Friday, 15 February 2019

Belle Fisher on Psalm 33

Facilitating the ministry of all God's people in a given place is in many ways what being an incumbent is all about. Christians are called to minister throughout our communities and neighbourhoods. I long to see more Christian discipleship outsides the confines of the church but I am delighted to have identified a young person within Monken Hadley church whose calling may well include a ministry of the word. I recently invited Belle to take a break from preparing for her A levels and preach at the evening service. Those of us who were there to hear her sermon on Psalm 33 felt very blessed. With her permission, I want to share some of that blessing with you. Here is a script of her sermon:

1)   We’ll be looking at tonight's psalm, Psalm 33. But first of all, I’d just like to start of by asking you to have a think about something. I won’t ask you to say anything out loud, but just have a think. So, my question is, what are you grateful for, what do you give thanks for, who do you give thanks to, who are you grateful to….

2)   Because, I think as humans, we have a tendency to cling to our own achievements, reluctant to share the credit with anyone else. Particularly, when it comes to acknowledging the hand of God on our lives or successes.

3)   I wonder if you’ve ever been in a situation like this: where you’ve been perhaps awed by the incredible skill of a doctor, or the diligence and inspiration of an activist.

4)   And then, you hear someone say, or you think perhaps yourself, oh thank God he’s alright the surgery was successful, or thank God justice was implemented. And you think, what. Because I didn’t see God down here with a scalpel, or setting his bone in place.

5)   And actually, the main, or only time  when the reliance, or trust in God becomes really easy is really when our problems go beyond our abilities, and we are forced to trust him. We entrust to God things like, our future, or our health, or the health of people we love, because to an extent, they are completely unpredictable, and so beyond us.

6)   I have big exams coming up, in a couple of months very important ones, but I’m mindful, that I don’t forget, in the pride of all the hard work I’ve put in, or the worry and stress, that I can lean on God. That my future, at this relatively unpredictable time in the world, and my own life, isn’t just on my shoulders. I have a source of infinite love, and wisdom and comfort right there, and it’s something we can be utterly reliant on.

7)   So before we discuss how we can be thankful, or trusting in God, at all times. I think there’s something very important that we have to first understand from all this, that, we are completely dependent, utterly reliant on God. So I think the question is...If the key to being truly thankful, lies in trust and reliance, how do we learn to rely completely on God.

Well, Psalm 33 gives us some great answers.

1)   The first few verses are an exuberant call to praise God in song and with musical instruments, and it really sets the tone for the rest of the psalm. Then the psalmist, we’re not entirely sure who wrote it, but they begin giving the reasons, as to why we should praise God.

2)   Verses 6-7 declare “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars, he puts the deep into storehouses”.

3)   Until we believe that God created everything, you, me, the trees, stars, oceans, we won’t accept that the world is controlled by, dependent on, his wisdom and power.

4)   Believing that God created the world, it leads us to the truth of his providence in ruling the world. So to develop that thankful mindset, we must be in awe. And truly it is not difficult to be in awe. I found out last week that you produce 2.5 million red blood cells, every second! And apparently, the human eye can differentiate approximately 10 million different colours. It is not difficult to be in awe

The second reason the psalmist gives us, is that God, is the designers of our fates.

1)   Verses 10-12 “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

2)   We all think we are in some way steering the course of history, in many ways this is quite wrong. It is estimated that about 108 billion members of our species have ever been born. What are we amongst that, what real difference can we make.

3)   Now, I do not want us to go away feeling insignificant, or unimportant. In fact, quite the opposite of that. We are important because we are part of a much greater plan, and purpose.

4)   Even more incredible is that we all share in the likeness of God, we each contain reflections of his nature. In our love, kindness, mercy, empathy, compassion. We are part of a beautiful creation…

The third reason

1)   Verses 13-17  “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord...from heaven he looks down and sees all mankind...he watches all who live on earth, he who forms the hearts of all, considers all they do. No king is saved by the size of his army, nor warrior escapes by his great strength.. The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, to deliver them from death”.

2)   Essentially, we cannot save ourselves, I cannot alone be successful in my exams, or my later life. I do not live by my own methods and successes, but by God’s will.

3)   We are today, in a world that is inundated with methods and techniques for how to live a Christian life, be a good, loving person. Take the example of self-help books, literally spelling out how you can be a better person, or another example, people commonly ask the question What Would Jesus Do?

4)   And of course, many of these methods are pretty credible, often these self-help books are based on scripture or teaching, and the question What Would Jesus Do, asks us to draw inspiration from his life. But the important bit, I think, is to use these methods, enforce these habits, because we trust in God to enable them, not ourselves in our own intelligence and power.

Fourth reason

1)   So we’ve just heard in verse 13, that God sees everyone on earth, and now in verse 18, the psalmist states “the eye of the Lord are on those who fear him”.

2)   What does this mean?

3)   Well I think it means that God looks out for those, looks with favour, on those who fear and trust in him to deliver them from those overwhelming, and painful situations.

4)    God works, not by finding those with the most power, and strength, and authority, but through those who trust, and rely in him. We do not have to be strong, or self-sufficient. But humble. Those who learn to be thankful, must first learn to trust.

Last reason

1)   The last verses, 18 to 22, are filled with synonyms for trust in the lord, fear, hope, “our help and our shield”.

2)   The psalms generally are big on trust, indeed the Hebrew word for trust appears more frequently in the psalms than in any other place.

3)   Again, it’s not that our methods, or habits, are wrong, it’s our trust in them that is faulty, our trust must be in God alone, and what is the result of this? Well go back to the beginning of the psalm.

4)   Complete trust in God results in a thankful, worshiping heart, they are bound up, you cannot have one without the other.

5)   The secret to being grateful, being thankful is to recognize you are in a desperate situation, and from that, delight in salvation, and. You can’t help but sing for joy.

Heavenly Father,
Open our hearts to welcome your eternal love, and devotion. You who designed the stars and the heavens, and drew together the seas, who fashioned out hearts and minds. The same God, who calls us to praise, and draws near in comfort. You cry out for us to trust.
Help us to recognise our dependence, our reliance, and place our lives into your hands.
Open our eyes to see this wonderful creation, help us to never feel ashamed, or afraid, or unworthy to give thanks for it.
Lord, you have given us so much, but we pray lastly, for a grateful heart.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Transforming Conflict

I participated in  the Bridge Builders Course Transforming Conflict 1: Leadership, Discipleship & Community on 3 -8 February 2019. It was brilliant and I am grateful for the facilitators who led the course. I want to jot down a few things to embed my learning.
One of the objectives of the course is to transform our attitude towards conflict and engaging with conflict, another to increase our self-awareness as leaders facing conflict. The poem Conflict – what art thou? suggests that conflict has always been with us. The difference between A and B is not a problem but a difference with tension leads A and B to C for Conflict, out of which flows predictably D and E.
There is diversity within unity in the Trinity; there is no grasping within the Trinity (cf. Philippians 2). Difference becomes a problem where the unity of love is lost. It is lost by the fear of not having enough, the desire with which we seek to grasp rather than receive.
Wants Needs
Needs must
“Conflicts are power struggles over differences.” (Hugh Halverstadt)
Some people fear conflict, others relish it. Fearing conflict can lead to avoiding it but avoiding conflict can feed it, make it bigger and more difficult to handle. Conflict can come across as a force but there is nothing automatic and inevitable about it. In the poem Conflict – what art thou? D and E lead to F, G and H but these are denied (“not to be Giant...”) and the sequence is broken. Power lies with people (within relationships), not with the conflict as such, and we must take responsibility for the power given to us (as well as the power grasped by us). It helps to realise how much power we have and how powerful adopting a certain stance can be, e.g. the offer of a non-anxious presence.
It is right that conflict questions and rattles us but with the right skills and motivation we can engage with it and having been transformed ourselves, released from the need to justify and defend ourselves, we can help to transform conflict.
Conflict brings danger and opportunity. The danger is represented in the poem as the stinger of a scorpion. Poetically the chiastic D-E-E-D sequence of lines 3-5 is echoed in the (less obvious) R-S-S-R sequence, interrupted by revisiting B and C, but part of the new ‘narrative’ (Q-R-S in the middle stanza followed by T-U-V-W-X-Y in the final stanza). The new sequence (‘narrative’) is the result of a decision to frame conflict from a new perspective and the use of new skills. These allow C to emerge as a positive word (“Comfortable”), once the danger has been removed. In fact, the middle stanza does not mention “Conflict” but this does not mean it is ignored (it is after all the implied subject of “Questioning” and “Rattling”). Rather, it is not allowed to dominate. Space is made, embodied in the beginning of the stanza, not least by the refusal to engage in tit-for-tat.
The opportunity conflict offers is the lifting of veils, allowing two unknown entities (“X and Y”) to see each other “face to face / For the first time.” (I was thinking of the wonderful novel by C.S. Lewis, Til We Have Faces).* The absence of Z suggests that the story is not over; the absence of the letters between H and P maybe signals that not everything can and needs to be said.

*In the poem, counter-intuitively, it is the seeing that removes the veil not vice versa, emphasising our decision to see as the action that enables conflict to be a lifter of veils. The novel suggests that only  honesty gives us faces, making it possible for “the gods” to engage with us.

Conflict - What Art Thou?

Conflict – what art thou?
Ancient, Always Bubbling
Ever Deepening
Conflict – not to be
Feared. Thou art no Giant,
Holding the Power.

Conflict – Questioning us,
Rattling us –
A Scorpion:
Beautiful and
Comfortable, the Stinger

Conflict – what art thou?
To be trusted to un-veil: when
X and Y see face to face
For the first time.

Felden Lodge, Hemel Hempstead, 8 February 2019

Friday, 1 February 2019

More on the Guidance for Gender Transitioning Services

The Pastoral Guidance issued by the House of Bishops for parishes planning services to help trans people mark their transition has been give a response in an open letter asking the House  to revise, postpone or withdraw this guidance until significant concerns have been properly addressed. This letter in turn has received an angry response by some with the agreement of the Bishop of Liverpool among others. These may be signs that the plea to listen will fall on deaf ears but a more measured response came from the Revd Dr Tina Beardsley, retired healthcare Chaplain, researcher and co-author of This is My Body and Transfaith. Her response makes me want to underline a few things and make a note of a few questions in the hope of developing my own understanding if no-one else’s.
First, it seems to me that the Open Letter never speaks of trans people because it does not seek to speak about people; it speaks to a Guidance which commends the unqualified celebration of a process. There is of course a relationship between trans people and the process of gender transition but the Letter questions the assumption that the only way to welcome trans people is to celebrate their gender transition liturgically – and to do so in every case.
Secondly, if the Guidance had merely cautioned against dead-naming and mis-gendering people, it would not have caused this Response. There is a difference between welcoming people, using their preferred names and pronouns, and offering a liturgical stamp of approval on gender transition. The former we can do while remaining agnostic about any specific transitioning process, the latter demands that we make a (positive) judgement on the process which in turn requires an agreed understanding of what gender transition is and why it is always something to be celebrated. Hence the call for serious theological analysis.
Thirdly, Tina Beardsley queries the focus on gender dysphoria, observing that the trans experience is broader. The reason for this focus on gender dysphoria lies in the fact that the Guidance specifically speaks of celebrating gender transition. This appears to assume that someone has received a gender recognition certificate which at present, here in England, is only possible after a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or after sex reassignment surgery. The latter also falls in the category of gender dysphoria, understood, with the American Psychiatric Association,  as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.” It is not clear that the Guidance issued by the House of Bishops is meant to apply to gender nonconformity as distinct from gender transitioning that seeks to resolve a mismatch (gender dysphoria), whether the mismatch had been experienced as distressing or not.
Fourthly, if being trans means to understand, feel, and identify oneself as having a gender mentality that conflicts with the sexual characteristics of one’s body and with the gender which society stereotypically attributes to people with those sexual characteristics, trans identity has a long history. Nevertheless there have been significant developments in the 20th century which change the context and raise new questions (see below) and there have been new developments in recent years in relation to pre-pubescent children which raise new concerns (Peter Ould makes reference to these in his comment).
Fifthly, the last few decades have seen a noticeable move away from gender stereotyping among many, even though elements of sexism and rigidity about gender roles remain. At the same time our ability to make someone’s body conform, to some extent, to their dissonant gender mentality has increased. This means that today the process of gender transitioning, in particular connected with sex reassignment surgery, often tends to affirm and reinforce gender stereotypes, when in the past a lived trans identity more commonly undermined gender assumptions and stereotypes. This is an issue that concerns society as a whole, not just individuals.
Sixthly, the new possibilities for manipulating our bodies raise afresh questions about how we think of our bodies theologically, especially given that the conflict between gender mentality and sexual characteristics is no longer considered a mental health issue.[1] Tina Beardsley points out that “the therapeutic consensus today is that being trans is a human variation, not a pathology” but in those cases were being trans leads to medical intervention[2] it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is a health issue. If it is not a mental health issue, should the dis-ease be located in the body? Should we think of the body of a trans person as “disabled” or “ill” until it is (to some extent) healed by sex reassignment surgery?
Finally, to affirm gender transitions liturgically seems to grant an ontological reality to “gender” as something separate from biological sex. This raises the questions about how we are to think about gender which have not yet been really addressed by the church.  Are we to assume that our souls are gendered in the way our bodies are sexed? Is there a difference between self and soul? Is dissonance always essentially about what it means to be “male” or “female” or is “gender” in some cases unrelated to “male” and “feamle”?
We do not need answers to these questions in order to welcome trans people, using their preferred names and pronouns. It is the recommendation of liturgy which in affirming gender transitions makes certain assumptions which demands that such questions are addressed.

[1] Mental health problems still carry a stigma which is why many are keen to avoid any suggestion that gender dysphoria is a mental health issue.
[2] I recognise that the desire to make one’s body conform to one’s gender identity is not universal among trans people. It is however one of the contexts of the Guidance and the Guidance does not distinguish between gender transitions with and without sex reassignment surgery.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

No Time for God

Stephen Hawking had no time for God. In Brief Answers to the Big Questions and other places he claimed that the role played by time at the beginning of the universe is the final key to removing the need for a grand designer and revealing how the universe created itself.
On Hawking’s view, time itself began at the instant of the Big Bang. This claim is not uncontroversial among scientists.* But if we accept for the sake of argument Hawking’s understanding of the physics of the big bang, what are we to make of his claim that this removes “the need for a grand designer” and reveals “how the universe created itself”?
Three observations:
(1) The question of the existence of God should not be reduced to the question whether we need to postulate a god to explain the existence of everything else. The only “theology” with which Hawking shows familiarity is one that uses “gods/God” to plug in the gaps in our knowledge. This is completely inadequate for Christian theology and I am not sure that it is adequate for any other major religion.
(2) The conflation of the language of causation (used in his argument in a specific sense) with that of design (used in his conclusion about “the need for a grand designer”) seems to be indicative of a more general failure to differentiate causality. Since Aristotle four types of cause have been distinguished: formal, material, efficient and final. Natural laws define material and efficient causes. To deny that there are formal and final causes on the basis that the natural sciences cannot demonstrate them is a logical fallacy.
(3) Language of the universe creating itself is not unproblematic, not only because it attributes agency to the universe but also because we cannot readily conceive of an action of which we cannot say that there was a before and after. In other words, we could just as well say that the universe is eternal: if time does not exist apart from our space-time universe, there is no time at which the universe is not. If Hawking’s science can be shown to be correct, we can exclude a temporal cause for the universe but this not only fails to demonstrate that the big bang was an uncaused event but also still leaves us short of a compelling answer to the question why there is something rather than nothing. (Hawking seems to claim that there really is nothing because for everything positive matter there is, there is negative energy to cancel it out, cf. this previous post, but this does not sound to me like an answer.)
What then is the relationship between God and time? Gregory E. Ganssle who authored the entry on “God and Time” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also edited God and Time: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2001) which hosts a discussion between proponents of four different views: Paul Helm who defends the view of divine eternity as timeless, Alan G. Padgett who argues that God is everlastingly temporal but not in physical (metrical) time, William Lane Craig who speaks of God as timeless without creation and temporal within creation, and Nicholas Wolterstorff who advocates “unqualified divine temporality.” As far as I can see Hawking’s science would not rule out a single one of these options.
The leap from Hawking’s reconstruction of the origins of the universe to atheism is not made on the strength of the science but relies on the truth of his premises, namely (a) there cannot be causality without temporality and (b) all temporality is material. This means that we seem to be dealing with an entirely circular argument.  

* Other physicists favour “the idea that our universe is but one expanding bubble in a much larger pre-existing area of space-time, sometimes called the multiverse” (source).

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Metaphysics of Time

Gleaned from Natalja Deng, God and Time (Cambridge University Press, 2019) in the Elements in the Philosophy of Religion series edited by Yujin Nagasawa.

In contemporary metaphysics A-theorists argue for a dynamic (tensed) theory of time and B-theorists argue for a static (tenseless) theory of time in which time is much like space.
Among A-theorists are, e.g., 
(i) those who believe only the present exists, 
(ii) those who believe that reality is a growing block because the past as well as present time exist, and 
(iii) those who believe that all times exist but that only one of them is ever absolutely present.
B-theorists believe that all times exist but that each time is present only “relative to itself” with no ontological privilege.
“The overall shape of the A versus B dialectic is that the A-theory is often seen as capturing the way we ordinarily think about and experience time, while the B-theory is seen as being closer to the results of modern physics.”

“There are three major metaphysical theories about what how things persist. The first is endurantism. This is the view that things persist by surviving from one time to the next, where this survival amounts to strict numerical identity.”
“Perdurantism is the view that things persist over time by being spread out or extended over it. According to perdurantists, things persist by having not only spatial parts, but also temporal parts (or stages). So, material objects are temporally extended. They are four-dimensional, in the sense that they are spread out in time – the fourth dimension – just like they are spread out in the three spatial dimensions.”
“Endurantism is the view that things persist by being wholly present at each time they exist, where to be wholly present at a time is, roughly, to have all of one’s parts exist at that time... Perdurantists have to be four-dimensionalists, since they think objects persist by having temporal parts (and at least some objects do persist). But there are ways of being a four-dimensionalist without accepting perdurantism.”
“some four-dimensionalists reject perdurantism and accept the stage view (also known as exdurantism) ... This is the third of the three main views of persistence ... on the stage view, it is the stages that persist over time, and that we refer to when we refer to ordinary objects. When someone uses your name, they refer to a stage. Which stage they refer to depends on when they use the name.”

See also Ned Markosian's entry on Time in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Heather Dyke's entry on Time, metaphysics of in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Hawking on Belief Systems

A few observations on the first BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week in 2019, Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions, beautifully read by Anton Lesser.
“Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion. Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything. The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
Hawking believed that religion and science are two fundamental belief systems, competing frameworks for understanding the universe around us. The better we are able to explain events and phenomena in terms of natural causes, the less need there is to appeal to the capriciousness of the gods until the god who lives in the gaps of our knowledge can abdicate because no gaps are left. The final loophole to be closed, in this view, was the question of the origin of the universe. Who or what was there before the Big Bang to get everything going? Because we are (nearly) able to offer a definitive answer to the question how the universe begun by the application of universal and unchangeable physical laws alone,* Hawking felt, there was no longer any need for a god. Science offers a simpler alternative.
I cannot judge the soundness of Hawking’s science (and have no great issues with accepting it) but it is clear to me that Hawking pronounced on more than science and in ways which are clearly unsound.
The claim that “people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science” is untrue. I do not know whether this sentence was meant as a dig at his first wife, whether the claim was informed by some unfortunate encounters, or whether it is purely the result of wishful thinking. In any case, it is not plausible that Hawking did not come across a good few people to whom this verdict does not apply and we therefore seem to have prima facie evidence here for a refusal on his part to acknowledge facts that do not fit his world-view.
Science is a method, not a belief system. The scientific method is capable of being turned into a belief system but only by the addition of non-scientific propositions about the nature of reality. The method itself does not yield the world-view Hawking espoused.
Religion is not a belief system either. This is so not only because every religion is a cultural system that encompasses far more than belief, including also behaviours and practices, but, more importantly, because “religion” in the abstract cannot be a belief system. The various cultural systems we designate religions and the world-views they imply are incompatible with each other and cannot add up to any system.
Whether the Vikings “believed in supernatural beings” in order “to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses” is a matter for historians to debate. As a biblical scholar, I claim that this will not do as an explanation for any “religion” promoted in the Bible.
First, there is little concern with explaining natural phenomena in the Bible. There is a delight in creation expressed in various places and no attempt to curb curiosity about explaining phenomena naturally.
Secondly, the understanding of disasters as divine punishment is not a given. There is no assumption that we can readily deduce anything about the divine will from the presence of disastrous natural or historical events and several explicit warnings against assuming that suffering is the result of having offended God. 
Thirdly, biblical authors assume a version of compatibilism and the possibility of explaining events at different levels (the destruction of the city can be seen as a divine judgement even when it did not involve any unusual, supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events), philosophical views that are at odds with Hawking’s zero-sum-game assumptions.
Fourthly, the Bible speaks of a Creator God who is logical and has imposed order on his universe. This renders the language of “laws of nature” plausible (see, e.g., Jeremiah 31:35-36; 33:25), if the genitive is understood as “laws pertaining to nature” rather than “laws given by Nature,” as if nature was a personal agent. 

* The explanation is roughly as follows: It seems at first as if three ingredients are required to build a universe: matter, energy, and space. Einstein taught us that mass and energy are basically the same thing. Energy and space are therefore the only ingredients needed and these were spontaneously created out of nothing according to the laws of science. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called ‘negative energy’ (if you build a hill on a flat land, you also make a hole; the stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out). Laws concerning gravity and motion tell us that space itself is a vast store of negative energy, enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero (the mass and the energy is like the hill; the corresponding hole is spread throughout space). If the universe adds up to nothing then you don’t need a god to create it. So what triggered the whole process? Quantum mechanics tells us that particles such as protons really can appear at random, stick around for a while, and then vanish again, to reappear somewhere else. Because the universe was very small at its beginning there is no need for an explanation beyond the laws of nature. The Big Bang was a random act of the sort quantum mechanics observes for protons.