Thursday, 26 January 2017

Some late correspondence...

"Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there".  Robert Heinlein.

"(If) the universe is everything that is, what beyond nothing is left to explain its promotion from inexistence to existence?".  David Berlinski.

One of the joys of later life is re-visiting authors that you really enjoyed reading in prior times. The best ones, like good wine, don't loose their capacity to inspire or enthrall, to mystify or delight. All of us, of course, have our particular genres, so I was interested to recently pick up a book of collected more factual essays by Robert Heinlein, and to find a piece entitled 'The Third Millennium Opens'. Written, appropriately for a Sci-Fi writer, "in 2001" (it was actually written several years before his death in 1988), it's a piece that seeks to stride with confidence into a time which has seen us move, in but a few generations, to a point when the very stars appear to be almost ours - or so the optimism of the period it was written believed.

Heinlein, like so many of his day, had a boundless confidence in our ability to step further into the universe, and along with this, was happy to make several predictions about what was about to begin to unfold and become commonplace in the world. It is interesting to re-visit a few of these salient points, and update how they are now viewed a few decades on from that change of century...

First up, is a field entitled 'Science of the Mind'. Noting the use of things like telepathy and ESP for military purposes (what was known as Remote Viewing programs, for example, were implemented in the 70's but were discontinued in the 90's as they failed to produce 'actionable intelligence'), Heinlein suggests that these, and some regressive forms of hypnotism (these instances were also to be examined and dismissed), might have opened the door to the realm of "life after death". Heinlein was sure they had, referring to such incidents as providing a 'certainty' of something more.

As noted above, our writer didn't have a great deal of time for religion, period, but he clearly was fascinated to see if science could open a window into what could only be defined as the paranormal - not something that would be welcome amidst the priesthood of scientific orthodoxy a few decades later. 
Heinlien's 'hunch' may have actually been correct, though not amongst the particular fields he advocated and advanced. In our times, there may be the first substantive data to show that something of us actually continues after physical death, possibly at the quantum level, but it's still early days. 

 If his first conclusion would have driven naturalists mad, his second would have plicated them - 'Man is just a wild animal', and therefore can only be tempered through the punishing  furnace of survival and progress. The era of the original piece was the time when the new Atheism was finding its feet. Over the period since then, we've witnessed all manner of extravagant claims regarding the demise of a creator from that quarter, but we've also witnessed a fascinating and often far more thought-provoking back-lash from many fields. Heinlein speaks of our being 'protoplasm', but notes that we have barely begun to truly study ourselves. The work within the nature of the cell and DNA since that period has truly revealed a 'universe within a universe', and may be the prelude to an understanding as large in scope as the fact that the universe itself had a beginning. It most certainly leaves us with a range of towering questions, especially in regards to how all the essentials of life appear to be 'gifted' and not evolved.

The third assumption was a common one in genre writers of the day - Space was about to be conquered, but the bases on the moon, the manned missions to Mars, the theoretical breaking of light speed so we could reach the stars... these are all still 'for the future' concepts, whilst the troubles with regards to what we are in ourselves have not in any measure diminished.

The 20th century may have given a grasp on applying technology and medicine that prior generations could have only dreamed of, but it also gave some of the darkest chapters in the history of our world, purely because of the human condition. The attempt of recent history to dismiss God may well be due to the indictment that comes with His presence - there is a day of reckoning for our crimes and misdemeanors, which will be coloured by expulsion or mercy, according to Jesus Christ, depending on how we choose to stand in regards to the truth He shows to us - something which causes great unease in our self-reliance.

The times have certainly moved on. The cardinal issues and our deepest needs have not.

Saturday, 7 January 2017


"From a distance, you look like my friend,
even though we are at war,
From a distance, I can't comprehend,
what all this fighting's for".

I don't know what the festive season has been like for you, but for many it's something of a wasteland. Normal life shuts down for a series of weeks, regular events just aren't there, and, in many cases, there are no close connections these days to replace them, so the pain of loneliness can set in, or the "virtue" of self-reliance can become so necessary, that it can leave some wondering why you need others anyway.

This time of year always gets me asking hard questions, especially in regards to how the next year might be better; how our peace with God in Christ can impact upon our life together, particularly to address some of the ailments touched on above.

This leads to the issue of fellowship, or, as it's defined in Greek, koinonia.
We'll seek to unpack that a little in a moment, but before savoring that dish, let's think about the image of the church given in Acts 2:42-47 - a community devoted to life together focused around Apostolic teaching and the breaking of bread, the Lord adding to their number those being saved. Perhaps we are fortunate enough to attend a church that has a similar focus (God's word in the Gospel and the Sacraments), but there's something staggering here - this wasn't just for Sundays (and perhaps a mid-week meeting!) - these people were meeting this way, living this way daily (verse 46).

Now of course, it couldn't last. Pretty soon events unfolded (Acts 5-7) that effectively broke up the astonishing life of those first few weeks, but that doesn't mean that the image we're given here should be lost. In the book of Hebrews, for example, we're told to exhort one another daily to remedy falling away from what counts (Hebrews 3:13), so once again, we clearly have the teaching that "church" should be more than just the scheduled events. That brings us back to the matter of fellowship.
The word used in the New Testament is rich indeed. It was used to speak of the binding of marriage and the most important legal or business contracts. It's root also defines living together in the sense of sharing a life that is common and communal through genuine participation.

The closest that some of us have to this in our natural lives is being part of a family, and that's a helpful picture in the sense that it's a pretty mixed experience in most cases - some great things, perhaps, but equally some difficult if not trying times of seeking to genuinely become someone alongside others who can be helpful and awkward. Fellowship for us, then, is about becoming closer to all those involved - God, present among us in Christ, and one another, not in a fashion that's over-bearing, but bears the marks of what Paul tells us is 'the better way' in 1 Corinthians 13.

What each of us, and the rest of the world, need is to be truly enfolded in the richness of the love of God so that we can show and share that love through each aspect of our lives, both as a church, and as those savoring everlasting life in everything we do.

It's easy to so often become bogged down in the functional side of things, and thereby miss what really counts in being part of a community, but our gathering together should always help us to see God's love afresh, depicted before us, in word and sacrament, in our fellowship in the cross of Jesus Christ. That alone is the source and the means whereby we are truly renewed and bound together.

It's tempting to distinguish distinct realms - the sacred and the secular - and thereby to cordon off parts of life as 'ours' - it may even seem expedient to do so on occasions like the 'dead season' of this time of year, but Jesus won't in truth allow us to do that. He comes to dine with us at table - to truly know us in our lives 'behind closed doors' as much as when we're singing in church, because His love alone transforms and changes everything (which is why we need both our gathering together and His life and word at the heart of that).

Life, of course, gets pretty messy for us poor wretches, but the important priority for the days ahead should be to help each see God in Christ afresh. Because we congregate, share and give in that light, of God saving us in the death and life of His beloved Son, we will have true fellowship in the redeeming grace given to us in Him.

That sounds like something worth taking on board this year.