Reflecting on the Google blow up

The reality is that it is a powerful means to political power to tell those who fail in an endeavour that it’s not because they lack talent, but it’s because they are being disadvantaged by ‘the system’. Absolom builds his rebellion against King David in the bible on exactly that basis. Because there clearly HAS been irrational discrimination against certain groups, there has come a shift in our modern society to assume that all occasions where the outcome is not reflective of proportions in wider society are as a result of such discrimination. It then becomes possible to build a political career on arguing that the historically dominant are now being subject to the same sorts of discrimination…

Add in ideologically driven beliefs held with religious levels of intensity that there are no real differences between certain groups, mix in some uncertain science, and you have the recipe that leads to the present explosions.

This article in the Economist records the present outcome for entrants to Harvard for different ethnic groups in terms of the SATS score required to get in. Is is really legitimate to discriminate so strongly against Asians?

We are in a mess. We don’t have the knowledge to be certain of what are or are not legitimate outcomes. The massive overrepresentation of men in the prison population, for example, is seldom discussed; on a strict SJW argument, this could be interpreted as evidence of discrimination against men by law enforcement…

Overall, I suspect we need to resist too much certainty, especially if it is shaped by our own experiences. Whatever else we need to do is to be willing to LISTEN to well reasoned arguments; if we merely shout down those whose conclusions challenge our beliefs without engaging with the basis for their arguments, we provide the basis for such beliefs coming back to haunt us when those marginalised by establishment’s deafness win elections. Brexit and Trump are a result of that mistake; we need to do better.


Responding to being called a ‘bigot’.

In the course of a Facebook discussion recently, I was described as a ‘bigot’. This prompted me to work through the use of the term, as well as to address the underlying division on the gay issue that is energising this debate. Much of the problem with the debate is that the participants are often coming from radically different presuppositions, and then clash in a public forum with an exchange of emotionally charged diatribes based on those rather than understanding why their opponent is coming up with something that they find unacceptable. The gay debate is thus a dispute between those who accept the traditional moral formulations of Western Society based on something over 1000 years of Christian influence against those offering an alternative derived from a mixture of utilitarianism, a Romantic over valuation of the role of ‘being in love’ and hedonism. I would tend to argue that the mix is incoherent, resulting in a selfishness worthy of Ayn Rand in its willingness to accept children being sacrificed to the pleasures of adults in both abortion and legitimating divorce amongst other negative features.

However this is not the place to discuss this; my point is well highlighted by this quote from Thomas Aquinas: ‘the theologian considers sin mainly as an offence against God. The moral philosopher as contrary to reasonableness’. As a Christian, I am concerned with the former definition of sin; if it is ‘unreasonable’ to the present culture, that is as likely to be because present culture is wrong as it is because Christianity is wrong.

The gay issue’s resonances in the church have demonstrated the degree to which large chunks of the church are no longer capable of coherent discussion about what they believe. Dairmad MacCulloch’s conclusion that ‘despite much well-intentioned fancy footwork to the contrary, it is difficult to see the Bible as expressing anything else but disapproval of homosexual activity’, reflects my understanding. However as a church historian my view was massively strengthened by the claim at the time of the pro-gay marriage discussions that ‘the Roman Empire had gay marriages’. This seems to be true; the passage in the Codex Theodosius – the codification of the laws of the Empire in the 5th century – seems to indicate that they were banned by a Christian Emperor in the late 4th century. However the implication of this is that gay relationships – as we understand them – WERE known about at the time of the writing of the New Testament, bringing crashing down the claim that they weren’t, and that the homosexual practice that is being condemned in it was only pederastic.

However such an argument is a minor detail compared with the traditional arguments of Christianity in opposing homosexual practice; a full discussion is offered in ‘The Plausibility Problem’ by Ed Shaw, himself a gay Christian seeking to live a celibate life. This identifies no less than nine ‘missteps’ that Christians must make to distort their theology to legitimate homosexual practice. The website Living out website offers the personal experience of Ed and a number of others who hold that position, including at least one who has explicitly rejected long term gay relationships as a result of becoming a Christian. Note of course the repeated emphasis on PRACTICE; the rejection by many ‘Christians’ of it being possible to be gay – i.e. attracted sexually to a person of the same gender – and Christian is an appalling scandal within the church.


After this preparation we can perhaps address the specifics that started this conversation! Of being a bigot, I feel an irregular verb coming on:

I express clear views

You are somewhat controversial in your beliefs

She is a bigot

Ultimately bigot is a boo word – indicating your emotional rejection of a view. It offers nothing useful to a serious debate, and its use should be as unacceptable as the use of racial and homophobic epithets, which ultimately are similar expressions of emotional rejection! (I spent a few moments trying to produce an appropriate, easy, riposte to ‘bigot’. ‘Libertine’ and ‘Hedonist’ are inadequate, and ‘spawn of Satan’ and ‘spiritually blind’, though both were used by Jesus, lack the necessary resonances in our society. I suspect that ‘fool’ is the right answer, as in ‘the fool has said in their heart “There is no god”‘. However I suspect it is as unhelpful to resort to such labelling, so will try and resist its use, as I do that of bigot.)

Homosexuality as disability.

The adoption of the ‘social model of disability’ is based on a relativistic engagement with the world that denies that there are any legitimate norms. This is, of course, a wholesale rejection of the Christian worldview that claims that the world was created good, and that people whose conditions make them less able to participate in the world as it is are the victims of the Fall’s release of illness into the world. Specifically, given that gay people are unable to have children without a medical intervention, they are ill in the same way that a person whose fertility has been destroyed by a physical disease. Defining such misfortunes as not being a ‘disability’ is coherent but is ideologically driven.

However demanding the adoption of this ideology constitutes an imposition of a particular worldview in a way that is wholly inconsistent with living in a liberal society. The increasing deprecation of other world views as unacceptable would appear to be the prelude to the end of freedom of speech as we know it. A Catholic bishop has said: ‘I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.’ That final sentence may sound arrogant – however if we are right in our beliefs then it is the inevitable cognate – or at least should be. Of course if we are wrong, then ‘we are of all people most to be pitied’.

The wider biblical context

As Christians we have a duty to make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ To the extent we fail to resist a direct challenge to God’s view, to that extent we are failing short of true love for the individual who we have deprived of the truth. OTOH to gratuitously confront with the ‘truth’ when there is no real need to do so is throwing pearls to pigs, and. ‘If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces’, a warning we probably need to take more seriously. To the extent there is doubt about where I stand on the issue, it may be appropriate for me to say something. Given that people have heard that the church is divided about it, they know that there are some who are opposed. Identifying myself as one of those MAY put a human face on what is otherwise dismissed as homophobia, or may merely disrupt an otherwise healthy friendship. Ultimately God wants to people to find His grace and come to Him in repentance. In the interim we should be seeking to truly love our non-Christian friends; this may include challenging the lies they live by – or it may, on any particular occasion, not. As ever we need God’s wisdom at the time by His Spirit.

Abraham and the instruction to sacrifice Isaac.

I got asked about this story today on Facebook and after 1000 words fell out of my keyboard on the subject, I thought I would publish them here as well.

Challenging question. Clearly the idea that God today would order such a sacrifice is appalling, and so there’s a big problem here. There’s an interesting passage in Hebrews 11 that refers to this, and for me it helps makes sense of it:

17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

So the point here seems to be that Abraham, having seen God do amazing things with him in the past and knowing that God was going to use Isaac as the means to give him descendants, is confident that God will pick up the pieces – that the sacrifice isn’t going to result in his being deprived of Isaac permanently. It is thus by way of the ultimate test of Abraham’s trust in God: is he prepared to obey what he believes God to be saying however hard that is.

Much of the problem with the religion that we see most of the time is that it not expecting God to turn up. The Catholic tradition has this most blatantly; yes, that wafer IS God. Yes I know you can’t see it, but it is, honest. The Reformation Protestant tradition focuses on the bible: hear it read and you are hearing from God – even when it makes no sense. Modern Pentecostalism – as seen in a wide variety of churches today – presents the ‘worship experience’ as engagement with God; the fact that the experience is remarkably similar to that going on in the average rock concert is an embarrassing detail they’d prefer to ignore.

But just sometimes God does break through all the ‘noise’; whether that’s the smells and bells, preaching or literal noise of worship songs and speaks. That’s when a real encounter with God has happened – and it can be life changing. And of course sometimes we get it wrong; we misheard – it wasn’t God but some powerful personality bullying us into thinking it was.

One of the many challenges of the New Testament is how Jesus AND the disciples in Acts are shown as performing miracles ‘on demand’. They know what is going to happen, and it happens. This story from Acts 3 is an example:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

This appears to be the ideal; hear God, speak it out and God does the work. Most of the stories in the bible are occasions when this works out, though there are hints that at times things do go wrong; following the story of Paul’s return to Jerusalem before he is finally arrested shows ‘prophets’ telling him he’s going to be arrested – and concluding that therefore he should go to Jerusalem. He’s convinced it’s the right thing to do – despite the warnings. Interesting!

So – back to Abraham. He’s heard God promise Isaac will the means of his having descendants – and now he’s told to sacrifice him. One of the frustrations of the story is that we don’t know HOW God told him to do the sacrifice; there’s no description of an angel turning up or anything obvious. Yet Abraham goes ahead and does it – and it works out. At the risk of offering a cop out here, that’s a good test; if someone says ‘I’ve heard X from God’, it’s great practice to see what happens in the medium term. In my own life I was convinced God wanted me to buy the flat next to the one I live in. It was up for sale at the bottom of the post credit crash slump. I really really didn’t want the hassle, but the idea didn’t go away. So I asked God for the price to offer – and offered that and ended up with the flat. It has subsequently proved to be a great investment. Can I ‘prove’ God spoke to me? Of course not. But the outcome suggests that I got it right.

So we have Abraham hearing God tell him to do something outrageous. This isn’t flat buying territory; it’s killing HIS ONLY SON. Yet God has told him that that Isaac will give him grandchildren etc. So he concludes he’s got to do it – AND IT WORKS OUT. So why did God do this? To strengthen Abraham’s faith. And perhaps to provide a story for us for the future. Which is NOT to suggest we should be sacrificing children, but that we can trust God to sort things out in the long term.

I offer that for your consideration. Perhaps it makes sense to you. Perhaps it doesn’t. I tend to be a hardliner on this; if God is the creator of the universe and so the true measure of what is right, then ultimately we have to adjust our attitudes to what He says is right, rather than claim to know better than Him. Or perhaps I’m totally deluded. All I can say is that I’ve seen enough small miracles in my life and am certain enough of the truth of the Resurrection to make the Christian hypothesis about the world the most convincing.

Functional hell, functional heaven and a functional saviour

In our sermon this morning the preacher introduced us to the idea of this concept. The idea is that we have things that are functionally our hell – the thing we most want to avoid, whether presently experienced or merely feared – and functional heaven – being released from that functional hell thing we most want to achieve. We tend therefore to look for a ‘functional saviour’ – someone or something that will save us from our functional hell and grant us access to our functional heaven.

The problem is that if these hells and heavens are the most important things in our lives, then they become the root of idolatry in our lives, and the functional saviour will be what we worship in the sense of being willing to do anything to achieve the freedom from this ‘hell’ and gain entry into ‘heaven’.

True Christianity is about recognising that God offers us salvation on HIS terms, not on the basis of what we want. Thus His priority is to save us from Hell – but that’s not the same as saving us from our functional hell, which may well be the place where He wants us to learn holiness for a time – which may be the rest of our life. This is HARD. We are always inclined to believe the claim of the Enemy that God doesn’t really want the best for us, but is making us suffer for His entertainment. So we need to be very cautious about what our priorities really are, and ask God to work with us to reveal when we are getting it wrong – as we often will.

But this analysis also helps bring other issues into sharper focus. For example the ‘social gospel’: one late 19th century presentation of it expressed it like this: ‘If cleaner streets, better housing and sweeter homes do not come within the scope of our aims, neither will those who are convinced of their right to these things come within the shadow of our places of worship’. Given that at the core of the gospel is the call to forgo all ‘rights’ except to be children of God, then we are not able to affirm their ‘right’ to these things. Yet of course we want to see them happen – but not at the cost of it being the only focus of what the church does, which is where the danger lies. At its most extreme this logic sees Christians endorsing the violent overthrow of regimes that are as nothing compared with the crudities of the Roman Empire, which the bible clearly indicates was to be accepted as ‘ordained by God’. Of course right involvement in politics with a clear set of policies may be what some Christians are called to, and we need to welcome this IF it is God’s call on a person’s life. But we must actively question such a calling because its effect is likely to make it harder for the person’s political opponents to hear the gospel. However if it is, then we should endorse it clearly.

This analysis also helps in understanding the attraction of the prosperity gospel. To the extent this promises God’s help in avoiding many functional hells, be it poverty or ill health, the danger is that the prosperity message is what is attracting the person to the church, not engagement with God for themselves. If that happens then there is a serious problem; a functional saviour is being offered, rather than our Lord Jesus. Of course it may be God’s blessing to heal people’s diseases and provide them with prosperity in order to serve Him, but the commitment to God must come first. And if the message of the evangelist is that these things WILL follow, then he is lying; this side of heaven there are no absolute promises about what we will experience.

But of course we must start by looking for the plank in our own eye: what is your functional hell and heaven.

Pacifism and parenting – a new point in the pacifist debate?

I’ve been engaging with the debate over pacifism recently as a subtext of my studies in Constantine. Much is said on the topic, and the view of the early church seems to be very mixed, with strong defences of pacifism from both Origen and Tertullian, yet there is clear evidence of Christians being present at all levels in the Roman army and government before Constantine. Following his rise to power, pacifism was largely rejected, although a continuing strand discouraged ex-soldiers from being given clerical office. By the middle ages it had become an ideal for some monks, but the crusades and the military orders – Templars, Hospitalers and Teutonic Knights amongst others = demonstrate that on the whole church was reconciled to the use of force.

The Reformation reopened the debate, and the Anabaptist tradition espoused most visibily in recent years by Yoder and subsequently made more popular by the efforts of Hauerwas seeks to justify a strongly pacifist interpretation of the New Testament. This follows quite naturally from some of the comments of Jesus about ‘turning the other cheek’. The problem comes when this is taken to exclude Christians from any coercive role in a state; as Constantine’s defenders point out, are we to tell the office holder in the state to resign if they become a Christian?

The traditional ‘move’ in the ethical debate is to separate the role of the Christian as an individual from what they do as a officer of state. This is criticised by the pacifist tradition in favour of arguing that it is God’s command not to resist evil / take revenge etc, and this is not challenged by the change of hats. It is my contention that this fails to note the role of parents in using force and ensuring justice for their children; if Molly is beating up her little brother Timothy, it is clearly the duty of the parent to address this sin / evil / breach of justice. In doing so the parents are fulfilling a role that they have voluntarily adopted, especially these days. Yet our pacifist co-religionists fail to extend a similar legitimation to Christian officers of the state. Is this coherent?

As ever with pacifist arguments, once the dam is breached, the rest of the case for Christians to enforce the law with force must be admitted; if it is my duty to protect Timothy from Molly as a parent, it is surely equally my duty to protect Timothy from the rampaging criminal. If I can do that as a parent, I can surely do it as a officer of the law. And if I can use force to stop the local criminal, it follows that I can use the police to protect a small island from pirates, or an army to protect a state from invaders.

Justin Peters’ testimony

This is a response to the fascinating document which Justin Peters, an American preacher whose shredding of the ‘Word of Faith’ movement in his ‘Call for Discernment videos is superb. Yet despite this service to the church, he was left with a sense of preaching the faith, but not really believing it himself. For him this led to a time when he responded more to God: ‘I had a guilty conscience to be sure, but did not have a true, gut-wrenching godly sorrow. I had never genuinely wept over my sin until then.’

He uses the bible to justify the claim that this is the ONLY gateway to a true relationship with God, going so far being ‘rebaptised’ after this experience, having first been baptised as a seven year old, when believing in Jesus was on a level with believing in Santa Claus. He extends his exposition to defend the Calvinist position that such repentance is given by God to His elect – so it’s not something to which can aspire, but just happens. That’s a secondary debate that I’m going to park for now.

There is a strong tradition in the Calvinist tradition that we should experience some such ‘gut-wrenching’ sorrow. This is what underlies the Calvinist revival tradition – most clearly seen in Jonathan Edwards’ experience in the early 18th century. Yet it is one that carries over into early Methodism, where a clear awareness of your own sinful state before God is the starting point for conversion. The ‘Evangelical’ movement is usually separated from this earlier Puritan tradition by Evangelicals’ willingness to allow the process of contrition to move to resolution by engaging with the grace of Jesus relatively quickly; the Puritans expected the period of contrition to be measured in days. Yet both remained committed to an expectation of visible contrition, as a result of engaging with God, before the salve of the Cross was to be applied for the individual. Both traditions are thus highly sceptical of the modern emphasis of preaching God’s love first…

The danger at this point is, of course, that it becomes the PREACHER who hangs his listeners over the flames of Hell and frightens them by such stories into signing up to the faith, rather than the process seeing God bring to an awareness of their sins. We can go too far the other way. The book of Acts shows us Peter being unsubtle in his criticism of the Jews on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), though it is notable that his focus is on the visible events of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Stephen similarly does not model gentleness on any understanding we can cope with in his attack on the leaders of the Jews that gets him martyred. (Acts 7).

However I want to pursue is how far a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience of repentance is a necessary precursor to coming to know God. A review of the gospel stories of Jesus’ encounters with people seems to offer little evidence for it. The emphasis there is far more on living out the decision to repent; thus Levi and Nathaniel are called to follow Jesus, and the Samaritan woman is wowed by Jesus’ knowledge of her life so that she tells all her neighbours (John 4). Peter’s reaction to the miraculous catch of fish hints at this sort of reaction (Luke 5), but it is notable in its uniqueness, and it doesn’t make the other gospels. From a historical perspective, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ offers an experience that might or might not be what Peters insists on; he is indeed deeply miserable in his garden when he hears ‘Take and Read’, though it’s hard to assess. Is it ultimately about his struggle with lust, rather than ‘sin’. Similarly CS Lewis’ report of his conversion in ‘Surprised by Joy’ doesn’t have such an episode, nor does GK Chesterton offer any such event. This modern paradigm can perhaps be traced to Luther’s experience of sin and being released from it when he discovers the meaning of Romans, and is seen in ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, but that doesn’t make it normative.

And yet Peters’ focus on the need for genuine repentance is important. The issue however is whether it needs to be expressed by a specific experience, or whether, as with all conversion, the process can be gradual. The central issue is one of true engagement with God leading to a changed life in the medium term; the problem comes when we try to bottle this and do it purely on a human level. We’ve already touched on the ‘scare them into heaven’ approach. There are a number of alternatives. One is the ‘sign up now and all will be well for ever’ – a perversion of the ‘born again’ movement which validly emphasises the need to engage with God – but makes the process so easy that it takes no real commitment, requires no repentance and has no meaning. We have the ‘join the community, enjoy the buzz, have a great time at church’ approach, that at best does lead people to seek more, but at worst legitimates their sinful lifestyles. We have the Catholic solution to the conundrum; as the established church, it needed to offer its religion to all the citizens of the Roman Empire. As a result it came to see baptism as a infant as the entry point to the church and engagement with the sacraments as the way to progress. As ever, at its best, such an approach can lead to true engagement with God, but when combined with a desire to conform without such engagement, can easily lead a formalised religion with no reality.

An interesting feature of this story is Peters’ decision to be ‘rebaptised’. Whatever else happened, that isn’t it; you can only be baptised once, so he is rejecting his baptism at the age of 7 and claiming his new one as his baptism. Note, in passing, the problem for who favour believers baptism in the legitimation of the cycle of feeling that a further baptism is justified because the first one wasn’t real. However I do want to highlight that baptism does point to a specific point of transition in a person’s life, which should be recognised in our theology. Instead we have a tendency to downplay the crisis of conversion, perhaps leaving a legacy of people hanging around in our churches because it’s a comfortable place to be, rather than because they’ve met with God.

So – what conclusion are we to draw? Surely we must accept that God works in a variety of ways to bring His children to new life. An experience that is central to the spiritual life of one person may have no resonance in the life of another – because that’s not God’s priority for them. Of course this can be taken too far; at some point if a person is TOO far from a pattern of experience that resonates with the rest of the Christian community, it becomes necessary to conclude that they haven’t actually engaged with God at all. The complexity comes where the same experience is truly of God in one person – but not for another; Satan has disguised himself as an angel of light, as we are warned (2 Cor 11). It is here that the gift of ‘discerning of Spirits’ becomes required…

Homosexuality as choice – another minefield

It is a commonplace that truth is the first victim of war, and in the culture wars the confusion over the facts about homosexuality is massive. Part of this is for good reasons; there have been times when the treatment of gay people has been appalling, and in reaction to that a delegitimisation of viewpoints that lead to such behaviour is not a surprise. However part of it comes from a desire to avoid hard questions that the full truth would otherwise force gay activists to engage with.

There is a widespread, though seldom articulated belief that gay people CHOOSE to be gay, and are therefore morally culpable for their situation. This is, almost entirely, untrue, although with some support within the gay community. But for most people it is a reality that comes into focus over time.

But this is where the fighting starts. For many people there is a phase of homosexual attraction and practice in their early years, yet many go on from that to heterosexual relationships. The most obvious example of this is the traditional pattern of the boarding schools of Britain, where such behaviour appears – from the hints of contemporary writers – to have been endemic. Were such practitioners gay, or merely self indulgent? Similar observations swirl about many single sex institutions…

The most extreme – and coherent – definition of homosexual focuses on a total inability to be sexually aroused by a person of the opposite sex. Yet that is not the one endorsed, at least by their attitudes, by most gay activists today. Instead the likes of Oscar Wilde and Gene Robinson are seen as exemplars, despite their both having children with the women they married before deciding they were gay.

A fascinating example is that of Tom Robinson. In 1978 he released the track Sing if you’re glad to be gay that speaks powerfully of the experience of alienation and persecution suffered by the gay community in those days. Yet in the early 80s he fell for a woman, whom he subsequently had children with and married.

So where does this all go? Sexuality is clearly fluid. Given the total confusion in the psychiatric profession about the causes and treatment of mental distress, it is irrational to suggest that we know anything about the causes or cures of homosexuality. As a result of the pillorying of those who defend the treatment of gay people is to adopt a politically driven certainty in an area where no certainty is justified. YET THEY HAVE A POINT. There was a time when barbaric practitioners used aversion therapy in an attempt to change people’s orientation; that was wholly illegitimate, and should be strongly condemned. However the dismissal of all modern, very different, therapy on the basis of the mistakes of the past, is more driven by a desire to legitimate homosexuality as normal than rational response to the evidence. This is part of the wider alteration of the mood music, which led to the psychiatric profession deleting homosexuality as a disease – because it was politically expedient to do so – resulting in the gay community claiming that this was objective evidence that it isn’t a disease. Good game…


More honesty is required on all sides. Christians need to be clear that homosexuality is a particular expression of sexuality that, if not actively expressed, is no more sinful than any other. We need to tell young people who are questioning that for many it IS a phase that they will go through – and come out of. And we need to defend the legitimacy of people investigating the possibility of change with the support of a counsellor, rather than accept that in this one area the psychiatric profession is right. But let love for the struggling sinner – from us struggling sinners – should be the first message heard.