Archive for the ‘science and religion’ Tag

Monday 19 December – “Nothing is impossible”   1 comment

The Bible passages for today were Judges 13: 2-7, 24-25, and Luke 1: 5-25.

Two stories today of elderly couples seemingly sadly resigned to being childless who were unexpectedly promised children who were to have significant roles in the stories that have come down to us about God’s interaction with humanity.  These were Manoah and his wife who became the parents of Samson and Zechariah and Elizabeth who became the parents of John the Baptist.

The title for today’s reflection “Nothing is impossible (with God)” comes from later in the first Chapter in Luke (v. 37)  when the angel promising the birth of Jesus to Mary tells her that Elizabeth in old age is expecting.  I don’t actually literally believe in nothing being impossible for God although I accept from the human perspective he is seemingly all-powerful. I believe the God in His/Her interactions with physical world constrains himself by the laws which He/She proscribed, even defined, the universe. However within that at any place in time there are a near infinite number of futures possible. In some miraculous way I can only wonder at and not explain, the God of possibilities, the great creative force, takes the risk of leaving some of the things that influence that future to the conscious parts of his creation.

Some people from what they claim as a scientific perspective argue the biological imperative to the extent that it seems to remove any moral influence from the individual or humanity collectively.  Some from a theological perspective argue that God’s purposes will happen whatever we as individuals think we decide.  My own perspective is that God, in enabling the biology to develop to the point of consciousness and moral agency has created the possibility for loving relationship between created and creator.  However this comes at great risk.  If God was a power mad autocrat he would not have chosen to enable this path.

Now this perspective turned onto the minutiae of our lives highlights our role in being willing to accept even expect the seemingly impossible in our lives as we seek to unfold them with God.  In different words this theme was brought out in the notes for today’s reflection and I close with the prayer from there that seems to fit it well:

O God, give me the courage today to set aside limitation and see differently, so that the “impossible” becomes possible through my trust and cooperation.
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, p. 32]


Friday 2 December 2011 – “Spilling the beans”   Leave a comment

The Bible Passages set for today were: Isaiah 29: 17-24 and Matthew 9: 27-31.

The title for today comes from the story in Matthew of two blind men who followed Jesus asking him to “have mercy” on them.  After Jesus had healed them he charged them to tell no one but they could not hold their excitement in and basically told one and all; they “spilled the beans”!  I had some thoughts about this when I  was meditating on the passages but I will leave them to the end of this blog post because it was not the main theme.

My professional area of work for the last 20 years has been technology for disabled people.  While I have seen my work as a vocation, dare I say a calling from God, surprisingly I do not remember really thinking through the relationship between my work and the way disability is represented in the Bible.  However I am aware that that representation offends and even angers some disabled people.   Disability is represented in both of today’s passages; let me quote the relevant bits:

In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.
[Isaiah 29:18 NIV]

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”
“Yes, Lord,” they replied.
Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored.
[Matthew 9:27-30 NIV]

My work is not about healing but it is about enabling.  I undertake research and have an internal consultancy role at the Open University, contributing to its efforts to ensure the needs of disabled people at met in the on-line delivery of its courses. In some ways this fulfils the prophecies of Isaiah.  In a video of someone reading “from a scroll” subtitles (captions to the Americans) or sign language interpreters, presented in the video, enable the “deaf to hear”.  When a blind person studies an on-line component of an Open University course they can access both the text and descriptions of any diagrams through screen-readers.  These are tools that convert the text on the computer into either synthesised speech or Braille on a refreshable display. It is not exactly seeing but it certainly lifts a blind person “out of the gloom and darkness” in an on-line context.  [This is not the place to discuss the subtleties of my work but there is a link to my work related blog on the navigation bar above.] The point is there is, at some level, something comparable between the biblical prophecies and accounts of “healings” and the hoped for outcomes of my work.

One question frequently asked now, and I am sure has been asked all down the centuries, is:

  • If Jesus could heal, why did he not heal everyone that was sick?

Although I am sure I must have asked this question over the years it has never been one that has overly troubled me.  Some people struggle to accept that there could be a loving God that is this partial.  My perspective is wrapped up in my understanding of what miracles are.  I do not believe that God changes the laws of physics or biology, more broadly  the laws of nature, at a particular time and place to effect a miracle.  I think that miracles are possible but unlikely events that are then transformed by God in the lives of people concerned, and indirectly in the lives of some who hear the accounts.   So if you like, the miracle is not the event but the way it is subsequently interpreted.  So in the above story the transformation in the lives of the two blind men it seems reasonable to assume that not only could they now see, but their emotional and spiritual lives were transformed too.

Now, I have no framework for the link between faith and the occurrence of  such miracles. It is one of many things I leave under the category of “a mystery”.  Mysteries are very important in religious life and I have found that growth occurs sitting with them often for years.

There is a real danger in this link between faith and healing, for some Christians, facing life threatening illness say.  They can get into a mind-set that says: if only I have enough faith I will be healed.  Then if they are not it becomes a point of personal condemnation: my faith was insufficient; they blame themselves.  For those facing death this can create a real barrier to a “good death”.  My own thoughts about a strategy for this situations should I ever face it is to follow Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified:

And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
[Matthew 26:39 KJV]

The link between my work and the Biblical accounts of healing continues in this question of: why doesn’t Jesus/God heal everyone?   The technical or other interventions I propose may help in some situation not in others.  In some cases what we do to help one group of students, disadvantages another.  I think there is a point to ponder there when we question: why does not God act? There would usually be knock on consequences for others that we probably can not see.  Especially if you think of God interacting with every individual over all time.

I said I would return to the story of the two blind men and them, as I picture it, running off throughout the area telling anyone they could find that Jesus has healed them; despite that fact that Jesus had instructed them to tell no one.

Firstly, as a teenager I remember wondering why in numerous accounts in the Gospels Jesus gives similar instructions to tell no one.  I have never arrived at a convincing answer. Was it that he did not want to stir up trouble with the political and religious authorities?  At other times he appears to court such trouble.  Did he have an understanding that his message was only for a few at that stage?  I don’t know.

Secondly, as the notes for today suggested, would you be able to keep your excitement in if you had been blind but now you could see?  I have one particular memory where I experienced such similar excitement: the first time I used the formal sacrament of confession.

It was on my second, I think, ever monastic retreat, at an Anglican Benedictine monastery, now closed, called Nashdom Abbey. I was about 24 and a member of an Evangelical Free Church.  The old monk that was guiding my retreat was very deaf in one ear and always sat me on that side.  I took that as a sign for him to talk and me to listen.  He asked directly: “do you make your confession?”, not wanting to offend I said something like: “it’s not part of my normal practice”.  Without any hesitation of discussion he just said: “well I think it should be!”.  I then spent a day or so reading around the subject, decided that it “was Biblical”, and asked if I could make my confession at the end of the retreat.  I spent a couple of days preparing for this, reflectively trying to recall and writing down all my “sins” of the past 20 years.  I made solemnly made my confession, received a notional penance as was instructed to go and burn the sheets of paper with all my sins on.  I experienced such a euphoric sense of “I’m forgiven!“.   I had been brought up in a Christian home within a tradition that largely thought becoming a Christian was an event that happened at a fixed time and place. Some of my contemporaries who were converts had experienced a similar sensation at that time but I have effectively for all my living memory “been a Christian”.  Well, its difficult to go shouting for joy round a monastery but when I got home I wanted to tell all my friends about this experience.

So it is in recalling this incident over 25 years ago now I can empathise with the two blind men in today’s Gospel reading.

Tuesday 29 November 2011 – “Knowing him personally”   2 comments

[My normal practice for these and reflections in general is to take some time stilling myself, to use a candle as a focus, and then read slowly the set material and ponder it.  Today to gain some time before heading into the office I did the readings in the bath.  I note that mainly for amusement but also in case it seems to have an impact on what I write.  My mind was certainly jumping a bit but that could also be because of lack of sleep.]

“Knowing him personally”, meaning Jesus, would certainly be important language in the non-conformist evangelical tradition of my upbringing.  It always heartens me, and raises a wry smile, when I see the same things in catholic and evangelical traditions because sometimes we seem to project to the outside world, and some feel internally, that there is a huge gulf, but to my view there isn’t. [Note to self – watch your spiritual pride! I am in danger of thinking my self a knowing liberal looking on, but I am a part of the Church and have much to learn from brothers and sisters of all traditions.]

My initial reaction to the title was that I seem to seek to know Jesus’ teaching more than know him as a person. Although I do contextualise that teaching within an image of the person delivering it.  For example,  where Jesus says:

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
[Matthew 7:4 NIV]

I imagine him telling it as a joke, an absurdity, with a chuckle.  I remember the source of this perspective.  A fiercely intense but dear nun Sister Irene Mary CSMV , who taught me Religious Education (Divinity as we called it) at school, and remained a friend for many years afterwards.

About 22 years ago I didn’t hear a sermon that had a lasting impact on me.  I say didn’t hear because for reasons I don’t remember I was not at the service where it was delivered by the then Chaplain at Reading University, Peter Jenner.  Peter and I were good friends, he was best man at my first wedding, we spent a lot of leisure time together as well as going to the same church and interacting at the Chaplaincy (I was a mature student at the time).  So although not hearing the sermon I was party to informal small group discussion of it afterwards.  The sermon asked a question:

  • ” Which member of the Trinity do you most relate to?”
It posed the hypothesis that most Christians related more closely to one member of the Trinity [I will save my heretical musings on the doctrine of the Trinity for another blog post].  For me the answer was clear and it remains the same now: God the Father.  And it is not even the fatherly aspects of God I most related to but Him as the creator and sustainer of the universe, the omnipresent God, the power and the majesty but in all that being of very essence Love [1 John 4:8].  So in this context “knowing Jesus personally” does not have a strong resonance in my spiritual life and has not done for many years.  There is another sign of spiritual arrogance here, a besetting sin of mine.  Colloquially put: I go straight to the top man.

[A question for another time is why are these Advent reflections bring up so many points from a period of my life around 25 – 20 years ago? – It may have been a time of substantial growth, a Fowler stage transition.  It could reflect an  impoverishment in my spiritual journey more recently.]

Another thought came to be this morning, lying in my bath, thinking about Jesus.  A standard teaching of the church is the doctrine of Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas; God present in humanity in Jesus.  As you might infer from the above I am more inclined to the understanding of  the incarnation in its more general (universal) sense, God present throughout , I like to use the phrase entwined with, His/Her creation.

There is a programme on BBC Radio 4 that I like a lot called the “Infinite Monkey Cage“.  It is a light-hearted conversational show about science.   In the edition  broadcast 21 November 2011 (podcast available from the previous link)   Brian Cox, a Physicist, had a bit of banter with the Biologist Matthew Cobb.  Brian Cox made a statement to the effect “Life, that’s just mess!” and went on to contrast its complexity with the relative simplicity of the laws of physics that underpin the Cosmos.  [There was a then a short exchange as to whether the two disciplines would ever converge and simplistically put if the laws of physics would ever explain life. I refer you to the podcast if you want more about the science.  This exchange in question occurs at 20:00 min]

That is just a long preamble to make a simple, but possibly profound, point:

  • Life being mess, Jesus represents God in the mess.
For me noticing that mirroring of the relationship between the Cosmic God and Jesus in the relationship between Physics and Biology (which needs extending to include Neurology, Psychology and Sociology and possibly a few other disciplines too to adequately describe life) is new and ripe for further pondering.

A final thought from this morning’s bath:  The notes for today’s reflection concentrated on the difference in the experience of those that actually knew Jesus when he lived on earth and those that have subsequently known him through faith.  They quote the verse “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:29 NIV].  A dominant theme in first 400 years of Church history was: who was Jesus, and what was his nature? This is also a personal journey for all Christians and inquirers since.  I find a link between Church history and my own personal faith development.  I can often find that themes the Church was wrestling with at different stages are mirrored in those encountered in my own journey.  As to the questions: who was Jesus and what was his nature?  There has been a lot of personal wrestling .  However reflecting now on my thinking in recent years perhaps, and only perhaps, I have passed through dogma and am beginning to glimpse some light behind it.

The Bible passages set for today were: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Luke 10:21-24.