Matter Matters: On the Body

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I established in two earlier posts (1 and 2) that God created matter and said that it was good.

In fact, the word “good” (Hebrew: טֽוֹב) is used seven times in the creation story of Genesis 1; each of those times depicting what God says about the stuff he made. When God gets to humans on the sixth day, he says that we are “very good”.

So, bodies were made good. 

Then of course, we fell. But, notice that we fell doing a physical act, and notice too that Christ’s redemptive work required a physical passion and a physical resurrection. Our bodies caused us to sin, but Christ’s body lead the way to our salvation.

Contrary to Gnostic belief, which asserts that the body is bad and that the soul is good, the Bible clearly teaches us that God cares about the physical as well as the spiritual. Moreover, Christians do not believe that heaven is just a place for a floaty-soul-thing to go to after the body dies. Rather, we look forward to a bodily resurrection in the afterlife (see earlier post).

However, while we wait in eager expectation for this future glory, we are told to use our current bodies to honour God:

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”  – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Romans 12:1

So, just like all things that God created, our bodies matter to God. It matters what we do with them and it matters what we don’t do with them. It matters whether we look after our bodies through exercise and healthy eating, and it matters when we abstain from things that are harmful. Moreover, it matters to God when somebody is sexually abused or beaten up. God cares about these things deeply.

We need to wake up and stop pretending that God only cares about our ethereal spirit-selves on Sunday. He cares about every aspect of our lives. Spiritual warfare is not just about praying against evil and casting out demons. Spiritual warfare is also about our everyday choices in the material, physical world.

Matter matters.

S

 

 

 

Should Christians Read Philosophy?

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[Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.]

How many philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?
It depends on how you define ‘change’.

Philosophy is considered by many to be irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst. Christians throughout history have been especially caught up in the pro/anti-philosophy debate. Philosophers are known for asking the sorts of questions that make an everyday person want to jump off a bridge, and are often thought to be so caught up in their ethereal realms that they are completely out of touch from reality. Moreover, some Christians are especially sceptical of what non-Christian philosophers could possibly teach us. If we are in relationship with the Source of all knowledge, why bother trying to obtain knowledge by non-Christian means?

The term “philosophy” in Greek is philosophía, which means “love of wisdom”.

So what?

Wisdom is highly prized in the Bible. All the way through we are told that Wisdom is more valuable than jewels and gold (Job 28:18; Proverbs 3:13-18, 8:11). In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman who calls out in the noisy streets, but few hear her. She is said to guard and protect those who embrace her, and it was by her that the Lord established the earth (c.f. Proverbs 1:20-33; 3:19-20; 8-9). Remember that by definition, Philosophy is the love of wisdom, so it follows that we ought to earnestly seek it.

Nevertheless, the Bible also seems to be sceptical of wisdom, or at least the kind of “wisdom” that comes from mankind:

Be not wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7).

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.(1 Corinthians 1:20-25) 

The argument I am about to unfold is mostly stolen from a lecturer at my faculty called Andrew Davison (see bellow for his book). He gives us a rather counter-intuitive proposal: that our theology is less likely to be “taken captive” by philosophy if we pay attention to what the philosophers are actually saying. In other words, we ought to read and examine philosophy if we are to prevent it from hijacking our thought-patterns.

I honestly think that everybody is a philosopher to some degree. If you don’t believe me, the next time you enter a pub (preferably very late on a Friday night), walk up to any stranger you like and ask them their thoughts about the meaning of life. Although not all will be able to articulate their philosophy in a systematic format, you will notice that all operate within a philosophical frame of mind. Every single one of us carry conscious and unconscious assumptions about reality and how we perceive it. Often, our unconscious assumptions shape our world-view more than our conscious ones. To quote Fergus Kerr:

“If theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor even acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first year students.” (Theology After Wittgenstein, 1997 p.1)

God has made us rational creatures, and to make use of our capacities for reason is a way that we can honour him. I have said again and again that faith and reason do not necessarily have to sit in contradiction with one another. Rather, our capacities for reason can assist and even enhance our faith. This is why philosophy can be useful: it can provide us with tools for clear thinking, and it can help us to understand people with different viewpoints from us.

I would assert that Paul’s tendency to class philosophy as dangerous is precisely because of its high value. Good philosophy is rooted in God and brings us life in abundance. Bad philosophy has the capacity to ensnare us and take us captive. The key point here is that we need to be able to distinguish the good from the bad.

But how do we know? For start, I would say familiarise yourself with the Word and with good theology. Once you are doing that, begin to dip into some introductions to different philosophical schools of thought, and start to exercise your brain. Over time, you’ll either realise that the world around you is very different to what you once thought, or, you’ll stay in the same philosophical camp as before, but now you’ll be able to articulate yourself better to non-believers. Win-win if you ask me.

I’m going to wrap it up here for now, but I’m sure I’ll continue to rant about this again in the new future.

Until next time, peace and love!

S

 

Recommended Reading:

Andrew Davison (2013) The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians. SCM Press: London.

Brian Davies (2004) An Introduction to The Philosophy of Religion (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Davison’s account gives a really helpful insight into the history of philosophical thought, and the impact that it has for Christian theology. He begins with schools of thought before Plato, and ends with Theology and Philosophy for the present day. Davies book is a useful introduction to the core themes in philosophical theology, such as concepts of God, the afterlife, the problem of evil, etc. Both of these books are for beginners and are fairly easy to dip in and out of. I highly recommend both for undergraduate students of theology, or Christians who are studying philosophy.

Matter Matters: Creation

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[Photograph of the Valley of Desolation, South Africa, 2017]

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 

And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. 

– Genesis 1:27-31

For eight years of my life, I lived in Australia. Although I learnt a lot about environmentalism at school, most of that message was shunned by the church, which left my confused teenage self in a dilemma. People who would actively combat climate change were classed in the dreaded category of “leftie.” Lefties were apparently anti-God, anti-family values, and pro-secularism. The local megachurch did not want to be seen as part of that. I remember preachers often mocking environmentalists from the pulpit, sarcastically making comments like, “Save the whales, save the snails!” The crowds would roar with laughter.

The overall assumptions here were generally based on a false dichotomy between those who care about the here-and-now physical stuff (i.e. those dirty secularist lefties), and those who care about higher spiritual stuff (i.e. pure and holy Christians).

Not only is this binary division based on heretic gnosticism, but the Bible clearly states that God loves the earth. He created it, and he said that it is good! For God, the physical stuff that he makes is important to him.

Matter matters. 

More than this, God continues to care for it and sustain it:

You visit the earth and water it;
    you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
    you provide their grain,
    for so you have prepared it.
  You water its furrows abundantly,
    settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
    and blessing its growth.
   You crown the year with your bounty;
    your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
  The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
    the hills gird themselves with joy,
  the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
    the valleys deck themselves with grain,
    they shout and sing together for joy.”

– Psalm 65:9-13

When God created the earth, not only did he say that it was “very good”, but he also entrusted us with looking after it. While he is the ultimate creator and sustainer of the universe, the earth was given to us to toil and have dominion over. This comes with responsibility.

Most Christians know the doctrine of the Fall pretty well: creation is fallen because of us. However, we also know that God has a redemptive plan. We usually employ a rather anthropocentric view, assuming that this redemptive plan is purely about human souls. This is not what the Word says. God plans to restore all of creation:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:19-20

Let’s be people who care about what God has made. Let’s take our responsibilities seriously, and look after our earth.

Peace!

S

 

Recommended Resources: 

For individuals, I recommend my friend Francesca’s blog: https://ethicalunicorn.com/. She is a passionate environmentalist and social-justice warrior who also loves the Lord. You will find a tonne of handy everyday tips in how to better live sustainably and ethically.

For churches in the UK, I recommend you check out EcoChurch:  https://ecochurch.arocha.org.uk/.

A Poem for the City of Cambridge (and all who dig for knowledge)

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  “Man puts his hand to the flinty rock
    and overturns mountains by the roots.
   He cuts out channels in the rocks,
    and his eye sees every precious thing.
   He dams up the streams so that they do not trickle,
    and the thing that is hidden he brings out to light.

   “But where shall wisdom be found?
    And where is the place of understanding?
   Man does not know its worth,
    and it is not found in the land of the living.
   The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
    and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
   It cannot be bought for gold,
    and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
   It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
    in precious onyx or sapphire.
   Gold and glass cannot equal it,
    nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
   No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
    the price of wisdom is above pearls.
   The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it,
    nor can it be valued in pure gold.

   “From where, then, does wisdom come?
    And where is the place of understanding?
   It is hidden from the eyes of all living
    and concealed from the birds of the air.
   Abaddon and Death say,
    ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’

   “God understands the way to it,
    and he knows its place.
   For he looks to the ends of the earth
    and sees everything under the heavens.
   When he gave to the wind its weight
    and apportioned the waters by measure,
   when he made a decree for the rain
    and a way for the lightning of the thunder,
   then he saw it and declared it;
    he established it, and searched it out.
  And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
    and to turn away from evil is understanding.’”

Matter Matters: On the Soul

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(Photo of Amy Leon, taken by me)

The soul is pictured by most to be an ethereal floaty thing that lives inside of us when we’re alive, and then gets released into the universe or goes up to heaven when we die (depending on your theology). Unfortunately there is no consistent usage of the term “soul” in the Christian tradition; nor has there been a council to establish an official doctrine. This has meant that a lot of Christians’ assumptions about the soul and life after death aren’t actually Biblical.

In this post, I am going to parallel two streams of thought regarding the soul and its relation to the body. In one, we shall see how Plato handed down something called “substance dualism”, and it asserts that the soul and the body are two separate entities, but it is only the soul that continues to exist after we die. This was modified and expanded by René Descartes, whose theory of mind famously dichotomised the immaterial “self” from the material body.

In the other stream of thought, we shall examine a Neo-Aristotelian view of the body and soul being “psychosomatic unities,” which was slightly modified but nevertheless taken up by Thomas Aquinas. As we shall see, this is actually much more in line with the Biblical view of resurrected life after death.

Platonic Substance Dualism ala Descartes:

Overall, Plato regards the soul to be something that both pre-exists and outlives the body. He views the body as mortal, changeable, and pertains to sensible things. The soul, however, is immortal, invisible, constant, and has the capacities to contemplate higher realities (the Forms).

Crucial to Plato’s thought is that death is a good thing. While the soul is trapped in the body, it gets “confused and dizzy”; when the soul is liberated by death, it has the chance to gaze upon higher realities and contemplate truth. In life, the soul is weighed down by the body. In death, it is finally set free.

In other words: body is bad; soul is good. Death is therefore also good because it frees the soul from the (bad) body.

Almost two thousand years later, a guy called René Descartes took this stringent dualism further and modified it. His famous “turn to the subject” put the human mind at the centre of his philosophy. Importantly for Descartes, mind is the only thing we cannot doubt; unlike matter, which we can doubt.

His argument rests on the assumption that although someone can chop my body up, they cannot chop me up. So there must be a distinction between what is my body and what is me. Moreover, I can doubt my body but I can’t doubt that I exist, hence: “I think, therefore I am.”

Descartes is known for his method of “stripping back” in order to find the only thing that we can ever really know: that we have a sense of self, and this self is distinct from matter. So, in this line of thought, the soul is separate from the body, and when the body dies, the soul is not supposed to die with it.

To summarise his logic: if x and y are distinct, it follows that whatever happens to x does not necessarily happen to y. Therefore, if the body perishes (which pertains to matter), it does not follow that the soul (mind) perishes with it.

Seems legit, but what does the Bible say? 

I am so glad you asked.

The Old Testament does not depict the soul as a floaty thing that  goes off into an afterlife while the body rots in the ground. Rather, human survival after death is depicted in bodily terms. Humans are viewed as psychosomatic unities, and life after death is pictured as a physical resurrection:

“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead.” – Isaiah 26:19

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2

Say what?

Now check out the New Testament:

“…he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” – Romans 8:11

Jesus says that the soul AND body will be present in the afterlife:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

Paul also writes about a bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” – vs 12-14.

“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – vs 52-57

Aristotle / Aquinas:

Thomas Aquinas does a really interesting commentary of 1 Corinthians 15.

Drawing also from Aristotle’s De Anima bk III, Thomas continues with the idea of humans being viewed as a hypostatic union between body and soul. Importantly for Thomas, we cannot “peel back” like in Descartes’ thought because to extrapolate the soul from the body is peculiar. Unlike varieties of substance dualism as we have seen in Plato and Descartes, what makes me me is not my soul, but rather a complex unity of my soul and my body.

It is important to note here that Thomas does agree with Plato that the soul can be separated from the body at death. What makes his thought different, is that this kind of separation is a bad thing. While Plato views death as a liberation for the soul, Thomas views death as a great evil. When the body dies, the soul lives in an impoverished state, which is a terrifying experience.

This is why the doctrine of the resurrection is so important. In the afterlife, the impoverished soul is given a body once more, and we have the hope that we will live again corporeally but transformed.

But why does this matter? 

Because matter matters.

When God created the physical world, he said that it was good! He then made humans out of physical stuff and said that they were good! Material things are not lesser goods than immaterial things. Yes, our world is fallen right now. But the point of redemption is that God will restore our broken world, not zap it.

In everyday life, we can know that physical/material things matter to God. He cares about our bodies and what we do with them. Likewise, he cares about our planet, and what we do with it.

Christians ought not be ashamed of their physical selves. Our bodies are good things that we should love and look after, just like our souls. Both are important to God, and neither should be neglected.

I’ll leave it there for now, but here is a video of a puppy playing with a shoe, and my Dad’s spectacular running commentary.

You might want to turn your volume up.

Love and Peace!

S

What is a Friend?

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Someone asked me this recently, and I couldn’t give a definitive answer. I have friends, some are close and others distant. I have lived in four countries, so I have had to say goodbye to a lot of friends and introduce myself to many new ones. Some drift away, and others remain. But what are they really?

Augustine of Hippos says,

“In this world two things are essential: life and friendship.
Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them.
Life and friendship are nature’s gifts.
God created us that we might exist and live: this is life.
But if we are not to remain solitary, there must be friendship”
[Sermon Denis 16,1]

If friendship really is valuable, I think we ought to explore what it is, and what it means to have and be a friend. In this post I hope to explore a variety of sources we can draw from in defining “friend”; some helpful, others less so. I will argue that western post-modern secularism places very little value on a friend, and this de-valuation impacts its assumed definition. The Ancient Greeks give a slightly more helpful insight, and suggest that friendship is essential in the pursuit of truth and happiness. Unsurprisingly however, I think the best notion of a friend can be revealed by characters in the Bible. But first, let’s begin with the problematic assumptions that our culture feeds us.

What Post-Modern Western Culture Says: 

If we intend to dissect our culture’s definition of a “friend”, then I suggest that we take a look at our language. Language reveals both our hidden assumptions and our underlying world-views: “for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) We use the term “friend” in a variety of contexts, and these contexts often provide a problematic definition.

Facebook tells me that a friend is a virtual identity whom I can interact with minimally, requiring only one click, either “Add Friend” or “Accept Friend Request.” It demands little effort, no cost, and hardly any time. The persona is often a superficial construct, so I never know what is really going on in that individual’s life. Moreover, commitment is scarce. I can subtly delete or unfollow any friend I choose and not have to deal with the consequences because they probably won’t find out. The economics of a friend is also interesting: Facebook users are expected to have far more “friends” than they can possibly develop meaningful relationships with. Basic demand-supply principles tell us that high quantity usually drives down the market value. In other words, a “friend,” according to Facebook is something of little (or no) value, precisely because we are expected to have hundreds of them.

Reality television often depicts friendships as alliances: self-serving contracts that can be quickly disposed of. The bonds are fragile, and the alliances can be broken when one party does not fulfill their contractual obligation. They completely grounded in selfishness and quid pro quo favours.

As a millennial, I grew up watching Disney films. Here, the end-goal of any protagonist is to find “true love”, which is assumed to be romantic. The definition of “friend” is a passive side-kick to the protagonist, whose role is usually to assist when needed and disappear when not-needed. Often, they are an anthropomorphic animal, further diminishing their value in contrast with the protagonist’s human lover. I don’t know anyone who wanted to grow up to be Flounder from the Little Mermaid, or that racoon in Pocahontas. We are fed a lie that our ultimate fulfilment can only be found in romance, and that friends have less importance.

This is further revealed in the context of dating, where the term “friend” is almost always a demotion. “I just  want to be friends” is a devastating blow to someone who thought they were a prospective partner, and the “friend-zone” is considered a prison cell that deprives its victim of attaining the ever looming desire for romantic-love.

In short, western millennials are told that friends are not only cheap, disposable and artificial, but are far less fulfilling than romantic lovers. Our culture says that romantic love is the end-goal and purpose of our lives. Meanwhile, a friend is “just” a companion who serves as a means towards our end-goal, but the relationship is not valuable in itself.  I’m not saying that romantic love is bad; on the contrary, when it’s good it can be very very good. But when we assume that it’s the only fulfilling love out there, we turn the opposite sex into an idol and an object, and then get disappointed when they don’t meet our unrealistic expectations. But more on that in another post someday. My point here is that we have been conditioned by our culture to overvalue romantic-love and undervalue friendship-love, and often we assume they are mutually exclusive.

It’s no wonder people around me freaked out when I developed a deep and meaningful friendship with my roommate during my waitressing days in London. At best, people referred to it as a “girl crush”, but at other times my more liberal acquaintances would lecture me on the importance of “coming out”. Most of this talk was done semi-jokingly, but as the years went by the jokes never really stopped. Some people (usually guys) became oddly obsessed with us being “secret lesbians,” which in turn led to some awkward conversations with each of our conservative Christian mothers.

The problem (or joke) for everyone was that I really genuinely – but also completely heterosexually – love her. I think it caused a stir because people didn’t know how to handle what they saw: genuine love minus eroticism. It seems that our culture cannot compute this.

Greek Philosophy:

Other cultures do not necessarily hold this view. We only have one word for love with a variety of uses, but because we overvalue romance and undervalue friendship, we get confused when we use the word “love” towards a friend. By contrast, the Ancient Greeks had a variety of terms for love. Two important ones for this context are eros, which is romantic-love or passion, and philia (noun) / philein (verb), which is friendship-love.

In Aristotle’s Ethics books VIII-IX, he outlines his views on friendship. For him, a good and genuine friend is one who loves (philein) the other person for the sake of that other person. A defective friendship is when one or both individuals regard one another as advantageous to themselves. Good friendship is both rooted in and leads to further reciprocated good will. In Greek, this “good will” is eunoia, and is linked to eudaimonia, a term that denotes ultimate happiness and wellness. In other words, Aristotle regarded a real friendship to consist of two selfless individuals pouring into one another, and that is what would lead to a fulfilling kind of happiness.

Plato was not dissimilar. His main genre of writing was dialogue, precisely because he felt that philosophy (Greek: philosophia – “the love of wisdom”) can only be pursued socially. For Plato, it is within the context of friendship-love that truth and wisdom can be found.

A Biblical Approach:

But what does a Biblical friendship look like?

There are many examples we could draw from, but I would like to look at David and Jonathan’s relationship. Their story is one where a crown prince loves the man who competes for his throne, and gives to him sacrificially. Honestly, I think it’s mental.

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul… Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”– 1 Samuel 18:1-4

And Saul spoke to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, that they should kill David. But Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted much in David. And Jonathan told David, ‘Saul my father seeks to kill you. Therefore be on your guard in the morning. Stay in a secret place and hide yourself. And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you. And if I learn anything I will tell you.’ “ – 1 Samuel 19:1-3. 

After Jonathan warns David of his father’s plot to kill him:

David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.” ‘ And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.” – 1 Samuel 20:41-42

David’s Lament when he hears that Jonathan is dead:

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
     I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
    your love to me was extraordinary,
    surpassing the love of women.”  – 2 Samuel 1:26

Now, some critics have suggested that David and Jonathon were homosexual lovers. There is no evidence outside the Biblical text, so they draw from the passages above. The reason why I think their arguments don’t hold is because they are based on the flawed assumption that eros (romantic) love is the only kind of love that is capable of the emotions depicted here, to which I disagree. Even today there are many cultures where it is socially acceptable for men (and women) to have philia (friendship-love) of this kind. For example, after a few months living in New Delhi I grew accustomed to seeing male friends holding hands – often interlocking fingers – while simultaneously checking out a girl’s butt as she walked past them. These guys weren’t sleeping together – it was just normal for friends to outwardly display affection like that. So, intense friendships like this are not only counter-cultural for us, but they are actually Biblical (perhaps without the butt-checking though).

Here are some things I noticed about the kind of friendship David and Jonathan had:

  1. The Lord was in the middle of it: “The Lord shall be between me and you”
  2. It was emotional and raw: these grown men of war were not afraid to literally weep all over each other.
  3. They knew it had high value: it involved giving that was sacrificial.
  4. It took time: the initial spark was in an instant, but it grew over a period of years and often when they were geographically distant from one another.
  5. It was never disposable.
  6. It was more fulfilling than their experiences of romantic love.

Not all friendships will “surpass the love of women” like for David, or surpass the love of men if you’re a woman, but I suggest that we take these experiences seriously, and at the very least, know that this kind of philia love is indeed possible.

We have been fed a lie that a friend is a lesser-option or a mere side-kick to our own stories. A friend is not someone/something that we can possess or dispose of. 

A friend is someone we give to.

Someone we knit our souls to.

Someone we forgo our rights for.

 

I close with the words of Jesus:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”  – John 15:13. 

S

 

Recommended Reading: 

C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves

Augustine’s Confessions – especially note the role friendship played in his conversion.

Faith and Reason Part II: When Knowledge Becomes an Idol

I established in an earlier post that faith and reason, although different, ought to be viewed as gifts from God that enhance one another. They need not sit in contradiction. For the benefit of insomniacs everywhere, what I plan to discuss in this post is what happens when reason and faith are used out of their intended contexts, and when knowledge is elevated too highly.

Martin Luther famously called reason a “whore,” and “the greatest enemy that faith has.”  Karl Barth referred to knowledge as an “idol.” How then, do we reconcile this with Biblical verses that explicitly view knowledge and reason as good things?

Proverbs 10:14 says, “The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.”

Proverbs 13:16 says, “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.” 

2 Peter 3:18 tells us to “grow” in the knowledge of our Lord, and in Colossians 2:3 Paul refers to knowledge as a “treasure” that is hidden in God.

Paul says in Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers and sisters; that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” 

I would suggest that faith and reason are two different sorts of means that can be used to achieve the same end: knowledge. 

There are of course different types of knowledge. We can obtain knowledge of lower things, such as how to plan a budget well; and we can reach for knowledge of higher things, such as the trinity. There are also the highest kinds of knowledge, which we cannot obtain while we are fallen and finite: that is full knowledge of God (c.f. Psalm 139:6)

Now, faith is used as a means towards the knowledge of higher realities, such as knowledge of the things of God. We know from Hebrews 11 that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” and that “without faith it is impossible to please God.”  It is by faith that I can know the things of God that reason cannot explain to me. I cannot rationalise how or why God loves me, but I know by faith that he does, because of “the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19).

Reason, on the other hand, is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically. It can enable us to obtain knowledge of lower things, such as mathematics, molecular biology, and how clocks work. It is by reason that I am able to know the unlikelihood of me marrying Orlando Bloom. I can wish and wish and wish all I like, but through the powers my rational mind, I know with a fair degree of certainty that sadly, it will not come to pass.

Is faith therefor a cop-out from reason? An elaborate superstition that fills in the gaps for the things we cannot empirically measure (yet)?

No. And this is why:

The Bible says that God created the world and said that it was good (Genesis 1). In this world, there are lower goods, which are the things we can obtain knowledge of through reason (that is, through empirical observation or logical deduction) . Then there are higher goods, which are the things of God that we can know because a) God generously poured them out to us, and b) we have the gift of faith. Then, of course, there is God, who is the highest good, and whom we cannot fully know because we are finite and fallen.

Faith and Reason2

(Edit: this diagram is a modified version from the original, where God was depicted a bit more lofty and out of reach. A friend of mine rightly pointed out the problem, which I have amended).

Notice that faith does not begin where reason left off. Faith begins at the same place as reason: with me. If faith began where reason left off, then it would indeed be a cop out, like Richard Dawkins and Anthony Flew suggest. However, because it begins with me, there is an area where faith and reason can intermingle, like gin and tonic.

There is of course an area where faith and reason cannot intermingle, and this is where things get tricky.

I would argue that reason and knowledge become an idol in our lives when they are put in the wrong place. It is that this point that they become the sort of “knowledge” that Paul says “puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) If reason tries to reach too high and occupy the areas where faith alone should reside, then it is out of place. Likewise, when we place knowledge – be that of higher goods or lower goods – in the place of God, that is when it becomes and idol, as suggested by Barth. When reason tries to get rid of faith or take its place, that is when it becomes a sell-out, as suggested by Luther. This is when reason is merely tonic water, and therefore has no kick to it.

However, when knowledge is put back in its rightful context, it once again becomes a good. Likewise, when faith and reason are put in their rightful contexts, they can each be used as good means towards good ends.

There are times when we are required to employ faith alone. This is like having neat gin: absolutely necessary in some contexts but generally not recommended as an antidote to everything. It is through faith alone that we can be sure of our salvation. No reason can dilute that. But it is through a combination of faith and reason that we can formulate a doctrine of salvation. See the difference?

I leave you with the words of St Anselm of Canterbury:

“For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that ‘unless I believe I shall not understand’ [Isaiah 7:9]. 

Well then, Lord, you who give understanding to faith, grant me that I may understand, as much as you see fit, that you exist as we believe you to exist, and that you are what we believe you to be.” 

Proslogion ch1-2.

S

Faith and Reason

A few years ago I asked my sister about her views on Christianity. She replied: “I don’t believe in God; I believe in science!”

Her sentiment is not uncommon amongst western millennials. I currently live in the city of Cambridge, where skepticism and atheism are revered and religious belief of any kind is often sneered at. Over time, I have come to enjoy the confused looks of people when I tell them that I study theology.

“Don’t you mean geology – like rocks and stuff?” 

“Hang on, does that mean you’re religious?” 

“Do people still study that? I thought we disproved God in the Enlightenment period?” 

“Does that mean you’re a virgin!?!?!?!?”

I have legit been asked all of those questions countless times. It has become quite amusing.

Now, to be fair to the skeptic, Christians have not done particularly well in publicly showing that: a) we’re not stupid, b) we’re not boring, and c) the relationship between faith and reason is not necessarily one of contradiction. Now, I cannot address the issues in b) because I am a massive nerd. However I will try my best to tackle a) and c).

First, let’s dispel the myth that to be Christian is to be stupid. This view primarily stems from a crude understanding of what actually happened in the Enlightenment period. The general narrative tells us that an oppressive ecclesial institution once ruled the world, and then a bunch of rebel scientists came along (cue Star Wars theme music), put up a struggle, and then saved the day by overthrowing and effectively “disproving” the claims made by this embarrassingly archaic system. This did not actually happen.

James Hannam, who has a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge, published a book in 2011 called The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. In it, he outlines how the theology of the Church, far from being a hindrance, led directly to the development of modern science. Moreover, people are quick to forget that many of the scientists who contributed to the scientific revolution were in fact Christians. Issac Newton is one example. Even today, Christian scientists continue to excel: 65% of Nobel Prize winners have been Christian, and you can find the full list of them here. The notion that “science” and “religion” are equal opposing forces that contend with one another is very new, and according to history, factually incorrect.

Second, let’s address the claim that faith and reason contradict one another. They are different, yes. But too often we assume the wrong kind of difference, and extrapolate this to a false dichotomy. One of my supervisors often says:

“Faith and reason are not like chalk and cheese, but rather like gin and tonic.”

Let me explain.

When we speak of things that are different from one another, we need to understand that there are many varieties of difference. One type of difference is called “contradiction.” It applies to things that are mutually exclusive: if it is not one thing, it must me another. In logic terms we call this P and -P. In common parlance, we can call it “chalk and cheese.” Another type of difference is called “contraries with intermediaries.” (please don’t be put off by the name) In a nutshell, think of this kind of difference as a sliding scale. It is not “black and white”, but rather, “black with varying degrees of grey.” With this second kind of difference, we can see how things can be different from one another, but can still participate in each other. Grey is different to black, but still participates in black to a certain extent.

Stay with me.

We can acknowledge that faith and reason are different. Christians are taught that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Reason, by contrast is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgements logically. Unlike faith, it sometimes depends on things that are seen or observed in empirical evidence, and sometimes makes use of logical deduction. I appreciate that the definition of “reason” is a little more complicated than this but you get my point.

Now, some thinkers assert that Faith and Reason are so different from one another, they cannot possibly interpenetrate. John Locke is one example. In Book IV of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he provides a zero sum relation between faith and reason, with reason having the upper hand. He concludes that faith is a kind of superstition, and is only ever used when reason fails us. Importantly for Locke, it cannot intermingle with reason. For him, they are like chalk and cheese.

A rather different view is put forward by a thirteenth-century theologian called Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was an immensely influential thinker, who wrote on Biblical exegesis, theology, and philosophy. He was also a jurist in the tradition of scholasticism. In a nutshell, when it comes to the history of Christian theology, he is a very big deal. Almost every paper I have taken in my theology degree has required that I read something of him. For Thomas, the end goal of humanity is salus (a latin word meaning wellness, happiness, wholeness and salvation). Salus is beyond human comprehension and can only be found in God (see Summa Theologiae Ia. I,1). Thomas also tells us that human reason is a good thing, however, it is limited and can only take us so far. Hence, 2 Timothy tells us “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Human reason is good, but it can make mistakes. To comprehend things beyond reason (like God), we need divine assistance.

Thomas tells us that philosophers and scientists (albeit, science was defined slightly differently back then) can observe certain truths through their natural observations. Aristotle, for example, had attempted to prove that there is a God. Thomas concurs that Aristotle was right in that there is a God, but he was wrong in the kind of God that his “proof” came up with. Crucially, for Thomas, arguments of human reason can in no way prove the things of faith, because that would demerit the value of faith. However reason can be used to show that faith is not irrational:

“All the same holy teaching also uses human reasoning, not indeed to prove faith, for that would take away from the merit of believing, but to make manifest some implications of its message. Since grace does not scrap nature but brings it to perfection, so also natural reason should assist faith as the natural loving bent of the will leads to charity.” – Summa Theologiae Ia. I,8.

So for Thomas, faith and reason are different, but we are talking about a different kind of difference than the one asserted by John Locke. Christianity need not shy away from the skeptics, but rather take them head on. Faith is not a cop out from reason, but rather a divine gift that can help us comprehend the things beyond our grasp. Likewise, reason does not have to be an accuser of the things of faith. It can in fact be used within the framework of Chrisitan belief to explore the things of God.

Becoming a Christian does not require you to throw your brain away. We should rather use our cognitive faculties to assist us in our journeys of faith. Lets be people who read. Who debate. Who keep up with the latest issues in the world.

In short, faith is important and valuable. So is reason. But they need not contradict one another; instead they can be used to enhance one another.

Like gin and tonic.

 

 

 

Hallelujah! My blog has risen!

It is risen indeed.

After three years (almost) of radio silence, I have decided to go back to blogging.

Hurrah.

On Monday I submitted my final dissertation thesis, along with all of my coursework essays. I’m supposed to be revising for exams right now, but instead I’ve pretty much spent the last two days staring into a blank void, wondering, what on earth am I going to do now that I don’t have to write an essay every week? Talk about nerdy, right?

So, here we are. I will probably write about theology stuff because a) that what I’ve been studying for the past three years and b) I freaking love it.

Prepare for big questions, lots of story telling and terrible puns.

Stay tuned!

IMG_9219

S

 

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Sacrifice

Not a great word, right?

Most of us prefer reading christian blogs about how God wants to bless us and make us feel good. He does love us immensely, and he does want to bless us (I am living proof of this!), BUT, sometimes he leads us into seasons of sacrifice. That’s where I am right now, and I’m not entirely sure if I like it.

Nevertheless, I want to compare and contrast two Biblical characters who were called to sacrifice their treasures to the Lord, and see how I can learn from them.

The first is Abraham. In Genesis 22, God calls Abraham to sacrifice his most beloved treasure: his son. His miracle baby. The one he loves immensely. We know the end of this story, so we don’t think it’s so bad anymore. Abraham takes his son up the mountain, makes an alter, and then God stops him at the last minute. It was only a test, and Abraham passed. Yay for Abes.

The second is Hannah. In 1 Samuel 1 & 2, we read that Hannah makes a vow to the Lord: “if you give your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.” This doesn’t seem so bad in comparison, right? Yes, her son was also a miracle baby, and yes, she too had to give him up, but at least she wasn’t expected to kill him, right?

However, when it comes to our own seasons of sacrifice, we prefer to superimpose the story of Abraham over our lives, and ignore Hannah’s. Why? Because, although death is more severe than service to the Lord, Abraham didn’t actually have to go through with it. We’re quite happy to march our own sacrifices up the mountain when it’s based on the presumption that God will stop us at the last minute.

But what if he doesn’t stop you?

What about the times when we are called to be more like Hannah, and actually give up what we hold dear, permanently? Sometimes God gives us gifts and then asks us to give the gifts back to him. We don’t like it. We don’t understand it. But trust me, I’ve learnt the hard way, it’s better to just do it.

I am also reminded that Hannah didn’t drag her feet on her way to give up her darling boy. When she released Samuel back to the Lord, she did it with thanksgiving and praise. Remember, this would have been the hardest thing she had ever done in her life. Can you imagine that day? Saying goodbye? She would have travelled uphill, by foot, without her husband, with a bull, 22 litres of flour, some wine, and a young toddler. That in itself would have been a tough journey. Now add on the emotional baggage of saying goodbye and one suddenly realises what a tough woman Hannah really was. Then she sang a song of Praise.

How does one fulfil a vow like that and still bless the Lord?

Arguably, God makes us go through these seasons for our own benefit, and we usually end up better off in the long run (Hannah ended up having tonnes more kids, for example), but it’s hard to see this during that moment of sacrifice.

Will I forever remind him of what I did, when in actual fact I hardly had a choice in the matter? Will I become self-righteous and entitled? Will I presume that because I gave something back to the Lord, he is therefore obligated to give me something better in return? Will I pretend that I out-gave God?

Will I forget that he sacrificed his most beloved treasure – his one and only son – for me?