Of Raptors, Gannets and Swans

gannetThe other evening I was listening to Saving Species on Radio 4, discussing the persecution of raptors (birds of prey). At the end of the programme, one of the contributors said ‘one thing we haven’t discussed is the sheer joy of seeing these birds.’ Amen! There is definitely a joy in seeing hunting birds. I regularly stand out on deck whilst I’m travelling across the Minch, watching Gannets (my favourite seabird) fishing. These hunting birds speak of the wildness of creation. God placed wildness in the creation at the beginning – in Gen 1:24 God creates both domesticated and wild animals.

It’s not just raptors and hunters that bring joy, but other birds and animals. This morning I stood watching two beautiful white swans slowly swimming by on the loch, their streamlined shapes tapering to a fine point at their tails. There is a deep sense of place and of peace that accompanies such experiences.

Genesis 1 tells us that we have an profound relationship with all of these creatures. We have a deep connection to them and the divine intention is that we live amongst them, observing them, understanding them. It concerns me that the urbanised culture that redefines humans as consumers (witness the perverse idea that shopping is a recreational activity) is so prevalent amongst  so many young people and adults too. Our grandfathers and grandmothers embraced the bicycle as a means of escape to the countryside. Now, we drive in our cars into the cities on our days off. A technologised culture draws people like moths to bright screens. But all the while there is a neglect of interaction with the natural world, with the creatures that make our hearts sing.

Dave Bookless calls us to cultivate our sense of wonder: ‘like a sensitive plant, it withers unless nurtured.’ It’s a call I would echo. It is part of our discipleship, of our obedience to God, to cultivate a sense of wonder in the things that God has created. We can do this in the countryside, and in the cities. Green spaces are never far away. The sky is always over our heads. But, if we live in cities, we often have to prioritise time to find spaces where we can meditate and worship the Creator. It takes discipline and effort. But the rewards are very great:

I have found on many occasions that when my relationship with God is dry and hard going, it is a sense of God’s wonder in creation that draws me close again… I constantly find that as I bring my praise  and prayers to God, the natural world inspires, challenges and helps me, reminding me of God’s power, creativity, care and attention to detail. If I have worries or burdens, they are often put into perspective as I find my place in creation. Planetwise, Dave Bookless

James in a Nutshell

jamesTwo nights ago at our Bible Study in Lochboisdale we thought about how we would answer if someone asked:

what is James (the New Testament letter) about?

We came up with a suggestion for ‘James in one sentence’ – and it’s actually the second part of James 2:18…

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

The idea of our faith being intimately linked with our deeds runs through every chapter that we’ve studied so far. When I pass through trials, what do I do? Blame God, or trust the Father of creation who gives good things and purposes to bring redemption to all of his creation (Ch.1)? Religion is worthless if it is not about what we do: control our speech, care for the needy (Ch.1). When I see the world’s social stratifications in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate the injustice of the world, or express the values of God’s Kingdom (Ch.2)? If I am a teacher, what do I do? Act arrogantly, or lead and teach humbly (Ch.3)? In my relationships in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate quarrels out of envy, slandering others, or repent and seek the way of humility (Ch.4)? In the Reformed church faith and works have been held at too great a distance from one another. True faith is an obedient faith. Faith is about doing, not just thinking. Faith without works is dead (and so is works without faith).

The concept of wisdom is also important to James. It crops up in 1:5, 3:13, 3:15 and 3:17. But if we remember that wisdom is ‘living well in God’s good but fallen world’, we see that wisdom infuses the whole letter and underlines the same point about living out (through our deeds) the faith in Jesus Christ that we have embraced in our hearts. In fact, it is only those who follow Jesus Christ in faith who can gain this ‘wisdom from above’. We’ve noted at a few points in the chapters we’ve studied so far the closeness of what James is writing to the Sermon on the Mount. That, in essence, is a wisdom discourse from the lips of Jesus the wisdom teacher. Christians must reject the wisdom of the world (specifically here the jealousy and ambition of the world’s value system) and seek the humility of the wisdom that is pure and peaceable.

Finally, we discussed something else that has jumped out (for me at least) during our studies. This is a letter exhorting Christians to live out their faith in the context of the Church. Too often, an individualistic approach to, say, the control of the tongue is adopted when we teach this material. The context is the Church: leaders, teachers, the persecuted, the poor, the rich, the sick. And this is especially clear when we see that at the heart of the letter is an exhortation to those who have set themselves up as teachers: the ship is directed by a small rudder, and that rudder will bear a greater responsibility for its journey. May we who teach be given grace.

Continuity, Discontinuity and Reform

reformationWhen decisions are made to change things in a church, how does the church move forward? Let me share with you the words of a leader trying to guide his church in the aftermath of change.

The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or – as we would say today – on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split….

That church leader was Pope Benedict, speaking during his Christmas address to the Curia in 2005. His subject was the Second Vatican Council. Whilst the reception of the Council in the Roman Catholic church is an interesting issue, it’s not my interest here. I’m interested in how churches move forward after change.

The question is cogent, following the Free Church’s November 2010 decision to allow the use of hymns and other songs in public worship. There are those in the church who want to adopt and propagate a hermeneutic of ‘discontinuity and rupture’. We have seen all too often in the past that this does indeed appeal to the mass media who like nothing better than to help air the dirty laundry of the church and to spread ill-tidings. This hermeneutic proclaims that this is the end – the game is up. We might as well all pack up and go home. This hermeneutic is dangerous and divisive. And, more to the point, it ignores the great continuity in all that the Free Church has stood for, and still stands for today.

The correct hermeneutic for understanding the Free Church decision is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’. It is ironic that change in Reformed denominations does not come easily. And yet we have the call to be ‘always reforming’. Do we seriously think that we long-ago arrived? Or that there is no requirement on us to engage in the tasks of theology and mission in our age, and to reform our practices where we find that we have not reflected the truths of God’s Word adequately? A reforming church is constantly seeking renewal, is dynamic, Christ-focussed, Word-focussed, Spirit-led. And it does this without ever slipping its anchor. Those who adopt the ‘hermeneutic of reform’ in seeking to move forward in the Free Church will have truly understood the heart of the church for God-glorifying reformation, and they will silently, yet visibly, bear fruit. Renewal in continuity ought to be an idea that we are comfortable with. And discontinuity ought not to alarm us when it is the result of renewal.

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.

The Church, Our Culture and Our Children

sleepofreasonMy last post was a brief reflection on one aspect of Puritanism’s influence on the Reformed tradition. Rookmaker argues that the mysticism imported from the Anabaptists via Puritanism is the reason for the almost total lack of appreciation for the arts in the Reformed tradition (in contrast to Roman Catholicism, for example). This mystic influence ‘held that the arts were in themselves worldly, unholy and that a Christian should never participate in them.’

A lack of appreciation for the arts is a significant problem, and the fact that many in the Reformed tradition probably would disagree just validates the point. In some strands of Scottish Presbyterianism, the expectation that a Christian would give up musical instruments or ceilidhs, or might only read ‘spiritual’ books is not that far in the past. There are also still many who, for ‘spiritual’ reasons, have little time for the Gaelic language. The Church, our culture and the people themselves have been left all the poorer for this kind of dualistic view.

But the effects of mystic dualism can be seen in many more areas of life within the Church, especially those of an evangelical persuasion. For example, spiritual guidance is a key concern in evangelicalism and is often understood in spiritualised terms where the balance falls heavily on God’s intervention rather than on the nitty-gritty of human decisions. While waiting for God to intervene, opportunities to resolve a situation, or to find direction and progress, go begging. Similarly, when it comes to mission, mysticism often leads to the irony of people praying fervently for revival whilst totally neglecting engagement with the communities and culture around them.

But for all of the above, I think the most urgent reason to address this mystical outlook in the Church is our own children. Many of them have just left home to go to University, to stand alone for the first time in a way that requires them to meet and engage with our culture in ways they haven’t before. Are they ready? Is the Church, through its life and teaching, equipping them? Statistics on the number of those who abandon the Church whilst at college seem to suggest not. I’m convinced that part of the reason is the legacy of this mystic, dualistic view of the secular/sacred. Rookmaaker saw 40 years ago that many Christians had largely abandoned the dogma of keeping clear of ‘worldly and fleshly pursuits’, but were generally ill-equipped to relate to culture as Christians. He diagnosed that amongst the younger generation ‘any sort of critical thinking is almost completely lacking. There is no artistic insight, nothing to point to, no answer to the relevant questions of a rising generation.’

Only a Reformed Christianity which adopts an all-embracing view of God’s relationship with his creation – for this reflects the biblical view so strongly enshrined in the wisdom literature – can equip Christians to relate to culture as Christians, to live effectively, not only in the world of the arts, but in the world in general.

Puritanism’s Legacy

rookmaakerI’ve been dipping in and out of Rookmaaker’s classic Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. The commentary on various pieces of art is fascinating (I’m sure more so for an artist), but Rookmaaker’s diagnosis of the malaise in Western society and in the church stands out. Although now 40 years old, it doesn’t feel anything but timely. What struck me particularly was something I read in chapter 2 (The Roots of Contemporary Culture).

Rookmaaker highlights the influence of mysticism in Puritanism, tracing this back to the Reformation Anabaptists. He mentions some of the features of this mysticism: scepticism about outward forms of religion; a strong antipathy towards dogmatism in church order; and, a tendency to antinomianism. This interests me because I grew up in an evangelicalism powerfully influenced by the revival of interest in Puritanism in the mid-20th century. The features of that evangelicalism have been something I’ve reflected on often over the last few years. I recognise the features that Rookmaaker highlights, but it’s his focus on the dualistic view of life that arose from this mysticism that particularly interests me. This dualism depreciates everything outside of the ‘spiritual’.

[Puritanism] took from the Reformation its profound reverence for the Scriptures as a base for all theological thinking and daily living. But through mystical streams it was often tinged by a kind of subjectivism and a tendency to look for holiness in a legalistic and spiritualized way in an effort to keep clear of all worldly and fleshly pursuits. 30

Rookmaaker goes on to argue (and I’m sure he’s right) that this is the reason why the Reformed tradition has had little interest, in general, in the arts or in culture. In contrast , the expansive vision that ought to be embraced by Calvinism is beautifully expressed…

It is basic to thinking about culture in the tradition of the Calvinist Reformation that there is no duality between a higher and a lower, between grace and nature. This world is God’s world. He created it, He sustains it, He is interested in it. He called the work of His hands good in the very beginning. Nothing is excluded. Everything, from the lowest atom or animal life to the highest doxology, everything belongs to Him. Nothing can exist outside of Him, and all things have a meaning only in relation to Him. 36

And so, a Christian response to national culture follows…

Where things are loving, good, right and true, where things are according to God’s law and His will for creation, there is no problem. The Christian will appreciate and actively enjoy and enter into all the good things God has made. But where they have been spoilt or warped by sin, then the Christian must show by his life, his words, his action, his creativity what God really intended them to be. He has been made new in Christ, been given a new quality of life which is in harmony with God’s original intention for man. He has been given the power of God Himself by the Holy Spirit, who will help him to work out his new life into the world around him. 38