Election Week Blues

It’s been a long week. I’ve spent much of it poring at voter demographics, reading and listening to political commentary anatomizing the election, talking and listening to my American friends, and just sort of vomiting my feelings on social media. It’s frankly unbecoming; it feels like walking into a formal meeting flushed and eyes raw with weeping. At the same time, however, I don’t want to forget how I feel now, at the disastrous end of two elections this year, the EU referendum in the UK and the Presidential election in the US. Both were very upsetting to me, and for much the same reason. They were clear messages to me that the English-speaking Western world in which I have chosen to make my home doesn’t really want me here. It’s not me personally, of course; I’m sure Brexiters and Republicans would be alright with a tax-paying academic psychologist who volunteers as Church of England priest. But the xenophobia, sexism, racism, and homophobia that characterised the political climate in both the UK and US are palpable. After Brexit, hate crimes against Europeans and Muslims rose. Right now, in the aftermath of the Trump victory, the same is happening here to immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, and others.

Here are some things I wrote, in the week of the election.

At this point, it might as well be over. From my perspective, anything but a Democratic landslide would’ve counted as a loss. Tomorrow, people will talk about how the political establishment have failed the American people, who have thus responded. And that may be true, despite the economic improvements during the Obama administration. But let’s not forget that the rhetoric of this election has been characterised by a disdain for facts, including economic facts; xenophobia; and reactionary nostalgia. Brexit, Trump, the rise of right-wing authoritarianism on the European Continent. These are not unrelated things. (Nov 9, 4.49am)

 

There had better be a fucking socialist revolution at the end of this shit tunnel. (Nov 9, 5.31am)

 

Dear white people,

It took under 24 hours for you to post links and messages about how the Trump victory isn’t “really” or “just” about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. You came up with counterfactual speculations about alternative Democratic candidates, particularly white male ones. You said it was class warfare. You blamed neo-liberalism.

Except that, it *is* about sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Maybe not “just” this, but then, no one said that. You protest too much. Some of your best friends are Black or Hispanic or Asian or queer or women. But if so, you have a funny way of showing it, by prematurely shutting down their experiences of this election.

Forgive me if my political anxieties are not primarily about the economic welfare of white people who have lost jobs because consumer goods can now be made more efficiently elsewhere. (And by the way, maybe think about that the next time you go shopping. You’re voting with your wallet.) My worries about Trump are about the minority groups he and his supporters and enablers are going to marginalise, persecute, and deride. It’s not that surprising. I’m non-White immigrant too. And judging by the experiences of others I’ve seen just in the past day, it looks like Trump-inspired prejudices have already reared their heads. (Nov 10, 8.06am)

 

It is certainly time to build bridges, to extend the arms of friendship, to embrace people different from ourselves. But might I suggest that we begin with the victims of our cultural ugliness? Ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities are being marginalised and vilified even more now than we have learnt to tolerate or ignore. (Nov 11)

 

In the past few days, I have come to feel a deep shame over what might be called the “Christian response” to the Trump victory. Not many of my friends cheered, but some certainly waved about platitudes about the “sovereignty of Christ” or even about Trump’s win being “God’s will”. They are calling vulnerable people to “accept” or “reconcile” with those who voted this bully into power. These are smug ways of appearing holy, as niceness is now our cheap imitation of holiness.

If Christianity had any moral authority left, it is responses like these that undermine it. We were called to defend the oppressed. We were called to be a city on a hill. And instead, we are cowards who are complicit with the oppressors. Instead, we hand over our ethnic, religious, and sexual minority friends to those who will persecute them. Instead, we tell victims to love their abusers, in the wholly misguided assumption that we are being like Jesus when we do so. And we rationalise, we tell ourselves stories to absolve ourselves. But we should be ashamed. I am. (Nov 11)

 

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Not being able to find very much to say that was uplifting myself, I also posted things from elsewhere:

  • Calls to actions, to support such groups as the ACLU, the NAACP, Planned Parenthood
  • Clinton’s concession speech, in which she says: “To all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”
  • An article by a Parks & Rec writer in Leslie Knope’s voice, in which she says: “And let me say something to the young girls who are reading this. […] You are going to run this country, and this world, very soon. So you will not listen to this man, or the 75-year-old, doughy-faced, gray-haired nightmare men like him, when they try to tell you where to stand or how to behave or what you can and cannot do with your own bodies, or what you should or should not think with your own minds. You will not be cowed or discouraged by his stream of retrogressive babble. You won’t have time to be cowed, because you will be too busy working and learning and communing with other girls and women like you. And when the time comes, you will effortlessly flick away his miserable, petty, misogynistic worldview like a fly on your picnic potato salad. […] Now find your team, and get to work.”
  • Great photos of Obama, especially with kids.

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The election also pervaded my sermons and talks. I gave a long one at Christ the Saviour, Ealing Broadway, which was meant to be about psychology and the Church. Download a copy of the talk here. Similarly, my Remembrance Sunday sermon at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford is here.

Sermon: August 7 2016 (Transfiguration)

 

Readings

Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14

2 Peter 1.16-19

Luke 9.28-36

 

Now it happened that as he was praying alone the disciples were with him. […] And he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”. And Peter answered, “The Christ of God”.

Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Words from the gospel according to St Luke, the ninth chapter.

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Gods are to be found on top of mountains. Everybody knows that. Zeus rules from atop Olympus; Shiva the Destroyer meditates on Kailāśa; Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, was born from a stone on Huāguo. On Mount Sinai, Yahweh dictated the law to Moses and came to Elijah, not in the furious wind that split the hills, nor in the earthquake that followed, but in the soft whisper of a voice.

“Who do you say that I am?” he asks.

“The Christ of God”, we reply, not knowing what we are saying.

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Christian theology, like Christian discipleship, is a quixotic enterprise that begins by asserting its own impossibility. God is not only that being greater than which none can be conceived, but also that which is simply inconceivable.

That this is so is hardly surprising. After all, our brains evolved to deal with medium-sized objects located in time and space. Being the source of all things, including time and space themselves, God cannot be counted among objects, medium-sized or otherwise. Much more so than even the weird and wonderful things posited by theoretical physicists—that pantheon of fermions and bosons; those n-dimensional space-times—God is a mystery beyond our telling, the mystery of existence itself.

All of this is just to say that whatever it might mean to know God, it cannot be like knowing anything else. This can be seen in the way theology is actually done. One model is presented to us at the end of the gospel reading: they kept silence. Their stunned silence was temporary, but since the days of the early church, silent contemplation and adoration has become, in some circles, the ultimate goal of theology. But another model is exemplified for us in the reading from the book of Daniel: here, the author is not silent, but is desperate for words, furiously drawing from various aspects of the created world to express something of God. There is snow and wool; there are wheels and flames, thrones and multitudes, ever world without end. The Church has always lived in both these modes: responding to the Word God speaks, who is Jesus Christ, with her own babblings and her sighs too deep for words, both supplied by the Holy Spirit.

For Christians then, the route to knowing God is not—for the most part—to scale mountains uninvited: not ours are the stories of Babel and Bellerophon. Rather, our knowledge of God begins and ends with God’s self-revelation and invitation to us into the divine life. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, intercedes for us. We are brought to the mountain to pray with Jesus.

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It is easy enough to see that the story of the Transfiguration is about revelation: Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as the Giver of Light, the fulfilment and consummator of both Law and Prophecy, the very Son of very God.

It is also easy to see how this revelation is meant to reassure the disciples, in the harsh and cruel shadow of the Cross, upon which their would-be Messiah was broken, and with him, their hopes of new life. “We have the prophetic word made more sure”, they told themselves, “we were there with him on the holy mountain; we heard this voice: this is my beloved Son”. Despite all appearances to the contrary, our faith is true: or so the experience of the Transfiguration allows us to say.

But we pass too quickly by what Moses and Elijah were talking to Jesus about: his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. To put it more bluntly: his death. Paradoxically then, in this scene—in which Christ is revealed in cosmic splendour, and the voice from on high confirms his Divine Sonship—it is the mortality, the finite humanity of Jesus, that is the topic of conversation.

We must, therefore, not misunderstand the Transfiguration as a demonstration that the Second Person of the Trinity is merely temporarily pretending to be a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. The comfort we derive from this event must not be based on the notion that when Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, he does not really die, but only appears to. No: the Transfiguration is precisely a repudiation of this heresy that we call Docetism. It is also a repudiation of a tempting view of the Christian life associated with this and other similarly dualistic heresies. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Peter is recalled as having said to Jesus, “It is well that we are here; let us make three booths”, the implication being that they should stay there, on the mountain, and at least Moses, Elijah, and Jesus ought to have shelter. But this God is not to remain on the mountain top, far from the troubles of the world: this God has gone already to the hill-country and will go now into the city, to be mocked and tried, tortured and murdered. In the same way, we are not to stay on the mountain, above the fray—good though it surely is to be there—but to follow our Lord wherever he may go, which is everywhere on earth, even to its hells.

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Christian theology is like Christian discipleship, because that’s what it is.

Knowing God is not like knowing other objects, because God is not an object.

Talking about God is not like talking about other objects, for the same reason, but also because the goal of theological speech is not merely unilateral declaration, in which an active human subject makes assertions about a passive divine object. Christian knowledge is, in this sense, decidedly not power, if power is power over something or someone else. Rather, it is a response to the Word God utters, even from creation.

Finally, to know and respond to God is to live. The voice from above the mountain says “This is my Son”, but also “Listen to him”: revelation entails commission. To see God—in the transformation of dull flesh into dazzling light, or in the pillar of cloud that envelops us, or in bread and wine made holy for us—(to see God) is to see a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Lamps are not just for staring at in silent adoration or just for propositional predication; lamps are first and foremost for following, as they light our path. The Transfiguration of the Lord is therefore not merely for our intellectual benefit—now we know what it means semantically to say that Jesus is the Christ—but for our own metamorphosis into the very likeness of this Jesus.  

Thus, whether we think we are learned or ignorant, loquacious or economical, to know and respond to God is to be transformed and, in so being, to transform the world. Quixotic, to be sure: and yet, no less than the very meaning of our confession that Jesus is the Christ of God.

Sermon: October 27th 2013

Science, Christianity, and Idolatry 

(or, A Cognitive Scientist Attempts to do Theology)

(NB: This was a sermon delivered at Somerville College, Oxford)

Scientists are in the business of describing and explaining stuff that goes on in the world. Cognitive scientists are principally in the business of describing and explaining stuff that goes on in our heads. We are, that is to say, interested in the gamut of human experience, from the mundane matters of taste and touch to the sublime sensations associated with romantic and, indeed, religious passion. This makes some people uncomfortable, this apparent encroachment of scientists into the rightful realms of saints. The “scientific study of religion” seems oxymoronic, a contradiction, if not of terms, then at least to our sensibilities. The worry is that a science of religion somehow debunks religion, delegitimizes religious institutions and exposes spirituality as a delusion or an opiate or a crutch or worse. To explain religion, some think, would be to explain God away: if a scientific explanation is available for our religious beliefs, behaviours, and feelings, then they must not be real.

This is an odd line to take. As I have said, cognitive scientists study the human experience of things, not the things in themselves. We want to know why the sky looks blue; whether it is blue, we leave to physicists and metaphysicians. We want to know why sea salt tastes as it does to us; the intrinsic properties of sodium chloride, we leave to other bespectacled folk in lab coats. We are, as it were, interested in the human side of things, regardless of whether there is any other side to things. The question of whether or not something that human beings experience is “real” goes beyond my pay grade. To treat me and my colleagues as theologians is to commit a category error.

If not cognitive scientists, might some other kind of scientist be able to tell us whether God exists? Physicists, perhaps; or maybe biologists. Well, no. And not merely because the scientific method is much less the panacea to ignorance that some contemporary fetishists of scientistic sloganism claim. Many questions are, of course, empirical ones, and as such are best answered scientifically; but not all questions are empirical. There is a good chance that the most interesting ones aren’t. But that is beside the point. Science is ill-equipped to provide answers about God, not because it fails to shed light on all things but because God is not a thing at all.

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Scientists are in the business of describing and explaining stuff that goes on in the world, and God is neither “stuff”, nor is God “in the world”. Tables and chairs, quarks and gluons, you and I are, arguably, things in the world; this is what we mean when we say that they (we) exist. But God is quite unlike tables and chairs, quarks and gluons, you and I; God is not to be counted as one among such things. Indeed, as Meister Eckhart, that 13th century mystic wrote, “In God, there is no counting”. Monotheism—or, at least Christian monotheism—is not the belief in one God as opposed to two or three or many gods. It is the belief in God beyond enumeration. What distinguishes the Christian from the polytheist is not that the former believes in fewer gods, but that she believes that quantity is an irrelevant concept in theology. Whatever it is that distinguishes the atheist from the Christian is not that the Christian has one additional object in their ontology. It is not that the Christian’s world contains tables and chairs, quarks and gluons, you and I…and God. God is not the kind of thing to be put in a list with other things. Indeed, God is not even the kind of thing to be put on a list that contains only God; God is not any kind of thing. In other words, not only is God not in the world; God is not even strictly speaking along-side the world. As Terry Eagleton is fond of saying: God and the Universe do not make two. The atheist who merely denies the existence of God in much the same way that she denies that phlogiston, phantasms, and faeries exist therefore finds herself precisely where Christians begin. Christians too insist that God does not exist in this way. Traditional Christian faith—as expressed by theologians from Augustine to Pseudo-Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas—begins simultaneously at the denial of idolatrous ideas about an invisible bearded superhumanoid and at the conviction that the Universe is a gift, not a self-explanatory, self-sustaining thing whose existence is a brute fact. Christian theology is our attempt to speak in the face of this unspeakable mystery that underlies all things, to whom all things owe their being, because we are, as Nicholas Lash puts it, “the speaking parts of things”. It is a speaking borne out of great silence as Thomas Merton and other contemplatives knew well; as T. S. Eliot knew well, who said that:

Words strain, crack and sometimes break,

Under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

Do not hear me wrongly. I am not just saying that God is beyond human thought, though doubtless that is true. I am not saying that God is hidden somewhere else, perhaps in Heaven; after all, Heaven is not a place apart from Earth: one can travel from Oxford to Cambridge (if one really wished), but not, as it were, from Cambridge to Heaven. This is no attempt to retreat into mystery, which is all too often a cleverly disguised way to revel in the kind of ignorance that is tantamount to authoritarian censorship. After all, the denial of idolatries and other falsehoods about God requires some kind of foundation, some knowledge base from which to discern between things that can and cannot be said about God.

Why, for example, do I deny that the psychological sciences can tell us anything interesting about God? Because God is not a thing in our heads, which is the purview of psychological science. Why do I deny that science more generally can tell us anything interesting about God? Because God is not a thing at all; neither one in or along-side the Universe. But, of course, the perceived antipathy between science and religion does not come from scientists having vivisected God as an object of enquiry. Rather, the common idea is that science renders talk of God irrelevant: if we can explain the causes and consequences of this or that phenomenon without speaking of God, then, well, what’s the point of God? But this too is predicated on that same category error that God is a thing, of the same order as other causes and consequences in the world.

Christians claim to believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth, of all things, seen and unseen. Of all things. Not just the remarkable, but also the run-of-the-mill; not just the “miraculous” but also the mundane; not just the Big Bang but also the banal banging together of atoms that has gone on ever since. Indeed, although creation is often talked of in terms of so-called “natural” things, God is as much the maker of cities and symphonies, plays and paintings, theories and technologies. These human phenomena are no less created, just as they are no less natural than the mountains and lakes, molecules and stars to which we are typically drawn. Any less than this affirmation is deficient deism or some other kind of plasticine idolatry. Speaking of deism, the doctrine of creation is not, as too many people unfortunately suppose, the claim that God’s creative act is the first in a series of events that eventually leads to goings-on today and in the future; it is not, for example, the claim that God is the causal antecedent of the Big Bang. There may or may not have been a Big Bang of which God may or may not have been the causal antecedent, but that is largely beside the point. In confessing God as creator we are affirming that God and God alone created the world ex nihilo, that all things—all beings and occurrences, all chains of cause and effect, in all times and in all places—depend absolutely on God, not only for their beginning but also for their continued existence and their end, their fulfillment.

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My aim in this talk has been to try to express what I find peculiar about the way a lot of people talk about science and religion, or about nature and God. Science, people seem to think, has to be explanatorily deficient in order to make way for religion; it has to be incomplete, unable to explain this or that special fact about the Universe, about biological design or cosmological fine-tuning or human consciousness or something. God, people seem to think, only really does what Nature-with-a-Capital-N is unable to do. God steps in, intervenes, when this lesser deity called Nature is insufficient. These ideas, I have said, are based on an odd view of God, of God as a sort of thing, a thing in the world among other things like you and I, quarks and gluons, tables and chairs. A lot of people seem to hold this view, and while it may have the virtue of being intuitive, it does not enjoy the virtue—if it is a virtue—of being recognizably Christian. It is therefore ironic and lamentable that many Christians seem to hold this view too. It is lamentable because these long, drawn out controversies cost religious believers not just their credibility, but also their time and effort that are much better spent on other, more pressing concerns. After all, the Christian belief in God, as expressed in the creeds of the Church is only in part about the believer’s assent to doctrinal statements. What is missing from all this talk of belief is the acknowledgement that Christian faith is primarily faith—that is, trust—in God and, concomitantly, faithfulness to God. The declaration that “We believe” is a throwing of ourselves at the dusty feet of a political criminal unjustly executed, in the dual sense of clinging onto him for dear life and of swearing our allegiance to him with reckless abandon. Anything less is soggy self-help spirituality, shot through with pseudoscience.

Sermon: n.d.*

Readings

Sirach 24:1-12

Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:1-18

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Words. Of our mouths and others’; of friends and family members; of the peddlers of products and political propaganda.

Words. Greetings and gossip; Christmas cards and New Year’s resolutions; television specials and tawdry advertisements.

We are, this season—as every year in recent memory—bombarded by words, by sounds, by noise. And now, finally, some reprieve; things are beginning to quieten down again, now that the festivities are just about over.

We have, thankfully, a moment to step back, to look back and consider the weeks just past. And now, after hearing from Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel these past few weeks, about the busy particularities of that first busy Christmas season, we are told: In the beginning was the Word.

The Word. In stark contrast to our incessant chatter, God utters one Word, and thereby calls the world into being, breathing into it life and shining unto it light. God utters one Word, and in this one Word become flesh, calls and draws the world into his bosom as his children.

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On this second week after Christmas day, we gather to hear the eternal Word who is, simultaneously and paradoxically flesh: body that can be and is broken, blood that can be and is poured, all for our sake. What can we say about such a Word as this, from whom comes words of eternal life? Faced with the Word, our words are but as straw, as Thomas Aquinas realized. Words strain, writes T. S. Eliot (1943), Crack and sometimes break,

Under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

This situation, you can imagine, puts the preacher in a difficult position.

Faced with the aptness of silence in this quiet season, we are nevertheless tasked to speak. But perhaps this is appropriate after all. Faced with the unspeakable mystery of the God who utters into being all things, human beings find ourselves to be—as Nicholas Lash puts it—“the speaking part of things”. We are not unfamiliar with paradox. What then, can we say? If we cannot predicate things of God per se; if we cannot talk of God literally, as it were; we can, perhaps, allude and associate, even—with Thomas Aquinas again—analogize. This certainly seem to be John’s strategy, pointing us now to Genesis 1, now to the rich Wisdom theology of the Hebrew Bible and other pre-Christian Jewish texts, and now to the contemporaneous intellectual milieu reflected in Aramaic writings of his day.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word shared in God’s divinity. It was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being. John opens with a re-telling of Genesis. And then, just a few moments later, comes the twist: and the Word became flesh and lived among us. The penny drops, and we hear again the words, but this time differently: all things come through him, and without him not one thing came into being. God speaks, and for this reason, the world is. This Jesus—the son of Joseph, of Nazareth (from which no good ought to be expected, as Nathaniel blurts)—is the reason and logic of creation. There is, at the heart of all things, not cold indifference leading to entropic decay, but the loving utterance of fatherhood and sonship. Herein is life and light that shines in the darkness.

The light that shines in darkness; the light to our paths and to our feet, as the psalmist says. Similarly, later on in the twenty-fourth chapter of Sirach, which our reading today introduces, the Jewish Wisdom tradition comes face to face with Torah. Not only is Wisdom she who covered the earth like a mist and takes root in an honoured people, but also the book of the covenant, the law that Moses commanded as an inheritance for God’s people. To say the least, John has a complicated relationship with the law. It is easy to read John too negatively, but that tendency must surely tempered by his claim—at the end of this first chapter—that the law of Moses presages the coming of Jesus, through whom comes grace and truth. He finds Jesus, as it were, in the law of Moses; however, as the narrative progresses, we quickly discover that the law is in him, and the new commandment is love. So it is that John’s allusion to Law amounts to much the same thing as his allusion to the creative Word: it is, once again, the affirmation that love lies at centre of all things.

As we have heard, none of this is really foreign to early Judaism, as expressed in her Wisdom tradition. Wisdom is, while being Law, is not therefore an agent of oppression, but emphatically the agent of deliverance and redemption. Indeed, the tenth chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, of which we heard the ending today, narrates the redemptive history of Israel and Wisdom’s chief role in it. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to Lot to Jacob to Joseph, and finally, to Moses, Wisdom saves; she delivers a holy people, leading them through deep waters and guiding them along a marvellous way. So it is in John’s gospel, that this Jesus is he who takes away the sin of the world, and therefore rightly commands us to follow him, that we may be blameless and holy before God in love.

The inadequacy of words is no less obvious now than it was before, and it seems that our flustered verbosity is as much evidence of our limitations as of the uncontainable mystery of God.

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It is the second Sunday after Christmas, and we are now—one hopes—in a better position to reflect upon the season, to tune out the jingles and carols, the crinkling and crunching of wrapping paper, followed by peals of childish joy (or, alas, the false gratitude of adult disappointment). We shall soon miss our families and friends who have come to visit and gone; we shall soon (but perhaps not soon enough) shed the weight we inevitably put on this time every year. Tomorrow—Epiphany—we shall (most of us) take down our trees, and box up our baubles and tinsel for next time around. The time for noise, for busyness, for many words is over for now. It is, I think, a good time to consider—in whatever way we are able—what it might mean that at the foundation of all things is God’s single utterance of the love that calls us.

Amen.

*Written for an assignment, rather than for preaching.