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is written into the DNA of developed societies, even if some living in them still mistakenly insist on clinging to the outdated attitudes of the past.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.

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