Sometimes our forgiveness is patronising.

Because sometimes the only way we manage to take the high road is to look down on someone such that we expect nothing from them. In order to hold nothing against someone we take on the role of the indestructible giver, who never takes, never needs.

But sometimes it is more loving to need someone. Sometimes it affords more dignity and respect to someone to expect them to do right by you, and to be hurt when they don’t.

It is in daring to care enough about people such that it is possible for them to hurt us, in becoming breakable before people, that we honour them.

And it is in requiring of them that they don’t break us that we dignify them.

And though we mustn’t do it carelessly, we must do it, because it is in this great leap into the possibility of pain that we leap into our humanity.

Sometimes, if we have forgiven someone too quickly, perhaps it is because we have forgiven wrongly, and dehumanised someone in the process.

Love Reconsidered

My understanding of love has drastically changed, and we might need to talk about it…

*TLDR version: I know this is long, so I’ve made it skimmable. If you just read everything that’s in bold you will get the main points (but you won’t get as much of my sweet prose skills.)

I: LOVE AND ACTION

Correcting a worldly error

We Christians talk about love a lot. And we should. We all know that love is a concept that lies at the very centre of the Christian faith. And it should. As Jesus said, the greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39). And of course, as John said, “God is love,” (1 John 4:8).

And here’s the thing. The contemporary Church has needed to combat many worldly distortions of what love is, because the World so often teaches us that love is a kind of euphoric feeling that comes over you whenever and however it pleases, that can neither be cultivated nor controlled, and ought to be obeyed above any considerations of morality – we ought to follow our hearts. The Church has rightly corrected the problems with this notion of love, reminding us that love, according to the Bible, is not merely euphoric but is maintained by discipline and is expressed through action, that it is not convenient but is self-sacrificial. In reaction to the over-romanticised Disney brand of love, the Church has reminded us that God demonstrated his love for us by the ultimate sacrifice of sending his Son to die a brutal death for us, that we may have eternal life. To correct an erroneous emphasis on emotion, the Church has taught us that the best way to love our neighbour is by treating them the way God’s law tells us to treat them.

And again this is absolutely right. After all, when Jesus gives the great twofold commandment, he says, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets,” (Matthew 22:40). Paul reiterates this in Galatians 5:13-14: “Through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” Clearly, to love people is to obey the law, and to obey the law is to love people, because God gave the law to show us what real love should look like in practice.

But some time lately (ok, it was about a year ago now – that’s how long it’s taken me to write this), I began to rethink entirely the nature of this commandment to love one another, as I became confronted with how much deeper – and how much more challenging, powerful, and exciting – it is than I thought.

To-do list love

When I look at contemporary Western Christianity, I notice some things. As we endeavoured to combat against cheap, flippant, passive, convenient love, I fear that we have sometimes overly intellectualised and externalised love into a concept, and a to-do list. Please hear me right: We have made love about helping people, meeting people’s physical and spiritual needs, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, defending the oppressed, visiting the lonely, liberating the enslaved. We have preached, “Love your neighbour,” and meant, “Get out there and do something!” We have made the topic of love into a “how to” topic, writing books and articles suggesting practical ideas on how to literally “love our neighbour” – with the help of baked goods and power tools. We have asked ourselves, “How can I love this person,” and meant, “What does this person need that I can give them?” Indeed, we have made “love” a verb, and we have synonymised it with “serve”. And what wonderful things these are!

But if this were all our love was, there would be something missing, something we have maybe forgotten about love (even though it is perhaps the most basic, intuitive fact about love that there is to know), something I am beginning to think is actually the main thing God is trying to get us on board with when he tells us to “love”. Continue reading

Incarnation (a Christmas message)

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This is something I posted on Facebook for Christmas and am now belatedly posting on WordPress for longevity’s sake, or just in case you missed it:

Just nearly two weeks ago I was in Paris, sitting at the top of a basilica named Socré-Coeur. Atop this church on Paris’ only hill, you see a marvellous view of the otherwise completely flat city – other than the Eiffel Tower sticking up like a needle off in the distance.

As I sat there I was thinking about how this vantage point enabled me to gain an understanding of the city of Paris that couldn’t be gained from walking its streets. You don’t really know what a city looks like until you’ve escaped it, risen above its walls, and seen it from the outside.

Then I thought about how life is so often like that. Things always look different when you’re in the middle of them compared to how they look from the outside. I thought about the slightly crappy situation I was going through those few days, and realised that in a few weeks or months I would look back on that situation with an entirely different perspective.

You haven’t really understood your situation until you are no longer in it. It’s only from the outside that you can examine and appreciate the whole shape of one of life’s episodes. It’s only when you’ve come through the other end that you can view it with a clear enough mind to really learn from it.

But then I thought a bit harder and realised that the exact contradiction of this idea seems equally true. If I had only seen Paris from the top of Sacré-Coeur, and never seen it from the ground, a Parisian might rightly ask, “What do you know of the real Paris when you haven’t walked it’s streets?” If I had only seen Paris from the outside, surely I would be missing some vital experiential knowledge of the city. It seems like one could equally say that you don’t know what a city is like until you have been in the thick of it, touched the walls and breathed in the air.

And likewise it seems that you haven’t fully understood a situation until you’ve seen it from the inside. This is why we are so familiar with the words, “You don’t understand,” that meet us at our attempts to criticise the addict, or console the grieving parent. Of course we never understand a situation that we haven’t been in ourselves.

And so I thought, “Which is it? Which viewpoint gives us the best knowledge of something? Is it the view from within, or from without?”

And then I realised that it’s both. We need both.

This is when I wrote these words, which you might have seen on Instagram, if you were paying attention:

“The fullest knowledge of something can only be attained through viewing from both outside and in, above and below, as both a part of it, and as the other.”

And then I thought about this world we are in.

There is only one person who has viewed our world from both within and without. You see, none of us really understand this world, because we are in it. Our exclusively interior view of the world strips us of the ability to see its true shape, to understand where it fits within reality, and to know its purpose, or whether it has one at all. Only a creator who stands outside of it, and distinct from it, has a high enough view to see it as it truly is, unbiased by this low-down, narrow viewpoint each of us has.

But then in his distant objectivity, we petition, God is missing something. He is missing that experiential knowledge of what it is truly like to be a part of this world: to be weak, limited, fragile. To know what honey smells like, what blood tastes like, what it feels like to run out of breath as you run a mile, the awe of looking up to the stars and wondering what they are, and the pain of a broken bone or a betrayed friendship. God is distant, we say. He doesn’t understand what it’s like.

But Christians worship a God who knows, who understands. Christmas is the story of the incarnate God, the God who became flesh – an insider in the very world he created. God, who had looked over the whole universe with perfect objectivity, now found himself amidst it, viewing it through two human eyes. The God who at first only knew the world in a way that we couldn’t, now also knew the world in a way that only we could.

The God of Christianity knows pain, thirst and hunger, not just because he can conceive of them with his perfect, divine imagination, but because he has felt them. There is only one person who has been both an outsider and an insider, both one of us and incomparably other, who has seen the world with the clarity of a spectator, and with the detailed empathy of a player.

No other religion in the world has ever proposed a God like this. Only Jesus knows what it’s like to be a part of our world without being limited by it, because he also sees us from above. He knows our pain, but he also sees its purpose. He can sympathise with our struggles, but he can also see the part they play in the whole story.

This is to me what makes Christmas a day of hope. God is with us. But he’s still God. As the old carol says, “The incarnate deity.”

Merry Christmas.

Physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox said on Q and A tonight that the power of science is that it’s the only discipline that admits its own fallibility.

Seems like a really nice guy, but I’m perplexed as to why he would believe something that is so obviously false: I’ve never met a philosopher, historian, economist, lawyer, literary critic, OR theologian, who does not admit their own fallibility and the fallibility of their discipline.

And yes, I meant it when I said theologian. Theologians consider the text they work with (e.g. the Bible) – their data source – to be infallible, but they consider their own interpretations of the text to be fallible.

Note that this is exactly the same as scientists, who consider nature – their data source – to be completely infallible: never lying to us, and never changing, but constantly being misinterpreted by us.

Scientists and theologians are no different in this regard.

On prosperity theology

Even in the case that prosperity theology is true, then I still do not see how the believer is left with a reason to “chase God’s blessing.”

If the truth is that obedience to God will attract material blessing towards you, then this could only be a reason precisely not to chase wealth. For “it will chase you.”

The believer’s only task, then, would be to simply obey God by being generous towards others with their wealth.

It seems to me that any person who is storing up for themselves treasures on earth is not living a life that is consistent with prosperity theology.

A Quick Thought on Abortion

There are many arguments given for the permissibility of abortion. Most of them seem to be concerned with the rights of the mother to have control over what happens to her body. I personally find these arguments to be callously cold and inhumane in their thinking towards unborn children. However there are also some arguments that appeal to the rights of the unborn child – the right not to live a life that would not be worth living.

This kind argument came out pretty loud this week with Richard Dawkins’ tweets saying that it would be “immoral” to bring a child into the world if you knew it had Down’s syndrome. I take it that he is not worried about the child being more of a cost than a benefit to society – I think he is worried about the suffering the child is expected to go through if it is allowed to be born and grow up. Of course, this argument isn’t limited to concerns about children with Down’s syndrome but extends to other diseases, as well as socio-economic conditions that would mean the parent is unable to provide what we might consider an adequate life for the child.

I just think this is the most absurd argument; it surely cannot stand up to scrutiny. Here’s what I don’t understand. We’re saying that it would be cruel to bring into the world a child whose life would be so full of suffering that it wouldn’t be worth living, right? Have we ever thought of asking the children what they want? Well of course, the children we’re talking about can’t speak; they’re fetuses. But we can speak to the millions of people who have been born with diseases, or born into poverty, and have grown up into adults. Here’s what’s so remarkable: there are millions of these people whose lives pro-abortionists say would are not worth living, and yet for some reason, the overwhelming majority of them choose to continue to live. Don’t you think that’s noteworthy? I mean, if their lives really were so much more painful than they were pleasurable that they would have been better off not to have been born, wouldn’t they just go ahead and kill themselves? But they generally don’t kill themselves, do they? In fact many of them, particularly those born into poverty, go to extreme lengths just to survive. The fact that so many people born in life’s unfair circumstances wind up living lives of crime is so often given as a reason why they shouldn’t have been born. But really I see it as a testimony to just how desperately these people wish to continue living. They will do almost anything, it seems, to stay alive.

Of course, you will probably say that this is just the result of natural instinct: it is incredibly unnatural for a person to end their own life – they generally have to be experiencing an incredible amount of suffering for them to consider it better that they should die. And I would say… Ah, yes; precisely. Maybe that should make you reconsider how lightly you are willing to end someone’s life. Let’s not forget – it’s very, very easy to kill oneself. There’s nothing physically hard about it. What makes it so rare is that people almost never want to die. It’s simple logic: If people actually didn’t consider their own lives worth living, they would kill themselves. And thus, given the enormous sample size of empirical evidence showing that people born in disadvantaged circumstances usually choose to continue living, the rational thing to do is to assume that an unborn child with Down’s syndrome will most likely prefer to live.

Doesn’t it seem tremendously paternalistic to decide, before someone has the capacity to choose for themselves, whether someone’s life is worth living? If what you’re really concerned about is the quality of life for the unborn, why not let the child be born, and then if they decide that their life isn’t worth living, let them kill themselves? How presumptuous, how autocratic, that we would think we know better than someone whether their own life has enough joy that it would be worth continuing, given that whenever we actually give a fetus in a disadvantaged position the chance to live, they almost always take it, holding on to it like nothing else! It is unthinkable to me that our assumption would be that they wouldn’t want to live when everything we know about real life tells us the exact opposite.

Almost everybody who’s ever been born with Down’s syndrome, or with difficult economic circumstances, has chosen to keep living. How about we give them a chance to make that choice.

To Know the Word

I’ve resolved that I now want to begin a journey of better knowing the Word of God.

There is such a difference between knowing about the Bible, and knowing the Bible.

It is just like any other piece of literature, really. I could tell you a lot about Immanuel Kant’s major work Critique of Pure Reason. I could tell you when Kant wrote it, why he wrote it, and what philosophical questions it addresses. I could tell you about who his influences were in writing it, as well as about the ways in which the book influenced generations of philosophers to come. I could even tell you many things about what views the book espouses.

But do I know the book? Am I familiar with it? Do I know Kant’s actual words? No I do not, because I have never read the Critique of Pure Reason. Not more than a few pages anyway.

In the same way, I think I know more about the Bible than I do the Bible itself. I can tell you a lot about the theology that the Bible contains. I can tell you how and when the books of the Bible were compiled together. I can tell you who wrote what book of the Bible, when they wrote it, and the historical context in which they produced it. I can summarise the message of many of the books of the Bible. I can even tell you a lot about how to read it.

But the thing is, there are many people to whom I could teach a lot of the above things, but who know the Bible itself better than I do.

I don’t want to just know about the Word of God. I want to know the Word. I want to be intimately acquainted with the words of the Scriptures such that their exhortations frequently feature in my conversations with others, that God’s promises saturate my prayers, that his commandments are the meditations that form the backdrop of my mind. I want to be so familiar with the Word of God, that I have a verse to stand on for every situation I face, and another one to encourage my brother in every trial.

Such a knowledge is not the product of intelligence. It is the product of devotion.

C.S. Lewis on Death

Death is, in fact, what some modern people call ‘ambivalent’. It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Ch. 14, ‘The Grand Miracle’

On the Progressiveness of Science and Conservatism of Religion

We all know how often science and religion are pitted against each other. And it happens in so many ways. Various inherent differences are suggested between these two enterprises. They say that science appeals to reason while religion appeals to authority; science improves society while religion hinders society’s progression. We’ve all heard the fairy tales – you might not call them fairy tales, but I do. Anyway. There’s one particular difference that I commonly hear suggested as existing between science and religion, which I want to address here. And that is that science is inherently progressive, while religion is inherently stubborn or static.

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We have been taught to believe that world history turned its big corner in the late 18th Century with the birth of modern democracy and the rise of modern science.

The Christian claim is that world history turned its corner when Jesus came out of the tomb.

– N.T. Wright