Is there life on other worlds?

This has been a good week for those searching for life beyond the earth. The BBC Science and Nature web page links to three separate new articles pointing in this direction. Salt deposits from dried up lakes have been found on Mars, suggesting that once, billions of years ago, there were lakes of salty water which could have supported life, and that traces of this could be found in the salt. Beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, according to new evidence, very likely still today there are oceans of liquid water, which could well support life as organic molecules are also present. And for the first time these organic molecules have been found on a planet outside our solar system; although this particular planet is too hot for life, this finding, combined with the recent discovery of a planet of similar size and temperature to our earth orbiting a distant star, suggests that there may be billions of planets in our galaxy capable of supporting life.

It is highly unlikely that any life on Mars or on Titan will be anything like the intelligent aliens we know of from science fiction. Large organisms simply could not survive on Mars today; indeed it seems unlikely that any life could. Much more likely, both there and deep inside Titan, would be something like bacteria.

As for planets in other solar systems, from a scientific point of view anything is possible. But people have been listening for radio messages from aliens for 50 years and have so far not heard anything suggesting intelligent beings out there.

Would the discovery of life on other planets be a threat to the Christian faith? Certainly it should not be. If God can create life on earth, whether through natural processes (as I believe) or by direct creation (as other Christians prefer to understand it), he certainly can do so in other places, and we have no reason to think that he has not done so.

If there are non-human intelligent beings out there, one might speculate, or conceivably in future be able to study, whether they are also self-aware and spiritual beings, whether they too have sinned, and whether they too need to be saved by the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Son of God. CS Lewis memorably speculated in his novels Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus (also known as Perelandra) about intelligent inhabitants of Mars and Venus living in an unfallen Garden of Eden kind of environment. Of course we can’t know, until and unless we make actual contact. But the possibility of this should not be any kind of threat to our faith.

Gorbachev is a Christian

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has publicly acknowledged for the first time that he is a Christian. In fact he probably has been a secret believer for many years, even back to when he was a Communist leader. Ben Witherington found an article about this in the Telegraph and wrote his own post about the significance of this for Russia.

In fact Gorbachev’s own confession of faith will have little effect in Russia. When I lived there for six months, a couple of years after he fell from power, I found no one who had a good word for him. Anti-communists blamed him for communism; pro-communists blamed him for the breakdown of communism; and all condemned him for restricting the sale of alcohol!

Why am I still an Anglican?

In a comment on a post at his Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream blog, in which John Richardson quotes an article from Mark Thompson in Australia, I asked:

why do [Thompson and those who think like him] remain in the Anglican Communion? Why do you, John? Why do I?

In an apparent response John did not give a straight answer, for Thompson or for himself, but he did quote from an article by Andrew Goddard implying that when an institutional church starts to bless homosexual unions a line has been crossed such that those who remain faithful to biblical Christianity are right to leave that church. That is a clear position which I would not dispute, except to say (as I do in more detail below) that personally I would consider denial of core doctrines such as the Resurrection to be a better marker of that boundary line than anything to do with homosexuality.

But I posed the question about myself as well. And of course I am the only one who can answer this. Before I do so, I need to give some background about myself.

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The gospel: free but not free

The title of Maggi Dawn’s post There’s nothing free about the gospel startled me for a minute. I know she’s a bit liberal, but surely she doesn’t believe in selling salvation? But when I read on, I realised that what she is writing is right on target:

while in one sense it’s true that the gospel is free, it’s also true that there is no gospel – no good news about salvation – without a high cost on either side of the spiritual encounter.

The good news of God cost Jesus everything: his safety, his family life, his reputation, and in the end his life.  And if it’s to become real in our lives, it’s going to cost us too, in commitment and in other ways too. …
There’s a paradox in the free gift of God and the grand scale of cost it will involve for us to accept the free gift and receive our own freedom. It’s free, but at the same time it will cost us everything.

Well said, Maggi. Especially at this season when we remember Jesus’ death, and the disciples’ unfaithfulness, we need to be reminded of the price that was paid for our salvation, and of the price we are expected to pay in response.

Complementarianism according to John Piper

I happened to come across some comments which I myself originally wrote in July 2006, on this post on Better Bibles Blog. I repeat them here to preserve them and bring them to a wider audience.

The context is a discussion of John Piper’s Vision of Biblical complementarity, chapter 1 of the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which he wrote with Wayne Grudem. In the post Suzanne McCarthy had highlighted some of Piper’s practical teaching on which roles in the church and in the workplace were not suitable for women, such as this:

There are ways for a woman to interact even with a male subordinate that signal to him and others her endorsement of his mature manhood in relationship to her as a woman. I do not have in mind anything like sexual suggestiveness or innuendo. Rather, I have in mind culturally appropriate expressions of respect for his kind of strength, and glad acceptance of his gentlemanly courtesies. Her demeanor-the tone and style and disposition and discourse of her ranking position-can signal clearly her affirmation of the unique role that men should play in relationship to women owing to their sense of responsibility to protect and lead.

In response to these words I made this comment:

Are these rules supposed to be Christian and derived from the Bible? It sounds to me as if they come from a 19th century manual of etiquette. That doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, but nor does it make them right. Piper, Grudem and friends need to distinguish between Christian values and old-fashioned conservative cultural ones. A good course in cross-cultural evangelism, or some in depth first hand experience of a very different culture, would do them a world of good.

I took the matter a bit further in this comment (reformatted):

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Not St Patrick's Day

I won’t congratulate my Irish friends today, because apparently, on the authority of the BBC, this year 17th March is not St Patrick’s Day, at least for most of those who usually celebrate it. It is all because Easter is so early this year. This means that today, 17th March, is already the first day (or is it the second day?) of Holy Week, the special week leading up to Easter. And apparently, according to both Roman Catholic and Anglican reckoning, Holy Week takes precedence over regular saints’ days, which are simply cancelled for that year. Some Eastern Orthodox believers are still officially honouring St Patrick today (although others are not), because for them it is not yet Holy Week, but not many Irish are Eastern Orthodox.

Not surprisingly the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland did not allow their patron saint’s day to go completely unmarked this year, so they celebrated in advance, on Saturday 15th. But given the rugby result that day their celebrations must have been rather muted.

What will Gene Robinson do in Canterbury?

Michael Daley reports that gay Bishop Gene Robinson will not be invited to this summer’s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, has declined an invitation to be present in the conference’s “Marketplace” exhibit section, but nevertheless plans to be in Canterbury. I submitted the following comment, but it is still “awaiting moderation” after several days.

What will he do in Canterbury for two weeks? If he is there “not as an official conference participant or observer” he can hardly expect to be let into any of the conference venues. So I suppose it will be a kind of honeymoon for him and Mark after their June “wedding”. Well, Canterbury, where I was at school, is an interesting place, but there is not really enough for a fortnight’s sightseeing. If they are lucky with the weather they might enjoy the beach, and they are within easy reach of London, and of the channel ports and tunnel for day trips to France and Belgium. They could even visit EuroDisney, but Gene should take his robes off for that trip in case people mistake him for one of the cartoon characters.

I could have added that he will disappointed if he plans to stock up his theological library at the former SPCK bookshop in the city.

Of course there is another possibility, that Gene will spend his time talking to the press, who will doubtless also be swarming around outside the official conference venues waiting for snippets from any bishop. But I doubt if their interest will last for more than a day or two.

How should Christians respond to poverty and injustice?

How should Christians respond when faced with issus of poverty and injustice? This question has come up in the discussion of my post Why I shop at Tesco.

Much of the discussion has really been about who should be considered the poor people to whom I should show Christian compassion. I do not include among such people British farmers, who are complaining about being squeezed of their excess profits by supermarkets trying to keep the price of food down. I don’t approve of all the supermarkets’ business practices, but that is a commercial matter, not one for Christian social action.

Eclexia has a thought-provoking post on The Poor and Needy, basically asking what defines someone as poor and needy or as a worthy recipient of charity. See also her follow-up post. My personal situation is a bit similar to hers, in some ways poor (very limited income) while in other ways rich (significant assets tied up in property) – now as well as in the past when I was on the mission field. A large part of my concern is for the poor people (at least by western standards) of the estate around me, who are finding life very difficult at the moment because of rising food prices, and who have good reason to thank the supermarkets for fighting hard to keep prices down.

So the first question that Christians need to ask when faced with apparent poverty or injustice is whether it is real, and a really significant matter. Regrettably, in this world not everyone who asks for help is genuinely in need of it. Giving through registered charities (here in the UK) at least gives some assurance that most of the money given really benefits those for whom the appeal is made, although there is still no guarantee that their need is genuine. Sadly there is not even that assurance concerning the extra price paid for supposedly ethically traded items, much of which can end up in shareholders’ pockets.

So what can Christians do to respond to poverty and structural injustice? Here I am assuming a situation in which Christians are a rather small minority of the general population. I can see several possible types of reaction:

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"God damn America"?

Rev Jeremiah Wright (presumably no relation to Bishop NT), pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, has hit the news because Senator Barack Obama, one of the main contenders for US president, is a member of his church. Kevin Sam has given a link to this compilation of extracts from his sermons, described by the commentator as “anti-American and very offensive” – not surprisingly since Wright’s words include “God damn America”:

Kevin reports, as the main point of his post, that Obama

is distancing himself from Rev. Wright’s political rhetoric.

Here is what I commented in response:

Well said Rev Wright! If speaking a few home truths like this, about present and past misdeeds of American governments, is called anti-American, then what hope is there for America? I understand why “God damn America” is considered offensive, but he will, and the process has started, if it doesn’t repent of its ungodly policies.

I don’t blame Obama for distancing himself from these remarks and the way they are presented. But I hope he has actually taken on board Wright’s criticisms and, if elected, will do something about putting them right.

In this hope I share Kevin’s outsider’s perspective that Obama is the best of the three candidates with a realistic chance of winning.

PS: My own country, the UK, is almost as much deserving of God’s judgment as the USA, for its complicity in Iraq and elsewhere. So please don’t think that I am biased against another country. The only real difference is that those of us who say so are not called anti-British, indeed I don’t think I have ever heard anything called anti-British.

Not depressed, just British

George Farthing, an expatriate British man living in America, who was recently diagnosed as clinically depressed, was dosed up on anti-depressants and scheduled for controversial electro-shock therapy when doctors realised he wasn’t depressed at all–only British.

‘Not depressed, just British’

“I was all strapped down on the table and they were about to put the rubber bit in my mouth when the psychiatric nurse picked up on my accent,” said Mr Farthing. “I remember her saying ‘Oh my God, I think we’re making a terrible mistake’.”

Identifying Mr Farthing as British changed his diagnosis from “clinical depression” to “rather quaint and charming” and he was immediately discharged from hospital, with a selection of brightly coloured leaflets and an “I love New York” T-shirt.

Read more here. Will those Americans ever understand us Brits, or we them?

Thanks to John Richardson for the tip.