Thursday, 11 February 2016

Why Lent is a 'Yes' to life

One of the characters in Bruce Chatwin's novel 'Songlines' says: “If the world has a future, it has an ascetic future.” The point was that unless we learn the disciplines of self-denial there is little chance of a future for the human race, and indeed the very planet on which we live and depend. We know this with our bodies – unless we learn to limit our intake of unhealthy food, our health and wellbeing will suffer. The same is true for the whole world. If we continue to disregard the deep rhythms of creation, consuming all we can of the earth’s resources without limit, we will destroy ourselves, our communities through competition over increasingly scarce resources, and eventually, the very earth God has given us to sustain life. Our culture often subtly treats us first and foremost as consumers – we exist to consume food, wine, TV, clothes, gadgets and all the rest, and so keep the economy afloat. And we can just as subtly buy into that agenda, thoughtlessly consuming our way through life, trying to quench our spiritual hunger with things, when it can only be satisfied with God. As Jesus himself said facing his own ‘Lent’ in the desert: ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Lent can seem a life-denying period of austerity.  And in some ways it is a time when we learn the habit and skill of saying ‘no’ to desires which can so often mislead us. Yet looked at another way it is time for positive witness. By denying ourselves some of the things we usually take for granted, and especially when we give more time for prayer, we are saying publicly that we are NOT first and foremost consumers, we are people made for relationship with the God who loves us in Christ and whom we are learning to love. It is a way of saying that there is something, or better, someone who is more important to us than chocolate, wine, gadgets and Facebook, however good they are. It is a time when we re-assert our true identity and loyalty, both to ourselves, because we often forget who we are, and to the world, because it needs to know the liberating message that we are not here primarily to consume but to love and be loved. And the way we do that is to re-connect with the One who loves us, with the Giver behind the gifts.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Black Friday, Migrants and Islamic State

The Christmas decorations are emerging from their year-long hibernation and appearing in our streets. Christmas card lists are being prepared, presents planned. The average British person will spend £350 on presents this year. This year £16.5bn will be spent on Christmas in the UK. A walk in Knightsbridge, glancing into shop windows brings a reminder of the luxuriant affluence of this part of the world. Black Friday sweeps all before it, and the financial crash seems a distant memory.

This affluence provokes very different reactions. Over recent months we have been painfully aware of two major crises facing us: the migrant issue and the incursion of Islamic radicalism onto the streets of western Europe. One of the reactions that western wealth provokes is envy. People become migrants for all kinds of reasons. Some are fleeing exactly the kind of murderous terror that the citizens of Paris experienced, and yet many others come from north Africa, or other Middle Eastern countries not directly experiencing IS terror, and they do not head for Russia, or Southern Africa – they head for western Europe, drawn by the promise of a better life, with jobs, money in their pockets, and a slice of the pie that is our wealth and prosperity. The extreme contrasts between life in Eritrea and England are much more visible and enticing now through social media that globalises disparities and narrows the distance between the very poor and the very rich – you can look into Knightsbridge shop windows from your mobile phone in Kampala or Kirkuk.

The other reaction that the west evokes is hatred. Islamic State is the latest and most deadly of a series of movements in the Muslim world that identifies the west as a great enemy. This trajectory has been growing for a long time, dating back to the rise of Wahhabism in the C18th, and much of it is fuelled by a deep sense of grievance towards the west and its cultural dominance of the world. It is no accident that the Paris attacks appear to have been planned from the notorious Belgian district of Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels marked by poverty, social exclusion, and a high rate of unemployment. Of course, IS is fuelled by much more than poverty. Yet poverty, allied to the proximity of the lavish, extravagant wealth of the west, provides a fertile seedbed for radicalisation of what the religious historian Philip Jenkins describes as the typical jihadists: “second generation Muslim youths suffering from an identity crisis, with few prospects and plagued by the thought that the Islamic world is being suppressed."

These twin reactions, of envy and of hatred have brought the problems of poverty and inequality right to our doorstep. In the past we could watch TV footage of famine and poverty, or news items of bombs in Beirut or Baghdad and furrow our brows trying to understand the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam. Now these problems are literally knocking on our doors.

There is much to do to address these twin crises. But underlying both is the running sore of inequality and poverty. There are hopeful signs. Earlier this year, the UK government was the first G7 nation to enshrine in law a commitment to honour the UN development target of 0.7% of GDP to be spent on foreign aid. In the private sphere, the new Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship at the LSE is a bold venture encouraging the revival of philanthropy among the west’s wealthy. Yet the contrast between the sometimes ostentatious affluence of the west with the poverty of so many nations, now only a tweet or a website away, will continue to provoke extreme reactions until the gap is narrowed. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s well-known 2010 book ‘Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ argued that inequality hurts not just the poor but the rich as well. The last few months have only served to prove the point even more starkly.

Our government debates the bombing of Syria, which may or may not be a short-term solution. But it will only ever be short-term. It will not address the roots of the problem. A serious renewed will to apply our best minds and imaginations to tackle the startling contrasts of wealth and poverty in our world is one of the most urgent tasks facing our governments today.

Monday, 27 October 2014

New Book - The Widening Circle

I have a new book coming out,called "The Widening Circle", published by SPCK - it comes out on November 20th, and the theme is Priesthood - not in the narrow sense of ministers (although it does get onto that in the end) but looking at the broader theme of priesthood in Christian theology. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting excerpts here on this blog to give you a bit of a taste of the whole thing.

First up: Created for Joy

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis do not tell us why God created the heavens and the earth. They just tell us that he did. To find the beginnings of a reason, we need to look elsewhere, to one of the other Old Testament books that develops a theology of creation: the book of Psalms. There, the creation exists as a reflection and expression of the goodness and glory of God himself. Psalm 19 begins with the classic statement of this idea: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps 19.1). Psalm 104 is perhaps the greatest creation Psalm in the collection, and here, creation is simply depicted as an act of joy. The poem is a litany of overflowing goodness, fruitfulness, creativity, which climaxes in v31-34 with this:

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.

The creation is made so that in it the glory of God can be seen and ‘endure forever’, but even more, that God can ‘rejoice in his works’. The picture painted here is not particularly serious or earnest. Creation does not have to exist: it is contingent rather than necessary. And yet it does exist, simply because God wanted it to, as a cause for and source of joy and praise. Yet this picture of God rejoicing over his creation is only half the picture. Joy is not just the property of God, but of creation itself, in a kind of virtuous circle of enjoyment. This joy requires not just the act of creation, but involves a dynamic relation between God and the creation. The earth is not an inanimate object, an inert, dead thing that is incapable of response. Instead, it is called upon to reflect back to God its own joy in being created.  Psalm 148, for example, depicts the entire creation in unison, praising God without words, but just by existing: “Let all things praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created. “ (v5) As Richard Bauckham puts it: “all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves, and by fulfilling their God-given roles in God's Creation.”  Psalm 96 similarly depicts the creation itself praising God, but here, the same note is sounded: that of sheer unadulterated joy:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord (Ps 96.11-13)

The creation exists for no other purpose than joy. It is not a means to an end, an instrument through which God can fulfill certain tasks, or even an accidental by-product of conflict among the gods, as the ancient Babylonian story of Enuma Elish imagined it. The world exists to elicit joy, both from God and from within itself, directed back to God in praise. As Genesis puts it, the climax of creation is when God sits back, looks at what he has made, and declares it ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31).

More to come later...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Why Assisted Dying needs to be resisted

Should we legalize Assisted Dying? The debate will last some time, but there is one historical factor that might make us pause before making such a step, however minor it may seem at the time, and however many safeguards surround it.

Michael Burleigh's book, 'Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda' is a long read, at times depressing and inspiring, but always impresssively erudite. One of the most interesting sections is on the Nazis extermination policies in the 1930s.

It started with the gradual acceptance of the idea (shamefully agreed to in 1930 by the 'Inner Mission' one of the main Protestant welfare agencies), that sterilization was 'morally legitimate', even perhaps an act of duty towards future generations, a necessary means of social progress. It seemed at the time a fairly harmless move, only voluntary, with no indication that it led anywhere else. 

The next step was the decriminalization of voluntary eugenic sterilization in 1932. That again seemed a fairly harmless step. After all, no-one was forcing it on anyone, it was only for those who chose to have themselves sterilized on racial grounds, opening up the possibility that someone might choose to stop themselves bearing children in the future, and thus perpetuating their own race. 

The next stage was the possibility of sterilization at the consent of a guardian, for those whose own behaviour indicated that their children could end up being 'anti-social'. Once the earlier rubicon had been crossed, this didn't seem too bad either. After all, if the principle of the benefits of sterilization had been established, then a legal guardian worried about a teenager's behaviour might choose to save society the trouble and cost of future aggro by preventing any possibility that promiscuous delinquent youths might give birth to other promiscuous delinquent youths. It wasn't a huge step then towards the legalisation of compulsory sterilization at the decision of the local Party, who decreed that certain elements of society should be nipped in the bud and no longer allowed to replicate themselves.

From there it became feasible to imagine not only the enforced sterilization of undesirables but their extermination. After all, if you are stopping a particular kind of person from reproducing, why not go a stage further back and stop them living?

The point is that Nazi Germany did not suddenly go from a 'normal' society to one that could tolerate mass state murder of its own citizens overnight. It happened gradually, incrementally, step by step, almost while no-one, even 'good' people, noticed. It is to my mind one of the arguments that should make us pause before legalising Assisted Dying, however desirable it may seem to stop someone's pain. You never know where it will lead once you step out on that path. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Here is Athanasius on the difference Easter makes

"The Savior is working mightily among men, every day He is invisibly persuading numbers of people all over the world.., to accept His faith and be obedient to His teaching. Can anyone, in face of this, still doubt that He has risen and lives, or rather that He is Himself the Life? Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the winds and bow down before the teaching of Christ? If He is no longer active in the world, as He must needs be if He is dead, how is it that He makes... the adulterer [cease] from his adultery, the murderer from murdering, the unjust from avarice, while the profane and godless man becomes religious...

All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot the passers-by sneer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, 'O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting ?'"

Monday, 3 March 2014

An Experience of German Fussball

We walk towards the ground through the drizzle. Union Berlin at home to FSV Frankfurt. We trudge along wet streets into the woods - that's an odd one: don't think I've ever approached a football ground through a forest before, but then the stadium is called An der Alten Försterei, which I suppose is a bit of a clue.

The first thing that strikes you is the scarves. Everyone has one. At an English game, a few kids might have scarves, some will have team shirts, but quite a lot of people won't wear colours at all. Here there is a much more open display of allegiance by virtually everyone in the crowd.

We are still outside the stadium. Groups of people stand round talking, drinking beer and eating sausages (this is Germany after all). There is a sociability here that is unfamiliar. People have arrived a good hour before kick-off, to spend time gathering in a way that is rare before an English league match.

Having duly eaten our brotwurst, we climb up into the stand and make our way to the front. It is still a good 45 minutes before the start and already the area behind the goal is packed, and the singing has started. Eventually, as the players emerge, the entire home crowd holds scarves above their hearts while singing the club anthem. My arms ache. It's hard work holding scarves aloft.

As the game starts it quickly becomes apparent that the relationship between the crowd, the game and the players is totally different here. In England, what happens on the pitch tends to determine what happens in the crowd. At home games especially, if the team is winning, the volume goes up. If it is losing, or the game is dull, the crowd tends to fall into sullen silence.  The crowd has come to watch a game of football, and might sing some songs if it's going well. Here, it seems, it's the other way round. The crowd has come to sing some songs and happen to watch a game of football while they are doing so.

The game, which to be honest was a little dull, seems to have little impact on the singing, which continues virtually non-stop until the final whistle and beyond. And it's at the end that you most notice the difference. In England, some fans always leave before the end to miss the traffic. Most make for the exit as soon as the final whistle blows. A few stay behind to clap the team off the pitch, but the ground is usually empty within 15 minutes of the end of the game. Here, there is a lap of honour, the players saluting all four sides of the ground, gathering before each stand doing the continental thing - lining up, holding hands, raising and lowering them in time, as if they had just won the Champions' League. The crowd stays put for a good half an hour, singing and celebrating - following the lead of the Vorsinger, an entire stand bounces up and down at the end of the game. The sense of unity and mutual feeling is palpable. In England the crowd celebrates a win. Here, they celebrate the club.

And it is the club, das Verein that matters. The focus is not the players, the team, the game, or even the result that matters. The crowd is almost disengaged from the game, even to the extent that the Vorsinger, the two cheerleaders who conduct the singing and leading chants, have their backs to the game and face the crowd, not the pitch. Songs are focused not on the players (apart from one song for club talisman Torsten Mattuschka) nor the opposition (there is not one single anti-Frankfurt or anti-Hertha Berlin song all game, or '"who the f****** h*** are you?" songs at the away fans), but Eisern Union, The club. It is all about das Verein. The German word for club, Verein, literally means a 'making one'. And that is exactly what happens here. The crowd acts more as one than any English crowd.

This has its downsides too. You don't tend to get the witty banter of an English crowd, with songs made up on the spot in reaction to the opposition mascot, events on the pitch or figures in the home crowd (at a recent Bristol City away game, a home fan in a red and white bobble hat was the object of endless ribald songs - 'Wally, Wally, give us a wave...' - it didn't seem like this was likely to happen here.)

The game? A routine 2-0 win for the home team. The Union midfield bossed the game and with a decent striker would have won more comfortably than a first half penalty and a defender's late run  into the box allowed. The standard seemed around English League 1, which, seeing as this was the top half of the second tier of German football was a bit of a surprise. In England, the football tends to be better, but the experience as a whole less rich.

It felt a bit like the past - standing on terraces, scarves held above the head, endless singing - all reminiscent of the 1970s back home (without the violence, mind). At the same time it felt like the future. Or at least what the future could look like. Union is 100% fan owned, which goes a long way to explaining the sense of unity and belonging. English clubs owned by oligarchs or local businessmen in suits offer a product, entertainment for customers, rather than an experience of belonging for fans. I did miss the element of intense interest in the game and the result, but maybe that's just because Union are not quite my team. At least not yet.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

"Looking Through the Cross" is the title of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book for 2014, which I wrote last year, and was published a little while ago. Here is a small excerpt from the Introduction. The book can be bought on Amazon here

Looking is something we do all the time. From the moment we wake in the morning until we close our eyes before sleep at night, if we have the precious gift of sight, we spend all of our days looking at things. It is so natural a part of our lives that we barely consider it. It is the kind of action, like breathing or talking, that occurs unconsciously, without our noticing that we are doing it. At this very moment you are looking at this page, or perhaps a screen, if you happen to be reading this as an e-book. If you look up from where you are sitting or standing, as no doubt you will in a moment, to take a break from the concentrated focus of reading, you will be able to look at a whole range of things, people, buildings, landscapes.

Looking is different from seeing. Seeing is a more passive activity. We see a passing car, a dog on the pavement, a film at the cinema, a flock of birds in the sky. When we see things, we do not really consider them, or perhaps even think about them. We ‘notice’ them, observe them, perhaps register in our minds that we have ‘seen’ them, but little more. Looking is a more purposeful activity. When we look at our reflection in a mirror, at the cover of a book, or at a photograph in a magazine, we gaze a little more intently, we pause, focus and try to take in what we see.

And there are different ways of looking. We can look at things. When we do this, we focus our attention on the thing we are looking at. We might come across a striking statue in a museum or a town square. We might walk around it, considering it from all sides, seeing how it fits into its surroundings, examining its contours, colour and shape, wondering how it was made, pondering what it tells us about the sculptor or what it is trying to say about its subject. To look at something is to make it the focus of attention and to try to understand it on its own terms, or in its environment.

But that is different from looking through something. We look through a window, or a pair of spectacles. A little like seeing, with this kind of looking, we are barely aware that we are doing it. When you look through a window, you are rarely aware that you are doing so. You at gazing at the object you see out of the window. The point of the window is to enable us to see what it beyond it, but in such a fashion as to not get in the way, to provide a transparent view, and to give us a clear sight of what we are seeing. It is similar, but also a little different, when it comes to looking through spectacles. When I put on my glasses, as I do first thing in the morning, from that moment on, I am hardly aware that I am looking through them – they have just become part of the way I see. And yet I notice when I take them off. Everything then becomes blurred, uncertain, hazy. My glasses enable me to see, but not by giving a kind of neutral, transparent film, as a window does, but by actually changing the way I look at something. I do not ‘see’ my spectacles, I do not ‘look at’ them – I look through them, and in the very act of looking, they change the way I see the world.

Eastern Orthodox Christians make extensive use of icons in worship and prayer. To the untrained western eye, these look like pictures images of Christ or the saints, to be looked at, studied or contemplated. Yet icongraphers and ordinary Christians in the east insist that an icon is not something to be looked at, but looked through. There was an old test of whether an icon writer’s work was valid as a true icon – can you pinch the nose of the figure in the icon between your thumb and forefinger? In other words, does anything stand out from the surface of the icon in such a way as to make it three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional? An icon suitable for prayer or devotion very definitely needed just two-dimensions, not three. Why? Because if an icon has three dimensions, it becomes an object. It becomes something to look at, to examine in itself. You can, as it were, walk around it and look at it. The icon itself becomes the focus of attention, its colour, beauty, sense of proportion and so on. On the other hand, if it has only two dimensions, it becomes something to look through, not at. A window has, as it were, only two dimensions – height and width – it does not really have depth, or at least, the depth is not important, as it is transparent. An icon of Christ is intended as a window into Christ, so that you look through the image to the real Christ beyond it. At the same time (like the spectacles we considered just now) it shapes the way we look at Christ, by helping us see a distinct image of him. A three-dimensional icon becomes no longer an icon but an idol. It becomes something that stops us looking at Christ and just our image of him, which is why the Old Testament, and many Christian traditions since then, warn against making images of God. Eastern Orthodox iconography can only avoid the charge of idolatry by maintaining this strict distinction between looking at and looking through.

This book is an act of two kinds of looking – looking at and looking through. Firstly, it looks at the cross, trying to understand more about this strange idea, that (as Christian theology has always claimed) God allowed his Son to die a gruesome and painful death. It tries to understand what that means and why it was in some sense necessary. The first two chapters therefore look at what the cross tells us about God and about ourselves.

The rest of the book is an exercise, not so much of looking at, but in looking through. It proceeds to view the cross, not only as an object to be studied or examined, but also as a lens through which we might look at the world. We will be trying to use the cross as a kind of lens through which to look at a whole series of aspects of contemporary life and experience. We will try to see how life looks when seen through the lens of the cross. It is in experiment in transparency, seeing the cross as an interpretive key for looking at the world.

Sometimes we have to look at a pair of spectacles or a pane of glass in a window to understand how it is made, why it works. To serve as a good pair of spectacles they need to work well, and so an understanding of how they work, how the frame fits the glass, how the glass is designed is vital. However, spectacles and windows are primarily for looking through, not at. In the same way, the cross repays close attention to help us see what it is, why it happened, and how it affects us . However, it also can serve to help us see the world differently. What might it mean to live in a world in which the Son of God gave himself up to death at the hands of human beings like you and me? What does that tell us, not just about God and ourselves, but about issues such as ambition, failure, weakness, suffering, society?

Looking through the cross is in a way, an exercise that demands a certain kind of faith. Putting on a pair of spectacles can make the whole world look clearer and more distinct. Put on the wrong pair, and it makes it worse. Everything becomes more blurred and hazy. It can even give you a headache. How do we know whether 'looking through the cross' in this way will improve, not damage our vision? There are a number of voices that would argue that the cross, as a symbol of violence and punishment is the last thing we should take as our key for looking at the world. We will be looking at these arguments from time to time as we go through this book. However for the time being, we have to just take a chance. How do you know whether a pair of spectacles will improve your vision? There is only one way: to try them on. This book is an exercise in doing just that.

To buy a copy click here