Monday 23 December 2013

Long Have We Waited

The long wait is nearly over. Days have passed like years in this all-too-expansive winter season.

The countdown that began so long ago is almost at an end.

What started as a gentle interest has now turned into an all-consuming longing.

The naysayers may pour scorn but we ignore them in our collective obsession.

Prayers are offered to bring the fated day nearer but still we must wait a little longer.

It has seemed at times as if it would never come. And yet soon it will.

All else is set aside, for nothing now is as important as this.

This day is a time for family, and it is only fitting that families will be brought together for the occasion.

Soon the blessed day will appear and the memory of waiting will be at an end.

That's right. The new season of Sherlock is almost upon us.

I may be overstating things a little. Nevertheless, it struck me at the start of the advent season that what I was most anxious for in December wasn't Christmas (or, by extension, the celebration of God being with us) but Sherlock. Advent is supposed to be about waiting. It's supposed to be a season of anxious longing. When we remember that there was once a time before Jesus came. When we contemplate what it's like to be in need of Jesus before welcoming Him on Christmas Day. Of course, most of our society has abandoned advent altogether in favour of an extended, all-out public holiday. This is not necessarily a bad thing but I believe that there's something to be gained in returning to the spirit of advent.

There have been times this advent when I've been completely unenthusiastic about Christmas. I'm sorry. I feel like I'm letting the side down in even admitting that. I've certainly felt exhausted and in need of the rest that Christmas brings. That part I value. But I've also been disillusioned, at times, by the whole enterprise of Christmas - by the church services, by the parties, by the preparations. I don't want to bring out here the much-repeated, and well deserved, critique against how the season has turned into a capitalist money-spinner. My issue is instead with my (lack of) enthusiasm for Christmas.

Advent is as good a time as any to reexamine what it is that we really care about. What are our priorities in life? What do we value? And are we doing a good enough job at prioritising those things above the trivial? I found that Sherlock was way too far up the list. Series two ended dramatically with Sherlock faking his own death by jumping from a high-rise building. Two years have passed. Two! You may not care about Sherlock but in that case you are part of a pitifully small group of people and can be discounted. (I jest). Part of the attraction of the new series lies in the intelligent, dynamic and deliciously entertaining television that Sherlock always manages to produce. Yet the bigger draw is potentially the revelation of how Sherlock faked his death. Millions have been gripped by the conundrum of how Sherlock pulled off the impressive stunt. The news of how he did it will be a revelation.

And yet some news, which is genuinely more important, is already out there. It is fundamentally good . It is life-changing. It is much more deserving of our excitement. It is the news that we are not alone. It is the news that we don't have to guess what God's like because He has revealed Himself to us. It's the news that God isn't 'out there, man'; He's knowable because He wants us to know Him. It is the news that God is on our side. It is the news that God saw the mess of our world and was willing to do something about it. It is ultimately the news that God was willing to die to give us life. That counts as being "good news that will be a joy to all the people" (Luke 2:10; see also Isaiah 52:7).

There's nothing special about advent unless we're intentional about it. Yet in advent, as always, we get to refocus on what deserves our attention. What could warrant our interest more than that kind of God?

I'm praying that your Christmas is exciting for all the right reasons.

The Power of the Light

My cartoon, 'The New Atheism', with apologies for the poor quality (I'll scan a proper version in due course)

A couple of days ago a friend of mine provided a link to a wonderful article in The Scotsman by David Robertson. It was a great encouragement to see Robertson so positively and lucidly providing a faith-filled perspective on Christmas and on faith in Scotland in general, especially in a secular publication. As so often, however, I couldn't resist scrolling down to the comments section beneath the article. Now comments sections can be wonderful things, providing a platform to a much wider spectrum of opinions and viewpoints than those that find their way into the mainstream press. Comments can be enlightening or drive you crazy, depending on what they're saying. This particular article featured a comment by a poster named 'voice of reason'. You can read the comment in full for yourself, but essentially 'voice of reason' was proclaiming that Robertson's article constituted "barking mad religious nonsense", "inaccurate superstitious drivel" and "ravings". Whether of not 'voice of reason' would align him/herself with the new atheism (Dawkins, Hitchens and co.) the sort of language used certainly seems similar. It included a belief that we have progressed from theism as a society ("Thankfully more and more people are waking up to the big delusion of religion") and a disdain for organised religion (Christianity's "regime to impose itself on people").

I'll be honest. The comment got me really riled up. I'm a thinker and also take a certain measure of enjoyment from the intellectual jostling involved in arguing over the big issues of life. I like to think of myself as a proponent of logical theism. And the comment made me angry because it implied that my very real faith in Jesus was delusional. Now this wasn't the first time that I'd encountered the ideas of fundamentalist atheism. Nor was I unaware that the comment was probably generating precisely the sort of response that it was intended to engender (we're all familiar with the concept of a troll). Nevertheless, I responded by pacing up and down, coming up with deft counterarguments and generally working myself into a huff. 

For example, it enraged me that someone calling themselves 'voice of reason' could apparently be so unaware of the irony of their statements: accusing theists of small-mindedness in precluding atheism from the realms of logic whilst simultaneously doing the same thing to theists. I found myself confronting the opinions with alternative lines of argument. Then it struck me that all this posturing to atheism is entirely unnecessary.

Consider the bizarre nature of militant atheism (the kind of atheism that actively seems to impose unbelief on others). I've previously written on the reasons why it makes sense for Christians to share their faith: firstly, because it's true and, secondly, because God provides the most satisfying life on offer. By contrast, it makes very little sense for atheists to share their lack of faith, precisely because it's the sharing of absence rather than substance. The atheist can suggest that a life lived without God is a happier one than a life lived with God but they cannot actively transform a person's life since they categorically deny that supernatural transformation is possible. Indeed, many atheists seem to have a tough time in convincing anyone that they are living a contented life. Often they seem to be more consumed by anger than peace. If someone is convinced that there really is no God then surely it's enough to vehemently hold that opinion (after all, I'm not suggesting that apathy is a better alternative). If the issue of God will never be conclusively settled in one direction or the other and if atheists aren't obviously happier than non-atheists then trying to rob other people of faith certainly seems illogical (as David Mitchell has persuasively outlined).

Funnily enough, I have a lot of respect for atheists. It seems to me to be the most logical worldview available after Christianity. I don't mean that statement as cocky oneupmanship; it's my seriously-considered viewpoint that has been generated by substantial thought. I do genuinely appreciate both the attraction of a universe without a deity and many of the reasons why our existence appears to some to be Godless. I don't want to castigate atheists. In fact, I relate to atheism on many levels. But militant atheism seems to be as upsetting as it is illogical. It is sad to me that some people appear to take such a level of personal satisfaction in arguing that there is no God. I have no desire to look down my nose at atheists and pity their unbelief. But neither do I have any desire to share in the aggressive evangelistic rhetoric of the militant atheists.

When faced with the bravado that some militant atheists display in their statements about God many theists feel threatened. The temptation is either to worry that faith might be delusional after all or else to fight back with similar ferocity. It might be more sensible to let our faith do most of the talking. One of the highlights (doh!) of Robertson's article was the analogy of light, which is a familiar part of the imagery of advent. The thing about light is that it doesn't have to fight the darkness. It repels it simply by being light. "The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overpowered it" (John 1:5). I'm not denying that spiritual warfare is a reality (Ephesians 6:10-13), just that Christians don't need a militant attitude to debating faith. A siege mentality is entirely unnecessary because atheism itself can pose no threat to anyone. Simple, yet reasonable, faith is the light that withstands and overpowers all darkness.

Thursday 19 December 2013

The Hobbit: Faith (and Doubt) in What is Written

OK, I admit it. Blogging on The Hobbit - that's kind of what I do. I loved the new second instalment, although not with the same vigour as The Lord of the Rings cinematic adaptations. And once again a scene with Bilbo caught my eye. (To fans of the book, I can only apologise if I have butchered the narrative at any point).

Much of the purpose of the mission undertaken by Bilbo and the dwarves originates in a prophecy; more specifically, it originates in a prophecy which is written down. The company aim to take back the Misty Mountain, but their hope of entering the mountain lies upon their locating a secret door. The door will be locked but if they arrive at just the right moment then ancient moon-runes assure them that the doorway will be revealed:
Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole.
Bilbo and the dwarves finally make it to the mountain and spot a staircase that leads up onto a ridge. But when they reach the ridge they are quickly disheartened. There is no doorway to be seen. They have arrived on Durin's Day itself and the sun is setting, meaning that they have little time to locate the door and use their key to open it. They try battering the stone. They try everything. Eventually the party's leader, Thorin, tells the dwarves to give up. The sun has gone down. Their whole mission has been in vain.

Is that it? Was the prophecy...wrong?

Everyone else leaves but Bilbo continues to wrestle with these questions. The instructions of the runes were precise and couldn't have been misunderstood. And yet, despite faithfully trusting in their accuracy, they don't seem to have been borne out by reality. That's when the moon comes out. Suddenly Bilbo hears a knocking sound and sees a thrush by a doorway which is given visibility by the new beams of moonlight. The dwarves return and open the door, giving them the access to the mountain that their whole quest has depended on.

This is where I fit in. My relationship with that thing called Scripture is a strange one. I'm currently taking a degree in Biblical Studies and yet, like many other Christians, I haven't always felt that comfortable with everything the Bible's got to say. Sometimes that isn't a big deal. I'm never going to understand everything, right? Sometimes it's been a process of monumental soul-searching. Did Jesus really rise from the dead? How can I know that He did? It is enough that there's a document where that's written down? Each question deserves its own process of enquiry and careful thought but I don't want to focus on any one issue in this post. All I want to do is write about the process of doubting the Bible.

It's easy to come up with a simple value-based assessment of what a Christian ought to make of doubt. Faith, good; doubt, bad. Yet I'm increasingly aware that there's a place for doubt in faith. That's not to say that doubt is necessarily helpful or healthy. Nor is it simply to acknowledge that doubt is a reality for the vast majority of believers at one point or another. Instead, I've realised that faith does not mean being 100% sure 100% of the time. Faith can seem like this intangible substance, something that's 'out there' somewhere and which some people magically find. Some people talk about it as if it were elusive: "I'd like to believe, but...". I'll be the first to believe that the Bible can be confusing at times. But my assessment of it, and especially of how trustworthy it is, is entirely up to me. Faith is my call and my decision. Doubt doesn't rob me of faith. It may be able to challenge and strain it but it can never rob me of faith because faith is my decision. God has made it that way. No matter how faith-repellent my situation may appear I give faith substance simply by making a choice.

The Bible contains people of astounding faith but it also records people who doubted. Even the accounts of the resurrection, where Jesus physically appeared to His disciples, are littered with ordinary people who struggled with faith. Jesus's final appearance is accompanied by the simple phrase, "but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17, NIV). The initial response of some of the disciples to the news of the resurrection was to dismiss it "because it sounded like nonsense" to them (Luke 24:11). And John's Gospel includes the story of Thomas, who decided that he would only believe when he put his finger in the resurrected Jesus's wounds. Jesus's response is an encouragement to those who want to believe but find it a struggle: "You [Thomas] believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly blessed." (John 20:29). That's us. The ones who haven't physically seen the risen Jesus but believe based on the testimony of others. Testimony that's written down.

It seems to me that in the movie Bilbo shows faith at the precise moment when everyone else doubts. And yet his faith is predominantly found in staying put and wrestling with his questions about the runes. It's not in grand declarations regarding their trustworthiness. Poignantly, if he didn't go through that process then the mission really would have failed, for no-one would have remained on the ridge to witness the revelation given through the moonlight. In other words, choosing to stay put and question the runes was in itself an act of faith. In the midst of the crisis that faith is vindicated and Bilbo finds that his faith actually makes sense. Doubt was involved but was ultimately superseded. Bilbo shows us that faith is not always straight-forwards, created in an impulsive rush. It is a decision, and one that can be made in the midst of doubt.