Saturday, 1 March 2014

Christrian Csomology; Incarnarion and 'Evil'

 The topic of CChristinan Cosmology continues to fascinate me because in presenting the demands of the gospel, a I hope to tomorrow, THW Baia on qhixxh we presen these demands to everyone is hat Christianity is 'cosmological'. Thua:
The creation of the Universe is not just a one-off action after which God went off, as it were, to bide God's time and see how it turned out  out (deism, I rhink), but an ongoing act. We exist right now, from moment to passing moment, because God wills that we exist (theism, no?).
But this notion has interesting theological implications, for it means that God wills to exist things which we would rather did not. When I am falling off my bike into a roadside patch of stinging nettles (as I once did) Christ, by his will, upheld the existence of myself, the force of gravity that pulled me to the ground and the chemical interaction of the secretions of the nettles with my skin which caused me a reasonable amount of pain.
This ‘interlacing’ of God and the material world is also implied by the Christian doctrine of the incarnation — that God took on human form. As the Thirty-nine Articles in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer put it,
The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man's nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person (Article II: II. Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very Man)
In other words, God’s nature peculiarly and specifically occupied a space determined by the location of a particular body — the body of the man Jesus.
Now extend that principle to the entire Universe. There is nowhere where God is not ‘present’. As the Psalmist put it,
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139:7–8, NIV84)
Nevertheless, Christians are not pantheists. We do not believe that everything is divine. The permeation of the world by God is because each part of the world derives its ongoing existence from God himself.

Morality Matters to Matter
But why would God ‘uphold’ such a world, where undesirable states and circumstances occur so often? (This is the old ‘Why would a good God create a world of suffering?’ in another guise.)
It would be foolish to think we could answer such questions completely. Nevertheless, the points about the Universe we have considered already may give us some hints.
1. The Universe has a personal origin, being created by a personal deity for himself.
2. At the heart of God’s purposes in creation is the relationship between himself and human beings whom he has created in his image. The world exists ‘for them’ as well as for God.
3. The relationship between God and human beings, however, is flawed and distorted by their inclination to disobey him. Out of this flows sin and evil.
4. The Universe nevertheless continues in its existence moment by moment because it is ‘upheld’ by the personal creator, and yet the creatures who matter most in his creation are separated from him and mired in sin.
We venture to suggest, therefore, that this distorted relationship between God and his creatures impacts his ‘upholding’ of the Universe. What he ‘upholds’ is a Universe inhabited by and, as regards this planet specifically, presided over by creatures who reject him. There is a broken relationship between God and his ‘imaging-creatures’ at the heart of creation. We should not be surprised at the suggestion that this impacts the creation God upholds, so long as that situation persists. As the Apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans:
19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:19–21, NIV84)
The picture the Bible gives is that the created world is the way it is because of human sinfulness — in other words, that morality matters to matter. We have a clear indication of this early on when God is recorded speaking to Adam after the latter has disobeyed him:
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17, NIV84)
It might seem odd that it is the ground which is cursed rather than Adam because of what the latter has done. Yet if we can posit a relationship between human moral actions and the fabric of creation uphold by the God against whom humanity rebels, this perhaps makes more sense. In any case, the curse on the ground rebounds against Adam and becomes a form of judgement on him as it makes his life more difficult.
Thus we suggest that the physical nature and behaviour of the Universe is affected by human behaviour because human behaviour affects our relationship with the God who upholds that physical universe.
All Will be Redeemed
A Christian cosmology, however, also contains the fundamental principle that all is not lost. Certainly there are profound problems, but they are not without resolution. On the contrary, God has always intended that the problem of sin would be resolved. And as we have seen above in the words of St Paul, this will have cosmological implications: ‘the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay’.
The key to this act of rescue is, in Christian theology, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus Paul again writes,
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19–20, NIV84)
We may wonder why the death of this particular individual should have such massive implications, but the claim of this passage, and of Christian theology in general, is that the being of God interpenetrated the physicality of this person: ‘all his fullness [dwelt] in him’. Thus what happened to this person happened, in a sense, to the creator and upholder of the universe. Moreover, it brought about reconciliation between God and his image-bearing creatures. Given that the outcome of that broken relationship is an hostility between the fabric of the world and the human race and that the ultimate expression of this hostility is God, we should not be surprised that the effecting of reconciliation involves death in particular — both the act of dying, which is the ultimate physical judgement, and the overcoming of death.

The Universe is a ‘Story’
What all this also means is that the Universe has a ‘narrative’ — a story. There is a beginning, there is an end, and we are therefore in the middle. The Christian Universe is therefore going somewhere, whereas the atheist materialist Universe is not, or rather it is, but the place it is going is to a state of ‘heat death’, where nothing will ever happen again, forever. Either that, or it will somehow ‘restart’ into an endlessly repeating cycle.
Some materialists see nothing to worry about in either scenario. Yet as the South African philosopher, David Benatar, observes in his book Better Never to Have Been, if suffering is the inevitable accompaniment of life (and it is) and if life (as he believes) has no other outcome than death and non-existence, then why not skip the ‘middle bit’. It is ‘better never to have been’ than to come into existence without being asked and to experience suffering, despite the occasional ‘offset’ of pleasure. In his view, the sum of ‘suffering+pleasure’ can never outweigh the assured result of not coming into existence, which is a guarantee of no suffering ever.
A Christian cosmology, however, rejects this conclusion since it asserts that there is, in fact, something still to come. Specifically, in God’s purposes there will come a time when the entire fabric of creation is renewed and restored — what the Bible calls ‘a new heaven and a new earth’.

You reading this may have many reasons to be greatly interested in the narrative of your life, and indeed of the wider world. You may have ambitions, goals and intentions for yourself and those human beings who mean most to you. But our assessment of these concerns must differ fundamentally, given our basic cosmology.
According to a Christian cosmology, you are not wrong to think of yourself and others as fundamentally important — and not just to you but in the great scheme of things, not least because there is such a thing as a ‘great scheme, for the world you and they inhabit is a created thing, whose purposes lie in the mind of a Creator.
A materialist cosmology, however, must throw a bucket of cold water over your consideration of yourself and those you might love, for both you and they are the outcome of forces which are presumed to have no interest in such beings as yourself and which are fundamentally unmoved by the fate of you and yours. Insofar as there is any ‘meaning’ to your personal narrative, it is one that you impose, not one that is in any way related to a wider ‘plotline’. You are an accident of accidents, here for no reason and destined to be forgotten in a universe where there will one day be forever no one to remember.

But the Christian says ‘No’ — for the outcome is not the endless non-being of death. And to this point we must now turn.
The Universe will End
Again, Christian theology agress with much modern science that the Universe will have an end. Where they differ, of course, is on the nature and causes of that end.
For the materialist scientist, it is a result of that mysterious thing called ‘entropy’ — the tendency of energy to spread itself evenly throughout a system. It is the principal of entropy that causes your cup of tea to cool to room temperature and it is doing the same to the whole Universe, though the final temperature will be well below 20o Celsius. Indeed, it will be something like what is called ‘Absolute Zero’: -273o, at which temperature nothing can happen. The final fate of the materialist universe is a truly depressing eternity of cold and dark.
By contrast the Christian view is that the end of the Universe as we know it is by no means the ‘end’ in absolute terms. But it’s complicated and we’ll have to return to that subject later.
For the atheist, the beginning may just be one beginning amongst many. Furthermore, it is of no significance for what happens next, or for what sentient beings like ourselves might think about what happens in the ‘middle bit’.
Of course, lots of things have happened since the ‘Big Bang’, and lots of other things will probably continue to happen. But according to this view, there is no ‘story’. To quote the title of the book by Jacob Bronowski, for example, there is no ‘ascent of man’.
Of course, the human race has come into existence in that time and has developed in its capacities to understand and control the world. But these developments are not, for the atheist, part of a developing plotline. It is pure chance that the human race happens to exist and to possess the capabilities it does. And human history will probably have no effect on the ‘End’ to which the Universe is inevitably heading — nor is that ‘End’ going to give meaning to the human story. Like the Universe itself, we came into existence and we will one day disappear, but it makes no difference to anything, except our own individual experiences on the way.
By contrast, Christianity emphatically does think in terms of a ‘story’. The universe exists for a reason. It is changing and developing for a reason. And when it comes to an end, this will also be for a reason — because that part of the ‘story’ is finished. The overall story may not be clear to us now, but it is there, and the reason is because of the Universe’s own basic cause.
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  1. Much of the above has the flavour of Athanasius’ Incarnation. Yet to me, as someone who no longer believes the Christian story (in part not because of its incredibility, but rather because Christianity has resulted and results in far worse societies that secular liberal societies (and please do your history, before anyone contradicts this statement)) I am struck again and again in much Christian (and religion in general) thinking by the endemic narcissism within in it.

    Last year I happened to be interviewing a Christian lay-pastor from a charismatic Baptist church. He was elderly and yet full of enthusiasm for his creed. He told me of the signs and wonders he has seen. As I have read Adrian Plass, I had to suppress a smirk when he told me of watching a woman’s leg ‘that was shorter than the other’ miraculously grow in length. He went on to tell about how he had healed someone with a broken finger. I sat there, wearing my ‘Gosh, how interesting’ face yet wondering how the irony of the situation seemed not to touch him, for next to us, in a hospital bed was his son who was paralysed and brain injured as a result of a car accident. I thought it rather tactless on the pastor’s part, to witter on about ‘God’s healing’ while all the time, listening to his stories was his son (himself a devout Christian) who surely, from time to time, must have wondered why God cured people of having one leg slightly longer than the other yet seemed to turn a blind eye to someone who through no fault of his own would probably have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair and most likely in institutional care (not to mention being partially sighted, epileptic and having an acquired learning disability).

    I mention this because I think it is a very good example of how believers (no matter what their creed – I’ve heard Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs tell me similar stories) are very good at employing a sort of theological schizophrenia whereby all that builds up their faith and worldview (and of course acts as self-validation) is emphasised, while inconvenient truths are ignored or forgotten or turned to myths (again, myths with an element of self-magnification and self-validation for the teller). They seem to have a split personality.

    My own reading of your post is that you are proposing that life, the universe and everything is not answered by the number forty-two, but is in fact part of a story where God is the author and humanity the main character. Again, this to me seems like vanity, a wilful desire to be centre stage – despite the fact (as I am sure you know, given you are a star-gazer) earth is just one planet circling a sun, in a galaxy of at least a hundred billion suns, in a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies. Moreover for every ‘story’ of signs and wonders, there are many more stories that end in the question ‘why?’. Why today will God let thousands of people die for want of a meal, clean water, justice etc. A trait of the religiously inclined is to see exceptions and call them rules – and of course these ‘rules’ are usually things that validate their own beliefs and worldview.

    I am an agnostic – despite once (and for 20 odd years) being a devout, conservative Christian. I am not averse to the idea of there being a ‘story’ or ‘plotline’ and I am sure there are even atheists who hold a similar view as mine (why do Christians/believers stick these false, often self-satisfied, divisions between themselves and the rest of humanity... ‘the atheist believes this’... when to be quite frank, many believers, haven’t got all the answers to what they themselves believe!). Yet I cannot accept that Christianity is one, concrete whole – indeed history and the diversity of denominations and factions tell us Christians aren’t able to do this either, so I won’t lose too much sleep over my ignorance.

    1. You may have answered your own question there, BAA.

      Atheism & Agnosticism are hardly unified bodies. The problem we all have in common, is people. So of course churches will have divisions, they're full of people. The church will always be mixed, so often it's own worst PR. Also the church will often be unbalanced, like the e.g. you gave. Sure there are miracles and healings in the Bible, but lots about living in a fallen world and how to live with what that throws at us.

      A few of us have done our history (when I trained for ministry history was a surprisingly big chunk - some of the guys already had Oxbridge history degrees) - & there are some sad things done in the name of the Church. But lots of good in our society too. Where as atheism/secularisms only successes is built off that capital. Just think, Cambodia, N Korea, Nazism, Soviet Union, China - not all great in terms of how people are treated.

      Isn't the alternative to God = author, man = main character either, man = author AND main character, OR everything is meaningless. I'd say man isn't the MAIN character, but a key supporting role. The main character is God.

      Darren Moore


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  2. BAA,

    BAA. Can you tell us what it was that turned you to an agnostic, notwithstanding John's piece?
    It wasn't Adrian Plass was it?

    Chris Bishop

  3. "Christrian Csomology; Incarnarion and 'Evil'"

    What, on earth, does this title mean?

    1. Father Ron,

      In answer to your question, I point you here:

      Pray for the Ugley Vicar

      Let all of us pray for John at this time.

    2. If this were Facebook I'd put *like*, then *share*

  4. John, good to see you back.
    This is a big, big story with no one sure interpretation. We all see through a glass darkly. I am convinced that God works with nature to perform his wondrous works. He also works in a unique way sometimes defying logic.
    In around 1966 I was on my way to work and I saw a newspaper stand with the headline 'How could a good God let it happen'. It was referring to the Aberfan disaster and the deaths of so many children. I was a fairly new Christian but I never doubted because I knew that God is a good God and has his own ways. It was not God's fault that it happened but the fault of the mine operators who either through greed or lack of engineering knowledge built the slag heap without proper care.
    Why did God not save those children? Who can know, but we do know that we have a loving God who care for us all and that is why it is imperative that the gospel is preached. As to all other theological considerations, they are interesting and add to our understanding of God but do not necessarily affect our salvation.

    Norman Yardy - Brentwood

  5. Sad news about the Ugly Vicar, which you may see in the AM link on the side of this bar, in case it's moved on see here:

    Darren Moore
    Chelmsford (in keeping with John's blog rules)

  6. Dear Reverend. What is the monthly basic take-home pay for a CoE Vicar these days? I've looked all over the internet but can't find an answer. I'd be a bit embarrassed to ask my Parish Priest as he's friend of mine and it's a rather vulgar topic to raise, therefore I thought I'd take advantage of the anonymity provided by the internet. Please note this is not a mischief making question, I'm genuinely interested.

  7. Sorry, I've just clicked on the comment above my last. Forgive my insensitivity I wouldn't have posted here had I realised.

  8. I'm thankful to God for John Richardson, this has been a blog I've visited regularly over the years and always valued, praying for his family and friends and his church.
    David Keen, Yeovil

  9. a loyal communicant6 April 2014 at 21:50

    I heard the voice of Jesus say,
    "Come unto me and rest;
    lay down, thou weary one, lay down
    thy head upon my breast."
    I came to Jesus as I was,
    so weary, worn, and sad;
    I found in him a resting place,
    and he has made me glad.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say,
    "Behold, I freely give
    the living water; thirsty one,
    stoop down and drink, and live."
    I came to Jesus, and I drank
    of that life-giving stream;
    my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
    and now I live in him.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say,
    "I am this dark world's light;
    look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
    and all thy day be bright."
    I looked to Jesus, and I found
    in him my Star, my Sun;
    and in that light of life I'll walk
    till traveling days are done.

  10. Thank God for his faithfull servant John Richardson!

    "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev. 14.13)

  11. Awesome to see this written in his last post.

    "But the Christian says ‘No’ — for the outcome is not the endless non-being of death."

    Amen John, Amen.

    James Ellin
    Cranleigh, Surrey

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  13. Awesome to see this written in his last post.

  14. "But the Christian says ‘No’ — for the outcome is not the endless non-being of death."

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