faith-and-science

 

 

 

 

 

We have seen that since its origins in the early modern period (in the seventeenth century) a distinctive “scientific” approach to the world has emerged and gone through a series of transformations. The basic scientific worldview makes a number of basic assumptions about the structure and nature of reality that have been well supported by the success the scientific method has enjoyed. Among the most important and most basic of these assumptions are:

  • The behaviour of the world we observe is uniform and predictable – what happens here and now is the same, fundamentally, as what happens in every place and at every time. Without this assumption the experimental method is impossible since new experiments would not be relevant to laws governing past events in different places.
  • The predictability of the world is of a kind expressible in mathematical laws that state that given a set of conditions the next event is calculable with exactitude – the world is mathematical in its basic structures. Again, the experimental method is impossible without this assumption since it would be unclear whether new results did or did not conform to the laws used to explain or describe past results.
  • Causation operates from the past to the future. To know what is going to happen it is necessary only to know about things that have already happened. This, too, is a necessary condition of the experimental method since if some of the causes of events were not captured in the description of a particular event then it would be impossible to know whether past descriptions or explanations had been discredited by a new result.

It is important to grasp that these basic assumptions are not obvious (they would not have been accepted by pre-modern people) and are not in principle provable, although we have good reason to accept them given the successes they have enabled. A reality in which none of them hold is imaginable and would still be compatible with what we know about the reality we actually inhabit. Indeed I would argue that they are all subject to some degree of qualification in light of the contemporary scientific story about the nature and history of our universe. (For more see part 1 of this series)

We have also seen that over the last 150 years there has been a distinct shift in the basic picture of the nature of the universe held by “science”. Before the middle of the nineteenth century a “Newtonian” view held sway. This asserted that the basic framework (space and time) and constituents (matter) of the universe were essentially fixed and unchanging. The events that occur are reducible to movements of matter through absolute (“real”) space over periods of absolute time. Time and space were the same for all matter and matter itself was not subject to change, only to movement. This enabled the thought that everything that was going to happen was in principle predictable given sufficiently detailed and accurate knowledge about the past and the present, an idea particularly associated with the eminent French mathematician, scientist and politician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827).

With the development of geology and Darwinian evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century there emerged an awareness of “historical” or developmental processes in the physical structure and the biological population of the natural order. With the linked development of cosmology (the science of the Universe at the largest scale) and particle physics (the science of the smallest scale structures of reality) this awareness has been extended to the fundamental constitution of all reality. The observable universe has a beginning, now fairly accurately dated, and a history. Even the most basic particles did not exist at that beginning and the history shows the emergence of more and more complex structures, each successive level having its own sets of behaviours governed by new laws which must be deployed to describe and explain what happens.

Even space and time themselves are emergent properties of this process of development and it is now a point of debate in cosmology whether events do, in fact, flow straightforwardly in time or whether, now time is regarded as one dimension of the unified “space-time” of General Relativity, we should conceive of time as a dimension along which movement is, in principle, possible in the other direction (a theory called the “block universe”).

 

The tendency to see reality as structured into “layers” with more complex entities emerging over time and having their own law-governed behaviours not straightforwardly reducible to those of simpler levels introduces the possibility of “top-down causation” in which events describable using the categories of the lower levels cannot be fully explained without recourse to those at the higher levels. One example might be the complex chemical reactions that take place within a living organism. These can be described using only the tools of chemistry but this would not explain how they come about, since without the complex structures of the organism they would never occur, since the precursor chemicals have had to be created within the organism and brought together under the correct conditions. The extremely complex chemical structure of the DNA of a plant or animal can be described using chemical formulae but would never come into being without the long and complex chain of events that produces this particular living thing. (For more see part 2 of this series)

So what does theology have to say about all this and what difference does any of it make to theology? This has been an area given great attention by theologians over the last few decades and increasingly so over the last decade. There is a huge amount of material and a wide variety of positions. I would like to single out a few that seem particularly important and fruitful and which are common among many of those writing in the field.

 

Firstly Christian theology must always insist on the importance of purpose, goal and the future in thinking about the base structure of reality. It has been an important insight for and from the scientific approach to reality that much of what happens is explicable and much that is going to happen if predictable from the past. Many events are fully determined by their preconditions. However it is fundamental to the way Christians conceive the relationship between God and the created order that there was a purpose in God’s creation and that God is still working that purpose out. Christians can differ about the precise nature of that purpose (or purposes) and about the ways in which God works to bring it (or them) about but I would argue one cannot be a Christian and deny the meaningfulness of Creation to God or that he is striving to realise the purpose or purposes he has for it. A full explanation of reality will have a purpose-related (teleological) dimension.

 

Secondly theology will be interested in and should be open to the shift away from a fully deterministic picture of the Universe. This has two key elements. In the first place there has been the recognition and acceptance of what I referred to above as “top down causality”, that is to say the emergence of genuinely novel and irreducible causal laws when structures at higher levels of complexity emerge (which we now know to be a historical process in time). Full explanations of events become more complex (have more kinds of cause at work) as we move forward and this is not, as far as we can see, fully reducible to explanations at the lower level.

Secondly there are two forms of radical unpredictability now recognised in the structures of reality. At the level of quantum mechanics (the tiniest particles and smallest units of energy) there appears to be no way of specifying what particular events will take place. There is statistical predictability such that one can say what the probabilities of particular outcomes are over large sets of events and this good statistical predictability gives rise to regularity and predictability at the scale of objects we can interact with in our everyday lives but at the base level there is extreme and irreducible unpredictability. On the other hand at the level of the largest and most complex systems (like the planetary weather system) chaos theory has demonstrated that very small differences in the starting conditions can lead to very large differences in outcomes (the famous “butterfly flapping its wing in Brazil causing a storm in China”). In these highly complex systems radical unpredictability (at the level of detail) is caused by these chaotic effects (although again statistical methods allow a good level of prediction at the level of the system, as in weather forecasting).

 

This openness of the future and amenability of outcomes being affected “top down” by causal mechanisms acting at higher levels of organisation or structure are both welcome to theology and in part at least explain, I think, the increased interest of theologians in scientific matters more recently and the greater willingness of scientists with faith to engage actively with theological questions.

 

So theology wants to assert the importance of teleological (purpose-related) explanations and welcomes the loosening of the grip of reductionist (everything is explicable in terms of physics) and determinist (everything can in principle be predicted) ideas within the scientific world-view.

 

There is a third vital dimension to the interaction between theology and science in the contemporary world. There is, I think, a shift in the way the act of creation is thought about. 150 years ago it would have been quite natural to think of God’s creative act as something that happened in the past and is now finished with any further involvement of God with Creation as something fundamentally discontinuous with and different from it. This idea is very difficult to maintain in face of a picture of the Universe in which fundamental change has been a constant reality. Creation now tends to be thought of as an unfinished and ongoing project in which God’s final purpose requires further changes to the structures of reality (even if these are thought of as only at the highest levels of complexity).

 

All these points of intersection will be further explored as this series goes on to look at two areas of particular interest to Christian theology:first the nature of consciousness and its relation to Christian ideas about the nature of human being; and second the final destination and fate of the universe, the end of all things, how it’s all going to turn out.

cosmic_evolution

If science is defined as a method or project based on the assumption that there are laws of nature that can be defined mathematically and discovered experimentally then what it produces is a steadily richer set of descriptions of aspects of what exists. These descriptions themselves are modified as new theories replace discredited ones but the observations that enable them are preserved and re-thought rather than abandoned. Thus our basic model of the solar system has a lot in common with that of Newton even as its theoretical underpinning has been totally transformed. We still plot orbits of the planets around the Sun even as the nature of gravity has been totally rethought and the idea of the Sun as stationary been replaced with one in which the Sun itself is part of a complex galactic system in motion both around its own centre of gravity and with respect to other galaxies.

This second part of our series on faith and science touches on two domains of contemporary scientific description, cosmology and biological evolution, and attempts to integrate them into a single “story of everything” before reflecting on the implications of this story for Christian faith.

It is now thought that everything we can observe (the Universe) had its origins in a single event 13.8 billion years ago usually called the Big Bang. At that point there was a single undifferentiated point in which all the matter-energy that now exists (remembering that matter and energy are convertible into one another by the formula {\displaystyle E=mc^{2}} where E is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light). The space into which this was compressed, which was all the space that then existed, was smaller than the smallest particle. The laws of physics that govern our reality did not yet (could not yet) apply and the forms of matter and energy with which we are familiar could not yet exist.

There was a  rapid expansion and cooling of this initial state and after something like 1 microsecond the energy levels dropped sufficiently so that elementary particles (protons, electrons and neutrons) were able to exist stably and within a few minutes the first nuclei of elements (hydrogen and helium) “condensed” out of the soup of sub-atomic particles so that the expanding universe could be thought of as a gas cloud, although this process was not completed for some hundreds of thousands of years. No more complex structures than that had yet come into being.

There followed a period of structure formation when, over very long periods, slight differences in the density of the gas cloud led to gravitational forces pulling large amounts of hydrogen and helium together into galaxies and stars. The best estimate for how long it took for the first stars to come into existence is 200 million years. Sufficient matter had by then been brought together by gravity for nuclear fusion to begin, releasing energy and creating atoms of a range of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. These heavier elements are released both during the life of a star and more especially when it comes to the end of its life and explodes as a super-nova.

The galaxy of which our Sun is part is thought to have formed 13.6 billion years ago and our Sun to have ignited within it about 4.5 billion years ago with the earth and the other planets being created as part of the same process which drew together heavy elements from the remnants of an earlier generation of stars within the galaxy.

The first appearance of life on earth is thought to have occurred between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago. There is no consensus on how the transition to self-replicating life came about. The chemical building blocks (organic chemicals) are widely dispersed throughout the universe but the processes whereby the complex processes of life appear have not been determined.

The “last common ancestor” of all current living things is thought to have been about 3.5 billion years ago and was probably a single-celled organism most similar to a modern bacterium. Photosynthesis producing oxygen evolved among the bacteria around 3 billion years ago and began to transform earth’s atmosphere. By 1.2 billion years ago sexual reproduction had emerged among the single celled organisms and by 800 million years ago multi-celled organisms had appeared.

At 500 million years ago the first evidence exists for life that could leave the water and shortly after that for vertebrate fish with true bones and then for land-based plants. Before 350 million years ago the earth began to resemble its current state, with plants and animals including insects on the land. At around 250 million years ago a major extinction event wiped out around 90% of then existing species. A second major extinction event before 200 million years ago allowed the rise of the dinosaurs.

At 66 million years ago another large extinction took place that wiped out most of the dinosaurs and made space for the rise of the mammals, birds (and ants!). At 35 million years ago another big change includes diversification of grasses and of mammals with many modern types appearing.

Somewhere between 65 and 55 million years ago the hominims, which include the chimpanzee, modern humans and the totally extinct Australopithecenes first emerged.  The last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees (our nearest living relatives) is thought to have been 4 to 8 million years ago. The first emergence of the genus Homo sapiens is dated to about 2 million years ago with biologically modern human beings (people genetically identical to us) appearing in Africa about 250,000 years ago. The migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa is thought to have happened 50,000 years ago and the last other human species (Neanderthal) to have become extinct 30,000 years ago.

A distinction is made between biologically modern humans and behaviourally modern humans. Behavioural modernity is a way of life recognisably continuous with all modern humans. This is a controversial and much debated distinction but behavioural modernity is generally thought to include; abstract thought,  planning, trade, cooperative labor, body decoration, control and use of fire. Along with these traits, humans possess a heavy reliance on social learning. Archeological markers of these traits are accepted as; burial of the dead, fishing, figurative art, use of pigments for self-decoration, use of bones for tools, transport of resources over long distances, blade technology, diversity, standardization, and regionally distinct artifacts, hearths, and complex tools.

Whether behavioural modernity emerged suddenly, about 50,000 years ago, or gradually culminating at that time is a matter of debate. In either case it was not present at the first evolution of biologically modern human beings and was present at around the time of the migration out of Africa. It is also generally agreed that some kind of religion was present no later than 30,000 years ago with some scholars claiming to have identified evidence of religious practices even before the evolution of Homo sapiens.

The next major event in this story is the so-called Neolithic Revolution of around 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. At that time human beings began the transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life that involved them getting their food from the existing environment to an agricultural way of life where they controlled and tended their sources of food (primarily wheat and domesticated animals). These first agricultural societies began a process of cultural evolution that brings us to the current day.

Over the next four sessions we will explore the implications of this picture for theology.

  • We will consider what it means for our ideas about a creator God and his relationship to Creation when we recognise that Creation is not and has never been stable. Right down to the most basic physical constitution of the Universe we see processes of change and development within time that still continue.
  • We will think about the nature of human beings and the relationship between the modern scientific view of them and the special place they occupy in Christian theology as the “image of God”. This will involve thinking about modern neuroscience and the puzzle of consciousness.
  • We will think about ideas about the ultimate destination and purpose of the Universe/Creation in light both of scientific projections and of our tradition of thinking about the End

einstein

I’ve been doing some thinking about science and religion recently. There are a number of reasons for this. The immediate cause was a request from the weekly Bible study group at one of my churches to run a short series exploring issues of faith and science. These issues have arisen repeatedly during other series of discussions and we felt it was time to approach them more directly and thoroughly.

This was opportune because I’ve reading quite a bit of the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg who has some very interesting things to say on this question (my reading of Pannenberg was in turn prompted by writing a review for the journal Theology in Scotland of a work on ecclesiology heavily influenced by him which made him sound indispensable, which I have come to think he is).

Finally, my initial intellectual formation was heavily scientific (I studied scientific disciplines exclusively between the ages of 16 and 20) and followed by immersion in a philosophical tradition (Hegelianism) that aimed at an integration of all knowledge into a seamless unity, rejecting any attempt to rigidly separate domains, for example, of facts and values. For this reason the apparent difficulties of integrating scientific and theological ideas has been a source of embarrassment to me since my conversion, in my 30s, to Christianity.

It has been a delight, therefore, to find what a lot of really interesting work has been going on in this area over recent years. Not all of it is entirely to my taste but I have found a great deal to like. I have been particularly drawn to the work of Nancey Murphy who is both an ordained Christian minister and someone who identifies primarily as a philosopher although she is also a theologian. Murphy’s work can be seen, in some respects, as a reconstruction of some of Pannenberg’s insights about the relationship of science and theology on the basis of more recent philosophy of science than Pannenberg takes as his starting point.

The developing relationship between science and philosophy of science on the one hand and theology on the other has been enabled by new thinking on both sides of this pairing. The ways in which scientific theory understands its object (let’s call it the Universe) on the one hand and the way in which those who try to make sense of the scientific enterprise itself (philosophers of science) understand what science is and how it works have both been undergoing rapid and radical change in the last decades.

At the same time there has been a profound shift in some parts of the theological world towards a new interest in what one might call “natural theology”. For a long time theologians had a tendency not to want to engage too much with science and in the work of the Reformed thinker Karl Barth (whom almost everyone – including at least one Pope – acknowledges to be the most influential and important theologian of the twentieth century) this was made a point of principle. More recently a wave of post-Barthian thinkers, of whom I rate Pannenberg highest, have rejected this rejection of integrating Christianity and the scientific enterprise.

There is a huge amount to say about all of this, and I will be tying to say some of it in my Bible Study sessions and here, but there are a few key general points I would like to make at the outset.

  1. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is nothing inevitable about the scientific method. It was an innovation of the early modern period but, like all innovations, it required certain things already to be in place. Among these preconditions, many historians would now argue, were a set of theological ideas about the orderliness of creation and in particular the existence of universal laws of nature. This basic foundational idea of the scientific enterprise can (and should) be seen as a theological idea. (One of the main theological interpreters and advocates of this idea is Alister McGrath, who holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship in Science and Religion in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford – see here for a relevant extract from his book Scientific Theology)
  2. The picture of the Universe that has emerged from the cosmology centred on the idea of the “Big Bang” has led us to a generalisation of the idea of evolution from the field of biology to the whole of science. The Universe is seen as having had an origin and to have undergone very fundamental change since that origin. The possibility that it has a terminus, that our Universe will not always exist is also a genuinely open question in contemporary scientific theory. Elementary particles, chemical elements, planets, stars and everything else we observe are now seen to have emerged from processes within the history of the Universe. This dynamic view of physical reality connects with developments in theology.
  3. For a variety of reasons there is much more interest in theology than there was before the twentieth century in the Biblical view of God’s relationship with Creation being historical and oriented towards bringing about new states of that Creation. The idea that we should think of God as working to redeem Creation, common in both the Old and New Testaments but somewhat foreign to the Christianity of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, became more influential in the twentieth and is on the way to being the consensus view of the twenty-first.

There are then three basic intellectual trends towards: 1) recognising that science needs to presuppose ideas we would recognise as within the domain of theological (although not necessarily demanding any particular wider theological framework); 2) understanding the profundity of the shift in our vision of the nature of reality implied by contemporary scientific theory and; 3) seeing how deeply our conception of God’s basic relationship to Creation is being remade.

These three together provide a moment of tremendous opportunity and many theologians are working to grasp it. Besides those I have already mentioned notable other include John Polkinghorne, theologian and Cambridge professor of mathematical physics, Sarah Coakley, Cambridge Professor of Divinity and former co-Director of the “Evolution and Theology of Cooperation” research programme at Harvard, and Keith Ward, former Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

One preliminary conclusion I have personally come to is that the task for theology is to re-integrate science into itself. The question of the relationship between science and theology should be recast not about their compatibility but about the best way of absorbing science completely into theology. We ought to be setting ourselves the challenge of making theology once again the “queen of sciences”, not by challenging or denying the scientific method but by demonstrating that it is a fundamentally theological enterprise, making the necessary adjustments to our theological frameworks to allow this fully to be true, in ways pioneered by the work of Pannenberg who showed that it is possibly to do this while in no way abandoning the determination to remain “orthodox” in one’s trinitarian Christianity, who indeed showed that it is precisely such a faith that can explore and vindicate the theological bases of scientific thinking.

cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.

For the last weekend in August my wife Pam, our daughter and I and our daughter’s friend, drove up to Edinburgh and back from Hertfordshire so I could preach at Morningside United Church. We (the Brindleys, not the Friend who had never previously been to Edinburgh) had been part of the congregation there until we moved to Potters Bar in August 2012. My friend Steven Manders, who was also a member of the congregation until he went to be ordained at Nairn United Reformed Church in the North of Scotland in 2008, has been minister at MUC (as it is always known) since last summer. He had invited me back to preach and I was keen to see how things were going and to catch up with old friends. It was the first time I had been at MUC since our very emotional farewell service marked the end of fourteen years of membership there.

Steven’s predecessor at MUC, John Smith, preached at my ordination. His ministry had only just begun when we joined in 1998 and he retired from there in 2012. Steven and I are two of the seven people who went into ministry from MUC during the fourteen years John was there, which gives a sense of how fruitful this time was. We had highly successful youth work, around 20 new members joining every year, a succession of impressive young people ordained to eldership in their twenties and thirties and a range of other signs and fruits of the work of the Holy Spirit among us under John’s leadership.

When John left many things changed it is only fair to say that the period of the vacancy and the first year of Steven’s ministry have been difficult. It is a blessing that he is also a highly capable person with a wide range of experience, especially from a career in social work, and that things are now being stabilised.

For me and for Pam it was strange and difficult to be back. MUC is not, quite, the church we joined and left, although we still have many friends there. We stayed at the manse with Steven and shared his minister’s view of the church. At worship I stood in the pulpit rather than sat in the pews where I had sat so many times. We had a hectic weekend seeing friends (and our oldest son who still lives in Edinburgh) and visiting familiar places. We sat up late talking to Steven and his other house guests. Then on Monday morning we set off to drive back to Potters Bar.

My sermon (on Luke 14:1-14) had two related messages for the congregation, for Steven and for me. First the church is a banquet where God decides the seating plan. We sit where He decides not where we think we belong. That is true of every single one of us and perhaps most of all for those of us called to serve in ordained ministry. God has put Steven in the chair at the front of MUC and me in Hertfordshire. Those are our proper places. Secondly God invites those whom he chooses to the church party and Jesus is clear that the host should concentrate not on his or her friends and family, nor on those who can do something for him or her. When throwing a party invite those in need, the “poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (v 13). If that’s who we’re supposed to ask then we have to assume that that is who God will have asked and given that we’re at the party we have to assume that that is who we are.

As we approached Potters Bar along the B556 on Monday evening Pam and I were both struck by how much of a home coming it felt. We were back where we lived, where we were supposed to be. We felt this even though for both of us Edinburgh is and will remain “home”. We fully expect and intend to return there some time, when we retire or perhaps for a last ministry, but now home is Potters Bar and Brookmans Park and we thank God for placing us in our seats here and for inviting other “cripples” to join us in this part of the banquet.

 

At our weekly Bible study yesterday evening we began what is intended to be a series of meetings looking at the practice and understanding of prayer in the Christian tradition using written prayers from its various periods and strands along with passages reflecting on what prayer is or was thought to be. We began with a selection of Old Testament “prayers” (excluding the Psalms and using a fairly wide definition of prayer).

We read:

  • Abraham’s plea on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 18;
  • David’s response to God’s promise that his descendants would sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever from 2 Samuel 7;
  • Solomon’s appeal for wisdom in 1 Kings 3;
  • Nehemiah’s prayer for success in his meeting with King Artaxerxes of Persia to ask for help in rebuilding Jerusalem (Neh 1)
  • Job’s repentance of his defiance after God appears to him in the whirlwind (Job 42)

What I found fascinating is how much easier we find it to think about God and God’s nature than we do to pray. Our discussion of prayer was overshadowed and crowded out by a set of issues only indirectly related it:

  • Do we believe God to be active in the world or do we believe that the course of events is independent of anything God wills or does not will?
  • Do we believe that God is implicated in the suffering of the world by allowing or even causing it?
  • Who or what do we think is named by the name “God” and in particular is the God we name the same God as the one named by Moslems, Jews or other religious believers?
  • Does the Biblical text have any authority over or even relevance to contemporary people, including those who call themselves Christians and attend churches?

My own answers to these questions are predictable in minister of the Christian church who professes a faith bound by (my understanding of) the normative orthodoxy expressed in the confession of faith of the United Reformed Church (UK). I believe that God is active in the world, that the relationship between God’s will and the world’s ills is inseparable from human sin and God’s mission of salvation, that the one true God is the three-in-one, one-in-three Father, Son and Holy Spirit revealed in Christ and that the Biblical text is the highest authority over our life and faith.

That is, though, only the beginning of the discussion since how we should conceptualise all these matters is both complex and contested. If we had to answer any of these questions definitively before we could pray then there could be no prayer. Indeed I think that they are important only insofar as they act as barriers to prayer. Somebody who can’t answer any of them AT ALL but who can sincerely and prayerfully address themselves to God is in a much better place spiritually (which is to say has a much healthier relationship with God) than somebody who has sophisticated and well worked out answers to them all but is unable to find a way to come into God’s presence.

This is not to suggest that we wasted our time going round these matters again but rather to say that it is only worthwhile if it removes barriers that are preventing prayer. I sometimes worry that theology can be a form of prevarication, a way of delaying the dreaded moment when one comes face to face with God in the privacy of one’s own room (as Jesus recommends in his teaching on prayer during the Sermon on the Mount).

Prayer, it seems to me, is ultimately an admission of dependence and helplessness. We turn and appeal to God when we know ourselves inadequate or overwhelmed. This is not the only kind of prayer, of course, we offer praise and thanks and we offer almost routine pleas for blessing but in all of these we acknowledge a power beyond us towards which we can turn only an appeal, not an offer or a bargain.

Our unwillingness (or inability) to do this is the heart of sin and some of our discussion of theology expresses this as it finds reasons to delay and evade the simple act of saying: “Lord God, help me in my doubt, guide me in my uncertainty, comfort me in my suffering, soothe me in my anxiety. Lord, be gracious to me and bless me, in the name of Christ”.

This week the Revised Common Lectionary has paired an interesting couple of texts. We have Luke 4:14-21 (Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth) and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a (“one body  in the Spirit”). At first sight there isn’t an immediate connection between them and I suspect they are joined because the RCL is following two simultaneous tracks, through Luke and through 1 Corinthians, that are not strongly aligned.

At any rate I was at first puzzled and uncertain about what to do with them this Sunday. Should I continue with my exploration of the way the Spirit equips the Church (begun last week with the immediately prior section of Paul’s letter)? Or should I return to my reflections on the Spirit’s empowering of Jesus (begun the week before when thinking about the baptism of Christ)?

Then it came to me that this was in fact two ways of approaching the thing I really wanted to talk about, the Spirit’s empowering of the Church to be Christ’s body (the centre of Paul’s attention in our epistle) in order to continue to proclaim God’s good news (as Jesus does in the Gospel passage).

Here the two key points are 1) the role of the Spirit in the two texts and 2) the relationship between the text Jesus reads, with its explanation of what the Spirit has anointed the prophet Isaiah to do, and he remark when he has finished: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

When we hear read the account of Jesus’ reading and of his claim of fulfillment, what is happening?

When this text is read in a church, in the midst of the body of Christ constituted out of our weakness by the Spirit, the scripture is fulfilled again: the good news is proclaimed.

It is true that our salvation is not yet complete. It is true that peace and justice do not yet reign without qualification. It is true that we still await the return of Christ in glory.

BUT …

In the Church Christ remains present. His coming does fulfill the scripture, he does inaugurate the kingdom of God. We are given the opportunity to participate and to inhabit that kingdom, in the power of the Spirit.