Friday, 24 September 2010

God Owes us Nothing


This is the title of a book I read a while ago by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. The book is actually about Blaise Pascal and the way the Catholic church rejected the Jansenist frame of mind in the C17th, but that's by the by. What has got me thinking again is the title: God Owes us Nothing. It's a powerful thought, maybe on first sight depressing, but the more I have thought about it, the key to a whole lot of wisdom.

Kolakowski's point is that this is essentially the insight at the heart of the Augustinian tradition in Christianity, something common to much mediaeval thought, to Luther, to Calvin and to Pascal. The book chronicles how it was firmly shown the door by the RC church in the Jansenist/Jesuit/Molinist controversies of the C17th. Although initially forbidding, I am increasingly convinced this insight is the way to a truly liberating way of life. If God owes me something – happiness, wealth, health or whatever, I will naturally feel short-changed if I don't get it. You regularly hear stories of people who believed in God, until a friend got ill, or died, or they saw some tragedy, or heard about the tsunami, or encountered real suffering and 'lost their faith'. I suspect this happens because deep down we think that God owes us something, and if God doesn't give it, then the problem is with God – either that he is unkind, or simply doesn't exist. If God owes me something and he doesn't provide it, I lose faith in God. To begin however from the perspective that God owes us nothing – that we have no rights over him, no claim on him, means that everything we do get comes as a gift – as a sheer delight, something to be deeply grateful for. Every breath, friendship, act of kindness, chocolate, football, strawberries – they are all gifts not rights. It suddenly turns everything about my life from something I feel I have right to, and moan mercilessly about if I lose it, to something that is a true surprise. Our natural cry 'it's not fair' when something bad happens to us reflects this same basic idea – that we somehow deserve fairness or justice.

To that extent the Dawkins brigade are perhaps right – we should not think the universe is made for us, that we are any more than specks of life on a distant planet, and we should give up our delusions of deserving divine intervention when things go a bit wrong. The essence of Christian faith is the faith that although this is precisely what we should expect, the surprise is that we do receive so much from the hand of God. Despite our insignificance, we have been privileged by God to play a key role on this planet of reflecting his image to the rest of creation. We do sometimes enjoy gifts of health, laughter, sport, music, shelter etc., and these are neither random accidents of a faceless universe, nor things we have a right to expect because of our inherent deserving, but gratuitous, free gifts from the heart that beats behind it all.

It is so much better to view everything as unexpected and gratuitous gift than as right. 'Rights' make us grasping, holding onto things and insisting on them – it centres life around me and what I deserve. 'Gift' makes us grateful, always delighted with the new things that come, and a bit more philosophical about stuff we lose. In the Christian life, if I think God owes me something, then grace and mercy will not seem a miracle to me at all – after all, it's only what I deserve. If God owes us nothing, his grace, the gift of Jesus, the Holy Spirit his provision of my needs are all miracles, things I don't deserve and thus to be given thanks for with a constant sense of wonder and amazement. This insight is perhaps the key to a truly thankful and (relatively) carefree life. It is perhaps the key to happiness.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The God debate – why does it leave me cold?

There's something about the God debate that troubles me. The atheists demand evidence for God, and trumpet their confident assertions that he doesn't exist. The Christians (why aren't Muslims and Jews involved in this debate more?) argue back, fighting the battle on God's behalf. It basically boils down to the atheist argument that it is possible to explain the emergence of the world in its own terms, whether through physics (Hawking) or biology (Dawkins), with the religious coming back with the argument that even so, how can something emerge out of nothing? However the laws of evolution or gravity might provide a complete mechanism for launching the world and developing life, it is still hard to conceive of something appearing out of nothing at all, the basic problem the atheist argument has yet to answer properly, in my view at least.

Nonetheless, all this does slightly leave me cold and misses something essential about the nature of Christian faith and theology. Even if it were established by proper argumentation that God existed, if Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and friends suddenly announced that after all they were convinced and that God did exist after all, what difference would it make? Arriving at the conclusion that God exists is a long way from Christian faith. And of course it could never really happen that way anyway Jesus says: "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." (John 7.17). In other words, it is only when I begin to act on the words of Jesus, to live as if it might be true that God is there, loves me, you and the world, that I will begin to know for sure whether Jesus and all those who say there is a God are right or not.

Christian belief is the kind of thing that only comes into its own, only becomes real when activated by practice, not just by assent. Until then, the arguments seem rather sterile. It is why when Christina faith becomes inactive and discipleship ceases, before long people often stop even believing in God in any substantial way. As George Bernanos once put it: "Faith is not a thing one loses. We merely cease to shape our lives by it." Jesus also says repeatedly '"Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." (Lk 11.28). It is only when hearing translates into doing that we begin to understand. Christian theology cannot be separated from Christian practice, and for that reason, arguments over the existence of God that lack that dimension, that fail to emphasise that you only begin to know God when you obey him, will always ultimately miss the point.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Calvin. Luther and Barth


Just started reading Barth's lectures on Calvin from 1922. He comes up with the surprising statement that 'nothing really new came into history with the Reformation'. He has an interesting contract between the enthusiast Caspar Schwenkfeld who thought the Reformation was the dawn of a new age, with Luther's conviction that it was nothing new, but the re-discovery or reintroduction of something old, the Word of God, meeting history as it did in the 1st century, the 5th and every other time when the Word has made itself heard. "The world now faces God's Word exactly as it did two thousand years ago. God's Word always comes down on the same time". It is a broader, grander philosophy of history that sees the connections of history not the disconnections. It warns us against the kind of historical excitement that is always seeing a 'new generation arising' or 'a new day dawning', but a proper humility about history and a sense of the eternity of God and his revelation in contrast to our fleeting whims and self-important delusions of our own historical significance.