LUBH 8 – the second great commandment

Mainly talking about poverty. Click ‘full post’ for text.

LUBH 8: The Second Great Commandment

We are looking today at the second great commandment and I am sure that all of you all remember the most important commandment “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul”, second, “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The great teachings of the prophets tend to be centred on two things which Jesus was summing up when he gave his two commandments. The first is precisely right worship, having nothing else in the place of God and the second is right relations, love your neighbour as yourself, but really what it is about is poverty. It is about making sure that no-one gets left behind. Now this is not a marginal part of Scripture, something like two thousand verses in the Bible refer to poverty, that express God’s concern for the poor. If you go through, for example, the prophets and take out all the bits that deal with poverty, you have taken out rather a lot. The Old Testament is saturated with it. One in ten verses in the Synoptic gospels, that’s Matthew, Mark and Luke, deal with poverty and in Luke it’s one in seven (I didn’t know that before doing a bit of research on this). But you can see it’s quite a significant part even through to the New Testament which is primarily about Christ and who He was. It’s fair to say it’s impossible to be a Christian and not be concerned about poverty. This doesn’t if you like enforce a right wing or a left wing political point. There are still all sorts of debates about what is the best thing to do about poverty. What it is saying is you can’t be a Christian and be unconcerned; it has to be a major concern in the Christian life, to be concerned about the poor, so it’s about our general priorities and our scale of values.

A quotation for you, from Deuteronomy 15: “Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart (this is the poor) then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to, there will always be poor people in the land.” This is what Jesus is quoting. “There will always be poor people with you, therefore I command you to be open handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy.” How much poverty? Well the good news is that on the whole poverty has been getting less throughout the twentieth century. This is using the United Nations definition, less than a dollar per day adjusted for what’s called purchasing power parity. So it’s not simply a dollar, a dollar will get you more in China than it will get you in America. So it takes that into account, but the equivalent of a dollar a day, so at the moment about 50, 55p. And you can see in particular the dark green line which is East Asia the most significant thing that has changed poverty around the world in the last twenty years is China’s embrace of market reforms and this dark green line, 60% of the Chinese essentially living on less than a dollar a day in 1981 comes down to less than 20% now, it’s nearly 15%. A huge shift with all sorts of ramifications which we are all aware of as China becomes much more of a market economy, much stronger economy.

But of course the one where we can have more concern is this pale blue one which is sub-Saharan Africa, that’s really where the main problems lie, it has been getting worse in Africa. This is a picture of what’s called the human development index, so it’s not just about money, but it’s taking into account all the factors like child mortality, prevalence of disease, I think literacy is included as well. And really what you can see again, you can pursue it what the different colours mean, darkest green is the richest, best off, and the black and dark reds are the worst off. And again you can see it’s sub-Saharan Africa which is where the problems lie. OK? That’s where the poor are in our world and where they are getting poorer as time goes on. And again this is just reinforcing the same point, the numbers of people with insufficient food and the change in the last ten, twelve years, you can see Eastern Asia, China it’s got much, much better, so the green lines represent progress, the red lines represent a setback. And again you can see sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia which means places like Bangladesh and Southern India. So sub-Saharan Africa is the main problem. You have heard of the Millennium development goals? The aim is to by 2015 drop the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day. The red line is the goal, the pale blue line is where it was in 1990, the dark blue line is where it is in 2001. So again you can see sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are really where the problems are. The major problems.

I want to say a brief word about oil because that was the initial context, for sparking these meditations. As the oil supply contracts, which it has begun to do, last year there was a decline, what will happen is that the market will ensure that the oil goes to those who can pay for it, which of course means that the oil will be purchased by those who are comparatively well off and those who are not well off will be taken out of the market for oil, and therefore out of the market for easily portable energy. Now this has already started to happen this year, sorry in 2006, stretching back a little bit into 2005, where entire swathes of the African economy are being taken out of action. There was a very interesting article in the Financial Times a couple of months ago by the President of Senagal describing how when petrol goes up by 10 pence a litre it causes grumbling in the West, but it means that those who live on 600 dollars a year they suddenly cannot afford the oil at all, and therefore all the economic links flowing from that start to break down, and he was expressing a great deal of concern that unless this changed through 2007 into 2008 there would be a massive refugee crisis, basically as the population pursued any form of energy in order to heat, to cook food and so on. So all sorts of problems will flow from that.

And it’s about things which are really trivial in many ways to us, and one example I was pondering, you know occasionally I do even less justifiable uses of the car, but taking the boys swimming in Colchester the other day, which is a sort of twenty mile round trip, is not something I particularly think about but magnify that around the population as a whole and that’s drawing up a huge amount of petrol for something which is not essential to life, it is something which makes life more pleasant. But as a result of choosing to make our life more pleasant, it’s actually causing severe deprivation to those who are poor. Now this is not something, and this is really the underlying point, I’m not really wanting to say this is a matter of individual choices. I think there are lots of ways in which individual choices can make a difference but actually I think there is something systemic here. Our Western economy has been built up around cheap oil and we can’t simply stop it. Because to simply stop the Western economy would also cause a huge amount of suffering. But I do think our Western economy is going to be profoundly changed and altered as the cheap oil gets taken away.

Now the imbalance that I’m talking about, things that are very marginal to us would have a huge impact on especially on what you might call the Fourth World or the destitute world, sub-Saharan Africa. It is profoundly unjust as a system, not necessarily every individual person within it is choosing to be unjust, but as a system it is unjust. Now I mean that in biblical terms and I want to read to you a story I ponder a lot which I am sure you are all very familiar with which is Dives and Lazarus, because there is a very important point in it.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell where he was in torment he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue because I am in agony in this fire.” But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony, and besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.” He answered, “Then I beg you Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house for I have five brothers, let him warn them so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them.” “No, Father Abraham”, he said, “But if someone from the dead goes to them they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Lots and lots of things in that story, but the point I want to draw out from it this morning that there’s no hint at all that dives the rich man does anything actively against Lazarus. He simply ignores him. You know there’s no sense that Dives is horrible to Lazarus, that’s it’s because of the things that Dives has done that Lazarus is poor, it’s simply that the rich man ignores the beggar at the gate, and it’s that ignoring that the testimony of Scripture as a whole is criticising and saying renders us liable to judgement. But of course there are lots of other things in Scripture about poverty and riches. I’m sure a verse you’re all familiar with: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.

Now one way of thinking of what Scripture talks about in these terms, is to think in terms of social justice. Because Scripture is not actually against material blessing. If you think of the vision of the Promised Land, it’s the land flowing with milk and honey. It is a materially wealthy environment which is God’s intention for us. And nor is it strictly speaking against absolute poverty, in the sense that the embrace of poverty is not something which is alien to God’s intentions for us. I’ll say more about that as we come on. It is against – and very, very strongly against – the idea that some people get left behind. OK, so to use modern language, the Bible is less concerned about absolute poverty than about relative poverty. It’s about people not being able to share in the community and it’s about not leaving people behind, not letting some people suffer while other people enjoy great wealth. It’s the imbalance that is being criticised. OK, hence “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” You don’t separate love of neighbour and love of self. You are part of the community. It’s a very communal attitude in Scripture.

Now I want to mention an article which I read, must have been about 1988 I think, in the Economist, which was comparing the reaction of the British and French governments to the decline of the coal industry in both countries, where to sum up, the British government has said “Let market forces decide”, and therefore you have the spectacle of entire communities being destroyed across the North of England, where the main source of income, the pit, suddenly closes overnight and you have the majority of the working people laid off, and not very much was done about it. The mantra was, “Market forces will decide.” And the Economist article was comparing this to the approach in France, which was also recognising that continually subsiding coal mining was not a very good idea for all sorts of reasons, but they basically said, they are going to take these coal mines out of commission over a period of twenty years so that the communities have time to adjust. In other words there was a concern on the part of their governments about the human impact of allowing market forces to lead the discussion, to lead the decisions. And of course, that means that we can still see the differences twenty years on. I just think that captures for me a different sense of priorities and what Scripture is very clear about is that one of those sets of priorities is much better than the other.

Now just to reiterate, this isn’t really a party political point, because there might have been all sorts of ways in which this situation in Britain could have been addressed without, if you like, top down government intervention. The issue was that there was no concern taken. If you read some of the biographies of Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher, who was admirable in all sorts of ways, there is this very telling bit in the early 80’s when she talks about, “These are not our people”. And that’s really what I’m trying to get at. The sense that “these are not our people”. That’s the heinous sin in biblical terms. You know, it’s not to say that this particular solution is the one which has to be chosen, it’s to say we must be concerned, we can’t say these are our people, those are the others and we are not going to worry about them. Come back to Dives and Lazarus. Dives doesn’t do anything active against Lazarus, he just ignores it, ignores him, and it’s that process of ignoring and not caring which is the concern.

Now three tools just to reiterate, which we are using in each section, idolatry, wrath and apocalypse. So look for where there might be an idol, consider what happens when idols are removed, and the language of apocalypse or to be more precise, eschatology. What is it like to live in the kingdom, where are we going, assuming that God is in charge, that he will accomplish his purposes, how can we live in the light of what’s coming. OK, just to reiterate.

Now I think the idol in particular which we need to be concerned about is growth. Understood as economic growth, which as an ex-Civil Servant, I have read many, many politicians speeches, I would be delighted if I never have to read another politician’s speech in my life, but you will see, if you look at politician’s speeches how there is lip service paid to economic growth so often. Now this is something which has been building for a long time, the economy has been growing for a long time and if you remember our third session when I was talking about exponential growth rates, you will see slow growth for a very, very long period of time and suddenly it starts to accelerate and zooms upwards, which is what has happened with Western economies. Now one of the reasons, in many ways is a very sane reason why such a dominant political concern is the experience of the 1930’s when growth reversed, there was very large scale widespread unemployment, huge social misery which was only really alleviated by the shift into the war economies through the 40’s. And the reasons why that happened to the Western economy, and there are still all sorts of academic debates about it, but this is something which the political classes are very committed to ensuring doesn’t happen again. Now I’m sure that’s one of the underlying reasons, it’s a question of fear, they are afraid of it happening again.

Now that, there is a group of six bars or eight bars covering different areas, you can see hidden underneath it, the exponential curve, since the industrial revolution here, growth, physical growth has taken off and it has shot up. We are astonishingly wealthy as a community, as a world society, we have more wealth than we know what to do with, but the systemic problems are that it all gets accumulated, you know,”to those who have, more will be given, and from those who have little, even that will be taken away.”

Now of course, Jesus has a very explicit instruction, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Mammon is the god of wealth. So if you are concerned to worship the god of wealth or economic growth, then you can’t also serve God. Now what is growth, beyond a certain point of having enough food to eat, clothing on your back, shelter from the wind and the rain, what does growth actually mean, because for the vast majority of our society, we left behind that level of need quite a long time ago. Alright, even if after the war we had rationing and so forth when we were much better fed than we are now, you know the sense of being afraid of famine in Britain is not really what is driving our economic growth. It’s more and more stuff. And we have to buy stuff in order that people can be employed making stuff. And they need to be employed making stuff so that they can buy stuff. And so you get more and more stuff and you get stuffed. One definition of cancer, OK, is growth in a part of an organism which takes no regard of the health of the wider organism. It’s one bit which has run away growth without respect to the wider context.

Now our human economy, our human ecology, involves many, many more aspects, you know human civilisation has much more to it than the accumulation of stuff, but the stuff growing has been growing without respect to the wider human context, and so when you hear politicians say we must have more growth, we must ensure that the growth of our economy continues to give jobs etc., try and add in each time you hear politicians say growth, the phrase “of our cancer”. Because what’s going on is that the economy is becoming more and more separate from the human concerns which are actually its base, that the economy is becoming more and more distorted and damaging. This was the sense in our last session talking about the environmental impact, that essentially what needs to happen is that the economy, you know the monetary flows and industry and so forth, needs to be reintegrated with our human context. And let us be human is our motto.

(The quote is from Isaiah Chapter 3, “The spoil of the poor is in your houses”, which my ethics tutor at university delighted in quoting to me. I’ll come back to that.)

Mammon soldiers, I want to say something briefly about this because it’s not just a governmental point, it’s not just about governments. Think of a listed company which has a certain legal personality and certain legal duties in terms of maximising the value for its shareholders. You have an institution which is geared up in pursuit of very defined aims, and those who work within that company, if they do not pursue those aims, they can either be liable, or they can be sacked or even taken to court. OK? Is that generally understood? But what you have, if, and again, it begs a lot of wider political questions which perhaps we can go into in the discussion later, because it is not a monochrome situation, but what you can have developing then, and I will give you an example, is a situation where an entire company is oriented on something which is destructive of wider humanity. Because they are doing what the whole company is designed to do, the company is designed to pursue economic growth for itself, and that is reinforced and strengthened by everything surrounding it in terms of its legal structure, its corporate ethos and so forth. And the issue is that this is not necessarily something which is healthy for the wider human context.

I think a good example is Exxon, and its financing of climate denial. For the last ten, fifteen years, Exxon has funded at least a dozen, what are called think tanks with very impressive academic sounding titles, like the Institute for Climate Research, for example, and of these many different think tanks which they directly fund, they often had the same people working for them, and all they do is push out – and this was a conscious strategy, there is documentation to prove this – there is a conscious strategy to persuade the media that there is debate in the scientific community about the nature of global warming. It wasn’t even to prove that global warming is wrong, the aim, the conscious aim was to ensure that the media portrayed it as a debate. Now for those of you who went to see Al Gore’s film, “The Inconvenient Truth”, there is this wonderful moment when he surveys I think the last fifteen years of published scientific papers on global warming, of which not 1% denied the reality of global warming, and it compared it to the articles in the media, discussing global warming which were split pretty evenly between those who said it was true and those that said it was false. In other words Exxon’s strategy had succeeded.

And they are doing the same with oil, about peak oil, I won’t talk about that too much now. The thing about what Exxon has done to change the way that this debate is framed and understood in the media, is a good example of something where a company has pursued its own interest at the expense of the wider community. And within the terms of what the company has set up to do it is entirely rational, it makes perfect sense. This has meant that they can have a better return on their investment for their shareholders. Does that make sense? And so I think we can think of them as mammon’s soliders, because they are working for mammon.

Now partly I think it’s a cultural thing and if you like the health or if you like morality of a company is not detachable from the health or morality of its wider society, OK. The Anglo Saxon companies tend to be a little bit more short-term for example than say the Japanese companies, which tend to go more for long-term market share, so you can’t detach, it is not purely a question of the legalities and so forth, it is something that reflects on the wider culture. But really, the point I’m trying to make is that business logic is different to Christian logic and the church and Christian community should feel bold enough to say that this is not acceptable, you know simply because something makes money and preserves jobs and so forth does not make it immune to criticism, that there are more important things than that. Like for example, avoiding catastrophic climate change. So that’s the idol, mammon.

God’s wrath, remember I was saying God’s wrath is simply when we experience the consequences of our actions. When you worship an idol the idol gives you what it promises, but takes life in return, so the idol of economic growth will give you economic growth but will take your life in return. So for example, although most surveys of economic growth concentrate on what’s called GDP or Gross Domestic Product, Gross National Product and so forth, which is looking at how much stuff is done, the last ten/fifteen years there are lots of ways in which the assessment of our economies has been done differently. So for example, looking at the human quality of life which gives a value or assessment to things like clean air, literacy rates, and using these, particularly in the States where it’s clearest, there has actually been, although there has been a monetary increase, you know there has been economic growth, there is more money going around, there has actually been quite a significant decrease in the average quality of life for at least twenty years. Mammon is giving economic growth, but it is taking life in exchange.

Anyhow, idols always collapse in the end and we can be fairly specific about it in the context of peak oil, physical growth will come to an end, just as a purely physical law you can’t continue to expand the physical process when you have a significantly contracting energy base. Hence the thing about oil. What won’t necessarily cease, and one of the things we can hope for, is actually human growth, human development doesn’t have to cease. And there are lots of ways in which the economy can shift away from something which is so dominated by the physical to a situation which emphasises the exchange of creativity. These things are not directly affected by the problems with oil and energy. So there is no reason why human civilisation cannot be rich in a civilisational sense, even if we haven’t got quite so much stuff. You know, think of Ancient Greece. They didn’t have half so much stuff but they had a rich society. So I’m just thinking in terms of the physical basis is going impacted. You will see the truth of our present situation. It’s one of those things that is so big and so vast, it’s often not addressed, it’s ignored. The question of how our whole society is structured around preserving growth. That when growth is taken away and chances are at least for a generation or two it will never come back, then suddenly we will see the ways in which our society, our community needs to change, it will see the truth and the truth will set us free. God will destroy what I think of as the systemic injustices.

There will be various consequences to this, not least of which human suffering, where as I say, it has already begun, it’s already started to happen and I think it has been happening for ten, twenty years. A graph which I put up when we looked at the catastrophes which looks at available energy per capita, which peaked in about 1979, which means less energy per person in the world ever since, and I think it’s sub-Saharan Africa which has been, if you like, where the problems started and of course it’s spreading. How far it spreads is still to be determined.

And the result of this will be as the President of Senegal warn in his article, human movement, mass migrations, you know. When people start starving, can’t feed themselves, they will move. And watch Mexico. Mexico’s oil production, well Mexico’s economy is heavily linked into the production of oil by the state-owned national oil company called Pemex. OK, Petrol of Mexico. And they have, just off shore, the largest oil field in the Western hemisphere, called Cantarell which is huge, the third largest in the entire world, largest in the Western hemisphere, and it is what has been sustaining the Mexican economy for twenty, thirty years. Vast flows of money coming through from it, and the production from that well is crashing. It was up to I think just over two million barrels a day, it went down by about two hundred thousand barrels per day just in the last six months. And that rate of decline is going to impact on everything to do with Mexico’s society. OK? And watch what happens when the people in Mexico move. You know, I have mentioned this before, President Bush signing the bill to pay for a wall to be built, and the walls are going to start going up. Anyway, it is something to watch. And something we will talk about a little bit more next week is what will the governments in these countries do when they see such problems and destitution?

Eschatological imagination, again, just to refresh, where are we going and how can we live in a way that’s in sympathy with it now? How can we live now according to the Kingdom that’s coming? How can we change what we are doing now so we are in tune with God’s final intentions for us? In a phrase, voluntary simplicity. Simplifying our lives. Not being so caught up in the great cycle of stuff. Stop passing new stuff on. Or a different way of putting it “most of twentieth century culture isn’t worth it”. I haven’t actually watched any but all the articles and fuss about Big Brother. It’s calling for a fundamental change in our values. OK? That we give value to different things. That we embrace the things that actually enrich our human lives. That we don’t simply accumulate. The spoil of the poor is in your houses. And it’s a bit of weird movement, marching to have less, not saying we want more of x, y or z, but actually quietly stopping marching if you like. Dropping out to use a sixties phrase.

And of course there is lots of backing for this in Scripture. St Paul, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have”. How about that for a radical sentence? That’s someone who is not wanting to accumulate more stuff. “I know what it is to have little, I know what it is to have plenty, I have learned the secret of being well fed and going hungry, of having plenty, of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me”. He has got his relationship to God right. Everything else then falls into place. Or in 1 Timothy, “Great gain in godliness combined with contentment, we brought nothing into the world and we take nothing out.” The idea that he who dies with the most toys wins. I think not.

So in some ways a slightly underwhelming conclusion, I will come back to this theme but just for today to finish with this. Stop buying stuff. I’m taking to myself here as well. But I do have a New Year’s resolution which I am going to try and keep because my besetting sin is buying books, you know, and I have got at least a year’s worth of books accumulated to read and I think this is scandal, I need to stop, but I am aware of what it is to compulsory purchase. At least Tom Wright’s earnt a lot more recently!

So purchase stuff for the long term. Purchase stuff which will last or which can be fixed. It is getting more and more difficult because of course, things like a toaster, OK, they are not designed to be fixed, they are designed to be thrown away, if they go wrong. This is insane! We have got an economy which is structured where that makes sense in economic terms. It’s barking mad! But is makes sense in economic terms. This is all common sense really.

The three R’s. You might have heard this. The three R’s are reduce, reuse and recycle in that order. You know recycling is a good thing but it is not as good, it’s not as important as reusing things or simply not purchasing them or using them in the first place. That’s the hierarchy, reduce consumption comes first. I’m sure you’ve all heard the phrase, “Walk lightly on the earth,” or “Live simply so that others might simply live.” This is not new stuff. Concentrate on being human, one of the most important distinctions I think to hold on to is the difference between the tool, which is something that you use, often that you use for your labour, and possessions, which is just the stuff that accumulates. Which is why I don’t feel quite as guilty as I might about my books, I am sure I have quoted this before, I had a conversation with my ethics tutor on this very subject when I expressed even twenty years ago my concern about purchasing too many books, he said, “Well actually, your theology books are your tools.” And it’s true. These are the things that I work with, even there though I think there are options for minimising and restricting.

Are people familiar with Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”? He has some very telling things to say on this subject, about comfort. And he says, “Comfort begins as a guest in the house, then it becomes the master of the house, and then it becomes a tyrant who makes a mockery of our flesh.” Because we get used to being couch potatoes.

Now one thought which is part of the reason why I was wanting to have the film shown in here, going into so many people’s houses, people have DVD libraries. I’ve got one, my favourite films, but actually so many people have got copies of exactly the same films. Why shouldn’t we share? For example, why couldn’t the church invite people to share their DVD libraries, sell all the duplicate copies off and give the money to the poor, and actually operate a little library, free library, not something they have to pay for, but just where the people of this community share something. But of course, that raises all sorts of cultural questions. You know, “It’s no longer mine!”
“Aaah”. “What if it gets broken?” “Aaah”.

Final quotation: “If you wish to be complete, go and sell all you have and give to the poor” . I’ll stop there.

[Inaudible question] No it’s not true. The price of oil has come down for two reasons, one is that swathes of the Third World have been taken out of the buying market, they are simply no longer buying so there is less demand, but the other is the very, very mild winter. People are not needing to purchase as much gas or oil for heating. I think there is also a third reason which is that the price was pushed up by speculation over the summer and when it was realised that we weren’t going to have quite such a bad hurricane season, those positions taken by the speculators have unwound, and that’s given a bit of acceleration. But I think the main reason is we are going to have a very mild winter across the Northern Hemisphere. Across the Northern Hemisphere is the mildest winter for you know decades, I can’t remember the exact figure, but it is a very, very mild winter, and I am sure you have all noticed. Someone was telling me this morning there has only been three frosts so far, but that is the main drop in drive, the demand has been less. Much less than expected for this time of year. So hence the price drops.

I asked my Bible group yesterday, we were talking about anger, “When was the last time that the church, not individual members of the church, including individual leaders of the church, but when was the last time the church as a whole, corporately, either Church of England, or an ecumenical thing, officially expressed anger at injustice?” And if it hasn’t for a while, because we couldn’t think of an occasion, if it hasn’t, why not?! Come back in two weeks and I will be saying a bit more about that.

I think this is very much something which churches should engage with. I think the root of it is about raising the concern. I think one of the good things which the Christian community has been involved with over the last few years is the Jubilee campaign. Which was precisely about this, I haven’t talked about debt today, it raises lots of issues, and debt in terms of international relations and so forth, but also debt within our society. I think debt is a great hidden problem and that’s something where I think the churches should be doing something. You know the Bible is pretty clear about the evil of usury. It is much clearer about that than it is about some of the other things that we get agitated about. But the ways in which families get destroyed and when loan sharks move in and you get these 25% at best interest rates, there’s no way that can be justified from a Christian perspective.

There is an issue and I have tried to make it clear earlier. I think there are things which we as individuals can do, and there are even more things, and even more important things which we can do corporately, together as a church community. But I don’t think we can solve these problems. And I don’t actually think that we should try and labour ourselves, and weigh ourselves down with the expectation that we can, because actually I think God is in charge, not us. And much of what is coming is God, we can view it as God acting to dismantle the things, we call if you like, the structures of oppression. God is going to act, God is going to take these things down. A wonderful Johnny Cash song, “Sooner or later, God’s gonna cut you down.”

In the last session, I have started drafting this already, I am going to finish up with a dozen pledges, things that we can commit ourselves to as a community and number one is prayer. I think that the thing to do is to move towards the kingdom, move in the right direction and not worry too much about the fact that we are embedded in sin and we cannot escape from the sin. You know, this is what Jesus died on the cross to set us free from and therefore we don’t actually have to get too het up about it. We must do our best to move away from them, we must do our best to bear the fruits that befits repentance and so on. But not feel it’s like mortified that for example, I take my kids swimming. We live in the society that we do and the society as a whole is itself is enmeshed in sin. And simply by existing in society, by shopping, by eating food, we cannot avoid sharing in a sinful community. But you know, we should do what we can and keep pressing on in the direction of the Kingdom, but not get too het up by the fact that we are not going to be pure, because we’re not. We are never going to be pure this side of the second coming.

A bit more bull

I’ve been reflecting on the ‘dialogue’ that was taking place over at Stephen Law’s site, about the problem of suffering and so on. A few things come to mind, the first a quotation that I may well have shared before:

The ‘third rate’ critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher’s rhetoric. ‘Second rate’ critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But ‘first rate’ critics “delight in the originality of those they criticise…; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher’s position”–one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored.

I don’t know who originally wrote it, but it was Matt K who posted it on the MD discussion board about five years ago when I came across it. It has more and more resonance with me as time goes on. (NB I’m thinking in this post primarily of the other commenters, not Stephen himself, who seems more circumspect).

The second thing that strikes me, in a sort of ‘background awareness’ sort of way – that is, I might be wrong but haven’t yet seen any reason to suspect that I am – is that my interlocutors mistake the nature of religious language. I have written elsewhere about there being different sorts of knowledge or belief – compare for example ‘Mrs Jones has committed adultery’ and ‘your wife has committed adultery’ – and the point is the embedded nature of religious beliefs within certain practices and forms of life. In other words, the depth grammar of religious belief is not the same as the depth grammar of, eg, a scientific debate. Scientific or philosophical language is simply not the same sort of thing as religious language. My interlocutors seemed to believe that if they could point out an inconsistency or gap in my thinking, in an abstract sense, then this would be enough for my whole way of life to come crumbling down around my ears. Hence the discussion rather rapidly seemed unreal. There is, here, I suspect, a commitment to an Enlightenment-era model of rational discourse, which gives rationality the primary place in shaping a world view. In my view rationality has very definite uses, but there comes a time when it is redundant in assessing truth.

One aspect of this is something I call John Locke’s ghost – that is, I believe that my interlocutors are haunted by seventeenth century terrors. John Locke advanced the argument that we are morally accountable for our beliefs (see this book), and the context for this was the way in which the peace of Europe had been sundered by (supposedly) religious warfare through the preceding 150 years or so. There is therefore a peculiar static charge associated with accepting ambiguity in a world-view – if you quite happily accept that there is something not fully understood in your belief system then you are fall under a judgement of moral failure – and thus a fear for life and property. I think this is often completely unconscious – it’s been absorbed into general Western culture (especially academic culture) – but it isn’t a perspective that can sustain much rational scrutiny itself. It’s a ghost that could do with a proper burial.

Which leads into the final thing I would want to say – the incomprehension and ridicule of mystery. Mystery seems to be assessed as the complete abdication of rational faculties, rather than their fulfilment (which is how mysticism is understood in the Christian tradition). To bring out this point it’s worth making a comparison with the way that science evolves. No scientific view or theory is perfect; each has flaws and gaps; but these are not seen as things which necessarily overwhelm the system as a whole. What causes the system as a whole to collapse – ie a paradigm shift – is when the framework itself is no longer seen as fruitful for further enquiry. This was one of the points at stake in the Galileo debate – even though a heliocentric model was less accurate than the Ptolemaic one in use at the time, the heliocentric model held out the prospect of being much more fertile, which was why the scientific approach embraced it. The same thing applies to the embrace of a religious faith – here there is the possibility of ‘fruitful lines of enquiry’ which, translated from scientific language into religious language means ‘here I can grow as a person’, ‘this is not sterile for me’, ‘this is food for my soul, not just my intellect’. That doesn’t mean that there are no gaps or mysteries – but religious faith is not unique in that – it means that these particular gaps aren’t overwhelming in the context of everything else in play. More than this – it is precisely the intellectual tradition of religious mysticism that gives a proper understanding of what to do in the face of these gaps.

I think my dominant impression – and it is a sad realisation – is that not only do I feel that my point of view was not understood but that there was no desire to understand it. No sense of a genuine dialogue and interchange of views, no sense that a religious believer might be something other than dishonest, intellectually crippled and emotionally cowering. There was a distinct flavour of ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ in the comment thread – where the religious are by definition the quiche-eaters, as compared to the red blooded atheists who are the brave pioneers into the intellectual wilderness. (This despite the fact that this particular wilderness has now been so well travelled that Tesco has decided to open a new store there). My interlocutors seem content to keep their noses pressed to their well-thumbed critiques and have no desire to engage in an honest exploration of what a religious perspective entails. There seemed very little intellectual curiosity on display (and surely curiosity is linked to courage?).

I’ll finish with one more quotation – again, I suspect I’ve quoted it before, but it is a good one – from Denys Turner, in his ‘how to be an atheist’ essay:

“…since today my purpose is to encourage the atheists to engage in some more cogent and comprehensive levels of denying, I shall limit my comment to saying that thus far they lag well behind even the theologically necessary levels of negation, which is why their atheisms are generally lacking in theological interest… such atheists are, as it were, but theologians in an arrested condition of denial: in the sense in which atheists of this sort say God ‘does not exist’, the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting-point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology.”


Today I celebrate four years in post. And I do mean celebrate. We had this text at Morning Prayer, which rather amused me:

Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

He rather puts my grumbles into proper perspective!

Rev Sam, bull$4!t artist

At two of the establishments where I studied Philosophy and Theology I was tutored by Stephen Law, who I found to be a great teacher and a very nice man. He’s also a very intelligent and committed atheist. I’ve just managed to get snagged in a discussion about evil and suffering on his blog, where one of his regulars says “I don’t think you’re a theist. I think, based on the arguments you’ve given that you’re nothing but a bullshit artist”.

Ho hum. From my perspective the conversation is revealing the great gulf that exists between theologians and secular philosophers of religion. We seem to be talking past each other rather painfully, which is a shame. See posts here, here and here.

Not often seen….

Had some (very lovely) friends here Friday/Saturday – and they took some photos – so I thought I’d share one or two… The first is an image I’d never take:

Mrs Rev Sam and bambino #3 (we strongly recommend these Bali wraps – are you listening Paul?)

And this is the whole clan:

Family and friendship. That’s most of what gives life meaning for me.