Tuesday, 22 April 2014

David Camerons new-found faith

David Cameron has been, of late, making some interesting comments trying to align himself with Christianity, expressing his support of Christianity. While I am sure that some people will jump on this as a clear sign of a) Their prayers working and/or b) their personal politics being now acceptable as a Christian, I am rather more cynical.

I should point out that I would be as cynical were it any other party leader or senior politician, and would apply the same critical judgement against them. I should also make it clear that any criticism is of Cameron as the PM, not him as an individual. At the end of the day, I do not know Mr Cameron, and cannot say anything about his personal devotion or beliefs. All I can comment on is his public statements and his public profile.

For many years, politicians have been critical of bishops and other clergy who stray into the political arena, arguing that they should stay out of politics. The usual rebuff to this is that a proper understanding of Jesus teaching means that it has to be political - you cannot follow Jesus teaching without being political.

There is something in his latest declarations that seems like him returning the favour - a politician getting involved in religion, and defining the playing field.

That does worry me.

There is something in his statements of "I believe in Christianity, and I believe that this faith tells me that my policies are right". He aligns himself with Christianity, and then redefines what this means to support his beliefs and statements. He is arguing that yes, faith means involvement in politics, but it is his sort of politics that is appropriate.

The other - related - problem I see with this is that what he says about his faith doesn't actually seem to be reflected in his actions. I am quite prepared to accept that his faith may be genuine - as I have said, I don't know. He does seem to be attending church, and doing at least some of the things that might indicate an awakening of faith in him. But his words do not demonstrate that.

The truth is, I have been in churches for many years, and I know that there are lots of people in churches who can say the right things, do the right things, be, to all outward appearances, a good committed church person. But Christian faith is not about church attendance, it is not about the things we say.

It is about what we do.

What I see in the actions of this government, led by David Cameron, is not the demonstration of the Christian faith. Of course what Christian faith in action looks like is a hotly debated question, but there are some significant aspects that echo throughout the bible: caring for the poor, the unfortunate, the disabled, the needy; not treating the wealthy and powerful with deference; honesty and fairness in dealings.

These are not things I see in this government. Whether it is Cameron or someone else, words do not make a Christian. I try to judge people by their actions, by what they do, not what they say. Whether they claim commitment to a particular faith or not, what people do tells me what is real about them.

So come on Cameron, lets see something. Or give up the political wooing of the religious right.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Things you shouldn't say to me.

I am quite happy to discuss pretty much every topic under the sun with you.

If you believe that homosexuality is wrong, I will discuss and debate with you. I think you are mistaken, but I will happily engage in the debate with you.

If you believe that because I no longer attend church, I am therefore no longer a Christian, I will engage in a discussion with you on this matter.

If you believe that because I am a member of the Green Party, I have therefore sold out to New Age ideologies and principles, and so sacrificed any claims to be Christian, I will argue with you.

To be honest, if you believe that we are ruled by lizards in human form, I will discuss and debate this matter with you, although I might have to have a few drinks first.

However, the moment you come up with one phrase, I will disengage. That phrase is "The Bible clearly says", or something similar.

What I say, when I am using biblical teaching to support a discussion is "my understanding of the biblical teaching is that ..." Well, I don't always, because I too am lazy, but this is what I mean.

The problem is that people who argue "The Bible clearly says" is that they usually have no idea what they are saying. Most of the time, they mean that there is a passage in their English translation that supports their idea, whether in context or not. In many cases, they are using an English translation from the 1600s, relying on the available resources of the time.

If you want to know what a particular biblical passage means "clearly" and "definitively" then this is no way to go about it. To understand a passage, you need to read all sorts of translations, work on understanding why different translators have used different words or phrases, what has driven their choice. It might be that new texts and document have come to light that throw new insight into the translation.

And, of course, we have to understand that this is a translation. If we want to know and understand what a passage means, we need to look at it in the original language - generally Greek or Hebrew. If you want to understand the meaning of a passage, you need to return to the small number of original language texts, and work with them, understand the words and phrases used in the original. There are two main Greek texts, that occasionally differ, but these are themselves not definitive. In truth, for the New Testament writings, we need to look around other contemporary texts too, and see if we can get a proper understanding of what the original phrase might have meant to those who originally heard it.

Of course, if you are looking at the Old Testament Hebrew, the problems are multiplied.

So once you have understood the original language text in terms of the appropriate and proper English words, are we done? Not at all. The thing is, no passage sits alone - you need to take the context, you need to understand what the flow of the discussion is. We need, in fact, to go through the same process for the rest of the section of writing. We need to understand the subject that the writer was discussing at the time, the context of the particular passage. We all know, when reading anything - a story, a biography, a scientific paper - that just taking a single phrase out of context does not represent the authors intent. We need, at the least, to read the rest of the section to understand the phrase or passage we have focused on.

Context also means looking at the start and end of the document - where we normally get some larger context. If, for example, we are looking at one of Paul's epistles, we need to look at who he was writing to, how he introduces himself. We also need to look wider at these documents, because many of the New Testament writings are occasional documents - not meaning that they are sometimes not documents, but that there was some occasion that prompted them being written. To understand the writing, we need to appreciate the occasion - the questions that someone was asking Paul, the things he had already said, whether he had visited them, and so might be responding to comments made in person.

So then we are done? Well we might be. Of course, in all of this, the sources we will consult, the decisions that we make about which authorities to prefer, will all reflect our own prejudices and views to an extent. We will tend to read into passages out own interpretations, so we need to reassess what we have done and what the alternatives might also lead us to. We need to acknowledge the other interpretations, and what they might mean, how they might affect our understanding. So we can only really present a "most likely interpretation", with other possibilities.

Then we have come to a consideration of what the passage we started with means.

Of course, this is only part of the story. We cannot understand and interpret one passage and declare that it represents the entire biblical view. No, we need to read far more, work on all sorts of other passages - understand what other biblical writers had to say on the same subject. For the Pauline writings, we need to understand that Paul was steeped in the Old Testament, so we need to read and understand that too. We cannot take individual passages, because they were never written as separate passages. If we want to know what "The Bible" says on something, we need to understand all of it, not just a part.

What we will almost certainly find is that there are apparently contradictory passages or expressions. What this means is that the teaching of the Bible is far more complex than it might appear - different answers apply in different situations, different contexts. We need to understand the big wide context of the Biblical writing to appreciate that simple, straightforward proof-text answers are rarely the full story. It is always rather more fuzzy than that - there are other ideas, other (bigger) topics that can bear some weight too. Whatever your topic of discussion.

So next time you want to argue that "The Bible Clearly Says...." please bear in mind that it doesn't. This is not to dismiss the authority of the Bible. Quite the contrary. That is why I say that "In my opinion, the general tenor of the biblical writing is..." because I might be wrong. The Bible might have more to say to me yet, and other people might see other things in it, other emphases.

The Bible - my holy book - has to be far bigger than me.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Who should I vote for?

I am not, of course, going to answer that question. I should point out that I am a member and supporter of the Green Party. However, this is not a party political post for the Greens. I want to discuss the issues from a wider perspective.

Instead, I want to address some of the issues that I believe should be at the forefront of a Christians mind when looking at and assessing who to vote for. Actually, I will be drawing this from a Christian perspective, but I think the same issues apply to anyone.

1. The people. Our vote is for who we believe should have responsibility for resources and their distribution. One of the principles from the Old Testament - repeated again and again - is that those in authority should act impartially, not respecting the wealth or influence of those they are dispensing for. I believe it is incumbent upon us all to vote for the party or person who we believe will consider all people, the poor, the disabled, the old, the young, the rich, the self-sufficient. It is not about voting for the person who will benefit me the most - that is selfish. It is about supporting the person, the party, the policies that will provide for all.

2. The person. We should look at the person we are voting for, and assess whether they are someone of personal integrity and morality. This does not mean "do they follow the same faith/ideology/hairdresser as me". Some people who claim Christianity as their faith are morally bankrupt and clearly not people of integrity. I do not support them just because they claim some affinity with me.

The problem is, of course, that we rarely know the morality of those we are voting for. If they are incumbent in the office, we might be able to assess how good their record in, but it is hard to know. But if in doubt, question them, dig into them, find out what their record is as far as it is available.

This also does not mean that they have to be completely perfect. They are human, and a perfect record always makes me wonder what has been removed from it. Integrity is about "would you buy a car from this person" and "would you take a mortgage out to support a venture of theirs". Because the truth is, they will be spending thousands of pounds of your money, somehow.

3. The place. Do the people we are voting for care about the place you live in? Will they work for the benefit of the place - town, city, village, road - that you live in, to make sure, as far as is possible, that it retains its character, the good aspects of it, the things that make it unique? Are they concerned with the long-term future of the area, or just the length of their term of office?

Far too many politicians today seem to be concerned about getting what they can, doing what they can now, assuming that they might well be out at the next election. Maria Miller is an example of this, I think - getting what she can, showing utter contempt for the electorate, and just enjoying the money and power while she can. She does not appear to care that her chances of re-election are slim.

But we face issues and challenges that are far bigger that one term of office. We should all be looking to long-term solution to problems and issues, not short-term quick fixes that look good. Finding solutions that will last our term of office, and will just give bigger problems to the next holders may be good for political capital, but is not good for the people who have to live under these problems for decades to come.

4. Your vote. Sorry, this was turning into a three point, same-letter sermon, so I have to stop that. I believe that voting is crucial. It is the exercise of our power to state who we want to have authority over us. It does make a difference, especially if we are genuinely prepared to consider the real issues, the real priorities, and what is important. It is very easy to argue that "my vote doesn't make a difference" - then ensure it does. Be involved, find out the information you need, and vote based on this. Then, when you have an elected representative (whether of your choice or not), make sure they know what you want them to do.

I am a believer that we can change the face of politics. Probably not in my time, but maybe. I am sick and tired of the antics of the main parties in Westminster - privileged, wealthy, and out of touch with how most people are feeling. I believe things can change, but they will not change suddenly. they will change because people will vote with their consciences, not their wallets - their own beliefs, not their party affiliations.

So, in the elections that are to come in the next months and years, please give some serious thought to how you should vote. Make a difference.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Praying for healing

OK, let me tell you a story. A friend of mine - A - has a genetic indicator that predisposes her to breast cancer - her sisters have all had diagnoses at various times, and have had or are having treatment.

A couple of weeks ago, a lump was investigated, and a preliminary diagnosis of breast cancer was made, which was very difficult for her, and for us her friends. Naturally, as a home group, we prayer for her and the family, prior to more extensive tests and a planned removal of the lumps.

After her next visit, I received the news that she was actually clear - it had been a 1% chance false positive. The plan is to remove the lumps anyway, just in case, but she is technically clear of cancer as of now.

So did the prayer make a difference? Was the prayer for healing answered?

The answer is not simple. The thing is, there was a 1% chance of a false positive, and one can argue that A was simply one of these 1%. Now, of course, this means nothing. If all of the 1% were prayed for, it might indicate that the prayer had an effect, but it would still be a case of a 1% unexplained false positive. In itself, it does not prove that the prayer made a difference.

It might also be that her genetic predisposition was a factor in getting the positive. I have no idea about this, whether this is an likelihood, but it might throw the results. There could also be a range of other peculiarities that skew these results and explain her inclusion in the 1%.

Scientifically, this is a small error factor that is an acceptable variability in the test results. It does not invalidate the results, or the tests. Every test - every scientific experiment has a possibility of error, and one of the important aspects of being a scientist is to understand what this means, how to control it, and when it is significant.

So there is a line of argument that the prayer was irrelevant. As with any medical test, there is a chance of false results, however small. That one particular person falls into this category should be considered anything other than a minor scientific anomaly.

But, of course, in this case, A was prayed for, despite have a high propensity for cancer, and having had a positive test, and the results changed.

Except they didn't. The results stayed the same - she never had cancer. It is just that the more accurate and detailed results showed this clearly. The prayer didn't change the result - they provided support and care for A during a difficult time. That is not insignificant. That is one critical aspect of prayer.

But maybe there is more. One of the fascinating aspects of the world as we are trying to understand it is that observation is crucial - observing an event (at any level) makes a difference to the event. The old question of "if a tree falls in a forest and there is no-one to hear it, does it make any noise" can be extended to argue that if a tree falls in a forest and is not observed, does it actually fall? More, if I do not observe it, has it, for me, fallen? Once I observe - directly or indirectly - it has fallen.

Peculiar though this sounds, the fallenness of the tree is actually irrelevant to me, until it impacts me. If it falls in the Amazon, there is a brief time when I can have no knowledge of that event, and so it cannot impact me. But there is a longer time when it does not impact me, that the fallenness of the tree is meaningless. When I know about it, its fallenness then becomes significant.

And yes, I know that this principle of quantum physics applies as such only to the quantum level. But the reality is that everything is driven by events at the quantum level. Bringing this up to the macro level introduces the oddity of the infamous Schroedingers Cat - which was precisely to illustrate the quantum at the macro level - and does not directly work. At the same time, recent research does indicate that the world is always more surreal than we could ever believe. The idea that reality is only defined when it is observed  may seem not to make sense, but then most of the quantum ideas don't make "sense" in that way.

Have I lost you yet? Maybe the prayer impacts the not-yet-observed cancer, to make it never have existed. Once it is observed and verified, it exists, but maybe prayer can impact unobserved events. Maybe it can have an impact, it can make a difference.

So does prayer work? It does help to support and comfort people - whatever else it does, this is a positive and helpful aspect of prayer. And I wonder whether it can also impact events, in particular events that are not yet properly observed.

I could, of course, be talking drivel. But I will continue to pray for people, because I believe it does some good. And I will continue to pray for A because it is a supporting thing to do.