Monday, December 16, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the third of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Three: The Scream of the Lost

We like to think that there are no limits to what we are capable of as humans.  The Financial Times, for example, recently reported that Google had built the first 'quantum computer' that can carry out calculations beyond the ability of even today's most powerful supercomputers.  A calculation that would take the present most advanced computer 10,000 years to perform took the Google computer 3 minutes 20 seconds!  This sounds to me like the equivalent of the first-time scientists split the atom and the consequences will probably be as far-reaching.

Materially speaking, the generation growing up in the developed world at the moment has never had it so good.  Not so long ago, many would have died in childbirth and many more who didn’t would not have lived much beyond childhood.  And those who survived childhood could expect to die young from a whole range of diseases that can now be cured with a simple course of treatment available from the local pharmacy.  We live longer than ever and machines and a whole raft of discoveries and inventions make that life easier.

But before we over-reach ourselves in self-congratulation as a species, it is also worth reminding ourselves that our discoveries and inventions have also set our species on the path of self-destruction, and I am not only thinking of the nuclear bomb.  We have also seen this year protests around the globe over climate change with scientists warning that this same well-off generation growing up now could be the last unless something drastic is done soon. 

And it is not just nuclear destruction and climate change that threaten today’s generation.  A recent report has shown that rates of moderate to severe depression amongst American undergraduates have basically doubled in the past ten years or so.  It is the same in most developed societies.  Being better off materially has not, it seems, made us happier.

If you were to do a poll of people's favourite hymns, it is certain that 'Amazing Grace' would be one of the most popular - if not the most popular.  It is known and loved by people inside the Church and out.  It is frequently requested at both weddings and funerals and has been sung and recorded by many artists.  All of which is all a bit of a mystery.  For when you look at the words of the hymn, they completely go against how people want to think of and see their lives.  This is the first verse, for example:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound)
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.’

The last thing that people want to admit is that they are wretched, lost, and blind in need of someone else to save them, without them being able to do anything to help themselves.  But the word LOST is the word that best describes the human condition.  One of the most iconic pieces of modern art is Edvard Munch's the Scream.  It depicts a figure with hands to its head screaming.  Munch describes how he came to paint it:

‘I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.’

The Scream symbolizes the scream of all those separated from their Creator through their wretchedness and spiritual blindness. 
Sadly, while we don't mind singing about it, we don't want to admit it, and still less do anything about it.  There is a challenge to the Christian Church here, especially as we approach Christmas.  We really have as Christians got to stop worrying about making ourselves unpopular and start telling it as it is.  Human beings are lost.  And no scientific, political, social, or emotional response devised by humans is going to provide the answer except perhaps temporarily to dull the senses in the way a drug does for an addict.  We need someone who cares, even though we don't deserve caring for; someone to find us, and give us sight.

The Gospel message this Christmas is that this is what God has done for us and is what he offers us in Christ. 

And this is a message we urgently need to hear - and now especially here in Hong Kong.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Here is the second of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme.

Talk Two: None so blind as those who will not see

Until comparatively recently, human beings just took it for granted that the world they lived in had a spiritual dimension.  People in all cultures simply assumed that there was a spiritual dimension to their life.  This was expressed in all sorts of ways through religion, magic, spells, rituals, and belief in various kinds of spiritual beings from angels to demons.  We can still read about them in so-called 'fairy tales'.

Nowadays, in developed societies like our own, we regard these practices and beliefs as mere superstitions; part of the ignorance of the past that, thankfully, we have now left behind.  We dismiss such things with a knowing superiority.  And yet, these practices and beliefs were at least part of a realisation that there was more to reality than what we as humans can see, hear, touch, and taste with our physical senses.

This attitude to, and dismissal of, the spiritual practices and beliefs of previous generations contrasts dramatically with how we regard the 'physical' – or, if you prefer, ‘scientific’ - beliefs of the past.  In the course of our history, humans have believed many different things about the physical world around us.  In the history of science, these attempts to explain the physical world are normally regarded and hailed as part of humankind's quest for greater understanding, even when subsequent generations found previous scientific explanations wrong, inadequate, or lacking.

Rather than simply dismissing or making fun of early attempts to understand explain the physical world, we regard them instead as steps on the path of progress to greater scientific knowledge and insight.  We see primitive machines and inventions, for example, as a necessary part of our development of better, more efficient machines and acclaim their creators as pioneers and geniuses.

In their understanding of the spiritual world, previous generations may have got many things wrong, but they were in their own way, like the scientists of the past who were exploring the physical world, at least attempting to understand a spiritual world whose existence they were as sure of as we are of the physical.  Christianity rightly sought to show how these spiritual practices and beliefs were wrong as later generations of scientists sought to show the inadequacies of the understanding and explanations of those before them who sought to explain the physical world.

Instead, Christians tried as best they could to present the truth as it had been revealed to them in Christ and to convince people of it.  Just as scientists did not advance their understanding by suggesting that the physical world did not exist, so too Christians did not seek to show the error of superstition by arguing that the spiritual world itself did not exist.  In the same way as scientists built on the understanding and explanations of those who had gone before, so too Christians tried to show that what people were seeking in their spiritual practices and beliefs could be found only in Christ.

Ironically, Christianity's success in getting rid of what we now regard as the superstitions of the past has now been used against it.  Christianity (and other religious belief) is now itself seen as part of the superstitious nonsense which humankind must leave behind.  Rather than seeing the possibility that we may come to a right spiritual understanding in the same way as we can come to a better scientific understanding by learning from the past, we deny instead the existence of the spiritual world altogether.

As human beings, we are increasingly narrow in our vision and seem determined to narrow it still more.  Telling each other that the only reality that needs describing is the physical may comfort us in our blindness and ignorance, but it doesn't mean that other realities thereby cease to exist.  It just illustrates our foolishness all the more.

St Paul wrote: 'because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.' (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Human beings have undoubtedly achieved a great deal during their existence and some of our discoveries and inventions have been truly remarkable and life-changing.  We are, however, often so pleased with ourselves and our achievements that we fail to see how limited our knowledge really is.  There are many areas of knowledge that we are simply blind to, and not least amongst them is our knowledge of ourselves and of God.

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in December, 2019

I am giving the talks in December for Minutes that Matter on RTHK Radio 4. The music for each talk is from the Sistine Chapel Choir's recording of music for Christmas and Advent with the mezz-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

Talk One: Not as clever as we like to think we are

Humankind universally believes in the idea of human progress. At its simplest, this is the belief that things are constantly getting better and improving. There is evidence for this. You only have to look at the advances in science and technology, in medicine, and in human knowledge generally. It is true that these advances have had some negative side effects - climate change being one of the most dramatic - but people undoubtedly live longer today than they used to and diseases that were killers only a generation or two ago are so no more. Fewer people are living in absolute poverty and, incredibly, more people now die of over-eating than starvation.

It is no surprise, then, that we apply this idea of 'progress' more generally than simply to scientific knowledge and discoveries. We simply assume that because we have demonstrably progressed in some areas of human knowledge and endeavour that the same must be true in all areas. In social and moral attitudes, for example, it is taken as obvious that what we believe now must be superior to what was believed in the past. We see this particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the area of sexual ethics.

The idea that what we believe now must be an improvement on what was believed in the past is written into the DNA of developed societies, even if some living in them still mistakenly insist on clinging to the outdated attitudes of the past. Spiritually, therefore, what we believe now, must, we think, be an improvement on what past generations believed. As evidence we point to the fairy tales, superstitions, and myths of the past. Increasingly included in these fairy tales and myths of the past is any belief in a deity.

In the past, humans have believed in spirits inhabiting trees and plants, then in various gods of different kinds, and then, more generally, in one god of an organized religion. Now, in so-called developed and ‘educated’ societies, we increasingly believe in none. While we still - albeit somewhat reluctantly at times - acknowledge the right of people to believe and practise whatever religion they wish, religion is not seen as being about truth, but about personal choice and preference. Religion is kept out of the decision-making processes of society in a way that would have been inconceivable in the past, and still is in some societies at least today.

The message is clear, however: just as science has progressed, so too we as a species have, and are, progressing spiritually. As we progress, we will have less and less time for God and religion, even on a personal level. It is hard not to succumb to this understanding and even Christians are buying into it and reshaping their faith - if it can be called that - accordingly. The result is that religion is not seen as being about finding God and obeying him in this life so that we will live forever with him in the next, but about how we find fulfilment now and work to make this world an ever better place in which to live for the short time we are here.

The Bible’s view of human history, however, is not one of progress, but of decline; of an ever-increasing descent into darkness and ignorance. St Paul wrote: ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse ... ' (Romans 1:19-20)

The wonder of the physical world in which we live that science has discovered and revealed to us was meant, St Paul believed, to lead us to seek God.

The incredible irony is that what was meant to lead us to God has only led us to move further from him. Rather than being amazed at the vastness and wonder of creation and worshipping the Creator, we have instead become amazed at our own cleverness in observing and describing it all.

The Bible’s message is that our only hope is for us to return to the One who made us. But to do that we need to abandon our pride and belief in ourselves. Until we find God, we will not find ourselves. We may tell ourselves that everything is getting better, that we are progressing well and advancing. The truth, however, is that without God, we are lost. What we all are in need of is not greater knowledge, but the forgiveness that can only come when we turn to Christ in repentance and faith.

But that means that we first need to admit that we are not nearly as clever as we like to think we are.