Star Trek and my rejection of Calvin

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Star Trek and the Prime Directive

I’m an avid Star Trek fan. I have probably seen almost every episode of each series in the franchise, and all the films so far except for maybe two. One of the major themes that occurs in ST is the Prime Directive, the overarching law made by the federation that no ships encountering a more primitive civilisation shall intervene or interfere with their culture in any way. Later on, we were introduced to the timeships, which came from a future federation, covered by a temporal Prime Directive, which forbade them from interfering in a timeline by changing events, which would affect the future. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, since the possibility of travelling back in time always carries consequences for the future. The very appearance of timeships from the future surely poses problems for the temporal Prime Directive, since who knows what that might change, considering all the possible variables present. To be able to predict accurately, one would need to know everything that was going to happen, forever. This is impossible… unless you’re God. Yeah, only God would have the ability to ‘alter a timeline’. Hold that thought…

Calvinism

117629-004-9f92c82fI was introduced to the basic doctrinal argument/ debate of Calvinism v. Arminianism in Bible College: Laying aside the complexities and details, to boil this down, Calvinism is the belief that salvation is entirely down to the work and choice of God (predestination) and has nothing to do with any decision or effort on our part, since we are all incapable of saving ourselves from our inevitable all-encompassing sin, and salvation is set in stone and unalterable, whereas Arminianism is the belief that we can choose to follow Christ and then choose to stop following him. Coming from a pentecostal evangelical fold that is avidly Calvinist, I was already immersed in that theological perspective enough, and perusing over his doctrine I came to admire and respect it as a wonderfully concise and ordered theology that draws perfect little pictures from scripture; it is very easy to argue scripturally, and very hard to refute. I have never read his Institutes – they’re quite extensive – but they have been boiled down and explained so precisely by his followers, there is little need to, except for his most devoted disciples. However… there were bits of it I was never comfortable with, and I sought to marry the two views, while still describing myself as in the Calvinist camp, due to the enormous amount of supporting scripture in the New Testament.

My main objections were twofold, with a third growing on me over time:

1. ‘double predestination’

Once you adopt the belief that God has chosen his ‘elect’ and that this was done ‘before the foundation of the world’ then you have to agree with double predestination i.e. if God has chosen some to be his elected inheritors of his kingdom of heaven, then that means he has also chosen all the others to be eternally lost/ punished/ burning in hell. The moral compass we all have must scream at us that double predestination is unjust! If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision? The standard answer to this was always that we were not to question God’s ways, decisions or ‘wisdom’ but this dismisses that natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong we have all been given, by God! Had I been told this doctrine before my conversion, I would have concluded that the Christians’ God was a total jerk and had obviously not elected me! I would have refused to even wish to follow such a ‘loving creator’.

2. MY choice

The clear recall I had of the process I underwent myself when I chose to follow Jesus was something I just had to raise each time I was presented with the ‘clear’ scriptures of Calvinism. It had to be rewritten in my memory as something that God had done: this was ‘irresistible grace’ (one of the key points of Calvinism), and I could have done nothing to avert that moment in time or stop it happening, when I made the decision God called me. Each time, though, I felt like I was in a science fiction story as a robot that had never been aware that he was not a human!

I even wondered at times why we were singing “I have decided to follow Jesus…”!!

3. Hyper-Calvinism

In time, I came to the realisation that so often, Calvinists fall into the trap of hyper-Calvinism, as if it isn’t possible to be a ‘moderate’ Calvinist, and one will always end up believing that not just our decision the moment of salvation, but every single event that occurs, and every action we take, is predestined to happen too. Me sitting here typing this has been ordained by God to happen! This takes the robot analogy to an extreme, since every part of our lives has been pre-programmed by an inventor and/or code-writer.

If all this is the case, then why do we bother at all with anything? Once this has become ingrained, certain beliefs and behaviours may follow in some cases, such as;

  • Pharisaism and a superior attitude that ‘we are God’s chosen ones’
  • a belief that moral behaviour is not important since salvation is set in stone anyway
  • preachers who believe that no appeal to others to come and follow Jesus is needed, since ‘his elect will be drawn by the Holy Spirit anyway’
  • the church need not be concerned with society’s problems since this is God’s will and has been ordained by God to happen to a world that has fallen from him – when you add in the prevalent belief that we are in the last days, then no desire to change society for the better can be stirred. Why waste energy trying to bail more water out of a sinking ship?

Any objections I raised that cast doubt on the Calvinist position was routinely shot down. It was as if questioning Calvin was equivalent to doubting scripture! “Is it not possible that God’s ‘election’ of us is based on his omniscience and knowing who will choose to follow Jesus?” was refuted with a clear “No, God the Father is the one who makes all the decisions and chooses whom he will save, from before time began!”

This unwavering adherence to reading scripture in such an unquestioning way has led to some tragic situations, like I blogged on before. However, as with many dogmatic positions, it favours certain parts of scripture over others, though adherents would never wish to admit to this. Just a few verses, off the top of my head, that appear to undermine predestination:

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)

You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)

Trying to fit this into the perfect picture of God selecting us before we were even born creates a lot of tight hoops to jump through. Or you can just ignore the hoops as insignificant (which is impossible for fundamentalist inerrantists!)

Quantum theology

I have long tried to present theology as similar to our quantum universe. Without going into the intricacies of quantum mechanics/ physics, let’s just say that it is now known that certain things in the micro-particle world defy logic and present clear evidence for two truths/ facts to co-exist in our universe, at the same time. For me, the apparent ‘contradictions’ in scripture are also contained in a concise way in the mind of God, the Creator of this quantum universe (in a way that is totally illogical to mere mortals).

However, it would be better if we could find things that do fit into a logical understanding, yes? If God wishes to be revealed to us, and that we should know him, then a clearer knowledge of him in our minds must be within his will. I realised that my original idea (most likely not original to me in that nobody else ever asked it) held some weight; what if God, at the beginning of time, knowing all things that were to happen, saw me on that day in 1979, seeking him and asking for him, and decided, there and then, that he would jump ahead of me (like a time traveller going backwards to ‘fix’ a timeline) and provide that ‘irresistible grace’ for me to respond to and so give me the means and the power to be able to follow him, since he would know that alone, I could not do so, and would fail at any attempt to be a ‘faithful disciple’?

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29:13)

God looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Ps. 53:2)

As I said, this was rejected by those who had studied Calvin: “No, God chooses us, we have no part in the process!” However, it has always struck a chord in my heart, since we know that in Eden, God clearly gave freewill to Adam and Eve; it was their choice to eat the fruit that was forbidden, and there was no high fence around the tree!

When we go to the favourite passage of Calvinism, we can analyse it quite easily:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:29-30, emphasis mine)

Note those two words I highlighted: the Greek word for ‘foreknew’ is proginosko, but I don’t even need to go into any depth on that. It is used 5 times in the New Testament, and each time simply means what it translates as – ‘knowing beforehand’. The passage states first that God had foreknowledge of us, and then he predestined us! The choice was ours, but the empowering and the process is all his!

Still not with me? Confusing? This is deep theology, and trying to simplify it is an uphill task – I have gone over this a fair bit to make it easy to read, believe me. Let’s try the trusted tool of explanation for these things that Jesus used; the parable.

The Parable of the Determined Son

A father was asked by his children, what he would like for Christmas. He answered them that there was nothing specific that he’d like, except for one thing that he knew was far too expensive for them to buy him, even if they pooled all their savings, and he told them he knew that. They were to buy some smaller presents and not worry about it. The youngest child later told his older siblings that he was going to save up enough money to buy this present by going to all the neighbours and asking them to pay him for washing their cars or tidying their garden. No amount of explanation from them that he’d never earn enough would deter him.

They realised how determined their youngest was as he started putting money into his piggy bank, so they told their father. The father did not wish to dishearten the youngest by telling him to stop his quest, nor let him be disappointed, so late one night he sneaked into the boy’s room and put the amount of money needed into the piggy bank. When Christmas approached, the youngest came to his siblings and asked them to count his money with him to see if he had enough. When they added it up, they of course could not believe that it was all there!

What does this mean?

The youngest child had been the one to decide to get this present and put his heart into achieving it, but he was never going to be able to. The father saw the love and determination his son had, and provided the means for the son to be able to give his father the present he knew he wanted and that the son wished to give. If we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” as Jesus commanded us (Mark 12:30), then this must require effort on our part, borne from love. Such love produces action from us, or it is not love (John 14:152115:101John 2:33:225:3). Yet this action cannot produce any ‘saving power’ (Eph. 2:8-9) or achieve what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God foresees all these actions, this determination to seek him, and intervenes to save us before we think that we must do these things to save ourselves.

To go back to Star Trek, what then is God’s Prime Directive? Freewill! The answer to the question of why he doesn’t intervene in the world more than he does, is that we know that he always left us to our own will and he will not make ‘first contact’. The ST version can be ignored once a civilisation develops warp drive and is about to embark on space travel, and so God ignores his own Prime Directive until we are the ones to seek him! For God to enter into our lives uninvited breaks that and makes a mockery of our statement that we are ‘left to our own free will’!

c-s-lewisI’m not rejecting predestination, I’m rejecting Calvin’s narrow and shortsighted interpretation of it.

I don’t accept his version, I accept what I read in my Bible.

I’m not saying that God does not ‘elect’ us to salvation by his own power, I’m saying that he doesn’t select us. Scripture teaches election, Calvin teaches selection. After all, when we elect someone, they have to stand for election in the first place!

In Calvin’s defence, though, he didn’t get to see Star Trek!

Grace be with you.free-will

Ripping the fingernails

037d94fb9d5581a0672b8a8c736fcb93Now that you’ve got over the shock of a four-letter word on a Christian blog… oh, you haven’t? Basically, I came across this meme when searching for a ‘hang in there’ type, and despite being alone, I lolled (yes, I’ll hazard a guess that lol is already a verb. If not, I’ve just invented it, though as a linguist, I know that many people will be using it simultaneously; such is language change). Language change is at the heart of the phenomenon of ‘swearing’ – words that I use perfectly innocently can be anathema to an older generation (I learnt once!). I know that I myself would not say ‘Fuck off!’ to someone, unless I was REALLY pissed; I’d be more inclined to say ‘Piss off!’ but then that begs the question why one four-letter word that has a nasty connotation is ‘not as bad’ as another. This all has to do with what one hearer thinks of a word as opposed to the speaker, but I shall not descend into a discussion on this since it is the furthest thing from the point I wish to make.

For me, once I analyse it, I know full well that I should not tell someone else to fuck off but if I tell them to piss off, is that any more acceptable? Jesus spoke of language as abuse in his great sermon and even went so far as to condemn saying ‘you fool’, so I recognise, from the principles he taught, that using ‘fuck off’ is unacceptable, not because it’s a social taboo, but because it is usually said in anger and not in love! Anything from ‘c**t’ (that is still a word I could not even print) to ‘fool’ is condemned! Consider that for a while…

No, the whole reason I laughed at the meme is because that figure there is me! The one hanging on the edge, not the well-intentioned encourager. Having watched a science program on the nature of comedy, I know that this is one of the levels on which the humour works, and the four-letter word adds to the ‘unexpected’ aspect. I shall not go into all the details, but the past few years of things going awry has quickened to a pace I don’t think I can handle any longer. I knew that embarking on a book on finding contentment would open for me a can of worms in order for me to experience setbacks, ponder them (which I do as I lie awake at night – this blog is typically written in the wee small hours), learn from them, and then acquire the capability to write all about them, but that single can has become about half a dozen now. Yes, I’m getting quite pissed at my situation and my lot and I’m interjecting questions at God all about it, which is perfectly acceptable with scripture writers, so it’s fine for you and me! Even Jesus in anguish on his cross repeated the words of David asking why God had forsaken him!! I know that God is good and that he has my life in his hand and everything plays its part in a plan, but I have started to move away from the ‘only-inferred’ hyper-calvinism of the evangelical creed that believes every little action/ breath/ flight of a fly in the world is pre-ordained. God is not the cause of my troubles, but he does know all about them and has a workaround. I just wish he would share more of that personal workaround with me! He will, in his own good time, but the patience he gave me (I seem to have a larger share of that virtue in my personality than most others) is running out; my barrel of hope I got when I found Jesus on my path and changed onto his is down to the dregs: REFILL, PLEASE!!

What of the other character? The well-wisher who supplies only ‘encouraging words’ and maybe does deserve to be addressed thus? I have many dear brothers and sisters who offer such words, as I have done to others myself. The best ones are the ones who put hands on shoulders and say a prayer, and we take it to God together, or even give out free hugs. However, such words on their own are inclined to make me, in my impatient and troubled mood, say (internally only), “AWWW! Piss off!!” Totally wrong, but hey who’s perfect? Why be like this? I have been the relaxed onlooker on another’s life offering soothing insights, and I will be again, for sure. Maybe because I don’t want words, I want reality! Let meresurrected-jesus-modern-disciples take you back to Thomas for illustration; I always like to go back to Thomas. Great guy, because he’s just like me! [smug grin]

The scene

After the crucifixion of Jesus: The 12 apostles… no, there’s only 11 now… have had just about the worst shakeup of their world they could not have foreseen. They had become convinced that their master was the Messiah as prophesied and that this was the pivot of history. Their expectation was the same as all their generation. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was the herald of the dawn of the restoration of David’s kingdom, indeed the fulness of the kingdom of God was to come down upon the Earth, and the vanquishing of the Roman occupiers; Jesus was going to set up his throne right there, and the mother of James and John had already called shotgun on their seats at his side. They never grasped why he kept talking to them about suffering and sacrifice, and going ahead of them to a place he would prepare for them. While they murmured their misgivings to each other, it was Thomas who asked his Lord to explain further. He was the enquiring, questioning sort, and I read into the gospels that he was never fully satisfied with answers that were not complete in his own mind. Suddenly, an angry mob had come for Jesus in Gethsemane, arrested him amidst confusion and even violence, taken him away to a kangaroo court, and the disciples had dispersed and fled in fear. Peter was so scared for his own life that he denied knowing his beloved master, even with that swearing we were discussing! Jesus was tried and hung on the cross, died and was buried. They returned in sorrow and pain to their old lives, just not knowing what they had seen, who they had believed in. They met together again in secret, still fearing they would be tried as followers of that heretical Galilean carpenter, but Thomas was not with them. Maybe he just felt there was no point, maybe he had given up all hope, how can we know (we weren’t there), but he had stayed away, nursing his wounds in a solitary reflective way that introverts must do after a trauma. Then the other 10 came to him, telling him loudly and with inexplicable joy that they had seen Jesus! He had risen from the grave!!

Thomas, however, was not in the mood for just joining in with this hullabaloo. Bully for them! They’d seen something he had not. Why could he not have had a visit too? “Where exactly is Jesus then?” he must have thought, “if they’ve all seen him alive.” For me, Thomas was not doubting God, he was doubting them, and the doubts were borne from his experience that did not tally with their words. They could have possibly hallucinated in a sort of mass hysteria of wishful thinking that Jesus had not actually been crucified, but he knew that Jesus… was… dead! It was the words he was rejecting, because he wanted the same experience they had experienced. He wanted to see and feel Jesus with his own eyes and hands. In other words, he wanted the reality of Jesus to break into his life again, like it had been for all those years he spent following him.

I’ve had that reality enter my life clearly too, on many occasions, not least my escapade with death seven years ago, when I was all ready to say my goodbye and leave this world. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking of saying the goodbye to my loved ones, since I was languishing in the ICU and thought that I might just fade off there and then. That was when God reached down to me, spoke to me, and gave me a promise of further years. That was REAL! It changed my perspective in many ways, and ways I have yet to write about, but it has faded since then, with me being as human as the next person, and it only feels now like that ‘fleeting glimpse’ Pink Floyd sang about! I don’t wlooking-up-the-cliff-faceish to face death again (not yet) – been there and bought the T-shirt! I want to face life again, because right now it feels like that is what has slipped away from me, and the view from this side of the cliff edge is just that: the edge of that cliff! Like Thomas, I’m floundering in the doubts that all those things in the past have little to say to me in the present, and I truly want God to reach down in reality again, and show me what he can do, before my flimsy fingernails finally give way, and I fall into the abyss.

The scene a week later

Thomas is with the others this time, door locked, all still in fear. Jesus breaks in again and shows himself, says ‘Peace!’ He turns to Thomas and offers to him to not just see, but touch and feel him, and believe… again.

This is my prayer, Lord… this!

Grace be with you.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The first of the Ten Commandments is often quoted and preached upon, and while it applied to Israel in a time they were tempted to worship other gods or go after them for blessings and assistance in some matters, I have often heard that it should apply to us too, since we may be capable of placing other ‘things’ before our Lord and allowing them to be ‘worshipped’ in some way. One might argue that is a bit of a stretch if you are talking about things which are naturally important to us and prominent in our lives, like family or jobs. However, Jesus did make a stunning declaration about following him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)sermon-mount

Many have tried to downplay the word ‘hate’ here as if it means ‘love less’ or ‘make secondary’ yet it is the word miseo, which means ‘hate’! In the context of ‘everything else Jesus said’ of course, we have to find an explanation of it, since we are commanded by him to love absolutely everyone! Why would we be commanded to love our enemies, yet hate our own family? Best answer I can offer is that the natural ties we have are to be regarded as below ‘loving others’, so our devotion to our families must be no more nor any stronger than our love of anyone else; we should love all people equally. Interesting? Something to ponder?

What is clear, however, is that Jesus demands our devotion to him first, and that he is not to be equated with devotion to anyone or anything else. An alternative translation of the first commandment is ‘Thou shalt have no other gods beside me’ so that would fit with the idea that God has no equal, no partner, no cohort he will allow to be venerated or worshipped like him.

Fair enough? Let me suggest a common mistake many make regarding this commandment. Some time ago, while I was still a freshman (as they call it in the US) at Bible College, I came across a woman who believed that John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ meant her Bible! I was surprised at myself that I suppressed a laugh, since I had this picture in my mind of a black leather gilt-edged KJV sitting beside God at the beginning of the universe! I quietly explained to her that ‘the Word’ here is the pre-eternal name of Jesus [note: capitalised (in English)]. He is the one who was both with God, and was God, from the beginning and will be forever. By equating her Bible (the word of God) to being the Word, she was actually allowing it to not just be with God as I had pictured, but to be God (that is what John 1:1 states). Does this mean then that when I read my Bible, I hold God in my hand? Or within the app on my phone, in 64 different versions?

While this may be something we can laugh over, I have come to the conclusion that it is more serious a problem than one might first think. I know plenty of believers who adore their Bible, talk about it in ways that you’d think was reserved for lovers or family members… and right away I recall that command Jesus made about family! If nothing is to come between us and God, or to be equated in reverence with God, then this must include our Bible! Please don’t ask for a Venn diagram of that – our Bible sits squarely within the box marked ‘everything’.

The Jews hated idols, just like the Muslims do today. They were commanded not to worship them, and they strove to have no graven images to which they bowed or showed reverence, but human nature being what it is, they had to have some tangible thing to sit in awe of, in their synagogues. So they created special manuscripts from specifically prescribed forms of hide, written in a specific mixture of ink, which were not to be touched by vile human hands or anything else debase, so they made silver psothebystorahointers… were you to drop one of these scrolls on the floor, I am sure you would hear gasps of horror! Some Muslims do exactly the same thing with their Koran, wrapping them in beautiful silk scarves and handling them with such delicate care. Do Christians do the same? I did know of believers who were shocked at the idea of me tossing my old worn-out Bible into a bin once I got a new one! What was I supposed to do? Burn it on a ceremonial barge on the river Jordan with prayers? Revering the paper and ink IS idolatry, sorry!

However, I do love my Bible! I read it constantly, and try to find new things I can learn from it, and strive to live by what I glean from it. Thankfully, the English word ‘love’ can be used for anything from ice cream to God, so when I say I love something I know I don’t love it more than I love Jesus. Or can I be sure? If it is possible for me to fall in love with someone, or some thing that I love doing, which distracts me from following Jesus, then can it also be possible that my Bible could distract me too? There may be many ways, but the question raised surely is this: “if my Bible is simply the words of God in written form, then how could that be possible?” Right away, I arrive at the kernel of the issue as I see it. The ‘standard’ position of the fundamentalist who holds to ‘inerrancy of scripture’ on this is that ‘every word of our scriptures has been written by God’. Known as ‘plenary inspiration’ (a good description here), it ascribes God’s inspiration to the complete Bible as we have it today, and decries any attempt to ‘water that down’. This is perfectly understandable since we do not wish to allow a ‘take what you want and ignore the rest’ faith in Christ (even though many who maintain ‘inerrancy’ do so with some commands they don’t like!), but while I have never held this ‘plenary’ position (which is not the default position within the whole church and never has been), I have never been one to take a pair of scissors to my Bible! I prefer what scripture says about itself, that it is all ‘God-breathed‘ (2 Tim. 3:16). I see the hand of God and his redemption story and plan throughout, from Genesis to Revelation, but many parts are limited in understanding simply due to the human writers, since it was written by people of an ancient time, who had limits on knowledge and a lack of things we now know. Therefore to find an ‘archaic’ view of something in my Bible is not a problem to me; I don’t need to explain it or defend it. However, many believers, fixated on their irrefutable plenary doctrine, tie themselves in knots defending what is text on a page of a book, in the belief that they are defending their faith, or even defending God!

Let’s take a couple of examples for illustration: in the book of Job, we have a record of God speaking to Job where he asks “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail…” (Job 38:22); we now know that God does not have ‘storehouses’ of snow or hail. We know how they form now, through our study of meteorology. Of course, everyone says that this is metaphor/ poetry/ allegory, even though it is a record of God’s actual words to Job. So was God revealing a truth to Job according to his limited understanding? Then we encounter the creation account in Genesis: this is taken as literal by so many who would easily accept the metaphorical aspect of the passage in Job, yet reading Genesis 1 without the blinkers of devotion can see clearly that it is the description of a flat earth at the centre of the universe, with night and day occurring before the creation of the sun and moon. Why is there this ‘blind devotion’? It might be because it belongs to the Pentateuch/ Torah, the first five books of our Bible also known as ‘the Law’. From some Jewish tradition we have inherited, it is part of that ‘given’ to Moses directly by God, yet there is no support for this (and Moses even dies before the end!). So much of this comes from cultural tradition and not a direct reading of scripture. It’s all supposed to be literal historical narrative, yet in my evangelical Bible College, we studied the first 11 chapters of Genesis separately to the rest – chapter 12 is when the famous Abram appears (later called Abraham).

I do ponder how some parts that we can now see with modern knowledge can be accepted as not literal, yet other parts cannot! What is it about the creation account that it just must be adhered to? I’ll not go into any speculation about politico-historico-cultural stuff here, but my point is simply this: in trying to explain our faith to non-believers, do we not realise that an insistence on a literal reading of Genesis 1 is perceived as one of the most idiotic stances in the 21st century? If we try our hardest to state that every word is literal, and that it is not describing a flat centric earth, is that not just plain denial? If we apply a rational mind to it, then surely a realisation must occur! To continue in this conformity, then is it not akin to ignoring or covering over the truth? Is that not a description for lying?

flee_idolatryFor me, it truly is a blind devotion, by faith, and that means that your faith in a book is unshakeable (even though you’d be prepared to forego the ‘storehouses’ reference in Job!), and right away, I worry. I worry that such devotion that should only be reserved for God and God alone, is given to what is an object on our shelves or a program in our computers and phones!

I actually don’t want any debate on this – I’ve had enough over my life! I know where I stand on this issue, where I have always stood, and it has never affected my faith in Jesus as my Lord. I simply want fellow believers to consider what they’re doing. If you are not ready to accept it, I’ll leave it there.

Grace be with you.

Great Expectations

jesus-christ-triumphal-entry-949744-wallpaperIt just dawned on me what it was that led to the people who called for Jesus to be crucified only a week after hailing him as the Messiah… their expectations!

We are often told from pulpits that the Pharisees and the religious ‘establishment’ in Jerusalem ‘turned the crowd against Jesus’. That has an element of truth in it, but it wasn’t in just one week that it was achieved. The people had been fed a diet of expectation all their lives. It was the received wisdom, from specific interpretations of their scriptures, that the Messiah was about to come, but he would be a warrior king who would supernaturally eject the Romans from Judaea and ‘restore the kingdom’ i.e. just as it was in King David’s time.

That was why they cried ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ (Matt. 21:9). They were expecting this revolution, this spiritual freeing of their nation from oppression. They had heard many things, and many rumours about this prophet from a far-off part.

Imagine their disappointment when he actually did not challenge the Romans, nor be drawn on any questions about how they should ‘deal’ with the Imperialists. Instead he continued in his teaching he had always maintained… that he wants his followers to be servants, to everyone, and to love all, even enemies! It wasn’t a battle cry, or a call to arms, or anything remotely like that. No, it was the opposite! This man they had been told was coming even arrived on a donkey! The donkey and colt were ready for him to use for his ‘triumphal’ entry, just as Zechariah had prophesied, so these people were not properly informed on scripture after all. The first thing Jesus did on arrival? He went to the Temple and drove out those who had commercialised his religion! His attacks were not on their conquerors, but their own religious leaders. He just could not have been their glorious Messiah! So when the call came for his death, they were only too eager to join in.

What are our expectations of Jesus? Do we decide in advance what we think he will do for us, or who or what he will be to us?

Or do we just accept who he iswhat he is, and most importantly, what he asks us to be, and to do? It’s all there in our gospel records, so why the false expectations?

Grace be with you.

The Chilcot Report and the separation of church and state

Tony-BlairHere I go finding links again! What has Chilcot got to do with disestablishmentarianism, I hear you ask? You weren’t asking that specifically? Well, here goes…

Amidst all the conclusions, recriminations and finger-pointing going on right now, what stood out to me was a comment by Claire Short, who was a member of Blair’s cabinet and was opposed to the Iraq invasion. She said that Tony Blair was determined to stand with George W. Bush on the matter and was convinced that going to Iraq was the right thing to do, thus leading to a preference for the intelligence reports that favoured that decision and a dismissal of other voices.

Something I bang on about quite a bit is ‘confirmation bias’ since it affects a lot of things we say, do and believe. We have certain convictions within ourselves that we hold to firmly. These are the sort of things we hold ‘sacred’ and would need to undergo a huge change in ourselves to abandon, or even question. When these things are challenged, we immediately become defensive, and try our best to seek validation for our beliefs, to the point that we choose to ignore glaring truths that we are faced with, just because they undermine these sacred things we treasure. While I describe myself as a definite ‘questioning Thomas’ who is always posing the questions others dislike or avoid (the childlike ‘WHY?’), I too have a degree of confirmation bias. It exists in us all. Acquiescing to such unpalatable truths is never comfortable.

So I can see how Blair fell into his own bias trap by making a gut decision before all the information was in and digested. Maybe he had Thatcher’s advice still ringing in his ears: “Great leaders lead by conviction, not consent!” That’s only true if you consider dictators and tyrants to be ‘great’! True democratic leaders recognise that they are not perfect, and are capable of making fallible decisions, so submit themselves to the rigours of democratic consent, and the voices of the dissenters. Only the bad ones surround themselves with ‘yes men’ (like George W. Bush). Admission of our fallibility is the starting point of the Christian journey, is it not? Blair counts himself as a religious man, so why did he ignore that basic belief at that crucial time of decision?

I see the results of this bias almost every day. My fellow evangelicals have a set of beliefs that spring from their faith, which they count as vital core parts of their faith. They believe a, b, and c, so then it follows that d, e, f,… right up to x, y and z must be true too. They post on social media about all these various things. I reply that they’ve latched onto a hoax or an exaggeration. 9 times out of 10, they react badly, and reject my claim, no matter how factual it is. Saddens me, since we all follow Jesus, who is The Truth. I cannot comprehend how holding on to something false has any positive effect for the holder, the hearer/ reader, or our faith (or society in general!)

And so this is why I maintain my core belief in the separation of church and state, as has been maintained in manywestminster-abbey branches of Christianity, not least the Baptist school of thought. If we allow any ‘church’ or any part of the Christian church in the world, to have political power, then certain convictions they hold will be subject to become state policy, and who is to say which convictions are right, and which are wrong? In a plural society, under the overarching belief… no! strike that… the overarching fact that not one of us is infallible (except The One), we all need to find common agreement on things.

My convictions of faith are mine, and I do seek to convince others that my faith is true, and convert them to following Jesus, but any decision I make in regards to politics or the society I share must recognise that many things I hold true are not so for others, and may even be unfounded! I know which things are certain in my heart, but even those are simply personal and not universal. Just surrounding myself with ‘yes men’ who concur with all my convictions will not change that fact.

Tony Blair failed as our PM right at the most important time we needed him to make a decision, simply because he had convinced himself of his motives. What does our scripture say about that?

Fools find no pleasure in understanding
    but delight in airing their own opinions. (Prov. 18:2)

Do not get me wrong; my values will always shape what I say, do, act, vote, lobby, campaign or petition for. However, I exist as one individual in a society of voices, and we will never agree on everything, so listening to those voices, and understanding them, is vital for righteous living, in my humble opinion.

Grace be with you.

Why I am voting to REMAIN in the EU.

I was undecided. Genuinely. There are pro- and anti-EU pundits on both sides of the right/left divide, so it was not straightforward, I knew. I wished to analyse all the arguments and make a decision based on what would be best for the majority of the British people. I knew this would be especially difficult for me, since the main protagonists are all from the Conservative party; it is an internal spat, after all! (And I had already dealt with Farage and UKIP a couple of years ago, here). While I find it very hard to trust any Tory, I have always had more respect for Boris Johnson than for David Cameron or George Osborne, so at first I thought I might be swayed by the ‘leave’ campaign.

What is obvious to everyone with even a few brain cells is that there has been lies and exaggerations on both sides. This has exasperated all of us who simply seek the truth, of course. When I sat down to read the leaflets, with access to sources that sought to impartially verify or debunk the various claims of both sides, I was stunned as soon as I read the ‘leave’ leaflet; I didn’t even need any help, since from my own knowledge, I could see the glaring lies peddled on those pages! While much of the ‘remain’ campaign’s lies were basically conjecture based on nothing, or sheer exaggerations, the lies of the ‘leave’ campaign were bare-faced deception! However, that was not the reason I decided, even though it was a blatant insult to the intelligence and integrity of its audience! Politicians are a peculiar breed, and they will do almost anything just to get you or me to vote in a particular way, so I had to dismiss these lies as nothing more than overeagerness to persuade us to vote ‘leave’. Though I wondered if there was actually some hidden agenda.

Then Jacob Rees-Mogg (a posh Tory who comes across as a really old school MP but is actually younger than me!) said “We need to leave the protectionist fortress of Europe!”

I am a protectionist! Basically, this is the belief that our own industries and businesses need to be protected from unfair competition. For instance, Chinese steel has been flooding into our market, which has been heavily subsidised by the Chinese government, and our own industry cannot compete with these artificial prices. If action is not taken, China could corner the entire market, and then start charging whatever they like. There’s a bit more information on protectionism here.

The opposite opinion to protectionism is ‘free trade’ or the ‘free market’, and as I was listening to debates on the television, I noticed how often these terms were used by proponents of the ‘leave’ campaign. This is the hidden agenda! They do not like the policies that are prevalent within the EU to protect European industry and support it, but seek a ‘free market’ across the world. Alarm bells rung in my head! I have already exposed how this belief springs from an early Christian church heresy, three years ago, here. The real problem with this belief, even if it is worthy and true, is that all nations need to subscribe to it. The Chinese government, by subsidising their steel, are not competing within a ‘free market’ but are interfering with the prices. Free marketeers would complain that they’re ‘not playing fair’ but the Chinese government are perfectly entitled to behave with regard to their own industries as they see fit! They are protectionists, so we need to be too!

I was watching a documentary on BBC4, by the inimitable Bettany Hughes, on Karl Marx. I was surprised to find that in his Communist Manifesto, he actually praised the bourgeoisie and their capitalism! He saw the value of it for producing profits and gain from industrialisation, but his gripe was that they kept all the profits for themselves when the actual labour that produced the profits was not given its proper value. He developed some philosophy on a phrase ‘surplus profit’ (or surplus value) – more information here. His argument was not against capitalism, but unfettered capitalism, where there is no means for the labourer(s) to bargain for their worth, and receive a fair share of the profits of the industry. His revolution was a ‘bottom-up’ one, where the working class majority fight for their rights to decent wages and working conditions, with little recourse to governments to instigate change, but rather to legislate as the people demand. It was designed for industrialised capitalist economies, but unfortunately the resulting communist revolutions that occurred were in Russia and China, both very undeveloped agrarian societies, and both ended up becoming a ‘top-down’ revolution, with the likes of Stalin and Mao, who imposed an ideology upon the people. What has been achieved over decades, by working people in the UK and across Europe, demanding more rights and higher wages, largely by unionisation, is actually what Marx dreamt of, not Stalinism.

One of the things that Marx pointed out was that capitalists will find themselves slaves to an abstract concept of ‘the market’ with the example of trading hours: with no restriction on the hours businesses can trade, one factory owner will be totally unwilling to reduce his workers’ hours since his competitors will most likely not reduce their hours and so he would end up becoming uncompetitive. Over 150years later, this has been seen recently in the UK with the debate over Sunday trading hours. A concession years ago to allow stores to open from 1pm to 6pm was, in the eyes of the ‘free market’ lobby, simply a stepping stone to allowing full 24/7 trading, with no respect to any day as special, sacred or set aside. The argument against this is that small family-run businesses cannot remain open all these hours, whereas the big companies like Tesco can. I heard one of these MPs state boldly: “If uncompetitive small businesses fall by the wayside, so be it!” They literally do not care for the small guy!

Communism has been described as a ‘religion’ or a ‘cult’ since it demands allegiance to ‘the state’ and will not allow any dissent to that worship. I agree! What we saw in the USSR and China, and other nations, is so akin to religion that it fits the definition. North Korea has a clear cult of worship of the Kims! Likewise, what Marx warned about is true of the worship of ‘the market’. Unfettered capitalism pays homage to the omniscient and omnipotent power of allowing this ‘market’ to decide our lives and our means, and we must devote ourselves to it without question. Any protectionist policies go against the received wisdom of the high priests of the market. We have seen many of our industries and state services sold off to foreign investors, and this has been the result of the pursuit of this religion by our British governments (both Tory and New Labour), not by any policy coming from the EU.

This is why I am deciding to vote ‘remain’! I do not wish to allow this false religion to take any further hold of our nation and our economy, since it has already eroded many rights of the hard-working majority, and it will do more harm, if unchecked. If the Brexit does produce more profit for British industry, it will continue to rise upwards to the rich, since we the people will not have any power to take our fair share of it! All the talk about the ‘ridiculous regulations’ of the EU include such terrible things like how employers have to ensure their workers’ safety and cannot treat them like possessions! So if you wish to allow our own politicians to ‘take back control’ of our economy from the EU (even though most decisions are made locally!), go ahead, but I look at their track record and conclude that they do not speak for the common man. We need something to curb them before they make the ultra-rich the hyper-rich!

And just in case you’re a fellow Christian who still thinks of the EU as ‘Babylon’ or some other terrible apocalyptic demon, see my recent blog on that, here.

It’s an offence!

not-religiousOne of the most influential books I read as a young Christian trying to find the path that Jesus asked us to follow was “How to be a Christian without being Religious” by Fritz Ridenour. It was a fairly simple book that expounded Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Well, it was as simple as any exposition of that letter can be! Needless to say, the main point the author was trying to get across was that religion is not what following Jesus is about, and that, in essence, is one of the main themes Paul stresses in his epistles, which was exactly why the book had that title. So it has shaped me ever since, to be someone who wishes to express my love for Jesus and my desire to follow him without falling into the same trap that all other religion (including ‘Christian religion’) falls into. That is the trap of sameness, ritual and blind devotion to a code and to a way that others have followed without much thought.

One of the ways we see this expressed is when an offence is caused against a religion. The murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris is an extreme example; that magazine made the offence of religions across the world its mission, and they did create a long string of articles and cartoons that enraged religious adherents of many faiths. However, they did not deserve to die for such transgressions. When I do see and hear fellow believers become almost1489207_10205194809768149_7591136757420390852_n as ‘offended’ at such publications as those Muslim extremists, I fear that it might be possible they could descend into the same madness (some Christians have been so offended by abortions being performed that they have resorted to murder!). On a more standard level, though, short of taking someone’s life, I do wonder if we are only having the same attitude as those jihadists, and becoming ‘religious’ about it. Should we be any different in our demeanour? Can we?

When questions like this arise in my head, I turn to other things I know I can apply. Linguistically, an ‘offence’ (in English at least) can be taken, but never given! I cannot give you offence, but I can cause you offence. ‘Cause’ is one of those words that carries specific semantic properties – in layman’s terms, it means it is fairly easy to grasp what it means. Were you to hit someone with your car while driving and they died, you would have caused their death. You would not be performing the active verb ‘to kill’, unless you drove at them with the intention of killing them. So ’cause’ has a limited usage: it is indicative of an action that created a situation not intended or beyond the control of the performer. Note that you can use the active verb form: “You offended me!”, whether the person who offended you intended to or not; it can be used in both cases.

So if you have a case where someone says or does something with the intent to offend you, that is very deliberate. However, for someone to cause you offence, you have to take it. If I were to attempt to give you a gift, but you did not take it, then I did not give it, I only intended to. The transaction did not take place. Similarly, in order for an offence to occur, it has to be taken by the intended recipient. Otherwise, no offence passed from intender to intendee! Put it another way; if the offender has the intention, and wishes to offend you, they will be thwarted if you don’t take it. Yes? Their fiery dart will have missed its intended target. If, however, they had no intention of causing offence, and did so in ignorance or innocence, then why should you take the offence anyway? In both cases, choosing not to take offence is the best option! No?

So while this might all sound fine and dandy as my own philosophising, does it ‘square up with scripture’?

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Matt. 5:39

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’[Deut. 32:35] says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’[Prov. 25:21,22]

Rom. 12: 18-20

In other words, the person who intends to cause offence against us as believers must be offered ‘the other cheek’ i.e. we show that they did not smite us or knock us down, but we are willing to let them continue to try to insult us. The person who intends to offend God is in God’s hands, and it is not for us to jump to his defence. As I have quoted the lyrics of Bono before: “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady!” We are to stand up for the little guy who needs defending, but not the creator of the universe! We not only insult him in his majesty, we also disobey his direct commands!

Also, imagine having burning coals heaped on your head! Would you not be dancing in pain, howling and swiping your head to get the coals off? Pretty funny for others to watch who had that sort of sense of humour, but almost certainly you’d be looking like a fool. So in order to disarm these intentional offenders, our reaction should be not to react! If we take no offence, they will be seen as base, boorish or just plain annoying. The unintentional offenders who might do so just for the sake of comedy would not fulfil this maxim if they had no intent i.e. they are not our enemy. We might just be able to laugh along with them, if they were really being funny.

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for whoever is not against us is for us.

Mark 9:40

Yeah, maybe I’ve taken that verse well out of context, but let us not make more enemies for ourselves! Just because Jesus told us “Everyone will hate you because of me” (Mark 13:13 – which could also be said to be out of context since Jesus was talking about the persecution by the first-century Jews) does not mean we must go around giving people reason to hate us! Such attitude and/or behaviour flies in the face of all the commands to love and do good to others!

Grace be with you.