God is Dead. We have killed him.

mitchell“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietzsche, The Gay Science, The Madman.

I thought of Nietzsche’s well-known quote as I came across an article by David Mitchell in the Observer last month. The basis for the article was something said by Neil MacGregor, who is following his highly-successful and fascinating series A History of the World in 100 Objects, with another series: Living with the Gods. MacGregor has proved himself an able art historian, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s qualified to set out a history of religious belief. I heard him on the Today programme a couple of weeks ago, describing the series, and using ‘belief’ and ‘habits’ interchangeably, which is precisely the kind of imprecision that will get you into bother with a history of religions.

Anyway, MacGregor had made a really important observation, an observation that everyone should take seriously. It’s candid, and perceptive. MacGregor had said about Britain in 2017:

We are exceptional. It’s important to know that we are different. We are a very unusual society. We are trying to do something that no society has really done. We are trying to live without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Our society is, not just historically but in comparison to the rest of the world today, a very, very unusual one in being like that.

Mitchell picks up on the significance of this statement. So should we all. Read that again – let it sink in. After reflecting on it in his usual sardonic manner, Mitchell concludes:

To change so quickly from a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loudly and clearly, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, and few are totally convinced otherwise, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind. It’s not a development I regret, but it’s a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed.

So, here’s Mitchell putting together 21st Century Britain’s rejection of it’s Christian metanarrative, in a way no other nation quite has, with the rise in anxiety which so many people feel. There are all kinds of social statistics that suggest that British society is not particularly healthy (whether rates of prescription anti-depressants, teenage pregnancy, or lower measures of happiness and well-being). Then, there’s the evidence from the recent hand-wringing reckoning around abusive and exploitative sexist behaviour in Westminster (which reckoning is the socially acceptable iceberg-tip for the reckoning that no-one – mostly no-ones who are men – wants in their own workplaces or homes or clubs on a Saturday night).

So, put Mitchell’s connection together with a story that appeared about the same time in the media. Esther Rantzen appeared on a number of TV slots to speak about a 15-20% rise in calls to Childline prompted by suicidal thoughts. Why this alarming rise? Was there an explanation? Well, the usual suspects were brought out. I’m sure social media is part of it. I’m sure the objectification of women and a highly-sexualised society are part of it. I’m sure that casting our goals in life within the framework of aggressive consumerism and an immoral capitalism – yes, part of it too.

Rantzen pointed out something very important: when you compare children’s happiness across the developed nations, the United Kingdom does particularly poorly. And that’s when my thoughts went back to Mitchell’s article. Why is our culture like this? You can bring out the usual suspects, but one suspect not in the identity parade, but skulking in the shadows (as Mitchell realises), is The Murder of God. Our exceptional experiment, our swift, ignorant and hubristic rejection of a 2,000 year tradition of thought and belief that has formed the pillars of European culture. Our rejection of Christianity. Who will wipe this blood off our hands?

David Mitchell might not regret the Death of God in our culture, but I regret it. Yes, I regret it personally, because of my intellectual convictions about truth. But I regret the cost to our society, and especially to our children.

Why Christians Should Vote, and How

election2016Today, Thursday 5 May, is the day of the Scottish Parliament election. In the last election, national turnout was 50% – hardly a ringing endorsement of our democratic process! Anyone with the right to vote should vote. And especially Christians.

Most of us are probably familiar with some of the arguments as to why we should vote in elections. Voting gives the people a voice, and it places power in the hands of the people, not in the hands of elites. Perhaps we’re a little less clear on these today because the voices of large media organisations, lobbying groups and parties often drown out the voice of the people, and because wealthy and privileged elites, despite our democratic process, still hold a lot of power.

But, we have to remember that in many countries around the world the people have no power at all, are ruled by dictators, and have, will, and do risk their lives for a chance of democracy. Even in Britain, it’s less than 90 years since women achieved equality in democracy. Many women campaigned and suffered to eventually gain an equal franchise in 1928. We shouldn’t take our democratic process for granted. Democracy (especially Western democracy in the 21st Century) is flawed, but we have to remember Churchill’s words:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.  Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), Hansard, November 11, 1947

But why should Christians vote? Surely our business is the kingdom of God, not any earthly kingdom? I’m afraid that some radicals have argued this view. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – not biblically, not theologically. My view is that Christians, more than any other kind of person, ought to engage with the democratic process through voting. Here’s why…

  • Let’s start with Jesus. Jesus said, when asked about paying taxes, ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:21). That’s not exactly a radical cry for dissociation from the state.
  • The Apostle Paul writes that we ought to be subject to governing authorities, and pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7). He tends to couple this attitude with showing love and courtesy to everyone, whoever they are (Titus 3:2). He writes that we ought to pray for rulers, and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-2), so that we can live quiet and dignified lives.
  • The Apostle Peter echoes Paul’s words (1 Peter 2:13-17). Christians in the Roman empire ought to submit to the emperor, or his governors. When we remember this is during the period before the Roman empire accepted Christianity, these words take on a radical (and contemporary) nature. Peter puts it well: ‘Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a cover for evil, but for serving God. Respect all people, love the Christian family, fear God, honour the emperor.’
  • Back in the Old Testament, when God’s people were in exile in pagan Babylon, God’s word came through the prophet Jeremiah (29:7): ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ If we, as God’s people in our generation are going to take God’s call seriously, we cannot disengage from our democratic process.

In the Reformed tradition in which the Free Church stands, it’s been understood that God’s Common Grace to all people means that we share common interests and common goals. The State and the Church are two bodies seeking the common good in different ways in God’s world. That’s why in the confessional document of the Free Church we read a call for Christians to get involved in the political system:

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto: in the managing whereof, as they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth (WCF 23.2).

If it’s lawful, then it’s good. We’re not all called to be politicians, but we must at the very least, engage in the democratic process with our vote. And the fact that we’re generally voting for people with little or no Christian conviction doesn’t exempt us from our responsibility:

It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience’ sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, does not make void the magistrates’ just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them (WCF 23.4).

So how should Christians vote today? Here’s my recommendation:

  • First, we should vote with an eye to how the candidates and parties stand with respect to the Church. That’s important. Do they see a place for the church in our society? Do they listen to the views of the church? Are their policies going to make life difficult for Christians, or make it less likely that others get to encounter Jesus in the Gospel? These are all important, and we have to take an interest and make a judgement.
  • Second, we should vote with an eye to the prosperity of our communities. Christians ought to believe in the local church, and ought to believe in seeking the good of their local communities. Which candidate will be best able to represent the local community? Which party’s policies will be best for my community?
  • Third, I’m struck by how the apostles link in our relationship to the state with the idea of respecting all people, and seeking their good. We’re not just voting for our own interests. We have to take seriously the call of God to care about the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed. How will my vote work for those who have no voice, who live in social and economic deprivation? I’m afraid that too many Christians buy into the mantra that it’s solely my family, my pocket, my wallet that’s important.
  • Fourth, we should vote with a more biblical idea of human prosperity. The idea behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign phrase, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ is rampant. There’s more to life in our communities than money. We need to think about the environment, the family, the culture. We need to reject the narrative (which is so depressingly prevalent in the Brexit debate) that votes will follow the money. Let’s not be gerrymandered.

That’s a lot to think about, but that’s why Christians should be engaged as they’re able; should talk about and discuss politics; and should engage with their local MSP. And all prayerfully, and in the attitude of seeking the Kingdom of God. Different Christians are going to take different views – and that’s fine. The church should reflect the political differences that are out there in our communities. Christians of all political hues should be involved and engaged.

If we’re going to make a difference, we as individuals and churches need to be engaged. Let’s vote today.

Scottish Independence, Social Justice and the Church

saltireA few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on the implications for Scottish independence of an SNP administration that seems to be committed to the modern conceit of ‘secularism’. For Scottish Christians who believe that the spiritual life of the nation is just as important as its cultural or economic life, the prospect of severing ties with neighbouring countries which are far less ‘post-Christian’ than Scotland must be a real issue. This issue remains important in the independence debate.  However, it’s by no means the only important issue.

Many Scots see the great advantage of independence as being the possibility of a more just society (although conceptions of this will differ). With more unveiling of the corruption and excess at the Westminster Parliament, of the excesses of the banking system, and of the increasing division between rich and poor in UK society (mostly driven by the south of England), the prospect is appealing. There is a definite opportunity to craft something different in Scotland. Will Hutton is correct when he suspects ‘some of the energy behind Scottish nationalism is the desire to build a country where toxic wealth inequalities are less indulged than in England.’ But what kind of changes can be made? Is it back to the unsustainable tax, borrow and spend of the bankrupting Labour administration of the late 90s and 00s? That period was dominated by Blair’s New Labour being infamously ‘intensely relaxed’ about rich plutocrats. Banking is almost as important to Scotland as it is to London. It won’t be easy for an independent Scotland to seek another way, to seek a sustainable economic model that delivers a more just society.

It’s ironic that those who want greater social justice in Scotland see North Sea oil as the safety net for economic development. Fossil fuels are perhaps the most obvious totem of an economic system (and a society) that is simply unsustainable. Since the 80s (and perhaps before), Britons have come to expect the increasing wealth and increasing growth of  a libertarian, globalised capitalism. Why do the electorate vote the way they do? Clinton’s 1992 campaign got it right: ‘The economy, stupid.’ It’s symptomatic of this way of thinking that the Independence debate has been dominated by questions of ‘will I be better off?’ It’s not a great start. Independence must be driven fundamentally by beliefs about national identity and a desire to shape one’s own destiny as a nation. If you believe in that, you have to be ready for the pain as well as the gain (for there will be both – spiritually and economically).

If independence allows the possibility of a more just society to develop, Christians should take this seriously and consider how the Church’s calling to speak up for the poor, the oppressed, and for sustainable and just economic policies relates to this. The independence debate is about so much more than the ‘spiritual’ aspects of life. I want to avoid the ‘spiritual/worldly’ dichotomy that is doing so much damage in the church, but so many Christians think like this – a dualism between ‘spiritual’ things that matter, and ‘worldly’ things that don’t. For the Reformed Christian, everything matters; everything is spiritual. Therefore, the Church needs to be at the forefront of Scottish national life. It is so important for Christians to be engaged with understandings of nationhood, history and economics. If the Church simply argues about the Establishment principle, or the ‘secular dangers’ of independence, she is not being true to her calling to work in partnership with the State and to speak God’s truth into every area of life in God’s world. Independence offers great possibilities for the Church as well as challenges. So does remaining in the Union. Whether in or out, the Scottish Church needs galvanising to act like a truly Reformed Church, speaking truth to power as well as the populace. I’m beginning to think that Scottish Independence may offer a pathway to two things: an honest assessment of the failings of the church in Scotland in this area, and an new impetus to engage in the discourse of national life.

Worship in Schools and the Independence Question

Plaid-SNP-inspirationAlmost 10 years ago I moved from Wales to Scotland. In Wales, I was for a time a member of Plaid Cymru. I supported the secession of Wales from the United Kingdom. I still believe in political self-determination for my home nation and I still believe that independence would bring benefits to both Scotland and Wales. But…as a Christian, the whole issue is more complicated. Scotland is not Wales. More importantly, the SNP is not Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru is a party where the Christianity of the church ministers who were at the forefront of the birth of the modern Welsh political and language movements still means something. Leading figures of more recent years, such as Rhodri Glyn Tomos and the great Dafydd Iwan, are lay ministers. Ieuan Wyn Jones has spoken openly of his Christian belief. Wales has seen as much of a decline in church attendance as anywhere, perhaps even more so, given the high attendances of early last century, but the old denominations and the presence of the Church in Wales still seem to uphold Christianity to a certain degree in civic life.

Contrast this with the SNP and Scotland. The SNP seems bent on pursuing a secular political and liberal social agenda which directly undermines the place of Christianity in civic life. In this regard, SNP are little different from Scottish (or New) Labour. Whatever similarities there may be to Plaid on economics, social justice or on political self-determination and independence, they are not cut from quite the same cloth. And the National Church, the Church of Scotland, seems to be heavily influenced by the same type of liberal so-called progressives. I adduce as evidence the recent debacle of the joint statement with the Humanist Society concerning religious observance in schools.

In fact, let me take the example of religious observance or worship (the distinction is important) in schools. In Wales, the following requirements are laid down for schools:

  • schools must provide collective worship daily for all registered pupils,
  • most acts of collective worship in each term should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. This means that they should reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination.

It is specifically ‘worship’ that must take place each day, defined as follows:

Collective worship in schools should aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider the spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs; to encourage participation and response, whether through active involvement in the presentation of worship or through listening to, watching and joining in the worship offered; and to develop community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values, and reinforce positive attitudes.

Contrast this with the position in Scotland where since 2005 (under a Labour/Lib Dem coalition and before any of the recent Humanist/CofS shenanigans) there has merely been a requirement for ‘religious observance’ defined as:

community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community.

Whatever religious observance is in Scotland, it is not worship, let alone Christian worship! The requirements for religious observance in Scotland are:

  • Every school should provide opportunities for religious observance at least six times in a school year

And what about the relationship between religious observance and worship?

Where the school, whether denominational or non-denominational, is continuous with a faith community, that community’s faith in the “focus of worship”, may be assumed and worship may be considered to be appropriate as part of the formal activity of the school. Where, as in most non-denominational schools, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices, the review
group believes that the appropriate context for an organised act of worship is within the informal curriculum as part of the range of activities offered for example by religions, groups, chaplains and other religious leaders.

That’s not terribly clear and the nagging impression is that between the lines lurks the secular liberal doublethink (and remember this is long-before the Church of Scotland and Humanists got into bed to propose a Time for Reflection). I prefer the more straightforward exhortations of the Welsh Assembly Government. I know of a school in Wales where the inspection body Estyn recommended after inspection that prayers should be said more regularly as part of school assemblies. So it happens on the ground as well as in the circulars.

So, as a Christian who follows Jesus Christ, cares about the faith, cares about the Church of the faith, and the relationship of the nation to the Church (I’m a Presbyterian!), it seems to me that voting for independence for Scotland is not the same as voting for independence for Wales. The former might happen. I now doubt whether the latter ever will. But, do I want to vote for an independent Scotland led by a secularising, liberal elite that ignore the fact that 65% of the Scottish population claim some allegiance to Christianity? Do I want to vote for an independent Scotland with a national Church that seems to be slipping its moorings, adrift on a stormy sea of liberal, heterodox theology? Do I want to vote for Scotland to be independent from the rest of the UK, when in the rest of the UK it seems as if there is more of a successful resistance to secular pressures and where it seems as if Christianity (recognisable as Christianity) is still playing a more visible part in the national discourse and in civic life? Do I really want to do that?

 

DOCUMENTS:

www.estyn.gov.uk/download/publication/10019.1/Supplementary_guidance_collective_worship_in_non-denominational_schools.pdf

www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/920/0113848.pdf

The A9, the Church and Transport Policy

a9Over the past few weeks, I’ve been intrigued to follow one Free Church Presbytery’s foray into the world of transport policy. The Presbytery of Inverness, Lochaber and Ross (PILR) has been calling upon the Scottish Government to bring forward its plans to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Of course, as a former Consultant in transport policy and engineering, I’ve been extremely interested in this excursion into an arena where the church has usually found little to interest it.

The members of the PILR  are motivated in their call for accelerating the dualling project by road safety concerns. Of course, road safety should matter to all of us. In 2012, 170 lives were lost in Scotland through road traffic accidents and the A9 between Perth and Inverness has one of the highest fatality rates (6 fatalities per year, on average, between 2007-2011). Each road death brings the suffering of bereavement, often of people who had much more of their lives to live. Many of these deaths, however, are not accidents at all, but are caused by careless or reckless driving. The A9 is a busy road, especially in summer when volumes are 40% higher than in winter.  It is the A470 of Scotland – poor alignment in places, with limited visibility, and above-average percentages of HGVs and caravans. In winter, weather conditions compound the problems. These features, coupled with the long journey lengths of many users, contribute to driver frustration. The consequent poor decision–making of some of these drivers is what kills and injures people every year. Others are killed and injured for other reasons – it’s what happens when thousands of people travel in cars on the same piece of road.

So, it fascinates me that the church, which is rightly focussed (or ought to be) on the reality of human sinfulness and on the injustice perpetrated by some people against others – it fascinates me that the PILR are solely aiming their barrels at the Scottish Government. The reason people die on the A9 is to a large part due to selfish and reckless people who cause misery and suffering to others who are their victims. The PILR ought to be calling for greater responsibility on the part of drivers and more effective law-enforcement (for example, effective patrolling or peak-period speed limit camera enforcement), not solely requesting (somewhat forcefully) the Government to bring forward their dualling programme. Given the fact that in the Highlands and Islands there is a genuine cultural problem with respect to road safety (driver attitudes, especially towards vulnerable road users), if the church is concerned about road safety there are more issues to address than simply A9 dualling.

There are good reasons for dualling the A9, and the Scottish Government has already developed ambitious plans. However, road safety cannot alone make the case for it, and dualling alone will not prevent deaths (6 fatalities during 2007-2011 occurred on dualled sections of the A9). The most likely case is an economic one, focussed on the future development of Inverness. But even then, a biblical theology of creation ought to give us pause for thought. If decades of road building have taught us anything, it is that suppressed vehicle demand brings more drivers onto the road when road capacity is increased. To put it succinctly, if you completely dual the A9, more people will make longer trips in their cars, and more people will make trips by car rather than by rail or by bus. From an environmental perspective, none of this is good news. The church ought to be just as concerned with the sustainable use of the earth’s resources as it is with road safety. And, given that the A9 traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in Western Europe, the dualling of the A9 will have a detrimental effect on the visual environment. Historically, the church has neglected the environment and issues of sustainability. The church ought to be concerned about these things too.

Christianity has something to say about everything – this is God’s world. So, let the church speak out on transport policy. But let that speaking be considered, balanced, and theological.

[Anyone interested in this issue can read the Accident Analysis 2013 on the A9Road.info site]

Ode to Later Learners

oldbooksDio of Prusa’s 18th Discourse begins with this eulogy to a statesman, seeking to further his education. I dedicate its reproduction here to all later learners, and especially to my father, a septuagenarian learner at Edinburgh.

Although I had often praised your character as that of a good man who is worthy to be first among the best, yet I never admired it before as I do now. For that a man in the very prime of life and second to no one in influence, who possesses great wealth and has every opportunity to live in luxury by day and night, should in spite of all this reach out for education also and be eager to acquire training in eloquent speaking, and should display no hesitation even if it should cost toil, seems to me to give proof of an extraordinarily noble soul and one not only ambitious, but in very truth devoted to wisdom. And for that matter the best of the ancients said that they went on learning not only in the prime of life but also as they grew old.

The Church’s Obsession with Sex

handsA few days ago on the BBCs Today programme, Ben Summerskill (Chief Executive, Stonewall) again accused the church of an obsession with sex – and of being happy to turn a blind eye to poverty or to disease. This has become a mantra for those arguing in favour of a departure from traditional (biblical) sexual morality.

Now, it is true that the affluent, modern church in the west has, generally speaking, been woefully inadequate in addressing issues of poverty, social justice, disease, environmental issues etc. Mea culpa. The church ought to be obsessed with Jesus Christ and with his Kingdom – and these issues are part of this.

However, that does not endorse Mr Summerskill’s point. The church is right to be obsessed with sex, because personal, sexual relationships are at the heart of the fabric of society. Any objective assessment of the post-50s sexual revolution must acknowledge that in its wake have come vastly increased levels of family breakdown, social breakdown, sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. The departure of British society from traditional (biblical) morality has not been a successful experiment.

That’s not to say that the church always gets it right on sex. The church’s traditional attitude to women needed reformation – and continues to do so, far too many chauvinist remarks are still heard in church, often as an attempt at humour. That’s unacceptable. And, the church’s generally negative attitude to heterosexual sex still needs reformation. The essential place of sex in a marriage as a God-given gift, and the fulfilling joy that comes from it – these aren’t the themes the church has been known for. These problems arise in the church because the church takes on the attitudes of The World.

But to come to the practice of homosexual sex and so-called gay marriage. Society in general may accept these, but the Church must be obsessed with what is a departure not simply from its own practices, but from the design of the Creator for stable and fulfilling expressions of human society. It’s not just the Scriptures that tell us that human society is designed with lifelong male-female relationship at its heart. Nature itself shows us – teleology is fundamental in this debate. Experience through long years of history shows us. And the statistics bear it all out in front of our eyes in Britain today.

Reagan

reagan Some time back I managed to get a watch of Reagan by Eugene Jarecki.  It’s an engaging and striking film, in part thanks to the excellent photography. Revisiting so many events that I clearly remember from my years growing up was fascinating – the assassination attempt on Reagan; the Iran-Contra scandal; the star wars SDI program; the talks with Gorbachov.  This is even more striking since I was growing up in Britain, not the US.  This in itself says a lot about Reagan’s effect on his country’s fortunes. 

There’s one part of the film, near the end, that particularly grabbed my attention.  At several points in the film there are excerpts from an interview with retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich.  After contrasting Carter and Reagan (and giving his judgement that Carter was a failure as a president), he says this:
That said, there was a moment when he, however briefly, grasped a central truth about the American predicament… (the film cuts to an excerpt from a Jimmy Carter speech: ‘it’s clear that the true problems of our nation are deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession,’ then back to Bacevich) …the problems we face are not out there, the problems we face are in here.  We have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom, where our definition of freedom is simply false.  We have convinced ourselves that through the piling up of material goods, through indulging the appetites of a consumer society, that by going down that road we will best be able to find life, liberty and happiness.  Carter argued that our dependence on oil was central to this and it would lead us down the path toward interventionism and conflict.  What Ronald Reagan said is: you don’t have to sacrifice, you don’t have to make do, you don’t have to get by with less, there’s plenty of oil, there’s an infinite supply, trust me.
That one sentence, we have committed ourselves to the pursuit of freedom, where our definition of freedom is simply false, cuts profoundly to the heart of the emptiness at the very centre of western society.  But to say so is hugely costly to the doyens of western culture, since it prompts another question that seems to open an abyss beneath their feet: what then is the point?