The Reality we Imagine

Martin Luther King imagined a reality that he never lived to see. It was an impossible dream – more than a little dangerous. Some thought it the delusions of a mad man. Yet he could imagine its reality and he clung to it. He died before other could see it, but it is no longer a dream.

Our imagination is powerful. Many leading sociologists use our ‘social imaginary’ to describe us, rather than our ‘worldview’. I am no sociologist, but I am increasingly convinced by the importance of what we can imagine. Our imagination defines not just who we are, but who we become: an important difference.

Of course, if you begin to imagine impossible things then some might begin to consider you mad. That happened to Jesus, even by his own family, so we’d be in good company. He was imagining a heaven on earth, while the best anyone else could imagine was getting rid of the Roman occupation. No wonder people questioned his sanity. Perhaps I should be worrying more about why I am not accused of being insane. In fact, I am too sane by far, which is the trouble with many of us. We are all too sane. Too rational to imagine more than we can see.

I have been reminded about the importance of this recently through looking into the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. I had hoped to be stirred by it. Instead, I found it more than a little depressing. It is all true, but it also seems so small and inadequate once placed in its neat little theological boxes. The only description that I have grown to appreciate most wasn’t from any theological work, but, of all things, from a children’s story book. In C.S. Lewis’ “The lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” he describes the sacrifice at the stone table as a ‘deep magic that goes back before the dawn of time’. I have come to like this, not because of what it says (which is very little), but for what it leaves unsaid. It opens up the mystery to the imagination, and perhaps it is only in my imagination that I can begin to grasp the smallest fragment of the breadth, depth and height, that is the cross.

Now, I am not arguing that we park our minds at the door of the church, there are, regrettably, too many who have already done that – rarely with positive results. However, I do believe that we have allowed ourselves to become too closely entwined with the Enlightenment and its ideals. We have over-thought the gospel and under-imagined it’s power – myself included, if not especially. If we are to begin to impact this world, then perhaps we may need to engage our imaginations and dream big dreams.

What is Real?

We believe we know what is real, but maybe we are wrong. The world around us seems real enough, but the Kingdom of God knows another reality: the Spirit that blows where he wills. We stand in wonder when we hear of miracles and puzzle over why we don’t see more. Yet, we are part of a culture that imbibes the myth that this world is based on just facts and reason. It is a belief that has so got under our skin that we no longer realise it is there. Is it any surprise if that is all we get?

In the nineteenth century, the writing was already on the wall. Kierkegaard shouted his warning to a church that was becoming enmeshed in rationalism – either stripping Christianity of the miraculous or converting it into a system of logical premises. The premises may have been extracted from the Bible, by they just as certainly stripped it of mystery. Needless to say, Kierkegaard was not heard. He was probably not even understood. And we live in its legacy. It is what we teach our children and embed in our culture. We base our view of reality on the tip of an iceberg, while its true substance remains hidden from us.

We may think we have a ‘Biblical Worldview’, but Bill Johnson summed up the problem when he said that God never goes against the Bible, but he can surprise us by going against our understanding of it. If we try and place God in a box, he will at some point break out. We can’t predict what he will do next. He is beyond our understanding, beyond our reason. It took Job a while to figure this out, but in the end he got it. God will be God. The Spirit blows where he wills.

God is the only reality. It is in him that all things have their being. Our God who is, who was and who will be. We cannot describe him, understand him, or fit him into our boxes. He just is. We need to get it in our heads around the fact that we will never fathom God, even though we have an eternity to do it in, God is just too big for us ever to grasp.

But I need to ground this, so, here is a fact: dead people don’t rise. If a doctor certifies someone as dead, they will not be expecting them back for a follow up appointment. Death is final. Yet, Jesus arose from the dead. The resurrection matters. It is the turning point of history, without it, Jesus death on the cross is just another execution. Paul understood. Everything hinges on the resurrection. If a man, three days dead and cold in the ground can get up, then we need to re-assess how we see the world. This is the reality of the Kingdom, it is redefined around the Spirit of God.

The Enlightenment’s view of reality has become so embedded in our culture that we no longer see the extent to which we ourselves have imbibed it. It is powerful, because it is partly true, just not the whole truth. As subjects of the Kingdom, we are called to live from another reality, one based on a God who is. The resurrection is our touchstone and we need to embed its truth in our lives. And on the journey, don’t be surprised when the unexpected and miraculous happen. We should expect it, because, after all, the Sprit has always blown where he wills.

Belief in a Secular Age

Ken 15 Jul , 2017 0 comments World Culture, Doubt

We have been conditioned to disbelieve. Every facet of society is geared around a powerful assumption: reality is based on what we observe and what we deduce from it. It is an assumption that has proven spectacularly successful, opening our world to the wonders of science and technology. It underpins our modern world and the basis on how we teach our children. Only it is wrong. It is a reductionist myth.

This brings me to Schrodinger’s cat. It is a famous thought experiment that Schrodinger used to illustrate an important idea behind Quantum mechanics. In the experiment a cat is placed in a sealed box and in that box there is a lethal gas that can be released to kill the cat. The gas is released by the radioactive decay of a particle, and the experiment is arranged so that there is a 50% chance of the particle decaying, and thus a 50% chance of the gas being released and the cat being dead when the box is opened. I doubt if the RSPCA would have approved, but it is at least easy to grasp the basic idea. Now, here is the mind bending bit: Just before the box is opened, is the cat dead or alive? Well, most people would say that it depends on whether the particle had decayed or not. However, the answer, according to quantum mechanics, is in fact neither. Until the box is opened, and the outcome observed, the particle is neither decayed nor not decayed, but exists in an indeterminate state. Even Einstein thought this was nonsense. Unfortunately, Quantum mechanics has proved remarkably accurate in all of its other predictions, and devices, such as iPhones would not be possible if Quantum mechanics could not be trusted. So, we have a dilemma: Either the cat is in an indeterminate state (and neither dead nor alive) or my iPhone does not exist. Apparently, I can’t have both. There is something very strange in our world that defies our sense of reality.

Charles Taylor, an influential Canadian philosopher, studied what made society secular. In earlier times a world without a sense of the transcendent was unimaginable. That is not to say that everyone believed in God, just that those who did not kept quite about it, lest they appear odd, or were seen as dangerous. This position has shifted over the last few hundred years to a point where, today, the idea of a world without the transcendent is not only imaginable, but often the default position. Even for those who believe, this belief is seen as an option. It is this shift that defines secularism. Under this definition, America is just as secular as the UK, even if more people go to church. Once secularism gets into us, there is no way back.

We live in strange times, where cracks are appearing in the fundamental assumption on which our modern world is based. Its truth still feels obvious, but we are learning to question it, learning to see it as a modern myth, alongside many others. The problem is it reduced our view of the world too much. Charles Taylor opens the vista for us again, by allowing us to understand what has gone on and what has brought us to this place. Yet, there is no return to a former innocence that allows us to believe innocently. We have crossed a Rubicon and we cannot go back. All that is left is the forward journey, following the path the Spirit has prepared.

Of Good and Evil

William Golding, in his book ‘Darkness Visible’, has had a profound influence on my understanding of good and evil. To be fair, it contains much to make you blanch, but it also captures something profound. The story is based around two characters: the beautiful and intelligent Sophie and the disfigured and simple Matty. Sophie, for all her charm, views the world through herself; Matty, by contrast, uses a beaten up old Bible that he doesn’t really understand. The story then unfolds.

Nietzsche had his own view of the problem. In the nineteenth century people increasingly doubted the existence of God, but as this belief was thought to keep people compliant they continued to promote it to stabilise society. God was doubted, but in private. For Nietzsche, this was nonsense. If there is no God, then we needed to re-think our world from the ground up, a world without good or evil, where our moral standards are nothing more than a meaningless fiction created by priests. All that is left is the relentless will of nature towards power. We have not all had the ruthless honesty of Nietzsche. We looked into the abyss and we stepped back. Instead we come up with our own ideas of good, be it the ‘utility’ of economics, the ‘pursuit of happiness’, or, indeed, any of a legion of other standards. But, as Nietzsche points out, once God is dead, there is no basis for any.

Back to William Golding. Everyone loves Sophie, but she is indifferent to the people she hurts along the way. It is perhaps this contradiction between her outward charm and her inner indifference that makes her character so dark and sinister.

Now, I used to puzzle over why God would object to man knowing about good and evil. But, what William Golding has helped me realise is that God’s intention was that we should understand goodness in relation to him. Our rebellion was not so much our disobedience to an arbitrary command, but our wanting to decide for ourselves right from wrong. It turns out that the serpent did not lie. In eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil we did become like God, we put ourselves in his place. Yet it is God who is the source of goodness and we detach ourselves from him at our peril. We become like Sophie and all manner of evil follows and, as Nietzsche understood, once God is removed good and evil disappear entirely.

We live in a world that is no longer sure about right and wrong, good and evil. It clings to a past with its certainties, but, like a tree that has died from within that look sound, sooner or later it must fall. We may be able to prop it up a little longer, but it has died and may be better let to fall. We cannot give the world back its stability through outward forms, its centre is dead. It will decide for itself what is good and evil. For a while it may remember the values it once had, but that memory will fade and it will increasingly call evil good and good evil. Maybe then the light will be easier to see. Even so, it will be a dark day. Yet our hope is not in propping up a world that has died at its centre, but in a kingdom that confronts it, a kingdom rooted in the other tree.

Suffering

Some people may struggle with this post and, to be honest, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it. God just does not neatly fit into my idea of what he should be like, so shaped am I by my culture.

It is easy to question whether the authors of John’s Gospel and John’s Revelations had anything in common. What has a God ‘who so loved the world’ to do with the releasing of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse? It is a challenging question. Just as challenging as the common complaint about a God who allows, say, a woman to be violently raped or a child killed by abuse. Is God culpable by standing by and allowing it to happen, or is he merely incompetent, not able to prevent it? A stock answer I have heard is that this is consequence of the serpent deceiving Eve and the subsequent ‘Fall’. Yet, whatever we make of that story, it only moves the question: Did God stand by, knowing the misery that would follow, or did he merely not know what was going on in the garden?

Perhaps perversely, I feel that God would affirm that, yes, he is culpable, he has allowed something he could have prevented. No excuses. It is a difficult idea, but then love can be hard to separate from suffering. As a father I have wanted my children to grow up and that meant allowing them to increasingly make their own decisions for their lives. Sometimes that means standing by as they make mistakes and suffer as a result. As a parent I too suffer as I watch on. There is something about love that seems to bring with it its own suffering. For, as John points out, God so loved the world… that he chose to suffer and die amongst us. Extreme suffering on a cross, because of love.

For us though, the problem of suffering remains a big deal, even though, until quite recently, suffering was seen as just a part of life. People die. People get hurt. We accepted it, even if we did not like it. The Apostle Paul, for example, said it was something to rejoice in. Something that the early Christians had plenty of opportunity to put into practice, as they were fed to lions or burnt alive, often while singing. Their joy in death was duly noted, even if it puzzled the surrounding world.

But, our world sees things differently. We are pervaded by the ideas of Enlightenment, such as the ‘pursuit of happiness’ or seeking the ‘greatest utility’. We think we have the power to build for ourselves a better world, with its Benefits system, Health Service, all part of the relentless march of progress, towards a modern Utopia. In this scheme of things, suffering has no part, it is best hidden or buried in some alcoholic or opiate stupor. Suffering has become an embarrassment. A denial of our Utopian dream.

Yet, maybe, suffering is an important part of life, though we may not understand it. I am reminded too that, as Christians, our call is to follow Jesus, the man who suffered and died. A man who showed us the true nature of God, a God who suffers with us. Maybe one day we will stand back and marvel at this part of creation, a part that includes a cross, and a God who does not stand apart from us in our suffering, but firmly alongside us in the middle of it.