SHORT AND SWEET – 12

Authority.

I have a love/hate relationship with this word. Instinctively I dislike it intensely. I misbehaved at school. Rather a lot. I couldn’t stand being told what to do. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I lived in my own world and authority figures cramped my style.

And yet, the collapse of authority in our society has been a catastrophe. Along with the loss of authority is the loss of deference. Everyone is open to abuse. Even the queen of England is taunted at times. It’s soul-destroying.

We so love democracy that we erroneously believe that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It isn’t. We may all have opinions but we should respect those who simply know more than we do. Sorry if you thought that simply having an opinion was sufficient to challenge the truly wise in our world.

So I resist authority while simultaneously acknowledging how important it is. It is good to submit to and learn from wise teachers. It is right that we see our own deficiencies, our own ignorance, so that we can grow. Authority figures help us do this.

And of course, most important of all, each day I bow before the Ultimate Authority Figure. I willingly and without resistance, seek to follow the only authority figure who completely warrants my worship and devotion.

Just need to control that ‘naughty boy’ inside, who doesn’t want to do what he’s told!

Have a great day.

SHORT AND SWEET – 5

You can’t buy God. That’s religion, isn’t it? Paying for God’s approval. Good behavior that earns God’s favour and love. Or let’s face it, a much baser assumption, you’ll get what you want. The prosperity gospel. Ugh.

But you can’t download God either.

This is a truth we struggle to cope with. Really? Stay with me.

Almost everything we do nowadays is done through the medium of the computer. All our shopping. Our social interaction. It’s the source of our news, our entertainment, our information, even our wisdom. It’s a tool so powerful, surely it should be possible to download the Creator himself.

But of course, that’s not possible. Downloading is initiated and controlled by the user. Genesis 3 reveals that we have an innate desire to be God, to be in control, the ultimate master of our own destinies. And we know how Genesis 3 ends.

You can’t download God because you can’t control him. He is unfathomable and like the wind, he blows who knows where. The desire to download God is like wishing you could herd cats, lasso the moon, make a woman love you.

You can’t. Because ultimately you’re not in control.

Time, instead, for a little faith.

SHORT AND SWEET – 2

What drives your moral judgements? Yesterday I suggested heart and not head. Here’s an example to get you started. It’s a story about ‘gendering’ in Manchester. Yes, it’s about toilets. My apologies.

Gendering? Where did this word come from? And it’s transitive. Oh my gosh, it’s actually transitive! You are gendering me! How dare you? There are few things more emotive than the charge ‘don’t gender me!’ Even with this horrible use of language. Forget reason, this is all emotion.

But it’s really postmodernism gone completely mad. There is no longer male and female. We are what we choose to be and apparently, it’s fluid. You want to cause massive confusion in a young person’s life, tell him/her that genitalia are no indicator of gender. Really. You can make it up as you go along.

I’m thinking three Scriptures, just for some enlightenment.

Male and female he created them. Gen. 1

For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God. Gen 3

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. Judges 21 

I hope you don’t think I’m ‘imposing my religion on you.’

That hot chestnut I’ll address tomorrow.

SHORT AND SWEET

Short and sweet. A post every day of the working week.

200 words or less. A minute of your time. Enjoy.

So, why is it that if you mention Hitler, you always lose the argument? It’s true isn’t it? And it happened last week. Boris – gotta love a great entertainer.

He was vilified immediately. Why? Because Hitler is a non-starter in an argument. Why? It’s because in our culture we respond primarily with our emotions and not our judgement. We’re all heart and no head. Second, we’re really into ‘being offended.’ Hitler ticks both boxes. I’m offended by your suggestion that there is any similarity between the Bad Guy and me or my position. Second, my emotional response trumps whatever argument you were making.

Did Boris have a point? Who cares? We’re all so offended, it’s got lost.

So, when you’re tempted to mention Hitler, remember Basil Fawlty. ‘Don’t mention the war. I did once but I think I got away with it.’ He may have, but you won’t. Your argument will be lost.

 

Fight or Journey

What’s your life? Fight or Journey? No contest, right? It’s got to be Journey.

Ah-ah, no mixing the two. Enough of ‘well, what about a fight while I’m on my journey!’ The point about the metaphor is that you have to choose one. Just one. Fight or Journey.

First some reasons why we either reject or avoid the idea of ‘fight.’ First, of course, because it involves violence and most of us are not physically violent. We might engage in arguments – let’s call them fights – but for the most part, we avoid physical violence. Very understandable. I love Elton John’s Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting, but I’m not familiar with that kind of scene. Be thankful you don’t live in the Middle Ages, where your lifespan would probably have been determined by your physical ability with sword or bow.

Second, a fight has winners and losers and this is anathema to people who are committed to community. A community – the church – is surely about downplaying conflict and highlighting shared values. Furthermore, who wants to think of life in terms of what you’re against? Fighting is so . . . unpleasant.

With me so far? Hope so.

What’s the attraction of the journey? Well, for one, it has great antecedents. Pilgrim’s Progress, for example. The life of faith has to do with progress. We’re moving closer to God. Movement is surely a journey. We feel this inside instinctively. Not surprising, then, that ‘journey’ is a well-worn theme in art and culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy (Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) is surely the archetype of the Christian journey, second to none in its depiction of the soul’s progress towards God. Also in its favour is the fact that people who aren’t Christians often talk of ‘journey.’ Oprah, for example, is very much one for the journey.

So, which one should we favour? If we had to choose. Which one aligns most closely with Scripture?

It’s a close call, but I’m going to make a controversial case for Fight.

But first, Journey. What about Journey in the Old Testament? Yup, it’s there. From Abe to Zerubbabel, the Israelites are on the move. No question. There is almost no OT figure who doesn’t travel long distances. They may be seeking to stay still, but they don’t do it. They move and as they move, they learn and make mistakes and more importantly, we learn about God’s character in the process of their journeying.

New Testament. More movement. Jesus, the itinerant preacher. Luke emphasizes Christ’s decision to travel to Jerusalem (Luke 9.51) as a high point of his gospel. Indeed Luke-Acts uses ‘journey’ as its dominant motif. Not only this, but some of the most famous parables include journeys. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son both use journeys as metaphors into which spiritual truths are poured. You could also add The Parable of the Tenants, when the King leaves and sends his son back to his land.

Finally, St. Paul’s missionary journeys form an essential part of God’s message about mission. All believers are called to ‘go.’ We’re all to journey and while we go, we will experience the presence of the Spirit, who is with his journeying believers. A strong metaphor for our spiritual journey towards God, surely.

So why choose Fight?

First exhibit: The Old Testament. For reasons that reside deep inside the mind of God, he chose to form a nation and then set that nation on collision course with other nations. You can’t get away from this truth. The Israelites fought pretty much every nation with an –ite on the end of its name. It is true that they were sometimes condemned for such behaviour, but on dozens of occasions, they are commanded by God to go and slay their enemies. Yes, commanded. God’s use of warfare to achieve his ends must, of course, be placed within the context of his redemptive purposes, but he surely does not avoid warfare as a means to an end. Fighting, a violent physical activity, and yes, a symptom of our fallenness, is used by God as a tool in his hands to achieve his ends.

Second and most important exhibit: The gospels. The gospels present Christ in direct opposition to the Devil. His temptation in the desert, followed by his myriad healings and exorcisms bring him into conflict with his Opposition, the prince of the air. Furthermore, he is opposed constantly by people who want to kill him. In addition, he frames his teaching in terms of ‘with me or against me.’ Even in the Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are you when you are persecuted ‘in my name.’ That’s Fight. With me or against me. You must pick a side. No fence-sitting permitted.

But the crucial one must be the highpoint of history, when the Son of God hung upon a cross, died and was then resurrected. This act is represented as a triumph. A victory over sin, death and Satan. It is Fight which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. A fight which God wins and into which he calls us.

It is, of course, tragic that European Christian leaders and Popes thought that capturing Jerusalem or fighting each other on behalf of God was a correct interpretation of Scripture. They were wrong. The Fight is internal – for purity – and yet it is also focused outwards.

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.… 

I wonder if you have attended churches where the dominant idea was ‘fighting the devil.” I have. Every prayer meeting was a duel with the devil. Off we went, ‘taking the land,’ ‘declaring spiritual truths to each other and to spiritual forces.’ It can get tiring after a while. I’m bound to say, however, that when the sense of Fight is absent, a church can lose its confidence.

And it can lose its way.

Ask yourself as you look out over your congregation on a Sunday morning: ‘Do we look like an army? Do we live like people who are in a fight for the Kingdom of God, praying with fervour for the glory of God to be revealed and for his kingdom to come?

I love these lyrics from Our God Reigns by Delirious:

Yes he reigns, yes you reign, yes you reign,
For there is only one true God,
But we’ve lost the reins on this world,
Forgive us all, forgive us please,
As we fight for this broken world on our knees. 

As we fight for this broken world on our knees. What passion! What drive!

I favour Fight right now, because we need it more. Simple as that. I don’t wish to pit Fight against Journey. They are both valid, both important. But in our desperate world, we need more fight right now. We need to care more, sacrifice more, pray more, believe more.

We fight on our knees because we know that our God is already victorious. Believe it. May his Kingdom come. May his will be done! Amen.

 

 

 

 

New vision for the colour-blind

This article is a follow-on from the article – Hate Crime, Love the Criminal – published by LICC (The London Institute of Contemporary Christianity) on Friday 26, June 2015. To read it, click here.

Disclaimer: The following article is a blog post. It contains my own views and is not endorsed by nor does it represent the views of LICC.

NEW VISION FOR THE COLOUR-BLIND

June 17, 2015. Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof shoots nine African-Americans in a church after a Bible study. It is a hideous, hate-filled crime and is roundly condemned. On this, all commentators are in agreement.

It is described and classified as a ‘hate crime.’

The term ‘hate crime,’ however, is open to debate. Here are my thoughts.

A ‘hate crime,’ is ‘a violent, prejudice-motivated crime that occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group.’ They are on the books of many Western nations.

Classifying certain crimes as ‘hate crimes’ is a bad idea. It’s bad law. Why? Because the legislation seeks not simply to criminalize the violent act, but the motivation behind the act. In short, it seeks to criminalize what goes on in the human heart. And only God can judge what goes on in the human heart.

At the heart of the Christian faith is this truism: Laws don’t change human hearts, only God can do that.

Furthermore, these laws seek to criminalize motivation and motivation is closely linked to one’s beliefs. You shouldn’t criminalize what people think, what they believe, what drives them. You should only criminalize external behaviour. We know what happens when you criminalize beliefs – we have lived through the horrors of the Twentieth Century, in Vietnam and Germany – and we don’t want to repeat those experiences.

Second, ‘hate crime’ legislation privileges – if that’s not an inappropriate word – certain social groups. It is therefore a kind of social engineering; assessing the evil of the act based not on the act itself but the value of the victim. That’s not right. It’s bad law and bad policy. Some argue that these groups ‘need protection.’ That won’t wash. ‘Hate crime’ legislation doesn’t protect anyone. It certainly doesn’t stop people like Dylann Roof.

Third, these laws go against the very thing they seek to affirm – that all people should be equal before the law. Homosexuals, blacks, etc, they don’t want to be seen as ‘special,’ but treated equally in society. Indeed, the Christian position is that all human beings are equal because we all bear God’s image. Privileging one group over another goes against this principle and sets groups against each other.

Whether I kill a heterosexual white man or a homosexual black man, I should be equally guilty before the law. It’s murder and I should go to prison. Both are crimes. Both men lie dead. I am guilty of the same crime, regardless of my motivation.

~~~

Colour-blind?

Some believe that America should be colour-blind. Perhaps rather surprisingly, given the above comments, I don’t agree with that approach. Why? Because it is foolish to pretend that a) The past never occurred and b) Because now the legislation is better, somehow the slate is wiped clean. Colour-blindness is the belief that because all are now treated equally before the law (that’s questionable) then no difference exists between the races. That’s not true.

Injustice persists and there’s no denying it. Calling for the nation to be colour-blind doesn’t help.

I don’t have the answer to the Race question. It has created immense discord in American society. As a white man, I cannot possibly imagine what it’s like to be pulled over by the police again and again and again. Racism, expressed unconsciously or subliminally in all kinds of ways is experienced by black people every day and it won’t go away. No laws can change that. (See my comments on the human heart above).

The American response – Affirmative Action, which privileges certain racial groups, is not a solution. It sets races against each other. Blacks who succeed in life, can’t stand it. Those who struggle at the bottom, become tied up in a dependency culture, playing the Race card to gain unfair advantage. It’s all messed up and especially as a white, British man (albeit one who lived in the U.S. for 12 years and is married to an American), I certainly don’t have a solution. As someone with ‘opinions,’ how depressing to admit that I don’t even have any suggestions.

One final comment, however, regarding colour-blindness. Ever since Babel, we have been scattered around the globe and have developed the kaleidoscope of different cultures which enrich our world. When I meet a black or Asian or European or Pacific Islander, I want to discover the richness of their culture. And as a Christian, I desire to cherish and celebrate both what unites us (our humanity) and what differentiates us (our cultures).

I can’t be colour-blind. I don’t want to be.

Consider the church. She is composed of both Jew and Gentile. God doesn’t seek to have us pretend we’re all the same. We’re not. He simply calls us to be united. To reach out beyond our cramped social circle. To take risks. To love those on the outside.

And you need good vision to do that, not (colour) blindness.

You need a better vision of this beautiful world.

And that’s a gift.

© Richard Collins 2015

 

Note: My novel, House of Souls, is due to be released in September. If you would like to assist me by increasing traffic to Mirth and Melancholy, that would really help a lot. It can be done easily by re-blogging or sharing. The buttons down there. See them? Click. Comment. Share. Takes about 10 seconds. Many many thanks.

 

Squashed, then lifted

Last Thursday, I lost a game of squash. And what a fantastic time I had!

Allow me to explain.

I play at Trojans and I had the privilege of playing the club champion. His name is Kevin Harris and – forgive the cliché – he is a ‘legend’ at our club, having won our club championship . . . not sure . . . many, many times. 14 or 15, I think. Maybe more.

He’s 48 or so now and after beating me, he will probably go on to win another title. At age 48. If you know anything about squash, you’ll realise how remarkable that is.

It was truly an honour to compete against him. But more than that, I was extremely grateful for the way he played. He was a real gentleman. In squash, if you’re significantly better than your opponent, you can make them look rather foolish. Let’s be honest, he could have won in ten minutes.

He could have squashed me, pun intended.

Instead, he played a length, never played a drop shot, always lobbed it to the back to keep the point going. I was 7-5 up in the second game, due to his generosity, and for a moment I thought I might sneak a game. But I was a rusty Ford Fiesta in the middle lane, while he was the Red Ferrari passing me on the outside. He simply put his foot down and purred by, 9-7. Take a breather, mate.

The experience caused me to consider a story in the gospels. You may know it. Jesus meets his friend Simon Peter after a rather frustrating night ‘fishing’ on the Sea of Galilee. After teaching from the boat, he asks Peter to take it out one more time. Come on, let’s have another go. You can tell Peter’s a bit ticked about the request. You can imagine him thinking . . .

‘I get the idea that you’re someone special, not sure exactly what that means, but fishing? You think you know fishing? That’s my job and trust me, there ain’t no fish right now. You stick to the carpentry and give me some respect. I know these waters like the proverbial back of my hand and when the fish don’t bite, they don’t bite.’ Sigh. ‘But because it’s you . . . ‘

So they let down the nets – no doubt with a fair amount of harrumphing along the way – and whaddya know? Fish are practically jumping into the boat. Now, what I like here is Peter’s reaction.

Lord, I’m a sinner.

In the presence of greatness, he immediately recognises his own inadequacy.

There are human beings and then there’s this man before me. I’m not like him.

I am not worthy.

There was a chasm in class between myself and Kevin Harris but there on the Sea of Galilee? The gap was so vast, so enormous, Peter could only bow in worship. I’m reminded of John the Baptist, hugely popular at the time, who told the crowds, ‘I am not worthy even to untie his sandals.’ He is above and beyond me. Far, far greater than I. He is worthy of worship.

(Side note: How interesting that after Lionel Messi’s mesmerizing performance in the Champions League last Wednesday, his coach, Luis Enrique described him as ‘a player from another dimension.’)

Back to Trojans.

When you play someone like Kevin Harris, it’s hard not to be overawed. He is uncommonly gifted on a squash court, and my own deficiencies were quickly exposed. I am not one to worship sportsmen or women – how foolish is that? – but to compete against a top sportsman, it’s hard to avoid expressing this kind of sentiment:

‘It’s an honour to play against you today.’

It was indeed an honour to play squash with someone whose gifts are far beyond my own. But I use the word ‘honour’ because above all, I was treated well. He did not squash me, he let me play. I was not nearly good enough to compete with him properly but he kept the rally going. I was included, even if the result was a foregone conclusion.

I wonder if you’re one of those who has dreamed of meeting a sportsman or woman whom you admire. What would it be like to kick a football around with Ronaldo or Messi? Go jogging with Usain Bolt or Mo Farah?

In my case, I would die to knock a ball up and down with Roger Federer.

And how blessed were those guys who were fit enough to run next to Paula Radcliffe during the London Marathon? One of them held her hand as she ran towards the finishing tape.

Unforgettable. And yes, what an honour.

And there’s Peter who thought he knew a thing or two about fishing. Was he humiliated by a man with powers far beyond his own? Squashed? Maybe a little at first. Who knows? I thought I just told you there are no fish . . .

But for Simon Peter, it was not just an honour to be in the presence of a great man.

His encounter with Jesus brought him to his knees.

In worship.

But the Lord didn’t let him stay there. He showed him kindness. He invited him in. He lifted him up. He kept the rally going and let him play. He showed him grace.

Simon Peter may have felt squashed, but he was lifted up.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

What an honour. What a privilege.

To be invited to join the Son of Man in his work.

Surely Simon Peter would never forget the day when he was squashed, then lifted up.

© Richard Collins 2015

Note: My novel, House of Souls, is due to be released in September. If you would like to assist me by increasing traffic to Mirth and Melancholy, that would really help a lot. It can be done easily by re-blogging or sharing. The buttons down there. See them? Click. Comment. Share. Takes about 10 seconds. Many many thanks.

Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor

You may have seen Stephen Fry’s rant last week. Here’s a (partial) transcript of what he said in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE:

Asked what he’d say to God, if he met him:

I’ll say ‘bone cancer in children – what’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain. To see the whole video (2 mins 24 secs), click here.

The issue of human suffering is without doubt the most powerful and certainly the most common argument against the existence of God. I have ruminated on this question so much, I ended up writing a novel about it. More on that another time.

A couple of observations concerning Mr. Fry. As with so many, the emotional response comes first and initially, there simply is nothing that can be offered, let alone heard, in reply. Did he sound in a mood for dialogue? I think not.

There is no question that immense suffering plunges us towards mystery. Make that Mystery with a capital M. In particular, the suffering of children is very very hard to accept. When little ones suffer, we are fully justified, I think, in shaking our fists at the heavens. Such a response seems very natural and I would expect nothing less from a parent whose child lies in a hospital bed.

Stephen Fry, however, offers little in terms of argument; in short, he simply states, ‘if God exists, I don’t like him and I think he’s immoral.’ That’s not really an argument; it’s an emotional outburst. Many think that you can dismiss God’s existence with a short-form argument that goes like this:

God exists.
Suffering exists.
Those two are incompatible and therefore one must not exist. Since suffering exists, God must not.

Elegant in its simplicity perhaps, but false.

Why? Because the argument requires another premise to make its case. Most people assume this premise without stating it. So, the argument is actually this one:

God exists
Suffering exists
There are no reasons why God would permit human suffering
Therefore God doesn’t exist

It’s the third premise which is the one which theologians focus on and debate. And there are all sorts of justifications (theodicies) which can be offered. But not today.

Today, I’d like to draw attention to something a little different. You may have noticed from Stephen’s comments, that he is drawing on ideas almost without knowing that he’s doing it. What do I mean? Well, he assumes there is something called ‘morality.’ He also believes in value and good and evil.

The great apologist, Francis Schaeffer, observed many years ago that atheists are often in the habit of using ideas for which their worldview has no justification. It’s rather like a building with two stories. Francis Beckwith summarizes the analogy like this:

In the lower story is the cognitive stuff that counts as real knowledge: science, reason, data. In the upper story is the non-cognitive stuff that gives life meaning, but it is ultimately non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties. More here.

So Stephen enters the building and he takes a look at what’s on the shelves. What can he use to make his argument? Well, if he’s being consistent, he’ll notice that really all he has are facts about the physical world. Furthermore, he must confront the idea that his universe had no cause that he can account for, and all things will eventually be extinguished. So questions like ‘what are things for?’ or ‘how should we live?’ can only be answered with reference to science and empirical data.

Stephen decides, however, that science isn’t helping much with questions of how one should live or even what things are for, so he strolls upstairs and finds an embarrassment of riches. On the shelf lie all kinds of resources he didn’t have downstairs. Things like moral values, ethics, good, evil, even purpose. These are so effective in making an argument that he decides to use some of them. He calls God ‘evil.’ He assumes that human beings are valuable and ought not to suffer. He assumes that any Creator must be someone who would agree with his outlook on life. Lots of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ floating about.

But hold on, Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor.

Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, he’s not supposed to be up there, using resources which aren’t available to him as an atheist.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Beckwith write that these things are non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties.You can’t make arguments with those things, can you?

Well, it turns out that the building is poorly designed. Because the Christian faith, which draws on these ideas of morality, good, evil, value and purpose, does so rationally and with logical consistency. It’s our opponents who claim that morality and value are non-rational and deeply personal. Not true.

Morality isn’t non-rational at all. It’s accessible to all and even logically verifiable and you don’t need science to know that morality exists. Trust me, you don’t need a test-tube to affirm the truthfulness of the statement, ‘torturing babies for fun is wrong.’ What you do need, however, is the existence of something non-physical who grounds all these ideas, makes sense of them. Because science ain’t gonna get the job done.

You know who we’re talking about, Stephen. We’re talking about God.

You don’t like him? Well, basing morality on personal preference is a castle built on sinking sand. But you don’t think it’s just personal preference, do you? You think some things really are wrong. Absolutely wrong. Well, you’re bang on target.

So . . . here’s a thought to mull over during your day.

Morality is prescriptive, not descriptive and this makes ALL the difference. Science is entirely descriptive. It tells us ‘how things are.’ Morality has to do with ‘how things should be.’ The chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ cannot be bridged by science, since science is not equipped to carry us across. Morality proposes moral laws and as C.S. Lewis argued many years ago, moral laws imply a moral-lawgiver.

We call that person God.

Final thought, Stephen. You’re right. Something’s terribly wrong. And if something’s gone badly wrong, you want to choose a worldview which can account for this. You respond instinctively to suffering as we all do. You don’t simply rail against the existence of suffering children, you express the feeling that ‘this shouldn’t be happening.’ Something’s gone terribly wrong with the world.

But Stephen, your cherished atheism can’t account for this intuition at all – beyond a subjective response – and it certainly gives no answer. Blind natural forces are so mute when you want an answer.

No, you need a worldview, a Story which explains what’s gone wrong and offers some kind of hope that ‘things are being put right.’ That’s why you and I, well, we all believe intuitively in Justice and it’s why we all long for Peace.

Turns out there is a Story full of hope. It’s called Christianity. And we have a full-blown doctrine of how and why things have gone wrong. But more importantly, we have hope, based on a Story in which an interventionist God partners with his people in restoring what’s broken, helping them to learn and grow in the midst of pain while also equipping them to share his love with hurting people.

Not only that, he too has suffered horribly. And for our sake. He has not left us. He is with us and he can be with you too, if you would but turn to him.

You too, Stephen.

His love extends even to those who shake their fists at him.

© Richard Collins 2015

Free . . . but don’t hurt others

It has various names and tag lines. Live and let live. That’s probably the most popular slogan. It’s also called libertarian freedom. I’m referring to Western culture’s prevailing philosophy, the one which governs and underpins Western democracy and most of our political engagement.

Do what you want, but don’t hurt others.

There it is. In all its glory. It dominates the thinking of the vast majority of social commentators, those who write Leaders in our major newspapers, those who represent the arts and culture. In the past, in a nominally Christian country, we affirmed the value of a particular religion: Christianity. No longer. Now we’re multi-cultural; we’re tolerant. We endorse no one philosophy, with the exception . . ahem . . . of evolutionary biology (yes, it is a philosophy), which we embrace with a faith-like grip. More on that another time.

But back to libertarian freedom.

First, the positive. When you think about it, it sounds pretty good. What’s not to like? Freedom to make my own moral choices – I like that. Don’t hurt others – hard to see a problem there. Superficially, there is much to commend this philosophy. Indeed, it provides Christians in the West with the liberty to share the gospel, meet together regularly, heal on the street, if we so choose. Without it, great suffering ensues. Three cheers for libertarian freedom!

So, yes, freedom – which includes both free speech and free association – are goods which should be recognized. And the ‘don’t hurt people’ is simply a no-brainer.

Actually, hold your horses just for a moment. ‘Not hurting people’ sounds good but when you think about it, life just isn’t that simple. The fact is that avoiding hurting people, which seems like a noble goal, also turns out to be unattainable. Not only that, it’s undesirable. In disciplining my children, I certainly do wish them to suffer, to the extent that they must learn the consequences of their poor choices. And I’m fine with criminals paying for their crimes in prison. In addition, I hurt people every time I drive my car. To a limited extent.

Pain, it turns out, isn’t a universal bad to be avoided at all costs; there are nuances to its application.

But there is a deeper problem.

When you look more closely, the philosophy is so empty, it’s almost hardly there at all. Just saying, ‘I want to be free to live as I choose’ is a morally vacuous thing to state. It acknowledges no familial or societal obligations whatsoever. It is, then, entirely focused on the individual with no recognition of communal responsibilities. It might work for a single-handed sailor, but it doesn’t say enough to help us live together and build a better world. We need a lot more than this.

Second, libertarian freedom, I think, is a fig leaf to cover up a form of nihilism which I hear often on the BBC. You see, we’re world class at using our freedom to run people down, at stating what we don’t like and don’t approve of, but we’re wimps when it comes to saying what we actually believe in. In fact, sometimes it seems as though we live by this philosophy: The one thing we believe in and hold to is the belief that there’s nothing to believe in. This is the result of self-confident atheism, which has begun to stretch its wings in our culture. Just listen to 6.30pm comedy on Radio Four, especially the Now Show, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me return to the emptiness of live and let live. Just stating ‘I’m free’ is like a sign outside your house stating, ‘Keep Out!’ It doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on in the house at all. And therefore, it’s not a philosophy which is fit for purpose in promoting actual values; values, I might add which are essential to the building of healthy families and local communities.

You like serving the poor? Why? Inside your little libertarian vacuum, the only available answer is ‘because I choose to do it.’ Any more and now you’re venturing further than ‘live and let live.’ The moment you say, ‘because I believe it’s a moral duty’ or ‘because my religion teaches that it’s a good and right thing to do’ you’re no longer basing your behaviour on libertarian freedom. Now you’re building real foundations.

The bubble of freedom may give you the oxygen to serve the poor, but it will never ground and justify the behaviour itself. For that, you need more. A lot more.

In the past, religion informed public policy. It provided real, firm, gritty, justification for how to behave individually and communally. No longer. But don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days of Victorian heavy-handed state-religion-imposed morality. Not at all. I like freedom of religion. But Freedom – Capital F – by itself isn’t up to the job of telling us how to live. It’s too flimsy.

But don’t we have Natural Law?

So you want to base a whole-life philosophy on Natural Law? Be my guest. Well done, John Locke. Your problem is that our current account of human origins is constantly undermining the project. Why should a society affirm particular values merely because we’ve ‘evolved’ in a particular way. No, I’m afraid Natural Law – as currently proposed – doesn’t do the job.

In my opinion, without God, you’re just flapping about in the air. Yes, you’re free up there to do whatever you want, but you can’t tell me why I should care for others, value life, give to charity, etc. When you do, you’re just trumpeting your own subjectivity. And simply because you happen to ride the current zeitgeist – that, I’m afraid, does not amount to rational justification.

In the end, I’m with Dostoevsky, who wrote, Without God, everything is permitted. You want to know the number one objection that Muslims have to Western culture? (not foreign policy – that’s different) Its permissiveness. On the back of Freedom, we have imported pornography, the sex trade and ever increasing levels of nudity. Be free but don’t hurt others. Who says people aren’t getting hurt? But I’m straying from my subject.

To continue . . .

To build a society, you need foundations. And foundations, to hold up an entire society, well, they need to be immensely strong. They need to be solid.

Christianity may have been misused and misrepresented over the ages, but at its heart, it has always recognized and championed moral virtues. Not to mention promoting compassion for the poor. Under broadly ‘Christian values,’ at least when people misbehaved, they knew they were misbehaving and that makes a huge difference. A sinner who doesn’t call himself a sinner is a scary thing. And we’re pretty close to that now.

So I affirm that Christian belief is substantial and solid.

Faith, hope and love are not empty values, they’re meaty. They provide a positive, ‘planted flag’ way to live. Freedom, for all its virtues (and yes, there are many without which we are doomed), well, it can never tell humanity how to live well.

You’ve got to believe in something solid for that.

And there’s no one with greater solidity than the man, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person who is of sufficient stature to guide my behaviour and inform my moral choices. To quote C.S. Lewis, he may not be safe, but he is good and that’s enough for me.

© Richard Collins 2015

Charlie, ce n’est pas moi!

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

~~

After the carnage of last week, Charlie Hebdo decided to print a cartoon of Mohammed after all. Hmm.

In the media, there are big stories and HUGE stories. This one is HUGE. Why? Re-wind back to 9/11, 2001. Headlines everywhere like this: Attack on America! America under attack! Same thing this time, but with a twist: Freedom Attacked. Attack on Freedom!

What makes this HUGE? These men attacked not simply people, they attacked the most cherished value in Western society: FREEDOM. Free speech is sufficiently valued that when it is threatened, we in the West circle the wagons. To mix my metaphors, this is a hill we are most definitely prepared to die on. Do not question it, do not threaten it – we will take you on. See our pens? We will fight because as everyone knows, the pen is mightier than the sword . . . or Kalashnikov.

But what about some perspective, to quote Anton Ego from Ratatouille. Where does the obsessive need to keep drawing Mohammed come from? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to both affirm the principle of free speech; abhor the horrific violence of last week while also questioning the decisions of the editors of Charlie Hebdo. Surely satirists should invite debate and examination. That is the foundation on which they build their case for satire.

So, first a look at free speech as a principle. My first point is this: Freedom is defined by its limits. Freedom without limits isn’t freedom at all, it’s anarchy. No one possesses absolute freedom, since we’re finite human beings. In society, freedoms are limited by respect for others and their wishes. My freedom to play loud music at 3am is limited by my neighbour’s freedom to get a good night’s sleep.

So how do we set about defining those limits in a ‘tolerant’ society? (I’m using ‘tolerant’ here with its proper meaning – literally ‘putting up with people with whom you disagree.’) If we seek a tolerant society, then surely simply brandishing ‘free speech’ isn’t enough. After all, we already limit free speech. No racism, no sexism, for example. There are a whole bunch of things you can’t print and rightly so. Just ‘I have free speech’ isn’t a sufficiently strong argument to justify reckless or insulting behaviour.

So what’s going on in this case specifically? Now, I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but I’m bound to say that when I heard the words ‘aggressive secularism’ from a commentator’s lips this past week, I could see his point. Did the cartoonists seek to expose the ideas of Islam? Well, just one idea – that Mohammed shouldn’t be depicted. Just like in the Garden of Eden, the one thing ‘forbidden’ was the one thing they wanted to do. They had vast acreage out there to ridicule but they wanted the tree with ‘keep off’ hanging from a branch.

It’s precisely the offensiveness which attracted the cartoonists. They could have exposed all manner of beliefs within Islam itself without actually depicting the prophet, but they weren’t interested in doing that. Not really. Dare I say it, they intended to offend, protected by the principle of free speech. They would never offend black people or gays but religious people, they are apparently fair game. So why do it? Aggressive secularism or bravely exercising their free speech. You decide.

It’s worth remembering what kind of people we’re talking about when we think of those who took and continue to take offense. Let me quote from an excellent article (worth reading later here.) It’s by Bob Ekblad.

Many second generation immigrants, like Chérif Kouachi and his brother (who was orphaned and then raised in France’s foster-care system), experience tremendous alienation growing up in Western European countries as dissaffected minorities, and they find refuge in their identity as Muslims.

Ekblad gives an insightful assessment of why especially young, unemployed, alienated young European Muslims are so upset by the cartoons. And while not all Muslims are offended, the ones who do react are extremely offended. Are they not part of society also? Where’s some tolerance – the real kind – when you need it?

Perhaps it would be advisable at this point to remind ourselves of what freedom really means. Does it mean doing whatever you want? Not in the Christian tradition. Charles Kingsley, the 19C novelist and historian said it best. He wrote, there are two freedoms – the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought.

During this era, constrained by our sinful nature, we possess a certain kind of freedom and with it, we hurt and offend. We’re ‘free’ to do this. But one day, we will live in a world in which we will experience true freedom. Now, we choose badly. Then, we will choose wisely, animated by the Spirit.

And yet . . . even now, we can choose wisely. St. Paul once wrote this about our liberty.

I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. I Corinthians 10.23-24.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should applies to cartoonists as much as to Christians.

We don’t have to choose to offend people deliberately. We don’t have to belittle and ridicule. Charlie Hebdo was in the process of going bankrupt; now it’s selling millions of copies. France must decide whether its use of free speech is a wise use. It will make that decision when visiting a kiosk each day over the next few months. Is this a publication which is really worth supporting?

Satire has a long tradition, we’re told. For my part, I find satire a vehicle for extreme cynicism and of course it’s always easier to tear down than build up. Always. Jokes at other people’s expense are a dime a dozen. The courage to hold onto firmly held beliefs is much harder.

Everyone last week was horrified by the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. Such violence can never be justified. Ever.

But free speech in a tolerant society requires wisdom and strength. The wisdom not to publish is perhaps a greater wisdom than being swept along by calls for satirical self-expression. May free speech never come with such a price ever again. We all mourn for those who have fallen.

The wounds in France will take some time to heal. Let’s hope that Charlie Hebdo helps that process by exercising some wisdom. They might wish to consult the writings of St. Paul. Hmm.

I’m not holding my breath on that one . . .