Golden crowns

This morning I watched the film Finger of God, which was shown at my church as part of a course that I am doing. The film is full of testimonies of healing and many other wonderful things which God is doing around the world.

One of the miracles described in the film, in fact right at the start, is the miraculous filling of teeth. The director includes close-ups from inside the mouths of several Americans, including his own uncle and aunt, who have reportedly received gold teeth from God. They clearly have at the backs of their mouths several gold teeth, or crowns on their teeth. Personally I cannot be sure that they were put there by God and not by human dentists.

One might wonder why God needs to do such miracles in the rich USA. But given the cost of dental work there I can quite understand why poorer Americans need to rely on God rather than dentists to sort out their teeth.

As it so happens this afternoon I had to visit a dentist, for preparatory work for a crown to be fitted to one of my back teeth. This will be quite expensive, but thanks to the NHS affordable. But on the NHS I cannot get a white crown. I was offered a choice of gold or silver, in colour. As I don’t want to mislead people in my church into thinking that God has given me this crown, and as I already have silver fillings in my mouth, I chose silver.

One day I can expect to receive a golden crown (compare 1 Corinthians 9:25, 1 Peter 5:4, Revelation 4:4), but not on my teeth! Until that day the silver one will suffice.

PS I do not want to discuss in comments here the genuineness or otherwise of the miracles shown in Finger of God.

PPS Unlike some of my blog friends, I haven’t given up blogging for Lent. But my life has been full recently and looks like continuing to be for the next few weeks. So blog traffic is likely to be light.

Freedom and self-evident truths

Are there really any self-evident truths? Yesterday I suggested there might be when I wrote:

It seems to me, as apparently to Dave, to be a self-evident truth that faith or belief is an act of the human mind and will.

Yes, it seems self-evident to us that we have freedom of will. But are such truths really self-evident? Any American is likely to be reminded by this phrase of the second sentence of the United States Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

If these truths were really self-evident in 1776, they must still be today. But do people today hold them to be self-evident? I guess it depends on who exactly is included under “all Men”. The original drafters of this declaration may have intended this to apply only to male human beings, not to women. But in recent years its applicability seems to have become even more restricted, only to United States citizens, at least in the understanding of those citizens.

Even my friend David Ker, in his latest rant, does not seem to accept that the people of Iraq have the right to life and liberty. Indeed when in my first comment there I alluded to their rights I was accused of “pinko rhetoric”. It seems to me that to conservative Americans, including very many evangelical Christians, that famous sentence has been amended to:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US citizens are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, the pursuit of Happiness, and the right to deprive anyone else of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

No wonder most non-Americans in the world hate Americans, and consider them to be hypocrites in preaching liberty while using their military and financial might to trample over anyone else’s liberty. Perhaps the only non-Americans left who love Americans are those who think they can gain power or money by sucking up them.

David, sorry for such a rant at you and your compatriots, but you did ask for it.

At least there is hope, that President Obama understands the issues here and will do his best to defuse them. So, despite David’s rant against it, I support Archbishop Tutu’s call (see also the full text) for America to apologise to Iraq, as a step towards averting

the risk of squandering the goodwill he says the US president’s election has generated.

As for self-evident truths, I think this shows that really there are no such things, that concepts that we think self-evident are just reflections of our culturally relative presuppositions. Or perhaps there is just the one such truth, which Descartes found: cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”. For any truths beyond that we depend on what God, or our untrustworthy senses, have made evident to us.

Forced to faith: an oxymoron?

I just came back to an interesting aside in a comment by Dave Warnock on his own blog, from a few days ago. Dave was replying to my own comment there, in which I wrote:

I hold that God does not force people to be saved who specifically reject it.

Dave replied:

I am with Peter in that I do not believe God will force anyone to come to faith (surely an oxymoron).

That word “oxymoron” caught my attention because it seems to go to the heart of why I reject the Calvinist, and indeed long before that Augustinian, position that God predestines certain people to believe, leaving them no personal choice in the matter. It seems to me, as apparently to Dave, to be a self-evident truth that faith or belief is an act of the human mind and will. Indeed this seems to be implied by this dictionary definition of “belief”:

  1. The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in another: My belief in you is as strong as ever.
  2. Mental acceptance of and conviction in the truth, actuality, or validity of something: His explanation of what happened defies belief.
  3. Something believed or accepted as true, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons.

If belief is an act or condition of the human mind, and if that mind has any kind of free will, it is indeed an oxymoron to suggest that anyone can be forced to believe anything.

Yet I am very aware that this understanding of faith or belief conflicts with one which can be traced right back to Augustine in the 4th-5th century, as he wrote (in On the Predestination of the Saints, Book I, chapter 3):

the faith by which we are Christians is the gift of God.

I am also aware that there is more to Augustine’s position than this, but I don’t want to be distracted by the details from my main point in this post.

There are nuanced versions of Calvinism, which embrace compatibilism and are not accepted by all Calvinists, according to which human free will is real but also compatible with determinism and divine predestination. I do not reject such descriptions. On this basis it is possible to hold both that God decides who he will give faith to and that each human being decided whether or not to believe.

Indeed the idea of faith as a gift can be found in the Bible, as it is listed in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But it seems clear that this is not about saving faith. It is often understood as referring to faith for miracles or healing. Nevertheless this does suggest that there is something in the idea that God gives to people the ability to believe.

So is it perhaps impossible for the human mind to believe or have faith in something beyond its normal experience, such as in the saving death of Jesus Christ or that a miracle is about to happen, apart from a special gift of God? Or can it believe such things with sufficient effort and practice? Was Alice or the White Queen right in this exchange?:

Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said `one ca’n’t believe impossible things.’

`I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. …’

Then, can the human mind be forced to believe something against its own will? I am thinking here not so much of the Calvinism that teaches that people cannot believe and be saved without God’s help, as of the universalism that teaches that everyone will believe and so be saved. Yes, one day

at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow … and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord …

Philippians 2:10-11 (TNIV)

But that will be when faith is no longer necessary because all will see the risen Jesus. Will it then be too late to believe? Will the owners of every knee and tongue still be able to benefit from this promise?:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9 (TNIV)

I don’t know. But I feel sure that there will even then be some who, even though seeing the reality of the Christian message and of the fate in store for them if they do not accept it, will still choose to reject Jesus and the salvation he offers. In fact Jesus himself seems to have predicted just this, at the end of the story of the rich man and Lazarus, when he put these words into the mouth of Abraham:

If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Luke 16:31 (TNIV)

God our Saviour … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (TNIV)

But he chooses not to force people to be saved, and so the inevitable result is that some will choose not to be. We can simply hope and pray that in the end only a few people will not be saved, and by repenting and believing in Jesus be assured that we will not ourselves be among that number.

Women are the prouder sex?

Women are prouder than men, but men are more lustful, according to a Vatican report which states that the two sexes sin differently.

This is the start of a BBC report entitled Two sexes ‘sin in different ways’. As this is supposedly based on a survey of confessions, it should be understood as an assessment of reality within certain (unspecified) cultures, certainly not as a theological pronouncement about how men and women should differ, nor as an attempt to promote a stereotype. But I can’t help wondering if the difference is more that women confess to being proud but men are too proud to confess to it!

Will carrier pigeons make the Internet obsolete?

This may sound unbelievable, but there does seem to be some truth in it: according to this article (thanks to Sam Norton for the link) there are actually circumstances in which carrier pigeons can do a better job than the Internet, and their advantages look set to increase. To simplify the calculations, this is the current situation: a carrier pigeon can carry a 2 GB memory card; on a regular broadband Internet connection it takes four hours to transfer 2 GB; the pigeon can transport the data up to 200 km in that time; and so for shorter distances pigeons do better than the Internet, at this one task of transferring bulk data. The prediction for ten years’ time is that memory cards which pigeons can carry will have a capacity of 2 TB (terabytes). This means that for the Internet to keep its advantages over the pigeon regular domestic connections will need a speed of 8 gigabits per second, which seems unlikely even with fibre optic connections.

It is easy to see that if a carrier pigeon carrying one gram can compete with the Internet, a van carrying a tonne of memory cards, that’s a million of them, leaves the competition in the starting blocks!

Of course this doesn’t mean that the Internet will go away. It can’t be beaten for instant access and interaction. But these calculations do have real implications for the way some services are developing:

For example: is the internet suited for the large scale distribution of high resolution movies or television programs? Many people see this as the future, but it seems not so plausible. It might turn out that it will always be faster, cheaper and more practical to send high-res movies by postal service than by internet …

Why men don't go to church: more perspectives

In a comment on my post Why real men don’t go to church Bill recommended a similarly named but longer article, Why Men Don’t Go to Church, apparently by Neil Carter. The name of Neil’s site, Christ In Y’, betrays his US southern states perspective.

Nevertheless I found the article had a lot to say relevant to my own experience and situation. I am among those who are

not happy with “church as usual”

– even though my church is wonderful compared with most. It’s not so often the preacher who boils my blood, more often the way other things are done during the service. Basically I am one of those men who

despise their passive role in the church, whether they have been able to label their frustration or no.

I probably haven’t dropped out of church altogether because my untypical Anglican church is rather like a Southern Baptist one in that “There’s just so much to do“, something to keep me busy most Sundays. But when there isn’t I find it hard to remain positive.

I was interested by this quote, which fits my own experience. Years ago I

felt a growing, general desire to do something important for the kingdom of God, which automatically precludes being a layman! Most ministers and missionaries first struggled for a while with a very general “calling,” only to settle on a particular ministry after discussing their feelings over time with folks already in “the ministry.” Many missionaries then leave this country for unevangelized lands because they cannot find established churches in this country that satisfy their need for church life.

Within my own Anglican setup in the early 1990s, this was in effect the only route into doing anything in the church other than being ordained, which wasn’t for me as I didn’t see myself as a pastor. I know many ordained Anglicans are not working as pastors, but in effect they are all expected to start as such. To cut a long story short, I ended up in an unevangelised land.

I would, however, consider that the distinction Carter makes between masculine and feminine preferences is a cultural one, not a fundamental biological or spiritual distinction between genders. Not all men feel like me, no doubt some women do, and that’s OK.

Here is how Carter finishes his main argument: a man

needs men who know him well, who will fight with him, and who can be his comrades along the journey he is on. And finally, through various and often unexpected means, the Church of Jesus Christ will be a place where the sacrificial dying of Jesus can manifest itself for the sake of His Bride. When a man has found Her, he will suffer the loss of everything for Her just as Christ did in the beginning. Man, this is what you want.

Carter finishes with a plug for his own loose association of house churches. I am not so convinced that this is the way forward, but that is really a separate issue, one that I want to come back to sometime. But there is a lot in Carter’s article to make me think, and I hope to make think any church leader who is concerned about a shortage of men in the congregation.

Meanwhile Dave Warnock has posted twice more on this matter, apologising for offending me (but he didn’t really) and giving more of his own thoughts, to which I have responsed in a comment.

A mystic or nothing at all

In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.

Karl Rahner, as quoted by James Spinti from the forthcoming book The Furious Longing of God.

I agree. Faith that is based only on truth understood by the intellect will not survive difficult times. Only faith based on a real personal experience of God can endure the worst that life can throw at us and last into eternity.

Why real men don't go to church

I was taken aback at the vehemence with which a pacifist Methodist minister attacked me for daring to suggest, in a comment on his blog, that

men leave the church … partly because the church has too much of a feminine ethos.

I made it very clear that I did not support the controversial assertion that A church should have a masculine ethos; rather I stated that

the church should be balanced in these matters.

Nevertheless Dave Warnock has responded with

There is a frequent and loudly stated view that men leave the Church because it is too feminine. … I believe this is complete rubbish and have done so for a long time.

Another Methodist minister, Pam BG, writes that she is

genuinely trying to understand the … comment … that the church has been ‘feminized’ and so it is unattractive to men – that’s why men are staying away from church. … I am puzzled by how an institution dominated by men can be either ‘feminized’ …

I must say I am puzzled by Pam’s puzzlement, and consider part of Dave’s response to be complete rubbish.

Both Dave and Pam make the point that the church is for the most part led by men, and so cannot be feminised. But by what kind of men is it led? Men who are widely perceived as being weak wimps, and often in their pronouncements seem to do their best to perpetuate this stereotype. Men who like to wear brightly coloured dresses, at least in my own Anglican church. Men who are often rather camp, feminine in their behaviour, and perceived as very probably either gay or paedophiles while often being hypocritical in condemning such people. Men who seem happy to spend their time doing feminine style things, i.e. most church social events, with groups of mostly women. Men who gladly consume the typical church diet of quiche with weak milky tea, who are therefore not real men.

There are of course among actual church leaders huge numbers of exceptions to these stereotypes. But sadly there are also far too many who fall into this kind of behaviour pattern, perhaps partly because they feel it is expected of them, by society in general and by their majority female congregations.

Anyway, I’m sure Dave and Pam have realised by now, even if they don’t want to admit it, that at the local level churches like theirs are not really controlled by the mostly male official hierarchy, but by the armies of mostly women volunteers who keep their churches running, and who exercise their control by implicit threats to quit their activities if the minister dares to do anything which they disapprove of – which would probably include almost anything likely to attract men to the church.

So the problem is a self-perpetuating one. Dave may be right that it originated during the time of the world wars. But the vast majority of the men who don’t go to church now are too young to have fought in them, or indeed in any protracted war except for the recent Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. The men of this generation have not so much left the church as never been there, at least for any regular service. Why? Because several generations ago the church was feminised and has remained so.

So what can be done about it? Here, I am glad to say, Dave does much better. He writes:

If we want men in our church, we don’t need to become more masculine, instead we need to:

  • become more Christlike
  • support discipleship that is routed in the teaching and behaviour of Jesus
  • build strong faith that understands how God will be in the shit with us
  • build our understanding that God is found in the shit
  • build strength and depth to our faith and discipleship so that it can survive hell on earth
  • be courageous in following the teaching that Jesus actually gave, not a version built on our cultural preconceptions.
  • tell and celebrate the stories of people who found Jesus in adversity, in pain, in suffering, in hell on earth. There are plenty of inspiring tales of people who gave their lives for others; of people showing love, & forgiveness; of lives changed for the better; of courage, steadfastness and determination of faith.
  • work at honest and integrated lives that reflect the life & teaching of Jesus ie be authentic.
  • do all this within a community that is strong enough to carry us when we can’t hear Jesus and accompany us carrying the Christ light when we are stuck in the shit of life and can see no light, no hope and no God.

And by the way if we got these things even half way right we might well see more women in church as well as men.

Indeed, Dave. But this is largely what I mean in practice by becoming more masculine, in the stereotypical way. For a start by using the s**t word, three times in this extract, you are being masculine, as people understand it, and certainly breaking that stereotype of the feminised minister. Actually, apart from the poor exegesis of 1 Corinthians 16:13, this is not all that different from the thoughts which originally raised your blood pressure.

Of course what we are talking about is not a matter of real masculinity. But those “real men” types will not go near a church which they perceive as feminine.

Dave, I join you in objecting to the stereotypes of masculine = courageous, feminine = wishy-washy like church tea. But these ancient identifications (going right back to the etymology of the controversial Greek word in 1 Corinthians 16:13) are still with us in popular culture, and are still a major barrier to a greater penetration by the church into western society today.

Results of being filled with the Spirit

In a comment (the fourth one) on his own blog Mike Aubrey, while making a technical point about the participles in the Greek text of Ephesians 5:19-21, brings out some important teaching about the Holy Spirit:

Most believe that the participles denote the result of the command to “be filled with the Spirit.” … In fact, as far as I am aware every single interpreter of Ephesians since Markus Barth has taken the participles of 19-21 as participles of result rather than imperatival (key words: “as far as I am aware”).

But Mike also argues that there cannot be a break between verses 21 and 22:

What I found was that there is absolutely no other instance where an ellided clause either begins a new pericope or sentence – much less imply a change in mood.

In other words, as I understand Mike’s argument, this passage and what follows up to 6:9 should be understood as follows (adapted from TNIV, 5:22-6:9 abridged):

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, with the result that you will:

  • speak to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit;
  • sing and make music from your heart to the Lord;
  • always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;
  • submit to one another out of reverence for Christ:
    • wives, submitting yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord …
    • husbands, loving your wives, just as Christ loved the church …
    • children, obeying your parents in the Lord …
    • fathers, not exasperating your children …
    • slaves, obeying your earthly masters …
    • and masters, treating your slaves in the same way. …

This doubly nested list may not be the normal way of laying out a Bible translation, but it does seem to reflect Paul’s intention here, at least on Mike’s exegesis.

If Mike is correct, this implies that we Christians are not to put our effort into doing these good things like submitting to one another, still less into making others submit to us. Instead we are to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and as we do so the Spirit will produce in our hearts these good fruits, of worship and thanksgiving and also of the mutual submission which is, or should be, characteristic of the Christian life.

Hear my voice!

Many of you have read this blog, but few of you have heard the sound of my voice. Now you have a chance to do so. You can listen to me reading David Ker’s Cyber-Psalm 33. This is the one which I said some nice things about when it was first published.

Months ago David asked me to record this for him, but my first attempt by toll-free telephone didn’t work out. So yesterday, in response to his urgent appeal, I recorded it again using the high quality sound equipment at my church (unfortunately it was sensitive enough to pick up the rustling of the paper I was reading from), and sent the result to David for all to hear.

The words “Hear my voice” have been in my mind this week also for a completely different reason. I was asked to lead a church home group meeting on the subject of hearing and obeying God’s voice. This was based on a chapter in the book “Receiving God’s Best” by Derek Prince. He wrote (p.62):

The success of our relationship with God and our walk with Him depends on hearing His voice.

I agree. But I discovered a small problem in that Prince quotes in support Exodus 15:26 and Deuteronomy 28:1, claiming that these are about hearing God’s voice. These verses start almost but not quite identically in Hebrew. In most translations the former refers to listening to God’s voice, and the latter to obeying it. Why the difference in translation? It is just one letter in Hebrew.

The Exodus verse (ignoring the speech introducer) starts im-shamoa` tishma` leqol YHWH eloheyka, literally “if hearing you hear to the voice of the LORD your God”. In Deuteronomy the equivalent words are im-shamoa` tishma` beqol YHWH eloheyka, literally “if hearing you hear in the voice of the LORD your God”. Contrast Genesis 3:10 where literally Adam “heard your voice”, the same verb and noun but with no preposition “to” or “in”.

It seems that there is a subtle distinction here in the Hebrew which Derek Prince may have missed: literally “hear voice” = “hear”; literally “hear to voice” = “listen to”; literally “hear in voice” = “obey”. But the distinction is largely lost in Greek, and so in John 10:27 “my sheep hear my voice” also means “my sheep listen to me” and “my sheep obey me”. Although Prince’s exegesis is simplified, perhaps deliberately, he finds the main point: the prerequisite for God’s blessing is not just hearing God’s voice but also listening to it and obeying it – a point he could have made more explicitly from Hebrews 4:1-2.

Please hear my voice and listen to me reading the Cyber-Psalm. But don’t obey me, obey God!