Challenges to evangelical Christianity from biology

Here are some research areas or findings from modern biology, or at least statements widely believed, that challenge claims associated with evangelical Christian theology.

They need a serious response. I don’t give that here, I just list them as forcefully as I can with minimal research. I hope a few will find this interesting, and even see why further research on related things could be a worthwhile use of my time. Let me know what you think 🙂 I don’t have all of the answers. Most people don’t need to think much about most of these things, but I hope you’ll agree that some people do need to think about each of them, if we are to make sense of the world.

1) Adam & Eve, as progenitors of the human race, didn’t exist.

2) Intersex people show that Christian sexual norms, based on a sexual dichotomy, are unworkable. Conservative Christians passionately denounce reassignment surgery for transgender people but it seems quietly support it for intersex people.

3) Cognitive science of religion shows that religion is a natural rather than supernatural phenomenon and destroys the ‘common consent’ argument for belief in God.

4) Studying patients with temporal lobe epilepsy and related conditions which are sometimes interpreted by subjects in religious ways, undermines the supposedly ‘spiritual’ nature of many religious experiences.

5) A large proportion of human pregnancies end prematurely in spontaneous abortion. What happened to the sanctity of life?

6) There was no global flood c. 5000 years ago. Bonus: The numbers given for Israelites exiting Egypt at the time of the Exodus seem impossible and do not receive archaeological support.

7) There is no clinical evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

8) The popularity of IVF in Christian circles, given standard practices in the field, raises grave ethical challenges. Are conservative Christians anything near consistent in this area?

9) Death, disease, decay, and weeds precede the origin of humans.

10) Animals feel pain, adding to the problem of suffering. Yet, it is said that God cares about animals.

Have I missed anything?

Human_Embryo_-_Approximately_8_weeks_estimated_gestational_age

Note that I don’t see any of these as particularly serious objections to trusting in Jesus, some of them are probably empirically false, and you’d struggle to move from any of them to the claim that naturalism is probably true. I’m not saying that science shows that God doesn’t exist or that the gospel is false – I am saying I understand why many scientists, psychologists, medics etc. struggle to take Christianity seriously, particularly in some of its evangelical forms. Many arguments used by atheists are dumb, but some get close to real questions about what it means to be human in this world.

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but this

““Let it be counted folly, or phrensy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom, and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man hath sinned, and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.” Richard Hooker

The ethical failure of voluntary euthanasia

The medical practices of voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia are increasingly common around the world. Are they beneficent? The discussion raises some issues that go to the heart of what is right and wrong. This is no abstract discussion of ethereal theory, but has real implications for how many are treated and viewed in society, particularly the elderly and disabled. As someone who is neither ethicist nor medical professional I offer some disconnected reflections, and welcome any comments, particularly corrections on points of fact or counter-examples to arguments I offer. If I find the time and motivation, I’ll write in future posts on various reasons to oppose euthanasia in principle and in practice (principles aside), the action-omission distinction and the importance of intentions, as well as the significance of the idea that administering morphine can hasten death through decreasing breathing – tied in with discussion of so-called ‘passive euthanasia’.

I write this post largely in response to ideas in the first chapter of “Medical Ethics – a very short introduction”, which argues for voluntary euthanasia. The author’s name, a tad ironically, is Tony Hope, a professor at Oxford. The term ‘euthanasia’ literally means something like ‘good (or true) death’. It’s a noble name for what I believe is an ignoble practice. Here I only discuss voluntary euthanasia, which I take to mean physician assisted suicide chosen by a patient deemed competent to choose.

Whenever we approach an ethical question which is contentious in the public square, I think it helps to recognise that one’s ultimate goals determine what one believes to be good. I take it that (though I’m open to hearing disagreement!) when we describe an action as ‘good’ we tend to implicitly be saying that it is ‘good for achieving an end proper for human actions’ i.e. good for something that ultimately matters. What ultimately matters? Is there even anything that matters in such a way that it creates obligations, so that we can legitimately move from merely ‘that’s good for X’ to ‘that’s good’? As a Christian my view of the good is (at least in theory) shaped by Jesus Christ. There is work to do in spelling out how it is that the end of Jesus Christ pulls us into certain actions and away from others, but for now it’s enough just to gesture in the direction of what I think the source of value, rights and duties is.

One way in which this applies in the case of euthanasia is in different answers that may be given to the question of how to balance suffering with whatever is the source of the value of life; i.e. how much suffering a life can have before it becomes better not to be lived. It is common to try to balance suffering with pleasure, and (as I understand it) many believe that when the experience of suffering in one’s life exceeds the experience of pleasure (and perhaps, can be expected to continue in this way into the foreseeable future), such a life is no longer worth living. Quite how to compare suffering and pleasure is an interesting question, as to me they don’t seem to be equal and opposite things, but let’s say that intuitions are enough here – the picture may be compelling in our society, but is it true? The Christian story gives meaning to suffering, in various ways. Centrally, the suffering of Jesus was redemptive – if we will but accept it, it buys us from our slavery to sin; and whether we like it or not it buys the whole broken world from its slavery to corruption and decay. Our own sufferings play a part in God’s plan for the world; they are not mere ‘anti-pleasure’ draining our account to an eventual zero point where our life becomes literally worthless. If God really is revealed in the life, sufferings, death and glorification of Jesus, then – I suggest – there is no-one who can be said to be ‘bankrupt’ from over-suffering. To mix my metaphors, Jesus has paid that debt in full – he’s suffered enough to show that suffering need not be pointless. You may of course say that you don’t buy the worldview I present here – fine, but do read on. Consideration of difficult ethical issues is sometimes thought to be detrimental to Christian faith, but I think the opposite is true.

Similarly, euthanasia may be said to be in the ‘best interests’ of a particular patient. When discussing voluntary euthanasia, it is assumed that a mentally competent patient is the one best-qualified to judge their own best interests. In our society, of course, this emphasis on personal autonomy over one’s values is virtually a core article of faith – to deny it is calumnious heterodoxy – thought to be wrong and offensive and probably dangerous. Nevertheless, I want to note that the idea of someone’s ‘best interest’ is not a religiously neutral concept. To assert that is in someone’s best interests to die and that a doctor can act on this assumes controversial claims about the nature of the human person that need to be defended against the traditional Christian view that the intentional taking of human life is not the prerogative of medical professionals.

Professor Hope states that “the reason why killing is a great wrong is because dying is a great harm”, and then goes on to argue that for some people, losing their life is benefit rather than harm. I’m inclined to dispute both claims, the first in particular. There are other accounts for why killing is wrong. One I offer for consideration is that as other persons and ourselves are both God’s handiwork, intentionally ending the personhood (life) of another is an action lying well above our paygrade. It would be beyond merely impolite to walk into an artist’s exhibition with a match and kerosene and cause it to burn to the ground. We might tend to think though, in contrast, that we are each responsible for the canvas of our own lives, and so naturally have the right to end it all when frustrated by a cruel world by covering it all in black paint. If someone says that they want to die, what right do those with religious scruples have to block this? But how plausible is it really that we are the authors of our own lives? I am responsible for much, but I was surely not responsible for my own creation. Perhaps my parents are the authors then; and yet my biological parents can take little responsibility for what happened much beyond my creation. My schools, churches, clubs, friends, environment must have all played a part. Either God has complete authority over my life or no-one does – to say that I do needs at best more development – and seems like it is mere arrogant nonsense. I offer a whimsical illustration: let’s say I own a furby (or perhaps a parrot) and I’m quite fond of it. Someone, for whatever reason, teaches it to say “my life sucks – kill me, crush me, end my existence, human!!!” It would be wrong of you to act on the advice of the furby, because whatever it is saying, I still love it (hypothetically speaking) and deserve the final say.

On the picture of the world where killing is wrong solely because the dead person has missed out on the experience of some good things in their hypothetical future life it seems like a burglar who killed an 86 year old grandmother in her sleep a few hours before she would have (coincidentally) died anyway has committed a far lesser wrong than one who kills a healthy infant. Egalitarianism has no hope on such a view. On the Christian view which holds all persons to have equal value before God, each act of murder is a great wrong.

The idea that harms such as pain and discomfort can be weighed against enjoyment in life, and that decisions about who should be intentionally killed can be made on this basis seems deeply confused to me. If the value of one’s life really could be measured in experiential terms of pleasure versus pain, then a socialite (a la Paris Hilton – or someone who is actually happy – perhaps, say, a self-satisfied but greedy financier living an upper-middle class life somewhere) would have lived a more valuable life than one who died in discomfort in service of the poor and oppressed. This cannot be true.

Those who care about social justice should oppose voluntary euthanasia. More thoughts on this on a future occasion perhaps.

youthinasia

How can I care about global warming when millions of people are going to hell?

Christian faith increases, rather than decreases, the moral urgency of anthropogenic global warming and other pressing issues of the day. We tend to either minimise the importance of global warming or minimise the importance of hell. Correspondingly, some of you will be surprised that I believe in and care about the reality of global warming, and others that I believe in and care about the reality of hell. Others will smile knowingly at me once again displaying the cognitive dissonance required to be an educated Christian. I see your smile and raise you the fact of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – read on, and ask your questions. Also, please read this as if it were some initial thoughts written to explore a topic I know people around me are also thinking about rather than an attempt to speak definitively.

I use ‘global warming’ as a cipher for the generally stuffed-up nature of the world. Global warming itself has occupied very little of my thought life; I’m happy to justify this another time. Most of what I say is equally applicable to sickness, poverty, evil and catastrophe of various kinds. When I say that the world is stuffed up, I’m unlikely to receive too much pushback. Just read the newspaper headlines (I’m not saying things are worse than they used to be; in some respects they are, in some they aren’t). Here are some headlines, appropriately, from ‘stuff’ a couple of days ago:

national headlines

What will receive more push-back is the claim that religion has something positive to offer this dire situation, rather than merely making it worse or perhaps providing subjective (but ultimately false) comfort; the opium of the people. Of course, religion can be engaged in as an escapist attempt to evade reality. So, is religion thereby escapist? I’m sure it can be, and we should be willing to label it as such when it heads in that direction. But, faith in Jesus, properly understood, is not escapist. He came into this world to redeem it. The first syllable of the Incarnation is important. In light of this thesis, I hope to persuade you of the urgency of ethics in this world, and from there of the spiritual implications of such moral urgency.

Anthropogenic global warming is a reality – human activity is making the world significantly warmer, on average, than it would otherwise be. I’m not entirely certain about this claim, but I am convinced enough to say it. Some of my conservative friends will scoff at this, but your assessment of the evidence is almost certainly piece-meal. The evidence is strong – http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
John Houghton was the lead editor of the first three intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) reports, and is an evangelical Christian. He has said “The impacts of global warming are such that I have no hesitation in describing it as a “weapon of mass destruction.” Like terrorism, this weapon knows no boundaries. It can strike anywhere, in any form …”
Of course, in saying this, I don’t advocate everything said in the name of ‘environmentalism’, and I am particularly skeptical of the dehumanising tendencies of some aspects of that movement (did I mention that this post will win few friends?) Nevertheless, climate change is a problem that it looks like we as a world are going to have to deal with – one problem among many!

But how can I do anything beyond the work of the gospel with an easy conscience when hundreds of people are perishing? ‘You can talk about global warming all you like, but the fires of hell are warmer …’ If I actually believe this, how can I be anything other than insane or depressed to the point of utter incapacity? How can I watch a movie, read for leisure, or chat idly on Facebook? Futile activities are simply “shell-gazing!”, according to one of our favourite little flat jokes. For context, this comes from a confronting story told by John Piper, which I paraphrase. “I read of the death of two Christian ladies in a car accident; they had driven over a cliff on a back-road somewhere in Africa. They were missionaries, who had spent the later part of their lives in service of Jesus. Was this a tragedy? No! I’ll tell you what’s a tragedy. Another two people I read of, who had sold their house and bought a boat, in order to spend their lives sailing the Caribbean and doing pretty much nothing except playing golf and amassing an impressive collection of … seashells. What will they say when they meet Jesus and he asks for an account of their life? ‘I gave you 85 years, and a lot of money. Now, what did you do with them?’ ‘Look Lord, here’s my shell collection. Look at the delicate hues of this pink conch :)’ Now, that is a pathetic tragedy.”  [edit: I actually stuffed this up, combining two separate references together, it turns out – but the overall point is close enough. Sorry John Piper for the misrepresentation]

To live for God, even to give up so much of what the world calls valuable, is no tragedy. But what does it mean to live for God? Churches in New Zealand, it seems, often lean towards either focussing on a predominantly ‘social’ gospel of freedom from economic or environmental oppression, or a predominantly ‘spiritual’ gospel of freedom from the influence of the world. But these categories assume that interest in the afterlife doesn’t really connect with economic structures or environmental challenges, and that spiritual concerns shift us away from earthly troubles. In contrast to this though, the Trinitarian God of the Christian faith is surely both social and spiritual, and presumably Christian faith should be too. Similarly, I see some churches focussing their passion and energy on the experience of community, and others on the ideas or doctrine that are taught. I think the proper reconciliation of the two is found in the fact that the Gospel is centrally a message of reconciliation – firstly a vertical reconciliation between those who trust in Jesus and God, and secondly horizontal reconciliation between people. The image of the two beams of the cross might be helpful here. As such, it is proper to focus on teaching; Christian spirituality is not a buffet or pick-n-mix bag and there is a real hierarchy. But such teaching should be angled towards application which involves reconciliation between people and the growth of communities in response to the message. The gospel is a message that saves and sanctifies communities of sinners. A proper understanding of the gospel message results in social fruit. To merely preach the fruit (social implications in various forms, whether politically ‘Left’ or ‘Right’) is to put the cart before the horse and diminish the power of the gospel, but to preach Jesus without urging the proper response is to preach the wrong Jesus.

CS Lewis said in Mere Christianity:
“A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

Now, I write a quick note on hell. Hell is eternal punishment and separation from the goodness of the one true God. It is a fate awaiting all who do not trust in Jesus. There are hard cases (“but what about …?!”), and from what I know of Scripture I cannot speak too confidently on those, but I can be fairly confident that none reading this blog fall into them. Quite what is meant by eternal punishment is a question worthy of debate, and I take evangelical conditional conditional immortality seriously as a reasonable exposition of what Scripture teaches (more on this in a later blog post). The more you know about the truth, the higher the stakes (Luke 12: 35-48). Christians should talk more about hell, and talk extremely carefully about it when they do. I’ve failed to follow both of those pieces of advice.  I could write a long spiel on this, but it probably wouldn’t help, so if you want more information, then ask your questions and look for the forthcoming post. Perhaps the main themes running through the doctrine of hell are God’s holiness and God’s justice. On the latter, this portion of a quote from Miroslav Volf’s “Exclusion and Embrace” (I haven’t read the book) is helpful: “the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword.” Trust in a God who is just gives room for rational non-violence in the face of evil. Without ultimate justice, I suspect there is no such thing as a rational moral obligation; only if justice is real will our self-interest fully coincide with what is good to do. Further, without this just God, there is no such thing as justice at all – without a benevolent creator who cares about humans, there is no source of goodness. Atheists can be good, but if they’re right about the world, they’re just blobs of protoplasm performing actions that some other blobs at the current point in time respond to in a way that the blobs like to call “positive”. For more on this point, some excellent essays are available here: http://moralapologetics.com/

And yet, the cross of Jesus undermines a purely rationalistic concept of God, that might tend to see Him as the heavenly bean counter, impersonally totalling up ethical beans. The existence of God guarantees the existence of perfect justice, but the loving action of God creates a way for us to avoid the face-value requirements of this justice. For more on this, see John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ”. In case this is all merely abstract and fails to pull on our emotions, hell is one of the things that can push us to take moral and spiritual things seriously. I think we can only bear the crushing weight of belief in hell if we trust that God is good and in charge of everything. This belief in God’s ‘sovereignty’ also allows us to take the full counsel of God seriously; and this includes many ethical issues regarding how we are to live in the world. The same doctrine undergirding the righteousness of God’s judgement undergirds the comprehensiveness of our ethical obligations. Maybe. It’s a big call, so I say it tentatively. We ought not be consequentialists, to pretend to be able to calculate the optimal use of our time and resources. We should try to maximise results, but only in line with the prescripts of God. This frees us up, I think, to live fully fleshed-out human lives. All work we do is done with creatures of immense worth, with dignity and conscience, and it is right that this should impact how we live – the fact that our neighbours have an eternal destiny only magnifies this requirement.

The gospel mandate (Great Commission – Matthew 28) doesn’t obliterate ethics or the creational mandate in Genesis to fill the earth and subdue it, but it surely does influence how we see it and what takes priority in our lives. The question of how to see the link between creation/culture and church, or the social and the spiritual is perhaps the defining question for the evangelical church in NZ over the next few years, which will determine whether we take the route of accommodationism or politicism (a purely politicised message), insularism or evacuationism, or messy engagement. The Church must seek for faithful engagement with the world, with all the challenges that brings.

Christians must take the moral realities of the big issues of our day seriously. Amongst many other things, anthropogenic climate change, ignorance of the rights of indigenous peoples, child poverty, poor stewardship of natural resources, exclusion or abuse on the basis of gender or sexuality, and the disgusting militarism of the West should offend and upset us, for they are genuinely moral issues. Yet, against the cries of the moral Zeitgeist of the West, so must the moral evils of euthanasia, pride and selfishness, abortion, sexual promiscuity, pornography, consumerism, and idolatry in its multifaceted forms, again just to name a few. While the sages say: “everything in moderation”, Jesus says to cut out all sin as if it were a gangrenous infection. As a Christian, my master is Jesus Christ, not the political geniuses of either Left or Right; neither State nor Market, nor Country nor Family, trumps my duties to Him. As a Christian, I must be morally concerned about so much, but I am freed from moralism, if I will see God’s judgement and God’s goodness on the cross.

Thanks to those with whom I’ve talked about these things. I’d like to name you, but some of you might rather not be associated with me. The errors herein are of course my own. Let me know what they are!

the price of rain

– a Christmas stream of consciousness

When Santa gave his deer free rein
They started living in the fast lane
Cussing and chasing girl reindeer
Fighting grizzlies and drinking beers

They made it to Germany, cruising  the Autobahn
But their horsepower wasn’t up to a Mercedes
It was messy, basically slaughter, man
And now Blitzen is chillin in the deep freeze

The fast lane has been cordoned,
Rudolph’s nose is a crimson hors d’oeuvre
For reindeer, in the end free rein was lame
But for us, autonomy is utmost aim

It’s all about choice and freedom and me
Why? It just is and that’s that, obviously.

What does Jesus have to do with this mythical mess?
Maybe it’s not just drunk reindeer who live like Vikings
It’s something bound up in us all, is what this guy says;
A life of self-love is what most fits our likings

Having turned our backs on our best friend
He responds by pouring the perfect storm of grace
New life begins because we made his life end
While we attacked, he was paying for our place

The key question that Christmas can raise
Is whether the gift is as good as He says
Through all the confusion of life’s twisted maze
Who’ll sit and reign over the remaining days?

candid musings on co-option, the sark-chasm, and adoption

Co-option is a remarkable phenomenon in evolution that one of my current writing projects touches on tangentially. Co-option is where a biological structure is re-purposed. Originally selected for function A, it acquires function B and is retained for this reason. I think it is rampant throughout life history and looks suspiciously like some things that happen in the history of human-made artefacts. Earlier this year I bought a fairly fascinating book called “the evolution of useful things” that talks about technological evolution, and I think there are some profound similarities here perhaps worth exploring by biologists, if any are suitably brave and/or clinically insane. I quite like the idea of fore-ordained repurposing, as heretical as it is within the narrow church of Naturalism.

Speaking of purpose, one of my short-term purposes in life is to not fall in to the sark-chasm. It can be interesting to camp out nearby and quizzically observe the bubbling morass as a hobby, but falling in would be dumb. As such, I’m an advocate of the little-known but soon-to-be-famous worldview of ‘Christian cynicism’. It’s certainly not to be confused with the ‘Christian hedonism’ of John Piper, which I find a little hard to comprehend; and nor is it to be confused with the embittered everyday cynicism of the educated man-on-the-street. Christian cynicism is about walking the tightrope over the sark-chasm without floating off into the candyfloss cloud castles of ‘spiritual’ naivity. “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” – Jesus. On the negative side, the world is broken and full of self-serving people who might smile at you if it makes them feel good. I think only the Christian world view can let you fully accept this without falling into the chasm of sark or despair. (Sark is British slang for sarcasm. It’s also a small island near Britain with an interesting history of governance, worth looking up). On the plus side, there is such a thing as redemption. The death of Jesus is paradoxically the death of death; perhaps it could even be said that pessimism perished on that tree – and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead allows for the repurposing of many broken things.

snake_dove-214x300

According to JI Packer, “Our understanding of Christianity cannot be better than our grasp of adoption.” It’s a fascinating claim. Adoption exhibits some similarities to co-option if you’re good at squinting. In a spiritual sense, because of Jesus you can have the ugly background of your ‘spiritual inheritance’ re-purposed. Yes, you, dear confused reader. One of my favourite parts in the Bible, that I’ve read many many times, is the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. In vss 5 & 6, he (the extremely religious Jewish scholar turned Christian preacher) writes concerning God: “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace  …” God chose to create a new family out of many broken rebellious people. This weekend I mark 20 years of having been adopted in a more mundane sense; this is probably a surprise to you and maybe it’s odd to just slip it in here; life is an odd and surprising thing. On a couple of occasions, ignorant people have informed me that adoption simply doesn’t work. It’s amazing what people suddenly become experts on when they get talking. When born as a chubby little human being in Waitakere Hospital, the predictions for life outcomes would have been below average, given circumstances. By the grace of God operating in very ordinary ways through ordinary people who cared, things turned out better. A pretentious example was the highlight of this year for me thus far, where at various points in my travels in July I talked for some hours with academics from Harvard, Cambridge, McGill, etc, and on the basis of my ideas, my earnestness, and the quaint novelty of my accent, I was treated as if I were an equal or an authority and made some genuine friends as well. It was rather surreal. I am grateful to God for opening so many doors throughout my life, in many crazy ways, and I’m intrigued to find out where it’s leading. It’s not all sunshine and butterflies – which is probably for the best, actually – and the hope of eternity to come is not bad either.

There has been a lot to digest here, probably more than you anticipated when you procrasti-clicked to this blog post. I hope you have an awesome week. If you’d like to talk about anything here (with the exception of my life story) I’d love to hear your thoughts.

God is Good. The moral vision of the Bible – part 1

“Summoning the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If Anyone wants to be my follower, He might feed Himself a Big Mac, take up His Macbook Pro, and follow me on the rare occasions when He feels like something is lacking in His life” Mac 8:34

“Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” Mark 8:34

I could perhaps preach a sermon on the differences between these two ‘gospels’ – but I’ll leave you to think about the differences and move on to a related subject.

To think about the goodness of God as revealed in Jesus is task enough for a lifetime, and many repeats thereof – it is in fact enough for eternity. Of course, many people believe that in saying this I have bought into one of the craziest delusions ever spouted on the face of this insignificant speck we call planet Earth. If you believe that and have the guts to tell Christians, I applaud your honesty. I recognise the value in considering this particular doubt, but believe that it is misdirected. The claims of Christianity are authenticated by history. Teasing that claim out is a topic for another time. I have debated and discussed it, interacting with various skeptics and Christian thinkers, and my confidence in the historicity of the core of the Biblical claims has been strengthened. Now I just want to give some hints of what makes me personally overawed at the moral excellence of God who is written about in the Bible. If you’d like to hear more, let me know – maybe someone will even fund me to write on it one day. 🙂

The moral wisdom of Jesus is very different to most claims fighting for our attention. Scandalously different. There are many claims that I believe Jesus would endorse that are part of the general moral consensus in our society (some listed below) – but the big picture undergirding these claims is radically different.

– care of the Earth and other creatures
– the rights of women and minorities to respect
– care for the poor
– peace rather than war is to be preferred
– people are more important than mere things
– money should not be the sole arbiter of life decisions
etcetera …

All nice enough. But, how to make sense of these claims? I begin to explore this general area by investigating how Jesus tells us we should live in this imperfect world. I hope to argue (incompletely here) that making sense of moral claims of the kind listed above requires re-envisaging the world so that the focus shifts away from many of our own moral expectations and that Jesus shows us the only fruitful way that this shift is possible.

Jesus did not, of course, say that we should follow him with expensive computing devices in our backpacks. But rather that we should in some sense follow him whilst dragging along a cross. A cross, here, is not something shiny dangling on a chain around the neck of someone who can afford gold ornamentation, an inexplicable symbol of vaguely cool; but an instrument of torture. The kind of thing that a human will die painfully on, subjugated by people more powerful than them and reduced to the social level of something worse than dog crap to make a fairly strong public point. Jesus says to follow him in his suffering, and does so in a very concrete and perhaps chilling kind of way. For him to take his cross was to assist in moving the very instrument that would kill him. Indeed, to willingly drag one’s cross through the city was like handing out flyers for the public event where you know you will be humiliated in the worst possible way you could imagine. “It’s an all day spectacle where I will suffocate to death, do come along – there might be popcorn provided by the Roman army! But probably not because the stench of death will soon be in the air.” To hang upon a cross was to face public scorn and physical pain. Further, to hang naked, for a Jewish man living at this time, was to be entirely stripped of dignity.

Dignity level: Zero.

The degradation of Jesus touched on many areas tied up in human wellbeing and pride including (1) physical health, (2) public status, (3) religious identity, (4) relationships and (5) sexuality. Each of us is broken and incomplete in various ways, and I’m convinced that Jesus can plausibly identify with us, across the diversity of human experiences. He was severely beaten up by the Roman army (1), abused in public on various occasions with no-one defending him (2), dismissed by the religious authorities (3), betrayed by his closest friends (4) and left completely naked, nailed to a pole, and left to die (5). Each of these and perhaps others could profitably be expanded on; maybe a topic for the future. I’m told that many people left viewings of the film ‘the Passion of the Christ’ visibly shaking. I remember hearing someone who was not a Christian report this, clearly intrigued. While some of the violence in that portrayal was perhaps gratuitous, the events portrayed truly were deeply harrowing. Imagine, if you will, a nightmarish combination of holocaust victims being forced to dig their own graves and schoolyard bullying in front of a large crowd of peers which involves the active, gleeful, participation of the principal and staff and near-complete abandonment by previously close friends. Many good things are reversed or parodied in the spectacle of the cross – one interesting one that comes to mind is multiculturalism – unity amidst cultural diversity (e.g. Galatians 3:28). Two clashing cultures combined (good!) in the crucifixion of the trouble-maker claiming to be King Jesus, to insult, hurt, insult more, hurt more, and finally kill a common enemy – who just happened to be the creator of the universe (not so good). Many people hold a vague suspicion that the God of the Bible is misogynistic and xenophobic, i.e. anti-women and racist. I believe that Jesus strongly urges that this is not the case.

God is love, and love personified is Jesus Christ. But the way that God shows His love is unexpected – as we might expect if God is really God and really good and we are his fallible rebellious creatures living in a broken world. We may like to think (and I suspect many of my Christian friends think this way too) that the main way we can know that God loves us is through personally experiencing sensations or experiences that we associate with love. Maybe we sometimes feel happy when singing in a God-related context, for instance. I can see why many atheists and nonbelievers, when faced with the ugliness and challenges of real life, would find this idea of love sickening. But God’s love is far stronger than any claimed emotional correlation we may experience. It is shown most not in our own little experiences of occasionally feeling loved, but in Jesus’ large climactic experience of rejection by the world and separation from God the Father. The death of death is achieved by the death of Christ not just because He was a willing sacrifice a bit like a goat but somehow better because human but rather because in Him the Trinitarian God personally takes on evil, swaps our lives of pain for One of peace, and feels the burn so we do not have to.

The goodness of God, His trustworthiness in the moral arena, is seen first and foremost in the extent to which divinity – God who is in eternal loving community – was willing to go to achieve reconciliation with those who showed nothing but enmity. Us.

Imagine for a moment that what follows is coherent: to counter-act or reverse the black hole of our sin, our opposition to God expressed but not exhausted by many little actions of rebellion, God does not desire that we somehow pile up a few good works. A few prayers said facing the right direction, a few cups of soup to the hungry, a few more trees planted following a carbon-intensive OE, a quick txt saying ‘sry’ (possibly with an emoticon :/); none of these are much of an antidote to willful continued rejection of this universe’s owner, director, and judge. Imagine crashing into a lamborghini, destroying one side of the car, and imagining it would suffice to leave a quickly scribbled note saying “sry m8, but this shld covr it – keep the change!” sellotaped to the wrecked car with a 20c coin. The many religions and philosophies of the world are wrong on this point. Instead God the Son takes the hit Himself, absorbing the just consequences of evil with a final death.
This spiel above: firstly is likely to raise many questions for you, and secondly needs much development. The questions may range from whether ‘crap’ is a swear-word that shouldn’t appear in a theological blogpost to what ‘trinitarian’ actually means to the sense in which Jesus’ death could possibly be described as final or conclusive. I look forward to hearing them and perhaps continuing the discussion with a Part 2.

References:
I think quite a bit of this material has been influenced by Tim Keller, perhaps his book “Center Church”, or else sermons of his. Of course, where I go wide astray, I am probably solely to blame.

I’m clearly just jealous that I don’t have a Macbook Air Mega Thinner than Paper Next Edition Pro and am resorting to theology to justify this.