As I write this, the whole world is in lockdown with the pandemic of coronavirus as it runs rampant through communities, killing some and sparing others. The speed with which the virus infects people without most knowing who or where they got it from is only surpassed by the bereaved families who out of the necessity to apply social distancing between themselves and the infected, have also had to suffer the inability to say an adequate goodbye to their loved ones.

Years ago – while doing my theological training – I remember a session in which the lecturer got us to think about the world in which we live and our interconectedness with the other entities with whom we share this world  (whether we like it or not). Things like mammals, reptiles, insects, fish, birds (that initially carried the coronavirus which later transferred to humans) but also viruses and bacteria which can be good and bad to humans.

Prior to writing this post, I began today by drinking some live active cultures that are good for me – yet, going out to the shops to buy groceries, I took every precaution not to contract coronavirus. Now, in the same way that one human (Gandhi) can make a huge contribution to humanity and another (Hitler) can bring destruction, death and wanton carnage, so too can viruses!  We saw this in last week’s post where the Maori population of New Zealand  learnt the hard way through death that they had no resistence to the common cold which barely troubled the European settlers who had brought it with them and infected thousands.

Q) How and why did this happen?

A) Because the Maori population in the 18thC  had not encountered the advanced stage of cold and influenza in the same way their European counterparts had with the result that the Maori’s did not have an immune system with antibodies that were sufficiently developed to ward off this encounter – more here

(Now, if you haven’t read the opening blog which makes the case that although God made the world ‘good’ (Genesis 1v31) for sustaining life, it is not harm free. Find out more by clicking here)

Okay, back to the college seminar and the presentation in which the lecturer explained how human ‘determinism’ is impacted by the world in which other life forms exist, inhabit and seek to continue. A virus – like humans – multiplies in order to survive. In the same way that human’s seek to produce progeny to populate future generations, so too the virus seeks to grow in the hope that it will not be entirely eradicated when encountering an antibody. In short, humans share a world with other living things that is finely-tuned. Tighten up  the structure of the world too much (e.g. Gravity) and the constituent parts cannot function. However, loosen whatever constraints impact humans and it will also mean that these restrictions are removed from viruses, diseases and bacteria also.

In short, the reason why we are currently experiencing a pandemic owes as much to our global economy and human connectedness in which people are free to travel from one end of the world to another in hours, taking with them a virus if contracted. Now, if the plane was yet to be invented, the impact of coroavirus would have been limited to the country it originated in and its neighbouring regions. That said, a choice faces all of us as humans. Would we give up air travel and/or take a 3 month trip to New Zealand by boat OR are we prepared to stay in our state of interconnectedness even at the risk that another pandemic may occur further down the line?

Hi all,

Following on from last week’s post which questioned how we should understand the Scripture in which God asserts that creation is ‘good,’ (Genesis 1v31) we begin today with the first in a series of posts that examines the mixed blessings of the world we live in which Creation can both preserve and take life. So let us begin with the common cold.

At University 34 years ago  (- can it really be that long?)  I did a module on ‘Colonialism and Imperialism.’ The module was interesting for many reasons but mainly because of its insight into ideas that I had not encountered before. However, it was the description of what happened to the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand that both compelled and horrified me in equal measure.

Protected from the outside world for hundreds of years, no-one could not have conceived what would happen to the Maoris with the arrival of settlers from Great Britain and Europe. Unlike their northern hemisphere counterparts who had developing immunity to the common cold (through a succession of viral resistance passed on to them through parents, grandparents, great grandparents, etc) , the indigenous New Zealand population had no such resistance when exposed to it.

As a consequence, a vast number of Maoris died in the first few years through exposure to viruses such as the common cold, influenza, chicken pox, etc as well as venereal disease and alcoholism. Why? Because they had never encountered these before and their bodies had not developed immunity and resistance. This was most pronounced in the young and  those in their twilight years.

As I write this post, the world is experiencing a pandemic of ‘Coronavirus’. As the infection rate is incredibly high and dangerous for the elderly and those with underlying health issues, the risk of death is incredibly high. Indeed, thousands of people have already died from it and it is not too hard to see how this parallels with the Maori experience of coming up against something for which they were unprepared. Ourselves too with this lastest strain of bird flu – the only difference being that we with thousands of year of being exposed to these ailments will have a better chance of combatting such a viral strain than those who have not.

So, what does this mean in terms of a world that is red in tooth and claw? A world where some people catch a cold and die while others, get a fever and survive? All of which begs the question: is our exposure to a virus and overcoming it a good thing? After all, it presents us as being wonderfully made with a complex system of antibodies that fight on our behalf. It’s good for life BUT a harm-free world it is not!

 

Hi all,

Recently, I have been thinking about what lies at the heart of all the tough questions people have about the world that God has made – you know, questions like:

‘Why does God allow natural disasters?’ Why do viruses exist?’ Why do people grow old and die?’ etc

Anyway, I have an answer. Actually, I’ve had it for some time though I think I have been unwilling to name it out loud for reason that it challenges a cherished verse of scripture.

I refer of course to Genesis 1 v31 where we are informed that ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’

Now, while a bald reading of scripture leads many christians to believe the world is perfect – that is harm-free and without fault or danger – it also creates a problem when avalanche or tsunami or coronavirus strikes as we are forced to resolve the question ‘In what way are these things good?’ *

Which leaves us with a dilemma – either the scripture is wrong or we are lacking in our understanding of the true meaning of what God is speaking to us?

To which my answer is this:

God creates a world that is ‘good’ in that it sustains human existence BUT it is not harm free.

It seems to me that too many believers read the word ‘good’ in Genesis 1v31 and take it to mean ‘perfect’ and posing no threat to humans. Yet, this is not true. We learn this from an early age because when we fell and banged our knee on the ground we registered it as not a ‘good’ experience. In fact, it’s painful – the ground is hard and gravity constant.

So what are the implications for our reading of Genesis 1 v31?

Well, maybe the words ‘for sustaining life’ should be added (like a footnote) to the word ‘good’ where it says  ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’

Don’t get me wrong, God has created a world that is good in providing for human need and sustaining life. That said,  any world dependent on techtonic movement and gravity being built into a system for sustaining life (through replenishing soil, creating uplift to facilitate water from hydrological cycle,etc) is going to result in casualties as avalanches, tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons and a whole range of other things come our way.

In summary – for the most part our world sustains human life – though it will also disrupt , injure and take life also. The world is not ‘harm-free’ but for the most part it remains manageable.

Til next time!

* Over the next few weeks I will attempt to address these questions in regard to the joint benefits of the things that are seemingly harmful but also sustain life.

Can freewill ever be removed from humans?

March 5, 2020


A few years ago – a day or so on from the siege of a school by terrorists in Belsan (Russia) – I was listening to Radio 4  when newscaster Jonathan Humphries announced he would in a few minutes time, be interviewing Archbishop Rowan Williams for his take about what had happened at the school and why. Curious as to what the Archbishop’s response would be, while at the same time mortified at the resultant mauling he might receive from Humphries, I hung about to hear what he had to say. It is necessary to add here that Humphries’ atheist leaning was widely known which not only made him rather unsympathetic to the Church (or any faith for that matter) but a hard person to be interviewed by (imho).

Suffice to say, the interview started amicably enough with a couple of ‘serve’ and ‘return’ rallies by both men while they set out their positions – then SUDDENLY – it kicked off!

(Can I add here that the short transcript of the radio programme can be found by clicking this link and is far more succinct than my recollection of the event but for those of you who want the skinny on what was said….

…it all kicked off when the Archbishop, in explaining the siege and the actions of the terrorists, framed it in terms of the complexity of the terrorists’ use and misuse of freewill. To say this was akin to a large red flag being waved in Humphries face is an understatement who went off on a blistering tirade about how the terrorist’s actions had denied parents and children the opportunity of their freewill. The Archbishop’s response, acknowledging how indeed the terrorists had curtailed the freewill of children, family and teachers by taking them hostage for their purposes, also noted that even in a curtailed state, children and parents might still have been able to exercise freewill in a lesser measure through choosing to comfort the child next to them or the weeping parent outside.

If you want to know the rest and how it ended, you’ll have to read the transcript which isn’t long and real insight into the issue of freewill which is the core of understanding the tenets of the purposes of God and tenets of Christian belief. But for now, it will suffice to say that the issue of freewill affects us all and even when other’s actions may deny us the freedom to make the choices we’d prefer, it does not mean that God is absent nor that all options have been removed from us.

Today we start a new series which asks questions as to whether God has provided only one route for believers to be forgiven and restored. At the heart of this issue lurks a huge ‘elephant in the room’ because faced with the binary choice of believing one religion over all others, we soon come to appreciate this is not an either/or decision that should be taken lightly as the stakes are incredibly high – eternal life or eternal death?

One reason there is a dilemma for the individual is that all religions purport to be the elected guardians of the One true faith.  We see this in the monopoly of revelation that each religion pertains to itself: a unique truth that has been passed down to them by their Diety. Often, this takes the form of a holy manuscript or sacred text (Bible, Koran, Torah etc) in which instructions are given to the believer, requiring absolute devotion and obedience to that particular religion’s accompanying rites of passage, community allegience, and subscribance to the named Deity.

Naturally, the problem for the devotee is which religion to choose because the stakes are high – indeed, it might even be said it is a matter of spiritual life and death. Choose right and the person goes to heaven. Choose wrong and they are destined for ‘hell’ – whatever you understand that to mean?

Over the next few weeks, we will tease out more of the issues involved as we try to make sense of the different claims made about God, heaven and acceptance…

With inclusivism defined, let us turn our attention to the major criticism that is levelled against it. Interestingly, it is a criticism that comes from within the Church itself for it is Christian exclusivists who have the greatest problem with inclusivity. The exclusivist argues that accommodation of these faith groups (without placing a requirement on people to change and respond to Christ) is contrary to what Jesus teaches about there only being one way to God. Or put a different way, exclusivists fear that this openness towards people from other religions moves the Church closer to pluralist and universalist ways of thinking – a route which in their eyes will also dilute the message of Christ.

A different argument against inclusivity centres on Jesus’ instructions to his followers to make disciples of all nations. Here, the exclusivist reasons that if people from other religions can be saved without making a response to Christ, the need to tell others about Jesus becomes redundant. Moreover, it raises questions about what Jesus’ intention might have been in telling the disciples to go and do this if he knew people could be saved in other ways which did not require explicit faith in Jesus Christ.

So, in summary, the inclusivist perspective considers that other religions do reveal some truth about God, but that the complete truth is found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ. People from other faiths are saved not by their own religion but through salvation that is secured through Christ. In short, people of other faiths access God’s salvation via Jesus Christ BUT not always through explicit faith in Him.

 

So what are we to make of salvation? Is there only one way it can be understood or is the grace of God more accommodating than that which is practiced by humans? Certainly, it seems that inclusivism and exclusivism as understood within the Roman Catholic Church may go some way towards offering a model between the dichotomy of those christians who believe and can’t do otherwise, and those who experience the exact opposite – see below

 

‘Ordinary’ salvation (a very potted version)

The thinking goes something like this: this type of Christian salvation is considered to exist for people from other faith groups who have not heard the gospel of Christ but have worshipped the Divine within the religion they were brought up in. Had these people been born at a different time or in a different context where there had the opportunity to learn about Jesus, the belief is that they would have become followers of Christ.

The thinking behind this is that although Jesus makes limited reference to people from other religions in the Bible, there is sufficient reason to presume his sacrifice extends to others who do not profess to know him. Certainly the Bible details many people who received help from Jesus even though they were not Jewish. The argument is that in the same way that Jesus is prepared to help these people while they are alive, so the likelihood is that his same generosity will extend to them later on at the point of death.

Within this model is the notion that people are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus, and not by the rites of their different religion. This is not a new idea within the Church. However, in regard to people from other faiths, the idea is quite problematic because it implies that people’s other attempts to worship God are somehow less than that which the Christian experiences. However, it is also worth noting that the term ‘ordinary’ salvation seems to suggest an experience which is commonplace to the majority of people who do not recognise or understand Jesus as their saviour during their physical lifetime.

‘Extraordinary’ salvation

The ‘extraordinary’ way of salvation refers to people who have come to see and understand Jesus as their saviour during their lifetime. The experience of God’s revelation leads the individual to become a follower before physical death occurs. The result of this is that salvation is understood early on in the believer’s life in ways that are considered ‘extraordinary’ because it seems to have been revealed directly to the individual by God.

In summary

One thing that must also be considered within these models is that the Roman Catholic’s belief in a place of purgatory – where souls must pay penance (often measured in hundreds of years) before entering heaven is quite likely at play in the thinking that underpins all are included but not all enter at the same time.

Inclusivism

Like the pluralist, the Christian inclusivist also believes that God is made known through each of the world religions. However, where they differ is that the inclusivist believes that full and complete knowledge of the Divine can only be gained through Jesus Christ. To understand the dynamics of this inclusivist approach, it is necessary to journey back to the 1960s and the Vatican Council (of the Roman Catholic Church) who wrestled with the issue of how people from other faiths should be considered in terms of Christ’s salvation. The conclusion of the Council was that while its members believed that everlasting salvation could only be found through faith in Jesus Christ, special provision should be extended to those people from other traditions who:

‘through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do [God’s] will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience [14].’

In reaching this decision, the Council also recognised and affirmed that whatever was true and holy in other faiths also reflected,

‘a ray of that truth which enlightens all men[14]

Central to this line of thinking was the idea that other religions should be thought of being at a stage that was ‘pre-Christian’ rather than ‘non-Christian’ as the Council believed that each one was ordained to find its fulfilment in Christ.

Of course, this inclusivist approach differs from pluralist ideas in that it does not suggest all religions lead to God but rather that although these other religions display something of the truth of the Divine, the complete truth comes only through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. The suggestion by the Vatican Council was that other religions may also be considered participants in this process occurs because Christ secures the possibility of eternal salvation for all people through his death and resurrection – and that, irrespective of how they came to believe in him.

Central to this way of thinking is the idea developed by the Council who proposed that Christ’s salvation is granted to people in one of two ways – these being

  • Ordinary way of salvation
  • Extraordinary way of salvation. [14]

These we shall consider in the next two posts…

[14] ‘New Dictionary of Theology’ (IVP, 1998) p 135

 

Exclusivism

In the last post we considered how pluralistic concepts are undone by the fact religions are not the same but very different in that they make exclusivist claims. Or put another way, they assert their religion or thinking is true and that everything outside of it is false or invalid. These sorts of claims are made by Islam, Judaism, Christianity and others, where each group believes that they have a revealed truth about God that others do not have. And of course, we might also add to this list Atheism because even though a belief system, they have their own particular creed that ‘God does not exist’.

Of course, Christian exclusivism asserts that God does exist and that the only way the Divine may be fully understood and accessed is through Jesus Christ. As a result, the believer’s knowledge and experience of God is mediated exclusively through Christ in ways that affirm this belief – a belief which necessitates that other religions be considered as false attempts to reach/worship God.

Now, although this position is the mainstay of exclusivist belief, the idea of other groups being false attempts to access God was not initially formulated by the Church with world religions in mind. One reason we know this is that most of these ‘other’ religions were unknown to the church at the time when Christian doctrine was first developed – the boundary of Christianity going no further than the limits of the Roman Empire. Limits that knew nothing of places such as India, Australia, and Brazil, let alone the religious practices of the people within these countries.

From church history it seems that these instructions towards people with ‘false’ ideas, relates more to the growth of religious ‘sects’ within the Church itself. Groups that threatened the orthodox position through their contrary ideas regarding the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. Eventually, as these heresies became more widespread, the early Church Fathers chose to identify and isolate these ‘sects’ within the Church.

Of course, this is not to suggest that the exclusivist position accommodates other faiths, for clearly it does not. However, it does help us to understand how the church has come to hold both exclusivist and inclusivist ways of thinking. The exclusivist approach centres on how people are given freewill and have the choice to respond to or reject the message of Christ. Where people have no knowledge of Jesus to inform this choice, the belief is that individuals are judged by God on the basis of how they responded to the general revelation of the Divine as it was mediated to them through:

  • Nature – the evidence of creation itself
  • Human conscience – a belief in the existence of a Divine Being

Naturally, the problem that many people have with exclusivism is they consider it arrogant because of the claims made by its followers in regard to it being the one and only truth, and that all other religions are wrong. This position is equally problematic because we live in an age where to make such a claim is to be considered divisive. Central to people’s discomfort with exclusivist claims are two main issues:

  1. Why might God choose only one way to reveal himself?
  2. Isn’t God unfair to only accept one route for people to be forgiven and restored?

These we shall consider in our next post.

 

At the risk of disappointing some who will think the pluralist argument outlined in the last post is a convincing one, let us now consider some of the major flaws that are within it.

The Blind Scribes

Although there are many problems with the pluralist illustration of the ‘Blind Scribes,’ I will concentrate on just a few. The first involves its conclusion:

‘..that if only the religious leaders were able to see, they would understand the truth of God’.

But this is a flawed truth because this is something that only the pluralist is capable of knowing, which raises questions in regard to what other presumptions have been made within the illustration. Indeed, what it inadvertently suggests is that just like the major religions, pluralism also deals in revealed truth. However, unlike the religious leaders who are considered misdirected in their ideas and thinking, it appears that the pluralist is the only one who sees things clearly and recognises the elephant for what it is.

Now, while this idea initially sounded reasonable, what we come to realise is that this claim is more outrageous than those made by the religious leaders. For only the pluralist is able to see everything perfectly in the same way that God might. Basically, the narrator claims to have a greater understanding and insight than the collective thoughts of Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Guru Nanak or any of the other religious teachers for that matter.

Routes up the Mountain

Likewise, with the illustration of ‘routes up the mountain’ this too is also problematic because the pluralist assumes that his or her position from above the summit enables them to see what others cannot – the inference being that the observing pluralist narrator has parity with God for only s/he can see the one truth from the many. Of course, these illustrations are flawed in other ways because not all routes might lead up the mountain to the summit.

Perhaps far more compelling are the conflicting claims that different religions make in regard to one another which suggests that spiritual routes do not converge in the way that pluralists suggest. The notion that every religion ultimately has the same message and that believers achieve the same spiritual end point is something that most religious groups would rail against. One reason we know this is because…

‘…faith groups often make competing claims as to what is truth, usually in ways that contradict what other religions state and believe.’

This is clearly evident in the claims made about Jesus by Islam and Christianity in which Muslims consider him a prophet while Christians believe him to be God incarnate.

Some other thoughts…

From our earliest years we are aware of the rule by which one person’s engagement with a particular religion necessitates they must be solely devoted to that religion at the expense of all other possible religions – save that they convert to another or adopt a belief system though even doing this may have consequence for some. We know this because to be both a Jew and a practising Muslim at the same time is not only mutually incompatible in terms of the rites of passage it requires, but also the way worship is conducted. This alone should illustrate how ludicrous the suggestion is that all religions are in essence the same and does not even begin to touch upon those whose truth claims require the destruction of other faith groups that are different to themselves. All of which suggests that the issue of world religions is far more complex than these simplistic examples put forward by pluralists.