturing humanists and atheists and he is right to make that plea. As Copson says:
The works of Shelley join the novels, poems, songs, sculptures, paintings, architecture and plays of generations of godless artists in exposing the straw man of the desiccated rationalist for what it is, and showcasing a humanist vision of life.
I’d be grateful if Copson would return the courtesy and stop caricaturing the God that I believe in and the testimony of others to that God in order to dismiss my faith as irrational.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Beer glass Jesus

Confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that the Lord is blessing Beer and Bible, a Chelmsford Diocese initiative to promote the public reading of scripture. During a reading of the Good Book in an Essex pub, drinkers noticed an extraordinary phenomenon as the face of Jesus appeared in the froth of a beer glass. Encouraged by the beer glass Jesus manifestation, punters drank more and more pints in an attempt to replicate the experience. The landlord of The Punchdrunk Monk described the occasion in the hostelry as ‘spirit filled’ and others claimed that this was affirmation of the local church’s venture into Liquid Church. There is some debate as to which beer produced the froth, some are arguing for Abbot Ale while others maintain it was Bishop’s Finger, however, all are agreed that it wasn’t lager. The passage of scripture being read at the time of the appearance is believed to have been Revelation 22:17. It all adds new meaning to the song ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’.

There is a great report about Beer and Bible recently published in an Essex newspaper and further information about the initiative can be found here.